“Except Your Righteousness…”
The scribes and Pharisees were, in their day, the most highly respected and admired religious leaders in the world. Everyone stood in awe of them. But our Lord said to his disciples, “Except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.”
Those words must have been astounding to the people who first heard them. The scribes were the religious scholars of the day. They were the men who copied and expounded the scriptures. They gave their lives entirely to this one great work for God and his people. They consecrated themselves to this one noble work. The Pharisees were the strictest sect of the Jews. No one exceeded the Pharisee in outward morality, obedience to the law, saying of prayers, tithing, sabbath keeping, scripture memory, personal righteousness, and public approval. Yet, our Lord declares, “Except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you cannot be saved.”
Is the Lord telling us that we must do more and be better than the scribes and Pharisees? Is he saying that we must gain a greater measure of personal holiness than those men had? Not at all. In fact, he is saying just the opposite. The Lord is telling us that it is utterly impossible for any man to gain favor with God on the basis of his own, personal righteousness.
There never has been a child of Adam upon this earth good enough, righteous enough, holy enough to inherit or inhabit the kingdom of heaven, and there never shall be. You and I must get every thought of personal righteousness out of our minds, and the very word “good” out of our vocabulary, when we think or speak of any human being in God’s sight. We have no righteousness of our own before God, and no ability to produce righteousness. If we would be saved, we must have the righteousness of God in Christ imputed and imparted to us. It is this righteousness that exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. Do what you may, without the righteousness of God in Christ, you cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven.
The fact is that without perfect righteousness no one can ever enter into heaven (Rev. 21:27; 22:11-14). The righteousness required by God is a perfect righteousness, a righteousness which no mere man can produce. In order to enter that perfect kingdom we must be made perfectly righteous by the righteousness of Christ (Rom. 5:19; 2 Cor. 5:21). All who believe are made the righteousness of God in Christ by two distinct acts of grace.
l. The righteousness of Christ is imputed to us in justification (Rom. 4:3-
8). — Our sin was imputed to Christ at Calvary. Though he never committed sin, he was made sin, and became responsible under the law for our sins, as our Substitute. In exactly the same way, the righteousness of Christ has been imputed to us, though we never have performed a righteous deed. Just as the law punished Christ for our sin, which was legally imputed to him, the law of God rewards every believer for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us.
2. The righteousness of Christ is imparted to us in regeneration (2 Pet. 1:2-4; 1 John 3:4-9).
“If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new” (2 Cor. 5:17). If I am born again by the Spirit of God, I have a new nature created in my soul. A righteous nature is imparted to me, by which I reign as a king over the lusts and passions of my flesh. Yes, God's people do sin. Sin is mixed with all we do, so long as we live in this body of flesh. But sin no longer reigns over us. We are no longer under the dominion of sin (Rom. 6:14-16; Gal. 5:22-23). The believer's life is a life of faith, godliness, and uprightness.
As C. H. Spurgeon wrote, “Guilt must lose itself in imputed and imparted righteousness ere the soul can walk in fellowship with purity. Jesus must clothe his people in his own garments, or he cannot admit them into his palace of glory; and he must wash them in his own blood, or else they will be too defiled for the embrace of his fellowship.”