The Righteousness of God: Three Views

Douglas Campbell writes, “The current debate concerning the meaning of diakosune theou (the righteousness of God) in Paul is immense.”[1] The controversy predominantly centers on whether the ‘righteousness’[2] of God is retributive/punitive or gracious/benevolent in nature. Additionally, scholars dispute as to whether the righteousness of God describes an attribute of God, the activity of God, or relational aspects of God. The complexity of the issues surrounding the translation and interpretation of diakosune theou (the righteousness of God) make it impossible to offer a detailed account of the whole debate, but Douglas Moo, N.T. Wright, and Douglas Campbell’s respective views serve as a suitable introduction. Each perspective will be evaluated according to three categories – character, activity, and product – to allow for a consistent comparison.[3] 

Douglas Moo defines God’s character, in regards to his righteousness, as one who will always do what is right according to the divine nature. At first glance, this is seemingly a common understanding among the three viewpoints until the term “right” is defined in any particularity. For Moo, “what is right” entails God “always acting in accordance with the norm of his own person and promises.”[4] God’s activity of doing “right,” however, is not limited to saving work, instead it includes both God’s saving actions and God’s justice. Thus, God’s activity is to establish the “right” by vindicating some and judging others based upon a determined standard, which according to Moo is justification by faith in Jesus Christ.[5]  Consequently, the product of God’s “right” activity is that those who have been justified by faith receive God’s character; in other words, they attain the moral righteousness required by God.

N.T. Wright works chiefly within these same categories, except he places them within a predominantly covenantal framework. Simply stated, the righteousness of God is God’s sure and steadfast love of Israel, which Wright deduces from tying together the interrelated dimensions of covenant, lawcourt, and apocalyptic. The covenantal aspect is that God designed a once for all plan for salvation through Israel to bless the world and God remains exceedingly faithful to this plan. Wright states, “The point of the covenant always was that God would bless the whole world through Abraham’s family.”[6] The lawcourt dimension displays the character of God as that of an impartial judge, who as the creator of the world must rule and judge all creation justly. Thus, God’s activity is focused on a single plan to put the world right, which God established through the covenant with Israel.    For Wright, the decisive, apocalyptic act was that God dealt with sin and rebellion through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Thus, through Jesus Christ, as a faithful representative of Israel, God’s covenant with Israel has been fulfilled and the world has been declared “right” and granted access to blessings of the covenant. The product of God’s saving action is not, however, that one’s character is changed into the character of God, rather, his/her status is changed before God. In other words, he/she is vindicated by the judge, through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, and brought into the family of God.

Douglas Campbell’s view of the righteousness of God (the deliverance of God) draws specifically from the understanding of Christ as the definitive display of God’s righteousness. He states, “If we know what Christ is, we can infer immediately the content of the righteousness of God.”[7] Thus, Campbell concludes that the definitive character of God is benevolence because Christ exhibits no retributive characteristics in Paul’s writing.  Furthermore, drawing from the Old Testament’s picture of divine kingship, Campbell determines God’s character to be a compassionate king whose sole concern is to act to save an oppressed humanity. God’s kingly activity then is a “saving, liberating, life-giving, eschatological act,”[8] which delivers his oppressed people. Campbell defines this activity in the singular work of Jesus Christ whose death and resurrection liberates a captive humanity.  The product is “fundamentally liberative” and humanity is ontologically transformed, receiving a new flesh free from the powers of death and sin.[9]

[1] Douglas Campbell, The Deliverance of God (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 677.

[2] I have placed ‘righteousness’ in quotes because there is disagreement on how diakosune should be translated. I have chosen ‘righteousness’ solely because this is how it is most often discussed.

[3] Campbell’s methodology for defining diakosune theou differs considerably from the other two views. Campbell’s method starts with Christ as the definitive disclosure of diakosune theou and from this extrapolates its meaning by referring to how Christ is described in Paul. The other views draw on the phrases textual history to elucidate Paul’s meaning. Thus, is a little tenuous to fit Campbell’s definition into these three categories.

[4] Moo, Romans, 84.

[5] Ibid, 88. Moo acknowledges the covenantal framework of diakosune theou, however, he shows from passages, such as Psalm 143 and Daniel 9, that it cannot be tied exclusively to God’s covenant promises.

[6] Wright, Justification (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 67.

[7] Douglas Campbell, The Deliverance of God, 683.

[8] Ibid, 702.

[9] Ibid, 73.

6 thoughts on “The Righteousness of God: Three Views

  1. Great post! It’s always helpful to put these different views side by side. The question I have is (for Wright’s view) can God really be impartial when love is involved? Any thoughts?


    1. This is a good question. I am not sure how I would answer without a few more details – why can’t love and impartiality be connected? is this a question of election, chosen? are you hinting (scared/excited) that universalism would be the result of impartial love?

      I may be completely off track but these are the questions that come to mind as I think about you comment.

      And, I don’t know Wright’s view well enough to know how he would answer that question (e.g. how he defines love or what role impartial play in his overall scheme).


      1. This is just me thinking aloud, but my understanding of what love is is that you act for the good of the person you are loving (whether or not it actually seems good to the recipient is another question I guess). So I wonder how can you love and be impartial? I’m not saying it’s not possible, but I’m asking if that’s actually the reality? Is that really who God has shown himself to be, the impartial judge?

        My thinking is that if God has sent Christ on behalf of humanity he has already shown that he isn’t impartial… he is decidedly faithful to and for his creation, specifically his image bearers.

        Just pondering…. 🙂


      2. With respect to Wright’s view of God’s not being partial, I suggest Rom 2:10-11 typifies Wright’s idea. “Partiality” concerns the making of distinctions based of markers like ethnicity, social rank, etc. It is inherent that covenant relationships that distinctions are made of some sort, e.g. according to faith and promises, but not those matters that separate one nation from another as if God were not God of the world.


        1. Jackson, thanks for the clarification on Wright. (good to hear from you and I owe you an email!).

          Jessica, I think in general I would agree with what Jackson stated…God is impartial in that he loves all those created in his image (as you said).


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