Many men and women more learned than I have argued about the definition of the Pauline phrase dikaiosyne theou (“the righteousness of God”). N.T. Wright is one of those smart dudes who has written a lot about this little phrase. Wright is famous, or infamous depending on your perspective (get it?, perspective), for arguing strenuously and relentlessly that “the righteousness of God” refers to God’s “covenant faithfulness.” God’s righteousness is not a gas that passes through the courtroom from the judge to the guilty party. Rather, says Wright, it is a term to describe God’s faithfulness to his “single-plan-through-Israel-for-the-world.”

I wholeheartedly agree that God’s covenant faithfulness is one aspect of his righteousness, but I don’t think it exhausts the meaning of dikaiosyne theou. More to the point, God’s covenant faithfulness is not always good news for covenant breakers. Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in Romans 3:1-8.

Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? 2 Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God. 3 What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? 4 By no means! Let God be true though every one were a liar, as it is written, “That you may be justified in your words, and prevail when you are judged.” 5 But if our unrighteousness serves to show the righteousness of God, what shall we say? That God is unrighteous to inflict wrath on us? (I speak in a human way.) 6 By no means! For then how could God judge the world? 7 But if through my lie God’s truth abounds to his glory, why am I still being condemned as a sinner? 8 And why not do evil that good may come?–as some people slanderously charge us with saying. Their condemnation is just.

This is one of those passages where Wright’s devotion to dikaiosyne theou as covenant faithfulness, and covenant faithfulness as God carrying out his single-plan-through-Israel-for-the-world, leads him to miss the point of the passage. “The question of 3:3b,” argues Wright, “is: will God now revoke the single-plan-through-Israel-for-the-world? Does the fact that the ‘through Israel’ part of the plan has collapsed mean that God can no longer be faithful to his ancient promises? This is of course the question of the ‘righteousness of God,’ as the next verses show explicitly, and with this the whole attempt to deny the meaning of ‘covenant faithfulness’ for dikaiosyne theou crashes to the ground like a felled oak” (198, emphasis original). Wright goes on to argue that “Israel ‘unrighteousness’ (her covenant failure, no less: her failure to be the middle term in the single-plan-through-Israel-for-the-world) will only make God’s righteousness (his covenant faithfulness, no less: his determination to put that selfsame plan into effect) shine out all the more brightly (199). Therefore, according to Wright, “‘God’s righteousness,’ in light of Romans 2:17-3:8, must mean, and can only mean, God’s faithfulness to his single plan, the plan through which he will deal with the problem of human sin and put the whole world right at last” (201).

I see two problems with this interpretation. First, Wright makes the “for-the-world” part of the equation central in these chapters when it is more peripheral. Of course, Israel was blessed to be a blessing, but the focus here is on Israel’s inability to keep the law, not on Israel’s inability to mediate God’s blessing to the world. Wright conveniently marks off this section of Romans beginning at 2:17 because it is starting here that he sees the “for-the-world” dimension of Israel’s disobedience. Israel is likened to an instructor in verse 20 and Paul says in verse 24 “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” So clearly, Paul is saying they failed in their mission to the world, right?

Well, Israel did fail in that mission, but Paul’s point, if we look at all of chapter two, is not so much that Israel failed the Gentiles by their disobedience, but that Israel failed God and made him look bad before the nations. The focus is on the Jews as people who boast in the law but dishonor God by breaking the law (2:23). They had presumed on the kindness of God, and now because of disobedience to the law were facing God’s righteous judgment (2:4). Sure, they had the law, an inestimable privilege (3:2), but “it is not hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified” (2:13). It may seem like nit-picking to speak of the wrong “focus” or “emphasis”, but it needs to be pointed out because Wright’s insistence on the “for-the-world” part of Israel’s disobedience results in a misreading of 3:3-8.

This leads to the second problem with Wright’s interpretation: he argues that the righteousness of God must mean, and can only mean, covenant faithfulness. Again, I agree that “covenant faithfulness” is an aspect of dikaiosyne theou. But if it is the only aspect, God’s righteousness is not good news for sinners. That is precisely the point in 3:3-8. Paul argues that the unfaithfulness of Israel does not nullify the faithfulness of God. He does not mean, as Wright suggests, that God will still be faithful to bless the world through Israel (though that is true). Paul’s point is that God will be faithful to his covenant by punishing Israel. This is why he quotes Psalm 51 where David confesses that God is justified in judging him for his sin with Bathsheba. This is also why verse 5 talks about God inflicting wrath on the Israelites and why in verse 6 Paul argues that if God can’t judge Israel for sin that he can’t judge the world for sin either.

Contrary to Wright’s assertion that this section isn’t all about the utter sinfulness of Jew and Gentile alike, that’s precisely what 3:3-8 is all about. God’s wrath is stored up against Israel (2:5) because they broke the covenant. But God’s judgment of Israel does not prove that he’s broken his end of the bargain. Rather, it proves that God has remembered what Israel forgot, that the covenant had blessings and curses. God will honor all the terms of the covenant, and this means wrath for law-breakers. God’s covenant faithfulness is not good news for rebellious sinners.

So I would argue that dikaiosyne theou, which definitely speaks to the issue of covenant faithfulness in verses 3 and 5, should be defined more broadly as God’s unswerving commitment to do what is right. In 3:3-8 this means judging unfaithful Israel. And in 3:21-31, against the backdrop of universal sinfulness in 3:1-20, it means acquitting faithless Israel through the faithfulness of Christ whose obedience and death provide the means for God to be just while justifying the unjust.