This is one of God’s moral attributes or perfections, and it is communicable to us because we are made in the image of God and because he graces us with the capacity to do them, though imperfectly. We’re humans, after all.
God is immutably (unchangeably) righteous and just. He is the absolute standard of those two attributes or perfections.
Let’s first read theologians.
What do theologians say?
The Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words says that the Hebrew noun of righteous and righteousness are ṣedeq (pronounced tsedek, the ts- is pronounced like the ts- in bits). It is translated “righteousness, justice, rightness.” It describes “the state of quality of that which accords with some recognized standard (not always expressed). It can be God’s law or natural law or some other assumed standard” (pp. 592-93).
Another noun, ṣedaqa, generally means “righteousness, justice, innocence” (p. 593). It is a synonym to ṣedeq.
The adjective, ṣaddiq, is rendered righteous, just, innocent. It describes “those who acts in such a way that their behavior accords with some standard. In general, this word describes as ‘righteous’ persons rather than an abstract concept like law” (pp. 593-94).
Finally, justice is the Hebrew word mišpat (pronounced mishpat) and “carries a legal or judicial connotation, though it is used in a variety of way. It is found most often in the prophets, particularly Is. 40-55, where it is tied to God’s sovereign execution of world affairs.”
In the New Testament, the verb is dikaioō (pronounced dee-ky-oh-oh), which means to “declare righteous” or “to justify.” It appears 29 times in Paul’s letter of the 39 times it is used throughout the New Testament (about 70% in Paul’s letters). The noun is dikaiosunē (pronounced dee-ky-oh-soo-nay) which means “righteousness, innocence, justice, justification.” It appears in Paul’s letters 58 out of the 91 times of the total throughout the NT (64%). The adjective, dikaios, means “righteous, innocent, just, upright.” It is a synonym with the Hebrew ṣaddiq. “In summary, therefore, like salvation … ‘righteousness’ is a gift we receive from God when we believe, is a present reality in our lives, and is a future hope towards which we aspire” (p. 595).
Norman Geisler defines it thus:
God’s righteousness refers to His absolute justice or rightness. Righteousness is the intrinsic characteristic of God wherein He is the ultimate standard of just and right actions and because of which he must punish all unjust and evil acts. (p. 573)
But it must be noted that in Geisler’s chapter on righteousness: “Jesus became a perfect substitute for our unrighteousness for ‘God made him who had no to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God’ (2 Cor. 5:21).”
Theologians correctly divide God’s justice into more subsets or concepts: rectoral justice and distributive justice, and the latter term is further divided into retributive and remunerative.
The first God is the moral ruler who imposes moral law on his world, his creation (Ps. 99:4; Rom. 1:32). He has the right to do this since the world belongs to him, and he intends people to live in peace and harmony—to get along.
Distributive justice or righteousness means that God executes his moral law, both rewards for doing right and punishments (yes, that word exists in God’s vocabulary) (Is. 3:10, 11; 1 Pet. 1:17). It means he judges people and either condemns or vindicates them or declares them just or unjust. He is the judge.
Retributive judgment is the punishment phase of distributive justice. People get what they deserve as the penalty for their sins (Gen. 2:17; Deut. 27:26; Gal. 3:10; Rom. 6:23).
Remunerative judgment is the positive side of distributive justice. He distributes rewards to the obedient and righteous (Deut. 7:9; Ps. 58:11). It is a blessing that it is more prominent and means his “righteousness is viewed favorably as the attribute by virtue of which God vindicates the righteous and raises them to a position of honor and well-being. … YHWH [the LORD] is the true judge, and the manifestation of his righteousness is simultaneously the manifestation of his grace” (Bavinck, Reformed, p. 207).
In other words, God wants to extend his grace when we cannot meet his absolute righteous and just standards, even though we don’t deserve it. We need to pray for mercy and grace, and take care about praying that God must impose his justice on us!
The attributes or perfections of God’s righteousness and justice mean that he is the ultimate standard of just and right actions, which prompts him ultimately to judge unrighteousness and injustice.
What do the Scriptures say?
I use the NIV here. If you would like to see the following verses in many translations and in their contexts, please go to biblegateway.com.
In a remarkably revealing verse, the ancient Israelites, under the leadership of Moses, proclaimed that law-keeping was their righteousness, but in the end they could not keep it:
And if we are careful to obey all this law before the Lord our God, as he has commanded us, that will be our righteousness. (Deut. 6:25)
It is an odd thing that the LXX (Septuagint or third-to-first century BC Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) says in Greek “mercy,” instead of righteousness. So the law will be their “mercy.” It was a bad translation for it really does say “ṣedaqa.”
God fulfilled his promise to the remnant, though they were guilty when measured against his righteousness:
Lord, the God of Israel, you are righteous! We are left this day as a remnant. Here we are before you in our guilt, though because of it not one of us can stand in your presence. (Ezra 9:17; cf. Neh. 9:8, 33)
Righteousness and judgment can punish those who do evil, for in this verse God’s wrath is his judgment:
God is a righteous judge, a God who displays his wrath every day. (Ps. 7:11; cf. 9:4, 8)
In the previous verse, think of an old English judge with his wig. That’s the picture of wrath.
In the next verse righteousness and justice go hand in hand:
The Lord loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of his unfailing love. (Ps. 33:5)
A heart can be upright, when it perceives God’s righteous standards:
Judgment will again be founded on righteousness, and all the upright in heart will follow it. (Ps. 94:15)
It is odd in our shortsighted minds to sing in the presence of the LORD for his judgment on all the earth, but he will put all to rights:
Let them sing before the Lord, for he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples with equity. (Ps. 98:9)
Here is why we should sing praises to God in his judgment:
The Lord works righteousness and justice for all the oppressed. (Ps. 103:6)
The next verse says God is full of grace, righteousness and compassion—it’s a balance:
The Lord is gracious and righteous; our God is full of compassion. (Ps. 116:5)
This verse prophesies the coming of the Messiah, King Jesus, who will ultimately reign in righteousness:
Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this. (Is. 9:7)
Whether the Law of Moses or the moral law, it is based on God’s righteousness:
It pleased the Lord for the sake of his righteousness to make his law great and glorious. (Is. 42:21)
Righteousness and justice have a moral side for us humans. God loves them:
But let the one who boasts boast about this: that they have the understanding to know me, that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,” declares the Lord. (Jer. 9:24)
“Righteous Savior” is God’s name:
In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. This is the name by which it will be called: The Lord our Righteous Savior.’ (Jer. 33:16; cf. Jer. 23:6)
Now let’s move on to the New Testament.
When we seek his kingdom and his righteousness, everything else follows:
But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matt. 6:33; cf. 5:6)
In explaining the Parable of the Weeds, in which wheat and weeds grow up together, until angels will sort them out, Jesus says that in the eternal kingdom:
Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. (Matt. 13:43)
Next, Stephen denounced certain bad, ancient forefathers of his fellow Jews, who killed the prophets who predicted Jesus’s coming:
They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him— (Acts. 7:52; cf. 22:14)
This is the heart of the entire epistle to the Romans and explains God’s plan of salvation and the purpose of righteousness, in a nutshell:
21 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22 This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25 God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— 26 he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. (Rom. 3:21-26).
The above passage teaches us that God’s law is perfectly righteous, but we cannot follow it perfectly. Therefore God had to intervene on our behalf. He had to declare us righteous, even though we were sinners. But how? Despite God’s forbearance in the past (v. 25), a penalty had to be paid, in God’s absolutely righteous judgment and absolute standards. The word propitiation is tucked inside “sacrifice of atonement” (v. 25). In other words, his absolute righteous standard was satisfied (propitiated) when Jesus took the penalty on himself. So God can now remain just (a penalty was paid) and justify us. All we have to do now is believe it or have faith in Christ.
From the previous long passage we learn the next step. The Spirit enables us to experience righteous growth (sanctification), after we have been declared righteous by an act of God’s grace:
For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (Rom. 14:17)
God’s grace to us extends so far that Jesus becomes our righteousness, as if we wear a garment of righteousness that he placed on us—we are in him:
It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. (1 Cor. 1:30)
Here is a great verse that explains the Great Exchange, our sin for his righteousness. Jesus was “made sin” or a sin offering (cf. Lev. 6:24-30):
God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Cor. 5:21)
After Timothy was declared righteous, he was commanded to pursue righteousness, and so should we, in our walk with God:
But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. (1 Tim. 6:11)
How can I know God better?
Contrary to certain Christian teaching, people outside of Christ—even hardened atheists—can behave righteously, when for example they stop at red lights or help little old ladies to cross streets or give $100 million to charity. These are righteous deeds. God is pleased that these unbelievers did them (Acts 10:4), but these righteous acts do not justify the do-gooders before a thrice-holy God, so they can stride right into God’s presence on their own merits.
We are all so needy that God must extend to us his grace for salvation while we live on earth and for entrance into heaven after we die—eternal life on earth and in heaven.
God has absolute, righteous standards, but he has absolute grace that he must offer us to make up the difference between our impoverished righteousness and God’s righteousness. Grace and righteousness reveal God’s character. Each attribute is perfectly infinite and equal in God’s being. And by them we can know him better. But for us down on earth, grace through faith first, and then righteousness second, because we can’t keep up with his absolute standards.
ARTICLES IN THE SERIES “DO I REALLY KNOW GOD?”
Do I Really Know God? He Is Righteous and Just