General Information

Righteousness is the quality of rightness or justice. It is an attribute of God. As a result of Original Sin and the Fall, man is corrupt and lacking in righteousness (Rom. 3:23) and is also incapable of making himself righteous (Rom. 3:19,20). In justification, man is declared righteous through the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ, when he has Faith (2Cor. 5:21). In sanctification, man is progressively made righteous in character and conduct (1John 1:7-9).

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In general, the concept of righteousness is so closely related to justification that the two subjects are generally treated as one. Therefore, please go to our articles on Justification.

Our articles on Sanctification may also be informative.

Righteousness, Righteous

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The Hebrew word regularly translated "righteous" or "just" is saddiq and originally meant "straight" or "right." The corresponding Greek term is dikaios, and in Greek society referred to that which is in accordance with law or social norm. The noun forms are sedeq (or sedaqa) and dikaiosyne. The verbs sadak and dikaioo mean "to do justice," "to be just," "to vindicate," or "to justify" in the forensic sense of "declare righteous" or "treat as just."

OT Usage

The God of Israel is revealed as a God of righteousness, who acts rightly in all his works and judgments (Gen. 18:25; Deut. 32:4; Ps. 11:7; Dan. 9:14). The OT concept of righteousness is closely linked with God's judgeship (Pss. 9:8; 50:6; 143:2). God judges equitably; he does not clear the guilty or forsake the righteous, and the judges of Israel are commanded to act according to his example (Exod. 23:7; Deut. 1:16-17; 10:17-18; Ps. 98:9). Thus, the righteousness of God is revealed in his punishment of the wicked and disobedient (Neh. 9:33; Ps. 7:9-17; Lam. 1:18; Dan. 9:14). But more emphatically God's righteousness is made known in his deliverance of his people from their enemies and oppressors (I Sam. 12:6-11; Pss. 9:7-9; 51:14; Isa. 46:11-13). God as judge comes to the rescue of the poor and the oppressed, delivering them from injustice and restoring their rights (Pss. 34:16-22; 72:1-4; 82; Isa. 11:4). He even treats them as righteous, in the relative sense that they are in the right as over against their wicked oppressors (Pss. 7:6-11; 143: 1-3, 11-12). Consequently God's righteous judgment is often expressed in terms of his saving acts. Righteousness many times is closely related to God's salvation, mercy, and lovingkindness, especially in the Psalms and Isaiah (Pss. 40:10; 85:9-10; 98:2-3; Isa. 45:8; 46:13; 51:5; Jer. 9:24).

This emphasis on the righteousness of God in the form of salvation should be understood within the context of God's covenant relationship with Israel. God by his grace made a covenant with Abraham and his descendants, and his righteousness is seen in his faithfulness in keeping that covenant (I Chr. 16:16-17, 35; Isa. 46:9-13; Jer. 33:25-26). The covenant does not make sinful Israel immune from divine judgment, but after chastisement God delivers his people and thus reveals his righteousness (the lesson of the Exile). God justifies his covenant people, declaring them righteous, not because they have perfectly kept the law, but because (or on the condition that) their repentant hearts trust in him and seek to keep his covenant (Gen. 15:6; Pss. 32:10-11; 103: 17-18; Isa. 50:8; 53:11). This judgment or forensic act of God is therefore both an act of righteousness and a gift of divine mercy.

Modern Bible scholars often overemphasize the benevolent aspect of God's righteousness in the OT and lose sight of the legal and punitive aspects. But God's righteous judgeship is seen in the punishment of the lawbreaker as well as in the deliverance of the justified. It is noteworthy, however, that the positive aspect of God's righteousness is more common in the OT, while the punitive aspect is more closely associated with God's wrath.

The climax of this positive aspect is found in the theme of Messiah, the one who will be a truly righteous king and will fulfill God's covenant purpose for Israel, bringing it and all nations to God's final righteousness (Ps. 72; Isa. 9:7; 11:3-5; 42:6; Jer. 23:5-6; 33:15-16; Zech. 9:9).

NT Usage

Much of the NT is taken up with the purpose of showing that Jesus of Nazareth is indeed the promised Messiah, and thus God's purposes of righteousness and salvation are spoken of as centered in him. Understandably, then, we find righteousness closely linked to the NT theme of the kingdom of God (Matt. 5:10; 6:33; 13:43; Rom. 14:17), a kingdom and a righteousness for which John the Baptist prepared the way and which Jesus as the righteous Son and Redeemer brings to fulfillment (Matt. 3:15; 5:17-20; 21:32; Acts 3:14, 25-26).

Jesus spoke of a false righteousness which is found in those who trust in themselves as righteous or justified because of their moral accomplishments (Matt. 23:28; Luke 16:15; 18:9), but he taught that the truly justified are those who acknowledge their sin and trust in God for forgiveness and his righteousness (Matt. 5:36; Mark 2:17; Luke 18:14).

Again the forensic understanding of righteousness is the key, and this is brought out most fully by Paul. Following the teaching of Christ, Paul explains that no one seeking to be righteous by the works of the law can be justified in God's sight, since everyone is a sinner and has fallen short of God's righteous standard (Rom. 3:9-10, 20, 23; Gal. 2:16). Therefore the righteousness of God comes as a gift which we do not merit (Rom. 3:24; 5:15-17), a gracious declaration in which God pronounces righteous the one who puts his faith in Jesus Christ (Acts 13:39; Rom. 3:22; 5:1, 18). In this declaration God forgives the sins of the justified on the basis of Christ's atoning death, so that God himself is vindicated as just in his justification of sinners (Rom. 3:25-26; 5:8-9; cf. I John 1:9; 2:2).

However, the NT makes it clear that the one who by faith is declared righteous also by faith seeks to do the deeds of righteousness and grow in righteousness by God's grace (Rom. 6:12-18; Eph. 4:24; 5:9; Phil. 1:11; Heb. 11; James 2:17-26; I Pet. 2:24; I John 2:29). By this grace God also will bring the justified into a final righteousness (Gal. 5:5; Heb. 12:23; II Pet. 3:13) at the day of Christ when God will judge the whole world (Luke 14:14; Acts 17:31; II Tim. 4:8).

Therefore, as in the OT so also in the NT, God's righteousness, which expresses itself in wrath and judgment against unrepentant sinners (II Thess. 1:5-9; Rom. 2:5-9; Rev. 19:2), triumphs through love in the form of salvation from sin for those who repent and claim God's covenant promise fulfilled in Christ.

Theological Concepts

In systematic theology righteousness or justice is seen, first of all, as an attribute of God's being (one of the moral and communicable attributes), and then derivatively as an attribute of man created in God's image.

God's Righteousness (Justice)

Righteousness is that attribute by which God's nature is seen to be the eternally perfect standard of what is right. It is closely related to God's holiness (or moral perfection), on one hand, and to God's moral law or will as an expression of his holiness, on the other hand. Even though there is no distinction between righteousness and justice in the biblical vocabulary, theologians often use the former to refer to the attribute of God in himself and the latter to refer to the actions of God with respect to his creation. Hence, God's justice is seen in the way he subjects the universe to various laws and endows it with various rights according to the hierarchy of beings he created. This is "legislative justice." In addition there is "distributive justice," in which God maintains the laws and rights by giving everything its due, or responding appropriately to created beings according to their value or place in the universe. His distributive justice with respect to moral creatures is expressed in the punishment of sin or disobedience (retributive justice) and the rewarding of good or obedience (remunerative justice; Rom. 2:5-11). In systematic theology the harmony of God's justice and love is treated primarily under the doctrine of Christ's atonement. In the cross God satisfies the demands of his own justice against our sin, so that by Christ's redemptive act God's "holy love" is seen as both the supreme expression of retributive justice and the supreme expression of forgiving grace.

Man's Righteousness

Doctrinally, human righteousness can be analyzed in the following fourfold way: (1) Original righteousness. God made man upright or morally good (Eccles. 7:29; Gen. 1:31), but man fell from this righteous state into a state of sin. (2) Christ's righteousness. Since Adam's fall Christ is the only human being who has perfectly fulfilled God's moral law and maintained a righteous nature (Matt. 5:17; John 8:29, 46; Heb. 4:15; I Pet. 2:22). Since Christ is the Godman, his righteousness is of infinite value, affording salvation for all who believe. (3) Imputed righteousness (justification). Justification is that step in salvation in which God declares the believer righteous. Protestant theology has emphasized that this includes the imputation of Christ's righteousness (crediting it to the believer's "account"), whereas Roman Catholic theology emphasizes that God justifies in accord with an infused righteousness merited by Christ and maintained by the believer's good works. (4) Renewed righteousness (santification). Having been declared righteous, the believer grows in the likeness of Christ (being renewed in the image of God) and becomes righteous in actual moral character, i.e., he becomes sanctified. Most theologians hold that sanctification is progressive and not complete in this earthly life.

D. W. Diehl
Elwell Evangelical Dictionary

J. A. Baird, The Justice of God in the Teaching of Jesus; H. Bavinck, The Doctrine of God; C. Brown, NIDNTT, III, 352-77; E. Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of God; P. J. Achtemeier, IDB, IV, 80-99; R. Garrigou-Lagrange, God, His Existence and His Nature; A. C. Knudson, The Doctrine of God; L. Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross; J. I. Packer, Knowing God; G. Rupp, The Righteousness of God; P. Tillich, Love, Power, and Justice.

Original Righteousness

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The term refers to the original moral state or condition of man prior to his fall into sin. The Scripture texts which inform the concept are Gen. 1:31; Eccles. 7:29, which speak of man as created "good" and "upright," and Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10, which speak of the renewal (in Christ) of the image of God in man in "knowledge" and "true righteousness and holiness" (cf. Rom. 8:29; II Cor. 3:18).

Roman Catholicism sees original righteousness as a donum supernaturale added to the "natural" image of God. In the fall original righteousness (by which man had supernatural communion with God) was lost, but the natural image (consisting of man's reason, freedom, and spirituality) remained relatively intact. Luther rejected this twofold distinction, and taught that original righteousness was the very essence of man's original nature or image, not a supernatural addition to it. Thus for Luther the image as a whole was lost in the fall. Calvin also rejected the Catholic natural-supernatural distinction, but had a broader view of the image than did Luther. For Calvin the loss of original righteousness in the fall meant the thorough corruption of the image but not its total loss.

Modern liberalism, influenced by evolutionary philosophy, views the Genesis narratives of man's origin as myths and finds the doctrine of original righteousness to be rather lacking in meaning. Neo-orthodox, too, rejects a literal, primitive state of righteousness in human history, but finds the concept of original righteousness still valid and important. It refers to man's "essential nature," the God-created law of man's true being (the law of love), standing in contradiction to man's sinful, existential nature (Brunner and Niebuhr). Original righteousness is that of which man is dimly aware through his self-transcendence, and from which he inevitably has fallen through wrong use of freedom. It also is that which man comes to understand most clearly through Christ.

D W Diehl
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology; D. G. Bloesch, Essentials of Evangelical Theology, I, 88-97, 103-9; E. Brunner, Man in Revolt; C. Hodge, Systematic Theology, III, 99-102; R. Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man, I, 265-300; P. Schoonenberg, Man and Sin.

The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in May 1997.

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