According to common lore, Henry David Thoreau, the American philosopher, poet, and naturalist, was asked on his deathbed if he had made his peace with God. Thoreau supposedly replied, “I did not know we ever quarreled.” Most people, however, are probably not so confident or flippant as Thoreau. They naturally sense something of their own accountability before God.
In his letter to the Romans, especially in 1:18–3:20, Paul explains in some detail the real plight of people like Thoreau. And as Paul makes clear, even those who do sense something lacking in their relationship with God have no idea of their real peril. We learn that “the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness” (1:18). “Jews and Gentiles alike are all under the power of sin” (3:10). “There is no one righteous, not even one” (3:10). “The whole world [is] held accountable to God” (3:19). Paul paints a terrible picture of the depravity of mankind and its deserved condemnation.
However, before Paul ever gets to the desperate dilemma of the human race, he actually gives the solution in 1:16–17, two verses that are commonly thought of as the theme of Romans. Paul says that the gospel, the good news about Jesus Christ, is “the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes,” and then in v. 17 we learn how this is all possible. It is because “in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed.” “The righteousness of God” is a genitive expression in the Greek language that means a righteousness that God gives, a righteousness that comes from God.
This “righteousness of God” is the key to salvation. It is absolutely necessary because we sinful humans have no righteousness that is acceptable to God. As Isaiah said, “All our righteous acts are like filthy rags” (Isa 64:6). So how do we gain the righteousness necessary to be right with God? Paul explains that “God made him [Christ] who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21). “For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous” (Rom 5:19). “Righteousness” is a forensic or legal term, speaking of the righteousness of Christ that God places to the account of the guilty sinner—what theologians call imputed righteousness or what Martin Luther called alien righteousness. Thankfully, “this righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe” (Rom 3:22).
This is the amazing righteousness of God.