Righteousness Terms and the New Perspective Part Two, Pauline Epistles (1), by Jeffery Smith

The Use of Righteousness Terminology in the Pauline Epistles (1)

We are particularly concerned here with Paul’s usage of righteousness language in his epistle to the Romans. This is the place where by far the most references are made to the righteousness of God. The righteousness or unrighteousness of men is also a major emphasis. Let’s begin, first, with….

Righteousness Language as It’s Used With Reference To Men

Now it must be acknowledged that, like we see in the O.T., in the N.T. men are sometimes referred to as righteous in different ways. While, on the one hand, we are told that there are none righteous no not one and all have sinned and are guilty of unrighteousness, yet at the same time some men are referred to as being righteous. Sometimes men are spoken of as righteous in a relative sense in the N.T. in terms of the basic orientation of the life and not in the sense of being perfectly righteous. See, for example Luke 1:6 and Phil. 3:6. We have to make those distinctions at times depending upon the context. But my focus right now is to look at the specific way Paul uses the language of righteousness with reference to men in the book of Romans in a context in which he is setting forth the doctrine of justification by faith. My purpose is not to give a detailed exposition of all the relevant texts but I just want to give something of a quick survey.[1] Paul’s use of the language in that context can be put into two categories. I like the language that was used by Luther; active righteousness, the righteousness that men themselves perform and passive righteousness; the righteousness that God in his grace gives to sinners.[2] So let’s consider the righteousness terminology in terms, first of all, of…

                        Active Righteousness

First, in speaking of righteousness, or in using righteousness language, Paul constantly contrasts righteousness with sin. Let’s start at Rom. 3:9. Paul asserts: “For we have previously charged both Jews and Greeks that they are all under sin.” This claim in Rom. 3:9 that all are under sin is further supported and followed in v.10 by the scriptural declaration that, “There is none righteous, no not one.” Clearly here to be under sin is to be unrighteous. Sin and righteousness are set forth as opposites, while sin and unrighteousness are set forth as synonymous. This is expanded in the verses following by a detailed description of what it means to be unrighteous. And that description is given in terms of sinful wicked behavior and attitudes. (note-vv.11-18.)

In Rom. 5:7-8 we are told, “For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. But God demonstrated His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us”. Notice again that being a righteous man is contrasted with being a sinner. The amazing thing is that Christ died for sinners; which is the opposite of his dying for a righteous man. A sinner is someone who has done what he ought not to do. He is a person who does, or is, what God forbids men to do or to be, or a person who has failed to do or to be what God commands him to do or to be. Sin is the transgression of the law; as Paul says up ch.3:20, “for by the law is the knowledge of sin”. Well if that’s what sin is and righteousness is the opposite of sin, what is righteousness? Righteousness is doing what God’s law commands; actually doing and being what God commands men to do and to be.[3]

Secondly, notice how Paul defines what one ought to do. He continually defines what one ought to do in this epistle in terms of God’s moral claims upon men. For example, in Rom. 1:18 Paul speaks of the wrath of God that is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men. Now he’s not merely talking about Jews there. He’s speaking of the unrighteousness of Gentiles or of all humanity. God’s wrath against all who do not do what they ought to do in accordance with the light of nature and conscience which is given to every man.  But how does Paul go on to define that? How is unrighteousness defined in the description that follows?

In Rom. 1:19-32 “unrighteousness” is defined in terms of the violation of God’s moral claims as Creator upon his creatures. “They suppress the truth”; “they do not glorify God as God, nor are they thankful”. They give themselves up to various forms of idolatry, “changing the glory of the incorruptible God into an image like corruptible man”. Women exchange the natural use for that which is against nature and also the men, leave the natural use of the woman and burn in their lust for one another. They are filled with sexual immorality, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness, full of envy, murder, strife and on and on the list goes. Man as a creature created in the image of God is guilty of refusing to give his Creator and Sustainer the honor and gratitude that He is due. He is guilty of worshipping himself instead of his Creator. He is guilty of violating the creation mandate concerning marriage and what is appropriate human sexual behavior. He is guilty of doing evil to his neighbor and having a heart that is full of envy and greed and malice. And all of this is spoken of mankind in general, the human race, Gentiles included, not just the Jews in terms of God’s covenant relationship with Israel. And Paul assumes in v.32 of ch.1 that all humans, at some level and to some degree, both know what they ought to do and they know that God rightly condemns them for not doing it, even if they do not have the law in the written form by which it was given to Israel through Moses. Ch. 1:32, “Who knowing the righteous judgment of God, that those who practice such things are deserving of death, not only do the same but also approve of those who practice them”.

Now all of this wickedness and sin and evil that characterizes fallen humanity, even those who do not have special revelation and are not parties to the Mosaic covenant as the Jews were, Paul describes as unrighteousness. Thus, unrighteousness and righteousness cannot be defined merely in terms of God’s covenant with Israel. It cannot be defined in terms of covenant membership or being recognized as one who is or who is not loyal to the covenant.

Paul goes on to emphasize in chapter 2 that men will be judged by God for their actions. He speaks in 2:5-6 of the righteous judgment of God who will render to each one according to his deeds. He says in v.13, “For not the hearers of the law are just or righteous in the sight of God, but the doers of the law”. Without giving right now a detailed exposition and interpretation of that verse in its context and in its relationship to the justification of sinners, one thing it makes clear is that righteousness has to do with being a doer of what the law requires. One is found righteous at the judgment because he does what the law requires.

Then Paul, in vv.14-16, goes on to point out again that it’s not different for the Gentiles who do not have the law in inscripturated form as the Jews do.  For even they show the work of the law written in their hearts. Righteousness in terms of doing what God’s law requires is not merely a Jewish thing. The Jews, indeed, had special guidance in these matters as they had the law in written form but it was special guidance with reference to the kind of behavior God requires of all men, both Jew and Gentile.  Righteousness is behavior that God requires of every member of the human race and that righteousness is defined in terms of the ethical demands of his law. As Paul goes on to emphasize in the first part of chapter 3, therefore, all have sinned, both Jew and Gentile, and have fallen short of the glory of God. “There is none righteous, no not one.”

So we’ve looked at Paul’s general use of righteousness language in its ordinary sense or what has been called active righteous. But that’s not the only way Paul uses the language in this epistle and elsewhere. Which leads us now to consider, secondly…

                        Passive Righteousness

Paul also speaks of righteousness in terms of that which God gives or credits to those who have no righteousness of their own; those who are sinners and yet God declares them righteous. He puts them into the category of those who have done all that his law demands and requires men to do. Yet, in reality, they have not done that. They are not righteous in the active sense, they are ungodly. They are sinners. Paul has already told us that, ultimately, all have sinned; there is none who is truly righteous in the ultimate and active sense. Yet he then goes on to declare the good news of how God declares righteous those who are sinners.

Again we go back to Rom. 3. Paul has just given his sweeping indictment of the unrighteousness of the whole human race both Jews and Gentiles. He concludes in v.20 with these words, “For by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in his sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin.” And now he begins to introduce the righteousness that God himself gives to sinners. Rom. 3:21-24:

But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,..

Here Paul speaks of sinners, unrighteous people, who have fallen short of the glory of God, being justified, rightified, declared righteous. And this righteousness is not on the basis of anything they are or anything they have done. They are justified freely. And this justification is not an act of reward or recompense for righteous deeds done. It is by God’s grace, “freely by his grace.” Furthermore, they are declared righteous through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. Without opening that up right now, clearly this extraordinary righteousness, this righteousness for sinners, is possible because of the redemptive work of Jesus Christ, which the apostle then goes on to explain in more detail in vv.25-26.

But my point for right now is that here we see sinners justified; declared righteous. And we see in the context that this is made possible by the work of Christ and that this justification is the possession of those who believe in Him.

Let’s move over to Rom. 4:5. “Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but debt. But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness.” Here again we have people who are considered ungodly and who have no works sufficient to build a claim of righteousness upon, and yet righteousness is accounted or imputed to them. They are justified, declared righteous, accounted as having righteousness. Paul speaks here of God justifying, rightifying, the ungodly.

Let’s look at Rom. 5:7-9: “For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die.” We looked at this earlier. Here is ordinary righteousness, active righteousness. But Paul goes further. Notice vv.8-9: “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him.” Here we see extraordinary righteousness or passive righteousness. We have sinners, unrighteous people, whom Christ died for who, as a result of his death for them, have been justified by his blood. They have been declared righteous, even though, in and of themselves, they are not righteous.

Look on further in Rom. 5 at vv.17-19. Again just very briefly, without opening this up in detail right now, notice what we see. In v.12 Paul says, “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned-”. Here we have the universal guilt of the entire human race resulting from Adam’s sin. For our purpose right now here is what I want us to see; all men are counted as sinners according to this text. All sinned. Now notice how Paul picks up this line of thought in v.17, “For if by the one man’s offense death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ.” Here we have, in contrast to the death that came to all men because of sin, what Paul refers to as the gift of righteousness. Here again are sinners and yet they have righteousness given to them as a gift. He goes on to connect this gift of righteousness to the obedience and righteous act of Jesus Christ in vv.18-19.

So here is the mystery, as it were, of Paul’s usage of righteousness terminology we must understand if we would understand the gospel Paul preaches. In its ordinary usage, or in its active sense, righteousness is moral conformity to the claims of God upon men as his creatures which are given clearest expression in his law. The righteous are those who have done what they ought to do in terms of those claims. And righteousness is the possession of those who have done so. But there is none righteous, no not one, for all have sinned. So how can there be any hope for sinners? How can sinners stand righteous before God? Contrary to the new perspective this is the question that Paul addresses in his doctrine of justification. It is here that Paul brings in the gospel as he sets before us this extraordinary righteousness, or passive righteousness. It is righteousness that is freely given to sinners and received through faith in Jesus Christ.

But how can it be that God justifies sinners who believe on Jesus? Prov. 17:15 says, “He who justifies the wicked, and he who condemns the just, both of them alike are an abomination to the Lord.” But Paul tells us that God himself justifies the wicked. How can God do that if he who justifies the wicked is an abomination to the Lord? Well, again, it is Jesus Christ and his work that enters into the equation. Paul answers that question in terms of the work that Christ has done on behalf of sinners.

Let me say as a practical aside, that until a man, in some measure, has been brought face to face with this dilemma he can’t really understand the gospel. Until he sees that God is holy and just, and until God’s law has produced in his conscience the conviction that he is a sinner deserving of nothing from God but wrath; until his conscience is brought face to face with this dilemma of how can God do anything else but send me to hell; until a man feels something of this dilemma, he cannot possibly experimentally understand the gospel, or rejoice in the gospel with the cordial embrace of faith? Why?; because this is the very dilemma that the gospel addresses and answers.

This is one of the great needs in the preaching of our day. This is one of the great needs in the so-called biblical scholarship of our day. Men need to be confronted with the majesty, holiness, justice and wrath of God. They need to be confronted with the law of God in order that they may be brought to see and to feel their sinfulness and hell deservedness and their lost condition. It is then and only then that the gospel of justification by faith becomes relevant to them and can be properly appreciated as they are forced to ask the question, “How can a sinner like me be right with a holy and just God?”

This is why Paul spent the first two, and over half of the third, chapters of this epistle to the Romans setting forth these very issues before he ever begins to take up justification by faith beginning in Ch. 3:21. He begins with God, His justice and wrath against sin, his moral ethical claims upon men, the claims of His law, and man’s condition before God as a sinner who is justly condemned. And then after that he takes up the glorious gospel of justification by faith. Listen to the comments of James Buchanan:

The best preparation for the study of this doctrine is—neither great intellectual ability, nor much scholastic learning,–but a conscience impressed with a sense of our actual condition as sinners in the sight of God….the law must be applied to the conscience, so as to quicken and arouse it, before we can feel our need of salvation, or make any serious effort to attain it. It is the convicted, and not the careless, sinner, who alone will lay to heart, with some sense of its real meaning and momentous importance, the solemn question—How shall a man be just with God?[4]

Another quote; this time from John Murray:

We are all wrong with God because we have all sinned and come short of the glory of God. Far too frequently we fail to entertain the gravity of this fact. Hence the reality of our sin and the reality of the wrath of God upon us for our sin do not come into our reckoning. This is the reason why the grand article of justification does not ring the bells in the innermost depths of our spirit. And this is the reason why the gospel of justification is to such an extent a meaningless sound in the world and in the church of the twentieth century. We are not imbued with the profound sense of the reality of God, of His majesty and holiness, And sin, if reckoned with at all is little more than a misfortune or maladjustment. If we are to appreciate that which is central in the gospel, if the jubilee trumpet is to find  its echo again in our hearts, our thinking must be revolutionized by the realism of the wrath of God, of the reality and gravity of our guilt, and of the divine condemnation. It is then and only then that our thinking and feeling will be rehabilitated to an understanding of God’s grace in the justification of the ungodly[5]


[1] In this I’m following to some degree the helpful method used by Stephen Westerholm, Perspective Old and New263-283. Westerholm divides Paul’s references to righteousness with respect to men into two categories; what he calls ordinary righteousness and extraordinary righteousness. By ordinary he means the righteousness of one who does what he ought to do. By extraordinary he means the righteousness of one who has not done what he ought to do and yet he is counted righteous.

[2] See for example, Martin Luther, Commentary On Galatians, (1850; reprint, Grand   Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1979), xi-xviii.

[3] One could add Rom. 6:13-14; 18-19, though the context is not that of the sinner’s justification before God but of the believer’s new life in Christ that is inseparable from it.  For example, in Rom. 6:13-14 we are urged to not present the members of our bodies as instruments of unrighteousness to sin, but present yourselves to God as being alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God. For sin shall not have dominion over you.” Again righteousness is set forth as the opposite of sin and sin is set forth as synonymous with unrighteousness. Rom. 6:18-19, “And having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness.”  The opposite of being in bondage to sin is being a servant of righteousness. “I speak in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh. For just as you presented your members as slaves of uncleanness, and of lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves of righteousness for holiness.” Again righteousness is the opposite of lawlessness. Being a servant of righteousness for holiness is the opposite of being slaves of uncleanness and lawlessness.

[4] James Buchanan, The Doctrine of Justification, (1867; reprint, Carlisle PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1997), 222. See also John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, (1955; Wm. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987), 117-118

[5] John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, (1955; Wm. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987), 117-118.


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