Jesus here identifies a necessary condition for entering the kingdom, which is synonymous with gaining eternal life (cf. Mt 19:16, 23), so it’s important that we understand what “your righteousness” refers to.
Some believe that Jesus has in mind his own perfect righteousness, which is imputed to sinners by faith. It is often argued that no other righteousness could surpass the righteousness of the most religious people of that time. However, good reasons exist for understanding it a different way—as a reference to the internal, inherent righteousness of heart commenced at regeneration, continued in sanctification, and culminated in glorification.
Three points support the latter view:
- The immediately following context unpacks righteousness by contrasting false, external righteousness with true, internal righteousness.
- The other uses of righteousness in the Sermon on the Mount are best understood as righteousness of life.
- The Gospels don’t use righteousness to refer to imputed righteousness.
This interpretation coheres with Jesus’ teaching on the conditional nature of entrance into the kingdom (e.g., Mat 7:21; 12:50; John 15:14) and is theologically consistent with other Scriptural statements about the necessity of regeneration (John 3:3, 5), sanctification (Heb 12:14), and perseverance (Heb 10:36) for entrance into the kingdom—all of which intersect conceptually with righteousness.
One thing the imputed-righteousness view overlooks is that the righteousness of the Pharisees and teachers of the law is not a high standard. One who misunderstands the very nature of righteousness as external conformity may perceive it as such, but Jesus’ teaching demonstrates that it is not righteousness at all. To surpass it, then, is not a matter of quantity, but quality. One need only have true righteousness, even a small amount, to surpass any amount of false righteousness.
Here’s what Herman Ridderbos says in When the Time Had Fully Come: Studies in New Testament Theology [Logos], 30–31 (Jordan Station, ON: Paideia Press, 1982):
To my mind there are not sufficient grounds to defend the thesis that the exhortations of the Sermon have only such a negative tendency, namely, to make it clear that nobody is able to meet the demands of God and to bar the road of self-righteousness for a sinner. In favor of this view commentators have appealed sometimes to Matthew 5:20, where Jesus says: “For I say unto you, that except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of heaven”; or to Matthew 5:48: “Ye therefore shall [must] be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” The appeal to these texts, however, is inadmissible. When Jesus demanded from His disciples that their righteousness should exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, He did not confront them with this demand in such a way as to denote that the righteousness of the scribes is so very perfect that to excel it would be an impossibility. On the contrary, the entire teaching of Jesus is full of criticism of the emptiness and worthlessness of the righteousness of the scribes. And as for Matthew 5:48, Jesus does not, in any universal sense, demand of man moral equality with God. The word “perfect” as used here denotes quite a different meaning. It concerns the “perfectness,” the consistency of love. Man is bound not only to love his neighbor but also his enemies. It is in this sense that the heavenly Father, too, is perfect. “For he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sendeth rain on the just and the unjust” (Matt. 5:45). There is no room in His love for half measures. Hence perfect love is also demanded from His children, not partial, not only towards friends, but enemies as well. Hence also Luke can add in the corresponding passage in his Gospel: “Be ye merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36). “Even as” means “equally perfect,” “equally consistent.” Therefore, it is not possible to appeal to this to contend the positive tenor of the law in the Sermon on the Mount. It belongs to the essential quality, I might well say to the logic of the Kingdom of the Heavens, that a disciple of Jesus does not content himself with love merely towards his fellows. There is no question of straining the moral demands ad absurdum.
[Some] authors . . . give priority to the imperative of Jesus’ commandments, but deny to them any other meaning than that of convincing man of his moral powerlessness and of teaching him to seek another kind of righteousness than his own. These writers assume that, especially in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus wants to bring home to his hearers the impossibility of fulfilling God’s will. In particular they refer to Matthew 5:20: “For I say unto you, that except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven,” and to 5:48, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” These passages are supposed to be a particularly clear evidence of the impossibility of Jesus’ demands. This view has been defended especially by Lutheran theologians. (242)
. . .
And though the Sermon on the Mount may, in a primary sense be addressed to those who have already repented, thus to unfold further in a positive way the demand of repentance, it is none the less true that in the Sermon on the Mount the concept of conditionality also occupies a very important place. Thus in Matthew 5:20, “Except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.” (243)
. . .
[T]here can be little doubt that Jesus considered the carrying out of God’s will as the condition and the preparation for entry into the kingdom of heaven. But in what sense is this to be taken? There can be no question here of a Jewish belief in meritoriousness, for this already follows from what has been said above about the position of the remission of sins in Jesus’ proclamation of salvation. It is now necessary to discuss the opinion . . . that Jesus did not mean such conditions in a positive but in a hypothetical sense. He wished to lead his disciples indirectly to the recognition that in the way of the fulfillment of the law they could never enter into the kingdom, and to open their eyes to a “better” kind of righteousness.
This conception is much nearer in agreement with the gospel than that of Windisch and others insofar as it takes seriously Jesus’ profound view of sin. It is far from basing Jesus’ moral demand on a perfectionist conception of man and lays great emphasis on the remission of sins as the most indispensable and central element of his preaching. At the same time it sets forth the evangelical thought (cf. Matt. 19:25, 26) that anyone who takes Jesus’ commandments sufficiently serious must arrive at the conclusion that nobody on earth has accomplished them or is able to do so. But the question is not whether Jesus’ commandments do not or should not also induce man to be humbly repentant and feel his guilt. The real question is whether or not the demand explained by Jesus for doing God’s will also has a positive significance, and if the obedience demanded by him is not really the condition for entering into the kingdom of heaven. In our opinion this question can only be answered in the affirmative. For, apart from other considerations which make unacceptable the taking of an exclusively negative attitude toward Jesus’ commandments, the most decisive argument against this view is the fact that Jesus not only posits the doing of God’s will as a condition and a preparation for entry into the kingdom, but also preaches it as a gift belonging to the salvation of the kingdom proclaimed by him. And besides, he speaks of this gift, neither hypothetically nor as something irrational, but in a very positive sense.
The truth that obedience to God’s commandments is a gift belonging to the salvation of the kingdom is already clearly implied in the first three petitions of the Lord’s Prayer. The last of them explicitly mentions the doing of God’s will (Matt. 6:10) as a gift that must be asked for of God. . . . This obedience is at the same time qualified as something that must be given by God and prayed for by us. The doing of God’s will is also one of the permanent elements in the Old Testament prophecy of salvation (cf. Ezek. 36:23, 27; Jer. 24:7; 31:33; 32:39) and, naturally, belongs to the perfection of God’s kingdom. It is the salvation of the Lord for his people that he makes them different human beings and writes his commandments in their hearts, and, because of this, obedience to God’s will can be effectively asked. (245–47)
. . .
. . . Thus it now becomes clear to us how we may consider the relationship between the two dominant viewpoints of Jesus’ ethical preaching, viz., that of condition and that of gift. For the very reason that the salvation of the Lord embraces not only divine but also human action, the human aspect may be subsumed under all the categories of salvation (viz., that of fulfillment, the remission of sins, sonship to God), and conversely, the divine salvation may be subsumed under all ethical categories (as a reward, as dependent upon ethical conditions, as the destination of “the narrow path,” etc.). They are both inseparable, the one always fits into the other and forms its counterpart, as it were. They do not nullify each other, however, nor is the character of the one sacrificed to that of the other. The fact that nobody will enter into the kingdom of heaven unless he does the will of the Father does not mean that the gift of the kingdom is not solely dependent upon God’s gracious action. And conversely, God’s gift of grace does not render fictitious human responsibility with respect to God’s will, nor does it deprive the commandment of its character of a condition. Here we are confronted with a relationship which is not fathomable by human understanding, namely, the relationship between the all-embracing (including human action) divine work of salvation and human responsibility with respect to salvation. Jesus’ preaching leaves both aspects of this relationship intact and does not formulate a reflective observation about it. Yet it is clear that there is here no question of a correlation in a sense of two equivalent entities that correspond with each other, nor of what might be called a “dialectical paradoxical synthesis of two antinomous theses: man must do something although God has already done everything.” . . . As the preaching of the kingdom, as the proclamation of Father’s will, all the imperatives of the gospel are always founded in the great indicative that the time has been fulfilled and the salvation has come. (251–52)
This view naturally raises some questions about the exclusively meritorious nature of Christ’s imputed righteousness. But I’m convinced that they are not at odds. For an explanation of their harmony, see my post “Edwards on Faith and Works in Justification.”