If we were going to use the word righteous to describe an individual, the best we could do is use it in a relative sense. Cornelius was described as a righteous person before he ever heard the gospel (Acts 10:22). This description did not speak to his standing with God, but in connection to his standing among other lost people.
When we speak of God’s righteousness, we use it in a sense that is absolute. The Lord emphasized the need for us to have a separate level of respect for God’s righteousness. In comparison to God, there is no-one who is good (Mark 10:18), and there is none who is righteous (Rom 3:10).
God makes his holiness known to us through His righteousness. God always acts in the correct way. He always does the right thing. It is impossible for God to lie or break a promise (Heb 6:17-18). He always tells the truth (John 17:17).
God has given us His standard of righteousness to us. It contains everything that a person who desires to live righteously should do (Rom 1:17, Gal 2:21; 1 John 2:29). If anyone wants to know what the right thing to do is, they can find the answer in the Bible (2 Pet 1:5). It is based on the teachings and example of His Son (John 8:29-32). Analyzing our life in comparison to that standard will cause us to come face to face with the reality that we are not righteous and have fallen short of the glory of God (Rom 3:23).
This lead us to another facet of God’s righteousness revealed in His justice. In the Bible these terms are very similar. But the distinction between the two generally has to do with justice being administration of God’s righteousness. Because God is absolutely righteous, He must also distribute justice. In the same way that we can’t have a righteous justice system if justice is never served, God would not be righteous if he did not hold people accountable for their actions. Hell awaits all those who have sinned because God’s righteousness and justice requires it.
These two aspects of God’s righteousness leave us in a pitiful state. All have sinned (Rom 3:23) and God’s righteousness demands justice. What are we going to do? We are guilty!
There are a number of ways that people approach this problem.
First, there are some people who make a ton of excuses for their sins. In reality these people are making the choice to continue living in sin and face the consequences.
Others attempt to find things that they can do to make them feel righteous. These things can be very subjective. A person might think that they are just honest enough, just sincere enough, just moral enough, which will make them just righteous enough to go to heaven. These people invent their own “plan of salvation” that makes them feel good but has no power to save (Eph 2:8-9).
Others try to cancel out their unrighteousness by good deeds. They look to the Bible as God’s standard for righteousness and then decide that if they can do just enough good, it will cancel out that impurity and unrighteousness. While we should live right, living right doesn’t erase a single wrong (Matt 7:21-23).
The only way that one can avoid the justice of God, is by being declared righteous by God. The bible word for this process is justification.
Through His grace, God has provided His Son as a perfect substitute to justify any sinner. He stepped in to be a “propitiation” (Rom 3:25) or a sacrifice, to atone for our sins. This is accomplished by His cleansing blood (Romans 5:9). When God sees someone who has been washed in the blood of Christ, He doesn’t see them as guilty anymore. They have been justified.
Justification is by faith (Rom 3:28). This does not mean that when someone comes to an understanding of who Jesus is and accepts those facts, that God declares them righteous (see John 8:31; 44). The Bible's definition of faith also includes obeying the conditions to receive the promise (2 Thes 1:8, Heb 5:9). There are a number of conditions involved in faith unto justification. We must meet these for God to declare us righteous.
God did His part by offering His Son, the blood, the inheritance, and every other thing that falls under the word grace. We are responsible for meeting the conditions God has placed on us. He has told us to believe (John 3:16). He has told us to repent of our sins (Luke 13:3). He has told us to confess Christ (Romans 10:10). He has told us to be baptized for the forgiveness of our sins (Marks 16:16, Acts 2:38). Upon being baptized, one comes in contact with the blood, which washes their sins away (Acts 22:16), allowing them to be declared righteous by God. Baptism is the point where one becomes a new creature in the eyes of God (Rom 6:3-4).
This is serious. Most people reading this will think they are justified, but actually accepted a different plan of salvation. They were told they were justified when they prayed, at the point of belief, or some other doctrine not supported by scripture. If you haven’t met the conditions God laid out, God can’t declare you righteous. His own righteousness wouldn’t allow it because it wouldn’t be right. God always does what’s right.