(Originally published in New Dictionary of Theology.  David F. Wright, Sinclair B. Ferguson, J.I. Packer (eds), 590-592.  IVP.  Reproduced by permission of the author.)

Righteousness.  The basic meaning of ‘righteousness’ and its cognates in the Bible derives from the Hebrew sedeq, which was usually translated in the LXX as dikaiosynē. It thus denotes not so much the abstract idea of justice or virtue, as right standing and consequent right behaviour, within a community.  English translates this semantic field with two different roots: ‘right’, ‘righteous’, and ‘righteousness’ and ‘just’, ‘justice’, ‘justify’ and ‘justification’.  In Heb. and Gk., however, these ideas all belong together linguistically and theologically.

In the OT (upon which the NT idea is based) two fields of thought give specific shape to the idea:

  1. The lawcourt setting gives ‘righteousness’ the idea of the standing of a person in relation to the court’s decision.In the Hebrew court there were no public prosecutors: all cases had to be brought by a plaintiff against a defendant.  Righteousness is the status which results, for either party, if the court finds in his favour.  Since the standard of judgment is the covenant law of God, ‘righteousness’ can acquire the sense of ‘behaviour in conformity with the covenant requirements’, bringing about the possibility that right covenant standing can be observed in ordinary behaviour.  In addition, the judge, or king, must conform to a different sense of righteousness: he must try cases fairly, i.e. he must be true to the law and/or the covenant, must condemn evil, show no partiality, and uphold the cause of the defenceless.  This complex meaning explains the occasional instances when the Septuagint uses dikaiosynē to translate not sedeq and its cognates but other roots such as hesed (grace, covenant mercy), mišpāt (judgment, justice), etc.
  2. The covenantal setting merges with that of the lawcourt: this is due partly to the fact that the law (Torah) is the covenant charter.Though sometimes God himself is seen as Israel’s adversary at law, the more frequently encountered picture is of God as judge or king, with Israel as either plaintiff (pleading her cause against her enemies) or defendant (on trial for failure to keep the covenant).  God’s righteousness is then invoked as the reason why he can be expected to deliver his people: he is committed by covenant to do so.  When this is apparently called into question (in the exile, and later in the Maccabean revolt and the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70), the writers of these periods reply that God is righteous in judging his sinful people; that he is righteous in waiting before judging their enemies, granting time for repentance; and that he will show himself righteous in restoring the: fortunes of his people, in renewing the covenant (Dn. 9; Ezr. 9; etc.).  The book of Job can be seen as a long lawcourt scene in which Job pleads his righteousness, imagining that God is his adversary, only to discover that God cannot be brought into court: the first two chapters reveal Satan (see Devil) as the real prosecutor, with Job’s comforters as his unwitting assistants.

These two settings (lawcourt and covenant) combine to produce the developed covenantal theology which underlay Judaism at the time of Jesus.  To have ‘righteousness’ meant to belong to the covenant, the boundary marker of which was the Torah, and the hope of which was that God, in accordance with his own righteousness, would act in history to ‘vindicate’, to ‘justify’, his people (i.e. to show that they really were his people) by saving them from their enemies.  These meanings are reflected particularly in Matthew, where ‘righteousness’ is shorthand both for the saving plan of God (Mt. 3:15) and for the covenantal obligations of his people (5:20; 6:1), and Luke, which emphasizes the ‘righteous’ standing of many of the key actors in the drama (Lk. 1:6; 2:25; 23:50; Acts 10:22).  Jesus himself is sometimes called ‘the righteous one’, in virtue of his being the one designated by God as his true covenant partner (e.g. Acts 3:14; 7:52, 22:14, Jas. 5:6).  The Jewish belief that God would judge the world justly is echoed repeatedly in the NT, e.g. 2 Thes. 1:5-6; Rom. 2:1-16; Heb. 12:23.  But the fullest development comes in Paul, particularly with his exposition in Romans of the righteousness of God.

Paul saw that the Jewish problem of God’s righteousness (if the creator of the world is Israel’s covenant God, why is Israel still oppressed?) had been answered in a new and striking way in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  The answer had, in fact, forced a restatement of the question, demonstrating as it did the universal sinfulness of Jews as well as pagans.  The gospel, Paul declares, proves that God is in the right despite appearances: he has kept covenant with Abraham, has dealt properly with sin, has acted and will act without partiality, and upholds all those who cast themselves, helpless, on his mercy (Rom. 1:16-17; 2:1-16; 3:21 – 4:25).  God has, in other words, shown ‘righteousness’ in the sense appropriate for the judge and the Lord of the covenant.  He is thus able to anticipate the verdict of the last day (Rom. 2:1-16) and to declare in the present (Rom. 3:21-26) that all who believe the gospel are already within the covenant community (see Justification).

The view that ‘the righteousness of God’ refers to a righteousness which God gives to, bestows upon, or recognizes in human beings came initially from Augustine, but gained its force (in terms of the development of modern theology) from Luther’s reaction against a iustitia distributiva. The term iustitia, as found in the Latin Vulgate, had indeed pulled the understanding of texts such as Rom. 1:17 in the (false) direction of a merely ‘distributive’ justice, in which God simply rewards virtue and punishes vice.  Luther’s alternative, however fruitful in opening new worlds of theology to him, was in some ways equally misleading, for it directed attention away from the biblical notion of God’s covenant faithfulness and instead placed greater emphasis upon the status of the human being.  In the period after Luther, Protestant theology largely returned to the notion of the distributive justice of God: because God is righteous, he must in fact reward virtue and punish sin, and this satisfaction of divine justice took place in Christ.

According to the NT, the people of God do indeed have ‘righteousness’.  This is not, strictly speaking, God’s own righteousness (though cf. 2 Cor. 5:21), but that which is proper to the person in whose favour the court has found; within the covenant context, it is the right standing of a member of the people of God.  ‘Righteousness’ thus comes to mean, more or less, ‘covenant membership’, with all the overtones of appropriate behaviour (e.g. Phil. 1:11).  The terminology plays a central role in Paul’s debate with those who sought to keep the covenant community within the bounds of physical Judaism: they, Paul says, are ignorant of God’s righteousness (i.e. of what God is righteously accomplishing, of how he is fulfilling his covenant) and are seeking to establish a righteousness of their own (i.e. a covenant membership for Jews alone), whereas in God’s plan Christ offers covenant membership to all who believe the gospel (Rom. 10:3-4).  (See further Paul.)

The central biblical discussions of righteousness thus principally concern membership in the covenant and the behaviour appropriate to that membership.  Since, however, these passages depend on a theology in which God is creator and judge of all the earth, and in which God’s people are to reflect God’s own character, it is not illegitimate to extrapolate from them to the ‘justice’ which God desires, and designs, for his world. The church is to be not only an example of God’s intended new humanity, but the means by which the eventual plan, including the establishment of world-wide justice, is to be put into effect.  Lack of emphasis here in older theological writing, due sometimes to individualism and sometimes to a dualistic split between church and world, has led to a reaction (e.g. in some liberation theology) in which ‘justice’ as an abstract virtue has been elevated in an unbiblical manner (e.g. at the expense of mercy).  This should not prevent a balanced orthodox view of world-wide justice from regaining, and retaining, its place in the church’s teaching and practice.


On ‘justice’: P. Marshall, Thine is the Kingdom: A Biblical Perspective on Government and Politics Today (Basingstoke, 1984)

R. J. Mouw, Politics and the Biblical Drama (Grand Rapids, MI, 1983)

N. Wolterstorff,Until Justice and Peace Embrace (Grand Rapids, MI, 1984)

J. H. Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI, 1972)

On ‘righteousness’ see under Justification.