The 17th verse is critical for our understanding of everything that Paul unfolds throughout all the doctrinal portion of this epistle.  The great key is to gain an understanding of what he means by “the righteousness of God.”  When the young theological professor Martin Luther sat in his cell at Wittenberg poring over this epistle, he was confounded and dismayed to read of the righteousness of God as revealed in the Gospel.  He could not see how the Gospel was any way superior to the law, if its purpose was simply to reveal God as righteous in character and attributes.  Yea, at one point he despaired and cried out that the Gospel was worse than the law, and only served to condemn the troubled conscience by showing it an angry God Who must detest and punish sin.  I daresay that if the Gospel did nothing more than show us that righteousness is one of God’s great attributes, it would do nothing more than the law of Moses, and certainly would not be an improvement thereon.  If there is one thing the law does do, it shows us that God is righteous, and that He hates sin and will punish it.  While we must assent to the fact that the Gospel agrees with that part of the message of the law, its revelation of “the righteousness of God” is something the commandments of God, as contained in the law, can never show us.  It was only when Luther came to understand that this righteousness of God revealed in the Gospel is a divine gift for all who trust in Christ, that the scales fell from his eyes, and as he famously put it, “the gates of heaven were opened, and I walked in.”

_63121795_wittenberg_019This “righteousness of God,” then, is a free gift from God, which forms the ground of our acceptance before Him.  Paul will expound upon it at great length in the succeeding chapters, so that no one need be deluded as to his true intention.  After proving beyond the shadow of a doubt that all men, Jew and Gentile alike, are sinners, and condemned by the law of God, in 3:21 he begins to show how the righteousness of God is manifested apart from the law, and is received by faith in Jesus Christ.  In the 4th chapter he deals at great length with the subject of the imputation of righteousness, referring back to Genesis 15:6, where Abraham received righteousness, not upon some great work that he had done, but simply by believing God.  After dealing with Abraham at some length, he concludes by saying that this righteousness received by faith was not for Abraham alone, but that it may be imputed to us as well, “if we believe on Him that raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead…”  Therefore, the righteousness of God is a free gift, imputed to the record of every person who believes on Jesus Christ for salvation from sin.  That this “righteousness of God” is in fact the righteousness wrought out in the perfect life of the Lord Jesus, Who is both God and man, is made perfectly clear in the last 10 verses of chapter 5, where the apostle sets the great contrast between Adam, through whom all are accounted sinners, and Christ, through whom all that believe are accounted righteousness.  With a glorious flourish, he concludes in verse 19, “For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous.”  It is this righteousness, wrought out by Christ and imputed by God the Judge of all to every believer, that Paul refers when he speaks in 1:17 of the righteousness of God as revealed in the Gospel.