Volume Thirty-Three — Article 2 Volume 33 | Home

Righteousness by Faith (Part 2)

Chapter 3 — The Meaning of Righteousness in Scripture

Few would disagree with von Rad when he says, "There is absolutely no concept of the Old Testament with so central a significance for all relationship as that of sadaq [righteousnes]."—Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology (Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1965), Vol.1, p.370. Richardson says, "Righteousness is for the Hebrews the fundamental character of God." —Alan Richardson, An Introduction to the Theology of the New Testament (New York: Harper & Row, 1958), p.79.

Nearly a century ago Kautzsch concluded that the root meaning of righteousness in the Bible is conformity to a norm. This definition was followed by most scholars. It has been pointed out that in the Greek language the word basically means conformity to social custom, while in Hebrew it means conformity to the standard decreed by God.

More recently (especially since the work of H. Cremer of Germany) it has been pointed out that while the ethical meaning of righteousness is essentially Greek, the relational meaning is essentially Hebrew. Paul, it is said, reflects the Hebrew idea rather than the Greek. Most scholars now regard righteousness as fundamentally concerned with relationships. Some have taken this line of thought so far as to say that the meaning of righteousness is "not an ethical state" and "cannot mean basically 'conformity to a (moral) norm.' " —See The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, ed. G. Bufferick (New York: Abingdon, 1962), Vol.4, pp.95, 99.

Then there are other scholars who have considered the biblical meaning of righteousness to be basically forensic (e.g., Wheeler Robinson, Bultmann, Ladd, Leon Morris). W. R. Smith follows this reasoning so far that he says, "Righteousness is to the Hebrew not so much a moral quality as a legal status."—Cited in David Hill, Greek Words and Hebrew Meanings (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1967), p.84.

We could continue illustrating how scholars sometimes contribute to confusion as much as to clarification. Everyone who follows the ordinary sense of words will somehow equate the English word righteousness with ethics, behavior and moral character. Imagine the layman's perplexity when he reads in The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, for instance, that righteousness does not mean moral character and is not ethical at all. He might even give up altogether when he reads, "Righteousness as it is understood in the Old Testament is a thoroughly Hebraic concept, foreign to the Western mind and at variance with the common understanding of the term."—Ibid., Vol.4, p.80. We do not want to deny the value of Hebraic insights, but as we hope to demonstrate in this study, The Interpreter's Dictionary is getting way out of the ballpark. Against these comments in The Interpreter's Dictionary we could place the comments of the French scholar, Edmond Jacob, in his Theology of the Old Testament He acknowledges that we need to adjust our thought to the Hebraic use of the word righteousness, yet then he adds this caution: "But we must not allow an unbalanced reaction to send us to the opposite extreme and think of righteousness as something fundamentally different from what we understand by this term."—(New York: Harper & Row, 1958), p.94.

Righteousness is one of the great words of Scripture, and as with the Old Testament word kaphar, it is not easy to wrap up its meaning in one single word or even in one single concept. It has several shades of meaning generally combined, and according to the context, one aspect may be more conspicuous than the others. Of all the scholars that we have read on the meaning of righteousness in Scripture, J. A. Ziesler (The Meaning of Righteousness in Paul [New York: Cambridge University Press, 1972]) does as well as any. In fact, in our opinion he is outstanding in the early part of his book.1 If a layman takes a concordance, he can also work through righteousness in the Bible and arrive at a fairly good picture of what is involved.

We may outline the meaning of righteousness in Scripture as follows:

1. Relational (Covenant)

The covenant between God and man is the basis of biblical religion. All divine-human relationships are based on covenant. Righteousness is one of the great words of the covenant. It is used in reference to God's covenant with Abraham (Gen. 15:6; 18:19). In Psalm 15 and Ezekiel 18 we have a description of a righteous man. The setting is the covenant relation between God and Israel. When one does what is expected of him as a covenant partner, he is righteous. Thus von Rad defines righteousness as "loyalty to the covenant."—Von Rad, op. cit., p.373.

Covenant is the biblical word for relationship. ". . . basically righteousness is a concept of relationship. He is righteous who has fulfilled the demands laid upon him by that relationship in which he stands." —George Eldon Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), p.440. Von Rad says that righteousness "is out and out a term of relationship." —Von Rad, op. cit., p.371. "Men's common life was also judged wholly from the point of view of faithfulness to a relationship."—Ibid. "Righteousness is loyalty to a relationship." —Ibid. This is illustrated by Saul and David in 1 Samuel 24:17 or by the story of Tamar in Genesis 38:26. Tamar, despite her behavior in seducing Judah, was more righteous than the patriarch because "she had shown loyalty to a relationship."—Ibid.

The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible says that righteousness is the "fulfillment of the demands of a relationship." It gives many instances and examples of this throughout the Bible. Our quarrel with The Interpreter's Dictionary is not for bringing out this valuable aspect but for trying to isolate this aspect from ethics and moral character. For if, in the interests of being true to Hebrew thought, one stresses the relational meaning of righteousness but goes so far as to say that it is not ethical and does not mean moral character, a person ends up with an abstract concept of relationship. And that is not Hebraic. It is as Grecian as an abstract "immortal soul." Hebrew thought is concrete, dynamic and holistic. Righteousness means a right relationship, but one that is expressed in actions of practical piety and moral rectitude.

The great advantage of the relational concept is that it lifts righteousness out of the realm of impersonal ethics and shows us that it is first and foremost a thing of the heart, an expression of a right personal relationship.

In the original creation man was set within a certain relationship to God and to the created order. There is a kind of hierarchical order here: God is the supreme Suzerain, man is placed under God's rule, and the whole created order is placed under the rule of man (Gen. 1:27-29; Ps. 8:3-8). Man therefore has a certain relationship to God, to his fellow humans (Eve stands at Adam's side —neither above nor beneath him) and to the animals and the created environment (all are subject to man as long as man remains subject to God). God is first, man is second, and things are last. (The same order appears in the Ten Commandments.) Since God has set man in a certain relationship to Himself and to the created order, man can be true man (i.e., righteous) only when he rightly relates to God, to his fellows and to the environment. Righteousness "is the standard not only for man's relationship with God, but also for his relationships to his fellows. . . . it is even the standard for man's relationship to the animals and to his natural environment."—Von Rad, op. cit, p.370. The cattle are included in the fourth word of the Decalogue (Ex. 20:10). "A righteous man regards the life of his beast" (Prov. 12:10).

When we consider all these relationships in the light of the Hebrew manner of concrete, dynamic thinking, we see that righteousness means living as man was meant to live in all the relationships of life. But evangelical piety has often reduced righteousness to an abstract heart-relationship with the Lord that transpires in the inner world of the "soul-box"—a private, inner experience which has very little to do with such concrete things as social justice and proper care of the body or the environment.

2. Ethical (Law)

While agreeing with those scholars who say that righteousness is the "fulfillment of the demands of a relationship" (The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, Vol.4, p.80), we cannot agree with those who say that righteousness is "not an ethical state."—Ibid., p.95. Ladd also seems to fall for this nonethical line of thought when he says, "It [righteousness] is not a word designating personal ethical character, but faithfulness to a relationship."—Ladd, op. cit, p.440.

The Hebrew thought pattern tends to be concrete, dynamic and holistic. It is just not possible to talk about a relationship in a biblical way without including actions, behavior, ethics, conduct and rectitude.2 Ziesler is justified in arguing for the ethical meaning of righteousness. It is, as he says, "the behaviour proper to 'the covenant.' "—Ziesler, op. cit., p.39. Leon Morris agrees that "'righteous' came to have ethical meaning and in many passages this is stressed." —Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, p.262.

The prophets of Israel repeatedly demand behavior consistent with the covenant—conduct which is fair, impartial, merciful and right. Righteousness is the opposite of evil and wickedness. It often has the plain meaning of doing right, of faithful conduct in obedience to God's law (see Gen. 6:9; Ps. 37:12; Isa. 51:7; Deut. 6:25; 2 Sam. 22:21, 25; Ezek. 18:19-21; Hosea 14:9; Isa. 58:8; Prov. 21:21; Ps. 112:6).

The New Testament often gives to righteousness this meaning of right conduct or Christian behavior. In Matthew 25:37, 46 it has the meaning of loving activity toward Christ's brethren. In Matthew 6:1 it means compassionate deeds. A similar meaning appears in 1 John 3:7, 10-17, where righteousness basically means brotherly love. In 1 Peter 2:24 and 3:14 it means acceptable or right conduct. James gives it this meaning, too. Of course, we must not forget Paul. In Romans 6:13, 16, 20, 1 Thessalonians 2:10 and Titus 2:12 Paul is obviously talking about righteousness of life or godly behavior. Aside from the distinctive Pauline formula "the righteousness of God," Dr. Shrenk points out that righteousness "is almost always used in the New Testament for the right conduct of man which follows the will of God and is pleasing to Him, for rectitude of life before God, for uprightness before His judgment." —Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. G. Kittel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964-1976), Vol 2, p.198.

We agree that the ethical idea may not be the primary meaning of righteousness. But we suggest that ethics and moral character cannot be separated from the realm of relationships any more than obedience to God's commandments can be separated from love in Deuteronomy—or anywhere else in the Bible for that matter. We may therefore combine (1) the relational and (2) the ethical and say that righteousness is right relationship reflected in right conduct.

Despite what The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible says, 'scholars generally agree that the basic idea [of righteousness] is conformity to a norm."—Ladd, op. cit., p.439; see Hill, op. cit, pp.83, 94; Shrenk in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol.2, p.185. Thus, in the Old Testament we find that the word righteous (or just) is applied to balances, weights. and measures (Lev. 19:36; Ezek. 45:10; Deut. 25:15). This obviously means conformity to a proper standard.

Among the Greeks the word righteousness often meant conformity to social custom, doing the right thing with reference to what was acceptable according to the traditions of society3—much the same as the situation in Western society today. But to the covenant people of the Bible, the norm was not social standard but the will of the Lord made known in His law. For this reason, righteousness in Scripture has the plain, concrete meaning of obedience to the law of God.

And it shall be our righteousness, if we observe to do all these commandments before the Lord our God, as He hath commanded us.—Deut. 6:25.

And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless—Luke 1:6.

Righteousness is "conformity to divine will" (Hill, op. cit., p. 103), and the righteous man is "the man who conforms to law."—Ibid., p.100. "It is fundamental that the Lord has set his law before men and that he expects them to walk therein." —Morris, op. cit, p.262. Shrenk says that even in the New Testament, righteousness is based on the Old Testament and retains the idea of conformity to "the norm of the divine will."—Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol.2, p. 185. In the Synoptics it often means "fidelity to the law" (Matt. 10:41; 13:17; 23:29; ibid., p. 189). Righteous can be used to describe "the disciple or the Christian as the one who truly fulfills the Law or the divine will."—Ibid., p.190.

We must not think that this idea of conformity to the law is only found outside Paul. In Romans 2:13 the righteous

is the one who as a doer of the Law will be declared righteous by the divine sentence . . . Not to be righteous means not to fulfill the Law because one is under sin . . . In 1 Thess 2:10 . . . Paul can use dikaios [righteous] in relation to the Christian life in the sense of the righteousness which corresponds to divine Law. —Ibid., pp.190-191.

In Romans 5:18-19 Paul uses the words righteousness and obedience interchangeably.

In the Reformation period the relation of righteousness to the law of God was given greater prominence than it is generally given today. For Luther and Calvin, the law was the norm of righteousness, the valid demand of God. Calvin, for instance, could say, "Righteousness consists in the observance of the law."—John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Bk. 2, chap. 17, sec. 5. Again he says: "The law of God contains perfect righteousness . . . We therefore willingly confess that perfect obedience to the law is righteousness."—Ibid., Bk. 3, chap. 17, sec. 7. Chemnitz likewise says:
    . . . that norm of righteousness which is revealed in the Law is the eternal, immovable, and unchangeable will of God . . . it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than that one iota and one little dot of the Law should fall, which is not satisfied by the perfection that is owed.—Martin Chemnitz, Examination of the Council of Trent, Part 1, (St. Louis: Concordia, 1971), p.498.

3. Forensic

Whether or not a person's life and activity are loyal to the covenant relationship is ultimately determined by God, who is both Lawgiver and Judge (Ex. 23:7:1 Kings 8:32; etc.).

The idea of righteousness is often understood in a forensic context: the righteous man is he whom the judge declares to be free from guilt. It is the business of the judge to acquit the innocent and condemn the guilty (Deut. 25:1; see also 1 Kings 8:32). God is often pictured as the judge of men (Ps. 9:4; 33:5; Jer. 11:20). The verb appears almost exclusively in the forensic sense. He is righteous who is judged to be in the right (Exod. 23:7; Deut. 25:1), i.e., who in judgment through acquittal stands in a right relationship to the judge. The unrighteous man is he who is condemned. Some Old Testament scholars feel that this is the primary connotation of the term. "When applied to the conduct of God the concept is narrowed and almost exclusively employed in a forensic sense.—Ladd, op. cit., p.440.

Among the Jews there was manifested an intense desire to be found righteous before God, especially in the final judgment (see Hill, op. cit., p.139). Being righteous, therefore, meant being "in the right before God." —Ibid., p. 141. Right is settled by the Judge. "The righteous are those acquitted at the bar of justice."—Morris, op. cit, p.260. This is why some scholars say that righteousness in Scripture is fundamentally a legal status even though it may not be immediately apparent in a particular text.4  


We may reduce the meaning of righteousness in Scripture to three main conceptual strands:

1. Relational or covenantal

2. Ethical or lawkeeping

3. Forensic or being right in the verdict of God

There is no need to play one of these aspects off against the others. They can all be supported by the evidence. One concept is not inimical to the others. In fact, seen together, they make a dynamic whole.

In the first place, righteousness is relational. Ethical conduct (keeping God's commandments) flows from a right relationship or, we could say, is the expression of a right relationship. It is important that we preserve this order, because the covenant union is the root, and correct behavior is the fruit.

Once we understand this, it clears up a lot of misconceptions about the Old Testament religion, which is sometimes made to appear quite legalistic. Israel's obedience to the law was something which sprang from her covenant relationship, and not the other way around (see Ex. 20:1-2). No amount of law-keeping could establish her privileged covenant relationship with God. As in creation, the divine-human relationship was wholly due to God's initiative or God's election. The relationship with God was not earned by obedience. It was a gracious donation by God. Israel could respond to her election by a grateful response of loyal and faithful obedience. The law, or covenant stipulations, constituted the content of that response. Law-keeping could only be meaningful when it expressed an existing relationship with God. It could never bring that relationship about. Outside of the covenant relationship, "obedience" to the law had no meaning and no validity whatsoever.

This is why later Judaism was a complete perversion of the revealed religion of Israel. The Jews came to think that their pious observance of the law could put God in their debt and establish their relationship with Him. They thought that this type of law-keeping would merit their aquittal on the day of judgment.

We must not react against this kind of legalism by saying that God does not judge the deeds of men or that He is not concerned with whether or not they keep His law. This would not only fly in the face of the Old Testament, but it would also contradict the New Testament —even Paul himself, who teaches that there will be a final judgment according to works (Rom. 2:6-16).

God does judge and will judge the deeds of men, but deeds are not appraised by their own phenomenological value. The question to be decided is this: Are the deeds which pass the divine scrutiny expressive of the person's relationship with God? Do they demonstrate trust, gratefulness and loyalty to the covenant? If they do, then even the human party may appeal to his righteousness for vindication at the bar of God. This explains why the same psalmist who prayed, ". . . enter not into judgment with Thy servant: for in Thy sight shall no man living be justified" (Ps. 143:2), could also pray: "The Lord shall judge the people: judge me, 0 Lord, according to my righteousness, and according to mine integrity that is in me" (Ps. 7:8). "The Lord rewarded me according to my righteousness; according to the cleanness of my hands hath He recompensed me" (Ps. 18:20). "Therefore hath the Lord recompensed me according to my righteousness, according to the cleanness of my hands in His eyesight" (Ps. 18:24).

If we have difficulty with what may appear to be a bold self-righteousness in these psalms, it is only because we have not understood the biblical realism of a righteousness which is first relational (gift), then ethical (grateful response), and finally forensic (1udged as the right behavior in the eyes of the Lord). This righteousness has no degrees. A man is either righteous in God's eyes or wicked. There are no shades of gray. The concern is not whether the man or his deeds are ethically sinless but whether or not those deeds are evidence of his faith and loyalty to Jehovah. Although in the New Testament there is development and clarification of this concept of righteousness, throughout the Bible it is still the basic conception of a righteous man.5



1 We say this even though we must later take issue with Ziesler's interpretation of the Pauline expression "the righteousness of faith." Ziesler has written a very valuable book. His "Introduction" presents a superb summary of some aspects of the debate on justification.
2 It is ironical that when some scholars stress relationship apart from ethics in the interests of being Hebraic, they are never more Grecian.
3 See Hill, op. cit., p.99.
4 Ziesler estimates that in the Old Testament the straight forward forensic and legal instances of righteousness only occur about 24.4% of all cases (Ziesler, op. cit, p.32).
5 When the word righteousness is applied to God, it means His covenant loyalty and His activity which expresses His unswerving fidelity to the covenant. whether God punishes or forgives His people, the righteousness of God is revealed.
   As King and Judge, God's activity in judging, especially in judging the cause of His people, is often referred to by the word righteousness (Ps. 9:8; 50:6; Isa. 42:21; Jer. 11:20; Deut. 33:21: Ps. 99:4; 2 Chron. 12:6). While righteousness may very well apply to God's wrath which punishes, it is often associated with His saving acts (Isa. 51:5; 56:1; 45:8: Ps. 71:13-24).
   The righteousness of God is related to His law. The God of the Bible is the God of law. The law is the expression of His character. Rather than being unpredictable or capricious, "He can be relied upon to act according to law." —Morris, op. cit., p.255: see entire section, pp.253-258, for an excellent discussion on the righteousness of God and the law of God.