Re-Thinking Your Sunday Best: Why Student Ministry Needs to Reclaim the Centrality of Imputed Righteousness

Growing up, my parents made sure I wore my “Sunday best” to church—coat, tie, slacks, and on special occasions, suspenders!  After all, we were going to meet with the living God. A whole generation (or two) regularly used this phrase to communicate the reverence and awe of worship and to make sure our outward appearance reflected something of the cleaned-up heart we all embraced. Ironically, I didn’t spend a lick preparing my heart for worship.

Most of the time—during my early years—I only heard one side of the gospel. I heard that Jesus died on the cross as a payment for my sin, but I never heard that he lived for me. While I heard that Jesus died the death I should have died, I never heard that he lived the life I should have lived.

The point: Jesus has accomplished for us what God has required of us. He lived a perfect, sinless life, obeying all of God’s commands. That we are declared “righteous” by God (the doctrine of justification) is a declaration made on the basis that our sin has been credited to Christ and his righteousness has been credited to us.  We, therefore, stand accepted by God because of an alien righteousness, received by faith alone.

In reality, Jesus is our Sunday best. He is our righteousness. God is pleased, not with the fancy tie I received for Christmas, but with the righteous robes of his own Son, which I have received by faith alone—a “righteousness from God that depends on faith” (Phil. 3:9).

Why does this matter for student ministry?  Because the imputed righteousness of Christ stands as the foundation for the good news of our being justified by God.  In other words, without justification sola fide we don’t have the gospel. If you, like many who have loved the recent “gospel movement”—The Gospel Coalition, T4G, the Gospel Project, among others—want to lead a gospel-driven student ministry, the imputed righteousness of Christ must take a central place in your teaching and ministry to students.

Nothing will free your students from the cyclical shame of sin like knowing and believing that all of our sin—past, present, and future—has been cast as far as the east is from the west (Ps. 103:12). Similarly, nothing will spur them on to holiness and sanctification like knowing and believing that they are simply living out what they have already been declared: “righteous.” They are not striving to earn God’s favor; rather, they are striving to please the One who earned God’s favor for them.  The law of God, then, comes alongside, not to condemn, but as a friend, showing him or her how he or she can please God.

Nothing will give your students joy like knowing and believing that their righteousness isn’t found in being a good student, a good son or daughter, or a good soccer player.  Their righteousness is found in Christ alone.  Indeed, their hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.  Or, in the words of the hymn “Before the Throne of God Above”

Behold him there the risen Lamb
My perfect spotless righteousness
The great unchangeable I AM
The King of glory and of grace
One with himself I cannot die
My soul is purchased by his blood
My life is hid with Christ on high
With Christ my Savior and my God
With Christ my Savior and my God

May student ministries across our land embrace and love the doctrine of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness and may it free youth pastors and parents from the success-oriented, entertainment-driven models of ministry that undercut the very message they are seeking to communicate.

If you are involved in the discipleship of students, reclaim the centrality of the imputed righteousness of Christ as you teach and equip them.  May that, not self-help sola-boot-strapia, provide the true “gospel” focus of your ministry to students.

Brian Cosby is senior pastor of Wayside Presbyterian Church (PCA) on Signal Mountain, Tennessee, and adjunct professor of historical theology at Reformed Theological Seminary, Atlanta. He is the author of over a dozen books, including Giving Up Gimmicks: Reclaiming Youth Ministry from an Entertainment Culture and Rebels Rescued: A Student’s Guide to Reformed Theology.

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