Romans 1:17 is the key verse of the letter and it announces Paul’s theme – the righteousness of God. The word “righteousness” is used in one way or another over sixty times in this letter (righteous, just, and justified). God’s righteousness is revealed in the gospel; for in the death of Christ, God revealed His righteousness by punishing sin; in the resurrection of Christ, God revealed His righteousness by raising from the dead a man who never sinned and therefore should have never died but did die as a substitute for sinners; and in the salvation of everyone who believes in Christ, God revealed His righteousness by pardoning sinners based on penal substitution. The problem “How can a holy God ever forgive sinners and still be holy?” is answered in the gospel. Through the death and resurrection of Christ, God is seen to be both just (righteous) and the justifier (the One who makes righteous) of the one who has faith in Jesus (Romans 3:26).
The gospel reveals the righteousness from God that is by faith indicating that He imparts His own righteousness to those who believe. God’s righteousness, the righteousness that is from God, is thereby not only revealed but reckoned to those who believe in Christ – “But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness” (Romans 4:5).
So the righteousness which is from God and is revealed in the gospel is a righteousness based on faith and not a righteousness based on works. When men attempt to be forgiven by God based on their own ability to keep God’s Law they do not arrive at the righteousness which is from God but fall miserably short of God’s righteousness and are therefore still rightly under God’s wrath and condemnation – “For as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the Law to perform them” (Galatians 3:10).
When men pursue righteousness as though it is based on works and as though they are good enough to obey all things written in God’s Law, they are seeking to establish a righteousness of their own and will not be justified because they cannot and will not keep God’s Law. Some may think and say that they can and have kept God’s Law but it quickly become evident that they haven’t – just put the Ten Commandments before any man and see if he has kept them perfectly without ever violating not only the letter but the spirit of the Law. You see, the Lord Jesus said that men commit murder in their hearts just by being angry with their brothers; Jesus said that men commit adultery in their hearts just by looking at women with lust for them; and who has ever always perfectly loved the Lord his God with all his heart, mind, soul, and strength? The only One who has ever completely obeyed and kept all things written in God’s Law and never sinned is Jesus Christ.
So which do you want; a righteousness of your own derived from the Law or the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith? “Now that no one is justified by the Law before God is evident; for, ‘the righteous man shall live by faith.’ However, the Law is not of faith; on the contrary, ‘He who practices them shall live by them’” (Galatians 3:11-12). But we have already seen that any who seek to be justified by his or her ability to obey God’s Law are under the curse of the Law for the Law itself says that anyone who does not abide by all things written in it are under a curse and no man can abide by all things written in the Law.
So again I ask which do you want; a righteousness of your own derived from the Law or the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith? Do you want to trust your own ability to keep God’s Law and please God or do you want to trust Christ who kept God’s Law and pleased God on your behalf? “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” was spoken by God of Jesus and not any other man.
The Apostle Paul once trusted in his own righteousness and thought that he was pleasing to God until he was encountered by the risen Lord Jesus Christ and shown his wretched estate. Then and only then did Paul understand that the righteousness that God requires comes from God on the basis of faith. And as soon as Paul understood this wonderful good news he abandoned all confidence in the flesh and trusted Christ alone as his source of righteousness – “But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith” (Philippians 3:7-9).
The righteousness that God requires (complete and total obedience to His Law) is given to us from God on the basis of faith and not on the basis of works of the Law. No one can be saved by works of the Law. Justification is by faith! “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law” (Romans 3:28). “For if a law had been given which was able to impart life, then righteousness would have indeed been based on law. But the Scripture has shut up everyone under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe” (Galatians 3:21-22). The reason that no law could be given which was able to impart life is because there was no law that man could be completely and totally obedient to. And not only that, “if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly” (Galatians 2:21).
But Christ did die and it was not needlessly but needed. In Christ my obedience is complete and total because His obedience was complete and total. Christ took my sin and gave me His righteousness – “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21). The death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ the sinless Son of God is the only way that God can righteously give me the gift of righteousness – “being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24). So if anyone wants to be justified in the sight of God then he must believe God concerning His gift of righteousness to us in and through Christ Jesus.
Believing God concerning being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus means that we believe in Him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead and our faith is credited (imputed) as righteousness – “But the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing on the man whom God credits [imputes] righteousness apart from works: ‘Blessed are those whose lawless deeds have been forgiven, and whose sins have been covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will not take into account’” (Romans 4:4-8).
Do you want a righteousness of your own derived from your ability to obey and please God or do you want the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith; on the basis of believing Him concerning His Son - “He who was delivered because of our transgressions, and was raised because of our justification” (Romans 4:25)?
Is this head knowledge to you and not heart knowledge? Do you believe in your heart that Jesus died for your sins; that He was delivered because of your transgressions? Do you believe in your heart that God raised Jesus from the dead because He committed no sin and so that God could save you; that He was raised because of your justification?
Have you kept all that is written in God’s Law? If not then you need the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith in Jesus Christ!