In Philippians 3, Paul turns his religious culture’s idea of righteousness on its head. The religious culture of that time viewed righteousness as strict adherence to the letter of the law—essentially, they adhered to the ideology of behaving in order to belong. Paul tells them that their perspective is flawed. They have their theological cart before their horse. He tells them that belonging results in behaving, not the other way around, and he explains that righteousness does not come from our striving to perfectly adhere to the law, but rather from faith in Jesus Christ.
Though the Church today struggles with the same legalism Paul’s religious culture struggled with, we certainly do not struggle with it to the level they did. As a matter of fact, one of the biggest problems facing the church today is quite the opposite—that we have the tendency to settle in a place just after justification. We’ve received forgiveness for past sins and have perhaps had some change in overt bad habits and sin patterns, but we never move on toward that sanctifying grace in which the Holy Spirit seeks to transform us into the image of Christ.
The effect this lack of growth has on us is to establish a body of powerless Christians. Paul warned Timothy about them, saying, “They will act religious, but they will reject the power that could make them godly…” (2 Timothy 3:5 NLT) We become ill-equipped to perform ministry and spiritual warfare because we are bound in chains with our sin. We often sit in our misery, feeling like we are lowly worms who should be grateful for salvation from death. How could we begin to ask for life—even for life abundant? But this is the mentality of slaves, not children. Children who have a good Father do not settle for the crumbs under the table.
Have you ever hungered and thirsted for more to life as a Christian? The reason our hearts cry out for more is because there is more! In the words of my boss, JD Walt, “The rest of the gospel is the best of the gospel!”
Jesus did not give us robes of righteousness so that we can remain dirty underneath and still look clean to the Father! He gave us robes of righteousness so we could be transformed underneath them to resemble the spotless righteousness He himself embodies. He never intended righteousness to be imparted and never imputed.
There is only a subtle difference in the definition of the words imparted and imputed, but the difference is a game changer for the Christian. To impart righteousness is akin to being clothed in Christ’s robe of righteousness. It is His and not my own. This happens at the moment of justification. Though I have no righteousness of my own, I am covered by his. And though most believers seem to stay there, Jesus actually meant for those robes to become our skin. To impute is to make that quality an attribute of the person you are placing the attribute on. Christ, through the sanctification process, imputes his righteousness to us as our very own.
Arthur Murray, in his classic book, Abide in Christ, puts it this way: “[The believer] is not now content with only thinking of the imputed righteousness as his robe; but, putting on Jesus Christ, and seeking to be wrapped up in, to be clothed upon with Himself and His life, he feels how completely the righteousness of God is his, because the Lord our righteousness is his. […] The union to Jesus has effected a change not only in the relation to God, but in the personal state before God. And as the intimate fellowship to which the union has opened up the way is maintained, the growing renewal of the whole being makes righteousness to be his very nature.”
But, this righteousness is not a result of hard work or striving on our part. As Paul says in Philippians 3:8-9 (NLT), “Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage, so that I could gain Christ and become one with him. I no longer count on my own righteousness through obeying the law; rather, I become righteous through faith in Christ. For God’s way of making us right with himself depends on faith.”
And what is this faith that makes us right with God? It is faith that through Jesus Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit, God will do what He has said He would do! “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9 NASB).
The only thing God needs from us is willingness and honesty. It is his own work to cleanse us and transform us into the likeness of Jesus Christ. But, that likeness is not a simple “looking like” Jesus. That likeness means that the essential nature of Christ will become our own very nature. Christ covers us with his own robe of righteousness with the intention of that robe becoming our very skin. Yes, on this side of glory, we will take on the very attributes of Christ as our own by slow degrees. We will make mistakes sometimes because of our human limitations in a fallen world, but we will no longer be worms dressed up in a Lamb’s clothes. We will become more and more comfortable in our own righteous skin.