Thinking about God’s Righteousness

Derek Ouellette —  April 19, 2010

At the conference one scholar challenged N.T. Wright’s interpretation of 2 Corinthians 5:21 which reads, “He became sin who knew no sin that in Him we might become the righteousness of God”.

N.T. Wright maintains a distinction between “God’s righteousness” and “our justification” and we should not confuse the two.

The phrase “God’s righteousness” is God’s own righteousness as the Judge. The Judge is a “just” Judge not because he is morally perfect (though obviously God is), but because He judges Rightly, i.e. He is a righteous Judge. So God’s righteousness is his own ability to judge rightly, and in that sense it would be silly to suggest that the Judge (i.e. God) could impute, impart, bequeath et cetera his own “righteousness” onto the defendant.

The phrase “to be justified” is a declaration from the Righteous Judge (assuming He judges rightly). It is not a declaration that someone is morally perfect (“no one is righteous, no not one”), rather the Judge finds the defendant, based on the case and evidence at hand, to be justified. The evidence in a believer’s case that God looks for is whether or not he/she is a follower of Jesus the Messiah.

So God’s righteousness is His own as Judge and refers to His judging rightly. The defendants “justification” is a declaration made by the just Judge that he is acquitted of the crime of which he is accused of in that particular case. So the Judges “righteousness” is distinguished from the defendants “justification”.

So what about 2 Corinthians 5:21 which Paul distinctly writes that in Christ we become the “righteousness of God”. How can the defendant become the Judges own righteousness?

Cannot and does not this text support the traditional view that the believe becomes (i.e. is imputed) God’s own righteousness? I struggled with Wrights interpretation of this text (see my struggle here and read under the heading, “What About God’s Righteous Judgment”) and my struggle came into focus after Wright was challenged on this point and before he responded. I remember talking with a friend after the challenge was made and we bantered around ideas and wondered how Wright will respond.

It is his answer to that challenge which will be the focus of the next post.


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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
  • Eric Gregory

    I was pretty sure that Wright’s interpretation of “righteous” was his own faithfulness to be the God of His covenant, and had little to do with his ability to judge rightly. Our righteousness is our ability to live into the Covenant and actually BE the people of God (which we fail to do, thus the need for Christ).

    That was my understanding after reading “Justification”.

  • Derek Ouellette

    Eric I think you are right. For N.T. Wright God’s righteousness is a reference to his own “covenant faithfulness”. But when the subject turns to “Justification” with it’s law-court metaphor Wright explains that Justification cannot be imputed. To explain this he uses the law court metaphor both in his work on Justification and in What Saint Paul Really Said?, to show that in that metaphor God cannot impute his own righteousness onto the believer because the “judges righteousness” and the “defendants justification” are not the same thing though in Greek the word is the same (dikaiosune).

    “the Righteousness of God” in the law-court metaphor is a reference to God as the righteous Judge. This is why in his book on Justification he makes the famous statement that it is silly to say that God “imputes, imparts, bequeath…” his own righteousness. (Look it up.)

    He makes the same argument in What Saint Paul Really Said? (I’m away on business and don’t have access to either work to give page references, sorry). In the law-court metaphor God’s righteousness is a reference to his ability to judge fairly and rightly.

    So the question is still raised by his critics: If God’s righteousness is a) a reference to his judging rightly and/or b) a reference to his covenant faithfulness, then how can Paul write that Christ “became sin who knew no sin that in Him we might become the righteousness of God”. Doesn’t this passage refer to God’s righteousness being imputed onto the believe? Doesn’t the “we” in this passage apply to more then just Paul and the apostles? Can it not also apply to the rest of the church body?
    .-= Derek Ouellette´s last blog ..Thinking about God’s Righteousness =-.