God is righteous. The scriptures are clear that this is true. But what does it mean?

God is fully and completely righteous.

No human is fully righteous (although we were created good).

There is no point in humans trying to be righteous. It is an impossible goal.

Accordingly, when I studied the gospels, I was not surprised to find that Jesus did not talk much about righteousness. He promised that the Holy Spirit would convict the world about righteousness (John 16:8). He promised that those who were desperate for things to be right would be satisfied (Matt 5:6). But that was about it.


In contrast, before he met Jesus, Paul seemed to have been obsessed with righteousness. To understand his letters, we have to think about the reason for this fixation.

Paul's obsession with righteousness seems to be something that he picked up as a young man while training as a Pharisee. They were concerned about the restoration of Israel. Although the Israelites had returned from exile in Babylon to their land, they were still controlled by the Roman Empire, one of the ugly beasts of Daniel's vision. They yearned for the time when a messiah would come to overthrow the Romans and set Israel free.

The Pharisees believed that the obstacle holding the Messiah back was the unrighteousness of the people. To remove this hindrance, they tried to live as righteously as possible and trained as many people as possible to do the same. (They hated Christians because they perceived them to be unrighteous and therefore holding back the restoration of Israel).

Wrong Use

The Pharisees focussed on personal righteousness. They studied the Torah intently to identify its standards for personal righteousness. They strived to adhere to these standards as much as they could in their personal lives. Unfortunately, this limited their focus, as much of the Torah is guidance for community life, whereas they had to concentrate on the standards that an individual could apply to their own situation.

Using a manual for the wrong purpose is a risky practice. If I look in a limousine manual for instructions about how to operate my kitchen refrigerator, I might get a few hints about how it works, but I will miss most of what I need to know about the operation of my refrigerator. The manual explains how the limousine should be operated. It might have a little bit of information about the limousine's drinks refrigerator, but it will not be a good source of information about household refrigerators.

The problem is not with that manual, but with using the manual in a way that it was not developed for. This was the mistake that Paul and the Pharisees made when they tried to use the Torah as a manual for personal righteousness.

The problem with seeking personal righteousness through the law is that the Torah provides guidance to people in a community/society that allows them to live together in peace without needing to be perfect. The Torah does not define personal righteousness; it is specifically designed to allow unrighteous people to live together in relative harmony.

The Torah does not provide a standard for personal righteousness. If you look for it seriously, you will not find it. I explain this in an article called works righteousness. Most of the virtues taught in the New Testament are not even mentioned in the law. Providing a standard for personal righteousness was not the purpose of the Torah. Until the Holy Spirit was poured out, it would be pointless because it would be setting people up to fail.

Failed Righteousness

Paul believed that he was personally righteous according to the standards of the Torah. When talking about his confidence in the flesh, he claimed,

Circumcised on the eighth day...
in regard to the law, a Pharisee...
as for righteousness based on the law, faultless (Phil 3:5-6).
Paul thought that he had attained his goal, but this was a mistake because Jesus had specifically warned his followers that the righteousness of the Pharisees was not up to scratch.
I say to you that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt 5:20).
Compliance with the best standards of the Pharisees could never be sufficient to make a person righteous. This was a serious warning to people who want to be righteous.


Paul came to understand this problem after his encounter with Jesus. He explains that what he had achieved was,
my own righteousness which is from the law" (Phil 3:9).
He had assumed that he was seeking God's righteousness because he was studying the Torah, but he had actually only found his own standard of righteousness, which is actually self-righteousness, and of no value to God or man.

Paul explained in his letter to the Romans that this was a problem for the Jews too. They thought they were following after righteousness, but,

Being ignorant of God's righteousness
and seeking their own righteousness (Rom 10:3).
They were seeking their own righteousness, rather than trusting in God's righteousness. This was a futile exercise because when you seek your own righteousness, it turns into self-righteousness. They should have been seeking God's righteousness, which is the only true and real righteousness.
In contrast with the Jews, The Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have attained to righteousness, even the righteousness of faith (Rom 9:30).
The Gentiles had not pursued righteousness. That was wise because Paul explains righteousness cannot be achieved by pursuing personal righteousness; it must be received as a gift from God through faith. This was true in the Old Testament, as it was true in the New Testament. The Old Testament sacrifices did not make people righteous. This was never their purpose because that will always be impossible. Instead, the sacrifices provided spiritual protection for those who had trusted in God.

Human Need

Paul talks about righteousness a great deal in his letter to the Romans. He begins the letter by declaring that the righteousness of God has been revealed through Jesus (Rom 1:17). His is the only true righteousness.

Paul explains that the only righteousness that humans can have is "righteousness" that has been credited to them through faith. We cannot get this righteousness by doing what is right. It is given to us as a free gift if we trust in Jesus.

I presume that some of the Roman Christians to whom Paul was writing had been pursuing their own righteousness, as he had done, and needed correction. The Jewish Judger seems to have been very self-righteous because he looked down on the people of the world (Rom 1:18-32). Paul's response in Romans 2:3 pokes a hole in that self-righteousness. He blows the Judger's self-righteousness apart by pointing out that the Judger had committed many of the same sins that he condemned in others (Rom 2:21-24).

Paul goes on to explain that no human is righteous, not one (Rom 3:10). Given that we cannot be righteous, it is pointless for humans to set righteousness as their goal. A better goal would be a good relationship with God. We should aim to do the things that he has created us to do.

Most commentators on Romans still assume that the human problem is our need to attain righteousness. They assume Paul is teaching the Romans how to achieve true righteousness. I believe this assumption gives us a false understanding of Paul's message. It feels like they have not escaped the tangle of the Pharisees.


The Greek word "dikaio" is usually translated as "justify" or "make righteous" in English versions of the New Testament. The way that we translate this word has a significant impact on our understanding of the good news. According to one lectionary, the word can mean "rectify", "set right", "correct", "indicate", or "justify". The core meaning is "to rectify" or "put right".

An important issue for understanding Paul's message is that how things are "rectified" or "put right" depends on what was not right.

The meaning of "rectify" or "put right" depends on what is actually wrong. We cannot just assume that we know what "dikaio" means in a particular context. We must not presume it means "justify" or "make righteous" because that would only be correct if that meaning reflected the nature of what is wrong with us. To understand the solution, we need to know what the original problem was. To understand the meaning of "dikaio", we must get a clear understanding of our core problem.


Translating "dikaio" as "make righteous" implies that our problem is unrighteousness. However, lack of righteousness is not our problem. Righteousness is a characteristic of God, like perfection, that is not attainable by finite humans. I do not understand why anyone would want to be declared righteous, as it would not be true. None of us is righteous. I know that I have done things wrong that I am ashamed of. Anyone wanting to be righteous is seeking to be like God, or perhaps to be their own God.

It is good that I know that I have failed to be perfect, and that I feel ashamed of the really bad things I have done. That is honest humility, which equips me to serve God better and love his people without pretending that I am something that I am not.


Those who translate "dikaio" as "justify" assume that the problem that needs to be put right is our guilt toward God. They assume that our sin has offended God, so he needs to be appeased before he can relate to us. This makes justification a legal issue. They claim that when we put our trust in Jesus, we are justified from sin because God is satisfied with Jesus' death in our place. We are made "not guilty".

The problem with this view is a distorted view of God. It assumes that God is angry with our sin and needs to be appeased. If this were true, being justified would be a benefit. The truth is that God loves us and has forgiven us. We don't need to appease him, and we do not need to be justified or declared "Not guilty" before we can be his friend.

Blessed are those whose transgressions are forgiven,
whose sins are covered.
Blessed is the one
whose sin the Lord will never count against them (Rom 4:7-8).
This is the blessing that those who have chosen to love and serve Jesus live under.

I have no desire to be justified because I know that most of my sinning was not justified; it was just bad. I don't want to be declared "not guilty" by God because I know I am guilty. I am not interested in God making a false declaration to make me feel better about my life.

I don't want to be declared "not guilty" because that would make me over-confident and blasé going forward. I wonder if the reason that many big-name preachers fall into the same sins that they committed in the past is that they have come to believe that they were not guilty and have let their guard down against temptation.

Some commentators claim that being justified means "just as if I'd never sinned". However, I do not want to be treated like that. I do not want God to forget my sins. I want him to remember my weakness and lead me accordingly. I pray to God: "Do not lead me into temptation". He can only do that if he knows my sins and understands how I could be tempted. I want God to remember my failings and consider them as he leads me.

Some teachers claim that God totally forgets all our sins when we put our trust in Jesus. I do not think that is true. I want him to remember my sins and my frailty and lead me gently as he leads me through life.

I was going to say that I do not want my sins to be taken into account, but that is not quite right. I do want God to take my sins into account so that he can lead me into an area of service where I will not fall into the same sin, or at least provide support that will enable me to overcome it.

Guilt and Shame

One of the problems that I do need rectified is my guilt and shame, as they make it hard for me to relate to God. What I really need is for God to declare that he has forgiven me and that I can make a fresh start without my sins being an unnecessary drag on my future.

Shame and guilt have disrupted my relationship with God. I know he loves me and has forgiven my human failings. They don't surprise him. By sending the Holy Spirit to fill me when I sought forgiveness and decided to live according to his will, he confirmed that I am OK. The presence of his Spirit (The Comforter) deals with the problem of my guilt and shame.

Our Big Problem

What I really wanted and needed most is for the spiritual powers of evil to be unable to take my sins into account to justify attacking me. I wanted God to deliver me from the control of the spiritual powers of evil so that they cannot use my sins to hold me down. That is the big problem that I needed rectified (it is my bear trap). I needed things to be put right so that the spiritual powers of evil cannot use my sins against me.

Jesus resolved this big problem for us.

All are put right (dikaio) freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus (Rom 3:24).
Jesus gave redemption to us as a gift. When Adam and Eve obeyed Satan's words and submitted to him, they placed themselves under his authority. He made them slaves so all their descendants would be born under his control. Before a slave can be freed, a redemption fee has to be paid to the slave owner.

Jesus paid that redemption fee to the spiritual powers of evil when he died on the cross. Once this fee was paid, they lost their control over us. We are set free to serve Jesus, so the spiritual powers of evil cannot use our sins against us in an attempt to hold us against our will. That is the big rectification that we all needed.

Slaves need to be redeemed, not justified.


When discussing Abraham and righteousness, Paul quotes from Genesis 15:6 several times.

Abraham trusted God, and it was credited to him as righteousness (Rom 4:3 NIV).
The word translated as "credited" in the NIV and many other English translations is "logizomai. It word is the verb equivalent to the noun "logos", which means "word" or "thought". John's gospel refers to Jesus as the "Logos". According to my dictionary, "logizomai" has a broad range of meanings. In a banking/accounting context, it can mean "credit, account, calculate" but there is no reason to assume a banking context in Romans. The more standard meaning is "think, evaluate, look upon as, consider, class, classify,". It refers to how we think about things. In Paul's love chapter, he uses this word when he says, "love thinks no evil" (1 Cor 13:5).

In Romans 4, Paul uses "logizomai" to refer to how God thought about Abraham. Because he trusted him, God thought of Abraham as righteous. This does not mean he suddenly became righteous, because he was not, and he continued to be unrighteous. God was the one who changed. He changed from seeing Abraham as fickle to perceiving him to be righteous.

In Genesis, Yahweh is the subject of the verb.

Yahweh classified him as righteous (Gen 15:6).
The Hebrew equivalent word means "weave" or "plait", so metaphorically it refers to "thinking about" or "classifying". God is the one who takes the action. He thinks of Abraham as righteous. He classifies him as belonging to the group of people who are righteous. Abraham did not change. It was God's perception and evaluation of him that had changed. The English word "credit" used in many English translations is confusing, as it makes it seem like something was taken from someone else's bank account and put into Abraham's account. It sounds like Abraham now has some credit, but that was not true. Abraham was still a sinner, and his account was still empty.

Likewise, the word "count" used in many English translations is confusing. This word makes it sound like faith and righteousness are mathematical equivalents, ie faith = righteousness. This is not true. The person of faith is not given some righteousness equivalent to their faith. Rather God looks upon the person of faith and changes his assessment of them. He shifts them into the "righteous" category. This is not a bringing forward of the final judgment as some commentators suggest. Rather it describes God's assessment of the person now.

Older translations used the word "impute". Apart from statistics, where the record of a representative respondent to a survey is assigned to a non-respondent to avoid non-response bias, this word has become obsolete in modern usage. The problem with using it in a New Testament context is that it makes righteousness seem to be something that is taken from someone else (possibly Jesus) and given to Abraham, or the person of faith. This is misleading, although it was used in this way by several of the Reformers to describe how salvation worked. The word "logizomai" is never used in the New Testament to describe something being taken from someone and given to another.

The righteousness that Abraham gets is not passed to him from someone else. Rather, it describes how God assesses him. Righteousness is not a banner or substance that can be transferred from one person to another. It is a status that a suitable assessor can give to a person. God is the only person in the universe who is truly righteous, so he is the only one who can assess a human to be righteous. He is the only one who understands every person's true character, so he is the only one who knows enough to judge that a person is righteous.

In my dictionary, the basic meaning of "logizomai" is "think, consider, look upon, classify, class". When God looked at Abraham or thought about him, he considered him to be righteous. He classed him with other righteous people. Paul said that Abraham was classified as righteous. This did not change his character. It did not mean that he had not sinned. Rather, God changed the way that he thought about Abraham.

Just or Right

Paul explains that Abraham's righteousness came through faith. He explains that people who trust in Jesus are put right through faith. The Greek verb is "dikaio". This is a tricky word to translate into English because the equivalent adjective (dikaios) can be translated with two disconnected words: "just" or "right". The related English nouns are "justice" and "righteousness".

"Justify" is the English verb related to the English adjective "just". The problem is that there is no English verb equivalent to the adjective "right". The consequence is that the Greek verb "dikaio" is often translated as "justify" because it is the only English word available. This gives a judicial flavour to Romans that probably should not be there.

The forensic/judicial model of righteousness does not work because it functions the wrong way around. I am accused of committing sin. I do not need to be acquitted. I do not need God to declare that I am "Not guilty". That would only work if I was innocent, but I am not. Other people know that I am not. Even the spiritual powers of evil know that I am not innocent. What I need is for God to say that it does not matter. I need things to be put right so the spiritual powers of evil cannot attack me.

My acquittal would not be justice. On the other hand, if a person is accused of things that they did not do, they need an honest judge who will investigate fairly to prove their innocence and acquit them. If a judge says, "not guilty" to an innocent person, that would be true. Unfortunately, this is not the case for any human except Jesus. Our problem is the opposite. We are guilty. If we were acquitted, it would be dishonest. We need a solution that deals with our guilt, not one that proves our innocence.

The court theme only occurs in Romans 2 when Paul disagrees with the Jewish Judger. He declares that he is storing up wrath for himself on the day of the final, "just" judgment of God (Rom 2:5,16). The sins of those who sin under the law will be judged by the law (Rom 2:12). Paul used justice words when challenging him because he is talking about the final judgment. In this context, "dikaio" does mean justify (Rom 2:13). Elsewhere, it usually means to "be put right".

Put Right by Faith

The basic meaning of 'dikaio" is to be "put right" or to be "rectified." Paul's message to the Romans is that those who trust in Jesus are "put right" by faith.

All are freely put right by His grace through the ransom that is in Christ Jesus (Rom 3:24).
By dying on the cross, Jesus paid the ransom that set us free from the domination of the spiritual powers of evil. That put us right. It rectified our situation.
We consider (logizomai) that a person is put right by faith apart from the works of the Torah (Rom 3:28).
Jesus did for people who trust in him what the Torah was not intended to do. It was never intended to be a complete solution to the problem of sin.
Since we have been put right through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ (Rom 5:1).
Because Jesus' death rectified our situation, our guilt and shame no longer force us to draw away from God.
Having been declared right now in his blood, we shall be rescued through him from the spirit of Wrath (Rom 5:9).
By shedding his blood on the cross, Jesus rescued us from the control of the spirit called Wrath and his mates.
Those whom He called, he also put right (Rom 8:30).
Jesus called us, so he put our situation right in every way.

Paul wrote a similar message to the Galatian Christians because Jews were trying to get them to comply with the ethnic markers of the law by eating separately.

We have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be put right by faith in the Messiah and not by the works of the law because, by the works of the law, no one will be put right (Gal 2:16).
This was God's plan all along.
Scripture foresaw that God would put right the Gentiles by faith and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: "All nations will be blessed through you" (Gal 3:8).
The purpose of the law was to provide protection until the Messiah came.
The law was our guardian/escort until Christ came that we might be put right by trusting (Gal 3:24).


Abraham was not a righteous man. He never became righteous. Throughout his life, he lied about his wife to avoid the threats of powerful kings. This got him into trouble on a couple of occasions. Most Jewish teachers believed that God had called Abraham because he was a righteous man. Paul explained that was not true. Abraham was not righteous. He could not be righteous because only God is truly righteous. However, election does not require righteousness.

Abraham did not need to be righteous for God to choose him to be the father of his chosen nation. Calling does not require righteousness because election does not depend on character (Rom 9:11) but on the will of God. God promised that Abraham and his descendants would be the heir of the world (Rom 4:13). Abraham responded to God's calling by faithfully obeying his leading.

We first hear of Abraham when God came to him and told him to leave Haran and move to a country that God would show him. God told him that he would become a great nation and that he would bring blessing to the nations of the world.

So Abram went, as Yahweh had spoken to him (Rom 12:4).
Abraham trusted God and moved to Canaan, a massively risky journey into the unknown. God responded to Abraham's trust and faithfulness by declaring him to be right with him. Abraham was put right by trusting in God. Once Abram was in Canaan, God spoke to him again and promised that he would father a great nation. When Abram pointed out that he was childless, God told him to look at the stars in the sky and attempt to count them. He said his offspring would be as many as the stars. Genesis records that Abram trusted God.
Abram believed Yahweh, and he classified him as righteous (Gen 15:6).
God responded by solemnising a formal covenant with Abram (Gen 15:18). The main risk to Abraham's destiny came from the spiritual powers of evil. It seems that when he was in Haran, they deemed him to be insignificant, so they ignored him. Even when he first arrived in Canaan, they did not understand his role, so they left him to his own devices. However, once his household and wealth grew, they realised something was up and tried to attack him.

God had declared Abraham to be right with him, so it was difficult for them to get at him. They attacked Lot as a means to get at Abraham. They deceived him into having a son with his wife's servant Hagar. They got him into trouble with Abimelech and sent a famine to destroy him, but God protected them from all these troubles. The birth of Isaac was proof that his situation had been rectified, as it allowed Abraham to fulfil his calling.

God thought about Abraham as if he was righteous. The spiritual powers of evil were unable to destroy him because God was able to rescue him and his family from their power.

Faithfulness was all that God required of Abraham. He did not need anything more. He didn't need a sacrifice. God did not need Abraham to fully obey him. Hid did not need Jesus' death. All that he needed was faith. That was enough to put him right with God.

Abraham probably did not care that much about righteousness. He just wanted to survive his adventure into a new land. He wanted to keep his family safe from his dangerous neighbours. However, without Abraham knowing it, God's decision to consider him righteous was hugely important, because it prevented the spiritual powers of evil from attacking him. Once God declared that he was righteous, they could no longer use his sins to hold power over him. The declaration that Abraham was righteous in God's eyes was a huge defeat for the spiritual powers of evil, because they lost their authority over him, as it was based on his being a sinner. God's decision destroyed their power over Abraham.

The same is true for us. God did not declare us righteous so we would feel good. He did it so that the spiritual powers of evil would lose their rights over us. Because God has declared that those who are called by Jesus are righteous, they have lost their right to attack us.

Righteousness (diakaiosune)

Paul uses the noun "dikaiosune", which means "righteousness", in three main ways in his letter to the Romans. In the first part of the letter (1-3), he refers to the "righteousness of God". In chapter 4, he explains how God considered Abraham's faith to be "righteousness". In chapter 6, he explains that we are now "servants of righteousness".

1. Righteousness of God
Only God is righteous. Paul explains that the gospel is revealing his righteousness to the world (Rom 1:17; 3:21). He proved his righteousness by passing over sins that had been previously committed (Rom 3:26). God is the only being who has righteousness at the heart of his character.

2. Abraham and Righteousness
Paul makes his greatest use of the word "righteousness" when writing about Abraham, so we need to understand what he meant. His core message was, Faith was assessed to Abraham into righteousness (Rom 4:9). Most English translations say "for righteousness," whereas the Greek text uses the preposition "eis", which means "into" (also Rom 4:3,5 22).

The preposition "for" makes it seem like faith is swapped "for righteousness", but it was not a swap of one for another. Rather it was a change in God's assessment of Abraham. The different preposition was used to indicate that God had re-classified him from 'unrighteousness "into righteousness".

3. Serving Righteousness In Romans 6, Paul explains the changed position of those who trust in Jesus. Prior to the coming of Jesus, powerful cosmos controllers called Sin and Death ruled the world. Prior to trusting in Jesus, the Christians were slaves to Sin (unrighteousness) and Death. Paul explained that people are the servants/slaves of anyone they commit to obeying, whether Sin or Righteousness

You are slaves of the one you obey (Rom 6:16).
This was Adam's problem. He chose to submit to the tempter in the Garden of Eden. When he obeyed Satan, he became a slave of Satan. The spiritual powers of evil gained dominion over everything that had been given to Adam and Eve. A child of a slave is born as a slave, so all the descendants of Adam and Eve are born into the same slavery to the spiritual powers of evil. In Romans 6, Paul spells the problem out clearly, along with the solution.



The problem is that we are dominated and controlled by the spiritual powers of evil. Jesus' death on the cross destroyed their power and set us free. Paul says that we have been liberated to be slaves of righteousness (Rom 6:18). Of course, we do not become slaves of a concept like righteousness. In this context, righteousness is just a name of God. Paul uses the word "righteousness" to refer to God. We choose to be slaves/servants of God.