The Problem of Righteousness (2)


The Lost Christian Understanding: Old Testament

I have been reading the Psalms as my daily devotional and prayer guide.  As I read the early Psalms I have encountered use to the term “righteous” that contains a confidence and certainty that shocks me.  For example this Psalm that is attributed to David:

Arise, Lord, in your anger;
rise up against the rage of my enemies.
Awake, my God; decree justice.
Let the assembled peoples gather around you,
while you sit enthroned over them on high.
Let the Lord judge the peoples.
Vindicate me, Lord, according to my righteousness,
according to my integrity, O Most High.
Bring to an end the violence of the wicked
and make the righteous secure—
you, the righteous God
who probes minds and hearts.  Psalm 7:6-9 (NIV)

However, in a later Psalm also attributed to David we find a denial that righteousness exists in any human being.

The fool says in his heart,
“There is no God.”
They are corrupt, and their ways are vile;
there is no one who does good.
God looks down from heaven
on all mankind
to see if there are any who understand,
any who seek God.
Everyone has turned away, all have become corrupt;
there is no one who does good,
not even one.  Psalm 53:1-3 (NIV)

The Apostle Paul quotes this Psalm in his Epistle to the Romans in a manner that removes all ambiguity as to its meaning.

As it is written:

“There is no one righteous, not even one;
there is no one who understands;
there is no one who seeks God.
All have turned away,
they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
not even one.” Romans 3:10-12 (NIV)

How is it that David in Psalm 7 can with utter confidence pray to God as a righteous man while in Psalm 53  (and others) admit that no one, including of course him, is righteous?

The first step towards understanding is that the idea translated into English as “righteousness” is a vast, complex and deep set of ideas.  Just to provide a top-level perspective, the Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible devotes almost twenty pages (of small font text) to this word!  While there is no way that I could presume to summarize all of this into a blog post, I will share a couple of paragraphs regarding righteousness as found in the Old Testament.

Rather, righteousness is in the OT the fulfillment of the demands of a relationship, whether that relationship be with men or with God.

The fulfillment of the Law does not constitute righteousness, but he who is righteous fulfills the Law because he accepts it in faith as God’s gracious guidance of him.  Neither works nor works accomplished by faith make for righteousness, but rather only faith, which is manifested in works. Faith is the fulfillment of the relationship to Yahweh and is thereby righteousness (Gen. 15:6; Has 2:4).

Righteousness in the OT, then, is the fulfillment of the demands of a relationship, whether with men or with God.  And though man’s righteousness fails, God’s endures.  He intervenes on behalf of his own, saving them from bondage, forgiving their sin, declaring them in the right before himself and all the world.  The connection with the NT message of salvation in Jesus Christ seems obvious, for “while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8).

Given these insights, the apparent contradiction is found to be no contradiction at all.  For when David calls himself righteous he is not claiming a moral perfection that neither he or anyone else can attain.  Rather he is speaking as one of the elect who, by God’s grace alone, has been declared to be righteous.

In fact, to be declared to be righteous by God vastly increases the Psalmist’s sense of his sinfulness and thus unworthiness apart from God’s grace.

Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is always before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight;
so you are right in your verdict
and justified when you judge.
Surely I was sinful at birth,
sinful from the time my mother conceived me.
Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb;
you taught me wisdom in that secret place.   Psalm 51:1-6 (NIV)

So, we find in the Old Testament that righteousness is not the achievement of a moral superiority either by belief or works but rather a God-given position of right relationship through grace alone.  Of course, God’s granting of this positional righteousness does lead to a process of sanctification in which sin recedes and good works increase.

This definition of righteousness is far removed from the common contemporary Christian understanding.  It is in a completely different universe from the contemporary secular “social justice” understanding of righteousness.  The consequences of these misunderstandings are enormous and terrible.

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