What Is the Wedding Garment?

Matt. 22:1-14

by Glenn Conjurske

The garment in the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, is the well known symbol of righteousness. This is seen in the garments of skins which the Lord made for Adam and Eve, as also in the fig leaves which they sewed for themselves. It is seen in the fine linen worn by the bride at the marriage supper of the Lamb. It is alluded to in Isaiah 64:6, where the self-righteousness of man is referred to as “filthy rags,” or a soiled or polluted garment, as others translate it. The wedding garment, then, represents righteousness.

But the question arises, What kind of righteousness? Imputed righteousness, is the standard “orthodox” answer, and this is supported by alluding to a supposed custom of the ancient kings to provide such a garment for all of their guests. The inference to be drawn from such a custom agrees so well with the requirements of modern theology that the custom itself is assumed without inquiry to be true, and is taught as an undoubted fact by almost everybody today. Real and thorough scholars, however, who belonged to better days than ours, have another story to tell. Henry Alford says, “it is not distinctly proved that such a custom existed.”1

Even R. C. Trench, who bases his interpretation of the parable on the supposition of such a custom, yet honestly says, “Others, on the contrary, deny that any certain traces of such a custom can anywhere be found, . . . and perhaps no distinct evidence of any such practice is forthcoming.”2 Certain instances of such a thing might be cited, but these do not prove a custom—-much less a universal custom which would have been certainly known by the Lord’s hearers.

But this leads me to two observations. First, a great deal of what is put forth as ancient history by the teachers of the church in our day is really nothing more than modern conjecture. But in the second place, I utterly deny the notion that we must know all about ancient culture and customs in order to understand the Bible. This second point requires further comment:

I believe the Bible to be, generally speaking, sufficient in itself. Beyond the common knowledge of man and animals, birds and plants, earth and sky, which every man whose eyes are open may easily acquire, we have no need of learning from extraneous sources in order to understand the Bible. There are exceptions to this—-notably portions of the book of Daniel. But there God has dropped us a few hints in that direction, in the facts that the theme of Daniel is “the times of the Gentiles,” parts of the book being written by Gentiles, and in a Gentile language. To understand the Bible in general, however, I deny any necessity of a knowledge of the world. It is such a book as may be understood by the unlearned and uncivilized peoples of the South Sea Islands, the jungles of Africa, or the Australian outback. For my part, I profess myself to be almost entirely ignorant of those supposed ancient customs which form so large a part of much of modern preaching. I do not own a “Bible dictionary” or a “Bible encyclopedia,” and I usually pay no attention to what I hear others teach on such subjects.

But further—-I do not merely regard such knowledge as generally unnecessary: I regard it as often evil in its tendencies and results. In many cases it quite effectually diverts the mind from the Bible itself, and it is often used to weaken the Bible’s message, or to alter it. This I believe to be the case in the passage under consideration.

Absolutely all that we need to know to understand this parable is that there was such a thing as a “wedding garment,” and that every guest was expected to wear it—-and that much we may learn from the parable itself. What that garment represents we are to learn from the Bible itself.

Nor does the Bible leave us long in doubt. Any mind familiar with the Scriptures will naturally associate this parable with the marriage supper of the Lamb, in Revelation 19. That the two passages speak of the same thing should be evident to all. In the one (Matt. 22) we read of “a certain king, which made a marriage for his son, . . . saying, Tell them which are bidden, Behold, I have prepared my dinner.” In the other (Rev. 19), “Blessed are they which are called to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” Here are four plain marks of identification between these two passages, the marriage, the son, (who is the Lamb), those who are called, or bidden, and the supper, or dinner. He must bring forward some pretty strong proofs who would pretend to deny that these two passages speak of the same thing, and we can hardly be faulted if we find a fifth mark of identification in the garments. “Friend, how camest thou in hither not having a wedding garment?” (Matt. 22:12). “For the marriage of the Lamb is come, and his wife hath made herself ready. And to her is granted that she should be arrayed in fine linen, clean and white.” (Rev. 19:7-8).

Grant, then, that the fine linen of Rev. 19:8 speaks symbolically of the same thing as the wedding garment, and all guessing is immediately at an end as to what the wedding garment represents. We are plainly told, “for the fine linen is the righteousness of the saints.” “Imputed righteousness,” some will yet be bold enough to affirm. But this I disprove three ways:

First, it would be very strange to refer to imputed righteousness as “the righteousness of the saints.” This I take to be self-evident. Who, anywhere, ever, refers to “imputed righteousness” (whatever they may mean by it) as “the righteousness of the saints”? “The righteousness of God,” or (mistakenly) “the righteousness of Christ,” are the usual terms. And to put the matter altogether beyond doubt, the scripture says, “his wife hath made herself ready.” This certainly appears to refer to something which she has done, and not something done to her or for her. That it is something she has done herself will plainly appear as we proceed to our further proofs. To begin with, the saints have “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” (Rev. 7:14). They did not wash the righteousness of God, but their own polluted souls.

Second, the word “righteousness” is not singular as our version has it, but plural, so that the proper rendering of it is “the righteousnesses of the saints.” If this had been more truly translated from the beginning, no one would ever have dreamed of thrusting in imputed righteousness here.

My third and strongest proof is that the word “righteousnesses” in this text is not the same word as is used of imputed righteousness in the book of Romans. That is abstract righteousness—-righteousness as a principle or state. This is concrete righteousness—-righteous acts or righteous works. It is a simple impossibility that the righteous works of the saints can refer to imputed righteousness.

The wedding garment, then, is the righteous works of the saints. It is the same garment which righteous Job wore, when he said, “I delivered the poor that cried, and the fatherless, and him that had none to help him. The blessing of him that was ready to perish came upon me, and I caused the widow’s heart to sing for joy. I put on righteousness, and it clothed me: my judgement was as a robe and a diadem. I was eyes to the blind, and feet was I to the lame. I was a father to the poor; and the cause which I knew not I searched out. And I brake the jaws of the wicked, and plucked the spoil out of his teeth.” (Job 29:12-17). Now Job was neither a liar nor a hypocrite, nor a self-righteous Pharisee, but a servant of God, “a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God, and escheweth evil,” so much so that there was “none like him in the earth,” God himself being the judge. (Job 1:8).

Some will raise a great hue and cry over this, calling it legal doctrine or popery. To the first I answer, it is Bible doctrine. Let that suffice thee. As for the second, both John Wesley and Richard Baxter were accused of popery for preaching just such doctrines as this, and I let that suffice me.

But I will not end the matter here. Another scripture, obviously on the same subject, calls for our attention. “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.” (Rev. 3:4-5). How can men defile imputed righteousness? Who would dream that they could defile “the spotless robe of Christ’s righteousness” (as mistaken theology calls it)? This is clearly out of the question. They have no more power to defile imputed righteousness in Revelation chapter 3 than they have to wash it in chapter 7. The garments which they have not defiled must evidently represent their own righteousness.

What?—-“not defiled their garments”? Have they never sinned, then? None would dare to dream it. What then? Plainly this: they “washed their garments and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” when they entered the narrow gate, by repentance and faith; they kept their garments undefiled by walking in the narrow way. These are “the undefiled in the way, who walk in the law of the Lord. … They also do no iniquity: they walk in his ways” (Psalm 119:1, 3)—-in obedience, self-denial, watchfulness, faithfulness, righteousness, and holiness. This is all personal and practical righteousness. They “overcome” (Rev. 3:5)—-overcome the snares of the world, overcome the lusts of the flesh, overcome the temptations of the devil—-and therefore “the same shall be clothed in white raiment.” The white raiment is “the righteousnesses of the saints,” here as in Rev. 19.

But this text contains a stronger statement: “they shall walk with me in white, for they are worthy.” The word “worthy,” when applied to persons, properly means deserving. This is the first of seven times the word is used in the book of Revelation, and in all of the other six there is no question that the proper sense is deserving. The seven instances are:

“They shall walk with me in white, for they are worthy.” (3:4).

“Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honour and power.” (4:11).

“Who is worthy to open the book, and to loose the seals thereof?” (5:2).

“No man was found worthy to open and to read the book.” (5:4).

“Thou art worthy to take the book, and to open the seals thereof.” (5:9).

“Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches,” etc. (5:12).

“They have shed the blood of saints and prophets, and thou hast given them blood to drink; for they are worthy.” (16:6).

Elsewhere in the New Testament we see:

“…for the workman is worthy of his meat. And into whatsoever city or town ye shall enter, enquire who in it is worthy; and there abide till ye go thence. And when ye come into an house, salute it. And if the house be worthy, let your peace come upon it: but if it be not worthy, let your peace return to you.” (Matt. 10:10-13).

“He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me.” (Matt. 10:37-38).

“I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son.” (Luke 15:21).

“Of whom the world was not worthy.” (Heb. 11:38).

In all of these the obvious sense is worthy—-deserving of good or ill, on the basis of what they are or have done, as is perfectly plain in “the laborer is worthy of his hire.” I am not able to find a single instance in the New Testament where the word does not evidently have this sense, though where people’s theology requires it of them, they will contend for a lower sense.

When applied to things rather than persons, the word does sometimes have a lower sense, namely, meet or fitting, for inanimate things are not capable of being worthy of anything. A few examples of this might be found in the New Testament, as “if it be meet that I should go also” in

I Cor. 16:4. Men whose theology causes them to stumble at the word “worthy” in Rev. 3:4 will of course insist that there it has the lower sense: they are meet or fit to walk with Christ, though not deserving of it. Should we grant this, still we remain just where we were, so far as it concerns our present discussion. Those who are fit to walk with Christ are the righteous and the holy. They are those who walk in the light and do the truth, and so “have fellowship with” him (I John 1:6), or “walk with” him. They are those who have overcome, and so will sit with Christ in his throne, even as he overcame, and is set down with the Father in his throne. (Rev. 3:21). They are those—-for whatever the word means here we may assume it to mean there—-who have loved Christ more than father or mother, or son or daughter, and have taken up the cross and followed him—-none else being “worthy” of him. (Matt. 10:37-38).

Grant, then, that “worthy” means no more than “fit,” and it will still remain that the white raiment is personal and practical, not imputed, righteousness. It is nothing other than “the righteousnesses of the saints,” by which the bride has “made herself ready.”

Observe further, in Rev. 3:4, those who shall walk with Christ in white are those who are now worthy. “Thou hast”—-present tense, now, in this life—-“a few names, even in Sardis—-and Sardis, of course, is here on this earth—-“which have not defiled their garments; and they shall”—-in eternity—-“walk with me in white, for they are”—-now, in this life—-“worthy.” This cuts up all antinomian notions by the roots. It cuts to shreds the modern shallow and easy gospel which promises eternal life to everyone who “believes.” Those who are not in this life, on this earth, worthy to walk with Christ in white have no right or reason to expect that they shall ever do so. They need not expect to be made fit at their death, or at the coming of Christ. Oh, no: for it will then be said, “He that is unjust, let him be unjust still, and he which is filthy, let him be filthy still; and he that is righteous, let him be righteous still, and he that is holy, let him be holy still.” (Rev. 22:11). None will then go in to the marriage supper of the Lamb but those who have—-already, for the tense is past—-made themselves ready. There is not one ray of hope for those who expect to get to heaven by “imputed righteousness,” who have no personal, practical righteousnesses, or righteous works, of their own. This is the wedding garment, and all who have it not shall be cast into outer darkness, where shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matt. 22:13).

Glenn Conjurske