The Righteousness of God – Romans 1:17

For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “But the righteous man shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17).


This verse contains the central theme for the entire book of Romans. It is the signature text for this epistle that has been called the most important book in the Bible. Some even call Romans the most important book in the world of literature. Here is the interpretative key that unlocks the letter to the Romans and contains the very heart of the gospel. To understand this one verse is to understand the unfolding argument of Romans. Here in this single verse is the small acorn from which the entire forest of the book of Romans grows. Everything in this divinely-inspired letter proceeds from this one text.


The dominant message of the opening prologue of Romans is the gospel of Jesus Christ (1:1-17). Everything that Paul has stated in these initial seventeen verses has been climbing to this lofty mountain peak in verse 17. In this lesson, our focus will be upon the first half of this critical text, “For in it, the righteousness of God is revealed.” To understand these first nine words is to understand the essence of the gospel itself. This assertion explains the perfect righteousness of God that comes from God Himself in the gospel to those who have no righteousness of their own. Everything in Romans revolves around this important theological word, “righteousness.” If we are to comprehend the book of Romans, we must have a strategic grasp of what this word means.


What Does Righteousness mean?

The word “righteousness” (dikaiosune) means ‘equity, justice, integrity.’ The idea presented is ‘conformity to a standard.’ Righteousness means to give to each man his due based upon his conformity or lack of conformity to the divine standard of perfect holiness. Conformity to the holy character of God in His word brings blessing. A failure to conform to the divine standard brings cursing. Any falling short of this standard of moral perfection brings the full curse of God upon the offender. This reveals how holy God is and how serious any breach of His Law is.


By way of historical background, the concept of “righteousness” is drawn from the ancient marketplace at this time. A woman would go into the marketplace and approach a merchant in order to purchase a measure of grain. He would pour onto one side of the scales a measure of grain. He would then take a corresponding metal weight and place it on the other side of the scale. This weight became the standard by which an equivalent amount of grain would be measured. If the merchant saw that the grain weighed less than the standard, he would pour more grain onto the scales until the scales were balanced. Then the two sides of the scales were “righteous,” meaning both sides were in perfect conformity to each other.


Weighed in the Balances

That is how the word “righteousness” was used by the apostle Paul in explaining the gospel. He is teaching that the perfect standard by which God measures our lives is His absolute holiness. The requirement to be righteous in the sight of God and acceptable in His sight is that we stand in perfect conformity to the morally pure holiness of God. Divine holiness means that He is morally perfect and personally flawless in His being, words, actions, and judgments. Measured by this standard of perfection, we have all been weighed in the balances and found wanting. We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).


“Of God”

When Paul writes in Romans 1:17, “For in it the righteousness of God,” those two little words, “of God,” make an enormous difference in how we are to understand what is being taught. This means that this righteousness that we desperately need to find acceptance with God comes from God. It is God’s own righteousness that He provides in the gospel. In this context, the word “of” indicates the source of this righteousness. This means that this righteousness comes from God and is provided for sinful mankind who are without any righteousness of their own. Everyone in the human race must be clothed by God’s own righteousness in order to be received into God’s holy presence with acceptance. Our righteousness is as filthy rags before God (Isaiah 64:6). But God provides the righteousness that we need to be right with Him in the gospel.


An Imbalance on the Scale

When we are judged by God, some people have the mistaken idea that in order to be right with Him, they only have to be relatively close to meeting His standard of perfect holiness. They wrongly presume that God will grade them on a moral curve. They are convinced that if they are better than most other people, they will surely gain acceptance with God. But such thinking falsely presumes that the standard by which we will be measured is the vague average morality of the human race. But we will not be weighed against those with whom we live or work. Instead, we will be measured in the divine scales against the perfect holiness of God. When weighed in the balances against this impeccable standard, we discover that we have all sinned and fallen woefully short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).


Likewise, blessings and curses are assigned when we are measured by God. Blessings are pronounced upon those who are in perfect conformity to the holiness of God. This blessing is the salvation that God bestows upon those who perfectly meet His requirement. But tragically, none can meet the mark. Conversely, a punitive punishment is assigned for any failure by man to be in perfect conformity to the holiness of God. The ultimate curse of breaking the Law is the second death. This is the eternal punishment of hell.


The whole book of Romans revolves around this highly significant word “righteousness.” In this lesson, we will survey the entire epistle and discover how each section of the book relates to this one word, “righteousness.”


I. Condemnation: Righteousness Required (1:18-3:20)


In the first major section of Romans, Paul presents his case for the condemnation of the entire human race. Here is Paul’s prosecuting indictment against all mankind. He states that all people lack the perfect righteousness required in order to have a right standing before God. All mankind is marred by ungodliness and unrighteousness (1:18). This includes all people, including moralistic Jews, who have failed to meet the standard of God’s own glory (2:1-3:8). Paul states that every person has been found wanting when weighed against the flawless holiness of God (3:9-18). The argument concludes where it began, with all mankind under the wrath of God (3:19-20).


The holy vengeance of God must react against all that is unholy. Otherwise, His divine wrath is the infliction of His just punishment upon all that does not conform to His own character. This results in the just condemnation of the entire sinful human race. Every man, woman, and child are guilty of cosmic treason against God. There is no grading on a curve like in a classroom. There can be no sweeping our rebellious sin under the carpet. God cannot look the other way and ignore our offenses. There can be no pretending that it never happened. Every sin will receive a just penalty (Hebrews 2:3-4). The more sin a person commits, the greater the eternal punishment by God will be. Hell will not be the same for everyone. Some places of hell will be hotter than others.


Our Filthy Rags

God has infallibly recorded all our iniquities in His permanent records. All our sinful attitudes, deceitful words, lustful thoughts, and disobedient deeds have been written down in the divine records. On the last day, these divine books will be opened and our entire lifetime of sins will be made known in the final judgment. Every idle word will be entered as evidence in the divine courtroom. Every sin of commission – what we did, but we should not have done – will be will be presented as evidence. Every sin of omission – what we did not do, but should have done – will be admitted. Even the right things we did, but with a wrong motive, will be submitted. The entire case against every unbeliever will be documented.


God has recorded the detailed account of our lives, meticulously written in His books. What you did when you were in junior high school is on the books. What you did when you were in high school has been recorded. What you did when you were in college at the fraternity party is written down. What you did when you were overseas with the military is in your permanent file. What you did when you said something to hurt your little sister. What you said to your father growing up. The entire record – your every thought, every fantasy, every idle word, every slander, every gossip – has been kept by God. These impeccable records will result in the condemnation of the entire human race.


This section on the condemnation of the human race is the foundation upon which stands all else that Paul will write. Beginning in Romans 1:18 and extending to Romans 3:20, this is the indisputable case for the ‘righteousness required’ by God. The righteousness demanded by God is unachievable by man. No person, in his own self-righteous efforts, has any righteousness by which he can commend himself to God. All our righteousness is as filthy rags in His sight (Isaiah 64:6). The best we have by which to commend ourselves to God is like unclean menstrual rags in the pure eyes of holy God. The best we have to bring to God is like a woman’s dirty rags, unclean in His pure sight.


II. Justification: Righteousness Received(3:21-5:21)


The second major section of Romans presents the righteousness of God that is imputed to one who believes in Jesus Christ. This is the doctrine of justification by faith, also known as sole fide, meaning ‘by faith alone.’ This next part of Paul’s argument starts in Romans 3:21 and extends through Romans 5:21. This next section presents the doctrine of justification by faith. When a person commits his life to Jesus Christ, the perfect righteousness that God demands is immediately credited to his account. God deposits to the spiritually bankrupt account the righteousness of Christ. As a judge would declare a person acquitted of all crimes under the law, God declares the believer to have a perfect standing before Him under His moral Law.


The words “justified” (dikaioo) and “righteousness” (dikaoisune) come from the same Greek root word. These two theological words come into the English language as completely different sounding words, but they both come from the same root word in the original language. Justification is a courtroom word in which God the Judge declares the guilty defendant to be His righteousness in His sight, because of faith in Christ. This is the truth that Paul develops in Romans 3:21 through Romans 5:21. This righteousness was secured by Jesus Christ in His obedience to the Law. When Jesus came into this world, He was born “under the Law” (Galatians 4:4-5), meaning that He was accountable to obey the Law. Throughout the entirety of His life, Jesus obeyed the Law in the place of law-breaking sinners in two ways, by His active and passive obedience.


The Active Obedience of Christ

Throughout his life, Jesus perfectly obeyed the holy Law, that which we have repeatedly disobeyed. This is called His active obedience to the Law. It is the lifelong obedience of Christ, which is as important for achieving righteousness as his substitutionary death upon the cross. Not only did Jesus die in our place, He also lived in our place. We are saved not only by His death, but also by His life. When we believe in Jesus Christ, God credits the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ to our account. In this legal act, God declares us to be righteous based upon what Christ secured for us when He lived perfectly under the Law.


We need more than the forgiveness of our sins in order to be right with God. The divine pardon of sin only washes away our sin. This only brings us back to a zero status in our standing before God. Spiritual zeros do not enter heaven. Every sinner must have a positive righteousness in order to be accepted before God. This vast fortune of righteousness comes through Jesus Christ. When we believe in Jesus Christ, God does more than merely wipe away our spiritual debt. God also deposits the riches of the righteousness of Jesus Christ in the account of the one who believes in Him.


The Passive Obedience of Christ


What Luther Discovered

The German reformer Martin Luther was converted by reading Romans 1:17, which, in turn, ignited the Protestant Reformation. As Luther pondered this verse, divine light flooded his heart. He suddenly saw that the righteousness God provides through faith in Christ. He put his faith in Jesus Christ and was justified by God. Luther called this righteousness an ‘alien’ or a ‘foreign’ righteousness. He meant that this righteousness came from outside of himself. It comes down from above, from a foreign realm. This righteousness came from God having been secured by Jesus Christ through His sinless life and substitutionary death. It is Christ’s perfect righteousness that is given to the one who believes. No matter how long a person lives, wherever he goes, he will never hear a better pronouncement than this good news in the gospel of Jesus Christ.


Luther discovered that he would not be saved by his own self-righteousness. It would not be through his self-righteous efforts that he would be justified. A right standing before God would be realized only when he is credited with the righteousness of God. The sinless life and sin-bearing death of Christ achieved the necessary righteousness. Luther must simply believe in Christ. He believed in Jesus Christ and received from God the righteousness he needed.


III. Sanctification: Righteousness Realized (6:1-8:25)


In the third major section, Paul expounds the truth that all who are justified will pursue a life of practical righteousness. In Romans 6:1 through chapter 8:17, this next section is about the daily life of the believer who practices a lifestyle of personal righteousness. This truth is known as the doctrine of sanctification, which teaches that believers are being progressively conformed to the holiness of God. All believers who were justified are also being matured and molded into the image of Jesus Christ. Believers are becoming less and less of what they once were. And they are becoming more and more of what Jesus is. Those who are justified are becoming increasingly sanctified. They are thinking more like Jesus and are obeying more like Him. That is the reality of the practical righteousness that accompanies justification.


A Lifelong Pursuit

Paul will argue in the book of Romans that everyone who is justified by faith will begin the lifelong pursuit of practical righteousness. We can discern who is justified by the evidence of a changed life. We can detect the genuineness of a person’s confession of faith in Christ by their fruit. The reality of sanctification in a person’s life becomes the strongest validation that they are a true Christian. But if there is no evidence of sanctification, it calls into question whether there is the reality of justification. Justification and sanctification are a package deal. These two are inseparably bound together.


Crucified, Buried, Raised

In Romans 6, Paul teaches that this changed life is produced in every believer because he is united with Jesus Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection. Those who put their trust in Jesus are crucified with Him. This breaks the dominant power that sin once had over a person’s life. Further, they are buried with Him, signifying the finality of their death to a life of pursuing sin. Moreover, they are raised with Christ, empowered to live a new life by this same power of the resurrection.


In Romans 7, Paul gives instruction that believers still struggle with their flesh. Though sin is no longer the dominant force in their lives, it is still a present reality. In Romans 8, Paul argues that believers may live victoriously by the power of the Holy Spirit.


IV. Glorification: Righteousness Reserved(8:26-8:39)


In the second half of Romans 8, Paul explains that all who have been justified are held secure forever in Christ. Nothing can ever separate them from the righteousness of God that has been imputed to them. The divine act of justification is irrevocable and irreversible. In this fourth section, the apostle will build an insurmountable argument for the eternal security of the believer. He will state that those whom God foreknew – meaning those who He chose to love beforehand with saving love – He also predestined, called, justified, and glorified (Romans 8:29-30). This truth is often called God’s unbreakable golden chain of salvation. It asserts that the righteousness of God imputed in justification cannot be annulled.


For the one who is justified by God, his place in heaven is as certain this very moment, as if he has already been there 10,000 years. In fact, “glorified” is stated in the present as if it has already occurred in the future. If a person is not justified presently in this life, he will never be justified on the last day. A person must be justified now, or he will never be justified. And one who is presently “justified” is already “glorified” in the mind of God. Every believer is already acquitted of all charges and declared to be righteous throughout all the ages to come. Our case before God has already been settled out of court through our faith in Jesus Christ. God has already predestined that the righteousness of Christ belongs to us, and no one or nothing can take it away from us.


No Condemnation, No Separation

This is why Paul concludes Romans 8 by declaring, “God is the one who justifies; who is he who condemns?” (Romans 8:33-34). The answer to this rhetorical question is plainly understood to be a resounding ‘no one.’ The righteousness of God imputed to believers can never be invalidated. No one can overrule God’s favorable verdict toward believers. No one can successfully bring a condemning charge against any believer that can reverse the decision of the court of heaven.


The apostle concludes, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39). Here is the most emphatic statement imaginable concerning the eternal security of every believer in their righteous standing before God.


V. Predestination: Righteousness Foreordained(9:1-11:36)


In Romans 9 through 11, Paul addresses the subject of God’s predestination and His eternal purposes to save a remnant in Israel. After the rejection of Christ by the nation Israel, the question should be raised: Have these promises of God toward His chosen people failed? Is there a future salvation for Israel in the purposes of God? Paul explains that God’s promises regarding the salvation of His chosen nation have not failed. There remains a remnant within Israel who have been chosen to believe in Jesus Christ. Nothing will circumvent the fulfillment of God’s salvation toward them.


In this fifth major section, Paul builds his case for the sovereign election of God in salvation. He shows that within the chosen nation of Israel, not all Israel is Israel. That is to say, though they are an elect nation, there is a remnant within the nation that has been sovereignly elected for salvation. Further, he states that Gentiles are also included among those chosen for salvation. Romans 9 provides the most straightforward and comprehensive case for the doctrine of the sovereignty of God in salvation to be found anywhere in the Bible. If a person is declared to be the righteousness of God, it is, ultimately, because God chose that individual in eternity past to receive this perfect standing before Him.


Paul will conclude this section on predestination with a doxology. The apostle writes, “For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen” (Romans 11:36). This succinctly summarizes the first eleven chapters of Romans that have presented the most thorough presentation of the gospel found anywhere in the Bible. Everything regarding salvation lies within this statement. “All things” are “from Him,” meaning God is the Author and Provider of all grace from eternity past. Further, “all things” are “through Him,” meaning God is the Administrator and Applier of this grace. “All things” are “to Him,” meaning that God is the Aim and purpose of grace.


Paul then asserts the only proper response there can possibly be: “To Him be the glory forever. Amen” (verse 36). Because the righteousness of God is provided, applied, and preserved entirely by God, all glory must be ascribed to Him. A proper understanding of the first eleven chapters of Romans will always lead to this conclusion. God designed the gospel and gives the faith to believe it. He also provided the Savior to secure the righteousness we need. He accomplished all this for His own glory. If any part of the righteousness we need is attributed to us, the glory, in part, would be shared between God and man. But all glory goes to God because He has provided all the righteousness we need to be right before Him.


VI. Presentation: Righteousness Practiced (12:1-16:27)


The final major section of Romans is found in chapters 12 to 16, where Paul shows the specific manner with which the righteousness of God is to be lived. The apostle shows how the teaching of the doctrine must be connected to daily life. Truth without application is a contradiction in terms. Romans 12:1 begins with the word “therefore,” which is arguably the most important “therefore” in the Bible. It functions as the connecting bridge, joining chapters 1-11 with chapters 12-16. In this section, Paul shows how the righteousness of God is to be lived on a practical level. The gospel is relevant regarding how to live in order to glorify God. Christianity is not merely an intellectual pursuit that never affects the heart, nor activates the will. Sanctification is not sitting in an ivory tower being disconnected from the realities of life. It is not addressing philosophical questions that have no practical relevance for the manner with which we live. This section details how we are to be living in conformity with the standard of God’s own holiness. Christianity gets down into the fabric of our daily lives. The gospel impacts how we live every moment of every day.


God will not lower the standard one half inch to meet anyone where we are. Neither is God going to meet us halfway. The standard established by God is Himself. He requires conformity to His own moral perfection.

© 2019 Steven J. Lawson