Holman Bible Dictionary
Old Testament The starting point is the Hebrew notion of God's “righteousness.” The Hebrew mind did not understand righteousness to be an attribute of the divine, that is a characteristic of God's nature. Rather, God's righteousness is what God does in fulfillment of the terms of the covenant that God established with the chosen people, Israel ( 2 Chronicles 12:6; Psalm 7:9; Jeremiah 9:24; Daniel 9:14 ). God's righteousness was not a metaphysical property but that dimension of the divine experienced by those within the covenantal community.
Most especially, God's righteousness was understood in relation to the image of God as the Judge of created order (Psalm 96:13 ). God's judgments are consistently redemptive in nature, God's judgments protected, delivered, and restored Israel (Isaiah 11:4-5 ). At times God's righteousness was experienced in God's delivering Israel from enemies and oppressors (Psalm 71:1 ); at other times, in God's delivering Israel from the nation's own sinfulness (Psalm 51:19 ). Such deliverance involved God's righteousness of wrath against the persecutor and the wicked (Psalm 106:1 ). Salvation and condemnation exist together as the two sides of God's righteousness; the leading side is always deliverance: God condemns only because He also saves (Psalm 97:1 ).
Righteousness is a religious concept applied to humans because Israel had entered into a covenantal relationship to God. Because God had chosen Israel, the nation had the covenantal responsibility of fulfilling the terms of the covenant. Precisely here, serious misunderstanding frequently flaws thought about Israel's desire for righteousness. The Old Testament did not call on the people of Israel to attempt to earn God's favor or to strive to merit God's graces (Psalm 18:1 ). Indeed, the Old Testament teaches that God's gracious favor had been poured out on the nation in God's choosing of Abraham and his descendants. God acted to establish the covenant and in so doing bestowed salvation on Israel (Exodus 19:1 ). The law was given as an act of divine mercy to provide Israel with guidelines for keeping the nation's own portion of the covenant (Leviticus 16:1; Psalm 40:1 ). Rather than being a ladder that Israel climbed to get to God, the law was understood to be a divine program for the maintenance of a healthy relationship between Israel and God ( Leviticus 16:1 ). God expected Israel to keep the law not to earn merit but to maintain the status God had already given the nation. As Israel kept the covenant law, the nation was righteous. Thus human righteousness in relation to God was understood as faithful adherence to the law (Leviticus 19:1 ). Even so, God did not leave humans with the hopelessly impossible task of performing the law perfectly: the law God gave contained provision for atonement through repentance and appropriate acts of contrition (Leviticus 19:1 ).
The concept of righteousness as faithful fulfillment of the provisions of a covenant was also meaningful in strictly human terms. The person who met the demands of a variety of social relations was thought to be righteous, to have done righteousness, though the requirements of righteousness varied with the covenantal/relational context. Some of the prominent areas were those of family (Genesis 38:1 ), friendship (1 Samuel 24:1 ), nation (Proverbs 14:34 ), and even in relation to servants and certain foreigners (Job 31:1 ).
New Testament Greek philosophy understood righteousness to be one of the cardinal virtues, but New Testament authors show that they understood the word in terms of Old Testament thinking about covenantal relations. Human righteousness in the New Testament is absolute faith in and commitment to God (Matthew 3:15; Romans 4:5; 1 Peter 2:24 ). The one who in faith gives oneself to the doing of God's will is righteous, doing righteousness, and reckoned righteous by God (James 2:23 ). The focus of faith in God is the saving activity of God in Jesus Christ (Romans 3:21-26 ). The human-to-human dimension of righteousness observed in the Old Testament is present in New Testament thought (Philippians 1:3-11 ), but it seems less prominent, perhaps because of the importance of the New Testament concept of love.
At the heart of New Testament thinking about righteousness is the notion of God's righteousness (Matthew 6:33; Acts 17:31; Romans 1:17; Ephesians 4:24; James 1:20 ). Interpreters debate whether the phrase “righteousness of God” is a subjective genitive , meaning “God is righteous,” or an objective genitive , meaning “God gives righteousness.”
This grammatical distinction is more than a point about subtle linguistic nuance. In the New Testament, especially in Paul's letters, “the righteousness of God” is the key to understanding the salvation of humanity.
Interpreters who take “the righteousness of God” to mean “God gives righteousness” see salvation as a God-created human possibility. Righteousness is that which God requires of humanity and which God gives as a gift to the person of faith. In this line of thought, faith is the condition for the reception of the gift of righteousness from God. God acts in Christ, and, in turn, humans react by having faith. Then God gives them righteousness or reckons them, on the basis of their faith, as if they were righteous.
On the other hand, interpreters who understand “the righteousness of God” to mean “God is righteous” contend that salvation is purely the work of God, God's saving activity in keeping the divine side of the covenant of creation. God acts in Christ, and part of that action is the creation of faith on the part of human beings who otherwise have no faith. Thus “the righteousness of God” is the power of God at work saving humanity (and the whole of creation), through the creation of faith in sinful persons.
The line between the camps of scholars holding these different interpretations of “the righteousness of God” is sharply drawn, and the debate over the validity of these interpretive options continues with intensity. See Ethics; Grace; Law; Mercy; Salvation .
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Righteousness'. Holman Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hbd/r/righteousness.html. 1991.