We don’t have to speculate about the nature of God’s righteousness any more, for it was made tangible in Jesus Christ. This is how we define righteousness; it looks like Jesus’ life and teachings. What this also means is, whatever looks like Jesus defines God’s righteousness, whatever doesn’t look like Jesus does not define God’s righteousness.
Here’s what Paul told the Romans about God’s righteousness (and how we obtain this righteousness):
21 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22 This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile (Rom.3:21-22 NIV*)
I think The Passion Translation (TPT) says it more clearly:
21–22 But now, independently of the law, the righteousness of God is tangible and brought to light through Jesus, the Anointed One. This is the righteousness that the Scriptures prophesied would come. It is God’s righteousness made visible through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. And now all who believe in him receive that gift. For there is really no difference between us (Rom.3:21-22 TPT*)
But if God’s righteousness was revealed through Jesus Christ, then we may need to consider (or reconsider) what we think that means. Does it simply mean obeying God’s laws perfectly like Jesus did? Is that how Jesus displayed God’s righteousness? And, so now, since Jesus got an “A” on the test, we can get an “A” by faith in His name?
The original Greek word for righteousness is δικαιοσύνη (dikaiosynē). It means “fair and equitable dealing, justice, godliness, piety.” (Mounce)
“Fair and equitable dealing” is the most useful term here, but it’s also important to understand the difference between being equitable and being strictly just. As Aristotle said a little over 2,300 years ago, “Equity is just, but not what is legally just. It is a rectification of legal justice. ”
For example, if you were stopped for speeding because you were trying to get your pregnant wife who just went into labor to the hospital in time, a strictly just officer would write you out a speeding ticket—100% of the time. After all, you broke the law. On the other hand, if this officer were equitable, he or she would escort you safely to the hospital, even deliver the baby for you if need be. (For a biblical review of God’s type of justice, go to my post: “Is God strictly just or is He equitable?“)
My point is this: God’s righteousness, like His justice, is equitable.
We can prove this definition by simply looking at Jesus Christ. What we see in Jesus’ life and ministry is a continual demonstration of God’s other-centered, self-giving love in human form. We see Jesus defending the defenseless, affirming the marginalized, healing the sick, standing with the accused, raising grieving mother’s children back to life, restoring the lepers and despised back into society. We see Jesus getting angry at injustice, especially when it was done in the name of God.
Jesus showed us that God’s righteousness looks like loving your enemies, not seeking revenge, not hating, not showing partiality, not manipulating, not coveting, not lusting but loving, not condemning or putting yourself above others but treating everyone exactly as you would want to be treated. It looks like giving generously and doing more than you’re asked, letting your yes be yes, forgiving, and showing grace and mercy to those who don’t deserve it.
God’s righteousness looks like the fruit born from Jesus abiding in His Father’s love and doing what He sees His Father do. Jesus showed us that God’s righteousness is not that of a legalistic lawyer but of a loving Father, as we see in the story of the Prodigal Son.
We see what God’s righteousness looks like on the cross. Jesus, although falsely accused, abandoned and misunderstood by everyone He loved, yet still hanging there…for us.
We see Jesus offering forgiveness before we even realized what we had done to Him. We see Him bringing us to Himself while we were still alienated from Him in our orphan-hearted blindness and confusion.
What this means to me is that I must re-calibrate my idea of God’s righteousness, for if I equate His righteousness with stainless steel legalism, or anything un-Christlike, vindictive or petty or ungracious, I’m projecting an image of a false god.
One more thing here. Paul also tells us that we receive God’s righteousness by faith in Jesus Christ. It’s not our righteousness, but His. So, if we’re being legalistic, vindictive, ungracious, or not looking like Jesus in any way, then we have not received His righteousness, we’re still walking in our own. And ours is nothing more than filthy rags.