Do Justice and Righteousness
In Scripture, justice and righteousness are so closely connected that one would be hard pressed to differentiate them in any practical sense. The terms seem to be a strengthening of each other, a way to emphasize that doing justice IS doing righteousness, and doing righteousness IS doing justice. They cannot be separated or thought to be independent of one another. Without righteousness, there is no justice. Without justice, there is no righteousness. And so often, these terms are tied to how the poor and oppressed and treated:
“Thus says the LORD: Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place” (Jer 22:3).
“The LORD works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed” (Psa 103:6).
This is not just an “Old Law” thing, for Jeremiah says, “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land” (Jer 23:5).
The Messiah’s reign — the very one in which Christians partake — is executed with justice and righteousness. “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; steadfast love and faithfulness go before you” (Psa 89:14).
In the New Covenant, we are familiar with the terms “righteous” or “righteousness.” The term “judgment” is close to “justice.” But “righteousness” is sometimes elusive to our understanding. We often say that it means “being right.” That is not sufficient, though, for we are immediately confronted with the fact that “None is righteous, no, not one” (Rom 3:10; Psa 14:1-13). Of our own, we are but filthy rags. Only God can make one righteous. Only He can ultimately forgive, reconcile, and justify.
Even more, only God can empower us to do righteousness. Whoever serves is to do so “as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet 4:11). We are to use our freedom to serve God, recognizing that any ability we have to do what is right still comes from Him (1 Pet 2:16). This is not a denial of free will, but a recognition that it must always be subject to God if it is to be used properly to His glory (Rom 10:3). Once we fail to subject our will to His will, we will not be able to do righteousness by our own strength (see Rom 6:16). We will utterly and always fail.
Righteousness is more than being right; it is doing right (1 John 3:7). This doesn’t mean we are “made right” by doing a bunch of good things — that cannot happen without God’s mercy and grace and being “born of Him” (cf. 1 John 2:29). Righteousness, though, is not simply a state of being, but a continual process of acting. (Rutledge in The Crucifixion suggests it should be understood more as a verb than a noun. That fits with God’s command to “do righteousness.”)
When God says to “do justice and righteousness,” He is not saying passively to “be just and be righteous.” He is not just saying to “be Holy” in some abstract sense. Rather, He is ordering a way to live and act that reflects His character as One who always does justice and righteousness. God saves us in order to do justice and righteousness. In other words, “we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph 2:10). We stand for and practice a gospel is that intended to bring peace, life, and healing. It is a proclamation that the Messiah brings “liberty to the captives” and sets “at liberty those who are oppressed” (Luke 4:18-19). It is a message which emphasizes that there is no partiality and that “in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34-35). We act on behalf of freedom in the greatest of all senses.
Even so, while we live in a sin-torn, corrupted world, full justice and righteousness will elude us. We will always yearn for more, knowing that we are in a broken world that has generally shunned God’s righteousness. This is why we need to look to Him. This is why we need to proclaim His excellencies (1 Pet 2:9). If we really want full justice—if we really want all things to be right—then He is the One who has the power and will make that happen. He has “fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Act 17:31).
In the meantime, we must trust Him. We must repent. We must seek to live a pure and undefiled religion (Jas 1:26-27). We must seek first His kingdom and His righteousness (Matt 6:33).