What does the Bible mean by the word righteous? How does someone become righteous, and is sacrificing to become righteous worth it?
Bible believers recognize that God is righteous and wants people to be righteous. But what does that mean?
Righteousness is defined as “purity of heart and rectitude of life; the being and doing right; conformity in character and conduct to a right standard” (The Century Dictionary).
Merriam-Webster.com says it is “acting in accord with divine or moral law: free from guilt or sin.”
We all agree our world would be a better place if there were more righteous people.
But not everyone has the same understanding of what constitutes purity of heart or what moral law is. So, let’s look at how the Bible defines a righteous person.
For a sinful human being to become righteous involves more than beginning to keep God’s 10 Commandments. In Galatians 3:6 Paul gives a historical example that shows why God considered Abraham righteous: “Just as Abraham ‘believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.’”
Abraham’s story: how he was counted righteous
We see in Genesis 12:1-3 that God requested Abram (whose name was later changed to Abraham) to relocate from his home in Haran (Genesis 11:27-31). He was to move far away from his relatives and everything with which he was familiar to begin a new life in Canaan. God promised that if he would do this, he would be the recipient of amazing promises and the founder of a new nation.
Though he may have been a fine man overall, nothing Abram could have done up to this point would have qualified him to be worthy of receiving such profound and extraordinary promises. By His grace, God chose Abram above all other men to receive this special covenant offer.
Responding to God’s call would be no minor adjustment for Abram. It seems he was from a well-established, successful family within the Chaldean community. He was being asked to give up the secure life he had and, in faith, trust that God would be true to His word.
It might be like being told to leave a very successful business in New York City, as well as many family members and friends, in order to move to Guyana where, you are told, things will go well for you—even though you have never been to Guyana and are not sure what awaits you.
Abram would not have decided to do this without faith in the God who made the request.
Genesis 12:4 tell us, “So Abram departed as the LORD had spoken to him.”
In faith, Abraham embarked on a new life that would be directed by the will of God. He would strive to no longer be guided by his own self-determination but instead submit to the plan God had for him.
Once he believed God from his heart and demonstrated his submission to God’s will by his actions, God considered him a righteous individual. This was because of his living faith, demonstrated by his obedience to God’s law (Genesis 26:5).
The righteousness of faith
This is the righteousness of faith spoken of in the New Testament. In Philippians 3:8-9 Paul explained his desire to “gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith.”
A person cannot become fully righteous simply by determining he or she is going to obey God’s law. We don’t keep it flawlessly, and even if we could, that would not wipe out our past sins. Only God can forgive our sins and provide us help to obey the law. That’s why our faith must be in God.
Peter declared in Acts 2:38, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
To repent means to turn around and go in a different direction. True repentance is yielding oneself to God’s will. As the apostle Paul put it, our life is no longer our own. We now live according to the faith that comes through God’s Holy Spirit (Galatians 2:20).
Once a person responds to the call of God (1 Corinthians 1:26), repents of going contrary to God’s will, accepts Jesus Christ’s sacrifice to pay the penalty for past sins and lays down his or her life in baptism and obeys God’s laws, that person is considered righteous in God’s eyes.
Sadly, the elements of repentance and obedience to God’s law are often downplayed or ignored by religious people. Some believe that since Christ brought grace and truth (John 1:17), then the law of God has been abolished or done away.
This is a serious misunderstanding of God’s will and how godly righteousness is produced.
The role of the law of God
When we turn our life around—when we repent—we must repent of something. Clearly, a person God calls must repent of sinning. That is why the law of God is so important.
The apostle Paul stated that “by the law is the knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20). He said he would not know what sin was if the law didn’t define it for him (Romans 7:7). As John wrote, “Sin is the transgression of the law” (1 John 3:4, King James Version).
The spiritual law of God, based on the 10 Commandments, is what helps us know right from wrong, or righteousness from unrighteousness. That is why Paul said the law was holy, just and good (Romans 7:12), as well as being spiritual (verse 14).
The law defines what is and isn’t God’s will for us.
How to walk in righteousness
Thus, once a person has responded to the call of God and has been made righteous, that individual must now strive to walk in righteousness, which is defined by the law of God (Psalm 119:172).
This is why Jesus stated, “If you want to enter into life, keep the commandments” (Matthew 19:17). Jesus knew that a declaration of faith by itself—without repentance and a commitment to obedience—would not result in the gift of eternal life.
One test of true conversion is to determine if we are yielding to the rule of God in our lives through His law, or if we still have the natural enmity against the law of God in our mind (Romans 8:7).Abraham understood this principle as well. Even though he was justified by faith, he walked in God’s law. God said, “Abraham obeyed My voice and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws” (Genesis 26:5).
Jesus lived a sinless life as our example. He always obeyed God’s law. We are going to fall short of this perfection, but a converted person who has the faith of Christ will strive to allow Christ to live in him or her (Galatians 2:20) and obey the spiritual law of God (1 John 2:4, 6).
We can’t truly love God if we don’t obey Him (1 John 5:3).
Our Savior’s sacrifice opened the way to righteousness
Christ is the Savior of mankind, and He has made the way to the New Covenant possible through His sacrifice. Now when we sin and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23), we can confess our sins and know that God is willing to forgive us (1 John 1:9; Hebrews 8:12). Christ’s sacrifice is the only way we can have this hope (Romans 7:24-25).
A converted person is not without sins or imperfections. But a person with the faith of Christ is not satisfied with or indifferent about being imperfect. He or she is striving to be holy (1 Peter 1:16), repenting when convicted of sin, but not giving up from discouragement about falling short of Christ’s perfect example. Christ’s sacrifice allows us to be forgiven and continue on the path of righteousness.
The role of God’s law in the righteousness process is critical. The law does not convert or save us, but it guides us in righteous living.
A test of true conversion
It is possible for someone to believe he or she is a Christian, but not to have been fully converted through God’s calling.
One test of true conversion is to determine if we are yielding to the rule of God in our lives through His law, or if we still have the natural enmity against the law of God in our mind (Romans 8:7).
So, there is a condition of being righteous that applies to all of those God has called into His Church (1 Peter 2:9). But there are also levels of personal righteousness that each of us has, depending on how close we are to God. There are varying degrees to which we have the mind of Christ (Philippians 2:5) and have grown in the fullness and stature of our Savior (Ephesians 4:13).
Benefits of righteousness
Living righteously is not always easy, but righteousness is definitely worth striving for. God is righteous, and He wants His children to be righteous. Living righteously is the way that pleases Him and the way that produces a successful and abundant life.
Righteousness allows God to hear and answer our prayers (1 John 3:22; James 4:3).
Being religious may result in being a moral person to one degree or another, which is honorable. But there is no greater gift than being considered righteous in God’s eyes through repentance, belief in the gospel (Mark 1:15) and a commitment to obeying God’s laws. That gift is available to you if you desire to have it.
Study more about the steps of the biblical conversion process in our free booklet Change Your Life.