Spiritual Growth and Christian Living Resources

What Does it Mean to be Righteous?

  • Topher Haddox Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
  • Updated Jan 16, 2024
What Does it Mean to be Righteous?

When most people think about the word righteous, it often accompanies an image of a surfer-guy describing a big wave. Thankfully that usage of the word rightous has come and gone, but how does the Bible use the word? Righteousness can sometimes get buried in the collection of church words we throw around, so I’d like to make an attempt to clear the air about what it means to be righteous.

What is righteousness and what does it mean to be righteous?

Righteousness is the perfect holiness of Christ. It is an essential attribute to the character of God; quite literally meaning “One who is right”. Think of it as the polar opposite of sin. To commit sin is to go against God’s design for our lives, therefore righteousness is the only living standard that is acceptable for us to stand before the Father. The wages of sin is death, but in the path of righteousness is life, and in its pathway there is no death. (Proverbs 12:28)

I used to think righteous living had more to do with behavioral modification than heart transformation. Outward appearance of holiness was what mattered to me, rather than Spirit-filled change. I thought that if I tried to stop cussing as much and stop watching rated R movies, then that meant I was living righteously.

While those are good and righteous works, the more I read the Bible, the more I learned that I had it backwards. Righteousness actually produces those works, not the other way around.

What does the Bible say about us and righteousness?

All of us are born into complete bondage to sin, unable to produce any sort of righteousness on our own (Romans 3:9-12). As a matter of fact, Isaiah says that our attempts to produce righteousness on our own are disgusting in the eyes of God. We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. (Isaiah 64:6)

Even when our good deeds seems to be performed from the purest of motives, unless that motivation is to glorify the name of Jesus, those deeds are completely self-righteous and sinful.  For instance, modifying my behavior to stop using certain language was actually a self-righteous act because the real motivation wasn’t out of conviction from the Holy Spirit, but to simply appear more holy to others.

Over time, I realized that I needed to repent and lay all of this at the feet of Jesus. I am completely incapable of changing my own heart. Only He can do that. When we stop trying to produce righteousness and begin to simply trust in the Holy Spirit to change our hearts, He will make us righteous.

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9)

Where does my righteousness come from?

The Bible clearly defines righteousness as something His people should pursue (2 Tim 2:22), yet we are unable to produce it. So where do we get it? Our righteousness is imputed from Jesus through the atoning work that He accomplished on the cross (Philippians 1:11) We couldn’t produce it, Christ produced it for us.

For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21)

Only the perfection of Christ could have accomplished this work. Only Jesus could have lived a perfect, obedient, and sinless life. Only Jesus could have atoned for the sins of His people. Only the righteousness of Christ will enter His Kingdom (Matthew 5:20)

The purpose of the Old Testament Law

In the church today, the Old Testament law often gets a bad rap. Early in my Christian walk, I just sort of wrote the Law off as something a much angrier God handed out—as opposed to the grace given by the much happier and merciful God of today. Let’s pardon the terrible theology of my younger self, and unpack the law and what it has to do with being righteous.

When God delivered His people out of Egypt, Through Moses, He gave them a set of laws called the Torah; also known as the first 5 books of the Old Testament. The purpose of this was to teach the Israelites how live righteously through obedience. It was to teach them how to live like Him.  And it will be righteousness for us, if we are careful to do all this commandment before the Lord our God, as he has commanded us.’ (Deuteronomy 6:25)

The Torah is the story of God delivering, restoring, and establishing a covenant with His people. However, because of their hardened hearts of stone, they constantly rebelled against God’s law. The prophet Ezekiel says that one day God would give them a new heart in order to obey His law. And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in my statutes and keep my rules and obey them. (Ezekiel 11:19)

In order for them to obey the law and produce righteousness, they needed a new heart to replace their hearts of stone. They needed a heart that would desire God and delight in His law, rather than continue in wickedness.

Since they were incapable (as we are) of changing their own hearts, how would God provide a way for their hearts to be changed?

Enter Jesus.

For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. (Romans 10:4)

The purpose of the New Testament Cross

When God sees His people, He doesn’t see our sin. Instead, He sees us clothed in the righteousness of Christ. He sees us instantly and completely justified through that righteousness.

I will greatly rejoice in the Lord; my soul shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. (Isaiah 61:10)

This was the purpose of the cross. Out of love and mercy, Christ came to fulfill the law for us. He fulfilled the story of the Torah for His people. We were unable to obey the law and live in righteousness, so Christ came and lived in perfection in our place. He took our disobedience, nailed it to the cross, and gave us His righteousness.

He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. (1 Peter 2:24)

This is the good news of the Gospel of Jesus. We don’t have to work and try and produce our own righteousness, Christ has robed us in His. His entire Earthly mission was to reconcile the church, making her in righteous standing with God.

He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:5-7)

How do I pursue righteousness?

So we’ve covered what righteousness is, and how we get it. Let’s finish with how we pursue it. In 2 Timothy 2:22, when Paul talks about turning from our lustful desires and pursuing righteousness, he doesn’t mean trying to earn or achieve it. He means pursuing God’s character, because it is the desire of our new nature become more Christlike.

To pursue righteousness means to turn away from your natural, sinful desires, and turn to Christ and His perfect and righteous ways. Through obedience to this command, God is preparing us for eternal life with Him—aligning us with our righteousness through Christ.

We can rest in the fact that God sovereignly works everything for the good of His people, including restoring us through the righteousness of His Son. Our righteousness began in Christ and is completed in Christ. Follow Him and pursue it daily.

He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake. (Psalm 23:3)

Photo credit: Unsplash-christopher-campbell

Topher Lee Haddox is a caffeine-addicted husband, daddy, and drummer. Born and raised in Louisiana, Topher enjoys the great outdoors and his fascination with hiking. He can usually be found swinging in his hammock, coffee in hand, or pecking away at his next article. He has a deeply ingrained passion for worship and feeding others the Word of God. His work appears regularly on Crosswalk. Visit his blog at https://topherhaddox.wordpress.com

This article is part of our larger resource library of Christian questions important to the Christian faith. From core beliefs to what the Bible says about angels, we want to provide easy to read and understand articles that answer your questions about Christian living.

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