Archives For Righteousness of God

John Piper speaks on behalf of a myriad of traditionalists when he defines the biblical concept of “the righteousness of God” in terms of God’s general character or goodness. Thus when he writes against N.T. Wrights teaching that, for Paul and the other biblical writers, the phrase “the righteousness of God” has the specialized meaning of “God’s covenant faithfulness”, Piper says:

“There is something far deeper in God than covenant faithfulness. God was not unrighteous before there was a covenant. He was righteous before there was any covenant to keep. ‘The LORD is righteous in all his ways’ (Ps. 145:17), not just in keeping the covenant.”

But what Piper fails to take into account is that words don’t just float about detached from their context so that all that really matters is that one keep a dictionary of it’s basic meaning on hand.

Yes righteousness means “the quality of being morally right” in the dictionary. Yes if we speak of the “righteousness of God” as a standalone phrase it would mean “God’s quality of being morally right”. But when words and phrases are not plucked from their context to float about in an abstract manner, in other words when their context is allowed to help determine their meaning, an element of precision becomes important for understanding the message which is being communicated. And the phrase “the righteousness of God” (and it’s variations) is a case in point.

Throughout the scriptures the Hebrew word “tsedaqah” and its Greek equivalent “dikaiosyne” have specialized meaning important for the “exegesis” of a text. Regarding its Old Testament usage, J.I. Packer writes:

“The reason why these texts call God’s vindication of his oppressed people his ‘righteousness’ is that it is an act of faithfulness to his covenant promise to them.”

Here Packer confesses – in the Old Testament at least – that God’s ‘righteousness’ (in particular in the Psalms and Isaiah, but elsewhere too) is a specific reference to God’s covenant faithfulness, not an abstract reference to God’s general moral character.

When we come to Paul it is patently obvious to anyone who attempts an exegesis of the text even on a surface level, that his discussion of the righteousness of God in Romans (and elsewhere) is rooted repeatedly and at almost every point in Old Testament passages. Then, for the astute reader in search of Paul’s own message, and not a message deduced from sixteenth century polemics, they will quickly discover that in every case where the phrase and it’s variants are employed Paul is talking in covenant terms, covenant contexts, covenant promises and covenant faithfulness even where the word “covenant” is not employed (not least by quoting or alluding to Genesis 15, Deuteronomy 27-30, the Psalms and so on).

God is a good God, yes! He is righteous in the general sense that he is morally right, yes! But the question Paul is addressing in Romans is very specialized: will God be faithful to his covenant promise to Abraham that through him and his descendants all of the nations of the earth will be blessed? It had looked to the Jews in Rome as if God had abandoned his covenant people and had begun a new project without them (i.e. they were a precursory variation to modern Dispensationalism.) . In other words, God’s commitment or faithfulness to his covenant was being called into question. So Paul begins his letter with a declaration that God’s faithfulness to his covenant, God’s righteousness in other words, has been revealed in the Gospel of Jesus Christ (Romans 1:16-17).

He spends the next eight chapters unpacking that passage – note all of the talk of Abraham and so on – and then concludes his argument in Romans 9-11, particularly with phrases like “not all Israel are Israel” and “all Israel will be saved.”

So while yes, Piper is right in a minimalist sense that to speak of God’s righteousness in a detached, abstract way is to speak of God’s moral rightness, his holiness and goodness, in doing so he commits the uber exegetical fallacy of actually committing eisegesis. When Paul says something very specific in a context that determines it’s meaning and which has serious repercussions for understanding everything that follows, and then when what Paul means is blissfully overlooked or ignored and replaced with something else more general and abstract, all of Romans becomes lost.

Is it any wonder that a friend of mine, of Calvinist leanings no less, was reading a recent commentary on Romans by R.C. Sproul when he quipped in disappointment that “it seems every passage is about predestination.” That is what we call an exercise in missing the point, and for a book as important as Romans, that is a terrible mistake for someone as influential as Sproul or Piper.

The irony here is that Piper claims that his interpretation of the righteousness of God is “remarkably illuminating exegetically.” It is exactly the opposite of that. Few things can darken Paul’s letter to the Romans more than Piper’s attempt to exegesis “the righteousness of God.”

[This article was edited to remove offensive and obstructive language.]

At the heart of the Christian doctrine of Justification is a trustworthy God (worthy is where we get the word worship from). The two places where the Apostle Paul anchors this doctrine are clear enough. In Galatians we are told that God justifies those who have faith in Jesus by means of the faithfulness of Jesus. In other words, those who have faith in Jesus are declared members of God’s one family because of what Jesus did for them in his obedience to the Father on the cross. In Romans this point is developed and made patently clear straight from the get-go.

“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes… For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’”

The gospel is the ‘power of God’, it is the means that allows or enables God to save people, in particular those who believe. The gospel, the good news, Paul writes elsewhere, is that Christ died for our sins, was buried, was raised from the dead and ascended to the lofty throne of God.

And Paul said – back to Romans where we just were – that this narrative, the story of Jesus – from his mission climaxing in the bloody crucifixion all the way to his final exaltation – is the ‘righteousness of God’. The gospel is how God has proved himself to be righteous, just, faithful.

Remember back in Genesis God made a promise to the age-old Abram:

“Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessings. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and by you all of the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

“Leave your family and everything you know,” God tells Abram, “and I will bless your family and everything there is.” Leave your world that I may bless the world. Blessing is a covenant term. It means to make things right by putting creation back together in the way it was meant to be. God and creation reconciled.

And God is a person of his Word, pun intended.

The only question that remained unclear was precisely how he was to accomplish this imposing goal. It seemed clear enough that God would begin by creating a new family – Abram’s family (keeping in mind that Sarai was barren, Abram’s family with Sarai was literally a creative miraculous work of God). And that God’s family would martyr themselves to the world in hopes that the rest would join in.

But the precise opposite happened. Rather than martyr themselves to the world, they laid down before it. They rode the beast without a concern in the world for the world. And no matter how often or how loud YHWH called them back to himself, no matter what the consequences were, they continued to prostitute themselves to every local cult and pagan deity that came down the pike.

It appeared that YWHW’s plan had crashed and burned. The plan all along was to restore the universal order of things. And the chief players are the Lord who made all things, and humans who were made responsible to all things under God. So the plan was to restore that relationship – God and humans – by making all of humanity into one universal family with God. But the place where that family was to begin and grow out of – Abram’s family – was not going so well.

To make matters worse, it wasn’t as though God could just brush things off as another failed project – as he did in the flood, for example – and start again. This time, this covenant was different. This time God made the fateful move of staking his own life on the line.

In Genesis 15 God instructs Abram to create a covenantal ditch filled with the blood of animals that have been diced in two and placed on either side of the hill for their blood to drain down; a custom not uncommon in the Ancient Near East. Normally two chieftain’s would walk the ditch ankle high in blood to ratify an agreement. The act symbolized a pledge to the death. Both parties were essentially saying to each other, “if what I promise does not come to pass, then may what happened to these animals happen to me.”

But God does something radically, dreadfully, and infinitely gracefully unexpected. He makes his promise to Abram and then HeGod alone! – passes between the dead animals. God himself places his own life on the line. So you see, he can’t just shrug off Israel’s unfaithfulness and start again.

So then, the ultimate dilemma emerges. By definition God cannot keep his promise unilaterally. He cannot. That is because God’s promise involved a partner. “Through you” God promises Abram, “all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

So when God passes through the bloody ditch, in effecting saying, “if what I promise does not come to pass, may what happen to these animals happen to me,” we find later in the scriptures that that is exactly what happened, “like a lamb that is led to the slaughter” records the prophet.

All of the threads that we’ve talked about so far, and many more still, converge upon the cross as the climax of God’s covenant. That God himself would be born into the human race and more specifically, into the family of good ol’ Abraham. That he, Jesus – which means savior, would succeed where everyone else failed. That he, the second Adam, would be faithful to God where the first Adam and all of his descendants remained unfaithful. And then he, ‘my God and my King’ as one faithful disciple testified, would die the bloody death of those sliced and diced carcasses back in Genesis 15.

And there was Silence.

Three long and breathless Jewish days of silence.

Did the plan fail?

Silence. (Day 1)

Did God fail?

Silence. (Day 2)

Was God, as fear grips us and tears stream down our face, was God unfaithful?

Day 3…………….

“But Christ HAS in fact been raised from the dead,” declares the Apostle, “the firstfruits of a new creation.” A new creation. WOW! The plan accomplished. The evidence, the cross. The meaning: God is righteous!

It is also no mistake – if I may oscillate back to Corinth for a moment – that when Paul defines the gospel for us, he does so in the context of laying the groundwork for an exposition of the resurrection.

“If the resurrection of Jesus – the physical body, not some ghostly ‘spirituality’ nor some type of metaphorical mysticism, but the actual physical body – did not occur, then Christianity is an absurdity. We are of all people, Paul writes, most to be pitied.

“But in fact” Paul goes on to assure us with the confidence of his own witness, “Christ has been raised from the dead.” And with that it means that we can expect to be raised too, he goes on to explain.

Bursting forth on day three the power of God was made known. The faithful Human, the faithful Son of David – an Israelite! – was vindicated. And he was raised, not just from the dead but all the way up to the right hand of the Father in a marvelous act of Kingship, and from that throne he sits, and governs, and makes war until the all of the enemies have been defeated, the last of which being death itself…

… which, by the way, has already lost it’s sting.

I purchased a copy of What Saint Paul Really Said? so that N.T. Wright could autograph it since it was the first book on Paul by him I read.

If memory serves it was Edith Humphrey who brought up and challenged Wright’s interpretation of 2 Corinthians 5:21.

For N.T. Wright, if you are discussing Justification using the law-court metaphor (which has been the case since Calvin or before) it makes no sense at all to say that God’s righteousness is “imputed” on the believer. God as judge simply judges justly thus making him a “righteous Judge”. But when putting the subject of the believers Justification aside and asking the question on its own – giving full weight to the Old Testament use of “righteousness” – N.T. Wright believes that the phrase, “Gods Righteousness” is actually short hand for “the covenant faithfulness of God”. In both cases God’s righteousness is his own, it is not something he gives to anyone else.

If his interpretation is correct then what about 2 Corinthians 5:21 in which the text explicitly reads that “we have become the righteousness of God”?

N.T. Wright believes (as he says very clearly in both What Saint Paul Really Said? and in Justification) that this passage is so contextualized that we must read it as Paul talking about his own Apostolic Ministry and not about believers everywhere being imputed God’s righteousness.

Keep in mind that God’s righteousness is a reference to his faithfulness to his covenant, a faithfulness which came to fruition in the “faithful obedience of Jesus Christ on the cross” (Galatians 2:16, Philippians 2:5-11). So if the message of the Gospel – the birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:1-5) is the message of God’s covenant faithfulness then, says Wright, when Paul and the Apostles preached that message they actually embodied that message. In that sense they literally became “the righteousness of God”. This, says Wright, is the whole context of 5:11-20 and even going back to chapter 3 and 4.

But I was not satisfied with this interpretation because it seemed to limit the scope of the biblical text. I tried to dance – ever so delicately – the line between the “old” view and the “new” (i.e. Wright’s) view believing that this passage does teach that believers “take on” God’s righteousness as it were, but through the Union With Christ (“In Him” it says) rather than “imputation”. In short, I leaned toward Edith’s understanding of this passage.

In Wright’s response to Edith Humphrey my anxieties were relieved. Wright, in explaining this text at the conference, seemed to go further with it then I think he does in his books. Keeping all of his premises in tact he expanded his interpretation of this passage to include all believers and their mission.

The righteousness of God does in fact refer to God’s faithfulness to his covenant expressed fully in the life, death and resurrection of Christ (i.e. the Gospel). Furthermore, Paul in 2 Corinthians is talking – in context – specifically about his own ministry and that of the other Apostles. But – and this I think is the touch Wright adds which he does not make clear in his previous writings – we believers have a job to do in proclaiming the Kingdom Message of the Gospel to the world and when we do that then we too become, i.e. embody, the Righteousness of God.

And that is how N.T. Wright interprets 2 Corinthians 5:21, it is an interpretation I can live with though I myself need to tease it out a bit more.

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.


I read a post by another blogger recently titled “Made Righteous in Christ Jesus“. It is a well written post explaining and defending the traditional Reformed doctrine of the imputation of Christ’ righteousness.

But as the post takes flight the blogger focuses all of his energy on being made righteous by having faith in Jesus. In other words, there is subtle move from understanding being justified as a matter of “Incorporation/Participation” (being in Christ) to being imputed righteousness by having faith in Christ (believing in Christ).

I think this shift happens without thought and I think it is a mistake. I believe we are not made righteous by having faith in Jesus (that is how we are saved – Eph 2:8-9). But we are made righteous by Jesus’ own faithfulness!

Consider Romans 3:22:

This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. – NIV

Notice the NIV reads, “faith in Jesus Christ”. But the Greek reads, “faith of Jesus Christ” (look it up). And since the Greek word for faith can at the same time be translated “faithfulness”, I think the passage should be rendered, “faithfulness of Jesus Christ”.

Think about it for a moment. The passage makes no sense at all if it says “faith in” because Paul would be exercising his right to redundancy: “Through faith [believing] in Jesus Christ to all who believe” – obviously Paul, why add, “to all who believe” if you already said, “through faith [believing]”?

I think the passage makes better sense this way: “Righteousness of God comes through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ to all who believe”. Now doesn’t that make more sense?

When we believe we become participators in Christ, taking on his righteousness, a righteousness he claims by way of his faithfulness to God by being obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:6-11).

God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God – 2 Corinthians 5:21

The doctrine of imputation is always talked about a part from the doctrine of participation. I think this is a mistake.

The doctrine of imputation should never be talked about a part from the doctrine of participation.

(Note: the article I referenced above is otherwise a great post!)

When they chose new gods, war came to the city gates, and not a shield or spear was seen among forty thousand in Israel.

My heart is with Israel’s princes, with the willing volunteers among the people.

Praise the Lord!

You who ride on white donkeys, sitting on your saddle blankets, and you who walk along the road consider the voice of the singers at the watering places.

They recite the righteous acts of the Lord, the righteous acts of his warriors in Israel – Deborah (Judges 5:8-11).

This is the “official” announcement and unveiling of the logo for Covenant of Love (break out the champagne people, this calls for a celebration!)

You may already have seen this logo as my Gravatar when I have added comments in the past, and recently you have probably noticed this little logo up in the address bar in your browser (Favicon).

But today I make it official.

Covenant of Love presents:

Drum roll please…

Nice eh? (Yah that’s right. I’m Canadian)

What’s That All About?

So what’s the deal? How does this logo represent Covenant of Love? Let me explain.

(Be warned, this might get a bit technical.) Continue Reading…