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Spring 2015 · Vol. 44 No. 1 · pp. 43–58 

From Retributive to Restorative Justice in Romans

Gordon M. Zerbe

“Therefore, welcome one another, just as Christ has welcomed you” (Rom 15:7). 1 Everything in Romans leads, in one way or another, to this dramatic and concluding exhortation. Brought together is the theological substance of the entire foregoing argument (“as Christ has welcomed you”) with the practical issue of increasingly critical importance (“welcome one another”). The prevailing theme at the outset is God’s new justice-righteousness and justification (making right) over against universal human injustice and foreboding retribution. But that motif is overtaken, as the letter unfolds, by images of reconciliation, mercy, forgiveness, liberation, filiation (adoption as heirs), transformation, and re-creation, and ultimately by divine and human welcome.

A whole new system of justice-righteousness is coming into play through Christ . . . such that God becomes known especially as the one who “justifies the ungodly.”

Romans is not a book of doctrine in the abstract or for its own sake, as a systematic theology pronounced for all time and places. Rather, what we have in Romans is the articulation of a practical, pastoral theology that Paul hopes can unify a movement on the verge of disintegration into factional divisions, both locally and globally, a prospect that Paul is energetically and desperately seeking to prevent. Romans is more about resolving a crisis of relationships (along with realizing true justice in the world) than about depositing a book of unchanging doctrines on how a private and {44} isolated individual can get right with God (the classic Protestant view of “justification by faith”).

At the core of Paul’s theological argument, designed to realize and sustain a unified community into the future, is that Christ welcomes in a way that demonstrates a radically new framework of justice-righteousness, what can appropriately be called “restorative justice.” God’s new framework of justice and justification through Christ is not simply a pardon that otherwise leaves the prior and prevailing retributive justice system intact, where a select few receive a free ticket to heaven while the rest of humanity finds eternal damnation. God’s new system of justice, which truly transforms the offender and reconciles the offender and the offended, involves a complete reorientation and transfer into what Paul calls the Regime of Grace, away from the Regime of Law. Only by seeing the other through this new lens can one truly “welcome” and be reconciled with the other.


Two of the most pressing difficulties of working with Romans are (1) the inadequacies of the English language to render Paul’s Greek discourse, and (2) the persistence of received interpretations enshrined in mainstream English translations. Two of the most important examples are the translations “righteousness” for dikaiosynē and “justify” for the counterpart verb dikaioō, and “faith” or “belief” for pistis and “believe” for the counterpart verb pisteuō. Greek and most other languages do not distinguish lexically between personal “righteousness” and relational-social “justice” (rightness, justness). English has torn notions of “righteousness” apart from those of “justice,” whereas in the biblical world they belong together. Interpreters of Paul are now regularly translating dikaiosynē with the cumbersome, but more appropriate “justice-righteousness.” 2 The translation “justify” for Paul’s dikaioō is now colored by years of one-sided Protestant interpretations of justification that imply a kind of legal exoneration alone. But in many places Paul uses the verb in the sense of “effectively making right,” “achieving justice,” just as software programs now effectively “justify” our margins. 3 Meanwhile, the English word “faith,” especially in the phrase “justification by faith” has taken on a set of meanings not fully consistent with Paul’s use of pistis. Pistis has three ranges of meaning, but most fundamentally means (1) “loyalty, fidelity, faithfulness,” and is often a virtual synonym of hypakoē, usually translated “obedience” (e.g. Rom 1:5; 10:14–16). But pistis can also have the sense of either (2) “trust, dependence, submission, or faith,” or (3) “conviction, proof, or belief.” While there are some cases where these latter senses are most patent, the core sense of “loyalty” and “fidelity” is always very close at hand. For that reason, pistis is best translated with a cumbersome “loyalty-faith,” or “trusting {45} loyalty” or “loyal faith.” Meanwhile, the English “believe” has evolved to mean simply mental conviction and adherence, and thus increasingly inappropriate for Paul’s pisteuō, which often carries the meaning “to be loyal,” to “submit in trusting loyalty,” or such like. The crucial contrast in Paul is not that of “faith/belief” versus “works,” but a deeper “allegiance” or “loyalty” (that includes obedience) versus rule-oriented “works.” 4

When Paul declares dikaiosynē as a key theme at the outset (Rom1:17), many readers would have immediately recognized that Paul is entering into what was already a rather involved history of discussion as to what really dikaiosynē is. Paul announces the distinctiveness of “God’s justice-righteousness” that is now being revealed in the gospel, with the clear recognition that he will need to explain what precisely he means in the context of competing definitions, theories, and frameworks of “justice.” What kind of justice is God now “unveiling” 5 through Christ?

For hundreds of years, Greek scholars and public intellectuals had debated appropriate theories of justice. For instance, Plato’s most famous dialogue, The Republic, is a lengthy discourse on what is dikaiosynē, as applied both to the individual and to the citizen community. Starting with a blistering assault on traditional, conventional, and skeptical theories (of interpersonal, distributive, or pragmatic-political justice), the entire dialogue argues for an alternative understanding: that dikaiosynē is a state of health both for the individual and the community, where all parts of the organism play their appropriate role, and is realized partly by education and a good system of laws, but most importantly and necessarily by the coming of a truly just sovereign (philosopher-king), as unlikely as that might be. Paul thus plays on a well-known topic of debate as he announces his theme about the new form of dikaiosynē that God is bringing into reality through the agency of Christ.

At the outset of his discourse, then, Paul declares that the gospel concerning the enthroned sovereign Lord Messiah Jesus newly reveals the “justice-righteousness of God.” As the letter unfolds, it becomes clear that this phrase involves at least four dimensions. It is (1) God’s own “justness” of character; 6 (2) God’s alternative system of “justice” in the world; (3) the process of “justification” by which God’s makes things, people, and relationships right, especially the new moral character and status of “righteousness” that humans obtain, first, as a pure gift (3:21–5:21), and then, as actualized, transformed moral character (5:12–8:13); and (4) the new state or order that emerges when God’s justice-righteousness is fully realized, taking on a meaning synonymous to “kingdom of God,” “salvation” (restoration, deliverance, safety, health) 7 or “aeonic life.” 8

As suggested above, the divine justice-righteousness that Paul methodically explains represents a form of what is called “restorative justice” in {46} recent theory. 9 As developed especially as an alternative to the prevailing “criminal justice system,” the restorative justice paradigm (with its own multiple variations), sees crime especially as a violation of people and relationships, and asks the following questions: Who has been hurt? What are their needs? Whose obligations are these? What are the causes? Who has a stake in the situation? What is the appropriate process to involve stakeholders in an effort to address causes and put things right? By contrast, the traditional criminal justice system sees crime as a violation of the law or the state, and asks: What laws have been broken? Who did it? What do the offender(s) deserve (justice must primarily satisfy the demands of the law, especially through punishment)? Restorative justice can also be described in terms of its three pillars. Firstly, it focuses on harms and needs. Focusing on harm implies an inherent concern for the victims’ needs and roles, seeking to repair that harm as much as possible. Secondly, restorative justice emphasizes offender accountability and responsibility. There are obligations that the offender must learn to understand. Lastly, restorative justice promotes engagement for those impacted by the wrongdoing—victims, offenders, and members of the community. All of the stakeholders need to be part of the decision of how to move forward from the wrongdoing. 10

While there are certainly significant differences between Paul’s explanation of “God’s justice-righteousness” and modern “restorative justice” theory, 11 and certainly different contexts of development and application, 12 there are some crucial points of similarity or correspondence. (1) Both show an awareness of the limited value, or even the counter-productive effects of a preoccupation on punishment as the key earmark of realizing justice (as primarily retribution, vengeance). (2) Both focus on the aim of justice to heal relationships and offenders, while at the same time meeting the needs of victims (or in Paul’s case, repairing the breach in the broken relationship with the sovereign, God, as a result of wrongdoing and injustice). (3) Both show an awareness of the role of the whole community, both in the process and in the restoring/restored outcome, not seeing justice as a transaction that occurs primarily in private or behind closed doors.


In order to understand Paul’s multi-layered and multi-purposed letter, one must appreciate its context. In the winter months of early 56, Paul is lodging in Corinth at the house of Gaius, presumably one of the wealthier members of the Corinthian congregation (host-patron of the whole assembly). Paul is enjoying a short calm in the midst of a storm. He has just come out of a harrowing experience of imprisonment, torture, and hardship in Asia (where he was “unbearably and utterly crushed” so that he “despaired of life itself”; 2 Cor 1:8) and then in Macedonia (2 Cor 7:5–6), the {47} immediate context for his reflections on the meaning of suffering in Romans 5:1–5 and 8:17–39 (cf. 2 Cor 11:23–12:10). And just as he fears mounting opposition in Judea (Rom 15:30–32), in just a few more months he will be back in Roman detention, as things erupt in Jerusalem (Acts 20–25).

So, during a few months of reprieve (Acts 20:1–3), Paul is resting and convalescing, nursing his physical and psychological wounds. And he is no doubt rejoicing that he has won back the Corinthian congregation after years of protracted tensions, and especially that they have contributed to the relief fund for the poor of Judea (Rom 15:26), a project that has occupied him for six years. But mostly he is waiting, reflecting, studying Scripture, and praying. He has travel plans on his mind, but for the moment he must wait, as all the major sea-faring ships are moored at port for the winter season (usually from mid-November to mid-March).

Paul is especially contemplating what is happening on the horizon. From a vantage point a few hundred meters from town, he can see the sun rise on the sea to the east, and he can see the sun set on the sea to the west. Looking east, he thinks of Jerusalem. He has not been there for eight years, and the last time he was there he formally established a “partnership” with the leaders of the Jerusalem congregation, by which his ministry among the nations-gentiles was affirmed, on the condition that he would “remember the poor” (Gal 2:1–10). But the tensions between the mother church and his network of assemblies outside of Judea have only heightened, and he fears a split on the horizon. Once travel season opens, he expects to be in Jerusalem by Pentecost, to deliver practical assistance to the poor of Judea (suffering from famine and an unjust system of imperial tribute). Paul sees this undertaking especially as a token of unity and “partnership” across the waters that divide, and as a way of enacting the fulfillment of prophecy—that at the dawn of the age to come, the nations would make pilgrimage and bring their tribute to Jerusalem, reversing the outflow of wealth experienced for hundreds of years. 13

Turning toward the horizon to the west, Paul sees both opportunity in Spain, but also foreboding crises in Rome. Though he has never been to Rome, he has numerous friends and co-workers there (Rom 16), and through correspondence with them he has kept up on the dynamics of this strategically located center. The Jesus loyalists in Rome are found in multiple house assemblies, and increasing disputes have meant that not all remain “in communion” with each other. 14 Paul describes the two main factions as “those who are weak in fidelity-conviction” and “those who are strong-powerful.” 15 What we can discern is that the “weak,” who appear to be primarily from Judean-Jewish heritage, were biblical traditionalists, claiming ancient biblical and unchanging standards for conduct. By contrast, the “strong-powerful,” who appear to have those from both Judean {48} and non-Judean backgrounds in their numbers, were messianic revisionists (in the manner of Paul), claiming a new pattern for conduct revealed through Messiah Jesus, stressing “loyalty and conviction,” over against detailed rules propounded by Moses the Law-giver.

This local divide thus replicates the mounting global gulf among Jesus loyalists. At one end are mainly Judean Jesus Messianists (“Christians”) 16 committed to a detailed, literal interpretation and application of Torah (centered in Jerusalem, with thousands embracing this perspective; Acts 21). On the other side there are the overwhelming majority of non-Judean adherents (alongside a core group from a Judean heritage, like Paul himself), who see themselves as free from many of the regulations of Torah (especially those that deal with Judean identity markers). 17 What it means to be “practicing” (in regard to regulations for “walking”) is a hotly contested matter, and the cause of increasing tensions and divisions. 18 The letter is deliberately addressed to “all God’s beloved,” embracing all the factional components now tearing the community of Christ apart (14:1–15:13). Along the way, Paul makes it clear that both those of Judean heritage and those of non-Judean heritage are equally named specifically as “beloved” (9:25–26; 11:28).

Conscious of what is on the horizon and with travel on his mind, both east and west, and with a fair bit of time on his hands as he waits for the travel season by ship to reopen, Paul constructs his longest and most complex letter that is both essay and appeal in four densely packed movements, each concluding with a dramatic crescendo (4:24–25; 8:31–39; 11:32–36; 15:7–13), and all interconnected with recurring and developing motifs. With complex issues to discuss, and intractable issues to resolve, not all passages are easy to follow, and it is not always clear what particular points Paul wishes to score with his divided audience, each side carefully listening for how he either supports their position or rebukes the other side. 19 One can only imagine the challenge faced by Phoebe (16:1–2), who was sent as Paul’s personal representative along with the letter, and no doubt tasked with explaining orally its more ambiguous or difficult points, bridging the divide between the “weak” and the “strong.”


In the first movement, God’s newly revealed justice-righteousness (1:17; 3:21–4:25) is set over against the revelation of impartial divine retribution (“wrath”) 20 in response to universal human injustice-immorality (1:18–3:20; 3:23). In a scathing indictment that first targets the gentile idolaters (1:18–32), then entraps the self-righteous moralists (2:1–5), and finally challenges the Judeans (2:17–29), no one individual or human {49} group is left unscathed. Undermining the Jew-gentile binary (2:9–16), all humanity is equally liable (hypodikos, lit. “under justice,” 3:19). The playing field has been leveled, completely flattened: all human beings are at the same level of disadvantage before God. Human failure in relation to God’s sovereign and impartial retributive justice is total, universal, and absolute. Arguing on the premises of the Law that both justification and retribution are based on “doing,” he claims that even those who don’t know it can perform it, while noting that justice will take into account varying awareness of the Law, thereby undermining all Judean advantage because they “possess” and “hear” the Law (2:12–29).

The traditional interpretation is that Paul is simply setting up the need and plight—the utter failure of guilt—of all humanity. But there are hints that there is more to it. Paul observes that the display of divine retribution operates by an exacting measure of the Law (3:19; it “counts” offenses, 5:13), and indeed intimates that the prevailing system of Law and retribution is incapable of truly resolving the human dilemma (3:20). Only as the argument progresses into the second movement will we learn that the prevailing system of Law, along with its retributive aims and assumptions, will itself be undone, as it gives way to God’s new system of a restoring justice under the banner of merciful Generosity (Grace).

When Paul turns to the contrasting revelation of God’s justice-righteousness (3:21–4:25), he thus immediately claims that it is manifested “apart from the Law,” even though attested to by the Law and the prophets (expressing a deep ambivalence and tension in the argument). Paul makes the following main points: (1) God’s justice-righteousness is revealed through divine initiative and in particular through Messiah’s own fidelity (3:22, 26); 21 (2) it is displayed and proven precisely in an act of generosity (grace) and forbearance, whereby previously committed offenses are “passed over,” through the sacrificial death of Christ (3:24–25; 4:25); 22 (3) it aims toward and is appropriated through an act of human fidelity (3:22); and (4) it means that the “justification” of those who respond in loyal trust occurs as a pure gift (3:24a), whereby righteousness is “reckoned” simply in response to complete “fidelity, conviction, surrender, and trust” (4:1–12, 18–25). As will become clearer in the second and third movements, the display of God’s justice-righteousness precisely through an act of forbearing mercy means that God’s own divine retribution is rendered a mere potentiality 23 (albeit a continuing threat, since mercy cannot be presumed upon: 2:4–5; 11:22–24), and not the final outcome in the world.

Paul knows that he has dealt a decisive blow to the ongoing status of the Law. 24 He asks by way of clarification, what kind of Law (or “justice system”) is implied by this new way of justice-righteousness (3:27)? He answers: not a Law oriented to exacting “works,” but one oriented to a {50} deeper “fidelity and trusting loyalty” (pistis; 3:27–28; cf. 9:30–10:12). And while claiming that this new form of justice through fidelity actually “upholds” the Law (3:31), what he means is that it is attested to by the Law, not that it is ultimately consistent with the Law. The Law contains the promise of blessing and restoration of justification through absolute loyal trust, and this promise is the Law’s own inner meaning. But as a measure and means itself, all it can do is “work retribution” (4:15); restoration and blessing can only come through the justice-righteousness of fidelity, not through the Law (4:13–14). As Theodore Jennings notes, Paul propounds an “Outlaw Justice.” 25

Paul has not set up the contrast between God’s retribution (1:18–3:20) and God’s justice (3:21–4:25) to demonstrate how some few who respond in faith and are thus justified can escape the God’s system of retribution (through Law) that characterizes God’s unchanging and eternal regime. Rather, the point is that a whole new system of justice-righteousness is coming into play through Christ, one that precisely and literally “by-passes” (3:25) the rules of retribution, such that God becomes known especially as the one who “justifies the ungodly [damnable nations-gentiles]” (4:5; cf. 5:6–8). The prior system of divine retribution can only level the playing field, but is otherwise incapable of achieving God’s redemptive purposes in the world, leaving all humanity in a situation of no-exit (see further below on 9:22–32 and 11:32).


The second movement (chaps. 5–8) builds on the first, emphasizing at the outset that what results from the coming of justice-righteousness through Christ is peace and reconciliation with God, and relief from the threat of retribution (5:1–11). And Paul highlights that this restoring justice for the absolutely undeserving derives from God’s love (5:6–8), even as it engenders love (as becomes clear later: 12:9–21; 13:8–10; 14:15). The core of the second movement is the dynamism of the renewing regime of Grace (through the agency of Messiah) over against regime of Sin-Injustice 26 (through the agency of Adam), and the regime of Law (revealed through Moses) which turned out to be incapable of truly overcoming the regime of Sin-Injustice and Death (5:12–8:13).

Whereas the first movement stressed the human response of faithful trust in response to the divine initiative (1:16–17; 3:22; 4:1–25), while noting the crucial agency of Christ’s own fidelity itself as both prototypical and salvific (1:17; 3:22, 26), 27 the second movement first puts the emphasis on the agency of Christ (his obedience and righteous act) alongside its {51} universal effect to establish justice “for all humanity, the justice of life” (in direct contrast to the universal effect of Adam’s agency to effect universal Sin-Wrongdoing and Condemnation; 5:12–21). Moreover, the argument next orients the human response of fidelity in the wake of Christ’s fidelity and efficacy as obedient, willful, moral action (6:11–22; 8:5–13), by virtue of being moved, through absorption into Christ, from a debilitating Regime of Law into an empowering Regime of Grace (6:1–7:6; 8:1–4): “You are [now] not under the regime of Law, but under the regime of Grace” (6:14–15). As Paul puts it later:

You have died to the Law through the body of Christ,

in order that you might be joined to a different person, who was raised from the dead, so that you will bear fruit for God. . . .

And now we are released from the Law, having died to that to which we were bound,

so that we might serve in the new way of the Spirit and not the old way of the letter [written code]. (7:4, 6)

Ironically, only in this new condition and framework of liberation from the Law, Paul argues, can the actual “justice requirements of the Law” be truly fulfilled (8:4). A release from the Law is required before its own justice content can be realized. The assumed, necessary correlation between Justice and Law has been severed in God’s new restoring justice. Though on the positive side the Law reveals God’s justice requirements (8:3–4; 13:8–10) and in itself can be considered “holy, just and good” (7:12–13, 16), it has a limited value: it brings knowledge of injustice-sin (3:20) and allows injustice-error to be carefully counted (5:13). Worse, the Law as a system of justice, even though it promised life, became the occasion for death through its exploitation by the power of Error-Sin in the world (7:10); it helped to keep humans captive, being used by the power of Error-Sin in the world to deceive, kill, corrupt and enslave (7:6, 11, 13–15); and it became powerless and incapable of saving (6:14; 8:3). Ultimately, all the Law could do was enliven and multiply Error-Sin by arousing wrongful passions (5:20; 7:5, 8, 9).

Through his encounter with Christ, and after sustained biblical reflection, Paul has come to understand that there are two key limitations to the Law. Paul’s problem is not that it imposes a psychological burden on people, promoting a paralyzing guilty conscience (the classic Protestant view). Rather, for Paul, the main problems with the Law are (1) that it excludes those who do not “possess” it, against its own inner purpose, oriented toward God’s plan to reconcile the whole world; and (2) that it is powerless to truly resolve the problem of injustice (Error-Sin) and to establish justice {52} in the world. Crucial to Paul’s understanding is a focus on the Law’s inner meaning, not its detailed rules: “for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor 3:6).

Whereas, then, the first movement emphasized “justification” as pure gift, with “justice-righteousness” as something “reckoned,” the second movement dramatizes “justification” as holistic moral transformation (e.g. 6:7), and “justice-righteousness” as moral obligation and commitment. As put earlier, “the abundance 28 of God’s kindness, forbearance and patience” is designed to lead to repentance; it must never be presumed upon (2:4–5). God’s restorative justice is not soft on recognizing, naming, and dealing with actual offenses and wrongs.


In the third movement, the question that is posed is whether God’s restorative justice as demonstrated through grace and mercy can ever be truly victorious (achieving results) and not merely capricious and seemingly unjust (cf. 3:1–8). At issue in particular is the question of Israel’s failure to respond to Messiah: What was its cause, and what will be the final outcome? Paul will ratchet up his argument even further by stressing the persistence, efficacy, and justness of God’s mercy in bringing about the complete restoration of the world, while negating any recourse to retributive justice.

Paul asserts that God’s agency always trumps human agency in the divine economy: the divine economy operates “not by works but by him who calls”; “it does not depend on human willing or running, but on divine mercying” (9:11–17). Not only this, God’s decision to show mercy is never unjust, even though it may appear capricious (9:18–21). God is entirely free to choose the path of mercy at will, even now, without compromising God’s justice.

Indeed, God has decided to move away from a system of retribution to one of mercy, compactly expressed in a crucial passage:

But what if God, though wishing to demonstrate retributive justice (“wrath”) and [thereby] to make known his power,

[instead] endured with much patience (“long-temper”) 29

vessels 30 of retribution (“wrath”) marked for destruction,

in order, ultimately, to make known the abundance of his kindness 31 upon

vessels of mercy prepared in advance for glory. (Rom 9:22–23)

And the scriptural proof texts immediately adduced to demonstrate that this mercy now embraces both Israel-Judeans and the nations-gentiles all emphasize God’s sole agency to make it happen (9:24–29). {53}

An interlude to explain Israel’s temporary and partial failure, however, will turn things around to focus on the nature of human agency that is efficacious toward justice-righteousness in concert with divine agency (9:30–10:13). Israel “pursued a Law of justice-righteousness” but failed to achieve that goal (of justice-righteousness through the Law) because it pursued the Law according to a particularizing and exacting “works,” not a deeper and singular “fidelity” more appropriate to it (9:30–32; cf. 3:27). What the Law in fact proclaims as its inner meaning—as a way to achieve salvation and justice-justification as it finds it goal in Christ (10:3–8)—is the response of loyal conviction in God’s power to bring life out of death alongside an oath of surrender and allegiance to Lord Jesus Messiah (10:9–13; cf. 1:5, 16–17; 4:18–22). 32

But the third movement closes with a return emphasis on God’s sole agency to complete the restoration of the world, by moving from retribution to mercy:

For God has confined (enclosed, imprisoned) all humanity into disobedience, with the ultimate aim that God will have mercy on all humanity. (11:32)

Finally claiming the universal effects of the decisive interruption of the Regime of Grace in the world, with its universal effects (5:12–21), Paul asserts that divine mercy aims toward a universal outcome, in the grand scheme of interdependency among Israel and the nations, a scheme that changes the interim portion of the nations and the remnant of Israel into the All of Israel and the Fullness of the nations in full embrace (Rom 11:1–32). 33 All he can do is stop and exult with a doxology that highlights the universal scope of the divine will (11:33–36): “For God is the source, guide, and goal of all things [the universe].” 34 With the same grand horizon in mind, Paul will end the entire theological argument of Romans with an emphasis on the universal, worldwide dominion of Messiah (“the one who rises to rule the nations,” 15:12; cf. 8:17–39), bringing to completion both “the promises made to the ancestors” of Israel and the “mercy” offered to the nations. 35


The fourth movement (12:1–15:13) contains sustained exhortation pertaining to practice. Crucially, Paul begins and orients the appeal (as a kind of moral code), not by reference to the sanctions of Law, but by reference to “God’s mercies,” the restoring action of God. In this way, Paul draws upon the entire discourse so far, on how divine mercy enacts God’s justice and thus overcomes retribution, but especially on how human {54} “justice-righteousness” is a volitional commitment and action in the Regime of Grace whereby one dedicates oneself to a new mindset and pathway (6:1–20). The virtues enjoined are especially social virtues, and the entire obligation of the Law is summed up in the command to love one’s neighbor, such that “the one who loves the other has fulfilled the Law,” an assertion important enough to be repeated, “love is the fullness of the Law” (13:8, 10; cf. 12:9).

The restorative dynamic in human relationships is consistent with the divine-human paradigm. Accordingly, Jesus followers are advised, toward the goal of peace and reconciliation with all people, to give up on their need to find retribution (“not repaying evil for evil”) and instead to purse restored relationships (by “overcoming evil with good”), even with the enemy (12:14–21). The issue of finding vindication and vengeance is a matter to be left to the divine sovereign. This does not mean that God is reverting back to the retributive framework, but that believers are to let go of what is God’s prerogative (who may or may not choose actually to be known ultimately by retribution: Rom 9:22–23; 11:32). The same assumption is behind Paul’s advice that Jesus loyalists not engage in violent resistance against the imperial authorities (13:1–7). Paul’s advice is partly pragmatic: it makes no sense to resist that which is known especially by its power to deliver retributive justice (with “vengeance” and “wrath”; 13:4), and what is ultimately under God’s sovereignty. 36

Paul finally comes to the crux of the dispute that is raging locally and globally among Jesus followers, pleading for the “strong” to cease “despising” and for the “weak” to desist “judging.” Christians today are accustomed to thinking that the particular issues at stake (somehow pertaining to rules about food, or observances of days) are inconsequential, not among the things that really matter. But that would hardly have been the view of both parties. The dispute pertained to the interpretation of the moral laws of Scripture. What might have been a matter of relaxed indifference to one group, who considered themselves free from certain rules of Scripture because of Christ (Paul and the “strong”), was a matter that for the other party (the “weak”) negated the very status of the unchanging Word of God, the divinely revealed Torah through Moses.

Though he admits to being a partisan in the dispute, agreeing with the “strong” (14:14), he nevertheless spends more time challenging the “strong,” as they are under obligation to “support the weaknesses of the non-strong” (14:15–16, 20–21; 15:1). All must be attentive to the virtues of love, peace, justice, and mutual upbuilding (14:15, 17, 19). He carefully addresses both sides in the biblical dispute. Drawing on his earlier discourse, he advises that the Scripture-literalist, Law-oriented weak must not “condemn” the more Law-free strong, “because God has welcomed him” (14:3). Meanwhile, the strong must not “destroy the brothers and sisters for {55} whom Christ died” (14:15). Though addressed differently, both sides of the dispute are invited to welcome the other just as God has already done. Most notably, Paul realizes that the two sides will very likely not be able to come to unanimity of opinion. It is thus even more crucial that they somehow find a way to be “in communion” with each other, so that they can give glory to God as “one in spirit with a united voice” (15:6). What he advises is that whereas all Jesus loyalists are ultimately dedicated in service to God, they should all focus on their own lives in relation to God (14:4–8, 22). All must be convinced in their own minds (without prejudging or focusing on the other), ready to give an answer for their own behavior directly to Christ himself, whose tribunal is the only one that truly counts. They are not to be preoccupied about what is wrong with the other (14:5–12, 22–23). And recall what Paul has already explained: the divine tribunal considers all things in the context of God’s restorative plans, especially through mercy, avoiding an exacting application of rules. All will be welcomed on the basis of absolute Generosity, as God in Christ has already welcomed them (15:3–7).


  1. Paul uses the plural “you,” “y’all.” Translations in this essay are mine, though following standard English versions, especially the NRSV.
  2. As noted, for instance, in the session on “Righteousness/Justice in Paul” sponsored by the Pauline Soteriology Group, at the Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, November 23, 2014. Scholars continue to debate what is the best way to translate dikaiosynē in Paul’s writings: righteousness, justice, fairness, loyalty, uprightness, rectitude, rectification, justness, etc. While many interpreters prefer the translation “justice,” especially with its nuance as social justice, others avoid it for the American context as the word “justice” is now associated so much with a preoccupation with vengeance and retribution. While most English translations (shaped by Protestant doctrine) translate the “dikaiosynē of God” as “righteousness of God” or “righteousness from God,” the Catholic-sponsored New American Bible (1970) translates the phrase with “justice of God.”
  3. The most notable case is Rom 6:7, “the one who has died has been [effectively] justified from sin,” typically translated into English with “freed from sin.”
  4. For a detailed discussion, see Gordon Zerbe, “Believers as Loyalists: The Anatomy of Paul’s Language of pistis,” Citizenship: Paul on Peace and Politics (Winnipeg: CMU Press, 2012), 26–47.
  5. Paul uses the verb apokalyptō, literally, “to unveil,” and thus to “reveal.”
  6. E.g. 3:25–26; cf. 3:3–7; 9:14–21.
  7. Interestingly, Paul uses the same word sōtēria as Plato does for the “preservation, safety, health” (salvation) of the individual or the citizen {56} community. Of course, each puts particular meaning into the word, based on their respective philosophy-theology. (Paul also uses the same words as Plato for “salvation” and for “sin-error,” and knows that also in these cases he must explain what he means by these potentially ambiguous terms.)
  8. Paul’s phrase “zoē aiōnion” literally means “age-ish life,” and denotes “life in/of the age [to come],” focusing more on the quality of renewed life in a transformed world (e.g. Rom 8:18–25), not its infinite (eternal) duration beyond the world.
  9. E.g. Howard Zehr, Retributive Justice, Restorative Justice (Akron, PA: Mennonite Central Committee, 1985); idem, Changing Lenses: A New Focus for Crime and Justice (Scottdale: Herald, 1990, 3rd ed. 2003); idem, The Little Book of Restorative Justice (Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 2002); Wesley Cragg, The Practice of Punishment: Towards a Theory of Restorative Justice (New York: Routledge, 1992); Ruth Morris, A Practical Path to Transformative Justice (Toronto: Rittenhouse, 1994); Daniel Van Ness and Karen Strong, Restoring Justice (2nd ed.; Cincinnati: Anderson, 2002).
  10. Zehr, Little Book of Restorative Justice, 37; Zehr, Changing Lenses, 181: “Crime is a violation of people and relationships [not simply an affront against the state, the law, or some abstract legal principle]. It creates obligations to make things right. Justice involves the victim, the offender, and the community in a search for solutions which promote repair, reconciliation, and reassurance [and not merely punishment].” Victims take an active role in the process, while offenders are encouraged to take responsibility for their actions (restitution, reparation).
  11. Paul, as the Bible more generally, sees crime, harm, injustice, wrongdoing as a breach in the relationship with the divine sovereign Creator or as an affront against the personal honor of the Sovereign, resulting in alienation and enmity (e.g. Rom 5:1–11). In addition, human injustice creates a pollution affecting the whole environment, degrading creation (cf. Rom 8:17–25).
  12. Restorative justice theory emerged since the 1970s especially in the context of the criminal justice system. But its principles and practices are now extended and applied to community or institutional settings (especially schools, organizations, social tensions, etc.).
  13. For detailed discussion, see Gordon Zerbe, “Partnership and Equality: Paul’s Economic Theory,” in Citizenship: Paul on Peace and Politics (Winnipeg: CMU Press, 2012), 76–82.
  14. For a history of the assemblies in Rome, see J. Toews, Romans, Believers Church Bible Commentary (Scottdale, OH/Waterloo, ON: Herald, 2004), 21–29.
  15. It is quite probable that Paul uses these terms with both a theological and a socio-economic sense. Many in the “weak, non-powerful” group, especially those of Judean descent, will only have returned to Rome in the year 54, when the expulsion order for all Judeans-Jews was lifted. They will have lost financial assets, not only leadership roles and predominance in the broader group of Jesus loyalists in Rome.
  16. At this stage in history, the term “Christian” is anachronistic, as it implies a movement and theology completely divorced from Jews-Judeans and {57} Judaism. See G. Shillington, Jesus and Paul Before Christianity (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2011).
  17. It is crucial to note Paul never advises those born Jewish to forsake the Torah; he only argues that Gentiles do not need to become fully Torah observant to be true loyalists of Messiah Jesus.
  18. Things are far more complex than two main groupings. The New Testament attests to at least six distinct positions or groupings along a rough continuum, from those who are “zealous for the Law” (Acts 15:1, 5; 21:17–22), to those associated with James (and the “men of James,” Gal 2:11–13), to those close to the positions of Cephas/Peter and Barnabas, to Paul and his movement, to the Johannine community and those who departed from it. See Zerbe, Citizenship, 245, n. 2.
  19. Not only this, in many cases we must distinguish Paul’s particular argument (to make a broader point) from his overall conviction. See e.g. below, n. 23.
  20. In conformity with the generally more metaphorical use of language in the ancient world compared to more descriptive or abstract use of words in the modern world, the Greek word orgē (“wrath”) is a virtual synonym to the word ekdikēsis (vengeance, retribution). This is evident, for instance, in Rom 13:4, where the authorities exercise “vengeance-retribution” specifically as “wrath.” The Greek word ekdikēsis (along with its Hebrew counterpart nqm, and Latin counterpart vindicatio) literally refers to the “execution of justice,” whether (1) the executive vengeance-vindication by a sovereign, (2) avenging or litigating through judicial action, or (3) pursuing redress or vengeance through extra-legal self-help by an individual or group.
  21. On the translation and significance of the phrase “faithfulness of Christ” in Paul, as opposed to “faith in Christ” (Gal 2:16, 19–20; 3:22; Phil 3:8–9; Rom 1:17; 3:21–22, 25–26), see Zerbe, Citizenship, 37–39.
  22. God purposed Christ as hilasterion, “mercy seat” (Rom 3:25), referring at once to the means and the place of atonement. See Mark Reasoner, Romans in Full Circle: A History of Interpretation (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 2005), 23–41.
  23. The explanation of the judgment of God in Rom 6:5–13 is designed primarily to emphasize God’s impartiality, not declare the fact or nature of an inevitable judgment; because of the text’s tension with what Paul says elsewhere, many interpreters propose that Paul was speaking “hypothetically.” See Terence Donaldson, Paul and the Gentiles: Remapping the Apostle’s Convictional World (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997), 89–93.
  24. The matter of Paul’s convictions pertaining to the Law is too broad to treat here. As for the word nomos itself, Paul uses it in a variety of senses: the notion of Law in general; the Judean-Jewish Torah in particular; an ordering/legal system or framework (e.g. 3:27; 7:21–25); or a particular law.
  25. Theodore Jennings, Outlaw Justice: The Messianic Politics of Paul (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2013).
  26. Paul uses a variety of terms for wrong and injustice (adikia). The most frequent, hamartia, simply means “error-wrong,” traditionally translated “sin,” highlighting its nature as breaking the divine will or relationship. In {58} Romans, Error, Law, and Generosity appear as powers capable of ruling or enslaving.
  27. That is, Christ is the truly “righteous one” who lives “by loyalty.” See the discussion in Toews, Romans, 54–57; Zerbe, Citizenship, 37–39.
  28. The emphasis on the “abundance” (wealth, riches) already hints that mercy will indeed ultimately trump retribution in the divine economy (cf. 11:22–32).
  29. Gk, makrothymia, “long-suffering, patience.”
  30. In the sense of “objects, recipients” not “instruments.”
  31. Most English translations have “abundance/wealth/riches of his glory,” in accordance with the Greek and most other textual witnesses. One Greek witness (P), however, reads “wealth of his kindness” along with the ancient Syriac Peshitta version (which dates to the late second century, although its earliest manuscript exemplar is from the fifth century). Despite the overwhelming external evidence, the reading “wealth of his kindness” seems better on internal grounds. It correlates well with the same phrase (making a similar point) in Rom 2:4 (cf. 11:22), results in a more appropriate parallel contrast in the immediate context (“endured with much long-temper/patience” vs. “to make known the abundance of his kindness upon”), and suits the emphasis on God’s “mercy” in the context (9:14–21). The reading “glory” can be explained as a mistake early in the Greek manuscript tradition through parablepsis (with the eye looking ahead to the word “glory” at the end of the sentence). On the other hand, the reading” glory” (in the sense of “fame and renown”) would emphasize a contrast with God’s desire to “make known . . . glory” and not to “demonstrate . . . [mere] power [through retribution],” an understandable but less compelling point for the immediate context.
  32. The terminology of “confessing” denotes “making an oath of allegiance.” For detailed discussion, see Zerbe, Citizenship, 40–41, 51.
  33. On Paul’s “eschatological ecclesiology,” see Zerbe, Citizenship, 109–20.
  34. Similarly, 1 Cor 15:28: the goal of God’s redemptive work in Christ is that “God will be all in all.”
  35. In this way, the opening enthronement drama in Rom 1:3–4 is concluded with the emphasis on the realized dominion of Christ in the world in Rom 15:12, and replicates the move from enthronement/accession to universal lordship in Phil 2:9–11.
  36. See further, Gordon Zerbe, “The Politics of Paul: His Supposed Social Conservatism and the Impact of Postcolonial Readings,” Conrad Grebel Review 21, no. 1 (Winter 2003): 82–103.
Gordon Zerbe is Vice President, Academic, at Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg, Manitoba. His recent book, Citizenship: Paul on Peace and Politics, was published in 2012, and he is currently completing a manuscript on Philippians for the Believers Church Bible Commentary series.

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