“I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”- Matthew 5:20
When we consider what it means to please God, it is clear that our Creator prizes righteousness. Jesus, for example, calls us to seek first “the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matt. 6:33). As citizens of the kingdom, we must value righteousness above all else.
Our Savior also issues a stark warning to us in Matthew 5:20, telling us that we will never enter the kingdom of heaven unless our righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees. This passage has perplexed many people, and there are a couple of different things Jesus could be talking about here. He could be referring to what we may call a “legal righteousness.” This is the righteousness that allows us to be declared righteous in God’s sight according to the perfect standard of God’s justice. This is a righteousness that has met all of God’s demands in the law. This is the righteousness that is imputed to us in our justification (2 Cor. 5:21). When we believe in Christ, His perfect obedience is put on our record, and God declares us righteous in His heavenly courtroom. We do not contribute anything to this righteousness.
But Jesus may be talking about what we can call a “practical righteousness.” This kind of righteousness is the general conformity to God’s law that we work out in our sanctification. We can be called righteous in the sense that we seek to love God, obey Him, and repent when we fall short. This kind of righteousness is not enough to get us into heaven, but it is the evidence of saving faith in the One who has merited heaven for us—Christ Jesus (James 2:14–26).
In the first century, the Pharisees were known as righteous men, individuals who went above and beyond in their zeal to obey the law. They tithed not only the fruit of their fields but the smallest herbs that they grew in their homes (Matt. 23:23). They traveled all over in order to make converts to Judaism (v. 15). From all outward appearances, they seemed righteous.
The problem was that most of the Pharisees never got beyond the externals. They cared little for the weightier matters of the law (v. 23). They were content with outward acts of piety but paid little attention to the state of their hearts (vv. 25–26). Righteousness greater than that of the Pharisees, therefore, is not one that ignores externals. It is one that also cares about the disposition of the heart.
It is important to obey God externally, to do in our actions what He tells us to do. However, God is fully pleased with our obedience only if we are motivated by love for God and neighbor. We must seek to have our inner dispositions as well as our external actions conform to the law of God. Then we can know that we are pleasing Him as we grow in the grace of Christ.
Passages for Further Study