I have the distinct impression that in contemporary Evangelical and Protestant circles we have such an extreme knee-jerk reaction to Roman Catholicism and have become so wary of so-called “works righteousness” that we’ve allowed the doctrine of justification by faith alone in Christ alone to swallow up everything Scripture says about righteousness. To the extent that many uses of the language of righteousness in Scripture are either contorted to shoehorn them into this framework of justification, or they simply leave us terrified to appropriate what we know the passage is saying.
Psalm 15 has become something of a classic test case for this:
Yahweh, who can dwell in your tent?
Who can live on your holy mountain?
The one who lives blamelessly, practices righteousness,
and acknowledges the truth in his heart —
who does not slander with his tongue,
who does not harm his friend
or discredit his neighbor,
who despises the one rejected by Yahweh
but honors those who fear Yahweh,
who keeps his word whatever the cost,
who does not lend his silver at interest
or take a bribe against the innocent —
the one who does these things will never be shaken.
Who can dwell in the tabernacle of God and live on his holy mountain? Is your knee-jerk response to exclaim that no one can do this and that only Jesus can be this man? I highly doubt that’s the Psalmist David’s point or meaning here. And I hope to demonstrate that. I hope it’ll become clear that the implied and intended answer to King David’s question is: the godly man I’m called to be.
In Hebrew, the tsedeq word family is that of righteousness or simply being right or in the right. It’s familiar to us in names like Zadok the priest, Zedekiah the king, or Melchizedek the priest-king. In Greek, the dikaios word family is the equivalent. This is the vocabulary of righteousness and justification. But more so, it’s the vocabulary of doing what’s right.
Righteousness has become an overly technical and narrow concept describing the fitting reward or treatment of someone based on moral behavior. And it’s often contrasted with notions of mercy and forgiveness. But this conflates righteousness with justice, which is merely one aspect of righteousness. If we were to say that one purpose of the Law of God is training in righteousness (which it is), then we should consider what Jesus says are the weightier things of the the law, i.e. justice, mercy, and faith (Matt. 23:23). It’s righteous to seek justice. It’s righteous to show mercy. It’s righteous to live by faith.
We can see in the Scriptures that God is righteous and that he acts in righteousness. And when God acts in righteousness, he brings about justice, he shows mercy, he delivers his people, and he upholds steadfast loving-kindness, i.e. khesed or covenant fidelity. When he delivers in his righteousness (Psalm 71:2), God doesn’t issue a bare pronouncement of acquittal. He accomplishes what he pronounces. It’s a “deliverdict” as Peter Leithart calls it, a verdict and a deliverance.
We can also see in Scripture that the people of God are expected to be righteous in more than one sense of the word. There is a prescriptive righteousness required of us, which is ultimately only accomplished by our union with Christ. His whole perfect righteousness is reckoned as our own by God. It’s declarative. It’s definitive. It’s forensic or judicial. But there’s also a descriptive righteousness expected of us. We are to walk in the way of God on paths of righteousness. We are to practice righteousness. Dare I say we are to have a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees that isn’t merely a forensic justification in Christ. It’s demonstrative. It’s progressive. It’s a practiced reality. We’re called to be doers or practitioners of righteousness, just like our God and Father:
If you know that he is righteous, you know that everyone who practices righteousness is born of him. … Little children, let no one deceive you. He who practices righteousness is righteous, just as he is righteous.
– 1 John 2:29; 3:7
In the Psalms, there are frequently dual notions of our being righteous in God as well as our doing righteousness in God. The former is certainly the foundation for the latter.
Our righteous standing in God is often what could be called a covenantal righteousness; we’re in the right because we’re on God’s side being in God’s covenant. This includes but isn’t limited to our Protestant notions of forensic justification. It speaks of the solidarity in our relationship with God according to his faithfulness.
Our righteous walk before God is expected to such an extent that King David models for us an expectation that we can call upon God to vindicate the fact that we’ve done what is right despite the slander of our accusers:
Judge me according to my righteousness.
Reward me according to my righteousness.
Recompense me according to my righteousness.
Psalm 7:8; 18:20, 24
Perhaps we allow our conception of prescriptive righteousness (and one that’s restricted to a conception of strict justice at that) to be a hopelessly unattainable perfectionism so that we deprive ourselves of the calling to descriptive righteousness. One we can embrace and in which we can conceive ourselves as being. I think we do this, because we have a conception of righteousness that doesn’t make mistakes. And if that’s the case, we could only dull our consciences in self-deceit and arrogance to think of ourselves as flawless. But that’s not the conception of righteousness in Scripture, especially not righteousness for fallen creatures who have been delivered and are being transformed by God.
He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does Yahweh require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?
– Micah 6:8
Righteousness here is about justice, mercy, and humility. The righteous one does what is right. He also does what’s right after he may happen to do what is wrong. The righteous one repents and seeks forgiveness, absolution, and restoration. The righteous man may fall seven times, but he rises again (Prov. 24:16). This is a vital part of our understanding what descriptive righteousness means as we grow in righteousness and walk the path of righteousness for the sake of the Name which we bear. This is the godly, humble, true yet imperfect righteousness that the God of all righteousness accomplishes in us and accepts from us as he has received us in the Son who is perfectly righteous, and he will ultimately make us perfect.
A little translational trivia: The Hebrew word for righteousness is tsaddiq. So the Hebrew word for righteous ones is tseddeqim or tsadduqim. The TS consonant (tsaddi) can be a softer Z or S in Greek, which we carry into English. And the Q (qoph) can be a K in Greek, which is a hard C in Latin. So, if we spell it Sadducim, what biblical English word does it start to resemble? That’s right: Sadducees. The Sadducees were the so-called party of the righteous ones. But Christ calls his people to be the True Sadducees, the true Assembly of the Righteous Ones. Paul sees the Church as such in 1 Corinthians 6 as the basis for why we should be able to do the right thing, because we’re the people who know what’s right.