What does it mean to be righteous?

It’s a tough word until we find out its real meaning, says James Glass.

‘Doing a Devon Loch’ is a phrase – perhaps not that well known outside sporting circles – that has come to signify throwing away certain victory for no apparent reason.

Devon Loch was the name of a racehorse owned by the Queen Mother. In the 1956 Grand National, Devon Loch took the lead after some of the favourites fell early on. He led up until about 40 metres from the finishing line when the unimaginable happened.

For some unknown reason, Devon Loch reared up and then fell over. His jockey, Dick Francis, did his best to cajole him back into the race. But to no avail. As he lay on the ground, the other horses sped past him.

Various explanations were put forward to explain what happened. Some claimed he saw the shadow of an adjacent water jump fence and tried to jump it. Others reported that he suffered cramp in his hindquarters and fell as a result. His jockey claimed the roar from the crowd, expecting a royal winner, frightened the horse.

Whatever the explanation, it didn’t change the result. Devon Loch had thrown away victory – for no obvious reason.

In James 5:16, James, the Lord’s brother, says the prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. Most Christians believe that. They believe that prayer has the potential to change lives and even nations. They believe God hears and answers prayer. But then they read that it’s the prayers of a righteous person that are powerful and effective – and they too often do a Devon Loch.

They have everything they need for a winning prayer life but the word ‘righteous’ completely trips them up.

There is some awkwardness around the word righteousness. Most people don’t claim to be righteous. Even – perhaps especially – people who live righteously.

There are some good reasons. Firstly, we tend to think of confessed righteousness as being a bit pharisaical. We associate it more with self-righteousness. And no one wants to think of themselves or wants others to think of them like that.

Secondly, we equate righteousness with sinlessness. That’s understandable! When we consider that God is righteous, it’s easy to see why we see righteousness as equivalent to sinlessness. After all, God is sinless. And he’s righteous. It’s almost case closed.

However, when it comes to human beings and righteousness, things become a little more complicated.

Righteous is used to describe people in the Bible who were not sinless. Noah is described as righteous (Genesis 6:9). Likewise Lot (2 Peter 2:7-8), Zechariah and Elizabeth (Luke 1:17) and Simeon (Luke 2:25). God sends the rain on the righteous and unrighteous (Matthew 5:45).

So clearly human beings can be righteous. However, it’s stretching things a bit far to say any of these people were sinless! The well-known verse found in 1 John 1:9 reinforces the point. It teaches us to confess our sins and receive the cleansing of the blood of Jesus.

So what does it mean for us to be righteous?

The root of righteousness

It is helpful for us to distinguish between two aspects of righteousness: the root of righteousness and the fruit of righteousness. Like a tree, righteousness has roots and it produces fruit.

What is the root of righteousness?

In Romans 3:21-22 Paul talks about the righteousness of God. He says it is something that cannot gift received through faith in Christ. God declares us righteous because of what Jesus has done. We receive his gift of righteousness through faith in Christ.

The fruit of righteousness

The fruit of righteousness is found in righteous living – living in obedience to God’s will as revealed in his Word. The fruit of righteousness can be seen in our actions and reactions.


“The one who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous,” (1 John 3:7). Living righteously simply means doing what is right. It’s that simple! Paul says in Ephesians 5:8-10: “Live as children of light… and find out what pleases the Lord.”


Righteousness is also found in our reactions. Referring to righteous Lot, Peter says that he was ‘tormented in his righteous soul by the lawless deeds he saw and heard,’ (2 Peter 2:8).

Your reactions to what you see and hear going on around you reveal your righteousness.

The Holy Spirit helps us

Thankfully we don’t have to produce the fruit of righteousness by our efforts. The Holy Spirit helps us (Romans 8.5).

The prayer of a righteous person

So when we return to the promise of James 5:16, we can claim that promise for ourselves. We don’t need to be intimidated by the word ‘righteous’. God gives us his righteousness as a gift. And we can live righteously with the help of the Holy Spirit.

What’s more, we can be confident that the description of a righteous person fits us, because we are not relying on ourselves. We are relying on Christ’s work and God’s gift of righteousness. And we are relying on the power of the Spirit to enable us to live righteously.

If we will believe what the Bible teaches us about righteousness, we won’t trip up over the righteous person in James 5:16. Instead, we will pray confidently, and our prayers will impact the lives of others, perhaps even the destiny of nations.

This promise is for each one of us. There’s no need to ‘do a Devon Loch’ in the place of prayer.

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