The following material is excerpted from the excellent discussion in K. I. Onesti and M. T. Brauch, “Righteousness, Righteousness of God,” in Gerald Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid, eds., Dictionary of Paul and His Letters: A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship (1993), pp. 827-837. The material below under section 3 The History of Interpretation is especially worthwhile. If the reader lacks time to read the entire 10 or so pages, section 3 at the very least should not be missed.
“In the Pauline corpus the teaching about the righteousness of God and the related doctrine of the justification of the sinner hold an important place. Though the centrality of these concepts in Pauline thought has in recent times been questioned (Schweitzer, Fitzmyer, Sanders; cf. DPL “Center”; “Justification”; “Paul and His Interpreters”), they have in the past been the object of vigorous discussion, especially since these terms have been widely affirmed as a key to Paul’s understanding of salvation. But while there has been broad scholarly consensus about the significance of these terms in Paul’s thought, there has not been agreement as to the precise meaning these terms have in Paul’s usage.
1. Terminology, Background and Issues
2. Righteousness in Paul
3. History of Interpretation
4. God’s Righteousness as Relation-Restoring Love
1. Terminology, Background and Issues.
The voluminous discussion has been focused largely on two questions: (1) how is the genitive construction dikaiosyne theou (“righteousness of God”) to be interpreted, and (2) what does it mean in the overall context of Paul’s thought? Is it to be understood in the so-called objective sense (somewhat straining the grammatical definition of objective genitive but frequently used by commentators to label this sense), that is, the righteousness which is valid before God? Or is it to be interpreted as a subjective genitive, referring either to God’s own righteousness, describing his being (he is righteous) or God’s action (God acts justly)? Further, is righteousness, or God’s righteousness through Christ, received by impartation or imputation? Does this righteousness give juridical standing, a new status, or a new nature? And from the human side, is the righteousness of God experienced as ethical power, a new relationship with God, or a change of lordship? Is Paul using these terms within the context of Greco-Roman jurisprudence, where righteousness means “justice” or “righteous judgment” (in a legal sense), or is he using them in light of OT meanings?
1.1. Philological Concerns. In the interpretation of the theme righteousness of God, the problem begins when one considers the meaning of words. Words neither exist by themselves without a context, nor are texts written as free-floating packages of meaning without a historical basis or a place in their cultural milieu. The language Paul used was Greek, but as a Jew he participated in a culture that was Hebrew as well as Greco-Roman. Since Paul quotes passages of the OT throughout his letters, one must understand Paul as writing within the tradition of the Hebrew Bible. By reason of Paul’s frequent use of the Septuagint version of the Hebrew Bible, the same concepts in the LXX should be given due consideration. In English translation the words righteousness or justification are used to translate the Greek dikaiosyne. These words may or may not connote the same meaning as the Greek term. These are just some of the linguistic issues that lie at the foundation of interpretation. If one couples the linguistic possibilities with various theological presuppositions, the interpretive options increase (see Hermeneutics/Interpreting Paul).
188.8.131.52. Hebrew. G. Quell provides an excellent introduction to the issues that are at the basis of the Hebrew understanding of righteousness. The concept of righteousness in the Hebrew Bible emphasizes the relational aspect of God and humanity in the context of a covenant. Among the various Hebrew word groups associated with righteousness, sedeq (“straightness,” “justness,” “rightness”) and sedaqa (“justice,” “straightness,” “honesty”) suggest a norm. In the LXX dikaiosyne (“righteousness”) is used 81 times for sedeq, 134 times for sedaqa and six times it renders freely the adjective saddîq (“just,” “righteous,” “honest”). There are eight instances in which dikaiosyne (“righteousness”) renders hesed (“loving-kindness,” “mercy,” “piety,” “goodwill,” “covenant-faithfulness”; e.g., Gen 19:19). Other Hebrew words meaning “genuine,” “good,” “evenness,” “purity” and “simplicity” are occasionally translated by dikaiosyne. Dikaios (“observant of right,” “righteous,” “fair”) renders the Hebrew saddîq 189 times. In sum, of the predominant Hebrew terms the root sdq is the only one to be rendered mainly by dike (“right,” “law”) and its derivatives, especially dikaiosyne while other synonymous Hebrew terms such as hesed are not given their due when the LXX translates them by eleos (“pity,” “mercy”), which introduces an emotional element not present in the Hebrew. Dikaiosyne would have been a more accurate rendering of these words as well.
The common Hebrew word for righteousness is sedeq or its feminine form sedaqa which occurs in the OT 117 and 115 times respectively. The Hebrew meaning of justice means more than the classical Greek idea of giving to every one their due. Usually the word suggests Yahweh’s saving acts as evidence of God’s faithfulness to the covenant. For this meaning of righteousness of God, dikaiosyne is not as flexible as the Hebrew word.
In the Tannaitic literature of rabbinic Judaism there was a theological and semantic shift restricting sedeq and sedaqa to proper behavior, withsedaqa being used primarily for almsgiving (Przybylski, 75). God’s righteousness was increasingly understood as God’s willingness to protect and provide for the poor. This association was already present within the Hebrew Bible; for example: “They have distributed freely, they have given to the poor; their righteousness endures forever” (Ps 112:9).
184.108.40.206. Greek. The richness of the Hebrew usage is generally well reproduced in the LXX (Quell). Of the relatively few instances in which sedeq, sedaqa and saddîq are not translated by dikai- words, eleemosyne and eleos (“alms,” “mercy”) are employed for sedaqa (cf. LXX Is 1:27; Ziesler, 59–60). Similar evidence of this is found in the NT at Matthew 6:1, where the variant readings of later MSS read eleemosynen for dikaiosyne (see Przybylski, 78).
220.127.116.11. Latin. In the Western Roman Empire, the Old Latin versions of the NT displaced the Greek NT, and Paul was consequently understood via the Latin translation. The Old Latin and later Latin Vulgate rendered dikaiosyne by iustitia (“justice”). The legal connotation of this term in Roman Law was superimposed upon the word dikaiosyne which Paul had employed. The Roman legal understanding of justice was in a distributive sense: to give to each their due, the bestowal of rewards and punishments according to merit. The OT sense of righteousness as grounded in covenantal relationship was weakened, and its place was taken by the courtroom image of the sinner before God’s tribunal. Although righteousness in the OT had a legal aspect, it was that of a litigant being adjudged righteous by God before their enemies. The biblical image of the covenant between God and humanity faded into the background, while the Latin context called to mind stark legal realities of the court. The shift in language from Hebrew to Greek to Latin resulted in an alteration in theological content as the words that were employed either overlaid the earlier meaning or signified something new in the receptor language.
18.104.22.168. English. Modern English partakes of a double portion of Indo-European languages: a Germanic base from Anglo-Saxon as well as Latinate words from the Norman Conquest. Because of this characteristic of English, one can say either “to be righteous” (from the Anglo-Saxon verb rightwisen meaning “to make right, to rightwise”), or “to be justified” (a verbal form derived from ius, iuris and iustitia meaning “to be declared just”). The semantic ranges of the two are not identical.
22.214.171.124. Hebrew. An essential component of Israel’s religious experience was that Yahweh was not only Lord of Law but also the one who was faithful to it. God was faithful to the covenant. God’s righteousness was shown by saving actions in accordance with this covenant relationship. A person was righteous by acting properly in regard to the covenant relationship with Yahweh. One’s relationship with others reflected the relational aspect of the covenant with Yahweh. Righteousness was understood in terms of being in proper relation to the covenant rather than in terms of “right” or ethical conduct as determined by some abstract standard. When Judah says of Tamar, “She is more righteous than I,” he is referring to her being righteous in her pursuit of covenantal, familial responsibility (Gen 38:26).
126.96.36.199. Greco-Roman. The gods of the Greco-Roman pantheon were thought to be subject to forces beyond their control (see Religions). This understanding later degenerated into a sort of inexorable fate to which even the gods were subject (see Worship). The Hellenistic theory of universal law meant that both the gods and humanity had to comply with these overarching norms in order to be righteous. Giving others their due was the basis of righteousness; one acted in accordance with a norm (Plato). In Greek thought, righteousness was a virtue. According to Aristotle, righteousness was the correct functioning of all the virtues. In Roman Civil Law, justice (iustitia) was done when one acted toward another in accordance with one’s respective status established by tradition and the Roman legal corpus.
1.2. OT Background. While the OT uses righteousness terminology in numerous contexts involving all areas of life, the touchstone of righteousness is Israel’s covenantal relationship with Yahweh. It is based on the standard of God’s covenant faithfulness. Righteousness is not primarily an ethical quality; rather it characterizes the character or action of God who deals rightly within a covenant relationship and who established how others are to act within that relationship. “Shall not the judge of all the earth do what is right?” (Gen 18:25). The covenant faithfulness of God, the righteousness of God, is shown by Yahweh’s saving acts. This salvation is variously experienced as Israel’s victory over enemies, or personal vindication of one’s innocence before God in the presence of one’s enemies, and it involves both soteriological and forensic elements (see Triumph).
In the classical prophets of the eighth century, there is a greater emphasis on the juridical and ethical views of sedeq Amos, on behalf of the poor, associates righteousness with doing justice (misÎpaœt√ Amos 5:7, 24; 6:12). Corrupt judges who do not judge rightly do not reflect the righteousness of the covenant relationship. Their oppression of the poor is the antithesis of righteousness. Hosea, emphasizing divine love, links righteousness with loving-kindness and mercy as well as justice (Hos 2:19; 10:12). Micah refers only to God’s righteousness as being his faithfulness to act within the covenant to save Israel from her enemies and to vindicate the penitent (Mic 6:5; 7:9). Isaiah associates the righteousness of the people and God’s righteousness with just decisions (Is 1:26; 16:5; 26:9). God’s faithfulness to deliver Israel is seen in the Servant of the Lord and Cyrus as God’s chosen leaders/deliverers (Is 42:6; 45:8, 13, 19). Covenant relationship is the basis of righteousness (Is 51:1). God promises to bring righteousness, which is often understood as deliverance or vindication (Is 51:5, 8; 62:1, 2). In sum, the covenant understanding of righteousness in the classical prophets relates persons to the living God and his covenantal purposes in restoring order to his creation, not to an abstract norm of conduct (see Scullion).
1.3. Intertestamental Literature.
1.3.1. LXX. The Hellenistic idea of righteousness as a virtue, a meeting of the norm, was replaced with the idea of meeting God’s claim in this covenant relationship (Schrenk). Thus the semantic range for dikaios in LXX Greek was enlarged due to the influence of the Hebrew background. In fourteen instances the Hebrew word sedaqa which could have been translated by dikaiosyne, was rendered by eleemosyne (meaning “pity,” “mercy”; e.g., Is 1:27; 59:16; Ps 34 : 24). This added emotional element also limited the semantic value of dikaiosyne in later Judaism to almsgiving.
1.3.2. Apocrypha/Deuterocanon. In addition to the understanding of righteousness in the Hellenistic manner as personal virtue, there are Stoic virtues “associated” with righteousness: integrity, courage, constancy, even in the midst of personal woe, and self-control. In the apocryphal works there is an increasing interest in good works and the merits of the righteous. Tobit’s farewell advice to his son Tobias portrays charity (eleemosyne) as bringing safety rather than fulfilling the prayers of the poor: “For charity delivers from death and keeps you from entering the darkness” (Tob 4:10). In Tobit the focus is on the individual rather than on the community. We further find an emphasis on the relation between suffering and righteousness (Wis 3:1–5). The belief that the merits of some will assist others to gain righteousness appears in the Maccabean literature (2 Macc 12:38–45).
1.3.3. Pseudepigrapha. In the apocalyptic literature such as the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, the Book of Enoch and Jubilees, the idea is prominent that the righteousness of God will characterize the end time (e.g., T. Dan 5:7–13). In this literature God not only is faithful to the covenant, but beyond the present difficulty God will vindicate the covenant people in the eschatological future.
Characteristic of apocalyptic is an added sense of the distinction between the righteous and the unrighteous. And righteousness is seen as an eschatological reality in that Yahweh will vindicate the righteous (1 Enoch 95:7). The righteousness of God will be shown in the vindication of the persecuted righteous. Thus there is a coupling of the motif of the suffering righteous with the traditional Hebrew understanding of God as the one who vindicates (Ps 26; 31:14–18).
1.3.4. Qumran. In the documents from Qumran we find references to God’s righteousness providing salvation and forgiveness. “And when I stumble, the mercies of God are always my salvation. When I stagger because of the evil of my flesh, my justification is in the righteousness of God which exists forever” (1QS 11:12). In the Thanksgiving Psalm, the righteousness of God shows God’s faithfulness to the community: “You forgive the unjust and purify people from guilt by your righteousness” (sedaqa 1QH 4:37). In The War of the Children of Light, Yahweh is able to bring them to the joys of future vindication through the righteousness of God (1QM 18:8). “Essentially it means the covenantal faithfulness of God which is being revealed especially in the eschatological warfare for the rule of God’s justice” (Kuyper).
2. Righteousness in Paul.
The noun “righteousness” (dikaiosyne), its related adjective “righteous” (dikaios), and the verb “to justify,” “to pronounce/treat as righteous” or “put right” (dikaioo) are found in the Pauline writings over 100 times. The sheer volume of occurrences in their various usages and meanings indicates the central place they had in the theology of the apostle.
We will present the meaning of Paul’s language of righteousness / justification in its various contexts, bearing in mind that not every instance of “the righteousness of God” carries the same meaning. We will then proceed to explain these terms within the history of interpretation, the currents of contemporary scholarship, and summarize our own conclusions regarding this central Pauline affirmation.
2.1. Dikaiosyne. Paul uses this word both in relationship to God and to human beings. In the latter case its ultimate origin is without exception the character and/or action of God. The term is used in various contexts or associations.
2.1.1. Righteousness Declared. A distinctive usage is found where Paul states that righteousness in believers is the result of a word, or declaration, of God. In Romans 4, where Paul interprets Abraham’s relationship with God as a scriptural foundation for his understanding of believers’ “justification by faith” (explained in Rom 1–3), righteousness is said to be “reckoned to” (RSV) or “credited to” (NIV) Abraham by God on the basis of Abraham’s believing/trusting in God (Rom 4:3, 5, 6, 9, 11, 22), rather than on the basis of his works. In Galatians 3:6 Abraham’s faith in God is “reckoned to him as righteousness.” Here, Abraham’s trusting submission to God is evaluated as “righteousness.”
2.1.2. Righteousness as Gift. Closely related are those usages where righteousness is stated to be a gift of God reigning in the believer (Rom 5:17, 21). Here it is seen as a new reality which dominates or directs the life in Christ (cf. Rom 8:10). According to Galatians 2:21, this righteousness results from God’s grace, for if it were possible to achieve it via obedience to the Law, Christ’s death would have been in vain. In Galatians 3:21 righteousness (in us, or as our new situation “in Christ”) is equated with life, which the Law is powerless to produce.
2.1.3. Righteousness of Faith. Righteousness, based on God’s word and work in Christ, a gift of God’s grace, comes to believers in the context and through the instrumentality of faith. Where righteousness and faith are related by Paul, it is almost always contrasted with a legalistic, or Law-oriented, righteousness. Thus in Romans 4:11, 13–14 the “righteousness of faith” is said to be based neither on circumcision nor on the deeds of the Law. In Romans 9:30–32; 10:4–6, 10 the righteousness that comes by faith is contrasted with that which is based on the Law and the doing of the works of the Law. Only the former leads to life, to salvation. Philippians 3:9 speaks of the righteousness that results from faith in Jesus, rather than “my own righteousness” based on Law. This righteousness by faith is of course the righteousness from God, “which depends on faith.” This conviction is affirmed by Paul in contrast to his own former experience where, on the basis of Law-based righteousness, he judged himself as “blameless” (Phil 3:6). Such moral perfectionism as that which Paul had by pedigree and personal endeavor does not, however, bring one into right relationship with God. According to Titus 3:5 believers are saved, not because of deeds done in righteousness (here righteousness means “legal obedience”), but by God’s merciful, atoning work in Christ.
2.1.4. Righteousness of Obedience. A final context is the use of righteousness in an ethical sense, characterizing the life of obedience of those who have been justified. Romans 6:13, 18, 19, 20 contrast lives/bodies as instruments or slaves of wickedness with lives yielded to God as instruments of righteousness. What is clearly in view here is the expected result of life lived in relationship with Christ, right living that is in keeping with God’s purposes. Righteousness (together with peace and joy) is that which marks the believer’s relationship with others (rather than judging or offending others) and is the result of God’s reign.
This view of righteousness is expanded in a number of Pauline passages. In 2 Corinthians 6:7, 14 it is given as a mark of the Christian life (acting rightly, justly, morally), in contrast with evil, falsehood, inequality (see Ethics). Righteousness is that quality of life which bears fruit in generous giving (2 Cor 9:10) or in purity and blamelessness (Phil 1:11). In Ephesians 4:24 righteousness is paired with holiness as resembling God, in contrast to corrupt, deceitful living. It is one of the marks of those who are “children of light” in distinction from those who perform “unfruitful works of darkness” (Eph 5:9). In the Pastorals there are the exhortations to “aim at righteousness” (1 Tim 6:11; 2 Tim 2:22) and to receive “training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16); the context is clearly that of moral, ethical living. Finally, on the basis of faithful service, “the crown of righteousness” is granted at the eschatological judgment by God, “the righteous judge” (2 Tim 4:8).
2.2. Dikaios. The adjective dikaios (“upright,” “just,” “righteous”) is ascribed to both human beings and to God. When applied to persons, it defines them as those whose lives are in keeping with God’s purposes (Eph 6:1); who live before him in faithfulness (Rom 1:17; Gal 3:11); who are obedient to God’s commands (Rom 2:13; 3:10; 1 Tim 1:9); live good, upright, virtuous lives (Rom 5:7; Phil 4:8; Tit 1:8); and exercise fairness and justice (Col 4:1).
Several times God is defined as “righteous” in his nature and action as the just one, the one who can be counted on to mete out justice and do what is right (Rom 3:26; 2 Thess 1:5–6; 2 Tim 4:8). Related to this is the conviction that God’s Law is “holy, righteous and good” (Rom 7:12).
Paul’s conviction (Rom 5:19) that Christ’s obedience to God (in contrast to Adam’s disobedience) will result in “many being made righteous” must be understood within the context of God’s Law, which reveals the righteous purposes of God. In terms of God’s will for humanity, the goal of God’s work in Christ is to transform humans into those who are righteous, whose lives are aligned with God’s purposes, and who, therefore, are in conformity with the image of Christ (2 Cor 3:18).
2.3. Dikaioo. The verbal form of the noun righteousness, (dikaioo “to justify” RSV, NIV, NEB; “to put right” TEV) is used almost always to describe that divine action which affects the sinner in such a way that the relation with God is altered or transformed (either ontologically, as a change in nature; or positionally, resulting from a judicial act; or relationally, as one who was alienated and is now reconciled [see 3 below]). Everywhere this action of God, emerging from his nature as the righteous one, is seen as an act of grace and takes place in the context of the exercise of faith, or trust or believing in Jesus.
Romans 3:21–31 is the most thorough statement of this distinctive Pauline theme. Its validity is grounded by Paul in the story of Abraham (Rom 4). Further reflection is given to it in such central theological texts as Romans 5:1, 9 and Galatians 2:17; 3:8, 24. The negative formulation of this truth is in the contrasting affirmation that no one is justified “by the Law.” In Romans 3:20; 4:2 and Galatians 2:16; 3:11 Paul states categorically the impossibility of receiving this justifying action of God by means of successfully keeping the requirements of the Law.
There are several texts where this action of God is addressed not to the sinner but to those who are already “justified.” The setting for this action is always eschatological judgment (Rom 2:13; 8:33; Gal 5:4–5). The issue in these instances is not salvation (either by works or by faith). Rather, those who have been justified (by grace through faith) appear before “the judgment seat of Christ” (2 Cor 5:10) where “the empirical reality of one’s life before God as ‘works’ will be revealed and evaluated” (Cosgrove, 660; see Judgment; Rewards.
2.4. Dikaiosyne Theou. The concept of God’s righteousness, its nature, function and result, is central to Paul’s teaching on the justification of the sinner. The genitive construction dikaiosyne theou “righteousness of God” (Rom 1:17; 3:5, 21, 22; 10:3; 2 Cor 5:21), or dikaiosyne autou “his righteousness” (Rom 3:25, 26), or he ek theou dikaiosyne “righteousness from God” (Phil 3:9) are found ten times. Most of these are located in Romans, Paul’s fullest discourse on God’s redemptive work in Christ.
Romans 1:16–17 is foundational for understanding the meaning of this concept. For Paul the gospel —the event of the life, death and resurrection of Christ—is the historical manifestation of divine redemptive power. In that gospel “God’s righteousness is revealed.” Here God’s righteousness and the gospel (God’s saving work in Christ) are virtually synonymous (with the revelation of the saving righteousness of God being contrasted with the revelation of the wrath of God in Rom 1:18). Faith responds to God’s act of righteousness and life results.
In contrast to human faithlessness and wickedness (Rom 3:3–5), God remains faithful, and in that faithfulness his righteousness is manifested. This faithfulness (or righteousness) is given its historical particularity (according to Paul’s sustained presentation in Rom 3:21–31) in the sacrificial atonement of Christ’s death (Rom 3:24–25). It is explicitly stated that in this redemptive act God’s righteousness has been manifested (Rom 3:21, 25, 26; see Death of Christ).
In all three passages in Romans (Rom 1; 3; 10), as well as in Philippians 3:9, the apprehension of God’s righteousness and of its coming into the sphere of human experience is related to faith in Jesus and understood as a gift of God’s grace. In addition, all the texts explicitly include a rejection of “works of the Law” as a valid instrument for attaining or receiving this righteousness of, or from, God.
The use of “righteousness of God” in 2 Corinthians 5:21 is in a context which does not share all the elements of those in Romans and Philippians. References to the instrumentality of faith or works are absent here. The context is the new creation brought into being through God’s work in Christ (2 Cor 5:17). This new creation consists of those who have been reconciled to God (2 Cor 5:18–19) and who at the same time become instruments of that reconciling work within the yet-existing old creation (2 Cor 5:19–20; see Center; Peace, Reconciliation. Paul climaxes this passage with the affirmation that the purpose of Christ’s identification with us in our sin-bound existence (2 Cor 5:21a) is so that we, in relationship with Christ, “might become God’s righteousness” (2 Cor 5:21b). It is highly significant for the overall understanding of this term that Paul does not say that we in Christ “might become righteous” or “might receive God’s righteousness,” but rather “that we might become God’s righteousness” (see 4 below).
3. History of Interpretation.
A. E. McGrath’s study of the history of the doctrine of justification is instructive for discerning some of the reasons why the West has understood Paul’s theology of God’s saving action in Christ largely in terms of justification rather than relying on the varied richness of the biblical understanding of salvation in Christ. Several complex reasons for this include the interest in Paul evidenced by the rise in Pauline scholarship during the theological renaissance of the twelfth century, especially the use of Pauline commentaries as vehicles of theological speculation. Coupled with this, the Western church had a high regard for classical jurisprudence, which made possible the semantic relationship between iustitia (justice) and iustificatio (justification), and allowed theologians of High Scholasticism to find in the cognate concept of justification a means of rationalizing the divine dispensation toward humankind in terms of justice. Luther interpreted the scholastics as understanding the righteousness of God as that by which God punishes sinners (WA 54.185.18–20). Therefore, Luther could not see how the gospel revealing the righteousness of God could be “good news.” Luther’s “discovery” of the free imparting of the righteousness of God to believers is instructive in explaining why the Reformation came to be perceived as inextricably linked with the doctrine of justification. The Roman Catholic desire to establish a Catholic consensus on this issue resulted in the discussion at the Council of Trent of the reconciliation of humanity to God under the aegis of the doctrine of justification.
3.1. Patristic-Medieval: East. In the East Paul’s concept of the righteousness of God and the justification of the sinner was not a prominent means for understanding God’s saving acts in Jesus Christ. J. Reumann notes that the apostolic fathers maintain the biblical view of righteousness as what God does, but they show a greater interest in the human response. Rather than giving importance to the righteousness of God and justification, Eastern Christianity emphasized the divine economy and the condescension of the Son, which led to human participation in the divine nature understood as deification (rather than justification). McGrath sees the theological differences between East and West as due to their different understandings of the work of the Holy Spirit: the West tended to subordinate the work of the Holy Spirit to the concept of grace interposed between God and humanity; the Eastern church holds to the immediacy of the divine and one’s direct encounter with the Holy Spirit expressed as deification. With this emphasis it is natural that the Eastern Church did not evidence the Western commitment to justification as the fundamental soteriological metaphor.
3.2. Patristic-Medieval: West. In the Latin fathers and Origen, the righteousness of God is understood as distributive justice: God gives to all their due, rewarding the good and punishing the wicked. The Reformers turned to Augustine for his views on the righteousness of God.
3.2.1. Augustine. Augustine thought the righteousness of God was not the righteousness characterizing God’s nature, but rather that by which God justifies sinners. His idea of faith involved an intellectual aspect: to believe is to affirm in thought. Augustine coupled faith with love (Augustine Serm. 90.6; 93.5; Ep. 183.1.3). The love of God is the theme dominating his view of justification, whereas the Reformers would coin the slogan sola fide (“by faith alone”) to characterize justification and their understanding of the righteousness of God. In his work On the Trinity, Augustine makes the statement that true justifying faith is accompanied by love (De Trin. 15.18.32). In his comments on 1 Corinthians 13:2 he remarks that genuine faith always works through love (recalling Gal 5:6: see Crabtree). Augustine, along with some Greek fathers, underscored the gift aspect of justification. He believed that one’s nature was changed through this gift.
3.2.2. Roman Catholicism. In the Roman tradition the righteousness of God was understood more as that which was demanded by God. The medieval understanding of the nature of justification referred not merely to the beginning of the Christian life, but to its continuation and ultimate perfection, in which the Christian is made righteous in the sight of God and the sight of others through a fundamental change in nature (McGrath). The prevailing pre-Reformation view in the West of the righteousness of God was that of a distributive justice whereby God judges justly according to God’s holiness. A common theological position was that righteousness of God was a subjective genitive, God’s holiness being the norm by which all would be judged. Luther’s personal struggle with the inexorable righteousness of God resulted in an understanding of the righteousness of God that was deeper than his tradition had grasped. In Catholic thought, justification was not considered something in the present as much as a process leading to the ultimate future judgment.
3.3. The Reformation. Generally the Reformers and their theological heirs have interpreted the righteousness of God as a so-called objective genitive (see 1 above) in all instances in Paul’s writings, with the possible exceptions of Romans 3:5, 25, 26. The righteousness of God was understood from the viewpoint of the individual, as that righteousness which God gives to people, and on the basis of which the sinner is approved by God. The theocentric OT meaning of the righteousness of God in the sphere of covenant relationship was displaced by an anthropocentric focus. The reformers and their successors often interpreted the righteousness of God from the human aspect because they had replaced the biblical basis of covenant relationship with the Hellenistic theory of universal law which both God and humanity had to fulfill in order to be regarded as righteous. The emphasis on the individual under universal law rather than in covenant relationship contributed to the later “legal fiction” theory whereby those who believe in Jesus are justified, deemed righteous, even though they are not actually righteous. In this view faith in Jesus takes the place of actual righteousness.
3.3.1. Luther. Luther’s concern was personal and pastoral. The fine theological distinction maintained by the Roman Catholic magisterium did not “trickle down” to villages parishes. Luther interpreted the righteousness of God distinctively as a so-called objective genitive, rendering the Greek term dikaiosyne tou theou in Romans 1:17 as righteousness “which counts before God.” Luther states the righteousness of God is the cause of salvation, and thus it is not the righteousness by which God is righteous in himself but the righteousness by which we are made righteous by God. This happens through faith in the gospel. Luther points to Augustine for the sense that the righteousness of God is that by which God imparts and makes people righteous. Luther emphasized the immediacy of justification. A person is at once just and unjust: this suggests a composite view of Luther’s new understanding of the righteousness of God, in addition to the traditional understanding of the distributive justice of God.
For Luther works are the result of the righteousness given by God. Sanctification is a process that will not be consummated in this life. Luther clearly separated justification from regeneration and sanctification. This perspective gave rise to the understanding of justification as a new status before God: “Thus in ourselves we are sinners, and yet through faith we are righteous by God’s imputation. For we believe Him who promises to free us, and in the meantime we strive that sin may not rule over us but that we may withstand it until He takes it from us” (WA 56.271). In Catholic thought, God responds to those who do what they can by giving them enabling grace which then leads to saving grace. Luther broke with this tradition in that he found that God provided the preconditions for justification (see Watson).
3.3.2. Calvin. Calvin in his Commentary on Romans presents his understanding of the righteousness of God in Romans 1:17 as that which is approved before God’s tribunal. Calvin associated sanctification with justification and described sanctification in terms of being in Christ. According to Calvin, God communicates his righteousness to us. In a nearly mystical sense, through faith Jesus communicates himself to those who believe. Works have no place in the justification of sinners. Calvin refutes the notion of a fiction involved in the justification of sinners. God provides all that is necessary. He cautions not to understand righteousness as a quality; we are righteous only in so far as Christ reconciles the Father to us. Calvin, more so than Luther, emphasizes the relational aspect of the righteousness of God. Luther’s view of the righteousness of God seems to contain the aspect of acquittal. Calvin emphasizes the marvelous nature of the communication, or imparting, of God’s righteousness to us.
3.4. Post-Reformation. Just as the Western Church experienced the scholasticism of the twelfth century, Protestant Orthodoxy shifted from Calvin’s christological emphasis to other matters, such as predestination, federal theology and the perseverance of the saints. Lutheranism shifted its emphasis from justification of sinners and the righteousness of God to deal with these developments within the Reformed camp. The Pietist movement within Lutheranism was a reaction against a strictly forensic understanding of righteousness. The pastoral aspects of Pietism later influenced Lutheranism to emphasize practical aspects of righteousness, reflecting an interest in promoting personal piety.
John Wesley argued for the Pietist position in his emphasis on personal righteousness subsequent to justification. In his sermon on “The Lord Our Righteousness” he adheres to imputation but understands the Holy Spirit to have a sanctifying aspect upon the believer [imputed and imparted]. The believer’s basis of justification is the righteousness of Christ “implanted in everyone in whom God has imputed it.” He maintains there is no true faith —justifying faith —which does not have the righteousness of Christ for its object. Wesley sees faith in Jesus’ death, and hence the imputation of his righteousness, as the cause, end and middle term of salvation.
3.5. Currents of Recent Discussion. The variations within the history of interpretation reflect two basic views: (1) that God’s righteousness is a quality of God (or Christ) imparted, making the sinner righteous; (2) that God, the righteous one, declares the sinner to be righteous in a legal transaction (imputed). These dominant views have increasingly been challenged (see Paul and His Interpreters). J. Reumann contends that there is a stronger basis in Christian hymnody for these views than in the NT. For Paul does not speak of Christ’s merits or God’s righteous essence being so imputed to us. G. E. Ladd contends that forensic (declared) righteousness is real righteousness because our relationship with God is just as real as one’s subjective ethical condition. One is in fact “righteous” (defined as right relationship with God) based upon what has been done for us objectively in Christ. The ethical content follows on its heels. Ladd maintains that righteousness as acquittal and right conduct belong together.
H. Cremer (1900) launched scholarship in a new direction by pointing to the OT understanding of sedaqa (“righteousness”) as covenant faithfulness, and seeing this meaning as the subjective genitive, not in the ontological sense, but as referring to God’s saving activity as Redeemer.
Some scholars, such as R. Bultmann, attempted to combine both the objective and subjective aspects of the righteousness of God, suggesting a “genitive of the author” to describe God’s righteousness which is given to believers as the basis of one’s relationship with God. The righteousness of God is the gift which makes possible this new existence for the individual. His existential interpretation involves the kerygmatic reality of the individual: one continues to appropriate God’s “rightwising” verdict in obedient existential decision and becomes what one is declared to be. Bultmann’s inattention to OT background and to Paul’s apocalyptic understanding of history resulted in an anthropocentric and individualistic orientation of the righteousness of God.
There have been various attempts to reevaluate the meaning of the righteousness of God in Paul’s writings (see bibliographical details in Brauch). In 1954 J. Bollier, a critic of the legal fiction theory of justification, suggested that God requires a person to be righteous, to recognize God’s sovereignty and to submit to God’s Lordship. Under the old covenant as well as the new, God has graciously offered faith as the way a person may recognize God as one’s Lord and so gain God’s approval. Faith is the appropriate human response to the self- revelation of God. Faith actually is righteousness, for it is the way in which one may fulfill this obligation toward God within the covenant relationship. Thus Paul speaks of the “righteousness of faith” in Romans 4:11, 13. Bollier opted for a subjective genitive, maintaining that the righteousness of God is God’s own inherent righteousness rather than the righteousness of which God is the author and which he approves. Anticipating E. Käsemann, Bollier further posited that this righteousness of God has a transcendent as well as an immanent aspect, for one is directly affected by the manifestation of this righteousness.
E. Käsemann [advocating the subjective genitive] has had a great impact on the discussion. Although he sees the righteousness of God in Romans 3:5, 25–26 as referring to God’s character, he emphasizes that Paul’s view of the righteousness of God accents its gift-character against the backdrop of Jewish apocalypticism. “The gift itself has the character of power, salvation -creating power” (Käsemann). The gift is never a personal possession separated from the giver. In this way Käsemann captures the eschatological nature of the relationship of God with creation in a forward orientation toward the consummation of God’s saving acts in Jesus Christ. God’s faithfulness is faithfulness to the creation, not simply to the individual (cf. Bultmann). God’s sovereignty over the universe is established eschatologically in Jesus. A person within that framework experiences a change in lordship. Johannine and Pauline language now go hand in hand, since by “abiding” in Jesus, believers become what they are. The righteousness of God is God’s power in Christ reaching out to the world. Salvation is experienced in the sphere of Christ’s lordship, which is entered in response to God’s righteousness (Käsemann; on this see Way, 177–236).
The subjective genitive is also maintained by two of Käsemann’s students, C. Müller and P. Stuhlmacher. Müller (1965) agrees with Käsemann, but places his emphasis on the eschatological victory of God, the final cosmic trial at which creation submits to God (see Eschatology). God’s ultimate victory reveals his righteousness and is acknowledged by humanity. That final victory is anticipated in the present, where God’s lordship is a reality in everyday life. P. Stuhlmacher stresses the saving aspect of the righteousness of God in that the creator makes right the world on account of his creation -faithfulness, even by raising the dead. The righteousness of God is God’s creating power fostering faith and recreating the world. Stuhlmacher sees the righteousness of God as the center of Pauline theology whereby Paul shows a complete correlation between judicial and ontological ideas of righteousness. Thus justification refers to a divine creative activity, the actualization of the righteousness of God as a “Word event” which creates a new being at baptism. Stuhlmacher understands justification for Paul to mean the obligating, renewing call of the individual, by the power of God, into the realm of encounter with God which has been opened by Christ. The renewed calling culminates in service.
The Roman Catholic scholar K. Kertelge follows a similar line of thought to Stuhlmacher. The righteousness of God denotes God’s redemptive activity and not God’s gift of righteousness to us which leads to salvation. This reality consists of nothing except the new relationship between God and humanity created by God, which from the divine side is lordship and from the human side is obedience. For Paul the present and the future character of God’s eschatological redemption are essentially identical, because both have their basis in the Christ event. Righteousness is by faith, not as a possession, but as a relationship in which one acknowledges God’s claim upon one’s life.
H. Brunner understands the OT material regarding righteousness to refer to a comprehensive order corresponding to God’s will, which encompasses both nature and humanity. In Paul the theme is the change from alienation to reconciliation (2 Cor 5:17–21), from the old world to the new, from the old creation to the new. Humans are re-created by Christ: his death means his subjection to sin, namely the power of alienation from God; but it also means believers’ becoming “God’s righteousness.” They become transformed by God’s power into the people of the reestablished created order, the reconciled new world of God’s people of the new covenant. In Romans 1 Paul speaks of the will of the creator being obscured by human rejection, but the gospel has revealed God’s power for redemption. The righteousness of God is God’s redemptive saving act. God’s saving action has always been at work, as evidenced in the OT, but has now been clearly revealed in the Christ event. For those who believe in Christ, the reality and power of sin have been put aside. God’s new created order, which is the removal of the alienation of sin, has been brought into being. To be righteous or declared righteous is neither a juridical act nor an ontological transformation, but a state of being restored to right relationship with God because the alienating reality of sin has been set aside.
4. God’s Righteousness as Relation-Restoring Love.
The history of interpretation, including the recent perspectives sketched above, reveals two facets; (1) that the understanding of the righteousness of God has been largely dominated by Greek and Latin categories, where righteousness as a quality of God’s character is either given to us and makes us righteous, or is the basis for God’s judical pronouncement, declaring us righteous; (2) that the more recent discussion, in seeking to take more seriously Paul’s grounding in the OT, has found the earlier understanding to be an inadequate explication of Paul’s meaning. Particularly important has been the insistence on the OT covenantal context of the righteousness of God as an interpretive background for the Pauline formulations.
Within that OT context, and beside other meanings and nuances (Brunner), the idea of God’s righteousness appears prominently in salvation texts, where God’s redemptive action toward his covenant people is defined by this term. It is God’s righteousness which saves from enemies, from threatening situations, from the state of alienation from God. In such settings God’s righteousness is frequently defined by the terms “steadfast love” [hesed: mercy] and “faithfulness” (e.g., Is 11:5; 16:5; Ps 5:7–8; 89:13–14; 98:2–3). These relational attributes are in some contexts virtually synonymous with “righteousness” and “salvation” (e.g., Ps 85:7–13). Thus, God’s righteousness may be rendered as “saving deed” or “relation-restoring love.”
Paul’s use of righteousness of God may best be understood against the background of this particular OT concept. For Paul “unrighteousness” results from disobedience, whether of persons generally, who refuse to acknowledge God (Rom 1:28), and obey unrighteousness and disobey truth (Rom 2:8), or of God’s people who refuse to acknowledge God, and are disobedient within the covenant relationship (Rom 3:3–5; 10:21).
It is the reality of alienation, defined synonymously as “faithlessness” (Rom 3:3) and “unrighteousness” (Rom 3:5), which Paul knows to have been addressed by the revelation (Rom 1:16–17) or manifestation (Rom 3:21–26) of God’s righteousness. In both texts the concrete historical expression of “God’s righteousness” is the event of Christ: defined in Romans 1:16 as “the gospel” and “the power of God for salvation”; and in Romans 3:24 as “the redemption which is in Christ Jesus.”
Paul contends that God is faithful to his creation / covenant relationship (Rom 3:3–4), his action is righteous (Rom 3:26), and it is this action in response to his rebellious creation which Paul therefore calls the righteousness of God. The term designates that act of God which restores the broken relationship. “Righteousness” in this context is not an attribute of God, but designates God’s forgiving love and redemptive intervention in the world through Christ.
The righteousness of God understood as God’s relation-restoring love is central to Paul’s argument in Romans 3:21–26. The incarnation of the righteousness of God in the redemptive work of the cross leads to forgiveness; and forgiveness restores broken relationships. Because this is purely the act of God, Paul calls it a gift. Since a gift is ineffective unless appropriated, it must be “received by faith.” The result of this gracious act of God is the justification (“setting right”) of the sinner. The passage says nothing about an essential or judical transaction; rather, it declares the restoration of the divine-human relationship through what Christ did by his death (see Expiation, Propitiation, Mercy Seat).
The language of “submitting to the righteousness of God” in Romans 10:3 confirms Paul’s understanding of it as God’s relation-restoring intervention. The attempt to establish one’s own righteousness —one’s own position before God—is a rejection of the coming of God’s righteousness in Christ, God’s way of saving the world. For to submit means to acknowledge one’s severed relation with God and to confess the lordship of Christ (Rom 10:7; see Lord).
The difficult expression of 2 Corinthians 5:21, that in (relationship with) Christ “we might become the righteousness of God” further underlines a relational rather than a judicial or ontological meaning. The text is concerned with reconciliation to God in and through Christ (see Center; Peace, Reconciliation and calls those who are reconciled to become instruments of that reconciling work (2 Cor 5:18–19). In that context, the phrase “to become God’s righteousness” means that believers become participants in God’s reconciling action, extensions of his restoring love.
For Paul, then, God’s righteousness is God’s saving deed. In continuity with OT expressions of God’s righteousness as God’s faithfulness and steadfast love toward Israel, Paul sees this divine action finally expressed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. The acceptance of that divine condescension through the act of faith justifies us (makes us right) with God. Righteousness is present in this restored relationship when life is lived in conformity with God’s purposes.
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