If you want to be popular, get good at preaching against the world. It will win you friends. It will curry favor with the pious. I’m not talking around peccadillos; focus on mega-sins. The more popular they are in contemporary culture, the better. Good people like fist-pounding on the pulpit about the bad things that bad people do in this bad world of ours. It makes them feel better about themselves. It makes them seem more religious. And the more their religious souls are stroked, the better a preacher you’ll seem to them. Jesus himself might have had the Pharisees clapping if He’d have railed against the traitorous, money-hungry tax collectors instead of joining them for supper. What got Him in hot water was preaching against righteousness. Preaching against righteousness is dangerous. Folks not only find it ludicrous; it's a slap in their face. Such preaching is a frontal attack upon what everyone assumes is true. You sound as crazy as a man who refers to a beauty contest winner as a dog ugly tramp. Nobody in his right mind does that.

But somebody in his right theology does. That’s why Jesus reserved His sharpest rebukes for those who were the pillars of righteousness. Jewish mommas wanted their babies to grow up and be Pharisees. They were respectable, honored, acclaimed. And along comes this rabbi from Galilee who has the audacity to call these religious heroes nothing but whitewashed tombs full of dead men’s bones. Good people don’t like to be told that they themselves, or those whom they look up to, are no better than the bad world outside the church walls.

There’s a verse that gets quoted all the time in this regard. What it really says, however, is almost always missed. Isaiah says, “All our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment,” (Is 64:6). The Hebrew for “filthy garment” refers to used menstrual rags. But that’s not the main point. Notice that the prophet is not talking about our stealing, adulterating, idolizing, coveting, and other transgressions. He doesn’t say, “All our unrighteous deeds,” but “all our righteous deeds.” It’s an intentional insult. Does Isaiah mean to say that the very best I have to offer—my finest good works, my lavish charity, my zealous pursuit of spiritual excellence—are all filth? Yes, and if such be our righteousness, how bad must be our unrighteousness?

Human righteousness and unrighteousness, although they look very different to us, are pot and kettle categories. They’re both black, dyed by the darkness that lives within us. Our natural impulse is to make up for our unrighteous deeds by doing some righteous ones. But those good deeds, as long as we think they move us one inch closer to God, are just as damnable as our bad deeds. The harder we try to bleach the filth off our robes with more good works, the more stained they become.

Photography by Dale Marie: 'Tombstones in the fog' (License: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

We’re trapped. Our sins separate us from God, and our attempts to build a bridge back to Him by doing good only kick us farther down the road. It’s enough to make a person want to give up.

But that’s the point; giving up is exactly where God wants us. To give up trying to impress heaven with our piety. To pray with the publican, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner.” To pray, “Father, forgive us our trespasses, and forgive our good works. The law always accuses us, even in our good works, for they are imperfect and impure because of the sin in our flesh,” (cf. Apology IV, 319; SD VI, 22).

What we need cannot be found within us. It is found wholly and exclusively outside us. Just as every food we eat, every drink we drink, every breath we breathe, comes into us from outside us, so our righteousness comes from an external source. That external source clothes our filthy hands with His nail-scarred hands. He covers our unclean heads with a thorn-pierced head. He wraps His holy body around every inch of our unholy bodies. He pours His sacred blood over our polluted blood. Yes, even the blackened marrow in our bones He covers up with the pure marrow of His love. Nothing about us looks the same anymore to the eyes of God. We are decked out in the garments of righteousness made from the lamb of God. And wonder of wonders, we turn our gaze to the cross and see hanging there the man who wears the used, menstrual cloths of our old righteousness. In an exchange based solely on mercy, He has stripped us of what was ours and made it His; and He has stripped Himself of what was His and made it ours. The Lord made Him who had no filthy rags of His own to wear ours, that in Him we might be clothed with the righteous robes of God.

To wear the clothing of Christ is for the Father to see us as Christ is. In Him everything about us makes our Father happy. He nods approvingly as we work; He laughs as we play; He listens as we pray; He smiles at our wedding; He rejoices at the birth of our children; He holds us as we weep. We are as near and dear to Him as Jesus is, for we too are His children in His only-begotten Son. Christ is not ashamed to call us brothers. He does so gladly. In Christ there are no good works and bad works; all is good in Him, for we are good in Him. Though we still lug around our old sinful nature, in the eyes of God we are holy people with holy lives and holy names for we are clothed completely in the holy one of God.

There is amazing freedom in knowing that there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Not a lot of condemnation, not a little bit of condemnation, not one tiny speck of condemnation for those who are in Christ. We are liberated from the curse of the law. We are like the completed creation which God declared “very good.” We are robed in Christ Jesus, our works His and His works ours.