|RIGHTEOUSNESS: The Righteousness Of God
Mark A. Seifrid
HIS GLORY REIGNS
Jan 30 2009 08:00AM
The message of Romans
Between Paul's conversion and his letter to Rome stand fourteen years of apostolic witness and labour, in which
according to his own reckoning he had brought to completion the proclamation of the gospel among the Gentiles in the
eastern Mediterranean: 'From Jerusalem as far as Illyricum, I have fulfilled the gospel of Christ.' Undoubtedly his
understanding of the gospel deepened in these years, especially in the severe difficulties he endured. Yet it does not
appear that he developed or changed his theological commitments. He himself displays no awareness that his message
changed substantially in the course of his service. The letters which he composed in this period of his ministry, despite
their varying formulations, display a common understanding of the message of salvation. There is something to be
gained, therefore, by examining Paul's mature exposition of his gospel in Romans. Here one is able to see something of
the dimensions of 'justification' in Paul's thought, its depth and richness. Naturally, it is important to take care that we do
not read Romans into Paul's other letters, each of which has its own occasion and purpose. It is equally important,
however, to avoid the temptation of current scholarship to atomize his letters. As he wrote his letter to Rome, Paul
looked back upon his ministry in the eastern Mediterranean as a single, completed task. We shall use it as our starting-
point for exploring Paul's theology of justification, and shall return it to examine the place of Israel in Paul's gospel.
While there has been considerable debate concerning Paul's reason for writing to Rome, the most satisfying conclusion
remains that the letter introduces Paul's gospel to a primarily Gentile church which he had not planted. Other aims
which have been suggested for Romans either fail to convince, or are best viewed as aspects of this larger purpose.
Above all else, Paul's statements in the opening and closing of the letter signal to us that his aim is to secure a
commitment to the gospel he proclaimed in Rome. '[Jesus Christ our Lord] through whom we have received grace and
apostleship unto the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles on behalf of his name, among whom you, too, are ones
called by Jesus Christ' (Romans 1:5-6).
Romans is no less occasional than the rest of Paul's letters, but in this case the occasion leads him to a thorough
exposition of his gospel. The particular concerns of the house-churches which made up the Roman congregation are
not absent from the letter, but they do not take centre stage. That is not to say that Paul here develops a systematic
theology. He writes to those who shared Christian beliefs and practices with him, and instructs and communicates
rather than presenting ideas in abstraction. Yet his directness of address derives from his gospel, in which humanity is
called to account before God, and not simply from the needs of a first-century church. In the gospel, which Paul sets
forth in Romans, we see the driving force of his faith, which had brought him to this point in his apostolic mission and
which carried him forward.
The revelation of the 'righteousness of God'
In announcing his intent to preach the gospel in the cultured city of Rome and not merely among the 'barbarians' in the
provinces, Paul declares: 'I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation for everyone who
believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek, for the righteousness of God is revealed in it from faith unto faith, just
as it is written, "The righteous one shall live by faith'" (Romans 1:16-17).
This announcement obviously represents a summary of the gospel which Paul elaborates in the course of the letter. A
great deal depends on how we interpret this brief statement, and 'the righteousness of ' which Paul names as the basis
of the 'good news' he proclaimed.
Faith and the revelation of God's righteousness
In seeking to understand Paul, we must first note that he locates 'justification' in an act of revelation: the 'righteousness
of God' has been revealed in the gospel (Romans 1:17). As he later says, it has now been manifest apart from the law
(3:21). The gospel in which Jesus Christ is proclaimed is a 'mystery' hidden in the past, but now made known (16:25-
27). This 'revealed righteousness of God' is therefore not something entirely new. It accords with 'that which has been
written' (1:17). 'The law and the Prophets' bear witness to this righteousness (3:21; 16:26). Correspondingly, although
Scripture announced God's saving purposes, those purposes remained hidden until the arrival of the gospel. In other
words, promise and fulfillment are not joined in a straightforward and transparent manner. Otherwise Paul could not
speak of the gospel as the revelation of a mystery (16:25-27). The fulfillment of promise transcends and contradicts
human expectation: the 'righteousness of God' is revealed 'by faith unto faith'.
In fact, the primary theme of Romans 1:16-17 is the demand for faith, as a glance at these verses shows. It is the
exclusive means of salvation, of the revelation of God's righteousness, and of life. As we shall see, Paul regards it as
integral to the way in which God justifies the ungodly. He has already described his apostolate as securing the
'obedience of faith among all the Gentiles' (1:5), and will return to this imperative of faith repeatedly in the letter. In this
context, he appeals to Scripture to undergird the central role he assigns to faith: 'as it is written, "the righteous one shall
live by faith"' (1:17).
Faith is not new, then. The manner in which God justifies remains constant in promise and fulfillment. The text which
Paul cites, Habakkuk 2:4, speaks of the one who lives by the 'faithfulness' of the vision of coming salvation, that is, by
the promise of God. In interpreting this Scripture as speaking of the faith of the righteous one, Paul underscores the
way in which Habakkuk's vision contains a call to faith. Over against the 'proud one' who relies upon wealth and earthly
goods (whose 'spirit is not right within him') stands the 'righteous one' who waits for the salvation promised in the vision
(Hab. 2:1-4, 5-20). To this one who believes, and this one alone, God grants 'life'. The prophetic call for faith is the
same as the call of the gospel, in which the vision of salvation has come to fulfillment.
In appealing to this Scripture Paul is clarifying the meaning of the 'righteousness of God', which is revealed in the
gospel. Implicitly, therefore this 'righteousness of God' is nothing other than the 'life' which is given to the one who
believes. Because 'life' and 'righteousness' are contingent upon faith, Paul speaks in a twofold manner of the
righteousness of God as revealed 'from faith unto faith'. Faith is both the source and goal of the righteousness of God,
the means of 'seeing' it and the demand which it lays upon us. 'Faith' is no mere disposition in this context, but
submission to the promise of God fulfilled in the gospel. Just as the work of God in Christ's cross and resurrection is
revealed and effective by faith, faith is nothing other than obedience to the proclamation of that cross and
The 'righteousness of God' in biblical usage
Paul's expression 'the righteousness of God is revealed' recalls various biblical descriptions of God's saving
righteousness, particularly Psalm 98:
gotten him the victory. The LORD hath made known his salvation: his righteousness hath he openly shewed in
the sight of the heathen. He hath remembered his mercy and his truth toward the house of Israel: all the ends of
the earth have seen the salvation of our God." Psalm 98:1-3
In this psalm, as in other biblical examples, the 'righteousness of God' clearly signifies an act of God in which His saving
righteousness is displayed. The psalmist envisages God intervening on behalf of His people against unnamed enemies
before the eyes of all the nations. Salvation comes only on account of the destruction of the enemies of the people of
God. Here that thought remains in the background. The following lines of the psalm call upon the nations to rejoice as
they anticipate the Lord's coming to judge the earth. God's saving act on behalf of Israel foreshadows the justice which
He will effect among and for them. The entire world, pictured as the distant islands, looks forward to God's saving act of
judgment. We should not allow the first lines of this psalm to go unnoticed. The contention which implicitly informs the
psalmist's statements involves not merely 'the house of Israel', but God Himself: His 'holy arm and right hand' gain
salvation for Him. In revealing His righteousness, God was not only delivering His people, but establishing His own
cause against those who contend against Him.
It is currently quite common for scholars to interpret 'God's righteousness' as His 'covenant-faithfulness' toward Israel.
In other words, God is 'righteous' in that He fulfills His promises to save His people. Despite its initial appeal, this
interpretation does not fit Psalm 98. Although the Lord might be said to act out of covenant-faithfulness to His people,
His action itself cannot properly be called covenantal. It rather represents the judgment of the King, who establishes
justice in His creation (verse 6). As we have noted, His deliverance of Israel anticipates His 'coming' to judge savingly
on behalf of the entire earth. The nations themselves expect to receive His saving justice (verses 7-9). For this reason
the very elements of creation - the sea, the rivers and the hills - celebrate His coming. The fidelity which God displays
toward Israel is only one manifestation of the saving righteousness which He exercises as ruler of all.
The 'creational' context of 'God's righteousness' which appears in Psalm 98 is characteristic of biblical usage. The
language of 'righteousness' appears with remarkable frequency in association with the vocabulary of 'ruling and
judging', especially the root spt. This activity of 'ruling and judging' extends well beyond God's relationship with Israel,
as, for example, in the Genesis account of Abraham's intercession for Sodom and Gomorrah. Upon hearing of the
coming destruction which God will bring upon these cities, Abraham raises the objection that there might be righteous
persons who would be slain along with the wicked. For God to allow such an inequity is out of the question: 'Shall not
the judge of all the earth render just judgment?' The narrative suggests that God might indeed find some 'righteous
ones' among the pagan of these two cities (although He did not), and that they would deserve justice from Him. God is
expected to render judgment in favour of the righteous, whatever their national descent. The title given to God in the
text, the 'judge of all the earth', is itself indicative of the context of biblical conception of righteousness. In the broader
biblical witness, God repeatedly intervenes as the good and gracious ruler of all the earth to 'do justice and
righteousness' for the weak and oppressed, who are unable to obtain justice for themselves. Since evil prevails in the
world which He made, God must again and again act to restore the right order of His good creation. Early in Israel's
history, He raised up 'judges' on behalf of His oppressed people, to work righteousness for them. This task later fell to
the king and to others in positions of power, who under the authority of God were to contend for the weak in society,
whose rights were easily abused:
righteousness, and thy poor with judgment. The mountains shall bring peace to the people, and the little hills, by
righteousness." Psalm 72:1-3
When this obligation was repeatedly violated, as the prophets charged Israel with doing, God determined to establish
justice for Himself, and to bring retribution on those who opposed Him. The messianic hope itself comes to expression
within this framework: God promises His people a 'new' David who, unlike the previous rulers of Israel, will work justice
In such biblical contexts the administration of justice is simultaneously judicial, legislative, and executive. The biblical
authors are interested not in bare verdicts, but in the execution of justice. 'Righteousness' terminology, particularly the
verbal forms, therefore often came to signify the (just) benefit which resulted from vindication in a contention or a legal
proceeding. So, for example, God commands Zedekiah the king:
oppressor: and do no wrong, do no violence to the stranger, the fatherless, nor the widow, neither shed innocent
blood in this place." Jeremiah 22:3
'Justification' is viewed here as a definite action, the rectification of the weak in a particular dispute. Furthermore, this
usage of 'righteousness' terminology quite clearly includes the concept of a 'norm', an order within the world, which God
graciously acts (again and again) to restore. 'Righteousness' therefore cannot be reduced to the idea of a 'proper
relation', as often has been done in recent interpretation.
The background of 'ruling and judging', together with the specificity of the biblical usage, substantially explains the idea
of a 'saving righteousness' in the Hebrew Scriptures. The concreteness of the biblical usage allows the biblical writers
to appeal to God's saving righteousness:
righteousness. And enter not into judgment with thy servant: for in thy sight shall no man living be justified. For
the enemy hath persecuted my soul; he hath smitten my life down to the ground; he hath made me to dwell in
darkness, as those that have been long dead." Psalm 143:1-3
In this text, the psalmist petitions God to contend for him against his enemies, while at the same time asking that God
might not enter into contention with him. Should God press His own claims, the petitioner himself would be undone.
God's saving righteousness stands in juxtaposition to His retributive justice, without immediate explanation. This
tension appears in a most striking way in Psalm 51, in which the psalmist appeals to God for mercy, even as he
confesses that he has sinned against 'God alone'. His confession does not represent an attempt to escape
responsibility, but precisely the opposite, an admission of absolute and unmitigated guilt. God is fully justified in this
contention: there is no possibility of deliverance from divine judgment unless it comes from God Himself. In verse 14,
the psalmist presents his petition accordingly:
righteousness." Psalm 51:14
In a prayer of unsurpassed boldness, he asks God to act for him in God's contention with him. God's saving
righteousness is to overcome God's righteous judgment. This opposition is softened somewhat in that the psalmist's
guilt is personified and presented as a power from which he requires 'deliverance'. Nevertheless, in the end the
psalmist appeals to God against God.
Several misunderstandings of the biblical references to the 'righteousness of God' should be avoided. The concept of
'God's righteousness' in the Hebrew Scriptures cannot be reduced to the meaning 'salvation' or the like, since it always
functions within the context of a legal dispute or contention. When God works salvation for His people, He establishes
justice for them (and for Himself) over against their enemies and His. Saving righteousness and wrath parallel one
another, since they are different aspects of the same event. Correspondingly, along with the references to a 'saving
righteousness' of God, there are a number of passages in which punitive or retributive conceptions are associated with
'the righteousness of God'. Often this usage represents a confession which appears as a formal element within a
'contention'. After the crops of Egypt had been destroyed by hail in one of the ten plagues, the Pharaoh confesses,
"The Lord is righteous; I and my people are guilty' (Exodus 9:27). Similarly, in the great confession of Nehemiah, the
people consider their lamentable condition and say to the Lord, ' You are righteous in everything which you have
brought upon us, for you have acted in truth, and we have acted wickedly' (Nehemiah 9:33). Here we have a striking
confirmation that the biblical usage of 'righteousness' is essentially forensic in orientation. While the 'saving' sense of
'God's righteousness' appears more frequently, the juridical orientation of the usage in the Hebrew Scriptures allows
both positive and negative outworkings of that righteousness.
In considerable measure the semantic distinction between 'saving righteousness' and 'retributive justice' follows lexical
lines. The hi'phil stem of the verb and the noun s daqa often denote an act of vindication or its result. Usually the
adjective saddiq (which in all but one instance in the Hebrew Scriptures is applied to persons) is used to predicate
righteousness of God, often with retributive or punitive overtones. Perhaps this lexical distinction has contributed to the
mistaken claim that 'the righteousness of God' always signifies a 'saving righteousness'. If one limits one's scope to the
noun and verb, one takes into account only one aspect of the linguistic evidence.
The understanding of the biblical writers that injustice and wickedness are resident within the world goes a long way
towards explaining why references to God's saving righteous appear roughly four times as frequently as those to
retributive justice. Only God's repeated intervention, whether mediate or direct, can effect righteousness. This is the will
of God according to the Scriptures: to establish His righteousness within the creation and thereby to manifest that He is
its Creator. Conversely, confessions of God as 'righteous' are not abstract statements in the biblical writings. They are
acknowledgments by sinful human beings of their own acts of injustice. Consequently in the biblical literature they
appear less frequently, and as responses to divine judgment.
The idea that God establishes and maintains 'righteousness' and proper order in the world requires some elaboration.
As we can see already in Psalm 98, God does not merely contend on behalf of those who have been oppressed. He
also insists on his rightful claim to be God against the world which denies Him. Particularly in the book of Isaiah, God's
saving action transcends the mere restoration of order within the world, as in 51:16.
heavens, and lay the foundations of the earth, and say unto Zion, Thou art my people." Isaiah 51:16
The punitive action which appears in this text obviously corresponds to God's saving activity, but clearly is not
necessary to it: God need not destroy the world to save His people. He acts not merely for them, but also for His own
sake. His ruling and judging the world include His absolute right to be God, even to the point of the destruction of the
old and the establishment of a new creation. For this reason, when God has a contention with His people, it is
only through wrath and condemnation that salvation and righteousness may come. Indeed, the prophetic
oracles of salvation characteristically announce 'deliverance through destruction' (e.g. Is. 1:24-28; 5:1-30; 9:1-21; 51:1-
23). As we shall see, Paul's understanding of justification follows these biblical lines of thought.
In this connection it is important to observe that we cannot adequately explain the biblical understanding of 'God's
righteousness' simply by appeal to God's acting for His glory. In biblical usage 'God's glory', like his righteousness,
involves not only his vindication against his enemies, but also his bringing salvation. In other words, the biblical
understanding of divine glory also involves a tension between God's vindication over against the world and His bringing
salvation to the world. As with God's righteousness, this tension is resolved not in a concept, but in a deed of God,
which simultaneously establishes his right and in unfathomable mercy brings salvation.
The 'righteousness of God' revealed in the gospel
In light of these considerations, we may now return to Paul's allusion to the biblical usage of 'the righteousness of God'
in Romans 1:17. In the first place, we must take note of a decisive difference between Psalm 98 and this text. The
psalm speaks of an open manifestation of God's righteousness before the eyes of the nations. Paul, as we have seen,
speaks of the revelation of the righteousness of God in the gospel to faith. This revelation is no less historical than the
first, since the gospel announces the saving death and resurrection of Christ. Nevertheless, in contrast with the psalm,
Paul has in view a 'hidden' revelation of God's righteousness, bound up with the demand for faith.
It is also clear that Paul has in view a 'righteousness of God' which works the salvation of the human being, since this
verse explains why the gospel is the 'power of God for salvation'. The revelation of God's righteousness fulfills the
prophetic scripture in Habakkuk that 'the righteous one shall live by faith', that is to say, the revelation of 'righteousness
of God' effects the life of the age to come. As was common by his day, Paul transposes the prophetic promise of
deliverance through - not from - the Babylonian onslaught to the hope of resurrection from the dead, providing an
important clue to the sense in which he speaks of 'the righteousness of God'. Paul speaks here not of an attribute of
God, but an act of God.
The connection between God's saving intervention on behalf of Israel and the salvation of the world which we find in the
psalm recurs in Paul's statement. The gospel is the power of God for salvation, "...for it is the power of God unto
salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek." (Romans 1:16). The 'revelation of the
righteousness of God' recalls not only God's promises for His people, but also His purposes for the nations. In speaking
of 'God's righteousness' Paul has in view God's role as 'ruler and judge', who will savingly bring about 'justice and
righteousness' for the world which he has made.
It is 'in the gospel' that the 'righteousness of God' is revealed. Paul's localizing declaration suggests that he refers to
the resurrection of the crucified Christ, employing biblical language in order to convey its saving significance. "God's
righteousness' is His 'vindicating act' of raising Christ from the dead for us. Here the biblical themes of God's
deliverance of the oppressed, His vindication of His Servant, His faithfulness to Israel and His salvation of the world are
implicitly present. That which is to take place at the day of judgment for those who believe is manifest here and now in
the crucified and risen Christ. For this reason, the 'righteousness of God' is simultaneously hidden and revealed. And
it is God's righteousness which has been revealed: in Christ's resurrection God has been vindicated and has defeated
His enemies. Salvation comes through destruction, justification through condemnation. Moreover, the gospel
is 'the power of God unto salvation' because the 'righteousness of God' revealed in it entails nothing less than the
resurrection from the dead. Habakkuk's promise of 'life' is fulfilled in the resurrection of Christ.
The broader context confirms this interpretation. In the opening verses of the letter, Paul names the resurrected Christ
as the content of his gospel, which he likewise describes as the fulfillment of promise (Romans 1:1-4). Even more
significantly, he subsequently connects the justification of believers with the resurrection of the crucified Christ: "Who
was delivered for our offences, and raised again for our justification." (Romans 4:25). Just as our sin brought Christ's
condemnation and death, so his resurrection announces our justification. The close connection between verdict and
vindication which one finds so prominently in the usage of the Hebrew Scriptures reappears here. The divine verdict
'for us' is present and manifest in the resurrected Christ. Later in Romans, Paul identifies Christ with the revealed
'righteousness of God' to which Israel refused to submit (Romans 10:4). The theme appears elsewhere in Paul's letters
and links his thought with the broader witness of the New Testament.
The righteousness of God's wrath against Idolatry (Romans 1:18-32)
Often interpreters read Romans 1:18 and 3:20 as a logical demonstration running along these lines: 'All Gentiles have
sinned and stand under God's wrath; all Jews have done the same; therefore all are under the wrath of God and all
need the gospel.' Paul clearly arrives at the endpoint of this syllogism, but his argument does not follow this path.
Much of what he has to say is lost if we attempt to read the passage in this manner.
If we are to understand Paul's argument properly, we must closely observe this declaration: "For the wrath of God is
revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness;"
(Romans 1:18). His charge is directed against the "ungodliness and unrighteousness of human beings. At this juncture
he makes no explicit accusation against all humanity, although in naming ' human beings' (and not merely Gentiles) as
the perpetrators of injustice, he anticipates it. Here he asserts only that God's wrath has been revealed against all
idolatry. Only later, in Romans 3, will he bring the accusation that all are idolators. It is significant, too, that at the very
outset Paul characterizes 'ungodliness' as 'unrighteousness'. It is 'the unrighteousness of human beings' which calls
forth the wrath of God (1:18). Paul's topic in 1:18-32 in the injustice of idolatry, and the justice of God's wrath against it.
He underscores this point by setting forth a series of charges, which he formulates in terms of paradoxes in order to
convey their force: the 'unseen things of God' are clearly seen through what has been made, so that idolators are
'without excuse' (verse 20); although such persons profess to be wise, they have become fools (verse 22). The divine
surrender of idolators to their desires appears similarly in an emphatic, threefold 'law of retribution'; (1) God has
delivered over those who worship the image of the corruptible human to the dishonouring of their bodies (Roman 1:24-
25); (2) God has delivered over those who worship the creature rather than Creator to corrupting the created order in
their own persons (verses 26-27); (3) God has delivered over to a mind that is morally useless (adokimos) those who
do not think it useful (edokimasen) to remember God (verses 28-29). Paul does not speak here of a progression of
judgments, but a single act which expresses God's righteous wrath and anticipates God's execution of his 'just decree'
of death on the 'day of wrath' (verse 32; 2:5).
We may freely admit that in Romans 1:18-32 Paul primarily has in view Gentile society seen from a Jewish and biblical
perspective. The orientation of his argument is clear not only from parallel descriptions of Gentile idolatry which appear
in early Jewish literature but also from the attack upon 'wisdom so-called' which lies at the centre of his polemic: those
who professed to be wise became fools (verse 22). Here Paul exposes the pretensions of Hellenistic society, just as he
subsequently calls into question Jewish presumption of privilege in the possession of the law (17-29). Nevertheless,
Paul does not bring a charge against Gentiles as such, only against all idolatry. He knows well enough that Jews also
could be idolators (2:22). Ethnic stereotypes are irrelevant to him. Each one, whether Jew or Greek, will receive just
recompense for his or her deeds at the coming day of judgment (2:8-11). God will judge the secrets of all hearts
through Christ Jesus (2:16).
Paul's charge that idolatry is an act of unrighteousness rests upon the claim that the knowledge of God is imparted by
creation. When he speaks of 'that which is known of God' (to gnoston tou theou), he does not have in view some
residual, limited capacity within the fallen human being to know God (1:19). Paul's language makes it clear that he
regards natural revelation as imparting a knowledge of God which is sufficient for the creature to worship him rightly.
'That which is known of God' is perceived in the difference between the creation and the Creator. His unseen being and
eternal power distinguish Him from that which He has made and sustains (1:20). It is incumbent upon the human
creature to glorify and give thanks to this one eternal, beneficent and unseen Creator. That is precisely what the
idolator refuses to do. As Paul's further argument will make clear, natural revelation is complete and sufficient, but it
does not issue in a true natural theology or knowledge of God. The fallen human being has been subjected to idolatry,
which the gospel does not supplement but brings to an end.
The created order imparts not only a knowledge of God the Creator, but a knowledge of His will. Idolators 'know the
righteous ordinance of God' that those who engage in vices are 'worthy of death' (1:32). The human being is not
merely an observer of the enduring order of creation, but a participant in it: Gentiles sometimes 'by nature' perform the
'things of the law' (2:14). As the creation of God, the human being remains a moral being and cannot become amoral,
only immoral. Seen in this light, 1:32 reveals the considerable dimensions of natural revelation in Paul's
understanding. The worship and thanksgiving which the creature owes the Creator according to 1:21 entail much more
than lip-service. It includes that 'righteous decree of God' which encompasses the whole of our proper service to God
with body and life. The judgment of God, His 'delivering up' of idolators, anticipates the mercies of God, which liberate
us from idolatry and effect the worship of the one true God (12:1-2).
The law of God and the righteousness of God (Romans 3:19-20)
Paul here summarizes his discussion of Israel's privilege with a declaration concerning the law:
be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no
flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin."
At first sight, one might suppose that Paul here merely explains his prior chain-citation of Scripture. It is more likely,
however, that he recalls his anticipatory discussion of the law in 2:17-29, forming something of an envelop (inclusio),
which rounds off a discrete section of the letter (2:17-3:20). The term nomos ('law') reappears here for the first time of
the 'works of the law' which cannot justify, and of the 'knowledge of sin' which comes through the law. We have here a
succinct description of the divine purpose for the law, in which Paul counters a misunderstanding of it attached to the
expression 'works of the law'. It represents a theological confession ('we know...') which prepares for Paul's exposition
of the justifying work of the cross in 3:21-26 and lays the groundwork for his further explication of the law in 3:27-8:39.
I have rendered hypodikos here as 'held guilty' (before God) rather than as 'accountable' (cf. NIV, NRSV), a reading
which is to be preferred for several reasons. (1) The sense of 'guilt' or 'liability to judgment' is normally attached to this
word. (2) The preceding chain-citation obviously has to do not with accountability, but with guilt. Since it is fairly clear
that Paul continues the thought of this citation when he speaks of 'whatever the law says', it is probable that he speaks
here of condemnation, not mere 'accountability'. (3) Paul has just argued that the Gentiles are fully accountable to
God without the law (Romans 2:12-16). It hardly makes sense for him to reverse his position and make the law
necessary to this accountability. (4) The word hypodikos is coupled with the clause, 'that every mouth might be
closed', an expression which is regularly used in the Scriptures to describe the silencing of the wicked and guilty (Ps. 63:
11; 107:42; Job 5:16).
In speaking of the law effecting the 'knowledge of sin', Paul does not have in view an immediate awareness of guilt
imparted by the knowledge of the law's demands, but the experience of sin. Through our entrance into this experiential
knowledge, God establishes His claim that we are liars'. Despite the objective character of this event, however, it is only
in faith that we recognize it and the purpose of the law which brings it about. Here we wish only to adduce several
considerations in favour of this reading of the expression.
First, the aim of Paul's argument begun at Romans 1:18 has been to display the righteousness of God's wrath against
humanity. If he had regarded the demands of the law as presently bringing consciousness of guilt, he would not have
found it necessary to argue the matter. As we have seen, he presupposes that Jews who know the law might well think
of themselves as superior to others (2:17-29). Prior to his conversion, Paul himself might have thought in this way (Gal.
1:14; Phil. 3:4-6). Although the 'knowledge of sin' derives from encounter with the commandment of the law according to
Romans 7:7-25, nothing in that context or elsewhere in Paul's letters gives any support to the idea that his encounter
with the law brought him an awareness of the sentence of death which was upon him.
Secondly, it is nevertheless clear from Paul's language in 3:19 that the 'knowledge of sin' compels the entire world to
submit to God in the final judgment, where his contention with us is resolved. Despite its effectiveness in bringing the
'knowledge of sin', the aim of the law in bringing human recognition of guilt takes place only in foro Dei.
Thirdly, Paul's use of this expression subsequently in Romans 7:7 and II Corinthians 5:21 suggests that it reflects the
biblical idiom in which knowledge fundamentally involves experience (as in ' Adam knew his wife Eve and she bore him a
son', Genesis 4:1). To 'know sin' is to have experiential knowledge of sin.
Fourthly, Paul speaks of 'the knowledge of sin', not the 'knowledge of sins', and later describes the prohibition against
coveting as effecting this 'knowledge of sin' (cf Romans 7:7). In this expression, then, he does not have in view the
knowledge of particular sins, but the knowledge of the character of sin as a whole, even though it is transmitted through
the encounter with the particular commandment. His perspective likewise makes it clear that he views the law as a unity,
which is violated by the transgression of even one commandment. In saying that the law effects the 'knowledge of sin',
Paul interprets the law and the human condition comprehensively.
Finally, Paul introduces his declaration in 3:19-20 with the formula, 'we know that...', which he uses regularly in Romans
to indicate that the matter about which he speaks is basic to the gospel. As we have noted, human submission to the
divine charge takes place in the final judgment. As we shall see below, this judgment has been brought into the present
in faith, and only in faith. Our recognition of the purpose of the law and of the knowledge of sin takes place only in
Christ, in whom the veil which lies over the reading of the law is removed (II Corinthians 3:12-18).
A function of the law therefore emerges in 3:19-20 which is different from that of natural revelation. While the will of the
Creator written in the heart will be manifest at the day of judgment, it is God's will that the law bring the final judgment
into the open in the present. It is to transcend natural revelation, not by supplementing any particular knowledge of
divine demands, but in effecting our confession of God's just claim against us here and now. As we have seen above,
Paul does not suppose that this acknowledgment of God's right comes about in every human being who encounters the
law. In fact, he subsequently speaks of the objective effect of the law quite apart from any human recognition of its
significance: "Because the law worketh wrath: for where no law is, there is no transgression." (4:15); 'the commandment
entered in order that the transgression might multiply' (5:20). The law operates upon the fallen human being,
replicating the Adamic transgression against God in each one (5:14,20). It was into the world thus subjected to the
power of sin and death that the Son of God was sent as an offering for sin and in which he performed the decisive act of
obedience on the cross (8:3; 5:19). Nevertheless, for Paul the law has a distinctly experiential goal, which it reaches
only in Christ. It is precisely this theme which Paul takes up in 7:7-25, and to which we shall return.
The righteousness of God in Christ (Romans 3:21-26)
The law is not God's final word to us. That last word is found in the revelation of 'his righteousness': in 3:21-26 Paul
returns to the theme with which he began. At the outset of this section, he both draws a distinction between the 'the
righteousness of God' and the law of God, and binds them together. The law of God stands apart from the
'righteousness of God' so that it may bear witness to it. Along with its pronouncement of guilt and death it points to
vindication and life. Even now, in the hour of fulfillment, the law attests the 'righteousness of God' which has been made
manifest (verses 21, 26).
This section is marked by two pairs of references to God's righteousness, at its opening and at its closing:
.....the righteousness of God has been made manifest (Romans 3:21)
.....the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ (Romans 3:22)
.....unto the demonstration of his righteousness (Romans 3:25)
.....unto the demonstration of his righteousness (Romans 3:26)
The passage as a whole represents an expansion of the thought which Paul introduced in his initial reference to the
'righteousness of God' (1:17). As a result, the individual occurrences of 'the righteousness of God' do not carry the
same sense which the expression bears there, but collectively unfold it.
Although Paul again recalls Psalm 98 in Romans 3:21 by repeating his announcement that the 'righteousness of God
has been manifested', he now has in view a gift given to the human being, rather than an act of God. This is clear from
his statement that this righteousness is 'apart from the law': he has in view a righteousness which is given (or,
respectively, acquired: see 2:17-24; 4:13-15; 9:30-33). Moreover, he immediately indicates that this 'righteousness of
God' is distributed 'through the faith of Jesus Christ, for all who believe' and that those who believe are 'justified freely
by his grace' (3:22-24). His following description of the means of justification gives evidence that he has not set aside
his earlier reference to God's saving action in Christ. Nevertheless, his thought has now moved from the justifying
event to the justification of the believer, mirroring the latter part of 1:17, where he likewise speaks of 'the righteous one
who lives by faith'. The work of God in Christ's cross and resurrection is 'for us' and therefore a gift to us.
Correspondingly, as in 1:17, Paul again announces that the cross performs its saving work in and through faith alone.
The 'righteousness of God' is mediated 'through the faith of Jesus Christ' (3:22). God set forth Christ as a "...a
propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the
forbearance of God;" (verse 25). He justifies 'the one who believes in Jesus' (verse 26). Accordingly, this
'righteousness of God' is for all who believe. The loss of the divine glory - Paul's characterization of idolatry - extends to
all human beings (1:23; 3:23). Correspondingly, because faith alone justifies, the distinction between Jew and Gentile
has been overcome (verse 24). Universal fallenness and redemption, not ethnic differences, define the human
In the central section of the passage, 3:22 - 25, Paul specifically describes the justifying work of God. We cannot help
but notice the emphasis which he here lays upon the gratuity of God's act in Christ. No human work, but rather God's
unconditioned act brings justification: "Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus:
Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood...." (verses 24-25).
Precisely stated, God accomplished our justification through 'the redemption which is in Christ Jesus'. Paul has just
declared that all are 'under sin' (verse 9), a condition which he later describes as 'bondage' to sin and to death (6:17-
23; 7:14-25). Consequently, the 'redemption of which he speaks implicitly includes the resurrection from the dead, of
which he later speaks in the same terms (8:23; cf Ephesians 1:14; 4:30). As in his opening declaration, Paul
understands justification as 'located' in the resurrection of Christ. Here the 'righteousness of God' is both made
manifest and made ours.
It is, of course, in the resurrection of the crucified Christ that our redemption is found. We noted in our discussion of
Romans 1:17 that the biblical references to God's saving acts of righteousness imply that His enemies receive
retribution in those same acts. Paul now gives that underlying assumption full expression. Christ's atoning death
constitutes a 'demonstration of God's own righteousness', which has been hidden until 'the present time' (3:25-26).
This delay has taken place on account of God's 'patience', in which He passed over the sins which human beings have
committed (verse 25). As similar expressions in Romans indicate, in speaking of God's 'patience' (anochë) Paul has in
view the 'forbearance of God intended to lead human beings to repentance' (2:4). Paul here refers to God's earlier
suspension of His wrath, not to some former forgiveness of sins. Whereas Paul's initial usage of the 'righteousness of
God' refers to the act of God for us in Christ's resurrection, these latter occurrences of the expression have to do with
God's own righteousness manifest in Christ's death. God 'demonstrates His righteousness' in the crucifixion of his Son
(3:25). In variance from his earlier language of 'revelation', Paul now speaks of the 'demonstration' of God's
righteousness. There will come a time when God the Creator will 'demonstrate His wrath and make His power known'
(Romans 9:22). The cross is the prolepsis (the representation or assumption of a future act or development as if
presently existing or accomplished) of that day of judgment, when God's contention with the world comes to its
conclusion. In justifying the sinner God does not set aside His contention with humanity. He brings it to completion in
His own Son.
God wills that this completion take place not merely outwardly in Christ's cross, but also in us. Paul concludes with the
striking statement that the demonstration of God's righteousness, i.e. His right in His contention against humanity, took
place in order that God might become "...just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus" (3:26). The clause bears
a telic sense: God demonstrated His righteousness so that He might 'come to be just'. In this concluding statement we
have a reflection of the 'confessions' which appear at the resolution of the biblical contentions which we examined
above. God 'becomes' righteous in that His adversaries confess His right and their guilt. In the same way, the
justification of the one who believes in Christ and the justification of God are bound together. Christ's death represents
an atonement (with implicit notions of fulfillment of promise), in which guilt is both acknowledged and removed: 'God set
him forth as a place of propitiation through faith in his blood' (verse 25). Faith is thus directed to the crucified and risen
Jesus. In faith, one takes the side of God in his claim against oneself, giving God justice. At the same time, one takes
hold of God's gift in Christ, whom He has 'put forward' as an atonement and in whom He has taken the side of the sinner.
Christ, our Righteousness, by Mark A. Seifrid, Copyright 2000, Intervarsity Press.
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