Tom Schreiner’s 40 Questions About Christians and Biblical Law releases later this month. As I’ve said before, I think it’s now the go-to book for an accessible introduction to all the major issues related to gospel and law, the role of law in redemptive history, application of the law today, etc. I could not recommend it more highly.

Kregel has kindly given me permission to reprint some of the entries. I’ll do so throughout the week. I won’t reproduce the footnotes or the discussion questions, but other than that it’s the full entry.

Today I’ll reprint question #20, What Does Paul Mean by “the Righteousness of God”?

What I am trying to answer here is what Paul means by the phrase righteousness of God (dikaiosynē theou) and by the term righteousness when he uses these expressions to refer to God’s saving righteousness. Paul often uses the noun righteousness to denote ethical righteousness—the kind of behavior that pleases God (e.g., Rom. 6:13, 16, 18, 19, 20; 2 Cor. 6:7, 14; 9:9; 11:15; Eph. 4:24; 5:9; 6:14; Phil. 1:11; 3:6; 1 Tim. 6:11; 2 Tim. 2:22; 3:16; 4:8; Titus 3:5). Everyone agrees that Paul often uses the word righteousness to denote a life that is pleasing to God. But the intention here is to understand what God’s righteousness means when Paul uses it in theologically weighty passages—in texts where he speaks of God’s gift of righteousness.

Some scholars have maintained that God’s righteousness refers to his transforming righteousness. This view is supported by five arguments.


First, God’s righteousness is said to be “revealed” (Rom. 1:17) and “manifested” (Rom. 3:21). Hence, it is argued that God’s righteousness is an effective work of God that cannot be limited to a mere declaration, for it includes the entire creation and not just the individual. What God declares becomes a reality since he is redeemer and creator.

Second, the parallelism between God’s “power” (Rom. 1:16), his “righteousness” (Rom. 1:17), and his “wrath” (Rom. 1:18) is also set forward to defend a transformative view. All of these are understood as genitives of source, indicating God’s activity unleashed in the world. His righteousness is not merely a static pronouncement but represents the unleashing of his power in an active way. In the same way God’s wrath is effective, judging people for their sin of failing to worship and praise God (Rom. 1:18–32).

Third, God’s righteousness in the Old Testament is often parallel to his salvation, truth, and mercy (see question 18). This background demonstrates that God’s righteousness is his saving action on behalf of his people and should not be limited to a forensic declaration. God’s gift and God’s power cannot be separated from one another.

Fourth, in Romans 3:24 God’s righteousness is “through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” Redemption signifies the freedom and liberation from sin through Jesus Christ, finding its precedent in God’s liberation of his people from Egypt. If righteousness becomes ours through the liberation from sin effected by Jesus Christ, then righteousness must include the idea of freedom from sin. Righteousness, then, includes the notion of God’s transforming power.

Fifth, Paul speaks of grace reigning through righteousness (Rom. 5:21), of the service of righteousness (Rom. 6:18–19; 2 Cor. 3:9), and of submitting to God’s righteousness (Rom. 10:3). Therefore, justification cannot be limited to legal categories. God transforms those whom he declares to be in the right. The same point is argued from 2 Corinthians 3:8–9. Those who benefit from the “ministry of righteousness” also enjoy the “ministry of the Spirit.” The effective work of the Spirit is part and parcel of the righteousness of God.


Despite some valid insights in the notion that righteousness is transformative, the case for such a view is overstated, and righteousness in Paul should be understood as forensic only.

First, it has been noted in the previous question that the verbal form in Paul should be understood in terms of God’s declaration.

Second, Paul often says that human beings are righteous by faith (e.g., Rom. 1:17; 3:22, 26; 4:3, 5, 9, 13; 9:30; 10:4; Gal. 2:16; 3:6, 11; 5:5; Phil. 3:9). In such contexts Paul contrasts righteousness by faith with righteousness by works. Ordinarily, people are declared to be righteous in human courts on the basis of their good behavior. That is, if they did what is good, they are declared to be in the right; but if they did what is evil, they are condemned. Paul, however, maintains that it is not those who work but those who believe who are righteous before God (Rom. 4:4–5). Indeed, no one can be righteous by works before God, for all have fallen short of what he requires (Rom. 3:23). Righteousness by faith, then, must refer to the gift of righteousness given to human beings by God. Human beings are not justified on the basis of doing but on the basis of believing. God declares the ungodly to be righteous (Rom. 4:5). Nor does Paul view faith as a “work” that merits the declaration of righteousness. Faith saves because it looks entirely to what God has done for believers in Christ. It rests on Christ’s death for the forgiveness of sins and his resurrection for the sake of their justification (Rom. 3:21–26; 4:25). The righteousness given to believers, then, is alien since it is not based on anything they have done but only on God’s work in Christ. This suggests that righteousness as a gift is granted to those who believe.

Third, that righteousness is a forensic declaration also is supported by the link between righteousness and forgiveness. We already have seen the connection between righteousness and forgiveness in Romans 4:25 and Romans 8:33. Paul slides easily from justification to forgiveness in Romans 4:1–8. David’s forgiveness of sins is nothing less than his justification—his being in the right before God (Rom. 4:6–8). The idea is not that David was transformed by God, even though Paul stresses the transforming power of God’s grace in other contexts. The text calls attention to David’s sin and his forgiveness by God, confirming the extraordinary nature of God’s grace, for he forgives sinners and declares them to be in the right.

Fourth, the idea that righteousness is counted (logizomai) to believers indicates that righteousness is not native to believers, that it is granted to them by God (Rom. 4:3–6, 8–11, 22–24; 9:8; Gal. 3:6). This argument is strengthened when we add that righteousness is counted to those who believe—not to those who work. God does not “count” sins against those who have put their faith in Christ (2 Cor. 5:19). This is a strange reckoning or counting, indeed, when those who have done evil are considered to be righteous since God “justifies the ungodly” (Rom. 4:5). However, this fits with the notion that believers have received “the free gift of righteousness” (Rom. 5:17).


Fifth, should “the righteousness of God” also be understood as forensic (esp. Rom. 1:17; 3:21, 22; 10:3; 2 Cor. 5:21)? Some scholars have maintained that Romans 3:5, where righteousness is parallel to God’s “faithfulness” and truth, supports the interpretation of covenantal faithfulness. Such an interpretation is scarcely clear in Romans 3:1–8, for it seems that God’s righteousness here refers to his judgment of sinners. Romans 3:4, citing Psalm 51:4 (LXX), refers to God’s victory when he judges sinners. The righteousness of God is used in a context that speaks of his wrath inflicted on the wicked (Rom. 3:5) and his judgment of the world on the Last Day (Rom. 3:6). Rather than referring to God’s covenant faithfulness, this text refers to God’s judging the wicked because they have lived in an evil manner. Romans 3:5, then, does not bear on the discussion at all, for it does not refer to God’s saving righteousness but to his judging righteousness. And the question before us here is what is meant by the saving righteousness of God. Based on these reasons, it is best to understand “the righteousness of God” as a forensic declaration.


That the “righteousness of God” refers to a divine gift is clear from Philippians 3:9, where Paul speaks of “the righteousness from God” (tēn ek theou dikaiosynēn). The righteousness is not Paul’s own, deriving from his observance of the law. It is a righteousness from God himself, obtained by faith in Jesus Christ. Philippians 3:9, then, provides an important clue as to how we should interpret God’s righteousness in Romans 1:17 and 3:21–22. It refers to God’s saving righteousness, given as a gift to those who believe. The lack of the preposition “from” (ek) in the texts in Romans is not decisive, for in every instance the same subject is treated: the saving righteousness of God that is given to those who believe. It is unlikely that Paul would use a different definition of the word for righteousness in texts that are so similar in content—in texts that contrast righteousness by faith with righteousness by observing the law. We have seen that some argue that righteousness is transformative in Romans 1:17 since it is parallel to God’s power and wrath. It is correct to say that each of the genitives should be identified as a genitive of source. God’s anger and power and righteousness all come from him. It does not follow, however, from the collocation of terms that the words all refer to a divine activity—if by that one concludes that God’s righteousness must be a transforming one. “Power,” “wrath,” and “righteousness” (Rom. 1:16–18) do not all have the same meaning. The phrase “righteousness of God” makes perfect sense if it designates the gift of God’s righteousness.


A powerful argument supporting the idea that God’s righteousness in Romans and Philippians has the same meaning are the numerous parallels between Romans 10:1–6 and Philippians 3:2–9 (see figure 4).

First, there is a reference to God’s righteousness.

Second is the contrast between righteousness by law and righteousness by faith.

Third is the parallel between Israel’s quest to establish its own righteousness and Paul’s quest to establish his righteousness by his observance of the law.

Fourth, in particular we should note Paul’s emphasis on “not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law” (Phil. 3:9), and Israel’s attempt to establish its own righteousness (Rom 10:3)—a “righteousness that is based on the law” (Rom 10:5).

The point I am making is that the parallel contexts indicate that righteousness in Romans 10 cannot have a different definition from what we see in Philippians 3. In the latter, righteousness is clearly a gift given to sinners—a declaration that those who have failed to keep the law but have trusted in Jesus Christ stand in the right before God. The same gift character of righteousness, therefore, is in view in Romans 10.

Romans 10:3–6 Philippians 3:9
“the righteousness of God” (v. 3) “the righteousness from God”
“righteousness . . . based on the law” vs. “righteousness based on faith” (vv. 5–6) “righteousness . . . from the law” or “under the law” vs. “righteousness . . . through faith” or “depends on faith”
Israel sought to establish her own righteousness by observing the law (v. 3) Paul sought to establish his own righteousness by observing the law
Israel attempted to establish her own righteousness based on the law (vv. 3, 5) Paul did not have a righteousness of his own that comes from the law

[ROMANS 1:17 and 3:21–22]

Furthermore, if such is the meaning in Romans 10, it is highly unlikely that Paul means anything different in Romans 1:17 and 3:21–22. Indeed, Romans 3:21–22 unpacks Romans 1:17, clarifying further how God pronounces as righteous those who deserve God’s wrath because of their sin. When he speaks of God’s righteousness in declaring sinners to be in the right before him by faith in Christ, he has in mind the gift of righteousness—God’s declaration of not guilty. Paul would confuse the readers if in some instances he used the expression “righteousness of God” to refer to a gift of a righteous status from God and in others of a divine activity that transforms believers, particularly since the phrase invariably occurs in contexts that contrast righteousness by faith with righteousness by observing the law. If a different definition were intended, this would need to be signified by further clarifying statements. But such clarifying statements are lacking, confirming that the same definition of righteousness is found in all these theologically weighty passages.


That Paul refers to the gift of righteousness is also clear from 2 Corinthians 5:21. God made Christ to be sin, even though he was without sin, so that believers would “become the righteousness of God.” The meaning of God’s righteousness is explicated by verse 19, which refers to forgiveness of sins. This verse also explains how God could grant the gift of righteousness to those who are sinners. The extraordinary gift of righteousness is secured through Christ’s death on the cross. God “made him to be sin” so that those who are wicked could become righteous. An interchange between Christ and sinners is posited here. Christ was not actually transformed into a sinner. He was reckoned or counted as a sinner, so that believers would be reckoned or counted as righteous. When we observe that Jesus did not actually become a sinner and that the language of substitution is used, it seems quite likely that the righteous status of believers is in view.

[ROMANS 3:21–26]

Romans 3:21–26 is a key text that is remarkably parallel to 2 Corinthians 5:21. This paragraph functions as the hinge for the letter to the Romans and is one of the most important (if not the most important) sections in the letter. The placement of the text in the letter should be noted. Paul has finished arguing that all without exception sin and deserve judgment (Rom. 1:18–3:20). He summarizes this truth in Romans 3:23: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” God demands perfect obedience, and all fall short of his standard. How then will people become right with God? Paul argues in verses 21–22 that a right relation with God is not obtained by keeping the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. All people who trust in Christ are justified by God because of the redemption accomplished by Christ Jesus (v. 24).

Verses 25–26 are of particular importance for our subject. God set forth Christ as a propitiatory sacrifice by virtue of Jesus’ bloody death. “Propitiation” and “blood” point back to the Old Testament cultus and sacrificial system. Discussion has centered on the meaning of the term hilastērion and whether it should be rendered “expiation” (wiping away or forgiveness of sins) or “propitiation” (the satisfaction of God’s wrath). I would argue that those who defend the notion of propitiation are more convincing, for the term includes the sense of the averting of God’s wrath—the appeasement or satisfaction of his righteousness. This fits nicely with Romans 1:18, where the wrath of God against sin is announced, and Romans 2:5, where the final judgment is described as the day of God’s wrath. The line of argument in Romans 1:18–3:20 provokes the reader to ask how God’s wrath can be averted. The answer in Romans 3:25 is that God’s wrath has been satisfied or appeased in the death of Christ.

The words following “propitiation” substantiate this interpretation. Paul explains that Christ was set forth as a “propitiation,” or “mercy seat,” to demonstrate God’s righteousness. The context reveals that by “righteousness” Paul refers to God’s holiness or justice, for Paul immediately refers to the sins God passed over in previous eras. The passing over of sins refers to the sins committed previously in history, which did not receive the full punishment deserved. God’s failure to punish such sins calls into question his justice. How can he wink at sin and tolerate it and still maintain his righteousness and holiness? Paul’s solution is that God looked ahead to the cross of Christ, where his wrath would be appeased and justice would be satisfied. Christ as the substitute would absorb the full payment for sin.

The interpretation suggested above is confirmed by verse 26: “It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” Christ’s death as a propitiation, Paul repeats, demonstrates God’s holiness and justice at the present juncture of salvation history. Thereby God is both “just and the justifier” of those who put their faith in Christ. God’s justice is satisfied because Christ bore the full payment for sin. But God is also the justifier because on the basis of the cross of Christ sinners receive forgiveness through faith in Jesus. In the cross of Christ, the justice and mercy of God meet. God’s holiness is satisfied by Christ’s bearing the penalty of sin, and God’s saving activity is realized in the lives of those who trust in Christ. Some object that retribution cannot be in view, for the focus is on personal relationships rather than retribution. But personal relationships and retribution are not at odds with one another. God’s justice is not an attribute that can be separated from his person.


Some of the arguments supporting transformative righteousness have been answered, but we need to pause to comment on a few that have not been examined thus far.

First, the revelation of God’s saving righteousness in history does not establish a transformative righteousness. God’s righteousness in Christ is certainly an eschatological work of God. Such a statement, however, does not necessarily establish that righteousness should be defined in terms of transformation. God’s declaration about sinners is an end-time verdict that has been announced before the end has arrived. The verdict is effective in the sense that every verdict announced by God constitutes reality.

Second, the argument from redemption fails to establish the transformation view as well. Justification belongs to believers through redemption (Rom 3:24). In some instances in Paul, however, redemption is defined primarily in terms of forgiveness of sins (Eph.1:7; Col. 1:14). The forgiveness of sins is communicated as well in Colossians 2:13–14. Paul pictures it as the erasure of debts that had accrued against believers. The definitive nature of forgiveness is portrayed in the nailing of sins to the cross, indicating that Christ has definitively and finally put away sin. The fundamental bondage of human beings can be attributed to guilt that stains us through sin. Hence, the reference to redemption does not clearly indicate that righteousness is transformative.

Third, the collocation of the “ministry of righteousness” and the “ministry of the Spirit” in 2 Corinthians 3:8–9 does not clearly establish a transformative view. Paul never imagined that one could be righteous in God’s sight without then being transformed by the Spirit. And yet it still should be said that it does not follow that the transforming power of the Spirit and righteousness are precisely the same. Too many of those who defend the transformative view argue for identity of meaning from parallelism of terms. Such an approach is flawed, for it collapses the meaning of words so that they become virtually indistinguishable.


It is often claimed today that God’s righteousness in Paul refers to his transforming righteousness, but a careful analysis of the evidence indicates that God’s righteousness in Paul is forensic. When Paul speaks of the “righteousness of God” and “righteousness,” he refers to our right-standing with God, the fact that we are now in a new and right relationship with him. The word does not mean that God’s people are internally transformed by his grace. Certainly such transformation is part of Paul’s theology as well, but the point being made here is that God’s gracious work in changing sinners is not communicated by the phrase “righteousness of God.”