There is a popular hymn that says, “When He shall come with trumpet sound, Oh may I then in Him be found. Dressed in His righteousness alone, Faultless to stand before the throne.”
Edward Mote, a Baptist minister, wrote this hymn, “The Solid Rock,” in 1834. The Baptist church, as with a large part of denominations, believes what John Calvin taught on righteousness, when he wrote, “by wondrous communication Christ transfuses into us the power of his own righteousness” (Calvin, J. Institutes of the Christian religion).
Calvin taught that man is totally depraved and cannot think anything “righteous” until God chooses to give one the Holy Spirit to “illuminate” him to the righteousness of God. So, any righteousness on the part of man, according to Calvin, is by the direct impartation of God and cannot be according to that one’s own free will and personal choice.
The conclusion, as expressed in the hymn, is that I cannot be righteous, or do right at all, unless I have the righteousness of Christ “transfused” to me to make me righteous. Calvin’s teaching on this is very popular among denominations, but it is not what the Bible teaches about righteousness.
The first time the word “righteousness” is used in the Bible is Genesis 15:6, regarding Abram (i.e. Abraham). Abraham believed God’s promise that he would have an heir from his own body. The passage says that Abraham believed God and “He accounted it to him for righteousness.” So Abraham did a righteous thing by believing what God promised him.
Prior to this, in Genesis 7:1, the word “righteous” is used in reference to Noah. When God called Noah and his household into the ark, He said, “I have seen that you are righteous before Me in this generation.”
The root word of “righteous” and “righteousness” is “right.” Righteous means “right, correct, lawful.” Righteousness means, “doing what is required according to a standard” (Dictionary of Biblical Language).
Noah was righteous because he did “all that God commanded him” (Genesis 6:22). In the case of Abraham being righteous, his faith in God’s promises was what was required by God’s standards. Both Noah and Abraham are examples of true righteousness by their personal choice to obey God’s commands because of their faith in God’s promises (Hebrews 11:1, 7, 8-10, 17-19).
The better hymn to describe biblical righteousness would be “Trust And Obey.” That’s what both of these early examples of righteousness did, they trusted God’s promises and obeyed His commands. They weren’t “transfused” or “imbued” with righteousness apart from their own personal choice to trust and obey God.
In Romans 4:3, Paul quotes from Genesis 15:6. Sadly, many have abused this passage to have Paul teaching “faith only salvation.” However, such an idea completely ignores Paul’s use of the word “righteousness” and the context of the book.
Paul was dealing with the erroneous views of the Jews, and Jewish converts, that were still trying to hold and bind the Law of Moses in the New Testament church. He started his rebuke of the Jews in Romans chapter two (Romans 2:1, 17-24).
When Paul wrote about being “justified by works” he was speaking specifically to those Jews who believed they could be justified just by “going through the motions” (cf. Mathew 23:23). He uses Abraham as an example of righteousness prior to the Law of Moses (cf. Galatians 3:17, 18). He goes on to use David as one who was righteous, and thus saved from sin, under the Law of Moses.
David was righteous for the same reason that Abraham was righteous prior to the Law, because he trusted and obeyed God. When he sinned, he was quick to repent and turn back to God according to God’s standards.
No one was ever saved because they earned it through meritorious works, i.e. just going through the motions. Choosing to trust and obey God saved everyone that was ever saved – Noah, Abraham, David, Paul, Jew and Gentile alike (cf. James 2:23, 24).
Paul began Romans by saying his ministry was for the purpose of bringing people to “obedience to the faith among all nations” (Romans 1:5). He also ends the book saying the same thing, “according to the commandment of the everlasting God, for obedience to the faith” (Romans 16:26).
It is in this book calling people to “trust and obey” God that Paul tells us where we find the standard of God’s righteousness. “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “The just shall live by faith.” (Romans 1:16–17).
The righteousness of God is revealed in the Gospel of Christ. If we would be righteous it will be because we have chosen to follow the standard of what God defines as “right” as it is revealed in the Gospel of Christ.