Every day it seems like we hear about the horrific things that human beings do to one another: the school shootings, murders, wars, rape and sexual abuse, thefts and burglaries, abuses of power, scandals, and betrayals. In our darkest moments of doubt, if we admit it to ourselves, we question the goodness or even the existence of God because it seems like He doesn’t do anything about all these horrific crimes. But the good news is that God has done something about it, just not what we think He should do about it. If God exists, why doesn’t He stop these evildoers? Why doesn’t He prevent these things from happening at all? Of course we ourselves are not to blame – it’s always others who do these evil things – we’re as white as newly fallen snow, or so we think. If God were to stop all the evil doers and judge them immediately for their crimes, in short order there wouldn’t be any human beings left, for we are all guilty in some form or another.
So in his great wisdom, God has acted in such a way as to deal with the evil without destroying humanity in the process. God did this once before – He wiped humanity out in a great flood (Genesis 6-8), but vowed never to do it again, and gave Noah the rainbow in the sky as a sign of His eternal promise. The good news of the gospel is that God has already dealt with evil and demonstrated His righteousness while at the same time delivering evil humanity from the consequences of its own actions. What incredible wisdom, that God can deal with our evil and save us from it at the same time! How could we not worship such a Deity?
So in Romans 1:16, Paul writes that his gospel is the saving power of God for all who believe; in other words, it has the power to save all humanity from the powers to which they now find themselves enslaved, namely sin, death, and the devil. In the next verse, Paul reveals why the gospel is God’s saving power: for in the gospel “the righteousness of God has been revealed from faith to faith” (1:17). So what is “the righteousness of God” and why is it the basis of the gospel’s saving power? And how is it “revealed from faith to faith?”
In its most basic sense, God’s Righteousness is a quality or attribute of His, that is His righteous character: God always does what is right or just. He is absolutely fixed in His commitment to justice, never veering from it, or, in other words, He always treats others rightly and only ever desires the good of humanity despite their wickedness. In addition, God’s righteousness means that He is always faithful to His promises and to the covenants He has made with humanity and with Israel. So God can be relied upon absolutely to accomplish all that He promises and covenants to do.
But God’s righteousness is not just a static quality or passive characteristic of God. Rather, the righteousness of God has a dynamic quality; in the Old Testament it describes God expressing Himself in action to accomplish His purposes, and is often used in contexts describing salvation, deliverance, and redemption from evil, the divine power to accomplish that deliverance, and judgment of the enemies of God and His people. The earliest reference to God’s righteousness in the Old Testament is Miriam’s Song in Exodus 15, which forms part of the larger story of God’s deliverance of Israel from slavery at the hand of Pharaoh and the Egyptians. Here, speaking for Israel as a whole, Miriam proclaims that God is her helper and defender and that he has become her salvation. In the previous chapter, Moses had said to the people at the shore of the Red Sea: “Be brave, stand and see the salvation of God which he accomplishes for you today” (14:13). In addition, in 15:13, Miriam proclaims: “By your righteousness you led the people whom you redeemed, having comforted them by your might, to your holy abode.” The Exodus is the defining event of Israel’s history in which she is formed into a people by a divine act of salvation. The event is also a pattern for later acts of God in delivering his people from their oppressors. Therefore, when concepts of salvation, divine righteousness, and divine power appear together in Paul in a statement of the main theme of his letter, it is likely that a reader knew the Exodus story would recall the mighty acts of God in saving the people and leading them to the promised land by His righteousness.
In the Psalms, the Exodus becomes the paradigm for God’s dealings with his people generally. Just as Miriam sang “By your righteousness you led the people whom you redeemed” (Exod 15:13), so now the psalmist prays: “Lead me, O Lord in your righteousness on account of my enemies (Psa 5:8). On the one hand, God’s righteousness in the Psalms, as in Exodus, is closely associated with the deliverance and salvation of his people: the psalmist essentially prays for God to reveal himself again in righteousness to save them from their enemies as he did at the time of their original deliverance from Egypt (see also Psa 21:32; 30:2; 34:24, 28; 35:11; 39:10-11; 50:16; 70:2, 15, 16, 18, 24; 118:123; 142:1, 11; 144:7 LXX). God’s righteousness and salvation are thus a display of divine power: “Save me, O God, by your name, and vindicate me by your power” (Psa 53:3; see 19:7; 21:1; 70:16, 18; 105:8; 117:15; 139:8).
Isaiah also connects God’s righteousness, salvation, and power. Isaiah portrays Israel’s return from the exile in Babylon as a new fulfillment of the exodus. This new exodus will be accomplished by the Lord’s mighty arm (Isa 40:10; 44:12; 48:14; 50:2; 51:5, 9; 52:10; 53:1; 59:1, 16; 62:8; 63:5; 63:12), just as the first exodus was accomplished “with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm” (Exod 6:6; 15:16; Deut 4:34; 5:15; 7:19; 9:29; 11:2; 26:8). Here it is the prophet who proclaims the good news of Israel’s coming redemption from the power of her enemies: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news (the gospel!), who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’ (Isa 52:7, see 40:9; 60:6; 61:1). As in the Psalms, God’s righteousness is closely connected to the salvation he is working on behalf of his people, to deliver them from exile among the nations: “I will bring near my righteousness and my salvation I will not delay; I will give salvation in Zion for glorification” (Isa 46:13; see 51:5-6, 8; 56:1; 63:7).
On the other hand, God’s righteousness is also intimately connected with divine judgment: “The heavens declare his righteousness, for God himself is judge” (Psa 49:6; see 9:9; 88:15; 95:13; 97:9; 118:75). This does not contradict the association or righteousness with salvation, for it is precisely in judging the enemies of Israel that God saves and delivers his people. Divine righteousness is also associated with divine judgment in Isaiah: “He put on righteousness as a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head, and put on garments of vengeance as a cloak” (59:17; see 41:1; 42:1-4; 43:26; 49:4; 50:8; 51:22; 59:11; 63:1). As in the Psalms, God’s righteousness recalls the mighty acts of judgment which God has wrought on Israel’s behalf to deliver her from her oppressors. Thus God’s righteousness is his judgment in favor of his people as displayed in his action to save them from their plight in faithfulness to the covenantal promises which He has made to them.
In Romans 3:20, Paul alludes to Psalm 143:2 in which the psalmist asks the Lord not to enter into judgment with his servant since no one living will be justified before him. Despairing of his own righteousness before God, the writer of the psalm appeals to God’s righteousness to deliver him from his enemies (143:11). Israel and the nations are enmired in the same plight under sin, and now in Romans Paul is saying that God has finally acted, displayed His righteousness, and judged the enemies of His people. So the righteousness of God in Romans is God in action, displaying His divine power in delivering and redeeming His people by righteously judging those powers which oppress them. And who are those enemies? Not Pharaoh or Babylon, but Sin and Death – the powers that Satan wield over humanity and by which he keeps them in bondage (Heb 2:14-15). Therefore the gospel is the announcement of God’s saving power because it reveals His righteous action in not only saving us but in judging our enemy, Satan. For in Romans 8:3 God “condemned sin in the flesh,” and in Heb 2:14-15, through the death of Jesus, God rendered powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, so that might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives. God’s righteousness is God acting in salvation and judgment – God has finally acted, though not in the way that human beings or indeed even the devil expected (1Cor 2:8).
But God does not just act out of the blue; He acts according to His promised word, and so God’s righteousness is also closely connected with His faithfulness or truth: “I have not hidden your righteousness; I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation; I have not hidden your mercy and your faithfulness from the great congregation” (Psa 39:11, see 44:5; 84:11-12, 15; 88:15; 95:13; 118:75, 138; 142:1). And when God does act mightily on his people’s behalf, they proclaim the good news of his mighty deeds on their behalf (Psa 39:10; 67:12) and proclaim it to the great congregation (Psa 9:12; 21:31-32; 43:2; 64:9; 92:2; 96:3). Thus God’s righteousness in the Psalms is God acting in judgment to save his people from their enemies in faithfulness to his promises, often despite Israel’s own faithlessness. So in Romans 1:17, God’s righteousness is revealed from faith to faith, that is, it is revealed on the basis of God’s own faithfulness to those who have faith, to those who believe.
But to what promises is God being faithful? It cannot be the promises of the Sinai Covenant made through Moses, for Israel broke that covenant (Jer 31:32). No, God is fulfilling the promises he made to Adam and Eve, and to Abraham. In Genesis 3:15, in what is called the protevangelium, the first statement of the gospel, God promised that he would crush the head of the serpent by the seed of the woman, who is Christ. And Paul refers to this passage in Rom 16:20 when he states that God will soon crush Satan under the feet of the Roman believers, and indeed all believers. God is also faithful to the promise He made with Abraham: “through you all the nations of the earth will be blessed,” which God ultimately accomplishes through Abraham’s seed, Christ Himself (Gal 3:16).
But God’s deliverance of Israel and indeed the whole world is merely the consequence of God’s righteousness, which is really God’s action to restore his righteous rulership over creation, a dominion which Adam handed over to Satan in Genesis 3, for the devil took Jesus to a very high mountain and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory; and he said to Him, “aAll these things I will give You, if You fall down and worship me” (Matt 4:8-9). But God had promised to crush the serpent and in faithfulness to His promise God, identifying himself as the Creator of heaven and earth, now calls his servant in righteousness and makes him to be a covenant for the people, a light for the nations (Isa 42:5-6), the means by which God’s salvation will reach to the ends of the earth (49:6). Thus the power by which God redeems Israel and brings righteousness to the nations is the power he exercised in creating the cosmos (42:1, 3-5). God’s righteousness involves nothing less than a new creation of the heavens and the earth, a total restoration of the whole world (Isa 65:17). Thus the righteousness of God is the manifestation of his creative power to restore the cosmic order disrupted by human sin. It is nothing less than the restoration of God’s righteous rule over the world: the enthronement of the risen Jesus as the exalted Son of God in power is the means by which God re-establishes His rule over creation.
This righteousness of God in Christ is a revelation of divine power. It is no mistake that in Romans 1:17 Paul refers to the revelation of God’s righteousness; in Romans 1:3-4 he refers to the exaltation of the Son of God in power, and in Galatians he refers to his initial vision as an “apocalypse” or revelation of the Son of God (Gal 1:12, 16). There is a deep connection between the revelation of the exalted Son to Paul and the revelation of God’s righteousness in his gospel. When Paul saw Christ on the Damascus Road, Jesus called him to preach to the Gentiles that the Son was the new Lord of the world, God’s righteous rule had been and was being restored, and that the nations were to submit to that rule in obedience faith through belief in message of Paul, the divinely appointed herald of God’s righteous rule.
So to return to our initial question: Why doesn’t God do something in response to all the evil in the world – why doesn’t He act? Paul’s answer is that God has acted in righteousness to save humanity from its own evil, and to judge those who hold them in bondage. And He has done so through the death and resurrection of Christ, acting faithfully according to the promises He made to Adam and Eve, to Abraham, to David, and the prophets. It may not be the answer that humanity wants or expects, but it is the only effective answer, the only answer that judges evil without also destroying humanity.