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Four Aspects of Divine Righteousness, Part 1 (Fred Zaspel)

Psalm 97:2 declares that God dwells in “righteousness and justice” (tsedek and mishpat). That is to say, He is Himself right and true. He is morally and ethically right, and He acts according to what is proper. This, the psalmist affirms, is God’s very “habitation.” Righteousness is no accident to Him, no incidental quality. It is essential to His very being and always characterizes everything that He does. He is and does only what is right and just.

This theme is common in Scripture. “The judge of all the earth shall do right” (Gen. 18:25). He is a “righteous judge” (2 Tim. 4:8). “He shall judge the world in righteousness” (Ps. 9:8; Acts 17:31). The Father is the “righteous Father” (Jn. 17:25), the Son is the “righteous advocate” (1 Jn. 2:2), and the Spirit was sent “to convict the world of righteousness” (Jn. 16:8, 10). God is righteous, and He always acts only in keeping with what is just.

But what is that righteousness which is so characteristic of God? How shall we understand this attribute? The primary words which the Biblical writers use (tsedek and dikaiosune) denote, in a physical sense, “being straight,” or in a moral sense, “being right,” and hence, “conformity to an ethical or moral standard,”1 being and doing what is right. One who is righteous “lives up” to expected obligations; he acts in accordance with what should be done. A righteous man is one who is right and who does what is suitable, one who maintains a “right relation with”2 what is expected.

For this reason, theologians have described God’s righteousness as the ethical dimension of His holiness, or as His “transitive holiness,”3 or as a “mode” of His holiness.4 It is that aspect of His holiness which distinguishes Him as consistent with His own moral demands.

But then what is that rule, that standard of moral rectitude to which God is conformed? What law is it that obligates Him? We must be careful at this point not to imply that God is bound to some abstract rule external to Himself. To subject Him to any rule outside of Himself would be to make Him something less than God. No, He does not conform to anyone or to anything. He conforms only to Himself. That “rightness” to which He is obligated is nothing other than His own nature and will. It is His nature and will that determine right from wrong. And when Scripture declares that God does what is right, it affirms merely that He faithfully adheres to His own perfections. He acts only and always according to the very highest principle of justice: Himself.

In other words, righteousness is determined by Lordship. Divine sovereignty makes no concessions here. “Who has first given to him, and it shall be repaid to him?” (Rom. 11:35). “The right, therefore, which God hath to act his righteousness or to act righteously towards others, is supreme and sovereign, arising naturally and necessarily from the relation of all things unto himself.”5 “In this respect God is wholly arbitrary, and hath no other rule but his own will; he doth not will things because they are just, but therefore they are just because God wills them.”6

Interestingly, Plato rather blindly grappled at some length with this question. In his Dialogue with Euthyphro he appears frustrated at his inability to come to any certain conclusion as to “whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods.” For him, the answer was illusive. “For somehow or other our arguments, on whatever ground we rest them, seem to turn around and walk away from us.”7 In light of the unpredictability and inconsistencies and the disagreements among Plato’s many gods,8 and given his non-Biblical frame of reference, his frustration is understandable! But viewing the question from the vantage point of monotheistic special revelation, the answer is not at all speculative: God is sovereign, and as such it is His nature and will that constitute the very essence of righteousness. In the words of Mastrict, “God is proto-, in fact auto-dikaion.”9

For this reason John Piper is certainly correct in emphasizing that Paul”conceive[s] of God’s righteousness as his unswerving faithfulness always to preserve and display the glory of his name.”10 God is ever concerned to glorify Himself in all that He does, and His “righteousness” is no less designed to that end also. This is why man’s “unrighteousness” (adikia, Rom. 1:18) is described in terms of “not glorifying God as God” (v.21). Righteousness consists in glorifying God and nothing less. The law to which men are bound is His law in every respect. The law is “not above Him” but “within Him.”11 And this standard, being nothing other than the nature and will of God, is the standard to which the immutable God has bound Himself.

This is a truth about God which we are glad to know! It is one thing to know that He is sovereign and so rules the world by His own will. But it is something more indeed to know that He rules in righteousness. For all the apparent inequities of life, for all the favors He shows the wicked, and for all the afflictions that fall upon the righteous, it is necessary indeed that we know that God is just and that He will do what is right – however difficult it may be for us to see it at the moment. Or again, it is one thing to know that He is the Judge of all the world. But it is something much more to know that He judges according to what is right and in a way that is consistent with Himself, that He will not condemn the innocent or clear the guilty. Unlike the “gods” of the heathen, the true God is not whimsical or capricious. He is righteous. Immutably righteous. “The judge of all the earth will do what is right” (Gen.18:25). “The just Lord is in the midst thereof; he will not do iniquity” (Zeph.3:5).

But there is more to God’s righteousness than this. This is but the larger, more general picture. God’s righteousness expresses itself in various ways, and so as theologians (particularly the older theologians) studied the ways in which God’s righteousness is presented in Scripture, they tended to speak of it in various theological categories. These categories are very helpful as we seek to understand this very basic and important attribute of God.

We will pick up that discussion next time.

(Originally published in Reformation & Revival Journal Volume 6, Number 4, Winter 1997)

Fred Zaspel (Ph.D., Free University of Amsterdam) is pastor at the Reformed Baptist Church of Franconia, PA. He is also Professor of Systematic Theology at Calvary Baptist Seminary in Lansdale, PA. He is the author of The Theology of B.B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary  and Warfield on the Christian Life: Living in Light of the Gospel.


 1. Harold G. Stigers, “tsadeq” in Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, (TWOT) R. Laird Harris, ed. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1980), vol. 2, pp. 752. For discussions see TWOT, pp. 752-755; Ceslas Spicq, Theological Lexicon of the New Testament, James D. Ernest, transl. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994), vol. 1, pp. 318-361; Johannes P. Louw and Eugene A. Nida, Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains, (New York: United Bible Societies, 1989), vol. 1, pp. 452-453, 744-745; Colin Brown, “Righteousness” in The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Colin Brown, ed. (Grand Rapids: Regency Reference Library / Zondervan Publishing House, 1986), vol. 3, pp. 352-373. Related words in this semantic field include “right,” “righteous,” righteousness,” “uprightness,” “just,” “justice,” “justify,” “justification,” and “judgment.”

2. Louw and Nida, p. 452.

3. Augustus H. Strong, Systematic Theology (1907; reprint, Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1979), p. 290.

4. William G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology (1889; reprint, Minneapolis: Klock & Klock Christian Publishers, 1979), p. 364.

5. John Owen, The Works of John Owen, W. H. Goold, ed. (reprint; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1862), vol. XIX, p. 100.

6. Thomas Manton, The Complete Works of Thomas Manton (reprint; London: James Nisbet & Co., 1872), vol. VIII, p. 438. Some care should be given here, for this often has been misunderstood to imply that God has “arbitrarily decided,” willy-nilly, certain things to be right or wrong, and that if He had so “decided,” (e.g.,) lying would be proper. As Anselm aptly said, this would be like speaking of “dry water” or “moist fire,” for God is a God of truth (Cur Deus Homo in Saint Anselm: Basic Writings, S. N. Deane, transl. [reprint; LaSalle, IL: Open Court Publishing Co., 1962], p. 205). No, God’s “arbitrariness” is not of that kind. By “arbitrary” Manton means only to say that God’s moral demands are determined by none but His own being. “The law was not made according to arbitrary fiat, it is a righteous law, because conforming to the divine nature, higher than which there is and can be no norm” (Vos, op. cit., p. 251).

7. Euthyphro, in The Works of Plato, Irwin Edman, ed. (reprint; New York: The Modern Library, 1956), pp. 46, 48.

8. A problem which Plato acknowledges, Ibid., pp. 40, 44-45, etc.

9. Quoted in Heinrich Heppe, Reformed Dogmatics (1861; reprint, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1984), p. 97.

10. John Piper, The Justification of God (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1993) p. 100.

11. Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology (1948; reprint, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1977), p. 251.


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