Today’s note is on Romans 3:21, and, in particular, the expression “(the) justice/righteousness of God” (dikaiosu/nh qeou=). In the New Testament, this expression is virtually unique to the Pauline letters, with a close parallel in 2 Pet 1:1 (cf. also Matt 6:33, and James 1:20; 1 Jn 3:10). Nor does it appear in the Greek version [LXX] of the Old Testament, though God’s “righteousness” [usually Hebrew qdx/hqdx] is referred to in the Psalms (Ps 35:24; 40:10; 50:6; 71:16, 19; 72:1, also 45:7) and in the Prophets (Isa 46:13; 51:5-8; 56:1; 61:10, also 5:16; 61:11; Zech 8:8, etc), and may be inferred throughout much of the Scriptures. Paul first uses the expression in Rom 1:17, which, because of its close formal and thematic parallel, will be discussed along with 3:21 below.
The genitival relationship in this phrase (“of God”) may be understood in three ways:
- As a subjective genitive, i.e., where God is the subject and “justice/righteousness” is an attribute or quality which he possesses, or which characterizes his action, etc.
- As a genitive of origin or source—i.e., “justice/righteousness” that comes from God. This is clearly what Paul describes in Phil 3:9, where he uses the preposition e)k: “the justice/righteousness (which is) from [lit. out of] God [e)k qeou=]” (cf. also Phil 1:11).
- As an objective genitive—where “justice/righteousness” is a divine quality or power possessed by others (i.e. believers), or realized in them, i.e. as a gift from God. This would seem to be close to the sense of the expression in 2 Cor 5:21, where it is stated that we (believers) become the “justice/righteousness of God” in Christ.
In addition to Rom 1:17; 3:21, and 2 Cor 5:21 (mentioned above), Paul uses the specific expression only in the 3rd chapter of Romans (Rom 3:5, 22, 25) and again in Rom 10:3. All of these instances in Romans are best understood primarily according to sense #1 above, a quality or characteristic of God’s own person and action. This is indicated both by the immediate context as well as the Old Testament background of the expression. Consider, in particular, the verbs used in Rom 1:17 and 3:21—a)pokalu/ptw (“uncover, reveal”) and fanero/w (“shine forth, manifest”), especially in relation to Rom 1:18-32, which emphasizes the character and nature of God evident in creation. Yet, the parallel in 1:18, the “passion/anger of God” (o)rgh\ qeou=), also suggests action—God is about to judge the world; he has also acted on behalf of human beings in the person and work of Christ.
I have already discussed the background and semantic range of the dikaio- word-group in Greek (see the article “Justification“), and the challenges involved in translation. The verb dikaio/w carries the relatively straightforward meaning “make right”, though it can be difficult to capture the various legal-judicial and religious-ethical nuances, which are perhaps better rendered by the term “just” in English (i.e., make [or declare] just). The situation is even more problematic with regard to the noun dikaiosu/nh, usually translated either as “righteousness” or “justice”—both of these renderings are generally valid, but neither fits entirely. Something like “just-ness” or “right-ness” would be better, but these do not really exist in English; “uprightness” is perhaps closer, but still awkward and archaic sounding, and a bit misleading as well. For Jews and early Christians, the usage was also influenced by the corresponding Hebrew words derived from the root qdx, which, more than the dikaio- word-group in Greek, carries the idea of faithfulness and loyalty—especially in terms of God as one who fulfills his promises and covenant obligations.
The main occurrences of the expression dikaiosu/nh qeou= are in Romans 1:17 and 3:21; it will be helpful to examine these together:
“for in it [i.e. the Gospel]
(the) justice/righteousness of God
is (being) uncovered…”
“now apart from (the) Law
(the) justice/righteousness of God
has been made manifest [lit. made to shine forth]…”
The parallels are clear and precise; Rom 3:21 is virtually a restatement of 1:17 (part of the main proposition [propositio] of Romans in 1:16-17). There can be no doubt, either, that Rom 3:21ff must also be understood in relation to the theme of God’s judgment in Rom 1:18-3:20; note again the parallel:
“the passion/anger of God [o)rgh/ qeou=]
is (being) uncovered
upon all lack of fear (of God) and injustice/unrighteousness of men…”
“the justice/righteousness of God [dikaiosu/nh qeou=]
has been made to shine forth [i.e. made manifest]…
unto all the (one)s trusting (in Christ)… (v. 22)”
According to this comparison, the “justice/righteousness of God” is practically a reversal of the judgment/anger; similarly, the lack of (godly) fear, which leads to injustice/unrighteousness (1:18ff), corresponds to the trust that believers have in God (in Christ).
As indicated, above, dikaiosu/nh (“justice/righteousness”) is a fairly wide-ranging term; there are a number of relevant aspects which should be considered here:
- Retributive justice—in the sense that God judges sin and punishes guilt. This very much characterizes the overall theme of judgment on human wickedness in Romans 1:18-3:20 (esp. 1:18-32).
- Distributive justice—God judges each person (and/or nation) as he/she/it deserves. This is very much the emphasis in Romans 2 (see esp. 2:6-10), that all people (Jews and Gentiles) will be judged by their deeds, according to the Law (of God).
- Fairness and equanimity (lack of partiality)—stated of God specifically in Rom 2:11; this relates to the principal theme throughout chapters 2-3, that Jews and Gentiles are equal before God.
- Faithfulness and loyalty—as indicated above, this is more appropriate to qdx/hqdx in Hebrew than the corresponding dikaio- wordgroup in Greek. It characterizes particularly God’s faithfulness in fulfilling his promises and covenant obligations—an important theme in the Scriptural argument (involving the blessing/promise to Abraham) in Rom 4:1-25.
- Fulfilling the Law—an important part of justice is the correct and proper observance and application (fulfillment) of the Law, by all persons and parties involved. Paul makes a long and challenging argument in Romans (also touched on in Galatians) that true fulfillment of the Law (the Torah and “Law of God”) only takes place in the person and work of Christ; as such, the justice/righteousness of God is ultimately manifest in Christ, as stated decisively in Rom 10:3-4.
- Freedom and acquittal—this is another aspect of justice/righteousness (“making right”), especially in terms of exercising fairness and mercy on behalf of those charged under the law. This applies primarily to the person judging, as well the legal advocate/representative. It especially relates to God’s work in the death/sacrifice of Christ on behalf of sinners, as described by Paul in Rom 5:1-11, and is a theme throughout chapters 5-7.
- Reconciliation—the related idea of opposing parties (“enemies”) being reconciled is likewise an important aspect of justice/righteousness (cf. Matt 5:9, 21-26, 38ff), and it is another theme expressed by Paul in Romans 5.
- Uprightness/rectitude—that is, right or proper moral (and religious) behavior (including the underlying attitude and motivation). This signifies “righteousness” in its traditional, conventional meaning (cf. Jesus’ usage of dikaiosu/nh in Matt 5:6, 10, 20; 6:1, 33); and it may also be said to reflect the “righteousness of God”. Typically, however, God’s righteousness may be defined by what it is not—contrasted with human wickedness and faithlessness, and so forth. See Rom 1:18-32; 2:1-10ff; 3:10-18, etc.
- Holiness—the justice/righteousness of God ultimately is tied conceptually to his holiness or “wholeness” (i.e. what is perfect, complete), cf. Matt 5:48. Interestingly, Paul makes relatively little mention of (God’s) holiness in Romans (Rom 1:4; 7:12; 11:16; 12:1), as he tends to concentrate it in the presence and work of the Spirit. “Righteousness” for believers is very much realized in Christ, through the power and presence of the Spirit (Rom 14:17; Gal 5:16-26, etc).