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.