Of course, human righteousness did not triumph. The Law, far from revealing human righteousness, revealed human sin, as God both knew and intended it should (Roms 3). It could not be otherwise. It could not be otherwise for human sinfulness is such that even privileged Israel, given every opportunity and incentive possible, could not live righteously; the human heart is inveterately given to rebellion and evil. It could not be otherwise for God must be God and cannot allow any to glory in his presence. It is unthinkable that humanity should bring about regeneration and a new heavens and earth and have occasion to boast that it had been achieved by human righteousness, ingenuity and wisdom. We do not know God if we have not grasped this elementary fact. None may glory of their achievement in God’s presence, God alone must be glorious. No flesh can boast before him; it would be morally incongruous, and repugnant to all right thinking.
1Cor 1:28-31 (ESV2011) God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are,so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption,so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
Humanity’s failure in righteousness is not only a given predicated on human sinfulness but predicated also on God’s own being and purpose. No flesh shall glory before God. It cannot, must not, shall not be. Thus redemption, renewal, and blessing, must come through the gospel for the gospel is a revelation not of the righteousness of man but of God. God is the actor in the gospel. It is what he is and does and provides that is in the spotlight. It is his wisdom, his grace, his righteousness that is on display. Thus Paul writes of the gospel,
Rom 1:16-17ESV2011 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”
In the gospel, righteousness ‘of God‘ is revealed’. This is not in the first instance a righteousness from God (though it surely includes this) but God’s own righteous activity. If I want to see God’s acting righteously (consistently with all he is in himself) then it is to the gospel pre-eminently I must look. Under Law, God is seen to act righteously when he punishes disobedience (Roms 3:5) but such righteous action is not the kind of righteousness that most precisely reflects his nature. God is righteous when he judges but judgement is his ‘strange work’. His righteous judgments are glorious but he does not wish to be simply known as a God who punishes. Punishment is not where his heart lies. God has a heart of love that wishes to bless and to be gracious. It is the glory of his righteousness in grace that reveals his righteousness most perfectly. At the cross God acts righteously in grace and thus reveals the glory of his heart as it truly is. He is a God who is slow to judge and quick to bless. He is not keen to condemn rather he is keen to declare righteous. He does not desire that any perish but that all come to him and live, thus it is his righteous saving action in the gospel that best displays his heart. What was perhaps brief and abstract in Romans Ch 1 is unpacked and specified in ch 3
Rom 3:21-26ESV2011 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction:for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
Note the last lines, ‘This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just (righteous) and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.’ Twice we are told the gospel shows (reveals/proves/exhibits/demonstrates/displays) God acting righteously. It shows he acted righteously in passing over sin in the past. By his sin-bearing death we now see how forgiveness was possible in the past without God’s mercy compromising his righteous need to punish sin. We see how ceremonial animal sacrifice was not simply a moral whitewash but was acceptable because God saw in it a preview of the real sacrifice that would deal with sin – the sacrifice of Christ. Furthermore, if God forgives in the present and declares a man righteous we see that this is not a fiction but is God acting righteously for it is the only righteous response he can make to the one who believes in Jesus since Jesus’ obedience in death was specifically to provide a basis for God to righteously declare righteous the ungodly. Indeed, in this text the sacrifice of Jesus is God’s doing. Undoubtedly, Jesus came of his own volition and offered himself, but that is not the point here; the point is that ‘God put Jesus forward as a propitiation by his blood’. The action is God’s. He takes the initiative in the provision of righteousness, a righteous initiative.
We could look elsewhere and see how the gospel reveals God acting righteously at the cross in judging sin and in overthrowing Satan. He acts righteously when he raises Christ from the dead and places him at his right hand in glory for how else could God righteously act when Christ had so glorified him in death (Jn 13:31,32). Again and again the gospel reveals God acting righteously in blessing. Thus the gospel glorifies God’s righteousness for it reveals it in action. The gospel is not only God acting wisely, powerfully, graciously, mercifully, and lovingly, it is God acting righteously; the consistency of God’s character to its true nature is seen fully in the confluence of of righteous acts at the cross and the subsequent resurrection to glory of Christ and those united to him, who in turn become ‘the righteousness of God in him’ (2 Cor 5:21). Thus God’s righteousness shines in unrivalled brilliance in the gospel and the eyes of faith see, live, wonder, and worship.
* We often hear that the Law reveals God’s righteousness. It doesn’t. It reveals the standard of righteousness that God demanded of man. It does not reveal anything about what righteous behaviour in God looks like. It would be ludicrous to apply these commandments to God (whether the Decalogue or the wider covenant stipulations). God is not called to love his neighbour as himself. Righteousness in God is not abstaining from committing adultery or stealing etc. These are meaningful demands upon the responsible creature (and a sinful one at that) but not the Creator. Thus the Law reveals the behaviour that God demands of man if he is to be righteous (live consistently with all the relationships he is placed in by God) but it does not reveal God in righteous activity (except when he punishes disobedience), the gospel, however, does. The law shows the righteous behaviour God demands of man but not what righteousness looks like in him.