Light for our path: Can you please explain Matthew 5:20 in relation to the doctrine of salvation by faith alone?

Can you please explain Matthew 5:20 in relation to the doctrine of salvation by faith alone? I have always understood the doctrine of faith alone to mean that someone is not saved by their own righteousness but through their faith in Jesus. 

James F. Pope

Your understanding is correct. Examining Jesus’ words in context will verify that.  


In Matthew 5:20, Jesus said, “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” 

To unsuspecting first-century Judean eyes, the Pharisees could have easily appeared to be paragons of virtue. They displayed a zealousness for God’s laws—and their own rules as well. While most Jews fasted a handful of days throughout the year, Pharisees boasted of fasting twice a week (Luke 18:12). While certain items were exempt from God’s commands to tithe, Pharisees made it a point to tithe everything (Luke 11:42; 18:12). Casual observers quickly could have concluded that the Pharisees were good people and model citizens. They appeared to be righteous to everyone. 

Better than good 

Jesus states that if people want to enter the kingdom of heaven, their righteousness needs to go beyond “that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law.” On the surface, the Lord’s words appear to be saying that if people are to have any hope of salvation, they need to do more and be better people than the Pharisees. If that surface meaning is accurate, then the doctrine of salvation “by faith alone” would be in jeopardy. But digging deeper into Jesus’ words enables us to arrive at an accurate interpretation. 

Remember that Matthew 5:20 is part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. In that discourse, the Lord was not explaining what people needed to do to become his followers. The “congregation” listening to that sermon consisted of people whom the Holy Spirit had already brought to saving faith. He was teaching his disciples (Matthew 5:1,2) To these Christians Jesus spoke of the need to have a righteousness that surpassed the Pharisees and teachers of the law. Knowing what kind of righteousness those people possessed is critical to understanding Jesus’ words. 

Perfect in Jesus 

The “righteousness” of the Pharisees was their moral outward righteous behavior. They were not righteous in God’s eyes (John 15:5; Hebrews 11:6). So what would surpass their righteousness? The only righteousness that counts: the righteousness that comes from Jesus.  

Just a few sentences earlier in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus had said, “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” (Matthew 5:17). Jesus came into the world to fulfill all the commandments of God perfectly. That is precisely what he did.  

He is “the Righteous One” (1 John 2:1). Through faith in Jesus, his righteousness is credited to people who are joined to him in faith (Romans 4:22-25). God considers Christians righteous in his sight. In this way, our righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, because we have the righteousness of Jesus by faith. So this verse harmonizes well with the doctrine of salvation through faith alone. 

Martin Luther described well the righteousness Christians enjoy through faith in Jesus: Lord Jesus, you are my righteousness, I am your sin. You took on you what was mine; yet set on me what was yours. You became what you were not, that I might become what I was not.”  

Because of Jesus’ righteousness, we have entered the kingdom of heaven. 

Contributing editor James Pope, professor at Martin Luther College, New Ulm, Minnesota, is a member at St. John, New Ulm.

James Pope also answers questions online at Submit your questions there or to [email protected].



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Author: James F. Pope
Volume 106, Number 7
Issue: July 2019

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