This weekend we continue our sermon series through Paul’s Letter to the Romans. As I mentioned in my sermon last Sunday, Paul’s entire letter is an extended meditation on the key phrase in 1.17: ‘the righteousness of/from God.’
In the Greek, it translates to ‘dikaiosyne theou.’
Dikaiosyne theou is the fork in the Romans road.
Depending on which path the reader chooses, Dikaiosyne theou can lead you to two very different conclusions.
If you translate ‘the righteousness of/from God’ as a genitive objective, then you conclude, as Martin Luther did, that Paul means God’s righteousness gets transferred to us from God by our faith in Christ.
When you choose this fork in the Romans road, then it appears that Paul’s primary question is about our justification before God. The plot of Paul’s letter becomes our own individual savedness.
It’s about us. Our destiny. Our rescue from sin.
If you choose the other fork in the Romans road and translate ‘the righteousness of God’ as a Genitive subjective, then you must conclude that Paul’s writing not about us, primarily or individually.
He’s writing about God. ‘God’s own righteousness’ in this sense refers to God’s commitment to the covenant made with Abraham, in which God promised to rescue- not individuals but- the world from sin.
To choose the former option, NT Wright says, is a bit like the earth insisting that the sun revolves around it.
To choose the latter option is to acknowledge that we’re just a part of God’s creative and redemptive activity.
Like Israel before us, we’re participants in God’s saving work. Of course, this also necessarily entails our individual redemption from sin, but, like Israel before us, we’re not saved for our own sake.
God’s promise was made through the chosen people, Israel, but the promise was never limited to them.
The promise was always: for the world.
Abraham being chosen by God was a blessing, to be sure, but it was always a blessing meant to bless the whole world, that through Abraham’s People God would undo what Adam did. Through Abraham’s People, God would deal with sin, set the world to rights, and restore his creation.
Ever since Martin Luther, Protestants have opted for the former reading of 1.17, reading into Paul a narrow focus on the eternal salvation of individual souls.
Ever since Luther chose that fork in the road, many Christians have believed Paul’s message was about the life to come rather than this life.
Unpacking ‘dikaiosyne theou’ isn’t simply an academic exercise.
It’s not just a parsing of theological jargon.
And it’s not nearly as abstract as it sounds.
Events like the Boston bombing bear that out.
Because Paul intends ‘the righteousness of God’ as the answer to Habakkuk’s question: Why God? How long will you let this go on God? Where are you God? (1.17)
Events like the Boston bombing remind us that Habakkuk’s question is our question too.
And Paul’s answer to that question isn’t: ‘Don’t worry. You’re saved, things will be better when you get to heaven.’
Paul’s answer to the question is the righteousness of God.
Paul’s answer is that precisely what grieves us grieves God too, that what drives us to despair, drives God to determination, that what prompts us to ask pained questions is what compels God to cut a covenant.
Paul’s answer to
Habbakuk’sour questions is that in Jesus Christ we see unveiled God’s commitment to his promise to restore creation from the sin that ails it.
Paul’s answer is not to point to where we’ll go when we die if we have faith.
Paul’s answer is to point to God’s promised coming, to God’s faithfulness to us, and, by our faithfulness, foreshadow his arrival; so that, we become- in some small way- the answer to such questions.