I have long counted Stephen Westerholm to be the most gifted and creative reader of Paul on the scene of modern biblical scholarship. In graduate school I worked painstakingly and lovingly through his Perspectives Old and New on Paul, and have not beheld its equal since. This work was transformative not just for my understanding of the apostle Paul himself, but also insofar as it set forth an exemplary approach to how one gets inside the mind of another human being who is dauntingly separated from oneself by thousands of years and enormous cultural differences.
A smaller, more popular work by Westerholm is Understanding Paul: The Early Christian Worldview of the Letter to the Romans, 2nd ed. This is the book I recommend to anyone who desires to dig into the book of Romans seriously for the first time. In contemporary scholarship on Paul, perhaps no facet of his writings has come under more scrutiny, or produced more disagreement, than his terse expression “the righteousness of God,” which shows up a number of times in Romans (1:17, 3:1-9, 3:21-26, 9:30-10:4, etc.) as well as once more in 2 Corinthians 5:21. Does it refer to the legal status of acquittal that God graciously grants to believers in Christ (i.e. justification)? Or does it perhaps refer to a moral attribute of God, standing over against sinful humanity (Luther’s early view)? Or maybe it should be defined as the covenant faithfulness of God to His promises to Israel (ala the so-called New Perspective on Paul; cf. N. T. Wright)? Without any defense or elaboration here as to why I find Westerholm’s vision of God’s righteousness the most compelling of them all, I offer his spectacular summary of Paul’s meaning in this phrase in Romans. In a nutshell, Westerhom contends that the “righteousness of God” refers to God’s dynamic activity in history to set His good yet marred creation right, through Jesus saving death and resurrection, through which the wicked are judged and the faith-filled people of God are vindicated. Crucially, Westerholm sees the backdrop for this expression in the widespread Old Testament expectation for the dawning of God’s salvific righteousness in the glorious future–particularly in Psalms and Isaiah. I encourage you to read through Romans with this definition in mind and see how Paul’s magnum opus comes alive to you anew:
“Divine goodness cannot, however, fail in the end, nor remain ambiguous forever: divine tzedakah will see to that. This Hebrew word is commonly translated ‘righteousness,’ a term that captures part of what the psalmists mean to convey: God keeps his word and lives up to his obligations, which included enforcing the moral order, seeing to it that both righteous and wicked receive their due recompense. But the term righteousness has fallen into disuse and does not in any case sufficiently suggest the element of goodness so obviously present in the psalmic texts that summon the universe to celebrate God’s tzedakah. In such verses tzedakah refers to the faithfulness of God toward his creation or his people, a faithfulness that moves him to intervene, to set things wonderfully right when they have gone disastrously awry. It is the reassertion of God’s goodness seen in the restoration of just order to a disturbed creation, of peace and prosperity to a distressed people. In this sense tzedakah is close in meaning to salvation. What tzedakah adds to the ‘reassertion of goodness’ and even ‘salvation’ is the implication that God, in the process, is living up to his responsibility and role as God. He is proving himself loyal to the commitments he undertook when he first made the world good or adopted Israel as his people.” (Stephen Westerholm, Understanding Paul: The Early Christian Worldview of the Letter to the Romans, 2nd ed., p. 34)