Monday, January 19, 2009

Romans 1. 16, 17: The Righteousness of God

The next passage in Romans that I am studying includes the controversial verses 16 and 17. Since I had some time this weekend, I wanted to do a little mini-study on these verses before I continued.

So what is the “Righteousness of God”? There are many answers to this question. Three possibilities are:

1) God’s faithfulness to his covenant (an attribute of God)
2) A gift of righteousness (a genitive of origin)
3) God’s saving activity (subjective genitive)

It is hard to make a choice because there seems to be good reasons for either one of these. One thing that we have to remember is that we must not anathematize people because they disagree with what we think it means. People can become quite passionate over this word, rightly so, but it can sometimes get ugly.

Perhaps I’m taking the easy way out but I think that when Paul speaks of ‘the righteousness of God” he has all three, or something close, in his mind. Frank Thielman says, “The most satisfying understanding of the phrase recognizes, however, that Paul uses it in more than one way”1. Doug Moo asks the question, “Do we have to choose between theology (God’s acting) and anthropology (the human being who receives) – as some have stated the dilemma? Could we not take ‘righteousness of God” here to include both God’s activity of ‘making right’ – saving, vindicating – and the status of those who are so made right, in a relational sense that bridges the divine and the human?”2.

There is good reason to think the phrase means something close to ‘God’s saving activity’. After all, it is frequently used in the OT in this way: “I bring near my righteousness; it is not far off, and my salvation will not delay; I will put salvation in Zion, for Israel my glory” (Is. 46.13). In this passage “righteousness” and “salvation” seemed to be used synonymously. God’s righteous is his powerful saving activity that will be displayed when God rescues his people from sin and exile.

However, we also need to note, the context that the term is used. In Romans “God’s righteousness” stands in close proximity to the righteousness that humans receive as a gift. Paul says, “…the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. If, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5.16, 17). Moreover, in Romans 1.16, 17, the idea of the gospel revealing God’s righteousness suggests the subjective genitive whereas the quote from Habakkuk stresses that it is a status received by faith. The two go together.

Others see Paul’s use of ‘the righteousness of God’ as referring to God’s covenant faithfulness. Psalm 98 gives us insight:

“Oh sing to the LORD a new song, for he has done marvellous thing! His right hand and his holy arm have worked salvation for him. The LORD has made known his salvation; he has revealed his righteousness in the sight of the nations. He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness to the house of Israel. All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God. Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises! Sing praises to the LORD with the lyre, with the lyre and the sound of melody! With trumpets and the sound of the horn make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord! Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; the world and those who dwell in it! Let the rivers clap their hands; let the hills sing for joy together before the LORD, for he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity.

When God acts in salvation, or righteousness, he is being faithful to his covenant with Israel. Through the good news of Jesus’ reign and the salvation it brings God is fulfilling the promise made to Abraham, namely, that he would be the father of many nations.

In Romans 1 the stress seems to be on God’s saving activity which, as a result, reveals his covenant faithfulness. Frank Thielman says, “[God’s righteousness and salvation] reveal his faithfulness to the covenant he made with his people”3. Michael Bird expresses the same thought, “In saving Israel, God is faithful to his covenant…”4.

So in light of these insights what would be a simple definition? Our decision should take into account all three possibilities. God’s righteousness is his powerful act of salvation to bring people into a right relationship with himself which, in turn, displays that he is faithful to his covenant with his people. This act of salvation includes the gift of a new status (see Phil 3:9) so that all those in Christ can be declared ‘righteous’ by faith in the crucified and risen Lord of the world. In short, we might say that God’s righteousness is his ‘righteous-ing”.


1. Thielman, Frank. Theology of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 346.
2. Moo, Douglas. J. The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 74.
3. Thielman, 346.
4. Bird, Michael. F. A Bird’s Eye View of Paul (Nottingham: IVP, 2008), 94.

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