Biblical Studies Biblical Theology Paul Preview

Why is the “righteousness of God” so difficult to define?

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)

After explaining how eager he is to preach the gospel of the resurrected Jesus Christ in Rome, Paul tells the church in Rome that he is not ashamed of the gospel (Rom 1.16). Why? It is the power of God that brings salvation to every single person who believes it.

Frank Thielman, in his new commentary on Romans, says that Romans has the “highest concentration of righteousness language” in all of Paul’s letters (84). These would be worlds like righteous, righteousness, just, justify, and justification among others. These words appear 49 times in the rest of Paul’s twelve letters. They appear 64 times in Romans alone. Clearly, the concept is an important one, and in order to understand Romans, you need to understand what Paul means when he writes about righteousness. 

So, of course, there is a great deal of debate on what Paul means, even within evangelicalism. People are unrighteous because they rebel against the Sovereign Creator and Lord. They need to be righteous to be at peace with him. There’s little disagreement there. Then Thielman asks, “But what does God do to provide them with righteousness?” (85). Here he lists seven options (all on p. 85). 

  1. Does he “impute” righteousness to them by giving them something that is alien to them when he gives it and remains alien to them throughout their whole lives? (Luther)
  2. Does he give them a righteous status? (Cranfield)
  3. Does he “make” them righteous by beginning a process in them that will eventually result in righteousness of character? (Theological Lexicon of the New Testament)
  4. Does he give them both a status of righteousness and a transforming power? (Käsemann)
  5. Does he both call people into a relationship with himself and sustain them in that relationship? (James D. G. Dunn)
  6. Does he both acquit and vindication them? (Mark Seifrid)
  7. Does he declare that they are presently within God’s family, something that he will ratify on the final day based on the way they have lived in the meantime? (N. T. Wright)

But wait, there’s more. When Paul writes that the “righteousness of God is revealed,” what does he mean by the “righteousness of God”?

  1. God himself is righteous.
  2. God engages in righteous activity.
    1. Is the activity righteous because it is “right” according to a particular standard in a forensic context?
    2. Is it right from the perspective of God’s loyalty to his covenant relationship with Israel?
  3. God gives righteousness to people.
  4. Some combination of these.

In my next post, I’ll look at what Thielman has to say on God’s righteousness.


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