The word “righteous” is out of fashion now days. It conjures up images of humourless people, out of touch with this world, calling their misery, joy. It’s an unfair caricature. If one were to ask an ordinary member of any church what does it mean to be righteous, their answer would include ideas of being blameless, living a pure life, doing good, and being holy. They usually have a specific person in mind and that the person somehow reflects the character of God, who is holy.
The root of the Hebrew word for righteousness (sedeq, sedaqa, saddiq) connotes conformity to an ethical or moral standard. The meanings of the word include rightness, lawful, and justice. However, British New Testament scholar James D.G. Dunn explains that there are significant differences between the Greek and Hebrew understandings of righteousness. Dunn states that according to the Greek worldview, “righteousness” is an idea or ideal “against which the individual and individual action can be measured.” It is a state of moral perfection. So if God is moral perfection and righteous, human beings are then measured against God’s righteousness.
In contrast, in Hebrew, the ethical aspect of the word righteous involves how people relate to each other. “The man who is righteous tries to preserve the peace and prosperity of the community by fulfilling the commands of God in regard to others.” In the post-exilic period after the return of the Hebrew people from Babylon, the word developed to mean benevolence, almsgiving, etc. as the acts of a godly man. So in Hebrew thought “righteousness” is understood more as a relational concept – “as the meeting of obligations laid upon the individual by the relationship of which he or she is part.” Every relationship has obligations. So to be righteous then meant fulfilling one’s obligations as part of the relationships they have.
While there is no doubt that God is morally perfect, the understanding of “the righteousness of God” is more in line with Hebrew thought, where God’s righteousness can be understood as God’s faithfulness to His people, where He fulfils His obligations to them. German theologian G. Schrenk states that sedaqa implies a relationship. He writes, “This linking of right and salvation is most deeply grounded in the covenant concept. Sedaqa is the execution of covenant faithfulness and the covenant promises. God’s righteousness as His judicial reign means that in covenant faithfulness to His people He vindicates and saves them.” Simply put, Dunn summarizes God’s righteousness was the “fulfilment of His covenant obligation as Israel’s God in delivering, saving, and vindicating Israel, despite Israel’s own failure.” So, just as God was righteous in His relationship with Israel, He is righteous with the rest of His creation also. (Rom. 1: 16-17)
So “righteousness” is also understood as God’s faithfulness to fulfil His obligations to human beings and His creation, because as creator He has a relationship with them. Even though they are fallen and marred by sin, God has an obligation to redeem them and He is faithful to do that through Christ.
Understanding God’s righteousness as obligation in the context of a relationship, explains why God is concerned about the poor. The poor are not just marred by sin, but also by social and economic oppression and injustice. The Psalmist identifies God as “A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling. God sets the lonely in families, he leads out the prisoners with singing: but the rebellious live in a sun-scorched land.” (Ps. 68:5-6). God’s redemption is not just spiritual, but addresses the totality of human beings in every sphere of their lives. Therefore because of his righteousness God restores human beings (and His creation) to the condition He intended for them.
This understanding of righteousness explains what is meant when it states in Matt. 1:19 that Joseph was a righteous man. He was a person who would fulfil his obligation to Mary to not only do what is right but also care for her in the context of his relationship to her. Similarly, Cornelius is referred to as being righteous (Acts 10:22) and the Bible says that he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly (Acts 10:2). He fulfilled his obligation to those in need and to God.
Because human beings are made righteous by God through Christ, they are then able to fulfil their obligation not only to God, but also within the social context they live in. Prov. 29:7 says, “The righteous care about justice for the poor;” and Eph. 2:10, “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Jesus Christ to do good works.”
One’s understanding of righteousness will influence whether an individual and community of faith will be involved in addressing the issues of social injustice. If the understanding of righteousness is only that of moral perfection, the focus is primarily on attaining that moral perfection through Christ and maintaining it. If righteousness is also understood as an obligation in the context of the social relationships one has, then the focus will also be on addressing the needs of the poor, the marginalized and others suffering in society.
 R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer, Jr., Bruce K. Waltke, Theological Workbook of the Old Testament (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 1980), 752. For a detailed analysis of the word, see pages 752-755.
 Strong’s Concordance 6664 tzedek – righteous, integrity, equity, justice, straightness.
 James D.G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998), 341.
 Harris, Theological, 753.
 Ibid, 754.
 Dunn, The Theology, 341.
 Quoted in Harris, Theological, 755.
 Dunn, The Theology, 342.
 This is seen mostly clearly in movements such as the Holiness Movement among others.