N. T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began, Romans Reconsidered, Part 19 (Justification)


N. T. “Tom” Wright has just released another paradigm-shifting book suggesting a new, more scriptural way of understanding the atonement, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion. Wright delves deeply into how the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus accomplish our salvation.

Rom 3:20-25

I shift back to the NET Bible translation, because I think it’s more accurate in a few places. I add now verses 25 and 26, because Wright believes the key to the earlier verses is getting these last two right.

(Rom. 3:20-23 NET)  20 For no one is declared righteous [faithful to covenant] before him [God] by the works of [obedience to] the law [Torah], for through the law [Torah] comes the knowledge of sin.  21 But now apart from the law [Torah] the righteousness of God [loving faithfulness of God to his covenants] (which is attested by the law [Torah] and the prophets [of the OT or Tanakh]) has been disclosed – 22 namely, the righteousness of God [faithfulness of God to his covenants] through the faithfulness [obedience to the point of crucifixion] of Jesus Christ for all who believe [are faithful to/believe in/trust in Jesus]. For there is no distinction,  23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. 

(Rom. 3:24-25 NET)  24 But they are justified [declared covenant faithful and so a part of the covenant community] freely by his grace through the redemption [freedom from slavery] that is in Christ [King/Messiah] Jesus.  25 God publicly displayed him at his death as the mercy seat [place of forgiveness in the Holy of Holies, God’s throne on earth] accessible through faith [/faithfulness/trust]. This was to demonstrate his righteousness [faithfulness to the covenant], because God in his forbearance [tolerant patience] had passed over the sins previously committed [by whom? I think both Jews and Gentiles]. 

As you can see, the first problem with Paul is his use of what my English teachers used to call “vocabulary words.” When I first signed up for law school, I was told that law school is three years of learning a foreign language — which is not far from the truth. Of course, all language carries with it a worldview bound up in a culture. This is true in law as well as Christianity. Learn the vocabulary, and you’re halfway home to knowing the rest. The trouble is that Paul used a Greek vocabulary, and there aren’t good English equivalents for many of the words. So I use brackets.

[was playing as I wrote this and seemed to fit]


The word pops up in v. 24 like we’re supposed to already know what it means. It has the very same root as “righteous” and “righteousness.” But historically it’s translated “justified,” which is a forensic (courtroom) term. (You see, the law school analogy is apt.) In court, it means better than “not guilty.” In the Greek system, it means “found innocent.” We could equally well translate “found just.”

“Just” and “righteous” are the same word in the Greek. And since the whole discussion up to this point has been about righteousness/faithfulness and not justice, we should translate “righteous-ified” — which is not a word, and that’s a very serious translation problem. Let’s go with “declared righteous.” Justification is not the moment you’re saved exactly. I mean, it kind of is, but the thought we’re supposed to have is God as judge declaring us innocent of all charges. Not merely “not guilty.” Not “not enough evidence to convict.” But out-and-out innocent. (Wright, a former Anglican bishop, associates justification with baptism in other writings as baptism is an outward declaration to the world that this is a justified person.)

Except, in my view, Paul has so used “righteous” to mean “lovingly faithful to the covenant” that “justified” must be taken in context to mean “innocent of covenant violations” or consistent with the preceding posts, “declared covenant faithful.” And how does that happen?

[JFG] Well, God and Abraham had this blood covenant with split, bloody animals where God agreed to not bind Abraham to be punished for a covenant violation — and to suffer the punishment himself. That’s how. God takes not just the punishment but the guilt. Abraham did not step in the blood. God took the blood oath for Abraham.

(2 Cor. 5:21 ESV)  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. 

This most obscure of verses suddenly makes sense. We are the righteousness of God because we Christians are the product of God’s faithfulness to his covenants. We are the living, breathing demonstration of God’s loving, covenant faithfulness — God’s righteousness incarnate.

Jesus became sin in the same sense as —

(Rom. 8:3-4 ESV)  3 For God has done what the law [Torah], weakened by the flesh [our fallen natures], could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh [a fallen human] and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh [the fallenness that all mankind suffers from],  4 in order that the righteous [covenant faithful] requirement of the law [Torah] might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh [our fallen natures] but according to the Spirit.

God condemns not Jesus but the sin he carried. God condemned Sin — sinfulness, rebellion, idolatry — in the flesh of Jesus on the cross, taking the punishment for us because God keeps his covenants — even to the point of the cross. And finding a solution not merely for sin but for Sin — through the Holy Spirit poured out at Pentecost — and from then on. Forgiveness is not enough. Hearts must be changed. God must not be merely feared. he must be loved — and we can only love by the power of the Spirit.

Wright explains,

And the heart of Romans 3: 27– 31 is the firm declaration that the God in whom both Jew and Gentile must believe is the One God of Israel: Jewish-style monotheism is at the heart of the justification by which Gentile and Jew alike are declared to be within the sin-forgiven family. The whole passage, from 2: 17 to 4: 25, is all about God’s covenant with Israel and through Israel for the world and about the true worship at the heart of this covenant, the worship of the one true God, which replaces the idolatry of 1: 18– 23 and thus undoes the sin of 1: 24– 32.

Wright, N. T.. The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion (Kindle Locations 5056-5060). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Wright gets to this conclusion by an extremely elaborate chain of logic that is surely right but very hard to condense into a post. So I’m going to explain it my way here and let you read the book for the rest.

“Justification” in context is really righteous-ification, that is, being declared by the Judge, God Almighty, as “righteous.” “Righteous” in context means “faithful to God’s covenants with the Jews (and the Gentiles added to Israel by God because of their faith/faithfulness/trust).” Hence, to be justified is to be found in compliance with the great covenants with Abraham, Moses, David, and finally the new covenant instituted on the cross by Jesus. That is, we Gentiles are saved by virtue of being included in Abraham’s family and found to be good Jews — although we are not circumcised and don’t eat kosher. But we do have circumcised hearts — by the power of the Spirit — and if we’ll stay true to the Spirit’s leading (chapter 8), we’ll be among the called, the foreknown, and the predestined — along with the faithful actual Jews — just as God always meant for it to be — because that’s what the Law and the Prophets said would happen (and the point of chapters 9 -11).

Profile photo of Jay Guin

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
This entry was posted in N. T. Wright's The Day the Revolution Began, N. T. Wright's The Day the Revolution Began, Romans, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to N. T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began, Romans Reconsidered, Part 19 (Justification)

  1. Slight tangent… you mentioned the problems that arise when translators don’t have words to describe what they are writing about. I always keep in mind that Tyndale coined the word “righteous” when translating the Bible. I try to keep the meaning “justice” in mind when reading justice.

  2. Sheesh, can’t write this morning. I think “justice” when reading “righteousness.” The close connection between the concepts mustn’t be lost.

  3. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:


    This is from Tyndale’s translation:

    (Rom. 1:17 TNT) For by it the rightewesnes which cometh of god is opened from fayth to fayth. As it is written: The iust shall live by fayth.

    (Rom. 2:13 TNT) For before god they are not ryghteous which heare the lawe: but the doers of the lawe shalbe iustified.

    The Oxford English Dictionary (https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/righteous) says the word is much older:

    Old English rihtwīs, from riht ‘right’ + wīs ‘manner, state, condition’. The change in the ending in the 16th century [evidently by Tyndale] was due to association with words such as bounteous.

    That is, it appears that Tyndale altered the spelling but he was using a word that was much older. He sometimes translated the same root as “iust” (just).

    And so I’d argue that Tyndale began the practice of translating words with a common Greek root in the very same sentence varyingly with “just” or “righteous,” depending on his best guess as to Paul’s intent. He was surely influenced by Lutheran and Calvinist thought (the only Protestant thought he would have experienced), which dealt with the supposed conflict between God’s justice and God’s forgiveness.

    An interesting experiment would be to go through Romans and try using “just” and “justice” or “justness” invariably rather than flipping back and forth between “righteous” and “just.” That would be grammatically possible, but doesn’t really work. For example,

    (Rom. 4:3-6 ESV) 3 For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness [justness].” 4 Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. 5 And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness [justness], 6 just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness [justness] apart from works:

    Hard to see how Abraham’s justness was at issue in his covenant with God. While God certainly wants a just people, that sort of translation seems to place the emphasis in entirely the wrong place. But when we translate with “covenant faithfulness,” it invariably makes good sense. God was in covenant relationship with Abraham, and he expected Abraham to honor the terms of the covenant — just as God would do.

    Language carries with it the worldview of those who speak that language. The Greeks used the same word for “just” and for “righteous,” meaning they saw little distinction in the two concepts. If we treat them as radically different, then we are surely not thinking like Paul. So the question becomes which sense of the word predominates in this context? Is this a discussion of justice? Or of God’s covenant faithfulness? And we do well to find the meaning in the LXX, the scriptures often quoted by Paul.

    To me, Paul is not wrestling with how God can be just and yet forgive. It’s an interesting question but not the question at hand. Rather, the question is more about how God can be true to his covenant with Abraham and yet open the covenant to Gentiles without circumcision? and how God can be true to his covenant and allow most Jews to be damned? How can God be true to his covenants and yet not insist that the Gentiles keep Torah? And this is exactly how a First Century Jew would be thinking when the Jews are, on the whole, rejecting the gospel and the Gentiles are flooding into the Kingdom — without circumcision, kosher, or the Festival of Booths.

  4. Alabama John says:

    Jay. real good educational post. I will add one thing and that is why he back then used i instead of j in the word just.
    In printing the older wooden and later the lead hand type case had the last letters to be added to our alphabet set apart from all the rest of the letters in both the capital section and the lower case section. Those two ‘New” letters were Jj and Qq.

  5. Dwight says:

    Instead of Justness, just use Just and it works. Interestingly Tyndale used congregation instead of chirch or church when translating ekklesia, but it was Wycliffe version which used church that was used by KJ.

  6. Jay, I agree that we don’t always substitute “just” or “justice” in these verses. I’m just saying that we mustn’t forget that the relationship between the two concepts is extremely tight. We can’t be righteous without practicing justice.

Leave a Reply