The Righteousness of God in Historical Context

A few days ago I posted some thoughts on what I think Paul meant by “the righteousness of God” in Romans 3:21-26

21 But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23 since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24 they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; 26 it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.

When I asked my EBC students – what does Paul mean by “righteousness of God” it seemed like they kept getting tripped up by this phrase. So I tried to provide some clarification as to what Paul really meant. What I noticed was that their answers were mainly based on some historical views of what God’s righteousness is. These are more-so “theological” views rather than “exegetical views.” They might be right and true, but they aren’t what this passage is talking about…

Here are a couple of historical views as to what Paul meant by “the righteousness of God” in Romans 3:21-26

1) God’s Justice – This view, popular prior to the Reformation, tended to refer to the righteousness of God as his justice particularly in the context of his role as a judge over sinful humanity.

Judgement Day

While this certainly is a part of God’s righteousness, we should not think of God’s righteousness as simply his judgment upon guilt. God certainly is the righteous judge but he is so much more than that!

2) The Righteousness Imputed to Believers – Martin Luther really popularized the idea that the righteousness of God is God’s gracious gift of righteousness that is given to all those who believe in Jesus Christ. This is the sort of righteousness that emerges from God’s own righteousness, it is imparted to those who have faith, and God recons those who possess this alien righteousness as justified. Note what Luther himself says:

For God does not want to save us by our own righteousness but by an extraneous righteousness which does not originate in ourselves but comes to us from beyond ourselves, which does not arise on our earth but comes from heaven. Therefore we must come to know this righteousness which is utterly external and foreign to us. That is why our personal righteousness must be uprooted.

-Martin Luther’s Lectures on Romans

Martin Luther’s Superb Sense of Fashion is displayed in his choice of hats.

This conception of “the righteousness of God” is definitely the most common among evangelicals. However, despite that this concept certainly exists within scripture, Romans 3:21 doesn’t not refer to this sort of righteousness.

3) God’s Saving Activity – Ernst Kasemman popularize the notion that the phrase “the righteousness of God” connotes God’s active sovereignty over the whole cosmos, especially God’s power rescue and restore creation. As Bruce Longenecker says, “The righteousness of God is shorthand for talking about God’s act of cosmic rectification, in which God is exercising his victory over the forces of chaos that roam through his creation and set it in disrepair” (Thinking Through Paul). This reading fits well with how the term is used in the OT, during 2nd temple Judaism, and Paul’s narrative theology.

It is my opinion that this third option is the one that best fits what Paul is talking about in Romans 3….

Which of these three interpretations do you lean towards?


Published by cwoznicki

Chris Woznicki is an Assistant Adjunct Professor of Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. He works as the regional training associate for the Los Angeles region of Young Life.

One thought on “The Righteousness of God in Historical Context

  1. and a 4th) Gods Covenant Faithfulness – NT Wright has recently popularized the idea of Gods Righteousness as his Faithfulness to the Covenants of the OT. The Righteousness of God is revealed in Christ as Gods faithfulness to all that he promised he would do throughout the OT. I am a fan actually of all of these ideas. I think each of them touch on what is true about God, his Justice, his extended righteousness to the believer, and I think NT Wright’s stuff has a nice blend with Kasemman and Longenecker’s, as part of the Faithfulness of Christ to his covenant is to ultimately put an end to the work of the “serpent” and restore all of creation by way (in part) of “the sons of God”. 🙂 I like number 3 and the work of Wright the most I would say.

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