It soon becomes obvious to even a casual reader of Scripture that the word “righteousness” is a key term for understanding God and how He deals with us. Because of the way the word occurs in the apostle Paul’s teaching about justification, it has naturally held a central place in the thought of Lutherans.
We usually think of “righteousness” as being the things we are supposed to do. The person is “righteous” who does righteousness – who does the things he or she is supposed to do. This basic understanding is illustrated by Ezekiel 18:26: “When a righteous person turns away from his righteousness and does injustice, he shall die for it.” The righteous person is the one who does what is right (righteousness). If a person stops doing the right, he or she is no longer righteous.
In turn, “to justify” (in Greek the verb uses the same root as the words for “righteousness” and “righteous”) is to treat a person as you would a person who is righteous. In a legal setting, this means to declare innocent of wrongdoing or acquit. Scripture provides a basic truth about God that human judges are to imitate when it says that God does not justify/acquit the unrighteous: “Keep far from a false charge, and do not kill the innocent and righteous, for I will not acquit the wicked” (Exodus 23:7 ESV).
God, the Creator, is the One who has established how things are to work in this world and what people “are supposed to do.” Because people are creatures, they don’t get to vote. So, for example, they are simply obligated to worship God (Romans 1:19-21, 25) and to use sexuality as the gift shared between a man and a woman (Romans 1:26-27). Paul says that they have been “hard wired” to know these things (what we usually call natural law), and therefore God can justly judge all people: “For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus” (Romans 2:14-16 ESV).
This is how things work. However, because of what God has done in Christ, we encounter something new and surprising. Paul tells us, “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God” (Romans 5:8-9 ESV). We are sinners – we are people who are not righteous. And yet Paul says that because of Jesus’ death on the cross we now live as people who have been justified. Because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God considers us to be something that we are not in ourselves. Righteousness is a gift that God gives to us on account of Christ. Paul goes on to say, “For if, because of one man's trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:17 ESV).
Paul describes this righteousness as the righteousness that comes from God in Philippians 3:9 when he says that he wants to be found in Christ “not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (ESV). The same understanding is at work in Romans 10:3 where Paul contrasts God’s righteousness with the efforts by the Jews to establish their own righteousness (“For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God's righteousness.”).
This meaning of “righteousness” is solidly grounded in Scripture. However there are a number of important passages in the Old Testament that use “righteousness” in a way that seem to go beyond this. In these passages “righteousness” is placed in parallel with language about God’s “salvation.” For example:
The LORD has made known his salvation; he has revealed his righteousness in the sight of the nations. (Psalm 98:2 ESV)
I bring near my righteousness; it is not far off, and my salvation will not delay; I will put salvation in Zion, for Israel my glory.” (Isaiah 46:13 ESV)
My righteousness draws near, my salvation has gone out, and my arms will judge the peoples; the coastlands hope for me, and for my arm they wait. Lift up your eyes to the heavens, and look at the earth beneath; for the heavens vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment, and they who dwell in it will die in like manner; but my salvation will be forever, and my righteousness will never be dismayed. (Isaiah 51:5-6 ESV)
My mouth shall tell of your righteousness, and of your salvation all day long; For I do not know the sum of them. (Psalm 71:15)
He put on righteousness as a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head; he put on garments of vengeance for clothing, and wrapped himself in zeal as a cloak. (Isaiah 59:17 ESV)
These verses are important because they show us that God’s righteousness includes the understanding about declaring the sinner righteous, yet also goes beyond it. God’s righteousness is grounded in the fact that he is the Creator. He is the King who ordered creation, and he will carry out a vindicating action to restore the just and proper order. This action is not limited to Israel, or even to people, but includes the whole creation. This comes out very clearly in Psalm 98:
The LORD has made known his salvation; he has revealed his righteousness in the sight of the nations. He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness to the house of Israel. All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God. Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises! (Psalm 98:2-4 ESV)
When God restores the order to his creation, his action gives salvation to the oppressed and brings his judgment upon on those pervert and oppose his order. This reckoning occurs before the judgment seat of God on the Last Day (Romans 14:10; 2 Corinthians 5:10). Believers who are already now justified (Romans 5:1) will hear that declared before God’s judgment seat, while those who have rejected Christ will be judged on the basis of their own deeds (Romans 2:5-6). At the same time, this enactment of God’s righteousness will also make creation “very good” once again (Genesis 1:31; Romans 8:19-23).
This Old Testament background is important for interpreting Romans 1:16-17 where Paul writes: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation (εἰς σωτηρίαν) to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God (δικαιοσύνη γὰρ θεοῦ) is revealed (ἀποκαλύπτεται) from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith’” (Romans 1:16-17 ESV). Traditionally, Lutherans have understood the phrase “the righteousness of God” to mean the righteousness of Christ that God gives to us as a gift. Luther writes in the 1519 treatise “Two Kinds of Righteousness”: “Through faith in Christ, therefore, Christ’s righteousness becomes our righteousness and all that he has becomes ours; rather, he himself becomes ours. Therefore the Apostle calls it ‘the righteousness of God’ in Rom. 1 [:17]” (LW 31:298).
Psalm 98:2 provides the background for the interpretation of Romans 1:16-17. In Rom 1:16 Paul describes the Gospel as the power of God for salvation (εἰς σωτηρίαν) and then in 1:17 he says that this is so because the righteousness of God (δικαιοσύνη γὰρ θεοῦ) is revealed (ἀποκαλύπτεται) in it. This bears an obvious relationship to the Septuagint’s translation of the verse (Ps 97:2) which says “The Lord has made known his salvation (σωτήριον αὐτοῦ); he has revealed (ἀπεκάλυψεν) his righteousness (τὴν δικαιοσύνην αὐτοῦ) before the nations.” In the psalm “salvation” is parallel to “righteousness” as it speaks of God’s saving action (LXX Ps 97:1-3) in a way that makes it difficult to defend the interpretation that “righteousness of God” in Rom 1:17 refers specifically to a righteousness that God gives to the individual.
The Old Testament of background of “righteousness” that has been set forth here helps us to understand that the righteousness of God in Rom 1:16 includes the traditional Lutheran understanding, but also involves more than just acquittal based on the gift of Christ’s righteousness from God. As part of God’s eschatological saving action which includes the restoration of creation itself, God shows himself to be just (Rom 3:26), even as he gives the gift of righteousness to sinners who have faith in Christ (Rom 3:23-25). It is also the action by which he is vindicated as God who judges sinners (Rom 3:4).
This understanding of the broader meaning of righteousness assists in our reading of other New Testament texts. A classic example of this can be found at the baptism of our Lord where we read: “John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ But Jesus answered him, 'Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness (πληρῶσαι πᾶσαν δικαιοσύνην). Then he consented” (Matthew 3:14-15 ESV). We see here that the baptism of Jesus was necessary because it was part of God’s plan for His saving action in the world. Jeff Gibbs is entirely correct when he points to the Old Testament background of “righteousness” and writes:
The eschatological context of John’s preaching and ministry makes it all the more likely that this dominant OT sense of God’s ‘righteousness’ as his ‘saving deeds’ is present here in Jesus’ reply to the Baptizer. The end time brings the fulfillment of God’s promise to act in history on behalf of his people to save them.”
 Jeffery A. Gibbs, Matthew 1:1-11:1 (St. Louis: Concordia, 2006), 180-181. It has become axiomatic among many Pauline scholars that salvation is essentially a synonym for the righteousness of God, and that the latter is to be understood as "covenant faithfulness." However, Seifrid has convincingly demonstrated that in the Old Testament righteousness is a matter of creational theology, and is not specifically covenantal. For more details related to this post, see "Rectify of Justify: A response to J. Louis Martyn's Interpretation of Paul's Righteousness Language, 71-77.