God is portrayed and described as a righteous God/judge in the Bible. This righteous God not only rules and reigns in righteousness but he also calls his children to walk in righteousness. Even though he extends his mercy to sinful man, continuing in sin eventually attracts God’s judgment as was the case of Sodom and Gomorrah, Noah’s flood, etc.
The word righteous is derived from the root word right. To be righteous therefore means to be in the right standing with God. However, there are two definitions of righteousness in the Bible – legalistic righteous (Old Testament) and Righteousness by faith (New Testament).
Let us take a closer look at the two types of righteousness in more detail below.
As the name may suggest, legalistic righteousness is based on the law of God. Before God took Israel into Canaan, he established the Mosaic covenant where he gave the law that was to be followed. The 10 commandments provide the foundation of the law of Moses but there are over 600 regulations that are listened to in the Pentateuch (the first 5 books of the Bible which were written by Moses). Legalistic righteousness was therefore attained by keeping the over 600 laws which were divided into three categories namely;
- Moral laws – these laws touch on God’s holy and immutable character. The 10 commandments are often referred to as the moral laws.
- Civil laws – these regulations provided a framework for the day-to-day life of the Hebrews. The laws touched on subjects like sexual conduct, marriage, property rights, etc. They also prescribed penalties for those found in violation of the statutes.
- Ceremonial laws – these laws described how Israel was to worship God. The regulations provided a framework for performing rituals, observing festivals, and offering sacrifices
As you can imagine, keeping all these laws was anything but easy mostly because it was almost impossible to memorize over 600 laws. This is why it was very hard to attain legalistic righteousness. In fact, there are numerous scriptures that outrightly say that it was impossible for anyone to be (legalistically) righteous.
Every one of them has turned aside; They have together become corrupt; There is none who does good, No, not one. Psalms 53:3
For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; Romans 3:23
The law of Moses was an outward that did not leave a meaningful inward impact. However, God spoke through his prophets that he would give them a different kind of law – one that was written on the tablets of the heart as opposed to tablets of stone (Jeremiah 31:33, Hebrews 10:16).
The Righteousness of Faith
The righteousness of faith is a contrast to the righteousness of the law in that it is not based on observing the rules and regulations that were given by Moses. On the contrary, this righteousness comes by faith. The righteousness of faith is what the new covenant (or New Testament) is founded on. However, it began during Abraham’s time long before the Mosaic covenant. Scripture records that Abraham believed and as a result, he was pronounced righteous.
Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness. Genesis 15:6
This righteousness is transformative because it stems from having faith in Jesus Christ and in the transformative power of the Holy Spirit. It is not based on good works but on faith alone. This is why the salvation that was brought by Jesus cannot be earned through being good or by good deeds – it is only attained by faith.
An illustration of this is given in Mark 10 when a rich young ruler came to Jesus asking what he needed to do to access the kingdom of God. Because the young ruler had addressed Jesus as good, Jesus starts by pointing out that no one is good except God alone. This was a way of stressing the fact that legalistic righteousness was impossible to attain. Jesus then went ahead and advised the young ruler to go and keep the commandments to which the young ruler happily responded that he had kept them all. As a way of showing him that he was not perfect, Jesus drew his attention to one thing that was lacking – for him to sell all his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor.
This story gives a good comparison between legalistic righteousness and righteousness that comes through faith. The young ruler was trying his best to reach God by being good according to the standards of the Mosaic law. Jesus however revealed to the young ruler that there was a new standard under the covenant of grace – a standard of walking by faith and not by sight, so to speak.
The impossible standard
James points out the impossible standard of the Mosaic covenant when he says that anyone who brakes one law has in effect broken all the other laws.
For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. James 2:10
This is important as it affirms the importance of the covenant of Grace. The law of Moses was given to prove how no one can reach God through human effort. This was in preparation for the covenant of grace through which we attain the righteousness of God by faith.
For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. Romans 8:3-4
God is righteous and as such, he is calling us into righteousness. However, it is not possible to attain legalistic righteousness and that is why Jesus said our righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees (who were committed to the observance of the law of Moses). This is why Jesus came and died on the cross. In the words of scripture, God made his son who did not know sin to become sin on the cross so that we who were lost in unrighteousness might finally be made the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21).