Ruminating Romans: Have You Righteoused Today?

But now, quite apart from the law (though the law and the prophets bore witness to it), God’s covenant justice has been displayed. God’s covenant justice comes into operation through the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah, for the benefit of all who have faith. For there is no distinction: all sinned and fell short of God’s glory—and by God’s grace they are freely declared to be in the right, to be members of the covenant, through the redemption which is found in the Messiah, Jesus. God put Jesus forth as the place of mercy, through faithfulness, by means of his blood. He did this to demonstrate his covenant justice, because of the passing over (in divine forbearance) of sins committed beforehand. This was to demonstrate his covenant justice in the present time: that is, that he himself is in the right, and that he declares to be in the right everyone who trusts in the faithfulness of Jesus. (Rom 3:21-26—Wright translation)

But now apart from the law the righteousness of God (which is attested by the law and the prophets) has been disclosed – namely, the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. But they are righteoused freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. God publicly displayed him at his death as the mercy seat accessible through faith. This was to demonstrate his righteousness, because God in his forbearance had passed over the sins previously committed. This was also to demonstrate his righteousness in the present time, so that he would be righteous and the righteouser of the one who lives because of Jesus’ faithfulness. (Rom 3:21-26—adapted NET translation)

The question can no longer be put off. How do we best translate δικαιοσύνη (noun), δικαιόω (verb), and δίκαιος (adjective). In my article “Dikaiosynê Theou,” I provisionally committed myself to “righteousness” for δικαιοσύνη; but now that we have arrived at Romans 3:21-26 (yes, I know, we basically skipped two chapters, but I was anxious to get to the good stuff—weren’t you?), I need to make a decision about δικαιοσύνη’s two important cognates.

J. Louis Martyn succinctly states the problem:

The first problem arises from the fact that, whereas in Greek the verb dikaioo and the noun dikaiosyne are linguistically cognate, most of the verbs and nouns by which these terms have been translated are not. To render the verb with the English expression “to justify” while translating the noun as “righteousness”—the most common way of proceeding—is to lose the linguistic connection that was both obvious and important to Paul. To be sure, one can compel the verb to draw on the noun, translating dikaioo “to make righteous,” “to declare righteous,” “to rightwise,” and even “to righteous.” The last two of these, lying outside normal English usage, have the virtue of alerting the hearer to the strangeness of Paul’s terms. But that virtue is bought at the price of linguistic clumsiness.

The second problem is substantive. All of the translation options listed above have one weighty liability: they are at home either in the language of the law—where “to justify” implies the existence of a definable legal norm—or in the language of religion and morality—where “righteousness” implies a definable religious or moral norm. As we will see, Paul intends his term to be taken into neither of these linguistic realms. Hence, we find some advantage in using the verb “to rectify” and the noun “rectification.” For these are words that belong to a single linguistic family (rectus facio), and they are words that are not commonly employed either in our courtrooms or in our religious and moral institutions. The subject Paul addresses is that of God’s making right what has gone wrong. (Anchor Bible: Galatians, p. 250)

I considered using the “rectification” words, but as far as I can tell, there’s no appropriate word for the adjective δίκαιος (one who has been righted or is in the right). So I have decided to stick with the righteousness family: righteousness (noun), righteous (adjective), and righteous (verb). The verb is archaic, but it actually did once exist. So don’t be surprised when I start talking about how believers are righteoused in Christ. I am following here the recommendation of E. P. Sanders in his little but helpful book Paul: A Very Short Introduction. I also entertained the possibility of using “rightwise” instead of “righteous.” Either is odd enough for our purposes. Six of one, half a dozen of the other—maybe I’ll change my mind in the morning.

Take a look at the above NET-adaptation of Rom 3:21-26. I have altered the New English Translation to reflect my adoption of the verbal form “righteous.” One thing I also like about the NET version is that the translators have opted to render pistis christou as “faithfulness of Christ” (subjective genitive) instead of the more typical “faith in Christ” (objective genitive). The subjective genitive of pistis Christou has made great sense to me ever since I first encountered it back in the early ’80s in the writings of Thomas F. Torrance. It makes especial sense theologically: we are saved and justified, not by our personal act of faith, but by the Savior who faithfully offered himself to the Father unto death. The objective genitive puts the weight of salvation upon the anthropocentric decision of faith rather than grounding salvation upon the incarnational work of the eternal Son of God. But I do not hold my preference for the subjective genitive as infallible truth. Although an increasing number of contemporary biblical scholars favor the subjective genitive, including N. T. Wright, it does bother me that the subjective genitive construal finds so little support in the Greek Fathers. More on this topic later.

Have you righteoused today?

(Go to “Justification and Jewish Christianity”)

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5 Responses to Ruminating Romans: Have You Righteoused Today?

  1. Pingback: “Christ’s death…ought to be placed…far above the Law itself” | De Profundis Clamavi ad Te, Domine

  2. Rhonda says:

    Ah, yes…the difficulties in English translation!


  3. Dana Ames says:

    “God put Jesus forth as the place of mercy, through faithfulness”

    “God publicly displayed him at his death as the mercy seat accessible through faith.”

    These are much better than rendering hilasterion as that made-up English word “propitiation.” “Mercy seat” keeps the Jewish connection and the depth of what has been accomplished by Christ at the forefront, without getting into the legal realm.

    I like righteoused better than justified 🙂



    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Thanks for the comment, Dana. Do you have any thoughts about Wright’s reflections in his NIB commentary on wrath and propitiation in 3:21-26 (pp. 475-476)?

      I’m glad you’re with me on “righteoused.” But I don’t think the producers of the TV show should change its name. 🙂


      • Dana Ames says:

        You ask as if I know something… 🙂

        I think Wright makes the connections between preservation of Israel, the Servant and the Mercy Seat, but in the NIB commentary he still sees the focal point as saving from the wrath of God and talks about the legal thing: expiate a sin, crime or stain on your character (476). Wright has the technicalities of the passage down – the grammar, the internal connections in Romans, the allusions to Daniel and Isaiah and Maccabees. And I know he has read something of Margaret Barker, because she’s mentioned in at least one bibliography in the big books (Christian Origins). Again, it was the big books that led me to see that the point is not the legal thing, even though Wright himself can’t seem to move away from that in this passage in the commentary.

        Simply on the face of it, the mercy seat is the place where man and God can actually meet. For what purpose? What is the meaning? I think Margaret Barker is really worth paying attention to. On J. Burnett’s website, there is a page on liturgical studies
        and therein will be found several articles by Barker, some not found elsewhere (at least on the internet), to my knowledge. Do read the one on “Atonement: The Rite of Healing”. There are many reverberations with Daniel and the Suffering Servant, and a real move away from the legal thing and toward a more cosmic thing. Not that we’re not under a threat, but the threat is from us, not from God; God saves us from it. Sheds so much light on St Paul, and works with Wright’s interpretation as well.

        As Noel Paul Stookey wrote and sang: “If you get the message, you might refuse it – but if you get the meaning, hey, don’t ever lose it… if you get the meaning, oh, of it all…”



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