For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. – Matthew 5:20
When God became flesh in the person of His Son Jesus, I believe He chose first century Israel for a reason. It is hard for me to think of a people more bound in tradition and religious pride than the Jewish leaders of that day. Jesus looked at their empty religion, cold hearts and arrogant condescension and He rebuked it as hollow and evil.
I think the mistake we make today is thinking Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees somehow releases us from any responsibility to follow a standard of life and righteousness. Remember this: Jesus did not criticize the Pharisees for keeping the law, He criticized them for doing so with empty hearts and dead ritual.
I think we often think of the issue of law vs. grace in terms of either/or: “Either I keep the law or I’m under grace.” To many of us, the law means works, and grace means no works. I see it everywhere and I think it is bad theology.
I believe, instead, that Christ has called us to a higher standard than even the law could hold us to. Jesus has called us to not only do good works, but to do them with a passion and depth that can only be attained by someone whose heart has been changed by Him.
That’s why, in the following verses of Matthew 5, He goes into what that means. “The law says, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ but I say you have to live that totally in the way you think and act toward those around you…don’t even lust in your heart” It’s a higher standard, not a lower one. “The law says, ‘Do not kill,’ I say do not even hate, do not speak evil of others, do not even carry unforgiveness in your heart.” A higher standard.
I see too many Christians today living lives of worldly mediocrity in some misguided notion that grace means I have no standard by which I will be judged. To them I say this: Gods amazing grace has placed you under a higher standard, not a lower one. Grace does not release you from good works, but gives you the power to do them for the right reason. Not to earn salvation, but because of it.
More on this in the next post…