Updated: Dec 7, 2020
Am I good enough for God? Does God accept me, or do I have to live up to a certain standard before He looks on me with favor? These questions left unresolved, eat away at the confidence of a believer in Christ.
For many Christians, the answer to these questions seems easy and straightforward: "You can't be good enough for God; therefore, Jesus clothes you with His moral perfection so that God doesn't get angry with you." This summary is a widespread conception of how the sacrificial atonement of Jesus works. It is supposed to make us feel better, but deep down, many of us still feel like it's a bit of a sham. We know our private sins, and we are still ashamed of them no matter what theological gymnastics we try to perform to level-off our emotions. Add to this that many Biblical passages seem to contradict this easy-going, God's-got-me-covered theological construct. One of those passages comes from the mouth of Jesus Himself in Matthew's Gospel, chapter 5, verses 17-20.
"Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 19 Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. "For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.
This passage is a double problem for Christians who are struggling with feeling acceptable to God. It also causes theological confusion because many of us perceive the Law as an "Old Testament thing" that condemns us but doesn't apply to us who are "in Christ." Yet, here Jesus the Christ is saying that He isn't going to abolish the Law. Furthermore, Jesus also seems to be intensifying the regulations of the Law when He says, "unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom." For Christians struggling with feeling acceptable, these words are the worst things you could hear. It seems as though Jesus is saying, "you are not good enough, (something we already believed) and you must try harder or else...(a disposition we suspected and feared)." However, being "Righteous," according to the Old Testament Law, is not an issue of being "good" so much as it is an issue of being loyal. The Law was a covenant charter, and adherence to the Law was a sign that you were a member of the covenant in right-standing. To observe the Law was to declare that you were anticipating the coming day of God's Messiah who would put all things right, to the benefit of all covenant members. Performing the "works of the Law," such as circumcising your male children, not eating shellfish, and celebrating feast days, did not make a person good; they only expressed loyalty to the covenant made with the God of Israel. Adherence to the covenant made a person "righteous" in this sense alone: it meant that they were in right-standing to inherit the promises. They were in sync with the covenant.
So, why wasn't the scribes and Pharisees "righteousness" enough? What was missing? How could their covenant loyalty be surpassed?
Jesus' gospel or good news was this: everything that the Law anticipated finds its' goal in Jesus. The day of the Lord that Israel had been waiting for, the very reason she observed the covenant was dawning in their face, but they didn't recognize it. The Law was supposed to facilitate the arrival of God's new age for the world; it was not an end in itself. The Pharisees and Sadducees were like people rejoicing in possession of their vehicle instead of their destination. Jesus is the Law's destination, and the Pharisees and Sadducees refused to get out of the car. Suppose the covenant's fulfillment arrives, and those loyal to the covenant reject its completion. In that case, they leave the Torah itself and show themselves to be only playing a power game with the Torah and were not genuinely anticipating God's fulfillment. How they may have proven their loyalty in the past means nothing if they fail to embrace the final product.
But what does this mean for you? How can you meet God's requirements? Does your righteousness surpass that of the Pharisees and Sadducees? Will you benefit from the work of the Messiah, or will Jesus also say to you that your covenant-loyalty has fallen short? Before we answer that question, we should ask this question: Why do we want to be good enough for God? What will we get out of it? If we are trying to put God in our debt so that He must meet our demands based upon our extra-ordinary moral performance, then forget it. In that regard, we will never stand on the moral high ground above God. But for many of us, the issue isn't about whether or not we have earned God's favor, forgiveness, or blessing. The problem is that we do not feel we are lovable. We want to know whether or not God loves us, broken and failing as we often are. Does God see enough value in us to pay attention to us? Or do we have to perform well enough, long enough, for God to love us? The answer to these questions is straightforward, biblically speaking. The Apostle Paul said this:
"God proves His love for us in that even while we were sinners, Christ died for us." Romans 5:8.