God Is Not a Legalist (And Righteousness Isn’t What You Thought It Was) – Part 1


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We don’t say it, but most of us understand the Sermon on the Mount as one giant losing proposition. We cannot possibly be as righteous as it calls us to be. It’s the law squared and compounded.

But that understanding only proves we’re reading it with the eyes of a Pharisee.

This week, forget everything you know about righteousness. It’s wrong.

I never cease to be amazed at how many paradigm-busting things Jesus can say in a single passage:

Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commands and teaches people to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:19-20)


This word “surpasses” could be more literally translated “abounds above.” The picture is of something abounding, overflowing, excessive, exceeding the ordinary or necessary—more in both quality and quantity.

To borrow an analogy from elsewhere in Matthew, if the righteousness of the Pharisees was three loaves and two fishes, the righteousness of the kingdom is bread and fish multiplying into the feeding of fifteen thousand people. It is excessive, abounding, overflowing righteousness.

To really understand how this impacted Jesus’s hearers, forget what you think you know about the scribes and Pharisees for a moment. We have them so typecast as the villains of the piece that we’ve lost our ability to really hear this.

The scribes and Pharisees were the people you went to if you wanted to know what righteousness was. They taught the Bible and called people to a higher standard of following God through the precise, careful keeping of the Mosaic Law.

And here Jesus is saying that not only won’t their kind of righteousness make you great in the kingdom, it won’t even get you in.

The Pharisees and scribes were exacting legalists: they saw righteousness as something they earned before God through their impeccable law-keeping. We don’t like to identify ourselves with them, but we should still ask:

Do we define righteousness the same way they do? Do we just nudge the bar up even higher and keep trying to jump high enough to get into the kingdom?

If you’ve always read the Sermon on the Mount as a presentation of impossible standards that you must try really hard to keep, but will probably fail at, and then you’ll need Jesus’s blood to rescue you from your total failure at being a good Christian, you’re probably reading it through Pharasaical eyes.

Jesus didn’t give a harder, stricter, deeper law which we must now try and fail at so we can rescued by the gospel. Instead, in this passage he points us to a kind of righteousness that is of a completely different order.


Remember, Jesus didn’t give this requirement of surpassing-righteousness-for-kingdom-entrance in a vacuum. The Beatitudes ground this whole discussion.

And in the Beatitudes both righteousness and the kingdom of heaven are gifts already given to those who qualify by virtue of empty hands, hungry hearts, and the faith and humility to receive.

You see, God isn’t a legalist. He doesn’t judge people as righteous or unrighteous based on how well we keep rules, even his rules.

That’s why in the kingdom of heaven, saint and sinner don’t have to be opposites.

Even in the Old Testament righteousness (right-standing before God, or justification—in Greek “righteousness” and “justification” are the same word) was not a function of our sinless behavior. Abraham, David, Moses, and many others—sinners all—were righteous by faith (i.e. “justified by faith”).

In fact, the giving of the Mosaic Law itself points to a righteousness that doesn’t come through the law. Israel was made holy (sanctified) in their deliverance from bondage and given a law for good living complete with a sacrificial system that would cover and purify them when they sinned.

This was a gift.

They were to live it out, but their initial holiness (set-apartness for God) and righteousness (right-standing before God) did not come from themselves.


The Pharisees, however, had forgotten even the basis of Israel’s original righteousness and were trying to “establish their own” through dotting every i and crossing every t. Jesus says the Pharisee-kind of righteousness won’t even get you into the kingdom: unless your righteousness abounds above it, you can’t even enter. It’s counterintuitive. But it sounds like things he says elsewhere as well, doesn’t it?

In a discussion with a Pharisee of Pharisees, Jesus said: “I assure you: Unless someone is born again [or born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God . . . Unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:3, 5).

In other words, the “surpassing righteousness” of Matthew 5:20 and the new birth of John 3 are the same thing. They are a gift of the Spirit.

Paul spends a lot of his epistles unpacking these very ideas. He says in 2 Corinthians 3:6-9:

[God] has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter, but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit produces life.

Now if the ministry of death, chiseled in letters on stones, came with glory, so that the Israelites were not able to look directly at Moses’ face because of the glory from his face—a fading glory—how will the ministry of the Spirit not be more glorious?

For if the ministry of condemnation had glory, the ministry of righteousness overflows [same word—abounds, surpasses, exceeds] with even more glory.


Jesus and Paul aren’t giving contradictory messages (though they are often taught as though they are). When Jesus says “Your righteousness must surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees,” he isn’t saying that you must be even better at keeping the law, with an even stricter standard and a more heart-penetrating lens, than the Pharisees ever were. He isn’t saying “You thought it was hard to be righteous under the law; wait till you see how high you have to jump under the gospel!”

For a long time I actually thought he was. I once went to God in anger and said that I would rather have the law, because this heart-standard stuff was impossible. I told him his yoke was not easy and his burden was not light.

I didn’t know it then, but I was thinking like a Pharisee.

The “ministry of the Spirit,” the new birth, the surpassing righteousness: all of these things are a gift. They are a life that wells up from within. They do result in a higher, better, deeper, heart-level of living out goodness.

So what exactly is the surpassing righteousness Jesus offers? How do we get it, and what does it look like in action?

We’ll explore that question next week.

(This is Part 36 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.)




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