The “Righteousness of God” in Romans
To assess the validity of the new perspective’s understanding of the language of the “righteousness of God” and “justification” is not an easy task. A full assessment would require a series of studies of the use of this language in the Old Testament, in Second Temple Judaism, and in all of the writings of the apostle Paul.1 However, the most important basis for this assessment remains the Pauline epistles themselves. Do Paul’s letters, especially Romans and Galatians, support the claims of the new perspective regarding this language? For our purpose, a consideration of the use of this language in the epistles of Paul will have to suffice.
In order to achieve this purpose, we will begin with a treatment of the language of the “righteousness of God,” particularly as it is used in Romans.2 Then we will consider the related issue of the use of the language of “justification” in Paul’s writings.
The book of Romans is a particularly important source for understanding Paul’s use of the expression, “the righteousness of God.” Though similar expressions are used in his other epistles, this epistle is the only one to use the expression on several occasions (Romans 1:17; 3:5, 21, 22, 25, 26; 10:3; eight times in all). Though it is used on one other occasion in Paul’s epistles (II Corinthians 5:21), its prominence in the book of Romans is clearly evident. Indeed, this expression is used in two places (Romans 1:17; 3:21–26) that are generally acknowledged to be thematic passages, which set forth comprehensively the primary theme of the book of Romans. For this reason, the use of the expression in Romans seems to be rather decisive in terms of interpreting Paul’s understanding.
The first instance of the use of the expression, “the righteousness of God,” occurs in Romans 1:16–17, a passage generally viewed as a thematic statement of the teaching of the epistle as a whole. In this passage, the apostle Paul affirms his unashamed commitment to the gospel, in which the righteousness of God is revealed.
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”
Though this passage makes clear that Paul regarded “the righteousness of God,” which reveals the saving power of the gospel and is received by faith, to be a central theme of his preaching, the passage itself does not explain what precisely he means by this language. To understand this expression, it is necessary to go elsewhere, either to the presumed Old Testament and Judaistic background to this language or to its use elsewhere in the epistle to the Romans. Since the background to Paul’s use of this language is somewhat uncertain, the way he speaks of “righteousness” elsewhere in the epistle is of first importance.
Among those who appeal to the presumed Old Testament background to this language, some point to the use of the language of “God’s righteousness” as a way of expressing His covenant faithfulness. Writers of the new perspective, including N. T. Wright, take this approach.3 In a number of places in the Old Testament, the righteousness of God or the covenant Lord refers to the basis or motive of God’s actions in saving His people. In these passages, the language of righteousness occurs in the context of actions performed in accordance with covenant obligations and commitments.
Hence, when God’s righteousness is described, it is often expressed in terms of His fidelity to His people and reliability in securing the promises made to them. The righteousness of God is, in this respect, relational or covenantal terminology. One example of this kind of passage is Psalm 31:1, “In you, O Lord, I take refuge; let me never be put to shame; in your righteousness deliver me!” Another example would be Exodus 15:13, “You have led in your steadfast love [Septuagint reads “righteousness”] the people whom you have redeemed; you have guided them by your strength to your holy abode.” In these passages where God’s righteousness seems to be equivalent to his covenant faithfulness, a variety of terms are used to express the way God is faithful to his people in securing their salvation.4 If this is the specific background to Paul’s language in Romans 1:17, we could paraphrase his language to read something like, “the gospel reveals the faithfulness of the covenant Lord to His promises to His people.”
In addition to this possible Old Testament background to Paul’s use of the language of the “righteousness of God” in Romans 1:17, there is another, closely related Old Testament usage that may be behind Paul’s language.5 Often, Old Testament references to God’s righteousness are used as equivalents for His saving action on behalf of His people. When God intervenes on behalf of His people in order to save them, His righteousness is revealed. Psalm 51:14 is a example of this use of the language of righteousness: “Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness.” Perhaps an even more clear example is Isaiah 46:13: “I will bring near my righteousness; it is not far off, and my salvation will not delay.” In this prophetic declaration, the coming-near of the Lord’s righteousness is parallel to the swift coming of salvation for His people. Examples of this kind of identification of the righteousness of God with His saving activity on behalf of His people are not difficult to find in the Old Testament (e.g. Psalms 22:31; 35:28; 40:10; 69:27; 71:15, 16, 19, 24; 88:12; 98:2; 119:123; Micah 6:5; 7:9; Isaiah 51:5, 6, 8).
Since the covenant faithfulness of the Lord is especially revealed in His saving acts on behalf of His people, it is not difficult to combine this use of the language of God’s righteousness with the first. In both instances, the righteousness of God is language that functions within the context of God’s covenant relationship with His people. When the righteousness of God is revealed, God is witnessed to be One who faithfully and reliably acts to secure His people’s well-being.6
If either one or the other, or some combination, of these uses of the language of the righteousness of God lies behind Paul’s statement in Romans 1:17, it would seem that this passage confirms the view of new perspective writers. The righteousness of God does not have to do with something God gives to believers, which enables them to enjoy a relationship or status of favor with Him in spite of their sinfulness. Rather, the righteousness of God is God’s demonstration of His covenant-keeping character, and of His accomplishments that secure the redemption of His people.
Before drawing this conclusion too hastily, however, we need to consider two further lines of evidence, one from the Old Testament, the other from the book of Romans. First, in the Old Testament use of the language of righteousness, there is also a strongly forensic or legal emphasis that includes the idea of God’s righteousness in granting to His people a righteous status and, at the same time, condemning their enemies or adversaries. This use fits well with the Reformation view that the righteousness of God in Romans 1:17 is a right standing or status that God freely grants to His people. And second, if we consider the close connection Paul draws between the righteousness of God and faith in this passage (“the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith”), an important clue to the meaning of this language may be found in Paul’s treatment of the connection between righteousness and faith elsewhere in the book of Romans.
An examination of the use of the language of the righteousness of God in the Old Testament will show that it often occurs in settings that are thoroughly judicial. When God acts righteously, He does more than act in accord with a general kind of covenant faithfulness or saving intention. He rules and orders the affairs of His creation, and of His human image-bearers particularly, in a way that is right and that accords with his own righteous character. Thus, it is in righteousness that God punishes the wicked and secures the salvation of the righteous. In Psalm 98, for example, the revelation of God’s righteousness to the nations involves not only God’s acts of faithfulness in bringing His people salvation, but also His righteous judgments upon His enemies. The salvation that the righteousness of God brings includes the coming of the Lord in order to judge the nations. God’s righteousness is, therefore, an expression of His kingly and judicial dominion over the creation and all its creatures. Because God is righteous in this sense, He rules and administers the circumstances of His creatures in a way that is just. For this reason, the language of “ruling and judging” are often intimately linked with God’s righteousness (e.g. Psalm 72:1–3; II Samuel 8:15; 1 Kings 10:9; Jeremiah 22:3; Proverbs 31:8–9).7 The righteousness of God involves, for this reason, more than a simple restoration of a proper relationship between God and His people. In His righteousness, God maintains order and justice; He simultaneously vindicates His people, and brings retribution upon their enemies (Psalm 143:1–3; Jeremiah 22:3). Summarizing this use of the language of God’s righteousness, Mark Seifrid observes that [t]he concept of ‘God’s righteousness’ in the Hebrew Scriptures cannot be reduced to the meaning ‘salvation’ or the like, since it always functions within the context of a legal dispute or contention. When God works salvation for his people, he establishes justice for them (and for himself) over against their enemies and his. Saving righteousness and wrath parallel one another, since they are different aspects of the same event. Correspondingly, along with the references to a ‘saving righteousness’ of God, there are a number of passages in which punitive or retributive conceptions are associated with the ‘righteousness of God.’8
The significance of this pervasively forensic or judicial use of the language of God’s righteousness should be apparent. The righteousness of God cannot simply be identified with something like God’s faithfulness to His promises, or His saving acts to secure the redemption of His people. The language of the righteousness of God indicates that God’s faithfulness and saving action are demonstrated in His judgments, which include the vindication of the righteous and the punishment of the wicked.
Integral to God’s righteousness are His actions as just Ruler and Judge over the nations. Thus, the administration of God’s justice occurs in a legal framework, which includes as an integral component the element of a legal contention or dispute. When God’s covenant word and law are violated, God’s righteousness is expressed in retributive justice (e.g. Isaiah 5:16; 10:22). God’s righteousness secures the salvation of his people, but it also brings judgment upon the wicked (Psalms 7:17; 9:4, 8; 50:4-6; 97:2). Thus, Psalm 119 can speak on five occasions of “the judgments of your [God’s] righteousness” (vv. 7, 62, 106, 160, 164), each of which refers to God’s condemnation of the wicked. Within this judicial or forensic framework, the righteousness of God is intimately linked to God’s acts of judgment, which include, respectively, the acquittal of His people and the condemnation of the wicked.9
Another important clue to the meaning of the “righteousness of God” in this text is the phrase “from faith to faith.” This phrase is further explained by Paul’s appeal to Habakkuk 2:4, “The righteous shall live by faith.” This link between righteousness and faith is a characteristic theme throughout the book of Romans. It occurs in other important passages in the epistle (3:21-22; 10:3; cf. 10:6), and in each instance faith is the appropriate response to God’s righteousness. Through the response of faith, believers come to benefit from the saving power of the gospel of Jesus Christ, which reveals the righteousness of God.
Consistent with the more general use of the term “righteousness” in Romans, these passages indicate that righteousness is something that God grants or communicates to believers, and that it involves the restoration of believers to favorwith Him. In Romans 5:17, for example, the “righteousness” that acquits believers of condemnation and death is God’s “gift” to them (cf. Philippians. 3:9). Similarly, in Romans 10:3-6, Paul draws a close parallel between the “righteousness of God” and the “righteousness based on faith.” Though we will have occasion in what follows to deal more directly with the issue of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to believers, these passages illustrate that the righteousness of God is not simply God’s own character as One who is faithful to His promises. The righteousness of God is also something that can be granted or given to those who respond appropriately to its revelation, that is, to those who receive this righteousness by faith.
If we put these lines of evidence together, the outcome is rather strikingly similar to the Reformation’s view of God’s righteousness. Though the righteousness of God undoubtedly refers to His faithfulness to His covenant promise in saving His people, the special character of God’s righteousness is expressed in His acts of judgment, which secure the acquittal of His people and the condemnation of the wicked. Against the background of the Old Testament idea of God’s righteousness, the apostle Paul is affirming that the gospel of Jesus Christ reveals God’s judicial action in securing the righteous status of His people before Him. What is remarkable about the gospel of God’s righteousness in Christ is that God has, in the person and work of His Son, entered into judgment on behalf of the ungodly. By virtue of the work of Christ, God has obtained righteousness for all who believe in Him. All who receive the free gift of right standing with God on the basis of the work of Christ, are beneficiaries of God’s righteousness. They are freed from condemnation and granted right standing with God, the Judge.10 God’s righteousness reveals His covenant faithfulness to secure His people’s salvation, to be sure. But it especially reveals God’s powerful intervention in His own court to grant a righteous status to believers on the basis of the work of Christ.
1. For a good brief summary of the debate regarding this language, see Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), pp. 63–90.
2. In one important respect, my consideration of this language at this point is incomplete. In a subsequent article, I wish to consider directly the question of the legitimacy of the doctrine of an “imputation” of the righteousness of Christ to believers. If Paul teaches such a doctrine, as I shall argue he does, then that has direct bearing on the question of the meaning of the language of the “righteousness of God.”
3. Cf. e.g. N. T. Wright, The Letter to the Romans, vol. 10 of The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2002), pp. 393–405; Sam K. Williams, “The ‘Righteousness of God’ in Romans,” Journal of Biblical Literature 99 (1980), pp. 241–90; James D. G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), pp. 340-6; and Manfred T. Barauch, “Perspectives on ‘God’s righteousness’ in recent German Discussion,” in Paul and Palestinian Judaism by E. P. Sanders (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1977), pp. 523–42.
4. Cf. Isa. 63:7 (parallel with “lovingkindness”); Isa. 38:19 (“covenant favor”); Ps. 36:6 (“truthfulness”); Ps. 88:12 (“mercy”); and Ps. 145:7 (“goodness”). See Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, p. 82, for a more extensive list of texts and discussion of this use of the language of God’s righteousness in the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament.
5. Cf. James D. G. Dunn, Romans 1–8, vol. 38 of Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1988), pp. 36–49.
6. It should be noted that, contrary to the suggestion among new perspective authors that this feature of the meaning of the “righteousness of God was largely absent among the Reformers, Calvin was well aware of this usage. Cf. John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979 [reprint of Calvin Translation Society edition, 1843]), p. 96: (on Ps. 71:16) “”The Righteousness of God, as we have just now observed, does not here denote that free gift by which he reconciles men to himself, or by which he regenerates them to newness of life; but his faithfulness in keeping his promises, by which he means to show that he is righteous, upright, and true toward his servants.”
7. See Mark A. Seifrid, Christ, our Righteousness (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 2000), p. 40.
8. Christ, our Righteousness, p. 43. Old Testament texts that speak of God’s righteousness in retribution against the wicked include: Nehemiah 9:33; Deueronomy 32:4–5; II Chronicles 12:6; Psalms. 7:10, 12; 11:5–7; 50:6; Isaiah 1:27; 5:16; 10:22; Lamentations 1:18; Daniel 9:7, 14, 16. Thus, Wright’s comment that this meaning is a “Latin irrelevance” is at best overstated, but likely incorrect (see fn 5).
9. This emphasis provides an Old Testament background to Paul’s description in Romans 1:18ff. of how the wrath of God is being revealed against all the “unrighteousness and ungodliness of men.”
10. Cf. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, p. 110: “Romans is often regarded as an exposition of judicial, or law-court, theology. But that is a mistake. The law court forms a vital metaphor at a key stage of the argument. But at the heart of Romans we find a theology of love.” If our analysis is correct, then this statement of Wright’s is seriously misleading at two points. Judicial theology is not merely metaphorical; it expresses the reality of God’s own nature as one who is righteous and who acts accordingly. Furthermore, Wright’s subordination of God’s righteousness to his loveinappropriately plays God’s attributes off against each other. It would be more proper to say that, just as God is loving, so he is righteous.
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.