What Is Righteousness?

It seems confusion dominates discussions about the righteousness of God. Is it imputed? Imparted? When does it mean vindication? Justice? Holiness? Declared not guilty? Putting things right? All of the above? Find out what the Old Testament and New Testament say!

Let’s explore what righteousness is in all its varied meanings and applications.

If you would like to see the verses in various translations, you may go to Biblegateway.com and type in the references.

If this post is too long, scroll down the summary and look at the biblical verses in evidence ,later.


The Hebrew words in this study all have the same root: ts-d-q.

In the Old Testament righteousness is founded on God’s character and his law. God is righteous, and so is his law, which expresses his righteousness to humans. There is an inseparable connection between his character and decrees, but his character comes first. It is not as though righteousness can exist independent of him and he has to conform to this impersonal quality or force. God decrees what is righteous or unrighteous.

His law also binds humans to its demands.

That God posits law, and that He is bound to it as a just God, is a fundamental tenet in the OT knowledge of faith in all its variations. The element of unity in the faith of all the righteous in Israel, whether prophets, priests, lawgivers, or men of a less distinctive sociological type, is the acknowledgment of God’s law ordering alike both great and small and forming a basis for hope.  (TDNT vol. 2, 176)

God is the righteous ruler, and his righteousness applies not only to Israel, but extends to all nations.

It is a basic tenet in the OT that God posits law and is bound to it. Recognition of this is a unifying factor in Israel’s faith. All law comes from God, and hence God’s authority extends to all Israel’s historical relationships. God’s law is an order of life that cannot be changed or challenged. It is righteous because he is righteous. His ways are right; they thus give us life and security. He is a righteous ruler and judge, as shown already in the victory celebrated in Judg. 5:11. His righteousness extends to other nations, so that order is seen in the world. The righteous can thus appeal to him with confidence when they are the victims of hostility and oppression (Ps. 5:8). (ibid.)

The Theological Wordbook of the OT also says the Hebrew words are connected to norms.

This root basically connotes conformity to an ethical or moral standard. It is claimed by Snaith (N. Snaith, Distinctive Ideas of the OT, Schocken, 1964, p. 73): “the original significance of the root ṣdq to have been ‘to be straight.’ ” But he adds that it stands for a “norm.” Perhaps the origin of the word is not so clear or even significant. Words having a secular origin often are baptized into special meanings and a word originally meaning straight may develop easily into a moral term just so canon “rod,” “measuring rule” becomes a standardized list of sacred books. ṣedeq, then, refers to an ethical, moral standard and of course in the ot that standard is the nature and will of God. “The Lord is righteous (ṣaddı̂q) in all his ways and holy in all his works” (Ps 145:17). (TWOT 752)

But how does an ancient Israelite know he is righteous? He is faithful to the covenant God established at the foot Mt. Sinai (Exod. 19:1-8). But how does he know he is being faithful? He follows the Mosaic law that God thundered down on Mt. Sinai (Exod. 19:9-20:21). So faithfulness, righteousness, and the law go together in the OT. As we shall see, Paul reinterprets all of this.

For the Hebrew Bible we look at the verb tsadaq (to be righteous, justify, judge rightly, acquit) and the nouns tsěděq (righteousness) and tsadaqah (righteousness). We do not have time to keep track of the adjective tsaddiq. All words in this study come from the same root: ts-d-q.

Justified or Declared Righteous (tsadaq)

1.. Sometimes a human judge acquits (pronounces righteous, innocent) or declares someone guilty.

Exod. 23:6-8;

Deut. 25:1;

2 Sam. 8:15 1

Chron. 18:14;

Is. 5:22-23.

1.. When God is the judge, he will not acquit the guilty, when humans fail. (Acquit means to declare not guilty.)

7 Have nothing to do with a false charge and do not put an innocent or honest person to death, for I will not acquit the guilty. (Exod. 23:7, emphasis added)

2.. In the following verse, Solomon prays the Lord will judge, condemning the guilty and declaring the innocent “not guilty.”

23 Then [LORD] hear from heaven and act. Judge between your servants, condemning the guilty and bringing down on his own head what he has done. Declare the innocent not guilty, and so establish his innocence. (1 Kings 8:32; cf. 2 Chron. 6:23)

In that case the Lord, after declaring someone not guilty, gives [nathan] him the not-guilty verdict according to his innocence, so translates the NASB. Young’s literal translation says: “to declare righteous the righteous, to give him according to his righteousness.” The context is the heavenly tribunal, and the innocent getting his vindication and his reputation back intact.

Paul’s later revelation tells us that before the infinitely holy God, before his tribunal, no one is completely righteous, so we must not take 1 Kings 8:32 too far. The main point is that the Lord is a judge who declares a verdict.

When God declare the repentant not guilty, it is because the man has repented and asked for forgiveness, and at that moment he is in union with Christ, and then God declares him not guilty. Therefore, it is not a “legal fiction.”

3.. King David says God is his judge who is proved right and justified.

4 Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge. (Ps. 51:4)

4.. God will rescue and deliver the needy, and this rescue and deliverance add up to salvation.

1 God presides in the great assembly; he gives judgment among the “gods”: 2 “How long will you defend the unjust and show partiality to the wicked? 3 Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed. 4 Rescue the weak and needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked. (Ps. 82:1-4)

5.. Vindication is tied to righteous judgment.

8 He who vindicates me is near. Who then will bring charges against me? Let us face each other! Who is my accuser? Let him confront me! (Is. 50:8)

18 Now that I have prepared my case, I know I will be vindicated. (Job. 13:18)

Righteousness (tsadaqah, tsĕdĕq)

1.. Righteousness is an attribute of God, though in the biblical text it is active and relational.

See my post:

Do I Really Know God? He Is Righteous and Just

See also:

Job 36:3

Ps. 7:17

Ps. 35:28

Ps. 36:6

Ps. 51:14

Ps. 71:19

Ps. 111:3, cf. v. 9

Ps. 119:142

2.. God credited righteousness to childless Abraham because he believed God’s promise of a child.

5 He took him outside and said, “Look up at the heavens and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” 6 Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness. (Gen. 15:5-6)

3.. God’s righteousness and salvation go together. He acts out of his righteousness and his rescuing (his salvation)

1 In you, O Lord, I have taken refuge; let me never be put to shame; deliver me in your righteousness. (Ps. 31:1)

2 Rescue me and deliver me in your righteousness; turn your ear to me and save me. (Ps. 71:2)

8 You heavens above, rain down righteousness; let the clouds shower it down. Let the earth open wide, let salvation spring up, let righteousness grow with it; I, the Lord, have created it. (Is. 45:8)

See also:

Ps. 35:27-28

Ps. 65:5

Ps. 143:1-2

Ps. 143:11

Prov. 10:2

Prov. 11:4-6

Prov. 11:18-19

Is. 51:5-6

Is. 56:1

Is. 59:15-17

Zeph. 2:3

4.. Righteousness is God’s standard in judgment and justice.

6 Let God weigh me in honest scales and he will know that I am blameless. (Job 31:6)

8 Let the Lord judge the peoples. Judge me, O Lord, according to my righteousness, according to my integrity, O Most High. (Ps. 7:8)

8 He will judge the world in righteousness; he will govern the peoples with justice. (Ps. 9:8)

See also:

Ps. 50:6-7; cf. 97:6

Ps. 9:4, 8

Ps. 45:4, 7

Ps. 89:14

Ps. 94:14-15

Ps. 96:13

Ps. 97:1-2

Ps. 98:9

Is. 5:16

Is. 45:19

Is. 45:22-24

Is. 58:1-2, 8

Jer. 9:23-24

5.. God drove out the nations, not because of the righteousness of the Israel, but the wickedness of the nations.

4 After the Lord your God has driven them out before you, do not say to yourself, “The Lord has brought me here to take possession of this land because of my righteousness.” No, it is on account of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is going to drive them out before you. 5 It is not because of your righteousness or your integrity that you are going in to take possession of their land; but on account of the wickedness of these nations, the Lord your God will drive them out before you, to accomplish what he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. (Deut. 9:4-5)

6.. Kings and judges should judge with righteousness and nations establish it.

15 Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly. (Lev. 19:15)

16 And I charged your judges at that time: Hear the disputes between your brothers and judge fairly, whether the case is between brother Israelites or between one of them and an alien. (Deut. 1:16)

18 Appoint judges and officials for each of your tribes in every town the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall judge the people fairly. … 20 Follow justice and justice alone, so that you may live and possess the land the Lord your God is giving you. (Deut. 16:18, 20)

See also:

2 Sam. 8:15; cf. 1 Chron. 18:14

Ps. 22:29-31

Ps. 40:9-10

Ps. 51:14

Ps. 72:1-2

Prov. 8:15

34 Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people. (Prov. 14:34)

Prov. 16:12-13

Prov. 25:5

Prov. 31:9

Is. 26:9-10

Is. 32:1

Is. 41:2

Jer. 4:1-2

Jer. 22:1-3

Jer. 22:15

Ezek. 45:9-10

Dan. 4:27

7.. God uses righteousness to vindicate.

5 He will receive blessing from the Lord and vindication from God his Savior. (Ps. 24:5; cf. Is. 50:8; Ps. 9:8; 18:20, 24; 37:6)

27 May those who delight in my vindication shout for joy and gladness; may they always say, “The Lord be exalted, who delights in the well-being of his servant.” (Ps. 35:27)

24 Vindicate me in your righteousness, O Lord my God; do not let them gloat over me. … 28 My tongue will speak of your righteousness and of your praises all day long. (Ps. 35:24, 28)

6 He will make your righteousness shine like the dawn, the justice of your cause like the noonday sun. (Ps. 37:6)

17 No weapon forged against you will prevail, and you will refute every tongue that accuses you. This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord, and this is their vindication from me,” declares the Lord. (Is. 54:17)

Great promise!

See also:

Job 33:26

Ps. 9:3-5

Ps. 17:1-2

Ps. 35:27

Jer. 11:20

Jer. 51:10

Joel 2:23

8.. Righteousness, which has its source and cause in God, is a gift.

He shall receive a blessing from the Lord, and righteousness from the God of his salvation. (Ps. 24:5, NASB)

10 Continue your love to those who know you, your righteousness to the upright in heart. (Ps. 36:10)

5 Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him and he will do this: 6 He will make your righteousness shine like the dawn, the justice of your cause like the noonday sun. (Ps. 37:5-6)

24 But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream! (Amos 5:24)

See also:

Is. 61:11

9.. Righteousness can be put on like clothes.

14 I put on righteousness as my clothing; justice was my robe and my turban. (Job 29:14)

5 Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash around his waist. (Is. 11:5)

17 He put on righteousness as his breastplate, and the helmet of salvation on his head. (Is. 59:17)

10 I delight greatly in the Lord; my soul rejoices in my God. For he has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. (Is. 61:10)

9 May your priests be clothed with righteousness … (Ps. 132:9)

Zechariah 3 talks about Joshua the High Priest having his filthy garments being taken off of him, and “pure” vestments put on him; though the word “righteousness” as such does not occur, it’s still a beautiful image.

10.. Humans must conduct themselves in righteousness, particularly by obeying the law. Yes, Paul said righteousness is a fruit, so this fruit must grow outwardly from the human spirit and soul. It must manifest in our behavior.

23 The Lord rewards every man for his righteousness and faithfulness. (1 Sam. 26:23; cf. v. 25; cf. Ps. 18:20, 24)

21 “The Lord has dealt with me according to my righteousness; according to the cleanness of my hands he has rewarded me. (2 Sam 22:21, cf. v. 25; Ps. 18:20, 24)

3 He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. (Ps. 23:3)

17 But from everlasting to everlasting the Lord’s love is with those who fear him, and his righteousness with their children’s children— 18 with those who keep his covenant and remember to obey his precepts. (Ps. 103:17-18)

3 How blessed are those who keep justice, who practice righteousness at all times! (Ps. 106:3, NASB)

9 The Lord detests the way of the wicked but he loves those who pursue righteousness. (Prov. 15:9)

8 Better a little with righteousness than much gain with injustice. (Prov. 16:8)

3 To do righteousness and justice is desired by the Lord more than sacrifice. (Prov. 21:3, NASB)

21 He who pursues righteousness and loyalty finds life, righteousness and honor. (Prov. 21:21, NASB)

1 This is what the Lord says: “Maintain justice and do what is right, for my salvation is close at hand and my righteousness will soon be revealed.” (Is. 56:1)

The Fruit of Righteousness

See also:

Gen. 18:19

Lev. 19:36; cf. Deut. 25:15; Ezek. 45:10

Deut. 6:25

Deut. 24:12-13

1 Kings 3:6

Job 27:6

Ps. 7:8

Ps. 15:2

Ps. 119:7

Ps. 119:62

Ps. 119:75

Ps. 119:144

Ps. 119:172

Prov. 1:2-3

Prov. 11:5-6

Prov. 16:3

Is. 42:21

Is. 51:7-8

Is. 58:7-8

Ezek. 3:20-21

Ezek. 18:5-9

Ezek. 18:20-22, cf. v. 27

Ezek. 33:12-16

11.. Humans must offer righteous sacrifices.

Deut. 33:19

Ps. 4:5

Ps. 51:18-19

12.. Righteousness shall be restored to Zion or Israel.

Is. 1:26-27

Is. 28:16-17

Is. 32:16-18

Is. 33:5-6

Is. 48:17-18

Is. 54:14-15

Is. 60:16-21

Is. 62:1-3

Jer. 31:23

Dan. 9:24

Hos. 2:19

Hos. 10:12

Mic. 7:9

Zech. 8:8

13.. Righteousness is the foundation of the throne of the Messiah, the Branch of David, the Lord Our Righteousness. This ultimately is fulfilled in Jesus and his kingdom, right now in his church but completely in his fully manifest eternal kingdom.

7 Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this. (Is. 9:7)

1 A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. 2 The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him— the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of power, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord— 3 and he will delight in the fear of the Lord. He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; 4 but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. … 5 Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash around his waist.  (Is. 11:1-4, 5)

1 The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, 2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, 3 and provide for those who grieve in Zion— to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor. (Is. 61:1-3)

5 “The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will raise up to David a righteous Branch, a King who will reign wisely and do what is just and right in the land. 6 In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. This is the name by which he will be called: The Lord Our Righteousness.” (Jer. 23:5-6)

15 “In those days and at that time I will make a righteous Branch sprout from David’s line; he will do what is just and right in the land. 16 In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. This is the name by which it will be called: ‘The Lord Our Righteousness.’” (Jer. 33:15-16)

The only king who can be called “Our Righteousness” is King Jesus. 1 Cor. 1:30 and 2 Cor. 5:21 say Christ has become our righteousness.

See also:

Is. 16:5

Is. 42:6-7

Mal. 4:2

See my posts:

Bible Basics about the Kingdom of God

Questions and Answers about Kingdom of God

Basic Definition of Kingdom of God

1 Introducing the Kingdom of God (begin a ten-part series)


English has to deal with “righteousness” and “justice” as if they come from two different stems in Greek, but they do not. In Greek, both righteousness and justice come from the dik– stem.

In fact, here are the other related words that also share the dik– stem. “Righteousness” or “justice” is dikaiosynê; “justification” is dikaiôsis; “to justify” or “pronounce righteous” is dikaioô; righteous deed or regulation is dikaiôma; also, dikaiokrisis is “righteous judgment”; endikos is “just”; and “punishment” or “penalty” is dikê. Antonyms: adikia “unrighteousness”; adikos “unrighteous.”

In this section, we look at the verb dikaioô (to justify, declare righteous in Paul) and the noun dikaiosunê (righteousness) and dikaiôsis (justification). We don’t have the time to include the adjective dikaios (righteous).

Justified or Declared Righteous (dikaioô)

This section uses the ESV.

1.. To be justified is to be vindicated in the face of accusations from enemies.

4 By no means! Let God be true though every one were a liar, as it is written,

“That you may be justified in your words, and prevail when you are judged.” (Rom. 3:4; Ps. 51:4)

16 Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness:

He was manifested in the flesh,

vindicated by the Spirit,

seen by angels,

 proclaimed among the nations,

believed on in the world,

taken up in glory. (1 Tim. 3:16)

See also:

Rom. 8:33

1 Cor. 4:3-5

2.. Paul speaks about the standards of God and implies from the rest of Romans that humans can’t meet them.

12 For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law.13 For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. … 16 on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus. (Rom. 2:12-13, 16)

3.. God justifies us apart from the law (our law keeping).

19 Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20 For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. (Rom. 3:19-20)

28 For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. (Rom. 3:28)

See also:

Gal. 3:11

Gal. 5:2-4

4.. God justifies us apart from our works and works of the law.

26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. 27 Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28 For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. (Rom. 3:26-28)

1 What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? 2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” 4 Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. 5 And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness (Rom. 4:1-5)

See also:

Gal. 2:15-17

5.. God justifies us freely by grace and faith.

23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift. (Rom. 3:23-24)

24 So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. (Gal. 3:24)

See also:

Rom. 3:21-31

Rom. 5:1

Titus 3:7

6.. The Spirit Himself justifies us.

11 And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Cor. 6:11)

7.. God justifies us by Christ’s sacrificial blood.

23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. (Rom. 3:23-25)

9 Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. (Rom. 5:9)

8.. We are freed and acquitted from sin (sin accusing us).

7 For one who has died has been set free [NEV notes: has been justified] from sin. (Rom. 6:7)

9.. God calls us to be justified and then he has glorified us.

30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. (Rom. 8:30)

Righteousness (dikaiosunê) and justification (dikaiôsis)

Paul surely has these all of those OT ideas in his mind when he writes about the righteousness of God. But now all their OT meanings are fulfilled in Christ. Therefore his theology is much more personal and Spirit-based. He is writing to Spirit-filled, small communities. It should be noted that the Reformers distinguished between God’s own righteousness, and his free gift of righteousness that he provides to all who believe in Christ. It is this latter meaning that is intended by “God’s righteousness” (see the list that follows).

1.. God’s righteousness implies that no one is righteous by his absolute standards.

5 But if our unrighteousness brings out God’s righteousness more clearly, what shall we say? … 10 There is no one righteous, not even one (Rom. 3:5, 10, citing Pss. 14:1-3; 53:13)

2.. God’s righteousness is apart from the law and comes through faith in Christ and saves us.

21 But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22 This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. (Rom. 3:21-22)

25 God presented him [Christ] as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— 26 he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. (Rom. 3:25-26)

23 The words “it was credited to him” were written not for him alone, 24 but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness—for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. 25 He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification. (Rom. 4:23-25)

See also:

Rom. 9:30-32

Rom. 10:3-4, 8-13

2 Cor. 3:9

Gal. 2:21

Gal. 3:21-22

Gal. 5:4-5

Php. 3:9

3.. God’s righteousness is built into the gospel, from faith to faith.

16 I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. 17 For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” (Rom. 1:16-17)

4.. Abraham shows God’s righteousness can be credited or imputed to our account.

1 We say that Abraham, our forefather, discovered in this matter? 2 If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about—but not before God. 3 What does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” 4 Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation. 5 However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness. 6 David says the same thing when he speaks of the blessedness of the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works … 10 We have been saying that Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness.  (Rom. 4:1-6, 10, emphasis added)

That long passage clarifies that when we work, we earn money. The employer owes it to us. When we don’t work, but get money anyway, that’s a gift. It has been freely credited to our account.

See also

Rom. 4:23-24

Gal. 3:6-9

5.. God’s righteousness is therefore a gift by grace.

17 … How much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ. (Rom. 5:17)

5 He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. (Titus 3:5)

6.. God’s righteousness means grace reigns and brings eternal life through Christ.

18 Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men. (Rom. 5:18)

21 … Grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Rom. 5:21)

7.. God’s righteousness means that Christ is our righteousness.

30 It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. (1 Cor. 1:30)

21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.  (2 Cor. 5:21)

Transition: Sanctification

Now that we have received the gift of righteousness, the Spirit can work it out in our lives. This process is known as sanctification or growing up in Christ. Righteousness is imputed. That’s our legal standing. Righteousness is imparted. That’s what we apply in our living. Righteousness affects our conduct. Both imputation and impartation (sanctification) can happen at the same time.

So Paul prayed for the Philippians that they would grow the fruit of righteousness (Phil. 1:11)

1.. Righteousness means we can offer our body, our whole person, as instruments or even slaves of righteousness.

13 and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness. 14 For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace. (Rom. 6:13-14)

16 Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone to obey him as slaves, you are slaves to the one whom you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? (Rom. 6:16)

10 But if Christ is in you, your body is dead because of sin, yet your spirit is alive because of righteousness. (Rom. 8:10)

24 And to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. (Eph. 4:24)

See also:

Rom. 6:18-19

Eph. 5:8-10

2.. Pursue righteousness.

11 But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. (1 Tim. 6:11)

22 Flee the evil desires of youth, and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, along with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart. (2 Tim. 2:22)

3.. Righteousness can become our weapon and armor.

4 Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: … 7 with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left … (2 Cor. 6:4, 7)

14 Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place (Eph. 6:14)

4.. Righteousness is not compatible with wickedness.

14 Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? (2 Cor. 6:14)

13 For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ. 14 And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. 15 It is not surprising, then, if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve. (2 Cor. 11:13-15)

8 For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light 9 (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) 10 and find out what pleases the Lord. 11 Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. (Eph. 5:8-11)

5.. Righteousness can lead to a further harvest of righteousness or good deeds.

10 Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness. (2 Cor. 9:10)

9 And this is my prayer: that [you may be] 11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God. (Php. 1:9, 11)

6.. The kingdom of God is righteousness, as we serve others.

17 For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, 18 because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and approved by men. (Rom. 14:17-18)

7.. A crown of righteousness awaits us.

5 But by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope. (Gal. 5:5)

6 For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure. 7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8 Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing. (2 Tim. 4:6-8)


People are declared righteous or just, not because of their good behavior, but because of their faith in Jesus Christ. So God sees the bad behavior of the sinner. But God notes that he has turned in repentance and faith in Christ who forgives the sinner. Christ pays his debt. Then God declares the sinner righteous and not guilty. The sinner is no longer a debtor because his debt of sin has been paid in full, by Christ.

Then the declare righteous person produces the fruit of righteousness by the power of the Spirit.

The Old Testament

The Hebrew words all have the same root: ts-d-q.

It is amazing how the OT concept of righteousness appears in the context of moral standing and God’s judgment.

In the big picture, Israel was a fully developed nation, the chosen people. Kings of Israel had to establish and follow righteousness. The law of Moses was the standard by which an Israelite knew he was righteous or not. The nation of Israel was judged by this standard, and over a long history, Israel fell short.

But God would one day vindicate his chosen people, for they had been attacked by other nations because of God’s judgment on them due to their unrighteousness – not keeping the law. Sometimes an individual like David or Job was vindicated before his accusers or enemies.

The Old Covenant predicted the Messiah, who would establish righteousness, presumably based on the law of Moses. The Messiah will be the vindicator of national Israel. Zion and Israel will one day be reestablished in righteousness. Other nations will one day come within the orbit of God’s righteousness.

In the context of righteousness, pneumatology (doctrine of the Spirit) was not a developed doctrine in the Old Covenant (but see Ps. 51:11, 14, 19). In the context of righteousness, grace, administered by the Spirit, was undeveloped (but see Is. 26:9-10). In the context of righteousness, faith or belief was not fully developed.

Abraham’s faith that was credited as righteousness is an exception, but OT writes never zeroed in Abraham; instead they focused on the standards of righteousness, as measured against the law of Moses. A key verse: “And if we are careful to obey all this law before the Lord our God, as he has commanded us, that will be our righteousness” (Deut. 6:25, NASB, see no. 10, above, under Righteousness). The Hebrew for righteousness is tsdaqah, which the LXX (third to first century Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) oddly translates as eleêmosunê (“mercy”). But that verse clearly spells out that law keeping is righteousness.

In any case, as noted, in the OT to justify or declare righteous has a legal context in many instances. Sometimes humans acquit the innocent and condemn the guilty; other times God does. God judges according to righteousness, and so should humans. God also justifies or sets to rights on behalf of the widows and orphans and the helpless. Finally, both God and humans can put on righteousness like clothes.

Paul’s Epistles

Paul’s epistles are much, much shorter than the OT. But he packs a lot of theology into them. He takes over some themes from the OT, but clearly goes in new directions. After all, the Messiah has come and the Spirit was given. They account for some huge differences between the two covenants.

Putting things right in a covenant context and declared righteous or acquitted in a forensic (law court) setting do not need to conflict. When God declares you not-guilty or acquits you and yes, puts a robe of righteousness on you, you are put right in the New Covenant.

After (or at the same time) you are acquitted in the divine court of law, God expects you to walk like a free person, declared not guilty. He expects you to behave yourself, to walk in righteousness. That’s called sanctification. Since all analogies are weak, the human judge cannot send his spirit into you to sanctify you. But God is the heavenly judge. He can and does send his Spirit into you. He is called the Holy Spirit. He leads you towards holiness.

After that big-picture overview, now let’s turn to a summary of the biblical data.

Justified, Righteousness, and Justification:

All three words have the same Greek stem dik-.

In the big picture, the Messiah came. Paul met him in revelations. How does the Messiah match up with the OT standard of righteousness? Would he reestablish the Law of Moses in its entirety? Partially? Paul works out sanctification after we are justified e.g. in Rom. 6-8; 12-16; Gal. 5, 6; Eph. 4-6.

One more piece of the big picture: The Spirit came. Paul experienced him. So how does he work with righteousness? How does the Spirit relate to the law of Moses? Now Israel was not the only chosen people; Gentiles were chosen too.

Paul is ambiguous about the law of Moses. The law brings wrath and exposes or intensifies sin. Both Jews and Gentiles need to be rescued or saved from God’s judgment and wrath.

Righteousness and justification has to go in a different direction from law keeping.

Paul zeroes in on Abraham’s faith, who was the father of faith 400+ years before the law of Moses. Abraham was credited with righteousness before he was circumcised, even though circumcision was the sign of being in a covenant, now an old covenant. Keying off Abraham, both Jews and Gentiles can be credited with righteousness by faith. Paul teaches that faith apart from works of the law puts the legal declaration (to justify) in motion.

The Spirit and grace work in a person (even if he does not realize it). To be justified by grace is to be declared righteous apart from doing the law. This declaration has to come through the Messiah and the Spirit, not the law of Moses.

Vindication has to go in a different direction from a narrow restoration of one nation. In fact, vindication as such – and certainly not in the OT sense – is a minor theme in Paul. If anyone is vindicated, it is God, who had foretold he would establish a new covenant; and, having established it, he is not proven untrue. The Spirit vindicates Christ, which refers to Christ’s miracles and resurrection. Only after the legal declaration of righteousness (justification) can a believer be considered “vindicated.” But this is different from ancient Israel’s vindication. Israel had been attacked, defeated and exiled, and the nations of the known world had heard about it. When a remnant of Israel was restored, national vindication was accomplished.

Paul goes way beyond national vindication and is concerned with righteousness before God and his judgment. Christ’s sacrificial blood is the foundation of justification, because the demands of the law have been met. The punishment for our law breaking has been paid in full. To justify is to declare the person just or righteous, so that the ground of punishment no longer exists. Justification is the opposite of condemnation. To condemn does not make the character bad, and to justify does not make the character good. Justification is as much a legal and declarative act as condemnation is.

Law keeping does not bring righteousness. Only faith in Christ brings God’s freely given righteousness. To be declared righteous in God’s sight and to be justified are the same.

To justify is to impute righteousness. Righteousness is a free gift by grace and faith.

To impute is to reckon, calculate, consider, or regard it. The Greek logizomai – which is the verb that translates as “impute” – has the basic meaning of “thinking” or “considering.” God thinks of us as righteous because of Christ; therefore, his righteousness belongs to us. It is not a “legal fiction.” Therefore, after being justified, man can survive the judgment before an infinitely holy and righteous God.

To be justified or legally declared righteous is not an inner act, any more than a judge can make the acquitted be just or righteous on the inside. To be justified does not change the person’s character. Justification is not the same as sanctification (see next).

Righteousness and Sanctification:

Righteousness is a fruit of the Spirit, as we noted in Phil. 1:11.

Justification and sanctification are inseparable, but distinct. Sanctification literally means “the process or act of making holy.” Only the Holy Spirit leads the believer to live a righteous life. From the status of declared righteousness (justification), he can live out a righteous life. Righteousness has been imputed (justification), so now it can be imparted (sanctification).

From the declared legal status of righteousness flows the activity of righteousness. We are no longer slaves of unrighteousness, but slaves of righteousness. Righteousness and wickedness are incompatible. Righteousness can produce a harvest of good or righteous deeds. The legally declared status of righteousness can lead us to put on the breastplate of righteousness. The legally declared status of righteousness can now lead us to take up weapons of lived-out righteousness.

We can pursue righteousness. This pursuit is the perfect illustration of the difference between justification and sanctification. Paul believes righteousness is a free gift by grace alone and faith alone – from faith to faith, apart from works of the law or our works, period. Yet we can pursue righteousness. If we’re not careful, our pursuit turns into our works. We might believe we have to earn righteousness. But why pursue something we already have as a gift in the first place? This is the confusion that comes from not understanding the difference between justification and sanctification.

Paul would tell us that we receive righteousness as a gift by a legal declaration. That’s imputed righteousness. That’s justification. Then our ethical conduct is affected. That’s imparted righteousness from the Spirit. We then pursue righteous living by following the Spirit. That’s sanctification. Then, one day, we will wear a crown of righteousness, after we die.

Though they’re unified, we need to understand the distinctions. (1) God justifies or legally declares us righteous (justification). We have a righteous standing or status before God’s tribunal. (2) That legal righteousness is worked out in our walk or growth in him by the power of the Spirit (sanctification). (3) Our day-to-day growth in righteousness comes together and is completed in heaven.

The free gift of righteousness impacts our living and behavior. We can now live righteously. We do this by walking in the Spirit.

Thus, justification and sanctification are inseparable, but distinct.

If we wrongly believe that God first has to sanctify us before he can declare us not guilty, we will never know for sure if our sanctification has progressed far enough. Are we holy enough before God can declare us righteous? Have we purged out enough sin so that God can then justify us (legally declare us righteous)? Though I’m cooperating with the Spirit in the sanctification process, is my personal cooperation and righteousness good enough?

This wrong way makes God’s legal declaration or justification too dependent on us. This backwards belief puts too much pressure on us. How is this pressure and self-dependency good news? It isn’t.

The answer: imputation and justification (legal declaration of righteousness) and impartation and sanctification (personal growth in righteousness in the Spirit). They are distinct, but both are needed: legal declaration first, sanctification after.

How does this post help me grow in Christ?

There are numerous verses revealing how important righteousness is to God. It is one of his attributes. We receive it by grace through faith, and then we manifest it when the Spirit lives in us and produces it as a fruit.

Are you ready to see this fruit growing in your life, by his Spirit, not your own self-righteousness?


The Fruit of Righteousness

Two Kinds of Righteousness

Justification: Bible Basics

Justification: What It Is and What It Is Not

Justification: How It Was Done, How We Get It, and Its Results

Being Justified in Paul’s Epistles

Bible Basics on Sanctification and Holiness

What Is Sanctification?

How Is Sanctification Done?

Word Study on Holiness and Sanctification


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s