Mark Horne’s post titled “Who has kept the Law” reminded me that just as many misunderstand what it means to “keep the law” so many misunderstand the term “righteousness.”
We assume that “righteousness” is “sinless perfection.” Thus, we when we see the word “righteousness” we think “sinlessness.” Luther speaks of trembling in terror over the thought of having to stand before a “righteous” God as a sinful man. “Righteousness” was a terrifying concept to him and historically, Protestants have taken the same view. To most, God’s “righteousness” is something to be dreaded and feared.
But this attitude toward God’s righteousness is not the attitude toward God’s righteousness that we find in Scripture. Surely, the wicked ought to be in terror over the thought of standing before a righteous God. But the faithful view God’s righteousness as a great comfort and the source of great joy. Note what we read in the Bible:
God assures Isaiah that it is His righteousness that insures His deliverance of His people (Isaiah 45:21). Thus, when His righteousness draws near, His salvation is going forth (Isaiah 51:5-6). God’s salvation is founded upon His unfailing righteousness. Thus, when salvation comes it is a revelation of God’s righteousness (Isaiah 56:1).
God’s righteousness is expressed in His lovingkindness — His covenant love — indeed, the psalmist effectively equates the two (Psalm 36:10; 103:17-18). Because of this God’s righteousness is always good news to His people (Psalm 40:9-10). Proclaiming the gospel is, therefore, the revelation of God’s righteousness (Rom. 1:16-17).
God’s righteousness, therefore, is the basis for praise rather than terror (Psalm 35:28). It is the foundation for hope rather than despair (Psalm 71:14-15). This is so because His righteousness is His faithfulness to His covenant purposes. He is righteous in all His ways (Psalm 145:17) and because He is righteous, the faithful will be preserved and the wicked destroyed (Psalm 145:18-20).
As His image-bearers, we are to be like Him. We are to be righteous sons and daughters, husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, citizens and neighbors. Righteousness is expressed within covenant bonds of love and thus, it is never merely a matter of keeping to the rules, staying within the boundaries, or refusing to stray outside the lines. Righteousness is living in fidelity to God’s Word in the context of trust, loyalty, and love.
To be righteous then, is to be faithful to the God of righteousness. Job is an upright man (Job 1:1). He not only refused to rebel against God (shunning evil) but feared Him. This is righteousness.
God demonstrates His righteousness by faithfully fulfilling the covenant He has made. Man demonstrates his righteousness by trusting in God to fulfill His covenant promises and serving Him with loyalty. We see this illustrated with Abraham. After God assures Abraham of His promise to give him a family (by showing him the stars) we are told that Abraham “believed God” (Genesis 15:6) and “he reckoned to him righteousness.”
The text is ambiguous regarding who is doing the reckoning in the second half of the verse. We commonly read the phrase as if God is the one who reckons Abraham to be righteous. But it could also be that we are being told that Abraham by believing God was reckoning God to be righteous — i.e., he believed God was a faithful God who would keep His Word. Both are equally valid readings and both are absolutely true. And, it seems to be the case that the inspired author was us to see this phrase in both senses.
Paul clearly sees both in his exposition of Gen. 15 in Romans 4. In verse 9, Paul gives us the common interpretation (God accounted Abraham as righteous because of his faith). But in vv. 19-21, he points to the other side of this. Abraham believed that God would be faithful to His Word of promise (i.e., he believed God to be righteous).
We see in Abraham the characteristic of the righteous man. He believes what God says because he knows that God is faithful to His Word. The righteous man does not waver in unbelief, but believes and obeys. He seeks to be faithful just like God. Faith is central to covenant keeping. The righteous man is preeminently marked by trusting in God and obeying. Thus, the righteous man lives by faith (Hab. 2:4).
The righteous man is not a sinless man, but he is a faithful man (he believes God, seeks to follow Him in obedience, and confesses his sins when he fails). This is why Noah, Job, Zecharias and Elizabeth, David, and many others are called “righteous.” They were not sinless, but they trusted in God, repented of their sins, and refused to depart from Him.
The Bible spends a great deal of space describing the righteous man. What is he like?
1. He is one who is guided and delivered by righteousness (Prov. 11:5-6; 12:21; 11:8; 13:6; Psalm 37:32-33; 34:15-21; Prov. 10:2; 11:4; 12:28; 11:19).
2. He is just and merciful. He delights in justice (Prov. 21:15) and doing justice like God includes being merciful (Prov. 12:10; Matt. 25:34-37; 1:19).
3. He is not arrogant or self-righteous, but instead is well aware that his righteousness comes from God and he always is mindful that he stands only by the grace and mercy of God (Luke 18:9-14). Righteousness involves both mercy and humility (Micah 6:8).
4. He is a fountain of life to others. By the blessing of God, his labor leads to life (Prov. 10:16); his fruit is a tree of life (Prov. 11:30); his words give life to others (Prov. 10:11). He hates lying (Prov. 13:5). He speaks wisdom (Psa. 37:30-31). His words enrich and nourish (Prov. 10:20-21). He brings joy to his parents (Prov. 23:24). He is characterized by generosity (Prov. 21:25-26) just like God (Prov. 29:7; Psa. 37:21) and God sees to it that he never lacks what is needful (Psa. 37:25-26).
5. He is filled with blessings (Prov. 10:6-7) and flourishes (Prov. 11:28; Psa. 92:12-15). He is given ample provision (Prov. 15:6; 10:3) so that he will be able to leave an inheritance for his children (Prov. 13:22). He is given honor (Prov. 21:21; 16:31); his memory is blessed (Prov. 10:7). He is given boldness (Prov. 28:1) and great joy (Prov. 29:6; Psa. 97:11-12) and peace (Isa. 32:17; Psa. 37:37-40).
6. He is a blessing to the world (Prov. 11:10; 28:12; 29:2; 14:34).
In the Bible, righteousness is never viewed as an abstract concept or something that is merely the result of a legal declaration that one is not guilty. The righteous man is not merely one who has been “declared righteous” by God but one who has been delivered from sin to live righteously. Righteousness in the Bible is always concrete and substantial (living with integrity, honesty, seeking justice, showing mercy, giving with generosity, being a life-giver by your words and deeds). The righteous man is blessed and becomes a great blessing to those around him. And this is all true because the Lord has delivered him from sin.
To be delivered from sin is to be delivered from the worship of self. Thus, one of the distinctions between the people of God is that they have been delivered from bondage to this world and thus, live with a different perspective than that of the unbeliever. The man of the world lives to get as much as he can from the world. The righteous man lives to give as much as he can to transform the world (by the blessing of God) into a place of life and peace. Thus, Jesus says that the blessed hunger and thirst after righteousness (Matt. 5:6).
This was the purpose of our Savior’s work — He died to deliver us from sin that we might follow after righteousness (1 Peter 2:24). So Paul calls upon God’s people who have been buried with Christ in baptism and raised to newness of life to become slaves of righteousness (Rom. 6:19).
Doing righteousness, being filled with the fruit of righteousness until the day of Christ Jesus, and seeing the earth filled with the glory of the Lord of Righteousness — that is our calling.