The Righteousness Of God Based On Faith
Re-Translated In October 1999
1. Today I'd like for us to keep in our minds verse seventeen in particular. The phrase "righteousness of God" appears here rather abruptly without any explanation.1 The question, "How do you define the righteousness of God?," is [always] asked by new seekers of truth who have started reading the Bible, but I think this is one of the hardest phrases to understand. What do we first think of with this word [with the meanings] "righteousness, justice, morality, honor, loyalty, meaning?" When I look up the meaning of this word in my dictionary that takes the basic Chinese root character and gives the Japanese definition, the very first meaning explained is "correct, just, right, righteousness, honest, truthful, proper, straightforward, perfect; to be suitable for the way or to be done in accordance with the proper form for that situation." The first word we are reminded of by this word is "justice." Therefore, "the righteousness of God" takes on the meaning "the justice of God." Furthermore, we can say [it has the meaning] the justice of God which punishes the sin of humanity and which results in severe judgment.
2. Among those who feared this term with such a severe definition was Martin Luther, a monk in the monastery of the very strict Augustinian order about five hundred years ago. Luther's monastic education required him to make observations of himself. Luther put himself under a very thorough and close scrutiny. It wasn't that he had given himself over to the wickedness of this world, but he discovered in himself that he had selfish pursuits that were impossible to suppress. He found that in even his good deeds and pious works, he was seeking himself and had only been thinking about himself. No matter how much he tried to remedy the problem he could do nothing but admit that he himself was a poor sinner and could not possibly ever stand before a righteous God. Therefore, he wrote later on that "I hated that phrase 'the righteousness of God.'"
3. But, there was the scriptural phrase which Luther in that [frame of mind] could not avoid standing still before. It was chapter one and verse seventeen [of Romans] which I read you today. I will read it to you again. "In the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed, but it is manifested through faith from start to finish. 'The good [righteous] person lives by faith,' says the scripture." If in this text the "righteousness of God" only meant a righteousness that punishes sinners according to a correct or righteous judgment, this sentence would be incomprehensible. Why would Paul use the words "in the gospel" [i.e. in the good news], if we can only expect the wrath of God and punishment out of the righteousness of God? If the righteousness of God only meant destruction2 for a person, how could we say it was being revealed as "good news?"
4. The difficulty in understanding the phrase "righteousness of God" lies in the next point. The term "righteousness" itself is not a hard one, but we won't catch [its scriptural definition] if we bring the understanding we [already] have of it into the scriptures. We must put a passage that is hard to understand as this one is in first place. We shouldn't give up the Bible here. What did Luther do? He thought about the connection between "righteousness," "gospel," and "faith" day and night and wrestled with this passage. After some time he came to the point where he re-discovered the truth of the gospel. Since this discovery happened in a monastery tower, this is called "The Tower Experience Of Luther." It was the event that lead to the beginning of the religious reformation.
5. We won't go deeper into the issue any more today of what Luther thought about this or what he discovered. If you'd like to read the works of Luther you can read them and we might have another chance some other time to speak on his writings. Today, while we are in the Lord's presence, let's stand before these words a few moments and muse over the Word.
The Righteousness Of God
6. Last time we read the same passage but we paid attention to the way Paul called the gospel "the power of God." We saw how at the background of the term "power of God" which Paul was proclaiming there were Old Testament words. To speak of the power of God and the mighty miracles of God along with the powerlessness of humanity is a textual arrangement often seen in the Old Testament. In particular, we have come to see this arrangement of the text ideally appearing in the events in Exodus which could be called a starting point for the Israelites. Today we are paying close attention to verse seventeen in particular, but this is not to say that it is not unrelated to verse sixteen. We paid attention to just the term "the righteousness of God" in verse seventeen, and even though we tried understanding it from our own sense of language, we could expect as Japanese to have a hard time understanding that term. Last time, although it wasn't translated in verse sixteen we talked about the word "therefore" or "because" being there. Actually, verse seventeen is also connected to sixteen by the [same] word "therefore." Thus, I understand that when Paul called the gospel "the power of God" he meant it was because "the righteousness of God" was revealed in the gospel. Setting aside the finer details, it is clear that [Paul] meant that "the righteousness of God" is not unrelated to "the power of God." [Scholars] think that just as there was an Old Testament background to the term "power of God," there is after all an Old Testament background to the term "the righteousness of God."
7. In what places in the Old Testament does the term "righteousness" show up? I would love to open up each passage with you one by one and carefully look at them, but the number of them is quite numerous. Unfortunately that is not possible for us to do. Instead, I would like us to open up just one passage that will aid our understanding. Let's read from Isaiah chapter forty-five and verses twenty to twenty-five.
"O persons who have fled from the nations, gather; you should draw near together. O persons who have carried on their shoulders in their ignorance idols that are no more than trees and who pray to gods who have no power to save. Swap your opinions, proclaim them, present them: Who made this known from long ago and proclaimed it before? Wasn't it me, the Lord? There is no God except me. Besides me there isn't any correct [or righteous] God nor any God who gives salvation. O all people even to the ends of the earth, look reverently at me and receive salvation. I am God and there is none else but me. I swear on myself. Since a word of grace has gone out from my mouth that word will never be canceled. Before me every knee will bow and every tongue will make an oath. They will say to me that the work of grace and power are in the Lord. All who have burned in anger against the Lord will obey the Lord and be ashamed. All the descendants of Israel will be made righteous persons by the Lord and will proudly rejoice."
9. After reading this there will surely be some who have thought, "The word 'righteousness' doesn't even show up in the text, does it?"3 However, as we look carefully, it first appears in adjectival form in the words "correct [i.e. right, righteous] God." And the word "righteousness" is actually the word translated as "work of grace" in verse twenty-four. Also, in verse twenty-five it appears in verbal form, "to be made a righteous person, to be justified."
10. The Lord, who says "There is no God besides me," calls himself "a righteous God." God is certainly correct or righteous. Supposing there were an expression "an unrighteous God," that phrase would be a contradiction in terms. When it comes to a person worshipping that God, if the case is that someone does not consider God's "righteousness," then it is surely nothing more than a humanly built idol for human convenience. Verse twenty is talking about that kind of idol. If God were truly God, we would expect him to unequivocally be "a righteous God." And if he is a just God we would suppose him to be a God who judges righteously against sin. However, this passage is not merely telling us about "a righteous God." We must pay attention to this. This "righteous God" is not a God bringing destruction through his righteous justice and bringing everything to an end, but calls himself "the God who gives salvation."
11. God brings salvation through his mighty creative works. That is, God himself as the true God establishes a righteous order. This is "the righteousness of God." God as the true God is in control and brings persons back to a righteous state in a relationship with God. This is "the righteousness of God." From a state of being in sin and under condemnation [he brings us back] under the rule of the true God, forgives our sin, sets us free from sin, and restores us in the life of God. This indeed is nothing but "the righteousness of God." The text puts it like this, "Before me every knee will bow and every tongue will make an oath. They will say to me that the work of grace (righteousness) and power are in the Lord." This text is saying that the very work of salvation by [our] powerful God is nothing but "the righteousness of God." Thus, in the Japanese New Interconfessional Version it is translated as "the work of grace." So, the text says by "the work of grace" "all the descendants of Israel will be made righteous persons by the Lord and will proudly rejoice."
12. By the way, the text says here "all the descendants of Israel," but it is clear that this is not merely speaking racially or about Israel according to the flesh because the text says in verse twenty-two, "o all people from the ends of the earth, look at me with respect and receive salvation." The fact is all people are being addressed. God is demanding of them to stop depending on something that is not God, namely an idol that is powerless to save (verse twenty), and only to look reverently to the Lord. He says, "Look reverently at me and receive salvation." Thus, all those who have looked reverently are none other than what the text calls here "the descendants of Israel."
13. It says of them, "they will be made righteous persons by the Lord and will proudly rejoice." Clearly from what's already been said, the definition of "a righteous person" does not mean one becomes a righteous human being who makes no mistakes to speak of. It means that they have recovered a righteous state in their relationship with God. You could change the words and call them saved people. The Japanese word for "proudly rejoice, be proud, boast" may not make a very good impression, but because it is about rejoicing much in God's salvation it is not wrong.
From Faith To Faith
14. Let's go back to the book of Romans. When we understand that "the righteousness of God" is nothing but the work of God's grace as seen from the above, we will be able to understand verse seventeen. It is the gospel precisely because the work of God's grace is revealed [as a divine revelation]. To say "it is revealed as a divine revelation" is different from saying "it is told to us as a teaching." It is not "a teaching" about a mere truth. "Revelation [from God]" means something has appeared or has been shown to us concretely [in this transitory world from God himself]. "The righteousness of God" as the work of God's grace has been shown to us as a substance [in actual form]. Since it is a work of salvation it means that it happens in a real and substantial way. Furthermore, we must notice that the text doesn't say that "it was revealed" but says "it is being revealed." Later we will read in detail, but we certainly know that "the righteousness of God" as a work of salvation has been manifested in a decisive way in the person of Jesus Christ. The righteousness of God "was revealed" in that particular sense. But, here the text says "it is being revealed." In other words, it means that wherever the gospel is now still being preached, the work of salvation is being manifested in the real world.
15. How is the work of God's grace being manifested? The [Bible] says, "it is being materialized from start to finish by means of faith." This is a loose translation. In the original text it only says "from faith to faith." But, we know the meaning. It means faith from start to finish. It means [faith] is based on nothing except [faith]. The work of God's salvation is materialized by means of faith alone from start to finish. I read Isaiah earlier but now please recall again what that text has said, "o all peoples from the ends of the earth, look at me reverently and obtain salvation." Why [does it say] "look at me reverently?" Because we can only look to him. As the one who is a righteous God and the God who gives salvation, he is the doer. [God does the saving; we do the looking.] A person just looks with hope to the Lord and only turns himself or herself over in trust to the Lord. That's what "from faith to faith" is.
16. Also, Paul quotes here [some] words from the book of Habakkuk. Let's take a look in it. Please open to Habakkuk chapter two. I'll read from verse one.
"I am on duty at the sentry station, standing on the tower looking out, let's see what God is saying to me and what answer he gives to my appeal. The Lord answered me and said: 'Record a vision. Record it so clearly on a board so that you can read it while even running. Because there is one more vision for an appointed time. It is hurrying towards the time of the end. It deceives no person. Even if it is late, wait. It will surely come, it will not be delayed. Look out, o insolent one. His heart cannot be righteous. But the person who obeys God lives by faith," (Habakkuk 2:1-4).
18. These last words are the ones Paul is quoting. In the Japanese New Interconfessional Version, we have "the person who obeys God," but literally it is "the righteous person."
19. This is referring to a vision that is hurrying to the end time. Since "the vision" is a prophetic event, in this case I think we should change the phraseology to "God's plan of salvation," or "his work of salvation." The salvation of God is heading for completion. As far as what a person ought to do then, there is no need to add to the work of God's salvation. What does it say? "Even if it is late. Wait. It is certainly coming. It will not be delayed." It may seem slow in the eyes of humans. It may seem like there is no progress being made at all. But, it says there's no need for delay. Therefore, one lives by earnestly looking to God, waiting in hope for God, and turning himself or herself over to God. This is nothing but "the faith" which is spoken of in verse four. "The righteous person lives by faith." The words from the book of Habakkuk also express it as from faith to faith, that is, from start to finish it is based on faith.
20. We are partaking of Holy Communion together on this day. We will be "receiving" the bread and wine of the Lord's Supper. That is, we participate in Holy Communion as persons who can only turn themselves over to the work of God's salvation alone. At each time we participate in the Lord's Supper we must remember it means that the manifestation of the righteousness of God is based on faith from start to finish.
1 The Japanese word "gi" has many meanings, but since I know it will deal with the Christian nuance I have already translated it as righteousness; yet the first part of this sermon is about this very problem of the various shades of meaning for this word. This is one of the trickiest paragraphs in this series from Romans.
2 This word "destruction" could be translated as "hell."
3 The Japanese word for righteousness doesn't even appear once in the New Interconfessional Version quote from Isaiah used from the pulpit of Osaka Nozomi Church.