BY RICH LUSK
The theme of Romans is the righteousness of God (Rom. 1:16-17). That is to say, Romans is something of a theodicy. Paul is defending God’s covenant faithfulness, particularly in light of Jewish unfaithfulness.
How does it work? Without getting into exegetical details, we can still sketch out the big picture. In Romans, Paul is working with a narrative grid. He’s more of a story theologian than a systematic theologian. He tells the story of Adam, of Israel, of Jesus, and now of the church — all as tributaries flowing into the larger story of God himself.
The center of the story is God’s act of covenant faithfulness through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In the cross and resurrection, God is setting the world to rights. In Jesus, God has kept his covenant promise to Israel. But behind God’s covenant fidelity to Israel stands his covenant fidelity to the whole creation. Israel represented the creation, so what God did for her, he ultimately did for the world. Thus, in Romans, Paul stretches back through Israel, through Abraham, to Adam. Paul takes in the whole sweep of God’s purposes from the first creation to the new creation.
God’s righteousness, then, is simply God making good on his covenant with Israel, and back of that his covenant with creation. The gospel reveals the righteousness of God because in the gospel, God’s claim to be righteous is vindicated.
To come at it from another angle, God’s righteousness means that he’s committed to giving the story of the world a happy ending. That is to say, God’s original purpose for the creation has not been permanently derailed by Adam’s sin. Through the Last Adam, the world is being steered back on course and will reach the destination God intended for it from the beginning. The world will mature from glory to glory — from the Garden of Eden to the City of the New Jerusalem.
Throughout Scripture, we find the “righteousness” word group set in poetic parallel with terms like “faithfulness” and “salvation.” “Righteousness” is a covenantal or relational category. Thus, we find appeals to God’s righteousness are basically appeals for salvation (e.g., Ps. 143:11). When Paul says God is righteous, he doesn’t mean God conforms to some legal or moral standard (there’s no such standard outside of God himself anyway). Rather, he means God has stayed true to his relational obligations. He has performed the covenant pledges. He has acted in loyalty to his people. He has kept his promises.
The gospel, then, is a revelation of how God has done these things, which of course, brings us back to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And that’s the centerpiece of Romans: what God has done in history through Christ to redeem the creation. The cross and resurrection form the ultimate theodicy, the final vindication of God and his chosen people.
For further reading on God’s covenant loyalty: The Righteousness of God: A Sermon on Isaiah 45:21-25.