The main thematic element of Romans is often thought to be “the righteousness of God,” or more broadly, the gospel. Scholars have vacillated on what exactly Paul means by “righteousness of God,” with some stating that it means God’s righteous deeds, others that it is a state of being, and shades in between. I would argue, along with C.K. Barrett, that this phrase encompasses both “the operation of his righteousness” and “his activity in doing right.” It is with this understanding that we begin to examine the passage at hand.
Romans 1:16, 17 serve as both a transitional and thematic statement for Paul in this great epistle. With it Paul moves seamlessly from the introductory content into the body of the letter, beginning essentially with a thesis statement that he then spends the next eleven chapters unpacking.
Whether intentionally or not, the passage from 1:16–3:21 is formed in a chiastic structure, which, when read with a focus on the the righteousness of God, can be outlined in this way:
A: The gospel is the power of God to salvation, wherein the righteousness of God is revealed in faith (Ro 1:16, 17)
B: The unrighteous are liable to judgment (1:18–2:11)
C: Gentiles are liable to judgment (2:12–16)
C’: Jews are liable to judgment (2:17–3:8)
B’: All are unrighteous, both Jew and Gentile (3:9–20)
A’: The righteousness of God is now manifest apart from the law through faith in Jesus Christ (3:21, 22a)
This structure both emphasizes and develops Paul’s thesis: God’s righteousness is revealed not through the law and its upholding, but through faith in Jesus Christ. Paul has now established that all are unrighteous and will be judged—this judging is the righteousness of God which the Romans would expect; a judge who judges right rightly certainly must be a righteous judge.But in 3:23ff Paul recalibrates our understanding of God’s righteousness. He univocally states that God’s righteousness is demonstrated in the propitiation of his wrath by Jesus Christ, which led to the impossible: the justification of sinners.
The righteousness of God is the very content of the gospel, as Paul states in 1:17 where, after declaring the gospel as the power of God unto salvation, he says “for in it the righteousness of God is revealed” (Ro 1:17 ESV, emphasis added). It is both good and news. Who could deny the goodness of the fact that, though we were all lost to sin and unsaveable, God’s righteousness is that he justifies sinners?
If Romans is a theological treatise wrapped in an epistolic form, then surely Paul’s chief concern is to communicate accurately to the church in Rome that God’s righteousness is found only and wholly in the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, for us.
1. Barrett, C. K.. The Epistle to the Romans. Logos edition ed. Boston, MA: Hendrickson, 1991.
2. Carson, D. A., and Douglas J. Moo. An introduction to the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1992.
3. Linebaugh, Jonathan. NT504, Module 4 Lectures. “Romans.” Knox Theological Seminary.
 C.K. Barrett, The Epistle to the Romans (Boston: Hendrickson, 1991), 30.
 Jonathan Linebaugh, NT504, Lecture 27.
Ibid. Dr. Linebaugh helpfully addresses the first-century understanding of righteousness to be a judge who judges right rightly.
Jonathan Linebaugh, NT504, Lecture 26
 D.A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 392.
 Jonathan Linebaugh, NT504, Lecture 27