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The Language of Righteousness in Paul’s Epistles

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I’m a radical believer in God’s radical grace. So I’ve got to deal with righteousness because, it seems to me, a lot of confusion and guesswork have dominated discussions about the righteousness of God and our righteousness. Maybe if we looked at the verses, clarity can be achieved.

Is righteousness imputed? (Yes). Is it imparted? (Yes). Can it mean vindication? (Yes). Justice? (Yes). Holiness? (Yes). Declared not guilty in a forensic or courtroom setting? (Yes). Putting things right in a covenant context? (Yes).

The same word righteousness and its cognates mean all those things, depending on the context.

Together let’s discover how they’re worked out in this study.

English has to deal with righteousness and justice as if they come from two different stems in Greek, but they do not. In English, right has Germanic origins (cf. recht); justice has Latin roots (cf. iustitia).

However, both righteousness and justice come from the dik- stem in Greek. In fact, here are the other related words that also share the dik- stem. “Righteousness” or “justice” is dikaiosynê; “justification” is dikaiôsis; “to justify” or “pronounce righteous” is dikaioô; righteous deed or regulation is dikaiôma; also, dikaiokrisis is “righteous judgment”; endikos is “just”; and “punishment” or “penalty” is dikê. Antonyms: adikia “unrighteousness”; adikos “unrighteous.”

In this article, however, we look at the verb dikaioô (to justify, declare righteous in Paul) and the noun dikaiosunê (righteousness) and dikaiôsis (justification). We simply don’t have the time to include the adjective dikaios (righteous).

If you would like to see the verses in various translations, you may go to and type in the references.

Justified or Declared Righteous (dikaioô)

This section uses the ESV.

1. To be justified is to be vindicated in the face of accusations from enemies.

4 Absolutely not! Let God be proven true, and every human being shown up as a liar just as it is written: “so that you will be justified in your words and will prevail when you are judged.” (Rom 3:4; cf. Ps. 51:4)

33 Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. (Rom. 8:33)

3 So for me, it is a minor matter that I am judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not acquitted because of this. The one who judges me is the Lord. (1 Cor. 4:3-5)

16 And we all agree, our religion contains amazing revelation:

He was revealed in the flesh,
vindicated by the Spirit,
seen by angels,
proclaimed among Gentiles,
believed on in the world,
taken up in glory. (1 Tim. 3:16)

2. Paul speaks about the standards of God and implies from the rest of Romans that humans can’t meet them.

12 For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law.13 For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. … 16 on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus. (Rom. 2:12-13, Rom. 2:16)

3. God justifies us apart from the law (our law keeping).

19 Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20 For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. (Rom. 3:19-20)

28 For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. (Rom. 3:28)

11 Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” (Gal. 3:11)

2 Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. 3 I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. 4 You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. (Gal. 5:2-4)

4. God justifies us apart from our works and works of the law.

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. 27 Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28 For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. (Rom. 3:26-28)

1 What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? 2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” 4 Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. 5 And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness (Rom. 4:1-5)

15 We are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners, 16 yet we know that no one is justified by the works of the law but by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by the faithfulness of Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified. 17 But if while seeking to be justified in Christ we ourselves have also been found to be sinners, is Christ then one who encourages sin? Absolutely not! (Gal. 2:15-17)

5. God justifies us freely by grace and faith.

23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. But they are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. (Rom. 3:23-24)

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. … 29 Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, 30 since God is one – who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. 31 Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law. (Rom. 3:26, Rom. 3:29-31)

1 Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. (Rom. 5:1)

24 So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. (Gal. 3:24)

7 And so, since we have been justified by his grace, we become heirs with the confident expectation of eternal life.” (Titus 3:7)

21 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God (which is attested by the law and the prophets) has been disclosed – 22 namely, the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. 24 But they are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. (Rom. 3:21-24)

6. The Spirit Himself justifies us.

11 Some of you once lived this way. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Cor. 6:11)

7. God justifies us by Christ’s sacrificial blood.

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. (Rom. 3:23-25)

9 Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. (Rom. 5:9, ESV)

8. We are freed and acquitted from sin (sin accusing us).

7 For someone who has died has been freed from sin. (Rom. 6:7, NET; ESV notes: has been justified)

9. God calls us to be justified and then he has glorified us.

And those he predestined, he also called; and those he called, he also justified; and those he justified, he also glorified. (Rom. 8:30)

Righteousness (dikaiosunê) And Justification (dikaiôsis)

Paul surely has these all of the main OT ideas in his mind when he writes about the righteousness of God. But now all their OT meanings are fulfilled in Christ. Therefore his theology is much more personal and Spirit-based. He is writing to Spirit-filled, small communities. It should be noted that the Reformers distinguished between God’s own righteousness, and his free gift of righteousness that he provides to all who believe in Christ. It is this latter meaning that is intended by “God’s righteousness” (see the list that follows).

This section uses the NET, unless otherwise noted.

1. God’s righteousness implies that no one is righteous by his absolute standards.

5 But if our unrighteousness brings out God’s righteousness more clearly, what shall we say? … 10 There is no one righteous, not even one (Rom. 3:5, 10, citing Pss. 14:1-3; 53:13, NIV)

2. God’s righteousness is apart from the law and comes through faith in Christ and saves us.

21 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God (which is attested by the law and the prophets) has been disclosed – 22 namely, the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe. (Rom. 3:21-22)

25 God presented him [Christ] as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— 26 he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. (Rom. 3:25-26, NIV)

23 But the statement it was credited to him was not written only for Abraham’s sake, 24 but also for our sake, to whom it will be credited, those who believe in the one who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. 25 He was given over because of our transgressions and was raised for the sake of our justification. (Rom. 4:23-25)

30 What shall we say then? – that the Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness obtained it, that is, a righteousness that is by faith, 31 but Israel even though pursuing a law of righteousness did not attain it. 32 Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but (as if it were possible) by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone. (Rom. 9:30-32)

3 Since they did not know the righteousness that comes from God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. 4 Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes. … 8 But what does it say? “The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart,” that is, the word of faith we are proclaiming: 9 That if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved. 11 As the Scripture says, “Anyone who trusts in him will never be put to shame.” 12 For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, 13 for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Rom. 10:3-4, Rom. 10:8-13, NIV)

In that long passage in Rom. 10:3-4, Rom. 10:8-13 God saves or rescues us through our faith energized by the gospel.

9 If the ministry that condemns men is glorious [law of Moses], how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness [the gospel of Christ]! (2 Cor. 3:9, NIV)

21 I do not set aside God’s grace, because if righteousness could come through the law, then Christ died for nothing! (Gal. 2:21)

21 Is the law therefore opposed to the promises of God? Absolutely not! For if a law had been given that was able to give life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law. 22 But the scripture imprisoned everything and everyone under sin so that the promise could be given – because of the faithfulness of Jesus Christ – to those who believe. (Gal. 3:21-22)

4 You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. 5 But by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope. (Gal. 5:4-5, NIV)

9 … not because I have my own righteousness derived from the law, but because I have the righteousness that comes by way of Christ’s faithfulness – a righteousness from God that is in fact based on Christ’s faithfulness. (Php. 3:9)

3. God’s righteousness is built into the gospel, from faith to faith.

16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is God’s power for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For the righteousness of God is revealed in the gospel from faith to faith, just as it is written, “The righteous by faith will live.” (Rom. 1:16-17)

4. Abraham shows God’s righteousness can be credited or imputed to our account.

1 We say that Abraham, our forefather, discovered in this matter? 2 If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about—but not before God. 3 What does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” 4 Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation. 5 However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness. 6 David says the same thing when he speaks of the blessedness of the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works … 10 We have been saying that Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness. (Rom. 4:1-6, 10, NIV)

That previous long passage clarifies that when we work, we earn money. The employer owes it to us. When we don’t work, but get money anyway, that’s a gift. It has been freely credited to our account.

23 The words “it was credited to him” were written not for him alone, 24 but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness—for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. (Rom. 4:23-24, NIV)

6 Just as Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness, 7 so then, understand that those who believe are the sons of Abraham. 8 And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, proclaimed the gospel to Abraham ahead of time, saying, “All the nations will be blessed in you.” 9 So then those who believe are blessed along with Abraham the believer. (Gal. 3:6-9)

5. God’s righteousness is therefore a gift by grace.

17 … How much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ. (Rom. 5:17, NIV)

5 He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. (Titus 3:5, NIV)

6. God’s righteousness means grace reigns and brings eternal life through Christ.

18 Consequently, just as condemnation for all people came through one transgression, so too through the one righteous act came righteousness leading to life for all people. (Rom. 5:18)

21 so that just as sin reigned in death, so also grace will reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Rom. 5:21)

7. God’s righteousness means that Christ is our righteousness.

30 He is the reason you have a relationship with Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption (1 Cor. 1:30)

21 God made the one who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that in him we would become the righteousness of God. (2 Cor. 5:21)

Imparted Righteousness

The context of these verses helps us distinguish between the two meanings of justification and imparted righteousness or sanctification.

Now that we have received the gift of righteousness, the Spirit can work it out in our lives. This process is known as sanctification or growing up in Christ.

To be clear, righteousness is imputed. That’s our legal standing. And righteousness is imparted. That’s what we apply in our living. Righteousness affects our conduct.

Both imputation and impartation can happen at the same time. In fact they should happen at the same time.

This section uses the NET, unless otherwise noted.

1. Righteousness means we can offer our body, our whole person, as instruments or even slaves of righteousness.

13 and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness. 14 For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace. (Rom. 6:13-14, NIV)

16 Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone to obey him as slaves, you are slaves to the one whom you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? (Rom. 6:16, NIV)

18 You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness. 19 I put this in human terms because you are weak in your natural selves. Just as you used to offer the parts of your body in slavery to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness, so now offer them in slavery to righteousness leading to holiness. (Rom. 6:18-19, NIV)

10 But if Christ is in you, your body is dead because of sin, yet your spirit is alive because of righteousness. (Rom. 8:10, NIV)

24 And to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. (Eph. 4:24, NIV)

8 For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light 9 (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) 10 and find out what pleases the Lord. (Eph. 5:8-10, NIV)

2. Pursue righteousness and other virtues, and compete for the faith.

11 But you, as a person dedicated to God, keep away from all that. Instead pursue righteousness, godliness, faithfulness, love, endurance, and gentleness. 12 Compete well for the faith and lay hold of that eternal life you were called for and made your good confession for in the presence of many witnesses. (1 Tim. 6:11-12)

22 But keep away from youthful passions, and pursue righteousness, faithfulness, love, and peace, in company with others who call on the Lord from a pure heart.(2 Tim. 2:22)

3. Righteousness can become our weapons and armor.

4 Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: … 7 with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left … (2 Cor. 6:4, 7, NIV)

14 Stand firm therefore, by fastening the belt of truth around your waist, by putting on the breastplate of righteousness (Eph. 6:14)

4. Righteousness is not compatible with wickedness.

14 Do not become partners with those who do not believe, for what partnership is there between righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship does light have with darkness? (2 Cor. 6:14)

13 For such people are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. 14 And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. 15 Therefore it is not surprising his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness, whose end will correspond to their actions. (2 Cor. 11:13-15)

8 For you were at one time darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of the light – 9 for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness, and truth – 10 trying to learn what is pleasing to the Lord. 11 Do not participate in the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. (Eph. 5:8-11)

5. Righteousness can lead to a harvest of righteousness or good deeds.

9 Now God who provides seed for the sower and bread for food will provide and multiply your supply of seed and will cause the harvest of your righteousness to grow. (2 Cor. 9:10)

9 And this is my prayer: that [you may be] … 11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God. (Php. 1:9, 11, NIV)

6. The kingdom of God is righteousness, as we serve others.

17 For the kingdom of God does not consist of food and drink, but righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. 18 For the one who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and approved by people. (Rom. 14:17-18)

7. A crown of righteousness awaits us.

5 For through the Spirit, by faith, we wait expectantly for the hope of righteousness. (Gal. 5:5)

6 For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure. 7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8 Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing. (2 Tim. 4:6-8, NIV)


Putting things right in a covenant context and being declared righteous or acquitted in a forensic (law court) setting do not need to conflict. When God declares you not-guilty or acquits you and yes, puts a robe of righteousness on you, you are put right in the New Covenant.

After (or at the same time) you are acquitted in the divine court of law, God expects you to walk like a free person, declared not guilty. He expects you to behave yourself, to walk in righteousness. That’s called sanctification. Since all analogies are weak, the human judge cannot send his spirit into you to sanctify you. But God is the heavenly judge. He can and does send his Spirit into you. He is called the Holy Spirit. He leads you towards holiness.

After that big-picture overview, now let’s turn to a summary of the biblical data.

People are declared righteous or just, not because of their good behavior, but because of their faith in Jesus Christ and Christ’s faithfulness and righteousness. So God sees the bad behavior of the sinner. But God notes that the sinner has turned in repentance and faith in Christ who forgives the sinner. Christ pays his debt. Then God declares the sinner righteous and not guilty. The man or woman is no longer a debtor because his debt of sin has been paid in full, by Christ.

Now we can study Paul’s doctrine of righteousness and justification.

His epistles are much, much shorter than the OT. But he packs a lot of theology into them. He takes over some themes from the OT, but clearly goes in new directions. After all, the Messiah had come and the Spirit was given. They account for some huge differences between the two covenants.

Justified, Righteousness, and Justification

All three words have the same Greek stem dik-.

In the big picture, the Messiah came. Paul met him in revelations. How does the Messiah match up with the OT standard of righteousness? Would he reestablish the Law of Moses in its entirety? Partially?

One more piece of the big picture: The Spirit came. Paul experienced him. So how does he work with righteousness? How does the Spirit relate to the law of Moses? Now Israel was not the only chosen people; Gentiles were chosen too.

Paul is ambiguous about the Law of Moses. The law brings wrath and exposes or intensifies sin. Both Jews and Gentiles need to be rescued or saved from God’s judgment and wrath.

Righteousness and justification has to go in a different direction from law keeping.

Paul zeroes in on Abraham’s faith, who was the father of faith 400+ years before the Law of Moses. Abraham was credited with righteousness before he was circumcised, even though circumcision was the sign of being in a covenant, now an old covenant. Keying off Abraham, both Jews and Gentiles can be credited with righteousness by faith. Paul teaches that faith apart from works of the law puts the legal declaration (to justify) in motion.

The Spirit and grace work in a person (even if he does not realize it). To be justified by grace is to be declared righteous apart from doing the law. This declaration has to come through the Messiah and the Spirit, not the Law of Moses.

Vindication has to go in a different direction from a narrow restoration of one nation. In fact, vindication is a minor theme in Paul. If anyone is vindicated, it is God, who had foretold he would establish a new covenant; and, having established it, he is not proven untrue. Only after the legal declaration of righteousness (justification) can a believer be considered “vindicated.” But this is different from ancient Israel’s vindication. Israel had been attacked, defeated and exiled, and the nations of the known world had heard about it. When a remnant of Israel had been restored, national vindication was accomplished.

Paul goes way beyond national vindication and is concerned with righteousness before God and his judgment. Christ’s sacrificial blood is the foundation of justification, because the demands of the law have been met. The punishment for our law breaking has been paid in full. To justify is to declare the person just or righteous, so that the ground of punishment no longer exists. Justification is the opposite of condemnation. To condemn does not make the character bad, and to justify does not make the character good. Justification is as much a legal and declarative act as condemnation is.

Some additional thoughts:

Law keeping does not bring righteousness. Only faith in Christ brings God’s freely given righteousness. To be declared righteous in God’s sight and to be justified are the same.

To justify is to impute righteousness. Righteousness is a free gift by grace and faith.

To impute is to reckon, calculate, consider, or regard it. The Greek logizomai – which is the verb that translates as “impute” – has the basic meaning of “thinking” or “considering.” God thinks of us as righteous because of Christ; therefore, his righteousness belongs to us. It is not a “legal fiction.” Therefore, after being justified, man can survive the judgment before an infinitely holy and righteous God.

To be justified or legally declared righteous is not an inner act, any more than a judge can make the acquitted be just or righteous on the inside. To be justified does not change the person’s character. Justification is not the same as sanctification (see next).

Justification and Imparted Righteousness or Sanctification

Justification and sanctification are inseparable, but distinct. Sanctification literally means “the process or act of making holy.” Only the Holy Spirit leads the believer to live a righteous life. From the status of declared righteousness (justification), he can live out a righteous life. Righteousness has been imputed (justification), so now it can be imparted (sanctification).

From the declared legal status of righteousness flows the activity of righteousness. We are no longer slaves of unrighteousness, but slaves of righteousness. Righteousness and wickedness are incompatible. Righteousness can produce a harvest of good or righteous deeds. The legally declared status of righteousness can lead us to put on the breastplate of righteousness. The legally declared status of righteousness can now lead us to take up weapons of lived-out righteousness.

We can pursue righteousness. This pursuit is the perfect illustration of the difference between justification and sanctification. Paul believes righteousness is a free gift by grace alone and faith alone – from faith to faith, apart from works of the law or our works, period. Yet we can pursue righteousness. If we’re not careful, our pursuit turns into our works. We might believe we have to earn righteousness. But why pursue something we already have as a gift in the first place? This is the confusion that comes from not understanding the difference between justification and sanctification.

Paul would tell us that we receive righteousness as a gift by a legal declaration. That’s imputed righteousness. That’s justification. Then our ethical conduct is affected. That’s imparted righteousness from the Spirit. We then pursue righteous living by following the Spirit. That’s sanctification. Then, one day, we will wear a crown of righteousness, after we die.

Though the declaration of righteousness or acquittal and sanctification are unified, we need to understand the distinctions. (1) God justifies or legally declares us righteous (justification). We have a righteous standing or status before God’s tribunal. We are put right in the New Covenant. We are acquitted. (2) That legal righteousness and being put right is worked out in our walk or growth in him by the power of the Spirit (sanctification). (3) Our day-to-day growth in righteousness comes together and is completed in heaven.

The free gift of righteousness impacts our living and behavior. We can now live righteously. We do this by walking in the Spirit.

Thus, justification and sanctification are inseparable, but distinct.

If we wrongly believe that God first has to sanctify us before he can declare us not guilty, we will never know for sure if our sanctification has progressed far enough. Are we holy enough before God can declare us righteous? Have we purged out enough sin so that God can then justify us (legally declare us righteous)? Though I’m cooperating with the Spirit in the sanctification process, is my personal cooperation and righteousness good enough?

This wrong way makes God’s legal declaration or justification too dependent on us. This backwards belief puts too much pressure on us. How is this pressure and self-dependency good news? It isn’t.

The answer: imputation and justification (legal declaration of righteousness) being put right in the New Covenant (new position in Christ) and impartation and sanctification (personal growth in righteousness in the Spirit).

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