In considering this, we are reminded that we simply cannot pick and choose statements from Paul, pluck them from their context, and hear them however we desire to hear them. There is a narrative flow, and one statement builds on the next, with Paul making it more than abundantly clear that covenant, covenant markers, and covenant participation is the primary field of concern for this letter. We can comfortably blanket that field under the cover of “justification.” Paul’s concern is that God’s righteousness, which is well-defined by Scripture as His faithfulness to His covenant and to His covenant people (covenant faithfulness), will always be demonstrated and that God will always be vindicated. As the story of Jesus unfolds within this the structure provided by this narrative, his must be linked to the activity of Jesus, to the cross, and to His Resurrection, as Jesus sums up the story of Israel.
To expand on that point, Paul sees Israel’s story climaxing in Jesus, with Jesus, as King and therefore as representative of God’s covenant people, fulfilling all that God expected of Israel. More than that, Jesus perfectly fulfills all that is expected of humanity, bearing the divine image as God intended. As Israel’s story and responsibility cannot be extricated from the covenant, and as Israel only exists as a people because of God’s covenant with Abraham, we simply cannot think of Jesus, His ministry, or His saving work apart from that covenant. The Gospel that Jesus is Lord, and therefore the justification (participation in the covenant people of the Creator God) that is linked to that message of the Gospel, cannot be understood or propagated apart from a proper understanding of the covenant and of what God is doing in relation to His covenant.
When we add in that Judaism did not posit “earning salvation” by works (works of the law, adoption and practice of covenant markers, were the response of those already included in the covenant---justified) which disposes of the long-cherished and often confusing contrast between “works” and “grace” as means to salvation (or justification---being included in the covenant people and therefore carrying a heavy responsibility to represent the Creator God of Israel by bearing His image), we put ourselves in a much better position to understand the letter to Romans, the Gospel, the kingdom of God, and our role in and for that kingdom and the world in which it is to be found (God’s will being done on earth as heaven), which is accomplished according to and through the deed and word proclamation and manifestation of the Gospel.
At the risk of over-stating the significance of covenant (and repeating this word almost ad nauseum), God’s righteousness will be exercised and will be recognized in graciously extending that covenant and its promises to Gentiles, and He is doing this through that which demonstrates loyalty to Him. Previously, this had been the bearing of the covenant markers (which had morphed over time) that identified Israel as Israel. Now, this loyalty to Him is demonstrated through the confession of Jesus as Lord and a subsequent reordering of one’s life around that claim. It bears repeating that this has nothing to do with God granting people a qualitative righteousness, and everything to do with the dramatic proclamation, by the extension of the covenant and its promises to all peoples, on new terms, that God, in Christ, has taken up His place on the throne of the cosmos and is becoming King.