Schreiner on Forensic and Transformative Righteousness

A key phrase for all who want to understand Romans is the meaning of the “righteousness of God”. There have been a variety of different understandings of this term, and in Schreiner’s commentary on Romans in the Baker Exegetical Commentary series, he sets forth two main interpretations.

1. Righteousness of God = Believer’s Status

This is Luther’s understanding of the term (Schreiner also lists Calvin, Bultmann, Cranfield and Moo amongst others as proponents). Luther rejected two competing understandings of “the righteousness of God” that were common in his day:

  • that it refers to God’s justice whereby he judges all people impartially
  • that it refers to an infusion of righteousness that would effect inner transformation, or moral renovation

In other words, for Luther (and many others), “the righteousness of God” refers to, and only to, a declaration of right standing before God. It is a purely forensic (legal) term, meaning we are declared not guilty.

2. Righteousness of God = God’s Saving Power

This second point of view, growing in popularity (including Dunn, and Stott recently) does not deny that a righteous status is given, but sees the term “righteousness of God” as more broadly referring to God’s saving power. In other words, it is not only something God gives us but something God does in us.

3. Schreiner’s Synthesis: Righteousness as Forensic and Transformative

Schreiner initially sets out a strong case for a forensic understanding of “the righteousness of God”, from which he concludes that righteousness does indeed have a forensic dimension that is not intrinsic to human beings by nature, but is a divine gift.

But then he goes on to point to the large amount of evidence supporting the second point of view. He therefore concludes that the term “righteousness of God” is both forensic and transformative (though both senses are not always present every time the term is used). These two meanings are not incompatible since “those whom God has vindicated, he also changes”.

He explains the synthesis of these two positions a little more fully here:

The saving righteousness of God is a gift received by faith alone, and God declares sinners to be in the right before him on the basis of Christ’s atoning death. Yet God’s declaration of righteousness – which is a gift of the age to come invading the present evil age – is an effective declaration, so that those who are pronounced righteous are also transformed by God’s grace. Such a transformation is due solely to God’s grace and does not involve a perfect righteousness, nor is there any suggestion that the good works that follow this transformation merit eternal life. Nonetheless, as Rom. 6 shows, believers are changed by the grace of God, and this transformation is an essential ingredient in God’s saving work. … The forensic is the basis for the transformative, but the one cannot be sundered from the other.

What do you think? Is Schreiner trying to have his cake and eat it, or has he uncovered a false dilemma?

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