What is Righteousness?

Before I willingly surrendered my life to Christ at fifteen years of age, I don’t know that I would describe myself as an atheist. Perhaps I was more of a deist. I probably believed that there was a god, but I had no interest at all in really knowing that god or worshipping that god. Part of the reason was that while I was at church, people pretended to be perfect. Many of the church people I saw were pretenders. The other kids would cuss outside of the church building and then get on to others for cussing while within the walls of the building. I always found the phrase, “You can’t say that in church!” to be one of the most ironic phrases because God was supposedly omnipresent. One of the things that bothered me was that people said with their mouths that God saved people, then pretended that they were better than they actually were as if it was up to them to impress God (or perhaps their ‘christian’ friends) or in some way save themselves.

As we read previously, faith and righteousness are the themes of Paul’s letter to the Romans. Last week, we defined faith. This week, we are going to ask what righteousness is. Righteousness is often described as a moral standard or right action. It is also described as one’s status or condition in God’s presence. When we think about someone who is righteous, we often think about that hypothetical person doing what is right or just or good. What is righteousness, really?

Romans 3:21-26

But now, apart from the law, God’s righteousness has been revealed — attested by the Law and the Prophets — that is, God’s righteousness through faith in Jesus Christ, to all who believe, since there is no distinction. For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. They are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. God presented Him as a propitiation through faith in His blood, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His restraint God passed over the sins previously committed. God presented Him to demonstrate His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be righteous and declare righteous the one who has faith in Jesus.

Righteousness in the Bible

When we think about righteousness in Scripture, we must always remember the relationship between righteousness and faith. Faith is a gift from God (not a work of self) that causes God’s people to depend fully on God and reveals the righteousness of God (not people) for the purpose of our humility and God’s glory, bringing about obedience in those who are given faith.

Romans 1:17 states that the righteous will live by faith. Righteousness, then, is by faith, not works or merit because faith is a gift from God. When we get to Romans 3:21-26, we read more about what righteousness is. Righteousness is God’s alone because all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. People are justified freely when they receive God’s righteousness through faith in Christ, which is a gift by God’s grace. God redeemed us (bought us by paying the price for our sin) in Christ. This made Christ the propitiation for us for the purpose of demonstrating His righteousness. God alone would be revealed as the righteous one and He declares righteous those who have true faith in Jesus.

We could take another journey through the Scriptures:

“There is no one who does good. The Lord looks down from heaven on the human race to see if there is one who is wise, one who seeks God. All have turned away; all alike have become corrupt. There is no one who does good, not even one” (Psalm 14:1-3, 53:1-3).

“There is certainly no righteous man on the earth, who does good and never sins” (Ecclesiastes 7:20).

“For I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).

“He made the One who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

“Therefore, since we have been declared righteous by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1).

“…they disregarded the righteousness from God and attempted to establish their own righteousness, they have not submitted themselves to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Romans 10:3-4).

“More than that, I also consider everything to be a loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. Because of Him I have suffered the loss of all things and consider them filth, so that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own from the law, but one that is through faith in Christ — the righteousness from God based on faith” (Philippians 3:9).

“…seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be provided for you. Therefore don’t worry about tomorrow, because tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own” (Matthew 6:33-34).

People are unrighteous. Righteousness belongs to God alone, and is declared to people so that people receive the righteousness of Christ and are justified by Christ, never by merit. Righteousness must, then, be imputed to the one who has been given faith by grace.

Christ’s righteousness is made evident by the true faith of God’s people by grace alone. That’s the point. We read that explicitly in verse 26, “God presented Him to demonstrate His righteousness.” It’s not even Christ’s merit that makes Him righteous or that makes us righteous. What do we read in Scripture? Christ’s redemptive work, His sacrifice on Calvary, demonstrates His righteousness, a righteousness that is inherently His! The goal was never for us to be righteous! The goal is that God’s righteousness would be made evident in us. It cannot be said of any person that he or she earned righteousness by deeds or merit because it is God’s righteousness that is received by grace through true faith. Those who are justified before God have been declared righteous by God, being justified by Christ’s righteousness and not their own.

This is going to have huge implications regarding our walk with Christ. There are so many people who try and look so perfect or pious, who are stressed out about being religious, who get so caught up in ritualistic rules, or who feel as though they have to merit God’s goodness. I have some great news. God doesn’t save us to make us righteous. He does this saving work so His righteousness will be made evident. Stop stressing out about being or looking perfect, about being a good Christian, or about doing all of the right things. The goal of the Gospel is not that you or I would be found to be righteous. The goal of the Gospel is that God’s righteousness is made evident as He imputes that righteous to us. There is a reason Christ said,

“At that time Jesus said, “I praise You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because You have hidden these things from the wise and learned and revealed them to infants. Yes, Father, because this was Your good pleasure. All things have been entrusted to Me by My Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son desires to reveal Him.

Come to Me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. All of you, take up My yoke and learn from Me, because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for yourselves. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Matthew 11:25-30).

Let that be our invitation to our own communities. You don’t have to pretend, here! We follow Christ. Come in all of you who are weary and burdened and you will find rest. Our yoke is easy and our burden light because we want to be like Christ, who is the savior of the whole world! Pastors and elders, Christ’s yoke is easy and His burden is light. Deacons, Christ’s yoke is easy and His burden is light. Small Group and ministry leaders, Christ’s yoke is easy and His burden is light. Church members, Christ’s yoke is easy and His burden is light. This is good news! Let us not work against Christ by trying to create a heavy burden or an uneasy yoke. That is the opposite of receiving righteousness by grace through faith and living by faith.

If righteousness belongs to God alone, is it possible for us to act in a way that is righteous? What is and is not righteous action? What does it mean for us to observe the Law? We could look to the text of Scripture again. Yes, let’s:

“The law came along to multiply the trespass. But where sin multiplied, grace multiplied even more so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace will reign through righteousness, resulting in eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 5:20-21 HCSB).

“Why then was the law given? It was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise was made would come” (Galatians 3:19 HCSB).

“Take this book of the law and place it beside the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God so that it may remain there as a witness against you” (Deuteronomy 31:26 HCSB).

The very purpose of the Law is a testimony of God’s righteousness and our unrighteousness. God gave the Law, not for the purpose of our meriting righteousness, but to stand as a testimony against us because we are unable to merit righteousness. When we recognize our unrighteousness, because God has caused us to realize it, we realize our need for God’s righteousness. God gives faith and imputes His righteousness as a gift through Christ’s redemptive work. Observing the Law, then, does not mean and has never meant that we read the Law as a checklist. It means that we look into the mirror of the Law, recognize our unrighteous condition, and are drawn to have true faith in Jesus. The only way that we can act righteously is for us to surrender to Christ by the faith that has been given freely to us.

This doesn’t mean that we can’t do some things that are morally good. Everyone, including the atheist, can do some morally good things. That’s not the issue. The issue is that we are unrighteous and we need the righteousness of God imputed to us if we want to dwell in God’s glory. It is no wonder Isaiah wrote that all of our righteous acts are like filthy rags before God (Isaiah 64:6).

What, though, makes us unrighteous? In our current text, we read that all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory. If we sin once, then we reveal our unrighteousness. We have also read that the purpose of the Law is to stand as a testimony against us, to show that our righteousness is not the righteousness of God. We receive our answer in Romans 1:18-23:

“For God’s wrath is revealed from heaven against all godlessness and unrighteousness of people who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth, since what can be known about God is evident among them, because God has shown it to them. For His invisible attributes, that is, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen since the creation of the world, being understood through what He has made. As a result, people are without excuse. For though they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God or show gratitude. Instead, their thinking became nonsense, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man, birds, four-footed animals, and reptiles.”

Who God is has been made evident through the things that God has made. God has revealed Himself to be the righteous one and the one who receives all glory because that is His right as creator. Unrighteousness, here, is defined as not glorifying God as God. If God is the righteous one, then unrighteousness is our trying to be our own righteousness by merit or by work or by anything other than true faith. So, the Law is given not to cause unrighteousness, but to reveal unrighteousness through our sin. The same was true for Adam and Eve. They took the opportunity given to them by God to sin, revealing their self-righteousness.

If sin caused unrighteousness, then we might be able to make up for that by balancing the scales of justice. Sin doesn’t cause unrighteousness, it reveals the unrighteousness that is already present. God is the only righteous one, and we’ve seen that in Scripture so far. All have sinned and have revealed themselves to fall short of God’s glory. No degree of good works or good moral judgment or merit can undo the fact that we have proven our unrighteousness by sinning once.

That is why John writes:

“If you know that He is righteous, you know this as well: Everyone who does what is right has been born of Him” (1 John 2:29).

To do right is to practice true faith, complete dependence on God. The opposite is for us to try, in some way, to prove our righteousness by merit. This is the opposite of righteousness. Righteousness must be imputed. We must be born of God.

Only God is righteous.

Righteousness in the world

Just as we considered faith from different perspectives last week, I also want to consider what different human traditions say regarding righteousness, as both a condition and in action. Our discussion of righteousness always reflects a discussion of how people are justified before God. Just as done previously, I will italicize those things which are contradictory to the biblical definition of righteousness.

Roman Catholics, again according to the Roman Catholic Catechism available through the Vatican, states:

“Justification detaches man from sin which contradicts the love of God, and purifies his heart of sin. Justification follows upon God’s merciful initiative of offering forgiveness. It reconciles man with God. It frees from the enslavement to sin, and it heals.

Justification is at the same time the acceptance of God’s righteousness through faith in Jesus Christ. Righteousness (or “justice”) here means the rectitude of divine love. With justification, faith, hope, and charity are poured into our hearts, and obedience to the divine will is granted us.

Justification has been merited for us by the Passion of Christ who offered himself on the cross as a living victim, holy and pleasing to God, and whose blood has become the instrument of atonement for the sins of all men. Justification is conferred in Baptism, the sacrament of faith. It conforms us to the righteousness of God, who makes us inwardly just by the power of his mercy. Its purpose is the glory of God and of Christ, and the gift of eternal life…”

We might remember, last week we learned that the Catholic church also believes that one can lose his or her salvation. Righteousness for the Catholic is something that is produced by God, but is conferred through baptism (which is a human work) and by which God grants the person the ability to obey the divine will. It is up to the person to live righteously in order to endure and maintain admittance into heaven. This, as we discovered in Scripture, is the very definition of unrighteousness. It is why, in the Catholic church, infants are baptized and why one must regularly go to confession. People have to work for their righteousness and be found to be righteous if they want to be justified before God. Catholics do not believe that one is declared righteous (receiving the righteousness of Christ), but are made righteous of themselves by God and found to be righteous after being given the opportunity to become such by God. Some protestants believe similarly.

Mormons believe that:

“In righteousness there is great simplicity. In every case that confronts us in life there is either a right way or a wrong way to proceed. If we choose the right way, we are sustained in our actions by the principles of righteousness, in the which there is power from the heavens. If we choose the wrong way and act on that choice, there is no such heavenly promise or power, and we are alone and are destined to fail.

In Mormonism, too, one must be found to be righteous in order to be justified. That justification is applied directly to welfare on this earth. It is a prosperity gospel of spiritual welfare, which is prominent in some protestant traditions as well.

Johovah’s Witnesses define righteousness similarly:

“The Hebrew tseʹdheq and tsedha·qahʹ as well as the Greek di·kai·o·syʹne have the thought of “rectitude,” “uprightness,” indicating a standard or norm determining what is upright… Righteousness in the biblical sense is a condition of rightness the standard of which is God, which is estimated according to the divine standard, which shows itself in behavior conformable to God, and has to do above all things with its relation to God, and with the walk before Him.

In Islam, one’s righteousness is one’s belief in the right things, which gets us closer to a biblical definition but is still a work of people. It is simply an inward work rather than an outward work, which is just as dependent on people:

“Righteousness is not turning your faces towards the east or the west. Righteous are those who believe in God, the last day, the angels, the scripture, and the prophets; and they give the money, cheerfully, to the relatives, the orphans, the needy, the traveling alien, the beggars, and to free the slaves; and they observe the Contact Prayers (Salat) and give the obligatory charity (Zakat); and they keep their word whenever they make a promise; and they steadfastly persevere in the face of persecution, hardship, and war. These are the truthful, these are the righteous.”

As we place this in the context of the Muslim definition of faith, it is this self-righteousness that brings faith and by which one submits to their god. Their god’s choosing is, again, based on his knowledge of that submission.

I could go on, but we would find that the answer is similar no matter what tradition we look to. There are scales of justice and we will either be found to be just before God by our action or not. Those who have not, by their own willpower, conformed their action to God’s standard will not receive a place with the just because they will not be found to be righteous on the scales of justice.

The only opinion I found that differed from this is called the New Perspective. Scholar, N. T. Wright states that people are declared righteous, but in a different way than imputation. People do not actually receive the righteousness of Christ, but are merely declared to have a righteous status. The effect is that I retain my sinful condition, but the righteous judge has pardoned me so that I am without eternal consequence. I am not actually conformed to the image of Christ or delivered from my unrighteousness. If God is just, He cannot declare someone righteous when he or she is does not actually have righteousness (here meaning the righteousness of Christ). I suffer the same condition as those who are having to be made righteous and/or striving to be found righteous by the scales of justice. Thus, we are presented with the same problem that we are presented with if we say that we must be made righteous or found to be righteous. If there is no imputation, then I will always be a slave to my unrighteousness according to the biblical definition.

If we are to say that we need to be found to be righteous or that we must be made righteous, then we are insinuating that our self-righteousness is sufficient for us or that we can in some way become righteous without actually receiving the righteousness of Christ. According to Paul, this is the very definition of unrighteousness. It makes sense logically because God has all glory as His right. Imputed righteousness recognizes God’s glory and my depravity, which is the natural order of things.

I must receive God’s righteousness to be justified.

Righteousness in action

Immediately, the meaning of righteousness is going to indicate that sanctification is a separate work from justification, both being a part of God’s work of salvation. To be sanctified is to be conformed to the image of Christ. To be declared righteous is to receive in full the righteousness of Christ. Instead of being measured by what we do, we are measured according to who Christ is.

Thinking that receiving righteousness has anything to do with my good deeds or merit of any kind actually creates a contradiction and does not correspond to the natural order of things. This is where hypocrisy begins. Consider Paul’s warning to the Jews:

“Now if you call yourself a Jew, and rest in the law, boast in God, know His will, and approve the things that are superior, being instructed from the law, and if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light to those in darkness, an instructor of the ignorant, a teacher of the immature, having the full expression of knowledge and truth in the law — you then, who teach another, don’t you teach yourself? You who preach, “You must not steal” — do you steal? You who say, “You must not commit adultery” — do you commit adultery? You who detest idols, do you rob their temples? You who boast in the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? For, as it is written: The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you” (Romans 2:17-24).

Because these Jews did not recognize the source of righteousness, they promoted a works-based system. It caused them to become hypocrites. The name of God was blasphemed because they presented a religious system that claimed they must be made righteous or found to be righteous.

If righteousness is imputed, then I am free to believe that God is drawing people to Himself from every nation, every tongue, every religious affiliation, and every denomination. Even if someone thinks differently than I or believes something differently than I do or holds a different theological viewpoint, I am free to believe that they can be justified before God. If righteousness is imputed, then I am justified in believing that God can still save people who never hear the actual name of Jesus and those who are too young to understand the Gospel. If righteousness is not imputed, then I am stuck trying to convince others of what I think, convert them to my theological viewpoint, or get them to be a part of what I think to be the right church or denomination. If righteousness is not imputed, then there is no hope for the unbaptized infant and no hope for the tribe that never receives news from a missionary. Thank the Lord that He transfers His righteousness to us. Thank Him that He declares His people to be righteous, not merely making them to be righteous by their merit or weighing them on the scales of justice to be found out as either righteous or not. Because righteousness is imputed, I am free to love all people genuinely and serve them unconditionally and treat all people who profess Christ as my brothers and sisters even if we don’t agree theologically. Christ’s yoke truly is easy and His burden light.

Only God can justify.


Only God is righteous.

I must receive God’s righteousness to be justified.

Only God can justify.

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