The Righteousness of God, 5

The Apostles knew of this use of the word “righteous” as one describing God’s character as faithful and thus dependable for salvation. We have already seen this in the case of John, but it might be helpful to line up John with Peter and Paul to have thee witnesses: First John 1.9

If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

First Peter 2.18-23

Servants, be submissive to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are unreasonable. For this finds favor, if for the sake of conscience toward God a man bears up under sorrows when suffering unjustly. For what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience? But if when you do what is right and suffer for it you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God. For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps, who committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in His mouth; and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously.

Second Timothy 4.6

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith; in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing.

In each of these three cases, God’s righteousness, in Peter and Paul his righteousness as a judge, is grounds not for despair but for hope and confidence of an eventual deliverance and vindication. For John, it means one can be assured of forgiveness.


So how is Paul thinking of “the righteousness of God” in his epistle to the Romans? Romans 3.1-6:

Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the benefit of circumcision? Great in every respect. First of all, that they were entrusted with the oracles of God. What then? If some did not believe, their unbelief will not nullify the faithfulness of God, will it? May it never be! Rather, let God be found true, though every man be found a liar, as it is written, “That Thou mightest be justified in Thy words,/ And mightest prevail when Thou art judged.” But if our unrighteousness demonstrates the righteousness of God, what shall we say? The God who inflicts wrath is not unrighteous, is He? (I am speaking in human terms.) May it never be! For otherwise how will God judge the world? (emphasis added).

Notice that, as in the Psalms, “the faithfulness of God” and “the righteousness of God” are virtually synonymous expressions. In any case, this is certainly talking of God’s own character, not a status that he gives to us. (Let there be no confusion: I am not denying that sinners who are to be saved from the Wrath of God must and do receive a verdict from Him which entails a righteous status. I am not denying that this is God’s verdict on Christ reckoned to his people. I am siimply saying that “the righteousness of God” is not how Paul is teaching us those great and essential truths. He has other concerns in this passage.) Given Paul’s use of the phrase in Romans 3.1-6, we have every reason to expect the meaning to remain consistent with this passage just a little later on in Romans 3.21-26:

But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, that He might be just [righteous] and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

Again, we see here that “the righteousness of God” is his own character, his faithfulness, demonstrated in his work of salvation for his people–displaying Christ publicly as a propitiation in his blood. It is really violently discontextual to claim that “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ” refers to imputed righteousness. I have come to (provisionally) agree with Wright and Richard Hayes that the phrase “faith in Jesus Christ” ought to be translated as “the faith of Jesus Christ.” Paul is speaking of Christ’s obedience rather than our trust by which we receive Christ and his righteousness.

But that really doesn’t matter. The traditional translation still demands that “the righteousness of God through faith” be seen as parallel with “Christ Jesus whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith.” The propitiatory work of Chist is a manifestation of God’s righteousness–his faithfulness to his people to save them from their sins. Romans 1.16-18a:

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 to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “But the righteous man shall live by faith.” For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men…

Remember Isaiah 56.1b: “For My salvation is about to come / And My righteousness to be revealed.” The Gospel declares the death and resurrection of Jesus and in doing so reveals God’s righteousness. Notice Paul’s parallelism between “the righteousness of God is revealed” and “the wrath of God is revealed.” Obviously, “the wrath of God” is not something imputed to sinners so that they are reckoned as being wrathful with God’s own wrath. Rather, it is God’s character manifested toward them. That is yet another contextual cue demanding that we understand “the righteousness of God” to refer to his own character which compelled him to act on behalf of his people. Finally, one needs to remember that the close proximity of references to God’s righteousness and those to justification are perfectly understandable without any notion of a transfer of “righteousness” from God to the sinner. (To repeat yet again: I am not denying that Jesus’ righteous status is shared with His people. It most certainly is. I am simply denying that Paul is speaking of such imputation in these specific passages.)

Consider Psalm 35.24: “Judge me, O LORD, according to Thy righteousness.” Though two different word groups are used, the Psalmist is plainly asking for justification and believes it will be given to him on the basis of God’s righteousness. But there is no transfer imagined here. The point is that God’s character and integrity guarrantee that he will vindicate those who belong to him.

Likewise, in Isaiah 45.24, 25, the righteousness of God means he can be trusted to fulfill his promise so that “all the offspring of Israel” will be “justified.” (Regarding the two different word roots for “judgment” and “justification,” one should note that these are both present in Romans 2 and 3 and thus the forensic meaning of justification is, in part, established by the courtroom language of “judgment” use in those chapters.

Of course, God’s righteousness also demands that sinners be punished. Romans 3.21-26 acknowledges this fact. What makes God’s righteousness a basis for hope for sinners, instead of fear, is that God made a covenant to deal with sin and justify sinners who entrust themselves to him. God’s righteousness demands that He keep His promises as well as punish sin.

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