Sunday, April 25, 2010

Justice vs Righteousness

So after reading George MacDonald's {unspoken} sermon on Justice in spurned me to do a little research of my own. His view that mercy and justice are one in the same has spoken volumes to me personally.

I found it interesting that the more modern bible translations seemed to have lost the righteousness and mercy of God. Meaning that those two words aren't used as often in the text. On the other hand in the KJV the word "justice" is used only 28 times in the whole bible; all of those times being in the Old Testament. {The picture on the left is the breakdown of each word and how many times it is used in each version respectfully.} What I am wondering is that if we start to leave out righteousness and instead use justice it can give the wrong connotation of who God is in His character. Not that He isn't just, He is. But His justice is in the midst of several other attributes.

When I think of the word justice I always think in terms of judicial or criminal; earthly law. But when I think of the word righteousness I think in terms of Divine virtue. I don't think of the righteousness of God to be one of His characteristics; I think it to be the umbrella that defines who He is in all His characteristics and attributes. I have always believed one of the most powerful verses in the bible to be when Moses asks God who he should say is sending him, God responds "I AM who I AM" {Ex 3:14} Meaning God is who He says He is all the time and in all fullness.

What makes the Godhead righteous is that HE IS "merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin..." {Ex 34:6-7} That HE IS "love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law." {Gal 5:22-23} These are His righteousness, this is what makes Him who HE IS. So anytime anyone of the Godhead has told us who HE IS, it should tell us He has always been that way and will always be that way. God is infinitely and eternally righteous.

In the Old Testament Hebrew justice and righteousness are the same word tsedaquah. But what does righteousness look like? The Proverbs are always great definitions...

"Treasures of wickedness profit nothing, But righteousness delivers from death." Prov 10:2

"The mouth of a righteous man is a well of life: but violence covereth the mouth of the wicked." Prov 10:11

"The labour of the righteous tendeth to life: the fruit of the wicked to sin." Prov 10:16

"The lips of the righteous feed many: but fools die for want of wisdom." Prov 10:21

"The desire of the righteous is only good: but the expectation of the wicked is wrath." Prov 11:23
"The words of the wicked are to lie in wait for blood: but the mouth of the upright{righteous} shall deliver them." Prov 12:6

"The wicked desireth the net of evil men: but the root of the righteous yieldeth fruit." Prov 12:12

"Righteousness keepeth him that is upright in the way: but wickedness overthroweth the sinner." Prov 13:6

Now look at the difference in translation of these two verses Proverbs 8:21-22. The "I" that is speaking is Wisdom...

"I lead in the way of righteousness, in the midst of the paths of judgment{justice}: That I may cause those that love me to inherit substance; and I will fill their treasures."

"I walk in the way of righteousness, along the paths of justice, bestowing wealth on those who love me and making their treasuries full."

Now see how the NIV makes it seem as though justice and righteousness are two parallel paths heading in the same direction. But then look at the KJV righteousness is in the midst of justice; the are not separate but one in the same. Now I am not doing this to dog on the NIV. I am just trying to show that the righteousness of God {and all the attributes that includes} should never be separated from his justice. They are one in the same just as His mercy and justice are one in the same.

Most of the verses in the New Testament that the NIV/NLT uses the word justice the KJV uses the word righteousness. And again I'm not sure why; because to me they have such different connotations. Even in the English language we can see the difference in definition. In the English language the definition of justice really leaves no room for mercy whereas the word righteousness does. Here are a few examples of New Testament...

"Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled." Matt 5:6

"God blesses those who are hungry and thirsty for justice, for they will receive it in full." Matt 5:6

"Because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead." Acts 17:31

"For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.” Acts 17:31

"Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God..." Rom 3:25

"God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished..." Rom 3:25

"And I saw heaven opened, and behold a white horse; and he that sat upon him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he doth judge and make war." Rev 19:11

"I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and makes war." Rev 19:11

It seems to me that we as Christians are called to be righteous, to be Christ like. Meaning to be merciful, gracious, loving, forgiving, gentle, good, kind, patient, joyful, humble, compassionate, giving, slow to anger, respectful, empathetic...get the picture? I do not believe we are called to fight injustice with justice. Instead were are called to fight injustice with righteousness. Righteousness is always fruitful because it is what is right. Justice can easily be corrupted since it is subject to man. Righteousness is not subject to man but to God. Are we thirsting for the justice of man which tends to be legalistic and leaves little room for mercy or the righteousness of God which is life and always has been and always will be merciful?


  1. I really enjoying your blog entry on Justice vs. Righteousness. I hear the 'justice' theme ringing in many churches today as it pertains to fighting injustices to the point that one might allow for righteousness to fall to the backgroud. I echo your comment that we are to fight injustice with righteouness. Righteousness will always prevail.

  2. It is so true... we don't begin to understand God's justice... is not what we think... God's justice is to set right, to restitute what was taken, to give back what was rightful, to do right in the sight of wrong... that is JUSTICE, GOD'S WAY!

  3. Hi there, this is a really interesting blog.

    With regards your comment "I do not believe we are called to fight injustice with justice. Instead were are called to fight injustice with righteousness," I agree fully, but with slightly different reasons...

    I agree with the importance of righteousness, however, it's not an issue of righteousness Vs justice. The two are inseparable, which is why the Hebrew uses a single word for both.

    In modern western culture, we tend to be very individualistic. At least from my perspective, we restrict the idea of being righteous to personal conduct - Am I praying regularly, what's my thought life like, I mustn't gossip, don't be materialistic, be humble, be slow to anger etc. These are all good, but righteousness is far more than personal conduct. In Isaiah 58, the people's conduct is faultless - they go to temple to worship daily, they pray continuously, they offer sacrifices, they study the law diligently, they fast etc. but they don't get what God's idea of righteousness is: "to loose the bonds of wickedness, let the oppressed go free, share your bread with the hungry..." It's impossible to be 'righteous' and not uphold justice - i.e. look after those in need.

    Old testament Hebrew scholar, Bruce Waltke, points out that "the righteous" were those that poured themselves out for the benefit (shalom) of the wider community. They were those that put others' needs before their own.

    Jesus teaching on separating the sheep from the goats really emphasizes this point. The reason that justice is so important is because Jesus was that person who didn't get justice. He was born into abject poverty, lived hand-to-mouth and experienced the greatest injustice anyone could ever experience - the cross. He doesn't just sympathise with those in need, he identifies completely with those in need - so what are we going to do for him?!

    In summary, I think the greatest danger is not that we drop righteousness for the sake of justice, but that we mistake 'righteousness' for personal conduct. Justice in the community (feeding the hungry, supporting people into education, upholding the rights of minorities etc.) IS God's idea of righteousness.

  4. I agree so much with your point. Justice and Righteousness are undoubtedly inseparable! They're almost synonymous--both are actually derived from the same Greek Word 'dikaiosune'. As Christians fighting for the justice of all does not necessarily mean by the standards of our corrupt society--but by God's law which is derived from His holy character. Even the process of Justification which we as Christians receive when we accept Jesus Christ as our Saviour binds both terms 'justice' and righteousness together'. Justification means to declare a person 'right'/ 'righteous' and this is what we receive when we accept Him. He declares us 'right' (Romans 5:1) through Faith because of the imputation of Jesus' righteousness.
    Jesus reflected the righteousness of God by bringing about Justice (based on God's holy law)--He brought the gospel and love of God to the outcasts of society. How is our righteous acts as Christian really portrayed? When we exemplify the love of God to who the scripture calls the 'lease of the these'--the fatherless, widows and sojourns. Just look on Christ's actions while He was here on earth! He brought justice to those who the society and even society's law denied-->like t he adulterous woman who was about to be stoned to death before Jesus stepped in and brought about God's justice to that woman "let whosoever is without sin cast the first stone"-->and that's how that woman's life was changed forever!
    And as Christians how are we really going to show that the Holy Spirit is living within us--that we are true followers of Jesus Christ? when we bring justice to the outcasts of society-->that's how persons around us are going to want and come to know the God we serve


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