Righteousness

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. Matt 9:13; Mark 2:17; Luke 5:32; 15:7).

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. Acts 7:52; 22:14; 1 Pet 3:18; 1 John 2:1). It is not to be found in men, i.e. perfect conformity to the will of God (Rom 3:10, 26). This raises the theological question, therefore, which is the burden of the New Testament; namely, how a man may be righteous in the presence of the absolute holiness of God. If God requires righteousness and if man is not righteous, how may a man be “justified,” i.e. “declared righteous”?

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” (John 14:6). The Taoist sought what was called “The Way of the Universe” and attempted to harmonize his life with the law of the heavens. Stoicism, with all its Gr. sophistication, was speaking of the same kind of harmony through self-control and endurance in accord with the order of the universe. It is no accident that the writer of Judges in the Old Testament said, “From heaven fought the stars, from their courses they fought against Sisera” (Judg 5:20). Any approach to life that demands conformity to nature recognizes this theme. The Roman Catholics historically have emphasized Natural Law—a built-in truth in the universe which is equally built into the nature of a man; and man simply destroys himself and loses any hope of fulfillment when he goes against Natural Law.

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 Ten Commandments, e.g. “I the Lord am a jealous God” (Exod 20:5). At first glance this seems small-minded in anyone who could be thought about as God almighty. But jealousy goes hand and hand with love, and need not be small-minded. One who really loves, for that very love’s sake simply cannot suffer the presence of anyone or anything that will harm or destroy or even so much as mar the beloved. This is the jealous concern for a child by a parent who keeps putting the best before him and who is constantly fearful of even the smallest thing that can undermine him. Even in Camelot, Arthur’s love for Guinevere was not great enough to exclude Lancelot, and so his wife, his family, his kingdom and the hope of humanity in that generation were destroyed. When God said, “You shall have no other gods before me” (“in my presence”—Exod 20:3), it was not because the almighty God was afraid of the competition. He feared what any perfect lover would fear, that anything less than God which could become a god would be a destroyer. The danger of false gods is finally a false life. When the “summum bonum,” the highest good, is not perfection then the lesser values become less than they should be.

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” (Rom 3:10). In the presence of God, “who can stand”? The answer is perfectly plain: no one! There are no rewards for obedience, no claims for recognition, and finally, no excuses, because unholiness cannot exist in the presence of holiness. Absolute cleanliness has no spots.

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 (Exod 20), there is a section known as the Little Book of the Covenant (Exod 21:1-23:19). This is a first effort to tr. the Decalogue into rules and regulations. Some of it seems of extremely minor importance, and some of it is simply quaint. The same efforts are reflected in the books of Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Much of what is recorded there no longer speaks to man’s condition. It is culturally restricted and almost wholly of contemporary importance. The whole Jewish effort of obedience degenerated into what became true legalism under the Pharisees. No single group was ever excoriated as the Pharisees were by Jesus. They were the experts in the law—people who spent full time on righteousness, and yet Jesus insisted that the righteousness of His followers must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. Their demands on their fellowmen became as Paul recognized, “the yoke of bondage” (Gal 5:1 KJV). Something had gone dead wrong in their approach to righteousness.

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” (Isa 45:21). God intervenes on behalf of His own to save them from the disintegrating effects of sin, forgiving their sin and justifying them before Himself and before all the world. The connection of all this with the New Testament message is quite obvious: “while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). The movement of the Scriptures is all the way from the revelation of a God who stands for the right, through the Old Testament where He battles for the right, to the climactic revelation of a God who receives in Himself the heaviest shocks of the battle against evil. Christus Victor (Aulén’s great title for a book) means that God Himself entered into the lists until the victory was won. “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor 5:19). The New Testament problem for Paul in the crucial vv. in Romans (Rom 3:25, 26), is how God may be “just and the justifier.” One must recognize that this process already begins by way of Old Testament covenants.

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 Genesis 12:1-3, there begins a series of covenants by the God and Father of the faithful. God drew near also to Isaac, and He set up agreements with a man called Jacob, whom normally one would not have thought of as even the object of God’s concern. Yet Jacob became Israel, the father of the Jewish nation, prince of God. Under Moses, God came with the law; He came to David; and gloriously He spoke to Judaism, and through Judaism to the world, in the great prophets of the 8th cent. and following.

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” (Heb 1:2).

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 (1 Sam 24:17; 26:23) and he condemned those who murdered Ish-bo-sheth (2 Sam 4:11). After the downfall of Saul’s house, Mephibosheth had no right to expect kindness from King David (19:28). The demands of righteousness change with the relationship.

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. The Book of Job is 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

(Job 29:15-17).

If I have rejected the cause of my

manservant or my maidservant....

If I have withheld anything that the poor

desired,

or have caused the eyes of the widow to

fail,

or have eaten my morsel alone...

if I have seen anyone perish for lack of

clothing,

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

(Job 31:13-23).


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 Year of Jubilee. The Sabbatical year may be interpreted as a means of conservation for the land similar to the modern ideas of rotation of crops. Nevertheless, as the land lay fallow during the Sabbatical year, the poor had certain rights on the land. The Year of Jubilee, however, was more to the point. After seven Sabbaticals, for a total of fortynine years, the fiftieth year was then declared a Year of Jubilee, in which all lands returned to their original family holdings, and everyone had a fresh start. One could hear it argued vociferously in 20th-cent. America that this is unjust, unfair, and that people and their descendants ought to “get what’s coming to them.” According to Old Testament concepts of justice, “what’s coming to them” is a fresh opportunity, in spite of the mistakes, bad investments, and poor judgment of their parents in the use of the family inheritance. Even those sold into slavery for indebtedness were set free. No family (and this is the communal emphasis again) can be totally and finally disinherited. That this system did not work very well in ancient Israel is an illustration of man’s selfishness and covetousness, but that the prophets cried constantly for restoration of the inheritance is plainly illustrative of what was considered righteousness in Old Testament law. The social sensitivity of the Old Testament prophets (especially Amos and Isaiah) is as plain as any emphasis on personal salvation in relation to God’s holy demands. How far this idea of righteousness can be removed from what is generally thought of as being “religious” is illustrated by the unhappy story of Judah and Tamar, where the whole concept of righteousness is plainly related to the use and misuse of proper family relationships (Gen 38).


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” (Gen 15:6). By the same token, Habakkuk established the commanding principle of Pauline and Reformation theology with his dictum, “the righteous shall live by his faith” (Hab 2:4). Thus the righteous God, with no one to deal with except sinners, draws near with His covenant promises, initiates the process by which men may be brought into a saving relationship, sustains men in this relationship by His power and not theirs, and forgives and restores those who by faith accept these promises and return in repentance when they have broken the covenant. As Emil Brunner says, “The hero of the Old Testament is God.” It is not what men are, but what they may become as God holds them and as they respond, which makes the covenant possible. It is not a question of man’s attainments nor of man’s perfections, it is a question of a saving relationship provided for by a merciful, infinitely patient God.

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” (Exod 19:4-6). Notice God’s initiatory act, even against all men’s expectancies; and notice, too, the future reference, not to what they are but to what they are to become.

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. Ps 89:28-37, especially vv. 32, 33).

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” Gal 3:24 KJV) is the guide for those within the covenant. Only inside the covenant does one really care what response he shall make to the God who has called him to be His child. Much time in this generation is wasted in telling people how they ought to act—“Why don’t you act like a Christian?”—when there is no reason why a non-Christian should have any interest in acting like one. The American representative in the United Nations illustrated how foolish this can be when he urged that the Arabs and Jews could settle their differences if they would only “act like Christians.” This may be a true statement, but on the face of it, it seems highly irrelevant to an Arab and to a Jew.

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” (Ps 19:7-10). Apparently, for the Jew, although the law was binding, it was far from oppressive. On the contrary, how happy he was that his God had made plain to him how to live a life of stability and satisfaction.

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” (Gen 12:2). The Jew lost his way when he thought the blessing ended with him. There was not one iota of selfishness in one’s being chosen of God. The New Testament concept of “election” has in it the same danger unless it is seen that one is “elected” as an agent of God toward others. For another thing, the channel of blessing was to be universal, not narrow. Perhaps God’s great protection of the Jew, which seems to be narrow and provincial, is offensive because of the fact that men do not understand the problem and so they make the same mistake that the Jew made, i.e. they consider election an end in itself. God had to start somewhere, He had to choose someone; He had at all costs to protect His investment in His plan of salvation. That only a remnant remained as a channel for His blessing is indicative of the high cost of this whole process, even in the Old Testament. The Gentiles had to be left out at the outset, but most of the Jews had to be left out, too, before some of them were fit channels for a salvation which was to come to all men. The servant of God in the covenant eventually had to become the suffering servant, and yet, in the whole process, the absolutely holy God, for love’s sake, was working out a way by which men would become “heirs of God.” What is difficult to see in the Old Testament is not necessarily easier to see in the New Testament. Israel, the suffering servant, is replaced by the Suffering Servant, who in perfect obedience “fulfilled all righteousness.” It is the burden of Paul’s approach to Christianity to reveal how this was done.

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 (Matt 1:19). So too, Pilate and his wife judged Jesus to be a “righteous” man (Matt 27:19-24). Even in their short acquaintance they had recognized a certain greatness about Him which made them uneasy about any part Pilate might play in His crucifixion.

In a stricter sense the Pharisees made an appearance of “righteousness” (Matt 23:28), and surely in such passages the idea is that of formal righteousness in keeping the meticulous requirements of the Jewish law. Abel was called righteous (23:35); the heroes of the past were righteous (23:29); and the promise of the Messianic kingdom was that the “righteous” would in due time enter it (13:43-49; 25:37-46). Popular usage makes it impossible to draw out any sharp distinction or definition. The situation is akin to Jesus’ strange answer to the rich young ruler (Luke 18:19): “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” This was not Jesus’ denial of His own goodness, but a concern that the rich young ruler should use the term “seriously” rather than in a popular sense. The whole burden of their exchange had to do with real goodness, and Jesus was insisting that the word “good” applied to God alone and that He and the young ruler, if they were to talk about “goodness” at all, should talk about it in the absolute sense. Thus the gospels reflect the popular use of the word “righteous” even though in careful conversation one could insist that only God is “righteous.”

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 (Mark 2:17) is parallel to Matthew’s usage (Matt 9:13) and adds nothing to one’s understanding of it. Luke puts into the mouth of Christ the adjective “righteous,” but adds nothing to Matthew’s usage (Luke 5:32; Matt 9:13). The “resurrection of the righteous,” the description of Christ by the centurion as “a righteous man” (Luke 23:47 KJV), and the statement that Joseph of Arimathea was “a good and righteous man” (Luke 23:50) add nothing to the clarification of this term for these are all popular usages.


This interpretation is supported by the other reference to John the Baptist in Matthew (21:32), where Jesus was engaged in conflict with His enemies, and as He sometimes did, He was forcing His opponents to consider their reaction to Him in terms of their reaction to John, “For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the harlots believed him....” He is here concluding the thrust of His parable of the two sons, the better of whom said he would not do the will of his father, but nevertheless did it. For the purposes of interpretation one need not dwell on the parable, but what does “the way of righteousness” here mean?

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 (Matt 5:6, 10; 6:33). There are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (5:6) and are persecuted for their righteousness (5:10) but who are, nevertheless, to continue to seek the Father’s kingdom and His righteousness (6:33).

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (5:6). This beatitude parallels another: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” In this Kierkegaard’s insight is helpful when he suggests that to be “pure in heart” is to will one thing—namely the will of God. A man’s eye is to be “single” and not “evil.” Jesus described His own “meat and drink” as doing the will of His Father. When, therefore, He said that there is satisfaction for those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness,” He was not speaking of attainment or victory, but of the set of the life. The satisfaction comes in the constant vision and in the direction in which a man is moving. The whole inclination of a man’s life is described as a hunger and a thirst; and yet, strangely, this very constancy of hunger and thirst is its own satisfaction. Literature is replete with illustrations of some variation of the search for the Holy Grail. Apparently there is no greater description of a worthy and satisfying venture than that of a continuing searching-and-finding. How interesting it is that the Promised Land for the Israelites was set before them as a land “flowing with milk and honey.” Honey by itself cloys and satiates. Milk clears the taste. A promised land is one in which the endless delights are constantly opened up again to greater delights. The hungering and the thirsting continues even while one is being filled. “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”

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” (5:10). Indeed, “your reward is great in heaven, for men so persecuted the prophets who were before you” (5:12). Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness may be persecuted for this strange difference in their lives; yet they find themselves in the great company of those who constantly held out for a better day—“the prophets who were before you.”

In the great passages on anxiety (Matt 6:25-34), Jesus draws the line between those who are anxious about many things (“what shall we eat, or what shall we drink, or what shall we wear?”) and those who accept the necessity of such things, but are concerned for greater things than these common needs. “Seek first,” He says, “his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well” (6:33). Jesus is not denying the things, nor the necessity of the things. What He knows is that unless the foundations are established in righteousness, the “things” also will disappear. All materialistic societies fall away to the dust heaps of history when they play fast and loose with the foundations of righteousness. In this verse (6:33) righteousness means the will of God brought to bear on the affairs of life. This was the ideal of the Old Testament theocracy which never quite matured. Jesus again was speaking of the righteousness of God. Throughout these three passages, therefore (5:6; 5:10; 6:33), the absolute righteousness of God, with which the Old Testament begins, is confirmed.

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” (Matt 5:20). As is well known, the scribes, and especially the Pharisees, were experts in religious disciplines. The Pharisees had arisen as a class after the return of the Jews from exile. By that time in their history the Jews had nothing to recommend them except their religion. They had no political power, no military might, no economic significance. Caught in the midst of tremendous world powers, and existing only as a remnant, their contribution to history was to be a religion through which salvation would come to all men. But this religion had to be hedged about and the Pharisees arose as a class to protect in the strictest possible ways the differentia of their faith. At this stage they were a necessary disciplinary force, but by the time of Jesus their concern for the minutia of Judaism had almost made a mockery out of their religion. Judaism had become a religion of rules and regulations. What Paul (who himself was a Pharisee) called “the burden of the law” could not possibly be borne by the ordinary man in his daily walk. These experts, therefore, not only satisfied what they considered to be all the demands of the law, but by such exercises they satisfied themselves and finally took cold hard pride in their attainments.

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” (Matt 6:1). Jesus accepted the so-called “exercises” of a man’s religion—almsgiving, prayer, fasting. He assumed that a religious man will engage in such practices. But T. S. Elliott says it well in Murder in the Cathedral when he wrote “a Pharisee is a man who does the right thing for the wrong reason.” Again it is a question of motive, and Jesus criticized harshly those who perform their religious exercises to be seen of men.

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 Holy Spirit. It is impossible to treat the subject of the Holy Spirit with any completeness at all in this context, so it must be limited to straight-forward statements without support or commentary. From the best available evidence, therefore, one may conclude that when Jesus says He (i.e. the Holy Spirit) “will convince the world of sin and righteousness and of judgment...of righteousness because I go to the Father...” (John 16:8, 9), He is looking forward from this quiet meeting to what surely must appear later in the instructive writings of the apostles as they are recorded in the remainder of the New Testament. It is surely evident that what Jesus was and what He did, and what is yet to transpire because of the living Christ were nothing but questions and doubts to the disciples on the eve of the crucifixion. The function of the Holy Spirit was to inspire truthfully what the apostles must say regarding the fact and the meaning of Christ. Righteousness, therefore, in these two vv. (John 16:8, 10) is the complete righteousness of God, completely portrayed in the life and teachings of Jesus which the apostles came to understand and which they shared with mankind.

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 (5:30), as a description of human judgment (7:24), and as a description of God the Father (17:25). These usages do not concern the argument at this point because in one form or another they have already come under discussion. The next crucial question, in regard to the whole subject of righteousness is what the apostles, especially Paul, would do with the absolute righteousness of God, the portrayal of that righteousness in Christ, the failure of the righteousness of men, and the whole question of how unrighteous men may stand in the presence of the righteous God.

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’” (Rom 1:16, 17; cf. Hab. 2:4). The fundamental problem in this thesis is what Paul called “the righteousness of God” (δικαιοσύνη θεου̂). The question of interpretation is concerned with the genitive theou. The form allows three possible interpretations.

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 (Ps 35:24, 28; 51:14; 71:2ff., 24; Isa 51:5; 54:17; 56:1).

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 Psalm 143:1, 2. It is evident in this communal use of the idea of righteousness that God’s nation can be justified, but if the sinful individual who cannot face God’s judgment is to be justified, the process must be different. National and individual sins and successes seem to be sorted out in the Old Testament.

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” (Rom 3:26).

The theme of Romans is the righteousness of God (1:17). After this theme was announced, Paul took great pains to show that no righteousness of man has worked nor will work. He illustrated this first from the pagan world where he allowed for “natural theology.” He put it this way: “Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made” (1:20). The pagan world, therefore, is “without excuse,” because the natural world, the created world, is a revelation of the power and deity of God. Men everywhere, however, have stopped short with the created world and have worshiped the creation rather than the Creator, and this, in whatever form it takes, is idolatry. It follows, therefore, that men practicing idolatry, have in the worship of things constantly demeaned themselves by worshiping what is lower even than man. It is the sort of thing that can happen now when a man stops with the symbols of his faith—bread, wine, beauty, a holy place—and forgets the reality which is symbolized. An observer may stop with the technique of a painting, or even its beauty, whereas the height of his esthetic experience should be to have spirit meet spirit with the artist himself. The remainder of Paul’s declaration of pagan disintegration vividly portrays in the background of Rom. culture how idolatry eventually goes through perversion to decay.


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 (1:17ff.; 3:20ff.), says first of all that a righteousness of God has been revealed through faith for faith; he then goes on to say that this righteousness of God is the righteousness of Christ, who has been set forth as a propitiation for man’s sin, and that the right attainment of the righteousness of Christ is dependent upon faith. What, therefore, actually transpires?

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” (2 Cor 5:19). This carries thought into the structure of the Trinity, which happily is not the problem here. It is not likely that anyone will completely unravel what transpired in the Godhead; but this much must be maintained: whatever price Jesus was paying on the cross was paid by God Himself. One cannot contrast a loving Jesus with a wrathful Father. Even if this were the solution, any father worthy of the name would necessarily suffer in the suffering of his son. But this split in the Godhead is not at all necessary. “God was in Christ.” The agonies of the cross are a revelation of the heart of God, and they reveal that God, who makes the demands of holiness, in the last analysis pays those demands for those incapable of making the payment themselves. Therefore, the law of God is established, and the love of God finds its fullest expression in the one offering. Thus the cross becomes the symbol of the Christian faith in exhibiting what sin really is from God’s viewpoint, and what God is willing to do about it for His lost creation. In this one event God is surely “just and the justifier.” He maintains the demands of His law and justifies the sinner because He Himself has paid the price to maintain the law.

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” (1 John 1:7). But the Gr. is better: “The blood of Jesus, His son, keeps on cleansing 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” (Isa. 64:6), there is justification for those who find an existential approach a satisfactory one in their Christianity. Twentieth-cent. theology defined by Barth and illustrated by Niebuhr has touched every facet of ethical decision. Barth’s insistence that men “walk by faith,” and always in a “crisis” situation, and always with incompleteness in their positive righteous acts, is Biblical, and certainly basic as far as it goes. Niebuhr’s insistence that all men are sinful and in a sinful society and therefore are never capable of absolute righteous judgments, can also be easily established.

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 Jesus Christ. 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” (Gal 3:24 KJV). To follow his thinking, and to allow to situational ethics everything possible, there must be agreement that in Christ there is no longer the necessity for law, but that no man is in that perfect relationship and therefore, the law is his control until such time as he reaches perfection. The idealists, or the perfectionists, are right when they argue that traffic in cities would be no problem if people were only more thoughtful, more unselfish, kinder, in other words, if people were more nearly perfect or more “Christian.” People being as they are, the only possible freedom in heavy traffic grows out of the control of the law. “The counsel of perfection” will not do in a sinful society and the law is the “schoolmaster” to take men on the way toward a perfection and a maturity where the schoolmaster has worked his way out of a job. The road to freedom is always by way of discipline. “If you continue in my word,..you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:31, 32).

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.

Judaism

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.

Buddhism

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” (1 John 5:4), Buddha would say “this is the victory that escapes the world.” Where, then, is the place for righteousness? Theoretically, at least, there is no place. Actually, and practically, Buddhism teaches that one must align himself with the order of the universe—that wrongdoing leads to punishment and right doing leads to reward. Such teachings, however, are merely for the tyro in the faith or the unconverted man. For the mature Buddhist, works of righteousness have no meaning in the final renunciation of life.

Egyptian

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.

Islam

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.

Bibliography

J. H. Thayer, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (1889), 148-151; J. Denney, Studies in Theology (1902), 109-124; A. H. Strong, Systematic Theology (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 Christian Ethics (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.

Additional Material

Source 1


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 (Gen.15.6; Hab.2.4), and were expected to live in right relationship with others. The king as the head and representative of the people was called by God to be righteous—to be in a right relationship with God, his people, and the surrounding nations (Ps.72.1-Ps.72.4; Ps.146.7-Ps.146.9). So we see that righteousness begins as a forensic term but easily becomes an ethical term in the Old Testament. Much the same is found in the New Testament.

In the teaching of Jesus, righteousness means a right relationship with God (see the parable of the Pharisee and tax collector, Luke.18.14), as well as the quality of life that involved a right relationship both with God and one’s fellow human beings (Matt.5.6, Matt.5.17-Matt.5.20). But it is Paul who uses the word to the greatest effect in the New Testament with his creation of the doctrine of justification by faith (that is, being placed by God in a right relationship with himself in and through Christ by faith). His great statement is found in Rom.1.16-Rom.1.17. The gospel is the power of God for salvation because “a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last.” That is, the gospel is effective because, along with the proclamation, a righteousness goes forth—a righteousness that God delights to see and accept. This righteousness is the provision of a right relationship with himself through the saving work of Jesus, substitute and representative Man. To receive this gift of righteousness is to be justified by faith. And those who receive the gift then are to live as righteous people, devoted to the service of what God declares to be right.

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

LITERATURE

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 (Mt 23:23); but, on the whole and in the main, Christian thought in all ages has recognized as the central element in righteousness the intention to be and do right. This common spirit binds together the first worshippers of God and the latest. Present-day conceptions of what is right differ by vast distances from the conceptions of the earlier Hebrews, but the intentions of the first worshippers are as discernible as are those of the doers of righteousness in the present day.

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.

See Alms.

As we read the earlier parts of the nodetitle we are struck by the fact that much of the early Hebrew morality was of this group kind. The righteous man was the man who performed the rites which had been handed down from the beginning (De 6:25). The meaning of some of these rites is lost in obscurity, but from a very early period the characteristic of Hebrew righteousness is that it moves in the direction of what we should call today the enlargement of humanity. There seemed to be at work, not merely the forces which make for the preservation of the group, not merely the desire to please the God of the Hebrews for the sake of the material favors which He might render the Hebrews, but the factors which make for the betterment of humanity as such. As we examine the laws of the Hebrews, even at so late a time as the completion of the formal Codes, we are indeed struck by traces of primitive survivals (Nu 5:11-31). There are some injunctions whose purpose we cannot well understand. But, on the other hand, the vast mass of the legislation had to do with really human considerations. There are rules concerning Sanitation (Le 13), both as it touches the life of the group and of the individual; laws whose mastery begets emphasis, not merely upon external consequences, but upon the inner result in the life of the individual (Ps 51:3); and prohibitions which would indicate that morality, at least in its plainer decencies, had come to be valued on its own account. If we were to seek for some clue to the development of the moral life of the Hebrews we might well find it in this emphasis upon the growing demands of human life as such. A suggestive writer has pointed out that the apparently meaningless commandment, "Thou shalt not boil a kid in its mother’s milk" (Ex 23:19), has back of it a real human purpose, that there are some things which in themselves are revolting apart from any external consequences (see also Le 18).

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 (Ge 18:25). It may well be that at the start the God of the Hebrews was largely a God of War, but it is to be noticed that His enmity was against the peoples who had little regard for the larger human considerations. It has often been pointed out that one proof of the inspiration of the Scriptures is to be found in their moral superiority to the Scriptures of the peoples around about the Hebrews. If the Hebrew writers used material which was common property of Chaldeans, Babylonians, and other peoples, they nevertheless used these materials with a moral difference. They breathed into them a moral life which forever separates them from the Scriptures of other peoples. The marvel also of Hebrew history is that in the midst of revoltingly immoral surroundings the Hebrews grew to such ideals of human worth. The source of these ideals is to be found in their thougth of God. Of course, in moral progress there is a reciprocal effect; the thought of God affects the thought of human life and the thought of human life affects the thought of God; but the Hebrews no sooner came to a fresh moral insight than they made their moral discovery a part of the character of God. From the beginning, we repeat, the God of the Hebrews was a God directed in His moral wrath against all manner of abominations, aberrations and abnormalities. The purpose of God, according to the Hebrews, was to make a people "separated" in the sense that they were to be free from anything which would detract from a full moral life (Le 20:22).

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 (De 24:1,2). Then there was a growing sense of what constitutes moral obligation in the discharge of responsibilities upon the part of men toward their fellows (Isa 5:8,23). There was increasing realization also of what God, as a moral Being, is obligated to do. The hope of salvation of nations and individuals rests at once upon the righteousness of God.

By the time of Isaiah the righteousness of God has come to include the obligations of power (Isa 63:1). God will save His people, not merely because He has promised to save them, but because He must save them (Isa 42:6). The must is moral. If the people of Israel show themselves unworthy, God must punish them; but if a remnant, even a small remnant, show themselves faithful, God must show His favor toward them. Moral worth is not conceived of as something that is to be paid for by external rewards, but if God is moral He must not treat the righteous and the unrighteous alike. This conception of what God must do as an obligated Being influences profoundly the Hebrew interpretation of the entire course of history (Isa 10:20,21).

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 nodetitle in the life and death of Christ as set before us in the Gospels and interpreted by the apostles. Jesus stated certain moral axioms so clearly that the world never will escape their power. He said some things once and for all, and He did some things once and for all; that is to say, in His life and death He set on high the righteousness of God as at once moral obligation and self-sacrificing love (Joh 3:16) and with such effectiveness that the world has not escaped and cannot escape this righteous influence (Joh 12:32). Moreover, the course of apostolic and subsequent history has shown that Christ put a winning and compelling power into the idea of righteousness that it would otherwise have lacked (Ro 8:31,32).

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 (Joh 10:10). The keeping of the commandments plays, of course, a large part in the unfolding of the life of the righteous Christian, but the keeping of the commandments is not to be conceived of in artificial or mechanical fashion (Lu 10:25-37). With the passage of the centuries some commandments once conceived of as essential drop into the secondary place, and other commandments take the controlling position. In Christian development increasing place is given for certain swift insights of the moral spirit. We believe that some things are righteous because they at once appeal to us as righteous. Again, some other things seem righteous because their consequences are beneficial, both for society and for the individual. Whatever makes for the largest life is in the direction of righteousness. In interpreting life, however, we must remember the essentially Christian conception that man does not live through outer consequences alone. In all thought of consequences the chief place has to be given to inner consequences. By the surrender of outward happiness and outward success a man may attain inner success. The spirit of the cross is still the path to the highest righteousness.

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 (1Co 1:2; Re 7:9,10). If we were to try to point out the line in which the Christian doctrine of righteousness is to move more and more through the years, we should have to emphasize this element of obligation to society. This does not mean that a new gospel is to supersede the old or even place itself alongside the old. It does mean that the righteousness of God and the teaching of Christ and the cross, which are as ever the center of Christianity, are to find fresh force in the thought of the righteousness of the Christian as binding itself, not merely by commandments to do the will of God in society, but by the inner spirit to live the life of God out into society.

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 Kingdom of Heaven. 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.

LITERATURE.

G. B. Stevens, The Christian Doctrine of Salvation; A. E. Garvie, Handbook of Christian Apologetics; Borden P. Bowne, Principles of Ethics; Newman Smyth, nodetitle; A. B. Bruce, The Kingdom of God; W. N. Clarke, The Ideal of Jesus; H. C. King, The Ethics of Jesus.