The overwhelming majority of commentators and scholars who reflect upon Paul’s letter to the Romans agree that 1:16-17 is the thesis of the apostle’s entire vision. Succintly, Romans is all about the ‘revelation of God’s righteousness.’ The great hope of the Old Testament, in which the people of God looked forward longingly to that coming day when God would at last stop hiding His face and set all things right in the world, has now taken place in the events announced in the gospel. Through the violent death and vindicating resurrection of God’s own Son in history, God has acted to make all things new and to right all wrongs. C. H. Dodd’s way of putting it (below) is perhaps the most brilliant summary of the book of Romans, in connection with the thesis of 1:16-17, that I have come across. I think his definition of what the ‘righteousness of God’ means for Paul is absolutely on the mark–and utterly breathtaking.
The only (glaring!) weakness is Dodd’s unfortunate relegating of Romans 9-11 to the status of an ‘excursus’ from the letter’s main theme of the revelation of God’s righteousness, rather than (rightly) the actual climax of that manifestation in keeping His promises to Israel, albeit in highly unexpected fashion. I can feel the great wrath of N. T. Wright as I read that sentence, and tremble beneath it. Notable imperfection notwithstanding, however, I encourage you to take up and read Romans all through, once more afresh, in the light of these reflections from Dodd, and to see what new insights you might gain as you do so:
“There has been much discussion whether [the righteousness of God] is for Paul an attribute of God, or of men saved by God; whether, that is, the Gospel reveals the fact that God is righteous, or communicates to men a righteousness of character which is divine in origin. No doubt it does both of these things. But the key to the problem is to recognize that in Paul’s religious vocabulary the term righteousness stands, not only for a moral attribute (as in ordinary English, and Greek, usage), but also (in accordance with Hebrew usage) for an act or activity. When he says, therefore, ‘God’s righteousness is revealed,’ he means that a divine act or activity is taking place manifestly within the field of human experience–whereas much of His operation is inscrutable and mysterious (11:33). Paul’s background here as everywhere is the Old Testament…
A judge or ruler is thought of as ‘righteous,’ not so much because he observes and upholds an abstract standard of justice, as because he vindicates the cause of the wronged; his righteousness is revealed in the ‘justification’ of those who are the victims of evil. In the faith of Judaism the ultimate act of vindication is the work of God…in the developed thought of the prophets, this sense of ‘righteousness’ as an act of vindication is still maintained…The Hebrew word always carries with it the idea of the victory of right…
The vindication of right involves a real righteousness of the people on whose behalf it is wrought. Thus the ‘righteousness,’ or act of redress, has for its ultimate issue, not only a people delivered from wrongful oppression, but a people delivered from their own sin, a ‘righteous’ people in our sense. But always ‘righteousness’ is not primarily an attribute of God or of His people, but an activity whereby the right is asserted in the deliverance of man from the power of evil…In all probability the familiar beatitude, ‘Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness,’ contains the same meaning. For an English reader, as for a Greek reader, of the Gospels, that suggests ‘those who ardently desire to be good’; but, in accordance with Old Testament usage, the original Aramaic beatitude would naturally mean ‘Blessed are they who ardently desire the vindication of right, the triumph of the good cause’—the same people, in fact, who are referred to in Luke 18:7: ‘Will not God see justice done to His elect who cry to Him by day and night?’
Now, in the prevailing thought of Judaism in the two or three centuries before Christ, it was assumed that in this present age the cause of right is in eclipse. Althought ‘the Most High ruleth in the kingdom of men’ (Dan. 4:17), yet for reasons best known to Himself He permits evil powers to hold sway. But in the good time coming–‘the Age to Come’–the arm of the Lord would be bared for the discomfiture of evil and the establishment of good. Then His ‘righteousness’ would be revealed. That was where Paul stood as a Pharisee. The Gospel which he proclaims as a preacher of Christianity is that ‘the righteousness of God is revealed.’ The Age to Come has come, and the great vindication of right is taking place before our eyes. The present tense of the verb is all-important: it would be even better rendered ‘the righteousness of God is being revealed,’ for the Greek present is primarily a tense of continuous action. The revelation, as we shall see, is not yet complete; but it is real and even now in process.
This is the theme which is developed in the course of the epistle. First, the need for such a revelation is displayed in a somber picture of the world under the dominance of sin, bringing its terrible retribution. This [the revelation of God’s wrath in 1:18ff] is not yet the revelation of righteousness, though it is preparatory to it. Next we have the righteousness of God displayed in ‘justifying’ His people, i.e. in putting them in the righte before Him ( Rom. 3:21-4:25). Then it is displayed in the ‘salvation’ of men from the power and dominance of sin (Rom. 5-8). Then, after an excursus which seeks to justify the ways of God with men (Rom. 9-11), we have, finally, the revelation of His righteousness in the living of a good life by the people He has saved (Rom. 12-15). Thus Paul finds in the Gospel of Christ the answer of history to the aspirations of the prophets after a decisive assertion and vindication of right against all evil in the world of men. The life and death of Jesus Christ, His resurrection, and the creation of the Church through His Spirit, constitute a decisive Act of God, an objective revelation of His righteousness.
The meaning, therefore, of the phrase ‘God’s righteousness is revealed,’ might be given by some such paraphrase as this: ‘God is now seen to be vindicating the right, redressing the wrong, and delivering men from the power of evil.'” (C. H. Dodd, The Epistle of Paul to the Romans, pp. 9-13)