Does being made righteous refer to a status or a process?
The short answer is both. Let’s take a closer look at this great word, starting with its background in the Old Testament.
In both Hebrew and Greek, the basic meaning of righteousness is “conformity to a norm.” In its biblical context, the norm that righteousness aims for is God’s own just character and will for His people. For both God and Israel, then, righteousness (or justice) amounted to covenant faithfulness. Psalm 11:7 sums up its priority well: “The Lord is righteous, He loves righteousness.”
But even as YHWH called Israel to righteousness, He warned her not to boast in it (Deuteronomy 6:24, 25; 9:4-6). Israel’s unfaithfulness to the covenant underscored the gulf between God’s righteousness and hers. Psalms praises, “I will make mention of Your righteousness, of Yours only,” but confesses “In Your sight no one living is righteous” (71:16; 143:2). It is God’s righteousness and faithfulness that the psalmist trusts (40:10). As for human beings, “There is none who does good, no, not one” (14:3).
The prophets record the same. “All our righteousnesses are like filthy rags,” Isaiah laments (64:6). Daniel too: “O Lord, righteousness belongs to You, but to us shame of face” (9:7). But these same prophets predicted the restoration of righteousness by God’s own. In Isaiah 59, God looks for righteousness but finds none, so “His own arm brought salvation for Him; and His own righteousness, it sustained Him” (vv. 9-17). In Daniel 9, the prophet repents for Israel’s unrighteousness while rejoicing that God will set things right and “bring in everlasting righteousness” (v. 24).
Coming to the New Testament, we see these promises realized: God’s righteousness is revealed in Jesus Christ. This is what Romans 3 is all about. Paul quotes some of the scriptures we’ve noted above in teaching the gospel: “There is none righteous . . . all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (vv. 10, 23). But in Christ, God’s righteousness has been demonstrated for salvation, and through faith in Him, we are justified (declared righteous, set right with God; vv. 21-26).
Justification is our righteous status in Christ. Because we are united to Him, our righteousness is derived from and dependent on His. Not I, but Christ (Galatians 2:20). Sounding like the prophets, Paul sees his own righteousness as rubbish in comparison to that “righteousness which is from God by faith” (Philippians 3:8, 9). This righteousness was prefigured all the way back in Abraham: “And he believed in the Lord, and He accounted it to him for righteousness” (Genesis 15:6; Romans 4:3).
But like Father Abraham, this righteous status is transformative. A lived faith does righteousness too (Genesis 18:19). This is the ongoing, conforming process that believers experience in Jesus Christ: “By one Man’s obedience many will be made righteous,” the “righteousness of God” (Romans 5:19; 2 Corinthians 5:21). Being righteous in Christ, we pursue righteousness and practice it in Christ as well (2 Timothy 2:22; 1 John 2:29; 3:7).
— Jason Overman