Evaluating the New Perspective on Paul (7): “The ‘Righteousness of God’ and the Believer’s ‘Justification’” (Part One)

Now that we have considered the new perspective’s understanding of Paul’s use of the language of “works” and “works of the law,” we are in a position to take up directly the important question of Paul’s understanding of the “righteousness of God” and the “justification” of believers. Corresponding to its claims regarding Paul’s use of the language of “works” or “works of the law,” the new perspective argues that Paul uses the language of the “righteousness of God” and “justification” in a different way than was supposed by the traditional, Reformation view.

The Reformation’s View of this Language

In order to appreciate the new perspective’s view of the language of God’s righteousness and the justification of believers, we need to recall briefly the Reformation’s understanding of this language. In the reformational reading of the apostle Paul, the “righteousness of God” was understood primarily to be a gift from God in Christ, which was granted and imputed to believers. When the Reformers set forth their understanding of Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith, they claimed to have discovered something that was missing in the traditional teaching of the medieval Roman Catholic church. In the medieval Catholic understanding, the righteousness of God was primarily expressed in the demand that sinners obey the law in order to be justified. If sinners are to be justified and received into God’s favor, they must keep the law and thereby satisfy the obligations of God’s righteousness. Salvation, in this medieval view, required that believers cooperate with God’s grace and, by obeying the law, maintain their favor with God.



For Luther and the Reformers, however, the chief point of emphasis was upon the “righteousness of God” as a gift of a righteous status, which is freely granted and imputed to believers on account of Christ’s saving work. The righteousness of God is freely given to believers for the sake of the work of Christ, and this righteousness restores believers to favor with God. Rather than stressing the believer’s own righteousness, which is evident in obedience to the righteous requirements of the law, the Reformers taught that the righteousness whereby sinners are justified is not their own, but an “alien” or “imputed” righteousness, which is from God and received through faith alone.1

Medieval and reformation theology, it should be noted, commonly assumed that the righteousness of God ordinarily refers to God’s moral character as One who is righteous and requires righteousness on the part of His image-bearers. Because God is righteous, any failure to live in accord with the moral demands of His law is culpable demerit that requires punishment. The righteousness of God, therefore, refers both to God’s moral character, which demands righteous conduct from His creatures, and to His moral government, which metes out punishment upon those whose conduct is unrighteous.

In the traditional language of theology, the righteousness of God was understood to be an essential attribute of God, which is expressed rectorally in God’s moral government of all things and distributively in His just reward and punishment, respectively, of saints and sinners. Within the context of this understanding of God’s righteousness, the question of justification in the sixteenth century became: how can God, who must act in accord with His own righteousness, accept or justify sinners who have disobeyed His law and deserve condemnation and death? What made this question so compelling in the period of the Reformation was the common assumption of Protestant and Roman Catholic alike, that God could not justify sinners at the expense of His own righteousness. The righteousness of God had to be satisfied in order for sinners to find favor with God.

Though medieval and Reformation theology assumed this understanding of the righteousness of God, the great divergence between Roman Catholic and Protestant understandings of justification came to focus upon the question whether the righteousness that justifies the believer is wholly God’s gift in Christ or consists partly in the believer’s good works.

In the Reformation view of justification, the perfect obedience and sacrifice of Christ upon the cross fully satisfied the righteousness of God. Believers, who receive by faith alone the free gift of God’s righteousness in Christ, are justified. The righteousness that justifies believers is, accordingly, an alien or external righteousness. In the Roman Catholic view, by contrast, the righteousness of God requires that forgiven sinners maintain and increase their justification by good works that merit further grace. The righteousness of God is not merely given and imputed to believers, but is also required of believers in order for them to be justified. In the language of the debates of the sixteenth century, the Reformers’ insisted that believers are justified by an “alien” or “imputed” righteousness, whereas the Roman Catholic Church insisted that believers are justified in part by an “inherent” righteousness. For our purpose, the principal point is that the reformational understanding of justification maintained that the “righteousness of God” is something freely given to believers in Christ, and not something that continues to demand obedience as a basis for justification.

Furthermore, as is evident from this debate regarding the righteousness of God, the Reformers understood the language of “justification” to refer to a judicial act of God, whereby guilty sinners were declared or pronounced righteous or innocent. Upon the basis of the righteousness of God in Christ, freely granted and imputed to believers, God declares sinners forgiven and acceptable to Him. Because Christ satisfied the obligations and demands of God’s righteousness for His people, God can simultaneously be just and the One who justifies the guilty (Romans 3:26).

The language of “justification,” therefore, does not refer to an on-going process of moral renewal in righteousness (sanctification), but to a definitive, judicial (forensic) act that anticipates the final judgment. When God justifies the ungodly, He declares their innocence before His tribunal. The question of justification, according to the Reformers, was the paramount religious question, because it addresses the great issue of where sinners, whether Jews or Gentiles, stand with God. Are they acceptable to Him? Or are they under condemnation that brings death? According to this Reformation view, the gospel, especially as it was expressed in the writings of the apostle Paul, announces the good news that believers, on account of the work of Christ in His life, death, and resurrection, are constituted righteous and heirs of eternal life. Though not the whole of the gospel, this gracious act of free justification was understood to be at the heart of the gospel’s announcement of freedom from the curse and burden of the law of God.

The New Perspective’s View of this Language

In the writings of authors of the new perspective, quite a different account is often given of Paul’s understanding of the “righteousness of God” and the believer’s “justification.” In the new perspective, it is argued that this language must be approached from the standpoint of its background in the Old Testament’s usage and in Judaism. Unlike the rather abstract and general way in which the Reformation spoke of “the righteousness of God” and “justification,” the new perspective aims to place this language in the context of the history of redemption, and particularly in the setting of the realization of God’s covenant promise to Abraham. Though there are a variety of viewpoints, I will cite N. T. Wright’s explanation of this language as somewhat representative of the consensus among advocates of the new perspective.2

In Wright’s discussion of the language of “the righteousness of God,” he begins by noting that this expression would have been readily understood by readers of the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. In the Septuagint, the “righteousness of God” refers commonly to “God’s own faithfulness to His promises, to the covenant.”3

God’s ‘righteousness’, especially in Isaiah 40-55, is that aspect of God’s character because of which he saves Israel, despite Israel’s perversity and lostness. God has made promises; Israel can trust those promises. God’s righteousness is thus cognate with his trustworthiness on the one hand, and Israel’s salvation on the other. And at the heart of that picture in Isaiah there stands, of course, the strange figure of the suffering servant through whom God’s righteous purpose is finally accomplished.4

The righteousness of God does not refer to God’s moral character, on account of which He punishes the unrighteous and rewards the righteous. This common medieval idea of God’s “distributive justice” is little more than a “Latin irrelevance.”5 Rather, the righteousness of God is His covenantal faithfulness in action. When God acts to fulfill his promises to Israel, He demonstrates or reveals His faithfulness and reliability as One who will accomplish His saving purposes on her behalf. This covenant faithfulness refers both to a “moral quality” in God (God is righteous, that is, faithful) and to an “active power which goes out, in expression of that faithfulness, to do what the covenant always promised.”6

Though the righteousness of God is primarily to be identified with God’s covenantal faithfulness in action, Wright also argues that this language, in its Old Testament and Jewish context, makes use of a legal or forensic (court-room) metaphor. The language of the righteousness of God derives from the Jewish idea of the law court in which three parties are present: the judge, the plaintiff and the defendant. In the law court, each of these parties has a distinct role to play: the judge is called upon to decide the issue and to do so in a proper manner, that is, justly and impartially; the plaintiff is obliged to prosecute the case and bring an accusation against the defendant; and the defendant is required to answer the accusation and seek to be acquitted. In the functioning of this law court, what matters finally is not the moral uprightness or virtue of the plaintiff or the defendant, but the verdict of the judge.

When the judge decides “for” or “against” either the plaintiff or the defendant, we may say that they have a status of being righteous so far as the court’s judgment is concerned. The language of “righteous,” when used within the framework of the court’s pronouncements, means that the court has decided in the plaintiff or the defendant’s favor. The “righteous” person, therefore, is not the person who is morally upright, but the person in whose favor the court has decided. So far as the judgment of the court goes, “the righteous” are those whom the court vindicates or acquits, “the unrighteous” are those whom the court finds against or condemns. In these respects, the language of the “righteousness of God” and of “justification” is thoroughly legal or forensic in nature.

Even though Wright affirms the forensic nature of this language in a way that is reminiscent of the reformational view of justification, he maintains that the Reformation’s idea of the imputing or imparting of God’s righteousness to believers makes no sense in this context.

If we use the language of the law court, it makes no sense whatever to say that the judge imputes, imparts, bequeaths, conveys or otherwise transfers his righteousness to either the plaintiff or the defendant. Righteousness is not an object, a substance or a gas which can be passed across the courtroom.7

Rather than being something that God can impute to others, the righteousness of God refers to God’s faithfulness in acting on behalf of His covenant people, vindicating or acquitting them so that they are in a state of favor with Him. When God acts in the person of Jesus Christ, He acts to realize His covenant purposes for Israel. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, which reveal God’s righteousness or covenant faithfulness, are the means whereby God deals with sin and vindicates His people through Christ, their “representative.”8

The promise of God, that in the future (eschatological) day of salvation and judgment His people will be vindicated, has been accomplished through the representative death and resurrection of Christ. Thus, in the death and resurrection of Christ, God has acted to secure the promise of covenant favor and blessing for all, Jews and Gentiles, who believe in Christ. The righteousness of God, in this understanding, cannot be imparted to believers, since it is identified with God’s covenant faithfulness in action.

Within the context of this understanding of God’s righteousness as His covenant faithfulness in action, we can properly understand the idea of “justification.” Justification is not principally about how guilty sinners, who are incapable of finding favor with God by their works of obedience to the law, can be made acceptable to God, but about who belongs to the number of God’s covenant people.

The primary location of Paul’s doctrine of justification, Wright insists, is not soteriology (how are sinners saved?) but ecclesiology (who belongs to the covenant family?). When Paul’s treatment of justification is read within the context of the Judaism’s historic understanding of the covenant, we discover that “[j]ustification in this setting … is not a matter of how someone enters the community of the true people of God, but of how you tell who belongs to that community.” 9 In a comprehensive statement of his view, Wright maintains that justification language functions to describe who belongs to the covenant people:

“Justification” in the first century was not about how someone might establish a relationship with God. It was about God’s eschatological definition, both future and present, of who was, in fact, a member of his people. In Sanders’ terms, it was not so much about “getting in,” or indeed about “staying in,” as about “how you could tell who was in.” In standard Christian theological language, it wasn’t so much about soteriology as about ecclesiology; not so much about salvation as about the church.10

When God reveals His righteousness in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, He demonstrates His covenant faithfulness by securing the inclusion of all members of the covenant community, namely, those who are baptized into Christ and are marked by the “badge” of covenant membership, which is faith. Justification, therefore, refers to the inclusion of all believers in the covenant community, whether Jews or Gentiles, who believe in Jesus Christ.

This approach to the language of justification explains the significance of Paul’s insistence that it is by “faith” and not by “works of the law.” As we have noted previously, Wright and other new perspective authors regard the language of “works of the law” as a reference to “boundary marker” requirements in the (Mosaic) law, which served to exclude Gentiles from the promise of inclusion within the covenant family of God. Justification is “by faith,” and not by obedience to the “works of the law,” because it announces that God, in His covenant faithfulness, now intends to include Gentiles, as well as Jews, in the number of His covenant people. Commenting on Romans 3:21–31, Wright offers an explanation that is consistent with what we have seen in our consideration of the issue of Paul’s use of the language of the “works of the law”:

The passage is all about the covenant, membership in which is now thrown open to Jew and Gentile alike; therefore it is all about God’s dealing with sin in the cross and resurrection of Jesus, because that was what the covenant was intended to do in the first place. …

”Where then is boasting?” asks Paul in 3:27. “It is excluded!” This “boasting” which is excluded is not the boasting of the successful moralist [as in the Reformation view, CPV]; it is the racial boast of the Jew, as in 2:17–24. If this is not so, 3:29 (“Or is God the God of Jews only? Is He not of Gentiles also?”) is a non sequitur. Paul has not thought in this passage of warding off a proto-Pelagianism, of which in any case contemporaries were not guilty. He is here, as in Galatians and Philippians, declaring that there is no road into covenant membership on the ground of Jewish racial privilege.11

Faith alone is the “badge” of covenant membership, because it excludes any boasting in covenant privilege on the part of the Jews. Through faith in Jesus Christ, Jews and Gentiles alike enjoy the privilege of “present justification,” that is, inclusion among the covenant people of God. This present justification “declares … what future justification will affirm publicly (according to Romans 2:14–16 and 8:9–11) on the basis of the entire life.”12


1. Expressed grammatically, this means that the Reformers took the genitive in the expression, “the righteousness of God,” as a genitive of origin, that is, the righteousness that is from God.

2. For a critical assessment of the way the language of the “righteousness of God” has been interpreted by authors of the new perspective, see Mark A. Seifrid, “Righteousness Language in the Hebrew Scriptures and Early Judaism,” in Justification and Variegated Nomism, ed. D. A. Carson et al., vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), pp. 415-42. Contrary to the claim that this language refers primarily to God’s saving action as an expression of his covenantal faithfulness, Seifrid demonstrates that it especially refers to God’s retributive righteousness in punishing the disobedient and vindicating the righteous.

3. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, p. 96.

4. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, p. 96.

5. This language is Wright’s (What Saint Paul Really Said, p. 103).

6. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, p. 103. For this reason, Wright regards the traditional grammatical debate whether the genitive in “righteousness of God” is “possessive” or “subjective” to be beside the point. The righteousness of God is both God’s being righteous (possessive) and God’s acts of righteousness (subjective). God’s covenant faithfulness expresses itself in deeds performed to fulfill his covenant promises.

7. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, p. 99. One of the most striking omissions in Wright’s discussion of the law-court imagery is his neglect to note the distinctively Christian use of this imagery in Paul’s writings. Wright does not adequately represent the way Christ enters the court on behalf of his people (as their advocate, substitute, and representative), having obeyed the law and suffered its curse in their place. As we shall see, the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to believers is only a way of expressormation view.

8. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, pp. 106-7.

9. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, p. 119.

10. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, p. 120. Wright offers a similar comment on Paul’s argument in Galatians: “Despite a long tradition to the contrary, the problem Paul addresses in Galatians is not the question of how precisely someone becomes a Christian, or attains to a relationship with God …. On anyone’s reading, but especially within its first-century context, it has to do quite obviously with the question of how you define the people of God: are they to be defined by the badges of Jewish race, or in some other way?” (What Saint Paul Really Said, p. 122).

11. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, pp. 128-29.

12. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, p. 129. As we noted in our introductory presentation of the new perspective, justification occurs in three “steps” or “phases”, which correspond to the past event of Christ’s resurrection, the present event of incorporation into Christ through faith, and the future event of the final judgment. In this statement of Wright’s, an important question is raised regarding the role of the final judgment in the justification of believers: is the final phase of justification based, at least in part, on works or, as Wright puts it, the “whole life” of the believer? We will take this subject up in a forthcoming article.

Dr. Cornel Venema is the President of Mid-America Reformed Seminary where he also teaches Doctrinal Studies. Dr. Venema is a contributing editor to The Outlook.