The following is an excerpt from 'Barnes' Notes on the Whole Bible' by Albert Barnes:
δικαιοσύνη Θεοῦ dikaiosunē TheouThere is not a more important expression to be found in the Epistle than this. It is capable of only the following interpretations.
(1) some have said that it means that the attribute of God which is denominated righteousness or justice, is here displayed. It has been supposed that this was the design of the gospel to make this known; or to evince his justice in his way of saving people. There is an important sense in which this is true Romans 3:26. But this does not seem to be the meaning in the passage before us. For,
(a)The leading design of the gospel is not to evince the justice of God, or the attribute of justice, but the love of God; see John 3:16; Ephesians 2:4; 2 Thessalonians 2:16; 1 John 4:8.
(b)The attribute of justice is not what is principally evinced in the gospel. It is rather mercy, "or mercy in a manner consistent with justice," or that does not interfere with justice.
(c)The passage, therefore, is not designed to teach simply that the righteousness of God, as an attribute, is brought forth in the gospel, or that the main idea is to reveal his justice.
(2) asecond interpretation which has been affixed to it is, to make it the same as goodness, the benevolence of God is revealed, etc. But to this there are still stronger objections. For.
(a)It does not comport with the design of the apostle's argument.
(b)It is a departure from the established meaning of the word "justice," and the phrase "the righteousness of God."
(c)If this had been the design, it is remarkable that the usual words expressive of goodness or mercy had not been used. Another meaning, therefore, is to be sought as expressing the sense of the phrase.
(3) the phrase "righteousness of God" is equivalent to God's "plan of justifying people; his scheme of declaring them just in the sight of the Law; or of acquitting them from punishment, and admitting them to favor." In this sense it stands opposed to man's plan of justification, that is, by his own works: God's plan is by faith. The way in which that is done is revealed in the gospel. The object contemplated to be done is to treat people as if they were righteous. Man attempted to accomplish this by obedience to the Law. The plan of God was to arrive at it by faith. Here the two schemes differ; and the great design of this Epistle is to show that man cannot be justified on his own plan, to wit, by works; and that the plan of God is the only way, and a wise and glorious way of making man just in the eye of the Law. No small part of the perplexity usually attending this subject will be avoided if it is remembered that the discussion in this Epistle pertains to the question, "how can mortal man be just with God?" The apostle shows that it cannot be by works; and that it "can be" by faith. This latter is what he calls the "righteousness of God" which is revealed in the gospel.
To see that this is the meaning, it is needful only to look at the connection; and at the usual meaning of the words. The word to "justify," δικαιόω dikaioōmeans properly "to be just, to be innocent, to be righteous." It then means to "declare," or treat as righteous; as when a man is charged with an offence. and is acquitted. If the crime alleged is not proved against him, he is declared by the Law to be innocent. It then means to "treat as if innocent, to regard as innocent;" that is, to pardon, to forgive, and consequently to treat as if the offence had not occurred. It does not mean that the man did not commit the offence; or that the Law might not have held him answerable for it; but that the offence is forgiven; and it is consistent to receive the offender into favor, and treat him as if he had not committed it. In what way this may be done rests with him who has the pardoning power. And in regard to the salvation of man, it rests solely with God. and must be done in that way only which he appoints and approves. The design of Paul in this Epistle is to show how this is done, or to show that it is done by faith. It may be remarked here that the expression before us does not imply any particular manner in which it is done; it does not touch the question whether it is by imputed righteousness or not; it does not say that it is on legal principles; it simply affirms "that the gospel contains God's plan of justifying people by faith."
The primary meaning of the word is, therefore, "to be innocent, pure, etc." and hence, the name means "righteousness" in general. For this use of the word, see Matthew 3:15; Matthew 5:6, Matthew 5:10,Matthew 5:20; Matthew 21:32; Luke 1:75; Acts 10:35; Acts 13:10; Romans 2:26; Romans 8:4, etc.
In the sense of pardoning sin, or of treating people as if they were innocent, on the condition of faith, it is used often, and especially in this Epistle; see Romans 3:24, Romans 3:26, Romans 3:28, Romans 3:30;Romans 4:5; Romans 5:1; Romans 8:30; Galatians 2:16; Galatians 3:8, Galatians 3:24; Romans 3:21-22,Romans 3:25; Romans 4:3, Romans 4:6, Romans 4:13; Romans 9:30, etc.
It is called "God's" righteousness, because it is God's plan, in distinction from all the plans set up by people. It was originated by him; it differs from all others; and it claims him as its author, and tends to his glory. It is called his righteousness, as it is the way by which he receives and treats people as righteous. The same plan was foretold in various places where the word "righteousness" is nearly synonymous with "salvation;" Isaiah 56:5 "My righteousness is near, my salvation is gone forth;" Isaiah 56:6, "My salvation shall be forever, and my righteousness shall not be abolished;" Isaiah 56:1, "My salvation is near to come, and my righteousness to be revealed;" Daniel 9:24, "To make reconciliation for iniquity, and to bring in everlasting righteousness."
(There is yet another sense lying on the very surface of the passage, and adopted by nearly all the evangelical expositors, according to which "the righteousness of God" is that righteousness, which Christ worked out in his active and passive obedience. This is a righteousness which God hath devised, procured, and accepted. It is therefore eminently His. It is imputed to believers, and on account of it they are held righteous in the sight of God. It is of the highest importance that the true meaning of this leading expression be preserved; for if it be explained away, the doctrine of imputed righteousness is materially affected, as will appear in a subsequent note.
That the phrase is to be understood of the righteousness which Christ has procured by his obedience and death, appears from the general sense of the original term δικαιοσύνη dikaiosunēMr. Haldane in a long and elaborate comment on Romans 3:21, has satisfactorily shown that it signifies "righteousness in the abstract, and also conformity to law," and that "Wherever it refers to the subject of man's salvation, and is not merely a personal attribute of Deity, it signifies that righteousness which, in conformity with his justice, God has appointed and provided."
Besides, if the expression be understood of "God's plan of justifying men," we shall have great difficulty in explaining the parallel passages. They will not bend to any such principle of interpretation, In Romans 5:17, this righteousness is spoken of as a "gift" which we "receive," and in the Romans 5:18 and Romans 5:19 verses, the "righteousness of one" and "the obedience of one," are used as convertible terms. Now it is easy to understand how the righteousness which Christ has procured by his obedience, becomes "a gift," but "a plan of justification" is appropriately said to be declared, or promulgated. It cannot be spoken of in the light of a gift received. The same observation applies with still greater force to the passage in 2 Corinthians 5:21, "For he hath made him to be sin for us who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him." How would this passage appear, if "plan of justification" were substituted for righteousness of God?
In Philemon 3:9, Paul desires to be found in Christ, "not having his own righteousness, which is of the land, but what is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith." Is not his own righteousness what he could attain to by his works or obedience, and is not the righteousness of Christ what Jesus had procured by his obedience?
Lastly, in Romans 10:3, the righteousness of God is thus opposed to the righteousness of man, "they being ignorant of God's righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves to the righteousness of God." Now what is that righteousness which natural people seek to establish, and which is especially called "their own?" Doubtless it is a righteousness founded on their own works, and therefore what is here properly opposed to it is a righteousness founded on the "work of God. See Haldane, Hodge, Scott, Guyse, etc." This meaning of the term furnishes a key to unlock "all" the passages in which it is used in connection with the sinner's justification, whereas any other sense, however it may suit a few places, will be found generally inapplicable.)
In regard to this plan it may be observed;
(1)That it is not to declare that people are innocent and pure. That would not be true. The truth is just the reverse; and God does not esteem men to be different from what they are.
(2)it is not to take part with the sinner, and to mitigate his offences. It admits them to their full extent; and makes him feel them also.
(3)it is not that we become partakers of the essential righteousness of God. That is impossible.
(4)it is not that his righteousness becomes ours. This is not true; and there is no intelligible sense in which that can be understood.
(It is true indeed that the righteousness of Christ cannot be called ours in the sense of our having actually accomplished it in our own persons. This is a view of imputation easily held up to ridicule, yet there is a sense in which the righteousness of Christ may be ours. Though we have not achieved it, yet it may be so placed to our account that we shall be held righteous, and treated as such. I have said, first, we shall be held righteous, and then treated as such; for God treats none as righteous who in some sense or other are not really so. See the note at Romans 4:3.)
But it is God's plan for pardoning sin, and for treating us as if we had not committed it; that is, adopting us as his children, and admitting us to heaven on the ground of what the Lord Jesus has done in our stead. This is God's plan. People seek to save themselves by their own works. God's plan is to save them by the merits of Jesus Christ.