Is Jesus saying, "You can't do it"?


I’ve encountered this a couple of times recently in discussion of Matt 5, and could use some input to help me think this through.

Here’s what they say:
Jesus is saying the righteousness that the Pharisees have is not good enough. He’s “upping the bar” to tell us that it’s impossible for us to be righteous. His point is that It’s impossible for us to meet the standard, so we need Him to do it for us.

Both times I ‘felt’ that something was wrong in this, but wasn’t quite able to articulate it well–because I sort of agree, but not really with the way it was worded to me. It doesn’t seem to me that he’s saying it’s “impossible” more like saying “this is what God calls you to do and be–and it goes much deeper than mere outward adherence to a legal code.”

Any thoughts on this?



At this time of Jesus Christ’s earthly ministry, God was still in covenant relationship with Israel only. God’s plan was (and again one day will be) to reach Israel first, and then, through Israel’s instrumentality, reach the nations (Gentiles – see Mk. 7:27; Isa. 60:3).

Christ’s earthly teaching ministry was clearly one of confirmation. The record of Scripture is again quite clear: the purpose of the earthly teaching ministry of Jesus Christ was to “to confirm the promises made unto the fathers” (Rom. 15:8).

Christ did not come with a new message, but rather His teaching was one of confirming the promises of the Old Testament Scriptures (Matt. 5:17). We must remember that this backslidden nation was near to God by way of her covenants (Eph. 2:12). Christ was calling these “lost sheep of the house of Israel” back into right relationship with himself through the Baptism of repentance for the remission of sins (Matt. 4:23; 10:7-8). John the Baptist introduced this ministry (Matt. 3:2-3; Mk. 1:2-6).

There are certain things which are common in all dispensations. We may apply the earthly teaching ministry of Jesus Christ, just as we would any other teachings of the Old Testament. Yet just as with Old Testament teaching, we must always remember that while ALL Scripture is written FOR us, it is not all written TO us, nor is it all ABOUT us.

In the “Gospels” (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) Christ’s earthly teachings were TO Israel, just as in Paul’s letters (Romans – Philemon) Christ’s heavenly teaching ministry is TO the Body of Christ.

The first thing that Paul reveals to us concerning the earthly teaching ministry of Jesus Christ is that it was clearly to the Circumcision. The record of Scripture is quite clear that Christ “was a minister of the Circumcision” (Rom. 15:8). Jesus Christ, while on earth, dealt exclusively with Israel, until that is its final rejection of Christ just before His death and the Upper Room discourse. (c.f. Matt. 10:5-6; 15:24; Rom. 9:5; Eph. 2:12).

So when we come to scripture like Matt.5-7, we need to remember to whom it was intended for. Christ here is speaking (IMO) to and of the Nation of Israel. The words of the Matt5-7 (The Sermon on the Mount) is a message of the Kingdom then and yet to come. Israel is the one being alluded to here as being prevented to enter the Kingdom and not us Christians of this age, the age of Grace. There’s just too much do and don’t do to be for us.

This I believe will keep us from much confusion when trying to interpret the Scriptures I hope. My 2cents worth :slight_smile:

Grace and peace


Hi Sonia,

The Pharisees had an outward legalistic righteousness that was actually very licenteous. Jesus called for a righteousness based on integrety of character. Outdoing the “righteousness” of the Pharisees was not difficult. Most people who live basic decent irreligious lives that seek to respect most other people out-do the righteousness of the Pharisees in spades! Even so, the Pharisees were considered by many to be especially righteous because the Pharisees put on a good front. But in reality they were white-washed tombs full of all manner of death and disease!

In most of the Sermon on the Mount, Mt. 5-7, Jesus is countering the attitudes, doctrine, and practices of the Pharisees. In fact, the phrase “you’ve heard it said” was an idiomatic means of specificly calling into consideration the “Oral Law” of the Pharisees. Note how many times “You’ve heard it said” is noted in the Sermon on the Mount. For example, concerning adultery the Pharisees taught that if a man slept with another woman not his wife, he was not committing adultery unless the woman was married to another Jew. If the woman was single or even married to a Gentile, the man was not committing adultery. There was no expectation of men to be faithful to their wives, and even if he did sleep with another Jews wife, he committed adultery against the Jewish man but not against his wife. Jesus though called for an integrity of heart, one of faithfulness to God and to one’s spouse.

Concerning vows, the Pharisees had a system of vows that enabled one to make a promise, a vow with no intentions of ever keeping the vow by using specific words. They even had the Kohl Nidre which was a statement made at the beginning of the year, that if said nullified any vows made in the coming year. They did this so that they could decieve others who thought they were respectable people, without fear of technically breaking the commandment to not bear false witness. Jesus called them, us, to an integrity of character where our word was our bond. He wasn’t forbidding making a vow or promise; He was forbidding such deceptive practices and denouncing them as evil.

Jesus calls us to a character level simplicity of faith and integrity. And He makes character level holiness a goal towards which we strive, not a measure by which to condemn us, and especially not a measure for us to condemn others or ourselves!


Good post, Sherman; I agree 100%. :slight_smile: I don’t see how “righteousness” can be understood as anything but a personal attribute, so I’ve always found the reformed teaching that the “foreign righteousness” of Christ must be “imputed” to us in order for us to be truly righteous before God a strange and perplexing doctrine. To say that our righteousness must exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees means it must originate from what Christ calls “a noble and good heart” (Luke 8:15). It cannot, as Sonia said, consist of “mere outward adherence to a legal code.” And there are numerous Scriptural examples of people doing just what Jesus said his disciples must do in order to “enter the kingdom of heaven,” so I’m not sure why anyone would argue that we “can’t do it.”


Also note the point of the warning, “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.” In order for one to enter the kingdom of heaven, one must first be honest with one’s self and others. The Pharisees were pretty good at self-deception, thinking more highly of themselves than they should have, and pretty good (to themselves) at covering up any unrighteousness.

I’ve been thinking some today on how before we can recieve forgiveness, we must recognize that we need forgiveness. Before we can be healed, we must recognize that we are sick. Before we can “enter” the kingdom of God, we must realize that we are not living in the kingdom or under the rule of the King. Only the sick need a doctor. Jesus did not come to save the righteous, but to save the lost. The more we understand the depths of our depravity and need for God, the better position we are in to receive forgiveness, grace, and healing of our souls!

Judgment helps us realize our need for God. The Judgment has begins with the community of faith because we’ve already begun embracing judgment, we’ve recognized some of our wickedness, have turned to God and received His forgiveness. We’ve recognized our sickness of soul and have called up the great physician and have begun taking medicine.

Self-deception is the most difficult of all deception to overcome.


Sonia, I, too, have a Calvinist friend that uses that passage to defend that God isn’t concerned with what we do, he knows we don’t measure up. His outlook is, “Why try? God’s not concerned with what we do, as much as forgiving us w/ penal substitution.” (The literal blood is what God needs, not a change in us). Without reading what everyone else has written on this ( and I see people w/ a similar outlook as mine), I can remember discussing this with my Dad. His take, I think, is that the Pharisees really had no righteousness at all because they were white washed tombs, concerned with exteriors and lacking real heart. It couldn’t, then, be any surprise that Jesus says our righteousness is to surpass theirs. It wouldn’t be very difficult to surpass it, assuming they didn’t have any of the kind of righteousness that mattered to God.


Even if one were to think this text does not apply to us, is there not a lot of do and don’t in the rest of scripture that is for us? I believe I’ve heard people calling your approach to rightly divide the word of God. They divide some of it for Israel and the rest for us. They interpret Jesus to have one message and Paul to have another. They don’t see how the two mesh together,that Paul’s outlook was very similar to Jesus’. It’d be a bummer if Jesus, the reflection of God, were only talking to Israel about God’s priorities. I’m more inclined to see that Paul got Jesus and was in agreement with His values.


Interesting thread. In recent days and weeks, this topic seems to be hitting me in the face from all directions but I can’t get a grip on it. Thanks to all.


So what of someone who recognises that they do not have a ‘noble and good heart’ but wish that they had?


And after we have been redeemed by God’s grace, how should we honestly view ourselves? As sinners who happen to be saved by grace or as saints? Do you believe that the conduct of a TRUE christian is better than the conduct of a non-believer?


I view myself as a child of God, loved of God, as I view everyone. I’ve come to recognize that everything about me is polluted by my sinful selfish nature that I was physically born with. It’s like being chained to a corpse. I’m alive to God in my spirit, but dying and dead in my flesh. And thus I seek to live by the Spirit, and readily recieve forgiveness for sin that I’m made aware of.

I also do not get caught up in judging myself, and especially not in comparing myself with anyone else. God is the only righteous judge. He knows what He has revealed to a person, what talents He’s given the person, what’s actually going on in their heart. Shoot, I don’t even understand what He’s revealed to me, what talents He’s given me, or what’s actually going on in my heart. So I seek to live under the grace of God and have grace on others.

Love covers a multitude of sins. Love hopes the best, believes the best, is quick to forgive, is kind, patient, gentle, etc. Understanding that God has this kind of love for us is amazing. He keeps no record of wrongs against us. When He does see it’s necessary to deal with sinful attitudes or patterns of life in us, it’s for our good, to deliver us from the bondage of such sin. And I don’t really worry about me being righteous; rather, I seek the One who is righteous trusting that as I watch Him I’ll become more like Him being conformed to His image.


Hi URPilgrim,
Thanks for sharing this perspective–I had kinda forgotten about it, though I am familiar with it. I’m not sure I can quite agree, but I’ll need to think about this more.

Part of the thing about how I grew up was that I was taught the “doctrines” in Christian school, but was otherwise left alone in my Christianity–which I took seriously from a young age. So I read scripture on my own and tried to practice what I read, and the “theory”–whose practicality I could not fathom as a child–merely sat in my mind and created confusion and logical dissonance as I grew older. The foundation of my Christianity has been the teachings of Christ, which I found very practical and applicable as a child–do good to your enemies, forgive, give to those who ask, be righteous even in your thoughts and feelings, seek first the kingdom. Not that I always did as I knew I should–but I understood this to be applicable to me personally.

The doctrine that you’re espousing is not one that I would have understood from the scriptures as a child. It’s not one I would deduce from scripture on my own even now–thus I regard it with some doubt. But it is something I need to think about more. I do agree that we are in a new covenant, but not sure how that changes, in your view, the intent and application of Jesus’ teachings.

When you say:

In what way do we apply this that is different than the Jews Jesus was teaching would apply it?



Hi Pilgrim,

The very fact that they recognize that their heart is not as noble or good as it should be suggests to me that they may already have a righteousness that “exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees” (cf. Luke 18:9-14). At the very least, they would certainly be moving in the right direction, and, in that sense, would not be “far from the kingdom of God” (Mark 12:34).


That attitude seems to me to be an inevitable consequence of the doctrine of imputed righteousness–and leaves pastors scrambling for reasons that people should avoid sin–if there’s no consequences for sin and righteousness is impossible to achieve in this lifetime …why try? we can’t do it anyway. And I think of that when I hear people say that universalism downplays the seriousness of sin. My belief in UR includes the idea that we are all responsible for the wrong that we harbor in ourselves and will be held accountable for our sin. We must be saved from our sin–not from the fire that destroys it.

As Sherman pointed out, Jesus warns that our righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees or we will not enter the kingdom.

It seems to me that Christianity is doing basically the same thing–teaching that one can be righteous without real righteousness, but just by adhering to certain outward forms. For the modern Christian it might be such things as a public profession of faith, church attendance, baptism, not swearing/smoking/drinking, practice of “spiritual disciplines” such as bible study, prayer, confession, “quiet time,” fasting, etc.

If we think righteousness consists of these things, we’re as mistaken as the Pharisees. Jesus tells us that if we love Him we’ll do what he says. But then we look at what he tells us to do and say, “His point is that we can’t.”???

It must be a common view, because two people of different backgrounds said the exact same thing to me as if it were an unquestionable truth.



Just a self-serving note that the outline in my ‘corner’ from my class, “Comparing Jesus and Paul,” is largely arguing that Paul agreed with Jesus on the essential nature of practical righteousness in our salvation. I.e. it agrees with the majority of responders here. For a stimulating and surprising counter view that isn’t based on dispensationalism, see December Christianity Today’s cover story by Scott McKnight, “Jesus vs. Paul.” McKnight argues that Jesus’ theme is God’s kingdom and Paul’s is justification by faith, and that all attempts to find overlap in them (including John Piper’s) is futile, because they are just not talking about the same thing. I find that troubling. My bias is much more that Paul quite understood Jesus’ message and faithfully translated it into his own situation.


Thanks for the reminder, Bob! I’ve intended to look at that but didn’t get to it before. I’ve been reading it this evening/morning, and it is very relevant to what I’m trying to unmuddle my thinking about – especially your list of the different viewpoints in the section: ALTERNATIVE VIEWS: How Jesus and Paul’s Teachings on Salvation are Related.

I appreciate all the replies so far, and would welcome more!

I asked my husband earlier–if he remembers what he said about Matt 5, and if he could elaborate on it. He says the point of Jesus’ speech is to tell us that we can’t do it on our own and that we need to “turn to Christ” (in quotes because that’s a “Christianese” phrase, the meaning of which I’m unsure of in this context). I asked where in the text he was getting that from, and he said he couldn’t remember, but it’s there. I didn’t pursue it any farther with him, so I don’t know if he’s jumping to “imputed righteousness” or righteousness enabled by the Spirit.

I would agree that we can’t achieve righteousness apart without the help of the Spirit, but I just don’t see it as the point of that particular text–or even stated in that text. Is there something obvious that I’m missing? Am I being overly particular about this?

I’m guessing it’s the last verse of the chapter that’s giving rise to this idea: “Therefore you shall be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” The thinking being that it’s impossible for us to be ‘perfect’ (since we all know that ‘to err’ is the defining quality of humanity :mrgreen: ) so therefore we can’t achieve the righteousness that He’s just been telling us we must. But he does promise us that those who hunger and thirst after righteousness will be satisfied.

To me, it’s irrelevant whether we can or cannot do it be perfect “on our own”–the point is that it’s required of us, whether we “can” or not–and we can never really be said to be “on our own” anyway, since we are made and are being made by God. Only we must help in our making by doing what he tells us. The point, in my view, is: “This is true righteousness, God’s righteousness” and our part is to say: “Okay, Lord, I’ll do my best to live right.”

If I think to myself “it’s impossible” I would have no reason really to try, no reason really to strive and reach beyond myself–how can there be motivation without hope? “Where there is no vision the people perish.” This is why this attitude is so troubling to me–to read this grand and noble call to be true and righteous from our hearts, in the same way that God is! --and then tack onto it a perfunctory and confident: “Of course, it’s impossible.” …It just doesn’t seem right.

Thanks, all, and more replies are very welcome!


I agree, it doesn’t seem right. It seriously undermines the call, in this passage and many others, to live righteously. Many feel it contradicts grace if God actually expects something from us, like we support a system of works.This is why UR makes much more sense of these passages that call us to live righteously, because God always has grace toward us even as he is expecting, working toward, a change in us. The goal is that we should change and it’s because of God’s effort to get us there, not our own.

It amazes me how tricky the language of grace and faith can be and all the ways that people interpret them.

I’ve also heard a lot of people say this. I’ve figured it’s because they don’t understand the view.

I’ve heard this before and liked it.