BY MARK HORNE
One of the questions that is commonly asked about Tom Wright regards his teaching about how Paul uses the term “the righteousness of God.” Since Wright’s interpretation of the term in Paul’s epistles is commonly mentioned in passing but rarely analyzed, it seems like a good idea to explicitly spell it out here so people can possess an informed opinion.
One should keep in mind a couple of things:
THE OLD TESTAMENT BACKGROUND
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.
“Only in the LORD are righteousness and strength.” Is strength imputed to us? No. The point of mentioning the LORD’s strength is that He is powerful enough to save His people, and indeed all the ends of the earth. The issue in this passage is not what is imputed to God’s people, but God’s qualities which entail that He is trustworthy as a savior. God is a savior because he is strong–capable of saving His people. God is a savior because he is righteous–willing to save his people.
Thus Daniel (9.8-17) prays:
Open shame belongs to us, O Lord, to our kings, our princes, and our fathers, because we have sinned against Thee. To the Lord our God belong compassion and forgiveness, for we have rebelled against Him; nor have we obeyed the voice of the Lord our God, to walk in His teachings which He set before us through His servants the prophets. Indeed all Israel has transgressed Thy law and turned aside, not obeying Thy voice; so the curse has been poured out on us, along with the oath which is written in the law of Moses the servant of God, for we have sinned against Him. Thus He has confirmed His words which He had spoken against us and against our rulers who ruled us, to bring on us great calamity; for under the whole heaven there has not been done anything like what was done to Jerusalem. As it is written in the law of Moses, all this calamity has come on us; yet we have not sought the favor of the Lord our God by turning from our iniquity and giving attention to Thy truth. Therefore, the Lord has kept the calamity in store and brought it on us; for the Lord our God is righteous with respect to all His deeds which He has done, but we have not obeyed His voice. And now, O Lord our God, who hast brought Thy people out of the land of Egypt with a mighty hand and hast made a name for Thyself, as it is this day–we have sinned, we have been wicked. O Lord, in accordance with all Thy righteous acts, let now Thine anger and Thy wrath turn away from Thy city Jerusalem, Thy holy mountain; for because of our sins and the iniquities of our fathers, Jerusalem and Thy people have become a reproach to all those around us. So now, our God, listen to the prayer of Thy servant and to his supplications, and for Thy sake, O Lord, let Thy face shine on Thy desolate sanctuary (emphasis added).
A couple of points here: 1. Daniel appeals to God’s righteousness precisely because Israel is being punished for sin. God’s righteousness is his hope, not his fear. 2. God responds by sending his angel who reveals God’s plan to save, giving Daniel a countdown of 70 weeks cluminating in Messiah, the Prince who makes a covenant with many. This gives us every reason to expect the coming and work of Jesus to be “in accordance with all thy righteousness” and the Gospel which declares this to be a revelation of God’s righteousness.
But before we get to the NT, let me point out that many places in the Psalms and Isaiah show God’s “righteousness” to be parallel, not to wrath, but to salvation, lovingkindness, and faithfulness. For example:
O sing to the LORD a new song,
For He has done wonderful things,
His right hand and His holy arm have gained the victory for Him.
The LORD has made known His salvation;
He has revealed His righteousness in the sight of the nations
He has remembered His lovingkindness and His faithfulness to the house of Israel;
All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.
O continue Your lovingkindness to those who know Thee;
And Your righteousness to the upright in heart.
The lovingkindness of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear Him,
And His righteousness to children’s children.
Your lovingkindness, O LORD extends to the heavens
Your faithfulness to the skies.
Your righteousness is like the mountains of God;
Your judgments are a great deep.
O LORD, You preserve man and beast….
Will Your lovingkindness be declared in the grave,
Your faithfulness in Abaddon?
Will Your wonders be made known in the darkness?
And Your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?
Drip down, O heavens, from above,
And let the clouds pour down righteousness;
Let the earth open up and salvation bear fruit,
And righteousness spring up with it.
I the LORD have created it.
Listen to Me, you stubborn-minded,
Who are far from righteousness.
I bring near My righteousness, it is not far off;
And My salvation will not delay.
And I will grant salvation in Zion,
My glory for Israel.
But My salvation shall be forever,
And My righteousness shall not wane.
But My righteousness shall be forever,
And My salvation to all generations.
Thus says the LORD,
Preserve justice, and do righteousness,
For My salvation is about to come
And My righteousness to be revealed.
According to the common view, God’s righteousness should mean our damnation not our salvation. Yet for the Psalmist “righteousness” is parallel to “lovingkindness,” and “faithfulness.” Isaiah prophecies that the future salvation will be a revelation of the righteousness of God. We can be assured of our salvation because God is righteous. When salvation comes it publicly demonstrates God’s righteounsness.
THE NEW TESTAMENT IN GENERAL
The Apostles knew of this use of the word “righteous” as one describing God’s character as faithful and thus dependable for salvation.
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.
PAUL IN ROMANS
So how is Paul thinking of “the righteousness of God” in his epistle to the Romans?
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. (To repeat: 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 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 dsiplayed 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.
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.”
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.
There are other instances of “the righteousness of God” in both Romans and other epistles, but at this point I will simply commend to people that they read Wright’s own arguments in What Saint Paul Really Said or the much more complete case in his commentary on Romans.