Category Archives: Righteousness of God

The law of liberty and God’s righteousness

Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: when His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit.  And Joseph her husband, being a righteous man and not wanting to disgrace her, planned to send her away secretly.  But when he had considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for the Child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.  She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.”

via Matthew 1 NASB – The Genealogy of Jesus the Messiah – Bible Gateway.

Many people try to make something of Jesus going “beyond” the OT Law in the Sermon on the Mount. I’ve never found this convincing. At this point I’m of the opinion that Jesus was teaching the true meaning of the Law over against the false teachings of human traditions that were current in Israel among his contemporaries.

But here it really looks different. I remember at one time thinking that Joseph must have heard Mary’s story, decided she was mentally unhinges, and thus not deserving to the death penalty. But notice that nothing is said about the possibility of death. Perhaps that was unenforceable under Roman occupation and was not even considered. But, in any case, Joseph didn’t want to spare just her life. He wanted to spare her even any disgrace.

And why? Because he was merciful?

That’s not the word the Bible uses. He wanted to do her good in her seeming unfaithfulness because he was righteous or (as it could also be translated) just.

This makes me think of a couple of things, one relevant to the way we talk in Evangelical circles and the other about how Evangelicals seem to think about political influence.

First, is it not entirely perverse to think of the righteousness of God as a source of fear and liability rather than the only hope any sinner could possibly have? Does God forgive us despite being righteous? No!

If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous/just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness/injustice (First John 1.9)

For more, see my five-part series on the Righteousness of God and other stuff under that label. Honestly, the way that Evangelicals typically talk about their relationship to God’s righteousness often seems perverse to me in comparison to many of the Psalms and other passages. I’m not saying there is not a grain in truth to it, but as a form of discourse it makes us speak a different language from most of Scripture most of the time. More importantly, it opposes us to God’s own character.

Secondly, while I thought this idea had been discredited for most people, I’m finding that in some quarters the concept of Christian influence in society is almost as crude as this: figure out what is good and then use laws to force everyone to do it.

If you think I’m exaggerating I hope you are right. But in case it might be helpful, let me point out that Joseph was perfectly free to publicly disgrace Mary according to the law of God. Nothing external or public forced him to do the right thing. While God’s law doesn’t sit well with modern people (and needs to be upheld and defended in such cases) not even God micro-manages.

 

On your Mark 3: Psalm 7 and the Righteousness of God

audio

Psalm 7 – ESVBible.org

Links to my series on the Righteousness of God

Reading Psalm 7 one morning recently, I was struck by the fact that both 3 and 7 are from the story of David fleeing from Jerusalem. That strikes me as odd. There is no other story mentioned in any of the other of the first seven Psalms. Why would the Absalom crisis be the starting point in the Psalter?

I don’t know.

But I also noticed that Psalm 7 is important for the significance of the term “the righteousness of God” as found in several places in the Bible, not least in Paul’s letter to the Romans.

Psalm 7 ends with thanksgiving:

I will give to YHWH the thanks due to his righteousness,
and I will sing praise to the name of the YHWH, the Most High.

So why is thanks due to God’s righteousness? Because he has imputed it to us? No, that is not what the Psalm says. Verses 9 and 11 spells out the good news about God’s righteous character:

Oh, let the evil of the wicked come to an end,
and may you establish the righteous—
you who test the minds and hearts,
O righteous God!…
God is a righteous judge,
and a God who feels indignation every day.

As I’ve written many times and taught my whole life, God does give us a righteous status in Christ. In Philippians 3.9, we see this using three words: “righteousness from God.” However, in most cases in the NT, when you read the term “the righteousness of God,” you are dealing with a very different term that is only two words: God’s righteousness.

When we trust God to save or rescue and even to forgive us according to his promises then we are depending on his righteous character. Paul says over and over again in Romans that the Gospel–the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus as promised by the prophets–publicly demonstrates God’s righteousness. While I’ve shown in my post series on how this is found all over the Psalms and Isaiah, as well as in Paul’s and John’s letters, we see a very direct and compact example of this in Psalm 7. God saves us because he is righteous and we thank him for being righteous.

This was why N. T. Wright’s book, What Saint Paul Really Said, was so helpful to me. By pursuing this line of interpretation Romans suddenly made so much more sense.

But of course there are many others besides N. T. Wright. Let me end this post with a quotation from Sinclair Ferguson

Elijah had come to God and said, “Lord, You promised. I believe this is Your word. It must be so. Let it be so in answer to my prayers.” Daniel’s praying was of the same order as his appeal to the “righteousness” of God eloquently testifies (vv. 7, 16). The Old Testament term “righteousness” has a specifically covenantal orientation. The young Martin Luther could not see this when he struggled to understand what Paul meant by “the righteousness of God” (Rom. 1:17). Of course, Luther was not helped by the fact that his Latin Bible translated Paul’s Greek word dikaiosune (righteousness) as justitia (justice). Luther’s mistake has sometimes been repeated by evangelical Christians. Often righteousness has been thought of merely as the equivalent of the just punishment of God. Preachers therefore may often accompany the use of the phrase “the righteousness of God” with the gesticulation of a clenched fist. It is clear even from this passage, however, that this is to reduce the full biblical meaning of God’s righteousness. Daniel sees the righteousness of God both as the basis for God’s judgment of the people (v. 7) and also as the basis for his own prayer for forgiveness (v. 16). How can this be? In Scripture, “righteousness” basically means “integrity.” Sometimes it is defined as “conformity to a norm.” In the case of God, the norm to which He conforms is His own being and character. He is true to Himself, He always acts in character. God has expressed the norm of His relationship to His people by means of a covenant. He will always be true and faithful to His covenant and the promises enshrined in it. Plainly, God’s righteousness is His faithfulness to His covenant relationship –Sinclair Ferguson, Daniel (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1988).

God’s righteousness, redux

I was listening to Romans tonight and something hit me for the first time in chapter 15. I had read the verse and yet missed it. (Aside: eyes are far more deceitful than ears.)

For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written,

“Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles,
and sing to your name.”

And again it is said,

“Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people.”

And again,

“Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles,
and let all the peoples extol him.”

And again Isaiah says,

“The root of Jesse will come,
even he who arises to rule the Gentiles;
in him will the Gentiles hope.”

Notice how this goes back to God’s righteousness in chapter 3:

Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God. What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? By no means! Let God be true though every one were a liar, as it is written,

“That you may be justified in your words,
and prevail when you are judged.”

But if our unrighteousness serves to show the righteousness of God, what shall we say? That God is unrighteous to inflict wrath on us? (I speak in a human way.) By no means! For then how could God judge the world? But if through my lie God’s truth abounds to his glory, why am I still being condemned as a sinner? And why not do evil that good may come?—as some people slanderously charge us with saying. Their condemnation is just.

So Paul confirms my reading of this passage in chapter 3, and my thesis about Romans in general: Israel’s unfaithfulness in crucifying the Messiah demonstrated God’s faithfulness and righteousness in accomplishing salvation for the nations in the Messiah. God’s truthfulness is proven.

And furthermore, this goes all the way back to how Paul describes his Gospel at the beginning of Romans, as that which “confirm[s] the promises given to the patriarchs

Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord

No wonder then, that the Gospel declares God’s righteousness (Romans 1.17). He has kept his promises. He had been true to his word. He had brought salvation to the nations.

 

The Righteousness of God and the NT context

So more from here:

The second plenary address—delivered by Frank Thielman, Presbyterian professor of divinity at Beeson Divnity School—focused on Romans 1:16-17. Thielman offered a mediating position that suggested several intended meanings from Paul for the contested and consequential phrase “righteousness of God.” Original hearers, Thielman said, would have understand this phrase to refer to the saving activity and gift of acquittal from God on the basis of faith. They also would have understood that God is fair, even-handed, and equitable in the way he distributes salvation.

Thielman cited the first commentary on Romans, written by Origen, who spoke and wrote the same Greek language as Paul. Origen understood the apostle to teach that the “righteousness of God” means all, whether Jew or Gentile, may find salvation in the gospel. Thielman illustrated his point by citing several coins used in the Roman Empire. Nero, emperor during the end of Paul’s ministry, appeared on one coin with the word dikaiosune, which we translate in Scripture as “righteousness.” It would seem, Thielman said, that Nero seeks to portray himself not so much as just but equitable in how he distributes grain harvested in Egypt.

Is it really likely, though, that Paul would use one phrase and intend several meanings? Thielman said this practice was common in ancient writing. So Paul did in fact reveal in this famous passage that God counts believers acquitted, as Martin Luther realized. But the inspired apostle also taught that God is fair, and he powerfully rescues his people.

I find it interesting that this blog entry presents no evidence whatever for Luther’s interpretation but only for the one that has come to be identified with N. T. Wright for rather slight reasons.  Thielman’s “mediating position,” as far as what is communicated to us, doesn’t seem that mediating to me. Thielman seems to be of much closer to the opinion as Sinclair Ferguson’s:

Elijah had come to God and said, “Lord, You promised. I believe this is Your word. It must be so. Let it be so in answer to my prayers.” Daniel’s praying was of the same order as his appeal to the “righteousness” of God eloquently testifies (vv. 7, 16). The Old Testament term “righteousness” has a specifically covenantal orientation. The young Martin Luther could not see this when he struggled to understand what Paul meant by “the righteousness of God” (Rom. 1:17). Of course, Luther was not helped by the fact that his Latin Bible translated Paul’s Greek word dikaiosune (righteousness) as justitia (justice). Luther’s mistake has sometimes been repeated by evangelical Christians. Often righteousness has been thought of merely as the equivalent of the just punishment of God. Preachers therefore may often accompany the use of the phrase “the righteousness of God” with the gesticulation of a clenched fist. It is clear even from this passage, however, that this is to reduce the full biblical meaning of God’s righteousness. Daniel sees the righteousness of God both as the basis for God’s judgment of the people (v. 7) and also as the basis for his own prayer for forgiveness (v. 16). How can this be? In Scripture, “righteousness” basically means “integrity.” Sometimes it is defined as “conformity to a norm.” In the case of God, the norm to which He conforms is His own being and character. He is true to Himself, He always acts in character. God has expressed the norm of His relationship to His people by means of a covenant. He will always be true and faithful to His covenant and the promises enshrined in it. Plainly, God’s righteousness is His faithfulness to His covenant relationship (Sinclair Ferguson, Daniel (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1988; b0ldface added).

For those who are interested, here‘s my biblical study on the righteousness of God.

God’s righteousness or the righteousness of–wink, FROM, wink–God?

For the record, Paul does write about a “righteousness from God” in Phillipians 3.9. And tellingly it takes him three words to do so, with ek for “from.” The same is true of First Corinthians 1.30. But the new defensiveness orthodoxy is to insist that the exegetical basis must be found in Romans 1-3 and anyone who says otherwise is a dangerous heretic.

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 God’s righteousness is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith” (Romans 1.16-17).

Only the ESV chooses to use the term “the righteousness of God” instead of God’s righteousness. OK. Nothing wrong with that.

But if our unrighteousness serves to show God’s righteousness, what shall we say? (Romans 3.5a)

And now the punchline:

But now the God’s righteousness has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—God’s righteousness through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, through faithfulness. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who is of the faithfulness of Jesus.

This is how the Protestant “tradition” is maintained in the absence of Biblical evidence. When people want to use the same term in two entirely different ways they make the term different by choosing different English conventions to translate the exact same Greek phrase. This causes unwary English readers to think that there are two different terms that provide two different meanings: on the one had a “righteousness from God” imputed to believer and “God’s righteousness” that is his own character revealed by his righteous actions.

(This also affects how one considers whether one should translate another phrase as “faith in Jesus Christ” or “the faith(fulness) of Jesus Christ.”)

Of course, when I write “Protestant ‘tradition,’” I’m talking about the exegetical and mythical tradition–the exegesis being the interpretation of a single passage and the myth being the solemn recounting of the existential crisis of Luther so that anyone who finds another option that he didn’t consider can be accused of blasphemy against the ancestors we worship. The theological tradition is just fine.

We should defend it on the basis of better texts.

Repost: God’s Righteousness, 1

I’ll start with an extract I have already quoted from (originally pointed out by Jeff Meyers):

Elijah had come to God and said, “Lord, You promised. I believe this is Your word. It must be so. Let it be so in answer to my prayers.” Daniel’s praying was of the same order as his appeal to the “righteousness” of God eloquently testifies (vv. 7, 16). The Old Testament term “righteousness” has a specifically covenantal orientation. The young Martin Luther could not see this when he struggled to understand what Paul meant by “the righteousness of God” (Rom. 1:17). Of course, Luther was not helped by the fact that his Latin Bible translated Paul’s Greek word dikaiosune (righteousness) as justitia (justice). Luther’s mistake has sometimes been repeated by evangelical Christians. Often righteousness has been thought of merely as the equivalent of the just punishment of God. Preachers therefore may often accompany the use of the phrase “the righteousness of God” with the gesticulation of a clenched fist. It is clear even from this passage, however, that this is to reduce the full biblical meaning of God’s righteousness. Daniel sees the righteousness of God both as the basis for God’s judgment of the people (v. 7) and also as the basis for his own prayer for forgiveness (v. 16). How can this be? In Scripture, “righteousness” basically means “integrity.” Sometimes it is defined as “conformity to a norm.” In the case of God, the norm to which He conforms is His own being and character. He is true to Himself, He always acts in character. God has expressed the norm of His relationship to His people by means of a covenant. He will always be true and faithful to His covenant and the promises enshrined in it. Plainly, God’s righteousness is His faithfulness to His covenant relationship (Sinclair Ferguson, Daniel (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1988; b0ldface added).

The fundamental need of the human race is for salvation–deliverance from evil, in the forgiveness of sins, and the liberation from the bondage of sin and death. We need a savior, a rescuer from sin. In Isaiah 45 the prophet tells all the nations that their many gods and many lords are not saviors–that they cannot deliver them from death or rescue them from their misdeeds. The LORD alone, as the one true God, is a savior, a deliverer, a rescuer. And God is a savior, according to this passage, especially because of two attributes which He alone possesses. This post will center on one of these attributes, so I will tell you what the other one is right now: Strength. God alone is a savior because he alone is capable of saving us from our sins, delivering us from death, and rescuing us from the curse. But there is another attribute which God alone possesses of all the so-called gods, which makes Him alone the savior.

Isaiah 45.21-25:

Declare and set forth your case;
Indeed, let them consult together.
Who has announced this from of old?
Who has long since declared it?
Is it not I, the LORD?
And there is no other God besides Me,
A righteous God and a savior;
There is none except Me.
Turn to me and be saved all the ends of the earth;
For I am God and there is no other
I have sworn by Myself
The word has gone forth from My mouth in righteousness and will not turn back,
That to Me every knee will bow, every tongue will swear allegiance.
They will say of Me, “Only in the LORD are righteousness and strength.”Men will come to Him,
And all who were angry at Him shall be put to shame
In the LORD all the offspring of Israel
Will be justified, and will glory.

Consider, on the other hand, certain slogan that Reformed congregations are often taught:

  • Never pray for justice! Only pray for mercy. The last thing you want is justice.
  • Never pray for God to judge you! That would be disastrous. Plead with Him to be merciful to you.
  • God’s righteousness is of no comfort to us. We must rely on God’s mercy, not His righteousness.

These are pretty common statements in circles popularizing Reformed theology. And they make a good deal of sense. After all, there is no man or woman who does not sin, and if God was to deal with us as we deserve according to our sins, we would all be condemned by God’s judgment. That is true. That is Biblical.

Nevertheless, it is not biblical to tell Christians to “never pray for justice.” In fact, it is totally unbliblical. Christians are supposed to pray for justice. Indeed we are given public prayers in the Bible so that, when we read or sing them, we have to pray for justice from God. I’m referring, to the Psalter:

Psalm 7.8
The LORD judges the peoples; Judge me, O LORD according to my righteousness and my integrity that is in me.

Psalm 10.17-18
O LORD, You have heard the desire of the humble; You will strengthen their heart, You will incline Your ear To judge the orphan and the oppressed, that man who is of the earth may cause terror no more.

Psalm 26.1-3
A Psalm of David. Judge me, O LORD, for I have walked in my integrity; And I have trusted in the LORD without wavering. Examine me, O LORD, and try me; Test my mind and my heart. For Your lovingkindness is before my eyes, And I have walked in Your faithfulness.

Psalm 35.24
Judge me, O LORD my God, according to my righteousness.

Psalm 43.1
Judge me, O God, and plead my case against an ungodly nation.

Psalm 96.10-13
Say among the nations: “The LORD reigns; Indeed the world is firmly established, it will not be moved; He will judge the peoples with equity.”

Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice;
Let the sea roar and all it contains;
Let the field exult, and all that is in it.
Then all the trees of the forest will sing for joy
Before the LORD fro He is coming;
For He is coming to judge the earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness,
And the peoples in faithfulness
[emphasis added].

I could go on and on from the Psalms alone, but I’ll stop there with that last passage. Notice that not only is God’s judgment something the whole world rejoices in, but that judgment of God is tied to His righteousness.

He will judge the world in righteousness,
And the peoples in faithfulness..

Before I go any farther, let me stress Reformed tradition singing paraphrases of the Psalms (though overstated when demanded exclusively), and reciting often from translations of the Psalms, is a wonderful safeguard of our faith from unbiblical error. You see, if all Evangelicals in America had been raised praying these public prayer-hymns, then these slogans that are tossed around so easily would never make it off the ground. Everyone would know that we are supposed to pray for justice: to beg God to judge us in righteousness, and to plead with Him to do it sooner rather than later. If we had all been brought up singing these paraphrased hymns, or, better, chanting more accurate translations, we would all know what we are supposed to pray for because we would have been doing it corporately all our lives.

TO BE CONTINUED

Romans, Righteousness, and Psalm 98

I suggest that the content of Ps 98:1-3 was clearly in Paul’s mind when he dictated Rom 1:16-17 to Tertius. Paul mentions power in Rom 1:16 under the influence of the phrase his right hand in Ps 98:1b. God’s right hand is a classic Old Testament symbol of God’s power (e.g., Exod 15:6; Ps 20:6; 89:13). Paul also mentions salvation in Rom 1:16 under the influence of Ps 98:1b-2a where the root ישׁע (conveying the idea of salvation) appears twice. His mention of to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek is an exposition of the phrase in the sight of the nations, which occurs first in the clause in Ps 98:2b. This then leads naturally into his reference to the righteousness of God in Rom 1:17, which comes straight from the wording he has revealed his righteousness in Ps 98:2b.

Read the whole (excellent) thing at Berith Road: The Significance of Psalm 98 for Understanding the Righteousness of God in Romans 1:17.