For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
There is little debate among all religious systems that righteousness is the standard by which God will judge humanity. Zoroastrianism may be the first religion to state that the afterlife was dependent upon one’s actions. In Judaism, one has the ability to choose righteous deeds which merit eternal life. In Buddhism, acting, speaking, and living in the right manner and with the right intention results in the return of one’s spirit to God. In Shintoism, salvation is dependent on penance and avoiding impurity or pollution of the soul. Muslims hope that repeating what Muhammad did and said will get them to Jannah (paradise); so they recite daily prayers, fast, go on pilgrimages, and perform good works in hope of tipping the scales on Judgment Day. Mormons require obedience to the Mormon “Word of Wisdom” and all God’s commandments. Christianity is unique in it requirement for perfect righteousness, making it impossible for anyone to enter heaven on their own merit or will. In the Gospel according to Matthew chapter 19:16-22, when a young man asked Jesus, “what good thing must I do to have eternal life?” Jesus answer, which may surprise many Christians, was, “if you want to enter into life, keep the commandments.” The fact that righteousness is required for eternal life cannot be argued; what is debated, is just how much righteousness does God require?
As Jesus begins the body of his eminent Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), he first makes it implicitly clear that he is not in any way antagonistic to the Law of Moses. In verses 17 and 18, Jesus explains that he came to fulfill the law and the prophets, yet at the same time not an iota of that law shall pass away while the current order of heaven and earth remain. But as important as obedience to the law is, the manner or source of such obedience is absolutely crucial to one’s entrance into heaven. While Jesus commends the law, he also makes it quite clear that it is not the outward motion of law-keeping that matters, but that an inward heart-change which theoretically makes the outward restriction unnecessary.
While the Pharisees set an enviable standard of righteous living as they scrutinized their life, striving for eternal life by their meticulous law-keeping, Jesus infinitely raised the standard, saying, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:48). Who then can inherit eternal life with such a standard? The answer is, those who exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees by possessing an inward righteousness that arises from a new heart.