Righteousness is among the most important words in the Bible. It’s essential for understanding who God is, who he loves, and how we pursue and obey him.
- “God is a righteous judge, and a God who feels indignation every day.” (Psalm 7:11)
- “The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous.” (Psalm 146:8)
- “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” (Matthew 5:6)
- “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (Matthew 6:33)
A Simple Definition
We can understand righteousness by way of contrast. The Scriptures consistently use “righteous” and “wicked” as opposites.
- “…for the Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.” (Psalm 1:6)
- “Better is the little that the righteous has than the abundance of many wicked.” (Psalm 37:16)
- “The Lord’s curse is on the house of the wicked, but he blesses the dwelling of the righteous.” (Proverbs 3:33)
- “The righteous will never be removed, but the wicked will not dwell in the land.” (Proverbs 10:30)
The word righteousness contains the word “right,” and that’s no accident. The ideas of right-ness and justice are wrapped up in this big word.
Justice always has a standard in mind. Right—according to whom? Just—by what definition? The concept of justice immediately invokes a law.
So to be righteous is to be conformed to all the demands of the law. To have righteousness is to have right standing with respect to the law.
God is righteous because he meets his own standards. He is the chief example of fulfilling the demands of the law. And those who want to be blessed by God must also be righteous.
Righteousness From Another
The Bible often speaks of righteousness from another. A law-breaker receives righteousness from a law-keeper.
- “And [Abram] believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.” (Genesis 15:6)
- “For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.’ Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness…” (Romans 4:3–5)
- “For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” (Romans 5:19)
- “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith…” (Phil 3:8–9)
As we explore the meaning of righteousness, we dive to the heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ! God gives the righteousness he requires. He makes many righteous. Through faith, the righteousness of Jesus is given to God’s people.
For the Kids
Because the Bible is for all of God’s people, we should be able to explain every concept to the youngest in our churches and families. How should we explain righteousness?
Since children understand obedience and disobedience from their earliest years, I take this approach. Righteousness is when someone loves and obeys perfectly.
When we read the Bible with our children and talk about righteousness, the doors are open wide to talk about sin, substitution, and salvation.
(Note: I’m aware that many books have been written trying to define “righteousness” in the Bible. Meaning always depends on context, and I’m not trying to be comprehensive. I hope this brief post can serve as a starting point.)