Paul’s Perspectives on the Righteousness of God[1]


One of the important issues of recent times is the ‘new perspective’ on Paul (as Professor Dunn called it).  In fact, there are multiple perspectives and some are were not new when Dunn attached that tag (in 1983).

But to call something ‘new’ catches our eye.

the new quest for the historical Jesus
the new perspective on Paul

In this paper I want to look at Paul’s own perspective on something: the righteousness of God.  And I want to focus on one of his most passionate letters, Galatians.

Before I do that I would like to make some more general observations.

Let me begin by offering a brief comment on this word ‘righteousness’ and it’s brother word, ‘justified’. (Unfortunately our English cannot bring out their common root Greek root, which is DIK-; dikaiosyne| [‘righteousness’ – very frequently/’justification’ - infrequently] and dikao|ithe| [justified’]).

These are law court words but get used more broadly in the NT.  For example, in 1 Cor 4:4 Paul speaks about the Corinthians’ ‘judgment’ about his ministry.  He says, ‘I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted’.  The Greek literally reads, ‘I am not thereby justified’, but RSV says ‘acquitted’ (likewise ESV).

Paul uses this language to describe the relationship with God of those who are (in Paul’s words) ‘in Christ’, Christian believers.  He says that they are ‘justified’ (= ‘acquitted’).

The passive voice means that if I am ‘acquitted’ (or, more literally ‘justified’) it means that someone else has ‘acquitted’ (or ‘justified’ me), and that someone else is God.  Paul doesn’t need to say ‘by God’; the passive voice alone tells us that since Paul the Jew avoided using God’s name where possible.  So: to be ‘justified’ means to be ‘acquitted’, acquitted by God.

What then of the term ‘righteousness of God’?  This is Paul’s way of referring to God’s activity of ‘justifying’ or ‘acquitting’ people.  But it also refers to ‘righteousness’ as their consequential new status before God.  In Christ, they participate in and share God’s own righteousness.

For example, Paul tells the Corinthians that,
‘For our sake he made him [Christ] sin who knew no sin,
so that in him we might become the righteousness of God
in him [Christ]’ (2 Cor 5:21).

So: God does the justifying (acquitting), giving people thereby his righteousness.  But how does God do this?  God does this through an agent, and that agent is Christ, or more specifically ‘Christ’s blood [= death’].  Twice in Rom 5 Paul uses the passive ‘justified’ (i.e., by God) – ‘justified by faith’ (5:1) and ‘justified by his blood’ (5:9).

A second preliminary comment is that some expressions of ‘new perspective’ (some, but not all) argue that Israel had no need of God’s ‘righteous-ing’ activity since she was already ‘in’ the covenant, already saved and that Paul articulated ‘justification by faith’ for non-Jews, as a means of attaching the non-covenantal people of the nations (i.e., ‘Gentiles’) to Israel.


I am wary of attributing motives, since God alone knows the human heart.  Yet it appears historically that this aspect of ‘new perspective’ did take root and flourish in the soil of Christian-Jew ecumenism post Second World War.  This ecumenism was inspired in part by the widely felt guilt that the holocaust occurred in a ‘Christian’ nation and that some church leaders in Germany and elsewhere raised no voice against it.

Is it a coincidence that the ‘new quest for the historical Jesus’ found a specifically Jewish Jesus of Second Temple Judaism, who bore minimal similarity with the Jesus of the catholic creeds, the Jesus of a church numbers of whose members looked the other way when the ‘final solution’ was being perpetrated?

Is it a coincidence that some ‘new perspectives’ on Paul also emerged in this era of post-holocaust Jew-Christian ecumenism?  Were Martin Luther’s anti-Semitic views a factor here, influencing the emergence of ‘new perspectives on Paul’, in particular in reaction to the doctrine of Paul’s that Luther made famous – ‘justification by faith’?

A third general comment relates to the idea of ‘covenant’.

E.P. Sanders, the prominent ‘new perspectivist’, famously made the ‘covenant’ with Israel the starting point for his reading of Paul.  Is this word prominent in Paul in respect of the existing ‘covenant’ with Israel into which the Gentiles are now said to be included?  The answer is ‘no’.  Paul uses the word only five times, three of which are not relevant (Rom 11:27; Gal 3:17; 1 Cor 11:25).

The two relevant ‘covenant’ texts actually speak of the ‘ending’ of the existing covenant with Israel, the replacement by the new of the old.  Against Sanders we say that in Paul’s mind there was no continuing old covenant; it was finished, fulfilled and ‘ended’ in Christ. The dispensation of ‘righteousness’ through Christ’s death (which is equally a dispensation of ‘the Holy Spirit’) annuls, abolishes the covenant of Israel which was a covenant of ‘letter’ (= law) which brought condemnation and death.

2Cor. 3:6 who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not in a written code but in the Spirit; for the written code kills, but the Spirit gives life.

[Paul is referring to God’s ‘call’ at the Damascus Event and its consequence, his God-given ministry of this ‘new covenant’].

2Cor. 3:14 But their minds were hardened; for to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away.

[Paul is referring to the past and present ‘blindness’ of Jewish people to the true message the old covenant, that is, Christ and the Spirit; only when they ‘turn’ to the Lord [Jesus] is the veil of blindness removed].

We conclude that ‘covenant’ and ‘covenant inclusion’ are not be the right point of entry to ascertain Paul’s mind on ‘righteousness of God’.

This prompts me, fourth, to express a concern that we start with the text before us.  This applies whether we are addressing Paul’s or his younger contemporary the voluminous Josephus.  We have the author’s words on the page and we are able (to a degree) to work out what he attempted to convey to his readers at the time.  If we can detect his use of a known rhetorical form, that may be helpful for our understanding.  If our author is hinting that his words must be understood in terms of some meta-narrative or overarching typology that, too, may be useful.  I am thinking of Paul’s reference to the exodus and years of pilgrimage in 1 Cor 10 or to his ‘allegory’ of Abraham’s two sons in Gal 4.

Yet caution is needed.  Paul usually sends a strong signal of an overarching story or pattern.  To import a meta-narrative or allegorical interpretation of our own will likely deflect us from the point Paul is actually making in his text.

Apart from overturning authorial intent, appeal to meta-narrative may be faulted on other grounds.

One is an academic elitism that implies sovereign authority in interpreting individual texts.  This implies that only those who have mastered the meta-narrative are qualified to exegete specific texts.  But the meta-narrative is always a hypothetical reconstruction of the canonical texts, a work in progress, at it will ever be.

Another possible problem with appeal to meta-narratives is that it says, ‘if you can only grasp the true narrative universe of Paul (as I do), then you will understand Paul (or Josephus, or whomever)’.  Isn’t this a bit ‘Gnostic’?  It’s like saying, ‘We the elect illuminati know the meta-narrative and we have the light of revelation of Paul’s real meaning while you poor blind plodding exegetes have only his text’?

Having cleared the ground with these preliminaries let me turn to the second part of the paper.  Here I want to focus (briefly) on one of Paul’s most passionate letters – Galatians.  This passion is generated by those who oppose Paul’s teaching about the righteousness of God.


In Galatians the ones Paul opposed (and who opposed him) surprise us.

I am referring to the so-called ‘incident at Antioch’, whose importance must not be underestimated.  It represented a crossroads for Paul’s relationships with notable leaders, Peter and Barnabas.  These were his opponents in Antioch.

Paul and Barnabas had been working associates for four or five years – in Antioch-on-the Orontes and in mission work in Cyprus and Anatolia.  Paul’s relationships with Cephas/Peter went back sixteen or seventeen years before the Antioch incident.  The incident in Antioch had the potential to divide Paul from the Jewish mission and to divide absolutely the faith community along Jew-Gentile lines.

The ‘incident’ at Antioch occurred ca. 48, a year or so after Paul’s and Barnabas’ return from Cyprus and Anatolia.  This is mentioned in Acts 15:1-2 and Galatians 2:11-14 (with further discussion in Gal 2:15-20).

At the time the mixed assembly of Jewish and Gentile believers in Antioch shared unhindered table fellowship, most likely including at the Lord’s Table.  But then a bombshell came in the arrival of ‘certain men…from James’ as Paul puts it (Gal 2:12).  They brought a message from James, prime ‘pillar’ in Jerusalem, the effect of which was that the Jews Peter and Barnabas ‘drew back and separated themselves’ and would no longer eat with the Gentile believers.  And the reason: their ‘fear of the circumcision party’?  Or, as the Acts puts it: these men from Judea were teaching that ‘unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses you cannot be saved’ (Acts 15:1).

So the message in Antioch that Paul strenuously opposed was ‘no circumcision no salvation’ (so, Luke in Acts); ‘no circumcision, no table fellowship’ (so, Paul in Gal 2).  So, according to this new teaching, the common ground on which Jewish and Gentile believers must stand for salvation and fellowship is male circumcision.  Without male circumcision of Gentiles, there is no salvation and no eating together.  In short, there is no place in the church of God for the uncircumcised.

The Antioch incident was serious beyond words.  Had Paul also succumbed to the pressure (as Peter and Barnabas did) it would have changed the entire character of future Christianity.  Indeed, it is unlikely there would have been any significant future Christianity at all among the Gentiles.

So what does Paul say to the Gentiles among his Galatian readers, who are also being subjected to the pressure to ‘receive circumcision’ (Gal 5:2)?  We remember his admonition:

1 For freedom Christ has set us free;
stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
2 Now I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision,
Christ will be of no advantage to you.
3 I testify again to every man who receives circumcision
that he is bound to keep the whole law.
4 You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law;
you have fallen away from grace.
5 For through the Spirit, by faith, we wait for the hope of righteousness.
12 I wish those who unsettle you would mutilate themselves!

So how did Paul the Jew come to such a passionate position?  It all went back to the Damascus Event.

In Gal 3:21-25 Paul speaks about the impact of Damascus on him:

21 Is the law then against the promises of God?
Certainly not; for if a law had been given which could make alive,
then righteousness would indeed be by the law.
22 But the scripture consigned all things to sin,
that what was promised to faith in Jesus Christ
might be given to those who believe.
23 Now before faith came, we were confined under the law,
kept under restraint until faith should be revealed.
24 So that the law was our pedagogue until Christ came,
that we might be justified by faith.
25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a pedagogue

Paul is speaking as a Jew representing other Jews, but in a way that is deeply personal.  He is addressing the matter of righteousness before God, as provoked by the issue of circumcision.  He uses two related word pictures of his pre-Damascus situation: (a) he was locked up in a prison, and (b) he was subject to a harsh pedagogue (pedagogues had a bad name for abusive behaviour).  But then, he says, ‘faith came’ and ‘faith was revealed’. ‘Faith came’ to Paul and ‘faith was revealed’ to Paul when Christ ‘seized him’ at Damascus.

On that day, that very first day he was ‘a man in Christ’, Paul was ‘justified’ (or, ‘acquitted’), that is, deemed to have participated in the ‘righteousness of God’.  The point he is making is that as now ‘justified’, he was set free from the ‘prison’ of seeking righteousness by the ‘law’.  By grace, God had freely done for him what his pre-Damascus self-effort had never been able to achieve.

The remarkable extent of the Damascus allusions makes it likely that Paul now saw the OT through the lens of Damascus and that the gospel Paul preached was shaped and informed by Damascus, in particular that he, Paul, and all people – Jews or Gentiles – find their righteousness with God only in Christ crucified and risen.

In the passage immediately following the ‘incident in Antioch’ where the circumcision demand would have destroyed the Christ-based common ground between Jews and Gentiles Paul writes this, in respect of himself, and fellow-Jews, Peter and Barnabas:

15 We ourselves, who are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners,
16 yet who know that a man is not justified by works of the law
but through faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus,
in order to be justified by faith in Christ, and not by works of the law, because by works of the law shall no one be justified.

20 I have been crucified with Christ;
it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me;
and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God,
who loved me and gave himself for me.
21 I do not nullify the grace of God;
for if justification were through the law, then Christ died to no purpose.

We note, here that Paul is referring to the ‘righteousness before God’ of individuals (‘a man is not justified by works of the law’ [e.g., circumcision] but through faith in Jesus Christ [or the faithfulness of Jesus Christ]‘); and secondly, that he is speaking of himself, Peter and Barnabas as Jewish individuals.  I make this point again against those ‘new perspectivists’ who propose that ‘justification by faith’ was Paul’s theological solution to the problem of the inclusion of the Gentiles, inferring (or asserting) that Jews were already ‘in’ the covenant and in no need of God’s righteousness.

Paul is arguing that due to sin both Jews and Gentiles stand in need of God’s righteousness, available only through the redemptive, accursed death of the Son of God on the tree.  In Rom 3:9 Paul states that ‘all’ (that is, Gentiles and Jews) are ‘under sin’, that is, controlled by sin (as members of the lost tribe of Adam).  As lawbreakers under the curse of the law, both the circumcised and the uncircumcised, find one and the same means of redemption, through the One who gave himself for sins, Jesus Christ the Lord (Gal 1:3; 2:20).

That Gentiles, as well as Jews have this blessing fulfils God’s promise to Abraham, that in his ‘descendant’ (Christ) all the nations will be blessed.  Abraham, himself, knew a kind of anticipatory ‘justification’ since, as it is written, ‘Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness’ (Gal 3:6; Gen 15:6).

God’s ‘justification’ of Paul at Damascus as a ‘man in Christ’ opened his eyes to understand the grace-based, faith-based, Christ-centred nature of ‘the righteousness of God’ as it applies to the new covenant people of God, which had applied also to the father of faith, Abraham.

Final Reflection

Let me summarise.

1.            I have attempted to establish Paul’s thinking on the issue of the ‘righteousness of God’.  I have deliberately focused on a letter that is apologetic and polemical in character (Galatians), rather than the more measured letter like Romans.  The pastoral situations are easier to identify in a passionate epistle like Galatians or Second Corinthians.

2.            You will notice that I do not warm to current interest in finding Paul’s true meaning in some supposed wider or global biblical narrative that he is hinting at or alluding to.  This approach implies that such narratives invariably informed Paul’s intellectual universe, which his readers also share.  Not only is that an assumption for Paul’s Gentile readers who do not inhabit this narrative universe, but more particularly it allows the Bible interpreter who has supposedly reconstructed this ‘global narrative’ to re-shape the exegesis in subtle new directions.

3.            I wonder to what degree the tragedy of the holocaust has influenced currents of theological interpretation.  Is it a coincidence that the Jesus found by the new questers was – whatever else he was – first and foremost a Jew?  A Jew moreover who was somehow an un-catholic Jesus, un-credal Jesus; just a Jew.

Was interest in an ‘un-Lutheran’ Paul also some kind of a reaction against Luther attitudes to the Jews.  Did the opposition of some ‘new perspectivists’ to Luther’s famous statements about justification arise by revulsion against his anti-Semitism?

Luther’s blind spots need to be set aside.  We need to ask: did Luther understand Paul and interpret him correctly?  True, he too easily imposed his own disputes with the Roman Church upon Paul’s disputes with the Judaisers.  Yet, despite that anachronistic flaw, was not Luther correct in discerning a commonality of error between Paul’s opponents and his own?  Might it not be argued that the semi-Pelagianism implicit in that Catholicism had much in common with the ‘semi-Pelagianism’ of the Pharisees and therefore with the extremists in the Jewish mission?

To concede this is to concede that Paul’s arguments, though time-bound to the mid-first century, also happen to be perennially timely due to the inclination of the human psyche towards self-justification and its confidence in being able to please God.

4.            In essence, Paul is arguing from within the Damascus event.  This for him marked the turning of the aeons, from ‘old’ to ‘new’, from ‘darkness’ to ‘light’, from ‘letter’ to Spirit, from ‘condemnation’ to ‘justification’, from alienation to ‘reconciliation’.  Everything for him beforehand was ‘then’ and everything since was ‘now’.  Accordingly, Moses/’letter’/old covenant is now ‘ended’ and ‘abolished’, outshone and de-glorified; in Christ and the Spirit the new has come and will remain, forever (2 Cor 3).

Accordingly, Paul will argue trenchantly in Galatians against any attempt to find righteousness with God through any rite (like circumcision); righteousness of God is found only in Christ crucified and is the basis for eating together.  Likewise, he will resist any attempt in Corinth to wind back the eschatological clock so that the now-‘ended’ covenant is reinstated and reimposed.  Paul’s gospel is law-free, Christ-centred, grace-based, Spirit-empowered, and word-communicated.



Paul Barnett.
June 2006.

The other speaker was the Rt. Revd. N.T. (Tom) Wright.
The symposium was held at Robert Menzies College, Macquarie University.
Chair: Emeritus Professor E.A. Judge
















[1]This is an edited version of a paper delivered at a symposium on Paul at Robert Menzies College 16 March, 2006; the other paper was given by Dr N.T. Wright.