Character Traits of the Spiritual Life: Righteousness

Character Traits of the Spiritual Life:


Richard Hollerman

Are you righteous—truly righteous?  Are you righteous not only outwardly in your external behavior, but also in your heart and soul—the inward part of you?  Jesus Christ spoke of the judgment scene, with the saved on His right hand and the lost on His left.  He describes the great parting of the ways after the judgment itself: “These [on the left] will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matthew 25:46).  Only the “righteous” will receive eternal life in God’s eternal kingdom (v. 34).  Will you be among the righteous?

What is righteousness?  The Greek dikaiosune means “the character or quality of being right or just.”[i][i]  It means “righteousness, uprightness, equity.”[ii][ii]  Richards says that dikaiosune means righteousness, uprightness; dikaios means just, upright, righteousness; and the verb dikaioo means “to pronounce or to treat a person as righteous,” “to acquit,” or “to vindicate.”[iii][iii]

God has absolute righteousness and He becomes the perfect standard of this quality.  This is true in the Old Testament, where God is called “the righteous God” (Psalm 7:9; Isaiah 45:21), and in the New Testament where God is “righteous” (John 17:25; 1 John 1:9; Revelation 16:5) and will judge in righteousness (Acts 17:31; Romans 2:5; 2 Thessalonians 1:5).  The Lord Jesus is also the standard of righteousness for He is called “Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 John 2:1; cf. v. 29; Acts 3:14; 7:52) and “the righteous Judge” (2 Timothy 4:8).  Because God is righteous and the basis of righteousness, His Word also is righteous for it partakes of His own righteousness.  His judgments “are righteous altogether” (Psalm 19:9).  The psalmist affirmed, “The sum of Your word is truth, and every one of Your righteous ordinances is everlasting” (119:160).

Since God is righteous and Christ Jesus is also righteous, we are required to be righteous in our own character.  In fact, it is essential that we seek personal righteousness and live a righteous life.  Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Matthew 5:6).  He went on to say, “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (v. 10).  The righteous Lord expressed this well when he declared, “Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you” (6:33).  God classifies people as either “righteous” or “unrighteous” (5:45).  John the baptizer was called “a righteous and holy man” (Mark 6:20).   Zacharias and Elizabeth were called “righteous in the sight of God” (Luke 1:6).  It is utterly important that God pronounces us righteous or upright in our character for only the righteous will receive eternal life and the kingdom of God (Matthew 25:34, 46).  Significantly, the “fine linen” that the redeemed ones wear in heaven are “the righteous acts of the saints” (Revelation 19:8b).

True righteousness is a foreign concept to most people.  If God were to look into our heart and spirit, what would He find?  When we are saved from sin, we forsake unrighteousness and walk in righteousness.  Whereas we once lived for sin, now we “live to righteousness” (1 Peter 2:24). We become “slaves to righteousness” (Romans 6:19) and present the members of our body as “instruments of righteousness” (v. 13).  We become slaves of “obedience resulting in righteousness” (v. 16).  This is a personal righteousness that is rooted in a renewed heart.

In the first century, many Jewish leaders became obsessed with outward minutia of the Law of Moses and focused on a superficial legal righteousness.  Jesus exposed these externalists, saying that their righteousness only pertained to outward rituals and actions, without a corresponding heart righteousness.  They practiced their “righteousness before men to be noticed by them,” and this included their giving alms, their prayers, and their fasting (Matthew 6:1; cf. vv. 2-18).  Christ Jesus showed the contrast between His inner spiritual righteousness and the Pharisaical external righteousness: “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (5:20).

Although the common Jew looked on the scribes and Pharisees as the ultimate in human righteousness, Jesus showed the superficiality of their supposed “righteousness”: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others.  You blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel” (Matthew 23:23). They were concerned about the “outside” rather than the “inside” (vv. 25-28).  The Pharisaic form of “righteousness” must be forsaken for Christ said, “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32).  Those who have self-righteousness must renounce that self-sufficient attitude and submit to the righteousness of God.

Later Paul spoke about this outer righteousness (a self-righteousness) that overlooked the inner righteousness: “Not knowing about God’s righteousness and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God” (Romans 10:3).  The law could not provide the righteousness that God demanded: “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (v. 4).

A different kind of righteousness was needed.  Paul points out that in the absolute sense, no one can qualify as being righteous or sinless, for “there is none righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:10).  The best of us continue to fail the Lord and fall short of His righteousness.  Even the heart-righteousness of the sincere follower of Jesus isn’t perfect and sinless.  Although the faithful Christian does not live in known, willful and deliberate sin (1 John 1:8-10; 2:1-2; 3:4-10; Hebrews 10:26-31).  The “gospel” or good news of God reveals a different kind of righteousness, one that He provides on a different basis than personal righteousness.

Paul explains, “By the works of the Law no flesh will be justified [pronounced righteous] in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20).  To “justify” means to “declare righteous,” to “count as righteous,” or “deem to be right.”[iv][iv] We cannot be “declared righteous” through the works of the Law of Moses.  We might add that we cannot be declared perfectly righteous through any system of law, including the moral Law of God or the Law of Christ (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:21; Galatians 6:2).  Paul writes, “[The gospel] is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.  For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘But the righteous man shall live by faith’” (Romans 1:16-17).  This is not a “Law” righteousness but a “faith” righteousness, for Paul says, “Now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe” (vv. 21-22).  Therefore, we might call this a “faith righteousness” rather than a “law righteousness.”

How can this be?  Since we were unrighteous (in the absolute sense), we could not save ourselves based on a righteousness we did not have.  We had all sinned (Romans 3:23).  But God gave His Son, Jesus Christ, to be a perfect, sinless, righteous offering or sacrifice for our sin.  It was through “one act of righteousness”—Christ’s death on the cross for our sins—that “there resulted justification [a declaration of righteousness] of life to all men” (Romans 5:18).  The good news is that we are “justified [declared righteous] as a gift by His [God’s] grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus” which was Christ’s propitiatory sacrifice for our sins (Romans 3:24-25).  Paul goes on to say that when we believe in God, in Christ, and in Christ’s redemptive death, God pronounces us as “righteous.”  He “imputes” or “counts” us as righteous, based not on our perfect performance but on Christ’s redemptive, sacrificial death!  Thus, we are “justified by faith” (Romans 5:1; cf. chapter 4; cf. Galatians 2:16; 3:8).  I do not have “a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith” (Philippians 3:9).

We have seen that none of us is perfectly righteous or sinless (Romans 3:10, 23).  We have also seen that it is vain to claim righteousness based on external conformity to the Law, for a different and greater righteousness is needed (Matthew 5:20).  What is needed is an inward, spiritual, heart righteousness that is concerned about giving to God a cleansed and purified heart that sincerely seeks to obey Christ Jesus and His righteous commands (Matthew 6:33; cf. Romans 8:4).  This is so important that we must have this heart righteousness to be saved (Matthew 25:46).  But God looks for a faith in Him and also in Christ Jesus who suffered for us on the cross and rose again, who was “delivered over because of our transgressions, and was raised because of our justification” (Romans 4:25).  Therefore, it can be said that we are “justified [declared righteous] by His [Christ’s] blood” (Romans 5:9), and “justified by His [God’s] grace” (Titus 3:7).  Let us be righteous people, through faith in Christ, and demonstrates this faith by living a righteous and holy life!


[i][i] W. E. Vine, Expository Dictionary.

[ii][ii] Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich, Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament.

[iii][iii] Expository Dictionary, pp. 534, 535.

[iv][iv] W. E. Vine, Expository Dictionary.

Character Traits of the Spiritual Life:



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