God’s Righteousness as his Covenant Faithfulness?

16For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.” (Romans 1.16–17)

In my previous post I noted that in his revised BECNT commentary on Romans, Tom Schreiner summarizes the theme of Romans 1.16–17 saying, “The gospel is the saving power of God in which the righteousness of God is revealed” (63). Commentators have come to different interpretations as to what God’s righteousness is. Schreiner explains three of the different interpretations in his commentary.

Proponents

The first here is the understanding that God’s righteousness refers to his covenantal faithfulness to his people Israel. Those who argue for this position understand God’s righteousness to be “both effective and forensic” (67). His faithfulness toward Israel is due to his covenant with them and it is seen in his saving activity—that is, it is seen when he saves them from their enemies.

In his commentary Romans 1–8, James Dunn says, “God is ‘righteous’ when he fulfills the obligations he took upon himself to be Israel’s God, that is, to rescue Israel and punish Israel’s enemies” (41). God’s righteousness is to be understood as his covenant faithfulness (Rom 3:3–5, 25; 15:8). It is “God’s act to restore his own and to sustain them within the covenant (Ps 31:1; 35:24; 51:14; 65:5; 71:2, 15; 98:2; 143:11; Isa 45:8, 21; 46:13; 51:5, 6, 8; 62:1–2; 63:1, 7)” (41). 

In his book, Pauline Perspectives, N. T. Wright says, “God must be true to his covenant” with Abraham who would be the father of a great nation and who, by following God, would be a blessing to the world. He continues, “Paul [in Romans 4] quotes extensively from Genesis 15 and 17 to prove that covenant membership always depended on grace and faith” (31). Wright notes that “as God ‘redeemed’ his people from Egypt with the covenant blood, so now the blood of Jesus Christ becomes the blood of the new covenant, shed for the worldwide forgiveness of sins, achieving the redemption (3.21) of the true family of Abraham. God has dealt with sin; he has renounced partiality; he is true to his covenant. The Gospel of Jesus Christ reveals that God is in the right (Romans 1.16f.)” (31). Through the death and resurrection of the Son, God has saved Israel, Jew and Gentile—“the true family of Abraham”—from their ultimate enemies: sin and death.

Finally, Wright says, “The ‘righteousness of God’ is the divine covenant faithfulness, which is both a quality upon which God’s people may rely and something visible in action in the great covenant-fulfilling actions of the death and resurrection of Jesus and the gift of the Spirit” (74-75).

Old Testament References

Schreiner says, “God’s saving actions are rooted in his faithfulness to the covenant enacted with his people. That the righteousness of God involves his loyalty to the covenant is defended by OT and Second Temple antecedents” (75).

Psalm 36.5–6

“Your steadfast love, O Lord, extends to the heavens,
your faithfulness to the clouds.
Your righteousness is like the mountains of God;
your judgments are like the great deep;
man and beast you save, O Lord.”

Psalm 88.11–12

11 “Is your steadfast love declared in the grave,
or your faithfulness in Abaddon?
12 Are your wonders known in the darkness,
or your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?”

God’s righteousness is compared to his faithfulness and steadfast love to his people Israel seen through his wondrous works.

Psalm 142.1 (LXX)

In the Septuagint, the psalmist draws a parallel between God’s truth and his righteousness when he says,

“O Lord, hearken to my prayer.
Give ear to my entreaty with your truthfulness.
Hear me in your righteousness.”

God is both truthful and righteous to his covenant people.

Pushback

Yet just because terms such as ‘righteousness,’ ‘truthfulness,’ ‘faithfulness,’ and ‘steadfast’ are paralleled does not mean that they all denote the same thing. Even though the idea the idea of God being faithful to his covenant is present in the broad context of the above psalms, Schreiner points out elsewhere that “God’s salvation of his people is also the right thing to do; he vindicates his people in saving them.”

Israelite judges were to “acquit the innocent and condemn the guilty” (Deut 25.1). Schreiner notes the forensic aspect of their judgments saying, “Judges do not make someone righteous or wicked. They render a forensic declaration based on the reality that is before them.”1

While in Romans 3.1–8 Paul links God’s ‘righteousness’ (3.5) with his ‘faithfulness’ (3.3), ‘reliability’ (3.4), and ‘truth’ (3.7), Schreiner points out that Romans 3.5 speaks of God’s judging righteousness. The Jewish opponents ask if God is unrighteous to inflict wrath on them. God, in his righteousness, judges guilty sinners and pours out his wrath upon them (1.18). God is right and just to judge sinners.

Because God is righteous and doesn’t “pervert the right” (Job 8.3), he faithfully and steadfastly fulfills his OT saving promises and his covenant promises. However, “it is quite another thing to say that God’s righteousness is his covenant faithfulness” (75). Schreiner writes, “The righteousness of God, then, denotes the ‘rightness’ and justice of God’s salvation in Psalms and Isaiah,” which displays itself in his faithfulness to his covenant people (73).


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1 Schreiner, 40 Questions About Christians and Biblical Law, 111.

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