The meaning of the term linguistically
In its general use, it represents any conformity to a standard whether that standard has to do with the inner character of a person, or the objective standard of accepted law. Thayer suggests the definition, “the state of him who is such as he ought to be.” In the wide sense, it refers to that which is upright or virtuous, displaying integrity, purity of life, and correctness in feeling and action. In a somewhat negative sense, it means faultlessness or guiltlessness; with reference to man it has to do with man’s conformity to God’s holiness. In a false sense, it may refer to those who pride themselves on their own virtues—sometimes real, sometimes imaginary—and such “righteous” ones are really under the condemnation of a righteous God (cf.
Righteousness in the Old Testament
Among the uses just suggested, the Biblical approach preeminently concerns itself with the man whose way of thinking, feeling, and acting is wholly conformed to the righteousness of God. In this sense, only Christ can be called dikaios (cf.
As related to the nature of God
The center of reference in Biblical theology for the question of righteousness is first of all the righteousness of God. The fundamental idea, a starting place for any Biblical view of righteousness, is very simply this: there is no law above God, but there is a law in God. Holiness is of His essence, and righteousness is a mode of this holiness. Berkhof speaks of righteousness as “transitive” holiness. Strong speaks of it as a “relative” or “transitory” attribute of God. What is being clearly said is that God is, in His essence, by His very nature, holiness itself; and righteousness is the mode or way by which His essence is expressed toward His created world or toward anything apart from Himself. To take a clue from Tillich and his discussion of “Being” or his very useful expression, “Ground of Being,” then what God is (His aseity) is the basis or ground upon which existence and creation rest. Everything apart from God’s essence is dependent and contingent upon what He is Himself; He is what holiness and righteousness must be. Righteousness is “rectitude of the divine nature by virtue of which God is infinitely righteous in Himself..., that perfection of God by which He maintains Himself over against every violation of His holiness.” In other words, there is a sense in which God cannot help Himself when He resists anything in the universe contrary to His own nature. Evil can no more survive in the presence of God than a microbe can survive in the light of the sun. However man might wish it otherwise, this is something which is of the nature of ultimate reality. It cannot be swayed or tampered with any more than the nature of God can be changed. When this has been said, not everything has been said; for no mention has yet been made of the love of God nor of His grace (which are also of His essence). Theological discussion in so far as it is Biblical and Christian may be reduced to superficial sentimentalism unless the absolute holiness of God and the perfect coincidence which exists between His nature and His action are made clear and strong at the outset.
At this point there can be no caprice or passion, no shiftiness in absolute standards. In the infinite depths of reality there is the automatic, essential revolt against moral evil. It is not a matter of arbitrary will; it is a necessary moral requirement of the essence of God. God being God, He is what He is, and He is bound by His nature to do what His nature requires. If God is big enough, i.e. infinite and eternal, there is no other source of righteousness, justice, law, or integrity.
On the face of it, this looks narrow and harsh and the religion of the Jews, reflected in the Old Testament, is criticized as being legalistic; and any phase of the Christian religion which appears to rest on the Old Testament, as for example, extreme Calvinism or Puritanism, is also condemned as legalism, or harsh moralism. The question is whether this is so.
Apparently the Jews believed not only that they were a people chosen of God, but also that they were directed by revelation from God. Perfectly clear in this revelation is God’s absolute righteousness. By means of revelation, the righteousness of God was made known through such prophets as Moses, was codified basically in the Decalogue, became relevant to the complexities of living in the Levitical code and the Deuteronomic code, and is also basic to the proper worship of God as seen in the symbols and activities of the Tabernacle and the Temple. There is no hesitation reflected in the Old Testament that the basis of operation for both the nation and the individual is clearly set before them in the Holy Writings. One can easily judge, therefore, that the whole system is rightly criticized as legalistic if one may assume that things legalistic ought to be criticized.
What shall be done, then, with the strange gladness with which the whole law is treated in the Old Testament? If one may generalize, the law of God, as it reflects the righteousness of God, is the gift of God. It is not a series of harsh demands, but a joyous reality which not only makes the Jew different from the other nations, but somehow makes him better; and by this he means that somehow it makes him happier. The law is something to share with his children, to talk about with his friends, to carry with him when he walks abroad, to meditate on “day and night.” “Oh, how love I thy law!” is a frequent theme of the psalmist. It is something to sing about, and the singing in the great Temple choirs were frequently shouts of joy.
It needs to be said very strongly therefore, in this day when the law of God is made subservient to the love of God (and such love can be sentimentalism apart from law) that the Jew saw no conflict. How else could God love him more than being always and forever Himself? How could a universe possibly hang together without absolute rectitude at its core? How could a nation survive without some dependence on absolute righteousness? How could a people be happy where the lines of truth were anything less than perfectly clear? What physics means to the scientist in the 20th cent., moral law meant to the ancient Jew. What is “fit-for-man” is “well-for-man.” What the Jew discovered, or better, what he knew had been revealed to him providentially, was that it is only in conformity to God’s righteousness that man can possibly experience the highest felicity for which his nature has been created. To bring one’s self into conformity with God’s righteousness is to righten one’s self, and so discover harmony and peace. The laws of God are the directions on the package of life. To disobey means confusion; to obey means fulfillment.
Perhaps some light on this—for it does seem a strange doctrine in the 20th cent.—will be shed if one glances at another world religion, Taoism—the religion of the Way. Significantly, Christians were first called “those of the Way.” Jesus said of Himself, “I am the way” (
The decisive factor in the Old Testament is that Tao, Way, Truth, Law are superseded by Person. God is a living God who created and sustains everything in His own universe according to His own need and will. His own need and will are absolute holiness reflected in righteousness and codified, finally, in the laws of man. It is the benevolence in His holiness which leads to His condescension in revealing His holy will.
It is easy to be repelled by certain expressions such as appear in the Lord am a jealous God” (
Even in retributive justice, the Jews saw the healing of discipline. Sometimes an arm has to be broken to be reset. Sometimes an athlete has to unlearn to learn correctly. Only thus is he set free. How many times must humanity go through the fires of judgment before there is found freedom in the righteousness of God?
Basically, and in summary, Old Testament Biblical thought is completely dominated by its theocentric norm. It rests on the fact that God is absolute holiness in essence, a fact established by special revelation. The demands on man for his righteous living, therefore, are never relativistic. The demands are absolute. One may count on God’s being fair in His dealings, but the frightful thing is that He must be, by His nature, absolutely fair. Since He is the Center of all reality and existence, then everything in His universe is related to Him in these same absolute demands. The conclusion of the matter is, as Paul underscores in Romans, “None is righteous, no, not one” (
The Roman Catholics have found some relief in the idea of “original righteousness” (Justitia originalis). According to this view, God graciously imparted to man a perfect rectitude in his original condition before the Fall. This was supposed to have included freedom from concupiscence, bodily immortality, and impassibility. Also, happiness seems to have been a guarantee. It is difficult to see on what authority this position rests. But even if it be true, it is irrelevant and incomplete, irrelevant because men no longer live before the Fall, and incomplete because one of the greatest problems in righteousness, as will appear upon examining the New Testament, is the problem of positive righteousness. For a man to be free from overt sin is one problem. For him to fulfill the demands of love is a much greater problem.
As one follows the efforts of the ancient Israelites to live up to the demands of absolute righteousness, one is struck with the hopelessness, not only of their attainments, but of the direction of their efforts. Immediately after the Ten Commandments (
As related to the covenant
It is clear from what has been said that righteousness has to do with the fulfillment of the demands of relationships, whether with men or with God. It is also clear that men fail in these relationships. This being so, what approach does Old Testament religion have in the face of the absolute demands and man’s insufficient responses? The burden of the Old Testament message, and this fits exactly into the New Testament development, is that righteousness must be considered in ways other than absolute obedience. Though man’s righteousness fails, God’s endures. This is the meaning of mercy, steadfast love, or the “grace” of the Christian message. In spite of man’s failures, the righteous God is as Isaiah described Him, “a righteous God and a Savior” (
The Old Testament may well be looked upon as a series of fresh starts. A righteous God does not give up on His wayward people. There was a covenant with Adam having to do with absolute obedience. The turning point is reached with Abraham where in
Grace is rightly defined as the “unmerited favor of God.” There would be no Old Testament story apart from the initiative of God’s unmerited favor. Even after Adam’s first sin, God came seeking when Adam was hiding. This is the plot of the Scriptures. The “Hound of Heaven” never leaves off His pursuit; “in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son” (
What is clearly evident is that in spite of what must be said about God’s absolute holiness and righteousness, both in essence and in His inability even to look upon sin or to touch the untouchable, the Old Testament is already insisting that the righteousness of God, however pure, moves constantly in love toward sinful man. Cf. the New Testament development: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin.” God’s righteousness in the Old Testament is His own fulfillment of the demands of a relationship which, if one may speak as men, He Himself simply cannot drop. Out of this idea there is evident throughout the whole of the Old Testament that which appears in God as a responsibility because of a relationship, may also become the mark of man’s righteousness. Man’s sin may despoil his relationship to God, but he may also sin in his irresponsibility toward other relationships. If one could read this background, he would understand that for the Jew, God’s righteousness is not so much a matter of purity, although this is never minimized, as it is His refusal ever to let go of His responsibility. “O Love that wilt not let me go.” Man also is to practice the same kind of righteousness.
Each man is set within a multitude of relationships: king with people, judge with complainant, priests with worshipers, common man with family, tribesman with community, community with resident alien and poor, and all with God. Righteousness is the fulfillment of the specific demands of the specific relationships. An excellent illustration of all this appears in the life of David, a “man after God’s own heart,” who was “righteous” because he refused to slay Saul, with whom he stood in a covenant relation (
As in Jewish lit., the “Wise Man” was the one who could best see life from God’s viewpoint (cf. Spinoza: sub specie aeternitatis), so the righteous man was the one who best understood and preserved God’s relationships. Theis usually considered as wisdom lit. It is also, if one may use the term, “righteous” lit. In defending himself, Job defended the Old Testament view of the righteous man in his relationships with his God.
I was eyes to the blind,
and feet to the lame.
I was a father to the poor...
I broke the fangs of the unrighteous
If I have rejected the cause of my
manservant or my maidservant....
If I have withheld anything that the poor
or have caused the eyes of the widow to
or have eaten my morsel alone...
if I have seen anyone perish for lack of
or a poor man without covering...
if I have raised my hand against the fatherless,...
For I was in terror of calamity from God,
and I could not have faced his majesty
In the wider contexts, what is demanded of the private citizen is the requirement of king and judge. In western law, the emphasis is on forensic justice in which there is an impartial decision for the two parties based on some legal standard. For the judge in Israel, righteousness is more the fulfillment of the demands of the community for balance and harmony. The judge wishes to restore the righteousness of the community, and in some cases may therefore give one of the parties not his due, but his overdue. Righteous judgments are protective and restoring. This helps to give an understanding of the outcries of the prophets, especially in behalf of the disinherited and the downtrodden. An illustration in the 20th cent. would be the “righteousness” of the “Headstart” program in which the disinherited are given schooling according to their need, not according to their “right.” The principle of “separate but equal” in this approach to righteousness cannot restore equality until something has been done about centuries of inequality.
One of the most interesting creations of the Old Testament economy is the Sabbatical year, coupled with the
What is true of citizens, judges, and kings, reflects what must be true of the righteousness of God. The covenant relationship is prior to law. Much is made by Paul in the New Testament of the fact that the faith of Abraham preceded the law of Moses. Abraham was chosen of God, not because of his righteousness—surely he was a sinner like any other man—but because God chose to establish a people through him by which He could bring His saving power to bear upon all men. Abraham “believed the Lord; and he reckoned it to him as righteousness” (
What began with Abraham in Mesopotamia was established again in Egypt, and the psalmists never tired of telling what God did “with a mighty hand,” with a people lost in helplessness and even ignorant of their own religious inheritance. “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my own possession among all peoples; for all the earth is mine, and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (
Israel could suffer the wrath of God, but they could not fall out of His hands. As H. H. Farmer once put it, “We may sin ourselves into the wrath of God, but we cannot sin ourselves out of the love of God” (cf.
What, then, is the function of the law in a covenant relationship of grace? It is to set the norm, establish the right, speak a word of judgment on anything less than the best, and lead one to the almighty God who can enable one increasingly to fulfill the requirements of holiness. The law has no power in itself to make a good life. It establishes what the good life ought to be and may be by the power of God.
One further truth: the law (which Paul calls “the schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ”
To the Old Testament Jew, then, the law is a part of the whole gift of grace. Hear the psalmist sing: “The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul...the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes...the ordinances of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb” (
One other help in the understanding of this whole covenant relationship is to see how God acted in behalf of His people against their enemies. From the vantage point of the Christian era it is hard to discern the viewpoint of the chosen people as against “the other nations,” the Gentiles. It looks narrow and provincial now, but from the Old Testament viewpoint it makes good sense. How else could God who has entered into His covenant act expect to protect His own from “the others”? This would be expected of the father of a family, of a king, and surely of a man’s God. Perhaps the Jew missed some points which one can see now from a perspective which the Jew did not have. For one thing, he was chosen of God, not because he was something special, but in order that he might become the channel of something special. God said to Abaham, “I will bless you...so that you will be a blessing” (
Righteousness in the New Testament
The idea in the gospels
It is an assumption of all New Testament studies that the epistles of Paul chronologically preceded the records of the four gospels. As the canon of the New Testament appears in men’s hands, however, the gospels precede the other writings, and this of course makes its own good sense, because the life and teachings of Christ preceded the explanations and commentaries of the epistles in the treatment of righteousness. There is, however, a certain awkwardness because the understanding of righteousness in the New Testament actually comes out of the writings of Paul rather than from the gospels. As Dr. R. W. Dale so nicely put it, “Christ did not come to preach the gospel; He came that there might be a gospel to preach.” It is true that “In him was all righteousness,” but what He had to say on the subject specifically does not begin to touch the full explication which appears in the epistles. He was not a theology, He was a Person. The theology followed the exhibition of righteousness in His person. With this in mind, therefore, the expectancy regarding righteousness in the gospels, at least insofar as Jesus taught on the subject, is not great.
This is not to say that the term “righteous” is not used in general in the gospels; it is used to mean a “pious” person, or a “religious” person, or one regarding whom, in a popular sense, it might be said that he lived a “good” life. Joseph was called a “righteous” man, and this was the reason why he would not turn Mary over to the authorities when she was found to be pregnant. Strict construction of Jewish law would have demanded that Mary be stoned to death, but Joseph, being “righteous,” planned to put her away out of sight. He was evading the demands of the law and refused to make out of his betrothed a public spectacle. As a just man, he would be, in the terminology of our day, a kind or soft-hearted man (
In a stricter sense the Pharisees made an appearance of “righteousness” (
Much the same sort of popular usage is reflected in the other gospels. Neither Mark nor Luke records any new statement of Christ containing the term “righteousness.” Mark’s use of the term (
This interpretation is supported by the other reference to John the Baptist in Matthew (
Again it is to be interpreted as a continuity from Old Testament law and custom. John was, in some sense, the last of the Old Testament prophets, and his “way of righteousness” concluding the Old Testament dispensation was at the threshold of the new righteousness, which was to come in Christ in the new dispensation.
Turn to the passages in the Sermon on the Mount. Three of these may be construed as having to do with the righteousness of God, absolute, essential righteousness, ideal and perfect righteousness (
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (
As is truly the case, the seekers after righteousness are the objects of persecution in every generation. Consequently, Jesus’ word is pertinent: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake” (
In the great passages on anxiety (
In the other two passages in Matthew the old question of formal righteousness is again raised. Significantly, Jesus not only speaks of this righteousness but illustrates it; and in His illustration He makes out of the whole subject of righteousness an “open-ended” possibility. “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (
Jesus’ contribution at this point on the subject of righteousness was to move man’s thinking from the form of the law to its spiritual content. The question now became not so much a matter of action as of motive, the one great commandment being to love God and to love one’s neighbor as oneself. Only thus could the righteousness of Jesus’ followers exceed “that of the scribes and Pharisees.” In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus illustrated how this should be so. It is not a question of murder so much as a question of anger in the heart. It is not so much adultery as the eye of lust. The framework of the law must abide insofar as it is God’s law, but one is not “righteous” in Jesus’ way of thinking unless his motives rest in love.
A turn on this same approach is illustrated in the next ch. of Matthew. “Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them” (
When the move is made to John’s gospel the theological climate changes. Matthew’s gospel was aimed at the Jew with all the background assumptions of centuries of Judaism. The “most theological of the gospels,” namely John’s, includes only two vv.—actually only one record—of Jesus speaking of righteousness. In His farewell discourses Jesus was speaking of the deepest things of the Christian faith, and in the sixteenth ch. there is a very different and a very involved discussion of the Person and the action of the
The word “righteous” is used elsewhere in John’s gospel three times but not as Jesus’ own teaching: as a description of Christ’s righteous judgment (
The crucial treatment in Paul
The key to Paul’s view of righteousness, as it is basic to an understanding of the whole Gospel of Christ, is found in his major treatise, the letter to the Romans. There is no question but that Paul studied closely the structure and content of this masterpiece. It is here, if anywhere, that we have his “theology,” and with the possible exception of Ephesians, it is the finest creation of this first mind of the 1st cent.
The theme of Romans is “Righteousness.” After his usual formal introduction, and in Romans this is well structured and quite extensive, he announces his thesis: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel: it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live’” (
First, it may be taken as a simple possessive, and this is the most common use of the genitive. In this usage it would refer to an attribute of God’s own character. This reverts to the beginning of this discussion which concerned the very essence of God. The righteousness of God is a part of Him, an essential of His nature. There is no question that the Gr. form used allows for this interpretation, and whatever other interpretation one brings to bear on it, this view can never be eliminated. The whole discussion of righteousness in the Old Testament and in the gospels has either emphasized or assumed this as the ground of any understanding of the word.
Second, the “righteousness of God” may carry the secondary meaning which was expounded as a typical Jewish use of the term. It is that righteousness of God which shows itself in His relationships to His covenant people, in which righteousness is self-imparting rather than distributive. By this is meant throughout the discussion that whereas righteousness might require some bill of rights and wrongs in judgment, some expression of lex talionis (the law of retaliation) or even some display of the wrath of God in punishment, the enthusiasm of the Jew for the righteousness of God rested in the covenant relationship which God had initiated. In this they thought of His righteousness as supporting His own people. This is what a king would be expected to do. In the Old Testament, generally, it is understood that when a king judged, he did so to preserve and enhance the life of the whole community, and thereby make possible a better life for the individual. He is conceived of as helping people to their rights. His righteousness was an overflow rather than a balance, just as one would expect to do something extra for a man with a broken leg on a safari. In the Psalms and Isaiah, the people of God are vindicated by God, who shows His righteousness by delivering them from their enemies. Inside the community of Israel the righteousness of God is on the side of the poor rather than the rich, the weak rather than the strong. His righteousness is thus manifested not only to His own people but to the nations, and one of the great appeals of the prophets was that God’s glory is known to the nations because in righteousness He established His own people (
It is quite evident that this kind of righteousness is communal rather than individual. The Old Testament, while insisting that the “people of God” are supported by God’s righteousness, also makes very clear that individuals within the community may very well experience a sense of sin and the threat of the righteous judgment of God. An interesting example of this combination of national righteousness and individual sin appears in
Third, Paul’s use of “righteousness” is crucial. Paul’s preaching of the Gospel in the context of the primitive Church cannot possibly be a message to a national group such as that seen in the nation of Israel. God is not rescuing His oppressed people in any communal sense; He is preaching to individual sinners, Jews and Gentiles alike, whose only community is their common need of salvation. His message, therefore, must make clear that the altogether righteous God, who cannot act against His own nature, must somehow remain righteous while at the same time accepting the unrighteous. As Paul classically expresses it, “it [the Gospel] was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies [declares to be righteous] him who has faith in Jesus” (
The theme of Romans is the righteousness of God (
If one may assume then that whatever righteousness a man has is a gift of God, he is forced to face the question of how God’s righteousness becomes man’s righteousness, in addition to which he must portray how it is that such righteousness shows itself in the life of man, and perhaps also in his society. Paul, in writing of righteousness in Romans (
From God’s standpoint the simple, yet profound problem is how God may be “just and the justifier,” or in other words, how His holiness may be kept inviolate while He is engaged in accepting a man who is unholy. By the very essence of His nature, “the wrath of God is against all unrighteousness.” He cannot “look upon,” let alone participate in sin. His solution, then, is to set forth Christ who in human flesh “fulfills all righteousness.” It is awkward for modern theology to accept the language and sometimes the crude mechanisms of medieval theories of atonement; yet, whatever the language, the truths involved must not be lost—vicarious atonement, ransom, and the like must be preserved.
Christ took on humanity, human nature. In human flesh He lived without sin, so that it can be said that if one human being was ever sinless, then at one point in history human nature was sinless. In perfect obedience a life was lived in which human nature was untainted. What is difficult is to understand the nature of “humanity” as against individual “human beings.” Perhaps a simple illustration will help. When fifty people are in a room there are fifty “human beings,” and there surely is humanity. If fifty more people are brought into the room there are more “human beings,” but not necessarily more humanity. This becomes clear when everyone is put out of the room except one person. Although there is now only one “human being,” there is nevertheless complete “humanity” in that one person. This is the kind of concept which is recognized in a word like “love.” It represents the kind of reality which can neither be divided nor multiplied. A woman who has twelve children does not love each child one-twelfth; nor does a woman with twelve children necessarily have more love than a woman with six. Such ideas as humanity and love will not subject themselves to multiplication and division. We repeat, therefore, that “humanity,” as it appears in Jesus, is pure, sinless, and an example of perfect obedience.
Following the thinking of Anselm there is set forth in the sacrifice of Christ on the cross the death of the God-man. Because of the God-relationship, this sacrifice is of infinite value. Because of the man-relationship, it is the death of an innocent person. The perfect humanity of Christ thus blocks off the necessary judgment of God against the humanity of other men, and at the same time an infinite price is being paid for what Anselm considered an infinite sin, i.e. sin against God. The limitations of human language are inescapable, but several things are said very clearly: Christ did for man what he could not do for himself. With His perfections He offered up a perfect humanity. He died in man’s stead. Whatever was accomplished satisfied the infinite demands of the holiness of God. There are those for whom this description satisfies; as Paul says in Romans, “Christ was a propitiation” for man’s sin. In other words, the death of Christ “satisfied” God. A ransom was paid, or as Denney so nicely suggests, the satisfaction of God’s holiness released His love.
But there is more. “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (
Now comes the question of the application of this righteousness. God has dealt with sin for its complete removal, and this is all of grace. “The lamb was slain from the foundation of the world.” God Almighty in His almighty holiness and everlasting love has made provision for opening up the way of salvation. It is a way in which God gets sinful man right with god Himself; He justifies him. From man’s viewpoint man lays hold on this offered salvation by faith. The word faith is maligned, misunderstood, limited, and yet Paul offers no other way except through the attainments of God’s free gift through faith.
It is sometimes claimed that it is sufficient to think of the cross as the setting of a standard which man can imitate. The death of Christ is an “example” and those who would follow Christ (because they call themselves Christians) ought to follow His example. The climax of His exemplary life is complete selfgiving all the way to death. As is said in three of the four gospels reflecting the words of Jesus, “if any man would be my disciple, let him take up his cross and follow me.” Such devotional literature as Thomas a Kempis’ Imitation of Christ follows this idea. It must be maintained that such an idea is solid and true and has a certain saving force in a man’s life. This is not to say, however, that this interpretation is sufficient. The righteousness of God, which is to be man’s righteousness, does not come by imitation. More significantly, one is moved to imitate Christ because in some sense, “the righteousness of God” has already been given to Him.
One other very widespread interpretation of the cross is that which describes the crucifixion as an exhibition of God’s amazing love. How can anyone, therefore, once he sees such love expressed in his behalf, fail to respond in newness of life?
This sounds reasonable, but as George Adam Smith reflects in speaking of Hosea (the Jesus of the Old Testament), “love stands defeated on some of the greatest battlefields of life.” The candle that stays burning in the window gives no assurance that the prodigal will ever come home. A love that “will not let me go” will not necessarily save me.
What is needed, therefore, is the gift of faith (and the New Testament surely says that even faith is a gift) which will enable a man to respond to the example and answer to the love. Just how does one go about this?
Faith means that one accepts Christ, and this in turn means that he accepts the fact that what He has done for mankind needed to be done. We are not simply repeating statements of faith; we are being totally converted in the happening of three things: (1) We accept God’s view as our own on the true nature of our need. (2) We accept His solution to the problem. (3) We accept the fact (and this is where pride, the deadliest of the sins, is broken) that there is no hope at all in any of our own righteousness which we might wish to bring forward—and so we rest, or trust entirely, on the finished work of Christ. We have no negotiations to carry on, nothing to offer to the whole transaction except our sin; we do not argue our worthiness, and in the last analysis a Christian is one who accepts Christ as the Word (logos) on all things. This is what had to be done; this is what was done; where do I will to stand in relationship to it? Thus a man believes and accepts. Whereas justification is the act, sanctification becomes the process as His pure humanity becomes a part of ours, increasingly. As John says, “the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (
What, then, is righteousness in the Christian interpretation of the word? It is primarily and basically a relationship, never an attainment. It may be said of Jesus, but never of any other man, “in him all righteousness dwelt.” The condition of any man and of every man is always the same—one of total dependence. Faith really means that men have no security except as they hold on, or better, are held on to. As John Oman expresses it, “It is not so much a question of the rung of the ladder which we occupy, but whether we are climbing or falling.” Christian righteousness is never an attainment; it is a direction, a loyalty, a commitment, a hope—and only someday an arrival.
How beautifully this dismisses all pride, all Pharisaism, all judgmental accusations toward one’s brothers. How beautifully this creates humanity, understanding, and in the right sense, meekness. How beautifully this says that righteousness is through faith for faith, or that the righteous shall live by faith.
Righteousness in the modern world
It is evident that there is a growth throughout the Bible in man’s understanding of righteousness. This is not to say that one concept of righteousness was replaced by another or a better one; the growth is not of that sort. It is a growth by addition not by correction.
In the beginning the idea of righteousness was rooted and grounded in the very nature of God. His essence, consciously or unconsciously, became the touchstone of every righteous act by man. At the same time it was clearly understood that the righteousness of God, with such corollaries as holiness and justice, constituted not only the proper ground of human action, but the very integrity of the physical universe and the material world.
It is easy to criticize, as many noted scholars do, the strange ways in which attempts were made among the Hebrews to express the righteousness of God. Some very strange things were done, as the laws in the Pentateuch illustrate, and the temptation is to make a claim that the expression of righteousness among men is simply a reflection of cultural pressures. As must be said so many times in such a superficial analysis, there is no question that there was a cultural milieu out of which certain social practices did arise. But the point is missed if it is not understood that there was a fixed element at the basis of the variety of expression. For the Hebrews there was no question that the righteousness of God had been revealed in the Torah, that the righteousness of God was even revealed in the minutiae in the Levitical codes. It is impossible to understand both the Old Testament and the New Testament apart from this deep concern to honor the righteousness of God by expressing it in daily living. It is this concern which is the fixed element in all the rich variety of expression which has followed in the Bible, in the life of the Church and one may hope, in the unsettled ethical expressions of the 20th cent.
What came next in the growth of the Heb. concept was the belief that God’s righteousness included a certain covenant demand which could be made on Him. The Hebrews belonged to Yahweh because He had chosen them, and had initiated a covenant to “carry them through.” For this reason He would protect them from their enemies, He would lead them into the good life, He would restore them after sin and repentance. If necessary (and it became necessary), He would save them, even if only through a remnant. The righteousness of God thus not only became the source of unchangeable holiness, but also gave rise to the need of a Savior and Redeemer.
By the time of Hosea and Isaiah, God the Savior and Redeemer is a Suffering Servant. Such a concept is a study in itself, but in this context it is an inescapable fact that the cross is already necessitated in the visions of the great prophets. Thus, in brief, the Old Testament idea of righteousness has moved from a standard of conduct to a code of conduct; to a king who cares for his subjects; to a Savior who finally gave Himself for their salvation.
In the New Testament it is Christ who is set forth as “the righteousness of God.” What was once law has become a Person. What was foreseen as a way of redemption is now illustrated in a redemptive life. The cross of Christ became the climax of a life which was always the way of the cross.
Paul then formally asserted what was latent in the Old Testament and patent in the New Testament, that the righteousness of God is now poured out through the life and death of Christ; first for the redemption of man and second as a source of newness of life in man. What started as a code of ethics based on the nature of God finally became a source of life and the power to grow into the very nature of God. Another code of ethics or another standard of righteousness could simply break man’s heart in his constant failure; Christian righteousness is (and how often this is missed) a power more than a standard, a life more than a code, a loyalty and a saving relationship for everyday living.
The existential emphasis
The modern emphasis in the treatment of righteousness has been dominated by the rise of existentialism in philosophy. The word itself, although it looks difficult, is easily understood, especially in relation to a righteous decision. Existentialism refers to the “moment of existence” in which a decision is made, and the emphasis is that any decision is determined by the stance of the person making the decision and the total situation in time in which the decision is made. It is evident, for example, in moral decision, that it is possible for two different people in what looks like the same situation to come up with what looks like diametrically opposed decisions, and it is possible at the same time that each can be right. It is also possible for the same person to make a correct moral decision on one day and on the next day do just the opposite and still be morally right. “Situational Ethics” is frequently the term descriptive of such decisions.
The classic example of this, of course, grows out of the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” (more correctly tr. “Thou shalt do no murder”). It is highly probable that an individual citizen would find no occasion where he could kill his fellowman as a righteous act. The problem becomes a different kind of problem in warfare or in judicial action, especially when a servant of the state serves as the hangman or the man who pulls the lever for the electric chair. These questions are highly debatable, of course, but they are illustrative. With regard to the private citizen himself, he might justify as a righteous act the killing of someone for the defense of one of his children. What is conceivable, and what must be understood is that general circumstances would never allow a man to kill for righteousness’ sake, whereas’ particular occasions could arise where killing is the only righteous act.
Recalling now the absolute righteousness of the Old Testament, which became colored in time by the social righteousness of the Old Testament prophets, where the absolute demands of the law became a definite series of adjustments within the demands of a man’s social relationships, one sees that such an existential approach can be Biblical. Even more so the New Testament emphasis on a man’s relationship to God as determinative of his righteousness, brings one to this same approach. When there is added to this the idea of obedience in the daily walk; supreme loyalty to a living, dynamic, and personal Master; a recognition that no man completely fulfills the law; and that “all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment” (
The abiding nature of law
The question therefore naturally arises with modern theology whether or not the ethics which grow out of modern theology have destroyed any absolutes in righteousness. When it is remembered that the whole idea of righteousness in the Heb. background grew out of the recognition of man’s necessary obedience to an absolutely righteous God, it looks as if all that kind of righteousness has been badly clouded. Moral decisions are made, apparently, without any fixed point of reference, and with an easy acceptance of the theory that any perfection in righteousness is impossible and therefore irrelevant. “Situational ethics” can lead, and often does lead, to ethical relativism. With such fears the critics of the “new theology” must deal.
The answer of 20th-cent. theology is that there is one absolute—namely love. It follows, therefore, that in any existential situation where the issues are bound to be ambiguous, the fixed point is the absolute of love, and the apologists for this position are quick to point out that when love is spoken of as an absolute it is defined by the love of God which is revealed in. This becomes the control and it is argued that basically and finally, in such love, there is no relativism. The “righteousness of God” of which Paul wrote is revealed “through faith for faith,” and the righteous do indeed “live by faith.” In this relationship of faith man’s first concern is for the love of God and a “righteous” decision is made on that basis alone.
The first thing that must be said is that, properly construed, it cannot be faulted. Any man living under the direction of the power of the love of God will be “righteous,” because of a right relationship to God showing itself in obedience. He will show his faith by his works. Since the love of God, of which the Scripture speaks, is agape love, it will not run off into sentimentalism or emotionalism.
The other thing that must immediately be said, however, is that in spite of a simple absolute, there still remains the necessity for laws for control. Such laws relate to the law of Scripture and eventually, and certainly, to the Decalogue and beyond that to the righteous essence of God. After all that has been said for existentialism, why is this true? Primarily for one reason: if moral action is based on the absolute of love, it is not yet evident that any man knows enough, nor is he morally equipped enough, free of prejudice and pressure, to recognize the answer of love in a decision and then to follow specifically the right that he sees. It can be assumed that an altogether righteous man would do nothing less than what absolute love would dictate, but how is a man to act short of such attainment in his moral life? Paul wrote, “the law was our schoolmaster to bring us into Christ” (
Righteousness in world religions
Not much is gained by a study of righteousness beyond the Biblical presentation. All that can be said is that a survey of world religions brings to the fore the same emphases as the Bible does. Such general agreement points toward the Roman Catholic emphasis on natural theology and, of course, raises pressing questions for students of comparative religions. It is instructive that every facet of the subject of righteousness appears somewhere in some other religion. Perhaps the remark of Dr. Herbert H. Farmer of Cambridge University is germane: “The Christian religion brings to definition what is found in other religions, and it contains the totality of the best they have to offer.” Those who support the Christian faith find fulfillment in Christ.
Fundamentally, the Jews related righteousness to the Torah. A man was righteous in proportion to his obedience and conformity. In the Intertestamental period the Pharisees were in the ascendancy, and their meticulous obedience is reflected in the gospels where they are the objects of Jesus’ fiercest invective. Unfortunately, Jesus’ attack on the Pharisees is thought to apply equally to Judaism in its subsequent history. The popular Christian position condemns Judaism for its legalism. This is to be blind to the great development of Judaism following the beginning of the Christian era. Such an attitude is superficial when one takes seriously the great spirits who arose and even now appear in Judaism. Righteousness, according to the Jews, never lost its Old Testament interpretation of righteousness in relationships. Righteousness always meant, and still does mean for the Jew, not merely the following of the rigid letter of the law nor a ritual holiness tied down to a sacred scroll; more than most, the Jew was concerned with efforts toward self-sanctification. He was concerned with character and good living, but he never lost sight of equity as well as law, and the mercy and long-suffering reflected in the Psalms that have given heart to Judaism in every generation. Righteousness in Judaism, from the Christian viewpoint, lacks only one thing; namely, the necessity of the righteousness of God imparted to man through faith in Christ.
Buddha is the “Savior” for Hinduism, and as such, offers the best way of salvation possible to that subtle and confused faith. If one begins with the wheel of life, in which a man is caught eternally; and if one believes in the transmigration of souls, by which the unfortunate human being keeps returning to life over and over again; and if one accepts life as miserable, as it is easy for a Hindu to do; and if one is never sure whether his acts in this life are sufficient or proper enough to raise or lower his entrance into life the next time around, what can be done to rescue such a man? Strange to Western ears is the salvation offered by Buddha, namely a careful discipline in this life, not to improve one’s condition in the next life, but to assure his complete escape from the wheel of existence. Salvation means to be blotted out or to lose oneself in the vast ocean of being. Buddhism is basically a life-denying religion. The solution to life is to escape it, either by exercises in mysticism now or through a break from existence at death. Whereas Christianity says, “this is the victory that overcomes the world” (
It is not surprising that the Egyp. concept of righteousness is at least akin to that of the ancient Hebrews. Moses was educated in all the arts of the Egyptians at the time when they were a world power. There was in ancient Egyp. religion a keen appreciation of the final judgment based on righteousness, truth and justice. The righteous man was one who lived according to truth and justice. More surprising was their great emphasis on generosity, kindness, deference to superiors, and hospitality. Perhaps the odd emphasis, although characteristic of Egyp. theology, was a whole series of demands, with reference to the care of the dead. This is a striking difference in the Egyp. viewpoint which does not find its way into other religions, with the possible exception of Confucianism, which, however, is concerned more with ancestor worship than with the eternal felicity of the dead.
Righteousness is looked upon in the usual way: concern for one’s character, honesty in human relationships, and a serious approach to one’s own rights and the rights of others. These things are highly regarded in the lands dominated by the religion of Islam, but find very little place in their writings. Righteousness is tested out primarily in justice, and this justice is directed toward social action. Two things characterize the Islamic approach: (1) righteousness expressed in justice is a concern primarily toward those who are of the same tribe or religion; this reflects something of the early Old Testament approach. (2) Questions of righteousness and justice have a way among the Moslems of becoming vaguely discolored by primary considerations for good manners, “white lies,” or any action governed by the belief that the end justifies the means. At first glance, Islamic righteousness looks like the same rigorism of righteousness reflected by the Jew and his Torah, or the Christian Puritan and his Decalogue, but such considerations as hospitality can well work havoc with awkward and austere demands of the law. Generosity, chivalry, and heroism seem more important to the Moslem, especially where family and tribe cloud the issues, than the absolute demands of the law.
Note: The brief treatment of world religions simply points to a whole world of lit. for which a bibliography at this place is an impossibility.
J. H. Thayer, Greek-English Lexicon of the(1889), 148-151; J. Denney, Studies in Theology (1902), 109-124; A. H. Strong, (1907), 290-295; 760-764, passim; W. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology (1912); HERE, Vol. X (1922), 780-792; ISBE Vol. IV (1939), 2591-2593; L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology (1941), 74, 75; E. Brunner, Justice and the Social Order (1945), 110; N. H. Snaith, The Distinctive Ideas of the Old Testament (1946), 111, 112; A. Nygren, Commentary on Romans (1949), 9ff.; W. M. Ramsay, Basic (1950), 2-24; R. Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, Vol. I (1951), 28-31; R. Halverson, Handbook of Christian Theology (1958), 329, 330; F. Cross, Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (1961), 994; IDB, Vol. IV (1962), 80-99; L. Bouyer, Dictionary of Theology (1965), 253, 254.
As God acts in righteousness (because he is righteous), so he called Israel to be righteous as his chosen people. They were placed in his covenant, in right relationship with him through faith (
In the teaching of Jesus, righteousness means a right relationship with God (see the parable of the Pharisee and tax collector,
Bibliography: J. A. Zeisler, The Meaning of Righteousness in Paul, 1970; E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism, 1977; John Reumann, Righteousness in the New Testament, 1983.——PT
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)
(tsaddiq, adjective, "righteous," or occasionally "just" tsedheq, noun, occasionally = "riahteousness," occasionally = "justice"; dikaios, adjective, dikaiosune, noun, from dike, whose first meaning seems to have been "custom"; the general use suggested conformity to a standard: righteousness, "the state of him who is such as he ought to be" (Thayer)):
1. Double Aspect of Righteousness: Changing and Permanent
2. Social Customs and Righteousness
3. Changing Conception of Character of God: Obligations of Power
4. Righteousness as Inner
5. Righteousness as Social
6. Righteousness as Expanding in Content with Growth in Ideals of Human Worth
1. Double Aspect of Righteousness: Changing and Permanent:
In Christian thought the idea of righteousness contains both a permanent and a changing element. The fixed element is the will to do right; the changing factor is the conception of what may be right at different times and under different circumstances. Throughout the entire course of Christian revelation we discern the emphasis on the first factor. To be sure, in the days of later Pharisaism righteousness came to be so much a matter of externals that the inner intent was often lost sight of altogether (
2. Social Customs and Righteousness:
There seems but little reason to doubt that the content of the idea of righteousness was determined in the first instance by the customs of social groups. There are some, of course, who would have us believe that what we experience as inner moral sanction is nothing but the fear of consequences which come through disobeying the will of the social group, or the feeling of pleasure which results as we know we have acted in accordance with the social demands. At least some thinkers would have us believe that this is all there was in moral feeling in the beginning. If a social group was to survive it must lay upon its individual members the heaviest exactions. Back of the performance of religious rites was the fear of the group that the god of the group would be displeased if certain honors were not rendered to him. Merely to escape the penalties of an angry deity the group demanded ceremonial religious observances. From the basis of fear thus wrought into the individuals of the group have come all our loftier movements toward righteousness.
It is not necessary to deny the measure of truth there may be in this account. To point out its inadequacy, however, a better statement would be that from the beginning the social group utilized the native moral feeling of the individual for the defense of the group. The moral feeling, by which we mean a sense of the difference between right and wrong, would seem to be a part of the native furnishing of the mind. It is very likely that in the beginning this moral feeling was directed toward the performance of the rites which the group looked upon as important.
As we read the earlier parts of the
3. Changing Conception of Character of God: Obligations of Power:
An index of the growth of the moral life of the people is to be found in the changing conception of the character of God. We need not enter into the question as to just where on the moral plane the idea of the God of the Hebrews started, but from the very beginning we see clearly that the Hebrews believed in their God as one passionately devoted to the right (
We can trace the more important steps in the growth of the Hebrew ideal. First, there was an increasingly clear discernment that certain things are to be ruled out at once as immoral. The primitive decencies upon which individual and social life depended were discerned at an early period (compare passages in Leviticus cited above). Along with this it must be admitted there was a slower approach to some ideals which we today consider important, the ideals of the marriage relations for example (
By the time of Isaiah the righteousness of God has come to include the obligations of power (
Upon this ideal of moral obligation there grows later the thought of the virtue of vicarious suffering (Isaiah 53). The sufferings of the good man and of God for those who do not in themselves deserve such sufferings (for them) are a mark of a still higher righteousness (see Hosea). The movement of the Scriptures is all the way from the thought of a God who gives battle for the right to the thought of a God who receives in Himself the heaviest shocks of that battle that others may have opportunity for moral life.
These various lines of moral development come, of course, to their crown in the
4. Righteousness as Inner:
The ideas at work throughout the course of Hebrew and Christian history are, of course, at work today. Christianity deepens the sense of obligation to do right. It makes the moral spirit essential. Then it utilizes every force working for the increase of human happiness to set on high the meaning of righteousness. Jesus spoke of Himself as "life," and declared that He came that men might have life and have it more abundantly (
5. Righteousness as Social:
The distinctive note in emphasis upon righteousness in our own day is the stress laid upon social service. This does not mean that Christianity is to lose sight of the worth of the individual in himself. We have come pretty clearly to see that the individual is the only moral end in himself. Righteousness is to have as its aim the upbuilding of individual lives. The commandments of the righteous life are not for the sake of society as a thing in itself. Society is nothing apart from the individuals that compose it; but we are coming to see that individuals have larger relationships than we had once imagined and greater responsibilities than we had dreamed of. The influence of the individual touches others at more points than we had formerly realized. We have at times condemned the system of things as being responsible for much human misery which we now see can be traced to the agency of individuals. The employer, the day-laborer, the professional man, the public servant, all these have large responsibilities for the life of those around. The unrighteous individual has a power of contaminating other individuals, and his deadliness we have just begun to understand. All this is receiving new emphasis in our present-day preaching of righteousness. While our social relations are not ends in themselves, they are mighty means for reaching individuals in large numbers. The Christian conception of redeemed humanity is not that of society as an organism existing on its own account, but that of individuals knit very closely together in their social relationships and touching one another for good in these relationships (
6. Righteousness as Expanding in Content with Growth in Ideals of Human Worth:
In all our thought of righteousness it must be borne in mind that there is nothing in Christian revelation which will tell us what righteousness calls for in every particular circumstance. The differences between earlier and later practical standards of conduct and the differences between differing standards in different circumstances have led to much confusion in the realm of Christian thinking. We can keep our bearing, however, by remembering the double element in righteousness which we mentioned in the beginning; on the one hand, the will to do right, and, on the other, the difficulty of determining in a particular circumstance just what the right is. The larger Christian conceptions always have an element of fluidity, or, rather, an element of expansiveness. For example, it is clearly a Christian obligation to treat all men with a spirit of good will or with a spirit of Christian love. But what does love call for in a particular case? We can only answer the question by saying that love seeks for whatever is best, both for him who receives and for him who gives. This may lead to one course of conduct in one situation and to quite a different course in another. We must, however, keep before us always the aim of the largest life for all persons whom we can reach. Christian righteousness today is even more insistent upon material things, such as sanitary arrangements, than was the Code of Moses. The obligation to use the latest knowledge for the hygienic welfare is just as binding now as then, but "the latest knowledge" is a changing term. Material progress, education, spiritual instruction, are all influences which really make for full life.
Not only is present-day righteousness social and growing; it is also concerned, to a large degree, with the thought of the world which now is. Righteousness has too often been conceived of merely as the means of preparing for the life of some future. Present-day emphasis has not ceased to think of the life beyond this, but the life beyond this can best be met and faced by those who have been in the full sense righteous in the life that now is. There is here no break in true Christian continuity. The seers who have understood Christianity best always have insisted that to the fullest degree the present world must be redeemed by the life-giving forces of Christianity. We still insist that all idea of earthly righteousness takes its start from heavenly righteousness, or, rather, that the righteousness of man is to be based upon his conception of the righteousness of God. Present-day thinking concerns itself largely with the idea of the Immanence of God. God is in this present world. This does not mean that there may not be other worlds, or are not other worlds, and that God is not also in those worlds; but the immediate revelation of God to us is in our present world. Our present world then must be the sphere in which the righteousness of God and of man is to be set forth. God is conscience, and God is love. The present sphere is to be used for the manifestation of His holy love. The chief channel through which that holy love is to manifest itself is the conscience and love of the Christian believer. But even these terms are not to be used in the abstract. There is an abstract conscientiousness which leads to barren living: the life gets out of touch with things that are real. There is an experience of love which exhausts itself in well-wishing. Both conscience and love are to be kept close to the earth by emphasis upon the actual realities of the world in which we live.
G. B. Stevens, The Christian Doctrine of Salvation; A. E. Garvie, Handbook of Christian Apologetics; Borden P. Bowne, Principles of Ethics; Newman Smyth,; A. B. Bruce, The ; W. N. Clarke, The Ideal of Jesus; H. C. King, The .