Do we have to be even more righteous than very good people in order to go to heaven?

Q. I have been troubled by what Jesus says in Mathew 5:20, “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.” Of course I want to do what is righteous, but as humans we all fall short. I always thought we were saved and would join Jesus in heaven by His grace and that His sacrifice is enough if we invite him into our life. And yet there seem to be stipulations. 

Jesus made the statement you are asking about not to specify stipulations but to correct a misunderstanding. He introduces it by saying, “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.” It appears that some people were misunderstanding Jesus’ emphasis on loving God and neighbor as the fulfillment of the law to mean that people no longer needed to measure their conduct by the law and conform to it. Some people apparently thought that Jesus was saying they could now do whatever they wanted. So Jesus was correcting that wrong impression.

However, Jesus was nevertheless not making a prescriptive statement but a descriptive one. While he made the statement negatively, it has a positive meaning. Jesus was saying, in effect, “If you will enter the kingdom of heaven, then your righteousness will surpass that of the Pharisees and teachers of the law.” He meant that loving God and neighbor would result in people fulfilling the law even more perfectly than scrupulous observance. These results would come specifically through the transforming effects of the Holy Spirit in a believer’s life. (The apostle Paul explains this well in his letters.)

And the expectation is not that a believer in Jesus will immediately be transformed and start fulfilling the law completely through loving obedience to God. Jesus also told parables comparing the kingdom of God, in the world and in a believer’s life, to seeds growing and yeast rising. In other words, Jesus used examples of slow, organic growth to describe the progress of God’s work. And that is what we should be looking for: growth, progress, in obedience. If we see that and recognize it as the effects of the Holy Spirit’s influence through our faith in Jesus, we can be encouraged that we will indeed enter the kingdom of heaven.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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