By Spencer D Gear PhD
The Christian can be trapped into thinking that when ‘righteousness’ is used in Scripture it has an English flavour in its meaning. Oxford dictionaries give the meaning as ‘the quality of being morally right or justifiable’. It is the opposite of wickedness or sinfulness (2015. S v righteousness). Or, it has the meaning of being ‘morally good: following religious or moral laws’ (Merriam-Webster Dictionary 2015. S v righteousness).
Is that the meaning of the word in Bible verses such as Rom 3:21-26 (ESV)?
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
Meaning of righteousness in Scripture
Richard Strauss has summarised the biblical material well, in my understanding of Scripture,
While the most common Old Testament word for just means ‘straight,’ and the New Testament word means ‘equal,’ in a moral sense they both mean ‘right.’ When we say that God is just, we are saying that He always does what is right, what should be done, and that He does it consistently, without partiality or prejudice. The word just and the word righteous are identical in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. Sometimes the translators render the original word ‘just’ and other times ‘righteous’ with no apparent reason (cf. Nehemiah 9:8 and 9:33 where the same word is used). But whichever word they use, it means essentially the same thing. It has to do with God’s actions. They are always right and fair.
God’s righteousness (or justice) is the natural expression of His holiness. If He is infinitely pure, then He must be opposed to all sin, and that opposition to sin must be demonstrated in His treatment of His creatures. When we read that God is righteous or just, we are being assured that His actions toward us are in perfect agreement with His holy nature (Strauss 1984:140).?
I was alerted to that quote in Bob Deffinbaugh’s article, ‘The Righteousness of God‘.
1. Justice and righteousness
In English, righteousness and justice are 2 different words but in the Hebrew OT and Greek NT that is not so as there is only one word root behind both ‘righteousness’ and ‘justice’.
The word for righteousness, dikaiosune, means ‘uprightness, justice as of a judge’. Examples include ‘enforce justice’ (Heb 11:33), ‘judge justly’ (Acts 17:31; Rev 19:11); ‘righteousness, uprightness as the compelling motive for the conduct of one’s whole life: hunger and thirst for uprightness’ (Matt 5:6) [Arndt & Gingrich 1957:195, emphasis in original].
So the meaning of this word is that God always does what is correct/right and God determines the standard of what is right.
These verses teach us this meaning of righteous/justice (emphasis added):
- Gen 18:25 (ESV), ‘Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?’
- Deut 32:4 (ESV), ‘all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he’.
- Isa 45:19 (ESV), ‘I the Lord speak the truth; I declare what is right‘.
- Paul tells us that God’s sending Christ as a sacrifice for the punishment for sins in Rom 3:25-26 (ESV), it ‘was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus’.
This is reason for us to praise God that in everything he does; all his ways are righteous. They are just; there is no injustice in Him. Question: How does God’s justice harmonise with the killing of all the inhabitants of Ai (Joshua 8:24 ESV)?
When we examine a text such as Genesis 15:16,  we see what God warned Abraham what would happen: ‘And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete’ (ESV). The promise was that the time of the iniquity of the Amorites ‘was not yet complete’ after the Israelites left the nation of Egypt. The implication of that Scripture is that when the wickedness of the Canaanites had reached God’s limit of guilt or restraint, God would remove them from the land.
That is what he did to Jericho and Ai (Joshua 8:18-26). He did it with Makkedah (Josh 10:28), Lachish (Josh 10:32); Eglon (Josh 10:34-35); Debir (Josh 10:38-39), and the cities of the Negev and the Shepheliah (Josh 10:40). You can read about God’s punishment of Hazor, Madon, Shimron and Achspaph (Josh 11:10-14). It happened previously to Sodom & Gomorrah. You can read about what God did with his punishment of other cities according to Judges 19 and Judges 20.
When we engage in the plain reading of Scripture, we cannot get past the fact that when degenerate idolatry and brazen moral depravity developed in nations, God had to remove them so that the theocratic kingdom of Israel could settle in those regions.
I do not like the deplorable loss of life and atrocities that happened in these nations, but it would be much worse if these depraved activities were allowed to continue among God’s people.
How does God’s justice harmonise with this carnage? God warns about the consequences of sin. If people and nations continue to act against God’s instructions, he will so what is right and bring punishment. He warns before he does it. ‘Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?’ (Gen 18:25). The lesson is this: Anyone can live this life as he/she wishes, but there are consequences – God’s consequences – when we give God the shaft and follow Frank Sinatra’s dictum, ‘I did it my way‘.
See John MacArthur, ‘The lover of righteousness’ (in MacArthur 1993: December 15).
How does righteousness fit with ‘holiness’?
Psalm 99:9 (ESV) states, ‘The Lord our God is holy‘. God is called the ‘Holy One of Israel’ (Ps Pss 71:22; 78:41; 89:18; Isa 1:4; 5:19, 24; etc). When God says he is holy, it means he is separate from sin.
However, using his own holiness as an example, God commands, ‘Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them, You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy’ (Lev 19:2 ESV). We find a similar message in 1 Peter 1:16 (ESV), ‘since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy”’. Also, in the New Covenant, ‘Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord’ (Heb 12:14 NIV). Hebrews 12:10 (ESV) reminds us that God ‘disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness’.
What is the meaning of holiness to be experienced by the Christian believer? Heb 12:14 is a parallel verse to 1 Thess 4:7 (NIV), ‘For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life’. Hagiasmos (holiness) in Heb 12:14 (NIV) presupposes that a person is reconciled with Christ through justification. ‘The word denotes a process by which we become separated unto God in our entire life and conduct. We, who are already hagioi [holy] by faith, are ever to continue in pursuit of hagiasmos, a life that is more and more sanctified to God’ (Lenski 1966:443). The author of Hebrews was writing to people in a pagan culture who had recently become Christians. They knew what it was to be embroiled in a culture that was very unlike that of God’s requirements. Unless this changed life of growing to be more like the holy God was evident, these people would not see God. Why? It was because they were not Christians and were incapable of separating from worldly things.
So, God disciplines us so that we may share his separateness from sin. As we grow to be more like Jesus, we will more and more be separate from sin – not performing acts of sin. This is related to sanctification. That is how Lenski translates Heb 12:14, ‘Peace continue to pursue with all, and the sanctification without which no one shall see the Lord’ (Lenski 1966:442).
It does raise the question: How can any believer be separate from sin in a world that is contaminated by sin?
How does this sanctifying holiness relate to purity?
Do you remember the problems that Paul had with moral impurity in churches? See the church of Galatia (Gal 1:6-9; 3:1-5) and the church of Corinth (1 Cor 3:1-4; 4:18-21; 5:1-2, 6; 6:1-8; 11:17-22; 14:20-23; 15:2; 2 Cor 1:23-2:11; 11:3-5, 12-15; 12:19-21).
Second Cor 12:21 (ESV) states, ‘I fear that when I come again my God may humble me before you, and I may have to mourn over many of those who sinned earlier and have not repented of the impurity, sexual immorality, and sensuality that they have practised’.
Let’s look at the opposite word first. The word translated ‘impurity’ relates to ‘those who sinned’. It is the Greek, akatharsia, that is translated as ‘impurity’ (ESV, NIV, NLT, NASB, HCSB, ISV, NET, NRSV, NAB, NJB), ‘uncleanness’ (KJV, Douay-Rheims, NKJV). Arndt & Gingrich’s Greek lexicon (1957:28) gives the meaning as referring literally to ‘refuse’ (Matt 23:27) and in a moral sense of people who commit ‘immorality, viciousness, especially of sexual sins’ (2 Cor 12:21; Gal 5:19; Col 3:5; Eph 5:3) and is the opposite of hagiasmos (or hagismos) in 1 Thess 4:7 and Rom 6:19.
Thayer’s lexicon gives the meaning of hagiasmos as consecration and the effect of consecration (which is sanctification of heart and life) as in 1 Cor 1:30; 1 Thess 4:7; Rom 6:19, 22; 1 Tim 2:15; Heb 12:14. It is produced by the Holy Spirit (2 Thess 2:13; 1 Pet 1:2), so it is opposed to lust (as in 1 Thess 4:7) (Thayer 1885/1962:6).
Impurity will separate the sinner from worship of God and involvement with God’s people. Paul could be referring to the libertines of Corinth who could state, ‘Food for the stomach and the stomach for food’ (1 Cor 6:13 NIV). A follow on to this philosophy could be that other physical satisfactions were also permitted – including impurity.
So, purity, being the opposite of impurity, can have this meaning: Wayne Grudem provides this definition, ‘The purity of the church is its degree of freedom from wrong doctrine and conduct, and its degree of conformity to God’s revealed will for the church‘ (Grudem 1999:371, emphasis in original).
Purity in Christian conduct thus deals with acceptance and practice of God’s standard of doctrine and behaviour. It is caused by the Holy Spirit’s ministry to us and clean-up of our lives.
How does this relate to God’s call for the Christian to be perfect? Or, is ‘perfect’ the wrong word in English translations.
A person asked: I see a Christian is imperfect or incomplete and is without purity. She thinks perfection ‘describes only God’. This cannot be correct because Matt 5:48 (ESV) states, ‘You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect’. So believers need to be perfect in some way that is parallel to that of the heavenly Father’s perfection.
I need to dig deeper. Does ‘perfect’ here have the meaning in English, ‘Having all the required or desirable elements, qualities, or characteristics; as good as it is possible to be’ or ‘free from any flaw or defect in condition or quality; faultless’? Does it mean ideal, flawless or exemplary? (Oxford dictionaries 2015. S v perfect).
So, what then is the meaning of ‘perfect’ in Matt 5:48 (ESV) if ‘you therefore must be perfect’? How can you and I be or become perfect in the English sense of faultless?
The word used in the Greek of Matt 5:48, teleioi, is from telos, which means end, goal or limit. So, the standard to which we are called – the goal – is the Heavenly Father’s standard. The word is also used for a relative perfection of adults when compared with children.
The parallel verse is with Deut 18:13 (ESV), ‘You shall be blameless [upright, sincere] before the Lord your God’. So God is perfect in the sense of being true and upright in how he deals with us. That is the model we have to follow. In the Hebrew of Deut 18:13 (ESV), the word sham is used for ‘blameless’ and has the sense of being complete like a whole number, the full time, an animal without blemish or deformity.
In Matt 5:48 (ESV), it is the English understanding of ‘perfect’ as sinless that causes us to miss the meaning. We know that sinlessness is not the meaning of ‘prefect’ because in Matt 5:6 (ESV), the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told his disciples (and us) that ‘blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied’.
It is unfortunate that the English does not seem to have a single word that conveys the idea of the Greek of aiming for the goal. Yes, that goal should include loving our enemies and friends but this love will have blemishes in it as we reach for the goal.
So to become perfect is not referring to perfection – in the English sense of the word. That will never be possible in this life. It is referring to reaching for the goal of becoming like our Father. He is infinite in his attributes. We are finite. Becoming more like Jesus in our thinking and actions should be our aim. This is called progressive sanctification; becoming progressively more like Jesus is our goal.
This will include renewing of the mind. See my article: Are unthinking Christians normal for Christianity?
Four aspects of the Christian’s new life in Christ were investigated: righteousness, holiness, purity and being perfect.
It was found that righteousness and justice are synonymous terms, from God’s perspective. God’s expectation of believers is that they do what is right (practise justice) with God’s law as the standard.
Holiness is the call to be separate from the actions of sin in a sinful world. This involves progressive sanctification, a process by which we become separated to God in our entire life and conduct.
This is parallel with purity, which means acceptance and practice of God’s standard of doctrine and behaviour, through the enabling of the Holy Spirit’s ministry.
To be perfect as our heavenly father is perfect does not involve what the word for ‘perfect’ means in English. It refers to the call of all believers to reach for the goal of becoming more like the Father.
All of these words cover various areas of growth in sanctification for the believer. My observation is that this is not an area of emphasis in many evangelical churches in my part of the world.
Arndt, W F & Gingrich, F W 1957. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press (limited edition licensed to Zondervan Publishing House).
Grudem, W 1999. Bible Doctrine: Essential Teachings of the Christian Faith. J Purswell (ed). Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press (by special arrangement with Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House).
Lenski, R C H 1966. Commentary on the New Testament: Interpretation of the Epistle to the Hebrews and of the Epistle of James. Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Publishers (limited edition licensed by special permission of Augsburg Fortress).
MacArthur, Jr., J F 1993. Drawing Near. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books.
Strauss, R L 1984. The Joy of Knowing God. Neptune, New Jersey: Loizeaux Brothers.
Thayer, J. H. 1885, 1962, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (being Grimm’s Wilke’s Clavis Novi Testamenti). Tr, rev & enl by J H Thayer. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House. (Note: The first Zondervan printing of this edition was in 1962, but Thayer’s preface in the lexicon was first written in 1885.) A Cornell University edition is available online at: http://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=coo.31924021607704;view=1up;seq=13;size=125 (Accessed 18 December 2015).
 I posted this material in Christian Forums.net, ‘Righteousness, Holiness, Purity, etc’, OzSpen#2. Available at: http://christianforums.net/Fellowship/index.php?threads/righteousness-holiness-purity-etc.62455/ (Accessed 18 December 2015).
 I posted the following material in ibid., OzSpen#7.
 The last Greek letter in dikaiosune is eta, seventh letter of the Greek alphabet, which is transliterated into English as ‘e’ with an ellipse. However, the html of this website converts letters with an ellipse into question marks. Therefore, I have used ‘e’ as the transliteration, but that is also the transliteration of the fifth letter of the Greek alphabet, epsilon. That is confusing but I am left with no alternative. Since ‘o’ with an ellipse is the transliteration of omega, the last letter of the Greek alphabet, I have chosen to use a transliteration of ‘w’, which was used by some earlier Greek NT scholars. Wikibooks states, ‘Sometimes unofficially it is rendered as w (inspired by the shape of the small letter)’ (2014. S v Modern Greek / Lession 4x).
 This response is based on Christian Forums.com [as opposed to Christian Forums.net], Christian Apologetics, ‘Contradictions in the Bible’, December 10, 2015, OzSpen#165. Available at: http://www.christianforums.com/threads/contradictions-in-the-bible.7918 (Accessed 18 December 2015).
 Christian Forums.net, ibid., Classik#10.
 Ibid., OzSpen#12.
 Most of this information was shared in ibid., OzSpen#14.
 This is ‘a translation and adaptation of Walter Bauer’s Griechisch-Deutsches Wörtbuch zu den Schriften des Neuen Testaments und der übrigen urchristlichen Literatur’ (4th rev & augmented edn 1952) (Arndt & Gingrich 1957:iii).
Copyright © 2015 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 19 December 2015.