Righteousness in the new covenant is the state of being right with God. If sin is missing the mark, righteousness is hitting the bullseye. It’s being able to say, “Because God has been good to me, I am good with God.” Our righteousness is not the result of passing some test or meeting some standard, but comes from trusting in the righteousness of the One who is Righteous. We are not made righteous because of the sacrifices we make, but on account of the sacrifice Jesus made (Rom. 5:18-19, 2 Cor. 5:21).
Manmade religion defines righteousness as morally good behavior or holy and right living according to God’s standard. These are poor definitions for they suggest we can become righteous through proper performance. Provided we live according to God’s standard or laws, God will judge us righteous. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Although God’s laws are righteous (Rom. 7:12), no one is made righteous by keeping his laws because none of us can (see entry for Php. 3:9). All of us fall short of God’s glory (Rom. 3:10).
Righteousness is a gift
The bad news is that our righteous acts can never make us righteous (see entry for Matt. 5:20). Compared to God who is perfectly righteous, “all our righteous deeds are like filthy rags” (Is. 64:6). But the good news and the central theme of the new covenant is that God offers his righteousness to us as a free gift (see entry for Rom 5:17).
When Jesus said, “Seek first his righteousness”, he was introducing us to another kind of righteousness that comes from God (see entry for Matt. 6:33). Jesus was inviting us to stop trusting in our own righteousness, and receive by faith the righteousness that comes from the Lord. This kind of righteousness is sometimes called the righteousness of faith (see entry for Rom. 4:11). Faith righteousness can be distinguished from works righteousness which is based on our own efforts.
The gift of righteousness lies at the heart of the gospel message. “In the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last” (Rom. 1:17, NIV). How do we receive the gift of righteousness? By believing in Jesus Christ (see entry for Rom. 3:28).
God’s definition of righteousness
In the New Testament, the noun that is translated as righteousness (dikaiosune, 1343) and the adjective and adverb that are translated as righteous (dikaios, 1342) and righteously (dikaios, 1346) are all related to a word (dike) that means right or just. But right in regard to what?
To define righteousness requires a standard. In the old covenant, that standard was supplied by the law. Hence the Bible speaks of the righteousness found in the law (Rom. 10:4-5, Php. 3:6, 9), although no one was ever justified or made righteous by keeping the law (see entry for Rom. 3:20). But in the new covenant, righteousness is defined in terms of a relationship with the One who is Righteous. Jesus is the personification of God’s righteousness (see entry for 1 John 2:1).
In the Bible, many things are called righteous. There are righteous people (Matt. 5:45, 10:41, 13:49, 25:37, 46, Luke 14:14, Acts 24:15, Heb. 12:23, Jas. 5:16, 1 Pet. 3:12, 4:18), righteous judgments (John 7:24, Acts 17:31, Rom. 2:5, 2 Thess. 1:5, Rev. 16:7, 19:2, 11), righteous deeds (1 John 3:12, Heb. 11:33, Rev. 15:4, 19:8), and God’s righteous scepter (Heb. 1:8). The Bible also speaks about the way of righteousness (Matt. 21:32, 2 Pet. 2:21), the seal of righteousness (Rom. 4:11), instruments of righteousness (Rom. 6:13, 19), slaves of righteousness (Rom. 6:18), the law of righteousness (Rom. 9:31), the ministry of righteousness (2 Cor. 3:9), the weapons of righteousness (2 Cor. 6:7), the harvest of your righteousness (2 Cor. 9:10), servants of righteousness (2 Cor. 11:15), the hope of righteousness (Gal. 5:5), the breastplate of righteousness (Eph. 6:14), the fruit of righteousness (Php. 1:11, Heb. 12:11, Jas. 3:18), a crown of righteousness (2 Tim. 4:8), and the word of righteousness (Heb. 5:13).
What all these things have in common is that God has stamped them righteous. They are righteous because the Righteous One says they are. This point bears repeating. You are not righteous because of anything you have done. You who are in Christ are righteous because the Righteous Judge says you are. “Ye were declared righteous, in the name of the Lord Jesus, and in the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:11, YLT).
You have been made righteous
Jesus was made to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him (2 Cor. 5:21). Jesus was not made sin because he was a sinner and you were not made righteous because you acted righteously. God did it all. The moment you put your faith in Jesus, you were stamped righteous for all time and eternity. At one time you were unrighteous, but you were washed, you were sanctified, and you were declared righteous in the name of the Lord (1 Cor. 6:9–11).
The moment you were put into Christ, you became as holy and righteous as he is. How could it be otherwise? Jesus Christ is the Righteous One and the Righteous Branch spoken of by the prophets (Is. 24:16, 53:11, Jer. 23:5, 33:15; see also Acts 3:14, 7:52, 22:14, 1 John 2:1, 29, 3:7). Since we are joined together it is meaningless to speak of one kind of righteousness for the vine and another for the branches. Your righteousness is not merely positional or legal, as some have said. You carry the righteous nature of the Righteous One. And since his righteousness endures forever (2 Cor. 9:9), the result is eternal life (Matt. 25:46, Rom. 5:21).
Conviction of righteousness
What does it mean to be righteous? It means you have had a complete renovation, a Holy Spirit renewal, an entire rebuild. You have been straightened out. You are no longer the crooked person you used to be. While in Adam you had inclinations that led you towards sin no matter how hard you tried to avoid it, in Christ you are inclined to walk straight and true. Your desire is to please the Lord. It’s not that you are incapable of sinning. It’s just that sinning no longer appeals. When you sin it bothers you—“I wish I hadn’t done that”—testifying that this sort of behavior is contrary to your new nature.
“But if I’m so righteous, how come the Holy Spirit keeps convicting me of my sin?” He never does that. Adam didn’t need God’s help in recognizing his sin and neither do we. Any guilt you have comes from a condemning source and not the one called Comforter. Jesus said the Holy Spirit would seek to convince us of our righteousness (John 16:8–10). When do you most need convincing of your righteousness in Christ? It is when you have just sinned and are feeling unrighteous. When you sin the Holy Spirit will seek to remind you that you are still righteous because you are still in Christ the Righteous One.
Manmade religion portrays the Holy Spirit as a heavenly sheriff issuing warnings when we stray. But Jesus said the Holy Spirit would “glorify me” (that’s Jesus), guide us into all truth (also Jesus), and convince us of our righteousness (Jesus again) (John 16:10, 13-14). The Holy Spirit is not closing his eyes to your sin; he is trying to open your eyes to Jesus the Righteous One.
To be righteous is to know that your heavenly Father sees you as 100 percent good, holy, and approved. But if we are as righteous as Jesus, why are we exhorted to pursue righteousness (1 Tim. 6:11, 2 Tim. 2:22) and practice righteousness (1 John 2:29, 3:7, 10, Rev. 22:11)? We don’t pursue and practice righteousness to become righteous, but because we are righteous. It’s who we really are.
Jesus broke open the prison of sin and secured your freedom. So be free. Have nothing to do with dead works and sin. Stop acting like the prisoner you once were and be filled with the fruits of righteousness (Php. 1:11). Enjoy the righteous life that Christ has given you.
Yet many churchgoers are not free. They’re trying to impress God with their morals and good behavior, but they are really practicing self-righteousness. Like the Jews of old who did not submit to the righteousness of God, they are trying to establish their own (Rom. 10:3). They need to hear the good news about his righteousness (Rom. 1:16-17). They need to receive the grace of God that teaches us how to live righteously (Tit. 2:11-12). They need to stop treating the Bible as an instruction manual for self-righteousness and understand that all scripture is useful for training in faith righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16).
Peace follows righteousness
Why do so many people have no peace in their relationship with God? They would tell you it is because God is angry with them and their sin, but the real reason is they are ignorant of him and his righteousness. They have not received the word of righteousness (Heb. 5:13). In the kingdom, peace always follows righteousness (Rom. 14:17, 2 Tim. 2:22, Heb. 7:2, 12:11). “Having been declared righteous, then, by faith, we have peace toward God” (Rom. 5:1, YLT). If you are more conscious of your sin than his righteousness, you will never enjoy peace with God.
Jesus said, “Seek the kingdom and his righteousness first” (Matt. 6:33). First means first. Jesus knew that if we sought his righteousness second, say, after we’d gotten ourselves all cleaned up and sorted out, it would never happen. Sin-conscious people don’t seek his righteousness; they hide behind fig leaves.
We need to put off the old self and “put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph. 4:24). We need to take the powerful weapons of his righteousness and refute the lies of the enemy (2 Cor. 6:7). God has done his bit—he has made us righteous—but we have to own it. “Live for righteousness” (1 Pet. 2:24). We have to start walking and talking like the righteous people we are. The righteous live by faith. When you sin it takes no faith to feel unrighteous and unforgiven. It takes faith to look at the cross, listen to the Holy Spirit, and confess, “I messed up, but because of Jesus I am still righteous!”
Another sign that some don’t appreciate the gift of righteousness is anxiety regarding the Lord’s will. “What does God want me to do with my life? What if I miss the will of God?” How can you miss it when you have already hit it? God’s word and the Holy Spirit are declaring together that you are truly righteous. This means your desires are righteous, your dreams are righteous, and your deeds are righteous. To paraphrase Proverbs 12:5, “The plans of the righteous are right.” If you want to make a cup of tea, then that is a righteous act. Go and make a righteous cup of tea!
Imputed vs imparted righteousness
Before the cross, no one could be made righteous. The gift of righteousness had not been given and the “one act of righteousness” that makes many righteous had not be done (Rom. 5:18). This is why Old Testament saints such as Abraham were credited with righteousness on account of their faith in God. “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6, Rom. 4:3). In the old days, righteousness was credited to those who believed; now righteousness is created in the believer (Eph. 4:24). Back then, righteousness was imputed; now it is imparted.
When Jesus spoke of righteous people who longed to see and hear what the disciples saw and heard, he was referring to those who were awaiting his coming (Matt. 13:17). Pre-cross believers who were credited as righteous include Abel (Matt. 23:35, Heb. 11:4), Noah (Gen. 6:9, Heb. 11:7, 2 Pet. 2:5), Lot (2 Pet. 2:7-8), Zacharias and Elizabeth (Luke 1:5-6), Simeon (Luke 2:25), John the Baptist (Mark 6:20), Joseph the husband of Mary (Matt. 1:19), and Joseph of Arimathea (Luke 23:50). These people and many others were reckoned or credited with righteousness on account of their faith in God.
Since there were all these good and faithful people living prior to the cross, why does the Bible say there was “no one righteous, not even one” (Rom. 3:10)? For the same reason it calls Jesus the Righteous One (see entry for Acts 3:14). We can talk about “righteous Lot” and “Noah, the preacher of righteousness,” but their righteousness was a gift from the Righteous One. God reckoned them righteous on account of their forward-looking faith in Jesus Christ the Righteous.
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