Righteousness leads to eternal life (Ps. 119:40; Prov. 21:21), but not righteousness defined in comparative terms. The righteousness that grants us citizenship in God’s kingdom does not say: “Sure, I’ve told a few white lies in my time, but I’m better than others. I’ve never killed anyone, robbed a bank, or cheated on my spouse. I’m a pretty good person, so the Lord will let me into heaven.” Only perfect righteousness gets us into the kingdom (Lev. 18:5; Gal. 5:3), righteousness that can honestly say: “I’ve kept God’s commandments perfectly my entire life. I’ve honored Him fully in every thought, word, and deed. I do good for only the right reasons.”
Yet, none of us is perfect: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). For sinners to possess the righteousness needed for kingdom citizenship, there must be a way for us to be counted as law-keepers even though we have broken God’s law. This is the way of faith (The Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 60).
More must be said. We are counted as righteous and worthy of heaven by faith alone. The catechism and today’s passage tell us as much. Paul confesses that Jews like him were not notorious sinners like the Gentiles of his day (Gal. 2:15). After all, the Jews had the inscripturated law of God and did not, as a rule, engage in the blatant wickedness of the first-century Gentile world, which included pagan idolatry, homosexuality, and infidelity (1 Cor. 6:9–10; Eph. 5:5). Nevertheless, even the relative uprightness of Jews like Paul was not the perfection the Lord demands. First-century Jews were still lawbreakers, even if their violations of God’s standards, generally speaking, were not as flagrant or obvious as the Gentiles’ lawbreaking. Jewish righteousness was imperfect and provided no basis for a claim upon God. In that respect, even the most scrupulous Jews — men and women as observant as the pre-Christian Paul (Phil. 3:4–6) — were in the same boat as the Gentiles.
Therefore, the comparatively upright Jews, no less than the pagan Gentiles, could be declared righteous before God — justified — only through faith (Gal. 2:16). The same is true today. Whether we are Jews or Gentiles, our “goodness” is not enough for the Father’s favorable verdict. Only Christ’s perfect righteousness can justify us, and we have access to this righteousness through faith alone.
We see people doing good things every day — loving their children, caring for elderly parents, giving money to cancer research, and so on. Nevertheless, even the best deeds of sinners are insufficient in God’s sight. Even if unregenerate people were able to do deeds that are truly good (and they cannot), such deeds would not make up for even their “minor” sins. We can appreciate the outwardly good deeds of unbelievers, but they must still believe the gospel to be justified.