“For a reader of the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Jewish scriptures, ‘the righteousness of God’ would have one obvious meaning: God’s own faithfulness to his promises, to the covenant. God’s ‘righteousness,’ especially in Isaiah 40-55, is that aspect of God’s character because of which he saves Israel, despite Israel’s perversity and lostness. God has made promises; Israel can trust those promises. God’s righteousness is thus cognate with his trustworthiness on the one hand, and Israel’s salvation on the other. And at the heart of that picture in Isaiah there stands, of course, the strange figure of the suffering servant through whom God’s righteous purpose is finally accomplished.
There are many other passages which support this reading of ‘God’s righteousness’; for instance, the great prayer of Daniel 9. But the point is not controversial. In the Septuagint, the phrase means, most naturally, God’s faithfulness to his covenant with Israel, as a result of which he saves her from her exile in Babylon. There are a good many occurrences of the phrase, or close cognates, in second-temple Jewish literature; they all reinforce this basic reading. At the heart of ‘God’s righteousness’ is his covenant with Israel, the covenant through which he will address and solve the problem of evil in and for the whole world.
Part of the particular flavor of the term, however, comes from the metaphor which it contains. ‘Righteousness’ is a forensic term, that is, taken from the law court. This needs to be unpacked just a bit.
1. In the (biblical) Jewish law court there are three parties: the judge, the plaintiff and the defendant. There is no ‘director of public prosecutions’; all cases take the form of one party versus the other party, with the judge deciding the issue.
2. What does it mean to use the language of ‘righteousness’ in this context? It means something quite different when applied to the judge to what it means when applied to either the plaintiff or the defendant. Applied to the judge, it means (as is clear from the Old Testament) that the judge must try the case according to the law; that he must be impartial; that he must punish sin as it deserves; and that he must support and uphold those who are defenseless and who have no-one but him to plead their cause. For the judge to be ‘righteous,’ to have and practice ‘righteousness’ in this forensic setting, is therefore a complex matter to do with the way he handles the case.
3. For the plaintiff and the defendant, however, to be ‘righteous’ has none of these connotations. They, after all, are not trying the case. Nor, less obviously to us because of the moral overtones the word ‘righteous’ now has in our language, does the word mean that they are, before the case starts, morally upright and so deserving to have the verdict go their way. No; for the plaintiff or defendant to be ‘righteous’ in the biblical sense within the law-court setting is for them to have that status as a result of the decision of the court.
How does this work out? Let us take the plaintiff first. If and when the court uphold’s the plaintiff’s accusation, he or she is ‘righteous.’ This doesn’t necessarily mean that he or she is good, morally upright or virtuous; it simply means that in this case the court has vindicated him or her in the charge they have brought.
It is the same with the defendant. If and when the court upholds the defendant, acquitting him or her of the charge, he or she is ‘righteous.’ This, again, doesn’t necessarily mean that he or she is good, morally upright or virtuous; simply that he or she has, in this case, been vindicated against the accuser; in other words, acquitted.
Of course, the word dikaios, ‘righteous,’ in secular Greek as in English, carried moralistic overtones. Granted this, it is not hard to see how it could come to refer not just to a status held after the decision of the court, but also to the character and past behavior of either the plaintiff or the defendant. But the key point is that, within the technical language of the law court, ‘righteous’ means, for these two persons, the status they have when the court finds in their favor. Nothing more, nothing less.
The result of all this should be obvious, but is enormously important for understanding Paul. If we use the language of the law court, it makes no sense whatsoever to say that the judge imputes, imparts, bequeaths, conveys or otherwise transfers his righteousness to either the plaintiff or the defendant. Righteousness is not an object, a substance or a gas which can be passed across the courtroom. For the judge to be righteous does not mean that the court has found in his favor. For the plaintiff or defendant to be righteous does not mean that he or she has tried the case properly or impartially. To imagine the defendant somehow receiving the judge’s righteousness is simply a category mistake. That is not how the language works.
What happens, then, when we put the covenantal meaning of God’s righteousness together with the metaphorical level drawn from the law-court scene? God, of course, is the judge. Israel comes before him to plead her case against the wicked pagans who are oppressing her. She longs for her case to come to court, for God to hear it, and, in his own righteousness, to deliver her from her enemies. She longs, that is, to be justified, acquitted, vindicated. And, because the God who is the judge is also her covenant God, she pleads with him: be faithful to your covenant! Vindicate me in your righteousness!..
If and when God does act to vindicate his people, his people will then, metaphorically speaking, have the status of ‘righteousness’…But the righteousness they have will not be God’s own righteousness. That makes no sense at all. God’s own righteousness is his covenant faithfulness, because of which he will (Israel hopes) vindicate her, and bestow upon her the status of ‘righteous,’ as the vindicated or acquitted defendant. But God’s righteousness remains, so to speak, God’s own property. It is the reason for his acting to vindicate his people. It is not the status he bestows upon them in so doing…
Despite the quite clear background to the term within Judaism, a great many readers of Paul have supposed that it meant something quite different…The basic distinction here [between the various interpretations that are proposed] is between those who see ‘the righteousness of God’ as referring to God’s own righteousness, and those who see it as referring to a status of righteousness which humans have before God…
‘The righteousness of God’ must refer to God’s own righteousness. The Jewish context, in fact, creates such a strong presumption in favor of this that it could only be overthrown if Paul quite clearly argued against it…We are left, therefore, with the two closely related senses which have to do with God’s covenant faithfulness, both as a quality in God and as an active power which goes out, in expression of that faithfulness, to do what the covenant always promised: to deal with evil, to save his people, and to do so with true impartiality…we should probably erase the line that separates these two senses. Since, for Paul, God is the creator, always active within his world, we should expect, in the nature of the case, to find his attributes and his actions belonging extremely closely together…
In terms of the law-court [framework], it is no longer the case [in Romans] of Israel coming before God as the plaintiff, bringing a charge against the pagans. Gentile and Jew alike are now guilty defendants. In terms of the covenant scenario for which the law-court scene is the vital metaphor, God intended to be faithful to his covenant, his intention was to vindicate Israel and so to save the whole world, through the faithfulness of Israel; but Israel as a whole were faithless. What is God to do?
Paul’s answer is that the Messiah, King Jesus, has been the true, faithful Israelite. Underneath the dense theology of [Romans 3:21-26] stands Paul’s central gospel scene: the death and resurrection of Jesus, seen as the point at which, and the means by which, God’s covenant purposes for Israel, that is, his intention to deal once and for all with the sin of the world, would finally be accomplished. God has dealt with sin in the cross of Jesus; he has now vindicated Jesus by raising him from the dead. ‘The faithfulness of Jesus’ (which later, in Romans 5, Paul can also refer to as ‘the obedience of Jesus’) is thus the means whereby the righteousness of God is revealed. God is himself righteous, as the covenant God who has made promises and kept them. In terms of the law-court metaphor, he has been true to his word, he has been impartial (note the way in which Paul goes on at once to speak of God’s even-handed dealing with Jew and Gentile alike), and he has dealt with sin. He has also thereby vindicated the helpless: he is ‘the justifier of the one who has faith.’ This theme of God’s own righteousness, understood as his covenant faithfulness, and seen in terms of the law-court metaphor, is the key to this vital passage.
Paul stresses, by repetition, the underlying point: the gospel of Jesus reveals God’s righteousness, in that God is himself righteous, and, as part of that, God is the one who declares the believer to be righteous. Once again we must insist that there is of course a ‘righteous’ standing, a status, which human beings have as a result of God’s gracious verdict in Christ. Paul is perfectly happy with that…But Paul does not use the phrase ‘God’s righteousness’ to denote it. God’s righteousness is God’s own righteousness. In this crucial passage in Romans 3, he shows how God has been righteous in all the senses we outlined earlier. He has been true to the covenant, which always aimed to deal with the sin of the world; he has kept his promises; he has dealt with sin on the cross; he has done so impartially, making a way of salvation for Jew and Gentile alike; and he now, as the righteous judge, helps and saves the helpless who cast themselves on his mercy…Romans 3:21-4:25 as a whole expounds and celebrates God’s own righteousness, God’s covenant faithfulness, revealed, unveiled, in the great apocalyptic events of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ…
Romans is often regarded as an exposition of judicial, or law-court, theology. But that is a mistake. The law court forms a vital metaphor at a key stage of the argument. But at the heart of Romans we find a theology of love.
We have seen continually that Paul’s redefinition, his fresh understanding, of the one true God came especially through his grasp of the fact that this God was revealed supremely in Jesus, and there supremely in the cross. If we leave the notion of ‘righteousness’ as a law-court metaphor only, as so many have done in the past, this gives the impression of a legal transaction, a cold piece of business, almost a trick of thought performed by a God who is logical and correct but hardly one we would want to worship. But if we understand ‘God’s righteousness,’ as I have tried to do, in terms of the covenant faithfulness of God, then there is of course one word which sums up that whole train of thought, and which for Paul perfectly describes the God he knows in Jesus Christ and by the Spirit. In Romans 5 and 8, drawing together the threads of the argument so far, he says that the cross of Jesus reveals supremely the love of God (5:6-11; 8:31-39). If you understand dikaiosune theou in the way that I have suggested, you cannot play off justice and love against one another. God’s justice is his love in action, to right the wrongs of his suffering world by taking their weight upon himself. God’s love is the driving force of his justice, so that it can never become a blind or arbitrary thing, a cold system which somehow God operates, or which operates God. Because the gospel reveals this covenant love, this covenant faithfulness, of the living God, Paul knows that whatever happens the future is secure. He can announce the gospel in the face of the powers of the world, and they can do their worst to him. The death and resurrection of Jesus have unveiled the faithful love of God, and nothing can separate him from it.” (N. T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity?, pp. 94-111)