The Biblical confusion between the words ‘justice’ and ‘righteousness’

Justice Righteousness 2

I’ve spent the last few weeks blogging on Paul’s sermon at Mars Hill, found in Acts 17.16-34. There are two reasons I absolutely love this passage. First, it provides a template for how to speak about Jesus Christ in a way that is inclusive of a variety of religious and cultural perspectives. Second, it is one of the most comprehensive sermons in the whole Bible for describing a holistic vision of Jesus Christ.

Here is how Paul concludes this really important sermon (NIV translation): “For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”

When I re-read this passage a couple of months ago, my heart skipped a beat. I’ve come to such a strong conviction that justice is one of the core attributes of Jesus Christ, and should therefore be one of the core attributes of all those who fervently follow him.

Some Christians challenge that assertion however, and one of their primary reasons is due to the fact that the actual word justice is not used all that often in the New Testament. I maintain in these conversations that it doesn’t matter if the word justice is technically used or not. It’s clear that this is what Jesus came to both proclaim and lead us towards. Jesus would consistently announce his presence by declaring the good news of the Kingdom of God, and it’s clear that the pursuit of justice is central to that kingdom message (self declarations like this and this seem incredibly straightforward to me on this point).

But nonetheless, it troubles me as well that the word justice doesn’t actually show up that often in English translations. It perpetuates the myth that justice is a secondary activity in the life of Christ followers.

That’s why I was so pleasantly surprised to discover that the capstone of Paul’s sermon at Mars Hill pointed to the justice nature of the Resurrected Christ. I was also surprised that I had never noticed this before, as I’ve often heard/read expositions on this passage.

I do not consider myself a scholar, but I have come to really enjoy the study of words in their original context (I generally love words in all contexts!) This is an aside, but an important one I think for others who want a simple way to examine words in their original Biblical context. There is a free website called Blue Letter Bible, and you can look up any passage (it has to be in King James to work) and see not only the original words, but other places in the Bible where that same word was used (click here to see an example of looking up this specific word justice).

When I looked up the word translated to justice, I came to discover that the original Greek word used by Paul here was dikaiosynē. For me, this was quite a surprise. I don’t always recognize Greek words at first glance, but this was an easy one. It’s an important Biblical word, and it is consistently used to describe both the identity of Jesus and the mission of what he came to do. It’s repeated over 300 times in the New Testament, yet I don’t recall ever seeing it translated as justice. In every instance I can remember it is translated as righteousness. It’s hard to dispute the assertion that when put next to each other in English, justice and righteousness elicit very different meanings.

What followed next was an intense, two-day, deep dive into this history of this word dikaiosynē (and it’s related conjugations). I am embarrassed to admit that I had no idea how much of a history this word has. It’s actually been quite controversial for centuries, particularly in its translation into English.

I won’t attempt a full summary of my research, but I will highlight a couple of important learnings that I discovered along the way. For one, when you begin to research this word, you continually come back to the name of a particular scholar: Dr. Nicholas Wolterstorff. He is the Professor of Philosophical Theology Emeritus at Yale University, and the author of numerous books, including the one that’s most relevant to this: Journey Towards Justice (read a helpful review of it here).

There is a ton of stuff available if you Google him, but here’s one of the shortest and most helpful videos of him explaining this history:

Dr. Nicholas Wolterstorff

Dr. Wolterstorff describes his journey of becoming a Greek scholar here, which began with some intense work of studying Plato’s Republic. One of the primary themes of the Republic is justice (so I’m told), and the Greek noun in Plato’s text that is standardly translated as “justice” is “dikaiosune” (nearly identical to the word used by Paul; the adjective standardly translated as “just” there and elsewhere is the root “dikaios.”) He notes that when it comes to Plato’s Republic, there is no contention that dikaios and dikaiosune are to be universally translated there as just and justice. 

Shortly after his work with the Republic, Dr. Wolterstorff began to study the Greek New Testament. One of the first big surprises that he stumbled upon was that dikaios and dikaiosune were rarely translated as just and justice, but instead were translated as righteous and righteousness.

He did a lot of digging into this to figure out what had changed. How could dikaiosune (and words with the same dim-stem root) have been so universally understood to translate as justice during Plato’s time, but then having switched to the translation of righteousness during the time of the Greek New Testament (which was about 300 year period of time)?

Part of the answer is found specifically within the English language. In the Romance languages, for example, there is only way to translate dikaiosune: justicia. But within English we have two possible words: justice OR righteousness.

The etymology of each of these has very different roots. Our English word righteousness, according to Wolterstorff, has German origins. It has connotations of being morally up-right, and focuses more on private, individual behavior. (This matches how I’ve always understood the word righteous — I’ve often heard it described as the pursuit of individual holiness or “right” living before God).

Our English word justice, on the other hand, has Latin origins. Unlike righteousness, which is focused more on individual behavior, justice is focused on communal behavior… and even structures. Lowell Noble, who is a fantastic scholar in his own right, does a blog on Wolterstorff’s work (check it out in Chapter 9 of his blog). I liked how he defined justice here: “actions taken to restore broken social relationships, to restore a standard or quality of justice.”

If you follow all of this logic, then it leads to a basic question: When a New Testament writer uses the word dikaiosune, how do the translators know whether to use the English word justice or righteousness?

Wolterstorff’s answer is simple: they have to take a guess at the context. Which word best describes what the writer is attempting to communicate in that passage: justice or righteousness?

He acknowledges that there are times where it might make sense to use the word righteousness. But there are other times where only justice makes sense. One of the clearest of these, according to him, is the use of dikaiosune by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. When talking through the Beatitudes, Jesus says:

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for [dikaiosune], for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of [dikaiosune], for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5.6-10)

In almost every single English translation, dikaiosune is translated as righteous. But does that make much sense? Wolterstorff asks, “How many people do you know that have been persecuted for morally upright living? I’ve never seen that. The people who are persecuted are the ones that seek justice.”

So while context matters, Wolterstorff can’t help but speculate whether there is a “spiritualized” bias of the translation of the word dikaiosune. Is it possible that somewhere along the way righteousness was seen as a more valuable spiritual attribute than justice? It would certainly seem so.

With that history as a backdrop, it leaves us with the quandary of what to do with this righteousness/justice split. How can we possibly know what the Biblical author was pointing towards whenever the word dikaiosune was used?

Here’s my take.

I think that when understood fully, righteousness and justice mean something very similar.  Right living will lead us to the pursuit of justice. The pursuit of justice demands righteous living. They both are reflective of the character of God, and they are both dependent on each other. Jesus has come to make us righteous before God, and Jesus has come to call us to right living. Jesus has come to satisfy the justice of God, and Jesus has come to call us to a just society. You can’t have one without the other.Justice Righteousness 1

One of the suggestions that I came across on a consistent basis found favor with me. What if, instead of choosing which English word to use for dikaiosune, we just use both? Perhaps it makes each verse that uses the word a bit more clunky. But doesn’t it also enrich the meaning?

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness & justice, for they will be filled.”

“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of justice & righteousness for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” 

“For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice & righteousness by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”

I just don’t see how you can ever capture the full meaning of the word dikaiosune without understanding this history of both righteousness and justice. It has been a meaningful exercise for me to go back to some of the key Biblical passages that use dikaiosune and now read in both sides of the equation.

And that is my hope with this blog entry – I am hoping that you come to see a fuller vision of Jesus Christ, who comes to both make us both righteous as a people AND seekers of justice!


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33 thoughts on “The Biblical confusion between the words ‘justice’ and ‘righteousness’

  1. Pingback: Paul at Mars Hill: An in-depth exploration of Acts 17.16-34

  2. I found something very similar in the Hebrew (although I don’t know Hebrew). The words that are usually translated as righteous or righteousness can also be translated as just or justice. I came to the same conclusion that what we consider to be two concepts in English, were not seen as so distinct in the Hebrew mindset.

  3. Pingback: Paul @ Mars Hill: an 8-part overview | Daniel Hill's Blog

  4. “You can’t have one without the other.” one who hungers for justice without righteousness is without honesty. how does one call on others to practice when not in practice himself? it’s a deep severance. thank you for this. blessings

  5. Marvin Olasky describes the intimate connection between the Hebrew words for righteousness (tzedek) and justice (mishap) and even faithfulness in the OT. Sometimes mishap and tzedek are both translated as “justice”. An example he cites is Deut 16:20 which is translated, “Justice (mishpat), and only justice (tzedek), you shall pursue, that you may live and possess the land which the Lord your God is giving you.” Justice is the English translation in the ESV, NIV and NASB.

    • NASB with Strongs and ESV with Strongs Bibles both have tsedeq (justice) twice in Deut. 16:20. There is no mishpat. The Westminster Leningrad Codex (Hebrew Bible) has צֶ֥דֶק צֶ֖דֶק (tsedeq tesdeq) as well. For what it is worth, in Deut. 16:19 “You distort justice” (NASB) has justice for the translation of the Hebrew misphat.

  6. Thank you for this blog. It has definitely, like you said, enriched the meaning of these words in their context. May God bless you and your work for Him.

  7. Wow. You are truly confused and lying to yourself. You don’t like that the word is righteousness, so you make your own version to replace it with justice. There’s a Psalm that addresses that type of ideology.

    • Actually, now that I read the article more carefully, I see that he is wrong and you are right. Righteousness is closely linked in the NT with the Kingdom of God; and, as the latter is within, so is righteousness an inner virtue, and not the same as social justice. As far as the Yale professor, he’s wrong too: the word ‘dikaiosune’ in Plato’s Republic should be translated as righteousness, not justice.

    • People are *mightily* afraid of righteousness, because it threatens the core sin of pride. Righteousness means following God, and not ones own ego. It means holiness, purity, piety, soundness, trueness.

      All our sins fight vigorously against righteousness; that, I believe, is the persecution Jesus is speaking of in the Beatitude.

      It is also, I believe, the meaning of the persecutions described in Psalms.

      The inability or unwillingness to see the distinction between righteousness and justice might be one of the greatest problems in Christianity, and of humanity in general.

  8. Thanks for posting this. I believe you’re correct on all counts: (1) the Greek word, dikaiosune, a key term in the New Testament, is better translated as ‘righteousness’ than as ‘justice’; (2) this is the same moral virtue that forms the central theme of Plato’s Republic; and (3) it’s vital to an understanding of MLK’s true message to recognize that righteousness, not justice (in the sense of distributive or retributive justice), is the direct path to peace and social harmony. The righteous person is spontaneously just, fair, and kind towards others. This is why Matthew 6:33 says, “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.”

    Along with this goes a correct understanding of what the ‘kingdom of God’ means. As this verse helps show, it’s not a place, or even a condition of society — but a *relationship* of ones soul to God. It means the active *reigning* of God in our soul.

    That’s why Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is at hand” (Mark 1:15). If the kingdom of God meant a completely just society, we might not see it in 1000 years — if ever on this earth! But in our souls, the kingdom of God is always near, always attainable.

    A huge problem today is that people are placing the ‘social Gospel’ first — which is in direct opposition to what this key verse says. No. Seek *first* God’s kingdom in your soul. A misguided ‘social Gospel’ that has the effect of spreading hatred, anger, discord, resentment, agitation, etc., is no Gospel at all!

    p.s. If I can find your email address, I’d like to send you an article that might interest you.

  9. This is an amazing explanation about the history and meaning of the words. Thank you very much. It will help a lot my sermon!
    God bless you!!

  10. I am no Hebrew scholar, but my study and reading of Hebrew scripture is that tsaddiq is a quality of God that can be given to humans by God, that is what we call righteousness. The Hebrew mishpat is a quality of human interaction that we know of as justice.

  11. On[‘e’s preference in translating these two terms is through his or her political preferences because preferring personal piety absolves one of dealing with societal justice. I refer you to the Sept. 22017 issue of The Atlantic magazine which provides an description of our failed justice system which pleads most cases–often incarcerating the innocent. The impoverished practice of the poor depending on public defenders is a national disgrace embraced by many righteous Christians having no concept of the place of justice in the two testaments. Robert F. Allison, Ph.D.

  12. Hi Daniel. Sorry for being a latecomer to this discussion. Thanks for a fascinating post. I smiled when I saw Wolterstorff’s video – it was one of the first I encountered on my own journey into this issue.

    I agree with you up to a point, but I do not see any reason why we should be concerned about a word that does not exist in either Hebrew or Greek. “Righteousness” is an invention of the middle ages, and it gained popularity during the Reformation as it carried the convenient connotation of divine absolution – Luther’s notion of absolute grace that turned him against James’ insistence that true faith is proven by practical justice. This explains why the Reformers could expound the “doctrines of righteousness” on the one hand whilst drowning Anabaptists with the other. Justice had lost its meaning and was replaced with “right standing before God” (mixed with a dash of personal piety). This shift makes about as much sense as renaming the Justice League the Righteousness League, or the Department of Justice the Department of Righteousness, or the Chief Justice the Chief Righteousness. I’m sure you get the point. To do so would be to suggest that super-heroes exist to pardon repentant villains, or that the justice system’s main concern is the absolution of remorseful lawbreakers. True justice certainly includes the possibility of a full and satisfactory payment of a penalty, but it goes way beyond that. And so both Tsedeq and Dikaiosune include everything that we are trying to say with righteousness, but they go much further.

    If God was happy to give us a single word for justice in both Hebrew and Greek, why on earth do we need two words?

    Some remarks on the comments:
    1. The suggestion that Mishpat is a Hebrew synonym for justice is not correct. Mishpat has to do with judgment, i.e., the ability to discern justice, thus the act of deciding a case.
    2. John above is not correct when he suggests that dikaoisune should be translated as righteousness in Plato’s Republic. Greek scholars certainly do not believe this, and you merely need to read a few pages of the Republic to see it for yourself.
    3. The fear that we shall be engulfed by a man-centered social gospel if we use the word justice too often is … silly. The abuse of a term does not abolish its use.

    The best way to understand justice is to study the Bible’s own use of the word, such as in Deut 25 and Lev 19 where it is used as an adjective for the balanced scale, thus the symbol of fairness and the equal measure (which has made its way onto courtrooms all over the world). The contexts of both chapters elaborate on the symbol by providing us with laws of fairness, confirming that justice has to do with relational fairness, and ultimately with the great commandment to love your neighbour as yourself (Lev. 19:18), which is in fact the fulfilment of justice as Paul tells us in Rom 13.

  13. Thank you for your study on the words righteousness and justice. It is so helpful for me. I am surprised how I lived my life without knowing the difference between these two words. The confusion of these two words do cause more confusion in daily life decisions. I liked the way you explained them with examples and the way you put them together. Thank you so much!

  14. Thank you. This was most helpful. I wonder if the English and I suspect German preference for “righteousness” rather than “justice” in translation is related to an establishment focused on limiting Christianity to personal moral behavior than to social justice, thus keeping it from interfering with the exercise of power and control by the ruling classes.

  15. Thank you for clarifying the definition and application of the two words. It gives me renewed understanding of some of rhe Biblical passages. The perspective you provided is especially helpful for me, where English is not my primary language.

  16. Pingback: 10 Ways We Betray the Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr | Drum Majors Alliance

  17. This was so enlightening and really helps me sort out personal confusion. I often noticed how much the word justice would fit where righteousness was used, and often wanted to quote scripture differently but wasn’t sure it was appropriate. I totally agree justice and righteousness are connected and how enriching to use both words now. Thanks so much for doing the work!

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