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What is righteousness?

October 19, 2010

Believe it or not, that massive review of The Gospel According to Jesus was actually trimmed quite a bit. You’re welcome.

I want to go back and discuss some of the things that inspired the frustrated scrawling in the margins, though. They’re important conversations to have, and if I’m wrong I want you to tell me.

What is righteousness?

Seay didn’t think many American Christians understand the term (per Matthew 6:22), as crucial as it is to our faith, so before writing The Gospel According to Jesus, he commissioned the Barna Research Group to find out.

Among church-going Christians, the top three answers to that question were “holiness,” “faithfulness,” and “morality.”

Isn’t that what it is?

My dictionary defines “righteousness” as “adhering to moral principles.” The suffix “-ness” turns an adjective into a noun. Happy into happiness, etc. So “righteousness” would be the state of being righteous. Righteous is defined as “morally justified.”

Not a biblical definition, you say? Touché.

The Greek word in Matthew 6:22 is dikaiosune, which is translated “righteousness” or “justice.” It comes from the Greek word dikaios, which translates as “correct,” “righteous, by implication innocent.”

The KJV Lexicon calls that Greek word a singular noun that means, “equity (of character or act), specially (Christian) justification – righteousness.”

So the Greek is still talking about being correct, innocent, of good equity, justified before God, etc.

What does the rest of scripture actually teach us about the term?

Job 32:1 tells us that Job’s three antagonists finally stopped answering him, “because he was righteous in his own eyes.” You know the story of Job. Bad stuff happened, and his “friends” kept trying to convince him that he must have done something wrong to incur the wrath of the Almighty. At every accusation, however, Job insisted he had done nothing to deserve his lot. They finally gave up, scripture tells us, because Job was justified, correct, morally upstanding, etc. in his own eyes.

Ezekiel juxtaposes righteousness and iniquity in chapter 33, verse 18.

Luke records Jesus explaining that He has not come to call the righteous, but the sinners to repentance. Why? Because the righteous (if there were any) would have no need of repentance and forgiveness. (And again, He juxtaposes the righteous with sinners.)

It seems that the concept of righteousness does have to do with human behavior, specifically that which God approves of – that which reflects His character (and righteousness is often attributed to Him).

In According to Jesus, however, Seay writes, 

“As I listened to people elaborate, it became clear that the righteousness the majority of Christians are ‘seeking first’ was not biblical righteousness at all. In fact, it was more like the righteousness of the Pharisees (read: self-righteousness). This is a major problem.”

That may be true. It may be the case that most Christians are seeking to make themselves righteous as an act of their own will. And that is a problem.

But does that mean that righteousness is poorly defined as holiness, faithfulness and morality? Or does it simply mean that many Christians are trying the wrong means to the right end?

At the end of the chapter, Seay offers his definition of righteousness: restorative justice.

Justice is a concept that is closely related to righteousness, the two are often mentioned in the same breath in scripture. (Which fact seems to discredit it as a definition of righteousness as well. If they were synonyms, they would be used interchangeably as opposed to partnered together.) And I think he got “restorative” from the truth that it’s a process of fixing what was broken when sin entered our lives.

But this definition points the reader in a very different direction, which Seay confirms in the same paragraph when he writes,

“Seeking his righteousness (per Matthew 6:22) is about being an active agent for his restorative justice in all of creation.”

That’s a big jump, and one I don’t really see supported by scripture. That effectively turns “the righteousness of God” into social justice efforts.

It is the Church’s job to bring the kingdom of God to bear on the earth, to bring the lost to Jesus, etc. But explaining, “Seek first … His righteousness,” by saying we’re to go out into the world and be “active agents” in godly restoration negates the “greatest commandment.” Later, Jesus will answer that the primary thing is to love God, and our neighbors as ourselves. Social justice efforts are the fruit of that, but they’re not the goal. They’re not what we seek.

Jesus says, “seek first,” because He’s giving the primary call of a believer and the summary of the Sermon on the Mount. It can’t be based on good deeds. It can’t be contrary to the gospel of grace.

Evidence: In the fourth chapter of Romans, Paul dissects the faith of Abraham, and explains that because Abraham believed that God was able to do the impossible, it was, “accounted to him for righteousness.”

It is true that self-righteousness – arrogance and pride – are not the goal. It is true that striving to make oneself righteous is not only futile but destructive, in that it can’t be done and every effort will only lead to arrogance and pride.

Paul rebuked the Church in Galatia for behaving this way. He asked, “Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh?” (3:3) Of course not.

However, that doesn’t mean that righteousness isn’t holiness, faithfulness and good behavior.

The testimony of scripture is that righteousness means being in right standing before God, and the only way to do that is by faith. Faith that Jesus’ sacrifice is sufficient to pay the penalty of your sin. Faith that God loves you enough to freely offer forgiveness. Faith that as you yield to Him, He is perfecting you from the inside out.

And out of that faith will come thankfulness and love, and the overflow of that humble heart will be a life of righteousness.

What say you? Am I missing something? How would you define “righteousness”?

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Jacob permalink
    October 22, 2010 11:57 pm

    You said, “The testimony of scripture is that righteousness means being in right standing before God, and the only way to do that is by faith” This is 100% correct Paul’s usage of dikaios in Galatians 2-3, and though much of the wonderful book of Romans is used in a style of law court ideology. The idea is that because of Jesus we stand right before God, so that, it is no longer working out of the Torah that makes us right-eous before YHWH but pure faith in Jesus. Take Paul’s own words from Philippians 3:2-11 where Paul explains if anyone could have upheld the law perfectly it was him,(on all grounds, ritual, birth, interpretation of the law, and in practice of it)yet it concludes that with this,”8What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ 9and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.”(NIV) Here Paul perfectly implies that this righteousness that we have is of nothing of our own, but simply because of our confession in the righteous Jesus Messiah therefore we are welcomed into his family, and because of that we may stand righteous too. Now because of Jesus’ righteousness and his faithfulness to the Father though death and his resurrection, we have access to a sure covenant that drafts us into the standing of being right before God. That is the beauty of the gospel.

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