Righteousness Terms and the New Perspective, Part One: O.T., by Jeffery Smith

When I refer to “righteousness terminology” in the title of this post, and any following on this subject, I’m talking about those words which have the Greek root dik (the Greek words in this post are transliterated with English letters). The words “righteous”, (dikaios); “righteousness” (diakaiosune); “justify”, (dikaioo). Obviously, in Greek dikaioo, “justify”, is related to diakaiosune, “righteousness”, but unfortunately it’s not obvious in English. Perhaps, as someone has suggested, we should come up with a new word, the word rightified for the word justified. I guess not, but at any rate these are the words that I’m describing; righteousness terminology, righteous, righteousness, justify, justified.

Now, according to the advocates of what has been called The New Perspective on Paul, such as N.T. Wright, the righteousness terminology of the N.T. is to be understood against the background of God’s covenant relationship to his people. The righteousness of God, it is argued, refers to God’s covenant faithfulness to his covenant promises. When speaking of the righteousness of men, it refers to covenant membership. Righteousness is covenant member status. To be justified is, therefore, is to be declared, or recognized, as a member of the covenant. Or it’s to be counted, or recognized, as one who is faithful to one’s covenant relationship with God.

This understanding of the righteousness terminology of the bible is in contrast with the reformation understanding. According to the reformed view God’s righteousness, in the first place, refers to his moral character and actions as one who is always right and actively does what is right and requires that his creatures conform to what is right. It refers to His moral character by which he demands conduct from his creatures that conforms to the standard of his holy law and by which he rewards or punishes accordingly. When it comes to the justification of sinners who are by definition unrighteous, God’s righteousness sometimes refers to that gift of a right standing with God that he gives to sinners who believe on Christ. Because the perfect obedience and sacrifice of Christ fully satisfied the demands of God’s righteousness, those who believe on Christ receive the free gift of God’s righteousness in Christ. They are justified which, according to reformation theology, means they are declared righteous in the sense of having fully met the objective norms and demands of God for men on the basis of an alien righteousness that is external to them and counted theirs. Thus, when it comes to men, righteousness refers to conformity to what God requires of men as creatures created in his image.

So which view is correct? How do we understand the righteousness terminology of the N.T.? Is it true that the righteousness of God refers to his covenant faithfulness as the new perspective argues? And is it true that the righteousness of men and justification means nothing more than covenant membership. Well here is the outline that I’ll be using in discussing this question in the blog posts to follow:

I. The O.T. Background of the Terminology

  1. Righteousness Language in General
  2. The Term Justification or to Justify in the O.T.

II. The Use of Righteousness Terminology in the Pauline Epistles

A. Righteousness Language as It’s Used With Reference To Men

1. Active Righteousness

2. Passive Righteousness

3. The Meaning of Justification

B. Righteousness Language as It’s Used With Reference To God

Let’s begin, first of all, with….

The O.T. Background of the Terminology

The new perspective presents its understanding as being more consistent with the O.T. roots of the N.T. language. The Hebrew words translated righteous, righteousness etc.. are generally translated in the Septuagint by the same Greek words translated that way in the N.T. So let’s consider the language of righteousness in the O.T. both with reference to God and man. First:


 Righteousness Language in General

When one looks at the O.T. it is true that there are a  number of texts in which God’s righteousness is spoken of in a context in which it is connected with his faithfulness to his people. Certainly because God is righteous he is faithful to his covenant promises. But that’s not the same thing as saying that God’s righteousness means covenant faithfulness. The fact that God in his righteousness is faithful to his covenant is not the same as saying that righteousness is equivalent to his faithfulness to his covenant. Likewise, it is true that those of God’s people who are faithful to his covenant may sometimes be spoken of as righteous; righteous in a qualified sense, though not sinless. However, that does not mean that righteousness is only used in that way or that it means nothing more than covenant membership.

It would take us well beyond the length appropriate for blog posts to look carefully at all the relevant texts or to survey all the studies that have been done on this which refute this broad brushed definition of God’s righteousness. Mark Seifrid gives a very detailed study of the righteousness language in the Hebrew Scriptures in Vol. 1 of Justification and Variegated Nomism.[1] He has gone into some detail demonstrating that the righteousness word-group in the Hebrew Scriptures bears the idea of “accordance with a norm” and the inadequacy of righteousness in the O.T. being understood merely as God’s covenant faithfulness or as covenant membership. Others have done the same.[2] Let me briefly summarize some of the chief arguments against the New Perspective understanding of the O.T. language that Seifrid gives (See Stephen Westerholm referenced in footnote two as well and below):

First of all, the idea that the word-group always has reference to a covenant relationship is contradicted by its application at times to inanimate objects.[3] For example in Lev.19:36 we read of “Just or honest scales” in our English translations. Actually we have there the Hebrew word “righteous” (sadaq). We read of righteous scales, righteous weights, a righteous ephah, and a righteous hin. There the term “righteous” clearly has nothing to do with faithfulness to a covenant relationship. The reference is to scales and weights etc., which meet up to the divine standard of honesty and integrity.

Secondly, references to righteousness and the word “covenant” are rarely found in any close proximity to each other.[4] The word “covenant” (be-rith) is found 284 times in the O.T. and righteousness terminology is found some 524 times. Yet making every generous allowance, in only seven passages do the terms come into any significant semantic contact.

Thirdly, in O.T. terms one generally does not act righteously or unrighteously with respect to a covenant.[5] Instead the scripture speaks of “keeping” or “remembering” or “establishing” a covenant. Or a covenant is spoken of as something one “breaks”, “transgresses”, “forsakes”, “despises”, “forgets”, or “profanes”. Charges of covenant unfaithfulness are sometimes found in the form of family metaphors. In contrast, though righteousness language appears a few times with reference to social relations (Is. 11:5; 16:5; 59:4; Jer. 9:23; Hosea 10:12), yet as Seifrid comments…

It “is more frequently found in parallel with “terms for rectitude or in opposition to terms for evil, expressing approbation or condemnation….. All ‘covenant keeping’ is righteous behavior, but not all righteous behavior is ‘covenant keeping’. It is misleading, therefore, to speak of ‘God’s righteousness’ as his ‘covenant faithfulness.[6]

Fourthly, divine righteousness is often spoken of in retributive or punitive terms and each time in a judicial context. God is described as righteous in his role as judge who rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked.[7] In other words, righteousness is not merely a reference to the saving activity of God with reference to his covenant. It is often used with reference to retributive justice in terms of his judgeship over all mankind.

Fifthly, righteousness language in the O.T. has to do in the first place with man in his relationship to God as Creator not merely to God in covenant.[8] For example, while it is relatively rare to find “righteousness” mentioned together with “covenant” it is very common to find it associated with the vocabulary of “ruling and judging”. They occur in close proximity (within five words of each other) in 142 contexts. Making this observation, Seifried then comments that…

Since kingship obviously includes the making of ‘covenants,’ it is not surprising that ‘ruling and judging’ sometimes has to do with a covenant with Israel (and with David in particular)…At root, however, the biblical conception of kingship bears a universal dimension…in biblical thought ‘righteousness’ has to do with creational theology.[9]

Cornelius Venema comments on this connection of righteousness language to the ordering of the affairs of creation and to God’s activity as judge:

When God acts righteously, he does more than act in accord with a general kind of covenant faithfulness or saving intention, He rules and orders the affairs of his creation and of his human image-bearers particularly, in a way that is right and that accords with his own righteous character. Thus it is in righteousness that God punishes the wicked and secures the salvation of the righteous…God’s righteousness is…an expression of his kingly and judicial dominion over the creation and all its creatures. Because God is righteous in this sense, he rules and administers the circumstances of his creatures in a way that is just[10] (See: Ps. 72:1-3; 2 Sam. 8:15; 1 Kings 10:9; Jer. 22:3; Prov. 31:8-9)

Sixthly, the fallacy of the reductionistic understanding of righteousness advocated by the NP is further indicated (as we move over now to righteousness with reference to men) by the O.T. ascriptions of righteousness to human beings prior to or unassociated with any covenant that he has made with them.[11] For example, both Noah and Abraham are described as righteous prior to God’s establishing a covenant with either of them. Before God makes a covenant with Noah he is described in Gen. 6:9 as “a righteous man, blameless in his generation.” Also before God formally makes a covenant with Abraham we read in Gen. 15:6 that, “Abraham believed in the Lord, and He credited it to him for righteousness.”[12] Now it must be acknowledged that neither Abraham nor Noah were righteous in the sense of being sinlessly perfect. However, the language in referring to Noah assumes that righteousness was the basic orientation of his life. And with Abraham we are told that righteousness is credited or imputed to him. Perhaps the reference to Noah is speaking of imputed righteousness as well, or it may contain both ideas; perfect righteousness imputed to him and righteous living as the basic orientation of his life. Regardless, the point for now is that the righteousness ascribed to these men was prior to God’s establishing any covenant with either of them.[13] Therefore, righteousness cannot be reduced to meaning nothing more than covenant faithfulness or covenant membership.

Likewise God told Abraham that if he could find just a few righteous men in Sodom and Gomorrah he would spare the cities. Abraham’s prayer for Sodom in Genesis 18:23ff was based upon the appeal, “Would you also destroy the righteous with the wicked?” God had declared that the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah was great. The inhabitants were wicked. Abraham prays that God would spare the city if he could find fifty righteous in it; or forty, or thirty, or twenty; and then his final appeal is that God would spare them if he could find ten righteous persons. Notice several things here. First, as is repeatedly the case in the O.T. being righteous is contrasted with being sinful and wicked. Two, the concepts of sin and wickedness predate God’s covenant with Israel. Of course, we see that throughout the book of Genesis. The wickedness of the inhabitants of those cities involved sin against an objective norm of what is expected by God of men as his creatures, not merely in terms of his special covenant relationship with Israel. Three, the assumed possibility of their being righteous persons in Sodom also had nothing to do with faithfulness to any special covenant relationship they sustained to God. The finding of righteous men in Sodom and Gomorrah was at least assumed in principle to be possible even though the people of those cities were never party to any covenant God made with Israel.

Furthermore, neither Job nor Noah were Israelites yet they are named along with Daniel as righteous men in Ez. 14:14; 20. Clearly their righteousness is not referring to covenant membership or to being faithful to the covenant God established with Israel. Daniel, in Dan. 4:27, can call upon Nebuchadnezzar to break off his sins by being righteous, however Nebuchadnezzar was no party to God’s covenant with Israel, thus there again being righteous does not mean being faithful to the covenant or covenant membership.

Seventhly, the O.T. clearly indicates that a person may be a covenant member and yet not be righteous.[14] Look at Deut. 9 as an example of this. Here we see that being a party to the covenant and a legitimate member of God’s covenant people does not mean that one is righteous and is, in fact, distinguished from being righteous. Notice in vv.4-5 how God underscores that Israel’s reception of covenant privilege and blessing in fulfillment of God’s covenant with their fathers was not based on the fact that they were “righteous”.

Do not think in your heart, after the Lord your God has cast them out before you, saying, ‘Because of my righteousness the Lord has brought me in to possess this land’; but it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is driving them out from before you. It is not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart that you go in to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord your God drives them out from before you, and that He may fulfill the word which the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Notice here, first, that the term “righteousness” is contrasted again in these verses with the term “wickedness”. More specifically and importantly it is contrasted with the wickedness of the heathen nations who, by the way, were parties to no covenant with Israel. Thus righteousness is behavior that is not wicked; behavior that is not evil and sinful. It is the opposite of wickedness as defined apart from any reference to God’s covenant with Israel.

Notice, secondly, that covenant privilege for Israel was not based on their righteousness and being in the covenant did not convey righteousness to them. Though parties to the covenant and members of the covenant they were on the whole unrighteous. Furthermore, and, therefore, righteousness does not equal covenant membership. Indeed, God goes on to say that in contrast with being righteous, Israel, his old covenant people, covenant members, were a stubborn or stiff-necked people. V.6, “Therefore understand that the Lord your God is not giving you this good land because of your righteousness, for you are a stiff-necked people.”

Eighthly, while sometimes referring to men as righteous, either in the qualified sense of the basic orientation of the life, or in the sense of righteousness being credited to them, the O.T. also affirms that ultimately no one in themselves is truly righteous in God’s sight. For example, Ps. 143:2: “Do not enter into judgment with your servant, for in your sight no one living is righteous.” Eccl. 7:20: “For there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and does not sin” (See also 1 Kings 8:46; Job 4:17-19; 15:14-16; 25:4-6; Ps. 130:3; Prov.20:9). These reminders sprinkled throughout the O.T. that ultimately no one is truly righteous before God certainly demonstrate again that “righteousness” by definition pertains to doing what one ought to do or conforming to God’s objective standard for his creatures.[15] If it simply means faithfulness to one’s covenant relationship to God or covenant membership it could not be said that, ultimately, no one in God’s sight is truly righteous. All Israelites were covenant members and a few were indeed faithful to the covenant, but, ultimately, the O.T. affirms that “in God’s sight no one living is righteous”.

So my point in all of this has been to demonstrate that to be righteous or to have righteousness is not merely that which a person has who is recognized as being a faithful member of the covenant people. “Righteousness is a matter of conforming to an objective norm established by God.”[16] Now let’s look secondly, and more specifically at…


                        The Term Justification Or To Justify In The O.T.

What does it mean to justify in O.T. usage of that language? Let me give you some examples of its usage. We read in Deut. 25:1, “If there is a dispute between men, and they come to court, that the judges may judge them, and they justify the righteous and condemn the wicked then it shall be”…. and so on.

Notice, first, that the context is a legal context; a forensic context. The context is one of the courtroom. A judgment is to be rendered by the judges. Second, we are told that it is the duty of judges, “to justify the righteous, and to condemn the wicked”. So to justify is set in contrast with condemning. To justify is the opposite of condemning someone. Also the righteous are set in contrast with the wicked. To be wicked is to be guilty of behavior deserving of condemnation; behavior that demands punishment. To be righteous is to be free from wicked behavior and therefore free from condemnation.

Third, to justify here clearly means to declare or judge someone as righteous; righteous in the sense of free from sin in the matter in question. The issue is one of doing what one ought to do; doing what is right, over against doing what one ought not to do; doing what is wrong and wicked.

Furthermore, justification here clearly does not mean to make someone righteous. The judge does not make the accused righteous or wicked, he declares him to be either righteous or wicked. If “justify” means to actually make righteous, why would it be the judges duty to condemn the wicked? Why not make them righteous too? That would be an even more wonderful thing to do. But, no, this is not the function of judges, nor do they have the ability to make men righteous. The meaning is simply that the judges were to give a just and true judgment. They were to declare righteous and not guilty those who were, in fact, righteous, and they were to condemn the wicked.

Another example; consider Prov. 17:15: “He who justifies the wicked, and he who condemns the just, both of them alike are an abomination to the Lord.” What does it mean there to justify the wicked? Does it mean to make him righteous? Well if so would God say that it’s an abomination to do that? Surely not; to make a criminal into a righteous man would be a good thing. What is an abomination is to declare a criminal righteous when he is not. The abomination in view is to render a judicial decision; to make a judicial judgment and declaration that is contrary to truth. Notice also here that to justify is set forth as the opposite of condemn.

These are just some examples. What we find is that justification is set forth as a legal judgment and declaration and as the opposite of condemnation. (See also Ex. 23:7; Is. 25:3; 1Kgs. 8:32; Ps. 143:2). So the word does not refer to a subjective transformation, but to an objective judicial forensic declaration. And it refers to righteousness, not merely in the sense of declaring someone to be a loyal covenant member, but in the sense of declaring someone to be not guilty of wicked behavior deserving of punishment. 17 Well so much for the usage of righteousness terminology in the O.T. We are ready now to consider, most importantly, in the next post the use of righteousness terminology in the Pauline epistles.

[1] Mark Seifrid, “Righteousness Language in the Hebrew Scriptures and Early Judaism”, in Justification and Variegated Nomism vol. 1, 415-442. Also see Mark Seifrid, “Paul’s Use of Righteousness Language Against It’s Hellenistic Background” in Justification and Variegated Nomism vol. 2: Paradoxes Of Paul, eds., D.A. Carson, Peter T. O’Brien and Mark Seifrid (Grand   Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 39-74.

[2] One example is Stephen Westerholm, Perspectives Old And New On Paul: The ‘Lutheran’ Paul and His Critics,
(Grand Rapids:William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 2004) 261-296.

[3] Seifrid, “Righteousness Language”, 418.

[4] Ibid. lost reference to page number but in same vicinity of other references.

[5] Ibid., 424

[6] Ibid, 424. In confirmation of this see 1Kgs. 3:6; Is. 48:1; Jer. 4:2; Zech. 8:8; Ps. 85:11-12; Deut. 9:5; 1 Kgs 3:6; Hos. 14:10; Ps. 45:7-8; 119:137; Prov. 2:9; 16:13; Is. 33:15; 45:19; Ps. 9:9; 17:1-2; 58:2; 96:10-13; 98:9, 99:4; Prov. 1:3; 2:9.

[7] Ibid, 429-430. In confirmation of this see: Ex. 9:27; Ps. 7:10; 7:12;11:5-7; 50:6; Is. 1:27; 5:15-16; 10:22; 28:17; Lam. 1:18; 2 Chron. 12:1-6; Neh. 9:33; Dan. 9:7; 9:14; 9:16).

[8] Ibid. see footnote 4.

[9] Ibid. see above.

[10] Cornelius Venema, “Evaluating the New Perspective on Paul (6): The ‘Righteousness of God’ and the Believer’s ‘Justification (Part Two)”, 2. This article by Venema  was  one of an excellent series of articles explaining and critiquing the new perspective by him that at the time this was first written for  a series of lectures I gave for Reformed Baptist Seminary could be accessed at http://www.wrfnet.org/articles. Also they could be downloaded from the Paul Page on the internet. I’m not sure of the status of those websites at the time of posting this blog.

[11] Seifrid, 425-426; Westerholm, Perspectives Old and New, 287-291.

[12] Though God made promises to Abraham prior to this and as far back as chapter 12, there is no mention of God making a covenant with him until ch.15:18.

[13] I realize that it may be argued that Noah and Abraham’s righteousness is connected to their relationship to the original covenant of works in the Garden. Or it could be related to  the first gospel promise in Gen. 3:15. My understanding of the covenant of works will not allow the idea that either of these patriarchs were righteous under its terms. Perhaps, their righteousness is to be viewed in terms of the covenant of grace first revealed in promise form in Gen. 3:15, i.e. it was a relative righteousness or a basic righteous orientation of life lived out by men  accepted by God by grace through faith in the gospel first promised in Gen. 3:15. This promised was not a command but a promise either to be believed and rested in by faith or not believed. This would be an interesting subject for further consideration.

[14] Westerholm, Perspectives Old and New, 288.

[15] Ibid., 287

[16] Ibid.

17 To further round out and summarize the evidence that justification is an objective forensic judgment in the O.T. as opposed to a subjective transformation consider….

1. The use of the term with reference to a legal judgment where the concept of subjective transformation simply cannot be applied like in the text above, Deut. 25:1. See also Prov. 17:15; Exod. 23:7; Is. 5:23

2. Justification is contrasted with condemnation. See Deut. 25:1; 1Kgs. 8:32; Prov. 17:5.

3. Contextual considerations which place the justifying act in the context of a legal judgment. For example Ps. 143:2 “Do not enter into judgment with your servant. For in your sight no one living is righteous (is justified)”.

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