The righteousness of God is the divine attribute that describes God as acting always in a way that is consistent with his own character.
This essay surveys the various dimensions of God’s righteousness as it relates to God himself and his demands and relations with his creatures. God is righteous in himself, he demands righteousness, he provides righteousness, and he rewards for the righteousness he provides.
Understanding Divine Righteousness
The Psalmist declares that “righteousness and justice” (tsedek and mishpat) are the foundation of God’s throne. That is, he is himself right, just, and true. Righteousness is essential to his very being and characterizes all that he does: God is morally and ethically right, and he acts only in keeping with what is right and just. This theme is common in Scripture. “The judge of all the earth shall do right” (Gen 18:25). He is a “righteous judge” (2Tim 4:8).
But how shall we understand this attribute of righteousness that is so characteristic of God? The primary words which the biblical writers use (tsedek and dikaiosune) denote, in a physical sense, “being straight,” or in a moral sense, “being right,” and hence, “conformity to an ethical or moral standard,”1 being and doing what is right. One who is righteous “lives up” to expected obligations; he acts in accordance with what should be done. A righteous man is one who is right and who does what is suitable, one who maintains a “right relation with”2 what is expected.
For this reason, theologians have described God’s righteousness as the ethical dimension of his holiness, or as his “transitive holiness,”3 or as a “mode” of his holiness.4 It is that aspect of his holiness which distinguishes him as consistent with his own moral demands.
We must not misunderstand. The idea is not that God is bound to some abstract rule external to himself – that would imply that there is some standard above God himself, some superior rule to which he must conform. Of course there could be no standard above God. That righteous standard to which God conforms is himself. It is God’s own nature and will that determine what is right and wrong, and when Scripture affirms that God is righteous it assures us that God always conforms to himself – he faithfully adheres to his own perfections. He acts only and always according to the very highest principle of justice: himself.
Interestingly, Plato rather blindly grappled at some length with this question. In his Dialogue with Euthyphro he appears frustrated at his inability to come to any certain conclusion as to “whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods.” For him, the answer was illusive. “For somehow or other our arguments, on whatever ground we rest them, seem to turn around and walk away from us.”5 In light of the unpredictability and inconsistencies and the disagreements among Plato’s many gods,6 and given his non-biblical frame of reference, his frustration is understandable. But viewing the question from the vantage point of biblical theism, the answer is not at all speculative: God is sovereign, and as such it is his nature and will that constitute the very essence of righteousness. In the words of Mastrict, “God is proto-, in fact auto-dikaion.”7 God in his own perfection is the essence and standard of what is right.
John Piper captures this well when he argues that Paul “conceive[s] of God’s righteousness as his unswerving faithfulness always to preserve and display the glory of his name.”8 God is ever concerned to glorify himself in all that he does, and his “righteousness” tells us just that. It is for this reason man’s “unrighteousness” (adikia, Rom 1:18) is described in terms of “not glorifying God as God” (v. 21). Righteousness consists in glorifying God and nothing less. The law to which men are bound is God’s law – not a law that is “above Him” but a law that is “within Him.”9 And this standard, being nothing other than the nature and will of God, is the standard to which the immutable God has bound himself: he acts always in a way that is consistent with his own perfection.
This is a truth about God which we are glad to know. It is one thing to know that God is sovereign and so rules the world by his own will. But it is something more indeed to know that he rules in righteousness. For all the apparent inequities of life, for all the patient favors he shows the wicked, and for all the afflictions that fall upon the righteous, it is necessary indeed that we know that God is just and that he will always do what is right – however difficult it may be for us to see it at a given moment. Or again, it is one thing to know that he is the judge of all the world; it is something much more to know that he judges according to what is right and in a way that is consistent with himself, that he will not condemn the innocent or clear the guilty. Unlike the “gods” of the heathen, the true God is not whimsical or capricious. He is righteous – immutably righteous. “The judge of all the earth will do what is right” (Gen 18:25). “The just Lord is in the midst thereof; he will not do iniquity” (Zeph 3:5).
Four Aspects of Divine Righteousness
This consideration – that God acts always in keeping with his righteousness – shows itself in various dimensions, and theologians (especially the older ones) tended to present God’s righteousness in at least four categories.
God’s “rectoral” righteousness is that aspect of His nature which demands or requires righteousness of all His creatures. This is perhaps what we normally think of when we speak of God’s righteousness. It has to do with the imposition of laws and standards. It is “the rectitude which God manifests as the Ruler of both the good and the evil. In virtue of this he institutes a moral government in the world, and imposes a just law upon man, with promises of reward for the obedient and threats of punishment for the disobedient.”10 Simply put, because God is himself righteous he requires the same of all his creatures. Puritan minister Thomas Manton refers to this as God’s “legislative” righteousness – God as lawgiver.11 God is the one who imposes laws and determines right from wrong, and he legislates accordingly (Psa 99:4). Any given device designed to promote fairness in business – weights, scales – is from God (Prov 11:1; 16:11). So also God abhors any who would “justify the wicked and condemn the just” (Prov 17:15). He despises those who steal or defraud others, not because this is a violation of some abstract standard but because it is contrary and an affront to God himself whose very nature demands what is true and right.
Moreover, all the requirements God has imposed on us are themselves just (Psa 119:144). They are not unfair; they are right and necessary as expressions of his own being.
God’s “retributive” righteousness is that aspect of his nature which inflicts punishment for all unrighteousness in his creatures. It is variously referred to as his “punitive” or “vindictive” or “avenging justice.” It has to do with the infliction of penalties for failure to conform to his righteousness. This aspect of God’s righteousness was first expressed in the Garden of Eden: “In the day that you eat of it, you shall surely die” (Gen. 2:17; cf. Deut 27:26; Psa 96:13; Ezek 18:4; Rom 6:23; 12:19; Heb 12:29). This notion of divine retribution against those who transgress his righteous demands is a familiar one to anyone who reads the Bible. Nor is it merely threatened: from the Garden to the flood to Babel to Sodom and Gomorrah to Egypt to the Canaanites to the captivity to Ananias and Sapphira this threat has proven to be real (cf. Rom 1:18). God’s retributive righteousness finds its final expression in the eternal punishment of the wicked in hell.
It should be noted further that the object of God’s retributive righteousness is not reformation or rehabilitation (however it may have that effect at times; see Ezra 9:15; Lam 1:18). Rather, God’s retributive righteousness is just that – retributive, vindicatory. The punishment of sin is a function of divine righteousness (Amos 5:24). Punishment and the satisfaction of justice is the objective. Apart from punishment divine justice would not be maintained, and so God can “by no means clear the guilty (Exod 34:7). “It is a righteous thing” that God punish the wicked (2The 1:6, KJV). Sin must be punished and God’s righteousness vindicated.
It necessarily follows from all this that if God will redeem sinners it will only be so as he can do so righteously. He cannot side-step justice (Exod 34:7). He need not save anyone, of course, for by the nature of the case no sinner merits rescue. But if God in mercy will save, it can only be on the basis of a satisfaction of his righteous demands.
This is precisely the dilemma that the gospel must first answer. God’s (rectoral) righteousness demands righteousness on our part, and it demands punishment for all our unrighteousness (retributive righteousness). If punishment for sin is demanded, how possibly could a sinner be saved?
In fact the biblical writers frequently insist that it is in righteousness that God saves us (Psa 71:2; Isa 45:21; 51:6 54:17; 61:10; cf. Psa 51:14). This is another dimension of God’s righteousness – his “redemptive” righteousness – that aspect of God’s righteousness by which he provides righteousness for his offending creatures and himself makes satisfaction for their unrighteousness. Indeed, the apostle Paul defines the gospel in these terms – the gospel is a revelation of God’s righteousness (Rom 1:17). The gospel is a revelation of God’s love and grace also, of course, but it is necessarily a message of his righteousness. Amazingly, God is righteous in forgiving sin (1Jn 1:9).
This of course is the beauty of the gospel. God has not surrendered his just demands. Rather, he “sent his son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1Jn 4:10; cf. Rom 3:25; Heb 2:17; 1Jn 2:2). In the Lord Jesus we have all that God’s righteousness requires of us. He the sinless one, standing in the place of sinners, offered himself in sacrifice and endured the righteous curse against sin.
“Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us” (Gal 3:13). “He bore our sins in His body on the tree” (1Pet 2:24) and thereby satisfied the demands of justice against us. God “made him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2Cor 5:21). “For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God” (1Pet 3:18). In the cross of Christ the demands of God’s rectoral and retributive righteousness are fully met, and in our Substitute we are righteously forgiven.
Theologians have long described this transaction as a great “exchange.” Christ took our sin and gave us his righteousness. He was “made sin for us” (2Cor 5:21), and he “became to us righteousness” (1Cor 1:30; cf. Jer 23:6; Phil 3:9). In grace our record became his, and so he died under the righteous wrath due us. But through faith his righteous record became ours, and we are justified. It is in this way God’s righteousness is revealed in the gospel. Amazingly, God “justifies the ungodly” (Rom 4:5). God is “both just and the justifier of him that believes in Jesus” (Rom 3:26).
Remunerative righteousness has to do with the distribution of rewards according to justice. God’s “remunerative” righteousness is that aspect of his righteousness by which he rewards his creatures for the righteousness which they have done. “God is not unrighteous to overlook your work and labor of love” (Heb 6:10). “Whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord (Eph 6:8; cf. Luke 19:11-27). God rewards righteousness.
It is a curious thing that God it is a matter of justice / righteousness to God that he rewards his servants for their faithful service. It is not simply a matter of goodness or kindness but of justice. When we have obeyed and served him, we have only done what is our duty (Luke 17:10). All that we are, we are only “by the grace of God” (1Cor 4:7), and our faithfulness is due only to his working in us (Phil 2:13). It seems strange that God would view our rewards as a function of his justice.
The point here is not that God is obligated to us, simply, but that he has obligated himself to us by promise (Jas 1:12). “It is part of his justice to make good his word; by promise God hath made himself a debtor…. It is just with God to pay what he oweth, and God oweth what he hath promised; and so it is a crown of righteousness which God the righteous Judge will give us at that day.”12
[T]hough no primary and original obligation rests upon the Creator, to reward a creature made from nothing, and continually upheld and helped in the service which he renders, yet he can constitute a secondary and relative obligation. He can promise to reward the creature’s service; and having bound himself to reward obedience, his own word establishes a species of claim…. In the words of Witsius (Covenants, I. i. iv.), ‘God by his promise, has made himself a debtor to men.’”13
God’s remunerative righteousness is that aspect of his righteousness by which he rewards us for the obedience and service that he righteously demands of us and that he graciously enables us to give him. Put otherwise, God rewards us, his servants, for the very thing that he has purchased and freely provided. Surely, he alone is worthy of praise (Rev 4:10).
The truth of God’s righteousness is a frightening one for sinners. But when this righteousness is wedded to His grace (Psa 85:10), it is a happy truth indeed.
Note: This essay is adapted from the article, Fred Zaspel, “Four Aspects of Divine Righteousness,” Reformation & Revival Journal, Volume 6, Number 4, Winter 1997.
- Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology
- John Gill, Complete Body of Doctrinal and Practical Divinity
- Thomas Manton, A Body of Divinity
- John Owen, Works of John Owen, vol. 19
- John Piper, The Justification of God
- William G.T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology