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The New Perspective on Paul– A Pastoral Explanation, Pt. 3: "The Righteousness of God"

[EDITOR’S NOTE: This is Part 3 of a 4-part series. It would be critical to read Part 1 and Part 2 of this series first.]

In Part 1 we discussed how the New Perspective takes a fresh look at Judaism as “covenantal nomism” rather than a religion of legalism. In Part 2, we explored how the translation of the Greek phrase pistis Christou could be read the “faithfulness of Christ” instead of simply “faith in Christ.”

Now, in Part 3, we will explore another phrase that has been at the center of the NPP discussion: the phrase, “the righteousness of God”, or in Greek, dikaiosune theou. The Reformed tradition has typically taken this to mean God’s moral righteousness, and it is related to the notion of a “treasury of merit” that Christ stored up on our behalf that can now be transferred—“imputed” is their preferred word—to us. But many advocates of the New Perspective on Paul argue that dikaiosune theou can be seen as God’s covenant faithfulness.

N. T. Wright writes:
“The main argument for taking dikaiosune theou to denote an aspect of the character of God himself is the way in which Paul is summoning up a massive biblical and intertestamental theme, found not least in Isaiah 40—55 which I have argued elsewhere is vital for him. God’s dikaiosune, his tsedaqah, is that aspect of his character because of which, despite Israel’s infidelity and consequent banishment, God will remain true to the covenant with Abraham and rescue her none the less.” (From www.ntwrightpage.com)

This interpretation makes sense with Paul’s line of reasoning in Romans 3. The question that Paul is asking is, roughly, “How can God keep His covenant with Israel to bless the nations through them despite Israel’s unfaithfulness?” The answer, Paul says, is by sending Jesus as Israel’s Messiah, to be faithful on their behalf and to fulfill their commission. God’s covenant faithfulness can be seen “through the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah” (Rom. 3:22, NET). Through Jesus– the seed of Abraham– God remains faithful to His promise in Genesis 12 to bless all peoples through Abraham’s family. 

If the “righteousness of God” is not so much a kind of “moral righteousness” that He imputes but a “covenant faithfulness” that He demonstrates, does that mean that there is no such thing as “imputed righteousness”? Not necessarily. Advocates of the NPP argue that God does indeed “reckon us to be righteous”, but that this is not the same as putting God’s own righteousness in us. Some Pauline scholars have argued that it may be more accurate to speak of union with Christ (or incorporation with Christ) since Paul’s language is about our being “in Christ” while the language of “imputation” is missing from his letters.* I’m not sure that the difference between being declared righteous because of our incorporation with Christ rather than because of His righteousness being imputed to us makes that much of difference to the believer: either way we stand righteous before God because of Christ.

SO…What does this reading of “the Righteousness of God” mean for the Christian?

God does not scrap His projects or forget His promises or abandon His people.
God promised that He would use Abraham’s family to bless the whole world; Israel was to be a light to the Gentiles, the instrument of God’s salvation. God is so great that not even Israel’s unfaithfulness could stop God from keeping His promise. It is no accident that Jesus came as the seed of Abraham. (Matthew traces Jesus’ genealogy to Abraham for a reason!)

You and I have become God’s covenant people because God was faithful to His promise to bless all peoples through Abraham’s family by sending Jesus as the seed of Abraham. This is a testimony to the truth that God cannot be stopped; His plan cannot be thwarted– not even by our sin and unfaithfulness. The Gospel reveals God’s faithfulness– His unstoppable, never-giving-up love. As the covenant people of God– the ones who belong to God because we have been joined with Christ, we can trust that the same faithfulness of God that brought salvation to the world through Jesus will keep us until the end. In Paul’s words, “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:6, NIV). 


*The passage that usually comes to mind when arguing for imputed righteousness is 2 Corinthians 5:21. But N. T. Wright makes the following rebuttal: “The entire passage is about the way in which Paul’s new covenant ministry, through the death and resurrection of Jesus, is in fact God’s appointed means for establishing and maintaining the church. ‘So that we might become God’s righteousness in him’ means that in Christ those who are called to be apostolic preachers actually embody God’s own covenant faithfulness.” Wright goes on: “Is there then no ‘reckoning of righteousness’ in, for instance, Romans 5.14-21? Yes, there is; but my case is that this is not God’s own righteousness, or Christ’s own righteousness, that is reckoned to God’s redeemed people, but rather the fresh status of ‘covenant member’, and/or ‘justified sinner’, which is accredited to those who are in Christ, who have heard the gospel and responded with ‘the obedience of faith’.” (www.ntwrightpage.com)

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Glenn Packiam is one of the associate senior pastors at New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and the lead pastor of New Life Downtown, a congregation of New Life Church. Glenn earned a Doctorate in Theology and Ministry from Durham University in the UK. He also holds BA in Theological/Historical Studies and Masters in Management from Oral Roberts University, and a Graduate Certificate in Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. Glenn and his wife, Holly, have four children.