For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
The more I have studied the world of the New Testament, the more troubled I have become by this statement by Jesus. The scribes and the Pharisees were sticklers for the letter of the law. They not only held to the keeping of the Law as detailed in the Pentateuch by the "book" but to ensure compliance they added roughly 600 additional prohibitions and commandments just to make sure they got the details right! They were the original legalists and though their view of scripture was doctrinally "fundamentalist", their application of it became sterile and one-dimensional.
That is the danger of strict fundamentalism. It might exalt conformity to an external standard against true transformation of the heart. This is what Jesus would fight against with the religious elite of His day. He knew that God wanted hearts, not conformity to a rigid standard. And Jesus preached as much with the Sermon on the Mount.
Joni and I sat down to watch Fireproof this weekend. I was touched by the strong gospel presentation in the movie. There is a point where the young fire captain is confronted by his dad with the reality that even though he might be a "hero" or a "good man" in terms of saving people's lives in his job as fireman, he was inwardly not meeting Jesus' standards for holiness. Of course in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says that hate is as bad in the heart as murder is in life, and adultery is the same root issue as lust. That is where the gospel gets to the heart of the "hero" in Fireproof. He realizes his heart issues are what separate him from God.
That is where our righteousness is to exceed that of the external commitments of the Pharisees. God wants to get to the heart. And the heart is changed by the renewing work of the Holy Spirit and the Holy Scriptures. We are transformed by the renewing of the mind.
Sin is pervasive. I think of total depravity in these terms: I could have done any of the worst sins externally, even if I have not. And I know that the roots of all the worst sins exist from time to time in my lusting, wanting, sinful heart so that in Jesus' terms I probably I have done them. So when it comes to sin I "could have and probably did"! But salvation changes that. I am a new creation. I now have a new heart that will allow me to follow a new and living way. Now my righteousness, because it is the righteousness of Christ graciously applied to my account as a new creation in Christ, can exceed mere external conformance.