Paul frequently writes of the “righteousness of God,” especially in Romans. The New International Version obscures this phrase, sometimes translating “righteousness from God” or the like. But the KJV and some of the other translations get it right.
Of course, as we tend to approach the scriptures looking for how to be saved, and as we expect to have Jesus’ righteousness imputed to us, as good Protestants, we are expecting to see “righteousness from God.” But Wright disputes the translation–
Paul always uses this phrase to denote, not the status which God’s people have from him or in his presence, but the righteousness of God himself.
Now, Wright doesn’t dispute that God’s people are to be righteous. He’s just challenging the mistranslation of this particular phrase.
Indeed, Wright sees the phrase as having cosmic significance–
The main argument for taking [the righteousness of God] to denote an aspect of the character of God himself is the way in which Paul is summoning up a massive biblical and intertestamental theme, found not least in Isaiah 40—55 which I have argued elsewhere is vital for him. God’s dikaiosune [Greek for righteousness], his tsedaqah [Hebrew for righteousness], is that aspect of his character because of which, despite Israel’s infidelity and consequent banishment, God will remain true to the covenant with Abraham and rescue her none the less. …
This ‘righteousness’ is of course a form of justice; God has bound himself to the covenant, or perhaps we should say God’s covenant is binding upon him, and through this covenant he has promised not only to save Israel but also, thereby, to renew creation itself.
As Daniel 9 makes clear, it is a matter of God’s severe justice upon covenant-breaking Israel, and only then a matter of God’s merciful rescue of penitent Israel. This is why the gospel – the announcement that Jesus Christ is Lord – contains within itself, as Paul insists in Romans 2.16, the message of future judgment as well as the news of salvation.
Here’s the passage Wright refers to–
(Rom 2:16) This will take place on the day when God will judge men’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares.
It is hardly “good news” that God will judge men’s secrets! Rather, the gospel is only good news because God is true to his promise to Abraham to reckon faith as righteousness. (If we refuse to teach judgment, then we fail to explain why the good news is good.)
Ultimately, the gist of Wright’s point is that the gospel is simply the full realization of the promise to Abraham. God is righteous because God keeps his word, even if we don’t.
For example, the NIV translates–
(Rom. 3:21-24) But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22 This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.
Wright would translate, as does the King James Version,
(Rom. 3:21-24) But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; 22 Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference: 23 For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; 24 Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus:
Now, re-read that passage taking “righteousness of God” to mean “God’s fidelity to his promises.” We’ll try it with the NIV–
(Rom. 3:21-24) But now God’s fidelity to his promises, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22 This fidelity to God’s promises comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.
Now, the impact of this translation doesn’t seem huge at first. However, it does change the sense of things. Plainly, translated this way, Paul is hearkening all the way back to Abraham and all the promises made thereafter. The gospel becomes the culmination of a centuries-old process, not a radical re-writing of the rules.
Obviously, things have changed with Jesus, but it’s not the obliteration of the old so the new can replace it. It’s the consummation, the fulfillment, of the old.
Now, this interpretation makes perfect sense in Romans 1:17–
(Rom. 1:17) For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”
(Rom. 1:17) For in the gospel God’s fidelity to his promises is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”
After all, at the end Paul quotes Habbakuk 2:4, which is a reference back to God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 15:6. Plainly, Paul is talking about promises God has made.
A bit more difficult is–
(Rom. 10:3-4) Since they did not know the righteousness that comes from God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. 4 Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.
Again, let’s rewrite it as Wright (and the KJV) would have it–
(Rom. 10:3-4) Since they did not know God’s fidelity to his promises and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s fidelity to his promises. 4 Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.
Of course, Paul didn’t write “God’s fidelity to his promises.” He wrote, “the righteousness of God” or “God’s righteousness.” We can easily imagine Paul saying that the Jews who rejected Jesus did not understand God’s faithfulness to his covenant, as God was being faithful through Jesus!
And yet, it’s a bit hard to see how the Jews failed to “submit” to God’s righteousness, until we realize that “God’s righteousness” ultimately means “God’s commitment to declare those with faith righteous.” Well, to submit to that, you must have faith in Jesus! And the Jews did not.
Now, the implications of this will have to be worked out in future posts. But this much seems clear and entirely agreeable–
* Paul really does teach that the gospel is all about God honoring his promises, beginning with his promise to Abraham.
(Rom. 4:22-24) This is why “it was credited to him as righteousness.” 23 The words “it was credited to him” were written not for him alone, 24 but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness–for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead.
Hence, we really do have to begin with God’s righteousness–his faithfulness to his own promises.
* Therefore, we need to reject strict dispensational thinking. God’s covenant with Abraham and his children changed on Mt. Sinai and at the cross. But the essence of the covenant remains the same.
(Exo. 4:29-31) Moses and Aaron brought together all the elders of the Israelites, 30 and Aaron told them everything the LORD had said to Moses. He also performed the signs before the people, 31 and they believed. And when they heard that the LORD was concerned about them and had seen their misery, they bowed down and worshiped.
* The covenant centers on faith in Jesus. More precisely, it centers on Jesus. We err when we allow the focus to shift to baptism (as it important as it is) or adherence to variously inferred doctrines. It’s been all about faith for thousands of years. If we mess that part up, we mess up very badly indeed. (Or course, works matter. How they matter, we’ll be getting to.)
We in the Churches of Christ desperately want to spend a moment on Jesus and then move just as rapidly as we can to obedience. And obedience is important. But I think we’d do a much better job of obeying if we understood Jesus better.
Rather than teaching a converts a short course on weekly communion and a cappella singing, we would do much better to teach through one of the Gospels, discovering who this Jesus really is. Of course, the Gospels are hard and raise lots of difficult questions. But that just shows how poorly we understand him.