Is righteousness a gift that we receive by faith, or a way of living that God will reward?  It seems that the answer is a bit of each.

Recently in my Bible reading I came across this passage from David’s song of deliverance near the end of his life:

2 Samuel 22:21-25
21 “The Lord dealt with me according to my righteousness;
according to the cleanness of my hands he rewarded me.
22 For I have kept the ways of the Lord
and have not wickedly departed from my God.
23 For all his rules were before me,
and from his statutes I did not turn aside.
24 I was blameless before him,
and I kept myself from guilt.
25 And the Lord has rewarded me according to my righteousness,
according to my cleanness in his sight. (ESV)

David seems to be almost boasting of his righteousness, and claims “I was blameless before Him.” This is not the only passage that expresses this idea. The Psalms are full of similar statements.  Psalm 1, which introduces the theme of the entire book, sets up a contrast between two different ways of life and the results of each.

I think that we struggle to know what to do with passages like this.  After all, we are very aware that we are all sinners (Rom. 3:23) and that no one is righteous (Rom. 3:10-11).  We are almost embarrassed by claims like these, and most of us would never dream of praying something like this ourselves.  Can you imagine the reaction if someone made statements like this in prayer at your small group meeting?  Yet in the Psalms David often prays along these lines. What then are we to make of passages like that quoted above?

I think that there are a few inadequate explanations.  One is that David was speaking out of arrogance. No one should claim to be righteous. But this type of statement is fairly common in the OT, and there is nothing to indicate that they were wrong in saying this. Not only that, but God Himself called Job “blameless” (Job 1:8).  Another possibility is that there was a lower standard of righteousness in the OT, so David considered himself righteous by an external standard based on the law.  But who obeys the law perfectly, even externally?  Had David forgotten the incident involving Bathsheba?  What about his heart-felt confession in Psalm 51?

I don’t think that David thought that he was saved by his righteousness.  He was well aware of his need for grace and forgiveness.  But he did recognize that God rewards those who are committed to HIm and strive to live by His standards.  So perhaps we need to talk about two types of righteousness, (1) a legal standing of being righteous before God and therefore qualified to spend eternity with Him, and (2) a lifestyle of striving to live by God’s standards.  The first kind of righteousness is only available by grace through faith in God’s provision for our sins, while the second is the result of godly living.  Both seem to be called “righteousness” in the Bible.  The first type could be called “legal righteousness” or “absolute righteousness” while the second might be called “behavioral righteousness.” (I hesitate to use the term “relative righteousness” because it could too easily be misunderstood.)

So when David claimed to be “blameless,” I don’t think that he meant that he had never sinned in any way.  Rather, he was describing a life lived in submission to God and a commitment to live according to His standards.  That is something to which we should all aspire, and we shouldn’t be embarrassed to affirm the biblical teaching that such a life leads to God’s blessing.

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  1. A good point. As sound as this suggestion may be, is there anything in the original language and/or text to suggest those 2 different kinds of righteousness?

    Also, typo spotted in the second paragraph after the block quote: “After all, we are very away [sic] that we are all sinners…”

  2. The Hebrew word used in 2 Sam. 22:21 above is the same as that used in Hab. 2:4. When the latter passage is cited in Rom. 1:17 the Greek adjective “righeous” (???????) is used. Looking through the 96 occurrences of this adjective in the NT, it seems that it most often used to describe a type of behavior. So the distinction is in how the words are used rather than in the words themselves.

    I am not questioning that we are justified (= “declared righteous”) by faith (Rom. 3:28). This touches on a huge topic, and I don’t want to write a book on it right now. But we shouldn’t make too sharp a dichotomy between legal righteousness and righteous behavior because the Bible often brings them together, for example in Mat. 25:31-46. I simply affirm with the Scriptures that yes, we are saved by grace through faith, and yes, God both expects and rewards righteous behavior.

    Thank for pointing out the typo. I have corrected it above.

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