The book of Romans has been described as the magnum opus of the Apostle Paul. In it, Paul laid out his theology of Christ and salvation in his clearest, most concentrated style. Scholars have labored to plumb the depths of Paul’s words and concepts for centuries, and much is still to be written. Luther and the other Reformers found in the first five chapters of Romans their fundamental idea for the Reformation, justification by faith alone.
Righteousness (δικαιοσύνη dikaiosynē) to Paul was not a result of good works, earned by the person, as though he could gain a favorable account with God by his deeds. Rather, righteousness is a standing imparted by God as a result of faith (Romans 4:3), which is itself a gift of God (Ephesians 2:8-9). For centuries, Christian scholars have contrasted righteousness by faith, a Pauline Christian teaching, with righteousness by works, a Judaistic teaching. E.P. Sanders work minimized “righteousness by works” in Judaistic teaching in the first century and emphasized “righteousness by covenant”. This has significantly shaped the modern discussion, and borne some good fruit by improving Jewish-Christian understanding. However, Sanders’ “covenantal nomism” has a serious flaw. If the Jews are saved because they are God’s covenantal people, but must still perform good works to stay in that relationship, salvation still depends on works.
Faith (πίστις pistis) is belief in God. It is not the mere intellectual assent common in many circles today, nor the screaming, terrified belief of demons (James 2:19). It is not the confident boasting of those who have made a god in their own image, nor the confused hope of those beset with sin but unwilling to accept God on His terms. Faith, rather, is the knowledge of God, imparted by the Spirit of God Himself, which quickens the dead sinner, results in a trusting and obedient relationship with Him, and culminates in eternal glory with the Lord.
For Paul, the OT scholar, redemption (ἀπολύτρωσις apolytrōsis) in Romans 3:24 is tightly related to redemption (פדות pĕduwth) in the OT, such as Psalms 111:9. The idea of a redeemer is someone, such as a kinsman, who bought someone else out of a bad situation, such as debtor’s slavery, for a price (Leviticus 25:47-48). God was a redeemer (גאל ga’al) for Israel, taking them out of bondage in Egypt (Exodus 6:6), in Babylon, from other enemies (Micah 4:10), and from death (Hosea 13:14). Christ has paid the inestimable price of His blood to redeem those who follow Him from their sin, and consequently from spiritual death.
Justification (δικαίωσις dikaiōsis) means, in Pauline usage, the declaration by God that an individual is cleansed of sin, free from guilt and acceptable to Him.
Paul in the first 5 chapters of Romans explains the greatest news in the universe, how Christ’s work saved man. Adam sinned, and so each person on the planet, past, present and future, being united with Adam in the human race, shares guilt for that sin. Indeed, we have a sinful nature, so that sin, rebellion against God, is our natural state. Man is utterly unable to live in accordance with God’s law, meeting the standard that God’s holy character demands*. Man has no righteousness, and God is completely righteous. As a result, mankind stands condemned to physical death, the separation of spirit from body (immaterial from material), and eternal death, total separation from Him.
The OT provided Israel and others who followed the Lord an opportunity to be saved from sin through faith. The sacrificial system and the Law, while unable to save anyone by itself, revealed to man his true state, revealed His holy character, and prefigured His ultimate solution. God Himself, untainted by sin, in His second person, became a man, came to earth, and died, taking the penalty for our sin. By His sinless life and physical death, Jesus paid the penalty for our sin…He redeemed us. By rising again, Jesus conquered death and ensured that those united with Him will ultimately do so also. We are therefore sinless, and therefore justified before God.
* Some have asked whether God couldn’t lower the standard, and the answer is no. God’s must act in accordance with His character, and blinding holiness, perfect righteousness, has no place for sin. A perfect creation has no place for imperfection, and a perfect God cannot tolerate the tiniest wickedness.