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Righteousness and Justification – Philippians 3:9

Philippians Bible Study, Week 15

Righteousness and Justification – Philippians 3:9

. . . that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. Philippians 3:8b-9

Things to think about

Are you “in” Christ?[1]
What makes a person righteous in God’s eyes?
How important are our actions and deeds in regard to our righteousness?
Can you define these theological terms: righteousness, justification, reconciliation and sanctification?
Are you reconciled with God? That is, are you friends, and not enemies, of God? Do you have a close relationship with God, or are you distance and estranged from him?

Righteousness and Justification

One of Paul’s favourite words to describe our status as Christians is “righteous”. I used to have major problems with that word, especially as a young Christian. I was acutely aware of my sins, shortcomings, and failures, and certainly didn’t feel at all righteous. I was a Christian for over 20 years before I began to understand that being declared righteous by God is a gracious gift. I now understand that my righteousness, or right standing, with God has nothing to do with any continuing shortcomings and any feelings of personal inadequacy and unworthiness. My right standing with God has everything to do with Jesus’ redemptive work and my simple faith in him.

The Greek word dikaiosunē, which is often translated as “righteousness”, may also be translated as “justification”. Both meanings are equally applicable to Paul’s usage, and are frequent themes in his letters.[2] In Philippians 3:9, Paul is emphatic that righteousness does not come through observing the Law and performing righteous deeds or religious rituals.[3] It is impossible for any person to be righteous by observing the Law; however, the Law does make us conscious of sin and can lead us to Christ (Rom. 3:20, 7:7,13; Gal. 3:24).

Dikaiosunē is a not a moral righteousness, but an attributed righteousness. The “righteousness of God” (Rom. 1:17) is not to be understood as God’s unattainable standard of piety and morality, but a judicial, or legal, declaration of righteousness.[4] Christian believers are justified, that is, legally declared righteous by God, even though their behaviour may not appear to be righteous. This righteousness is a gift from God.

Paul taught that justification is a gracious act of God that we receive the moment we place our complete faith and confidence in Jesus and in the saving power of his sacrifice (Rom. 3:20-28; Phil. 3:9). When we are justified, God legally declares that we are fully acquitted of every sin. We can be acquitted of sin because Jesus took upon himself every sin and bore them on the cross – in our place (2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Pet. 2:24, 3:18). Jesus paid the penalty for our sins with his shed blood (Rom. 3:25-26, 8:3-4; 1 John 4:10), so Paul correctly states, “We are justified by His blood” (Rom. 5:9).

Because “righteousness” is a legal status and not a moral quality.  Most of us don’t become morally good and pure the instant we are saved; yet God regards us as righteous as Jesus Christ who never sinned (Rom. 3:22). In the place of sin and death, God attributes to us righteousness and life.

God made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.  2 Corinthians 5:21

Paul is emphatic that our justification and righteousness, that is, our salvation, is in no way dependent on virtuous actions or good deeds; rather, it is graciously bestowed by God (Rom. 3:23-24,28, 4:5, 5:15-16,11:6; Gal 2:16; Eph. 2:8-9; Phil. 3:9).  While salvation is offered universally, it is only attributed to those who are continually and faithfully putting their trust in Jesus.

Righteousness and Reconciliation

Barclay (2003:73) writes that the trouble with the Greek word for righteousness (dikaiosunē) “is that of finding one English word which covers all that it includes.” Barclay goes on to say that “righteousness, nearly always for Paul, has the meaning of a right relationship with God.” Bob Richards (2000:96) likewise describes righteousness as: “being-made-right-with-God-ness.”

Paul had been trying through his own efforts to live in a right relationship with God. He had been trying to achieve this through a zealous and strict observance of Judaism. But this had not brought the fellowship with God that Paul was seeking. Paul had finally found peace and reconciliation with God through faith in Jesus Christ. In Romans 5:1-2a, Paul wrote:

Therefore since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God, through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we also have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace by which we stand.

Sin separates us from God, and in effect makes us enemies of God. But because Jesus paid the penalty for our sin, we are now spared from God’s wrath. Instead of wrath, we have peace with God and the glorious promise of eternal life (John 3:16, 8:34-36; Rom. 6:23). Moreover, instead of being distant and estranged, we can have a close relationship with God (Rom. 5:1, 9-11; Col. 1:20-22).

Jesus Christ’s sacrificial death and shed blood has brought about “a new and living way” which allows us to freely enter the Most Holy Place (Heb. 10:19). This means that we may freely and confidently approach God without fear or shame, and have a close, personal, and eternal relationship with him. In fact, as we come near to God, he will come near to us! (Jas. 4:8; 1 John 5:14-15).

Righteousness and Sanctification

Justification (being declared righteous) initiates the process of sanctification, but justification and sanctification are two different concepts. Our righteousness is a legal standing provided by God. It is then largely up to us, through our attitudes, decisions, and actions, as well as our cooperation with the all-important, divine work of the indwelling Holy Spirit, to begin to match that legal righteousness with the moral righteousness of an obedient and godly life. This development of moral righteousness, through the process of sanctification, should lead us toward our goal of becoming like Christ! Our fluctuating degree of moral righteousness, however, does not in any way affect or influence our eternally established status as justified children of God, attributed with the righteousness of Christ.

Being “justified by God’ means that redeemed mankind can once again become partakers of his divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4), and we can aim for perfection (2 Cor. 13:9 & 11). The divine image, with moral and spiritual perfection,- which was within humanity at Creation, and subsequently marred and distorted by sin, is now our goal.

While righteousness is an undeserved gift from God, we should not be complacent, but, like Paul, we should be diligent in our efforts towards sanctification, and alert to the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. Moreover, we should press on towards the goal of spiritual maturity and Christ-likeness. We have a holy calling.

[God] has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity . . . 2 Timothy 1:9 (NASB)


[1] See my article Being “in” Christ here.

[2] Paul’s letter to the Romans contains his most comprehensive and systematic treatment of the doctrine of Justification by Faith.

[3] The first five books of the Bible – the Pentateuch – are commonly referred to in the New Testament as “The Law”, or the “Law of Moses” (Luke 24:44), or even simply as “Moses”(Luke 24:27; 2 Cor. 3:15). Occasionally the entire Old Testament is referred to as the Law (Rom. 3:19). The Old Testament books, other than the Pentateuch, are usually referred to as “The Prophets”.

The Jews venerated the Old Testament Law and looked to it as God’s standard of righteousness.  Yet what Paul is presenting is a righteousness independent and separate from the Mosaic Law and the Old Covenant.

[4] “The ideas of right and wrong among the Hebrews are forensic ideas; that is, the Hebrew always thinks of right and wrong as if it were to be settled before a judge. Righteousness is to the Hebrew not so much a moral quality as a legal status.” (Bruce 1985:73)

© 16th of September 2010, Margaret Mowczko

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Week 14: Paul’s Hebrew Heritage – Philippians 3:4-8
Week 16: The Onward, Upward Call – Philippians 3:10-14

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2 thoughts on “Righteousness and Justification – Philippians 3:9

  1. Thank you Marg for this wonderful article, having a clear distinction between justification/righteousness and sanctification.
    Be blessed!

    1. Thanks, Daniel.

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