ESV - 17 For if, because of one man's trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.
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Paul mentions grace and righteousness together in the verse cited in the question. Humans are universally sinful, having (as Paul says) all inherited a sin nature from birth as a result of one man's (that is, Adam's) first sin (Genesis 3:1-21; Psalm 51:5; Romans 3:23). They therefore are incapable of achieving through their own effort the perfect righteousness that a holy, sinless God requires to live eternally in His presence. God would have been justified in condemning fallen, sinful humanity to eternal separation from Him. However in love and grace (undeserved favor) toward them, He provided a means for humans to once again live eternally in His presence by becoming human Himself in Christ, and living the sinless life of perfect obedience to God that only Christ could achieve. He then died an undeserved, sacrificial death to satisfy God's judgment against sin, and rose again from the dead to prove that His death had been a sufficient atonement in God's sight for humanity's sin. All those who then recognize their own sin, acknowledge their inability to achieve righteousness on their own, and place their faith in Christ's death and resurrection as having paid the penalty that they themselves deserve for their own sins, are forgiven of their sins for Christ's sake, and have Christ's perfect righteousness imputed to them by God as a gift, enabling them to live forever in God's presence. This righteousness had to be an undeserved gift, since that was the only way in which sinful humans could possess it (Ephesians 2:8-9).
The gift of righteousness is here, practically, justification. (see previous verse, Romans 5:16). It is equivalent to justification. What is “given” is a standing of acceptance in the eye of the Law. And the Law, as such, accepts soley on the ground of “righteousness,” freedom from guilt. How such freedom from guilt is attained is another question: in the present case, it is attained as “a gift,” given by “the Justifier of him that believeth in Jesus” (Romans 3:26). See, too, Romans 3:24, "Being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus." As Mr. Maas mentioned, "God would have been justified in condemning fallen, sinful humanity to eternal separation from Him. " Instead God chose to have us justified.
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