What is 'Righteousness' Under the New Covenant?

Does the Concept of 'Righteousness' Change With the Coming of Christ?

This is the question which I was recently asked

The word 'righteousness' still means holy, unspotted and unblemished character before God, a standard which none of us could ever measure up to - but now the requirement is fully met in Jesus Christ.

F irst of all, what is 'righteousness'? Probably the best definition is, 'the state of moral perfection and holiness of character required by God in order for people to enter heaven.'

In the Old Testament we find 'righteousness' firmly associated with law-keeping. '...All your commandments are righteousness...' (Psalm 119:172). However, to take the Old Testament in its entirety, including the story of Abraham and much else therein, 'righteousness' is certainly broader and wider than simply keeping the law. This needs to be pointed out in contradistinction to certain cults and sects which offer Psalm 119:172 as a complete definition of 'righteousness.'

Next, we need to define the matter of 'covenant.'

The Old and New Covenants

The Bible contains several covenants, which are essentially agreements between God and Man, but with God performing that part which people - of themselves - are incapable of; all that God requires of us is agreement, faith and obedience. As an example, the 'bow in the sky' (or, 'rainbow'), now often scoffed at by evolutionary science, remains God's sign to us, His human creation, that is, that He will never again entirely flood this earth, so He allows the sign to appear in showery weather. Of course, God Himself decided and dictated which atmospheric laws He would employ for rainbow formulation. It is utterly ludicrous for scientists to say, 'Theists, Jews and Christians are wrong because we have now discovered how rainbows work!' Of course, it was always possible to discover the physical/atmospheric laws which God employed to enable the 'bow in the sky' to appear - but Who designed and placed those laws into place right at the beginning?

Of the several Bible covenants, it is plain that two of them carry the most spiritual weight and authority as being salvific covenants (directly pertaining to salvation and Eternal Life):

  1. The Old Covenant
  2. The New Covenant

The 'old covenant' is that ratified at Mount Sinai between God and the physical people of Israel under the leadership of Moses, that is, those people descended from Abraham, through Sarah and Isaac - 'the children of promise.' The Ten Commandments stood at the centre of those laws and that covenant, but there were over 600 laws in all. In short, Israel later broke those laws and that covenant; they were not faithful to it. Spiritually-speaking, the Lord divorced them. At this point, to get one's bearings, it would be wise and profitable to read the prophecy of Jeremiah 31:31-34. The term "new covenant" appears in scripture for the first time here.

"Behold, days are coming," declares the LORD, "when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them," declares the LORD.
"But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days," declares the LORD, "I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. "They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, 'Know the LORD,' for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them," declares the LORD, "for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more."

Martin Luther and 'the Righteousness of God'

Luther - at first - feared the expression, "the righteousness of God" in Romans 1:17, seeing it as setting a standard which is so far above us, who would ever be able to measure up? It was only when he came to understand the expression in a genitive sense (that is, 'a righteousness belonging to God') that he was able to re-interpret Paul's phrase as the "righteousness from God." So Luther became convinced that 'the righteousness of God' in Romans 1:17 had nothing to do with God punishing sinners because of His very high standard of righteousness, rather, it was about God granting sinners a righteous status. Therefore, Luther concluded, "the righteousness of God" is 'the righteousness from God.' It is what He makes available to us; At conversion the believer receives a righteousness that is not of himself, but of a holy and perfect God.

One important concept crucial to Luther's theology of Romans 1:17 is that 'the righteousness of God' is purely forensic, a judicial standing/status. Luther wrote, "the righteousness of God is not to be understood as the righteousness by which one becomes righteous of himself, but that by which we are made righteous by Him; and that is done through faith in the Gospel." Put simply, Luther did not advocate that this righteousness internally renewed or morally transformed the person. He came to understand that grace alone can save us. Without doubt, this understanding is clear enough within the writings of Paul but it had become lost within the rituals and observances of the medieval church.

This important insight has now passed into all genuine Protestantism. Looking at the Greek now, it seems clear enough but Catholicism never considered such an understanding because this would be at odds with large areas of Catholic teaching with its endless confessions, duties, ordinances, set-piece prayers and required observances. The full understanding of Protestantism, developed through Luther and Calvin, would ultimately make the Catholic priest truly redundant.

So, in these verses, we see that God made Himself the husband of Israel, whom He had chosen to be His bride. However, Israel were disobedient, therefore God eventually 'divorced' Old Testament Israel (a fact too often overlooked today). God, therefore, now chose to establish a new and better covenant, not with those physical people of Israelitish descent, but with a new people of Israel.

How The Gospel Solves the 'Righteousness Problem'

Under the Old Covenant, we have a problem; there is a big gap between the requirements of God regarding 'righteousness,' and what men and women are even capable of achieving. Within the New Covenant, God solves the problem by becoming a man in Jesus. And Jesus, the man, willingly gives God his whole heart, demonstrating complete faith and obedience in His Father and fulfilling all the requirements of the law. God now not only plays His part as the husband, but Jesus also takes the place of Israel and - as Israel's representative - He loves God faithfully and fully in return - thus fulfilling the covenant requirements. The people of the New Covenant are New Israel, or the Church; these are Spirit-led Christians called to serve under Christ. Only through Christ's sacrifice could these people ever had been restored to God. Of course, they remain physical, fallible men and women, Christ alone being the source of their righteousness. He is the only mediator between man and God (1 Timothy 2:5). An exchange occurs in which Christ takes our sins, and we take His righteousness.

So this brings us to the very heart of the gospel. The righteousness of God has been made manifest (Romans 1:17-18) and it is now available not only to the Jews, but to the Gentiles as well. All together these people now form The Church of Jesus Christ (not any single denomination of course). God has demonstrated His righteousness as He has remained loyal to the covenant. No longer does man have the burden of attempting to 'keep' over 600 laws to be righteous, but now is made righteous by faith in the work of Jesus Christ. Through faith in Jesus' life and work upon the cross, our past, present and future sins are forgiven and God places us "in Christ" where we are made a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17) with a new heart that loves like Jesus Christ Himself loves. So, it is through this New Covenant, that God has made it possible for you and me to be righteous (1 Corinthians 11:25) as the requirement of the law is now fulfilled in true believers by Jesus Christ (Romans 8:1-4). Thus God has done everything and all we bring is our faith where even the ability to have that faith actually comes from Him. But, although a true exchange has occurred, Christ's righteousness is never infused by us (as Catholicism teaches), it is a matter of responsibility, we become 'covered' by the grace of God; the responsibility and guilt of sin is lifted from our shoulders. We get the best possible deal from this! For Christ truly took our sins upon His shoulders and could do so since - being God - He could not suffer eternal death. As time goes by, our lives should reflect Christ more and more but with no true perfection available to the repentant sinner in this present life.

In Romans 1:17, Paul states that the righteousness of God is revealed "from faith to faith" - this means that not only do we come by faith to Jesus Christ to be saved, but our new life in Christ is also one of continual faith - faith in the life of our resurrected and Living Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ. So it may be seen that the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit are fully involved in our New Covenant salvation process, the Spirit Himself drawing us, then giving us much assistance on our imperfect walks as Christian believers. Like old covenant Israel, we too are on a walk leading to 'the promised land,' but - unlike Israel - we now know that that 'promised land' is not of this present world and society, it is to be found in the 'New Heavens and New Earth.'

In Romans 12:1-2 we are asked to present our bodies as living sacrifices so that Jesus Christ - who lives within us - can also make Himself visible to others through us. Our only job description is to make the invisible Jesus visible - like Jesus made the Father visible as He chose to allow the Father to work through Him. We are also to be as 'ambassadors for Christ' (2 Corinthians 5:20; Ephesians 6:20), and for His Kingdom. We live within these present earthly societies but we should remain somewhat detached, representing the interests of our own government - Christ and the Kingdom of God! Sadly, I think all too many of us forget about this principle; the opposite is 'worldliness,' to throw oneself right into the centre of this world's present corrupt societies.

Secure in the knowledge that we are not our own, but bought with an incalculable price, we know whose we are, who we are, and why we are here. It is that secure identity, that source of unquenchable joy, that makes all of life sacramental. His body was broken, his blood poured out for us. Now in him, through him, to him we "offer [our] bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God" (Romans 12:1).

So 'righteousness' may be defined as the state of moral perfection required by God for men and women to inherit Eternal Life. It would not have proven possible without the Son of God Himself coming to earth and living as a man, but then being sacrificed - not for His sins - but for the sins of all who would come to Him in faith, of all ages. So the Bible very clearly states that human beings cannot achieve righteousness through their own efforts, nor through struggling to keep the law:

"Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God's sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin." (Romans 3:20, NIV).

The Ten Commandments merely served to illustrate how far we all fall short of God's standards. The only solution to that dilemma is God's plan of salvation which Jesus came to facilitate. So, to reiterate:

People receive righteousness through faith in Jesus Christ as Saviour. Christ, the sinless Son of God, took humanity's sin upon himself and became the willing, perfect sacrifice, suffering the punishment which mankind deserved. God the Father accepted Jesus' sacrifice, through which human beings can become justified. In turn, believers receive righteousness from Christ.

This doctrine is called 'imputation,' in which Christ's perfect righteousness is applied to imperfect humans.

To briefly 're-cap,' to ensure that we all understand this:

The Old Testament tells us that because of the sin of Adam, we, his descendants, have inherited his sinful nature. God set up a system in Old Testament times whereby people sacrificed animals to depict an atonement for their sins. The shedding of blood was clearly demonstrated to be an essential ingredient and requirement in this. But, of course, animal sacrifices could never be sufficient, but the future need of such a blood atonement was clearly depicted. The continual round of Israel's sacrifices was exhausting, difficult and demanding; this taught that sin can become one's master and is wearisome and demanding - never being satisfied, but always demanding more (in contrast, Jesus says, 'come to me for my burden is light' - Matthew 11:28-30).

Eventually Jesus entered the world and things changed. His crucifixion and resurrection satisfied God's justice. Christ's shed blood now covers our sins. No more sacrifices or works are required. His life was/is of such inestimable value that His one-time sacrifice upon the cross pays the judicial price and requirement for the sins of every single member of the human race who will appropriate Him in faith. It is not quite accurate to state (as some theological groupings do) that only the price of the sins of a tiny group are covered, the rest must go to Hell. No, the efficacy extends to all; the Bible is clear on this. See John 1:29; John 3:16-17; John 6:51; John 12:32; 2 Corinthians 5:15,19; 1 Timothy 2:4,6,10; 1 John 2:1-2.

No other religion offers grace. They all require some type of works on behalf of the participant. Only true, biblical New Covenant Christianity states that no matter how many works we do we can never measure up, but then we can look up and see our very Saviour with His covering grace stretched out over our heads. We are saved by grace through faith.

Very carefully go through this:

1. As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins,
2. in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.
3. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath.
4. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy,
5. made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions - it is by grace you have been saved.
6. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus,
7. in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.
8. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith - and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God -
9. not by works, so that no one can boast.
10. For we are God's handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Ephesians 2:1-10, NIV).


In summation, righteousness under the New Covenant is all about the righteousness of our Lord Jesus Christ and what that means to every believer. The word 'righteousness' still means holy, unspotted and faithful character before God but the requirement is fully met in Jesus Christ. We cannot attain to the standard of righteousness which God requires under our own 'steam,' but it is the righteousness of Christ which saves us. We now look beyond the Ten Commandments, to the law of Christ as outlined in the sermon on the mount (Matthew 5-7). We seek to obey in spirit rather than in letter as we walk with our elder brother, the Lord Jesus Christ. We now accept that we can never be 'good enough' - of ourselves - to be saved, but that we are saved by the righteousness of Our Lord Jesus Christ!

Robin A. Brace. October 17th, 2012.