God is just to justify the ungodly as they trust Jesus.

One of the purposes of Paul’s letter to the Romans seems to be to “justify God.” One of the interesting difficulties of the English language when trying to translate from Greek (and other languages as well) is that we have two completely different sounding/looking words for what is one word in Greek. Specifically, I am referring to “righteousness and justice,” or “righteous and just,” or “justify and…” Well, here lies the biggest problem: we don’t have a corresponding English verb for the noun “righteousness.” So, when you read “justify” and “righteous/righteousness” in the New Testament, you have to try very hard to remember that, in Greek, the verb and the adjective/noun are very closely related, more closely than they appear in English.

So, one of the purposes of Paul’s letter to the Romans, as I understand it, is to “justify God” or to show that God is righteous. I see this specifically from a couple of texts. In Romans 3:4, Paul quotes Psalm 51:4, saying, “That you (God) may be justified in your words, and prevail when you are judged.” He quotes this verse in order to support or fill out his understanding that the faithlessness of some of the Jews does not nullify the faithfulness of God (3:3). I also see this theme in 3:26 when Paul says, “It was to show his (God’s) righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” Now, the “it” at the front of this verse is a big “it.” I think “it” refers back to the fact that God “put forward” Jesus “as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (3:24-25). Now, the reason Paul thinks it is necessary for God (and Paul) to “show” God’s righteousness is “because in his (God’s) divine forbearance he had passed over former sins” (3:25). I think that this is referring to the fact that God has not poured out the fullness of his wrath against the sins of all time (at least) prior to Jesus’ coming. The fact that he allows anyone to live another moment in rebellion against him is “divine forbearance” or his great mercy or patience toward people. This is a big problem for God’s justice or righteousness. How can God be truly righteous and not blast sinners into oblivion as soon as a sin is committed? (It’s interesting that the Bible rarely, if ever, addresses the question that we tend to ask: namely, how can a loving God destroy/punish eternally a person made in his image?) So, Paul wants to address this question by explaining what God has done to show that he is, in fact, righteous in passing over all those sins. Indeed, this issue appears in the “programmatic statement” or the “theme verse,” as many readers of the letter have identified it, in 1:16-17: Paul indicates that the gospel “is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes….For in it the righteousness of God is revealed….”

At this juncture, I need to address just what I think “the righteousness of God” means. Some scholars have wanted to define this phrase as, specifically, God’s faithfulness to his covenant and/or his “saving righteousness”/”power to save.” Certainly, I wouldn’t want to deny that God remains faithful to his covenant or that he is mighty to save. However, I question whether we can legitimately equate God’s righteousness with either of these concepts. Whereas these scholars want to say that God’s righteousness is his power for salvation, I think the text clearly says that the gospel is his power for salvation. Perhaps it is better, then, to understand the righteousness of God in broader times, simply as the fact that God does what is right/just with regard to the events of the gospel. Let’s see if I can unpack this by means of Romans 1:16-17.

Paul tells the reason why the gospel is the power of God for salvation: because the gospel reveals God’s righteousness. So, isn’t he saying that the gospel, which is the news/message/announcement of Jesus’ death for sins and victorious resurrection from the dead, shows God to be righteous/just in his dealing with sin and with Jesus? So, is he also saying then that the fact that God is indeed righteous/just in his actions with regard to the events of the gospel is that which undergirds or reinforces the gospel with the power for salvation? Thus, if God were to be shown unrighteous/unjust in the events of the gospel, would that have nullified the power of the gospel?

Perhaps I can say this more simply, with Paul’s help in Romans 3:21-26 and 4:24-25. All have sinned. God has not punished with appropriate punishment those who have sinned (which, due to the nature of the sin, amounts to no less than eternal punishment for everybody). God presented Jesus the Messiah as the ultimate Day of Atonement sacrifice, whose own blood was shed to pay for sins. God then raised him from the dead. The previous two sentences essentially summarize the gospel, the good news. It is good news for sinners that God has done this. This good news has genuine power to save/rescue anyone who has sinned (which is everybody) from God’s wrath, God’s appropriate punishment which he has held back up to this point (cf. 5:9). Those who have sinned may take advantage of what God has done by trusting Jesus, receiving the sacrifice God has provided. By their faith in what God has done in Jesus, those who have sinned are counted righteous/justified by God. Those who have been justified by God do not need to expect that God will ever punish them for their sins (cf. 8:1). Is God righteous/just in doing this? Yes. God has provided an acceptable sacrifice that any sinner may receive. Anyone who does not take advantage of this sacrifice that God has provided by trusting Jesus will receive the fullness of the appropriate punishment for all of his or her sins. Therefore, God is just/righteous in doing what he has done to provide an acceptable sacrifice that sinners may take hold of by faith and thus experience peace with God (cf. 5:1). If God were not just/righteous in presenting his own Son as the acceptable sacrifice, shedding his blood on the cross, and then raising him from the dead, then this gospel would have no real power to bring salvation. BUT, since God is, in fact, shown to be just/righteous by providing this sacrifice, condemning sin in the flesh of Jesus on the cross (cf. 8:3), the gospel DOES have genuine power to bring salvation to all believers.

I’m thankful for the gospel and its genuine power! I’m exceedingly grateful that “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (5:8).

Published in: on September 14, 2009 at 11:49 pm  Leave a Comment  
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