Righteousness and Justice
An insight from Psalms is that righteousness and justice is a big thing with God. One cannot call themselves godly if one is not righteous. The wicked are associated with ungodliness, and therefore, unrighteousness. You will also find that righteousness and justice are significant themes in the Bible.
What is righteousness, and how does it relate to justice? In this lesson, I will discuss the various aspects of righteousness from the Old and New Testaments’ perspective. The goal here is to understand what righteousness is, what it looks like in our everyday lives, and how Jesus Christ has made a way for us to be righteous even as sinful human beings.
I will then discuss the importance of living a righteous life.
Righteousness and Justice in the Psalms
Of course, Psalms reveals much about righteousness and justice. It is a significant theme throughout. Consider the following passages of Scripture to give you an idea of the significance of righteousness and justice.
- Psalm 10:17–18 (NKJV) — 17 Lord, You have heard the desire of the humble; You will prepare their heart; You will cause Your ear to hear, 18 To do justice to the fatherless and the oppressed, That the man of the earth may oppress no more.
- Psalm 33:5 (NKJV) — 5 He loves righteousness and justice; The earth is full of the goodness of the Lord.
- Psalm 89:14 (NKJV) — 14 Righteousness and justice are the foundation of Your throne; Mercy and truth go before Your face.
- Psalm 103:6 (NKJV) — 6 The Lord executes righteousness And justice for all who are oppressed.
- Psalm 146:5–9 (NKJV) — 5 Happy is he who has the God of Jacob for his help, Whose hope is in the Lord his God, 6 Who made heaven and earth, The sea, and all that is in them; Who keeps truth forever, 7 Who executes justice for the oppressed, Who gives food to the hungry. The Lord gives freedom to the prisoners. 8 The Lord opens the eyes of the blind; The Lord raises those who are bowed down; The Lord loves the righteous. 9 The Lord watches over the strangers; He relieves the fatherless and widow; But the way of the wicked He turns upside down.
- Psalm 11:7 (NKJV) — 7 For the Lord is righteous, He loves righteousness; His countenance beholds the upright.
- Psalm 37:30 (NKJV) — 30 The mouth of the righteous speaks wisdom, And his tongue talks of justice.
Examine also Psalm 1 for the contrast between the godly (righteous) and ungodly (wicked or unrighteous).
What is Righteousness?
What do you think of when you consider righteousness? There are several aspects of righteousness that you should be aware of. First, let me provide the definitions of righteousness from different sources.
Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible defines righteousness as Conformity to a certain set of expectations, which vary from role to role. Righteousness is fulfillment of the expectations in any relationship, whether with God or other people. It is applicable at all levels of society, and is relevant in every area of life. Therefore, righteousness denotes the fulfilled expectations in relationships between man and wife, parents and children, fellow citizens, employer and employee, merchant and customers, ruler and citizens, and God and man
The Tyndale Bible Dictionary defines righteousness as the establishment of a right relationship—primarily between God and people, secondarily between people themselves. Righteousness is the fulfillment of just expectations in any relationship, whether with God or other people.
The Harper’s Bible Dictionary defines righteousness as the state of being in the right, or being vindicated.
Righteousness means to express the righteous character of God in our deeds and words. That means that true righteousness originates from God.
God is Righteous
We should not think of righteousness as a standard that God subscribes to. For example, I could say that a person is good because they meet my definition or expectation of good. Therefore, good is a standard to which I compare others.
However, righteousness concerning God is not like that. There is no standard of righteousness that we compare God to and declare that He is indeed righteous because He met that standard. Instead, God is righteous. He is the standard of righteousness. Righteousness is an attribute of God similar to love, faithfulness, etc. Therefore, to be genuinely righteous concerning God is to be like God in who we are, what we do, and what we say. Consider the following passages of Scripture.
- Deuteronomy 32:4 (NKJV) — 4 He is the Rock, His work is perfect; For all His ways are justice, A God of truth and without injustice; Righteous and upright is He.
- 2 Chronicles 12:6 (NKJV) — 6 So the leaders of Israel and the king humbled themselves; and they said, “The Lord is righteous.”
- Psalm 7:9 (NKJV) — 9 Oh, let the wickedness of the wicked come to an end, But establish the just; For the righteous God tests the hearts and minds.
- Psalm 103:17 (NKJV) — 17 But the mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting On those who fear Him, And His righteousness to children’s children,
So, God is intrinsically upright and just, i.e., righteous. Therefore, there is no standard of righteousness that God conforms to because He is the standard. He is righteousness. Therefore, if you asked me, “What is righteousness,” then I would be inaccurate to list attributes that collectively equate to my standard of righteousness. Instead, I could say, “Look at God. That is righteousness.”
Two Aspects of Righteousness
There are two aspects of righteousness that I want to share with you.
- Righteousness is a state of being (the heart)
- The expression of righteousness through acts.
A righteous person will do righteous things but doing righteous things does not make one righteous.
Isaiah 64:6 (NKJV) — 6 But we are all like an unclean thing, And all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags; We all fade as a leaf, And our iniquities, like the wind, Have taken us away.
Our righteousnesses = our righteous deeds, i.e., the things we do that are identified with righteousness.
Therefore, being righteous concerning God is more than merely following the rules or obeying the law. Genuine righteousness exists in and expresses itself from the heart. Consider the following passages.
Matthew 12:34 (NKJV) — 34 Brood of vipers! How can you, being evil, speak good things? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.
Proverbs 23:7 (NKJV) — 7 For as he thinks in his heart, so is he. “Eat and drink!” he says to you, But his heart is not with you.
Matthew 5:20 (NKJV) — 20 For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.
The righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees was based on works. They believed their pious acts made them righteous concerning God. Jesus makes the point that their righteousnesses did not make them righteous.
Justice is the concept of proper judgment, i.e., rightly defending the righteous and condemning the guilty. It is more than mere fairness because it is rooted in the character of God.
Review the following passages of Scripture quoted earlier.
- Psalm 33:5
- Psalm 89:14
- Psalm 103:6
God is just, and His justice is revealed in the law and expressed in implementing the laws in everyday life. You might say that God showed us how to live up to his just standards.
God’s righteousness and justice are seen through the redemptive act of Jesus Christ. Without Christ, all sinners are doomed to condemnation because the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). However, God provided a way for the unrighteous to be vindicated—through faith in Jesus Christ. If justice were mere fairness, then it would be fair for all of us to be condemned because that is what we deserve.
The Bible reveals that God is just, and He expects His people to be the same. Again, the law revealed the justice of God by teaching the Israelites how to treat one another, how to make decisions in legal matters, etc. We, too, should practice the same justice in our lives. Righteous people are also just people, and God’s righteousness and justice are practiced in their lives.
I thought I would briefly mention the concept of justification since it is closely tied to righteousness and justice
The Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible defines justification as the act of God in bringing sinners into a new covenant relationship with himself through the forgiveness of sins. It is a declarative act of God by which he establishes persons as righteous—that is, in right and true relationship to himself
So, justification is how we can be brought into proper relations (reconciled) with God. It is entirely an act of God and has nothing to do with merit. The requirement for justification is to put one’s faith in Jesus Christ.
We could never attain right relations with God by our own efforts or merit. Therefore, God provided a way for us to be reconciled to Him by faith in Jesus Christ (See 2 Corinthians 5:20-21).
The beautiful thing about justification is it is a gift from God. We don’t have to attempt to earn it or work to deserve it. All we need to do is believe that Jesus Christ was crucified for our sins. He rose from the dead and ascended to the Father (1 Corinthians 15:3). We can avoid eternal separation from God by putting our faith in Jesus Christ for salvation and then living that faith.
Once we put on the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ, we must express that righteousness of God through the things we do and say, i.e., our lifestyle.
How You Can Be Righteous
So, how can we obtain genuine righteousness so that we are not merely following a religious, i.e., man-made, standard?
True righteousness is more than merely following the rules or obeying the law. For example, some people were considered righteous before God gave the law to the Israelites.
- Noah (Genesis 6:9)
- Abraham (Genesis 15:6)
- Phinehas (Psalm 106:28-31, Numbers 25:11-13)
So, their righteousness came from somewhere else. Noah walked with God. Abraham believed what God told him, and Phinehas had the zeal of God and acted to save the people. What these and others had was internal, not mere conformity.
Genuine righteousness comes from God.
Matthew 6:33 (NKJV) — 33 But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.
Jesus summarized what he had said (See Matthew, chapters 5 and 6. We should seek the Kingdom of God and His righteousness.
The Apostle Paul revealed that righteousness could be declared on the unrighteous based on their faith in Jesus Christ. The unrighteous could be acquitted or vindicated by faith in Christ (Exodus 23:7, Deut. 25:1, 1 Kings 8:32).
God justifies the ungodly by declaring them righteous based on Jesus’ redemptive act and faith in Him.
- Romans 4:5 (NKJV) — 5 But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness,
- Romans 3:25–26 (NKJV) — 25 whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, 26 to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
- Philippians 3:9–11 (NKJV) — 9 and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith; 10 that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, 11 if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.
- 2 Corinthians 5:21 (NKJV) — 21 For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.
Therefore, we can obtain the righteousness of God by believing in Jesus Christ for salvation, i.e., right relations with God. We realize that we cannot earn or deserve a relationship with God. God provides it to us freely through faith in Jesus Christ. After that, it is simply a matter of allowing that righteousness to express itself in our everyday activities.
We can be righteous by believing in Jesus Christ for salvation and receiving the righteousness of God. However, faith without works is dead (James 2:14-26). Therefore, our lives should be an expression of the righteousness that we receive from God.
The Psalms reveal that righteousness and justice are essential for God’s people to have. Genuinely righteous people aren’t merely doing good deeds. They are expressing the righteousness they have from God, which is within. So, the righteousness of the children of God is a manifestation and expression of the righteousness of Christ that we have in our hearts.
Justice is a specific expression of God’s righteousness. God is the righteous judge, and we can practice justice from the Spirit of God within us. A common theme in the Bible is how God helps the poor, orphans, widows, and foreigners. We, therefore, should practice the same things.
If you are reconciled to God through Jesus Christ, i.e., you are saved, then you already have the righteousness of God, so go and be righteous in your deeds and words.
 Elwell, W. A., & Beitzel, B. J. (1988). Righteousness. In Baker encyclopedia of the Bible (Vol. 2, p. 1860). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.
 Elwell, W. A., & Comfort, P. W. (2001). In Tyndale Bible dictionary (p. 1134). Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers.
 Achtemeier, P. J., Harper & Row and Society of Biblical Literature. (1985). In Harper’s Bible dictionary (1st ed., p. 871). San Francisco: Harper & Row.
 Elwell, W. A., & Comfort, P. W. (2001). In Tyndale Bible dictionary (p. 764). Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers.