Monday, July 14, 2014

Imputed righteousness and "the righteousness of God" in Romans 1:17

"In [the gospel] a/the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith as it is written, 'the righteous shall live by faith'." - Romans 1:17

So if you look at the bolded words, you might see something interesting in that verse.  There's a "righteousness" in the first half of the verse and a "righteous" at the end of the verse.  You'd be tempted to say that the first righteousness applied to God and the second one applied to man - except that there's that little phrase in the middle: "as it is written".  "As" links 1:17a and 1:17b and says that the two phrases are like each other in some way.  So if the second phrase (1:17b) is talking about the righteousness of man, it's likely that the first phrase (1:17a) is talking about the righteousness of man too.

This becomes even more clear when you look at a similar phrase that happens in Romans 3:21-22.  Check this out: "[21b] God’s righteousness has been revealed—attested by the Law and the Prophets [22a]—that is, God’s righteousness through faith in Jesus Christ."  Woah.  Did you just see that.  "God's righteousness".. okay... "through faith" what?  How can God's righteousness, if it's an attribute of Himself, be through faith?  If we ignore the new perspective for now (which would say it's talking about faithfulness), we have to admit that this is a very puzzling phrase.  A phrase that only makes sense if you take "God's righteousness" to mean "the righteousness that God gives to man".

Is there further evidence?  There is.  If we look outside of Romans, Paul says very similar things.  The most famous is Philippians 3:9 - "and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith."  The Greek is very similar here.  It just adds the word "ek", or "from".  But can you see Paul's point?  In Philippians, he has a righteousness that is from God. And since this is the point Paul is making in Romans too, it's likely that's what the phrase "righteousness of God" means when he uses it.  There's also 2 Cor 5:21 which says that we become "the righteousness of God".  So it applies that phrase to man, not God.

So which is it?  Is it the righteousness which is an attribute of God, or the righteousness which is an attribute imputed to man?

One very common (probably 90 % of commentators?) solution is to say it's "both and".  Both God's righteousness and our righteousness.  I have to say that this seems like the most likely interpretation to me.  But my western brain has a really had time allowing a phrase to have two meanings.  One of the first rules I learned about exegeting texts is that there is always only one interpretation but several applications.  A phrase shouldn't have two different meanings.  I've been told (ESV Study Bible notes) that Hebrew writers often used this tool (phrases with multiple meanings) to add more layers and richness to their prose.

Do you buy it?  Do you think this phrase can have two meanings?  If not, which meaning do you think Paul had in mind?


  1. OK, I have definitely not studied things in anywhere NEAR this depth, except for maybe during the Bible Bee studies. But as far as things having two different meanings, look at Psalm 22. David is describing his feelings and circumstances in figurative language that also applies literally to Jesus Christ's suffering, death, resurrection, and glorification. I believe there are similar instances throughout the Psalms and Prophets... things that apply figuratively to one thing, but literally to another, or immediately to one person, but prophetically to someone else. Anyway... that's my two cents. =) -Natalie

  2. OK... looking back over what I just wrote... maybe my example of a "dual meaning" fit more in your category of a passage that has multiple different applications. If so, I really don't have anything else to say. =) -Natalie

    1. Hi Natallie. First of all, thank you for reading my posts and actually thinking about the things that are in them. I've really appreciated your comments on the other posts too.

      As for your observations here - thank you. I actually had not thought about how typology fits into the "one interpretation; multiple applications" rule. Thank you! This is probably an avenue I'll need to read on more and think about more before I know how to think about it probably. But it's probably a "clue to the answer" so to speak. Thank you!

  3. You're welcome! I'm not entirely sure that I understood some of the terminology in your post and reply, but I'm glad that whatever I said was helpful. =) -Natalie