“God’s Righteousness” as Covenant Faithfulness
Recently I read Justification by N.T. Wright, a prominent theologian and historian. In this book, I was exposed to a definition of righteousness that I have never heard before (or, at least, not to my knowledge). And, so to speak, it has knocked me off my rocker.
This new definition is the rather stunning idea that “God’s righteousness,” when referred to in Scripture, is not some idea of perfection, moral goodness, or meeting some sort of mark or standard. When the Bible speaks of “God’s righteousness,” Wright believes, it is referring to “covenant faithfulness”—that is, God being faithful to the covenant promise given to Abraham in Genesis 12-17, and further to Moses in Deuteronomy 27-30.[i]
I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.[ii]
How does Wright come up with such a different definition of “God’s Righteousness” than what most of the Reformed tradition has taught their children? That would take a book to answer, but here I will attempt to show two areas he emphasizes. The first is Daniel 9.
In Daniel 9, the nation of Israel is in exile and Daniel cries out to God – “Ah, Lord, great and awesome God, keeping covenant and steadfast love with those who love you and keep your commandments, we have sinned and done wrong, acted wickedly and rebelled, turning aside from your commandments and ordinances…Just as it is written in the law of Moses, all this calamity has come upon us. We did not entreat the favor of the Lord our God, turning from our iniquities and reflecting on his fidelity.”[iii] And on he goes with much of the same, essentially declaring: “you are in the right, and we are in the wrong.”[iv]
Because of this, Daniel appeals to God: “O Lord, in view of all your righteous acts, let your anger and wrath, we pray, turn away from your city Jerusalem.”[v] Looking at this in context – here Daniel is not appealing to God’s “moral virtue” – he is speaking of God’s acts to fulfill His covenant with Israel.
God made a covenant with Israel. He gave them His terms for the covenant. Israel broke them, and the curse of the covenant has come upon them. Daniel appeals to God’s righteous acts to fulfill His covenant promises with Israel. Taken in context, this definition of “God’s righteousness” makes far more sense than Daniel appealing to God’s moral virtue. No, the issue at hand is that Israel has broken the covenant, so they are appealing to God to fulfill the covenant that was made in spite of their disobedience.
Now if we take a look at the New Testament, particularly Romans 4, we see Abraham once again in the context of the covenant and we are told that Abraham’s “faith is reckoned as righteousness.”[vi] Paul is quoting from Genesis 15, where God takes Abraham out to look at the stars and promises that his descendants will be just as numerous. Abraham believes God, and it is reckoned to him as righteousness. What does Abraham believe? He believes the promise of the covenant – and it is that belief that is reckoned to him as righteousness. This is not moral virtue that was reckoned to Abraham—it is faith in the covenant promises. So, when we read Romans, and Paul in general, we ought to read in this way: that righteousness is referring to covenant faithfulness rather than moral virtue or good deeds.
Now, looking at Romans 3, Paul makes it clear that this covenant was not meant for Jews only. God’s desire is to extend His covenant and therefore, His Kingdom, to all who believe – to Jews and to Gentiles. All along, from Genesis 1 until now, God has been working to extend His Kingdom and He desires that all come into His family and believe in His covenant faithfulness.
Implications of this Definition
Based upon Wright’s definition of righteousness, what then are the implications?
They are numerous, so I will focus only on a few.
One extremely important implication of this perspective is that God’s single plan through Israel is for the world, and he fulfills this covenant through the faithful Israelite, Jesus Christ. This is important because it tells us the purpose of God, according to the Scriptures: to set up His Kingdom and to restore all of creation here on earth. This concern/fear/fascination that certain Protestant traditions have with heaven is simply misguided. “If your body dies and goes into a disembodied immortality you have not been rescued from death – you have died.”[vii]
God’s Kingdom will be here, and He is bringing up a family to inhabit it. Those who are a part of His family will be resurrected in the end times, and God will restore all of creation to be inhabited by them. This is what God has promised from the beginning – that Abraham (our father in faith) would inherit the whole world (Rom 4:13). As believers, we then are taking part in the grand story of God’s single plan to restore this world – his good creation that has become corrupted by sin – through Israel (Christ) and to reign and rule with us in the Kingdom come. This story becomes what is so central and important, rather than our “personal” story of how we were saved and what God is doing in our “personal” lives. Our lives are not personal or private in any way. We are part of a great story – starting from the very beginning of time – and it is about God’s plan to establish His Kingdom.
Another implication is that faith is not an merely an emotional state of being or a feeling – it is tangible. Faith is in God’s covenant promise, fulfilled through Christ so that His Kingdom might be restored. Faith, as the Spirit is working in us, is our seeking towards God’s purposes and His good pleasure. That is, His coming Kingdom here on earth.
That is why we must all pray:
Thy Kingdom come
Thy will be done
In earth as it is in Heaven[viii]
[i] In Deuteronomy 27-30, Moses has been given the commandments by God and he takes them to the Israelites, qualifying that if the people obey the commandments then they will be blessed by God and “All the peoples of the earth shall see that you are called by the name of the Lord (Deut 28:10 NRSV).” However, if the people disobey the commandments, then they will be cursed – becoming “an object of horror to all the peoples on the earth (Deut 28:25 NRSV).” Moses and the people then make this covenant with the Lord.
[ii] Genesis 12:2-3 NRSV
[iii] Dan 9:4b-5, 13 NRSV
[iv] N.T. Wright, Justification (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 63.
[v] Dan 9:16 NRSV
[vi] Rom 4:5 NRSV
[vii] Wright, Justification, 235.
[viii] Matt 6:10, KJV