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?

Convicted of Righteousness

8 And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: 9 concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; 10 concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; 11 concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged. (John 16:8-11 ESV)

I have always felt that these verses in John are quite tricky to understand. From reading some commentaries, it appears that the Greek isn’t straightforward either. The concept of the Spirit “convicting” people of sin is not problematic, but what does it mean that he will convict people of “righteousness”?

One solution that I have heard is to take the word ‘convict’ to mean ‘convince’. i.e. The Spirit will convince people that Jesus is the righteous one. Or he will convince them of their need to be righteous. Not only does this require a modification in the meaning of the word convict between verse 9 and 10, but it is in danger of making the Spirit’s work into a merely intellectual persuasion.

Don Carson offers an interesting alternative take on what it means to convict the world concerning righteousness:

John loves to quote or allude to Isaiah, and Isaiah 64:5 establishes that all the dikaiosyne (righteousness) of the people of Isaiah’s day was as a menstruous cloth. Within the Fourth Gospel, this reading of ‘righteousness’ is eminently appropriate. (The Gospel According to John, PNTC, D A Carson, p537)

What does this make of the clarifying phrase: “because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer”? Carson explains that the Spirit is simply continuing an important aspect of the ministry of Jesus, confronting and challenging religious hypocrisy:

The reason why the Paraclete convicts the world of its righteousness is because Jesus is going to the Father. … [The] Paraclete … drives home this conviction in the world precisely because Jesus is no longer present to discharge this task.

Not all commentators are convinced by this. Köstenberger considers it plausible, but prefers a legal interpretation:

… the Spirit of truth in his legal function of parakletos is said here to prosecute the world on the basis of the righteousness of Jesus, who is declared just and vindicated in court. (John, BEC, Andreas Köstenberger, p472)

However, if Carson is right, this is a very provocative concept. All Christians know what it feels like to be convicted of sin by the Spirit, but have you ever been convicted of “righteousness”? We know the Spirit’s voice telling us that our bad temper, greed or impure thoughts are sinful and we need to repent, but have we ever considered that some of our religious good deeds could in fact require repentance too?

Repentance for empty legalistic ‘righteousness’ would take on a different form to repentance from sin. Repenting from sin involves stopping the wrong behaviour, but repenting from righteousness requires something even deeper. After all, the Pharisees regularly gave alms to the poor and prayed daily. Jesus was hardly intending for them to stop these activities. Repenting from legalism is therefore a change of heart rather than necessarily outward behavioural change.

Like many Christians at the start of a new year, I try to make resolutions concerning things like Bible reading and prayer, as well as other spiritual goals for the coming year. But we need to beware of turning from grace to legalism and doing the right things with the wrong motivation, or before long, we will find the Spirit convicting us of our shallow religious ‘righteousness’ and calling us back to a relationship with God based on delight and not duty.