Clothed in Christ
I have often heard Protestants explain the Imputation of Christ’s Righteousness in terms of the believer being “clothed in Christ’s righteousness,” which they take to mean our sinfulness is covered over by Christ’s perfection, causing us to appear pure and holy before God (though ‘underneath’ the clothing we remain sinful). But as I came to look at how the Bible speaks of “clothing” I came to realize something very different than the Protestant notion of Imputation was being taught. What I came to realize was that what the Bible was describing was actually the Catholic view of grace and salvation, not the Protestant view.
Generally speaking, Protestants understand the saving “grace” of justification as a disposition of God, wherein God knows He doesn’t have to save anyone, but He ‘graciously’ (undeservingly) sends Jesus to fulfill the law and die on the Cross (all in place of the believing sinner’s inability to do these things). This is where the Protestant notion of being “clothed in Christ’s righteousness” comes in, because even though God knows the sinner is ‘beneath the clothing’, God ‘graciously’ (mercifully) overlooks this and instead focuses on the clothing (i.e. what Christ did).
On the other hand, Catholics understand the saving “grace” of justification to refer to God’s divine life and power (2 Cor 12:9) acting upon the sinner, causing the sinner to be transformed. As the Catechism puts it: “Grace is a participation in the life of God. It introduces us into the intimacy of Trinitarian life.” (CCC#1997) In this view, “grace” is what gives spiritual life to one who is spiritually dead (i.e. those in mortal sin), somewhat akin to the electrical charge that enters into a dead battery to recharge it.
In both viewpoints, grace is absolutely necessary, and in fact we could say both the Catholic and Protestant views believe man is saved ‘by grace alone’. But the radically different views of grace entail radically different views on salvation, which means this dispute must be settled beyond the semantic level. And this is where a study of the Biblical notion of “clothing” comes in.
Catholic theology has traditionally viewed saving grace from three perspectives: building, elevating, and perfecting. I believe these three aspects of grace are clearly found in how the Bible uses the Greek verb endyo, which literally means “to put on clothing,” and if this holds true then the Protestant equating of Imputation with that of “being clothed” must be abandoned (in fidelity to God’s Word).
The first claim to look at is the Catholic notion that grace ‘builds upon our human nature’. That which is natural to a being pertains to its own inherent abilities and qualities. That which is super-natural literally refers to those abilities and qualities that go beyond nature (since ‘super’ means ‘beyond’). When it comes to salvation, there are certain things we cannot do precisely because they require abilities that go beyond our natural abilities. I recall St Augustine using the analogy of seeing in the dark, saying that it doesn’t matter how good our eyesight is, the only way we can see in the dark is from the special assistance of a torch. We see this concept found when Paul speaks of “putting on the armor of God,” for example: “But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation” (1 Thess 5:8; see also Rom 13:12). In Ephesians 6:11-18, Paul speaks of this “putting on the armor of God” again, including putting on the belt of truth, breastplate of righteousness, and helmet of salvation, as well as taking up the shield of faith and sword of the Spirit. And before Jesus Ascended into Heaven, He told the Apostles to “stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high” (Lk 24:49), speaking of the divine gifts (e.g. tongues) which the Holy Spirit would pour out on Pentecost. In all these texts the clothing analogy is clear: these divine gifts equip us, building on our nature, to enable us to fight the good fight and do God’s work, which we otherwise couldn’t do by our natural human powers.
The second claim to look at is the Catholic notion that grace ‘elevates our human nature’. It is universally understood that certain people and places demand a certain elevated level of respect. We know that this means you must dress appropriately for certain events and have your house neat and orderly to properly welcome special guests over. Beautifully capturing this notion is the way the Old Testament describes Jewish Temple: For God to be able to dwell there, the Temple had to be ‘elevated’ beyond that of a regular building (by using the finest gold and decorations), and that the High Priest had to be ‘elevated’ beyond that of a lay person (by using many fancy garments instead of regular clothing, e.g. Lev 16:23). This is precisely why Churches should be beautifully adorned and why parishioners should dress up for Mass, because anything less is quite insulting to God’s Divine Majesty.
Hidden in his earthly Temple analogy is actually the more profound reality of the Christian having the Trinity dwell within us. As Paul says, Christians are “Temples of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 3:16-17), and as Jesus says in John 14:23 that ‘anyone who loves me, the Father and I will come make our dwelling within him’ (see also Eph 3:17). With this in mind, grace is what elevates us to become a welcoming and worthy home for the Trinity to come and dwell within us. Such a task requires a thorough ‘renovation’ of our souls and especially an adornment of love, as Paul says: ‘Put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together’ (Col 3:9-14). And elsewhere, “put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph 4:24).
What is also fascinating is that this ‘putting on of the new self’ is identified in Romans 13:12-14 as “putting on the Lord Jesus Christ, making no provision for the flesh,” telling us what being “clothed in Christ” really refers to in Paul’s mind! This fits precisely with Paul’s concluding thoughts of Galatians 3, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (3:27), since Scripture describes Baptism as a cleansing, image renewing, and regenerating bath (e.g. Acts 22:16; Titus 3:4-7; Romans 6). Notice that according to the plain reading of this verse, we become “clothed with Christ” by Baptism, not by faith alone.
The third claim to look at is the notion that grace ‘perfects our human nature’. Closely related to the last two aspects of grace is the notion that grace perfects us, meaning it takes us to a place where our human nature was supposed to be (and hence why Adam ‘falling from grace’ was such a tragic, devastating fall from a super-natural state to a merely natural one). To help get this concept across, is interesting to note is how those in heaven (both humans and angels) are described as being “dressed in (white) robes” (e.g. Rev 7:9-14, 15:6). One would think that a person in heaven should be described as naked, since nudity (ideally) is supposed to signify innocence and purity. Since we know nudity itself isn’t bad, the presence of “robes” would suggest that human nature itself isn’t enough to experience heaven, human nature must be ‘perfected by grace’. Indeed, St Paul tells us that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God,” meaning our natural bodies aren’t naturally made to live in heaven anymore than we can just go live in outer-space. The body must be glorified by grace, which is why Paul follows this up by saying: “this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality” (1 Cor 15:50, 53; see also 2 Cor 5:1-5) – verses clearly referring to the perfecting work of grace.
With all this in mind, a final thought: It is common for people to say, “I don’t need Christianity to get to Heaven. I’m a good person, so I’m sure God will let me in.” The problem with that logic is that getting into heaven is far more than about being a ‘good person’. If you ask these people if you can come to their wedding, they’ll respond by saying: “No, I don’t know you.” Exactly, because wedding invitations aren’t based on who in the public is a ‘good person’, but rather on who is a friend of the Bride and Groom. Similarly, you must be a friend of God, having a relationship with Him, to be invited to His Wedding. God has no reason to invite you to His wedding feast if you never really cared about being in relationship with Him. A person needs the (super-natural) “love of God within them” (Jn 5:42; cf 1 Jn 2:5; Mt 24:12) if they are going to in relationship with God. This is how the parable of Matthew 22:10-13 is to be understood, where the man not clothed in the symbolic “wedding garment” was not welcome at the wedding feast. As noted in prior articles, this helps explain that the Catholic view isn’t about ‘working our way into heaven’ as it is about being properly disposed (i.e. in a state of grace) to be in a relationship with the Trinity, starting now.
Protestants like to quote Zechariah 3:3-7 which speaks of Joshua having to put on clean garments as proof of Imputed Righteousness, but this interpretation is presupposed and really has no merit from what has already been shown. The story fits quite well with the Catholic view of grace, especially the concluding verse which in which God warns: “If you will walk in my ways and keep my charge, then you shall rule my house and have charge of my courts, and I will give you the right of access.” This indicates that sins can cause him to lose his rights, which makes no sense in the Imputation view (since God overlooks your personal sins). In fact, using the principle of Scripture-interprets-Scripture, we see the Catholic view vindicated in Revelation 3:3-5, where Jesus says: “Thou hast a few names even in Sardis which have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with me in white: for they are worthy. He that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment.” These garments these saints are wearing cannot be referring to Christ’s righteousness Imputed, since Jesus speaks of them as taking care not to defile the garment (which is impossible if it’s Christ’s righteousness), so it can only refer to sanctifying grace gained, with the potential of it being lost through sin (cf James 1:12; 2:5). The parable of the Prodigal Son should be understood in a similar manner, wherein the father order the servants to “clothe” the returned son with a new expensive robe, signifying a reconciled status after being “dead” in sin (Lk 15:22-24).
In conclusion, we have seen the Catholic understanding of grace beautifully captured in the Bible’s use of the analogy of being “clothed”. Further, it was shown that being “clothed in Christ” and “clothed in righteousness” (as used in the Scriptures) cannot refer to the Protestant notion of Imputation, meaning they should avoid such terminology out of fidelity to God’s Word and orthodox theology.