April 11 – Beware of Redefined, Self-centered Righteousness

For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.—Matt. 5:20

Many people today—and sadly, more and more within the church—have redefined biblical concepts to fit their own human perspectives. Like the scribes and Pharisees, religionists know they can’t match God’s righteousness, so they simply change the definition of holiness. A prime example from Old Testament times is how the Jews reinterpreted God’s command, “Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy” (Lev. 11:44). They turned this from a call for inner holiness into a requirement to perform certain rituals.

The godly person will never rely on self-centered, redefined righteousness. Instead, he will focus on the kind of holiness Jesus taught. He will be broken about sin and mourn over the evil propensity of his heart. Such people long only for the righteousness God can give through His Spirit. They will never rely on their own strength or wisdom for what they can do spiritually.

God has always been focused on inner righteousness. When Samuel was ready to anoint David’s oldest brother, Eliab, to succeed King Saul, God told him, “Do not look at his appearance or at the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7). And that inner righteousness must be perfect: “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). To be truly qualified for entrance into Christ’s kingdom we must be as holy as God Himself.

Being broken over sin is certainly a crucial part of dealing with its incessant appeal and presence in our lives. But be sure you’re not choosing to remain in perpetual inactivity and introspection. How well is your grieving over sin being translated into renewed obedience?[1]

Christ and the Law—Part 4: The Purpose of Scripture



For I say to you, that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven. (5:20)

It is the false teaching of salvation by self-effort that Jesus confronts head-on in this verse and which all of Scripture, from beginning to end, contradicts. As Paul makes clear in the Book of Romans, even Abraham, the father of the Jewish people, was saved by his faith, not by his works (Rom. 4:3; cf. Gen. 15:6). In Galatians the apostle explains that “the Scripture has shut up all men under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe” (Gal. 3:22). Outside of sin itself, the Bible opposes nothing more vehemently than the religion of human achievement.

Jesus told a “parable to certain ones who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and viewed others with contempt” (Luke 18:9). In that well-known story a Pharisee and a tax-gatherer went to the Temple to pray. The Pharisee prayed self-righteously, “ ‘God, I thank Thee that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax-gatherer. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax-gatherer, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other,” Jesus said, “for everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled, but he who humbles himself shall be exalted” (vv. 10–14).

The least-esteemed and most-hated man in Jewish society was the tax-gatherer, a fellow Jew who had sold out to Rome for the purpose of collecting taxes from his brethren. He extorted all he could get from the people, keeping for himself everything he purloined above what Rome required. He had forsaken both national, social, family, and religious loyalty for the sake of money. The Pharisee, on the other hand, was the model Jew, highly religious, moral, and respectable. Yet Jesus said that, despite the tax-gatherer’s treachery and sin, he would be justified by God because of his penitent faith, whereas the Pharisee, despite his high morals and religiousness, would be condemned, because he trusted in his own righteousness and good works.

In the present passage Jesus teaches that the sort of righteousness exemplified by the Pharisees was not sufficient to gain entrance into His kingdom. To Jesus’ legalistic, works-oriented hearers, this was doubtlessly the most radical thing He had yet taught. If the meticulously religious and moral Pharisees could not get into heaven, who could?

After showing the preeminence (v. 17), permanence (v. 18), and pertinence (v. 19) of Scripture, Jesus now shows its purpose. From the context of those preceding three verses it is clear that He is still speaking of “the Law and the Prophets,” the Old Testament Scriptures. In saying that true righteousness exceeds the kind displayed by the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus said that, whatever they did with man-made tradition, they did not live up to the standards of Scripture.

The implied truth of Matthew 5:20 is this: The purpose of God’s law was to show that, to please God and to be worthy of citizenship in His kingdom, more righteousness is required than anyone can possibly have or accomplish in himself. The purpose of the law was not to show what to do in order to make oneself acceptable, much less to show how good one already is, but to show how utterly sinful and helpless all men are in themselves. (That is one of Paul’s themes in Romans and Galatians.) As the Lord pointed out to the Jews in the first beatitude, the initial step toward kingdom citizenship is poverty of spirit, recognizing one’s total wretchedness and inadequacy before God.

The Identity of the Scribes and Pharisees

Like Ezra (Ezra 7:12), the earliest gramraateōn (scribes) were found only among the priests and Levites. They recorded, studied, interpreted, and often taught Jewish law. Although there were scribes among the Sadducees, most were associated with the Pharisees.

Israel had two kinds of scribes, civil and ecclesiastical. The civil scribes functioned somewhat like notaries, and were involved in various governmental duties. Shimshai (Ezra 4:8) was such a scribe. The ecclesiastical scribes devoted their time to study of the Scriptures, and came to be its primary interpreters and articulators.

Yet, as Jesus repeatedly made plain, they failed to understand what they studied and taught. With all their exposure to God’s Word, being superficially immersed in it continually, they missed its profound spiritual intent.

The influential, rigid Pharisees were particularly confident in their system of righteousness. The Jews had a saying, “If only two people go to heaven, one will be a scribe and the other a Pharisee.” Those men were completely convinced that God was obligated to honor their devoted and demanding works. In comparing themselves with the standards they had established-and especially in comparing themselves with the average Jew, not to mention Gentile-they could not imagine God was not favorably impressed with their goodness.

Yet, like many serious and capable scholars throughout the history of the church, the Pharisees of Judaism were also blind to the meaning of the words they diligently studied and discussed.

The Righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees

The standard of righteousness that the scribes and Pharisees taught and practiced differed from God’s righteousness in several important ways. It was external, partial, redefined, and self-centered.


First of all the scribes and Pharisees concerned themselves entirely with external observance of the law and tradition. They took little consideration of motives or attitudes. No matter how much they may have hated a person, if they did not kill him they were not guilty of breaking the commandment. No matter how much they may have lusted, they did not consider themselves guilty of adultery or fornication as long as they did not commit the physical act.

In Matthew 23 our Lord gives a graphic picture of the external character of that religion. “You clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of robbery and self-indulgence” (v. 25). The Lord prefaced those words with, “Woe to you, … hypocrites,” labeling those leaders with their sin. They saw nothing wrong with having evil thoughts as long as they did not carry out those thoughts externally. They did not think God would judge them for what they thought but only for what they did.

Yet that is precisely the sort of righteousness Jesus declared to be the worst sort. He condemned such externalism because those who practiced it were really thieves, self-indulgent, unclean, lawless, murderous, and enemies of God’s true spokesmen (Matt. 23:25–31). Jesus’ next teachings in the Sermon on the Mount show that God’s first concern is with the heart-with such things as anger, hatred, and lust-not just with their outward manifestations in murder or adultery (Matt. 5:22, 27–28). Hypocrisy cannot substitute for holiness.

God’s concern about religious ceremony is the same. Jesus is soon to teach that if, for example, our giving, our prayer, and our fasting are not done out of a humble, loving spirit, they count for nothing with Him (6:5–18). Ritual cannot substitute for righteousness.

The scribes and Pharisees were proud that they had “seated themselves in the chair of Moses” (Matt. 23:2), that is, that they were the custodians and teachers of the law God gave to Moses. “All that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things, and do not do them” (v. 3). By their ungodly system of works righteousness, Jesus told them, “You shut off the kingdom of heaven from men; for you do not enter in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in” (v. 13). On another occasion He told the Pharisees, “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of men, but God knows your hearts; for that which is highly esteemed among men is detestable in the sight of God” (Luke 16:15).


The righteousness practiced by the scribes and Pharisees also fell short of God’s righteousness because it was partial, woefully incomplete. Again Matthew 23 gives an example: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weigh tier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness” (v. 23). Those religious leaders were meticulous in tithing the smallest plants and seeds from their gardens, though that was not specifically commanded in the law. Yet they had total disregard for showing justice and mercy to other people and for being faithful in their hearts to God. They were much concerned about making long, pretentious prayers in public, but had no compunction about taking a widow’s house away from her (v. 14).

To some extent this second evil was caused by the first. They disregarded such things as justice, mercy, and faithfulness because those things are essentially the reflections of a transformed heart. It is impossible to be merciful, just, and faithful without a divinely wrought change. No external formality can produce that.

Quoting God’s scathing words to their forefathers, Jesus told them, “In vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men. Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men” (Mark 7:7–8). Yet they considered themselves to be Israel’s religious elite and the objects of God’s special affection.


In many ways the scribes and Pharisees were like neoorthodox and liberal theologians of our own day. They took biblical terms and redefined them to suit their own human perspectives and philosophy. They reworked biblical teachings, commands, and standards to produce variations in keeping with their own desires and capabilities.

Even such commands as “Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy; for I am holy” (Lev. 11:44) they interpreted not as a call to pure attitude of heart but as a requirement to perform certain rituals. They knew they could not be holy in the same way God is holy-and had no desire to be-so they simply changed the meaning of holiness.


Not only was the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees external, partial, and redefined, but it was also completely self-centered. It was produced by self for the purposes of self-glory. Above all else, those leaders sought to be self-satisfied, and their system of religion was designed to enhance that self-satisfaction by providing ways to accomplish external, showy things about which they could boast and be proud. Their satisfaction came when they received approval and commendation from men.

In stark contrast, the godly person is broken about his sin and mourns over the wicked condition of his inner life, the unrighteousness he sees in his heart and mind. He has absolutely no confidence in what he is or in what he can do, but longs for the righteousness only God can give out of His mercy and grace.

But the person who is righteous in his own eyes sees no need for any other righteousness, no need for salvation, mercy, forgiveness, or grace. Just as their self-righteous forefathers had not wanted the grace God offered in the Old Testament, the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day did not want the grace the Messiah now offered. They wanted to rule their own lives and determine their own destinies and were not ready to submit to a King who wanted to rule their inner as well as their outward lives. “Not knowing about God’s righteousness, and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God” (Rom. 10:3).

The Righteousness God Requires

The righteousness God requires of His kingdom citizens far surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees. The term surpasses is used of a river overflowing its banks, emphasizing that which is far in excess of the normal. The Lord requires genuine righteousness, real holiness that far exceeds anything human and that exists only in the redeemed heart. The psalmist wrote, “The King’s daughter is all glorious within; her clothing is interwoven with gold” (Ps. 45:13). When the inside is beautiful, outward beauty is appropriate; but without inner beauty, outward adornment is pretense and sham.

God has always been concerned first of all with inner righteousness. When Samuel was ready to anoint Jesse’s oldest son, Eliab, to be Saul’s successor, the Lord said, “Do not look at his appearance or at the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7).

God not only requires inner righteousness but perfect righteousness.

“Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). To be qualified for God’s kingdom we must be as holy as the King Himself. That standard is so infinitely high that even the most self-righteous person would not dare claim to possess it or be able to attain it.

The Righteousness God Gives

That impossibility leads the sincere person to wonder how such a holy heart is obtained, to ask the question Jesus’ disciples one day asked Him, “Then who can be saved?” (Matt. 19:25). And the only answer is the one Jesus gave on that occasion: “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (v. 26).

The One who demands perfect righteousness gives perfect righteousness. The One who tells us of the way into the kingdom is Himself that way. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me” (John 14:6), Jesus said. The King not only sets the standard of perfect righteousness, but will Himself bring anyone up to that standard who is willing to enter the kingdom on the King’s terms.

“A man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, … since by the works of the Law shall no flesh be justified” (Gal. 2:16). To be justified is to be made righteous, and to be made righteous by Christ is the only way to become righteous.

“But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe” (Rom. 3:21–22). Faith had always been God’s way to righteousness, a truth that the scribes and Pharisees, the experts on the Old Testament, should have known above all other people. As Paul reminded his Jewish readers in Rome, “For what does the Scripture say? ‘And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness’ ” (Rom. 4:3). He quoted from the Book of Genesis (15:6), the earliest book of the Old Testament. The first patriarch, the first Jew, was saved by faith, not by works (Rom. 4:2) or the act of circumcision (v. 10). Abraham “received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised, that he might be the father of all who believe without being circumcised, that righteousness might be reckoned to them” (v. 11).

The uncircumcised includes those before as well as after Abraham. He was the father of the faithful, but he was not the first of the faithful. “By faith Abel offered to God a better sacrifice than Cain, through which he obtained the testimony that he was righteous” and “by faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death; and he was not found because God took him up; for he obtained the witness that before his being taken up he was pleasing to God” (Heb. 11:4–5). It was also only by faith that Noah found salvation (v. 7).

“For if by the transgression of the one [that is, Adam], death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:17).

“As sin reigned in death, even so grace might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (v. 21).

The righteousness God requires, God also gives. It cannot be deserved, earned, or accomplished, but only accepted. By offering Himself for sin, Christ “condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us” (Rom. 8:4–5). God gave the impossible standard and then Himself provided its fulfillment.

The writer of Romans had considerably more claim to man-made righteousness than most of the scribes and Pharisees to whom Jesus spoke. “If anyone else has a mind to put confidence in the flesh, I far more,” wrote Paul; “circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless” (Phil. 3:4–6).

But when the apostle was confronted by Christ’s righteousness, he was also confronted by his own sinfulness. When he saw what God had done for him, he saw that what he had done for God was worthless. “Whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish in order that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith” (vv. 7–9).

For those who trust in Him, Christ has become “to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30). When God looks at imperfect, sinful believers, He sees His perfect, sinless Son. We have become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4) and possess in ourselves the very righteous life of the holy, eternal God. Admittedly, until our flesh is also redeemed (Rom. 8:23) that new righteous self is in a battle with sin. Even so, we are righteous in our standing before God in Christ, and have the new capacity to act righteously.

If even God’s own law alone cannot make a person righteous, how much less can man-made traditions do so? Those who insist on coming to God in their own way and in their own power will never reach Him; they shall not enter the kingdom of heaven. No church, no ritual, no works, no philosophy, no system can bring a person to God. Those who, through a church, through a cult, or simply through their own personal standards, try to work their way into God’s grace know nothing of what His grace is about.

It is tragic that many people today, like the scribes and Pharisees, will try any way to God but His way. They will pay any price, but will not accept the price He paid. They will do any work for Him, but they will not accept the finished work of His Son for them. They will accept any gift from God except the gift of His free salvation. Such people are religious but not regenerated, and they shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.

“I am not setting God’s law aside,” Jesus said. “I will uphold God’s law, and I will strip it of all the barnacles of man-made tradition with which it has been encrusted. I will reestablish its preeminence, its permanence, and its pertinence. I will reaffirm the purpose God had for it from the beginning: to show that every person is a sinner and is incapable of fulfilling the law. The one who lowers the standards to a level he can fulfill will be judged by God’s law and excluded from God’s grace.”[2]

20 And that teaching, far from being more lenient, is nothing less than perfection (see comments at v. 48). The Pharisees and teachers of the law (see comments at 2:4; 3:7; Introduction, section 11.f) were among the most punctilious in the land. Jesus’ criticism is “not that they were not good, but that they were not good enough” (Hill). While their multiplicity of regulations could engender a “good” society, it domesticated the law and lost the radical demand for absolute holiness demanded by the Scriptures.

What Jesus demanded is the righteousness to which the law truly points, exemplified in the antitheses that follow (vv. 21–48). The law, for instance, forbids adultery. Someone might truthfully say that he has kept that law. But if that law points forward to such righteousness as prohibits adultery in one’s heart, the stakes are higher than can be met by even the most law-abiding Pharisee. Contrary to Helmut Flender (Die Botschaft Jesu, 45f.), v. 3 (poverty of spirit) and v. 20 (demand for radical righteousness) do not stand opposite each other in flat contradiction. Verse 20 does not establish how the righteousness is to be gained, developed, or empowered; it simply lays out the demand. Messiah will develop a people who will be called “oaks of righteousness … for the display of [Yahweh’s] splendor” (Isa 61:3). The verb “surpasses” suggests that the new righteousness outstrips the old both qualitatively and quantitatively (Bonnard; see comments at 25:31–46). Anything less does not enter the kingdom.[3]

5:20 To gain entrance into the kingdom, our righteousness must surpass the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees (who were content with religious ceremonies which gave them an outward, ritual cleansing, but which never changed their hearts). Jesus uses hyperbole (exaggeration) to drive home the truth that external righteousness without internal reality will not gain entrance into the kingdom. The only righteousness that God will accept is the perfection that He imputes to those who accept His Son as Savior (2 Cor. 5:21). Of course, where there is true faith in Christ, there will also be the practical righteousness that Jesus describes in the remainder of the Sermon.[4]

Faith, Justification, and Good Works

Verse 19 is mostly negative, addressing the failure to practice and teach what is right. In the last verse of this section, we come to what is positive. But strikingly, the positive is no more encouraging than the negative. It is stunning, sobering, even frightening in its rigor. “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (v. 20). More even than the Pharisees and teachers of the law? Aren’t they the most upright and moral of all people? Aren’t they known everywhere for their good works?

Jesus’ statement is especially sobering in contrast to what he has just said. In the preceding verse he said that failing to practice the law or teaching others to break it would result in a dishonorable place in God’s kingdom. But here he says that without a righteousness surpassing even that of the Pharisees and teachers of the law, the alleged disciple will have no place in God’s kingdom at all.

Here I have to correct the way I wrote about this verse a quarter of a century ago. When I handled this verse for the first time in a series of messages that eventually appeared in my book The Sermon on the Mount: An Exposition, I taught that the righteousness referred to in verse 20 is the divine righteousness that comes to us by God imputing it to us on the basis of Jesus’ death. Nothing I said about the need for imputed righteousness was wrong in itself. We do need that righteousness. Without it we are lost. But as I have indicated several times earlier in this series, this is not the way “righteousness” is used in Matthew’s Gospel.

In Matthew, “righteousness” means an actual conformity to God’s demands in Scripture, both externally and also internally, as the next verses in the Sermon on the Mount will show. But how are we to match that to what we have heard about justification through Christ’s work on our behalf?

The answer is that although justification by the imputed righteousness of Christ is the core of the gospel and utterly essential—Luther called it “the doctrine by which the church stands or falls”—it is not the whole of the gospel, and it is not what Jesus is talking about here. It is true that God justifies the ungodly on the basis of Christ’s work, but that is not all God does. God also regenerates the one who is being justified. Thus, there is no justification without regeneration, just as there is no regeneration without justification. The important point is that the re-created person will actually live a moral life superior to that of the Pharisees.

Regeneration is what Jesus was talking about when he told Nicodemus, “You must be born again” (John 3:7). It is what Paul was writing about when he told the Ephesians, “God … made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions” (Eph. 2:4–5). On the basis of this distinction, Paul then speaks of two kinds of works, those we are capable of by ourselves (like the righteousness of the Pharisees) and those that are produced in us by the new life of Christ within. Paul wrote, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Eph. 2:8–10). As D. A. Carson rightly observes, “Verse 20 does not establish how the righteousness is to be gained, developed or empowered; it simply lays out the demand.”

How then is this superior, practical righteousness to be gained, developed, and empowered? It is by coming to Christ, finding both justification and new life in him, and then by obeying and serving God by God’s own power. We are not capable of obeying and serving God by our own strength. We will be able to do it only because “it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” (Phil. 2:13).

The wonderful thing about this is that when we find ourselves doing good works, we will not take credit for ourselves (which is what the Pharisees did, judging themselves to be persons who were morally superior to other people). Instead, we will give all the glory to God by whom this righteousness is attained and by whose power alone these good works can be done. Moreover, we will marvel at the wisdom of God, which made such a great salvation possible, and we will say, as Paul did in Romans, “To him be the glory forever! Amen” (Rom. 11:36).[5]

[1] MacArthur, J. (2008). Daily readings from the life of Christ (p. 110). Chicago: Moody Publishers.

[2] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (pp. 274–282). Chicago: Moody Press.

[3] Carson, D. A. (2010). Matthew. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew–Mark (Revised Edition) (Vol. 9, p. 179). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[4] MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 1219). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[5] Boice, J. M. (2001). The Gospel of Matthew (pp. 84–85). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

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