What does it take to be right with God? That is the central question of the human existence. What is God’s criteria for eternal life with Him? What does He require?
Job had this question on his mind. The Book of Job is likely the oldest book in the Bible, and so it is fitting that in it, Job asks the question that the Bible is written to answer: “How then can man be in the right before God?” (Job 25:4; also 4:17; 9:2). The correct answer determines the fate of every soul, so it is no surprise that the answer is constantly undermined and attacked by God’s number one enemy, Satan.
God’s Perfect Standard
So what is the Bible’s answer to this most fundamental question? Answer: perfection. God’s bar for His approval is perfection. Anything less brings eternal condemnation as the price of disobedience. Ezekiel writes what God has determined: “The soul that sins shall die” (Ezek 18:4, 20).
This is God’s consistent standard throughout Scripture. When God created the first humans, Adam and Eve, His instruction to them was straightforward: If you disobey Me, you will die (Gen 2:17). When God delivered His Law to the people of Israel, His oft-repeated injunction—“Be holy, for I am holy” (Lev 11:44-45; 19:2; 20:7)—remained the same. And what was God’s threat for all who failed in this? “Cursed be anyone who does not confirm the words of this law by doing them” (Deut 27:26). Be perfect or be cursed—those have always been God’s two options.
This righteous standard was on David’s heart when the Holy Spirit inspired him to write, “O Lord, who shall sojourn in Your tent? Who shall dwell on your holy hill? He who walks blamelessly and does what is right and speaks with truth in his heart” (Ps 15:1-2). In another Psalm, David continues on this theme: “Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in His holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, and does not lift up his soul to what is false and does not swear deceitfully” (Ps 24:3-4).
When God came to earth in the Person of Jesus Christ, His condition for acceptance was unchanged and explicit: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:48). Earlier in the same sermon, Jesus warns those who would hear, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:20).
So the standard of God for those who would commune with Him is consistent throughout Scripture and unequivocally clear: holiness. Moral perfection. A life lived flawlessly before God, free of even the slightest taint of sin. That is the Bible’s daunting yet unambiguous requirement for fellowship and eternal life with God. Then the Bible dooms its reader even further, declaring that on one’s own, such perfection is impossible. According to Scripture, no one can live in perfect obedience before a holy God. David moans, “No one living is righteous before You” (Ps 143:2). And in the New Testament, Paul concurs, “… all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23a). Therein lies the fundamental predicament of mankind: God demands holiness to match His glory, and everyone throughout all time falls short.
Imputation: God’s “Robe of Perfection” Applied to Penitent Sinners
Wonderfully, God has provided a manner by which sinners can acquire the holiness necessary to commune with Him: through the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to those who repent and believe in His saving work. Imputation means the transfer of condition from one account to another—in this case, the transfer of Christ’s righteousness to the unworthy. This imputation comes from God’s provision of penal substitutionary atonement, wherein through faith God attributes the righteous life of Christ to the penitent sinner, and places that sinner’s sins upon Christ, for which He was punished once and for all time upon the cross (Isa 53:10; 2 Cor 5:21). This is exactly what Isaiah was expressing when he says of Christ (Isa 53:11), “…by His knowledge shall the Righteous One, My Servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and He shall bear their iniquities.”
The Bible uses a number of images to depict all that occurs in redeeming the sinner by imputation through substitutionary atonement, including being clothed with the righteousness of God (Job 29:14). Isaiah was excited at this possibility, exclaiming, “I will rejoice greatly in the Lord, My soul will exult in my God; For He has clothed me with garments of salvation, He has wrapped me with a robe of righteousness” (Isa 61:10; italics added). Zechariah elaborates on this sartorial makeover: “He [God] spoke and said to those who were standing before him, saying, ‘Remove the filthy garments from Him.’ Again He said to him, ‘See, I have taken your iniquity away from you and will clothe you with festal robes’” (Zech 3:4; italics added).
This transfer of Christ’s righteousness to sinners in the form of a holy robe in exchange for their sinful soiled garment is the most extraordinary transaction imaginable. It is almost beyond our ability to conceive that God would punish His own Son for the sins of others in order to provide this holy vestment, by which the sinner can stand perfectly righteous—and thus accepted—in the presence of God. Substitutionary atonement and its provision of a righteous robe to unworthy sinners is thus the ultimate demonstration of God’s grace, mercy and love. As such, it is the supreme feature for which He deserves their highest and ceaseless praise.
But the prideful human heart is wired to reject God’s offer of Christ’s righteous robe and to come up with one of its own. Ever since Adam and Eve made garments of leaves in the vain attempt to cover the shame brought on by their sin, it has been mankind’s nature to reject the covering God would apply, and to endeavor instead to apply an alternative. This is the impetus behind every false religion. Every false belief in the world is predicated upon developing some alternative garment that might cover the sin and shame of its converts and somehow allow them to stand acceptable before God.
One author says it this way:
What did Adam and Eve do? “They sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loin coverings” (Gen. 3:7). That is the launch of false religion … that is the symbol of false religion. That is the first act of man to create a way in which he himself could deal with his own shame, in which he could cover his own iniquity. And then he hides, because he hasn’t yet found a way to face God.
This is the birth of false religion: men make ways to cover their own sin. But it does not salve their guilty conscience, and so they hide from God. False religion is a form of hiding from God, hiding from His true presence. That is the symbol of all false religion, that a guilty, dying sinner can make a covering for his own shame, and that somehow he can cover his shame and hide himself from God. He hides himself in his own self-made coverings.John MacArthur, from the sermon, “The Danger of Adding to the Gospel: Gal. 2:11-12,” delivered at Grace Community Church, Sun Valley, CA, June 4, 2017.
Isaiah confirms this: “For all of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment; and all of us wither like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away” (Isa 64:6). These “righteous deeds” not only fail to cover one’s sin and deliver the righteousness God requires, but are actually foul waste which picture the sinner’s unrighteous core and signify his demise.
God’s Dress Code Under Attack
Beware! God’s singular manner of reconciling believing sinners by applying to them Christ’s righteous robe is under attack from within the church.
N.T. Wright—a popular evangelical scholar and former pastor—has led this attack in recent years. His so-called “New Perspective” undermines the orthodox understanding of God’s plan of salvation in several ways, including his claim that God never meant that Christ’s righteousness could somehow be imputed to sinners. Wright is derisive of such an idea, claiming this doctrine is a misunderstanding of the gospel. He writes,
In certain circles within the church…‘the gospel’ is supposed to be a description of how people get saved; of the theological mechanism whereby, in some people’s language, Christ takes our sin and we his righteousness.N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 39.
Wright insists that this traditional Reformed understanding of the gospel involving penal substitution is wrong. “This is not the gospel,” he writes in his book, The Day the Revolution Began,“this is paganism. To worship God as one who justifies by imputation is nonsense.” He further adds:
That Christ died in the place of sinners is closer to the pagan idea of an angry deity being pacified by a human death than it is to anything in either Israel’s Scriptures or the New Testament.N.T. Wright, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’ Crucifixion (New York: Harper One, 2017), 147.
Elsewhere he writes:
If we use the language of the law court, it makes no sense whatsoever to say that the judge imputes, imparts, bequeaths, conveys, or otherwise transfers his righteousness to either the plaintiff or the defendant. Righteousness is not an object, a substance, or a gas which can be passed across the courtroom. This gives the impression of a legal transaction, a cold piece of business, almost a trick of thought performed by a God who is logical and correct, but hardly one we want to worship.Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, 113.
And what is his alternative? Wright contends that no one is justified—in other words, declared righteous by God—until one’s final, future assessment. At that time—according to Wright—what Paul meant as present justification by faith will be affirmed or denied on the basis of one’s entire life (What Saint Paul Really Said, 129). Wright speaks of a person’s “covenant of vocation,” wherein one maintains membership in God’s covenant with His followers through vocational means (i.e. through obedience to His teaching), and anticipates a final justification at the end of time grounded at least partly in these obedient works.
As many have observed, this would make a person’s faithful discipleship a factor in final justification. In other words, Wright’s theology would ground ultimate salvation at least partly in the believer’s activity while on earth (Wright describes this as the “covenant of vocation”), and not completely in the finished work of Christ on the sinner’s behalf.
Wright’s purpose is to re-envision the traditional gospel away from its insistence on repentance and faith in God’s substitutionary atoning sacrifice in exchange for God’s imprimatur of righteousness. Instead, Wright would have us believe that all who dedicate themselves to Christ and follow-through with behaviors consistent with His ethics are in God’s family and belong at His table. The late philosopher Dallas Willard seemed to concur when he said,
It isn’t that we become righteous by having the correct beliefs. We become righteous by trusting God and living from Him.(Dallas Willard, interview with John Ortberg, Menlo Park Presbyterian Church, Menlo Park, CA, Dec. 13, 2009)
In the same interview, Willard declares it is a mistake to think that,
God has a list of things you must believe, and then He’ll have to let you into heaven(Dallas Willard, interview with John Ortberg, Menlo Park Presbyterian Church, Menlo Park, CA, Dec. 13, 2009).
Jesus: Heaven’s Dress Code Enforcer
So what are we to believe? Is the gospel the imputation of Christ’s righteousness in the form of a holy robe to all who repent and “believe the right things,” or is it Wright’s version of covenant membership that comes to all would-be disciples of Christ as they live out their faith in obedience to His teaching?”
In Matthew 22:1-14, Jesus tells a parable to His disciples, the ending of which addresses this exact issue. At a banquet meant to represent the eternal celebration between God and His true companions, Jesus tells of someone God deems unacceptable at the feast—an unwelcome intruder. In an astonishing turn of events, this impostor is confronted by the King, the Lord Jesus, and summarily tossed from the banquet into outer darkness, a figurative description for hell.
For what crime? The King Himself had declared that invitations were to be sent far and wide, to whomever could be found (v. 9). Not only that but invitations were sent out without regard to one’s moral standing (v. 10); in fact, the event was to include (v. 10) “both bad and good.” The man is at the banquet when confronted by the Lord, implying his intention to participate in the communal gathering. Ostensibly he is there on the basis of fulfilling his part in a “covenant of vocation” while on earth. There is no mention of any obvious treachery, and his presence at the banquet would presume at least an outward demonstration of allegiance to the King. None of his fellow celebrants seem to have any inclination that the man’s admission to the event was illegitimate.
So why did Christ throw him out of the celebration and into hell? For one reason alone. In the midst of the celebration, Christ discovers the man and asks him a single question (v. 12-13): “‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. Then the King said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”
This is extraordinary. Jesus confronts a would-be disciple and fellow celebrant at His kingdom celebration and tosses him into hell for violating the dress code! Jesus is saying that whether or not you are wearing the proper wedding garb in His presence will determine whether you celebrate with Him forever, or whether He casts you into hell. Jesus’ words are clear: no matter what, it is vital to be found wearing the proper wedding garment in the presence of God!
Let’s take Christ’s teaching and apply it to what we have already learned from the Scriptures referenced above: (1) the wedding dress Christ requires comes entirely through the initiative and activity of God (Isa 61:10); (2) the process includes the removal of the soiled garment of the sinner in exchange for the righteous robe (Zech 3:4; and (3) the event must occur prior to one’s meeting with the Lord Himself (Matt 22:11-13).
Compare this with Wright.
On all three measures, Wright’s theology misses the mark. How so? (1) His ideas would introduce a disciple’s faithful obedience as a factor in determining his acceptance before God, in violation of Isaiah 61:10. (2) Wright’s theology minimizes or negates altogether the gospel’s insistence on a specific garment exchange which serves to cleanse the sinner’s stained nature, in violation of Zechariah 3:4. Finally, (3) Wright insists that no one will be justified, or declared righteous—including, by analogy, wearing any robe of righteousness—until he reaches Heaven. This perspective dismisses outright any prerequisite dress code that must be applied prior to the afterlife and one’s ultimate encounter with Lord Jesus Christ, in clear violation of the Lord’s own teaching in Matthew 22:11-13.
Conclusion: What Are You Wearing?
Make no mistake. Those who tamper with the Bible’s clear presentation of God’s provision of a holy garment through Christ’s penal substitutionary atonement to penitent believers do so from the pride of their carnal selves. It arises from the age-old desire to offer up some form of human activity designed to merit God’s acceptance. These errant religious teachers distort God’s impossible righteous standard and fabricate a counterfeit. Here, Proverbs 14:9 applies: “Fools mock at the guilt offering, but the upright enjoy acceptance.” Those who dislike God’s bar of approval will mock at what He has done to reconcile repentant and believing sinners to Himself.
Why do such fools mock in this way? Sometimes it is to avoid the persecution Christ says will come to His true followers (Gal 6:12; see also John 15:18-25; 16:1-4; 2 Tim 3:12; 1 John 3:13). Those who deny the doctrine of substitutionary atonement do so to avoid telling sinners they have neither the autonomous will nor ability to merit any favor of God (Phil. 2:12), that they live under God’s judgment even now (John 3:18, 36; Gal 3:10), and that apart from faith in Christ’s Person and saving work, they are headed for eternal punishment (Matt 25:46; John 8:24). Such is exclusive, divisive, even inflammatory language, and those who deny the true gospel message want no part in such polemical discourse that might invite rejection and open hostility.
But such a polemic is precisely the intent of the true gospel, which is why Christ is depicted in both the Old and New Testaments as a “rock of offense” (Isa 8:14; Rom 9:33; 1 Pet 2:8). The gospel is a polemical message designed to convict the sinner of damning sin and the utter ineptitude of any self-rescue. If humans, through their estimable efforts, can affect their standing before God, then these modern-day evangelical revisionists can appeal to the pride of humans in presenting their good deeds before God, and maintain their popular standing among like-minded objectors. But none of this is new. These latest attempts to undermine God’s righteous standard are but recycled heresies which, regardless of the age or form, are subject to the same chilling and dire sentence Christ declared to the improperly-clothed wedding celebrant.
Heaven has a dress code, and it is strictly enforced. The robe of righteousness that must be worn in the presence of Christ has no input from human hands, comes through the imputation of Christ’s righteousness in exchange for the penitent believer’s sins, and must be applied by Christ alone prior to one’s progression to the afterlife. This is the clear statement of Scripture. May God continue to call forth an army of righteously-robed converts to proclaim His true gospel and rebuke all assaults against it.