The Gospel and the Righteousness of God

Text: Romans 1:16,17

I am afraid that the word righteous has, like so many other words, fallen victim to the assaults of popular culture. Many today hear the word and think of the singing duo The Righteous Brothers or associate the word with that which is fine and pleasingly acceptable. It is not surprising then to see modern translations of the New Testament completely omitting the word.[1] Righteousness is too important a word to let slip away, and, therefore, we should retain and maintain its place in our Christian vocabulary. After all, it is one of the critical words in Paul’s epistles. The noun is used thirty-three times in Romans alone—and, therefore, it must be carefully understood. As a result of the “New Perspective on Paul” people like N. T. Wright have advanced ideas that bear little if any resemblance to that advocated by the Reformers. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the definition of words DIKAIOSUNE (righteousness) and DIKAIOO (justify). Wright contends, despite the total lack of lexicon support, that these terms refer to “membership within a group” or “to make or declare a person a member of a group.” Note his rendering of Phil. 3:9, “He is saying, in effect: I, though possessing covenant membership according to the flesh, did not regard that covenant membership as something to exploit; I emptied myself, sharing the death of the Messiah; wherefore God has given me the membership that really counts, in which I too will share the glory of God.”[2]

In Wright’s construction, forgiveness of sin has the character of a by-product, a bonus that comes with covenant membership. The removal of one’s sins is not connected directly to justification. Justification for Wright (and his followers i.e., Armstrong and Lusk), simply confirms an already-possessed status as members of God’s covenant. But in Paul, justification is the pronouncement of righteousness, and righteousness has to do with sin and God’s wrath. How can God pronounce the ungodly to be righteous? He sets forth Jesus Christ as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. Jesus’ death as a propitiation is the basis for justification, for dealing with sin and with God’s wrath (Romans 3:21-26). Membership in the new covenant people is surely an outworking of this, but Paul clearly describes justification as God’s answer to the universal sin problem, the problem which otherwise prevents all persons, persons who were in the covenant and persons who were not, from being “right with God” when they stand before his judgment seat (Romans 2:2-16). The Apostle was anxious to preach the gospel to those in Rome because he was supremely confident in the message of the cross. What was the basis for this confidence?

I.          The Character of the Gospel:  It is the power of God. The gospel has its source in God and, therefore, its nature reflects its Author—it is powerful (note the language in Romans 1:4 where the power of God was demonstrated in the resurrection of Christ). The gospel appears to men as mere foolishness (I Corinthians 1:18), and weakness (I Corinthians 1:25-28), but in reality it is the tremendous power of the Living God. When Paul declares this, he is not simply making a statement or referring to the gospel as a mere instrument which God’s power uses, rather He is declaring, as Gifford has written, “God’s living revelation of Himself, a Divine power flowing forth from His to save men’s souls (James 1:21).[3]

II.         The Theme of the Gospel:  The gospel reveals the righteousness of God. This expression, according to Leon Morris, is found eight times in the epistle (1:17; 3:5, 21, 22, 25, 26; 10:3 where it appears twice).[4] DIKAIOSYNE refers to that which is right. To conform to that which is right always implies a standard, and that standard is God Himself. As “rights” imply a person, it should also be noted that this word always has a personal and not abstract reference, i.e., it applies to either God or man, not to things.[5] God is righteous and all that He does is righteous (cf. Psalm 50:6; 96:13; especially Psalm 98:2 where the language of Romans 1:17 is similar. See also Isaiah 51:6). Note that the righteousness that comes to us in the gospel is God’s righteousness. It is, as Luther put it, IUSTITIA EXTRA NOS, a righteousness outside of or apart from us and is reckoned or imputed to us.[6] However, Rick Lusk, following N. T. Wright, confidently declares, “Righteousness, biblically defined is simply covenant faithfulness”7 But as D. A. Carson has recently pointed out in the Hebrew Bible the terms berith (“covenant”) and sedaqa (“righteousness”), despite their very high frequency, almost never occur in close proximity. In general, “one does not ‘act righteously or unrighteously’ with respect to a covenant. Rather, one ‘keeps,’ ‘remembers,’ ‘establishes’ a covenant, or the like. Or, conversely, one ‘breaks,’ transgresses,’ ‘forsakes,’ ‘despises,’ ‘forgets,’ or ‘profanes’ it.” Righteousness language is commonly found in parallel with terms for rightness or rectitude over against evil. The attempt to link “being righteous” with “being in the covenant” or with Israel’s “covenant status,” especially in Qumran and rabbinic literature, does not fare very well either. Even at the level of philology, the DIK (from which DIKAISUNE and DIKAIOO are derived) words are so commonly connected with righteousness/justice that attempts to loosen the connection must be judged astonishing.”8

III.        The Call and Claim of the Gospel:  The gospel message calls people to faith. It is based on faith and addressed to faith and the righteousness of God is apprehended only by faith. The gospel must be appropriated. Faith itself does not save—Christ saves. “There is no efficacy in faith apart from its object, and no merit in believing. Faith is the acknowledgement of our inability, and Another’s ability. Faith includes intellectual perception and spiritual reception, the assent of the mind and the consent of the heart.”9

IV.       The Scope and Consequence of the Gospel:  The gospel message is addressed to all humanity (cf. Matthew 28:19) because all mankind is lost and stands in need of salvation.

Note: The gospel is meant for sinners who need salvation from their sins which merit the judgment of God. The gospel is not meant to be a means of making people comfortable in their sins or a therapeutic balm to poor self-esteem. Listen to the words of David F. Wells: “The New Testament never promises anyone a life of psychological wholeness or offers a guarantee of the consumer’s satisfaction with Christ. To the contrary, it offers the prospect of indignities, loss, damage, disease, and pain. The faithful in Scripture were scorned, beaten, imprisoned, shipwrecked and executed. The gospel offers no promises that contemporary believers will be spared these experiences, that they will be able to settle down to the sanitized comfort of an inner life freed of stresses, pains, and ambiguities; it simply promises that through Christ, God will walk with us in all the dark places of life, that he has the power and the will to invest his promises with reality, and that even the shadows are made to serve his glory and our best interests. A therapeutic culture will be inclined to view such promises as something of a disappointment; those who understand that reality is at heart moral because God is centrally holy will be satisfied that this is all they need to know.”10

Conclusion: This group of “Covenantal Nomists” (cf. No. 4 in this series for background) acknowledges that they are reconstructing the doctrine of justification. They contend that they are seeking to address systemic problems that have plagued Evangelicalism for decades, chiefly rampant individualism and easy-believism. In addition there is a growing concern that Christians, regardless of their respective communions (i.e., Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and the various Protestant bodies) need to form a united front against the forces of secularism and Islam. The doctrine of justification needs to be revamped in order to accomplish this. But this is a decidedly wrong-headed approach. You don’t seek to change theological doctrine based on contemporary social or cultural analysis. Doctrine is determined by exegesis and theological reflection—and if it was true in Apostolic times and in the 16th century it is still true today. I wrote not to long ago “The evangelical church used to be defined by the gospel. Nowadays in many evangelical circles this has drastically changed. The gospel is now defined by the church pragmatically in terms of whether it is relevant and acceptable to a society that, like all societies that have gone before, has no taste for the biblical gospel. The gospel was not palatable to people in the days of the apostles, nor in the sixteenth century. Yet the apostles and the Reformers did not tailor the gospel to fit the likes and dislikes of the time.”11 Note that the Apostle appeals to the Old Testament in confirmation for sola fide (Habakkuk 2:4). The text is cited here and in Galatians 3:11 and Hebrews 10:38 as well. This faith is distinctively saving faith. What is the nature of saving faith? Bishop J. C. Ryle, that stalwart evangelical of the last century, put it this way:

Saving faith is the hand of the soul. The sinner is like a drowning man at the point of sinking. He sees the Lord Jesus Christ holding out help to him. He grasps it and is saved. This is faith. (Hebrews 6:18)

Saving faith is the eye of the soul. The sinner is like the Israelite bitten by the fiery serpent in the wilderness, and at the point of death. The Lord Jesus Christ is offered to him as the brazen serpent, set up for his cure. He looks and is healed. This is faith. (John 3:14f)

Saving faith is the mouth of the soul. The sinner is starving for want of food, and sick of a sore disease. The Lord Jesus is set before him as the bread of life, and the universal medicine. He receives it, and is made well and strong. This is faith. (John 6:35)

Saving faith is the foot of the soul. The sinner is pursued by a deadly enemy, and is in fear of being overtaken. The Lord Jesus Christ is put before him as a strong tower, a hiding place, and a refuge. He runs into it and is safe. This is faith.” (Proverbs 18:10)12



[1]         Cf. The Contemporary English Version (The American Bible Society, 1995), The Book a special edition of The Living Bible (Tyndale, 1985), and The Everyday Bible: New Century Version (Word, 1988).


[2]         N. T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? (Eerdmans, 1997), p. 124.


[3]         E. H. Gifford, The Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans (rpt. The James Family, 1977), p. 60.


[4]         L. Morris, The Epistle to the Romans ((IVP, 1988), p. 101.


[5]         Cf. H. P. Liddon, Explanatory Analysis of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (rpt. Zondervan, 1961), p. 15.


[6]         Cf. R. C. Sproul, Faith Alone: The Evangelical Doctrine of Justification (Baker, 1995), p. 107. This righteousness comes to us by faith alone. The Latin expressions as used by the Reformers to capture this are important. Iustitia fidei is the righteousness of faith; i.e., the righteousness that is imputed forensically to the believer on the ground of faith. Iustitia Fidei is therefore not an iustitia infusa (q.v.), or infused righteousness (as taught by the Roman Catholic Church), nor a disposition in the believer. Rather it is an iustitia aliena, an alien righteousness, a righteousness not our own, which is imputed to us. Ultimately, the iustitia fidei is the righteousness of Christ  (iustitia Christi). The iustitia fidei is also termed iustitia imputata, imputed righteousness, or iustitia fidei imputata, the imputed righteousness of faith. R. A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms (Baker, 1985), p. 164.


7         Cf. The Auburn Avenue Theology” Pros & Cons: Debating The Federal Vision  ed. C. Beisner (Knox Seminary, 2004), p. 147.


8         D. A. Carson in The Glory of The Atonement eds. C. Hill & F. James III (IVP, 2004), p. 124.


9         W. H. Griffith Thomas, St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (Eerdmans, 1962), p. 61.


10       D. F. Wells, God In the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams (Eerdmans, 1994), p. 115.


11       G. L. W. Johnson “The Eclipse of The Reformation” in Whatever Happened to The Reformation? (P&R, 2001), p. 25.


12       J. C. Ryle, Old Paths: Being Plain Statements On Some of the Weightier Matters of Christianity (rpt. James Clark, 1972), pp. 228-229.

Our Reasonable Faith: A Survey of Christian Doctrine

This popular digest of Herman Bavincks classic four-volume Reformed Dogmatics clearly presents the fundamental doctrines of biblical theology. A practical handbook of theology, it is an outstanding comprehensive statement of Christian faith and doctrine.

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