Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin. But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood — to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished — he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:20-26)
The Greek words behind “righteous,” “righteousness,” “justified,” “just” and “justifies” are all different forms of the same word — used eight times in this passage. They are legal terms that pertain to covenant relationship. The same is true for the Old Testament Hebrew words for righteousness and justice.
The justice and righteousness of God is not some abstract concept about the goodness of God — although God is thoroughly good in every way — but about the faithfulness of God to the covenant he has made. It means that God has not scrapped the promise he made to Abraham, his plan for saving the world through Israel.
In the West, we are accustomed to thinking of justice as a matter of innocence or guilt in a criminal justice system. But what Paul has in mind here is covenant faithfulness, in which the justice of God is not about retribution but, rather, always works towards the restoration of covenant fellowship. Punishing sin simply does not solve the problem because it does not restore the broken relationship.
The Law of Moses was never God’s plan to save the world, for it could never create righteousness — it could only reveal unrighteousness. It was, as Paul said to the Jesus followers in Galatia, a “schoolmaster,” a “guardian,” a “custodian” (Galatians 5:24). Paidagogos is the Greek word he used, and it referred to a servant who took charge over his master’s children to keep them out of trouble until they came into their maturity. So the Law was not a solution but a stop-gap.
Even the Law itself, along with the Prophets, gave witness to a covenant faithfulness of God which was quite apart from the Law. This righteousness was revealed though the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah to all who have faith in him. Just as both Jews as well as Gentiles were shown to be sinners, because the Law could only reveal unfaithfulness and sin, so also both Jews as well as Gentiles are justified — counted as being in right relationship — as a matter of God’s grace and faithfulness through what Jesus did on the cross.
The word Paul uses to describe this is apolytrosis, “redemption.” It is a word the Septuagint (ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament) uses for what God did when he delivered the children of Israel out of Egypt (Exodus 6:6). In the Exodus, it meant freedom from bondage for Israel, but the “redemption” that is now available in Jesus the Messiah is freedom for both Jews and Gentiles together. God accomplished this redemption by presenting Jesus as a sacrifice of atonement and a place of mercy for all who trust in him.
Three times in this brief passage, Paul emphasizes that God did this as a matter of his justice, his righteousness — his covenant faithfulness. Israel, God’s covenant people, was supposed to be a testimony to the nations (Gentiles) about God’s mercy and faithfulness so that the nations might turn to the LORD. But Israel herself proved time and again to be unfaithful to God. In a former time, the Law kept this problem in check, somewhat, and God tolerated this state of affairs out of mercy until the coming of Messiah. Jesus is the “Righteous Jew” in whom the promise of God and the calling of Israel finds its fulfillment.
At the cross, Jesus dealt with the problem of Israel’s unfaithfulness and the sin of the world once and for all. Instead of merely containing or tolerating the problem, God has now shown his faithfulness to the covenant, and through the faithfulness of Messiah, even to the point of death on the cross, he declares all to be in covenant rightness who trust in the Lord Jesus, whether they be Jew or Gentile.