Working on another small writing assignment. When what I had in mind as the first section hit 500 words (a little less than half the allotted words) I realized I can't use any of the below. Oh well, here it is for you, whoever you are... :-)
Romans 3:21-26 is the very heart of Romans. These six, extremely thick theological verses present in a nutshell both the problem Paul discusses in the first three chapters (1:18-3:20), as well the solution he discusses to the end of Romans 4. The problem is that “all have sinned” (3:23). We thus should expect the wrath of God to come on us when he soon judges the world (1:18). However, God has graciously provided a solution: first, he offered Jesus as a kind of “sacrifice of atonement” for our sins (3:25); second, he asks for our faith in the risen Christ as our sovereign Lord. God will consider us righteous if we only trust in what he has done for us through Messiah Jesus.
The Righteousness of God
One of the disadvantages of reading the Bible in English is that you sometimes miss aspects of the text that you cannot really see in English. For example, some variation on the root for "righteous" appears seven times in Romans 3:21-26, even though the NIV only uses the word righteousness (dikaiosyne) twice (3:21-22). What you cannot see in English is that the word justified (dikaioo) comes from the same root (3:24, 26), as does the word just in 3:26 (dikaios). Even more interestingly, the word for justice in 3:25 and 26 is the very same word the NIV translates as righteousness in 3:21-22.
The NIV was of course translated right before a new era in the study of Paul exploded, leading to a great deal of clarity on exactly what Paul was saying in these verses. For one, it is now generally realized that the phrase, "the righteousness of God" almost certainly would have immediately made any first century Jewish audience think of God's righteousness, the fact that God is a God who always comes through, who always keeps his promises. His character is well known, as is his love for his people. He brings justice for sure, but he also is a God of great mercy and salvation.
The "righteousness of God" that is revealed apart from the Jewish Law (3:21) is thus in part God showing a new way he is walking with the world in justice and mercy--a way that by-passes the Jewish Law. This new way involves God's offering of Jesus as an atoning sacrifice (3:25), whose blood provides redemption for our sins. It is understandable that the NIV focuses on the justice side of God's righteousness in 3:25 and 26, because Christ's offering demonstrates that God is in fact a just God. Even if God could have simply let us off the hook for our sins by divine command, his offering of Christ as a sacrifice certainly demonstrates that he stands for justice as well as mercy.
However, it is also possible that Paul had a double meaning in mind when he used the phrase "the righteousness of God" here, in fact that he was also thinking of something like the way Luther and Wesley took Romans 3:21. They took Paul to be speaking of a new way for us humans to become righteous that did not involve us keeping the law. Paul almost certainly was first thinking of God's righteousness, but he does go on to speak of our righteousness, that is, a way for us to be considered righteous or innocent in God's eyes. Even though we have sinned, we can be "justified freely" (3:26) because of God's gracious mercy he is offering through Jesus.
Paul thus has two "righteousnesses" in view in this passage, the righteousness of God himself, demonstrated in both his mercy and justice. The second is the righteous status ("not guilty," "innocent") he confers on us through Jesus Christ.