Morality is good but righteousness is excellent.
I think that’s the essence of what Jesus is saying in the Sermon on the Mount when He tells His disciples that “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). The righteousness of the religious leaders wasn’t much—they practiced morality only up to a certain point. It led them to focus on themselves rather than God, to look down on others and to conforming their behavior rather than transforming their hearts.
The Oxford Dictionary speaks of morality as “principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior.” Merriam-Webster offers “conformity to the ideals of right human conduct.” Notice that the emphasis is on the outward (behavior/conduct) and conformity is the goal. There’s much that’s right with that—it just doesn’t go far enough. Morality is a pair of strong legs. They will take you anywhere you want to go in this world, but they won’t help you to soar above it.
Righteousness will. Righteousness is a powerful pair of wings that helps you to bring heaven down to earth. It is certainly about our behavior but it recognizes that it must start with the heart (see Jesus stress this in Matthew 5:21-48). Righteousness will lead us to focus on Jesus, not ourselves. It will help us to be people of mercy as opposed to looking down on others. Morality can be secular but righteousness is born of faith.
It’s instructive that there is no command in the biblical witness to be moral or to practice morality. From a scriptural point of view, the opposite of immorality isn’t morality—it’s righteousness. As Jesus makes clear, disciples are in the business of pursuing righteousness rather than morality. It’s important that we recognize this because it is a case where something good (morality) can be the enemy of something excellent (righteousness). If we settle for morality and pointing toward ourselves, the world will rightly pick us apart. If we practice a righteousness that points to the only One is wholly righteous, then it will be inspiring and inviting.
Still in Matthew 5, when Jesus speaks of letting our “light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (v. 16), this is what He is talking about. The idea isn’t that people are singing our praises and want to hang around us because we’re so good. The text says they see what we’re doing and glorify God. That’s because whatever good we might be doing, we’re making it clear that is ultimately attributable to God. That’s the “good deeds” Jesus is referring to. The ones that put us on a pedestal help no one and hurt us all. Righteousness always points away from us and toward God. This is healthy because when we later stumble in some way (and we will), no one’s faith is shattered because it wasn’t in us to begin with—it was in God!
“And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God” (Philippians 1:9-11).