The gospel releases divine power to set the world right.
I have led many adult Bible study classes. I have never, however, taught the apostle Paul’s Letter to the Romans. I have two good reasons.
First, the theology of Romans is dense. Paul manages to pack so much into the letter’s text. When I try to unpack it into easily digestible segments for an audience that has little or no knowledge of the Bible, it resists such a breakdown.
Second, many of the words Paul uses have a different emphasis in the Greek and Hebrew from their equivalent translations into English. The English words in our translations can therefore mislead, confuse, or even distort what Paul is saying.
One example is the word righteousnessas used in Romans 1:16-17:
For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith.”
The words righteous and righteousness are not common words in daily English conversation, at least not outside of church circles. When we do use them, we usually understand them to refer to something that is morally upright or virtuous.
For that reason, the words in English do not have an appealing emotional association. The most common use of the word righteous is in combination with the word self, creating the hyphen word self-righteous. Self-righteousness has the flavor of an alienating hypocrisy. Most often we hear it used in describing grim, buttoned-up religious folk.
If we have this idea of righteous in mind when we hear Paul talk about the righteousness of God, we are likely to be confused. It’s going to convey an idea of God in the negative sense of self-righteousness. This in turn feeds the common conception of God as a severe and demanding judge.
Exploring the Biblical Meaning of Righteousness
If we are going to understand these two crucial sentences of Paul, we must do some work exploring the meaning of righteousness in the wider context of the Bible. For we can be sure Paul is using it with its Biblical meaning front and center.
The Greek word that Paul uses that English translators translate as righteousness is the Greek word dikaiosune. It, too, is a translation for the Hebrew word tsedaqah. This Hebrew word can sometimes mean something that conforms to the moral character of God.
But with the Hebrew prophets it gains an extended meaning. When used of God, it refers to the work of God to establish justice in the land, especially on behalf of the poor and disadvantaged (summarized by the stock phrase the widow, the orphan, and the resident alien). In the intertestamental period, it also becomes associated with alms giving.
So the word righteousness comes to take on the meaning of God’s compassionate efforts to set things right in the world against all that fractures and corrupts God’s creation. It is, in short, a synonym for salvation. Salvation is also understood in the sense of restoring things as they should be, but presently are not.*
In Paul, this divine setting of things right is not limited to human individuals. It extends out to include society and the whole cosmos. God’s righteousness is God rescuing the whole creation from evil, corruption, and disintegration, and particularly rescuing humans from sin and death.**
Paul’s Confidence in the Gospel
With this understanding of the righteousness of God in mind, we can then begin to realize the astounding claim that Paul makes in Romans 1:16-17. In the gospel message about Jesus Christ, especially the message of his death and resurrection, we have revealed how God is at work to set things right in his troubled and corrupted creation. This is God coming to creation’s rescue or, to use a synonym, to creation’s salvation.
What Paul seems to be saying is that every time we preach the gospel, we are releasing God’s power into the world to continue that rescue mission–first in the lives of believing individuals and ultimately within the whole cosmos. It opens our eyes to see what we have always hoped for, but could not see: God compassionately coming to our rescue. In the words of the gospel hymn: I once was blind, but now I see.
That healing of our spiritual vision then allows us to begin to realign our own lives with the often hidden and seemingly humble work that God is performing in the world. We can begin to behave in ways that are consistent with how God is working to rescue us from the unseen powers and forces that keep human beings in bondage.
When we read Romans 1:16-17 in this light, we realize the immense confidence Paul has in the sheer preaching of the gospel. It is charged with power to change lives and even social settings.
But it seems to me that it only exercises this great power when the gospel we preach is not a message about God’s stringent demands for our strict ethical uprightness. This false preaching leads to a vision of God as an angry, vindictive judge whose goodwill we can never really count on. Rather if we would release the power of the gospel, it must be a gospel about God’s compassionate love for the world, a compassionate love that will go to the ultimate extreme to restore a corrupted world to health, wholeness, harmony, and abounding life.***
This gospel gives us a God whom we can love, adore, and trust because this is a God who is truly for us, not against us. Thanks be to God!
* For the Biblical understanding of righteousness, I am particularly indebted to the entry on “righteousness” by N.H. Snaith in A Theological Word Book of the Bible, New York: Macmillan Paperbacks, 1950. Pages 202-204.
** The particular wording that I use in this sentence comes from N.T. Wright’s commentary on Romans in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002. Page 399.
*** For my understanding of what constitutes the good news of the gospel, see my previous posting from February 14, 2016 titled Can You Summarize the Gospel in One Sentence?