Righteousness Terms and the New Perspective, part 3, Pauline Epistles (2), by Jeffery Smith

In part two of Righteous terms and the New Perspective we began to focus upon Paul’s usage of righteousness terms in is epistles, especially the book of Romans. In the last post we consider his use of the terms “righteousness, righteous” etc.. with reference to men under the headings of active righteousness and passive righteousness. Now in this post we continue with considering Paul’s use of righteousness terms with reference to men. Then in last post I plan to consider his use of righteousness terms with reference to God.

The Meaning of Justification in Paul’s Epistles

We saw from its O.T. usage that justification doesn’t mean to make a person righteous, in the sense of some subjective transformation of the person’s character. Justification is a forensic term which speaks of a judicial declaration; declaring a person either guilty or righteous. Paul uses the word in this same way when he refers to the justification of sinners.

First of all, this justification is set forth as the opposite of condemnation. Remember to condemn is not to make bad, nor is it a process by which a man is made bad. To condemn is the declared sentence of a judge about a person. The judge does not make bad when he condemns, he declares the person to be bad and sentences him to his punishment. Well, in Paul for the sinner to be justified is the opposite of being condemned. We see this, for example, in Rom. 5:18, “As through one man’s offense judgment came to all men, resulting in condemnation, even so through one Man’s righteousness the free gift came to all men resulting in justification.” Justification is the opposite of condemnation.

In Rom. 8:33 Paul is specifically speaking about the justification of sinners, and he says, “Who shall bring a charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is he who condemns?” We see here again that to be justified is the opposite of having something laid to your charge. It means to have nothing laid to your charge. It’s the opposite of being condemned. Now again what does it mean to condemn? It certainly does not mean to make someone wicked or to infuse wickedness into a person. It means to judicially declare or to pronounce someone guilty before the law. Likewise, justification, as the opposite of condemnation, does not mean to subjectively transform someone’s character. It means for the judge to render a verdict by declaring someone righteous in the eyes of the law.

Secondly, there is the fact that when Paul speaks of the justification of believing sinners he speaks of that justification as a completed act as opposed to being a process. He speaks of the justification of those who are already believers as a completed event which took place in the past. Notice Rom. 5:1. Here we have an aorist passive participle. “Having been justified by faith.” The passive voice points to this as being an act of God. The aorist tense preceding as it does the verb it modifies, (“we have peace”), points to a once and for all act in the past;[1] “Having been justified by faith.” We see that the justification of the believing sinner is not an ongoing process the outcome of which is suspended until the Day of Judgment.

Now it is true that we will be shown to be among God’s justified people on that day and the evidence of that fact will be brought forth to demonstrate it. We also show ourselves to be God’s people in this life by how we live; what is sometimes called demonstrative justification. But our actual justification and acceptance as righteous before God occurs the moment we first believe. It is a past completed one time act.[2] “Having been justified by faith (aorist passive participle), we have (present tense) peace with God.” Not the peace of God here, but peace with God or peace toward God. This is not a subjective feeling. It’s an objective presently ongoing state of reconciliation with God that results from a past once-and-for all justification. And this is not a state that can be entered then forfeited by disobedience.[3] “It is a point-in–time accomplishment of a once-and-for-all act of God which continues into the present as the basis of continual peace with God.”[4]

In v. 9 of chapter 5 we have an aorist participle again, “Much more then, having now been justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath”. As a believer my salvation from wrath on the day of God’s righteous judgment of sinners is absolutely certain and secure. Why?: “Having now been justified by his blood.” It is secure because I have been justified. Both present peace with God and full salvation in the future are all certain and secured by this once and for all act of God completed in the past at the moment the sinner first believes. Therefore Paul could say in Rom. 8:1, “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus”.

This tells those of us who are trusting Christ for salvation, that we must realize that we are no longer under condemnation for our sins and never will be. We who are pastors need to preach this to our people. This is the truth which drives away the legal spirit that would bring believers into bondage and despair by telling them that every time they are aware of remaining sin they cease to be justified; that every time we fall prey to sin we have fallen back under legal condemnation and back under the wrath of God. No, by faith we must lay hold of this reality that there is now, therefore, no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Our sins as believers do not nullify our justified standing before God. They do not cause God to cast us out of his family. They can never condemn us to hell. It is God who justifies us, who is he that condemns? We are now members of his household, his children. We are now in the living room context. Our sins are still real sins and they should still cause us grief and as we are made aware of them we must confess them and repent of them. God is displeased with the believer’s sins, and we need our Father’s ongoing forgiveness in that sense. But the sins of the justified do not cause God to throw them out of the house. They do not put us back into the position of the condemned criminal before the judgment bar and we will never be back in that position. “Having been justified by faith we have peace with God”! We must lay hold of this glorious reality by faith. We must keep coming back to it and keep bringing our people back to this reality. It is the assurance of our acceptance with God that fills the heart with love and gratitude and joy and drives the engine of sacrificial self denying devotion to our Savior.

Well I trust we see, from this survey, that justification in Romans cannot be reduced merely to the recognition or declaration that one is a member of the covenant. Righteousness language in this epistle means more than that.[5] Righteousness is the opposite of sin. Justification is the exact opposite of being condemned. And to be declared righteous is to be declared not guilty. It is to be put into the category and declared to be in the category of one who has perfectly kept what God requires in terms of his moral claims upon men.

Furthermore, this is not some kind of pronouncement in the present of what people will one day become on the Day of Judgment; a declaration that believing sinners will one day become subjectively righteous. We will but that’s glorification, not justification. It is also not a future justification on the basis of our own covenant faithfulness projected into the present and suspended upon the condition of continued covenant faithfulness. In other words, our future justification in glory is not our actual justification with present justification only being the anticipatory recognition of what we will be by our own faithfulness. No, it is just the opposite. The sinners actual justification occurs the moment he believes the gospel, and our future justification will simply be the unveiling and manifesting of who we are and the reality of what we became when we first believed on Jesus and continued becoming in the sanctification flowing out of that believing justified relationship to Him. Justification is the once and for all judicial declaration that the believer is now and will forever be regarded as righteous in the eyes of God’s law. Well we’ve surveyed Paul’s use of righteousness language with reference to men, next time in the last post on this subject we’ll consider righteousness language in Romans as it’s used with reference to God.


[1] I know the aorist does not always require a past reference. However,  normally the aorist participle when preceding the verb it modifies does. Furthermore, this is supported by the use of the aorist participle in v.9. See Douglass Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1996), 298,310.

[2] This is consistent with how the word is used elsewhere in the N.T. as well. There are numerous places where any other meaning would be extremely difficult to apply if not impossible (See for example: Lk. 7:29; 16:15; 18:14; 1 Cor. 4:4; Galatians). There are a few instances in scripture where the term has the meaning “to show to be righteous” or to demonstrate oneself to be righteous before men. For example, some argue, including me, that this is the way James uses the term in James 2. But when speaking of the gift of free justification to sinners in Christ here in Romans this is clearly not the way Paul uses the word. It is a matter of debate as to whether he uses the word in a demonstrative, rather than a declarative sense, in Rom. 2:13. He may be using it that way there also, though there are good arguments for understanding him as speaking hypothetically in that verse of what would be the case if anyone, indeed, did or could obey all that the law demands.  Philip Eveson, Justification by Faith alone- in light of recent thought (Surrey, England: Day One Publications, 1998) 57-58, in giving a helpful word study  defending the traditional reformed understanding of the term makes this comment, “While the declarative meaning predominates in the New Testament, there are cases where dikaioo (justify) has the demonstrative sense of, ‘to show to be righteous.’ We read of the lawyer who felt he needed to ‘justify himself’ by asking Jesus the question ‘who is my neighbor?’ (Luke 10:29). He wanted to ‘show himself righteous’. At the end of Mathew 11:19 Jesus remarks that ‘wisdom is justified by her children’. Again, the meaning is that wisdom is ‘shown to be righteous’ rather than ‘declared to righteous’. It is important to bear in mind this meaning of the verb when we consider the statement in James 2:24, where it is often suggested that James is contradicting Paul. Instead of using the word in Paul’s declaratory sense ‘to declare righteous’ James could well be saying that a person is ‘shown to be righteous’ by his works and not simply by his faith”.

[3] Fred Malone, “Justification By Faith Alone In Contemporary Theological Perspective: A Critique of ‘New Covenant Nomism’,” in Reformed Baptist Theological Review vol. 1, no.1 (2004), 107. Malone gives a brief but very good exposition of Rom. 5:1-2 on pages 106-110.

[4] I am aware of the textual variant. Some manuscripts have the subjunctive “let us have peace with God”. Moo presents the arguments in favor of the indicative rendering followed in most of our English translations, “we have peace with God”. Moo, Romans, footnote 17, 295. Even if the variant reading was used it does not significantly alter the point being made above concerning justification.

[5] This is not to imply that Paul’s speaking of righteousness in this way is only found in his epistle to the Romans or only in the texts we have considered. Westerholm, Perspectives Old And New On Paul, 278-279 helpfully summarizes and collates Paul’s references to this passive righteousness as contrasted with that which comes through the law (Gal.2:21;3:11-12; 5:4; Rom. 10:5; Pp. 3:9), as contrasted with the law’s works (Gal.2:16; Rom. 3:20;28), and as contrasted  with works in general (Rom. 4:2; 5-6;Rom. 9:31-32). It is also called a righteousness by faith in Jesus Christ (Rom.3:24), righteousness of faith (Rom. 4:11, 13), righteousness which is of faith (Rom. 9:30; 10:60), Righteousness from God by faith as opposed to my own righteousness which is from the law (Pp. 3:9).

Righteousness Terms and the New Perspective Part Two, Pauline Epistles (1), by Jeffery Smith

The Use of Righteousness Terminology in the Pauline Epistles (1)

We are particularly concerned here with Paul’s usage of righteousness language in his epistle to the Romans. This is the place where by far the most references are made to the righteousness of God. The righteousness or unrighteousness of men is also a major emphasis. Let’s begin, first, with….

Righteousness Language as It’s Used With Reference To Men

Now it must be acknowledged that, like we see in the O.T., in the N.T. men are sometimes referred to as righteous in different ways. While, on the one hand, we are told that there are none righteous no not one and all have sinned and are guilty of unrighteousness, yet at the same time some men are referred to as being righteous. Sometimes men are spoken of as righteous in a relative sense in the N.T. in terms of the basic orientation of the life and not in the sense of being perfectly righteous. See, for example Luke 1:6 and Phil. 3:6. We have to make those distinctions at times depending upon the context. But my focus right now is to look at the specific way Paul uses the language of righteousness with reference to men in the book of Romans in a context in which he is setting forth the doctrine of justification by faith. My purpose is not to give a detailed exposition of all the relevant texts but I just want to give something of a quick survey.[1] Paul’s use of the language in that context can be put into two categories. I like the language that was used by Luther; active righteousness, the righteousness that men themselves perform and passive righteousness; the righteousness that God in his grace gives to sinners.[2] So let’s consider the righteousness terminology in terms, first of all, of…

                        Active Righteousness

First, in speaking of righteousness, or in using righteousness language, Paul constantly contrasts righteousness with sin. Let’s start at Rom. 3:9. Paul asserts: “For we have previously charged both Jews and Greeks that they are all under sin.” This claim in Rom. 3:9 that all are under sin is further supported and followed in v.10 by the scriptural declaration that, “There is none righteous, no not one.” Clearly here to be under sin is to be unrighteous. Sin and righteousness are set forth as opposites, while sin and unrighteousness are set forth as synonymous. This is expanded in the verses following by a detailed description of what it means to be unrighteous. And that description is given in terms of sinful wicked behavior and attitudes. (note-vv.11-18.)

In Rom. 5:7-8 we are told, “For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. But God demonstrated His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us”. Notice again that being a righteous man is contrasted with being a sinner. The amazing thing is that Christ died for sinners; which is the opposite of his dying for a righteous man. A sinner is someone who has done what he ought not to do. He is a person who does, or is, what God forbids men to do or to be, or a person who has failed to do or to be what God commands him to do or to be. Sin is the transgression of the law; as Paul says up ch.3:20, “for by the law is the knowledge of sin”. Well if that’s what sin is and righteousness is the opposite of sin, what is righteousness? Righteousness is doing what God’s law commands; actually doing and being what God commands men to do and to be.[3]

Secondly, notice how Paul defines what one ought to do. He continually defines what one ought to do in this epistle in terms of God’s moral claims upon men. For example, in Rom. 1:18 Paul speaks of the wrath of God that is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men. Now he’s not merely talking about Jews there. He’s speaking of the unrighteousness of Gentiles or of all humanity. God’s wrath against all who do not do what they ought to do in accordance with the light of nature and conscience which is given to every man.  But how does Paul go on to define that? How is unrighteousness defined in the description that follows?

In Rom. 1:19-32 “unrighteousness” is defined in terms of the violation of God’s moral claims as Creator upon his creatures. “They suppress the truth”; “they do not glorify God as God, nor are they thankful”. They give themselves up to various forms of idolatry, “changing the glory of the incorruptible God into an image like corruptible man”. Women exchange the natural use for that which is against nature and also the men, leave the natural use of the woman and burn in their lust for one another. They are filled with sexual immorality, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness, full of envy, murder, strife and on and on the list goes. Man as a creature created in the image of God is guilty of refusing to give his Creator and Sustainer the honor and gratitude that He is due. He is guilty of worshipping himself instead of his Creator. He is guilty of violating the creation mandate concerning marriage and what is appropriate human sexual behavior. He is guilty of doing evil to his neighbor and having a heart that is full of envy and greed and malice. And all of this is spoken of mankind in general, the human race, Gentiles included, not just the Jews in terms of God’s covenant relationship with Israel. And Paul assumes in v.32 of ch.1 that all humans, at some level and to some degree, both know what they ought to do and they know that God rightly condemns them for not doing it, even if they do not have the law in the written form by which it was given to Israel through Moses. Ch. 1:32, “Who knowing the righteous judgment of God, that those who practice such things are deserving of death, not only do the same but also approve of those who practice them”.

Now all of this wickedness and sin and evil that characterizes fallen humanity, even those who do not have special revelation and are not parties to the Mosaic covenant as the Jews were, Paul describes as unrighteousness. Thus, unrighteousness and righteousness cannot be defined merely in terms of God’s covenant with Israel. It cannot be defined in terms of covenant membership or being recognized as one who is or who is not loyal to the covenant.

Paul goes on to emphasize in chapter 2 that men will be judged by God for their actions. He speaks in 2:5-6 of the righteous judgment of God who will render to each one according to his deeds. He says in v.13, “For not the hearers of the law are just or righteous in the sight of God, but the doers of the law”. Without giving right now a detailed exposition and interpretation of that verse in its context and in its relationship to the justification of sinners, one thing it makes clear is that righteousness has to do with being a doer of what the law requires. One is found righteous at the judgment because he does what the law requires.

Then Paul, in vv.14-16, goes on to point out again that it’s not different for the Gentiles who do not have the law in inscripturated form as the Jews do.  For even they show the work of the law written in their hearts. Righteousness in terms of doing what God’s law requires is not merely a Jewish thing. The Jews, indeed, had special guidance in these matters as they had the law in written form but it was special guidance with reference to the kind of behavior God requires of all men, both Jew and Gentile.  Righteousness is behavior that God requires of every member of the human race and that righteousness is defined in terms of the ethical demands of his law. As Paul goes on to emphasize in the first part of chapter 3, therefore, all have sinned, both Jew and Gentile, and have fallen short of the glory of God. “There is none righteous, no not one.”

So we’ve looked at Paul’s general use of righteousness language in its ordinary sense or what has been called active righteous. But that’s not the only way Paul uses the language in this epistle and elsewhere. Which leads us now to consider, secondly…

                        Passive Righteousness

Paul also speaks of righteousness in terms of that which God gives or credits to those who have no righteousness of their own; those who are sinners and yet God declares them righteous. He puts them into the category of those who have done all that his law demands and requires men to do. Yet, in reality, they have not done that. They are not righteous in the active sense, they are ungodly. They are sinners. Paul has already told us that, ultimately, all have sinned; there is none who is truly righteous in the ultimate and active sense. Yet he then goes on to declare the good news of how God declares righteous those who are sinners.

Again we go back to Rom. 3. Paul has just given his sweeping indictment of the unrighteousness of the whole human race both Jews and Gentiles. He concludes in v.20 with these words, “For by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in his sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin.” And now he begins to introduce the righteousness that God himself gives to sinners. Rom. 3:21-24:

But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,..

Here Paul speaks of sinners, unrighteous people, who have fallen short of the glory of God, being justified, rightified, declared righteous. And this righteousness is not on the basis of anything they are or anything they have done. They are justified freely. And this justification is not an act of reward or recompense for righteous deeds done. It is by God’s grace, “freely by his grace.” Furthermore, they are declared righteous through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. Without opening that up right now, clearly this extraordinary righteousness, this righteousness for sinners, is possible because of the redemptive work of Jesus Christ, which the apostle then goes on to explain in more detail in vv.25-26.

But my point for right now is that here we see sinners justified; declared righteous. And we see in the context that this is made possible by the work of Christ and that this justification is the possession of those who believe in Him.

Let’s move over to Rom. 4:5. “Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but debt. But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness.” Here again we have people who are considered ungodly and who have no works sufficient to build a claim of righteousness upon, and yet righteousness is accounted or imputed to them. They are justified, declared righteous, accounted as having righteousness. Paul speaks here of God justifying, rightifying, the ungodly.

Let’s look at Rom. 5:7-9: “For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die.” We looked at this earlier. Here is ordinary righteousness, active righteousness. But Paul goes further. Notice vv.8-9: “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him.” Here we see extraordinary righteousness or passive righteousness. We have sinners, unrighteous people, whom Christ died for who, as a result of his death for them, have been justified by his blood. They have been declared righteous, even though, in and of themselves, they are not righteous.

Look on further in Rom. 5 at vv.17-19. Again just very briefly, without opening this up in detail right now, notice what we see. In v.12 Paul says, “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned-”. Here we have the universal guilt of the entire human race resulting from Adam’s sin. For our purpose right now here is what I want us to see; all men are counted as sinners according to this text. All sinned. Now notice how Paul picks up this line of thought in v.17, “For if by the one man’s offense death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ.” Here we have, in contrast to the death that came to all men because of sin, what Paul refers to as the gift of righteousness. Here again are sinners and yet they have righteousness given to them as a gift. He goes on to connect this gift of righteousness to the obedience and righteous act of Jesus Christ in vv.18-19.

So here is the mystery, as it were, of Paul’s usage of righteousness terminology we must understand if we would understand the gospel Paul preaches. In its ordinary usage, or in its active sense, righteousness is moral conformity to the claims of God upon men as his creatures which are given clearest expression in his law. The righteous are those who have done what they ought to do in terms of those claims. And righteousness is the possession of those who have done so. But there is none righteous, no not one, for all have sinned. So how can there be any hope for sinners? How can sinners stand righteous before God? Contrary to the new perspective this is the question that Paul addresses in his doctrine of justification. It is here that Paul brings in the gospel as he sets before us this extraordinary righteousness, or passive righteousness. It is righteousness that is freely given to sinners and received through faith in Jesus Christ.

But how can it be that God justifies sinners who believe on Jesus? Prov. 17:15 says, “He who justifies the wicked, and he who condemns the just, both of them alike are an abomination to the Lord.” But Paul tells us that God himself justifies the wicked. How can God do that if he who justifies the wicked is an abomination to the Lord? Well, again, it is Jesus Christ and his work that enters into the equation. Paul answers that question in terms of the work that Christ has done on behalf of sinners.

Let me say as a practical aside, that until a man, in some measure, has been brought face to face with this dilemma he can’t really understand the gospel. Until he sees that God is holy and just, and until God’s law has produced in his conscience the conviction that he is a sinner deserving of nothing from God but wrath; until his conscience is brought face to face with this dilemma of how can God do anything else but send me to hell; until a man feels something of this dilemma, he cannot possibly experimentally understand the gospel, or rejoice in the gospel with the cordial embrace of faith? Why?; because this is the very dilemma that the gospel addresses and answers.

This is one of the great needs in the preaching of our day. This is one of the great needs in the so-called biblical scholarship of our day. Men need to be confronted with the majesty, holiness, justice and wrath of God. They need to be confronted with the law of God in order that they may be brought to see and to feel their sinfulness and hell deservedness and their lost condition. It is then and only then that the gospel of justification by faith becomes relevant to them and can be properly appreciated as they are forced to ask the question, “How can a sinner like me be right with a holy and just God?”

This is why Paul spent the first two, and over half of the third, chapters of this epistle to the Romans setting forth these very issues before he ever begins to take up justification by faith beginning in Ch. 3:21. He begins with God, His justice and wrath against sin, his moral ethical claims upon men, the claims of His law, and man’s condition before God as a sinner who is justly condemned. And then after that he takes up the glorious gospel of justification by faith. Listen to the comments of James Buchanan:

The best preparation for the study of this doctrine is—neither great intellectual ability, nor much scholastic learning,–but a conscience impressed with a sense of our actual condition as sinners in the sight of God….the law must be applied to the conscience, so as to quicken and arouse it, before we can feel our need of salvation, or make any serious effort to attain it. It is the convicted, and not the careless, sinner, who alone will lay to heart, with some sense of its real meaning and momentous importance, the solemn question—How shall a man be just with God?[4]

Another quote; this time from John Murray:

We are all wrong with God because we have all sinned and come short of the glory of God. Far too frequently we fail to entertain the gravity of this fact. Hence the reality of our sin and the reality of the wrath of God upon us for our sin do not come into our reckoning. This is the reason why the grand article of justification does not ring the bells in the innermost depths of our spirit. And this is the reason why the gospel of justification is to such an extent a meaningless sound in the world and in the church of the twentieth century. We are not imbued with the profound sense of the reality of God, of His majesty and holiness, And sin, if reckoned with at all is little more than a misfortune or maladjustment. If we are to appreciate that which is central in the gospel, if the jubilee trumpet is to find  its echo again in our hearts, our thinking must be revolutionized by the realism of the wrath of God, of the reality and gravity of our guilt, and of the divine condemnation. It is then and only then that our thinking and feeling will be rehabilitated to an understanding of God’s grace in the justification of the ungodly[5]


[1] In this I’m following to some degree the helpful method used by Stephen Westerholm, Perspective Old and New263-283. Westerholm divides Paul’s references to righteousness with respect to men into two categories; what he calls ordinary righteousness and extraordinary righteousness. By ordinary he means the righteousness of one who does what he ought to do. By extraordinary he means the righteousness of one who has not done what he ought to do and yet he is counted righteous.

[2] See for example, Martin Luther, Commentary On Galatians, (1850; reprint, Grand   Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1979), xi-xviii.

[3] One could add Rom. 6:13-14; 18-19, though the context is not that of the sinner’s justification before God but of the believer’s new life in Christ that is inseparable from it.  For example, in Rom. 6:13-14 we are urged to not present the members of our bodies as instruments of unrighteousness to sin, but present yourselves to God as being alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God. For sin shall not have dominion over you.” Again righteousness is set forth as the opposite of sin and sin is set forth as synonymous with unrighteousness. Rom. 6:18-19, “And having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness.”  The opposite of being in bondage to sin is being a servant of righteousness. “I speak in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh. For just as you presented your members as slaves of uncleanness, and of lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves of righteousness for holiness.” Again righteousness is the opposite of lawlessness. Being a servant of righteousness for holiness is the opposite of being slaves of uncleanness and lawlessness.

[4] James Buchanan, The Doctrine of Justification, (1867; reprint, Carlisle PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1997), 222. See also John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, (1955; Wm. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987), 117-118

[5] John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, (1955; Wm. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987), 117-118.

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)”.

A Critique of the New Perspective on Paul, by Jeffery Smith

Below is a link to 8 audio lectures I gave for Reformed Baptist Seminary a few years ago critiquing what is called the New Perspective. These were recently put up by Dr. Robert Gonzales the dean of RBS.

http://rbseminary.org/home/a-critique-of-the-new-perspective-on-paul.html