Biblical Righteousness: A Word Study

A Word Study on Righteousness

Righteous [צַדִּיק tsaddiq] are You, O LORD, and upright are Your judgments [מִשְׁפָּט mishpat]. You have commanded Your testimonies in righteousness [צֶדֶק tsedeq] and exceeding faithfulness. (Ps. 119:137-138)

     RighteousnessA word study considers the meaning of a word.  An author determines the meaning of a word by how he uses it within a context.  The semantic range of a word is observed by its usage in various contexts.  The more times a word is used in different ways, the broader its semantic range.  The Bible, both the Old Testament and New Testament, provides a rich semantic range concerning the words righteous and righteousness.  The basic words in Hebrew are the noun צֶדֶק tsedeq, the adjective צַדִּיק tsaddiq, and the verb צָדֵק tsadeq.  The basic Greek words are the noun δικαιοσύνη dikaiosune, the adjective δίκαιος dikaios, and the verb δικαιόω dikaioo

     For God, righteousness is an attribute, an inherent quality, not the adherence to laws beyond Himself (of which there are none), or laws He has created.  “As an attribute of God it is united with His holiness as being essential in His nature; it is legislative or rectoral, as He is the righteous governor of all creatures; and is administrative or judicial, as He is a just dispenser of rewards and punishments.”[1]  The adjective צַדִּיק tsaddiq (206 times in 197 verses)[2] means “to be in the right, be right.”[3]  God is righteous; therefore, all His judgments are just.  This is why the psalmist writes, “Righteousness [צֶדֶק] and justice [מִשְׁפָּט] are the foundation of His throne” (Ps. 97:2).  The Hebrew noun מִשְׁפָּט mishpat refers to the just judgments that follow from God’s righteous character. 

     The denominative verb[4] צָדֵק tsadeq (160 times in 152 verses) most often means “to be just, righteous.”[5]  The root word “basically connotes conformity to an ethical or moral standard.”[6]  The masculine noun צֶדֶק tsedeq (160 times in 152 verses) refers to “accuracy, what is correct.”[7]  The feminine noun צְדָקָה tsedaqah (159 times in 150 verses) is translated “honesty; justice; justness.”[8]  It is observed, “The masculine ṣedeq [and] the feminine ṣĕdāqâ…do not differ in meaning, as far as we can prove.”[9] 

The Hebrew ṣeḏeq probably derives from an Arabic root meaning ‘straightness’, leading to the notion of an action which conforms to a norm. There is, however, a considerable richness in the biblical understanding of this term and it is difficult to render either the Hebrew or Greek words concerned by a simple English equivalent. One basic ingredient in the OT idea of righteousness is relationship, both between God and man (Ps. 50:6; Je. 9:24) and between man and man (Dt. 24:13; Je. 22:3).[10]

Millard Erickson adds:

In the Old Testament, the verb צָדַק (tsadaq) and its derivatives connote conformity to a norm. Since the character of the individual is not so much in view as is his or her relationship to God’s law, the term is more religious than ethical in nature. The verb means “to conform to a given norm”; in the Hiphil stem it means “to declare righteous or to justify.” The particular norm in view varies with the situation. Sometimes the context is family relationships. Tamar was more righteous than Judah, because he had not fulfilled his obligations as her father-in-law (Gen. 38:26). And David, in refusing to slay Saul, was said to be righteous (1 Sam. 24:17; 26:23), for he was abiding by the standards of the monarch-subject relationship. Clearly righteousness is understood as a matter of living up to the standards set for a relationship. Ultimately, God’s own person and nature are the measure or standard of righteousness. God is the ruler of all and the source of all criteria of rightness. As Abraham confessed, “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen. 18:25).[11]

     When the Hebrew Old Testament was translated into Greek circa 250 B.C., the translators chose δικαιοσύνη dikaiosune as the closest equivalent to צֶדֶק tsedeq and צְדָקָה tsedaqah and is frequently translated as righteousness or justice.  In the New Testament, the most common words denoting righteousness or justice are δίκαιος dikaios (79 times in 74 verses) and δικαιοσύνη dikaiosune (92 times in 86 verses).  The adjective δίκαιος dikaios pertains “to being in accordance with high standards of rectitude, upright, just, fair.[12]  All three Persons of the Trinity are righteous and just.  God the Father is called “righteous” [δίκαιος dikaios] (John 17:25), as well as His laws (Rom. 7:25) and judgments (Rom. 3:26; 1 John 1:9).  Jesus is called “just” or “righteous” [δίκαιος dikaios] (1 Pet. 3:18; cf. 1 John 2:1), and all His judgments are “just” [δίκαιος dikaios] (John 5:30; 2 Tim. 4:8).  And God the Holy Spirit has a ministry that promotes “righteousness” [δικαιοσύνη dikaiosune] (John 16:8). 

     The noun δικαιοσύνη dikaiosune may be defined as “the quality, state, or practice of judicial responsibility with focus on fairness, justice, equitableness, fairness.[13]  The quality of righteousness is intrinsic to the Person of God.  “Literally, the word righteous (Gk: dikaios) means ‘to be just’ or ‘right.’ Theologically, it refers to the intrinsic characteristic of God wherein He is absolutely just or right and is the ultimate standard of justice and rightness.”[14]  For God’s people, there is both a positional and experiential aspect of righteousness.  Positionally, every believer resides in a state of righteousness which is based solely on the imputation of God’s righteousness as a gift at the moment of faith in Christ (Phil. 3:9).  Experientially, the obedient-to-the-word believer learns to practice righteousness as he/she walks in conformity to God’s commands (Rom. 6:13).  The former necessarily precedes the latter. 

     The verb δικαιόω dikaioo means “to take up a legal cause, show justice, [or] do justice.”[15]  The noun δίκη dike appears briefly in the New Testament.  Once (Acts 28:4) it refers to Justice “personified as a deity”[16] and three times (Acts 25:15; 2 Thess. 1:9; Jude 1:7) as “punishment meted out as legal penalty.”[17]  The noun δικαίωμα dikaioma refers to “a regulation relating to just or right action, regulation, requirement, commandment.[18]  Righteous persons conform themselves to God’s commandments (Luke 1:6; Rom. 2:26).  The requirements of the Law are met in those who walk according to the Spirit (Rom. 8:4).  Jesus’ going to the cross was a single act of righteousness that secured justification for those who believe (Rom. 5:8).

     Throughout the Bible righteousness is also seen as a relationship word that recognizes established standards between a sovereign and subordinate.  A man is recognized as righteous, either before God or men, when he satisfies the legal demands placed upon him.  Any law between God and man, whether the laws in the Garden of Eden, the Mosaic Law given at Mount Sinai, or the law of Christ found in the New Testament writings to the church, establishes the ground upon which the relationship is declared a success or failure and from which blessing or discipline flows. 

The NT uses righteousness in the sense of conformity to the demands and obligations of the will of God, the so-called ‘righteousness of the law’ (Gal. 3:21; Phil. 3:6, 9; cf. Tit. 3:5). Human attainment of righteousness is at points relatively positively viewed (Lk. 1:6; 2:25; Mt. 5:20), but in the end this attainment in all men falls far short of a true conformity to the divine will (Rom. 3:9–20; Lk. 18:9–14; Jn. 8:7).[19]

     The righteousness of God [δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ dikaiosune theou] is not only the standard for divine acceptance (Rom. 10:3), but it is also that which God gives to the believer at the moment of faith in Christ (2 Cor. 5:21), which gift is the basis upon which a sinner is declared righteous and made acceptable in His sight (Rom. 4:1-5; 5:17; Phil. 3:9).  The believer is judicially declared righteous before God because of the imputation of His righteousness given at the moment of salvation.  The believer is experientially declared righteous before God because he/she conforms to God’s expectations for behavior (Rom. 6:11-16). 

     Laws are part of the fabric of humanity.  It’s our nature to label something good or evil.  The real issue for humanity is the starting point; either by beginning with God and what Scripture reveals about Him, or beginning with humanity and creating an arbitrary absolute.  Much of the Scriptural research up to this point reveals that God’s character is the basis for a relationship with Him as well as the norm upon which all just laws derive; either divine laws from God Himself or human laws which conform to His righteousness.

Dr. Steven R. Cook

[1] Merrill Frederick Unger et al., “Righteousness” in The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1988).

[2] The number of occurrences of Hebrew and Greek words was obtained using a search on lemma in BibleWorks. 

[3] Ludwig Koehler et al., The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1994–2000), 1003.

[4] A denominative verb originates from a noun or adjective.

[5] Francis Brown, Samuel Rolles Driver, and Charles Augustus Briggs, Enhanced Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), 842.

[6] Harold G. Stigers, “צָדֵק,” ed. R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1999), 752.

[7] Ludwig Koehler et al., The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, 1005.

[8] Ibid., 1006.

[9] Harold G. Stigers, “צָדֵק,” et al, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 752.

[10] B. A. Milne, “Righteousness,” ed. D. R. W. Wood et al., New Bible Dictionary (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 1020.

[11] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 883–884.

[12] William Arndt, Frederick W. Danker, and Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 246.

[13] Ibid., 247.

[14] Norman L. Geisler, Systematic Theology, Volume Two: God, Creation, 323.

[15] William Arndt, Frederick W. Danker, and Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 249.

[16] Ibid., 250.

[17] Ibid., 250.

[18] Ibid., 249.

[19] B. A. Milne, “Righteousness,” New Bible Dictionary, 1020.