The Righteousness of God

By Andy Johnston - 18 February 2022

This article from Andy is part of Somali Bible Society Journal: Volume II, Issue 2

In this short paper I will be looking at the subject of the righteousness of God. First, we will consider the character and nature of God Himself. Righteousness is not merely one of His characteristics or attributes. It is who He is; it is one of His names. Second, we shall consider why this presents a problem to us. Ever since the Fall, human beings have been inherently sinful and, therefore, separated from a righteous and holy God. Third, we will consider God’s solution to the problem – Himself! He, through His Son, Jesus Christ, becomes our righteousness.

Part 1 – God is Righteous

What is God like? What sort of person is He? How is the Christian God, the God of the Bible, the God who is Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – different from all other “gods”. The American theologian Wayne Grudem in his Systematic Theology gives us an extensive list of the different attributes of God. God is (in no particular order): Spirit, Invisible and everywhere, All-knowing, All-powerful, Wise, Truthful, Good, Love, Merciful, Gracious, Patient, Holy, Peace, Jealous, Wrathful, Righteous and Just.

What does it mean that God is a righteous God? In both the Hebrew and Greek languages, the words for righteous and just are from the same word group. Moses describes God as “A faithful God who does no wrong; how just and upright He is” (Deuteronomy 32:4). The idea is that God is a judge, indeed, He is the supreme judge of all. As judge of all He is supremely fair and equitable. There is no bias, twistedness or distortion of justice in Him. He will always do what is right. We see this in the story of Abraham and his intercession for Sodom. Sodom is a city full of sin and rebellion against God. However, because his nephew Lot is living in Sodom with his family, Abraham begins to pray and to intercede for Sodom. He asks God if He will spare judgment against Sodom if there are 50 righteous people in the city.

God hears Abraham’s prayer and agrees that if 50 righteous people can be found then Sodom will be spared. Abraham, spurred on by God’s mercy, continues to pray and eventually God agrees to spare Sodom if only 10 righteous people can be found. In this context Abraham makes a very important declaration –

“Shall not the judge of all the earth do right”

Genesis 18:25

Because God is judge, the supreme and ultimate judge of the whole earth, then He will, as this ultimate judge, always act righteously or justly. See how, in this story, the concepts of righteousness and justice are extrinsically bound together.

Because God is the creator & we are His creatures we have no right to argue with God or challenge His justice and righteousness. This is not only where Abraham lands when he is making his representations in “the court of Heaven”. It is where Job finds himself at the end of his story. Job was a righteous man, one who was “blameless and upright, who feared God and turned away from evil” (Job 1:1). Nevertheless, unspeakably awful things happened to Job. He lost everything except his own life. His whole family died, he was reduced to poverty and he became chronically sick. God had allowed Satan to test Job, fully confident that Job would not curse God in his suffering as Satan claimed he would. Did this mean that God was unjust or unrighteous because bad things had happened to a good person? By no means! In fact, God specifically underlines His righteousness, His justice as judge of all the earth at the end of the story:

“Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty… Will you ever put me in the wrong? Will you condemn me that you may be in the right?”

Job 40:2 & 8

Jonah dares to question God’s justice and is severely rebuked by the Lord as a result. God calls Jonah to preach judgment against the city of Nineveh. Jonah not only did not obey God, he actively disobeyed. He ran in the opposite direction. He was not happy with God at all. He knew that if he preached judgment and Nineveh repented then God, as a God of mercy, would spare Nineveh. That was the last thing Jonah wanted. He, as a good Jew, was well aware of the terrible sin of this capital city of the evil empire of Assyria. He wanted them punished. He preferred his justice to God’s justice.

A few years ago, I visited the Assyrian section of the British Museum in London. As I walked through reconstructions of the gates of Nineveh, I had more than a little sympathy with Jonah. I was surrounded by demonic carvings of idols and false gods. I don’t think I have ever experienced the presence of evil so powerfully. But our idea of justice is not God’s. His ways are higher than our ways and His thoughts are higher than our thoughts (Isaiah 55:8-9). We are clay jars and He is the potter (Romans 9:20-21). We have no right, therefore, to question Him or resist His perfect justice.

Part 2 – The Problem of Sin

The problem of sin dominates the Bible story from Genesis to Revelation with the exception of the first two chapters of Genesis and the last two chapters of Revelation. God created human beings without sin, without shame and reflecting His glory. Adam and Eve, reflecting the fact that they were made in God’s image, were righteous like their creator. Tragically, the story quickly descends into rebellion against God. Adam and Eve disobey God by taking of that which God had specifically forbidden. From that point on in the history of the human race, there is a separation between a holy and righteous God and sinful human beings. The rest of the Bible narrative is the story of God’s intervention to restore this broken relationship.

Shortly after Adam and Eve messed up, God in his grace and mercy dresses them in animal skins, covering their shame (Genesis 3:21). Right from the start, we are pointed to the day when an innocent will be sacrificed to deal with the sin of the human race. Fast forward then to the end of the story. In Revelation 19:8 we, the bride of Christ, the people of God, are clothed in “the finest of pure white linen” (Revelation 19:8) as a beautiful bride prepared for her bridegroom. Sin is no longer simply covered. It has been removed forever through the blood of the Lamb.

Lots of people imagine that the Old Testament is a story of God’s law and the New Testament is a story of God’s grace. Hence, they see the Old Testament God, like the Protestant reformer Martin Luther (see below) did, as a God who primarily is a God who, because He is righteous, judges our sin. Thus, the righteousness of God is something to be feared. Then we get to the New Testament and God is finally revealed as a God of grace, a God who forgives our sin through Jesus.

This is not a very helpful way of viewing things. Scripture flows together as one whole story. In Genesis 15:6 we have one of the most important verses in the whole Bible:

“And Abram believed the Lord, and the Lord counted him as righteous because of his faith.” Being made right with God is on the basis of our trust in him, not on the basis of our performance. Paul makes much of this in his letter to the Romans, especially in chapter 4. Paul points out that it was faith that counted Abraham as righteous, not his keeping of the Law and, in particular, circumcision. Circumcision was a mark of the covenant, that is, a sign that Abraham already had faith and that God had already accepted him and declared him to be righteous”

Romans 4:11

Much of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) is about how Israel as the people of God relate to a God who is a righteous God. Israel is called to be holy. Nowhere is this better seen in the book of Leviticus:

“You must be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19:1). Leviticus is a book full of laws and regulations about every area of human life and how humanity relates to God. There are sections about offerings to God in worship and about the worship and work of priests and mediators between God and the rest of humanity. There are chapters about which animals God’s people can eat and should definitely not eat. There are parts about purity – childbirth, skin diseases, clothing, skin diseases and houses. There are regulations about bodily discharges, sexual practices and, most importantly, about atonement for sin, that is, how a holy God makes provision for forgiveness through animal sacrifice. No one can read the book of Leviticus without realising that God is a holy God and therefore, as human beings, we need to tread carefully in His presence.

The high point of the book of Leviticus is chapter 16. Here God shows Israel how a righteous judge deals with sin so that He can live in relationship with His people. Sin cannot merely be excused. It must be paid for. Aaron, the high priest, takes two goats. One goat is killed and its blood is sprinkled over the mercy seat, the golden covering of the Ark of the Covenant, the box which contained the 10 Commandments. As the blood was sprinkled, sin was “atoned for”. This means that the righteous anger of a holy God, the supreme judge of sin is place not on Israel but on the goat. Theologians calls this “penal substitution” – there is a legal penalty paid by the goat for the sins of the people.

The second goat has hands laid on it by Aaron and the sins of Israel are transferred onto the goat as it is cast out into the wilderness. This goat is the “scapegoat”. Of course, all of this points forward to Jesus. He is both the greater high priest and the two goats all rolled into one. He makes a sacrificial offering of His own life as God both executes His justice upon Jesus in our place and He bears our sin and is therefore cast out of the camp. The writer to the Hebrews has much to say on this subject (see Hebrews 4:14-16, 9:11-14, 10:11-14 & 13:12-13).

Israel’s story does not make for happy reading for most of the Old Testament. She has become the people of God. She is intended to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exodus 19:6). Time and time again she failed to live in the good of what God had provided for her. She was rebellious and disobedient in the desert and spent 40 years more than she needed to in the wilderness. Israel descended into idolatry at Mount Sinai, building a calf idol with the gold they had taken from Egypt and then refused to believe the promises of God when the 12 spies checked out the land flowing with milk and honey. Even when she entered the Promised Land of Canaan, she failed to drive out all the other nations and, consequently, fell into idolatry, copying the worship of the people groups around her. By the time of the book of Judges, Israel got into a vicious circle of sin, idolatry, judgment, repentance, restoration and then sin and so the cycle repeats. Judges like Gideon and Samson look to restore righteousness to the nation but are themselves very imperfect saviours.

The high point of Israel’s history is the reign of King David, “a man after God’s own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14). David’s reign, despite his adultery with Bathsheba, is surely the moment in the whole of the Old Testament when God’s people live in right relationship with Him. However, within a generation Israel has backslidden in idolatry as Solomon marries foreign wives that lead him astray. At the end of Solomon’s reign Israel is judged and divided into two. From there, things go from bad to worse.

The northern kingdom is conquered by the Assyrians in 722BC and Jerusalem, the capital city of Judah, the southern kingdom, is conquered by the Babylonians in 587BC.

Despite this sordid and sorry tale, Scripture is full of prophetic promises. God promises that Israel will have a new covenant, a new heart and a new spirit (see Jeremiah 31:33-34 & Ezekiel 36:22). One of the greatest of these promises comes in Jeremiah 23:5-6:

“For the time is coming,” says the Lord, “when I will raise up a righteous descendant from King David’s line. He will be a King who rules with wisdom. He will do what is just and right throughout the land. 6 And this will be his name: ’The Lord Is Our Righteousness.’ In that day Judah will be saved, and Israel will live in safety.

Jeremiah 23:5-6

Part 3 – God’s Solution: Jesus

The joy of the promised new covenant is not simply that God is righteous or that He calls His people to be righteous. Rather, He promises that He will be our righteousness. Another promise comes in Habakkuk 2:4, a passage that the Apostle Paul quotes in Romans 1:17, “The just / righteous person will live by faith” (Romans 1:17). All of this is, of course, fulfilled in Jesus.

In Christ, the righteousness of God is not a standard to be lived up to. It is an imputed righteousness, a righteousness which is credited to our account on the basis of what Christ has done. For much of the history of the Christian Church this wonderful truth that I am declared righteous because of what Jesus has done and thus the justice / righteousness of God is satisfied was lost. So often the Church has confused the work of justification with the process of sanctification. I am justified / declared righteous by God based on what Christ achieved on the Cross.

“He was wounded for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities” (Isaiah 53:5) and this was the central core of God’s righteousness and justice: -“Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush Him; He has put Him to grief.” (Isaiah 53:10).

Sanctification, the process of me being transformed to become more and more like Jesus is a lifelong work of the Holy Spirit that occurs after I have been justified.

To fully understand the joy of knowing that the Lord is our righteousness, it may be helpful to journey with Martin Luther in his world-changing discovery of justification (made / declared righteous) by faith. Luther had spent the whole of his adult life up until the moment he is describing (he was probably about 35 years old when this happened) believing and living like his salvation was very much dependent on his “good works”. Only when God saw him trying his very hardest and best would God give him grace through which he might become righteous. However, no matter how hard he tried, Luther knew it was not good enough. Hence, he came to understand God first and foremost as judge and God’s righteousness as an unattainable standard. Hence, he was doomed to eternal punishment. The Gospel was not Good News it was actually bad news! It was only when he realised, through reading Romans 1:17, that he was declared righteous / justified on the basis of faith in what Jesus had already done, did he know that he had peace with God. Heaven’s justice and righteousness have been met in Jesus.

I had indeed been captivated with an extraordinary ardour for understanding Paul in the Epistle to the Romans. But up till then it was not the cold blood about the heart, but a single word in Chapter 1:17, “In it the righteousness of God is revealed,” that had stood in my way. For I hated that word “righteousness of God,” which, according to the use and custom of all the teachers, I had been taught to understand philosophically regarding the formal or active righteousness, as they called it, with which God is righteous and punishes the unrighteous sinner. Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction. I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God, and said, “As if, indeed, it is not enough, that miserable sinners, eternally lost through original sin, are crushed by every kind of calamity by the law of the decalogue, without having God add pain to pain by the gospel and also by the gospel threatening us with his righteousness and wrath!” Thus, I raged with a fierce and troubled conscience. Nevertheless, I beat importunately upon Paul at that place, most ardently desiring to know what St. Paul wanted. At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, “In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’” There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which [the] merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.” Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.

Martin Luther writing in 1545 describing his conversion experience 25 years earlier

For Luther, this is the very essence of the Gospel that he had rediscovered. He called this “the great exchange” on the basis of 2 Corinthians: –

“God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God”

2 Corinthians 5:21

Jesus takes our sin and punishment and in exchange we receive His perfect righteousness. The story of Jacob and Esau helps us understand what is happening. Jacob wears the clothes of the son his father loves to receive the blessing of the father. Of course, in Jacob’s case, the whole thing is a trick, a con, made possible because his father is almost blind. For us, there is no trick. Heaven’s justice has been fully meted out on Jesus at the Cross. He willingly bore our sin and shame so we might, in exchange, receive His perfect righteousness.

This sounds almost scandalous to our ears. Paul writes: –

“And to the one who does not work but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness”

Romans 4:5

Ungodly people, people like you and me, are “counted righteous” on the basis of what someone else (Jesus) has done by the judge of the whole universe who executes perfect justice and is completely righteous. But that is, indeed, the scandal of the Gospel. And just as sin dominates the landscape of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation so too does justification by faith. Abraham is counted righteous on the basis of his faith in God long before he was circumcised in obedience to Him. Similarly, we too are declared righteous on the basis of what Jesus has done long before we do anything in obedience to Him. God is righteous and, through Jesus, we get to share in His righteousness.

In conclusion, the righteousness of God, far from something to cause fear in our hearts, is a glorious opportunity for overflowing worship. To restore us to Himself and to make us righteous as He is righteous, God became man. This God-man died a substitutionary death, the death of a redeeming lamb. His righteousness is now our righteousness through faith in His glorious sacrifice.