Forming Faith Blog

Righteousness or Justice? (Romans 1)

What is righteousness, biblically speaking? Perhaps our typical view that relates this to our personal behavior and holiness is missing a dimension: justice.

The scales of justice on the left and a boy wearing peace sign glasses on the right. Legal righteousness or shalom justice?
Called to Share the Good News

This reading marks the fifth Sunday of Easter and the end of our unit theme “Called to Share.” In this unit, we have heard the stories of the apostles Peter and Paul sharing the good news beyond the confines of the Jewish people, even if they weren’t always successful. Now we move from the narratives of the Gospels and Acts (and the Old Testament before those) to the Letters.

While I understand and agree that it’s important to include selections from the Letters, that doesn’t mean I like it. I’m just a story guy. I have, indeed, studied Paul both in seminary and personally, but I find that the best way to understand anything from Paul is to get into the text and study it. Four years ago, I even rewrote Romans 1:1-17 in common language as a means to understand it better.

Specialist Vocabulary

One of the things that we as faith formation leaders need to be careful with is insider language. Or worse, specialized (theological) vocabulary. Other than his writings being complex, what I don’t like about reading Paul is how hard it is to read them without the weight of coming on two thousand years of theological baggage. Much ink—and some blood—has been spilled over the key theological concepts that Paul writes about: salvation, grace, faith, and righteousness, to name just a few. Whole libraries have been written that cover just one of these words. Are we really expecting worshippers and students to understand the meaning of Paul’s letters on the first reading (or listening)?

The Baggage of Righteousness

There is so much that can be discussed in these seventeen verses. I covered in a bit more of an overview in my post “Paul’s Introduction.” Today my mind is stuck on the last verse:

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.”

Romans 1:17

While the word “faith” is repeated three times, I’m focused on “righteousness/righteous.” Especially in the Protestant traditions, we will say that being righteous is being “right with God.” And being right with God is about personal piety and holiness (which we fail at miserably and thus need Jesus’ perfect righteousness (holiness)). I have no desire to argue with this definition, but it is—at minimum—incomplete.

“The one who is righteous…”

My doubt related to the limits of “righteousness” as personal piety/holiness in this passage is spawned by Paul’s quotation of Habakkuk 2:4:

“The one who is righteous will live by faith.”

Romans 1:17b

Paul was Jewish, the Pharisee’s Pharisee, and an expert in the Torah. So, when he’s quoting Scripture (our Old Testament), I assume he knows what he’s doing. And in Habakkuk, the Hebrew word that Paul translates into Greek (dikaios) is tsaddiq, related to tzedakah. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote, tzedakah is not about personal holiness, but about making sure everyone has all that they need to thrive: shalom (one of my favorite concepts in the Hebrew Bible). A righteous person, then is one who works toward a just society, perhaps even…the kingdom of God.

Righteousness and Love

In my experience, righteousness has some negative connotations. It is sometimes connected to self-righteousness, which nobody likes. Even in a more biblical sense, righteousness is seen as a hopelessly high bar of personal piety, morality, and holiness—sinlessness. But looking at dikaios/tzedakah as justice brings another biblical concept to mind: love. Specifically, the greatest commandments to love God and love our neighbors. It’s still impossible for us to reach perfection in this, but it’s a bit clearer on what we’re supposed to do, and how our righteousness benefits someone besides ourselves.

God’s righteousness, then, can be seen as God’s work in making real the kingdom of perfect love in our world. Perhaps it can be:

When we put our trust in the good news of Jesus’ resurrection, we can better see God’s shalom-making, kingdom-building nature, which itself strengthens our trust. It is when we put all our trust in God’s love that we will have the strength to live God’s way.

Romans 1:17, mangled by me
Faith Formation Connection

What does this mean for our preaching and teaching? For the love of all that is righteous and holy, take the time to simplify the concepts here to a basic level. Assume that Paul is speaking a foreign language here and that your faith formation participants don’t speak that language. You can use the ideas I’ve reflected on here, the “translated” version of this passage in my previous post, or whatever you see is best. But don’t assume that people understand what Paul is saying here. Even whoever wrote the Letter of 2 Peter couldn’t always understand (2 Peter 3:15-16).

May you experience the joy of the risen Messiah!

Gregory Rawn (Publisher)

Free Resource

During the main Narrative Lectionary year (this year: September 11 to May 28), we provide a free resource download from one of our products to help you in your faith formation ministry. This week, download a free activity “Faith Letter” from our Living the Word: Kids (3rd-6th, NL Year 2, 2023-2024) curriculum. This activity can be adapted for use by households, groups, and classes of any size or age range.

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