Defining the Term
According to Thayer’s lexicon, the term δικαιοσύνη (dikaiosunē) has both a broad sense and a closer sense. In the broad sense, δικαιοσύνη is the condition or state that is acceptable to God, which is the condition of righteousness.Righteousness is correlated with characteristics such as “integrity, virtue, purity of life, uprightness, correctness in thinking, feeling, and acting.”When the term is used as an attribute of God (Rom. 1:17, James 1:20), it denotes His holiness.In contrast, when δικαιοσύνηis directed toward human beings, it should be understood as the righteousness that God demands, which is due to His holiness.This is exemplified where God states, “I am the Lord; I have called you in righteousness” (Is. 42:6, New American Standard Bible). Lastly, in the broad sense, δικαιοσύνη refers to the doctrine concerning the way in which a person is able to attain the state approved of by God.
In the closer sense, Thayer defines δικαιοσύνη as “justice, or the virtue which gives each one his due; it is said to belong to God and Christ, as bestowing isotimon pistin [faith of equal standing] upon all Christians impartially, 2 Pet. 1:1.”This is exemplified when Abraham believed in the promises of the Lord, and therefore, the righteousness of God was counted to him (Gen. 15:6). Notably, it is God who bestowed His righteousness to Abraham. δικαιοσύνη, then, is deeply embedded within Hebraic theology; however, with the incarnation, the term, for Christians, involves both God the Father and the Son, Jesus the Christ.
New Testament Usage
Δικαιοσύνη occurs ninety-two times in the κοινὴ Greek New Testament.Interestingly, within the gospels, it occurs in only three out of the four accounts: seven times in Matthew, once in Luke, and twice in John.With the exception of Luke, it is Jesus who speaks every instance of the term. Jesus uses the term both as the condition or state of a human being that is acceptable to God and also as an attribute of God. For example, in Matthew 6:1, Jesus uses δικαιοσύνη in its doctrinal sense saying, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them” (NASB). Here, δικαιοσύνη refers to “the external activities of the ongoing process of transformation to be more like the heavenly Father.”Simply put, it is when a person strives to live in a manner acceptable to God. In Matthew 6:33, Jesus uses the term as an attribute of God, “But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness.” In both uses, it is important to note that δικαιοσύνη refers to “the character or quality of being right or just.”This comports with Thayer’s closer sense of δικαιοσύνη.The distinction between God and His creatures is essential. For God, δικαιοσύνη is innate whereas for humans, due to sin, it is not.
Δικαιοσύνη occurs fifty-six times within the Pauline epistles with thirty-two of those occurrences located in Romans.Paul uses the term “both in relationship to God and to human beings. In the latter case its ultimate origin is without exception the character and/or action of God.”For Paul, then, all righteousness is rooted in God.
Paul uses δικαιοσύνη in many various ways. The first is as righteousness declared, which is exemplified throughout Romans 4 when Abraham’s faith is counted to him as righteousness by God.In the same manner, Paul also associates righteousness declared through faith in Jesus Christ (Romans 4:23-25). In Romans 5:17, Paul understands righteousness as a gift from God, which is given through Jesus Christ. The apostle also redirects the belief in righteousness achieved through the law given through Moses over to faith in Jesus Christ (Rom. 9:30, 10:3). Lastly, Paul correlates the term with obedience, which is righteousness in an “ethical sense, characterizing the life of obedience of those who have been justified [in Christ].”It is important to note that all of these examples express the New Testament motif that the righteousness required by God is achieved only through faith in Jesus Christ.
Interpreting the term in 2 Corinthians 5:21
Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness [δικαιοσύνη] of God in Him” (NASB). Within proper context, Paul’s use of δικαιοσύνη here is in reference to “the new creation brought into being through God’s work in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17).The new creation that Paul writes about in this verse are those who have put their faith in Jesus Christ. Therefore, Christians, due to their faith in the Son have achieved the righteousness of God. Simply put, the state that God requires of human beings is achievable through His Son. H. A. Ironside provides a clear explanation that puts full emphasizes on Paul’s use of δικαιοσύνηin 2 Corinthians 5:21:
He has been raised from the dead and seated as the glorified Man at God’s right hand. There on the throne He is our righteousness. The Father sees every believer in Him, free from all condemnation, made the display of the righteousness of God in Him. He Himself is our righteousness. We are complete in Him. God is satisfied, and our consciences are at peace. What a salvation is this!
Paul’s use of δικαιοσύνη in 2 Corinthians 5:21 is a culmination of everything discussed so far. In one sentence, Paul uses the term as an attribute of God, the condition or state that is acceptable to God, and as Thayer’s closer sense, which is “justice, or the virtue which gives each one his due; it is said to belong to God and Christ, as bestowing isotimon pistin [faith of equal standing]upon all Christians impartially, 2 Pet. 1:1.”Furthermore, Paul’s various uses of the term throughout Romans is also evident within 2 Corinthians 5:21. For example, Paul’s use as righteousness declared is found in God declaring that through Christ – righteousness is achieved. Righteousness as a gift is exemplified where God made Him who knew no sin on our behalf. Righteousness as a gift is also seen in the realization that “the very righteousness God requires before He can accept the sinner is the very righteousness He provides.”Finally, righteousness as obedience would be in the continuous action of living a life according to His righteousness, which was obtained through the Son. Paul’s climactic statement in 2 Corinthians 5:21 is where the term δικαιοσύνη is seen from all the perspectives discussed in this word study.
This word study has revealed the theological significance behind the term δικαιοσύνη. Ultimately, its true meaning is rooted in the character of God the Father who expresses His eternal love and righteousness through the Son. Additionally, it is because of the righteousness of God that necessitates human beings remain in a state of righteousness that is untarnished by sin. Conversely, sin has kept us from meeting this requirement of God, but thankfully, Jesus the Son met the requirement of righteousness on our behalf.
The significance for all of humanity is weaved throughout the whole fabric of the Scriptures. That is, the righteousness that God the Father requires of us is obtainable only through the Son – Jesus the Christ (Acts 4:12). Therefore, Christians should find great pleasure in the doctrinal teaching that it is through faith in Jesus Christ that we achieve the righteousness that God requires of us. This is summed up 2 Corinthians 5:21 where Paul writes, “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (NASB).
. Joseph Thayer and James Strong, Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Coded with Strong’s Concordance Numbers, New ed. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, ©1996), 149.
. Ibid., 150.
. “G1343 – δικαιοσύνη – Novum Testamentum Graece, word search,” Accordance Bible Software, version XII, s.v. δικαιοσύνη
. Ibid., “G1343 – δικαισύνη,” analytical search results.
. Michael J. Wilkins, Matthew: The NIV Application Commentary: From Biblical Text . . . To Contemporary Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, ©2004), 270.
. “G1343 – δικαιοσύνη– dikaiosunē – Strong’s Greek Lexicon (NASB).” Blue Letter Bible, Vine’s Expository Dictionary Entry, para #1, accessed November 13, 2018, https://www.blueletterbible.org//lang//lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G1343&t=NASB
. Thayer, 149.
. Accordance Bible Software, “G1343 – δικαισύνη,” analytical search results.
. K. I. Onesti and M. T. Brauch, “Righteousness in Paul,” Dictionary of Paul and His Letters: A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship(Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, ©1993), 830.
. Ibid., 831.
. Ibid., 830.
. H. A. Ironside, 1 and 2 Corinthians: An Ironside Expository Commentary(Grand Rapids, MI: Kregal Publications, ©2006), 393-394.
. Thayer, 150.
. John MacArthur, 2 Corinthians: The MacArthur New Testament Commentary(Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, ©2003), 216.
“G1343 – δικαιοσύνη– Novum Testamentum Graece, word search.” Accordance Bible Software, version XII. Accessed November 13, 2018.
“G1343 – δικαιοσύνη– dikaiosunē – Strong’s Greek Lexicon (NASB).” Blue Letter Bible, Vine’s Expository Dictionary Entry. Accessed November 13, 2018. https://www.blueletterbible.org//lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G1343&t=NASB
Ironside, H. A. 1 and 2 Corinthians: An Ironside Expository Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregal Publications, ©2006.
MacArthur, John. 2 Corinthians: The MacArthur New Testament Commentary. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, ©2003.
Onesti K. I. and M. T. Brauch. “Righteousness in Paul.” Dictionary of Paul and His Letters: A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, ©1993.
Thayer, Joseph, and James Strong. Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Coded with Strong’s Concordance Numbers. New ed. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, ©1996.
Wilkins, Michael J. Matthew: The NIV Application Commentary: From Biblical Text . . . To Contemporary Life. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, ©2004.