Did Jesus Teach Salvation By Works?


In Matthew 5:20 Jesus says:

“But I warn you—unless your righteousness is better than the righteousness of the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven!

I thought the only way to heaven was through Jesus. This verse makes it seem like it’s works?


Yes, the whole sermon might press us into thinking Jesus is holding up the Law as the way to be saved.  Worse still, is his deeper and much, much harder interpretation of the Law!  He turns adds to the requirements the corresponding heart attitude! Then, he seems to go all the way past impossible when he finally says, “you must be Perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.” (5:48) !!!

The good news about that statement is that he cannot possibly mean that perfect obedience is our only way to heaven.  Why not? Because no one can be perfect, obviously. So, unless the promise of heaven is for no one, something else must be going on. Perfection is totally out of reach, not just for the Pharisees, but even for those who do not seek to dumb down the law (like the Pharisees did) but who seek to obey it from the heart (as Jesus teaches). 

Either we’re all lost, or we’re missing something.


The solution to this problem is in the Sermon’s opening words.  What does Jesus say in 5:3?  These incredibly hopeful words:  “Those who know there is nothing good in themselves are happy, because the holy nation of heaven is theirs.”  So how do you get to heaven?  You must come to the end of yourself, see your bankruptcy of spirit.  IE you have nothing to bring to God.  Those are the people get in on heaven, Jesus said.

This is Jesus entry point into his Kingdom manifesto – a point of confession of our need, an acknowledgement of our imperfection and lack of law-keeping excellence. Only for these types of people is the promise of heaven made explicit. That’s good news.


This means, the righteousness we have to have, has to be better than the Pharisees because it’s better in kind not in degree.  You understand?  It’s not that those nitpicking Pharisees were pretty good, but we have to even better at rule following!!  No.  It’s that they were on an economy of legalism, outside observance, ritual, appearances and self-effort.  We who follow Jesus are on a totally different program. 

It starts, as we’ve seen, with “poverty of spirit” – we then get the gift of heaven without earning it.  Then, as followers of Jesus whom the Old Testament calls “the Lord our righteousness” we have his righteousness already (Jer 23:6).  We know this, because the last beatitude says we’ll be “persecuted for righteousness sake” (Matt 5:10). How can this be our performance based righteousness when we started in “poverty of spirit”? Further, Jesus ties this righteousness to himself, when he ties persecution for righteousness with persecution for being his (Matt 5:11) .


So now, from a renewed heart, the rest of the sermon opens up before the Follower of Jesus. Not as legalistic requirements to be saved, but as the way of life for those blessed ‘in Him’. We see now God’s true intent for Moses, not to be a means to be justified, but pointing to our need to be new in the inner man. Not legalistic compliance, true change, from the heart. We therefore walk out a different kind of obedience to the law than the Pharisees had; Not from hearts of stone, but from changed hearts of flesh, filled by the Holy Spirit inside (as the Law itself predicted would happen, Ezekiel 36:27)

Here’s a poem to summarize the difference:

  • To run and work the law commands
  • Yet gives me neither feet nor hands
  • But better news the gospel brings
  • It bids me fly and gives me wings