A Commentary by John Stott
We note the logic of Paul’s statement in verses 16-17: ‘I am not ashamed of the gospel, *because* it is the power of God for… salvation… *For (gar, because) in the gospel a righteousness from God is being revealed…*’ That is, the reason the gospel is God’s saving power is that in it God’s righteousness is revealed. Moreover, this righteousness is ‘from faith to faith’ (AV), in fulfilment of Habakkuk 2:4: ‘the righteous will live by his faith’. Many commentators have called verses 16-17 the ‘text’ of which the rest of Romans is the exposition. They are certainly crucial to our understanding. But three basic questions confront us. First, what is ‘the righteousness of God’? Secondly, what is the meaning of ‘from faith to faith’ (AV) or ‘through faith for faith’ (RSV)? Thirdly, how should we interpret the Habakkuk quotation and Paul’s use of it?
a). The righteousness of God.
The meaning of the expression *dikaiosyne theou* (righteousness of – or from – God’) has been discussed throughout church history and has in consequence attracted an enormous, even unmanageable, literature. It is not easy to summarize, let alone systematize, the debate.
First, some emphasize that ‘the righteousness of God’ is a *divine attribute* or quality. ‘Righteousness’ describes his character, together with his actions which are in keeping with his character. Since he is ‘the judge of all the earth’, it stands to reason that he will himself always ‘do right’ (Gn. 18:25). For he loves righteousness and hates wickedness, and righteousness is the sceptre of his kingdom (Ps. 45:6f,, quoted in Heb. 1:8f.; cf. Ps.11:1ff.).
In Romans God’s personal righteousness is supremely seen in the cross of Christ. When God ‘presented him as a sacrifice of atonement’, he did it ‘to demonstrate his justice, (dikaiosyne*, 3:25, repeated in 3:26), and in order that he might be both himself ‘just’ and ‘the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus’ (3:26b). Through Romans Paul is at pains to defend the righteous character and behaviour of God. For he is convinced that whatever God does – in salvation (3:25) or in judgment (2:5) – is absolutely consistent with his righteousness. This is William Campbell’s emphasis, namely that ‘the righteousness of God’ is ‘first and foremost a righteousness that demonstrates God’s faithfulness to his own righteous nature’, his integrity, his self consistency. This attribute of God cannot be, however, either the only or even the main truth which Paul declares to be revealed in the gospel (1:17), since it was already fully revealed in the law.
Others stress, secondly, that ‘the righteousness of God’ is *a divine activity*, namely his saving intervention on behalf of his people. Indeed, his ‘salvation’ and his ‘righteousness’ are frequently coupled in the parallelism of Hebrew poetry, especially in the Psalms and in Isaiah 40-66. For example, ‘the Lord had made his salvation known and revealed his righteousness to the nations.’ (Ps. 98:2; cf. 51:14; 65:5; 71:2, 15;143:11). Similarly God declares: ‘I am bringing my righteousness near… and my salvation will not be delayed,’ (Is.46:13; cf. 45:8; 51:5f.; 56:1; 63:1) and describes himself as ‘ a righteous God and a Saviour’. (Is.45:21). It would perhaps be an exaggeration to claim in the light of these texts that God’s righteousness and God’s salvation are synonymous. It is rather that his righteousness denotes his loyalty to his covenant promises, in the light of which he may be implored – and expected – to come to the salvation of his people. For example, ‘Vindicate me in your righteousness, O Lord my God.’ (Ps. 35:24). As John Zeisler has put it, ‘salvation is the *form* that God’s righteousness…takes’. Ernst Kasemann writes of God’s righteousness in terms of power, God’s saving power, in loyalty to his covenant, overthrowing the forces of evil and vindicating his people. N.T.Wright’s understanding is similar. The righteousness of God he writes, is ‘essentially the covenant faithfulness, the covenant justice, of the God who made promises to Abraham, promises of a worldwide family characterized by faith, in and through whom the evil of the world would be undone’.
Thirdly, ‘the righteousness of God’ revealed in the gospel is *a divine achievement*. The genitive is no longer subjective (as in reference to God’s character and activity), but objective (‘a righteousness from God’, as NIV renders the phrase in both 1:17 and 3:21). Indeed, in Philippians 3:9 the simple genitive (‘the righteousness of God’) is replaced by a prepositional phrase (‘the righteousness… *from* God, *ek theou*). It is a righteous status which God requires if we are ever to stand before him, which he achieves through the atoning sacrifice of the cross, which he reveals in the gospel, and which he bestows freely on all who trust in Jesus Christ.
There can be little doubt that Paul uses the expression ‘the righteousness of God’ in this third way. He contrasts it with our own righteousness (Phil. 3:9; cf. Rom 10:3). which we are tempted to establish instead of submitting to God’s righteousness (10:3), God’s righteousness is a gift (5:17) which is offered to faith (3:22) and which we can have or enjoy (Phil. 3:9). Charles Cranfield, who opts for this interpretation, paraphrases 1:17 in this way: ‘For in it (i.e. in the gospel as it is being preached) a righteous status which is God’s gift is being revealed (and so offered to men) – a righteous status which is altogether by faith.’ Further, in 2 Corinthians 5:21 Paul has written that in Christ we actually ‘become the righteousness of God’; in Romans 4 he will write about righteousness being ‘credited’ (‘reckoned’ or imputed’) to us, as it was to Abraham (verses 3,24); and in 1 Corinthians 1:30 it is Christ himself ‘who has become for us…our righteousness’.
Thus ‘the righteousness of God’ can be thought of as a divine attribute (our God is a righteous God), or activity (he comes to our rescue), or achievement (he bestows on us a righteous status). All three are true and have been held by different scholars, sometimes in relation to each other. For myself, I have never been able to see why we have to choose, and why all three should not be combined. Even Professor Fitzmyer, who uses the strange expression ‘the uprightness of God’, and affirms that it is ‘descriptive of God’s upright being and of his upright activity’, goes on to concede that it also expresses ‘the status of uprightness communicated to human beings by God’s gracious gift’. In other words, it is at one and the same time a quality, an activity and a gift.
It seems legitimate to affirm, therefore, that ‘the righteousness of God’ is God’s righteous initiative in putting sinners right with himself, by bestowing on them a righteousness which is not their own but his. ‘The righteousness of God’ is God’s just justification of the unjust, his righteous way of pronouncing the unrighteous righteous, in which he both demonstrates his righteousness and gives righteousness to us. He has done it through Christ, the righteous one, who died for the unrighteousness, as Paul will explain later. And he does it by faith when we put our trust in him, and cry to him for mercy.