What Is Righteousness?

Righteousness is an attribute that belongs to God, the Lawgiver, and is manifested in His laws. No man can be justified by his own works apart from God’s ordinance. Therefore, righteousness is a wonderful gift from God to humanity through His love: it is the God-given quality imputed to man upon believing in the Son of God.

Philip Wijaya
What Is Righteousness?

As we live in a world where people tend to believe that their ways are right in their own eyes, we find it is hard for many to accept the absolute standard of righteousness. True or false becomes relative, and many believe they can do whatever they think or feel is right. Here we will discover why the Bible’s views on righteousness stand out among the different views and values this world tries to offer.

The Righteousness of Man vs. The Righteousness of God

Righteousness, in human standards, is defined as “the quality of being morally true or justifiable.” The justification is made according to the conformity of behavior with the regulation (or constitution, in the context of a nation).

In its deeper spiritual meaning, righteousness is the quality of being right in the eyes of God, including character (nature), conscience (attitude), conduct (action), and command (word). Righteousness is, therefore, based upon God’s standard because He is the ultimate Lawgiver (Isaiah 33:22). 

The laws of nature, such as gravity, motion, energy conservation, etc. are originated by the Creator and reveal that the God of the universe is the God of order (Psalm 33:5, 36:6). The laws of God, however, do not only comprise the laws of nature. In the Bible, the laws of God are demonstrated in His righteousness, which regulates the God-human relationship as the foundation of the relationship between humans and their neighbors (Psalm 9:8). 

Righteousness is a God-centered attribute: no man can attain it through his own efforts apart from His ordinance. We, humans, are inclined to follow our own paths and use our own ways, instead of God’s. (Notice that this selfish desire for the independence from God is in our nature, we need nobody to teach us that, but we always need discipline to remain faithful in the path of God). In comparison to God’s righteousness, our righteous deeds are “nothing but filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6).

But here is the good news: righteousness is not being legalistic — it is not about our achievements in “God’s school of law.” Righteousness is a wonderful gift from God to humanity through Christ’s act of love. Let us now see how the righteousness of God is manifested consistently throughout the Bible.

The Righteousness of God in the Old Testament

Since the fall of man, sin entered the world and caused wickedness in the human heart. In consequence, the law is necessarily given due to human’s rebellious nature. While righteousness is accounted for those who carefully observe all God’s commandments (Deuteronomy 6:25, 13:17-18), the law reveals to us that no man can satisfy all its requirements. It exposes our helplessness toward accomplishing God’s perfect standard. 

Amazingly, God has always rewarded man with His righteousness by faith, not by works (even since the Old Testament era). The word righteousness in the Bible first appears in the account of God’s covenant with Abram when he believed in His promise of his future offspring (Genesis 15:6); that was even before he was called Abraham, a father of many nations (signifying that God’s plan would never fail despite our past behaviors). 

The way of righteousness leads to life, not death (Proverbs 12:28) because God is the ultimate source of life. It means that righteousness belongs to God alone and therefore as we pursue God, we surely find His righteousness. Pursuing God’s righteousness means putting God at the center of our lives. And here is the truth: God takes pleasure in those who pursue righteousness (Proverbs 15:9, 21:3, 21:21).

The Righteousness of God in the New Testament

Since the death and resurrection of Christ, the purpose of the law has been fulfilled and as a result, everyone who believes in Him is made right with God (Romans 3:22, 10:4). Christ is the perfect revelation of God, thus our faith in Him leads us to the righteousness of God (Romans 1:17). Believing in Christ is the work of faith, not the work of the flesh, which produces righteousness (Romans 4:5-6). Stated another way, righteousness is the God-given quality imputed to man upon believing in Christ.

When Jesus died on the cross, He bore all sins of humanity and became sin for us. As a result, everyone who believes in Him is made righteous with God (2 Corinthians 5:21, 1 Peter 2:24). The relationship between God and man, which was broken because of sin, is restored through the sacrifice of Jesus, the Lamb of God. Remarkably, Jesus Himself once revealed to Nicodemus the way He would die long before His crucifixion: 

“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:14-15). 

The serpent portrays Christ bearing the sin of the world, and whoever looked at it was miraculously healed and remained alive (Numbers 21:9). Likewise, everyone who trusts in Jesus has been justified and already has peace with God (Romans 5:1).

What Does This Mean for Christians Today?

Now, the importance of pursuing righteousness is also commanded by Jesus (Matthew 6:33) and Paul (1 Timothy 6:11). Just as in the Old Testament, there is God’s favor for those who live for His righteousness (Matthew 5:6, 10). And even those who believe in Jesus Christ have become the children of God (John 1:12). In Him, we are forever loved by God unconditionally, just as children are forever loved by their parents no matter what. We are accepted and justified not by our own goodness but by the perfect love of God. This grace and mercy of God does not mean a license to sin (of course!). Having been so tremendously loved by the Heavenly Father, we are to express our gratefulness by continuously living in His righteousness. To God be the glory! 

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Philip Wijaya is presently a graduate research student at the University of British Columbia living in Vancouver, Canada with his wife, Sandra. His interest in science and faith in God has encouraged him to write in a blog (philipwijaya.com), with a hope of better understanding the truths in the Bible in relation to scientific views and discoveries. Besides research and study, he also enjoys sports, music, and traveling.


Originally published December 16, 2019.