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Righteousness from God

by Mark Horne

copyright © 2003

One meaning of “righteousness” in the Bible is moral uprightness. Perhaps a more basic meaning would be faithfulness. For example, Psalm 96.13 praises God, saying:

He will judge the world in righteousness,
And the peoples in faithfulness.

In Hebrew poetry two lines often say the same thing using different words. In this case, “faithfulness” and “righteousness” are very close in meaning, if not identical. Because faithfulness to God’s commands would constitute moral goodness, one can see how righteousness came to designate one’s moral behavior in general.

But God tells us that none of us is faithful to all God’s commands. As King Solomon confessed in his prayer to God at the dedication of the temple, “there is no man who does not sin” (First Kings 8.46). The question then is: How can we be counted as righteous before God when we are not faithful to God’s commandments?

To get to the answer to that question, we have to realize that the language of “righteousness” is most at home in the setting of a law court. For example, in Exodus 23 we read:

You shall not pervert the justice due to your needy brother in his dispute. Keep far from a false charge, and do not kill the innocent or the righteous, for I will not acquit the guilty. And you shall not take a bribe, for a bribe blinds the clear-sighted and subverts the cause of the just.

I’m using the NASB here, but it is somewhat misleading. Because the word for “acquit” is the verbal form of the word “righteous” and “the just” also uses the same word: “the righteous.” In this court setting the word “righteous” comes up repeatedly. As Biblical scholar, N. T. Wright summarizes the date in the entry for “righteousness” in the New Dictionary of Theology: “Righteousness is the status which results, for either party [defendant or plaintiff], if the court finds in his favor.”

Because God is the judge of all the earth, righteousness is very important for our relationship with him. When Solomon prays at the Temple dedication, he makes it clear that God’s judgments are an important aspect of the new place of worship:

If a man sins against his neighbor and is made to take an oath, and he comes and takes an oath before Your altar in this house, then hear You in heaven and act and judge Your servants, condemning the wicked by bringing his way on his own head and justifying [“declaring righteous”] the righteous by giving him according to his righteousness (First Kings 8.31, 32).

Obviously, since Solomon goes on to admit that no one is without sin, the “righteous” here are not those who are morally perfect, but those who have conformed to the covenant requirements in the case of his oath.

Notice that being declared “righteous” here is not some inaudible activity on God’s part. Solomon is asking God to intervene in history so that his verdict is obvious to all. Likewise, when Israel went into exile as punishment for sin, God promised to bring them back to their land through Isaiah the prophet (54.17).

No weapon that is formed against you shall prosper;
And every tongue that accuses you in judgment you will condemn.
This is the heritage of the servants of the LORD,
And their vindication [or “righteousness”] is from Me, declares the LORD.

Here the promised military deliverance from oppressors and accusers (“no weapon… against you shall prosper”) is interpreted as a judicial verdict from God.

Thus, righteousness can be used to describe a gift of glory and salvation from everything that is bad.

If only you had paid attention to My commandments!
Then your well being would have been like a river,
And your righteousness like the waves of the sea.
Your descendants would have been like the sand,
And your offspring like its grains;
Their name would never be cut off or destroyed from My presence” (Isaiah 48.18-19).

Here on might think that God is simply saying that obedience would mean one is morally upright (“righteous” by one possible meaning). But in the context of promising well being and many offspring, “righteousness” probably means the blessings from God that are a public declaration that his people are righteous in his sight. We see the same thing in Isaiah 58.8:

Then your light will break out like the dawn,
And your recovery will speedily spring forth;
And your righteousness will go before you;
The glory of the LORD will be your rear guard.

The glory of the LORD, the light and recovery his gives his people, is a public verdict: “not guilty.” This is probably the background to Paul’s term “justification of life” (Romans 5.18) his concern that the Law cannot “impart life” or be a basis for “righteousness” (Galatians 3.18).

Then how can we, who suffer just like the nonchristians around us, have any confidence that we are righteous in God’s sight. He has not publicly liberated us has he? First of all, by the Spirit, God raised Jesus from the dead and gave him new life. In the Gospel we see our righteousness, our vindication from God. Furthermore, by giving us faith, God has given public witness that we belong to him (Acts 15.8) so that we know we will, through Christ, be openly declared his children at the Last Day (Romans 8.20-25). There is no condemnation in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8.1).

copyright © 2003


  1. I want to ask, I attended a service last sunday and I am a bit confuse because the Pastor said that all of us Christians are righteous no matter what we do. In God’s eyes we are righteous because we are His children. We sin yes but we are not a sinner. Because to sin is different from a sinner. A sinner he said is the one who do not know God. And if us Christians sin and ask forgiveness to God we will always be forgiven, but isn’t this a little confusing because for example I am a Christian anyway it doesn’t matter anymore if I sin because my God will always forgive me. Is this not a little confusing?
    Thanks and God bless. Happy New year


    Comment by Leah — January 1, 2008 @ 11:12 am

  2. Leah, there may be parts of this that could be presented in a way that won’t confuse you as much, but I think that the pastor is basically right. Paul says that God showed his love to us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. That certainly sounds to me like, even though we still sin, we aren’t counted as sinners anymore.

    Comment by mhorne — January 1, 2008 @ 9:58 pm

  3. Mr Horne what happens to one who refuses their gift because there is no need to say that the giver would be offended first of all, but what would the case be for an atheist? because he denies his Lord, his only source of righteousness

    Comment by Mnr X — February 17, 2008 @ 7:47 pm

  4. Truly we have the righteousness of God through Jesus,but to continue making mistakes may be intentionally or at any little thing that the grace of God that has been made available to us to carry us through would have done for us ,refusing to resist the sin because you will be forgiven is`nt God`s standard and cannot take that ,because we cannot continue in sin and still expect his grace to carry us through.
    So when we are taken unawre God`s understand if we truly confess wih our heart and ask God to help you not to go back.Then,God`s righteousness is made known in our lives.

    Comment by Johnson — August 27, 2008 @ 4:17 am

  5. I have a question.
    For years My father in law sexually and emotionally abused his daughters. and mentally abused his wife. She became his doormat and answered only to his needs and the children came last.
    His daughters feel in spite of everything he is still their father and do what must be done for him.the visits to his home causes anxiety and they often become ill after or during the visit.
    He is extremely bitter towards his family and finds fault with everyone. He often is demeaning and will make cutting remarks. he lies and is focused only on his needs and desires.He will become angry and withdraw if he is not the center of attention. In fact he demands your full attention.
    He will use whatever means in order to manipulate his family. He often swears and uses the Lords name in Vain.
    At one time he was very active within his church however over the years has discontinued and now only reads his Bible. He is very knowledgeable and often quotes scriptures to make his point.
    On our last and I do mean last visit, he made a statement, he was not worried about anything as he had made it right with the Lord years ago. When I told my sister in law’s what he had said, they were appalled, considering the abuse they had received. I think he feels he can say and do whatever he likes to others as God has or will forgive him anyway. I am somewhat confused about the righteousness of God and or receiving the Holy Spirit. Those who I have known who accepted Christ do continue to sin, however I have often seen a change within themselves I have never witnessed with my father in law. They seem to have a honesty and a genuine care for others.
    I was not sure how to respond to his statement of being right with the Lord. I don’t want him to use this statement as a means to gain authority over me, thereby creating even a more hostile environment. My husband, the son, refuses to attend worship services with me. thank you for reading and replying.

    Comment by DJay — December 2, 2008 @ 3:42 am

  6. In response to DJay, your father-in-law is not saved by the Spirit even though he can quote the Bible and says he is. He doesn’t exhibit the fruit of the Spirit as you said, and is not working on improving and changing himself over time. He is sadly decieved.

    Galatians 5:22-23 Paul writes: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.”

    Comment by Rebekah — December 11, 2008 @ 12:52 am

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