Righteousness can be challenging to define as there are a wide variety of thoughts on righteousness as reflected by one of this site’s contributors:
“This is one of the most misunderstood and vague terms in all of religion. It is usually thought of as related to “good” behavior or treating people right. That idea is rooted largely in the narrow legal view of religion from purely an external and intellectual perspective.
The true understanding of righteousness is best perceived in the character of God Himself. Jesus said that only God was righteous. Righteousness is what God is and encompasses all that God’s character exhibits. Righteousness is wholeness, rightness, goodness, fairness and everything associated with those things. It is a description of an internal condition with external symptoms flowing from that condition.” – Floyd Philips
Traditional Legal Model – righteousness can be thought of in terms of behavior, reflecting Paul’s understanding as a Pharisee:
“Concerning zeal, persecuting the church; touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless.” (Phil 3:6)
Biblical Healing Model – righteousness is about the state of the heart and relationship with God which is reflected in moral behavior, righteous acts and a love for God.
the quality or state of being righteous.
characterized by uprightness or morality: a righteous observance of the law.
Purity of heart and rectitude of life; conformity of heart and life to the divine law. Righteousness, as used in Scripture and theology, in which it is chiefly used, is nearly equivalent to holiness, comprehending holy principles and affections of heart, and conformity of life to the divine law. It includes all we call justice, honesty and virtue, with holy affections; in short, it is true religion.
The modern dictionary.com emphasizes behavior for both the noun and adjective forms. Webster’s dictionary comes closer to the Biblical meaning by considering the state of the heart.
“Gracious is the LORD, and righteous; yea, our God is merciful.” (Psa 116:5)
Righteousness Definition: Our Righteousness
Our righteousness in contrast to God’s:
“But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away.” (Isa 64:6)
“As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one:” (Rom 3:10)
“For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not.” (Rom 7:18)
Our righteousnesses are our attempts to make ourselves righteous by our own actions.
“For they [the people of Israel] being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God.” (Rom 10:3)
“Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ, And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith:” (Phil 3:8-9)
When Romans 3:10 says “there is none righteous” it must mean that no one is inherently righteous, none are righteous on their own, of themselves since the Bible actually calls some righteous:
“There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judaea, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the course of Abia: and his wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elisabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless.” (Luke 1:5-6)
“By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, by which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts: and by it he being dead yet speaketh.” (Heb 11:4)
We read “all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags.” But what about these verses?:
“Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.” (Matt 5:16)
“For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.” (Eph 2:10)
“That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.” (2 Tim 3:17)
“Who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works.” (Titus 2:14)
“And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works:” (Heb 10:24)
Good works are good and necessary; we’ll even be rewarded for them. They just don’t count in establishing us in right relationship to God (righteousness). In fact, depending on our own works is a big negative (Rom 10:3, above).
Righteousness Definition: Abraham’s Righteousness
Abraham is a good case study to help understand righteousness:
“For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God. For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness.) Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.” (Rom 4:2-5)
Does that imply that Abraham was not justified by works? Let’s look more closely at that passage (added clarifications in red):
- “For if Abraham were justified by works, = set right with God by works
- he hath whereof to glory; = has something to boast or be proud of
- but not before God = works don’t count directly, towards salvation with God
- 3 For or because what saith the scripture?
- It says: Abraham believed God, = believed and trusted God’s word
- and it his belief was counted unto him for righteousness. = He was right with God through his belief not through his works
- 4 Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. As in a works-based: “I worked for that; now you owe me.”
- 5 But to him that worketh not, but believeth = trusts, commits to
- on him that justifieth the ungodly, = God Who justifies
- his faith is counted for righteousness.” = His belief and trust in God put him in right relationship with God
“Counted unto him for righteousness” is the recognition of actually being righteous. God does not declare someone to be something they are not.
So, if Abraham was righteous because of his faith and not because of his works, that is an indication that works do not determine righteousness (though they are a product of it).
Righteousness Definition: A Contradiction?
BUT then we have this passage:
“Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect? And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God. Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only. Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way? For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.” (James 2:21-26)
Does that sound like a contradiction? Abraham’s “faith” or trust, shown by his actions, gave evidence that he was righteous. It is not about works. James 2:21 said: “… justified by (G1537) works …” which could imply that it was performing the works that justified him or made him righteous. However, “by” does not seem to be a good translation of the original word.
G1537 ἐκ ek ek or ἐξ ex ex
a primary preposition denoting origin (the point whence action or motion proceeds), from, out of place, time, or cause; literal or figurative; prep;
AV-of 366, from 181, out of 162, by 55, on 34, with 25, misc 98; 921
1) out of, from, by, away from
The Remedy New Testament helps make clear how Abraham’s works were related to him being righteous:
“You ineffectual people! Must you be shown that trust in a remedy without applying it is useless? Don’t you understand that our forefather Abraham was put right with God when his trust was applied in offering Isaac on the altar?” (James 2:20-21, The Remedy New Testament)
“If Abraham was somehow healed by his own efforts at keeping a set of rules or performing certain rituals, then he would have his own healing formula to promote, and would not need trust in God. But what does the Scripture say? “Abraham trusted God, and his trust was recognized as righteousness because the distrust caused through Satan’s lies had been removed, and through trust he was endowed with a new heart, right motives and Christlike principles.” (Rom 4:2-3, The Remedy New Testament)
Abraham did what God requested and it worked out for Abraham – no loss of his dear son. Applying the degree of trust he had in God in being willing to sacrifice his son led to a yet deeper level of trust.
“In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction?” (James 2:25, NIV)
Righteousness Definition: Who is Righteous?
How do we resolve “none righteous” with statements of people who were righteous?
“As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one: There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God.” (Rom 3:10-11)
Paul was quoting from the Psalms and we must take into account the context of the source he was quoting:
“The LORD looked down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there were any that did understand, and seek God. They are all gone aside, they are all together become filthy: there is none that doeth good, no, not one. Have all the workers of iniquity no knowledge? who eat up my people as they eat bread, and call not upon the LORD.” (Psa 14:2-4)
Notice who God was looking upon: “the children of men” as opposed to “my people.” He looked upon the children of men and found none that did understand or seek after God. While “the children of men” did not have understanding, the same was not true of “my people.”
“And we know that the Son of God is come, and hath given us an understanding, that we may know him that is true, and we are in him that is true, even in his Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God, and eternal life.” (1 John 5:20)
The carnal mind cannot be righteous:
“Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be.” (Rom 8:7)
But there is a solution:
“Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus:” (Phil 2:5)
The carnal mind is equivalent to living in the flesh:
“So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God.” (Rom 8:8)
Again, there is a solution (to live in the Spirit and not in the flesh) and a clear distinction between the righteous (“if Christ be in you”) and the unrighteous (“if any man have not the Spirit of Christ”):
“But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you. Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his. And if Christ be in you, the body is dead because of sin; but the Spirit is life because of righteousness.” (Rom 8:9-10)
Christ giving us His righteousness is not simply a transaction in a record; it is transforming us so that we are righteous like He is righteous.
How We Become Righteous
Here is a quotation from one commentary on the life of Christ, to which I have added comments (in red), that helps to explain how we become righteous.
“The law requires righteousness,–a righteous life, a perfect character; and this man [in his unregenerate state] has not to give. He cannot meet the claims of God’s holy law [the heart is desperately wicked]. But Christ, coming to the earth as man, lived a holy life, and developed a perfect character. These [a holy life and perfect character] He offers as a free gift to all who will receive them. His life stands for the life of men. Thus they have remission [healing of] of sins that are past [the sinful habits and tendencies that they once had are gone], through the forbearance of God. More than this, Christ imbues men with the attributes of God [those attributes are actually put, with men’s permission, within their characters, not merely on their records]. He builds up the human character after the similitude [likeness] of the divine character [man’s character becomes like God’s], a goodly fabric of spiritual strength and beauty. Thus the very righteousness of the law is fulfilled in the believer [the believer keeps the law] in Christ. God can ‘be just [it is the right thing to do], and the justifier [lines man’s character up to the standard] of him which believeth in Jesus.’ Rom. 3:26.” (The Desire of Ages, p762)
Some key points to remember:
- Righteousness is right relationship with God and other people before it is correct behavior.
- Righteousness is NOT the result of correct behavior. Correct behavior is the result of righteousness.
The following diagram, used in several places on this website, helps to illustrate:
The source of the problem is represented by the faucet continually putting water into the sink (our fleshly mind) such that it is spilling (outward and visible acts of sin) onto the floor. The mess will never be cleaned up until the source of the problem is dealt with. Our understanding of God, of His character, our attitude and therefore trust of Him all need to be changed.
“But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord.” (2 Cor 3:18)
Jeff Benner of www.ancient-hebrew.org has a good explanation of righteousness (https://www.ancient-hebrew.org/definition/righteous.htm) based on the ancient Hebrew. In it he says:
“A righteous person is not one who lives a religiously pious life, the common interpretation of this word, he is one who follows the correct path, the path (way) of God.”
George Fifield (in 1897) wrote:
“The power of God to make men righteous, is simply the power of his love to win men to love, which flows out in the acts of love.”
See a video of a group study on the meaning of righteousness.
Return from Righteousness Definition to the Character of God and the Gospel Glossary Index
Return from Righteousness Definition to the Home Page