How Much Righteousness Is Needed?

Text:  Matthew 5:21-37

Grace and Peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

You have heard it said, that we are to read the Bible daily and to follow Jesus’ examples at all times.  You have heard it said that we are to choose to think positive thoughts and to be patient with people in our lives.  You have heard it said that we are to hold the door open for our elders and to give up parking spaces close to buildings for those who struggle with physical ailments.  You have heard it said that random acts of kindness will be paid forward and a smile goes along way.  However, I tell you today that unless these deeds are conducted with the purest of motives and unless your deeds exceed the deeds of Billy Graham, Mother Teresa, and Martin Luther… you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.

If this is true that a righteousness greater than Billy Graham, Mother Teresa, and Martin Luther is needed, (and it is true), one might ask, “Just how much righteousness above and beyond is needed to enter the kingdom of heaven?”  That is indeed a profound and worthy question.  Just how much righteousness is necessary for the kingdom of heaven? 

In our day and age I do not believe that anyone has specified the exact amount of righteousness (i.e., good works or the absence of evil works) that is required for life after death, but I think that we all can admit that as Americans we are surely eager to accumulate righteousness.  We are certainly morally minded individuals and there is this ingrained tendency for all of us to mark down our deeds on our spiritual resumes.  In fact, a recent poll conducted by George Barna states that among ‘born again Christians in America’ that some 50% of them inadvertently believe that they can earn salvation based upon good works.[1]  Our natural tendency is to say, “Surely these good deeds must count for something!”

So, back to our question, how much righteousness is then needed?  The verse right before our Gospel reading from today, verse 20 of Matthew 5, says, “…unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  Thus, Jesus shows us that a great deal of righteousness is required for the kingdom, for the Scribes and Pharisees were the most morally upright and spiritually polished people of the first-century.  Otherwise stated, they had righteousness down.  They were fulfilling the Law to the naked eye.  Make a checklist of virtues and they were satisfying these virtues.  They crossed their ‘T-s’ and dotted their ‘I-s’.  Simply looking at the life of these religious leaders, one would notice that they were indeed blameless.

Several hundred years later, Martin Luther found himself in the same category as the ancient Scribes and Pharisees.  He was a part of a monastery where he was considered among the godliest and most religious people of the day.  He once said of himself and his fellow monks, “   “We fought against evil thoughts by doing such things as fasting, staying awake, praying, saying Mass, wearing coarse garments and sleeping on hard beds.  According to our teaching, some monks were regarded as holy, without sin, and full of good works.  Also, since we had more good works than we needed to get to heaven, we could communicate and sell our good works to others.”[2]

So, is this the amount of righteousness that is needed for the kingdom of heaven, the same righteousness as the Scribes, Pharisees, and Monks?   Actually, the answer is no.  Jesus says that the bar for righteousness is higher; it is higher and needs to ‘exceed’ the works of these religious superheroes. 

You see, the problem that Jesus surfaces in our Gospel reading today is that people tend to judge righteousness on the basis of external actions, what is seen.  Thus, Christ is saying that righteousness for the kingdom of heaven is to be a righteousness that is not only ‘external’ but righteousness of thoughts and words also.  Yes, the righteousness that is demanded for the kingdom of heaven is a righteousness of deeds and thoughts and words; both good external actions and a good inner condition. 

To drive this point home further, Jesus takes 3 teachings from the Old Testament 10 Commandments and expounds on them to His hearers.  He takes the fifth, sixth, and second Commandment and reveals what true and perfect righteousness is; the righteousness that is needed for the kingdom; the righteousness that exceeds the Scribes and Pharisees. 

Let me take this opportunity to share with you these 3 commandments, not from a merely external perspective but from the perspective of righteousness in thought, word, and deed.

The fifth commandment states, “You shall not kill. What does this mean?  We should fear and love God that we may not hurt nor harm our neighbor in his body, but help and befriend him in every bodily need.”[3]  In other words, “Have I treated my neighbor’s body and life as gifts of God to him?  Have I injured my neighbor with violent actions, hitting and beating on my neighbor, spoken debasing and insulting words, using foul or dirty words to describe my neighbor, or murdered him with thoughts of anger, contempt, and hatred?  Have I injured my neighbor by ridicule, by neglecting to feed or clothe him, withholding compassion and comfort from him?  Have I avoided giving help to my neighbor, avoiding involvement with him in his difficulty? Do I abuse my own body with neglect of health, care, excess use of food, drink, tobacco, or drugs?”[4]

How about the 6th Commandment?  It states, “You shall not commit adultery. What does this mean?  We should fear and love God that we may lead a chaste and decent life in words and deeds, and each love and honor his spouse.”[5]  In other words, “Have I used for my own pleasure my ears to hear stories or my eyes to incite cravings for the body of one who is not my spouse, or my mouth to speak such words and stories? Have I indulged my eyes with longing for my sexual satisfaction from a man or woman who is not my spouse? Have I dishonored marriage by ridicule, divorce, or neglecting to encourage others to be faithful to their spouses in the fear of God? Have I had intercourse with a man or woman who is not my spouse? Have I dishonored my spouse by neglecting to care for the body, mind, feeling, needs of the other, withdrawing faithfulness from the spouse? Have I failed to trust God to bless us in our marriage, even in times of trouble? Have I neglected to pray for my spouse, to worship together, and to live in the fear and love of God in times of sexual temptations? Have I practiced thoughts, words, or deeds, or given support of homosexual activity?”[6]

Finally, how about the 2nd Commandment? It states, “You shall not take the name of the Lord, your God, in vain. What does this mean?  We should fear and love God that we may not curse, swear, use witchcraft, lie, or deceive by His name, but call upon it in every trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks.”[7]  In other words, do I use God’s name cheaply for oaths that are frivolous or false? Do I stand up and swear by God’s Name when it is for the truth of the Gospel or for the benefit of my neighbor in need? Am I mouthing things while my heart is far away? Is my life, marked with the Name of God in Baptism, characterized by thanksgiving and praise?”[8]

My friends, this is the righteousness that is demanded for us to be able to enter the kingdom of heaven.  My friends, this is what righteousness looks like that exceeds the righteousness of the Pharisees, the Scribes, the Monks, and so forth. Thus, as your pastor I need to ask you this sobering question, “Have you acquired enough righteousness or do you possess enough righteousness to enter the kingdom of heaven?” . . . The answer to this may surprise you.  Yes, you have acquired enough righteousness; yes, you do possess perfect righteousness that grants you an entrance into the kingdom of heaven! “But wait!” you may say, “I have not done this perfectly!”  Ah, yes, you have not and I have not either.  However, you do possess righteousness.  You possess righteousness that is not yours.  You possess righteousness that you have not produced.  You possess a righteousness that is not based on your own worthiness and work.  Rather it is the righteousness of Christ, given and credited to you!

My dear friends, when you measure yourself with the demands of the Law, you will see nothing except your own sin and your past and present failures.  Looking to the Law you will rightly groan and anguish, realizing that you have not surpassed the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees; that your righteousness fails to meet the standard of perfection externally and internally; and that you do not have admittance into the kingdom of heaven.  Looking away from the Law, you may be tempted to look to yourself and believe the lie that you can amend your life if you could only live longer, try harder, and be more positive.  However, the blunt reality is that it is impossible for you to acquire enough righteousness and sufficient righteousness that will grant you access to the kingdom of heaven.  Rather, look away from yourself to the author and perfector of your salvation, Christ crucified.  Behold, in the rubble of your sin, Christ descends.  In Christ you take hold of perfect righteousness that is given to you as a gift. It is for you!  In Christ, you are given righteousness to receive, not perform.  It is righteousness that you wear as a robe.   And yes, this righteousness is enough for the kingdom of heaven, for Christ did not abolish the Law, but fulfilled it; He fulfilled it for you.

May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

[1] Barna Group, “Americans Describe Their Views About Life After Death” (Accessed, February 15, 2014) 
                    [2] Martin Luther, The Smalcald Articles: Concordia, The Lutheran Confessions (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing, 2006), 275.
[3] Luther’s Small Catechism: With Explanation (St. Louis, Missouri: Concordia Publishing, 1986), 2.
[4] Kenneth Korby, Zion Lutheran Church, St. Paul, Minnesota, based on the Ten Commandments and Small Catechism.
[5] Luther’s Small Catechism, 2.
[6] Kenneth Korby.
[7] Luther’s Small Catechism, 2.
[8] Kenneth Korby.

CLICK HERE to join in the conversation on Facebook.
CLICK HERE to follow on Twitter.


Anonymous said…
Right on! Very well said. This remnds me of a conversation I've been having recently with a friend of mine over some John Piper quotes out of his book "What Jesus Demands From The World". I would be curious to hear your thoughts on one of Piper's quotes specifically...

Piper says, “If we do not have a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus says, we will not enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 5:20). Everything we have seen in this chapter shows that Jesus is not thinking here mainly of his own righteousness that is imputed to us. He is thinking of the kind of internal transformation and external application revealed in the following six antitheses of Matthew 5:21-48. How then do we enjoy security in Jesus when what he requires is real change of heart and real righteous behavior? I tried to answer this question especially in Demand #24. Indeed I am trying to give an answer to it throughout the book. So I close this chapter with another summary statement. Think of our sense of security—our assurance that we are going to enter the final manifestation of the kingdom of God at the end of the age—resting most decisively on our location in God’s invincible favor, but also on our behavioral demonstration that we are truly in that location.” (pg 208)