Depending on the tradition you were raised in there is often an emphasis on either righteousness or justification in relation to how we understand salvation. I know these are big words and scary concepts to most, but in reality both justification and righteousness are fairly simple, and like most things we make them far more complicated then they need to be.
In the reformed protestant movement righteousness and justification are seen as two sides of the same coin. One might simplify it to say that because we have been justified we have been made right and we have been saved. But many will raise various objections to this concept because they want to bring thing up like works or actions we must take in order to be made right with Christ. But in introducing righteousness, Paul gives us an example in Abraham that shows us that God justifies him through his faith, not his works, though not disparaging the works. Unfortunately, this debate often gets in the way of understanding on a deeper level what we need to understand about righteousness.
Being central to understanding of justification and righteousness is understanding right relationships with God and each other. According to Donald McKim, in the Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms,Righteousness:
Biblically the term embraces a number of dimensions relating to God’s actions in establishing and maintaining right relationships. Ethically it is a state of moral purity or doing that which is right.
Interestingly, we can think of many examples of how stubbornness and preference have kept people from having good relationships. In fact, sometimes in the pursuit of relationships we find that we fall and drift from God. I often find this to be the case when I try one of the “spirituality things.” I am not knocking them, because they are a very useful tool for many, but for me it does not do anything; I often get bored and mind goes off to other things. Though I do not turn from God, that time where I could be connecting, I just don’t. Again, I think those are great people for who they work for, but I know in my relationship with God, I do not need to prove anything to anyone else because what is right is the relationship I have with God.
This is where we recognize the gift of Justification comes through our faith and not our works. Through faith alone we are justified through Christ (a reformed slogan). This means that through Christ’s Grace he Remits our sins, absolves from guilt and punishment, so that we may receive favor, and be pronounced just (paraphrased from 5.106). In other words, only through Christ can we really be made whole. Moreover, there is something more about justification and righteousness that we often overlook and that is probably the most important part, that this whole thing is ultimately about right relationships.
You see, if we spent our lifetime focusing on being perfect, we are left in the unfortunate situation where we do not have the ability to Celebrate Christ, God, or even have full relationships with each other because we are far more focused on ourselves and our own ways rather than God.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen