In what is perhaps yet another hearkening back to considerations of the covenant and the responsibility of God’s chosen people within God’s covenant plan (as Paul was a member of Israel who would see himself as defined by the history of his people and its most important and defining events, the previously referenced washings and renewal and new birth could certainly be heard as an allusion to the exodus, as Israel symbolically passes through the waters of the Red Sea, reborn as a renewed people in a single day---baptism, of course, plays on this tradition), Paul notes that “He saved us not by works of righteousness that we have done but on the basis of His mercy” (3:5a).
Throughout his writings, when Paul uses the term “righteousness,” he is not doing so in a broad-based way or in a nod to performance of what might be considered to be “good works” in the moral sphere. Almost without fail, when Paul writes “righteousness,” he is making a direct reference to God’s covenant faithfulness. Because it is almost always valuable to bring in historical reference to provide appropriate grounding for statements made in Paul’s writing, here again it is worth considering that the single greatest example (outside of the Christ-event) of the covenant faithfulness and mercy of the Creator God, as salvation is provided apart from His people’s ability to do anything about their situation, is the example of the exodus. This event is almost always going to be at play in the mind of the Apostle.
Here, in light of what comes immediately before it, as he is both encouraging believers to be submissive to authorities while at the same time remembering his own people’s failure to be properly submissive to those authorities, it is reasonable to hear Paul extolling God’s covenant faithfulness yet again, by reminding his readers that neither God’s people Israel, who had been given the knowledge of God’s covenant, nor God’s people of renewed Israel in Christ, had entered into righteousness (faithfulness to the covenant such that right standing in God’s kingdom was evident, as demonstrated by deeds of love, mercy, and sacrifice). That is, none had been faithful to God’s covenant requirements to be a light to the nations so as to bring Him glory, especially if they are now bringing their God into disrepute in the eyes of the peoples of the world by becoming belligerent citizens.
In spite of that, the Creator God proffered and continues to proffer His salvation, dragging His people out of their long exile in the realm of death and separation from Him, and gifting them with His eternal life through belief in the Lordship of His Christ. This was done entirely through His mercy. Of course, this talk of mercy would also have a cultural grounding in the context of honor and shame and the court of public reputation, with this speaking quite highly of the God of Israel as a/the most generous patron (beyond Caesar himself, though the people of Christ will still submit to Caesar’s rule).
Looking again to the fifth and sixth verses, and the all-important Resurrection power that is shared with believers through their union with Christ by the Holy Spirit, as evidenced by faith’s confession of Jesus as Lord (here we remember talk of washing and renewing), we are propelled forward to verse seven, and find that “since we have been justified by His grace, we become heirs with the confident expectation of eternal life” (3:7). Here, with talk of justification (entrance upon the covenant), believers experience the grace of the Creator God, thereby entering into His circle of grace (another component of the honor and shame culture), receiving the benefits (heirs) of their great patron, and now orienting their life in such a way that they participate in that circle of grace by living and acting in such a way, especially towards their fellow man as good citizens, that they become the place where the life of the age to come (eternal life) breaks into this world.