In Protestant theology the “righteousness from God” in Romans 1:17 has been widely understood as the righteousness of Christ which God the judge imputes to a believer. This happens because of faith, defined as mere belief in terms of acceptance of Jesus as Savior. One simply believes the good news that Jesus died for our sins and was vindicated by his resurrection from the dead as having accomplished our salvation.
The righteousness imputed to us is not our own, but is the moral virtue of Christ which has now accomplished our perfection in the sight of God. God now sees us not as fallen sinners, but as righteous because we have put on Christ’s righteousness by faith.
We could not have achieved this perfectly virtuous standing before God on our own because we are simply not good enough to merit God’s acceptance. His acceptance of us is not performance based. Romans 1:18 through chapter 2 insists that all are sinners, objects of God’s wrath, since as 3:10 concludes “there is none righteous, not even one.” No one is morally virtuous enough to earn a right standing with God.
The only way to be made right with God is if we are justified by grace. The terms “righteousness” and “justified” are closely related in the Greek. While “righteousness” is the noun dikaiosune, “justified” is the verb dikaioo. While righteousness means “what is right,” referring to either a right standing or right behavior, to be justified refers to having been "put in the right." In a court of law the justified party is the party who has won the case. Any accusations against the justified party are dropped. The justified are those who have been vindicated or acquitted.
While we are not justified in God’s sight on the basis of our own righteousness (because we’re all guilty) our only hope is to have the righteousness of an innocent party imputed to us. Since we cannot be justified (“put right”) in God’s court on the basis of our own righteous deeds (“moral virtue”) our only hope is if God will consider us righteous through some other means. He does so by providing us with the righteousness of his Son (which is in fact God’s own righteousness since Father and Son are one).
Romans 3:21 says, “But now a righteousness from God, apart from law has been made known…” Protestants take the “apart from law” phrase to mean our right standing before God is not based on the keeping of rules, such as those making up any legal system. People could only be righteous on the basis of law if they could keep it perfectly, which no one does. A perfect God, however, can only accept perfection, which is why the imputed righteousness of Christ is the only way a sinner can be right in his sight.
Romans 3:22-24 says “This righteousness from God comes only through faith to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God and are justified freely by his grace…” One only need faith to receive the imputed righteousness that comes from God. Whether one is Jew or Gentile, it’s all the same difference. All are equally sinners and none can make themselves righteous by doing any kind of works including even the works of the Jewish law. It’s often asserted that some Jewish Christians in Rome had sought to make themselves righteous by piling up moral virtue or ritualistic works based on Moses’ law. It is further asserted that Paul wrote Romans, at least in part, as a corrective against this type of “Jewish legalism.” Paul must show that all, both Jew and Gentile, are justified freely by God’s grace. Neither group can earn salvation by working, not even by doing the works prescribed by Moses.
Some Jews had allegedly turned the law into something it was never intended to be, a means of salvation—of making oneself righteous by works of law. Some went so far as to bind Jewish customs on Gentiles as a condition for being right with God. Circumcision was an especially controversial issue as Gentiles were pressured to accept it as a work which identifies them as being among the covenant people of God.
But Paul says, “No!” In Romans 4 he turns to Abraham as an example of one who had been justified (put right) before God on the basis of his faith and not his works (Rom. 4:1-5). Abraham’s mere belief in God’s Word resulted in God imputing righteousness to him. “Abraham believed God and it was credited (imputed) to him as righteousness” (Rom. 4:3).
The word “credited” is from the Greek word logizomai. Some take it to mean “imputed” in the sense of something alien, or outside one’s self, gifted to an individual from without. Paul goes on to explain that the righteousness imputed to Abraham because of his faith, even before circumcision, rules out any works as a basis for Abraham’s right standing before God (Rom. 4:9-15).
This Protestant theology of righteousness has been taken for granted as correct by many over the centuries since Luther who popularized it. More recent scholarship has challenged the view, suggesting a so-called “New Perspective” on Paul. But if the New Perspective actually succeeds at getting us back to Paul’s original teaching predating Luther’s influence, then the New Perspective is actually older than the “Lutheran” view. So while “new perspective” might be a misnomer, it certainly represents a view that is new to many who were only familiar with Paul as interpreted through Luther their entire lives.
So I’ll be biting off quite a bit starting next post as I attempt to offer an evaluation and critique of both perspectives against one another.