Matthew 5:17–20 of the Sermon on the Mount are magnificently important verses.
…unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
Missing the theology here could mean missing the point and application of the entirety of what follows from Jesus.
When the Bible speaks of righteousness, it is essentially speaking of God’s approval…when God says you’re righteous, you are. And when you’re righteous in God’s eyes, you are assured – He approves of you.
We fight it, but at some point everybody either wanted, wants or will wish they had the approval of their parent(s), and the same is true with regard to having the approval of God. Most people cannot deny the existence of God, but neither can they draw any firm conclusion that God is happy with them – that He approves of them. Most of us live with a nagging conscience that says that God is not entirely happy – not fully approving of our life.
“Does God approve of me?” is a profound question – God says that His approval is required for reconciliation and eternity with Him. And his laws are the standard by which God judges and approves or disapproves of each of us.
In Matthew 5, Jesus is saying that God still approves of us on the basis of meeting all the requirements of the law, but also now on an even higher standard that was ever understood. To be approved of and to enjoy the eternal presence of God, we must reach a Godly perfection that exceeds the law-perfect religious elite. The problem is immediately evident. We’re not perfect and we know it.
There is no one righteous, not even one… – Rom 3:10, Ps 14, Ps 57
Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins. – Ecclesiastes 7:20
So, how do we attain a perfect righteousness when no one is perfect?
Unearned and Undeserved Righteousness
When and if we should humbly arrive at the realization that we are unrighteousness by God’s standard, unacceptable in our current condition according to Scripture, we instinctively take one of a few courses of thought or action:
One, we try harder to think and to do and to say all that we understand that God requires and prohibits, and assume that He couldn’t possibly expect more from us than our very best and sincere efforts. We assume, then, that He approves because we have done the very best we could.
Or two, we take the assumption that God’s love overrides His justice and results in His approval. That is, we conclude that although I don’t meet God’s lawful requirements, surely out of His vast love He will overlook my faults and shortcomings and approve of me.
Those assumptions might ease your conscience and obscure any concerns about a hellish afterlife, but they do not alter the reality of God’s just character. Not even on earth do moral people tolerate benevolent Kings who are unjust. Neither can God’s character be defined by anything other that what He is: fully loving; completely just.
Justice must be served if God is to retain His throne as the Almighty. And with regard to our sin, the penalty is spiritual death…eternal separation from God.
Is there a fully loving, completely just solution to our inescapable unrighteousness? Is there any way to gain God’s approval? The Bible speaks of Jesus being at the very center of the solution to this entire dilemma.
Jesus is the only one to ever live a perfect life – the only one to completely fulfill the righteous requirements of the law.
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. Matthew 5:17
Therefore it is only “in Him” that we meet the righteous standard of God. By grace through faith in Jesus we are granted unearned, unmerited favor to be called righteous.
But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace… – Romans 3:21-25God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. – 2 Cor 5:2 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith –and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God– 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. – Ephesians 2:8-9