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The Righteous God Righteously Righteouses the Unrighteous: Justification According to Romans

Matthew Barrett, executive editor of Credo Magazine, has edited a new book with Crossway titled, The Doctrine on Which the Church Stands or Falls: Justification in Biblical, Theological, Historical, and Pastoral Perspective. Many factors contributed to the Protestant Reformation, but one of the most significant was the debate over the doctrine of justification by faith alone. In fact, Martin Luther argued that justification is the doctrine on which the church stands or falls. This comprehensive volume of 26 essays from a host of scholars explores the doctrine of justification from the lenses of history, the Bible, theology, and pastoral practice—revealing the enduring significance of this pillar of Protestant theology.

Today we are highlighting Andy Naselli’s chapter “Justification according to Romans.” Here is an excerpt to get you started:

Paul’s letter to the Romans is not terribly long.[1] It takes about sixty minutes to read aloud. Its God-breathed and life-giving words are worth investing thousands of hours of your life to memorize and meditate on. They explain and exult in and apply the greatest news we could hear. If we dare to speak of portions of Scripture as more important than others, I would argue that Romans is the single most important piece of literature in the history of the world.[2]

And at the heart of Romans is justification. That is what this chapter explores: What does Romans say about justification? This chapter answers that question by answering three others:

  1. What is the theological message of Romans?
  2. What does Paul mean in key texts on justification in Romans?
  3. How does Romans contribute to a systematic theology of justification?

What Is the Theological Message of Romans?

If I presented this essay more inductively, I would swap parts 1 and 2—first exegete key texts, and then construct the letter’s theological message. First the trees, then the forest. But I think it will help orient readers if I begin by flying a drone over the forest of Romans before examining the bark formations on particular trees. This is the gist of what Paul argues in Romans—in five steps:[3]

  1. We all need God’s righteousness because we are all sinners (1:18–3:20).
  2. Faith alone in Jesus is how God will justify us—that is, declare us righteous (3:21–4:25).
  3. When we obtain God’s righteousness, we experience several results: God    reconciles us to himself (5:1–21), he liberates us from sin’s dominating power (6:1–23), he frees us from the law (7:1–25), and he gives us assurance and security (8:1–39).
  4. The relationship between the gospel and Israel calls the reliability of God’s Word into question, so Paul vindicates God’s righteousness (9:1–11:36).
  5. The gospel transforms how we live and produces righteous living (12:1–15:13).

Romans 1:16–17

Most commentators on Romans agree that 1:16–17 is central to the letter’s theological message. (I include 1:18 in the phrase diagram because it mentions “unrighteousness” twice.) The gospel reveals δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ—“the righteousness of God.” But commentators disagree on how to precisely identify what “the righteousness of God” is (1:17; 3:5, 21, 22, 25, 26; 10:3 [2x]). There are three basic options (though exegetes combine these options in every way possible when they factor in what Paul says about justification elsewhere in Romans and his other letters):[4]

  1. What God is—God’s attribute of being righteous or just. As one of God’s perfections, “God’s righteousness means that God always acts in accordance with what is right and is himself the final standard of what is right.”[5] The opposite of “the righteousness of God” is the “ungodliness and unrighteousness of men” (1:18). God is righteous; humans are unrighteous.
  2. What God gives—God’s gift of a righteous status to sinful people.[6] The metaphor is from the law court (righteousness = judicial [e.g., see 8:33]); it is not about people living in a more righteous way (righteousness ≠ transformative). That is, this gift is God’s legally declaring people to be righteous before him; it does not morally make them righteous by gradually infusing righteousness into them.[7]
  3. What God does—God’s activity of saving sinful people. He rights what is wrong. Some who hold this view define God’s righteousness as his covenant faithfulness and define justification as what enables us to know who is part of the people of God, particularly by declaring that God has included Gentiles in his covenant community.[8]

It is too narrow to say that “the righteousness of God” refers to only one of the three options and not the other two. I agree with what John Stott says about these three options: “All three are true and have been held by different scholars, sometimes in relation to each other. For myself, I have never been able to see why we have to choose, and why all three should not be combined.”[9]

In my view, God’s attribute of being righteous (option 1) is the fundamental concept, and in the context of Romans, that entails both God’s gift of a righteous status (option 2) and God’s activity of saving (option 3—minus the “covenant faithfulness” definition).[10] Of the three options, God’s gift of a righteous status (option 2) is most prominent in Romans. “The righteousness of God” refers primarily to God’s positive attribute of being righteous, and when sinful people experience that aspect of God, God either (1) saves them by righteously giving them a righteous status or (2) condemns them. And while God will faithfully fulfill his promises because he is righteous, the essence of God’s righteousness is not his covenant faithfulness.[11] I joyfully affirm and celebrate the traditional Protestant view of justification.

Read Dr. Naselli’s entire chapter in The Doctrine on Which the Church Stands or Falls.


[1] Thanks to friends who examined a draft of this essay and shared helpful feedback, especially Brent Aucoin, Andrew Cowan, Matt Klem, Jenni Naselli, Matt Perman, Tom Schreiner, Joe Tyrpak, Richard Winston, Jonathon Woodyard, and Bob Yarbrough.

[2] See Benjamin L. Merkle, “Is Romans Really the Greatest Letter Ever Written?,” SBJT 11, no. 3 (2007): 18–33.

[3] This list condenses and updates Andrew David Naselli, From Typology to Doxology: Paul’s Use of Isaiah and Job in Romans 11:34–35 (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2012), 7–11.

[4] Cf. Moo, Epistle to the Romans, on 1:17. For a historical survey, see Charles Lee Irons, The Righteousness of God: A Lexical Examination of the Covenant-Faithfulness Interpretation, WUNT 2, no. 386 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2015), 9–60.

[5] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 203. See Moo, Epistle to the Romans, “Excursus: ‘Righteousness’ Language in Paul,” after comments on 1:17.

[6] Cf. Charles Hodge, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (Philadelphia: Perkins, 1836), 27–28; John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans: The English Text with Introduction, Exposition and Notes, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1959–1965), 1:29–31; C. E. B. Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, ICC (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1975–1979), 95–99; Irons, Righteousness of God, 311–36.

[7] Thomas Schreiner, Faith Alone: The Doctrine of Justification; What the Reformers Taught . . . and Why It Still Matters, Five Solas Series (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015), 158–69, 175. Proverbs 17:15 illustrates that justification is judicial and not transformative: “He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to the Lord.” John MacArthur and Richard Mayhue argue, “If justification were transformative, how could it be said that making a wicked person righteous is an abomination? Transforming the character of a wicked person and infusing him with righteousness would be a righteous act! . . . To justify the wicked is not to make him righteous but to declare him righteous when he is not.” John MacArthur and Richard Mayhue, gen. eds., Biblical Doctrine: A Systematic Summary of Bible Truth (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017), 613.

[8] . E.g., N. T. Wright, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 59–79.

[9] John R. W. Stott, The Message of Romans: God’s Good News for the World, Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 63. Similarly, David G. Peterson, Commentary on Romans, Biblical Theology for Christian Proclamation (Nashville: B&H, 2017), 105.

[10] See the detailed arguments in Moo, Epistle to the Romans, on 1:17; Schreiner, Romans, on 1:17; Denny Burk, “The Righteousness of God (Dikaiosunē Theou) and Verbal Genitives: A Grammatical Clarification,” JSNT 34, no. 4 (2012): 346–60. Cf. also Richard N. Longenecker, The Epistle to the Romans: A Commentary on the Greek Text, NIGTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2016), 168–76.

[11] For the monograph that most decisively refutes the covenant-faithfulness view, see Irons, Righteousness of God. Cf. Thomas R. Schreiner’s review of the book for the Gospel Coalition, September 2, 2015, https://www.thegospelcoalition .org/article/book-reviews-righteousness-of-god-lee-irons.


Andrew Naselli

Andy Naselli is associate professor of systematic theology and New Testament at Bethlehem College & Seminary in Minneapolis and one of the pastors of Bethlehem Baptist Church.

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