06 February 2017

Paul and the Righteousness of God

[Note: This post was rewritten on St. Patrick's Day 2017. What follows are notes on the terms the righteousness of God and the righteousness from God used in the Pauline corpus.]

Church of the Holy Trinity in Arendal, Norway. Original photo by KEN.

An Observation: Of and From

The term the righteousness of God is defined as the forgiveness of sins in paragraph 41 of Article IV of the Apology of the Augsburg Confession.

In the Old Testament the righteousness of God is, among other similar things, His mercy and steadfast love (Hos 2:19), His faithfulness (Zec 8:8), His deliverance (Psa 31:1), and His vivification (Psa 119:40). All of these are God's actions toward us, and each is sometimes expressed as the forgiveness of sins (Psa 51:1, 1 John 1:9, Eph 1:7, Col 2:13). Therefore, we can rightly define the righteousness of God as something that happens, viz., God forgiving us our sins.

I think that in order for our reading of Romans, Galatians, and Philippians to make sense, we have to be precise in how we understand Paul's justification-terminology. This will involve defining the righteousness of God as God forgiving us our sins, and not confounding it with the righteousness from God. The former is an action toward us whereas the latter is something accounted to us.

In paragraph 54 of Article III of the Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord, the term the righteousness of God is defined as the righteousness of faith and it is firmly associated with the forgiveness of sins. What I deduce from the text in the aforementioned confession is that the authors confounded the righteousness of God (dikaiosunê theou as in Romans 1:17) with the righteousness from God (ek theou dikaiosunê or theou dikaiosunê as in Philippians 3:9 and Romans 10:3). This does not imply Article III of the Solid Declaration is wrong in its essential teaching just as misattributing something by Ambrosiaster to St. Ambrose in the Augsburg Confession does not nullify the relevant Article.

My view is that we should define the righteousness from God as Jesus' own righteousness (Rom 5:18) as well as the righteousness of faith (Rom 10:3–4) and even associate it with the forgiveness of sins that we receive from God (Rom 5:19). The righteousness of Jesus comes to us from God in the sense that it is accounted to our faith and hence to us. With it we receive the forgiveness of sins.

Reading 2 Corinthians 5:21

For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (NRSV)
Traditionally Lutherans interpret the Pauline verse above to mean God had laid upon Jesus our iniquities so that His righteousness would be accounted to us. This would be the direct meaning if Paul had used the term the righteousness from God, but the apostle used the term the righteousness of God, the term that refers to God's action of forgiving us.

My interpretation of the verse is that Jesus, who was sinless, carried our sins, hence "he made him to be sin." The corollary is we can receive God's forgiveness, and in that sense we become the righteousness of God. Although the verse does not directly say a righteousness is accounted to us, such a righteousness is implied because forgiveness is tied to it.

Other Meanings

In Romans 10:3 St. Paul wrote that the Jews, "have not submitted to God’s righteousness" because they sought to establish their own righteousness through the works of the law rather than receive righteousness through faith. I believe this is the one and only time in the Pauline corpus where the term God's righteousness/the righteousness of God is not synonymous with the forgiveness of sins; based on what follows in the rest of the chapter, I think the term refers to God's deliverance/salvation.

In 2 Peter 1:1 the apostle St. Peter wrote of God's righteousness this way: "[T]hose who have received a faith as precious as ours through the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ..." This usage suggests faith is a gift from Christ through His righteousness, i.e., His mercy and deliverance.

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