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Revisiting Riddles of Righteousness

Graphic of a lamb and lion in a circle and scales of justice. All of this is meant to represent righteousness.

Across the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments, the concept of “righteousness” is incredibly important. To begin with, concerning God’s character, God is the one who “judges the world with righteousness; he judges the peoples with equity” (Ps 9:8). In addition, God’s actions to save his people, to deliver them, to forgive them, or to restore them are the manifestation of his righteousness: “Vindicate me, O Lord, my God, according to your righteousness” (Ps 35:24). There is also in Scripture the importance of doing “righteousness and justice” (Gen 18:19) and walking before the Lord “in faithfulness, in righteousness, in uprightness of heart” (1 Kgs 8:32). And when we come to the New Testament, the kingdom of God is the domain of righteousness. Jesus taught that one must “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matt 6:33), while Paul instructed the Romans that “For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom 14:17). Whether we are talking about God’s character and attributes, or about ethics, salvation, or the future kingdom of God, all are closely related to righteousness.

Precisely because “righteousness” is such an important concept in Scripture, there are various debates about it—especially debates pertaining to the precise meaning of certain relevant Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek words; but also debates over whether “righteousness” has an ethical or a salvific meaning in a certain passage; and also (especially) about “justification/righteousness by faith” in Paul’s letters. Many of these debates are somewhat technical and scholarly, but others are about the basic elements of theology, the rectifying power of God, and the behavior that God expects of his people. Indeed, a great deal is at stake in how we think about “righteousness,” both as an idea, as a way of life, and even as the domain of God’s reign.

Therefore, the aim of this short study is to introduce readers to several debates about righteousness in biblical studies with a view to explaining how the various facets of “righteousness” are relevant to them. Among the possible areas to analyze, I have chosen five questions to explore:

  1. Does “righteousness” have a single meaning?
  2. Is righteousness ethical or forensic?
  3. Is righteousness imputed or imparted?
  4. Do James and Paul agree on justification by faith?
  5. How is righteousness a way of life?

Hopefully, these topics will demonstrate why it is important to have a good grasp of the biblical concepts of “righteousness” for those interested in biblical studies and living out the Christian faith.

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1. Does “righteousness” have a single meaning?

One debate is about the Hebrew words ṣedeq (justness, rightness) and ṣədāqâ (justice, blamelessness) and the Greek words dikaiosynē (righteousness) and dikaios (right, just). What do these words mean at the lexical level, i.e., how would a dictionary define them? I do not want to bore you with debates about lexicography, but note two things. First, words—in Scripture as in English—do not have singular meanings. Meaning is related to context and usage, and meaning can even change over time. No word amounts to just one thing; rather, it will normally refer to a range of concepts in what we call a “semantic domain.” Second, we must remember that we are trying to explain Hebrew and Greek words and ideas in English. In English, we have different words for “righteousness” and “justice,” whereas in Hebrew and Greek “righteousness” and “justice” can be denoted by the same word. We must remember that the words we use in English might not directly correlate with their Hebrew and Greek counterparts.

One debate concerns whether the Hebrew words for “righteousness” refers to right relationship or to adherence to a norm. It is sometimes alleged that the Greek idea of righteousness is abstract and absolute, whereas the Hebrew notion of righteousness pertains to the rightness of actions by persons in particular social relationships. It is claimed that the Hebrew notion of righteousness is not an abstract entity but a relational term that signifies the appropriateness of actions in relation to persons. Several key texts are used to support the relational model, including 1 Samuel 24:17 (King Saul was unrighteous because he failed in his duty as king, while David was righteous because he refused to attack the anointed monarch) and Genesis 38:26 (Tamar was more righteous than Judah because she continued her family line for her husband against his refusal to raise up offspring for his brother). You can imagine how this debate about Old Testament Hebrew words might migrate to the Greek words of the New Testament. Paul, so it is claimed, while writing in Greek about righteousness, was in fact thinking in Hebrew categories, so that righteousness was not an abstract but a relational reality. All of this sounds initially attractive, but I am not so sure that it works.

To begin with, Hebrew words like ṣedeq cannot be reduced to one thing, whether right relationships or something similar, because no word can be reducible to one thing. There is a range of meanings that a word can have based on its context and usage. So, declaring that Hebrew words for righteousness are relational while Greek words are abstract is a notorious over-generalization, one that fails to account for the varied usage of words in the Old Testament and in Hellenistic literature. For example, there are usages of righteousness language in the Old Testament that have nothing to do with relationships. Think for instance of the “paths of righteousness” in Psalm 23:3, where the path represents not a relationship but the direction of fitting and faithful behavior for a person to live before the Lord. While righteousness can indeed be a relational concept, not all righteousness is relational. There is “righteousness” (or the lack thereof) even in commerce and in impersonal objects.

“But what about Tamar?” someone will retort! In Genesis 38, Tamar tricked her father-in-law Judah into getting her pregnant by dressing up as a prostitute, because he wouldn’t allow his son Shelah to do the job. After Tamar’s pregnancy was exposed and Judah’s unwitting role was revealed, even Judah exclaimed, “She is more righteous than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah” (Gen 38:26 LEB). It is often thought that Tamar’s adultery was righteous because she had raised up offspring for her dead husband even though it meant tricking her father-in-law. She had done right relationally by her late husband. Yet we cannot say that this story is proof that righteousness is relational rather than abstract. That is because Tamar’s allegedly adulterous action conformed to pre-existing legal norms and communal expectations of preserving the familial line of a deceased husband (Gen 38:8; Deut 25:5–10), indicating that adherence to a norm is indeed the case. Even while relational dynamics are at play, we cannot evacuate the story of its legal and normative expectations of rightness—expectations which Tamar fulfilled and Judah abused.

The other issue is whether we can insist on a disjunction between Greek and Hebrew concepts of righteousness. Now, on the one hand, since the time of Aristotle, Greek notions of righteousness (Greek: dikaiosynē) are usually related to the laws of nature and exercising justice in the city, whereas Hebrew notions are normally bound up with God, his covenants, and his workings. But what happened when the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek, i.e., the Septuagint? Did the Greek words suddenly acquire Hebrew meanings? I’d aver that the Septuagint does mediate Hebraic notions, especially when “righteousness” (Hebrew: ṣədāqâ) is translated as “mercy” (Greek: eleos), or when covenant love (Hebrew: ḥesed) is translated as “righteousness” (Greek: dikaiosynē). But translation from Hebrew into Greek cannot totally empty a Greek word and replace it with Hebrew meanings; that is simply not how translation works. Yes, the literary context and interpretive community that a translation or text is located in can help a Greek reader understand Greek words with Hebrew or “biblical” resonances. However, we also need to remember that Hebrew and Greek ideas of righteousness and rightness are not galaxies away from each other. There are Greek-Hebrew parities on righteousness, demonstrated in the biblical notion of God’s punitive justice (e.g., Ps 50:6, 96:10–13; Isa 59:16–21), which is remarkably similar to the Greek notion of distributive justice. So rather than posit a stark contrast between Hebrew and Greek terms for righteousness, it is more accurate to say that Hebrew and Greek words for righteousness belong to their own semantic domains and discourses which, though often different, are not so varied that they are utterly incommensurable. Whether righteousness in Amos or Aristotle is about right relationships or adherence to a norm will not be determined by whether the precise word in question is a Hebrew or Greek one; rather, it will be based on the context in which the word is used.

In sum, beware of claims that “righteousness means X” or that “Hebrew and Greek have vastly different meanings of righteousness.” The reality about biblical words, their usage, history, variety, and translation, is far more complex!

2. Is righteousness ethical or forensic?

In Paul’s letters, the noun dikaiosynē (righteousness) is normally ethical: it pertains to one’s right behavior; but the verb dikaioō (to declare righteous) is normally forensic: it pertains to one’s righteous status. But there are exceptions to these generalizations.

For example, when Paul urges the Philippian congregation towards blamelessness on the day of Christ, he exhorts them on the grounds that they: “hav[e] been filled with the fruit of righteousness [dikaiosynē] which comes through Jesus Christ to the glory and praise of God” (Phil 1:11). Here dikaiosynē is the fruitful behavior or disposition produced from having a relationship with Christ. The Philippians need to bear the fruit which consists of righteousness as they prepare for Christ’s return. Later in the same epistle, however, dikaiosynē can refer to a status conferred by God and received by faith. Paul tells the Philippians about his own journey of abandoning the pursuit of dikaiosynē from the law, and instead hoping that he “may be found in him, not having my righteousness which is from the law, but which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God on the basis of faith” (Phil 3:9). Paul does not trust in his own election, ethnic identity, or effort to attain dikaiosynē; he receives it from God on the condition of faith.

Similarly, even Paul’s language of “to be justified,” marked by the verb dikaioō, is not uniform. When writing to the Romans, Paul, in a densely packed section in Romans 3:21–31, can explain the saving work of Christ as the instrument by which believers are “being justified as a gift by his grace, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus” (Rom 3:24). Then, in Romans 4, this act of “justification” is described in terms of Genesis 15:6, where Abraham’s faith was counted/considered as righteousness. Indeed, Paul will recapitulate this very point in Romans 5:1 when he says, “We have been declared righteous by faith”—and then again in Romans 8:1 where he restates this same truth in the negative: “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” The proof that dikaioō is forensic in that it is the opposite of condemnation, which means something like “vindicate,” “acquit,” “rectify,” or “justify.” The point is important: namely, God declares believers to be righteous, not because they are righteous, but because they, by faith, are recipients of God’s saving righteousness in Christ.

Yet there are a few exceptions so that not every instance of dikaioō refers to a righteous status before God. In Romans 6, Paul exhorts the Roman believers to no longer live as slaves to sin, because they have died to sin by dying with Christ. There he says, “For the one who has died has been freed from sin” (Rom 6:7), and the Greek behind “free from sin” is a verbal form of dikaioō, and means something akin to “liberated from sin’s power.” Proof that liberation from sin and not a declaration of righteousness is in mind is that Paul repeats the same thought again in Romans 6:22, albeit with slightly different language: “But now, having been set free from sin and having been enslaved to God, you have your fruit leading to sanctification, and its end is eternal life.” Paul uses the verb eleutheroō—“to set free”; which is further proof that Paul can use “justification” in the sense of liberation from sins’ mastery.

Protestants have tended to be adamant that justification (a righteous status before God) is not based on sanctification (righteous behavior), because it would lead to merit theology, or righteousness by works. There are clear places in which Paul rejects a notion of salvation by personal works (e.g., Rom 4:4–6; Eph 2:8–9; Tit 3:4). However, we must accept that fact that Paul does not use Greek words according to the neat distinctions in dogmatic systems, or in order to allay anxieties over assurance that Protestants have constructed. Yes, most of the time dikaioō means a righteous status declared over us by faith in Christ (i.e., Rom 3:25, 5:1), but there is at least one occasion where dikaioō seems to be used with respect to a transformative righteousness or righteousness that enables us to make sure our forensic status matches our actual moral state (i.e., Rom 6:7).

3. Is righteousness imputed or imparted?

In medieval Catholic thought, justification was the process of becoming just or righteous, a process that happens synergistically when grace is infused into a person by partaking of the sacraments to empower them to do works of love. Such works then constitute the basis for having a righteous status. Of course, you never really knew if you were righteous enough, so you constantly needed a refill of sacramental grace—and more concerted efforts to do charitable deeds. But in the end, you were probably going to end up in purgatory anyway because you were never as righteous as Christ. In contrast, in Protestant thought, it is emphasized that the reason why believers are justified is because the obedience and merit of Jesus Christ is imputed to the believer. This means what makes someone righteous before God and right with God is not their own moral quality of righteousness, but instead Christ’s own righteousness is imputed to them and counted as theirs. It is this “alien” (external) righteousness rather than an innate righteousness that is the basis for justification by faith. Protestants thus believe in imputed righteousness rather than an infused righteousness.

I think the Protestant view is nearer to Pauline thought than the medieval Catholic view. That said, things are still not so simple. The fact is that the normal texts used to prooftext the imputation of Christ’s righteousness say no such thing (see 2 Cor 5:21; Rom 4:1–5; 1 Cor 1:30; Phil 3:6–9). These texts all come very close to saying something like that: they do employ the language of “reckoning” or “crediting”; they even refer to the gift of a righteous status; but no biblical text refers to the obedience or merits of Jesus as imputed to the believer. If we focus less on Protestant dogmatics and engage in a close reading of Paul’s letters, we will see that believers are indeed justified by faith, and that this justification is forensic, a status, not based on their moral state—but the key ingredient is not Jesus’s accumulation of merit, but rather union with Christ. I would argue that rather than speaking of an imputed righteousness, it is more accurate to refer to an incorporated righteousness. Jesus is the “righteous one” (Isa 53:11; Acts 3:14, 7:52, 22:14) who was vindicated in his resurrection (1 Tim 3:16) and declared to be the Son of God in power by his resurrection (Rom 1:3-4). Through faith in Christ, we have union with Christ, and so we are incorporated into Christ and into his righteousness. We then share in his vindication and his righteousness. Now, I would be prepared to accept that imputation is an implication of our union with Christ, explaining how this union results in a forensic status for the believer. But I remain adamant that no text explicitly speaks of the imputation of Christ’s merits to the believer. Union with Christ does the heavy lifting in what is normally attributed to the doctrine of imputation.

4. Do James and Paul agree on justification by faith?

A comparison of Galatians 2:15–21 and Romans 3:21–4:25 with James 2:14–26 can leave Bible readers scratching our heads as to whether or not these views are reconcilable. Protestants believe in sola fide, justification by faith alone. Yet, the only place where the words “faith alone” occur in the New Testament is in James 2:24—where James explicitly denies that “faith alone” justifies. Also, James cites Genesis 15:6 just as Paul does, but James does so to argue that works actually do matter for attaining righteousness—as it did for Abraham, who willingly offered up his son Isaac as a sacrifice. So do we have a real contradiction here between James and Paul?

I think the purported contradiction between Paul and James disappears if we dig below the surface. Although Paul and James use the same words—“faith,” “works,” “righteousness”—they do not use them in the same sense. Indeed, if Bible readers insist on one and only one sense for important Bible words, they force a contradiction where none is needed.

When James denies that “faith alone” justifies, he is talking about “faith” as mere assent—merely assenting to monotheism, having some kind of purely cerebral faith. Likewise, when Paul talks about “faith,” he means entrusting oneself to God who has acted in Jesus Christ to bring salvation to Jews and Gentiles. But faith for Paul is also about faithfulness as a way of life. Paul’s notion of faith involves passively trusting in God, yet it actively entails a radical transformation of the self and is closely associated with obedience, faithfulness, and love. In other words, for Paul, the only justifying faith is “faith working through love” (Gal 5:6). I have no doubt that Paul would reject what James rejects, an external and purely cerebral faith that refuses to pursue the fruit of the Spirit. I’d add that I think that James and Paul both know of faith as something created by the “word,” be that the “implanted word” (Jas 1:21) or the “word of Christ” (Rom 10:17).

Similarly, when James urges the need for works, he is not talking about acts that accrue merit before God. He is talking about loving demonstrations of faith-in-action. That is the very same thing we find Paul talking about in Galatians 5–6 and Romans 8. Paul’s rejection of “works” and “works of law” is premised on the view that obedience to the precepts of the law is not the basis upon which one will be acquitted at the final judgment, and for Gentiles that meant specifically not having to become proselytes to Judaism. Yet Paul clearly leaves room for the positive role of works in the life of believers (see Gal 6:10; Eph 2:10). I have no doubt that James and Paul would affirm the words of Calvin: “We are not saved by works, but neither are we saved without them” (Institutes 3.6.1). Or, to put it differently, good works demonstrate the integrity of the faith that believers profess.

5. How is righteousness a way of life?

The discussion so far has been rather Paul-heavy, but Paul is not the only one who speaks about righteousness in the New Testament. Jesus, in the Gospel of Matthew, has much to say about righteousness as well. Consider the following statements from the Sermon on the Mount:

But Jesus answered [John the Baptist] and said to him, “Permit it now, for in this way it is right for us to fulfill all righteousness.” (Matt 3:15)

Blessed are the ones who hunger and thirst for righteousness, because they will be satisfied. (Matt 5:6)

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, because theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matt 5:10)

For I say to you that unless your righteousness greatly surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter into the kingdom of heaven. (Matt 5:20)

And take care not to practice your righteousness before people to be seen by them; otherwise you have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. (Matt 6:1)

But seek first his kingdom and righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. (Matt 6:33)

In many of the passages quoted above, “righteousness” amounts to something like “God’s way of doing things.” However, there is still more going on, because righteousness has to be fulfilled by Jesus being baptized by John (Matt 3:15), and everybody needs a righteousness beyond that of the scribes and Pharisees (Matt 5:20): something that appears to be uniquely attached to Jesus and his teaching. If we try to synthesize these two streams in Matthew’s Gospel, then “righteousness” is God’s way of doing business as taught and modeled by Jesus.

What is somewhat confronting about the Sermon on the Mount is that the righteousness there described is not a lofty idea of a religious utopia to be filed away in the back of our minds. Rather, righteousness is what ought to characterize followers of Jesus. A disciple must long for righteousness as one desires air to breathe. Disciples must strive to prove their citizenship in the kingdom of heaven whenever they are persecuted for pursuing a kingdom-ethic in how they live their lives. The Law as taught by the Pharisees and Scribes is not enough, God’s power and purposes are known and attained only in obedience to Jesus himself. Righteousness as a standard of conduct is not to be performed for public consumption; rather, it is good for its own sake, for the sake of the God whom it serves. God’s kingdom and its associated righteousness is a priority over all other priorities of family, business, leisure, and ambition.

If we were to try and summarize “righteousness” in the Gospel of Matthew, we would need to say something like this: Righteousness is the Jesus-centered kingdom-way-of-life that authentic disciples desire, demonstrate, and declare.

Conclusion: the way of righteousness

In this short essay, I’ve tried to cover several of the “riddles” about righteousness. I’ve covered the meaning of Hebrew and Greek words for righteousness. I have introduced readers to the discussion as to whether righteousness is ethical or forensic in Paul’s letters. I’ve added my own two cents to the debates about imputed righteousness. I have tried to show how Paul and James agree quite a lot on justification by faith. Finally, I’ve highlighted elements of righteousness in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount as it relates to discipleship. At this point, I need to give readers the caveat that this is only scratching the surface of these debates and discussions. Much more can be said about these topics—and is said in various books and articles. Suffice it to say, righteousness is an important topic in biblical studies, theology, and ethics that merits close study and reflection for those concerned with the “way of righteousness” (Matt 21:32).

My own feelings about the importance of righteousness in the Christian life are best captured by John Wesley (quite an admission coming from a card-carrying Calvinist!). First, on righteousness in salvation, Wesley clearly believed that we are clothed with Christ’s own righteousness:

Is not a believer invested or clothed with the righteousness of Christ? Undoubtedly he is. And accordingly the words above-recited are the language of every believing heart: “Jesus, thy blood and righteousness My beauty are, my glorious dress.” (Sermon no. 20)

Then second, on the Christian life, Wesley said in one sermon:

To you who believe the Christian Revelation, I may speak in a still stronger manner. You believe, your blessed Master “left you an example, that you might tread in his steps.” Now, you know his whole life was one labor of love. You know “how he went about doing good,” and that without intermission; declaring to all, “My Father worketh hitherto, and I work.” Is not that, then, the language of your heart?” (Sermon no. 99)

That is a good summary as any: righteousness as an indicative—what God does for us in Christ; and righteousness as an imperative—what God expects of us as we live for Christ!

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Written by
Michael F. Bird

Michael F. Bird (PhD University of Queensland) is Deputy Principal at Ridley College, Melbourne, Australia. He is an Anglican priest and the author of over 30 books about the New Testament and Theology.

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Written by Michael F. Bird