Righteousness in Romans

George Eldon Ladd  |  Southwestern Journal of Theology Vol. 19 - Fall 1976

The Importance of the Doctrine

Paul employs many terms to set forth the work of Christ. One of the most important of these, which appears particularly m Romans, is the word group for righteousness. The word for righteous (dikaios) occurs seven times, the word for righteous­ness (dikaiosune) occurs thirty-three times, and the verb (dikaioo) occurs fifteen times. It is obvious, therefore, that this is one of the central doctrines of Romans.


The Background of the Terms

The Pauline doctrine of righteousness can be understood only against an Old Testament background. Among the Greeks, righteousness was an innate human quality. Plato, one of the greatest of Greek thinkers, designated dikaiosune as one of the four cardinal virtues: justice, wisdom, temperance, and courage or fortitude. These virtues were emphasized by the Stoics and sometimes found their way into Hellenistic Judaism (4 Macc. 1:6) . However, the Old Testament right­eousness is a distinctive religious doctrine. The Hebrew word which stands behind the Greek verb dikaioo, which is usually translated “to justify,” is tsadaq. If the true meaning of the root is lost, scholars generally agree that the basic idea is conformity to a norm.

Righteousness in the Old Testament is not primarily an ethical quality. The basic meaning is “that norm in the affairs of the world to which men and things should conform and by which they can be measured.”[1]Norman H. Snaith, The Distinctive Ideas of the Old Testament (London: Epworth Press, 1944), p. 73. See also David Hill, Greek Words and Hebrew Meaning (London: Cambridge University Press, 1967), p.83. The righteous man (tsaddiq) is the man who conforms to a given norm. The verb “to be righteous” (tsaddiq) means to conform to the given norm, and in certain forms, especially in the hiphil, it means “to declare righteous” or “to justify.”

Basically, “righteousness” is a concept of relationship. He is righteous who has fulfilled the demands laid upon him by the relationship in which he stands.[2]Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, s.v. “Righteousness in the OT,” by E. R. Achtemeier. It is not a word desig­nating primarily personal ethical character but faithfulness to a relationship.

While the word can be used to describe faithfulness to secu­lar relationships (Gen. 38:26; 1 Sam. 24:17; 26:23; 2   Sam. 4:11), it becomes a word of great theological significance. Righteousness is the norm or standard which God has decreed for human conduct. The righteous man is he who in God’s judgment meets the divine standard, and thus is declared to stand in a right relationship with God. The norm of righteous­ness depends entirely upon the nature of God. Ostensibly it is only God who can decide whether a man has met the norm that he has decreed for human righteousness. The background of righteousness and justification is finally theology: the con­cept of God as the ruler, lawgiver, and judge of the world. “. . . Shall not the Judge of the earth do right?” (Gen. 18:25; RSV quoted throughout).

The idea of righteousness is of ten understood in a forensic context: the righteous man is he whom the judge declares to be free from guilt. It is the business of human judges to acquit the innocent and condemn the guilty (Deut. 25:1). God is of ten pictured as the judge of men (Ps. 9:4; 33:5; Jer. 11:20). The verb tsadaq usually appears in the forensic sense. He is righteous who is judged by God to be in the right (Ex. 23:2; Deut. 25:1), that is, one who in judgment is acquitted and stands in a right relationship to the judge. The unrighteous man is he who is condemned. Some Old Testament scholars feel that this is the primary connotation of the term. “When applied to the conduct of God the concept is narrowed and almost exclusively employed in the forensic sense.”[3]Walther Eirchrodt, Theology of the Old Testament, trans. J. A. Baker, 2 vols. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1961-67), 1:240.

In Judaism righteousness came to be defined largely in terms of conformation to the Torah – to the Law of Moses as it was expounded in the oral scribal tradition. The rabbis did not believe that God demands flawless obedience to the Law. That exceeded human ability. The rabbis recognized two impulses in a person – an impulse toward good (yetzer hatob) and an impulse toward evil (yetzer hara). The righteous man was he who nurtured the good impulse and restrained the evil impulse so that in the end his good deeds outweighed his evil deeds. “God’s justice was committed to requite men strictly according to their deeds . . . Judaism had no hesitation about recogniz­ing the merit of good works, or in exhorting men to acquire it and to accumulate a store of merit laid up for the hereafter.”[4]George Foot Moore, Judaism, 3 vols. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1927), 2:89-90; see also, 1:494-95.

Sometimes man’s standing before God is pictured as a kind of current account kept by the Almighty regarding every Israel­ite. The credit and debit columns in this divine account book are balanced up every day. If the balance is on the credit side, a man is justified before God. If it is on the debit side, he is condemned. Therefore, it is said that a man is judged “accord­ing to that which balances.”[5]William Oscar Emil Oesterley, The Religion and Worship of the Syna­gogue (New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1927 ), p. 249. See the picture of final judgment as the weighing of a man’s deeds in The Testament of Abraham, 13; also see Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, s.v.  “Dikaiosune,” by G. Schrenk. The good deeds above all that go to balance the credit side of man’s account are the study of the Torah, almsgiving, and deeds of mercy.

The striking -indeed to a Jew, the shocking -thing about Paul’s doctrine of righteousness is his affirmation that God justifies the ungodly (Rom. 4:5). If the ungodly were treated as they deserved, they would be condemned. A judge in the Old Testament time who justified or acquitted the wicked would prove himself to be an unrighteous judge. Righteousness means upholding the norms of right conduct – the acquittal of the innocent and the condemnation of the guilty. Paul asserts that in the very act of justifying the ungodly, God has shown himself to be righteous (Rom. 3:26). Furthermore, this ac­quittal comes entirely apart from the works of the Law (Rom. 3:20) – by faith alone (Rom. 3:22). Little wonder that Paul found himself in conflict with many Jewish Christians.


Righteousness – Justification as Forensic

We have pointed out that the idea of justification in the Old Testament when it is applied to God is basically forensic. That is, it has to do with the divine decree of the heavenly judge that a man is righteous. It has to do with the action of God as the law-giver, ruler, and judge of men.

This is equally clear in Paul. It is established by two facts: the first is that righteousness-justification is used interchangeably with imputation. “. . . ‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness'” (Rom. 4:3). Justification stands in contrast to good works. “And to one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness” (Rom. 4:5) . It was when they were “ungodly” in deed and character that they were justified – acquitted of guilt – declared by the heavenly Judge to be righteous. “. . . God reckons righteousness apart from works” (Rom. 4:6). Abraham believed God; “That is why his faith was ‘reckoned to him as righteousness'” (4:22).

In these verses there is no question of a righteous character or of righteous deeds; men believed God, and God in response gave them the status of righteous men in his sight.

The second proof that righteousness-justification is forensic is seen in several verses where the opposite of justification is condemnation. “For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many tres­passes brings justification” (Rom. 5: 16). Condemnation is not sinfulness of character or of deeds; it is the decree of the judge that a man is guilty and therefore stands under the divine condemnation.

Again, in 8:33-34, Paul writes, “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies; who is to con­demn? . . .” When God justifies (i.e., acquits) a man, it mat­ters not what accusations others may bring against him. He stands free from condemnation (8:1) because God has justi­fied him.

Many scholars recognize the basic idea of justification is forensic. The idea, however, has fallen into some disrepute. Long ago, Sanday and Headlam in their great commentary on Romans raised a logical objection to the forensic idea. Although they recognized the forensic element in justification, they in­terpreted it in terms of a fiction. Justification by faith means that the believer, by virtue of his faith, is accounted or treated as if he were righteous in the sight of God. The person who is thus accounted righteous is, however, in reality not actually righteous but is in fact ungodly (Rom. 4:5), an offender against God. Since God treats a man as though he were righteous, when in fact he is ungodly, “the Christian life is made to have its beginning in a fiction.”[6]William Sanday and Arthur C. Headlam, Romans, International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1895), p. 36. This has led some recent scholars to see in justification some aspect of an imparted righteousness.[7]Vincent Taylor, Forgiveness and Reconciliation (London: Macmillan & Co., 1941 ), pp. 57-60; cf. Snaith, pp. 165, 171.

However, the description of justification as involving a ficti­tious righteousness is erroneous. The forensic righteousness of justification is a real righteousness because a man’s relationship to God is just as real as his subjective ethical condition. A man’s relationship to God is no fiction. God does not treat a sinner as though he were righteous; he is in fact righteous. Through Christ he has entered into a new relationship with God and is in fact righteous in terms of this relationship. The unrighteous man stands in relationship to God as a sinner and thus must finally experience the condemnation of the righteous judge.

This brings us to a much debated verse which is practically the text of the book of Romans. “For in it (the gospel) the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live'” (Rom. 1:17). Exegetes debate whether this is a subjective or an ob­jective genitive, whether the “righteousness of God” is an attri­bute of God.

The clue to the meaning of this verse is to be found in its context. Paul goes on to say in the next sentence, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of men . . .” (Rom. 1:18). The righteousness of God – the wrath of God: these stand in contrast to each other. The wrath of God is not an attribute of God, or a passion like human wrath. It has nothing in common with the Greek idea of the gods’ anger which could be turned into benevolence by the proper sacrifices. The wrath of God is the reaction of a holy God to man’s sin. The wrath of God is not an emotion telling us how God feels; it tells us rather how he acts toward sin – and sinners. “Wrath is God’s personal . . . reaction toward sin.”[8]Charles Kingsley Barrett, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957), p. 33. Wrath expresses the way God views sinners. Men in their natural state are “children of wrath” (Eph. 2:3).

By way of contrast, the “righteousness or God” is the way God views the man of faith. He is no longer a child of wrath; he is a child of love. Righteousness then is that status which God reveals, which comes from God, which is to be appre­hended by faith, which God can accept.

This is reinforced by the fact that the righteousness of God stands in contrast to human righteousness. In Romans 10:3, Paul writes, “For, being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness.” Paul is here speaking of the misguided zeal of the Jews who tried to find a status acceptable to God. They tried by good works to establish their own right­eousness. They did this because they had forgotten the word God gave them through the prophet, that a righteousness ac­ceptable to God must come from God. It cannot be earned by man. They forgot the word given to Abraham, “And he believed the Lord; and he reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6). The righteousness of God is the righteousness – the state of being righteous – which comes from him and which alone is acceptable to him.


Righteousness – Justification as Eschatological

The righteousness-justification of which Paul speaks is basic­ally an eschatological truth. Paul and contemporary Judaism believed in a last day of judgment when the human accounts before God would be settled. In the eschatological judgment, the righteous would be acquitted and enter into the Kingdom of God. The wicked would be condemned and enter into final punishment.

The eschatological character of justification is most clearly seen in a saying of Jesus. “I tell you, in the day of judgment, men will render account for every careless word they utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matt. 12:36-37).

This eschatological character of justification is evident in several passages in Paul. When he says, “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies; who is to condemn?” (Rom. 8:33-34), he is thinking of the eschatological day of judgment. When God on the last day pronounces acquitted-justified, no other accusation can prevail to condemn a man.

There are several other passages which place justification in the future. “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified” ( Rom. 2: 13) . “For no human being will be justified in his sight” (Rom. 3.:20). “. . . he (God) will justify the cir­cumcised on the ground of their faith . . .” (Rom. 3:30). ” . . . so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous” (Rom. 5:19).[9]Schrenk, p. 207

However, the heart of Paul’s gospel is that the eschatologi­cal event had happened in history, in the death of Christ. Here is a bit of the realized eschatology which characterizes the major doctrinal themes of the New Testament.[10]See George Eldon Ladd, Pattern of New Testament Truth (Grand Ra­pids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1968), where this is worked out. The kingdom of God, eternal life, resurrection, the outpouring of the Spirit, justifi­cation, the arrabon and the aparche of the Spirit all belong to the Age to Come; but they have all become realized in the redemptive work of Jesus Christ.


The Basis of Justification

The ground and basis of justification is the death of Jesus Christ. Paul agrees with contemporary Judaism in regarding justification as both forensic and eschatological. In the final Judgment. God will vindicate the righteous. The ground of vin­dication m Jewish thought was conformity to the law and works of righteousness. Sometimes acceptance of the law was described in terms of faith. The Gentiles will be condemned because they have despised the law and believed not his com­mandments” (4 Ezra 7:24). The acceptance of the law by Israel was an act of faith that issued in good works (4 Ezra 9:7, 13, 23; cf. also Apoc. Baruch 59:2 ) .

At this point  Paul’s doctrine of justification differs radically from that of Jewish thought. Judaism did not expect a man to conform perfectly to the law. It was enough if his merits out­ weighed his demerits. The Pauline doctrine does not balance a man’s sin against his righteousness. Vindication in terms of the law would be found only in perfect and unflawed con­formity to the law, “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified” ( Rom. 2: 13). However, even Judaism recognized that because of the yetzer hara -the evil inclination -in man he was incapable of perfect conformity to the law. In the first chapters of Romans, Paul’s argument, which shuts up all men to sin, does not follow the line that their sinfulness outweighs their righteousness. It is rather that all men are sinful and therefore guilty before a holy God because they have sinned. It is the fact of sin, not the degree of sin, that constitutes man’s guilt as a sinner. Since a man is unable to render the perfect obedience required by the law, “For no human being will be justified in his sight by the works of the law, . . .” (Rom. 3:20). The law, rather than bringing justification, brings instead con­demnation, since it is through the law and its elucidation of the holy will of God that sin is defined (Rom. 3:20). While the law itself is holy, and just, and good, it is the means by which a man realizes that he has come short of the will of God and by which he is convicted of his sinfulness (Rom. 7:7-12).

The ground of justification is not obedience to the law; it is the death of Christ. His death is both the supreme manifesta­tion of God’s love for sinners (Rom. 5:8) and the ground on which his justification is secured. “. . . We are now justified by his blood . . .” (Rom. 5:9). The ground and basis of our justification is not our works nor our faith, nor is it the work of Christ within us; it is what has been done for us objectively at the cross.

The death of Christ as the ground of justification is set forth in greatest detail in Romans 3:21-26. Men are “justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Jesus Christ, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith . . .” (Rom. 3:24-25). A battle has been waged over the meaning of hilasterion, which the RSV, following C. H. Dodd,[11]Charles Harold Dodd, The Bible and the Greeks (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1935), pp. 82-95. has translated expiation instead of propitiation. Dodd’s objections have been met by Leon Mor­ris;[12]Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross (Grand Rapids: Wm. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1955), pp. 108-185. however, this issue cannot be discussed here. The shed­ding of Christ’s blood, i.e., his sacrificial death, provides the means of propitiation on the ground of which acquittal or justi­fication can be bestowed upon man as a free gift. The pro­pitiatory death of Christ is not only an act of love; it is also an act of divine righteousness. “. . . This was to show God’s right­eousness, because in his divine forebearance he had passed over former sins; . . .” (Rom. 3:25). Previous to the death of Christ, God had appeared to pass over sins; that is, he had appeared not to take sin seriously because he had not visited men with the judgment they deserved. In the death of Christ, God is no longer passing over sins but is dealing with them as a righteous God ought to do. This suggests that something happened at the cross that was vastly more important than mere physical death. The death of Christ is a demonstration in the present time that God is righteous and that he declares righteous him who has faith in Jesus (Rom. 3:26). The right­eousness of God would be sustained inviolate if God visited every sinner with the doom that sin deserves, the condemna­tion of death, both physical and eternal. This is what the sinner merits, and God’s righteousness would not be called into question if in the final judgment he visited wrath and condemnation upon the sinner issuing in death (Rom. 6:23a). However, God is not only righteous, he is also mercy and love and in mercy and grace he would vindicate the sinner and acquit him of his guilt and deliver him from the doom of death. In the death of Christ, God has both demonstrated and effected this justification of undeserving sinners. “. . . while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). The death of Christ was an act of righteousness on God’s part, and we can only conclude that this act of righteousness consisted in visiting upon Christ, who was ethically sinless, the guilt and doom that sin deserves, namely, death. The death of Christ was not merited by his own sinfulness, for he knew no sin, and unless his death involved a voluntary forensic experience of the sinfulness of man, so that his death was the just doom that human sinfulness merited, his death is the most monstrous instance of injustice that history has ever seen. It is because God manifested both his righteousness and his love by visiting upon Jesus the guilt and the doom of sin that he can now in perfect righteousness bestow the vindication of acquittal upon the sinner.


The Means of Justification

While the ground of justification is the death of Christ, the means by which justification becomes efficacious to the indi­vidual is faith. No fact is more frequently emphasized in Romans than the role of faith in justification. Paul sounds this note at the very beginning: “. . . ‘He who through faith is right­eous shall live'” (Rom. 1:17). He stresses the role of faith again and again in his great passage on redemption (3:21-31). Faith stands in contrast to the works of the law. “But now the righteousness of God has been made manifest apart from the law, although the law and the prophets bear witness to it, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. . . .” (Rom. 3:21-22 ) . Since this righteousness is re­ceived by faith, “they are justified by his grace as a gift, . . .” (3:24). The propitiation which Christ wrought on his cross is to be received by faith (3:29). God is the one who declares righteous – who justifies “. . . him who has faith in Jesus” (3:26).[13]Emphasis upon the role of faith is found further in 4:5, 13, 16; 5:1-2; 10:4, 6, 17. The verb is found in 4:5, 11, 24; 9:33; 10:9.

Justification by faith prevails both for the Jew and the Gen­tile. “. . . he (God) will justify the circumcision on the ground of their faith and the uncircumcised through their faith” (3:30). The meaning of faith is made clear by three facts. First, faith stands in contrast to works of the law, as already noted. This is expounded in some detail in chapter four. The Jews believed that the fathers, especially Abraham, was so righteous that they accumulated a store of righteousness upon which the needy sons of Abraham could draw.[14]Moore, 1:538ff Paul discusses the case of Abraham in this chapter. He points out that Abra­ ham was pronounced righteous, and therefore he could not have been justified by works, because he was justified before the law was given, and righteousness was reckoned to him before he received the rite of circumcision (4:9-10). He re­ceived circumcision as a sign or seal of the righteousness which he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised and who thus have righteousness reckoned to them, and likewise the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but also follow the example of the faith which our father Abraham had before he was circumcised (Rom. 4: 11-12).

If righteousness is by works, then righteousness comes from man and not from God. Here is the error of Judaism, as we have noted above. The Jews misused the law: instead of let­ting it convince them of their sinfulness and thus cast them o the mercy of God (Rom. 7), they used it as a ground for their own human righteousness. In their ignorance of God s grac10us righteousness, they sought by works to establish their own righteousness before God (Rom. 10:3).

This in turn led to boasting (Rom. 2:17), which is unac­ceptable before God. One would not, be far from the truth if he said that in Paul, boasting of one s own self-righteousness is the root of sin. The faith by which one receives God’s righteousness excludes boasting (Rom. 3:27). God wants his people to be utterly dependent upon his grace and mercy; boasting raises a barrier to the reception of God’s grace. God will have all the praise and glory.


The Results of Justification

The first and most obvious result of justification is of course that the believer stands acquitted of all his guilt and sinful­ness. A companion blessing, which is not really a result, is reconciliation. “. . . we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ through whom we have now received our reconciliation” (Rom. 5:11). For some reason, the Authorized Version translates this “atonement,” but the word is katallage. It pictures God and man being at outs with each other, enemies. Reconciliation is not a subjective but an objective doctrine. Justification deals with the objective relationship between God the Law-giver and Judge, to his believing subjects. Reconciliation deals with the objective relationship between God and believing men as persons. All enmity, all discord has been put away. There is now a mutual relationship of love and acceptance.

The same idea appears in Paul’s statement that since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God (Rom. 5:1). Peace here is not a subjective quality; it is a word of relationship. The opposite of peace is hostility, enmity. That peace and reconciliation are matters of objective relationship is suggested by Paul’s statement in 5:10, “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.” Reconciliation was accomplished while we were enemies – while a state of hostility existed between man and God. Recon­ciliation, like justification, is a gift from God to be received by faith, and it issues in peace.

Another result of justification is life. Usually, but not al­ways, Paul speaks of life as an eschatological blessing.   This is clear in 5:17: “. . . Those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness (shall) reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.” The reigning in life re­ferred to here is life in the eschatological Messianic kingdom.[15]James Denney, “St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans,” in The Expositor’s Greek Testament, ed. W. Robertson Nicoll, 6 vols. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1956), 2:630. This is repeated in 5:18: “Then as one man’s trespass led to condemnation . . ., so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal (dikaiosis) of life”; (RSV translates it “acquittal and life”). The meaning is the acquittal which leads to and issues in life. Therefore “grace (shall) . . . reign through righteous­ness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (5:21).

However, although eternal life is primarily the life of the eschatological Messianic kingdom, it is also experienced here and now in the spiritual life. “. . . although your bodies are dead (i.e., mortal, dying) because of sin, your spirits are alive because of righteousness” (8:10). The word translated by the RSV “your spirits” is singular, and many exegetes take it as referring to the Holy Spirit. However, the rendering of the RSV seems to be preferable.[16]For this debate, see George Eldon Ladd, A Theology of the New Testa­ment (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974), p. 463; see also J. A. Ziesler, The Meaning of Righteousness in Paul (Cambridge: Univer­sity Press, 1972), p. 204. Here Paul affirms that the quickening of the human spirit and justification are inseparable. However, all that eternal life involves will not be experienced short of the coming of the eschatological kingdom.

Another result of justification has to do with the life a man lives as a believer. “When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness” (6:20); but now, “and, having been set free from sin (you) have become the slaves of right­eousness” (6:18). From the context, we conclude that dikaio­ sune here does not have the forensic meaning, but refers to that upright conduct which pleases God. This state of being “free in regard to righteousness” is further defined in verse 19: “. . . For just as you once yielded your members to im­purity and to greater and greater iniquity, so now yield your members to righteousness for sanctification” (6:19). In fact, Paul in one place affirms that the justified man, because he has been quickened by God’s Spirit, is now able to fulfill God’s law. The inseparability between justification and the new life in Christ is recorded in a rather difficult saying in 4:24: “(He) was put to death because of our trespasses and raised because of our justification.” A dead Christ can acquit no one; he must be the living Christ who will judge the living and the dead. The believer now has not only been justified, but also identified with Christ in his new resurrection life (6:4), “in order that the just requirement (dikaioma) of the law might be fulfilled in us, . . .” (8:4). Paul must have re­ferred to the highest demand of the law, that a man love God with his whole being. As a Jew, Paul had kept the legal sta­tutes of the law blamelessly (Phil. 3:6). The only thing the law could not do was to give a man a new heart, to renew his being so that he can love God with his whole being. This has been done by “. . . the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus…”(8:2).

This “ethical” use of dikaiosune makes it clear that right­eousness as acquittal and righteousness as right conduct cannot be separated. It answers the question, “. . . Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” (6:1).


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