The Righteousness of God in Both Old and New Perspectives

Does Justification still matter?[1] If it does, is it enough of a matter to fight over, or should we choose another battle?[2] Michael Horton asks these questions in light of some within the evangelical community who would answer in the negative. Case in point is Mark Noll, a leading evangelical historian of American Religious History. Noll argues that “things are not the way they use to be.”[3] Speaking for a large numbers of evangelicals, Noll’s contention is that the Reformation is over, that the Solas of the Reformation are no longer a bone of contention. Is he correct?

The purpose of this short academic essay is not to argue that the Reformation continues. I assume it to be the case. I also assume that the material cause of the 16th Century Reformation is still a bone of contention, that Justification still matters. I say this not only because of my own interests and personal piety, and not only in light of both the historical[4] and the contemporary[5] disconnect between RCC and the Reformed community (i.e., between the official dogma of Rome’s infused righteousness vs the Reformed view of imputed righteousness); I says this because of the intermural debate that rages among Protestants: that is between those within the Reformed, evangelical community who hold to the traditional view (or Old Perspective ) of Justification by faith vs the so called New Pauline Perspective (NPP) of Justification. The general thrust of this essay argues against the NPP represented by N.T. Wright in favor of the traditional perspective of Justification represented by John Piper; both men are scholars, pastors, and popular authors within evangelicalism, and Reformed circles, both of whom have been taken to task and have taken each other to task over this issue. The particular purpose of this essay is to look at one very important feature within this debate among theologians; that feature is the Righteousness of God. The Righteousness of God is the foundational/starting off point for both the traditional view and the NPP of Justification. So this essay will offer a critical/constructive analysis of both Wright and Piper pertaining to the righteousness of God.


The Righteousness of God According to Wright


In general the NPP is a particular reassessment of Justification within the trajectory of higher criticism[6], a recontextualization of the teachings of the NT. This higher critical recontextualization claims that the traditional view, the view that “works of the laws” qua both legalism and works righteousness (which has traditionally been interpreted as being at the heart of Paul’s polemical teaching) was all wrong. At the heart this reevaluation is the inclusion of the Gentiles as the covenant people of God along with “covenant badges”[7] of inclusion. Wright argues for a covenantal approach.[8] Wright situates Justification within ecclesiology not soteriology as traditionally understood. This move allows Wright to define his notion of righteousness in relation to said covenantal understanding.[9]

Wright states that there are options for defining or reinterpreting the meaning of the righteousness of God.[10] Out of the four possible options, Wright rules out “distributive justice” a la Luther and Kasemann’s “non-covenantal” understanding of God’s saving-creating power.[11] Wright favors a combination of both “covenant faithfulness” and “acts of covenant faithfulness.”[12] The former is distinguished grammatically as a “possessive genitive,” referring to God’s moral attribute of “covenant faithfulness” The latter he distinguishes as a “subjective genitive” of God’s actions of covenantal faithfulness. Both— that is, God’s attribute of faithfulness and His actions of faithfulness— identify so closely together to the point of erasing “…the line that separate the two senses.”

For Wright, the righteousness of God goes beyond the grammatical distinctions such as possessive and subjective genitive. The righteousness of God is (at its conceptual core) a demonstration of God’s covenantal faithfulness. In his exposition of Romans 1:16-17 he says that the gospel “…reveals or unveils God’s own righteousness, his covenant faithfulness, which operates through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for the benefit of all those who in turn are faithful (‘from faith to faith’).[13] So in other words, the gospel is the good news (proclamation) that God has kept his word; He promised to decisively end the evil that has corrupted all of creation, and to restore “justice, peace, and truth.”

This definition has a huge implication upon how we traditionally understand the imputed righteousness of Christ within a forensic context. When the sinner (defendant) is declared righteous, though he is forgiven, there is no moral reckoning of righteousness as in the traditional view. Contra the traditional view, Wright argues that when one is declared righteous[14] one is declared a member of the covenant. For Wright, covenant faithfulness is not the same as the righteousness that humans possess[15] when they are declared members of the covenant. In another place he explains:

In the Hebrew law court the judge does not give, bestow, impute, or impart his own “righteousness” to the defendant. That would imply that the defendant was deemed to have conducted a case impartially, in accordance with the law, to have punished sin and upheld the defenseless innocent ones. “Justification, of course, means nothing like that. “Righteousness” is not a quality or substance that can be thus passed to or transferred from the judge to the defendant. The righteousness of the judge is the judge’s own character, status, activity, demonstrated in doing these various things. The “righteousness” of the defendant is the status they possess when the court has found in their favor. Nothing more, nothing less. When we translate these forensic categories back into their theological context, that of the covenant, the point remains fundamental: the divine covenant faithful is not the same as human covenant membership.[16]

This statement is important in that it explain Wright’s understanding of the nature of the righteousness of God. Said righteousness is his own righteousness, a righteousness God does not share, nor impute to members of the covenant. We can say that the righteousness of God is incommunicable, while the traditional perspective is a communicable or shared righteousness. My point is that the difference between Wright’s notion and the traditional “old perspective” is one of kind, not only degree. In other words, the righteousness of God is God’s faithfulness to His own covenant.[17] God is the keeper of the promise. In contradistinction, human righteousness by faith in Christ is about those whom benefit from God keeping His promise—that is those who are members within the covenant that God made and keeps![18]


The Righteousness of God According to Piper


In contrast to Wright, John Piper argues in favor of a traditional perspective for Paul in general,[19] over-and-against Wright’s NPP in particular.[20] Piper notes three categorical problems with how Wright arrives at his conclusion that the imputed righteousness of God to a guilty defendant is an error. The first problem he sees, that drives Wright to conclude that Paul does not teach an imputed righteousness, is with Wright’s logic.[21] Piper contends that Wright’s mistake begins with how he defines the righteousness of God, defined functionally as keeping covenant, judging impartially, dealing with sin, and advocating for the helpless.[22] He correctly notes that this is what righteousness does, not what righteousness is. Piper argues that this “limited,” functional definition distorts Wright’s reading of Paul, making the idea of imputation “a category mistake,” because the idea of a judge imputing his own “impartiality” to “a plaintiff” seems nonsensical.[23]

Piper critiques Wright’s view by observing the shallow nature of his definition, shallow in the sense that it doesn’t go far (or deep) enough. Wright is correct to say that God’s righteousness obliges Him to be faithful to his covenant promises by standing up for the oppressed and dealing justly with the oppressor. But Piper also correctly observes that God’s love and faithfulness and goodness induce Him as well. So Piper asks an important question: “What is it about God’s righteousness that incline him to act in these ways?”[24] What Piper is getting at is an ontological definition of righteousness (צְדָקָה) not functional definition regarding what God’s righteousness does (צִדְק֥וֹת ).[25] For Piper the deeper means of righteousness is stated as:

God’s righteousness is his unwavering allegiance to do what is right, that is, most ultimately, to uphold the infinite worth of his glory. The same holds true in principle for our moral righteousness. We were created to have this same unwavering allegiance to uphold the infinite worth of God’s glory in all we do. That is what it means for a human being to be righteousness.[26]


Before I go on to Wright’s dismissal of Piper definition, let us take a look at his definition. I am not sure if Piper has given us an ontological definition. Righteousness is still a “do[ing] what is right.” The “right” is based upon something ontological or internal to God: that is His glory. Piper does seem to be an improvement to Wright. Also, this has implication on defining human righteousness. Just as God is right in his unwavering allegiance to uphold his glory, the glory being the ontological standard within God Himself qua divine character/morality, likewise human morality qua righteousness is define by an unwavering allegiance to uphold the dignity and honor of God. If this is what Paul means by the Righteousness of God then we can say that such a righteousness via the active righteousness/obedience of Christ Jesus imputed to sinners by grace through faith would not be a categorical error. It would make sense. Jesus was all about upholding the honor and glory of God. And if such a moral righteousness were imputed to us then that would be a restoration of the very image/imitation of God in man. Let’s see if this bears out.

For Wright, he dismisses it with a few off handed remarks. He claims that Piper ignores the “mass of scholarly literature on the meaning of God’s righteousness.”[27] Then he claims that he is unaware of such a novel approach at defining God’s righteousness in both Greek and Hebrew from scholars on both camps on the divide: old or new perspectives, Catholic or Reformed, evangelical or “anyone” who contextualizes the righteousness of God as “God’s concern for his glory.” But in contradistinction he does say that the:

…widespread view is that tsedaqah/dikaiosyne in general…refers to ‘conformity with a norm,’ and when this is further contextualized as God’s ‘righteousness’ the strong possibility is that this refers to God’s fidelity to the norms he himself has set up, in other words, the covenant….Of course, when God acts in faithfulness to his own promises, the result is his name, his honor and his reputation being magnified or glorified. Nobody would deny that. But nowhere is it clear that ‘God’ righteousness’ actually denotes that glorification. Piper’s attempt to show that there must be a ‘righteousness’ behind God’s ‘covenant faithfulness’ actually is simply unconvincing. [28]

When Wright says— “of course, when God acts in faithfulness to his own promises, the result in his name, his honor and his reputation being magnified or glorified. Nobody would deny that. But nowhere is it clear that ‘God’s righteousness’ actually denotes that glorification”—does he mean to say that God’s concern for the honor and dignity of His name is tangential to God’s concern to keep his promise for the honor and dignity and reputation of His covenant people, that is for their namesake?  If Wright means what he says then his approach is most anthropocentric, while Piper’s is theocentric. Also, when Wright says that the righteousness of God denotes or points to something beyond itself as God’s covenant keeping, but not the concern for His honor and glory—does he mean that covenant keeping is the ultimate intent of God, while God’s name being honored is an unintended “result,” a good byproduct, a sort of divine serendipity? It seems that if God’s name is honored via righteousness it would not be some byproduct. The byproduct would be God’s keeping His promises as a result of God’s righteousness in upholding the glory and honor of His own name. Wright’s notion is simply backward.

Interestingly enough, Wright alludes to Piper’s Justification of God as “his much fuller treatment elsewhere,” but oddly enough does not engage this “much fuller treatment” at all. But in this treatment Piper (so to speak) connects the dots, contextualizing the righteousness of God as the concern for his glory. Like Wright, Piper too acknowledges that the “cluster of words built on (צָדֵק) refers to ‘adherence to a norm’…signify[ing] ‘the state of correspondence to an objective norm.’”[29] Piper foot notes a number of scholars who “stress the norm-character of righteousness.” One in particular defines righteousness as “that standard which God maintains in the world. It is the norm by which all must be judged.”[30] David Novak suggests that when the term justice (mishpat) is coupled with righteousness (tsedequa) in the Hebrew Scriptures both are denoting the concept of “correct justice.” I would argue that complete justice is a better rendering than correct, in the sense that justice is incomplete and can only be improved where and when there is righteousness.[31] What Piper is saying (and Novak and many others concur) is that righteousness denotes a moral standard of justice in maintaining both the social order and morality which entails the social order of the covenant and covenant keeping, but it’s more than that; it’s essentially a term that denotes a norm, not covenant qua relationship/agreement.

However, Piper notes that though this traditional insight has not been abandoned by many contemporary exegetes, a new emphasis has emerged. The new emphasis transposes a moral norm into the register of relationship, that is to say contractual notions of mutual obligations. Righteousness is not a relationship to an ideal norm, but “mutual fulfillment of [agreed up] claims.”[32] Krasovec for instance says:

An analysis of passages containing words denoting God’s righteousness (sdq/

sdqh) shows that the fundamental meaning of the Hebrew word always remains

essentially the same. It designates God’s redemptive plan and fidelity to a faithful

people, God’s steadfast love, redemptive help and victory against oppressors.

God’s righteousness is an expression of a loving God’s attitude towards the covenant people, an attitude which is based on God’s sovereignty and is independent of human norms, knowledge and merit. God’s righteousness is valid for all members of the covenant people but only under the condition that they respond with fidelity and confidence.[33]

Piper does not argue that both the normative and covenantal hermeneutics are mutually exclusive. In fact he states that the latter has served as a corrective to righteousness qua distributive/retributive justice.[34] However, many exegetes (including Piper) have stayed with the normative understanding of righteousness because of the Old Testament usage of righteousness. Case in point is Lev 19: 36: “You shall do no wrong in judgment, in measures of length or weight or quantity. You shall have just balances, just weights, a just ephah and just hin.” Here Piper notes that a righteous weight conforms to a standard of measure, i.e. an objective norm.[35] Because of how righteousness is used in the Old Testament, he holds to a normative hermeneutic; yet Piper excludes a strictly tendentious reading of righteousness as distributive/retributive. He notes that righteousness is multivalent—it includes “deliverance” (Psa. 51: 14) in spite of guilt; Psa. 143: 1,2 equates God’s righteousness qua faithfulness to the unfaithful, i.e. mercy. In short Piper rules “out the idea that God’s righteousness is an impartial conformity to a norm by which each man gets his due.”[36]

In light of this, Piper holds to an alternative interpretation. He does not deny that righteousness is never found in the context of “covenant.” It’s just that it is seldom found in said context. He argues that the righteousness of God is not limited to either the norm of distributive justice or “covenant faithfulness.” He argues “…that, while God’s allegiance to the covenant is a real manifestation of God’s righteousness, nevertheless the [sic] most fundamental characteristic of God’s righteousness is his allegiance to his own name, that is, to his honor and glory.”[37] Piper quotes a number of passages depicting the “righteous deeds of God” done out of respect for His name. Ps. 31:1-3 relates verse 1 as the righteousness of God acting for his own name sake in verse 3. In Daniel 9:7, 13-19 Piper says that “When Daniel prays that Israel’s deliverance would accord with God’s ‘righteous acts’ (verse 16) and that is ‘for Thine own sake’ (verses 17, 19), he implies that the most fundamental characteristic of divine righteousness is God’s unswerving allegiance always to act for his own name sake.” He argues in Isa 43: 6,7 and Isa 49:3 that God upholds his elect not ultimately for the sake of his covenant promise, but “for the sake of His glory.”[38] In Jeremiah 14: 7, 9, 20f Piper shows very clearly that God’s covenant faithfulness is “penultimate” to the “ultimate” ground of God’s saving intervention, that is, “to the praise and glory for God.” He concludes that there is adequate evidence to affirm his thesis regarding the biblical notions of the righteousness of God and that is:

The righteousness of God consists most basically in God’s unwavering commitment to preserve the honor of his name and display his glory. Thus if God ever abandoned this commitment and no longer sought in all things the magnifying of his own glory, then there indeed would be unrighteousness in God.[39]

In conclusion, Piper makes a strong biblical case for a biblical notion of the righteousness of God commensurate with the traditional Pauline perspective. His argument reminds me of St Anselm’s when he said:

Again, if there is nothing greater or better than God, there is nothing more just than supreme justice, which maintains God’s honor in the arrangement of things, and [sic] which is nothing else but God himself…. Therefore [sic] God maintains nothing with more justice that the honor of his own dignity.[40]

In Chapter XIII of Cur Deus Homo, from which the broader context of this quote is taken, St. Anselm speaks in terms of justice. St. Anselm speaks in terms of justice as both “the order of things” or the “arrangement of things,” on the one hand, and, on the another, justice as honor due to God which Anselm explains as being simply “God himself.” We see that ultimate justice is concerned about the proper social order, but one defined in relationship to God. Proper order is defined as humanity honoring God. We can say that the social condition or (more precisely) the economy of a rightly ordered society is constitutive of ultimate justice, but the social economy or condition of humanity of a rightly ordered society is secondary to the divine economy of God. This divine economy of God takes moral precedent over-and-above the social conditions of a rightly ordered society. What is this divine economy? Anselm contends that it is “God himself,” i.e., the person of God. The person of God is the “honor of his own dignity.” Anselm notes that honor is something due to God. In other words, (to put it in the parlance of the moral discourse of rights) God has a claim-right to honor. Honor is the respect due to God which is commensurable to God’s inherent worth or dignity. In short God’s divine rights are His claims to honor: the cardinal claim-rights of worship and obedience etc. What St. Anselm is describing is theologically identical to what Piper is arguing: God’s number one purpose/passion/zeal is to uphold His glory. In biblical parlance, it’s nothing less that the Righteousness of God.




 End Notes

[1] Michael Horton, conclusion to Justified: Modern Reformation Essays on Justification, by Michael Horton, ed. by Ryan Glomsrud and Michael Horton (Modern Reformation, 2010), 102-113.

[2] Michael Horton, “What’s All The Fuss About? The Status Of The Justification Debate,” Modern Reformation 2, no. 11, (March/Spring 2002): 17-21.

[3] Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom, Is The Reformation Over: An Evangelical Assessment Of Contemporary Roman Catholicism (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 14.

[4] Anthony Lane, Justification by Faith in Catholic-Protestant Dialogue (Edinburgh: T &​ T Clark, 2002), 52.

[5] Kung, Justification (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004), LXViii. Kung attempts to, in his landmark study on Justification in Karl Barth, attempts a Protestant-Catholic rapprochement via Barth as a representative of Protestantism.

[6] David C. Sim, “Further Evidence Of An Anti-Pauline Perspective,” New Testament Studies 53, no. 3 (2007, July 1): 325-343. When the author says “Anti-Pauline Perspective” he means to says Anti-Pauline Perspective qua Traditional Perspective in general. The abstract reads: “The reactional pericope in Matt 7.21–23, in which Jesus the final judge condemns certain false Christians, can and should be viewed as an anti-Pauline text. Those rejected by the Matthean Jesus are none other than Paul and those of his circle. This identification is indicated not only by their description as workers of lawlessness, but also by their defence that they are true Christians because they prophesy, work miracles and perform exorcisms in the name of Jesus. These charismatic activities were clearly associated with Paul and/​or his churches.”

[7] E. P and Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism (London: SCM, 1977). Sanders is one of the founders of NPP. He coined the term “covenantal nomism.” arguing that one same in by grace but stayed in by works. Sanders comes to this conclusion (in part) by a mono-covenantalism which conflates the two covenants of works (Suzerain treaty) and grace (Royal grant).

[8] Michael Horton, Introducing Covenant Theology, 2nd ed (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2009), 35. Horton articulates a classical/biblical notion of covenant. Wright’s notion is foreign to this.

[9] N.T. Write, “The Letter To The Galatians: Exegesis And Theology,” in Between Two Horizons, ed. B Green and Max Turner (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 233-34.

[10] Tom Wright, What St Paul Really Said, first edition (Oxford, ENGLAND: Lion Hudson Plc, 1997), 100-111.

[11] Ibid., 103

[12] Gerald L Stephens, “The Righteousness of God: Frontiers in Pauline Research,” Criswell Theological Review 2, (2015, Spring): 59. Stephens calls Wright’s approach a “Covenantal Hermeneutic.”

[13] Ibid., 109.

[14] N. T. Wright, “Justification By (Covenantal) Faith To The (Covenantal) Doers: Romans 2 Within The Argument Of The Letter,” The Covenant Quarterly 72,. Wright argues that (in part) that future Justification is based on works, while present justification is based on faith. In this article Wright mixes and confuses Justification and Sanctification, declaration and transformation.

[15] N. T Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 110. Wright states that the “phrase has routinely been understood in terms of the righteous status which the covenant god reckons or ‘imputes’ to believers, but this interpretation then regularly leaves the verse dangling off the edge of the argument.”.

[16] N. T. Wright, “Romans and the Theology of Paul,” in Pauline Theology, ed. David M. Hay and E. Elizabeth Jonson (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995), 3:30-50.

[17] N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), 271.

[18] N. T. Wright, The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), 465, 492.

[19] John Piper, Justification of God: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Romans 9: 1-23, 2nd ed (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1993).

[20] John Piper, The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright (Wheaton, ILLINOIS: Crossway Books, 2007).

[21] Ibid., 62-71.

[22] Ibid., 62.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid. 63.

[25] Ibid., 78.

[26] Ibid.

[27] N. T. Wright, Justification: God’s Plane and Paul’s Vision (Downers Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 2009), 64.

[28] Ibid., 64-65.

[29] Piper, Justification, 105.

[30] Ibid., see footnote 9.

[31] David Novak, Natural Law of Judaism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 41.

[32] Piper, Justification, 105.

[33] Joze Krasovec, “Justification of God in His Word in Psa. 51: 6 And Rom 3:4,” Vetus testamentum 3, (2014, January 01): 418.

[34] Piper, Justice, 106.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid., 107.

[37] Ibid, 112.

[38] Ibid., 114-115.

[39] Ibid., 119.

[40] St. Anselm, Cur Deus Homo trans. Sidney Noron Deane (Texas: Fort Worth: RDMc Publishing, 1996), 43.

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