The Meanings of “Righteous”

By Wayne Jackson

The Greek adjective dikaios, usually rendered “righteous” or “just,” occurs about eighty times in the New Testament. It is not easy to assign it a solitary meaning, because the term is used in a variety of ways, depending upon the context.

Let us illustrate at least three senses in which the inspired writers employed this word.

(1) The term is used in an absolute sense. For example, in the sermon that cost him his life, Stephen declared that the Jews had persecuted and killed their ancient prophets, who “showed before the coming of the Righteous One…” (Acts 7:52; cf. 22:14; 1 Pet. 3:18;1 Jn. 2:1). Jesus was "righteous in every respect. He always did the will of God (Jn. 8:29), never sinning, not even once (1 Pet. 2:22). When Paul described the whole human race by saying: “There is none righteous, no, not one” (Rom. 3:10), he similarly used the definitive in an absolute way.

Aside from Jesus, there is no responsible human being who has been wholly perfect. And so, underscore “righteous” in Acts 7:52, Romans 3:10, etc., and marginally note: Absolutely righteous

(2) “Righteous” may be used in a relative sense. Cornelius is called a “righteous” man (Acts 10:22). He was righteous compared to most Gentiles of that day, but he was not sinless because he was lost, hence, needed to be saved (11:14). Lot was a righteous man in contrast to the citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah (see 2 Pet. 2:8), but he was far from perfect.

And so, underline “righteous” in Acts 10:22, etc., and in your margin write: Relatively righteous.

(3) Finally, there is that which may be designated as a self-perceived sense of righteous character. Jesus said that he did not come to “call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Lk. 5:32). The Lord was not suggesting that some are so righteous they do not need his message. Rather, he was saying: There are those who perceive themselves as righteous (e.g., the Pharisees – vss. 29-30). I can hardly do them any good so long as they entertain that view. I can only help those who acknowledge they are “sick,” hence need a physician (31).

Thus, underscore “righteous,” and note: Self-perceived as righteous.

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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.