Imagine, if you will, being assigned a paper on the Biblical word righteousness. “What does it mean? How does the Bible employ it? Further, what should Christians do to become more righteous?” You ask yourself these questions as you thumb through a generic Bible concordance, looking for every instance of the word righteous in the New Testament.

In your first stop, you come to Matthew’s gospel and observe how Jesus uses the word in his sermon on the Mount.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness”…Matthew 5:6

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake”Matthew 5:10

“For I tell you, unless your righteousness greatly exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven”Matthew 5:20

Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them”…Matthew 6:1

With these few Scriptures, especially Matthew 6:1, you might begin to assign a definition to the word. “Biblical righteousness is about proper conduct—behaving the right way,” you quickly jot down in your notes.

But then you turn to some references in Romans, making sure that the Greek word between the two books. It is! The word is dikaiosyne. It’s the same Greek word in both cases. And with that brief check, you read on. Paul says of righteousness:

None is righteous, no, not one”…Romans 3:10

…“But wait a minute. Didn’t Jesus demand that I be righteous?”

As you continue in Romans, you see more puzzling statements…

For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified [literally, “made righteous”] by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus”…Romans 3:23

The next Scripture is even more threatening to your original concept of the word:

For we hold that one is justified [made righteous] by faith apart from works of law” (Rom. 3:28).

“Righteousness is apart from works of law? It sure didn’t seem that way in the sermon on the mount! The whole sermon was based in the law!” These thoughts bewilder your curious spirit.

As you read on, you see that Paul essentially says that Abraham was not made righteous by works of the flesh (Rom. 4:1ff). In fact, righteousness is disconnected from our works (Rom. 4:6ff). He even makes a specific point of saying that Abraham’s righteousness was prior to his circumcision, not because of his circumcision (Rom. 4:9ff). Abraham’s righteousness was based on his faith, something present before he moved a muscle to obey God.

In Romans 5, Paul expressly says that our righteousness is a gift—a free gift—given to us by the grace of God. It is totally the work of God, disconnected from our works.

Imagine studying these things for the first time! In your personal notes, you’ve now written, “When Jesus uses the word righteous, he seems to be talking about obedience to God, righteous outward actions—prayer, fasting, giving, helping the poor. These are things that I do! But Paul says that nobody is righteous (?)! Does Paul mean that nobody prays and fasts and gives and helps the poor? Or does he mean that those actions are only possible when God grants them for people to do? After all, he says righteousness is a gift from God!”

Before long, your two definitions are in a complete semantic war with one another. And the problem is only compounded as you further sift through the New Testament for additional nuanced uses of the word righteousness.

These kinds of difficulties are so common. More often than not, people don’t even see any kind of contradiction between the manifold uses of a word. Many of us have (myself included) taken overly simplistic definitions, subconsciously maintained (either from cultural experiences or from Scriptures), and applied them haphazardly to all of Scripture. This common mistake can lead to big misunderstandings, confusion, and even, at times, erroneous conclusions about God and the Christian faith. So what can be done?

It is profoundly important that students of the Bible understand the broad semantic range any given word might maintain. This is true not only of the Bible—it’s true even in our own language! The other day I was reading a great section from one of my Greek grammar, and the other illustrated this common problem in the following way:

Imagine a preacher saying, “The man answered his cell phone. What does ‘cell’ mean? It means:

  1. A small chamber of incarceration

  2. A blob of protoplasm

  3. A mobile communications network

  4. A square in a spreadsheet.

How rich in meaning was this man’s phone (Going Deeper with New Testament Greek, Kostenberger, et al., p. 478).

Simply put, we understand that a word only maintains meaning within the context it was given. This means we cannot understand what Paul means by righteousness if we’re using the sermon on the mount as our baseline. Jesus had a very specific usage and meaning for that word in his context. And everything he said about righteousness can be understood in his surrounding statements. Jesus was talking about using our eyes righteously, not lusting women in our hearts. He was talking about sincere devotion to God, not virtue signaling and presenting ourselves in a pompous way. He was talking about hearing his words and actually putting them to practice!

Everyone who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock”Matthew 7:24

Righteousness, in that context, is all about our conduct and what God expects of us concerning our actions.

When Paul speaks of righteousness, however, he often brings a semantic nuance that would contradict what Jesus said—if it were true that every word must always be used in the same way. Fortunately, the surrounding context in Paul’s writings helps us to grasp what he means by righteousness. In most of Paul’s writings, righteousness is judicial language. It carries with it connotations of a courtroom, wherein a sovereign judge makes decisions of one’s innocence or guilt, righteousness or unrighteousness. When Paul speaks of our righteousness, he means to say,

“In the eyes of God, you are now declared innocent, despite the many unrighteous deeds you’ve committed!”

This reality is made possible because of Jesus, whom God put forward as our propitiation, our means of appeasing a wrathful God whose judgment loomed over us (see Romans 3:21-25). Righteousness, in Paul’s writings, is a divine perspective of humans who are found covered by the blood of Jesus. How blessed are those whose sins are, quite literally, covered up (Rom. 4:6-7). These people are righteous, says Paul.

So, as we excel in our understanding of language, particularly Biblical language, we must first understand the most basic principle of linguistics, that words carry meaning only in their contexts. While simple definitions might have a broad value when we consider passages on a surface level, they certainly won’t suffice for the rich and nuanced treasures buried in passages we often gloss over. Keep it always in context.

Daniel Mayfield
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"Daniel serves as a preacher and teacher at the Oldham Lane Church of Christ in Abilene, Texas. He does this work with the invaluable aid, wisdom, and encouragement of his wife, Miranda. They have two young sons, Judah and Zion, and one beautiful daughter, Eden. Daniel had served in Oklahoma for nearly five years, before which time he and Miranda served as missionaries in the Caribbean. Daniel is a graduate of both Bear Valley and Oklahoma Christian University. His greatest passion is to preach the gospel of Jesus to anyone who will listen."