There is a phrase in Paul’s letters that is notoriously difficult to translate. It occurs at key moments in major letters like Romans and 2 Corinthians. Most often the phrase is translated into English as “the righteousness of God.”
Notice how the New American Standard Version renders Romans 1:16-17:
16For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.
17For in it [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written” But the righteous man shall live by faith.”
Now Romans 3:21-22 (NASV):
21But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets,
22even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; . . .
Now I must admit that I like the NASV translation; I have preached from it for years. It is probably the most literal translation into English we have. If you have the time, interest, and skill in doing a word study, it is an important translation to have around. Unfortunately, it tends to obscure the meaning of important phrases. People without a background in Scripture may be left scratching their heads.
So what does “the righteousness of God” refer to? It is an important question. Without getting that straight you can’t make heads or tails out of what Paul is saying in these key passages. Scholars, by the way, have been debating the significance of this phrase in these letters for centuries. So it is no easy task.
When we were translating THE VOICE, we spent a great deal of time working through Paul’s language in these passages. We ended up with what I think is a faithful and helpful rendering. Here is The Voice translation of Romans 1:16-17:
16For I am not the least bit embarrassed about the gospel. I won’t shy away from it, because it is God’s power to save every person who believes: first the Jew, and then the non-Jew. 17You see, in the good news, God’s restorative justice is revealed. And as we will see, it begins with and ends in faith. As the Scripture declares: “By faith the just will obtain life.”
Now Romans 3:21-22:
21But now for the good news: God’s restorative justice has entered the world, independent of the law. Both the law and the prophets told us this day would come. 22This redeeming justice comes through the faithfulness of Jesus, the Anointed, who makes salvation a reality for all who believe—without the slightest partiality.
Now, we think this translation may help shed light on what Paul is getting at here in these verses. Still we decided to put some commentary with it to help people think through it.
The phrases “God’s restorative justice” and “this redeeming justice” refer to the same reality. For Paul the good news—the gospel—is located in history in the incarnation and sacrificial death of Jesus. By “God’s restorative justice” Paul means first that justice and rightness belong to God; they reflect his character. God, and no one else, determines what is right and what is just. But as we all know, character is reflected in action. “Justice” and “righteousness” are nouns of action. This means that God’s justice must express itself in some way. So it is in the nature of a just God to act, to restore, to redeem, to repair the world. This God did primarily through His Son, Jesus the Anointed, the Liberating King.
Paul would not shy away from these bold claims. The gospel is power. It is God’s power to restore the world to what it can and ought to be. But how do we get in on what God is doing? Well, Paul says, it begins with and ends in faith. It begins with God’s faithfulness to His creation, then His covenant people. It continues with Jesus’ faithfulness to God to enter our broken realm to give Himself in love to begin its repair. It ends with us, hearing and responding in faith and following faithfully in his footsteps.
Now read the passage again with these things in mind. Do you see it? Did you get it? Recognize that from the beginning God has been at work to restore our world so badly damaged by sin and corruption.