This is one of the densest and most complicated passages in Paul’s letters! I’m not going to try and sort all that here though. I can hear your sigh of relief. I’m just going to give you my reading of this text and you can check out the commentaries if you’re interested in more details.
For Paul the gospel is contained in the two words that begin this paragraph: “but now.” Some have called this Paul’s “big but”! All the talk about the sinfulness of both Jew and Gentile now gives way to the gospel – Jesus Christ. In this post we’ll look at vv.21-24.
God’s righteousness - his passion for right relationships at every level in his creation - Paul claims, has now been made known “apart from the Law” (v.21). Even the Law itself, along with the prophets made this clear. It was never the Law’s purpose to establish these relationships. The Law was given to shape the relationship God had already established between himself and Israel. In addition, we’ve just seen how the Law has been high-jacked by sin and twisted to serve the purpose of condemning everyone as failures under it. There’s no way God’s passion to set all things right (his “righteousness”) can come through the Law.
It has come through Jesus Christ, though.
Through his faithfulness grasped by us in faith (v.22). The NRSV translates this: “ the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.” See the difference between the CEB and NRSV? The former has “through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ”; the latter has “through faith in Jesus Christ.” This reflects on ongoing debate among New Testament scholars deriving from the ambiguity of the Greek prepositional phrase used here. Literally it reads “the faith/faithfulness of Jesus Christ.” The word pistis can mean either faith or faithfulness. The “of” can mean either in or of as reflected in the above translations.
Most of the time translations have gone for “faith in.” The CEB reflects contemporary scholarship by taking “faithfulness of.” The turn from the “objective” view, faith “in” Jesus Christ to the “subjective” view, the faithfulness “of” Jesus Christ reflects exactly Paul’s point here. The NRSV’s “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” seems a bit redundant: “faith in Jesus Christ” and “for all who believe.” The latter phrase adds nothing to the former. And it suggests that our faith is the point of the matter.
But Paul’s emphasis is on Jesus and what he accomplished for us (as the rest of this passage will make clear). It is his faithfulness to the Father that has resolved our issue with God, the very thing Paul has just made clear that we cannot do!
Now we do have to believe it – but not into order to make it true or efficacious. Believing lays hold of this reality, the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, for us. Faith takes accepts our inclusion in what God has done through Jesus. It does not make it possible. We are included whether we believe it or not. And that’s the point of the CEB’s translation. The faithfulness of Jesus Christ is God’s act be which God’s passion to set things right is executed. “All who have faith in Him” are those who accept this thing God done for them. This doesn’t mean those who have not yet accepted this are not included in Christ’s work. Just that they have not yet accepted it.
Vv.23-24 reflect Paul’s earlier point: “all have sinned” (v.23)/”all are treated as righteous” (v.24). All, Jew and Gentile alike have failed; all, Jew and Gentile alike are included as set right with God through Jesus Christ. Note those “alls”!
This sets us up for Paul’s explanation of how all this came to be in the latter part of this passage.