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Spring 2015 · Vol. 44 No. 1 · pp. 30–42 

Romans: A Treatise on Justice?

Douglas Harink

When Christians wish to do some serious thinking about justice, they typically do not turn to the letters of Paul. They look to other places in the Bible such as the laws of Moses, the biblical prophets, and perhaps Jesus, who, in his justice-sermon in the synagogue in Nazareth (Luke 4:16–21), links his mission to both the law and the prophets. Ignoring Paul is a habit even for some of the best scholars and writers on the biblical mandate to do justice. For example, in Ronald J. Sider’s very fine recent book, Just Politics: A Guide for Christian Engagement, there is an excellent chapter that surveys the biblical teaching on justice. Sider unpacks the meanings of the two Hebrew words for justice, mishpat and tsedaqah, as they occur in the books of Moses, the Psalms, and the prophets. 1 But there is no mention of any text from Paul. Alternatively, if one searches the tables of contents and subject indexes of many large books on Paul or commentaries on Romans, one rarely finds any entry on “justice,” thus confirming the impression that Paul and his letter to the Romans have little or nothing to contribute to this important topic. 2 How do we account for this persistent absence of justice in studies of Paul, and the absence of Paul in Christian thinking about justice? Does Paul even have a vocabulary of justice? And, if so, how might we begin to change {31} our perception of Paul’s message and allow his unique contribution to the theme of justice to be made?

The royal proclamation is that justice is, and looks like, the bloodied Messiah.


The fact is that justice is pervasive and central in the letter to the Romans. So, why is it so hard to see that? The most important reason (for English-speaking readers) has to do with English translations. The English word “justice” comes from Latin roots: iustitia is the Latin equivalent. However, there is another English word, “righteousness,” deriving from Anglo-Saxon roots (rihtwisness), which originally bore much the same meaning as iustitia. Rihtwisness was used to translate the Latin word into Anglo-Saxon. 3 Over time, however, rihtwisness or “righteousness” came to take on connotations quite different from iustitia. While iustitia or justice retains a wide range of meanings that include the personal (the just or upright person), the legal (bringing a criminal “to justice”), the social and economic (just sharing of power and distribution of wealth), and the political (a just ruler, just war, just relations among nations), “righteousness” has come to have an almost exclusively individual, moral, and religious meaning, precisely because it continues to be used in the Bible and Christian speech, but not much beyond that. One of the most common uses of the word in our popular speech comes in the phrase “self-righteous,” which describes someone who is too overtly religious, pious, moralistic, or judgmental. It carries a primarily negative meaning. Still, when we turn to English translations of the New Testament we find “righteous” words used often in the writings of Paul, and bearing much important weight. So, it seems, Christians cannot avoid these words. They are part of Paul’s basic vocabulary and probably should be part of ours as well, even if they risk being misunderstood. Paul is about “righteousness.”

But, let’s back up a bit. When, very early on, Paul’s letters were translated into Latin, the words we read in English as “righteous” and “righteousness” appeared as iustus and iustitia. Where we read in Romans 1:17 of “the righteousness of God,” the Latin reads iustitia Dei, “the justice of God.” This is carried on in translations into languages rooted in Latin; for example: “la justice de Dieu” (French); “la justicia de Dios” (Spanish); “la giustizia di Dio” (Italian); and so on. Each of these expressions translates the Greek phrase dikaiosynē theou. The word dikaiosynē is one of a set of Greek words beginning with the dik- stem, and all of these words include the sense of what is just within the social and political order as well as personal uprightness. So, dikaios means “just,” dikaioō means “to justify, or regard as just,” dikaiosynē means “justice.” The Greek goddess Dikē (Justice) stood for right order in the natural as well as the human world, and in the polis (the city or political order) as well as in the soul. In ancient Greek {32} there was no separate set of words that should properly be translated only as “righteous” or “righteousness” in the individual, moral, religious sense, in contrast to “justice.” The dik- words in ordinary Greek usage included both personal and social-political meanings. They may indicate what we mean by righteousness and a righteous person; but they also indicate such things as a just ruler, justice in a criminal case, just sharing of power and goods, just relations among groups and peoples, doing justice. One could read, for example, the great work of political philosophy, The Republic, by the Greek philosopher Plato (ca. 427–347 BCE), and encounter the dik- words numerous times, always translated into English with “justice” words. Plato is concerned with such themes as a just society, the just ruler, and the relation of justice to law, to the good, and to the gods. Likewise, Plato’s famous student Aristotle (384–322 BCE) wrote at length about dikaiosynē as a personal virtue and dikaiosynē as a requirement of a political community or state. Personal uprightness or justness and justice in social, economic, and political affairs were inseparable. This whole set of meanings then gets taken up in St. Augustine’s great Latin work, The City of God, a massive reflection on iustitia in the social and political history of the world—rooted in good measure, I believe, in Paul’s letter to the Romans.

In Romans the Greek word dikaiosynē occurs thirty-three times, and other words with the dik- stem another thirty or more times—more than anywhere else in Paul’s writings, and more by far than in any other document in the New Testament. When early believers in Rome—the supposed source and fountain of iustitia—heard these words read from Paul’s letter, they would not have understood them to mean only “righteousness” or “righteous” separated from the meanings of justice. In dikaiosynē they would have heard iustitia. Justice is the central and pervasive theme of the letter to the Romans: the justice of God, the just ruler, the just person, the way of justice in the world. We would therefore not be wrong to call Romans a “treatise on justice.”

That Paul is writing about justice in Romans should not surprise us. No other letter from Paul has as many quotations and references to the Old Testament and is so infused with its language, concepts, and concerns. And, as we have already noted, justice is at the very heart of Israel’s love and worship of the one true God, who rules as the just king and judge over his chosen people, all other peoples, and all creation. In the Septuagint (the early Greek translation of the Old Testament which is really the Scripture for Paul and other New Testament writers), we encounter the dik-stem words—the justice words—hundreds of times. Here are only three familiar examples:

O God, give your judgment to the king, and your dikaiosynē (justice) to the king’s son; that he may judge your people with dikaiosynē (justice) and your poor with judgment. (Ps 72:1) {33}

The Lord has made known his salvation, he has revealed his dikaiosynē (justice) in the sight of the nations. (Ps 98.2)

But let judgment roll down as water, and dikaiosynē (justice) as a mighty torrent. (Amos 5:24)

Here, certainly, God is not concerned only with “spiritual” things. This God is Lord of all things and of every aspect of life. God is the source of justice, gives justice to the ruler, calls for justice from Israel, reveals his justice to the nations. 4

Paul’s emphasis on justice in Romans is also in deep agreement with the message of the Gospels, where political affirmations of Jesus as “son of David” and “Messiah” are pervasive. Jesus does not refuse the role of the just ruler; his mission is political through and through. Instead, he proclaims, calls for, and enacts a way of justice fundamentally different both from the Roman idea of attaining justice through imperial might and the Judean idea of attaining it through revolution. Jesus the Messiah called his fellow Judeans to trust in God rather than fighting or revolting to bring about the hoped-for justice—that is, the liberation and restoration of the land of Israel. He called his compatriots to love and forgive both their fellow countrymen and their enemy oppressors. Jesus’s good news about the kingdom of God was a call to Israel to be the true political community of justice, a people ruled and sustained by God and his just King Jesus, yet without being in charge of its national territory, security, or destiny. Trust in God, forgiveness of enemies, and refusal of violence are already the beginning of God’s liberation and justice for his people Israel. 5

Neither the Old Testament nor the Gospels displays any separation between individual spiritual and moral uprightness, on the one hand, and justice in the social, economic, and political aspects of life, on the other. It would thus be startling and strange if Paul, so thoroughly steeped in the law, the psalms, the prophets, and the gospel of Jesus Messiah, and so radically dedicated to the God of Israel and his cause, were now to propose that Israel’s God is really only directly concerned with the spiritual and moral lives of individuals.

What difference does this make to reading Romans? In the pages that follow I will lift out several texts from only the first four chapters of the letter, in order to show that reading Romans as a “treatise on justice” opens up dimensions in the letter that are usually missed altogether, and at the same time hint (but only) at the significance of this for Christian thinking about justice.


Paul sends his letter to Rome, the center of the world of nations in Paul’s {34} time, the seat of worldly power and authority, established and blessed as such by “the gods,” as the average Roman would have said. From Rome the Caesars, sons of the gods, exercised their lordly sovereignty, benefaction, and justice over the peoples of the earth, and by their accounts brought salvation, grace, and peace to all—good news indeed! To glorious Rome, its gods, and its sovereign saviors and lords, the Caesars, all peoples surely owed their gratitude and loyal obedience.

It is in his letter to this city that Paul makes a new and startling royal proclamation (a “gospel”) about God and God’s own anointed world-sovereign. Paul declares

the royal proclamation of God, which God promised beforehand through the prophets in the holy writings, concerning his Son, who came from the royal lineage of David according to birth and was designated the royal Son of God in power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead—Jesus Messiah our Sovereign Ruler, through whom we received the gracious commission to bring about loyal obedience to his sovereign Name among all the nations, among whom you also are called to serve Jesus Messiah (Rom 1:1–6—my paraphrase). 6

This is an unmistakably political proclamation, borrowing all kinds of language and ideas from the political rhetoric of Rome. By all appearances, according to the normal perception of “the man on the street” or “the man on the throne,” a certain obvious political order is already in place, the one willed and empowered and blessed by the gods of Rome. If one proclaims a “royal announcement” of a “god” or a “son of god” or a “lord” who requires “loyal obedience,” whether in Rome or in many of the great cities of the Roman Empire (Paul’s cities), it would be hard to miss the meaning. Nevertheless, in the midst of the obvious Roman world order Paul announces something radically new: a new world order coming from God! He announces that the God of Israel, according to the promise of Israel’s prophets and sacred writings, has declared that Messiah Jesus, the long-promised “seed of David,” is the royal “Son of God,” being powerfully raised from the dead by the spirit of holiness. God has bestowed upon him supreme political sovereignty over all nations. God is establishing a new regime of sovereignty, effective now, among all peoples. About this new world order Paul is not saying, “What if?” or “Wouldn’t it be nice?” or “Maybe someday.” He declares that this is the political reality now “apocalypsed”—that is, not only revealed, but also already effective in Jesus’s resurrection from the dead and exaltation to kingship! The sovereign reign of the risen Messiah is surpassingly real for Paul.

Yet Paul does not set the real and effective sovereignty of God’s Messiah in simple opposition to Rome’s sovereignty, as one world power over {35} against another. Rome’s sovereignty over the nations has its own self-proclaimed, visible, obvious “glory”—something to boast about! Judged by that glory, the proclaimed sovereignty of the Messiah over the nations is virtually invisible and, if visible at all, inglorious and shameful. Paul does not send his treatise on sovereignty and justice to the Roman emperor and senators (as the philosophers of his time might have done), but to small groups of “messianics” (i.e., Christians) meeting in a few houses in Rome. This is the first indication that the operation of the Messiah’s sovereignty, how it makes its way in the world, is fundamentally different from that of Rome. It is a “weak” sovereignty rooted in the announcement of a rebel Judean crucified in shame, a sovereignty therefore invisible to eyes blinded by Rome’s glory. It is a sovereignty that comes to reign among the nations not by the sword of the mighty but by the word of a messianic “slave” (as Paul names himself in Rom 1:1), a powerful word that is heard and believed and trusted, a gracious word that bestows a wholly new power of life. This “weak” sovereignty of Jesus Messiah and its invisible modus operandi among the nations is intrinsic to the meaning of justice that Paul declares in Romans—in fact, it is the justice. The destiny of the world depends on it.


For I am not ashamed of the royal proclamation; it is the power of God that brings deliverance to everyone who believes it, to the Judean first and also to the Greek. For in this royal proclamation the justice of God is apocalypsed (that is, revealed and made effective in history), as the faithfulness of God in the Messiah creates faithfulness in those who believe; as it is written, “The just one will live from faith.” (Rom 1:16–17—my paraphrase)

This compact statement of the royal proclamation (the gospel)—what we might call the “thesis” of Paul’s letter—is the subject of a great deal of scholarly attention. We could spend a lot of time on it as Paul takes the rest of the letter to unpack what he means here. But we must be brief. The royal proclamation Paul announces is that the power of God is liberating the Judean people (first) and also the non-Judean peoples (“Greeks” in Paul’s shorthand). And if the proclamation is about liberation or deliverance, it presupposes that another power or sovereignty is imprisoning or enslaving the peoples of the earth. Paul announces that God’s liberating justice for all peoples is now being revealed and made actual for all who believe this good news. It is, as he says cryptically, “from faith, for faith.” This phrase may be understood as God faithfully bringing about justice for all peoples through the faithful Messiah on the one hand, and creating {36} justice in and among those who trust God’s messianic way of justice on the other. When Paul quotes Habakkuk 2:4—“The just one shall live from faith”—the phrase “just one” refers both to the “Just One” as the Messiah in whom God’s justice is done, and to the “just ones” who trust the royal announcement about God’s justice in Messiah. In other words, God’s liberating power of justice in the Messiah, which creates human trust in that power, is the foundation of justice in the world.

If the royal proclamation announces the one and only foundation of justice in the world, then it also exposes the failure of other supposed foundations. In Romans 1:18–3:20 (a long and difficult section) Paul rather quickly introduces and dismisses some of these other foundations:

(1) Romans 1:18–2:16. Some might think that having the knowledge of God through creation (we might call it “natural law”) is a solid foundation of justice for the Gentile peoples who did not receive the revealed law. But it is not. Impiety (i.e., idolatry) and injustice are prevalent among the Gentile peoples, and there is therefore no warrant for their haughty judgment of others (2:1–5), as the Romans were in the habit of doing. God requires the same justice among all peoples—that is, to do good and not evil. All of the Gentile peoples (as well as the Judeans) will be judged by one and the same criterion of justice and goodness, namely, the standard revealed in the royal proclamation, which is Jesus Messiah himself (2:16).

(2) Romans 2:17–3:20. Others (i.e., the Judean people) might think that the revealed law of God is the solid foundation of justice, at least for those who have received it and think they “own” it as the standard for all. But it is not. The history of justice is no better among the Judean people than among the Gentile peoples—and the revealed law itself testifies to that (3:9–18). And so the Judeans are in no position to boast of their justice or to judge others.

In the bright light of the revealed and actualized reality of God’s justice in the Sovereign Jesus Messiah, these other supposed foundations and criteria of justice (natural law and revealed law) are exposed as failures. They have not generated histories of justice, and as standards by which to judge others they are merely dubious sources of pride. On the contrary, Paul concludes, far from being “foundations,” they are weak, crumbling, and in fact captive to another enslaving sovereignty—Sin—and thus generate histories of injustice rather than justice. The Judean and Gentile peoples alike are “under” this sovereignty (3:9), no matter which law is operative among them.

But now, apart from any law, the justice of God has been (strangely) manifested—attested by the (Judean) law and the prophets, to be sure—through the faithfulness of Jesus Messiah to all who believe the royal proclamation. For there is no difference: all peoples {37} are subjects under Sin’s sovereignty and fall short of the glorious reality of God’s justice, that is, Jesus Messiah himself. Instead, justice is done by God alone as a gracious gift through God’s work in the Messiah Jesus, a justice which delivers all peoples from Sin’s sovereignty and their histories of injustice. For (in the crucifixion of Jesus) God placed the Messiah, as it were, on the ancient “seat of mercy,” displaying there for all to see—in the bloody evidence of the Messiah’s gracious self-offering—a different justice altogether, one that creates reconciliation and peace. Those who see this and believe it acknowledge it as the one and only foundation, measure, and power of justice. Up until this time God in his forbearance passed over the injustices of the world’s peoples, but now God publically demonstrates his own reconciling justice; that is, that he himself is just and creates justice in those who share in the faithful self-offering of Jesus. (Rom 3:21–26, my paraphrase)

Once again, there is much that could be said about this dense text. It is one of the key Pauline passages for thinking about the meaning of “atonement” (here, the Greek hilasterion = “mercy seat”—see especially Lev 16), a subject I cannot develop here. What is important for us is that Paul declares that justice is from God, and that it happens in the death of the Sovereign, the Messiah. In this event, God’s justice is done, God’s justice is graciously given, God’s justice is let loose in history. What is vaunted as justice among the nations—that is, establishing one’s own sovereignty and law through acts of conquest and power—is exposed in the self-offering death of the Sovereign Messiah as godlessness and injustice. The royal proclamation is that justice is, and looks like, the bloodied Messiah. Justice enters history in his self-offering, reconciling death, and becomes effective in history in those “messianics” who believe and share in that death. Paul expands further on what messianic justice means in Romans 5:1–11. For messianics it means peace with God. It means peace with others, that is, enduring suffering in the face of injustice and enmity rather than inflicting suffering. It means steadfastness and hope in the midst of that suffering, because God’s love and the Holy Spirit are already poured out as the power of messianic life. Justice means this for believers in the Messiah because for the Messiah it meant suffering and dying for the ungodly, for the unjust, for the enemy (which is to say, for us), to bring about their reconciliation and resurrection life. This is the meaning of dikaiosynē theou—the justice of God.


In ancient times the “forefathers” or ancestors of a people were not considered simply figures from the past to be recalled by memory from {38} time to time, perhaps as examples. Ancestors stood at the origin and embodied the “essence” of a people, as an oak seed bears the essence of the oak tree. Apart from the ancestor(s), a people would not be what it is. For the Judeans, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were such ancestors. The stories about them in Genesis work like creation stories, telling how this people came into being. In Romans 9 Paul will return to the stories of Isaac and Jacob, along with Abraham, but in Romans 4 he focuses specifically on Abraham, “our ancestor according to the flesh [kata sarka]” for the Judean people. The Greek phrase kata sarka has a double meaning here. On the one hand it signifies that Abraham is the genealogical ancestor of the people of Israel: Israel is from his “seed.” On the other hand it signifies that Abraham was the figural ancestor of Israel insofar as he was the first to be marked “in the flesh” by circumcision, the mark which is the sign of being a genuine descendent of Abraham. Identification with, indeed, participation in the reality of the ancestral figurehead Abraham through circumcision was essential to the identity of the Judean people. Abraham is the original Judean: being from, in, and like Abraham and being Judean were the same thing.

What is remarkable is that when Paul engages the story of Abraham in the light of the gospel, he finds the gospel of God’s justice for Gentile peoples as well as for Judeans already “pre-proclaimed” and operative there (see Gal 3:8), already being actualized in the life of Abraham and Sarah. One of the key points Paul makes in this regard is that God’s justice happened for Abraham before he was circumcised, that is, before he became the first law-observant Judean (as the Judeans would have claimed him). In fact, Paul says, God’s justice happened for Abraham exactly while he was “ungodly” or “impious” (Rom 4:5) and therefore himself a Gentile, among the crowd of the unjust. For this reason, he must be legitimately acknowledged as “the ancestor of many peoples”—whether Gentile or Judean—who trust God as Abraham did, and for whom trust is “reckoned as justice” (4:16–18).

We must pause briefly to consider the word “reckon.” While it certainly carries the meanings of “consider,” or “account as,” or “attribute to,” I believe the meaning here is stronger than that. In Romans 4:10–11 Paul uses the language of “being in” circumcision or uncircumcision; it is the language of participation. From a Judean perspective one participates in the reality of justice by participating through circumcision in the reality of law. Justice is shared in by being in, having, and doing the law, and Abraham’s circumcision is the sign of that. But for Paul, justice comes from God and is a divine reality participated in and bestowed because of trust. In other words, Abraham’s trust in God’s promise is the mode in which he is taken up by God into God’s own active justice (reckoned as just) and given the {39} assurance that God will do justice in fulfilling the promise of making him the ancestor of many nations. Abraham is not simply “considered” to be just (nor is justice “imputed” to him, as a kind of fiction). He is made just by sharing through trust in the justice of God; God’s justice is actively done in Abraham and in the world through Abraham’s trust. God’s will is done “on earth as it is in heaven,” so to speak. And so it is also with all those who, as Paul says, “walk in the way of the ‘in-uncircumcision-trust’ [pistis] of our father Abraham” (Rom 4:12).

“Walking in the way of trust” sums up the story of Abraham from its beginning in the land of Haran to its climax on the mountain in Moriah (Gen 22). His journey of trust begins suddenly with a Voice, a Word from the Lord, with a startling command to “go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you” (Gen 12:1). In Abraham’s context this is a command to walk away from all established familial, social, economic, and political systems that would visibly provide him with identity, stability, prosperity, and security. It is also, though, a command to walk toward something invisible, a land that God would “show” him. So Abraham walks from God, with God, toward God. This walking itself is Abraham’s act of trust in the truth of the Voice. Abraham’s pistis—his trust in and loyalty to the Voice—is in fact generated by the Voice: the Word of the invisible Voice is the power that moves and draws him on his journey.

Just as startling, however, is what the Voice promises: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:2–3). Only a few sentences earlier, we learned that Abraham’s wife Sarai was infertile: “Now Sarai was barren; she had no child” (Gen 11:30). Genealogically, this is a dead end, a void in the numerous “generations” that flow without interruption from the son of Noah to the father of Abraham (Gen 11:10–27). It is a sentence without promise. Despite that, when Abraham hears the Voice, “he went, as the Lord had told him” (Gen 12:4). He entrusts himself to the word of promise in all its invisibility and impossibility.

Paul’s construal of that promise in Romans 4:13 is striking. Abraham, he says, received “the promise that he would inherit the world” (or “he would be heir of the world”—to klēronomon auton einai kosmou). That is an astonishing way to sum up God’s words in Genesis 12:2–3: it sets the promise to Abraham on a world-historical stage and subsumes the entire destiny of the world into the destiny of Abraham and his descendants. What could it mean for Abraham and his descendants, which includes not {40} only the people Israel but also those Gentiles whose trust is reckoned as justice, to “inherit the world”?

Surely history tells us that receiving a divine promise to “inherit the world” is a fundamentally dangerous thing. Is it not the most dangerous thing ever to have been uttered by a divine voice? Consider what it might have meant for the rulers and people of the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans in ancient times to have received such a divine promise and mandate—as they most assuredly thought they did. And so each of these peoples under divine promise and mandate sought to spread its military and political authority as far and wide as possible, bestowing the blessing of its rule and justice upon the peoples they conquered, and requiring devoted loyalty from them in the form of tribute, taxation, military service, and honor.

Consider the times Anni Domini, in the “years of our Lord,” when Constantine, Theodosius, Charlemagne, and the many other rulers of “Christian” empires and nations throughout the history of Christendom expanded their reign in Europe and beyond. Constantine, for example, said he received a vision of the cross of Christ and the words, “In this sign, conquer.” And so he did, conquering and ruling in might (under the sign of the cross) as the Roman emperor over vast numbers of lands and peoples, blessing them with his own divinely appointed authority, justice, and peace, in return for their tribute, honor, and loyal service.

And what of the divine promise and mandate apparently received by kings and rulers of the great imperial powers of the colonial era: Spain, Holland, France, Britain, conquering the peoples across the seas, claiming their territories, and blessing them with civilization, justice under the rule of law, and Christianity?

Then more recently, under a powerful sense of historical destiny, the Soviet Union spread the truth, justice, equality, and blessings of “Communism” as far as it could reach. And today, “manifestly” under divine destiny, promise, and mandate to inherit the world, the United States of America and Global Capitalism now spread their influence around the world, bestowing justice, equality, democracy, freedom, prosperity, and peace wherever they go, requiring only thanksgiving, loyal devotion, and a great portion of the world’s resources in return for their benevolence.

Such is the history of divine promises and mandates to “inherit the world.”

How could it be any different with the promise to Abraham and his descendants? Would not the same dangerous determination to dominate other peoples—all for justice, peace, and benevolence of course—threaten to overtake Abraham, Israel, and the Church? But here is where Paul detects the most fundamental difference in the story of Abraham. God {41} promises Abraham that he will “inherit the world.” Abraham receives and trusts God’s word as a divine promise, but not as a divine mandate. In fact, had Abraham taken God’s word as a mandate to bring about the fulfilment of the promise through his own “work” he would not have been reckoned by God as just. “For if Abraham was made just by works [Greek, ex ergōn; cf. English, “en-ergy”], he has something to boast about, but not before God” (Rom 4:2). Abraham forswears “inheriting the world” and becoming “the father of many nations”—i.e., becoming a world-historical figure—as a divine mandate to be achieved through his own “energy” and might. He simultaneously refuses the “boasting” he would be entitled to as a result—the kind of boasting that arises spontaneously from every triumphant ruler and people in history. Instead, Abraham trusts God to bring about and bestow his promised inheritance and his destiny to become “the father of many nations.” In that way he is “reckoned as just,” that is, he is taken up into the just purpose of God and participates in God’s way of working justice in the world. God’s justice is done in the world through his trust. His inheritance and destiny can only be received as a “gift of grace” (kata charin, Rom 4:4), not as the reward of his own power to bring it about.

We might paraphrase Romans 4:4–5 in this way: “Now to the one who attains to world-historical destiny (always in “the godly cause” over against the ungodly) through striving for it in his own might, the result (inheriting the world and being a great figurehead among the nations) cannot be considered a gift graciously given, but the reward due for all the political strategy and military power expended: something to boast about. But to the one who does not strive to attain the divinely promised destiny in his own power, but who trusts God graciously to bring it about and bestow it as a gift (even upon the “ungodly”), that trust itself is sharing in God’s justice, being just, doing God’s justice in the world.” Abraham is such a one. He thus becomes the ancestral figurehead of justice for all the nations. He is the “father” of all the just. Those who would do justice in the world must walk in the way of Abraham’s trust, which God reckoned to him as justice.


I have only begun to touch on the ways in which reading Paul’s letter to the Romans as a “treatise on justice” might begin to expand our appreciation of the depth and breadth of the letter, and also how it might begin to reshape how “messianics” think about justice. For this paper I have attended only to a few texts from the first four chapters; there are a dozen chapters more. Further riches on the theme of justice are surely there to be mined. {42}


  1. Ronald J. Sider, Just Politics: A Guide for Christian Engagement (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2012), 77–99.
  2. There are some important exceptions: see Christopher D. Marshall, Beyond Retribution: A New Testament Vision for Justice, Crime, and Punishment (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), 35–69; and the more demanding scholarly works of Bruno Blumenfeld, The Political Paul: Justice, Democracy and Kingship in a Hellenistic Framework (London: T & T Clark, 2003); Neil Elliott, The Arrogance of Nations: Reading Romans in the Shadow of Empire (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2008); Gordon Zerbe, Citizenship: Paul on Peace and Politics (Winnipeg, MB: CMU Press, 2012); Theodore Jennings, Outlaw Justice: The Messianic Politics of Paul (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2013).
  3. See “rihtwisness” in the online Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, I thank my colleague, Brett Roscoe (a specialist in Old English), for helping me find this information.
  4. For more on the meaning of justice in the Old Testament, see Sider, Just Politics, 77–99; Bruce C. Birch, “Justice,” in Dictionary of Scripture and Ethics, edited by Joel B. Green (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), 433–37; Christopher J. H. Wright, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2004), 253–80.
  5. The crucial and classic work on these themes is John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus: Vicit Agnus Noster (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1972 [1994, 2nd ed.]). See also Lee C. Camp, Mere Discipleship: Radical Christianity in a Rebellious World (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2003); André Trocmé, Jesus and the Nonviolent Revolution (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2004).
  6. I should note a few translation decisions I have made, following a number of other scholars (see note 2 above). I translate euangelion as “royal proclamation” since that is an essential meaning in Roman culture and in Paul’s favorite OT prophet, Isaiah. I translate christos as “Messiah” to underscore that Paul understands Jesus to be God’s anointed ruler of Israel. I translate kyrios as “Sovereign” or “Sovereign Ruler” to indicate that this word is full of theo-political meaning for Paul, and not just a “religious” way of speaking of Jesus (i.e., “Lord”). hypakoē pisteōs is translated “loyal obedience” because it carries meanings of trust, allegiance, and obedience toward a ruler. I often translate ethnē as “nations” or “peoples” rather than “Gentiles” because for Paul, while it is sometimes used in the sense of individual Gentiles, it often refers to cultural-social-political collectives—peoples—rather than individuals. For the same reason I translate Ioudaios/oi as “Judean/Judeans” (rather than Jew/Jews) to indicate that for Paul this is not solely a “religious” designation, but also a socio-political one that includes a relationship to Judea, the land.
Douglas Harink is Professor of Theology and Dean, Faculty of Arts, at The King’s University in Edmonton, Alberta. His Paul Among the Postliberals: Pauline Theology beyond Christendom and Modernity was published in 2003 and soon received much critical acclaim. He is the author of 1 and 2 Peter in the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (2009), and also contributing editor of Paul, Philosophy, and the Theopolitical Vision: Critical Engagements with Agamben, Badiou, Žižek and Others (2010).

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