More Than Moral Virtue

When we read Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, it’s easy for us to assume that the word “righteousness” refers only to moral virtue. Actually, the word means much more than that. The scriptures certainly teach about moral virtue, but the word righteousness refers more specifically to covenant faithfulness. This helps make sense of passages like Romans 1:16-18:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “But the righteous man shall live by faith.”

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness…

We certainly believe that God is good and all his ways are good, but this text is not saying that he’s going to reveal to us his moral virtue. Rather, this passage says that God will keep his word in accordance with the covenant promises he made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Righteousness of God or Man?

When scripture speaks of “righteousness,” it matters a great deal whether it’s referring to the righteousness of God or of man. Pay attention as you read to make sure you know to whom the word refers. In the text above, for example, the final verse mentions man’s failure to keep the covenant promises that God has always honored.

If you want to know more about what Paul means by the word righteousness, look at the ways in which the word is used in the book of Psalms. Righteousness may also be translated lovingkindness, mercy, or faithfulness—look for those words in the Psalms.

Sometimes you can learn a lot about a word just by looking at how it is defined and expanded upon by the Psalmist’s use of parallelism. I’ll say more about this in my next blog, when I’ll take a close look at Psalm 143.

The previous was adapted from a class Dr. Robert Sloan taught on the book of Romans at Houston Baptist University.

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