Straight Cuts: Biblical Righteousness

by Mark Minnick

This article first appeared in FrontLine • March/April 1999. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.

The theme of the Book of Romans is bound up with the dynamic concept of “righteousness” (first mentioned in 1:17). The Greek word, or one of its derivatives (such as righteous, justify, or justification), occurs 66 times in this epistle, 65 of which are located in the first ten chapters. Romans 1–10, then, is heavily freighted with this one concept. What exactly is “righteousness”?

“Righteousness” is often confused with other virtues such as holiness, godliness, or sinlessness. Although interrelated, these terms have respective distinctions. One passage illustrating the distinctive character of righteousness is Leviticus 19:35–36, where God demands that merchants have “just” (the Hebrew word for “righteous”) scales in commercial transactions. Can you imagine a “holy” coffee scale? Or what would a “godly” yardstick look like? “Holy” and “godly” are not appropriate descriptions of such measuring devices, but “righteous” is. Why?

“Righteousness” occurs in commercial contexts because it denotes a standard that always involves (1) at least two parties (man and man, man and God, or even a man and his dog! Proverbs 12:10) and (2) a certain kind of relationship between them. What kind of relationship?

Suppose you enter a supermarket and navigate your way to the produce aisle. There, beautifully displayed, are boxes of large, red-ripe strawberries. The next piece of information your eyes search for is the price, and you read “Strawberries, 99 cents/lb.” All right, are you prepared to accept that? “Accept what?” you ask. That arrangement—that obligation. If you pick up a box of those berries and intend to walk out the door with them, you have accepted an obligation to pay 99 cents per pound for them. By the same token, the store is obligated. Their end of the arrangement is to give you a full 16 ounces of berries for every 99 cents you pay. But if the store’s scale registers 1 lb. when there are only 15 ounces of strawberries, then it has failed to meet the arrangement to which the store obligated itself on the sign.

How is “righteousness” defined, then? Most simply, it is “meeting my obligations.” Sometimes it is expressed in different words, such as “conforming to a standard.” That definition is right on target, provided that I understand that the standard is something to which I am bound or obligated.

Probably the most striking Scriptural confirmation that Biblical righteousness is “meeting my obligation” is Job’s lengthy personal defense in Job 31. He begins with a plea to be “weighed in an even balance” (v. 6). The word “even” is the Hebrew word “righteous,” the same word translated “just” back in Leviticus 19:36. So Job is pleading to be evaluated by a righteous scale. He then invites an investigation of every relationship in his life: his relationship to his wife (vv. 7–12), his servants (vv. 13–15), the poor, orphaned, and disadvantaged (vv. 16–23), his possessions (vv. 24–25), nature (vv. 26–28), his enemies (vv. 29–30), his own transgressions against God (vv. 33–37), and even his land (vv. 38–40). Of each relationship he says, in effect, “If I have failed in my obligation, then let such-and-such a calamity happen to me.”

Job is inviting this kind of scrutiny and even reciting his obligation in each case because he is certain that no one can level any just accusation against him. He has met his obligations in every area. The upshot of it is, “So these three men ceased to answer Job, because he was righteous in his own eyes” (32:1).

This concept—meeting one’s obligations—dominates the Book of Romans. In fact, the entire epistle divides into two developments of this theme.

I. Righteousness Obtained (chapters 1–11)

II. Righteousness Practiced (chapters 12–16)

Our standard, our obligation in order to be “just [righteous] before God” is to be a “doer of the law” (Rom. 2:13). But no one, “no not one,” has ever met all of his obligations to God and man (3:10). And no one, by even the most assiduous lifelong attempt to meet perfectly all of the obligations of the law, will ever hear God pronounce him righteous on that basis (3:21). But now, by faith in Jesus Christ, who met perfectly all of the obligations of the law in our place, a righteous standing before God is available to sinners (3:21ff.). This is the message of the Book of Romans.

It should not take long for anyone truly aware of his own sinfulness, but beginning to grasp even the edges of this blessed concept, to be profoundly thankful for the flawless active and passive obedience of the only sinless one, the Lord Jesus Christ, our righteousness (Jer. 23:6).

Mark Minnick is pastor of Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Greenville, South Carolina.