It would be difficult to give a 100% definitive answer unless there is some commentary by the translation committee on this (which I have not found, but may exist). The following is offered as reasonable conclusions from other evidence.
It is deemed by some that good writing avoids an abundance of repetition in word usage. For example, this page notes with regard to the use of synonyms:
As a proofreader of hundreds of academic assignments and papers, there
is nothing more disappointing than to see the same vocabulary and
expressions repeated ad infinitum... One solution to keeping the reader connected with your writing is by using synonyms, synonymous expressions and greater lexical variety.
So a reason may be for variety in the passage, though I suspect this is the least of the reasons.
ESV's Original English Text Base was RSV
Additionally, the original text base for the ESV was the 1971 RSV, per the Preface to the ESV:
The words and phrases themselves grow out of the Tyndale-King James
legacy, and most recently out of the RSV, with the 1971 RSV text
providing the starting point for our work.
The RSV reads in Rom 3:23-26 (same words bolded):
23 since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 they
are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is
in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood,
to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because
in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins; 26 it was to
prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he
justifies him who has faith in Jesus.
Notice that it is missing the "his righteousness" in the beginning part of v.26. I have not tracked down why, but I suspect the translators of the RSV felt it was superfluous, and thus omitted it. A quick examination of both Greek textual streams shows it should be included based on the Greek (there is no textual variant noted regarding that phrase for this verse).
So this may be another reason there is variation in the ESV, because there was variation in the RSV. However, the ESV adds back the missing phrase and does not follow the same wording as the RSV, so this also is less likely as to why.
Translation Committee General Theological Position
Here is a listing of those involved with the ESV. It is largely a Protestant, Evangelical group. There are varying views on the concept of righteousness. The Protestant view is that of imputed righteousness:
Imputed righteousness is the righteousness of Jesus credited to the
Christian, enabling the Christian to be justified.
As the Wikipedia article further notes:
In the 16th Century, the Protestant Reformers came to understand human
acceptance by God according to a "forensic" model, in which God
declares humanity not guilty, even though they were in a moral sense
still guilty of sin. However, the Reformers continued to accept the
traditional concept of righteousness. What changed is that the
righteousness was seen as Christ's, which was credited ("imputed") to
Christians by God.
The key point here is that theologically in the Protestant view, only God has true "righteousness" as a quality, and a believer's righteousness (justification) is derived from that through this imputation (accounting).
This very likely forms the basis as to why ESV makes some distinctions.
Word Definitions for Precision
So given the above points about Protestant theology, consider some of the options you noted, in light of common definitions in English:
- "made righteous" would not be used, rather "declared righteous" would be used by most Protestant theologians.
- Both instances where "righteousness" is used in the ESV, it is referring specifically to God's attribute of "being righteous," of which the word "righteousness" has that as part of it's #1 definition - "state of being righteous." So there is a theological reason the word is being used so, but also a "historical" translation reason.1 "Justice" could probably still qualify based on its #1 definition of "the quality of being just," but...
- The "justified" and "justifier" terms are used in referencing what is happening to human recipients of righteousness, and is likely an attempt to reflect that they are being "declared righteous" or "shown as righteous" rather than "made righteous." This fits the both #1 and #3 English definitions of the term justify:
1. to show (an act, claim, statement, etc.) to be just or right
3. Theology. to declare innocent or guiltless; absolve; acquit.
- "be just" is probably used of God in v.26 because it is there not talking about the attribute of His righteousness, but in fact the out-working action of His righteousness in declaring the believer to be justified. So the focus there is on God's action of doing righteousness, rather than on His quality of being righteous.
I would lean towards the final two reasons being the primary driving force behind the ESV translation and variation of the language used for similar Greek words. Whether such is "right" or not depends on at least two factors. (1) ONe's theology. This is probably a good example of showing that all translation of Scripture involves some influence by one's theology, and hence why it is good to go back and look at the original languages to at least get some perspective. That is not to say such distinctions in English are unwarranted, but neither is it proof that they are warranted--one's understanding of other aspects of Scripture is going to influence what the proper meaning is in this Roman's passage--it is not going to be entirely text driven, because the Greek can carry either idea in it. (2) On one's translation philosophy. Should similar Greek words be necessarily translated by similar English words simply because of the Greek root relationship or not? That is, is root similarity important to reflect or the proper meaning itself (as discerned by the translators). These and other such translation decisions will affect it (including the importance or not of first two points noted).
1 The Preface of the ESV notes as well that (emphasis added):
The ESV also carries forward classic translation principles in its
literary style. Accordingly it retains theological terminology—words
such as grace, faith, justification, sanctification, redemption,
regeneration, reconciliation, propitiation—because of their central
importance for Christian doctrine and also because the underlying
Greek words were already becoming key words and technical terms in New
While "righteousness" is not noted, I think it safe to assume (1) the words that are noted are not an exhaustive list, but merely representational, and (2) that the "righteousness" of God would be such a theological term retained.