Righteousness comprises a broad group of concepts and traits. As with the biblical Hebrew sedek and the Greek dikaiosunē, the English word "righteousness" describes the ideal of religious life, with Godlike behavior as the norm. Righteousness is right conduct before God and among mankind in all respects. The scriptures give the following perspectives:
Righteousness is ultimately synonymous with holiness or godliness. Christ himself is known as "the Righteous" (Moses 7:45, 47) and as "the Son of Righteousness" (3 Ne. 25:2). His "ways are righteousness forever" (2 Ne. 1:19).
The state of righteousness is available to mankind through the redemption of Christ as one is born of god: "Marvel not that all mankind, yea, men and women . . . must be born again; yea, born of God, changed from their carnal and fallen state, to a state of righteousness, being redeemed of God, becoming his sons and daughters" (Mosiah 27:25).
The terms "righteous" and "righteousness" also apply to mortals who, though beset with weaknesses and frailties, are seeking to come unto Christ. In this sense, righteousness is not synonymous with perfection. It is a condition in which a person is moving toward the Lord, yearning for godliness, continuously repenting of sins, and striving honestly to know and love God and to follow the principles and ordinances of the gospel. Saints of God are urged to do "the works of righteousness" (D&C 59:23) and to "bring to pass much righteousness" (D&C 58:27).
Inherent in the meaning of righteousness is the concept of justification. It is impossible for finite mortals to live in perfect obedience to God's laws or to atone infinitely for their sins. "For all have sinned," Paul wrote, "and come short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3:23). Christ's atonement mercifully reconciles the demands of justice (see Justice and Mercy), making it possible for repentant mortals to become "right" with God—"at one" with him.
When Saul of Tarsus saw the resurrected Christ on the road to Damascus, "he trembling and astonished said, Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?" (Acts 9:6). From that moment on, he sought to know the will of God and live accordingly. But he also lamented over mortal weaknesses: "For I know that in me, that is, in my flesh, dwelleth no good thing . . . only in Christ" (JST, Rom. 7:19). "There is none righteous, no, not one" (Rom. 3:10). Like all apostles and prophets, however, Paul also taught the glorious message that through the grace of Christ mortals can "put off . . . the old man"—their fallen and sinful selves—and "put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness" (Eph. 4:22, 24).
The scriptures abound in similar exhortations to flee wickedness, accept the Lord's grace, and come unto Christ in righteousness. "O wretched man that I am!" exclaimed Nephi. "Yea, my heart sorroweth because of my flesh; my soul grieveth because of mine iniquities." But recognizing the Savior as "the rock of [his] righteousness," Nephi cried: "O Lord, wilt thou redeem my soul? . . . Wilt thou make me that I may shake at the appearance of sin? . . . Wilt thou encircle me around in the robe of thy righteousness!" (2 Ne. 4:17—35).
Righteousness begins in the heart—the "broken heart." It begins when individuals see themselves where they really are: in a fallen state, as "unworthy creatures" who are unable to pull themselves out of their own sins. As they confront the monumental gulf between "the greatness of God, and [their] own nothingness," their hearts break and they "humble [themselves] even in the depths of humility, calling on the name of the Lord daily, and standing steadfastly in the faith" (Mosiah 4:11).
Righteous souls then seek to become right with the Lord, by asking sincerely for forgiveness. As the Lord blesses such with his grace, they desire to respond with even greater faithfulness, love, and obedience. Although they may not reach perfect righteousness in mortality, their lives are beyond reproach—"as becometh saints" (Eph. 5:3).
Scriptures provide a wealth of insight into the attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs that form the basis of a righteous life (e.g., 2 Pet. 1:4—8; D&C 4:5—6). Notably, in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5—7; cf. 3 Ne. 12—14), Jesus revealed the meaning of righteousness—a pattern that he exemplified by his own life:
Those who seek righteousness become humble, poor in spirit. They reverence the Lord, acknowledging that "all things which are good cometh of God" (Moroni 7:12).
They mourn for their sins—and their "godly sorrow worketh repentance" (2 Cor. 7:10). They also compassionately "mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort" (Mosiah 18:9).
The righteous strive to be meek—kind and long-suffering, generous, sacrificing, patient, filled with love for their enemies, not "puffed up," and "not easily provoked" (1 Cor. 13:4—5).
Hungering and thirsting after righteousness, they continually seek the Lord through sincere prayer, fasting, scripture study, Sabbath worship, and service in the holy temples.
They seek to be merciful—to forgive as they would be forgiven, to judge as they would be judged, to love as they would be loved, to serve as they would be served (D&C 38:24—25).
They seek to be pure in heart—thinking no evil, envying not, and rejoicing not in iniquity but in the truth (1 Cor. 13:4—6). They are honest in their covenants with God and in their dealings with their fellowmen. They are chaste and also virtuous.
Seekers of righteousness are peacemakers. They avoid contention, anger, and evil-speaking. They promote goodwill, brotherhood, and sisterhood; they seek to establish God's will and his kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
When persecuted for righteousness' sake or when reviled or maligned for their allegiance to the Lord, they bear all things and endure all things (1 Cor. 13:7).
Such scriptural descriptions of righteousness are not to be reduced to lists that individuals self-righteously check off. They are constant reminders on the journey toward God, who has promised a Comforter—the Holy Ghost—to give guidance and direction on that path (John 14:26).
The Lord delights "to honor those who serve [him] in righteousness" (D&C 76:5). At the last day, "the righteous, the saints of the Holy One of Israel, they who have believed in the Holy One of Israel, they who have endured the crosses of the world, and despised the shame of it, they shall inherit the kingdom of God, which was prepared for them from the foundation of the world, and their joy shall be full forever" (2 Ne. 9:18).
Benson, Ezra T. "A Mighty Change of Heart." Ensign 19 (Oct. 1989): 2—5.
McConkie, Bruce R. "The Dead Who Die in the Lord." Ensign 6 (Nov. 1976): 106—8.
Scoresby, A. Lynn. "Journey toward Righteousness." Ensign 10 (Jan. 1980): 52—57.
Marvin K. Gardner