We know how laws work in our world. Different crimes necessitate different punishments. Can you imagine if a government said that you would have to pay the same $250 fine if you parked on the street during a snow emergency, if you sped through a school zone, if you robbed a bank, or if you killed someone? It’s all the same penalty. People would think the government cares just as much about plowing the streets as stealing or murder. Different crimes must have different repercussions.
So it stands to reason that God should work the same way. Yet Jesus said, “Anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment,” and, “Anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:22,28). John also wrote, “Anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer” (1 John 3:15). That sounds too severe. The government should rightly say that some actions are worse than others. God, on the other hand, demands one thing: perfection.
To our human minds, that just doesn’t seem right—or fair. Sin and judgment should be for the ungodly or the criminal, but not for us. So we don’t count the sin within, and we make excuses for our sin and guilt. We avoid confronting the reality that we are not as perfect as God demands. Our sinful nature always wants to justify itself. So when we think that we are doing what God asks—we don’t murder or commit adultery or steal—we think that we are good enough. We are righteous people, and we look with disdain at those who are more guilty than we are.
But Jesus says, “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” (Matthew 5:20). The Pharisees were godly and upright, but we must surpass their standard of behavior.
When Jesus says that our thoughts reveal the sinful condition of our hearts, he challenges us to see that we are not as perfect or righteous as we often think we are. It’s our sinful hearts that harbor and try to hide the unrighteousness within. Sometimes we like to think that when we try hard or have the best intentions, it is good enough. But it isn’t enough to please a holy God. It isn’t enough to surpass the Pharisees and enter heaven.
That is Jesus’ point. It’s hopeless on our own. While it may seem to our sinful nature that we can outweigh the bad with the good, things are not what they may seem. Isaiah reminds us all, “All our righteous acts are like filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6). All sins, no matter how great or small they seem to us, make us unworthy to enter heaven.
Look to the Mount of Transfiguration
You would think that if anyone could rely on their own efforts to be in God’s good graces, it would be those three men with Jesus at the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-13). Peter, James, and John had given up everything. They even left their families to follow Jesus. Yet when they were faced with the glory of Jesus and the bright cloud enveloped them, they fell to the ground terrified. When they were confronted with the glory of God, they knew they were sinners. They knew they could not stand. The adulterer and the murderer certainly would have fallen terrified. But so too would those only with anger or lust in their hearts. Before a holy God no one can stand.
But there was Jesus. In the midst of the cloud with the voice from heaven, there was Jesus, standing on top of the mountain. Jesus could stand, because he was perfectly righteous. Jesus could stand! Jesus is human like all of us, yet he obeyed perfectly in our place. He was holy for us who daily sin and harbor sinful thoughts and desires within. It is his righteousness that surpasses that of the Pharisees and teachers of the law. And he shares it with us. Thank God that things are not like they seem to our sinful and rational minds, because if they were, we would be lost. But in Jesus, we are found.
We are found righteous before God
On a different mountain, in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matthew 5:6). His harsh words about the sinful thoughts with-in us are intended to create a hunger and thirst for righteousness—not for our own righteousness but for his. His perfect righteousness covers all our sins. It’s as the hymn says, “Jesus, your blood and righteousness my beauty are, my glorious dress” (Christian Worship 376:1). When Jesus comes in all his glory with his holy angels to judge the world, those who have his righteousness will stand. Only they have the righteousness that surpasses the righteousness of the Pharisees.
Here is proof. When Jesus stood in glory on the Mount of Transfiguration, Moses and Elijah stood at his side. How could they enjoy being in the presence of their perfect Savior?
They couldn’t stand there on their own. Moses was a murderer (Exodus 2:12). Elijah was a sinful human even if he was a prophet. He threw up his hands in near despair and blamed God when he thought he was the only one left who was still zealous for the Lord (1 Kings 19:10). Yet there they were. They believed in the promises of God that were fulfilled by the Savior at their side—standing in the light.
So now to answer the question, “Are sins of thought really as bad as committing the actual sin?” Yes. Jesus is clear. Praise God for that truth, because otherwise our sinful natures might convince us that we can do enough to enter heaven. The lesson of Jesus is that even our thoughts condemn us. We hunger for a righteousness we cannot achieve. That righteousness comes only from Jesus, through his perfect thoughts, his perfect actions, and his innocent death and glorious resurrection. Through faith, that righteousness is yours.
And that is what saves you!
The worst of sinners
The apostle Paul reminds us of the surpassing righteousness of Jesus. Paul calls himself “a blasphemer, and a persecutor and violent man” (1 Timothy 1:13)—the worst of sinners. Yet he wrote about the righteousness that comes from Jesus: “But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known. . . . This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:21-24).
Author: Nicolas Schmoller
Volume 107, Number 02
Issue: February 2020