Romans 1:17 – The Righteousness of God

by Barry Newton

Prior to Martin Luther, general consensus agreed Paul was claiming in Romans 1:17 that the gospel reveals how God is righteous “from faith to faith.” Luther, however, confessed he “hated … active righteousness according to which God is righteous and punishes sinners.”/1 In struggling with this text he perceived Paul’s assertion to be that the gospel reveals God imparts righteousness to people through faith. While it may be that both are true, which message did Paul intend?

An appreciation for ancient literary structures casts an objective light on the apostle’s intentions. Perceiving Romans 1:16-17 and Romans 3:22-26 as forming an inclusio, like the two ends of an Oreo cookie, informs us what Paul meant to communicate.

First, the sandwiched middle message should function to develop a major theme of the two ends thus illuminating what Paul meant by “righteousness of God.” Second, when Paul restates Romans 1:16-17 in Romans 3:22-26, this could provide further illumination.

To summarize the middle portion of the Oreo, we first encounter a discussion of God’s judgment. God is defended for pouring out his wrath on ungodliness and wickedness because men are without excuse since God has made himself known.

Furthermore, the principles by which God judges people are righteous. God will be consistent thus avoiding favoritism. Also, judgment is based upon what we have chosen to do. Finally, God will judge everyone based upon their understanding of truth. What could be more fair than this?

Romans 2:16 refocuses our attention upon this gospel with its message of God’s judgment, a gospel message we have learned Paul was not ashamed to proclaim. Through a question, Romans 3:5 proceeds to advance his development of the righteous character of God.

After reinforcing that the Jews can not circumvent God’s principles of judgment and therefore they stand condemned along with the rest of the world, Paul finally restates Romans 1:16-17 to provide us with the end of the inclusio. It is not just though the Law and the prophets we learn that God is righteous, but now the gospel also reveals this through God’s working from the faith of Jesus to all who believe. By making salvation available to all through faith in Jesus’ blood, God has demonstrated his righteousness./2 “He did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be righteous and the one who makes righteous those of the faith of Jesus.”/3

When considered contextually, can there be any serious doubt what Paul meant by “righteousness of God?” While salvation is certainly a gift, the gospel Paul proclaimed extolled a righteous God who righteously not only condemns sins but offers salvation to all.

1 D. Martin Luthers Werke, Tischreden 54, 183.

2 Romans 3:24-25

3 Romans 3:26

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