Jesus was to have said in Matthew 5:20:

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.

So, by this, he is saying that people less righteous than the "scribes and Pharisees" will not go to heaven.

But, then, I read elsewhere that by simply accepting Jesus as your Lord and savior, you will be saved.

Can someone shed some light on these seemingly opposing concepts?

Also, who were the "scribes and Pharisees" and how can one be "more" righteous than they?

  • 2
    Some great answers below. They illustrate one very interesting thing: Christianity is the only world religion in which man is not basically good, but is basically bad, and must be saved instead of saving himself. It is unique. No other religion offers such a big Savior! Jun 1 '13 at 16:40

OK, you need some context here.

The scribes and Pharasees were the Jews that took the most pride in following the law. These were the folks that did everything that the Old Testament told the people of Israel to do. All the prayers, all the ceremonies, all the feasts, all the sacrifices.

These guys kept fully kept the letter of the law, and when they broke it they made the necessary sacrifices. From the outside, they looked like they were doing it.

What Jesus is saying is that unless you are perfect. Even more perfect than the folks who kept the entire law, you weren't going to heaven. What he told the Pharisees is that they while they kept the letter of the law, they missed the spirit. In Matt 23:24 Jesus references this lack of understanding of the spirit of the law when he suggests that they are "blind guides! [who] strain out the gnat but swallow the camel." In this statement he references two animals that are not Kosher. The message is that they are nit picking on the small things so they outwardly appear to keep the law (straining the gnat), but they do not understand the heart of the law. He particularly criticizes their care of the poor. (swallowing the camel).

His point here is that man can't do it. There is absolutely no way that a person can fully keep God's law. This is the first half of the message of the gospel. You are a sinful creature and cannot keep God's law. So yes. Jesus is saying that on their own power, no one is going to heaven. The only person who did it was Jesus, he was born sinless and did no sin his entire life. And the only reason he was able to do that was because he was God.

Then Jesus took it a step farther. Instead of leaving you there, he went and died as a perfect sacrifice for our sins.

By believing in Jesus we are given his perfect life (this is called the imputation of Christ's righteousness). Thus God no longer looks at our sins, but instead looks at Jesus' perfection when he judges us.

Because we receive Jesus' righteousness when he becomes our Lord and Savior we are able to be more righteous than the scribes and Pharisees of old.

  • Thanks for your note on the scribes and Pharisees. But, there are still those who are very traditional and do all the Old Testament stuff, no? Also, in Matthew 12:11 (biblehub.com/matthew/12-11.htm), Jesus "breaks the law" on Sunday by saving His sheep from the ditch, so He didn't follow the law perfectly either, right? May 30 '13 at 1:33
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    @user1477388 There are some folks among the messianic Jews who do keep the Old Testament laws (particularly keeping Kosher etc.). However, for the most part these people suggest these laws only still apply to Jews though this still is a misinterpretation. To address the other half. Jesus is saying it is not a violation of the law to get a sheep out of a pit (and this is not what he did, he healed a man on the Sabbath, which was construed as doing work, which he argued was incorrect).
    – wax eagle
    May 30 '13 at 1:37
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    You might want to change "These guys kept the entire law" to something like "These guys outwardly appeared to keep the entire law" or "These guys fully kept the letter of the law". One of Jesus' complaints was that they strained out a gnat (meticulously kept the letter) but swallowed a camel (radically violated the heart or spirit of the law). May 30 '13 at 12:39
  • @PaulA.Clayton good points. Have integrated them into my answer.
    – wax eagle
    May 30 '13 at 13:08
  • I think there are three parts to the gospel. You have nailed it that we are sinners, and that Christ saves everyone who is saved by His death. However, I would precede both of these by Creation. That is, God created man in His own image, putting His stamp of value on man, and therefore man is worth saving. Jun 1 '13 at 16:38

Wax Eagle does a good job answering the last part, but I think I do better answering the first part.

The Pharisees did not accept Jesus. It seems the connection here is that accepting Jesus is an act of righteousness. When you accept Jesus you will be credited righteousness.

I don't see the "seeming opposition". Righteousness is accepting Jesus. The Pharisees did not do that. To accept Jesus is to be more righteous than them. Playing a little off of Wax's answer, that one act makes you more righteous then them despite all Laws that they followed.

Romans 4 gives us the answer that accepting Jesus is the only necessary act of righteousness to go to heaven (bold added for emphasis). Verses 23 and 24 say it very plainly. It also gives us insight into the Law and what it is for.

What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, discovered in this matter? 2 If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about—but not before God. 3 What does Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.

4 Now to the one who works, wages are not credited as a gift but as an obligation. 5 However, to the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness.


9 Is this blessedness only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? We have been saying that Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness. 10 Under what circumstances was [righteousness] credited [to Abraham]? Was it after he was circumcised, or before? It was not after, but before! 11 And he received circumcision as a sign, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. So then, he is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them. 12 And he is then also the father of the circumcised who not only are circumcised but who also follow in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.

[on the Law]
13 It was not through the law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith. 14 For if those who depend on the law are heirs, faith means nothing and the promise is worthless, 15 because the law brings wrath. And where there is no law there is no transgression.

16 Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring—not only to those who are of the law but also to those who have the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all. 17 As it is written: “I have made you a father of many nations.” He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed—the God who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that were not.


23 The words “it was credited to him” were written not for him alone, 24 but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness—for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. 25 He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.

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