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What Does It Really Mean to be Righteous?

The word “righteous” is out of fashion, conjuring up images of humorless people out of touch with this world who call their misery joy.

It’s an unfair caricature.

If one were to ask an ordinary member of any church what does it mean to be righteous, their answer likely would include ideas of being blameless, living a pure life, doing good and being holy.

They usually have a specific person in mind and that the person somehow reflects the character of God, who is holy.

The root of the Hebrew word for righteousness (“sedeq,” “sedaqa,” “saddiq”) has been explained as conformity to an ethical or moral standard, translated into English as rightness, lawful and justice.

However, British New Testament scholar James D.G. Dunn explains that there are significant differences between the Greek and Hebrew understandings of righteousness.

Dunn states that according to the Greek worldview, “righteousness” is an idea or ideal “against which the individual and individual action can be measured.”

It is a state of moral perfection. So if God is moral perfection and righteous, human beings are then measured against God’s righteousness.

In Hebrew, the ethical aspect of the word righteous involves how people relate to each other.

“The man who is righteous tries to preserve the peace and prosperity of the community by fulfilling the commands of God in regard to others,” Old Testament scholar R. Laird Harris said.

In the post-exilic period, after the return of the Hebrew people from Babylon, the word developed to mean benevolence, almsgiving and so forth, describing the acts of a godly person, Harris said.

“Righteousness” is understood more as a relational concept, and every relationship has obligations. To be righteous meant fulfilling one’s obligations as part of the relationships they have.

While there is no doubt that God is morally perfect, the understanding of “the righteousness of God” is more in line with Hebrew thought, where God’s righteousness can be understood as God’s faithfulness to his people, where he fulfils his obligations to them.

German theologian G. Schrenk reiterated this relational aspect of righteousness, writing, “This linking of right and salvation is most deeply grounded in the covenant concept. ‘Sedaqa’ is the execution of covenant faithfulness and the covenant promises. God’s righteousness as his judicial reign means that in covenant faithfulness to his people he vindicates and saves them.”

Dunn summarizes God’s righteousness as the “fulfillment of his covenant obligation as Israel’s God in delivering, saving and vindicating Israel, despite Israel’s own failure.”

So, just as God was righteous in his relationship with Israel, he is righteous with the rest of creation also (see Romans 1:16-17).

So “righteousness” is also understood as God’s faithfulness to fulfill His obligations to human beings and His creation because as creator He has a relationship with them.

Even though they are fallen and marred by sin, God has an obligation to redeem them and He is faithful to do that through Christ.

Understanding God’s righteousness as obligation in the context of a relationship explains why God is concerned about the poor.

The poor are not just marred by sin, but also by social and economic oppression and injustice.

The psalmist identifies God as “a father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling. God sets the lonely in families, he leads out the prisoners with singing: but the rebellious live in a sun-scorched land” (Psalm 68:5-6).

God’s redemption is not just spiritual but addresses the totality of human beings in every sphere of their lives.

Because of his righteousness, God restores human beings (and creation) to the condition He intended for them.

This understanding of righteousness explains the Matthew 1:19 comment that Joseph was a righteous man.

He was a person who would fulfill his obligation to Mary to not only do what is right but also to care for her in the context of his relationship to her.

Similarly, Cornelius, who gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly (Acts 10:2), is referred to as being righteous (Acts 10:22). He fulfilled his obligation to those in need and to God.

Humans who are made righteous by God through Christ are then able to fulfill their obligation not only to God, but also to the social context in which they live.

Proverbs 29:7 says, “The righteous care about justice for the poor,” and Ephesians 2:10, “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Jesus Christ to do good works.”

One’s understanding of righteousness will influence whether an individual and community of faith will be involved in addressing the issues of social injustice.

If the understanding of righteousness is only that of moral perfection, the focus is primarily on attaining that moral perfection through Christ and maintaining it.

If righteousness is also understood as an obligation in the context of the social relationships, then the focus will also be on addressing the needs of the poor, the marginalized and others suffering in society.

Rupen Das is consultant for mission and development at the European Baptist Federation based in Amsterdam, on temporary assignment from Canadian Baptist Ministries. A longer version of this column first appeared on his blog and is used with permission.