The words ‘righteous’ and ‘righteousness’ are found much more in biblical language than in everyday language. Both words, however, are concerned with everyday matters, and for this reason some modern versions of the Bible prefer to use such words as ‘right’, ‘fair’, ‘just’ and ‘honest’. A righteous person is one who, among other things, does right or is in the right.
The source of righteousness
Perfect righteousness is found in God alone. He is perfect in goodness and has a perfect knowledge of what is right and what is wrong (Deut 32:4; Ps 145:17; Isa 45:21; Rom 9:14; Heb 6:18). Since God made human beings in his image, they also have a sense of righteousness. If they are characterized by proper behaviour and moral uprightness, the Bible may speak of them as righteous (Gen 7:1; Ps 15:2; Prov 12:3- 10; Luke 1:6; 2 Cor 9:9-10). This righteousness is not a moral perfection that people achieve by their own efforts, but a right relationship with God that people enter into through faith and obedience (Isa 50:9; Hab 2:4; Rom 3:4-5; 9:31-32; 10:3-4; Gal 3:11-12). It is a righteousness that pleases God and guarantees his help (Ps 45:7-8; Isa 56:1; 1 Peter 3:12).
The legal setting
Righteousness is not simply a private affair; it is a matter also for social concern. God’s righteousness demands social justice (Isa 5:7-9; Amos 5:6-7,24). Justice, in fact, is a prominent characteristic of righteousness in the Bible (see JUSTICE). The Bible commonly uses ‘righteousness’ and related words in a legal setting, where a judge must administer justice righteously. The judge in some cases is God (Gen 18:25; Ps 96:13; Eccles 3:17; Acts 17:31; 2 Tim 4:8; Rev 19:11), in other cases a civil official (Lev 19:15; Deut 4:8; Ezek 23:45; cf. John 7:24). The innocent and the guilty are respectively the righteous and the wicked. In acquitting the innocent, the judge declares him to be in the right, or righteous; in condemning the guilty, the judge declares him to be in the wrong, or wicked (Deut 25:1; 1 Kings 8:32; Job 32:1; Mal 3:18; Matt 13:41-43; 27:19; Rom 2:5-8).
This legal sense of righteousness gives meaning to the biblical teaching of justification by faith. (In both Hebrew and Greek the words ‘righteous’ and ‘justify’ come from the same root.) To justify means to declare righteous. Justification is God’s act of declaring righteous those who put their faith in Christ and his saving work. God does not make believers righteous in the sense of improving them to a standard of behaviour that satisfies him, but rather he declares them righteous. Christ has met God’s righteous demands by paying sin’s penalty on behalf of sinners. God can therefore declare repentant sinners righteous, yet himself remain righteous in doing so (Rom 1:16-17; 3:21-26; 4:1-3; 5:1-2; Gal 2:15-16; 3:21-22; Phil 3:9). (For details of this aspect of the believer’s righteousness see JUSTIFICATION.) Though righteous deeds, or good works, cannot save anyone, once people are saved their lives should be full of righteous deeds (Eph 2:8-10; Phil 1:11). Once God has declared them righteous, they must make it true in practice by living righteously (Rom 6:13,18-19; Eph 4:24; 5:9; Phil 3:8-10; 1 Tim 6:11; 1 Peter 2:24; 3:14).