Haven't you heard that directed at you at some point in your life? Maybe it was from your Middle School gym teacher (like me). Or maybe it was from the Army doctor who forced your discharge on a medical waiver (like me). Or maybe it was from your Religion department chairperson who blocked you from the Honor Society (like me). Or maybe you have said it directly to your soul, because a sin has you wallowing in shame and unworthiness. But, you have heard something like it, and it's something you, like me, have believed.
Well, Jesus actually said this to the best of the best. He said it to the very people (His disciples) that he was preparing to take his place after He ascended in His resurrected state. He said it on a mountain, giving the most famous sermon we recognize. This is exactly what He said:
"Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." Matthew5:20. (Don't you wish there had been a ten second pause in the story, and we could have seen the look on the disciples' faces?)
What is His point? Does He really mean that the best religious people are not good enough? No. He means that the scribes and Pharisees only took the Law to the most unfulfilling end (recognizing we cannot obey it. We cannot please God on our own). Trying to please God on my own is a self-defeating, soul-crushing trap. I can't.
So, why did Jesus say it? He said it so that you and I would recognize our need for supernatural, inside/out, dead to self-alive to God, change. He said it so that we would find the only rest our souls can receive: rest from seeking God's favor on our own. Instead, the Lord's favor has come through Jesus Messiah (Luke 4:19). The yoke of slavery to sin, and the inability to ever enter the kingdom of God are broken when we trust Christ as our righteousness (Romans 5:1) by faith.
The work of Jesus on the Cross made us good enough. 2 Corinthians 5:21. Acceptance into the kingdom! Pleasing to God our Father. Never again left out! No guilt, no shame, no worry, no fatigue. Blameless, holy, covered, new, righteous children of God. No longer slaves, but sons and daughters (2 Corinthians 6:18).
Apply this right now: Why would we live like we are still trying to earn something? Why do we live like we owe something? Live from your God-given position and power! Live not in obligation, duty, guilt, or religious defeat. Live a life of thanks. Offer yourself as a living sacrifice (Romans 12:1) because that is what you are. Give your body to God as an instrument of righteousness (Romans 6:13). Sin has no dominion over you, Christian. You are not under law, but grace.
"But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. Roman 6:22.
You are on a triumphant progression toward perfection. You can't lose, and just by being the you God made you to be, He rejoices in His child. What do you have to say to that?