Wednesday, January 3, 2024


"For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit." (Romans 14:17)

In Greek there is one word, δικαιοσύνη (dikaiosuné), that can be translated as righteousness, justice, or uprightness. (Our English words justice and just and justification come from Latin, and righteousness and righteous come from Anglo-Saxon.) In Hebrew, there are two words: צְדָקָה (tsedaqah), which is used for righteousness, and מִשְׁפָט (mishpat), for judgment or justice. These two words are often grouped together, because they are closely related, overlapping terms. "For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice, so that the LORD may bring to Abraham what he has promised him” (Genesis 18:19). What is it to keep the way of the Lord? To do righteousness and justice. 

Righteousness in the Sermon on the Mount

Jesus spoke of righteousness in the Sermon on the Mount. First, he mentioned it in the Beatitudes, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied" (Matt. 5:6). Remember that the Beatitudes are not a buffet, as if you get to pick whichever you like. All of them describe Christ's disciples and their blessedness. Christ's disciples ought to be those, and are those, who hunger and thirst after righteousness. They are also described as those who are "persecuted for righteousness' sake" (Matt. 5:10). 

Then Jesus goes on to talk about the law and the prophets. He did not come to abolish them, but to fulfill them. He said that "whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 5:19). So he is talking about what should we do as well as affirming continuity with the Old Testament. In that context he says that "unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 5:20). Now, were the scribes and Pharisees righteous? At first this sounds like a really high standard, and it probably did to the people that Jesus was teaching. But their righteousness was hypocritical. In the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus contrasts the righteousness of the hypocrites with the righteousness that his disciples should practice. The righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees was just for show, merely external, out of accord with God's word, and done for the praise of man (Matt. 6:1). It did not originate in the heart. The righteousness of Christ's disciples is to be different, as Jesus explains in some detail. 

Then Jesus directs his disciples to not serve money or be worried about money and possessions, but rather to serve God, trust his fatherly provision, and "seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness" (Matt. 6:33). Jesus calls us to pursue righteousness. As his disciples, we are to learn to observe all his commandments (Matt. 28:18-20). This righteousness we practice is not the basis of our justification - I will get to that in a little bit - but it is something that as Christ's disciples we ought to be learning and pursuing.

The apostle Paul also told Timothy to pursue righteousness, along with other virtues. In 1 Timothy 6:11, he says, “Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness.” He gave a similar exhortation in 2 Timothy 2:22, “So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.” Pursue after these virtues, one of which is righteousness. We can tell that Paul is not talking about justification in this context, because once you are justified, you are justified. You do not have to keep pursuing it. You receive and rest upon Christ for being declared righteous, but beyond that, there is a pursuit and growth in practicing righteousness. 

Righteousness, Justification, and Sanctification 

I have mentioned justification. We can describe this act with the Latin-based term "justification" or by describing it as "declaring someone to be righteous." To justify someone is to declare them righteous. That can happen in an everyday situation. Perhaps you've been wrongfully accused of doing something, but then the evidence shows that you actually were in the right, and so the judge pronounces you to be righteous. The opposite of being justified is being condemned as guilty. 

But our justification before God is of grace, for by our works we would all be condemned (Ps. 143:2). God justifies the ungodly by his grace in Christ through faith (Rom. 4:5). God justifies by his grace those who who have sinned and who have fallen short of the glory of God. And the only basis for this declaration is the righteousness of Christ, imputed to you. I wrote about this some when discussing faith, because we are justified by faith alone. Faith is how we receive it. But the basis for it is in what Christ did. He was righteous and lived a righteous life. Our sins were imputed to him and he annihilated them by suffering for them and satisfying divine justice. Then he rose from the dead. His resurrection was his justification, God's declaration that he was righteous, that having paid for our sins there was no charge against him. His righteousness is imputed to his people who are raised to new life with him. And so we are declared righteous before God on account of Christ's righteousness imputed to us, received by faith alone. 

Yet that is not the end of the story. In what we call sanctification, God delivers us from the power of sin so that we who were slaves of sin become willing slaves of righteousness, presenting our members to God as instruments for righteousness. In Romans 3-5, Paul talks about being declared righteous in Christ. Then in Romans 6, Paul speaks of how we have become willing slaves of righteousness. We who have died to sin, who have been freed from sin, now are no longer tyrannized by sin, but are raised with Christ to walk in newness of life, so that we should present our our bodies as instruments for righteousness. They were instruments of sin. But now you have been delivered by Christ and have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching you have received. The work of transformation has begun. As he also says in Ephesians 4:22-24, you have been taught in Christ "to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness."

Thus, one of the graces infused into us from Christ is the virtue of righteousness, although this virtue within us, which is presently imperfect and growing, is not the grounds for our verdict and status before God. It is not the basis for our justification, but it is something that is present and growing in Christ's disciples.

What is Righteousness? 

What does it mean to live righteously? What does righteousness mean? It means obeying the moral law of God and fulfilling your obligations to others. Righteousness is sometimes described as giving everyone his due. God is the one to whom we have our primary obligation and we have his law that he has given us to obey. So righteousness is doing what he has commanded us, just as sin is breaking his law. 

When you look at what God's law tells us, you find that we have obligations to worship God alone, to not serve idols, to not blaspheme his name, to observe his holy day. You will find we also have obligations to other people, to give honor to whom honor is due, to not murder but to preserve life, to not commit adultery but to be pure and chaste, to not steal but to preserve and further our own and our neighbor's property, to guard the good name of our neighbor rather than defaming them or being dishonest, and to not covet our neighbor's stuff. We have obligations that we bear and ought to fulfill. 

We ought to fulfill them. The language of ought and duty and deserve and rights and fair comes naturally to us. You can be very young and have a sense that "that's not fair," or "I deserve this," or "you ought to do this." This is the language of righteousness. People who do not believe in God will still assume the existence of these moral obligations. In fact, this is one witness to the fact that there is a supreme lawgiver and judge to whom we are accountable, who has established the world in such a way that there are obligations that tie us to each other and to him. We are responsible beings created with an obligation to our Maker. We have the Ten Commandments as a summary of that moral law, a standard of righteousness. 

Righteousness involves not harming your neighbor, but it is more than that. How did Jesus put it? "So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets." (Matt. 7:12). It is not just "don't do what you wouldn't want others to do to you," but it is positive too. We ought to love our neighbor as ourselves. Do not do unjust harm and do positive good. As Proverbs 3:27–33 says, 

"Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due,
when it is in your power to do it.
Do not say to your neighbor, “Go, and come again,
tomorrow I will give it”—when you have it with you.
Do not plan evil against your neighbor,
who dwells trustingly beside you.
Do not contend with a man for no reason,
when he has done you no harm.
Do not envy a man of violence
and do not choose any of his ways,
for the devious person is an abomination to the LORD,
but the upright are in his confidence.
The LORD’s curse is on the house of the wicked,
but he blesses the dwelling of the righteous." 

Do not withhold what is due your neighbor when you have it. A righteous and just person will consistently seek to fulfill his obligations to his neighbor. As Aquinas wrote, the virtue of justice is "the perpetual and constant will to render each one his due." Likewise, do not plan evil against your neighbor who dwells trustingly beside you. 

Your obligations before God include the obligations of your calling. What is your position in your family, your work, your neighborhood, your society, your state? These relationships come with obligations that must be fulfilled. Serve God in these ways, leading the life to which he has called you (1 Cor. 7:17). For example, if your employer is paying you for your time and you do not do your work, you are defrauding your employer. That would be an injustice. You ought to fulfill these obligations by doing your duty. 

Also, you should fulfill your word. You create obligations for yourself when you give your word, when you say, "I'm going to do this." When you make an agreement with someone, when you make a contract, when you give a promise, you create an obligation and it would be unjust or unrighteous for you to not fulfill it. So a just person is honest and faithful, not defrauding anyone by dishonesty. He is steadfast in keeping his promises and agreements, follows through on his commitments, even to his own hurt (Ps. 15:4). A righteous person does his duty. 

Rectifying Unrighteousness 

Now when those obligations are not kept, a debt is created. Justice calls out for judgment, that justice may be restored. That is part of the idea of righteousness as well. When the obligation is not met, there is now a punishment that is required or a restitution that needs to be given. Unrighteousness deserves condemnation and punishment. Restitution is required to rectify the injustice. If you steal from another person, you ought to at least give back what was taken, and more as the situation calls for it (Lev. 6:1-7). The thief that is caught ought to pay back double (Ex. 22:4, 7, 9) or more, depending on the situation (Ex. 22:1).

So righteousness refers both to being righteous as well as correctly rectifying unrighteousness. If we call someone a just person, that means that he lives justly, doing his duty. If he is a judge, for example, it also means that he is going to judge justly and maintain righteousness in that office. The magistrate is equipped with the sword to carry out God's wrath on the wrongdoer (Rom. 13:1-7). He is to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good (1 Peter 2:13-14). As Moses said, he is to judge with righteous judgment, to follow justice alone, and to maintain the cause of the righteous (Deut. 16:18-20).

But the magistrate is not the only one who should rectify injustice. As a private individual, you should not take vengeance or enforce justice by dealing out punishment, but if you have done wrong, you should not wait for someone to tell you to do what is right. You should seek to make it right on your own. Also, you can help maintain righteousness by protecting others from unrighteousness. If someone is about to harm someone else, step in the way or to give assistance. If you see someone about to get ripped off, call attention to the fraud that is being practiced or to help them to seek redress from the proper authorities. 

Righteousness and Piety 

In an earlier post I described piety as dutiful devotion to God that springs from reverence and gratitude. I had said that piety can be considered part of justice. It is what we owe God. God has all authority and power, and so we should revere him. He has also given you life and breath and everything, and so we ought to be grateful to him. You should be devoted to him out of gratitude and reverence. This is just. Additionally, piety leads a person to be righteous and just, for we serve God by fulfilling his commands to do what is right not only with respect to him, but also to our neighbor. 

Piety and righteousness are related in that they require each other. Without piety, your good deeds are profane. You are in hostility towards God. There might be great right justice or fairness among pirates, right? But they are all treasonous. They are all condemned. They are outlaws because they are in rebellion to the king. Likewise, impious people might do works that are outwardly righteous, while yet being at enmity with God and under his condemnation. Likewise, without righteousness, piety is hypocritical. "If anyone says, 'I love God,' and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen" (1 John 4:20). The person who worships God but then steals from his neighbor is hypocritical. Piety and righteousness go together as we serve God. Let us give thanks to God for declaring us righteous in Christ by his grace and then also let us pursue after righteousness that we might practice it in our lives.

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