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Righteousness: neither substance nor status

I’ve noticed what I reckon is a false dilemma which has appeared over the meaning of the word “righteousness” (δικαιοσύνη). The false dilemma is pretty widespread, but here’s one example. I’ve been following Mike Bird’s excellent, informative and industriously updated blog for a while. Recently, Mike spoke about the meaning of “righteousness” as if there were only two options for understanding its meaning in Paul: righteousness is either a “substance” (i.e. “merits” that can be built up by Christ and infused or imputed to believers) or a “status” (i.e. a verdict of righteous).

But I don’t think either of these options makes sense of the word “righteousness” in its biblical usage. Both a “substance” and a “status” are things that are external to the subject. A substance is a thing that I own and can dispense; a status exists in the mind of a third party (in this case, God). But according to lexica such as BDAG, and according to my reading of the LXX (and the NT), “righteousness” is neither a substance nor a status, but a quality of the individual him/herself. In normal usage, it is a word which refers to the quality of a person; if a person is in line with a certain standard (often, in the Bible, a moral or legal standard), (s)he is said to be “righteous”, i.e. to have the quality of “righteousness”. (S)he doesn’t merely have a substance called “righteousness” which (s)he can own and dispense, nor is (s)he simply considered by a third party to be something; the word means that (s)he can be properly described as inherently having a certain quality. The quality of “righteousness” can be the basis for a status–i.e. if a person is righteous, then they can be examined by a judge and declared righteous and so receive the status of “justified” in the eyes of the judge and anyone who believes the judge (see, e.g., 2 Chron 6:23 LXX). “Justified” is a status, and “justification” is the conferral of a status, but “righteousness” is properly a quality of a person upon which the status of “justification” is based.

I think this is very important to get right when we come to understanding the debates about imputation.

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  1. Jason Hobba

    G’day Lionel,

    You’re in good company. I think Stephen Westerholm in “Perspectives Old and New” comes to a similar conclusion.

  2. Peter Kirsop

    How do I (or anyone) achieve this quality?

    • Dear Peter – I assume you’re speaking about perfect righteousness according to God’s ultimate standards as creator and judge (as opposed to righteousness according to more achievable standards). If so, I think this is one of the key questions that both Jesus and Paul discuss, and I’ve had a go at introducing the answer in my series on the meaning of righteousness language in the Bible. The short answer to your question is: I don’t!

  3. John Smuts

    I can’t speak for Peter but my question is the same as his and it involves more than just the attainment of perfect righteousness.

    However you use the term it also has to make sense when used by Paul to say that those who are not righteous are declared righteous (by God). I think you are right in pointing out Mike’s false dichotomy (I’ve been trying to express a similar reservation for a while and therefore am grateful to you for articulating it) but I’m just not yet convinced (yet) that ‘quality’ is the right word either.

    I’m waiting to be convinced though 🙂

  4. Hi John – since my attempt at convincing people is in that series I referred Peter to, if you have the time, I’d like to hear what in particular you find unconvincing (or not yet convincing) about that series 🙂 It would certainly help me to sharpen up my arguments. Cheers, Lionel.

  5. John Smuts

    Sorry Lionel – only just found time to get back to this.

    Essentially I’m not convinced that it is possible to declare that someone has a quality when one doesn’t. I can see how a status can be conferred (if the person doing the conferring has the authority to do so) or how a substance can be given, but I’m not sure how a quality can be ‘declared’.

    I find Michael Bird helpful in his comments about imputation – that Paul does not use language of Christ’s righteousness being ‘given to us’ in the sense of one person giving something to another, rather (and Calvin says pretty much the same thing here) we are righteous because we are ‘in Him’. As I am united with Christ (by faith) so I become righteous. (I’m not convinced by NPP stuff in general though.)

    I don’t see how your use of the word quality helps here though. In what sense do I have the quality of unrighteousness and then receive the quality of righteousness?

    Having read your series it all seems like classic reformed stuff to me and I don’t see your justification for the leap to ‘quality’. Qualities don’t function like that.

  6. Hi John,

    Thanks for taking the time to reply! In reading through your answer, it seems that maybe we have different understandings of the word “quality”. I reckon that righteousness means “being in line with a standard”, and in most cases in Paul’s letters it means “being in line with the standards that God the creator has set up in his world and by which he will judge his creatures”. This “being in line with a standard” isn’t a substance, because it can’t be passed around. But it’s not just a status either, which can be conferred on me regardless of who I am. I’m either in line with the standard, or I’m not. So I (and the standard lexicons like BDAG) prefer to use the word “quality” to describe this kind of word. It’s not a substance (like words such as “water” or “air”), nor is it a status (like words such as “boss” or “enemy” or “free”). Rather, it is a quality (like words such as “green” or “tall”). And so, because we are “in Christ”, we are treated by God as if we have this quality of “righteous”, even though in and of ourselves, without Christ, we don’t actually have this quality. That’s why I think imputation is a helpful word. It’s not a “transfer” term, it’s a term that describes treating somebody as if they have a certain quality. It also results in a status (“justified”). Does that help?

  7. John Smuts

    Thanks for being patient with me Lionel.

    Unfortunately I still don’t get it. I almost used colours as an example of quality in my last reply. (In fact I was even going to use ‘green’ which is slightly disturbing.) The problem with this is that (even though I’m in Christ) I’m not green – even the most generous short-sighted friend can only see a few splashes of green here and there. I have no problem in seeing that I do not have this quality outside of Christ, my problem is with seeing how I have this quality in Christ.

    The NT does actually spell out what these ‘qualities’ look like (Galatians 5: 22-23 is a good a place as any to start) – are you saying that I have all these qualities now in Christ? If so, how?

    • Hi John – thanks for being patient with my lack of clarity too as I try to spell out what I think is going on!

      I guess the short answer is that that we are not ultimately righteous, and we don’t “have” righteousness, we are counted as righteous because Christ is the only person who can truly said to be righteous (in the ultimate sense). This righteousness can be said to be “mine” because Christ is mine by faith, and so God treats me as if I were righteous on the basis of Christ’s person and work, even though I am not actually righteous and I do not “have” righteousness in the strict sense.

      Gal 5 does contain a list of other qualities which flow from my relationship with Christ by the Spirit. But these qualities aren’t the same as righteousness.


  8. John Smuts

    I don’t see how this is any different from status. If we do not possess this quality but are counted as having this quality because of Christ that sounds just like a status being conveyed doesn’t it?

    I wasn’t trying to say that the fruit of the Spirit are/is (?) the same as righteousness but I was trying to tease out what this quality you speak of looks like. If it’s green then I can see it. Your quality looks more like an invisible status to me.

    • Hi John – The difference is that if righteousness were simply a status, then we would be able to say that we “have” it (since the status has actually been given to us by God). By way of analogy, “forgiveness” is a status; and thus if God has forgiven me, I can rightly say that I have forgiveness. But since righteousness is a quality, we can’t ultimately say that we “have” it, we can only say that we are being treated as if we have it. On the other hand, “justification” is indeed a status, because it is the result of God treating us as if we are righteous.

      As to what righteousness looks like, much of the OT law is a gigantic and multifaceted illustration of what righteousness looks like. A person who is “righteous” is a person who demonstrably conforms, in his moral life, to the norms which God, as creator, has set up in creation and by which he will judge us. There are a number of people in the OT who are said to conform to some aspect of God’s norms, and can be said to be “righteous” in a specific and relative sense. But since none of us finally and ultimately measures up to God’s norms, none of us is righteous in the ultimate sense.

      Maybe 1 Kings 8:32 can serve as an example? God is asked to “justify the righteous”. Righteousness comes before the act of justification, not after it. That is, righteousness is the quality which forms the basis upon which God makes his judgement, not the resulting status. This holds true in the NT as well, except that (as the doctrine of imputation claims), ultimately the righteousness that God bases his action of “justification” upon (which leads to the status of “justified”) is the righteousness of Christ.

      Perhaps the problem is that people have been confusing “righteousness” (which is a quality) with “justification” (which is indeed a status)? Does that help?

      BTW thanks for forcing me to think this through and articulate it 🙂

    • One more thing – if we want to see what “righteousness” looks like, we look to Christ, not to ourselves. That’s because Christ has it, and we don’t. But since we are “in Christ” in a very real way, we can be rightly treated as if we do actually have it.

  9. John Smuts

    Sorry Lionel, I must be being dense here. I thought that the gospel involved us receiving a righteousness from God. It is a gift. ISTM that is more than God treating us as if we are righteous (although the NT does use that language as well) that we actually do have it. You seem to be saying that God does it with smoke and mirrors – ‘as if we do actually have it’. Also ‘treating as if’ still sounds like status language to me – something conveyed on me because of God’s authority not because of my possessing a quality.

    Or, more likely, I’m missing what you are your saying.

  10. Hi John – no accusations of denseness intended! This is deep stuff, and I think maybe we are indeed missing each other.

    Some clarifications:

    1) Justification is related to righteousness, but it is not the same. Righteousness is a quality, justification is a declaration of the existence of that quality, which then leads to a status of “being justified”. So I’m not at all denying that there is status language in Paul, just that the noun “righteousness” itself (and its associated adjective “righteous”) means a quality.

    2) What we receive in the gospel is Christ, and therefore we may be said to possess Christ’s righteousness in a derivative (but still very real) sense. Christ is righteous, he “has” righteousness, as a quality, in the basic and fundamental sense. By faith, we have a real, spiritual union with Christ. That means that this righteousness of Christ’s can be said to be “ours” too. “Justification” normally means “declaring that a person truly has the quality of righteousness”. But when it comes to us, who are not righteous, the righteousness that is used as a basis for our justification is Christ’s righteousness, not ours.

    3) It’s not smoke and mirrors, because our union with Christ is real and fundamental. This is Calvin’s point, when he says,

    We do not, therefore, contemplate him [i.e. Christ] outside ourselves from afar in order that his righteousness may be imputed to us but because we put on Christ and are engrafted into his body—in short, because he deigns to make us one with him. For this reason, we glory that we have fellowship of righteousness with him.

    (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 3.11.10)

    Calvin is here defending the right kind of imputation (that is based on our spiritual union with Christ) from an inadequate view of imputation. But, unless I’m badly mistaken, Calvin is not saying that the word “righteousness” is simply a status. He still believes that the word “righteousness” is being used in its normal dictionary sense, as a quality.

    4) It is true that, if we only had Paul’s letters, we might be excused for saying that “righteousness” for Paul, in certain eschatological forensic contexts, is just a status. And therefore, that the doctrine of imputation is redundant (you don’t impute a status, you just declare it). But Paul’s usage of “righteousness” language is consciously rooted in the Old Testament forensic contexts, where the word “righteousness” is not a status which occurs as the result of the declaration of justification, but rather a quality which forms the basis for the act of justification. I want to argue that Paul is still using the word “righteousness” in a similar manner to the OT forensic usage (as a quality); he hasn’t completely redefined it somehow to mean something else (i.e. a status, or even a substance, for that matter). And yet, his view of our righteousness has also radically changed because of his understanding of Christ’s person and work. See Phil 3:9 – Instead of facing the last day being found to be possessed of the quality of righteousness in ourselves, we will be found “in Christ”, and therefore having Christ’s quality of righteousness being used by God as the basis for our justification. This is why the doctrine of imputation is important, and not redundant.

  11. John Smuts

    Lionel says – “What we receive in the gospel is Christ, and therefore we may be said to possess Christ’s righteousness in a derivative (but still very real) sense. Christ is righteous, he “has” righteousness, as a quality, in the basic and fundamental sense. By faith, we have a real, spiritual union with Christ. That means that this righteousness of Christ’s can be said to be “ours” too. “Justification” normally means “declaring that a person truly has the quality of righteousness”. But when it comes to us, who are not righteous, the righteousness that is used as a basis for our justification is Christ’s righteousness, not ours.

    I’m with you on Calvin and certainly the need to keep imputation. The analogy Keller uses here is that of marriage – Christ’s riches become really mine at the moment of union. If we were talking about the quality of being rich then I can see how your use of ‘quality’ works; it’s just that I can’t conceive speaking of righteousness in the same way. That may well be due to my lack of imagination though.

  12. Hi John, Tim Keller is in good company when he uses the analogy of marriage; this comes from Martin Luther (who may have got it from somebody else). I reckon that “being rich” can be a helpful metaphor / analogy, although it runs the danger of degenerating into an economic, “substance” view of righteousness (as monetary “riches”) if not handled with appropriate care.

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