Improve your biblical word power 2: Forensic righteousness

From the Sola Panel:

This post is the second in a series designed to help you to get to know and love some of the important words used in the Bible. Today we’ll clarify the meaning of ‘forensic’, and then look at what ‘righteousness’ means in the forensic setting.

To recap

This post assumes that you’ve read and understood the first post. Here’s a summary:

Righteousness = being in line with a standard.

Now what does ‘forensic’ mean? Technically,

Forensic = relating to a law court.


At this point, there’s a bit of confusion. There’s a more popular use of the word ‘forensic’, which you’ll see on TV shows like CSI. On these shows, the word ‘forensic’ is actually a shorthand for ‘forensic medicine’ or ‘forensic science’. The ‘forensics’ team is the group of scientists or medical experts who conduct their scientific or medical work for the purpose of presenting evidence in court. But technically, everybody in the court is ‘forensic’ because they’re all related to the law court—the judge, the prosecutor, the defendant, the jury, and so on. And it’s this more technical definition of ‘forensic’ that is used when talking about the Bible.

Law courts

In the Bible, the word ‘righteousness’ often appears in a forensic context—that is, the context of a law court.

As an aside, righteousness is not always ‘forensic’. For example, the book of Proverbs is full of references to the ‘righteous’ man, whose is called ‘righteous’ simply because he lives in line with God’s created moral standards (e.g. Proverbs 10:32).

However, the law court setting appears in the Bible whenever a person’s righteousness is called into question. The job of the court is to determine, in a specific instance, whether or not the defendant has been ‘righteous’ (often translated as ‘innocent’). The court must ask the question, “Is this person in line with proper standards?” The standards the court uses are legal standards, but these legal standards are supposed to be based on the righteous moral standards that God has set up in the creation itself.

This is true of a human court—for example,

If there is a dispute between men and they come into court and the judges decide between them, acquitting the innocent [literally, ‘righteous’] and condemning the guilty … (Deut 25:1)

A judge is said to be ‘righteous’ when he judges properly, according to righteous moral standards, and doesn’t take bribes or act with prejudice to the rich (e.g. Deut 1:16, 16:18).


To summarize, here’s what forensic righteousness means:

Righteousness of a defendant = being in line with a legal and/or moral standard.

Righteousness of a judge = making decisions in line with legal and/or moral standards.

Significantly, the Bible often speaks about a specific but extremely important forensic context: the law court of God. There is a heavenly law court, before which each individual in creation must stand. When God acts to set the world to rights, he primarily does so by acting as a righteous judge of individuals (e.g. Gen 18:25, 1 Kgs 8:32, Psa 1:5-6, Isa 51:5, etc.), who passes judgement in perfect agreement with his own righteous standards, and who carries our his sentences righteously, without fear of favour of man. As the Bible continues, we see that this task of righteous judgement is delegated to God’s perfect future king (Isa 11:4).


We’ll finish with a couple of examples of errors that can crop up when speaking about forensic righteousness.

Firstly, there is the error of saying too much. John Piper, for example, in his otherwise excellent and very insightful book The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright, when speaking about forensic passages in Romans, says, “the deepest meaning of God’s righteousness is his unwavering commitment to act for the sake of his glory” (p. 68).

I can see why John Piper might say this. God’s righteousness is inextricably caught up with God’s glory; God’s glory demands that he act righteously; indeed, God’s righteousness is a (if not the) key means by which God acts for the sake of his own glory. But it’s not actually what the word ‘righteousness’ means. God’s righteousness—particularly in the forensic context—is his commitment to setting the world to rights—primarily by judging individuals perfectly according to his created standards of righteousness.

But secondly, there is the error of saying too little. Tom Wright, in a response to John Piper’s response,1 speaks about the defendant’s righteousness as merely a status granted to him or her by the court:

‘Righteousness’ within the law court setting … denotes the status that someone has when the court has found in their favour. Notice, it does not denote, within that all-important law court context, “the moral character they are then assumed to have”, or “the moral behaviour they have demonstrated which has earned them the verdict.” (p. 69)

According to Wright, righteousness is not something that a person brings to the law court; it’s simply a status conferred by the court. As we have seen, this just doesn’t fit with the biblical use of the word. According to the biblical understanding, a righteous person is righteous before he or she comes to the court; and this righteousness is indeed related to the person’s moral character. The job of the court is not to ‘confer’ a status of righteousness on the person; it is to work out whether the person is, indeed, righteous, and then declare its finding.

Next time we’ll examine the meaning of a closely related word that appears in the forensic context: ‘justification’.