[NOTE: At first blush, this might look like a theological or exegetical post, but what is written below is given with the intention of brining a closer connection between the understanding of God’s righteousness in Paul’s letters and Spiritual formation that comes forth in the end.]
Leviticus 19.36b-37: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt. You shall keep all my statutes and all my ordinances, and observe them: I am the LORD.”
As Protestants, we have come to define what it means to be a Christian by the letters of Paul, particularly his epistle to the Romans. Because of this, the understanding of God’s righteousness has become the fault line by which Protestants divide themselves from Catholics and Orthodoxy, and sometimes even between Protestants. Among Protestant-influenced Biblical scholarship, there is the division between the traditional Protestant interpretation, the New Perspective, the apocalyptic interpretation of Paul, and the radical perspective on Paul, each of which directly or indirectly has different visions for what God’s righteousness is. Douglas Moo as a proponent of the traditional Protestant reading defines the righteousness of God as “the act by which God brings people into right relationship with Himself.”1 The apocalyptic interpreter Douglas Campbell, taking after Ernst Käsemann, takes the righteousness of God to be the God’s act of deliverance through the resurrection, empowerment and ascension of Jesus.2 The New Perspective on Paul, or perhaps more appropriately call the New Perspectives, is best represented by NT Wright:
[God’s righteousness] does not denote a human status which Israel’s God gives, grants, imparts or imputes (‘a righteousness from God’ as in Philippians 3:9), or a human characteristic which ‘counts’ with God (‘a righteousness which avails before God’). Nor does it denote the saving power of the one God, as Käsemann and others argued in a last-ditch attempt to prevent Paul from affirming Israel’s covenant theology. It retains its primary scriptural meaning, which is that of God’s covenant faithfulness. This includes, and indeed focuses on, God’s faithful justice, his determination to put the world to rights through putting humans to rights, and within that his faithfulness to the promises made in the Torah, promises to Abraham in Genesis about a worldwide family and promises to Israel in Deuteronomy about the curse of exile that would follow rebellion and the restoration which, consequent upon the circumcised heart, would reverse the disaster.3
I would put forward an alternative definition of God’s righteousness that branches off of Wright’s description with a couple tweaks. Firstly, God’s righteousness is God’s vision for the thriving of His People, which all the world can be included in, in right relationship to God and each other that is reflected and realized through God’s faithfulness as witnessed in Israel’s story and Scriptures and, now, in Jesus Christ. God’s righteousness and God’s faithfulness are not exact synonyms, but rather they exist are interrelated to each other as intentions and purposes are reflected and enabled by one’s actions. God’s righteousness is God’s purposes and God’s faithfulness is the description of God’s activity in accordance to His promises to Israel. Consequently, God’s righteousness isn’t referring to God’s redemptive activity, as per Campbell, but rather is what God’s redemptive activity brings to fruition in Jesus Christ and through the Holy Spirit.
Secondly, a greater emphasis on God’s giving of the Torah through Moses and the relationship between Torah and God’s righteousness is needed. Paul’s understanding of God’s righteousness was not simply limited to some specific textual allusion in Israel’s Scriptures, but I take it to be more so a part of Israel’s worldview understanding about God and His character: God’s righteousness meant that His instruction was life-giving and intended for the well-being of those who draw near to Him. One could trust God precisely because of God’s righteous purposes and intentions for His people. Consequently, Moses giving of the Torah was a way that God’s righteous purposes were being manifest among Israel. Having been freed from cruel oppression under Egypt, the Torah provides Israel a new way of life that would deliver them from what they learn under the oppressive pedagogy of Egypt into a new way of life that would allow Israel to prosper and thrive as part of God’s promises to Abraham. However, as Paul goes on to make clear, the letter of Torah is not itself God’s righteousness, even though the commandments themselves are righteous. The Torah is instrumental in bring about God’s vision, but trying to adhere to all the commandments in and of themselves only provides a knowledge of sin which it can not cleanse; God’s righteousness is not revealed in the Torah, but the Torah is instrumental is bringing people to understand and realize this Divine vision now that the way to bring God’s righteousness into the world has been revealed in Jesus Christ. As Jesus’ resistance to the Pharisees legalistic emphasis on Sabbath-keeping demonstrates, the commandments of Torah that were originally intended to give life to Israel became used in its spiritual enslavement.
The advantage of this understanding of God’s righteousness is that it helps to make sense of four major sections of Romans: 1.18-3.20, 3.21-8.39, 9-11, and 12-15. Romans 1.18-3.20 disconnect the realization of God’s righteousness in people’s like with markers that are peculiar to Israel’s status, such as circumcision, Torah, etc. As the righteousness of God informs God’s transformational activity in human life, the realities of Torah adherents and even the witness of the Torah itself is that Torah observance can lead to the opposite reality. Romans 3.21-8.39 can then be understand of how human life is put on a new trajectory in their life through participating in Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection through the Spirit, leading believers to bring to fruition the righteousness that God speaks over their life by His justification of them through faith. Romans 9-11 then is essentially a description of why Israel did not realize the riches of God’s righteousness by themselves, but God’s intentions were to ultimately do it for the whole world. Finally, Romans 12-15 is what God’s righteous vision for human thriving begins to look like when lived out in relationship to each other and to the world around them.
Consequently, if God’s righteousness is God’s vision for human thriving, alternatively referred to as peace/shalom, that means that God’s righteousness can not be comprehensively understood in relationship to any one particular human experience, feeling, or activity. For instance, Wesley’s Aldersgate experience and awareness of God’s forgiveness is not the universal gateway of the Christian life lived by faith as much as it is one of its fruits. Being set free from persistent feelings of shame for what we have done and for what people have done to us is not the Gospel, but it is part of what God’s vision for human thriving looks like. Charismatics are oft to emphasize the gifts of the Spirit as evidence of one’s conversion, but the pneumatic empowerment is one piece of the large puzzle. The Gospel is not just simply some moral framework for telling people what good, moral people do like Aesop’s fables, but rather it is the story of how God is leading people to realize God’s vision for a thriving way of life as the fruit of God’s redemptive activity in Christ and through the Spirit. While individual people in their own Spirit-led journey in following Jesus may come to emphasize the realization of God’s forgiveness, the freeing from shame, experiencing empowerment, or finding a moral transformation, to treat any one of these pieces as encompassing God’s righteousness and the Gospel is at risk of the similar type of error that the Pharisees made of Torah: treating the instruments and fruits of God’s righteousness as the same thing as God’s righteousness. God’s righteous purposes manifest itself in various ways in our lives and our relationship to God and with each other, but God’s righteousness is not reducible to any one of these phenomenon, but it is the ever realizing fullness of all them that we then discover and concretely comprehend in our own minds what God’s righteousness is where we previous understood it the abstract and perhaps even as a signpost. All of these realities fit together into God’s vision for human thriving, each of them being realized in the narratives of our lives at perhaps different times.
God’s righteousness is realized through God’s loving and powerful redemption in our lives to set us free from the condemnation of the world that Adam put in place, where the distance from God’s intimate presence, the separation from God’s provision of human life, and the realization of conflict, pain, and suffering in our relationships with each other and the world around us has left us all in a world that is condemned to decay apart from a newness of life through God’s changing of universal human future in the resurrection of Jesus. As NT Wright quotes from Wittgenstein: “love believes the resurrection” and, I would add, this love that believes the resurrection brings forth resurrection in our lives and in the lives of those who we love.