Righteousness, A Word Study

“Righteousness” is discussed throughout the Bible. No one study can capture it completely, but we hope to provide you with a few insights to help your own studies. We will look at the English words that convey the concept, then the Hebrew and Greek to show that righteousness essentially refers to moral purity, and by extension good standing, legal, ethical, or otherwise.

Several English words translate the Greek and Hebrew. “Righteousness,” “righteous,” “to declare righteous,” “justification,” “just,” and “to justify,” in their different forms are from the same word in Greek and Hebrew. The main Hebrew words are saddiq and yashar. The Greek word is dikaios.

Saddiq refers to the quality of being righteous or just, with both meanings closely associated. God is called “righteous” (Ex. 9:27), which refers to His moral perfection and absolute justice. Any sense in which humans are righteous must be understood with reference to Him. Fundamentally, for a person to be righteous is to be in right standing with God. In some contexts, this refers to one’s moral purity, as Noah is described in Gen. 6:9. In others, men are declared righteous in a judicial sense, as was Abraham in Gen. 15:6. Likewise, Israel as a nation is guaranteed a righteous standing before God due solely to His divine oath in Isa. 60.21. Further, “righteousness” is set as the opposite of “crookedness” in several passages like Prov. 8:8.

Yashar in its various forms is virtually synonymous with saddiq with perhaps a more direct reference to moral purity. Again, God is called yashar (Deut. 32:4), and those who live according to His ways are in some sense righteous or just.

Since the standard of righteousness is God’s own perfection, it is apparent that no one can be considered righteous in an absolute sense (Christians are righteous relative to Christ). A person is, at best, only as righteous as her or her ability to walk according to God’s commands. In light of this, Hosea, likely thinking of Abraham’s example, declares that the “just (saddiq) shall live by faith.”

Dikaios in its various forms well translates saddiq and yashar, and it also can refer to innocence or good legal standing. In this sense, it can mean “fair.” Negatively, it can refer to “self-righteousness.” Common to all these is the idea of meeting a certain standard, be it ethical, legal, or religious. Thus, the word can also mean “vindication.” When a person has met a given standard, his claim to this or that is just, or vindicated (see 1 Tim. 3:16, and likely James 2:24).

Again, we see that for a man to be righteous before God (dikaios) is humanly impossible, since none of us have met His standard. That Jesus is “just” in an absolute sense points not only to His divinity but also His ability to save us from our own unrighteousness (see Matt. 27:19; 1 John 2:1). For Paul, we are declared righteous before God when we place our faith in His Righteous Son. We should emphasize that though “righteousness” or “justification” in its various terms is consistently grounded in moral purity, we cannot read Paul as requiring moral purity before we are declared righteous. To do so is to miss the fact that just as Jesus and not us paid the price for our sins, in the same way, it is Jesus’ righteousness and not our own that is the basis for our being called righteous or just. Christians, then, are expected to walk according to that righteousness that they have attained. They should not think that their own works of righteousness add to that which they have received through faith in Christ.

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