The Biblical terminology for "righteousness" carries rich and varied meanings. Sometimes righteousness consists primarily in conformity to a legal or ethical standard (Leviticus 19:15, 36; Exodus 23:6-8). At other times, righteousness denotes the subjective moral and spiritual character of individuals and groups ( Proverbs 21:25, Luke 1:6). In other instances, righteousness is the activity through which God overcomes his enemies, vindicates his people, and establishes them in peace (Psalms 98:7-9, Isaiah 62:1-2). Differing theological understandings of righteousness, justification, atonement and ethics are often rooted in decisions as to which of these meanings is dominant.
In the era of the Protestant Reformation, the issue of righteousness was closely tied to that of justification. Roman Catholics maintained that individuals can be justified only when God imparts to them a moral and spiritual righteousness which actually makes them righteous. Protestants, however, argued that righteousness is the acceptance and forgiveness which God imputes to individuals who are not yet personally righteous.
Subsequently Protestant orthodoxy developed the formal concept of righteousness as divine legal standards for human behavior. Those who fulfill these perfectly merit eternal life, while those who break them deserve eternal death. But since no one has fulfilled these standards and everyone has broken them, Christ's righteousness is his legal fulfillment of God's requirements and his legal payment of their penalties in our place. Imputation of this righteousness is God's assigning these accomplishments to an individual's account, apart from any impartation of subjective righteousness. Many Fundamentalists hold this view today.
The Anabaptists understood righteousness in several ways. Sometimes it meant those violated divine requirements which Christ satisfied on our behalf. Anabaptists also spoke of Christ's righteousness being imputed (although not in a strictly legal way) to cover the sinfulness of infants and of the corrupt "flesh" of Christians.
More often, Anabaptists regarded righteousness as a moral and spiritual energy. Its inmost character and the scope of its effects, however, often transcended the Catholic notion of a quality which God imparts. Righteousness often means the divine activity and life itself. Leonhard Schiemer emphasized "the birth, death, and resurrection in us of Christ who is our righteousness" (CRR 3: 54). For Peter Riedemann, "Christ is our righteousness" meant that through "his actual strength or working, he guideth us into his nature, essence and character" (Confession of Faith, p. 36). Since the Anabaptists experienced this righteousness to be in continual conflict with the world, the flesh, and the devil and expected God to shortly vindicate his righteous people, its deepest character may also correspond to the biblical notion of that activity whereby God overcomes his enemies and establishes his people in peace.
Klaassen, Walter, ed. Anabaptism in Outline: Selected Primary Sources, Classics of the Radical Reformation (CRR), vol. 3. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1981: 41-71, 211-31.
Reumann, John. Righteousness in the New Testament. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1982.
Branch, Manfred. "Perspectives on ' God's Righteousness' in Recent German Discussion" in E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977: 526-42.
Riedemann, Peter (Redemann). Account of Our Religion, Doctrine, and Faith, trans. Kathleen E. Hasenberg. London and Bitten, N.Y.: Plough, 1938, 1950, 1970: 34-48, 61-86, 165-88.
Simons, Menno. "The True Christian Faith," in The Complete Writings of Menno Simons, c. 1496-1561, trans. Leonard Verduin, ed. J. C. Wenger. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1956: esp. 335-43.
Simons, Menno. "Brief and Clear Confession" in The Complete Writings of Menno Simons, c. 1496-1561, trans. Leonard Verduin, ed. J. C. Wenger. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1956: esp. 422-440.
Sattler, Michael. "Two Kinds of Obedience" in John H. Yoder, ed. and trans., The Legacy of Michael Sattler, Classics of the Radical Reformation, vol. 1. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1973: 121-25.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, p. 775. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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