The British theologian and author NT Wright teaches that Paul is saying in Romans that believers are considered to be righteous if they are in covenant. But Paul makes no mention or link between righteousness and covenant. NT Wright says that the covenant is implied because when “Abraham believed God and it was accounted unto him as righteousness” was when God made a covenant promise to Abraham. However, this is irrelevant to Paul’s argument, as will be shown.
The church at Rome was having divisions between Jews and Gentiles. Some Christian Jews insisted that Gentiles had to come under the Jewish law in order to be considered righteous. Paul says that this is wrong, so the big argument is about righteousness and how we can be considered righteous – is it through obedience to the Jewish law or is it through loving faith in a righteous God? The argument is not about which covenant applies, whether Mosaic, Abrahamic, or otherwise. The argument is not about status in a covenant either. It is about the mechanics of how a person can become right in God’s eyes and in the eyes of others. This is not a mere declaration of being right, a position or a status, but an actual living right, a life that is not practicing sin.
Paul’s main point is that righteousness predates the Mosaic law, and even predates being a Jew, therefore it is obtained by active faith. Paul is showing the church at Rome that Abraham was a righteous man before even becoming a Jew, which therefore shows that non-Jews (i.e. Romans) who are outside of the OT covenant can also be righteous. There were also other non-Jewish righteous men such as Abel (Hebrews 11:4, 1 Jn. 3:12), Noah (Gen. 7:1, Ez. 14:14), Lot (2 Peter 2:7) and Job (Ez. 14:14).* None of these men were Jews nor had the OT law, or the Mosaic covenant, yet were righteous. The law itself certainly is righteous and reflects a righteous God, but law does not make someone to be righteous before God because genuine righteousness must come from within, as a result of actively believing in and seeking to please a good and righteous God.
Cornelius, a Gentile, is another example of someone who was outside of any covenant. Yet he is considered righteous even before Peter tells him about the Messiah. “They said, “Cornelius, a centurion, a righteous and God-fearing man well spoken of by the entire nation of the Jews, was divinely directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house and hear a message from you” Acts 10:22 NASB. Before telling Cornelius about the Messiah, Peter says, “I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the one who fears Him and does what is right is acceptable to Him” Acts 10:34-35 NASB.
In Romans, Paul is trying to make the case that genuine faith in a righteous God can make someone live righteous, without the use of Jewish law. Those who repent and turn to God, like the all the non-Jews in the Old Testament, even pre-covenant, can also do right. God’s definition of righteousness is good for everyone, not Jews only, and those who love and seek to please this God will choose righteousness as their way of life.
As proof of showing that Paul is not trying to emphasize a covenant aspect of righteousness, we must examine his statement directed to the Jews at Rome, showing them that their covenant-based law is not God’s standard for righteousness. As a sign of the covenant, the Jews were told to be circumcised. “This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you” Gen. 17:10-11 ESV. “And he gave him the covenant of circumcision…” Acts 7:8 ESV. Therefore, to assist in showing this non-covenant message, the following text from Romans 2:23-29 has replaced “circumcision” with “covenant membership”, and “uncircumcision” with “not being in covenant”, which is exactly what Paul is intending to convey.
“You [Jews] who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law. For, as it is written, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” For covenant membership indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your covenant membership becomes not being in covenant. So, if a man who is not being in covenant keeps the precepts of the law, will not his not being in covenant be regarded as covenant membership? Then he who is physically not being in covenant but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and covenant membership but break the law. For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is covenant membership outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and covenant membership is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.” Romans 2:23-29 ESV, modified
It could be granted, based on the above, that Paul may consider any person to be “in covenant” if he is living right, from the heart. But Paul’s goal is not to get people into a covenantal status, but rather that they live right because their heart is right, covenant or no covenant! “In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision [covenant or non-covenant] counts for anything, but only faith working through love” Galatians 5:6 ESV. “For neither circumcision [covenant] counts for anything nor uncircumcision [no covenant], but keeping the commandments of God” 1 Cor. 7:19 ESV.
A current-day analogy could be compared to a marriage covenant. Most marriages in Western society are based on a formal, legalized covenant. However, if a couple lives together without formalizing a marriage covenant, and the couple lives, acts, and presents themselves to the community as husband and wife, they are considered as legally married under the law. We may make a case that they should ideally formalize their marriage with a covenant, but the covenant is not ultimately what makes the marriage, it is the commitment to each other.
We could say, continuing with the marriage analogy, and using Paul’s argument above, “You married couples who boast in being legally and covenantally married dishonor marriage by breaking your vows. Legal marriage is mocked among the unmarried because of you, for covenant marriage indeed is of value if you obey the covenant, but if you break the covenant, your marriage becomes as not being married. So, if a couple who is not in a marriage covenant keeps the precepts of marriage, will not their not being in a marriage covenant be regarded as a marriage covenant? Then, those who are not legally in covenant but keep the marriage will condemn you who have a covenant of marriage but break the covenant. A faithful marriage is one inwardly, and a covenant marriage is a matter of the heart, in spirit, not in letter.”
An additional step can be taken, applying this to cases where there is no concept of a marriage covenant, similar to Gentiles like Cornelius who were not “in covenant” with God. Are couples in uncivilized areas married if they have no concept of a marriage covenant? If they are committed and faithful to each other, is this not the same intent as being in a formal marriage covenant? In the same manner, those who have never heard of a blood covenant based on the shed blood of Christ, are they not also in effect in the covenant? Knowledge of a covenant is powerful, but more important than knowledge is a heart bent on being faithful!
This matter of being faithful, committed to a righteous God, more than to a righteous law or covenant, is what Paul is trying to drive home here in Romans. There certainly is a powerful knowledge that comes with being a Jew, which he freely states as an advantage in the very next verses, “Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God” Romans 3:1-2 ESV. But ultimately, “in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision [covenant or non-covenant] counts for anything, but only faith working through love” Galatians 5:6 ESV. Paul’s argument is that genuine righteousness comes from a heart committed to God, not from a legal code, and not from a covenant status, and he uses Abraham as his primary example because Abraham was righteous – not because he followed some law or was a member of a covenant, but because he was moved to do right from his beliefs. Therefore, genuine faith is superior to law.
Paul’s concern is the question of what makes a person truly righteous. This is not a question of being righteous in the sense of a legal code, a covenantal status, a position, or a declaration, rather, a genuine righteous living that comes from the heart. His conclusion is that living right is a choice from the heart to serve the righteous God of Abraham. God gave Abraham a promise and a hope, and this led him to think and act right. God, the ultimate source and standard of what is right, gets the glory.
*Passages from the NASB
Abel: “By faith Abel offered to God a better sacrifice than Cain, through which he was attested to be righteous, God testifying about his gifts, and through faith, though he is dead, he still speaks.” Hebrews 11:4
“Not as Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And for what reason did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil, but his brother’s were righteous.” 1 Jn. 3:12
Noah: “Then the LORD said to Noah, “Enter the ark, you and all your household, for you alone I have seen to be righteous before Me in this generation.” Gen. 7:1
“Even though these three men, Noah, Daniel, and Job were in its midst, by their own righteousness they could only save themselves,” declares the Lord GOD.” Ez. 14:14
Lot: “And if He rescued righteous Lot, who was oppressed by the perverted conduct of unscrupulous people” 2 Peter 2:7
Abraham: “Now when Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am God Almighty; Walk before Me, and be blameless.” Gen. 17:1
“Then he believed in the LORD; and He credited it to him as righteousness.” Gen. 15:6
“Listen to Me, you who pursue righteousness, Who seek the LORD: Look to the rock from which you were cut, And to the quarry from which you were dug. “Look to Abraham your father And to Sarah who gave birth to you in pain; When he was only one I called him, Then I blessed him and multiplied him.” Is. 51:1-2
Job: “Even though these three men, Noah, Daniel, and Job were in its midst, by their own righteousness they could only save themselves,” declares the Lord GOD.” Ez. 14:14