Romans 3:21-22, “21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction.”
Romans 3:19–20 concludes the epistle’s first major section by taking a low view of our ability to justify ourselves: “By works of the law no human being will be justified in [God’s] sight.” Whether one has access to the eternal moral law of our Creator via the Mosaic law as a Jew or one knows the Lord’s demands from the law on his conscience as a Gentile, no sinner can be found righteous before the Creator by keeping this law. This is because one must keep the law perfectly if one seeks to attain righteousness by doing the law. No one—except Christ Jesus—has done this. No matter how much good we think that we have done, our unrighteousness persists. We have not kept the commandments fully (1:18–2:24). Even worse, apart from God’s intervention, none of us fears Him appropriately (3:1–20).
The depressing note of Romans 3:19–20, however, gives way to the wonder of our Lord’s salvation. God’s gospel, Paul told us back in Romans 1:16–17, concerns the “righteousness of God,” and having shown that sinners are destitute of this righteousness by means of doing the law, the Apostle gives us hope of finding this righteousness “apart from the law.” We who are so unrighteous can escape our Creator’s wrath via the “righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ” (3:21–22a). The Lord has not left us to despair. He has acted to save His people, providing us with a righteousness that comes simply by believing in Christ and—we will see—in Christ alone. As the Apostle John writes, “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
This righteousness is manifested “apart from the law” (Rom. 3:21), that is, apart from the old covenant system and our keeping of the commandments. Of course, the righteousness of God that is received by faith was known to believers who lived during the old covenant period. In fact, “the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it.” The Scriptures and ceremonies of the old covenant point us to the truth that the only way we can be seen as righteous in the Lord’s sight is through faith and not our law-keeping. As Paul will argue from the Old Testament itself, people have always been justified by faith alone and not by works (chap. 4). But this justification comes not by virtue of what the old covenant can provide but from what Christ accomplishes in the new covenant. The old covenant saints benefitted from the new covenant by faith alone even though they lived prior to its inauguration in Christ. We benefit by faith alone, though we live after the earthly ministry of Jesus.
Paul’s “but now” of Romans 3:21 describes a momentous change in history. The people who lived before Christ lived in an era characterized by unrighteousness and wrath, dwelling under the condemnation of God’s law. Now that Christ has come, we live in an era characterized by the inbreaking of the Lord’s eternal kingdom of peace and righteousness, which will be consummated at Jesus’ return. This puts us in a better position than any old covenant saint enjoyed in that era.