“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (ESV)
Isn’t Jesus referring to the need for imputed righteousness, not some inherent goodness? Many Calvinists today interpret Jesus to be pointing to the pharisees’ and scribes’ need for imputed righteousness.
This is an indirect implication of Jesus words, but it is not what he is referring to. As Matthew Henry and Calvin interpret this passage, Jesus is pointing to the need for inward obedience, and rejecting the outward show of the religious rulers. The scribes and pharisees had corruptly interpreted the law as something for outward show, not for the heart. The inherent righteousness of Jesus’ disciples must and will exceed that of the scribes and pharisees because his disciples must and will obey the law, however weakly, in their hearts. This is a condition, though not the ground, of salvation.
Matthew Henry says:
The righteousness which Christ came to establish by this rule, must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. This was strange doctrine to those who looked upon the scribes and Pharisees as having arrived at the highest pitch of religion. The scribes were the most noted teachers of the law, and the Pharisees the most celebrated professors of it, and they both sat in Moses’ chair ch. 23:2 ), and had such a reputation among the people, that they were looked upon as super-conformable to the law, and people did not think themselves obliged to be as good as they; it was therefore a great surprise to them, to hear that they must be better than they, or they should not go to heaven; and therefore Christ here avers it with solemnity; I say unto you, It is so. The scribes and Pharisees were enemies to Christ and his doctrine, and were great oppressors; and yet it must be owned, that there was something commendable in them. They were much in fasting and prayer, and giving of alms; they were punctual in observing the ceremonial appointments, and made it their business to teach others; they had such an interest in the people that they ought, if but two men went to heaven, one would be a Pharisee; and yet our Lord Jesus here tells his disciples, that the religion he came to establish, did not only exclude the badness, but excel the goodness, of the scribes and Pharisees. We must do more than they, and better than they, or we shall come short of heaven. They were partial in the law, and laid most stress upon the ritual part of it; but we must be universal, and not think it enough to give the priest his tithe, but must give God our hearts. They minded only the outside, but we must make conscience of inside godliness. They aimed at the praise and applause of men, but we must aim at acceptance with God: they were proud of what they did in religion, and trusted to it as a righteousness; but we, when we have done all, must deny ourselves, and say, We are unprofitable servants, and trust only to the righteousness of Christ; and thus we may go beyond the scribes and Pharisees.
Henry says that we “must do more than they.” At the end of this quote he recognizes that any holiness or goodness that we attain falls short. The ground of our salvation is the imputation of the “righteousness of Christ.” But, still, those to whom God imputes righteousness will “excel” in goodness, according to Henry. Jesus’ disciples will excel because they give God their “hearts.” Obedience to the law must be more than an outward show; it must be an inward obedience.
Calvin has a similar interpretation in his commentary:
By confining the law of God to outward duties only, they trained their disciples, like apes, to hypocrisy. They lived, I readily admit, as ill as they taught, and even worse: and therefore, along with their corrupted doctrine, I willingly include their hypocritical parade of false righteousness. The principal charge brought by Christ against their doctrine may be easily learned from what follows in the discourse, where he removes from the law their false and wicked interpretations, and restores it to its purity. In short, the objection which, as we have already said, was unjustly brought against him by the Scribes, is powerfully thrown back on themselves.…The amount of it is, that they had changed the doctrine of the law into a political order, and had made obedience to it to consist entirely in the performance of outward duties….From the very nature of the law we must conclude, that God, who gave it by the hand of Moses, spoke to the hearts, as well as to the hands and to the eyes….Christ charges them with turning into a political scheme the law of God, which had been given for the government of the heart.
Calvin did not interpret Jesus as accusing the the scribes and pharisees of trying to attain justification by works, though it certainly could be the case that they were. Calvin identifies their problem as being one of outward show, which is a corruption of the law. “Moses spoke to the hearts,” he says. The law never demanded merely outward compliance, but also inward obedience. Having a degree of inward obedience exceeds the righteousness of the pharisees.
Calvinists should stop reading some neat-and-tidy conception of the Law/Gospel distinction into this text. They should recognize that Jesus is not directly referring to the need for imputed righteousness.