But now, irrespective of law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.
God acquits the guilty! How can that possibly be true? If it is, then where is divine justice? Why should anyone spend their lives seeking justice if the guilty are simply to be pardoned? This is the central ethical question the preaching of the Christian gospel is forced to face. For two thousand years theologians have wrestled with the problem. In their various studies on the atonement they have sought to show that in some deep and mysterious way the answer lies in the events of Easter.
In this passage Paul addresses the problem of justice and grace, arguing boldly that God is both just and the one who justified the ungodly. He, like other early Christian believers, interprets the death of Christ as the saving reality to which Old Testament themes such as ‘ransom’, ‘redemption’ and ‘sacrifice’ point. But precisely how justice and mercy meet at the Cross is not spelt out with any precision.
‘Justification,’ as used in this passage, should be understood principally as ‘divine pardon.’ And the ‘righteousness of God’ can be loosely read as a synonym for the salvation of God. We need to be careful not to over-interpret their meanings here. Paul uses a number of other themes of salvation in this passage including those of redemption and sacrifice. He does this to bolster his central argument that divine forgiveness is freely given to all those who believe without them having done anything to deserve it.
The rich Old Testament heritage is drawn on by Paul to show that within the framework of divine justice and holiness the Scriptures repeatedly affirm that absolute pardon is granted by a righteous God to those who have done wrong. Paul will go on in this letter to argue that the grace that freely forgives sinners also transforms them; that through the Spirit all those who are acquitted become new people; that the ungodly become worshippers of God.
With Charles Wesley we can do no more than offer our worship to the God of our salvation.
‘Tis mystery all! The Immortal dies! Who can explore His strange design? In vain the firstborn seraph tries To sound the depths of love divine! ‘Tis mercy all! let earth adore, Let angel minds inquire no more.