The Dirty Shirt Skit is something that I have done over the past three decades at various times and places, modifying it a bit here and there. I think it so clearly pictures in a humorous sketch exactly what the gospel message of imputed righteousness is all about.
I first did this on the beach in Scarborough, England in the late 80s while leading a high school music team summer mission trip. We were working with a British evangelist and running what was essentially a VBS on the beach at a hot vacation spot in England (as hot as a beach vacation spot can be along the North Sea — at the same latitude as Labrador!). We had kids running down the beach to get water from the North Sea in their plastic buckets, etc.
The skit idea is that a fellow receives an invitation from the royal palace for a personal visit with the King (and of course in England this means more than in the USA). The fellow, who is dressed in a filthy shirt, is excited and takes his invite to the palace door. There a guard throws him out in a variety of ways, showing him the fine print of the invitation that says that a clean, white shirt is required. So the man begins to do everything he can to clean his shirt (with the kids helping). Though improved, it is still not perfectly white, and the guard throws him out over and over. Eventually, coming to the palace gate in exasperation, holding the paper invite and the large tube the invite was in, the guard points out to the man some more fine print at the bottom that says that a clean white shirt is provided with the invitation. He takes off his old shirt and puts on the new, and is immediately welcomed into the palace to meet the king.
We are the man invited to know God, the dirty shirt is our sin, we cannot ourselves clean away the dirt, the clean shirt is the righteousness of Christ, and when we replace our sin with his perfection, we can have acceptance in God’s presence.
As we continue to the second half of Romans 4, Paul takes on another issue that the Jews in particular leaned upon as being God’s special people, obedience to the Law of Moses…
13 It was not through the law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith. 14 For if those who depend on the law are heirs, faith means nothing and the promise is worthless, 15 because the law brings wrath. And where there is no law there is no transgression.
Remember that the Law of Moses did not come until 400-500 years after Abraham, long after the principle of imputed righteousness through faith was established. And again, remember that the Law is not really about how to get right with God, it is not something to depend upon; its purpose is to bring wrath, as it is the perfect standard to show a person his sinfulness.
Without it “there is no transgression.” For example, without the perfect law would be like a society without any rules, or like a road with no speed limits.
And here comes the principle: the promise of hope and righteousness is entered into by faith, be it Jews or Gentiles. This makes Abraham not only the physical father of the Jews, but more broadly the spiritual father of all who will trust in God’s promise …
16 Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring—not only to those who are of the law but also to those who have the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all. 17 As it is written: “I have made you a father of many nations.” He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed—the God who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that were not.
This idea of bringing dead things to life is now talked about on several levels. Of course it relates to us having spiritual life that comes to us through faith, bringing life to the death that we had because of the curse of Adam’s sin.
But as well, it is illustrated in what God did in bringing life through Abraham and Sarah. The child of promise (Isaac), the one through whom would come the redeemer Jesus Christ, would be born when Abraham was 100 years old and Sarah age 90.
18 Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”[d] 19 Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead—since he was about a hundred years old—and that Sarah’s womb was also dead. 20 Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, 21 being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised. 22 This is why “it was credited to him as righteousness.”
That would take a lot of faith, wouldn’t it? But Abraham had a promise; it was from God; he couldn’t see it, but he believed it without wavering in faith.
And again, this principle is bigger than just the story of Abraham and Sarah; it is for all of us, for all people of all time…
23 The words “it was credited to him” were written not for him alone, 24 but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness—for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. 25 He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.
We celebrate this great truth in the commemorations of the days ahead.