Followers of Jesus Christ were first called Christians in Antioch (Acts 11:26). But the term they used most often to refer to themselves was "believers" (Acts 2:44; 1 Thess. 1:7; 1 Tim. 4:12; James 2:1). This familiar label indicates how important faith is to the Christian life. Faith is how we access the righteousness of Christ.
The apostle Paul explains this relationship in Romans 3 by showing how God has made a righteousness available that is apart from the Old Testament law. This righteousness is “given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe” (Rom. 3:22). This righteousness has three important characteristics. First, it is God’s righteousness. Second, it comes to all who believe in Christ. Third, this righteousness can only come as a gift.
In his explanation Paul uses three important theological terms to help us understand the important connection between faith and righteousness: justification, redemption, and atonement (Rom. 3:24–25). To justify is to vindicate or declare to be in the right. Justification is what a judge does when rendering a judgment of not guilty. But this justification includes an added dimension. Not only are we innocent of all charges, we have also been declared righteous. God considers us righteous not because of our own merits, but because Jesus has redeemed us. Captives were often redeemed through the payment of a ransom. Slaves could be bought out of slavery. Believers are redeemed by Christ’s sacrifice.
In Romans 3:25, Paul uses the imagery of substitution when he calls the shedding of Christ’s blood a “sacrifice of atonement.” He means that Jesus suffered on our behalf. He took our sin upon Himself and gave us His righteousness (2 Cor. 5:21; 1 John 3:5). How do we accept God’s gracious offer of righteousness through Christ? It must be “received by faith” (Rom. 3:25). Faith is more than mere knowledge of what Jesus has done. Faith is reliance upon Christ for a righteousness that only He can supply.
For Further Study
To learn more read By Faith Alone: Answering the Challenges to the Doctrine of Justification by Gary L. W. Johnson and Guy Prentiss Waters (Crossway).