A Word for Today: Righteousness, Justice (Gk. Dikaiosynen)


dikaios (righteous, correct)
dikaiosynen(righteousness, justice)
dikaioo (to declare, pronounce righteous)

Anyone who seeks to understand the biblical doctrine of righteousness or justification will immediately be challenged by the vast amount of material that is found throughout scripture. Morris notes the limited use of the words ‘propitiation’ and ‘reconciliation’ in the New Testament and states, by way of contrast, ‘he who would expound justification is confronted with eighty-one occurrences of the adjective dikaios, ninety-two of the noun dikaiosynen … thirty-nine of the verb dikaioo’.1 This is especially true in the New Testament writings of the Apostle Paul. In fact, one could argue that this subject is one of the dominant themes of at least two of his letters where he uses the verb ‘to justify’ [dikaioo] and the noun ‘righteousness’ [dikaiosynen] almost exclusively in Romans and Galatians. Paul’s use therefore of the so-called dike word-group in his vocabulary provides us with an important insight into this biblical doctrine. To quote Morris again, ‘Justification is not an isolated concept. It is part of a whole way of viewing God and the world which sees in law a means of understanding the divine ordering of things’.2

The general usage of the dike word-group in non-Christian sources, such as classical Greek, shows that it often referred to a just measure or a just rule. Additionally, it emphasized a general conformity to custom or obligation and compliance with legal rules and regulations. In jurisprudence, it meant justice or the process of making a legal decision. Hill states, ‘After Homer, the implicit juristic reference became increasingly prominent and the word “dike” was frequently used to refer to proceedings instituted to determine legal rights, a lawsuit, or trial, and even to the objects or consequences of legal action, i.e. “satisfaction” or “penalty”’.3 Interestingly, the noun dike was the name of the Greek goddess of just punishment! Overall, therefore, this word group was the basic Greek term for social righteousness or justice. As Dodd writes, ‘We may take it that the Greek-speaking public, on the whole, meant by dikaiosyne doing the right thing by your neighbour, however the right thing might be conceived; while if it used the term in a narrower and more precise sense it meant by it the virtue of acting towards your neighbour with a strict and impartial regard to his merit. It would probably be fair to say that the narrower sense tended to colour the wider sense -i.e. that the Greek tended to think of “righteousness” in terms of “justice”’.4

What is significant is that neither in classical nor non-biblical Greek are there any instances of this word-group referring to ‘a personal object in the sense “to make righteous”’.5This last point cannot be overemphasized because, from Augustine onwards, Roman Catholicism has always held the view that God justifies an individual by making them righteous by some form of inner spiritual renewal. It was argued that in the doctrine of justification, there was something that could be done to initiate the process of salvation and was expressed in the famous strap-line, facere quod in se est - ‘do what lies within you’. The Reformers opposed this notion that righteousness could be realized by human effort, by rejecting the principle that by doing one’s best one could be in a position to receive grace. Luther argued that the righteousness of God was something alien (iustitia aliena) and extrinsic to humanity or, as he later described it in his sermon on ‘Two Kinds of Righteousness’ (1519), ‘that is the righteousness of another, instilled from without. This is the righteousness of Christ by which he justifies through faith, as it is written in 1 Cor. 1[:30]: “Who God made our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption”’.6It came as a gift through faith in Christ alone; it was imputed, not imparted or infused, and could not be earned as a reward. This is where Luther ultimately departs from Augustine in terms of the locus in quo of righteousness. McGrath states, ‘Augustine located this gift within humanity, as a transforming reality; Luther argued that it is located outside us, being “reckoned” or “imputed”to humanity, not imparted’.7This is why Paul uses terms such as ‘reckon’ or ‘impute’ when he is referring to the righteousness of God, e.g., Rom. 4. 5-8. Even though none of Luther’s ninety-five propositions included any mention of justification by faith, his whole approach only made sense because it was rooted in this biblical doctrine and the grace of God. In the words of Packer, ‘Justification is a judgment passed on man, not a work wrought within man: God’s gift of a status and a relationship to Himself, not a new heart. Certainly, God does regenerate those whom he justifies, but the two things are not the same’.8

Thus, where an individual was set in a right relationship with God, they acted accordingly. For example, in the Septuagint (LXX), where the incidence of words such as ‘righteous’ and ‘righteousness’ are numerous, the adjective dikaios occurs in Genesis chapter 6 verse 9, where Noah is described as ‘a just [righteous] man’. In other words, Noah acted justly or righteously because he was in a right relationship with a just God. When Abraham asked God rhetorically whether He would ‘also destroy the righteous with the wicked’, Gen. 18. 23, he thought of God in terms of a judge, hence his later comments in verse 25. Similarly, in Hannah’s prayer, she asserts that ‘there is none righteous as our God’, 1 Sam. 2. 2 LXX, which the MT9 translates as ‘rock’ as also in Deuteronomy chapter 32 verse 4, but there the writer expands the meaning by stating that ‘all his ways are just’. In Job chapter 34 verse 10 LXX, in his second speech, Elihu insists that God is not unjust, and that wickedness is a perversion of His righteousness, i.e., for God to act contrary to His righteous nature, it would be to pervert the course of justice. So throughout the Septuagint, the emphasis of the dike word-group is upon, among other things, doing what is just and right, Gen. 18. 19; demonstrating righteousness, 2 Sam. 15. 4; God being shown to be righteous, Isa. 42. 21; and justifying the righteous and condemning those who are wicked, Deut. 25. 1. But what predominates is the idea of a law court whereby terms such as righteousness and justification are inherently linked to forensic proceedings.10

When we come to the New Testament, we observe that the noun dike only occurs three times, and on each occasion refers to retributive justice.11The adjective dikaios is found in nearly every book of the New Testament including the Synoptic Gospels and John’s Gospel where it is often used as a synonym for righteousness.12 But, as previously indicated, it is Paul who makes the most significant contribution to this essential doctrine of righteousness or justification. His major use of the dike word-group in the New Testament shows that the only way that we, as sinners, who deserve the wrath of God, Rom. 1. 18, can be in a right relationship with God is through the righteousness of another imputed to us freely by grace through faith alone, Rom. 3. 23, 24; 4. 5. Paradoxically, as Packer states, ‘What Paul is saying is that the gospel which proclaims God’s apparent violation of his justice is really a revelation of his justice’.13

In the revelation of the gospel we find that justification:

  1. Cannot be achieved by human effort, Gal. 2. 21.
  2. Is an act of God to justify the sinner through Christ alone, Rom. 4. 23-25; 5. 19.
  3. Is confirmed and ratified by the resurrection of Christ, Rom. 4. 25.
  4. Not only brings peace with God through faith in Christ but also gives us a standing in grace before God, and the hope of eternal glory, Rom. 5. 1, 2.
  5. Brings us eternal life through the work of Christ alone, v. 18.

If Paul asserts that no one can be declared righteous in God’s sight through compliance with His law, Rom. 3. 20; Gal. 2. 16, what is then the evidence of a person having been justified by faith? This brings a second paradox into view because it is faith alone that justifies the sinner, but it is now the evidence of good works that justify the faith of the justified. These are the outward fruits of faith, Jas. 2. 26. The question for us today is whether we are demonstrating these fruits in our lives or, as Paul writes to Titus, simply professing to know God but in deeds denying Him, 1. 16?

For further reading/study


Justification - J. I. Packer, 18 Words: The most important words you will ever know, Christian Focus Publications, 2008, pp. 135-142.


δικη (dike) Word group - Gerhard Kittel, (translated by Geoffrey W. Bromiley), Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Eerdmans, 1974, pp. 174-225.



Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, Justification (1), Eerdmans, 1965, pg. 251.


Ibid, pg. 253.


David Hill, Greek Words and Hebrew Meanings, Cambridge, 1967, pg. 99.


C. H. Dodd, The Bible and the Greeks, Hodder and Stoughton, 1964, pg. 43.


Ernest De Witt Burton, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians, T&T Clark, 1959, pg. 461.


Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Volume 31, Fortress Press, 1960, pg. 297.


Alister McGrath, Christianity’s Dangerous Idea, SPCK, 2007, pg. 43.


J. I. Packer, 18 Words: The most important words you will ever know, Christian Focus Publications, 2008, pg. 136.


Masoretic Text. The Septuagint (LXX) often uses the dik-word-group to translate the Hebrew ts-d-q family, and the Greek word dikaioo is a close dynamic equivalent of the Hebrew verb sedek. Both the Greek and Hebrew words mean ‘to justify’ in the forensic sense of ‘declare righteous’ or ‘treat as just’. For a more detailed study on the Hebrew word sedek see Precious Seed Issue 3 Volume 65 (2010).


Notice in Jeremiah chapter 18 verse 19 LXX, where the word for ‘righteousness’ is translated as ‘plead’ because the prophet pleads before God as a judge for divine justice so that his enemies might be dealt with accordingly. The word is also used in Judges chapter 6 verse 32 LXX of a court of justice.


In Acts chapter 28 verse 4, of the wrong verdict of the people on Paul’s encounter with a viper. In 2 Thessalonians chapter 1 verse 8, of the penalty that will be imposed upon ‘those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ’ NKJV. And, in Jude verse 7, of the punishment inflicted upon the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah that provides an example of the judgement of God.


E.g., Matt. 3. 15; Mark 6. 20; Luke 1. 6; John 17. 25.


J. I. Packer, op. cit., pg. 137.


Your Basket

Your Basket Is Empty