An anonymous listener of the podcast writes in to ask, “Pastor John, what constitutes being a ‘righteous person’ as referenced over 50 times in the Psalms? For example, there are promises to ‘the righteous’ that God will hear their prayers (see Psalm 34:15–22). So who is this ‘righteous person’ in the Psalms, and how do I become one?”
That is a really important question, because of how many people stumble. We know we are sinners. We stumble over that, and therefore we don’t see ourselves in that category and, therefore, we can’t make use of those Psalms — and that’s tragic.
And what makes the question so urgent is that when Paul says in Romans 3:10, “None is righteous, no, not one,” he’s quoting Psalm 14:3.
Or Psalm 53:2–3, “God looks down from heaven on the children of man to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all fallen away; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one.”
That is the Psalms talking, who are constantly saying things like:
- “The eyes of the LORD are toward the righteous and his ears toward their cry” (Psalm 34:15).
- “For the arms of the wicked shall be broken, but the LORD upholds the righteous” (Psalm 37:17).
- “The salvation of the righteous is from the LORD; he is their stronghold in the time of trouble” (Psalm 37:39).
- “Cast your burden on the LORD, and he will sustain you; he will never permit the righteous to be moved” (Psalm 55:22).
- “Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD his God” (Psalm 146:5).
- “The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down; the LORD loves the righteous” (Psalm 146:8).
Those last two verses together are so powerful.
But here is the catch: Immediately before that verse, Psalm 146:8, comes a description of “the righteous”:
Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD his God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, who keeps faith forever; who executes justice for the oppressed, who gives food to the hungry. (Psalm 146:5–7)
So there is no thought in the Old Testament or the New Testament that “the righteous” are sinless. They aren’t sinless. The whole old covenant is based on the assumption that people need forgiveness through the animal sacrifices in the Old Testament, through the mercy of God. “The righteous” know this and turn to God for mercy (not merit) and put their hope in him for forgiveness, and then they live in the promise that God will help them. “Fear not; I am with you. I will help you. I will uphold you. I will strengthen you” (see, for example, Isaiah 41:10). They live in that awareness and, thus, they do justice. And they do mercy and they care for the hungry and the oppressed.
I have found Psalm 103 to be really helpful in putting the pieces together. It begins celebrating the forgiveness of sin. So we can be done with all thought that “the righteous” don’t need their sins forgiven because they don’t have any. That’s not true.
Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits. (Psalm 103:2)
He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. (Psalm 103:10)
So the righteous are people who know that, glory in it, and base their lives on it. Then David adds:
But the steadfast love of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children, to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments. (Psalm 103:17–18)
So even though sinlessness is not what righteousness is, and even though forgiveness of sins is continually needed, the righteous do keep the covenant. They do keep the commandments — not flawlessly; otherwise, they wouldn’t need any forgiveness — but as the passion and the direction of their lives.
That is “the righteous.” They depend on mercy. They are getting forgiveness of sins. They are looking away from themselves to the sacrifice that ultimately is Jesus. And they are then, in the power and strength of that, putting to death sin in their lives and they are on a basic trajectory of obedience to God.
And exactly the same thing is true of Christians today. “The righteous” in the New Testament are not sinless people. And they are not only people who are enjoying imputed, perfect righteousness as though that is the only way the New Testament talks about “the righteous.” That is the foundational way. We can’t even make any steps in practical righteousness until we are counted righteous by God through faith alone.
But once we are justified by faith alone and counted righteous in Christ, our whole lives are devoted to being “the righteous.” And that is why in Philippians 1:9–11, when Paul prays for them, he expects that Christians are going to be found at the last day filled with the fruits of righteousness. That is how you keep the new covenant. You trust in mercy. You receive forgiveness. You enjoy a perfect standing with God. And as the fruit and overflow of the Spirit, you bear fruits of righteousness.
When you read the Psalms, don’t rank “the righteous” so high that you can’t be one — or those Psalms become useless for you. And don’t rank “the righteous” so low that it doesn’t require any real moral change in your life. It will.