What is “the Righteousness of God”? Romans 1:17

The original meaning of the δικ- word group was “that which was customary,” but was used to describe what was right in judicial cases.  It was used in the sense of “judgement, lawsuit, trial, and penalty.”  In the Greco-Roman world, the word was used for fairness in a court of law.  One was “righteous” if one behaved in accordance with Roman Law. One is righteous in the Greco-Roman usage of the word.

Judge's GavelBut the Greek Old Testament regularly translates the Hebrew word צַדִּיק (tzadik) with δικαιοσύνη.  This word can refer to both behavior and administrative justice, and to both individuals and to groups.  Occasionally the LXX translates חֶסֶד (hesed) with righteousness (Gen 20:13, for example).  It is hard to overestimate the importance of hesed in the theology of the Hebrew Bible. The word refers to the covenant loyalty of God who keeps his promises and does “loving kindness” toward his people.  The word “righteous” in the Hebrew Bible therefore refers to a proper relationship rather than a legal status. One does righteousness in the Hebrew Bible use of the word.

Is Paul using the word as a Jewish writer might, in the light of the Hebrew Bible, or is Paul using the word the way a Greek or Roman might?  The classic view of Paul is that he is developing a legal metaphor for salvation.  Justification means that the believer is “declared righteous” legally in God’s court; legally he is made righteous.  For example, according to Cranfield, there is “no doubt” that Paul means “to acquit” rather than moral transformation by this word group (Romans 1:95).

For many representatives of the New Perspective on Paul, however, this is a good example of a case where Paul’s Jewish background is important (for example, James Dunn, Romans 1:40). Paul does not necessarily want to evoke a Roman Court scene in the minds of his readers at all.  What he wants them to hear in the word is the character of God in the Hebrew Bible as righteous and faithful.

This is far from an arcane argument among biblical scholars hoping to sell a few books. This verse is the main theme of Romans – God’s righteousness is being revealed from heaven in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  The rest of Romans is going to be an exposition of the righteousness of God.  If the traditional view is correct, then the focus of the gospel is on our legal declaration of righteousness. If Dunn and others are correct, we might read this line as saying “God’s covenant loyalty and faithfulness is being revealed.”  The Gospel is therefore about God’s character, the focus is on how he has acted in history to reveal his character.

16 thoughts on “What is “the Righteousness of God”? Romans 1:17

  1. As I may have mentioned before in a previous post, we like to find safety in legalism, which I definitely believe clouds our interpretation of scripture like Romans 1:17 or other gospel related texts. If God’s righteousness is a set of rules that we have to live by in order to bring Him honor or if it is a state of holiness that we must strive for constantly then we find a little solace in that. We become protected by hedges of legalism and we like it that way. We like to have rules so we can make ourselves feel better by making sure we fulfill our duties.
    But that’s not what God’s righteousness is about. As P. Long said about the Jewish view of righteousness, “The word “righteous” in the Hebrew Bible therefore refers to a proper relationship rather than a legal status.” and I do believe is what Paul was referring to when he talked about righteousness in Romans 1:17. There are so many other portions of scripture that use righteousness as a form of relationship to call us to proper living, such as 2 Timothy 2:22, 1 Peter 2:24, and 1 Timothy 6:11. We should focus more on our right standing before God, our relationships with Him, and not worry so much about the legalistic patterns that we so quickly adopt for out lives.

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    • “If God’s righteousness is a set of rules that we have to live by in order to bring Him honor or if it is a state of holiness that we must strive for constantly then we find a little solace in that.” I really like this line from Elizabeth. If we were to attain righteousness through doing a set of rules, humanity would have no chance of salvation. God in his perfection is completely righteous, and although we should try to strive to become more like Christ, we are not able to attain salvation by following rules. God revealed his character in history. We not only see this in Bible stories, but in others as well. We see that he is a righteous God, and not a keeper of checklists. The Grace provided through the meaning of hesed is one that cannot be limited to a set of rules or a checklist. But the pursuit of God would result in the desire and will to follow these commands that God has given.

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  2. Some explanation of ‘from faith for/to faith would be very helpful and appreciated!

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  3. I understand this as speaking about the hesed of God… God’s “covenant loyalty and faithfulness is being revealed.” The Gospel is therefore about God’s character, the focus is on how he has acted in history to reveal his character.” I believe the entire Bible is all about revealing who God is and therefore this passage seems to speak of God’s faithful loving kindness to and for humanity.

    The greatest commandments (Mark 12:29-31) speak about our greatest responsibility in this life. Both of them happen to speak to this idea of loving and relationship. They teach us about the character and personhood of Jesus. They teach us to “do righteousness.” Doing righteousness is the work of the incarnation of Christ (Christ followers). We are to be Jesus to others. The hesed of God is not only for us but for the world. We are blessed to be a blessing just as Abraham (Genesis 12:2-3). We live by faith because of the hesed of God (in our own story and that of humanity). Paul proclaims the gospel (the hesed of God) so that we may enact the hesed of God as well. Legalities and entitlement do not seem to be matters God is as concerned about and that is why I side with the Jewish interpretation of the word. After all, “the main theme is God himself and his righteousness… his faithfulness to his promises” (Polhill 284-285).

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  4. Before reading this post, I had never really thought about the difference between the Hebrew word and the Greco-Roman word for righteousness. I like the last line of P. Long’s post, “The Gospel is therefore about God’s character, the focus in on how he has acted in history to reveal his character.” Later in Romans, Paul discusses God’s faithfulness and how He has kept His promises. Also, God is righteous and that is why us as sinful creatures cannot have a proper relationship with Him without being justified.
    Polhill, when discussing Romans, says, “The main theme is God’s Himself and His righteousness” (284). The focus is on God’s character and His faithfulness, even when we were not faithful. I think it is important to think of righteousness not only as a legal standing, but as a behavior. I think that is where Paul gets to at the end of Romans. Romans 12:1 says, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God-this is your spiritual act of worship.” In view of God’s righteousness and His faithfulness, we are to respond with righteous behavior. We are to act righteously because He is righteous, we are to be faithful to Him because He is faithful.

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  5. I real like what Josh had to say at the end of his post about, “We are to act righteously because He is righteous, we are to be faithful to Him because He is faithful.” God is the perfect example of righteousness. I often find myself asking whether or not I am being pleasing to God through my actions and decisions. It is so easy to get carried away with your everyday life that we forget to stop and ask ourselves whether or not we are pleasing to Him. He calls us to be righteous and to live a life after his example. As Romans 1:17 says, we are to have faith and when we have faith in Him and follow His ultimate example, we have righteousness.

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  6. I believe that the “righteousness that is by faith” Paul speaks of in Romans 1:17 is referring to our rightness with God. This same idea (at least in English, I don’t know Greek) can be found in Hebrews 11 as the writer speaks of how the patriarchs were deemed righteous by God through their faith. This righteousness, then, appears to be a right relationship with God that comes through faith and is evident from an earnest attempt to seek him (11:6). Although our faith now must extend to the knowledge of Christ as the Messiah, I believe that righteousness, or rightness with God, is still achieved through an earnest attempt to follow his commands.

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  7. My father-in-law is teaching a Sunday school class that my wife and I attend. The focus of this class is the study of 1 John, specifically 4:7-5:2. We just talked about how in 4:13-14, the Father sends the Spirit so that we might know that we live in Him and He in us. Furthermore, the Father sends the Son to be the Savior of the world. None of this is possible for us to know unless we have the Spirit within us. We can know from an intellectual stand point but to know from a believing standpoint, or even one that goes beyond knowledge requires illumination that is only given by the Spirit. The entire Bible points to Christ, the glory of God and when God reveals Himself to us, it should overwhelm us to the point of response. We respond to God because He first initiated action to us and for us. I am blown away by God’s “hesed” in this respect and as he continues to reveal Himself to me, I begin to realize just how insignificant and minuscule I am in comparison, so much so that I begin to ask God, “why do you love me?” I am simply overwhelmed…

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  8. What Jason had said at the end of his post about being blown away by how God loves us got me thinking about how God has not only reveled himself in history, but also in my life. I just love this idea that not only does God reveal Himself to the entire world throughout history, He also revels Himself to those who may not be seeking Him. I love what P Long said about the gospel putting light to God’s character through History. We not only read about it in the Scriptures,but we see it for our self’s, and that makes it all the more better.

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  9. The way that I grew up reading and understanding the scripture allows me to see the Greco-Roman translation of the word as the one that I would most naturally think of. It makes quite a bit of sense for Paul to have been saying that in God we are declared righteous. Because of His gift of salvation God no longer sees us as having any sin. However as Pohill says: “The focus is particularly on God’s righteousness in terms of his covenant , his faithfulness to his promises” (284). I can definitely see this and this leads me to believe that the Hebrew sense of the word is being used. This would make sense because Paul is a Jew through and through. However, he also could be using the Greco-Roman translation to relate more to the Gentiles. It really is hard to tell since Romans is written both to Jews and to Gentiles.

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  10. I think Elizabeth was very good on her point on righteousness, rules and legalism. One reason I love the word Hesed so much is because it is a covenant God has made with me, not only me but with his people. I have a deep love for that word and I think it is very plausible based on Paul’s Hebrew back ground that he could have been focusing on the approach from where he was using righteousness as a form of Hesed, though not using the word in the text, but basing the way he mentions and used righteousness. I think finding the true meaning to each word that Paul uses throughout all the scriptures is very interesting yet almost pointless. Yes we as Christians must study and learn God’s word, but is Paul alive, no. we cannot ask him what his intentions are based in for each word, all we can do is study as best as we can from manuscripts put out that another person has translated from another translation from the original, which though creditable, also plenty of room for defect and for blemishes. In any translation, the translator wants to get as close to the original text as possible, but with some foreign words meaning so many different thinks, with different tenses and clauses, it can become difficult to finding the true meaning. (Sorry about the rant) I like the way Dunn focused the meaning of this text, because it uses a word dear to me, but it also gives me a hope and makes sense to me that it is the way Paul would focus the word, and it shows how “God’s covenant loyalty and faithfulness is being revealed.”

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  11. I think the question, “Is Paul using the word as a Jewish writer might, in the light of the Hebrew Bible, or is Paul using the word the way a Greek or Roman might?” is very misleading. We must not forget that Paul is both a Roman citizen, a Jew, and a mastermind of bringing the two cultures into a beautiful blend of rich flavor. I think that Paul had a proper understanding of the word righteousness in both cultural contexts. I believe that our faith in the gospel is what makes us righteous. But, most people will come to understand this as a righteousness that makes us morally acceptable to God, but I (as well as some well-known others) would choose to see this righteousness as something that is still law-like, but not a morality issue. I judge can declare me righteous in court, but that does not mean I am morally innocent. It just means that I am innocent according to the judge, no matter what I did, good or bad. This is also waht it is like in Christianity. When our faith is in the gospel of Jesus, God declares us righteous in a legal sense, but I feel that this is because when we accept the gospel in faith we become “in Christ” according to Paul. To be in Christ is to be in his fulfillment of the Law. When we are “in” we are righteous because we are “in” God’s covenant plan to redeem the world.

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  12. I really like how this blog challenged me a little bit. The first thing I think of when I think of righteousness of God is a standard that only Jesus was able to measure up to. When Jesus came down to Earth, he was the only one to have ever lived a perfect life. I do not see righteousness as a list of rules that we need to live by. If this were the case the salvation would be impossible to attain. Scripture tells us that are to set our hearts and minds on Christ Jesus. GOd wants us to be faithful becuase he is faithful to us. The righteousness that we attain is by faith not by a list of rules.

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  13. I have grown up being taught and even now beleive that this passage is refering to the righteousness being passed on to those who bleive through faith in Christ. This is part of the gift of Jesus’ work on the cross. With sin and without righteousness we cannot go before God, we would dies. However by being washed clean by the blood of Jesus and being cloaked inrighteosness we can go before God.

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  14. Jared Kusz has a good point when he points out that Paul has a Greek and Roman background, so we cannot fully decipher what righteousness means, but I would lean more toward the Greek understanding of the word implying a lawsuit or penalty, because it seems to better fit the context that Paul most commonly uses it in. Polhill states “God’s righteousness has two sides: his judgment is the most powerfully expressed through his mercy” (Polhill 285).

    With the Greek meaning of ‘righteousness’, it seems that Paul would be trying to give the picture of us as sinners in court for our sin with a death penalty above our heads. God was the judge who will acted out his supreme righteousness in not condoning our sin — but instead through his great mercy gave his very own Son to pay the price. That is the picture of God’s righteousness. “God cannot condone sin” (Polhill 285), but God could give his son to die in our place, and He did so for love of us. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God,”(2 Cor 5:21).

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  15. Love all the commentary, I was goggling Rom 1:17 because I’m reading THE STORY OF CHRISTIANITY which tells how Martin Luther had his Eureka started via – the reformation in a way began with Rom 1:17 – awesome – that is God is so awesome

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