The Righteousness That Exceeds That of the Scribes and Pharisees

by Mike Ratliff

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:17-20 ESV)

I had a friend tell me several days ago that her father had made the comment that most believers nowadays have never experienced real Christianity. I agree with that statement. Why? Most professing Christians are not regenerate. They are in the Religion of Do. They practice the same righteousness that the scribes and Pharisees practiced in Jesus’ day.

As we saw in John Piper’s sermon “Battling the Unbelief of Lust,” the predominate teaching in most churches is salvation by grace, but sanctification by works. In this dualistic view of our salvation, all who profess Christ are saved, but not all actually work to be holy and pure before God and that’s okay because, once saved, always saved. Piper showed us in his sermon that genuine Christians are those who battle unbelief in all its forms. They work with God in mortifying their sins by killing the desire within them to walk according to the flesh. I found it very striking that Piper’s stance was that the mark of Christian genuineness is perseverance to the end.

Those who are in the Religion of Do, being full of unbelief, are in the process of developing their own righteousness and are working to be conformed to it. This is what the scribes and Pharisees did in creating their own amendments to God’s Law. They took what was written in the Law and added sayings and traditions that corrupted its meaning. Three or four years ago I was asked to join a discipleship discussion group by a fellow on the internet. It really didn’t involve much discussion. The organizer wrote long articles, posting them online. Our “discussions” were limited to those articles. The first few were okay, but the third one raised some huge red flags in my heart. He stated that Jesus’ statements in Matthew 5:21, 5:27,5:31,5:33,5:38, 5:43 actually contradicted and changed the Law. That began a few days of some pretty ugly back and forth before I canceled my membership and left.

Here is the passage containing those verses.

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you,leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison.Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.
“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
“Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God,or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King.And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black.Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:21-48 ESV)

Over and over again Jesus makes a contrast with, “You have heard it was said” versus “But I say to you.” What the people had heard said was not written in the Law. Jesus gives us the full meaning of what Moses originally delivered on Sinai and corrects the sayings or traditions that have unpacked the text falsely or incompletely.

“As the law had been corrupted by expositions, and turned to a profane meaning, Christ vindicates it against such corruptions, and points out its true meaning.” – John Calvin

Here is an example of why this is such serious business. Professing Christians in the Religion of Do hear that as long as they don’t actually commit murder then they have not violated the Law. However, hatred provokes all murder, and the anger that produces hatred is actually murder to a lesser degree. Therefore, those whose righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees must mortify their ungodly anger.

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you,leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison.Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.” (Matthew 5:21-26 ESV)

Those whose righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees are those whose lives are lived continually in the context of mortifying their inner wickedness. Jesus showed us that God’s standards of righteousness go far beyond simple outer obedience. Most of us can successfully live out our lives and not murder anyone or rob a bank. However, can we state that we have not been so angry with another that it caused us to become enraged and so hot emotionally that we did not sin in our hearts? Have we lusted after what someone else had? God’s standards are that those who belong to Him are to become conformed unto the image of Christ.

“I was converted – that is, I came to the Lord Jesus Christ in a decisive commitment, needing and seeking God’s pardon and acceptance, conscious of Christ’s redeeming love for me and his personal call to me – in my first university term, a little more than half a century ago. The group nurturing me was heavily pietistic in style, and left me in no doubt that the most important thing for me as a Christian was the quality of my walk with God: in which, of course, they were entirely right. They were also, however, somewhat elitist in spirit, holding that only Bible-belieiving evangelicals could say anything worth hearing about the Christian life, and the leaders encouraged the rest of us to assume that anyone thought sound enough to address the group on this theme was sure to be good. I listened with great expectation and excitement to the preachers and teachers whom the group brought in week by week, not doubting that they were the top devotional instructors in Britain, perhaps in the world. And I came a cropper.

Whether what I thought I heard was what was really being said my be left an open question, but it seemed to me that what I was being told was this. There are two sorts of Christians, first-class and second-class, ‘spiritual’ and ‘carnal” (a distinction drawn from the King James rendering of 1 Corinthians 3:1-3). The former know sustained peace and joy, constant inner confidence, and regular victory over temptation and sin, in a way that the latter do not. Those who hope to be of use to God must become ‘spiritual’ in the stated sense. As a lonely, nervy, adolescent introvert whose new-found assurance had not changed his temperament overnight, I had to conclude that I was not ‘spiritual’ yet. But I wanted to be useful to God. So what was I to do?

There is a secret, I was told, of rising from carnality to spirituality, a secret mirrored in the maxim: Let go, and let God. I vividly recall a radiant clergyman in an Oxford pulpit enforcing this. The secret had to with being Spirit-filled. The Spirit-filled person, it was said, is taken out of the second half of Romans 7, understood (misunderstood, I would now maintain) as an analysis of constant moral defeat through self-reliance, into Romans 8, where he walks confidently in the Spirit is not so defeated. The way to be Spirit-filled, so I gathered, was as follows.

First, one must deny self. Did not Jesus require self-denial from his disciples (Luke 9:23)? Yes, but clearly what he meant was the negating of the carnal self – that is to say self-will, self assertion, self-centeredness and self-worship, the Adamic syndrome in human nature, the egocentric behaviour pattern, rooted in anti-God aspirations and attitudes, for which the common name is original sin. What I seemed to be hearing, however, was a call to deny personal self, so that I could be taken over by Jesus Christ in such a way that my present experience of thinking and willing would become something different, and experience of Christ himself living in me, animating me, and doing the thinking and willing for me. Put like that, it sounds more like a formula of demon-possession than the ministry of the indwelling Christ according to the New Testament. But in those days I knew nothing about demon-possession, and what I have just put into words seemed to be the plain meaning of “I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me” (Gal. 2:20, KJV) as expounded by the approved speakers. We used to sing this chorus:

O to be saved from myself, dear Lord,
O to be lost in thee;
O that it may be no more I
But Christ who lives in me!

Whatever its author may have meant, I sang it wholeheartedly in the sense spelled out above.

The rest of the secret was bound up in the double-barrelled phrase consecration and faith. Consecration meant total self-surrender, laying one’s all on the altar, handing over every part of one’s life to the lordship of Jesus. Through consecration one would be emptied of self, and the empty vessel would then automatically be filled with the Spirit so that Christ’s power within one would be ready for use. With consecration was to go faith, which was explained as looking to the indwelling Christ moment by moment, not only to do one’s thinking and choosing in and for one, but also to do one’s fighting and resisting of temptation. Rather then meet temptation directly (which would be fighting in one’s own strength), one should hand it over to Christ to deal with, and look to him to banish it. Such was the consecration-and-faith technique as I understood it – heap powerful magic, as I took it to be, the precious secret of what was called victorious living.

But what happened? I scraped my inside, figuratively speaking, to ensure that my consecration was complete, and laboured to ‘let go and let God’ when temptation made its presence felt. At that time I did not know that Harry Ironside, sometime pastor of Moody Memorial Church, Chicago, once drove himself into a full-scale mental breakdown through trying to get into the higher life as I was trying to get into it; and I would not have dared to conclude, as I have concluded since, that this higher life as described is a will-o’-the wisp, an unreality that no one has ever laid hold of at all, and that those who testify to their experience in these terms really, if unwittingly, distort what has happened to them. All I knew was that the expected experience was not coming. The technique was not working. Why not? Well, since the teaching declared that everything depends on consecration being total, the fault had to lie in me. So I must scrape my inside again to find whatever maggots of unconsecrated selfhood still lurked there. I became fairly frantic.

And then (thank God) the group was given an old clergyman’s library, and in it was an uncut set of Owen, and I cut the pages of volume VI more or less at random, and read Owen on mortification – and God used what the old Puritan had written three centuries before to sort me out. – J.I. Packer (from the introduction to The Mortification of Sin by John Owen)

When professing Christians are given bad theology those who are regenerate respond very differently than those who are unregenerate. Packer was regenerate and because of his new nature he was drawn into a “technique” which promised that he could live the “higher” Christian life by “letting go and let let God.” He found out very quickly that this does not work because it isn’t Biblical. However, the unregenerate professing Christian would attempt this technique and would also see no change, however, since they are unregenerate, they are still controlled by their old nature. They are religious though and they develop their own version of righteousness that is all DO. The presence of hatred in their hearts is okay as long as they don’t kill anyone. Do you see the difference?

The genuine Christian’s righteousness does exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, but it is very easy to slip into works-righteousness behavior if we do not diligently seek to live holy and pure lives through the mortification of our sinful desires. Those who do this are the true Spirit-filled believers because their lives are saturated by the Word of God and they obey Him in their relationships with others. They are living sacrifices whose minds are being renewed. This is how they are transformed into mature, spirit-filled believers.

SDG

31 thoughts on “The Righteousness That Exceeds That of the Scribes and Pharisees

  1. Xclnt Mike……….Amen. This is a loud evil world that does nothing but try to trip up the elect. We have to keep our focus on the Lord at all times and even though we have the Holy Spririt in us, we don’t have our glorified body yet and we are vulneralble. It is a fight here. A real spiritual and physical fight. I love your last paragraph there…….sooooo true!

  2. Speaking of John Owen – I thought I would share with you some of his quotes;

    “All other ways of mortification are vain, all helps leave us helpless, it must be done by the Spirit.”

    “The vigor and power and comfort of our spiritual life depends on our mortification of deeds of the flesh.”

    “The most tremendous judgment of God in this world is the hardening of the hearts of men. ”

    “Do you mortify? Do you make it your daily work? Be always at it whilst you live; cease not a day from this work; be killing sin or it will be killing you.”

    And of course this quote below really hits home with me!!

    “All thing I thought I knew; but now confess, the more I know I know, I know the less.”

  3. There is a polarity in Christianity between fear and grace. An attitude of fear leads to legalism – “If I don’t do, X, Y, and Z God will be upset.” Grace says, “Because God loves me I should respond with X, Y, and Z.” Grace is not a lack of obedience (which legalism fears it will lead to). Grace comes at obedience from a healthy direction – out of identity and relationship rather than fear. Glad I found your blog.

  4. Matt,

    Yes, there is both a negative and positive side to our sanctification. Mortification of our sins is dealing with the negative, but we can’t do that legalistically. No, we must pursue the positive side which is described to us very clearly in Romans 12:1-2 and the book of Ephesians. If we pursue holiness by becoming living sacrifices and saturating our being with God’s Word we will be undergoing mind renewal which transforms us into the spirit-filled believers who CAN mortify our sins. This is where our strength comes from to do it. There is no “letting go and letting God” to it. While our salvation is monergistic, our sanctification is synergistic all the way.

    In Christ

    Mike Ratliff

  5. Legalism also ruins fellowship. I used to attend a church which sought to weed members out instead of picking them up, enduring burdens, and just being their to help them get through some rough times. In my own experience, I was active in visitation, confronting local cults, and working in church sponsored events.

    Exactly during that time, my disease was making things very difficult. I thought that I had some kind of cancer at that time, but it later turned out to be an auto-immune disorder. Auto-immune disorders make you very fatigued. I was shocked at how people accused me of lacking faith, not submitting to the Lord, or that I did not know Jesus because I was sick. This response reminded me of how Job’s friends accused him of not being righteous. I was treated like a leper instead of a friend. At one Bible study (40 days of Purpose), I was asked to leave because they felt that I was not letting the Lord the heal me. Please… since when is my healing up to me. Do they not think that I went through a time where I pleaded with God to heal me? Day after day, night after night?? I was not healed because God is sovereign. There is a spritual purpose to my affliction.

    One good thing about this event, is that my affliction allowed me to see an improper response to Christian suffering. The Bible says to serve with a sincere heart, and not to envy one another. I saw many serving to impress the others instead of loving one another. They were so success oriented that the idea of bearing another man’s burden was blasphemy to them. Hardship is not always an indicator of rebellion. Neither is affliction. Legalism produces the mindset that troubles are always an indicator that someone has not repented. Legalism leads to vanity. The appearance of a trouble free life does not always indicate that a heart has been regenerated. Many double-minded people look righteous or like they have it all together.

    Legalism results in performance based ministries where success is based on numbers. The pastor where I attended had a goal based on numbers. He believed that the numbers of new attendees equals the number of true converts. I question his conversion and doubt it. The church’s success should not be determined by anything outwardly. Attendance numbers, members listed on paper, and the amount of money received does not reflect anything about true conversion.

  6. Josh,

    Legalism is works righteousness and your comment shows that your former pastor was deceived into not only pursuing it, but leading others into it. The good works done by the Spirit-filled will never be measurable with “numbers” or “money” or whatever, but are of eternal value, which the world does not understand. Just keep on pursuing God and His righteousness, purity and holiness in your life. Those who do this will be in the Word of God and it is through this surrender and obedience that the Holy Spirit fills our spiritual sails which moves us in the direction God wills.

    In Christ

    Mike Ratliff

  7. Hi Mike,
    Good Post, As I was driving home from work yesterday, Mat. 5:20, was on my mind and my lips. Have a great day.

    In Christ,
    David

  8. Ah, I see I was behind in my comment on the other post. :-D I just hadn’t gotten around to reading this one yet. I love the last paragraph in this. We can’t (or maybe it should be won’t) have faith (Rom. 10:17) or victory (I John 5:14) in our lives if we’re not in the Word.

  9. Thanks for the article. It was very good and thought provoking.

    I worry about all of those in the U.S. who say they are Christians, and yet are not. I’ve seen estimates that show 80-85% of the people in the U.S. say they are Christians, but it seems the true percentage would be 50% or less.

    How many are willing to discover the truth of Christianity and put it into practice? How many Christians in the U.S. would go through the sacrifices to worship as do our brothers in foreign lands? I wonder how easily many would give up Christianity rather they face ridicule or worse?

  10. Ynot,

    Tragically, I would say the percentage would be much less than 50%. However, unlike Peter who proudly claimed that he would never deny His Lord only to fall flat on his face, we must rely on our Lord’s Grace to uphold us in the face of persecution. It is coming to us eventually.

    In Christ

    Mike Ratliff

  11. Thanks Mike.

    I agree. It’s just that it really hurts to see Christ persecuted again when you expect people to be celebrating what He did for us.

    BTW, I always had a fond place in my heart for Peter. You just have to feel sorry for him. I believe he was sincere, and he did want to protect his friend and master, just as I want to do. But it seems no matter what he did, it was the wrong thing. I wonder how many times we react as Peter did?

    You’re right about the persecution. I see what Christians in other countries are going through and yet we, here in the U.S., have not reached the point where we have to endanger our lives just to attend church.

  12. Thank you thank you thank you! I have been a believer for about a year and a half, but up until very recently, I was very distraught because I didn’t know what to do with sin. Every time I tried to stop sinning, I thought I was doing it in my own power and that I should just pray about it. But I would pray and then keep on sinning! I discovered this glorious quote from Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones and the proverbial light bulb went on. INCREDIBLE!!

    “I do not know of a single scripture… which tells me to take my sin, the particular thing that gets me down, to God in prayer and ask him to deliver me from it and then to trust in faith that he will. Now that teaching is also often put like this: you must say to a man who is constantly defeated by a particular sin, ‘I think your only hope is to take it to Christ and Christ will take it from you.’ But what does Scripture say in Ephesians 4:28 to the man who finds himself constantly guilty of stealing, to a man who sees something he likes and takes it? What am I to tell such a man? Am I to say, ‘Take that sin to Christ and ask him to deliver you?’ No, what the apostle Paul tells him is this: ‘Let him that stole, steal no more.’ Just that. Stop doing it. And if it is fornication or adultery or lustful thoughts, again: Stop doing it, says Paul. He does not say, ‘Go and pray to Christ to deliver you.’ No. You stop doing that, he says, as becomes children of God.”

    That is not legalism; that is freeing; that freed me from my bondage, finally. Praise God!

  13. What I seemed to be hearing, however, was a call to deny personal self, so that I could be taken over by Jesus Christ in such a way that my present experience of thinking and willing would become something different, and experience of Christ himself living in me, animating me, and doing the thinking and willing for me. Put like that, it sounds more like a formula of demon-possession than the ministry of the indwelling Christ according to the New Testament. But in those days I knew nothing about demon-possession, and what I have just put into words seemed to be the plain meaning of “I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me” (Gal. 2:20, KJV) as expounded by the approved speakers.

    Sounds like Pentecostal, Charismatic, WOF ?! :)

  14. Thank you Mike. It is good to have a place where others can discuss these issues without being scorned for it. I have to agree with you Mike. I would say that persecution leads to spiritual maturity. Christianity without opposition or struggle wouldn’t be Christianity at all.

    Also Mike, I agree that the percentage of true converts is lower than Ynot said. I would say more like 8-10 percent of those who claim Jesus have experienced regeneration. Licentiousness plagues the visible church because of the absorption of pagan ideas. What was once holy and clean is now compromised and profane.

    Television and other forms of technology seduce the brethren away from the old rugged cross. Everybody wants to hear the 30min TV sermon which offers instant gratification, success, paradise on earth, high standing in the world, signs and wonders, and a microwave dinner form of Christianity. Just place your sin debt on the first available credit card, and your microwave dinner will be ready instantly. No need to wait on spiritual food, when you got the new modern day New Age Emergent Jesus. In fact, just go ahead and blot out or alter the verses which don’t fit your idea of Jesus! Get your credit cards ready now, while there is still time! Jesus is just waiting to make you a millionaire because you are a little god just like him! Don’t wait, call now!! 1-800-555-LOST

  15. You are very welcome Josh! We must never forget our Lord’s own words, “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” I find that most professing Christians do not believe this to be true. Look at all of those “evangelicals” saying things that explicitly deny this truth! They are incapable of making the way wider and easier to find. Why? It is narrow because the commitment required to enter it is supernaturally born from our regenerated faith.

    I am reading John Owen again on indwelling sin and temptation and mortification of sin. Last night I needed to get away from my Mac so I could read. I went upstairs to our living room where my wife was. She was watching a Law and Order episode. As I tried to read I kept being drawn to the stuff on the screen that was 100% sin and here I was reading a book on killing it. It was then that God seemed to awaken something in me about how deep the depth of bondage is in the Church to the flesh and sin. When you see that most professing Christians are focused on everything but the Kingdom and our Lord’s Righteousness then it should break our hearts. I know it does our Lord’s.

    I can’t repent for others, I can only repent of my own sins. Any attempt at fulfillment from the flesh is sin. How sinful then is the Church in our day? It should make us weep…

    In Christ

    Mike Ratliff

  16. It has made me weep several times. Initially, when the Lord brought me out of apostate Christianity, I was full of gall. I am not a prophet, but I can understand what one of the prophets said when he said, ” He has sated me with gall and wormwood.” This is a result of the poison which is offered at a table which should be holy. The cup of wine is golden, but the content is wormwood. Who would not be attracted to the appearance? It is gold after all, isn’t it? It’s outward appearance is misleading of course. Spiritual fornication is forbidden, but unfortunately many are seduced, not knowing that the wine is poison. The golden cup says, “Come my way. It is wide and easy. Drink me.”

    Others who are called out of apostate Christianity will experience the gall as well. The process of unblinding a sheep gone astray is very unpleasant. This is why the Lord says that he will hand men over to their idolatry in order to save them.

  17. Thank you, Mike! And thank you SO MUCH for this blog. It is such a huge encouragement to me, I can’t even tell you. I’m sure that with a full-time job and a wife, you often get discouraged trying to find time to write these posts. Please be encouraged – I know I speak for many others when I say that this blog is such a treasure, so refreshing to my soul!

  18. Carrie,

    My sister, thank you for the encouragment and your prayers. I believe that God is drawing us together at this time. By us I mean those of us who see the truth and weep and lament over the apostasy in the Chruch all around us. We are being prepared for what comes next. I am not a prophet so I don’t know what that is, but whatever it is, since we must be prepared then it could be very rough, but our Lord is with us and we should live for His glory alone!

    In Christ

    Mike Ratliff

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