Wednesday, September 8

God's Righteousness

Righteousness is the moral purity aspect of God's holiness. That God is righteous means that what He thinks and what he does is always "excruciatingly correct," to borrow a term from Miss Manners. There is an absolute purity, a perfect straightness about every single thought and activity of God.

God is necessarily righteous in all he does. However, when we make statements like "God must always be righteous," we need to understand that this statement doesn't mean that God is required to meet a set of standards for moral purity that exists outside of himself. Instead, righteous is what God is, and all of his acts are righteous because they have their source in God's constantly righteous character. That God is immutably holy is what assures that his actions are alway absolutely correct and upright. If God acts in a certain way, then we can know with certainty that this particular action is a righteous one simply because it is what God did, for any thought or action that come from our God comes from the one-and-only morally perfect being, who exists himself as the perfect standard of righteousness.

If we use terms the same way they are used scripturally, then God's righteousness and His justice are the same thing. Both terms--righteousness and justice--are translated from exactly the same words in the original languages, and the translators sometimes appear to have chosen one or other English term on what is little more than whim. We don't tend to use the words as precise synonyms, however, and often save the word justice to refer to God's righteousness as it pertains to his lawgiving, along with his impartial implementation of the just punishment or rewards that come from lawbreaking or lawkeeping. Since this legal aspect of God's righteousness plays such a big role in our experience of God's salvation of sinners, I've decided to give it it's very own post as the next installment in this series, although it will be touched on in this post, too.

We call God's righteousness one of his communicable attributes. The term communicable refers to those attributes that we can have a share in--that we can exhibit, too--even though we will never have them in the inherent way that God does. They are part of his essence, and he is the only one for whom these attributes are essential. This means that when we are righteous, we are exhibiting derived righteousness: a righteousness that doesn't really come from us, but is received from God, who is the only source of it. We are righteous only because the Holy Spirit communicates that righteousness to us. Even when we are glorified, so that we become spotlessly righteous forever onward, it is due to the work of the Spirit (Romans 8).

Let's look at a few scriptural statements about God's righteousness and see what we can learn from them. Psalm 97:2:
Righteousness and justice are the foundation of His throne. (NASB)
This text supports the idea that righteousness is an essential characteristic of God. Righteousness and justice are the underpinnings of his rule; they determine how He acts as Lord over all the earth.

One of the most often quoted texts on God's righteousness is Abraham's question of God in Genesis 18:25:
Far be it from you to do such a thing--to kill the godly with the wicked, treating the godly and the wicked alike! Far be it from you! Will not the judge of the whole earth do what is right? (NET)
Abraham appeals to God's essential righteousness (and rightly so!) in his pleading to save any righteous people who lived within Sodom and Gomorrah from God's wrath against sin. Abraham understood that God's righteousness (or his justice) keeps him from acting toward godly persons in the same way that he acts toward the wicked. A righteous God will never give anyone worse than they deserve, and the truly righteous do not, in their righteous state, deserve the same outpouring of God's wrath that the ungodly do. It is because God is righteous that Lot and his daughters were spared the destruction that befell all the others from those two cities.

God's righteousness is the source of all his judgments:
....he now commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has set a day on which he is going to judge the world in righteousness...(Acts 17:31)
The judgment that is yet to come for all who remain unrepentant before God has its source in God's righteousness. It is because God is righteous that he must judge the unrepentantly sinful. To forever overlook the immorality of mankind would not be in accordance with his perfect morality, and so on a day already determined by him he will display his righteousness to us through his condemnation sinners.

God's promises are fulfilled to us because of his righteousness.
You have fulfilled your promise, for you are righteous. (Nehemiah 7:8 NET)
Keeping one's word is an aspect of moral perfection, and because God is absolutely moral, when he promises something, that promise will always be kept.

That God is righteous also means that he instructs us in how to be righteous.
Good and upright [or just] is the LORD; Therefore He instructs sinners in the way. (Psalm 25:8 NASB)
Since he is the only perfectly righteous one, he is also the only one who can tell us how to be perfectly righteous, and out of his righteous and benevolent nature he reveals his perfect standards of righteousness to his creatures.

In the Old Testament, God's righteousness is often closely associated with salvation. For example:
My mouth will tell of your righteous acts, of your deeds of salvation all the day.... (Psalm 71:15 ESV) salvation will be forever, and my righteousness will never be dismayed. (Isaiah 51:6)
Remember, in interpreting these verses, that the word salvation as used in the Old Testament most often means a sort of physical deliverance. God delivers his people from unjust treatment at the hand wicked people because he is righteous. Vindication for his people is a requirement of his righteous character.

I won't even try to mention everything that God's righteousness means for us, but instead concentrate on just two things. That God is righteous means that no one ever receives less from his hand than what is right (or just), and we are guaranteed that this is so. When we go complaining to God, we need to understand that we have no leg to stand on. We can never say to him, "Hey! This isn't right!" and be showing anything but our ignorance. After the psalmist doubted God's righteousness--after he had complained that things were not fair, that history wasn't unfolding as he thought it ought to be--God vindicated his own righteousness by showing the Psalmist the perfectly just way that things would turn out in the end. And the Psalmist rightly says of his own previously complaining self:
When my heart was embittered
And I was pierced within,
Then I was senseless and ignorant;
I was {like} a beast before You. (Psalm 73:21,22 NASB)
Any complaints against what we receive from God are stupid and beastlike, because we ought to know that God is always, ever right and just, even when we don't understand how that could be true.

And a righteous God is a God who can be believed. There is no room for doubting him, if we have a grasp of his righteousness, for his absolute uprightness demands perfect promise keeping. If we have been born again--if we have a living hope--then God has promised us an inheritance, and we can bank on receiving it. We will be kept for our eternal possession, because out of God's righteousness, come guaranteed promises.

For the LORD is righteous,
He loves righteousness;
The upright will behold His face.

(Psalm 11:7 NASB)