Question: Did Jesus actually teach we are saved by works in Matthew 5:20? Did He contradict the teachings of the Apostle Paul?
Answer: Matthew 5:20 “For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
If Jesus taught we can earn heaven by works, then according to Matthew 5:20 you would have to live a life morally superior to the Jewish religious leaders. Yet, later in Matthew 5:48 Jesus sets the bar even higher. “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Jesus here says you have to live a morally perfect life. How many people, outside of Jesus, have lived a sinless life? The Apostle Paul, speaking about all humanity, answered that question in Romans 3:10-12 (NIV) “As it is written: ‘There is no one righteous, not even one; 11 there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. 12 All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.’” Paul’s answer is crystal clear; no one is good, not even one. You can only enter the kingdom of heaven by living a perfect life and no one has done that. Everyone who has ever lived is doomed to hell. So why did God give us the law if we cannot possibly keep it? And if our destiny is eternal destruction, how can we be saved from the wrath of God (Romans 1:18-20)?
The Mosaic Law was not given to show us how to get into heaven but to show us how we fall short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). If anyone thinks they can earn their way to heaven they need to read the Book of Galatians. Paul says in Galatians 2:21 “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly.” If we could earn heaven by our good works, then we didn’t need Jesus Christ to die on the cross for our sins. Paul writes the law was actually given to lead us to Christ. Once we understand we cannot enter heaven through trying to obey the law we should be open to a savior from sins. Galatians 3:24 “Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith.” The word justified means to be declared innocent of all our sins. Through trusting in the finished work of Christ on the cross we can be justified before God. Through His death, Jesus pays the penalty for all our moral wrongs. We are saved by grace through faith and not by works (Ephesians 2:8, 9).
In the New Testament, Jesus taught we are saved by belief (faith). While teaching a crowd, Jesus was asked what they could do to please God. He gave them an answer they didn’t expect. John 6:28-29 “Therefore they said to Him, ‘What shall we do, so that we may work the works of God?’ 29 Jesus answered and said to them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.’” The people wanted to know what good works would get them into heaven and Jesus answered simply believe or trust in Him.
Additional supporting Scriptures that Jesus taught we are saved by belief (faith):
- John 3:16 [Jesus speaking] “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”
- John 10:26-28 [Jesus speaking] “But you do not believe because you are not of My sheep. 27 My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; 28 and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand.”
- John 20:28-29 “Thomas answered and said to Him [Jesus], ‘My Lord and my God!’
29 Jesus *said to him, ‘Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed.’”
- John 20:30-31 “Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; 31 but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.”
Jesus taught we are saved by grace through faith and not by doing good works. Jesus and the Apostle Paul were complimentary and not contradictory. They were on the same page.