The idea of righteousness by faith develops from Paul, but it is more complicated than modern readers often think.
What do Christian theologians mean by “righteousness by faith”?
Among Christian theologians, “righteousness by faith” refers to the divinely conferred status upon people who receive the gospel proclamation with trusting belief. God’s gift is offered by virtue of the sacrificial death and resurrection of God’s Son, Jesus Christ. Among the key passages for understanding righteousness by faith are Gal 2:15-21 and Rom 3:21-5:21.
A significant backdrop of Paul’s teaching is the imagery of the law court. The verb typically rendered “justify” is from the same root as the noun translated “righteousness.” This word group evokes the notions of being declared by a judge to be “in the right” and of having a right relationship given or restored. More specifically, the Pauline passages referred to above have been understood as pointing to the gift of divine forgiveness of sins bestowed on one who responds with faith to the gospel—in contrast to doing any “works” or accomplishments that could avail one of having right standing before God. The believer’s status changes from “guilty” to “righteous,” and his or her relationship with God and others is marked by reconciliation.
Especially since the time of the Reformation, the precise details concerning righteousness by faith have been the source of debate among Christians of different denominations. For example, is the gift conferred by God something merely imputed (i.e., attributed) or actually imparted (i.e., bestowed)? Is Paul’s emphasis on the righteousness that comes from God through Christ, or is it on the righteousness through Christ that now avails one before God? Despite different points of emphasis, the idea of righteousness by faith has traditionally focused on the image of God as judge, on the atoning death of Jesus, on the primacy of faith over works, and on the new status of individual believers.
What did Paul mean when he wrote about righteousness by faith?
While the above description captures important elements of Paul’s teaching, recent scholarship has argued that there is more to it. In the first place, Paul’s concern is primarily communal. The immediately preceding context of Gal 2:15-21 is the controversy over table fellowship between Jewish and gentile members of the community of faith in Antioch. Similarly, in Romans Paul stresses the new family of faith that consists of both Jewish and gentiles believers, both of whom can claim Abraham as “father” (Rom 4:11-12, Rom 4:16). The divine declaration of “righteous” thus pertains to the status of membership in God’s covenant people that includes gentile believers (a status, to be sure, that includes forgiveness of sins), in fulfillment of the divine promises to Israel now realized through Christ.
Secondly, when contrasting faith and works, Paul has something more specific in mind than works as a way of attempting to earn one’s salvation. He employs the specific phrase “works of the law,” by which he means those practices of Jewish law—especially circumcision, Sabbath observance, and restrictive food regulations—that marked off Jews from gentiles. Paul insists on the primacy of what God has done through Jesus’s faithfulness-unto-death, and on the response of faith to the gospel message, whether by Jew or gentile, that brings people into the community of believers.