Have you ever heard someone speak of another person with admiration by saying, “They live, right?” What do you think they mean? Possibly, this is a highly moral individual. Being righteous literally means to be right in God’s eyes, especially morally and ethically. Religious people often talk about being righteous. In their view, the righteous person not only does the right thing for other people but also follows the laws of their religion. Heroes like Martin Luther King, are often called righteous. On the other hand, this word can be a little negative. If you call someone self-righteous, it means they’re a little too sure that they are mostly right, and others are frequently wrong.
The dictionary defines righteousness as being morally justified, a person characterized by or proceeding from accepted standards of morality or justice. They are very concerned with principles of right and wrong or conforming to standards of behavior and character based on those principles used especially of what is legally or ethically right or proper or fitting. To everyone around them, they are perceived as a highly honorable, admirable man or woman. But any such virtuous characteristics must have a standard by which they are measured.
These standards can either be man-inspired or God-inspired. As far as society is concerned, being righteous constitutes being in a right relationship with others. This describes a person who is highly ethical in their thinking and deeds. American author, ethicist, and professor Rushworth Kidder states that “standard definitions of ethics have typically included such phrases as ‘the science of the ideal human character’ or ‘the science of moral duty.”
Richard William Paul, who heads the National Council for Excellence in the Method of Critical Thinking, and Linda Elder, educational psychologist and president of the Foundation dedicated to Critical Thinking, authors of “Critical Thinking: Basic Theory & Instructional Structures” define ethics as “a set of concepts and principles that guide us in determining what behavior helps or harms sensitive creatures.” The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy states that the word “ethics” is “commonly used interchangeably with ‘morality’… and sometimes it is used more narrowly to mean the moral principles of a particular tradition, group, or individual.”
But a fuller understanding of righteousness comes from the holy book – the Bible. Kenneth Copeland writes that righteousness is not a “goody-goody” way of acting or something that can be attained. The word translated righteousness literally means “in right-standing.” We have been put in right-standing with God through the work of Jesus on Calvary. When a person accepts Jesus, he or she is moved into a position of new birth and enters into the kingdom of God as God’s very own child and a joint-heir with Jesus Christ. And it is critical that Christians begin to see themselves as righteous – because there is power in their knowing the truth about righteousness.
But righteousness has two inseparable components: what Christ did for us at the cross, and what He does in us each day. Topher Haddox, contributing writer to Crosswalk Magazine, says that righteousness is the visible characteristics of God the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit in one’s life. Haddox used to think righteous living had more to do with behavioral modification than heart transformation. The outward appearance of holiness was what mattered to him, rather than Spirit-filled changes. He thought that if he tried to stop cussing as much and stop watching rated R movies, then that meant he was living righteously.
But the more he read the Bible, while those are good and righteous works, the more he learned that he had it backward. Righteousness actually produces those works, not the other way around. Even when our good deeds seem to be performed from the purest of motives, unless that motivation is to glorify Jesus who gave us our righteousness, those deeds are completely self-righteous and sinful. For instance, modifying one’s behavior to stop using vulgar language is 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.
There is a lot more to say about how righteousness as defined and dictated in the Scriptures. For instance, for the Psalmist, “Blessed are they who observe justice, who do righteousness at all times!” (Psa. 106:3). And the prophet Isaiah proclaims, “Those who are honest and fair, who refuse to profit by fraud, who stay far away from bribes who refuse to listen to those who plot murder, who shut their eyes to all enticement to do wrong—these are the ones who will dwell on high. The rocks of the mountains will be their fortress. Food will be supplied to them, and they will have water in abundance. Your eyes will see the king in all His splendor, and you will see a land that stretches into the distance.” (Isa. 33:15-17).
But the words of Jesus put a capstone on all such discussions. It was our Lord who said to His followers back then and those who follow Him now, that unless we do far better than the ethics professors and teachers of morality in matters of what they consider right living, you will know nothing about being part of the kingdom of God. (Matthew 5:20) – Dr. Robert R Seyda