"He who has compassion on them will guide them and lead them beside springs of water." Isaiah 49:10

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Conception of Justice - Apostle Paul

By Daniel Gonzalez, St. Joseph's University

What is justice? What are its essential characteristics? Is justice juridical in nature? In other words, does it have only a legal sense or meaning? Is it a virtue? Does justice have the sense of being distributive or retributive? Perhaps justice is just a way of characterizing revenge? Perhaps justice is merely a form of exacting revenge on one who has perpetrated some wrongdoing against one’s person? The problems implicit in these questions are at the center of socio-political, religio-ethical, and philosophical discourse. However, the focus of this essay will be Paul’s development of the idea of justice in the Epistle to the Romans as it relates to God and His divine law.

The Apostle Paul, in his epistle to the Romans, approaches the idea of justice both polemically and dialectically with a view towards his central thesis: God’s righteousness revealed. In addition, the apostle Paul diagnosis the problem of evil, within the human polity, and points to its source while presenting a prognosis that emphasizes the need for divine justice. Moreover, the emphasis that man needs to acquiesce to God’s means of meeting justice through faith. Informed by his Judaic sense of justice (“rendering to each what is due”) he begins his discourse.

It should be noted, however, that various ideas emerge and are developed in the Epistle to the Romans that contribute to the overall discourse on God’s justice and/or righteousness, e.g., condemnation and justification, unbelief and belief, works and faith, and law and grace. From these emerge the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith.

Paul writes: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “BUT THE RIGHTEOUS man SHALL LIVE BY FAITH.” (Romans 1:16-17, NASB)

In these passages of scripture, Paul presents his central thesis: God’s righteousness (dikaiosune) revealed (apokalupto) in the gospel (euaggelion). The gospel, for Paul, isn’t merely the good news of God’s kingdom, but more importantly the fact of Christ Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection and the interpretation of these facts. For the apostle Paul, these events disclose God’s dikaiosune, i.e., God’s righteousness or justice. What is more is that the revelation of God’s righteousness can only be grasped, or apprehended, by faith. Righteousness (tsedeq in the Hebrew) is said to be a quality or attribute grounded, or rooted, in God (Deuteronomy 32:4, NASB). Thus, God is said to be just and all that he does is just. Yet, the question remains as to why was it necessary for God to disclose his justice or righteousness in this way? Moreover, what is its contribution to Paul’s discourse on justice? The reason for this are developed further in the Epistle to the Romans.

Paul posits that man’s existential predicament is that he stands in a state of rebellion, lawlessness, depravity, and hopelessness before God and His divine law. The condition stems from a deliberate “suppression” of the self-evident truth about God (Romans 1:18-23, NASB). Man has willfully chosen to rebel (though he knows that in doing so he has brought mortal judgment upon himself) through a willful suppression of the truth leaving God no other recourse but to hand man over to his own passions. The image here portrays God as one who has had enough in dealing with man and hands him over to his own recourse. The situation is what prompts God to “reveal His wrath”. God’s righteousness is here contrasted over and against man’s wickedness. It seems justified that such blatant behavior merits God’s divine judgment and wrath. The religious person, or moralist, may feel a sense of security, propriety, and justness in his own piety and deep sense of virtuosity contrasted with the wickedness of those who rebel. However, Paul argues that this pretense is grounded on false premises.

In Romans chapter two the apostle Paul continues, although polemically, to present various arguments toward a view of demonstrating his central thesis on the relationship between righteousness and faith posited in Romans 1:17. Confronting the notion of personal piety, pride and conformity in one’s religious formalism, he argues that these attitudes are grounded in arrogance and pride and equally merit God’s wrath. Paul’s premise is that for one to make such claims one would have to be faultless with respect to every aspect of the law, i.e., one would have to be perfect. He concludes that one infraction, or transgression, merits judgment and condemnation thus precluding one from making such claims to righteousness. Thus, he asserts that “THERE IS NONE RIGHTEOUS, NOT EVEN ONE” (Romans 3:10, NASB). ALL [emphasis added] are under sin and merit God’s judgment and condemnation, for all have come short (missed the mark) of fulfilling the requirements of God’s divine law (Romans 3:23 NASB). The situation before us is one of despair. Any claim to personal virtue, piety, or righteousness, based on works is made mute by past transgressions and failure. What is to be done? If Paul’s argument is true, how can one escape God’s wrath and judgment? How does one get a reprieve in light of an accusative and damning argument? What can man appeal to in presenting his case before God? Paul argues that no one can be nor will be justified by their works. He posits that one must place one’s trust in God’s righteousness and His means and method of exacting justice.

Up to this point Paul has demonstrated that man is incapable of following the letter of the law and fulfilling its requirements. This line of reasoning is central to Paul’s argument in an attempt to establish the supremacy of faith over works and the state of justification that comes by faith. What is more, the Apostle Paul wants to draw our attention to God’s righteousness revealed in the person of Christ Jesus apart from the law. Faith is sine qua non for salvation and justification before God. For Paul, at least, one can only be declared just/righteous through faith in God’s work in the person of Christ Jesus (Romans 3:28, NASB). The question becomes, what about the law? Isn’t there an assurance of blessings for those who follow the law? Are we to take an antinomian position with respect to the law? Are we to discard it and characterize it as pointless, qualify it as no longer valid? More importantly, does faith nullify the law? Paul’s responds by stating that “Do we then nullify the Law through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the Law.” (Romans 3:31, NASB)

Paul’s argument about the preeminence of faith over the law and the righteousness that comes through faith is polemic, indeed. The law is fundamental to Hebraic society. It is considered to be a revelation from God that governs conduct, sacral worship, protects the disenfranchised, etc… More importantly, it is an explicit declaration in scripture that those who practice the law are righteous before God. If faith has precedence, or it is what God considers fundamental, or necessary, for one to be righteous why give the law? What function does the law have? The underlying premise to Paul’s argument is not that the law should be abolished nor is he soliciting antinomian sensibilities. What Paul demonstrates is that faith precedes works in logical priority and justification is the final result. He demonstrates this by drawing our attention to a particular biblical character in the Hebrew Scriptures: Abraham.

Romans 4:1-25 demonstrates the force of Paul’s argument for justification by faith. What the apostle argues is that what made Abraham righteous, a qualification conferred only by God, was his faith. He (Abraham) saw his physical condition as being beyond what was naturally possible. (Romans 4:19, NASB) thus, Paul asserts, "ABRAHAM BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS CREDITED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS." (Romans 4:3, NASB) For Paul, it seems that the premise of faith is for one to comprehend one’s finitude, impotence, and imperfection in light of God’s revelation. Thus, removing the bulwarks that strengthen our own resolve and, in their place, embrace the truth of God’s revelation in Christ Jesus. Yet the question of justice remains. How does faith, justification and what has been stated so far relate to justice?

Romans 5:1 states, "Therefore, being justified by faith, we have peace with God". Here is the result of faith. Here is the reward of faith. Peace with God. For the apostle Paul, as long as man continues in his rebellion, feels assured in the conformity of religious formalism, continues to trust in his own endeavors and attempts at defining morality, he stands at odds with God. Justice, for Paul, is the reality of our sin, being paid for in the person of Christ Jesus. Justice, "rendering to each what is due", is realized in the person of Christ Jesus. That is to say, that what was properly due to us, in relation to God and His law, is condemnation and death. However, if we believe God and place our trust in His means of justice, realized on the cross of Christ, in relation to Him and His divine law we are declared righteous. Here is the sense of rendering to each what is due. God is just, in that he remains faithful to his word and promises.

The Epistle to the Romans is at once a treatise on justice and a presentation of salvation, redemption, justification, and faith (Whelan p.437). In his Epistle to the Romans, the apostle Paul diagnosis the problem of evil, within the human polity, and gives a prognosis that emphasizes the need for divine justice and the imperative to acquiesce to God’s means of meeting justice. The picture that emerges in Paul’s epistle is God’s justice, mercy, love, and faithfulness responding to the man’s existential crisis of lawlessness, hopelessness, and sin in the person of Christ Jesus.

By Daniel Gonzalez, St. Joseph's University

Works Cited

Frederick G. Whelan. Justice: Classical and Christian
Political Theory, Vol. 10, No. 3. (Aug., 1982), pp. 435-460.
Stable URL:

Bruce F.F., The Epistle of Paul to the Romans: An
Introduction and Commentary, Michigan: Tyndale Press, 1963

The Holy Bible, New American Standard Bible.
Massachusetts: Hendrickson, 1995

Easton, Matthew George. "Entry for Justice". "Easton's
Bible Dictionary”

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