“There is none righteous, not even one.”
Such was Paul’s paraphrase in Romans 3:11 of the ancient assertion of Ecclesiastes 7:20, “There is not a righteous man on earth who does what is right and never sins.”
The Greek word for “righteous” is dikaios (DIH ky oss). For writers in classical Greek the righteous man was the man who “observed social rules; fulfilled his obligations; did his duty to the gods.” In that setting the word had to do with being decent and civilized.
For God’s people in the Old Testament, however, being merely civilized was not enough. They had the Torah, God’s law revealed in written form. Therefore, the word “righteous” came to focus almost entirely on keeping that law. Only when a man did his obligations to God could he be called “righteous” or “in the right.” Those who failed to keep their obligations were called “the wicked” or “the unfaithful.”
But the Old Testament did not always see being “righteous” as an impossible goal. Noah, for instance, “was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time” (Gen 6:9). When the Psalmist said, “Surely, O Lord, you bless the righteous” (Ps 5:12) and “The Lord loves the righteous” (Ps 146:8), he did not imagine a group to which no persons could belong.
Even so, no one was totally righteous; no one never sinned at all.
Except God. “The Lord is righteous in all his ways” (Ps 145:17). God is righteous in every sense: He keeps every promise and fulfills every covenant obligation. And just as the Father is completely in the right, so is Jesus Christ the Son. He fulfilled every obligation; He did His duty to the Father. He alone -- Jesus Christ the Righteous -- is able to atone for our sins and speak to the Father in our defense (1 John 2:1-2).