Home / Tough Topics Explained / What is Righteousness?
The Bible speaks often of “righteousness.” For instance, in the New American Standard Bible, the English word “Righteousness” appears 309 times in 296 verses; and the word “Righteous” appears 300 times in 282 verses.
Thus, these words are of great importance. But what do these Biblical terms mean?
Contemporary usage of these words provides little assistance if we want to grasp their full flavor. Righteous and Righteousness are functionally synonyms for “moral” or “religious” and most often used to express “self-righteous,” meaning someone who thinks better of themselves than they ought. Unfortunately, there is often the stuffy air of pride that is associated with these terms.
To get a clearer picture of what the Bible is talking about when it uses these words, it is helpful to look at them in Greek. Greek was the language in which the New Testament was written and originally copied. And because Greek was the main trade language from the time of Alexander the Great (323 B.C.) through the end of the Roman Empire (476 A.D.) it was also the language that the Hebrew Old Testament was translated into in 70 B.C. The ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament is called “The Septuagint.”
The Greek word that is most often translated as “Righteousness” in both the Greek translation of the Old Testament as well as the New Testament is the noun δικαιοσύνη (G1343). It is pronounced “Di-kai-ō-soo-né.”
The Greek word that is most often translated as “Righteous” in both the Greek translation of the Old Testament as well as the New Testament is the adjective δίκαιος (G1342). It is pronounced “Di-kai-os.”
Even if you do not know any Greek, perhaps you can see a strong similarity in letters and sounds between the noun and adjective in the Greek language, just as there are strong similarities between the English noun (righteousness) and adjective (righteous).
“Dikaiosuné” and “Dikaios” are essentially the same word in different forms. So too is the Greek verbal form of this word—“δικαιόω” (G1344), which is pronounced “Di-kai-ah-ō.” In its various usages, this verb is sometimes translated “to make/be made righteous” or more often, “to justify/to be justified.” “Dikaiosuné” (righteousness) can just as easily be translated “justice” and “dikaios” (righteous) can just as easily be translated as “just.”
In Greek, the similarity between the noun “Dikaiosuné,” the adjective “Dikaos,” and the verb “Dikaioō” is obvious. But regrettably the connection is alphabetically and phonetically lost between the English noun “Righteousness,” the adjective “Righteous,” and the verb “Justify.” It is also regrettable that the word “righteous” has largely dropped from everyday usage but is still most commonly used in biblical translation. The words “just” and “justice” better translate “Dikaios and “Dikaiosuné” according to common usage. This would also be consistent with how “Dikaioō” is usually translated as “justify.”
To “justify” something means to bring it into proper alignment according to the desired standard. For instance, when we “left justify” a Word document, we set each line according to the left margin of our paper. When the words line up properly, they are justified.
The same thing can be said of our lives. When we attempt to “justify ourselves” we are making an appeal that our actions were in line with a standard. “What I did was okay because…” Perhaps we appeal to some socially agreed upon standards of behavior. Perhaps we appeal to some sense of fairness, or reciprocity. However, everyone tends to “adjust the margins” for their own behavior.
In reality, God sets the true standard. As the Creator, He sets the moral “margins” for our lives. His standards are perfect and true. They are far superior to our crooked and broken standards. God created all things. And part of what He created was a system of cause and effect. This is true in nature. What we call “physical laws” are observations of cause-effect relationships established by God. For instance, when we let go of something, gravity pulls it to the ground. We can disbelieve in gravity, but when we let go of something it will hit the ground notwithstanding.
God also created cause-effect in the spiritual and moral universe. The Bible makes clear that when a community practices loving their neighbors, and caring for them and their property to the same standard they care for their own, that community will be greatly blessed. This is the essence of the promise God makes to Israel. A summary of this promise can be seen in Deuteronomy 30:15-16. Similarly, when communities decide instead to seek to exploit and extract from one another, God predicts destruction and death will come of it. This is also what God told Israel. A summary of this promise can be seen in Deuteronomy 30:17-20.
This same basic proposition is given in the New Testament. Anyone can be born again into God’s family as a child of God simply by having sufficient faith to look upon Jesus, hoping to be delivered from the death that comes from the venom of sin (John 3:14-15). But that new child is just like the children of Israel in that they still have a choice to make whether to walk in faith that God’s ways are for their best, or decide to walk in their own ways. As the Apostle Paul asserts:
“For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one
who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.”
When the Bible speaks of “righteousness” or “justice,” it is speaking of God’s perfect moral standards. When it speaks of “righteous” or “just,” it is speaking of living in a manner that is in proper alignment with God’s standards. Jesus described God’s moral standard as being summed up by the two great commandments to love God with all our being, and express that love by loving our neighbors as we love ourselves (Matthew 22:37-40).
When believers follow these two great commandments, each person will look to express their gifting in service to others. When an entire community does this, they function like a healthy and fit body, where all parts work together for a common purpose.
Jesus describes His people as being a body, and exhorts each of His people to play their part to benefit the whole, under His headship (1 Corinthians 12:12-22). We might not think often of any particular organ within our bodies, but when we experience an organ malfunction, it causes the entire body to suffer. Likewise it is so with the Body of Christ.
Each believer has an important role to play. Each person brings life to the Body when they choose to serve others and use their gifting to seek their best. This is the idea of “righteousness”—when all the different parts work together with a unity of purpose. The Greek terms translated “righteous” or “just” might be better understood if translated as “harmony.” When the Bible speaks of “justifying,” it is describing being realigned from our crooked standards and lined up according to God’s perfect standards. In God’s sight, we are incapable of lining up to His standards. So Jesus did it for us. We are “lined up” with God’s standard in Christ when we believe in Him, and trust Him to deliver us from our corruption of sin (John 3:14-16).
Then, when we believe, we are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, who empowers us to also walk among our fellow man according to a standard that lines up with God’s moral standards. That is why walking in the Spirit produces the fruit of the Spirit, which manifests in behavior that expresses love toward others (Galatians 5:16-26).
That is the process of sanctification, which is God’s will for our lives (1 Thessalonians 4:3). 1 Thessalonians 4:3 states bluntly “This is the will of God: your sanctification.” It then goes on to describe specific behaviors, and begins with sexual purity. This fits, because sexual immorality is sexual exploitation of others. It is extracting pleasure at the expense of another. This is not serving, it is exploiting. The process of being sanctified, or set apart, is to line up with God’s purpose for us to seek the best for others, apart from our appetites.
The best term to describe God’s perfect standard for our lives is “agape love.” “Agape” is one of several Greek words translated to English as “love.” It is a love of choice rather than feeling. It is a choice to take an action that lines up with God’s standard, and seeks to use our talents and resources to serve other people.
According to Jesus, the two greatest commandments are: “You shall love (‘agape’) the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength;” and “You shall love (‘agape’) your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:29-31). God’s perfect moral standard of “agape love” keeps us in proper alignment with Himself, others, and all of creation (Galatians 5:22-23). Individually and collectively, whenever we are in proper alignment we prosper and thrive—the Bible refers to this thriving as “living.”
An accurate term to describe our imperfect standards of righteousness is “self-seeking.” Our self-seeking standards of righteousness are often manipulative and exploitative. In Jesus’s day, no one was perceived as being more religiously righteous than the religious Pharisees. But Jesus unmasked their phony “righteousness” and exposed them for the abusive exploiters that they were (Matthew 23).
It is a cosmic irony that self-seeking behavior is self-destructive. When we seek to satisfy our lusts, God promises to judge that behavior by turning us over to those lusts, which lead us to what we might call in our era “addiction” and “loss of mental health” (Romans 1:24, 26, 28). Our righteous standards are often no better than the Pharisees. We are naturally prone (from our old sinful nature) to weaponize “righteousness,” using self-seeking standards, in order to enhance ourselves, judge others, and exploit them for our own advantage (Galatians 5:19-21).
As we follow our own standards of righteousness, we are out of alignment with God, others, and creation. Individually and collectively, whenever we are in misalignment with God’s perfect standard, we wither and rot—the Bible calls this withering “death.” Death is separation, and sin separates us from our design to be connected with others to serve a great purpose. God commands us to live according to His perfect standards, because that is what is for our best (Deuteronomy 10:12-13). God commands us to follow His standards, because that is the path to gain our greatest fulfillment: “Therefore you are to be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).
Anything that is out of alignment with God’s perfect standard misses the mark. This is what the Bible means by the word “sin.” Sin is misalignment. The consequences of sin is death. Death is separation. Each person is born into sin, and must believe upon Jesus in order to be delivered from being eternally separated from God (Genesis 2:17; Romans 6:23a, John 3:14-16).
But even for those who are God’s children, who have been born into His family and received the free gift of eternal salvation, sin still leads to separation (death). The believer’s sin cannot separate them from God’s family, because all sins were nailed to the cross with Jesus (Colossians 2:14). When believers sin, we separate ourselves from a full experience of life and fulfillment. We can also separate ourselves from gaining a full reward in heaven (2 John 1:8).
This is why a potentially better synonym for the Biblical concept of righteousness/righteous justify is the word “harmony.” When we follow God, we are in harmony with Him, His design, and His purpose for us, ourselves, other people, and creation. Believers serving one another is like a beautiful symphony, where all instruments are finely tuned and playing their parts perfectly. In this way righteousness brings about a community where everyone is respected and loved for who they are.
Each person serves with the gifts they have. God’s righteousness brings harmony. Self-righteousness is self-seeking. It is a means of self-justification, which is the opposite of true righteousness, which aligns us with God’s standard. Self-seeking leads to dissension and isolation (Galatians 5:15).
The Greek philosopher Plato described “Dikaiosuné” (righteousness or justice) in similar terms in his masterpiece “The Republic.” In “The Republic,” the true meaning of “Dikaiosuné” (justice) was the primary point of investigation in the dialogue between Socrates and his interlocutors. But instead of translating “Dikaiosuné” as “Righteousness” as the Bible typically does, the translators of “The Republic” translate it as “Justice.” But it is the same Greek word.
The key character, Socrates, concludes that the true nature of “Dikaiosuné”-righteousness-justice is for each person in a Greek city state to do what they do best for the mutual benefit of all. This is akin to Paul’s conclusion in his treatise on the same question “How do we obtain righteousness?” as set forth in his letter to the Romans.
In Paul’s letter to the Gentile believers in Rome, Paul asserts something similar to Socrates. Namely, that “Dikaiosuné” (righteousness or justice) is represented by a human body, where all the parts work in harmony for the greatest benefit of the body. Where Socrates and Paul greatly differ is the nature of the body’s head: with Socrates claiming that the head should be human philosopher kings; and Paul asserting it is one man, the God-man Jesus Christ. God is righteous, and His ways lead to righteousness. That is to say that God is harmonious with His original creation, and all He created was good (Genesis 1:31). Everything was created for a purpose, and the purpose of all was mutually beneficial. However, due to the fall of man, sin entered the world.
From the time of Adam and Eve’s disobedience of God’s “eat from any tree but one” standard in the Garden of Eden, all of humanity has lived in a state of misalignment and isolation. Separated from God, we had no hope of being restored to harmony and proper alignment with God, apart from God’s grace. And our hearts were out of tune with what is Good, True, and Beautiful.
But thanks be to God, that He has made a way to bring us and all of creation back into harmony with Him through His Son Jesus. Jesus lived a perfectly righteous life. He lived up to God’s perfect standard. He knew no sin (2 Corinthians 5:21). And when He died on the cross He paid the penalty of death for our unrighteousness. If we believe in Him, He promises that He declares us to be righteous in His sight. This restores us to eternal life, by His grace. Then, we are redeemed and empowered by His grace to live and prosper when we choose to follow His example by faith, setting aside our fallen nature and false standards of righteousness, and choose instead to follow God’s original and perfect design of love. Through such a walk of faith, we come to know God and Jesus in intimate fellowship. This is the very definition of “eternal life” according to Jesus (John 17:3). The gift of eternal life comes through an initial faith (John 3:14-16) and the experience of eternal life comes through coming to know God as we walk by faith.
To walk by faith is what it means to “seek first His kingdom and His righteousness.” When we do, God promises that “all these things [required for human flourishing] will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33). Believing this stems from adopting a perspective that God is good, and desires the best for us. That leads us to conclude that the path of least resistance for our own behavior is to make choices that line up with His standards.
As Christ’s redeemed disciples, we are also called to disciple others in the paths of righteousness and life. The most important way we do this is through our example. In so doing we become God’s partners and co-redeemers as we demonstrate the goodness of His kingdom and restore harmony to all things. In what has come to be known as the Great Commission, Jesus calls and equips His disciples with divine authority to recover harmony and human flourishing by teaching others the perfect and true standards of God’s righteousness (Matthew 28:18-20).