Paul has been explaining how possessing the law of God had not produced righteousness for Jews (who had the law in a written form) or for Gentiles (who had the law written on their hearts). Yet the apostle did not want his readers to conclude that they could not have a righteousness from God, and in these verses he mentions how they could.
First, he says that there is a righteousness from God that is not connected to the law. This should have been good news to those who had just heard his prolonged description of everyone’s failure to keep the law of God perfectly. Not only would it be good news, it would also have been surprising news because Paul has stressed several times in the previous section (1:18-3:20) that God is determined to punish lawbreakers. This must mean that God has more than one option with regard to how he treats those who have broken his laws, whether Jews or Gentiles.
Second, Paul says that this righteousness is recommended by the Old Testament. He says this when he writes in verse 21 that the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it. It is worth noting the verb tense that Paul uses with regard to the Old Testament – he does not say that the Old Testament bore witness (in the past), but that it bears witness. Since it bears witness, it means it must be obvious. A proper reading of the Old Testament will tell the reader that it is not about the impossible righteousness of the law. Instead it is about the promise of another righteousness that God will provide.
Third, this righteousness, says Paul, is received through faith in Jesus Christ. Of course, the title ‘Christ’ should alert us to the Old Testament message that Paul is stressing because it refers to the Messiah. Right away, anyone familiar with the Old Testament would begin to think of the many promises about and descriptions of the Messiah who was to come.
Fourth, this righteousness is given to everyone who believes in Jesus. Paul here mentions that unlike the law, in which there was a distinction between Jews and Gentiles, there is no distinction between those who believe in Jesus. Under the law, there was a sense in which the Jews were closer to God because they had his temple and worship. In the gospel, all are equally blessed in this other righteousness.
Fifth, this righteousness is a gift from God. Paul uses another word here in connection with righteousness and it is the word ‘justify’, which means to declare just, to announce that persons who had broken God’s law are regarded by him as justified because they have believed in Jesus. The law never gave a gift, not because it did not have them, but because we could never merit them. This other righteousness of God is a gift.
Sixth, righteousness can be received by sinners because of what happened to Jesus. Paul uses two descriptions that are full of meaning. One is that Jesus is the redeemer and the other is that God made him a propitiation (we will think about them in tomorrow’s reading).
Seventh, the fact that God was waiting for this other righteousness to be provided explains why he passed over the sins that were committed by his people during the Old Testament period. He knew, and delighted in, the salvation that he had arranged for his own Son to provide for lawbreaking sinners. In the next chapter of Romans, Paul will refer to two of those sinners, Abraham and David.