Did you know that righteousness is mentioned over five hundred times in the Bible?
If you’ve never heard this term, you may be asking yourself, “What is righteousness?”
Righteousness in the Bible can feel abstract and hard to grasp.
It’s not as popular as Biblical concepts such as love and hope, so it might be tempting to give it a glance and then move on. But it’s actually just as important as the words we’re more comfortable with.
There’s a saying I grew up hearing that goes, “If the Bible says it once, pay attention. If it says it more than once, pay even more attention.”
With so many Biblical mentions of it, being able to answer the question, “What is righteousness?” is important.
What is Righteousness According to the Dictionary?
When you combine these two together, you get a simple definition: “To have a nature of moral correctness.”
You can do a quick Google search or look at an online dictionary to find more comprehensive definitions, but the concept remains the same. Truthfully, all of the definitions remain a bit too abstract to be helpful. (At least to me!)
To more clearly answer the question “What is righteousness?” we need to build a stronger understanding first. To do so, let’s take a quick peek at the Old Testament.
What is Righteousness in the Old Testament?
Our struggle to understand and attain righteousness began with the first act of rebellion in the Garden of Eden.
Because we are made in the image of God, we have an innate desire for rightness. People want to be right, do right, and be treated right.
Unfortunately, sin throws our moral compass off of true north. Sometimes our quest for moral correctness sends us in the completely wrong direction!
A perfect Biblical illustration of this misperception of righteousness is the story of Cain and Abel. Cain worked hard and gave to God out of the bounty produced by his efforts. It seemed like the right thing to do, but it wasn’t, and the aftermath was catastrophic.
The Old Testament shows us the dangers of depending on our own sense of morality to answer the question “What is righteousness?” It also provides a picture of what righteous living looks like.
The Hebrew word for righteousness can be translated into the English word “justice.”
The Old Testament frequently reiterates God’s desire for His people to defend the poor, needy, foreigner, fatherless, and widowed people among them.
When prophets like Isaiah and Ezekiel call the people of Israel to return to following God, they condemn the nation for exiling justice and command them to return to executing justice again. The word for justice in these verses is the same word that is more frequently translated as righteousness.
What does the Old Testament teach us about righteousness?
- It shows us that we cannot depend on ourselves to define righteousness.
- It shows us that we must depend on God as the only truly righteous being.
- It shows us that righteous living values justice because God values justice.
What is Righteousness in the New Testament?
Acts 10:35 tells us that whoever fears God and works righteousness will be accepted by God.
This verse does a pretty good job of spelling out the definition of righteousness. In the New Testament, the question, “What is righteousness?” can be attributed to an indication of being acceptable to God.
When we ask, “what is righteousness,” does the answer from the New Testament look different from that of the Old Testament? Not at all. In fact, the righteousness of the New Testament has deep roots in the Old Testament.
The very first time the Bible uses the word “righteousness” is in Genesis 15:6. The verse doesn’t talk about the Ten Commandments or the law. Instead, we learn that Abraham believed the promise God made, and God counted his belief as righteousness.
You see, righteousness doesn’t start with being right or doing right. Winning people over to your point of view won’t make you righteous. Neither will going to church or refraining from telling a lie.
True righteousness begins with believing that God is who He says.
Once we believe that, then we must also believe Him when He puts His stamp of approval on Jesus, the son of God who the Father declared, was his “Beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” When we believe Jesus, we must believe it when He says that He is the only way to the Father.
Once we believe that Jesus is the only way to heaven, we must admit that our self-righteousness and good deeds aren’t enough and put all our trust in the righteousness of God through Christ. Only then can we receive the gift of salvation and enter the kingdom of heaven.
As our trust moves off of ourselves and onto Christ, we reflect Christ’s righteousness to God. Jesus has always been acceptable to God, and in Him, we also become acceptable to God.
What does the New Testament teach us about righteousness?
- We learn that righteousness is synonymous with being acceptable to God.
- We learn that Jesus was not only acceptable but pleasing to the Father.
- We learn that no one besides Christ ever achieved righteousness in their own strength.
- We learn that we can become acceptable to God by receiving the righteousness of Christ.
Related post: How to Seek the Kingdom of God First (Matthew 6:33)
What is Truth vs. What is Righteousness?
Righteousness and truth are closely related concepts. They are used side-by-side in sixteen different verses. But they are not the same thing.
Truth means conformity to fact or reality. It has to do with the trustworthiness of information.
Righteousness indicates the conformity of the heart to the law of God.
Proverbs 12:17 says that he who speaks truth shows forth (or declares) righteousness. (Different translations use different words, but the Hebrew words behind it are consistent with the concepts of truth and righteousness.)
Speaking the truth (words and ideas that conform to facts or reality) will declare righteousness (that which conforms to the law of God and is therefore acceptable to him) because God created our world (reality) and defined the laws that govern it.
The armor of God includes the breastplate of righteousness and the belt of truth. The breastplate protects the bulk of the body, including the heart.
1 Corinthians 1:30 says that we are of God because Christ Jesus has been made our righteousness.
Putting on the breastplate of righteousness is a call to put on Christ. To both lose and gain our identity in Him. To become acceptable to God. To come under His protection in this life and the next.
The belt of truth, on the other hand, is said to “gird up the loins.”
Everyone at that time wore robes and tunics. Girding up one’s loins was a process of gathering the loose fabric and essentially turning it into a pair of shorts by tucking the loose ends into the belt. This would let the person move without tripping.
Truth does the same thing for us. It keeps us focused on reality. It prevents us from getting tripped up in lies.
Related post: How to Put on the Full Armor of God (Women Only!)
What is truth vs what is righteousness?
- Righteousness is conformity to the law of God. Truth is conformity to reality.
- Righteousness indicates acceptability to God. Truth indicates the acceptability of information.
- Righteousness is the safety of an identity defined by Christ. Truth is the safety of walking in reality instead of becoming entangled by lies.
3 Practical Ways to Pursue God’s Righteousness
1. How to Pursue Righteousness By Looking to Jesus
Talk of desiring and seeking rightness tends to make us think of our actions. Are we doing the right thing? Acting out of the right motivation?
Studying righteousness to write this article made one thing, in particular, stand out to me. Righteousness isn’t about me and what I do. It’s about Christ and what He did.
Philippians 2:5 tells us to, “let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus.” The writer goes on to explain what he means.
Even though Jesus was God in human form, He didn’t fight for equality. He was willing to submit to obedience.
Jesus provided the example that Adam and Eve corrupted.
What desire tempted mankind to commit the first sin? They wanted to be like God. They weren’t content to take God at His word. They sought equality with God instead of being willing to rest in His guidance and provision.
If you want to be righteous, look to Jesus.
Righteousness isn’t about keeping a clean house, serving with the right attitude, or not yelling at your kids. Those are important goals, but move them off center stage to make room for true righteousness–Jesus. As Christians, we must obey the well-known refrain of Psalm 46:10, “Be still and know that I am God.”
- Set time aside to dwell on who God is and what Christ did.
- Participate in the Lord’s Supper (or communion, breaking of bread … whatever your church calls it).
- Evaluate what distractions or concerns take your attention away from Christ, and consider how you can say no, cut back, or surrender them to God.
2. How to Pursue Righteousness by Asking
In the Beatitudes, Jesus blesses those who hunger and thirst after righteousness and promises that they will be filled.
In Luke 11:9 Jesus tells His followers to ask and they will receive, to seek and they will find.
I have asked the Lord for many things that He has not given me. Experiences like this can make it easy to brush off the promise that we will receive just because we ask. But righteousness is a safe petition.
Sometimes, when God doesn’t answer our prayers, it’s because we asked for the wrong thing or with the wrong motives, but righteousness is never the wrong thing to ask for. It is asking for Christ Himself. It is to desire His presence, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
If you want to be righteous, ask God for His righteousness.
- Make a request for righteousness part of your prayer time.
- Ask God to be present with you. Ask to be guided by the Holy Spirit. Ask to be identified as a friend of God.
3. How to Pursue Righteousness by Believing What God Says is True
We know that we cannot achieve righteousness through our own logic or efforts. Instead, we become acceptable to God by receiving Christ’s righteousness through belief.
Once we’ve received that righteousness as a gift, what’s the next step? How do we pursue righteous living once we have been given a righteous identity?
If we believe enough to surrender our lives and follow God’s will, shouldn’t we also believe Him enough to conform our actions and behavior to His commands?
When He tells us there is no lasting joy or reward achieved through envy, lying, or committing adultery, do we believe Him? When He tells us that there is value in loving each other, do we believe Him? When He tells us it is a good thing to help orphans, widows, and strangers, do we believe Him?
We believe that God is truth–He and His words conform to fact or reality.
We believe that God is righteous–all His actions and commands conform to the divine law.
We have asked to receive the righteousness of God–to reflect the righteousness of Christ and be conformed to His image.
The closer we are conformed to His image, the more we will value what He values and obey in accordance with what He commands.
- Am I believing in the power of God or am I believing in my fears, doubts, desires, etc?
- Is this something God values?
- Am I making excuses for why God’s directions don’t apply to this situation?
- Are my actions showing that I don’t believe God told me the truth about this?
Righteousness is a huge topic. It’s possible that I got some of it wrong. It’s definite that there is a lot more to be studied and understood about righteousness. After all, God is the embodiment of righteousness, and He is infinite!
Keep studying. Keep learning. Keep growing in righteousness.
Can you clearly answer the question, “What is righteousness?” What did you learn about righteousness that surprised you? What step towards pursuing righteousness can you apply to your Christian life today?
Leah E. Good is a lover of stories, homeschooling enthusiast, orphan care advocate, and daughter of God. She lives in beautiful New England where she stays busy with volunteer work for her church and a full time job in data management. In her free time, Leah enjoys reading and working on the sequel to Counted Worthy, the young adult novel she published in 2014. You can find Leah at leahegood.com.