A New Look at Paul, The Righteousness of God

This is the third is a series discussing some ideas that are central to Paul and are part of the New Perspective on Paul. As I have said in the previous two articles, there is not one New Perspective, but there are many New Perspectives. Some are roundly criticizing the New Perspective on Paul. For some this is because one New Perspective writer has said something deemed unscriptural and so the whole lot is rejected. For others who criticize the New Perspective, it is all about defending certain Reformation views on the meaning of Paul. There was much light in the Reformation but there were also many errors. Scripture deserves a fresh reading, not a tight clinging to yesterday’s ideas for the sake of tradition. WARNING: THIS ONE IS A BIT MORE DIFFICULT THAN THE LAST TWO. TAKE A FEW EXTRA MINUTES TO READ AND THINK ABOUT WHAT THIS MEANS.

I was inspired to write this series when I read an article by my favorite New Testament theologian, N.T. Wright. How can anyone doubt a New Testament scholar with those initials!

What does Paul mean when he uses the phrase “the righteousness of God”? Is he speaking about God imputing his own righteousness to us who believe?

Perhaps you have heard life in Messiah described this way: “We can’t merit heaven by our own righteousness. So God puts the righteousness of Jesus into us. God looks down on us and sees Jesus instead of us.”

Absolutely not true, says Wright. God does not put his righteousness in us. Nor does the expression “righteousness of God” imply that he does.

Consider the uses of “righteousness of God” in Paul:

Romans 1:17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”
Romans 3:5 But if our unrighteousness serves to show the righteousness of God, what shall we say?
Romans 3:21-22 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it — the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction.
2 Corinthians 5:21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

What is the righteousness of God specifically? According to Wright, it is God’s covenant righteousness, the fact that God keeps his covenants resulting in blessing and salvation for humankind. The righteousness of God is not a righteousness from God (we’ll talk about Philippians 3:9 in a moment) but is God’s own righteousness. It does not even mean a status of righteousness granted to us by God. Of course, God does grant a righteous status to people of faith, but this is not the meaning of the phrase “the righteousness of God.”

Wright argues that Isaiah 40-55 are central to Paul’s thinking. It’s no wonder since Isaiah 40-55 is practically a handbook on salvation and Messiah. A major theme in Isaiah 40-55 is God’s faithfulness, keeping his Abrahamic covenant with Israel in spite of the great apostasy that led to exile. God’s righteousness is also what led to the exile, for there are two sides to God’s justice: discipline and blessing.

Romans 3:20-26 is a great test case for Wright’s theory. Consider the difference between two interpretations. One is that the phrase used here should be translated “righteousness from God” and the other “righteousness of God” (the second one meaning God’s own righteousness). Consider the logic of Paul’s argument under each theory:

Romans 3:20-26 (ESV): For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. 21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

The “God’s righteousness” Theory of Romans 3:20-26
The law does not make righteous but we all find through the law that we are sinful. But now that Yeshua has come God’s righteous plan has been manifested apart from the law (though witnessed by it). God’s righteousness is seen in his clearly revealed plan: faith in Messiah Yeshua for all who believe (Jew or Gentile without distinction). After all, we all transgressed the law and have fallen short of God’s character. Yet because of this righteousness of God we are declared innocent without deserving our pardon. It is a gift through the redeeming death of Messiah Yeshua whom God appointed to satisfy his wrath in our place. We receive this pardon by believing. Yeshua’s painful death as a satisfaction of God’s wrath was necessary for God to demonstrate his own righteousness, because he had allowed countless sins to pass and yet he is judge of all the earth. God is just to punish, which he did to Yeshua, and also a justifier, pardoning the one who has faith in Yeshua.

The “righteousness from God” Theory of Romans 3:20-26
The law does not make righteous but we all find through the law that we are sinful. But now that Yeshua has come, God has shown us a new way to be righteous, receiving his righteousness in us, without keeping the law (though the law witnesses God’s new plan). God’s righteousness is imputed to all who believe (Jew or Gentile without distinction). After all, we all transgressed the law and have fallen short of God’s character. Yet we are declared righteous like God without deserving such an imputation. It is a gift through the redeeming death of Messiah Yeshua whom God appointed to satisfy his wrath in our place. We receive this pardon by believing. Yeshua’s painful death as a satisfaction of God’s wrath was necessary for God to demonstrate his own righteousness, because he had allowed countless sins to pass and yet he is judge of all the earth. God is just to punish, which he did to Yeshua, and also a justifier, pardoning the one who has faith in Yeshua.

Comparing the Logic
There are several reasons why the first theory (God’s righteousness) is better than the second (righteousness from God). The “from God” theory sets two things at odds that shouldn’t be: our status as righteous is said by this theory to be independent of obedience to God’s law. Paul would never say such a thing. The “God’s righteousness” theory makes better sense of these two elements: God’s righteousness was manifested in the law’s righteous commands and is now seen to be equally manifested is his plan of pardon based on faith. Second of all, the idea that God’s righteous character is seen in his plan of pardon by faith is immediately sensible whereas the notion that by faith people are considered to have God’s righteousness for themselves is not. Third, the last part of Paul’s argument is about God’s plan. If we understand the first part to be about God’s righteousness being evident in his plan for pardon by faith, then the whole paragraph is a unity. Finally, and CRUCIALLY IMPORTANT: Yeshua’s death as a satisfaction of God’s wrath would obtain for us a pardon but WOULD NOT endue us with God’s own righteousness.

There is in Paul’s writing an idea that God reckons people righteous by faith. Wright explains this from the analogy of a simple Jewish court (Roman courts had advocates and don’t fit as well). In the Jewish court, there is a judge, a defendant, and a plaintiff. Whichever one the judge finds in favor of is just or righteous. Thus, in Philippians 3:9, Paul wants people to seek the righteousness that God can give and not self-righteousness. The righteousness God gives is a pardon, nothing more. It simply isn’t true that we take on ourselves God’s own righteousness.

Think of the greatness of this idea. If you are used to the doctrine that God’s gives us his own righteousness, you may be disappointed to discover it is not true. Yet look at the great concept that really is there. God is showing his goodness in providing a pardon. If God were to be a strict judge, he might insist that any sin at all demands a guilty verdict. Instead, he allows repentance and faith to bring about a pardon. Then there is more for the ones pardoned. In addition to the pardon, we receive the Spirit and we grow in practical righteousness and obedience to God’s law.

What sort of God do we have? We have a judge who pardons because he sent his son to satisfy the law’s righteous demands for punishment. That’s a righteous God!

Next time: Final Judgment According to Works. Yes, that’s right, good works do matter. It is plain silly that so many Christians believe good works are opposed to grace and faith. Paul didn’t share that view at all.

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About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Christian, Judaism, Messianic Jewish, Paul, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to A New Look at Paul, The Righteousness of God

  1. PB and J says:

    derek

    i think you address the difference with dexterity. but i want to ask a question, if we buy the concept of New Creation (NT Wright speaks a lot about it) then couldnt Messiah’s death atone for our sins, but the resurrection bring about our righteousness? ie we are people who through Messiah are becoming new creatures, ie righteous?

    i am not saying i believe this, but isnt this a response that deserves some thought?

    peter

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