Rom 1:16-17 (ESV)
I am not ashamed of the gospel… for in it the righteousness of God is revealed…
A world that is right is what is needed. Creation groans eager to birth a world right in every way, a new world suffused with righteousness where righteousness is the plumb-line (Isa 28:17), flows like the waves of the sea (Isa 48:18), and like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:24). The yearning of the righteous is for a creation where the clouds rain down righteousness (Isa 45:8) and righteousness sprouts from the ground like a fruit (Isa 45:8), and where all the people are oaks of righteousness before the Lord (Isa 61:3).
But… the reality is far from this.
Unrighteousness is the reigning paradigm. Creation’s steward has despoiled it with unrighteousness and its fruits. This anatomy of human unrighteousness Paul lays bare in Roms 1:18-3:20: absurd idolatry (1:18-22); unnatural sexuality (1:24-27); brutish behaviour (1: 28-31); permissive morality (1:32); and, perhaps worst of all, moral and religious hypocrisy, epitomised most clearly in the Jewish nation, God’s chosen people (2;1-29).
The Jewish nation believed themselves a cut above all other nations, and they were. They were God’s chosen people. They alone had been given God’s Law. They were God’s chosen mouthpiece to the nations (2:17-20). Yet Paul is unambiguous – they too have failed and failed abysmally (2:21,22). The Law was of little value if they did not keep it; the unrighteousness of the supposedly righteous, is the greatest unrighteousness of all (2:23).
The conclusion is as inevitable as it is chilling; if the most privileged nation on earth (Israel) was pervasively and incorrigibly unrighteous what hope had any other – every mouth is stopped and the whole world is guilty before God (3:20). Because of wilful unrighteousness, the wrath of God is announced from heaven and is inevitably coming (1:18, 2:5-11). What humanity need fear is not its destructive self, nor even on-going tsunamis, earthquakes and famines awful though they may be, but the final, dreadful, terrifying cataclysmic judgement of a God whose patience has finally ended and who is determined to purge his creation of its moral filth, consigning the unrighteous to Gehenna, the eternal burnings. Such righteous judgement is the only righteous way for a righteous God to act.
Or is it? Is a vision of a righteous universe where all the people are ‘oaks of righteousness’ and ‘justice flows like rivers and righteousness like an ever-ending stream’ no more than a prophetic pipe dream? Is it merely a Seer’s romantic fancy? Is God’s righteousness something we must inevitably fear for it means we must perish? Thankfully, it is not.
The glory of the gospel is its declaration that God has found a way to be merciful in righteousness, a way to righteously declare the unrighteous, righteous, a way to establish righteousness by saving not destroying.
The previous post noted four points about this gospel righteousness implicit in Roms 1:17. It is… eschatological righteousness … God’s righteousness… saving righteousness… and righteousness received by faith. In Roms 3;21-26 Paul expands all four aspects. In five key verses of compressed theology Paul explains the central elements of the saving righteousness of God. Any attempt to understand what the Bible means by ‘righteousness of God’ must grapple with this text. I shall comment on a number of its expressions hoping to unpack some of its meaning.
Rom 3:21-26 (ESV)
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it- the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 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.
Paul’s ‘But now‘ signals a contrast. The contrast is not simply a change in his exposition but more particularly a change in eras - a change in God’s working in history. The previous era of Law which condemned by exposing human unrighteousness has given way to a new era of gospel which saves by exhibiting God’s righteousness. The eschatological age of salvation-righteousness predicted by the OT prophets has now arrived. As J R W Stott writes,
The ‘Now seems to have a threefold reference – logical (the developing argument), chronological (the present time), and eschatological (the new age has arrived).
Israel believed that its salvation and that of the world lay in the Law of God (2:17-20); in law-keeping lay righteousness and life. It was a profound mistake. The Law, even before it had properly embedded, was exposed as inadequate to establish righteousness. Even as the tablets of the covenant were being given by God to Moses on Sinai, they were being broken on the plains below as the people worshipped an idolatrous golden calf (Ex 32). This incident portended the future. The Law would not keep the people from being just as depraved as the surrounding nations who had no such Law. It was clear that the Law could not deliver righteousness or deliver from wrath, all it could do was expose sin. As Paul writes,
Rom 3:19-20 (ESV)
Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.
If righteousness (and so life) was to be established then it would need to be from another source than humanity. And so the prophetic voice, informed by the Lord, announced a righteousness sourced not in man but in God (3:21). It anticipated a time when God himself would act in salvation and righteousness and establish both. It spoke of the ‘good news’ of God’s coming saving righteousness, this saving righteousness Paul says has now arrived, or ‘been manifested‘. (Of course, God’s saving righteousness always existed. From Adam sinners were always justified by God’s righteousness received by faith, but now this righteousness is ‘revealed’, that is, the death of Christ has accomplished and exhibited it. The gospel, once anticipated, has now been realised and fully revealed.)
righteousness of God apart from law (without law)…
We should reflect deeply on this expression.
- Paul does not say the Law is one example of God’s righteousness and the Gospel is another. For Paul, the Law never reveals God’s righteousness, what it reveals (if kept) is man’s righteousness. It is only and always the gospel that reveals ‘righteousness of God’. We create a non-Pauline paradigm and so confusion when we speak of the Law as revealing God’s righteousness. I repeat, for Paul, only the gospel does this.
- Paul does not say, ‘In the gospel righteousness is established not by you keeping the Law but by Jesus keeping the Law in your place and on your behalf’. If this is what gospel righteousness is then here would have been the ideal and obvious place for Paul to have said so. But he doesn’t. Instead he insists on the opposite. He states unequivocally, that the ‘righteousness of God’ has nothing to do with law-keeping. Indeed, it has nothing to do with the Law. It is righteousness ‘apart from law’ or ‘without law’, that is, it is righteousness different in premise and principle, and in fact belonging to a different period of redemptive history altogether. This is a critical point to grasp for failure to appreciate this contributes to mistaken ideas in justification that plague much Evangelical thinking, particularly Reformed Evangelical thinking. Gospel righteousness is not simply law-righteousness gained for me by another (IAO). It is not merely law-righteousness by another route, by the back door. It is righteousness of a different kind, of a different epoch, and of a different source altogether. This is precisely why Paul emphatically refers to this righteousness as... ‘righteousness of God apart from law’
- The old era of Law put the emphasis on human responsibility; it looked for righteousness in man. The righteousness of Law was predicated on ‘do this and live’. It promised life for righteous living. Yet, though this was its promise it was not its intent. God did not give the Law hoping to establish righteousness through fallen human beings but to prove conclusively the futility of such a route to righteousness; he gave it to expose sin (3:20). Only when all human attempts at righteousness have been exposed as the abysmal and abject failure they are, establishing beyond doubt humanity’s incorrigible unrighteousness and moral bankruptcy (Roms 3:9-20), does God reveal the glory and grace of his own saving righteousness. Only when it is established in history that humanity cannot be the architect of its own salvation will God’s salvation-righteousness be revealed. God will have it crystal clear that if there is to be a saving righteousness then it will be and must be his and not man’s, and that the only ‘righteousness’ celebrated and boasted eternally will be God’s; boasting and glorying in any other is anathema (2:23, 3:27, 4:1,2; 1 Cor 1:28-30). The gospel reveals God’s righteousness and in it he is glorified and no other.
Of course humanity refuses to learn the lesson of Israel and the Law. It still seeks to establish its own righteousness. But it does so against the damning evidence of history. If Israel failed under Law all have failed (3:20). Humanity post-cross is pronounced ‘dead’ in trespasses and sins (Eph 2:1) There is no hope in human righteousness; hope of averting God’s wrath (1:18) lies only in the gospel, in ‘righteousness of God’.
I would add one further comment here. We should not confuse ‘God’s righteousness‘ and ‘Christ’s righteousness’. When Romans speaks of ‘God’s righteousness‘ it means just that, ‘God’s‘ righteousness. It does not mean the righteousness of Christ. God’s saving righteousness of course intimately involves Christ as the text we are considering shows but we confuse Paul’s thought if we conflate Christ’s righteousness and God’s righteousness. They are distinct and should be kept distinct. That Paul means ‘God’s‘ righteousness is emphatic in the text. Three times in five verses we read of ‘God’s righteousness‘ (3: 21,22, 25. Cf. 1:17, 10:3; Phil 3:9; 2 Cor 5:21) and once of ‘his righteousness’ , meaning God’s (3:26).
The text could hardly be more emphatic; in the gospel the eschatological age of salvation has dawned. It is an age where God’s righteousness is the focus and no other (Cf 3:27). When we have established that Paul’s focus is God’s righteousness, not man’s, not even Christ’s, we have established something profoundly important and we are thinking across the synapses of the gospel.
witnessed by the Law and prophets
I have already alluded to this expression above. If there is discontinuity between the Law and the gospel (both different epochs based on different sources of righteousness) then there is also continuity. The continuity lies in the predictive element of both the Law and the prophets (often a term that covers the whole of the OT).
How did the Law predict the gospel? Principally and specifically, the gospel is predicted in the sacrificial system of the Law. Thus the following verses speak of redemption, sacrifice and the mercy-seat as the means by which God’s righteousness is revealed and administered (22-25). The prophets, as we have already seen, regularly anticipated the Age of Salvation when the righteousness of the Lord would be revealed ( E.g. Isa 46:13; 51:5,6,8).
And so, in 3:21 Paul begins to put in context the ‘righteousness of God‘. In the verses which follow he unpacks the meaning of the expression. We shall consider these verses in a further blog. For now let me re-assert we have understood nothing of the rationale of the gospel if we have not grasped this fundamental truth – the gospel is nothing if it is not ‘righteousness of God’.