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Definition

The righteousness of God in justification is both the divine attribute of righteousness, God’s holy and perfect character, and the gift that God gives to sinners through his Son, the righteousness received by sinners through faith, which justifies them before a holy God.

Summary

The concept of righteousness is closely associated with both judgment and salvation in the Bible. In both, God shows the uprightness of his character: in judgment, by displaying his holy and just character in punishing the wicked; in salvation, by graciously rescuing his people to whom he has promised salvation. In salvation, God’s righteousness plays a dual role, both as what is shown to the world as an attribute of the God who saves his people and as the gift of salvation to his people, who receive his righteousness as their own through Christ’s death and resurrection on their behalf. The justification of ungodly sinners, then, is the justification or vindication of God, for it vindicates his holiness and righteousness, while at the same time it discloses his mercy and love.

The meaning of “the righteousness of God” in Paul’s writings is a matter of dispute and has played a role in our understanding of his soteriology. We begin by listing the key texts:

For in it [the gospel] God’s righteousness is revealed from faith to faith, just as it is written: The righteous will live by faith (Rom. 1:17).

But if our unrighteousness highlights God’s righteousness, what are we to say? I use a human argument: Is God unrighteous to inflict wrath? (Rom. 3:5).

But now, apart from the law, God’s righteousness has been revealed– attested by the Law and the Prophets—that is, God’s righteousness through faith in Jesus Christ, to all who believe, since there is no distinction (Rom. 3:21–22).

God presented Him as a propitiation through faith in His blood, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His restraint God passed over the sins previously committed. God presented Him to demonstrate His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be righteous and declare righteous the one who has faith in Jesus (Rom. 3:25–26).

Because they disregarded the righteousness from God and attempted to establish their own righteousness, they have not submitted themselves to God’s righteousness (Rom. 10:3).

But it is from Him that you are in Christ Jesus, who became God-given wisdom for us—our righteousness, sanctification, and redemption (1 Cor. 1:30).

He [God] made the One [Jesus] who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him (2 Cor. 5:21).

And be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own from the law, but one that is through faith in Christ– the righteousness from God based on faith (Phil. 3:9).

In seeking to understand God’s righteousness, we need to investigate the OT background, which plays a vital role in discerning how Paul uses the term. Again, it is helpful to cite important texts:

LORD, I seek refuge in You; let me never be disgraced. Save me by Your righteousness (Ps. 31:1).

Spread Your faithful love over those who know You, and Your righteousness over the upright in heart (Ps. 36:10).

Heavens, sprinkle from above, and let the skies shower righteousness. Let the earth open up so that salvation will sprout and righteousness will spring up with it. I, the LORD, have created it (Isa. 45:8).

In Your justice [righteousness], rescue and deliver me; listen closely to me and save me (Ps. 71:2).

I am bringing My justice near; it is not far away, and My salvation will not delay. I will put salvation in Zion, My splendor in Israel (Isa. 46:13).

Other texts could be included (Pss. 40:10; 88:11–12; 98:2–3; 143:1; Isa. 51:4–8). We notice in the Hebrew parallelism the close association between God’s salvation and his righteousness. In the examples quoted above, God’s righteousness refers to his saving righteousness. God’s saving righteousness is featured in a number of texts which celebrate God’s “righteous acts” (Judg. 5:11; 1 Sam. 12:7; Ps. 103:6; Dan. 9:16; Mic. 6:5) where he intervened and saved Israel by his grace.

What is striking here is the close association of righteousness with salvation, because most English speakers think in terms of justice (rather than salvation) in defining righteousness. On the other hand, we should not make the mistake of concluding that righteousness and salvation are synonymous in the verses quoted above. We can say that God’s deliverance of his people, his saving of Israel, is right.

When we come to Paul, we see that he often emphasizes that righteousness is by faith. He speaks of “righteousness through faith” (Rom. 3:22), “righteousness of faith” (Rom. 4:13), “righteousness that is by faith” (Rom. 9:30; see also Rom, 4:11; 10:4, 6, 10; Gal. 5:5; Phil. 3:9). Paul also excludes the law or works as the way to obtain righteousness (Rom. 3:21; 4:6; 9:31; 10:5; Gal. 2:21; 3:21; Phil. 3:9).

One of the most significant phrases in Pauline theology is the “righteousness of God.” The phrase appears in some of the most important soteriological passages in Paul’s writings. Here are the key texts:

For in it [the gospel] God’s righteousness is revealed from faith to faith, just as it is written: The righteous will live by faith (Rom. 1:17).

But if our unrighteousness highlights God’s righteousness, what are we to say? I use a human argument: Is God unrighteous to inflict wrath? (Rom. 3:5).

But now, apart from the law, God’s righteousness has been revealed– attested by the Law and the Prophets—that is, God’s righteousness through faith in Jesus Christ, to all who believe, since there is no distinction (Rom. 3:21–22).

God presented Him as a propitiation through faith in His blood, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His restraint God passed over the sins previously committed. God presented Him to demonstrate His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be righteous and declare righteous the one who has faith in Jesus (Rom. 3:25–26).

Because they disregarded the righteousness from God and attempted to establish their own righteousness, they have not submitted themselves to God’s righteousness (Rom. 10:3).

But it is from Him that you are in Christ Jesus, who became God-given wisdom for us—our righteousness, sanctification, and redemption (1 Cor. 1:30).

He [God] made the One [Jesus] who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him (2 Cor. 5:21).

And be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own from the law, but one that is through faith in Christ—righteousness from God based on faith (Phil. 3:9).

Some scholars argue that God’s righteousness refers to his covenant faithfulness and others argue that the term is transformative instead of forensic. But I will argue that the righteousness of God is forensic, that it refers to the gift of God, our status of being in the right before him. Several lines of evidence support this view. First, the righteousness of God is ours by faith (Rom. 1:17; 3:21–22; 10:3; Phil. 3:9). Romans 5:17 specifically says that God’s righteousness is a gift given to us. We see the same theme in 1 Corinthians 1:30 where righteousness is said to be from God. In the same way, we see in 2 Corinthians 5:21 that believers receive God’s righteousness through Christ’s death on the cross.

The parallels between Philippians 3 and Romans 10 show that God’s righteousness is the gift of righteousness. The subject of both texts is the same: in Philippians Paul recounts his attempt to gain righteousness by law, and in Romans 10 he describes Israel’s attempt to do so. Israel tried to “establish their own righteousness” by keeping the law (Rom. 10:3), and Paul attempted to secure his own righteousness based on his law obedience (Phil. 3:6, 9). In both texts Paul contrasts righteousness by law and righteousness by faith (Rom. 10:4–8; Phil. 3:9).

We have good reasons to think, then, that the “righteousness of God” in Romans 10:3 is the same as the “righteousness from God” in Philippians 3:9. In Philippians 3, righteousness is clearly a gift given to sinners—a declaration that those who have disobeyed the law but who have trusted in Christ are in the right before God. In Philippians, Paul emphasizes that righteousness is a gift from God, and “the righteousness of God” in Romans 10 should not be interpreted differently from righteousness in Philippians 3. This means that the righteousness of God in Romans 10:3 most likely refers to a righteousness from God—righteousness that is a gift of God. God’s righteousness is not gained through keeping the law; it is given to those who put their faith in God. It is almost certainly the case, then, that the “righteousness of God” in Romans 1:17 and 3:21–22 has means the same thing that we have found in Romans 10 and Philippians 3. All these texts teach that righteousness is a gift of God given to believers.

The phrase “God’s righteousness” may also refer to an attribute of God. In Romans 3:5 and 3:25–26, the emphasis is on God’s righteousness in judgment. God’s righteousness is revealed when he judges the world on the last day (Rom. 3:5).  God also shows his righteousness (his holiness and justice) when his wrath was appeased through Jesus’s death on the cross (3:25–26). In the cross of Jesus Christ, the judging and saving righteousness of God meet (Rom. 3:21–26). God is revealed to be both Savior and Judge, merciful and holy. The righteousness of God is manifested in the gospel in that both the love and holiness of God are disclosed. That God’s righteousness includes the idea of judgment is supported by Romans 2:5: “But because of your hardness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment (dikaiokrisias) is revealed.” That God’s righteousness includes the idea of holiness or justice is shown by the reference to “propitiation” or the “mercy seat” (hilasētrion, Rom. 3:25), where God both expiated and propitiated sins. This means that our sins were both wiped away (expiated) and satisfied God’s wrath at the cross (propitiated). If God’s wrath was appeased at the cross, then his righteousness, his holiness, is manifested. The sins of the world aren’t swept under the rug. Instead, Jesus Christ took upon himself the punishment we deserved.

Justification of the ungodly, then, is the justification or vindication of God, for it vindicates his holiness and righteousness, while at the same time it discloses his mercy and love. God’s righteousness is manifested in judgment, but the emphasis in Paul is on God’s saving righteousness when he uses the term “righteousness of God.” Even when the text denotes God’s saving righteousness, the gift that he gives to human beings, the righteousness of God is also an attribute of God. In other words, it is both a genitive of source (“righteousness from God”) and a genitive of description (“God’s righteousness”). The gift God gives human beings is his own righteousness, his own character. The righteousness of God in Jesus Christ is imputed to believers. In the cross of Jesus Christ, then, both the saving and judging righteousness of God are revealed.