The Scripture speaks of two types of righteousness in regards to humanity. The first type is referenced in the proverb below.
The wicked and righteous in this proverb are distinguished as we would expect – by their character, their moral performance. It is almost self-evident to state that the righteous should not be condemned, and that the wicked should not be justified. It makes sense that such practices would be an abomination to God.
This type of righteousness, based on moral character, is one that we all should fear, for the Bible says the following words:
Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, so that every mouth may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God; because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin. Romans 3: 19 – 20
If the type of righteousness spoken of in the proverb was all that we had, we would be a people without hope, because God’s law would show us our sin and show us to be wicked, and we would have no grounds for thinking we should be justified before God.
Yet there is a different type of righteousness, and it is applied independently of human works. It is a type of righteousness that flips the proverb upside down, where the wicked are justified before God, where a truly righteous man (Jesus) is condemned, and where rather than being an abomination to God, this occurs according to God’s will.
The great mystery of God revealed in Christ, and foreshadowed in the sacrificial system of the Levitical priesthood, is that sin can be atoned for and that righteousness can be granted to humanity outside of the law due to Jesus Christ.
Therefore they said to Him, “What shall we do, so that we may work the works of God?” Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.” John 6: 28 – 29
So with this logic that comes only by means of revelation, the righteous are those who have faith in Christ, regardless of their works, and the wicked are those who disbelieve in the Son that the Father sent, regardless of their works. Make no mistake about it, there is still a judgment of the righteous and the wicked. But the terms of the judgment are different than what was anticipated by Old Testament Judaism, since the Prophets did not receive the full revelation of Christ.
Praise be to God that we are not bound by the truth of the proverb and moral righteousness, but rather are freed through the truth of the gospel, in which the righteous Christ stood in our place, doing a work we could never do, and bearing the wrath that we deserved.