The Hebrew verb tsa·dheqʹ (related to tseʹdheq, meaning “righteousness”) at times is rendered “declare righteous” and “pronounce righteous.” (Ex 23:7; De 25:1) This Biblical expression is also rendered as “justify,” and the noun forms are translated “justification.” The original words (di·kai·oʹo [verb], di·kaiʹo·ma and di·kaiʹo·sis [nouns]) in the Christian Greek Scriptures, where the fullest explanation of the matter is found, basically carry the idea of absolving or clearing of any charge, holding as guiltless, and hence acquitting, or pronouncing and treating as righteous.
Thus the apostle Paul speaks of God as being “proved righteous [form of di·kai·oʹo]” in His words and winning when being judged by detractors. (Ro 3:4) Jesus said that “wisdom is proved righteous by its works” and that, when rendering an account on Judgment Day, men would be “declared righteous [form of di·kai·oʹo]” or condemned by their words. (Mt 11:19; 12:36, 37) Jesus said that the humble tax collector who prayed repentantly in the temple “went down to his home proved more righteous” than the boastful Pharisee praying at the same time. (Lu 18:9-14; 16:15) The apostle Paul states that the person who dies is “acquitted [form of di·kai·oʹo] from his sin,” having paid the penalty of death.
However, in addition to such usages, these Greek words are used in a special sense as referring to an act of God whereby one is accounted guiltless (Ac 13:38, 39; Ro 8:33) and also to God’s act in declaring a person perfect in integrity and judged worthy of the right to life, as will be seen.
In Pre-Christian Times. Originally, Adam was perfect, a righteous man, a human “son of God.” (Lu 3:38) He was righteous by virtue of God’s creation of him and was declared “very good” by his Creator. (Ge 1:31) But he failed to maintain integrity before God and lost righteousness for himself and for his future offspring.
Nevertheless, from among his descendants there came men of faith who “walked with the true God,” such as Noah, Enoch, and Job. (Ge 5:22; 6:9; 7:1; Job 1:1, 8; 2:3) Of Abraham, it is stated that he exercised faith in God and was “declared righteous”; also, it is written that Rahab of Jericho manifested her faith by her works and so was “declared righteous,” her life being spared when the city of Jericho was destroyed. (Jas 2:21-23, 25) It may be noted that in James’ epistle (as cited) and also in Paul’s letter to the Romans (4:3-5, 9-11), in which he quotes Genesis 15:6, it is stated that Abraham’s faith was “counted to him as righteousness.” Understanding of this expression is aided by considering the sense of the Greek verb lo·giʹzo·mai, “count,” here used.
How “counted” righteous. This Greek verb lo·giʹzo·mai was used regularly in ancient times for numerical calculations or computations such as in accounting, being used when referring both to something that was entered on the debit side of an account and also to something entered on the credit side thereof. In the Bible it is used to mean “reckon, credit, count, or take into account.” Thus 1 Corinthians 13:5 says that love “does not keep account [form of lo·giʹzo·mai] of the injury” (compare 2Ti 4:16); and the psalmist David is quoted as saying: “Happy is the man whose sin Jehovah will by no means take into account.” (Ro 4:8) Paul showed to those who looked at things according to their face value the need to make a proper evaluation of matters, to look at both sides of the ledger, as it were. (2Co 10:2, 7, 10-12) At the same time, Paul was concerned that “no one should put to [his] credit [form of lo·giʹzo·mai]” more than was correct as regards his ministry.
The word lo·giʹzo·mai may also mean “esteem, appraise, count, rate, or reckon (with a group, class, or type).” (1Co 4:1) Thus Jesus said that he would be “reckoned [form of lo·giʹzo·mai] with lawless ones,” that is, counted or classed as in among them or as if one of them. (Lu 22:37) In his letter to the Romans, the apostle says that in the case of the uncircumcised person keeping the Law, his “uncircumcision will be counted as circumcision,” that is, estimated or looked upon as if it were circumcision. (Ro 2:26) In a similar sense, Christians were urged to ‘reckon themselves to be dead as regards sin but alive as regards God by Christ Jesus.’ (Ro 6:11) And anointed Christians from among the Gentiles, though not fleshly descendants of Abraham, were “counted as the seed” of Abraham.
How could Abraham be declared righteous before the death of Christ?
So, also, Abraham’s faith, combined with works, was “counted [reckoned, credited, or attributed] to him as righteousness.” (Ro 4:20-22) This, of course, does not mean that he and other faithful men of pre-Christian times were perfect or free from sin; yet, by virtue of their exercise of faith in God’s promise concerning the “seed” and because they were striving to follow God’s commands, they were not classed as unrighteous with no standing before God, like the rest of the world of mankind. (Ge 3:15; Ps 119:2, 3) Jehovah lovingly accounted them guiltless, when compared with the world of mankind alienated from God. (Ps 32:1, 2; Eph 2:12) Thus, God could, by reason of their faith, have dealings with such imperfect men and bless them, doing so while still remaining true to his own perfect standards of justice. (Ps 36:10) However, such ones recognized their need for redemption from sin and were awaiting God’s due time to provide it.
Christ Jesus’ “One Act of Justification.” The Scriptures show that Jesus Christ when on earth was actually perfect in human organism (1Pe 1:18, 19) and that he maintained his perfection by continuing to retain and strengthen his integrity under test. This was in accord with God’s purpose to make the Chief Agent of salvation “perfect through sufferings.” (Heb 2:10) That is, Jesus was perfected as to obedience and integrity keeping and was perfected for his position as God’s High Priest of salvation, as Paul shows at Hebrews 5:7-10. Finishing his earthly course free from flaw in any sense of the word, Jesus was acknowledged by God as justified. He was thus the only man who, through test, stood firmly and positively just, or righteous before God on his own merit. By this “one act of justification [form of di·kaiʹo·ma],” that is, by Jesus’ proving himself perfectly righteous through his entire flawless course, including his sacrifice, he provided the basis for declaring righteous those persons having faith in Christ.
In the Christian Congregation. With the coming of God’s Son as the promised Redeemer, a new factor existed upon which God could base his dealings with his human servants. The followers of Jesus Christ who are called to be his spiritual brothers, with the prospect of being joint heirs with him in the heavenly Kingdom (Ro 8:17), are first declared righteous by God on the basis of their faith in Jesus Christ. (Ro 3:24, 28) This is a judicial act of Jehovah God; therefore before him as the Supreme Judge no one can “file accusation” against his chosen ones. (Ro 8:33, 34) Why does God take this action toward them?
First, it is because Jehovah is perfect and holy (Isa 6:3); hence, in harmony with his holiness, those whom he accepts as his sons must be perfect. (De 32:4, 5) Jesus Christ, God’s chief Son, showed himself perfect, “loyal, guileless, undefiled, separated from the sinners.” (Heb 7:26) His followers, however, are taken from among the sons of Adam, who, because of sin, fathered an imperfect, sinful family. (Ro 5:12; 1Co 15:22) Thus, as John 1:12, 13 shows, Jesus’ followers were not, to begin with, sons of God. By his undeserved kindness, Jehovah God arranged a process of “adoption” through which he accepts such favored ones and brings them into a spiritual relationship as part of his family of sons. (Ro 8:15, 16; 1Jo 3:1) Consequently, God lays the basis for their entry into or their adoption to sonship by declaring them righteous through the merit of Christ’s ransom sacrifice in which they exercise faith, acquitting them of all guilt due to sin. (Ro 5:1, 2, 8-11; compare Joh 1:12.) They are, therefore, “counted,” or credited, as being completely righteous persons, all their sins being forgiven and not charged against them.
This declaring of such Christians righteous, therefore, goes much farther than in the case of Abraham (and other pre-Christian servants of Jehovah), previously discussed. Indicating the scope of Abraham’s justification, the disciple James wrote: “The scripture was fulfilled which says: ‘Abraham put faith in Jehovah, and it was counted to him as righteousness,’ and he came to be called ‘Jehovah’s friend.’” (Jas 2:20-23) So, because of his faith, Abraham was declared righteous as a friend of God, not as a son of God because of being “born again” with heavenly life in view. (Joh 3:3) The Scriptural record makes clear that prior to Christ’s coming neither such sonship nor such a heavenly hope had been opened up to men.
It can be seen that, though enjoying the status of righteous persons before God, these Christians do not possess actual or literal perfection in the flesh. (1Jo 1:8; 2:1) In view of the prospect of heavenly life for these followers of Christ, such literal perfection in fleshly organism now is not actually needed. (1Co 15:42-44, 50; Heb 3:1; 1Pe 1:3, 4) However, by their being declared righteous, having righteousness “counted,” or credited, to them, God’s requirements of justice are satisfied, and he brings the adopted ones into the “new covenant” validated by the blood of Jesus Christ. (Lu 22:20; Mt 26:28) These adopted spiritual sons in the new covenant that is made with spiritual Israel are ‘baptized into Christ’s death,’ eventually dying a death like his.
Although Jehovah forgives their sins of fleshly weakness and imperfection, nevertheless, a conflict exists in these Christians, as illustrated in Paul’s letter to the Romans (7:21-25). It is between the law of their renewed mind (Ro 12:2; Eph 4:23), or “God’s law,” and “sin’s law” that is in their members. This is because their fleshly bodies are not perfected, even though they are counted righteous and their sins are forgiven. This conflict contributes to the test of their integrity toward God. They can win this conflict by the help of God’s spirit and with the assistance of their merciful High Priest, Christ Jesus. (Ro 7:25; Heb 2:17, 18) To win, however, they must constantly exercise faith in Christ’s ransom sacrifice and follow him, thus maintaining their righteousness in God’s eyes. (Compare Re 22:11.) Thereby they ‘make their calling and choosing sure’ for themselves. (2Pe 1:10; Ro 5:1, 9; 8:23-34; Tit 3:6, 7) If, on the other hand, they take up the practice of sin, falling away from the faith, they lose their favored standing before God as righteous persons because they “impale the Son of God afresh for themselves and expose him to public shame.” (Heb 6:4-8) Such ones face destruction. (Heb 10:26-31, 38, 39) Thus, Jesus spoke of the sin that has no forgiveness, and the apostle John distinguished between the sin that “does not incur death” and the sin that “does incur death.”
Jesus Christ, after maintaining his faithfulness until death, was “made alive in the spirit,” given immortality and incorruption. (1Pe 3:18; 1Co 15:42, 45; 1Ti 6:16) He was thus “declared [or pronounced] righteous in spirit” (1Ti 3:16; Ro 1:2-4) and sat down at the right hand of God in the heavens. (Heb 8:1; Php 2:9-11) The faithful footstep followers of Christ await a resurrection like his (Ro 6:5), looking forward to becoming recipients of “divine nature.”
Other Righteous Ones. In one of Jesus’ illustrations, or parables, relating to the time of his coming in Kingdom glory, persons likened to sheep are designated as “righteous ones.” (Mt 25:31-46) It is notable, however, that in this illustration these “righteous ones” are presented as separate and distinct from those whom Christ calls “my brothers.” (Mt 25:34, 37, 40, 46; compare Heb 2:10, 11.) Because these sheeplike ones render assistance to Christ’s spiritual “brothers,” thus demonstrating faith in Christ himself, they are blessed by God and are called “righteous ones.” Like Abraham, they are accounted, or declared, righteous as friends of God. (Jas 2:23) This righteous standing will mean survival for them when the “goats” depart “into everlasting cutting-off.”
A parallel situation may be noted in the vision recorded at Revelation 7:3-17. Here, a “great crowd” of indefinite number are shown as distinct from the 144,000 ‘sealed ones.’ (Compare Eph 1:13, 14; 2Co 5:1.) That this “great crowd” enjoys a righteous standing before God is indicated by the fact that they are described as having “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”
The “great crowd,” who survive the “great tribulation,” are not yet declared righteous for life
God Proved Righteous in All His Acts. It can be seen that in his dealings with imperfect humans, God never violates his own standards of righteousness and justice. He does not declare sinful persons righteous on their own merit, thereby overlooking or condoning sin. (Ps 143:1, 2) As the apostle Paul explains: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and it is as a free gift that they are being declared righteous by his undeserved kindness through the release by the ransom paid by Christ Jesus. God set him forth as an offering for propitiation through faith in his blood. This was in order to exhibit his own righteousness, because he was forgiving the sins that occurred in the past while God was exercising forbearance; so as to exhibit his own righteousness in this present season, that he might be righteous even when declaring righteous the man that has faith in Jesus.” (Ro 3:23-26) Thus God, through undeserved kindness, has provided a legal arrangement on the basis of Christ’s sacrifice by which he can be completely just and righteous in forgiving the sins of those exercising faith.
Attempts at Proving Oneself Righteous. Since God alone can declare a man righteous, attempts to prove oneself righteous on the basis of one’s own merit or by acceptance of the judgment of others as to one’s righteousness are of no value. Job was reproved because, though not charging God with any wrong, he was “declaring his own soul righteous rather than God.” (Job 32:1, 2) The man versed in the Law who questioned Jesus about the way to everlasting life was indirectly reproved by Jesus for his attempt to prove himself righteous. (Lu 10:25-37) Jesus condemned the Pharisees for seeking to declare themselves righteous before men. (Lu 16:15) The apostle Paul, in particular, showed that, because of the imperfect, sinful state of all mankind, none could be declared righteous through trying to establish their own righteousness by works of the Mosaic Law. (Ro 3:19-24; Ga 3:10-12) Instead, he stressed faith in Christ Jesus as the true basis for such declaration of righteousness. (Ro 10:3, 4) The inspired letter of James complements Paul’s statement by showing that such faith must be made to live, not by works of Law, but by works of faith, as in the cases of Abraham and Rahab.
Certain men, falsely claiming to be apostles, unjustly challenged the apostleship and Christian works of Paul, seeking thereby to draw away the Corinthian congregation to themselves. (2Co 11:12, 13) Paul, knowing that he was faithfully carrying out a stewardship for Christ, stated that he was not concerned with the judgment of men who, wholly unauthorized, sat in effect as a “human tribunal” to judge him. He did not even rely on his own judgment of himself, but he looked to Jehovah as his Examiner. (1Co 4:1-4) Thus the principle is set forth that reliance cannot be put in the judgment of men as to one’s righteousness or lack of it, unless their judgment is backed up by God’s Word. The person must look into God’s Word and let it examine him. (Heb 4:12) However, where the backing of God’s Word is evident, a person being reproved by a Christian brother, especially by an elder in the congregation, would not properly turn aside such reproof by trying to prove himself righteous. (Pr 12:1; Heb 12:11; 13:17) And anyone in a position of responsibility who sits in judgment of a matter or a dispute would be condemned by God if he pronounced “the wicked one righteous in consideration of a bribe.”