When I was in seventh grade and a member of the girls’ basketball team, I showed up at practices, rode the team bus to away games, dressed in the uniform, and even played a few minutes in most quarters. But did I play well? Not by a long shot.

My ball-handling skills were questionable at best. I fouled a lot and double dribbled. But if there was one defining characteristic of my basketball career, it was hustle. I always had my hands up and out in front of the ball handler. I was quick with a steal. I was the first one back down the court after a basket.

During one fast break after a particularly aggressive rebound, I dribbled the ball back down the court so fast that I forgot to shoot until I was already under the basket. The ball bounced hard and loud off the backboard, and I bounced hard and loud off the padded mats hanging on the wall under the goal. The crowd gasped as I dropped to the floor, and though I wasn’t hurt badly, I got up slowly and slinked off to the bench.

No, I wasn’t a perfect basketball player by any definition. I wasn’t even good. But even though others more skilled at the game might disagree, and even though I myself doubted it at times, I was a basketball player all the same.

Greater than the Pharisees

I’m curious: Why don’t we use this logic when it comes to faith? Though our righteousness is more complex and less clear-cut than a sport, we at times question if it’s real because we’re more the ball-flinging, double-dribbling type, often undisciplined and unknowledgeable about the “game” of faith. We’re not always so good at the fundamentals like praying and reading our Bible—sometimes even after years of following Christ—and we wonder if Jesus’ sacrifice really counts for us. Since we’re not the wise, prayerful, self-sacrificing believers we want to be, we think we’re less holy, less righteous, less-than-perfect Christians.

But whether we’ve been a Christian for just five days or more than 50 years, we’re already and always righteous before God. It’s a fundamental truth of our faith. The apostle Paul talks about this in the book of Romans. Like many of us, the early Jewish converts to Christianity thought righteousness was a result of good works—or in their case, following the rules of the law. But in Christ, we see that this was never the case. Paul explains, “No one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin” (Rom. 3:20 NIV).

My time on the court reminded me that following God’s rules doesn’t determine whether we belong to Him. Rather, His rules are there to reveal boundaries, to constrain us in ways that help us mature in Christ.

We’re not always good at the fundamentals like praying—sometimes even after years of following Christ—and we wonder if Jesus’ sacrifice really counts for us.

Paul goes on to say that the law not only makes us aware of our sin; it also points to the only true way to become righteous: “Apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe” (Rom. 3:21-22 NIV, emphasis added). Paul uses the example of Abraham, who “believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness” (Rom. 4:3).

So, does our righteousness in Christ mean we no longer need to do what’s right? Of course not. Not any more than being on the team means we don’t have to the follow the rules of basketball. Rather, being on the team creates the desire, or the motivation, to try. The same is true for our faith. This is why Jesus says we’re blessed when we hunger, thirst, and are persecuted for righteousness. When we belong to Christ, we want to be like Him. But Jesus also goes one step further than that. In Matthew 5:20, He says that our righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees. So, what does that mean?

In one way, our righteousness by its very nature exceeds that of the Pharisees—because in Christ, our righteousness is applied through faith rather than earned by adhering to the law. By trying to be righteous through their own effort, the Pharisees would never truly be righteous. Whereas through our faith in Christ, we are righteous the moment we believe.

Following God’s rules doesn’t determine whether we belong to Him. Rather, His rules constrain us in ways that help us mature in Christ.

But Jesus seems to be making a larger point here. Earlier in verse 17, when He says that He has not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets, this might come as a surprise to the crowds, given His tense relationship with the religious leaders. But He clarifies: “I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished” (Matt. 5:17-18 NIV, emphasis added).

Jesus doesn’t mean we should return to sacrificing animals and refrain from mixing fabrics in our wardrobe, though. Instead, we see Him rounding out this teaching in His response to a question later in Matthew. An expert in the law tries to stump Him by asking which is the greatest commandment. Jesus replies, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matt. 22:37-40 NIV, emphasis added).

In other words, our righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees when it is both applied through faith and expressed through love. The apostle John summarizes the idea well, saying, “[It is God’s] commandment, that we believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, just as He commanded us” (1 John 3:23, emphasis added). This isn’t the Pharisees’ righteousness, hung up as they were on following regulations and ordinances even beyond what the law itself prescribed. Instead, it’s the perfect righteousness of Christ—the righteousness that both invites us “onto the team” and helps us grow “as a player.”

You won’t be surprised to learn that I didn’t have a very long career in basketball. I lasted just two more seasons after the infamous full-body layup. But I did learn the value of listening to the coach and being part of a team. And as simple as it sounds, that’s the heart of Jesus’ teaching about living a life of righteousness. The life of faith is not about leveling up or being perfect; it’s about being humble before God and putting others before ourselves. The fundamentals matter. And according to Jesus, nothing is more fundamental than righteousness expressed through love.

Originally published at InTouch.org on August 28, 2020. Illustration by Adam Cruft.