James D. Slopsema is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Randolph, Wisconsin.

For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the

scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven. 

Matthew 5:20

These words were spoken by Jesus in His great sermon on the Mount.

The theme of the Sermon on the Mount is the kingdom of heaven and its righteousness. In this sermon Jesus emphasized that the kingdom of heaven is essentially a kingdom of righteousness, so that only the righteous can enter it. Quite in harmony with that theme, Jesus said that except our righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, we shall in no case enter into the kingdom. 

Now righteousness has the idea of obedience to the law of God. That which conforms to God’s law is righteous. Hence, what Jesus is saying is that except our obedience to God’s law exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, we shall in no case enter into the kingdom.

Perhaps a word ought to be said about the scribes and Pharisees. 

The Pharisees were a religious sect in Israel who prided themselves in the keeping of God’s law. Very religiously they observed all the commandments of God given to Israel at Mt. Sinai through Moses. In addition to this they also faithfully observed the traditions of the fathers. These were man-made rules added to the law of God, which, it was claimed, must also be kept if one will truly keep God’s law in its essence. All these the Pharisees very carefully observed. In a word the Pharisees were the doers of the law. 

If the Pharisees were the doers of the law, the scribes were the students of the law. They made it their business to study and know the law of God. They knew the law of God backwards and forwards. We may call the scribes the theologians of their day. 

The scribes and the Pharisees therefore were very closely related to each other. They both dealt with the law: the one as the doer of the law; the other as the interpreter of the law. And for that reason they were highly esteemed in Israel. There was a parable that if only two men were to go to heaven, one would be a scribe and the other a Pharisee. 

What a sledgehammer blow it must have been when Christ announced that except the righteousness of the people exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, they would in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven. These words of Jesus ran exactly contrary to all thinking in Israel. They were words that shocked the multitudes. We will appreciate this especially if we understand the exact meaning of Jesus’ words. For Jesus is not saying that the scribes and Pharisees were basically going in the right direction but simply had not gone far enough in their obedience to God’s law. No! What Jesus is saying is that we must have a different kind of righteousness than that of the scribes and Pharisees. The righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees is essentially a false righteousness. If we will enter into the kingdom, we must have a true, genuine righteousness. 

There were especially two things that characterized the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees that made it false. 

First, their righteousness was only an outward, external obedience to the law. The scribes and Pharisees had a very shallow, superficial conception of the law. They imagined that the law only governed their outward life and had nothing at all to say about their inner thoughts and desires. Consequently, their obedience to the law was only external. They ordered their outward conduct according to the law, but not their inner thoughts and desires.

Jesus made this plain in what follows of the Sermon on the Mount. The Pharisees were angry with their brother without a cause, they called their brother names, they would insult and tear down their neighbor; but just so long as they did not take the life of their neighbor they imagined they had kept the sixth commandment of the law, “Thou shalt not kill.” In like manner they frequently looked upon the neighbor’s wife to lust after her in their hearts. Yet never did they consider this to be a violation of the seventh commandment against adultery. One committed adultery only if he laid his hand on the neighbor’s wife. 

Consequently, Jesus called the Pharisees in another place whited sepulchres. He compared them to a cup clean on the outside but filthy on the inside. 

The second characteristic of the righteousness of scribes and Pharisees was that it was a righteousness completely devoid of love. The very essence of God’s law, as Jesus Himself more than once made clear, is that we love God and our neighbor as ourselves. This love was completely lacking in the hearts of the scribes and Pharisees. There was only one whom each scribe and Pharisee loved—that was himself. Each was filled with a sinful love of self which made him concerned only with himself. We may ask, why then did they bother to keep the law of God even in its external form? The answer is that this external obedience served to advance their selfish goals. The external righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees served to gain them the praise of men. It also served to elevate them to positions of power and influence in Israel. 

And now imagine! The scribes and Pharisees believed that on the basis of this external obedience, God would receive them into His fellowship and reward them with eternal glory. 

Small wonder that Jesus proclaims their righteousness to be false!

Our righteousness must exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. Our righteousness must be a true righteousness. 

A true righteousness is one, first of all, rooted in love.

As we have just noticed, the great commandment of the law is that we love God and the neighbor. Now what does it really mean to love God and the neighbor? From a very practical point of view, to love God means that you seek at all times God’s honor and glory. One who loves God as he ought does not seek his own glory; he seeks Gods glory. He desires to honor God in all that he does and says. In like manner, to love the neighbor means to seek the welfare of the neighbor. One who loves the neighbor isn’t concerned first of all with his own desires and interests; he’s concerned with what’s good for the neighbor. For the neighbor’s welfare he will gladly sacrifice, if need be, his time, his money, and even his own desires. 

Now our righteousness is genuine only when our keeping of God’s law is motivated by this kind of love. If, for example, we do what God commands us because we axe afraid of hell or because we think that somehow our obedience will earn us a place in heaven, then our righteousness is false. It’s essentially the same as that of the scribes and Pharisees. So too is our righteousness false if performed to avoid criticism by others or even to make ourselves look good before others. Our righteousness is true and genuine only when it is motivated by love and is thus done consciously either to glorify God or to promote the welfare of the neighbor. 

Following from this, a true righteousness is, in the second place, one that conforms the whole of our life to the law of God. Not only must our outward behavior be pure according to the law, but also our inner thoughts and desires. And the key to this is love. If we truly love God as we ought, we will not be content to conform just our outward life to His law. In our desire to honor and glorify Him, we will also live according to His law inwardly. In like manner, if we truly love the neighbor so that we seek his good, we will not only refrain from killing him but will also refrain from being angry with him without a cause, insulting him or tearing him down. And if we truly love the neighbor’s wife we will not only refrain from committing the outward act of adultery with her, we will also refrain from lusting after her.

By nature it is impossible for us to walk in true righteousness. This is due to our depravity. When we fell in Adam in the beginning, we all became corrupt and depraved. The sad fruit of this depravity is that we are no longer capable of walking in true righteousness. All that the depraved and fallen sinner can do is perform the false righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. 

If we will live in true righteousness, we must be transformed by the wonderful grace of God in Jesus Christ. 

This transformation is possible only if we first have the righteousness of Jesus Christ Himself. 

We must understand that our depravity by nature is God’s punishment for our sin. When we sinned in Adam originally, we became guilty before God. God appropriately punished us by giving us over to sin and depravity, which eventually leads to hell. What this means is that if we will ever be delivered from our depravity and the false righteousness to which it limits us, our sins must be removed from before the face of God. So long as there remains so much as one sin of ours before God, we are legally bound to our depravity and this false righteousness. Freedom from our depravity requires that somehow we appear before the tribunal of God in perfect righteousness, that is, as those who have never sinned but who have kept all obedience. 

This is possible only if we possess the righteousness of Jesus Christ. In the cross of Christ there is perfect righteousness. For at the cross Christ paid the price that covers for all times the sins of all of God’s people. At the cross Christ also walked the way of perfect obedience and righteousness on behalf of all of Gods own. There is a perfect righteousness at the cross! And if we will be righteous before God so as to be freed from the terrible penalty of sin, we must possess that righteousness. 

This righteousness of Jesus Christ is a free gift of God to all His people. They receive this righteousness by faith alone in Jesus Christ. When the children of God come before their God in true faith, God accounts the righteousness of Christ as their righteousness so that they are righteous before Him in Christ’s righteousness.

And being righteous before God by faith, Gods people are delivered by Gods grace from their depravity and its false righteousness. Through the same faith by which they have laid claim to the righteousness of the cross, God in Christ renews and strengthens them so that they walk in true righteousness. They do this only in principle (and thus imperfectly) in this life, but completely and perfectly in glory. 

Are you walking in true righteousness? 

Will you grow in this righteousness? 

Cling to Christ by faith! 

How very important it is to live in true righteousness! 

For only those who walk in true righteousness will enter into the kingdom of heaven. 

No! This does not mean that somehow a life of righteousness and obedience to God earns us a place in the kingdom. Cur place is earned only by the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ. 

However, once God has earned for you and me a place in His kingdom through the death of His Son, it is Gods good pleasure to lead us to that place only in the way of true righteousness. The kingdom of heaven is a kingdom of righteousness. How inconceivable that God would lead us to this kingdom in this life along the path of sin and depravity, along the path of a false righteousness. The God-ordained way to heaven is the way of His transforming grace, the way of true righteousness. 

Are you on that way? 

Let us in the power of grace and the cross walk in the righteousness that exceeds!