What is the Righteousness of God?

One of the ongoing debates in New Testament studies is the question of what is meant by the phrase “the righteousness of God” (Gk. δικαιωσύνη θεοῦ). At the center of the debate is Romans 3:21-22, where the phrase in question appears twice. The Greek phrase can be nuanced this way and that, but the two major options for “the righteousness of God” are (1) the righteous status that God grants to believers or (2) God’s own attribute or quality of righteousness. With the first option, δικαιωσύνη θεοῦ would be translated along the lines of “a righteousness from God” (NIV); with the second, it would be “the righteousness of God” (NRSV) or “God’s righteousness.” I’ve wrestled with the evidence for each interpretive option for several years now, often having difficulty settling on one or the other. I now find myself settling into the view that “the righteousness of God” in Romans 3:21-22 refers to God’s own attribute or quality of righteousness, and I intend to use this post (and likely a few following posts) to highlight a few of the exegetical matters that have led me to hold this particular view of the righteousness of God (for now, at least).
A key determinant in translating δικαιωσύνη θεοῦ (“the righteousness of God”) is the flow of the argument in the whole of Romans 3. Romans 3 begins with a question: what advantage has the Jew? This question follows logically from the previous material in that Paul has just finished indicting his fellow Jews right alongside the non-Jewish nations arguing that they properly and justly stand under the condemnation of God. So, if the Paul’s Jewish kinsmen are justly condemned along with the Gentiles, then the question is natural: what’s so special about being a Jew?
Paul’s answer is that the Jews are special in that they were made stewards of God’s self-revelation (3:2). The problem is that they did not faithfully steward that with which they were entrusted. They did not proclaim the name of God to the nations. This raises the question as to God’s own faithfulness. God has promised to bless all the nations of the world through Israel; yet if God is to be just, he must condemn Israel for her lawlessness. So, God finds himself in a catch-22: how will God be faithful to keep his promise to bless the world through Israel and still act in righteousness in condemning Israel for her unfaithfulness? What is God to do?
All this is to make the point that the central question of Romans 3 is whether or not God will act according to his righteousness. Paul asserts that God must be proved true, justified in his words, and prevail in his judging (3:4). But how exactly is he going to do that when the law silences the mouths of all and makes the whole world, Jew and Gentile, accountable to God?
If the question of Romans 3 is how God will be found righteous when he must both bless the world through Israel and simultaneously condemn Israel, then the answer to that question comes in Romans 3:21-26. God reveals his own righteousness (δικαιωσύνη θεοῦ) through Jesus. Jesus is both the faithful Israelite through whom the world will be blessed and the one who propitiates (ἱλαστήριον, 3:25) the just wrath of God that condemns sin. He does all this to demonstrate his own righteousness (δικαιοσύνης αὐτοῦ, 3:25) and to prove that he himself is righteous (δικαιοσύνης αὐτοῦ, 3:26) by showing himself to be both just (or righteous), in that he condemns sin, and justifier (or the one who makes righteous), in that he blesses the world through Jesus, the faithful Jew.
So, what is the righteousness of God? In Romans 3 it is that attribute whereby God always does what he ought to do. He always does what is right. He keeps his promise to Abraham to bless the world through Abraham’s descendant. He maintains his justice by condemning sin. And he does all this so that he may be justified in his words and prevail in his judging. He does it to reveal his own perfect righteous character. That’s the righteousness of God.

6 thoughts on “What is the Righteousness of God?

  1. Matt, the evidence in Romans is that God was revealing His righteousness by renaming a people from 'Not My People' [Hos 1:8] to 'Children of the living God' says [Rom 9:25-26]. He accomplished this renaming through the death and resurrection of Christ [Rom 6:5], enabling His people to share His righteousness [Acts 11:26][Gen 12:2].

    If so, the uncircumcised non-Jewish “House of Israel” was that uncircumcised people ([Jer 6:10][Eze 28:10]) denoted 'Not My People' according to [Hosea 1:10] (“Jew” is a descriptive term of the House of Judah not the House of Israel').

    Therefore, I believe Paul was writing to Jewish and non-Jewish Israelites in Rome about how God's righteousness was displayed through His relationship (and promises) to ALL Israel [Rom 11:26], circumcised and uncircumcised [Rom 2:26-27].

    I'm not sure if you agree with this or not, but whether you do or don't, my purpose is to be biblically faithful; and by that I mean faithful to the entire body of text (starting at Genesis), as one revelation of Christ, since there is only one covenant of redemption.

    Because your purpose is the same, and because we share the same bible, our disagreement is ultimately – temporary.


  2. Ekklesia, it's not entirely clear to me what you mean by “ethnic argument” with regard to God's righteousness. I think I recall you saying once that you believed Romans to have been written to an exclusively Jewish/Isrealite audience, and I suspect this concept of an ethnic argument relates to that. You may recall that I didn't buy that argument, though. The internal evidence of Romans seems to me to indicate Paul is writing to Jewish Christ-followers and non-Jewish/Roman Christ-followers, some of whom may have been non-Jewish God-fearers prior to becoming (more specifically) Christ-followers, which, as you can see, relates to my understanding of God's righteousness. I think we just had to agree to disagree on all that, though.

    Thanks for being a faithful reader and commenter.



  3. You say “If the question of Romans 3 is how God will be found righteous when he must both bless the world through Israel and simultaneously condemn Israel ..” yet had already condemned Israel (according to [Hosea]) and was now showing them they had been redeemed by Christ's death. God would no longer condemn Israel. This was a thing of the past not the future, as of the writings of Romans. You look towards the Jews who rejected Christ, as all Israel, but this is an error. There is as much chance the Jews you believe to be Israel ([Rev 2:9][Rev 3:9]) were converted Edomites as Judeans, and you don't recognise those Israelites who were not Jews, at all. God's righteousness is evident precisely in seeing how God redeemed Israel. The process of establishing the church was the process of re-establishing the (new) covenant with the gentilised House of Israel [Matt 15:24] since the church was Israel. Thus, Israel's condemnation (and restoration) was indeed a blessing to the world.

    This is how: as long as Israel's husband lives, Israel remains an adulterous wife. Her husband had to die for her to no longer be an adulteress. Her husband's death freed her from the law of adultery [Rom 7:2]. So looking again at the righteousness of God, if we recognise the gentilesed church as the House of Israel, (God's bride set to divorcement [Isa 50:1][Jer 3:8]), we can see that by bringing her back from divorcement through His death, not only is Christ establishing his own righteousness before God (by being obedient unto death), He is also restoring the righteousness of His bride by freeing her from the law of marriage (and adultery) through His death. Because the husband was raised from that death, the bride Israel is free to remarry her previous husband as a virgin rather than the adulterous wife she was in that previous marriage. With her condemnation removed, Christ's righteousness, as the head of His bride is also the bride's because of the covenant itself. This is why the new covenant is; a more perfect covenant; the fulfilment of the old covenant; and the source of restoration for all things. The re-establishment of the kingdom, with Christ as King means that citizenship in the Kingdom provides access to a righteousness that only Christ could establish.

    Every OT prophet prophesied about the restoration of Israel. Not a single OT prophet prophesied about Israel's integration into a world hostile to God, or about God's abandonment of Israel, or about God finding another bride. So the question Paul addresses about distinction is not between Israel and the world, but between Israel and Judah. He was speaking to the question the stay-at-home son asks his father in [Luke 15:30]; when it comes to the righteousness of the father, what advantaged has the House of Judah (who had remained faithful) over the House of Israel (who had not) when it was now the House of Israel who was receiving so much of God's affection. Paul points out that God's righteousness is evident however his favour is shown. By establishing the new covenant there is no longer a distinction between the House of Israel (which had abandoned God) and the House of Judah (which had not). God alone has establish His righteousness, though the bride has every claim to it before Him, through the (new) covenant.


  4. Paul is making an ethnic argument with respect to righteousness, but not the one you and others believe. You do not recognize the relationship he is talking about. To understand his use of 'righteousness of God', his ethnic view of the world must be understood – which it is not. Why does Paul's use of 'the righteousness of God' require one to first understand Paul's ethnic argument? Because his use of righteousness is about a relationship between Christ (as husband and head) and the Israel (as bride). If Paul's use of righteousness is based on the biblical concept of headship, where husband was head of His wife as Christ was the head of His assembly [Eph 5:23] and we do not recognize His bride, we cannot understand how His righteousness is hers.

    If Christ, as head, is righteousness (and He is), than His bride is righteousness by virtue of her marriage to Him (in other words by virtue of the new covenant). So this covenant and the relationship between husband and bride is what needs to be clear. Paul is not making an argument about what advantage the Jew has over the world, as you suppose, but what advantage the Jew has over the gentilized Israelites (who were not recognised as Jews or even Israelites) to whom Jesus had sent his disciples [Matt 10:6]. God is not courting the world in the new covenant, but He is courting that sister who who He had divorced and who had not returned to Him (namely the House of Israel).

    Did God say “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Judah and the rest of the world.”? No! God said “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt.” [Heb 8:8-9] quoting [Jer 31:31-32].

    The two houses are the sons Jesus speaks of in [Luke 15:11-32] where the House of Judah is the stay-at-home son (because Judah returned from Babylon after 70 years remembering their God) while the House of Israel remained in Assyrian (and ignorant of their God) until Assyria pushed west into Asia minor, conquering the remnants of the Greek Empire. The ten virgins in [Matt 25:1-13] are the ten tribes of the House of Israel which had become the multitude of nations prophesied in [Gen 17:5] and the company of nations prophesied in [Gen 35:11]. [Jer 31:32] says of the House of Israel “I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD.”


  5. Good stuff.

    And really affirming for me – I taught a 1 hour overview on Romans last week at church and this is the approach I took to this passage – it refers to God's righteousness.


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