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Filthy Rags?

Books that will challenge your current Biblical perspective.
The Fire That Consumes
The Parousia
The Biblical Church
Clinging to a Counterfeit Cross

by Steve Jones

"But we are all like an unclean thing, and all of our righteousnesses are like filthy rags" (Isa. 64:6). Isaiah the prophet summed up the wretched state into which the covenant people of God had sunk. Though they had the boon of receiving the Law from Mount Sinai, though they had come out of Egypt through the Red Sea, they had turned from their Lawgiver. The children of Zion were worshipping false gods (Isa. 42:17). They were reveling in the dregs of idolatry. So much so, the prophet calls Jerusalem a harlot (Isa. 1:21) and likens it to Sodom (Isa. 3:9).

And yet, the people had an illusion of righteousness. Some of them professed to be "holier than thou," even while burning incense on strange altars (Isa. 65:3-5). But God did not esteem their righteousness to be anything but pollution. He even hated the Sabbaths and feasts that He had Himself ordained (1:13, 14). The house of Jacob's apostasy had rendered its best acts of religion unclean. Like the wind, sins were sweeping people away (Isa. 64:6).

How appropriate that the prophet would break into such hyperbole as to call this supposed goodness "filthy rags." What better way to call the nation to repentance? In the context of proud Judah's barrenness, the rebuke comes with the force of a thunderbolt.

This is most certainly the way the text should be read. We have all heard that "a text without a context is a pretext." This applies here. The "filthy rags" must be understood historically and with application to the audience: apostate Jerusalem.

This, however, is not the way many Evangelical Protestants applies the famous passage. In fact, in all of the times I have ever heard it quoted - in sermons, study guides, books, Sunday School lessons - I have never once heard anyone interpret the verse in context. References to Isaiah 64:6 are invariably made to mankind in general. The verse becomes a proof-text for the total depravity of every man including the saints. Many will say that the deeds of even the most profound disciples are nothing but "filthy rags" in the sight of God. And so, the text is made universal and theological, rather than specific and historical.

But the question needs to be asked: By what hermeneutical principle do we so use a text? What gives us the right to uproot the verse from its surrounding historical context and use it as a proof for theology? Furthermore, we should ask if a theology constructed with such methods is a sound one.

Evangelicals may argue that their application of the verse is correct because Isaiah includes himself among those whose righteous acts are unclean ("...all of our righteous acts"). But this should be understood in the light of Israel's corporate guilt. Isaiah is numbering himself among the covenant people. Those people had fallen into gross sin (though certainly not every person without exception). Therefore, he says, "our righteous acts," the acts of the nation as a whole. This is consistent with the rest of the Old Testament. For example, we find that Daniel, though godly, confessed the sins of Israel as if he were himself the transgressor (Dan. 9:3-11).

Some reading this may wonder what the fuss is all about. Isn't it nit-picky to cavil at the way one verse of Scripture is being applied? Not in this case. I say so because the misapplication of Isaiah 64:6 has a tendency to disparage, or at least downgrade, good works. I submit that it is impossible to think of righteous acts as something filthy and, on the other hand, as something essential. How could filth be important or even desirable? How will Christ judge the saints "according to their works" (Matt. 16:27) if He already esteems all works repugnant? This introduces confusion into the Christian faith.

The idea makes James the most unintelligible book of the ancient world. The author would, in effect, be writing that "faith without filthy rags is dead" and "a man is justified by filthy rags and not by faith only" and "I will show you my faith through my filthy rags" and "by filthy rags, faith is made complete."

Christians would be enjoined to "stir up love and filthy rags." And young men, according to Paul, would all be obliged to show forth "a pattern of filthy rags." The absurdity goes on and on throughout the pages of Scripture if Isaiah 64:6 is applied to all people everywhere.

The obvious teaching of the Bible is that acts of virtue and goodness are pleasing to God. He does not view them as filthy, unless they are done with false intentions (cp. Matt. 6:2). In fact, God was pleased with

Cornelius' alms, even before that man was converted to Christ (Acts 10:4). This alone should negate the popular application of Isaiah 64:6.

Amazingly, the preceding verse in the book of Isaiah teaches the exact opposite of the common interpretation of "filthy rags." Listen to the prophet: "You [the Lord] meet him who rejoices and does righteousness" (Isa. 64:5). Genuine works of righteousness, says Isaiah, are valuable; God meets us when we walk in them. Are we told the opposite thing one verse later? That hardly seems reasonable.

Jesus taught that God will reward even small works, such as giving a child a cup of water (Matt. 10:42). Our Lord commands us to let our good deeds "shine before men," that they might glorify the Father (Matt. 5:16). Paul writes that we are "created in Christ Jesus unto good works" (Eph. 2:10).

The apostle erases all doubt as to how God views works of righteousness. Paul urges the saints to "walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing Him, being fruitful in every good work" (Col. 1:10). Notice that pleasing God is connected to righteous works. They are clearly not filthy rags in the sight of God; they are a delight to Him.

Yes, our works are imperfect. But the Scripture affirms repeatedly that our Father smiles upon our acts of goodness. No one will be saved without them. Jesus states in John 5:29 that the resurrection unto life is for those who have "done good." Paul writes that God redeemed us to make us "His own special people, zealous for good works" (Tit. 2:14). And so, the entire scheme of redemption has as a focus good works - and a glorious resurrection to those who have walked in them for Christ's sake.

No, we do not put God in our debt by doing good deeds. We cannot merit salvation by balancing our works with our sins. Salvation and forgiveness lie in our covenant status with God through Christ. But the imitation of our Lord - which includes works (Acts 10:38) - is an obligation of the covenant. It is also a high privilege and a joy.

Clearly, God does not view our righteous acts as filthy rags, but as costly apparel purchased with the blood of Christ.

Please click here to read the article entitled "Self-righteousness?" for further study of this topic.

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Comment Script


You missed what Jesus said:
And Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. " (Luke 18:19) And Jesus was talking to the disciples in this context. "No one is good" can only be interpreted to mean "no one is good. " Are the disciples good? Jesus said, "No one is good. " Are the saints good? Jesus said, "No one is good." You also appear to not understand the very verses that you quote. It is clear that the glory of ALL good works is attributed directly to God alone. When you sincerely give a cup of water to a child, you allow God to do good work through you. "Good works" without God are not good works and therefore are as filthy rags.
#1 - Guest - 11/09/2009 - 07:29
I think you missed what Steve said:
I would agree that all our so-called righteous acts apart from Christ are as "filthy rags." However, I see nowhere in the article an argument that implies that any one is good apart from God or that any good works are ever done apart from God. What I do see, in Steve's article, is an argument that believers, who have become partakers of the divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4), no longer living apart from Him, genuinely do works that are pleasing to God.

When Jesus said that "no one is good but God," He was speaking in the absolute sense of perfect goodness otherwise He would contradict himself when He separates the sheep from the goats saying "Well done, good and faithful servant;" (Matt. 25:21). He would contradict as well, many other passages in Scripture such as:

The steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord, And He delights in his way. (Psalm 37:23)

A good man deals graciously and lends; He will guide his affairs with discretion. (Psalm 112:5)

A good man obtains favor from the Lord, But a man of wicked intentions He will condemn.( Prov. 12:2)

A good man leaves an inheritance to his children's children, But the wealth of the sinner is stored up for the righteous.( Prov. 13:22)

The backslider in heart will be filled with his own ways, But a good man will be satisfied from above. (Prov. 14:14)

For he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. (Acts 11:24)

As we see, scripture often speaks of good men and I believe the Apostles would be in this category. We see as well that in many of these passages the good man is contrasted with the wicked or sinful man. These were considered good men because they were men of good character, living according to God's will and purpose. Their works were not perfect nor were they themselves perfect, but Scripture calls them good nonetheless. We have no reason to believe that their righteousness was "filthy" in the sight of God, but rather works well pleasing to Him.

Understanding God as only working through us is, I believe, the error of the "two nature" theory which states that the "I"(our sin nature) must get out of the way so that God can work through us (the spirit or new man), leaving us, as it were, unchanged. What then is being conformed to the image of God and what is being renewed day by day, if not our nature? I am not aware of one verse in Scripture that states that God performs acts of righteousness through us, but rather it is always us working through Him. The Scriptures speak of the believer practicing righteousness because His seed remains in him (1 John 3:9, 10), not because His seed is working through him. The fruit of the Spirit is the fruit of His work in us. It is not that which the Spirit does through us, but rather that which we ourselves bear as a result of His gracious work within us. Therefore, although we are bearing the fruit, it is God alone who receives the glory.Who are those in Luke 8:15 "...who, having heard the word with a noble and good heart, keep it and bear fruit with patience." Is this fruit filthy? No, Christ says it is good, "Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit" (Matt. 7:17).

Christ speaks of a "good man" in Luke 6:45, "A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart brings forth evil...". It is those who have received a new heart; a circumcised heart, by God's grace. "I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them". In other words by His grace we receive a new heart, a heart receptive to God's Spirit, which is evidenced by righteous behavior. Not a righteousness He works through us, but a righteousness He works in us. It is not the righteousness that God imputes to us for our justification, but rather a righteousness that he imparts to us in sanctification. In 1 John 3:22 it states, "And whatever we ask we receive from Him, because we keep His commandments and do those things that are pleasing in His sight". This verse does not suggest that it is God keeping the commandments through us but rather it is us keeping the commandments through Him (i.e., by His grace). Is this keeping of the commandments filthy in the sight of God? Can it be said that God is well pleased with filthy rags? Paul says in 2 Cor. 5:9, "Therefore we make it our aim, whether present or absent, to be well pleasing to Him." Not because we are good in and of ourselves, but as a result of God's work within us. "For it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure."(Phil. 2:13) Is it God's good pleasure to produce filthy rags?

One of the best examples of a "filthy rags" righteousness is that of the scribes and Pharisees. It is the righteousness of hypocrites "who cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of extortion and self-indulgence."(Matt. 23:25). Christ tells them to clean up the inside of the cup, the heart, resulting in an outward righteousness that is pleasing to God. The process of this inward cleansing begins when we receive God's grace in repentance. A filthy rags righteousness is the righteousness of one that doesn't murder because the Law says "thou shalt not murder," but has a heart that is full of anger (Matt. 5:21,22). The righteousness that is pleasing to God is the righteousness that does not murder, not because there is any law, but because the love of God in his heart constrains him. In other words, keeping the letter of the law rather than the spirit of the law, which is love, is a filthy righteousness in God's sight.

What many, in my opinion, often times miss is the distinction Scripture makes between self-righteousness and God honoring righteousness. But there is a great fixed gulf between the two. David says in Psalm 18:20-24, "The LORD rewarded me according to my righteousness; According to the cleanness of my hands He has recompensed me. For I have kept the ways of the LORD, and have not wickedly departed from my God. For all His judgments were before me, and I did not put away His statutes from me. I was also blameless before Him, and I kept myself from my iniquity. Therefore the LORD has recompensed me according to my righteousness, according to the cleanness of my hands in His sight." (Psalm 18:20-24). We would cringe at the thought of hearing any one today speak of their self in this way. We would immediately think that person to be self-righteous. Yet, self-righteousness nowhere enters the picture. Would we not say that we would love to see the Church in this day filled with such men of David's character? David was not being self-righteous. He was well aware that his righteousness was not of himself but a result of God's love. Self-righteousness is just that; a righteousness that comes from self. It is a righteousness that is ugly, boastful, arrogant, and terribly dishonoring to God. However, in contrast the righteousness that David here speaks of is just the opposite. It is beautiful, void of any boasting, and wholly honoring to God. When we hear Paul state in 1 Cor. 6:9 "Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God." What is the proper response to such a statement? There are only two options; either we are not righteous and therefore, must repent, or we will not enter the kingdom of God, or we are righteous and we will enter the kingdom of God. Paul is certainly not speaking of a positional righteousness because the righteousness of which he speaks is followed by a list of what is the antithesis of that righteousness; A list of unrighteous behavior that exempts one from the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:10). So then, according to this verse, would not a believer have to see himself as righteous if he is to have any confidence that Paul's words do not condemn him? We would never say it out loud, but why? It is because we have been pre-conditioned to see all such righteousness as self-righteousness, even though Scripture makes a distinction. There are many such passages that speak of godliness, good works, and righteous living, setting forth standards that we must live up to if we are to have any confidence that we are Christians. Yet it has absolutely nothing to do with self-righteousness. We all understand that these various works are all a result of abiding in Christ, knowing that apart from Him we can do nothing. And therefore there is no boasting in ourselves but it is God who receives all the glory. One of the most beautiful aspects of God's grace is that he can take sinful, wicked men, and make them good. The key is that it is God who makes them good because God alone is truly good. It is not of themselves, it is a gift from God. He does not save us and then wait for us to someday submit to Him so He can work through us, using us like robots, but rather He is constantly working in us, renewing us, sanctifying us, and conforming us to the glorious image of His dear Son. One of the great promises and incentives of the Christian life is that we are truly being transformed into the same image from glory to glory. It seems to me that calling the fruit of this mighty work "filthy" does an injustice to the glorious grace and power of God in salvation. It is dishonoring to the work of the Holy Spirit who dwells in all who are His."He who is unjust, let him be unjust still; he who is filthy, let him be filthy still; he who is righteous, let him be righteous still; he who is holy, let him be holy still." (Rev. 22:11)
#2 - James - 11/09/2009 - 07:41
No one is good enough to gain heaven.
You cannot do anything to gain heaven,for your good works are as filthy rags.Anyone who think their good work gain them heaven they are in fact doomed.

For it's only through Jesus God who became man ,Jesus as God came to do what no human can do. For Jesus God being perfect, Jesus who knew no sin became sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. 2 Cor. 5:21

One must accept the free gift of forgiveness,one must ask for this forgiveness then repent seek everyday to flee from the sin nature that infest our flesh.
Next as a evidence that we have been saved from hell and been forgiven and believe in Jesus ,we do good works .Again the good works do not gain us anything, but are evidence of the love we have for God.
#3 - gigsblast blog - 05/13/2010 - 08:01
Righteousness is as filthy rags in a sinner
The Bible cannot contradict itself. Otherwise it would not be the authoritative true word of God.

With that assumed, the verse of filthy rags and the preceeding one should go hand in hand, rather than oppose one another.

I have found that God is not so much pleased with our works as with our hearts. Our works should be an expression of the new heart which Christ has transformed. Our works should be in strife to become more like Jesus Christ, and not for our merit, as if we earn grace. Our works alone are not righteous; it is Christ's righteousness that is wrapped around us like a cloak, as He took our sin and gave us His righteousness, so that we are pure and blameless before God. So then, is this true?: Grace is the gift; faith is the acceptance; work is the worship.
#4 - Laura - 06/29/2010 - 10:58
I agree with Steve, basically. Isaiah was praying a prayer of penitence to God for Israel. I believe historically the Jews when praying a prayer of lamentation often exaggerated their sins. I think of this as if any of us walked in and heard someone praying to God for the forgiveness of someone elseâs sin, we would recognize what we are hearing. God has never called our righteousness filthy rags even before Jesus came. God said that Noah and Job were righteous and others have listed many Old Testament versus showing that there were righteous people before Jesus came. Below are a few scriptures from the Old Testament. Also, I also do not believe Jesusâ righteousness was inputted to us.

Gen 7:1 And the LORD said unto Noah, Come thou and all thy house into the ark; for thee have I seen righteous before me in this generation.

Job 1:8 And the LORD said unto Satan, Hast thou considered my servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God, and escheweth evil?

(Pro 10:3) The LORD will not suffer the soul of the righteous to famish: but he casteth away the substance of the wicked.

(Pro 10:11) The mouth of a righteous man is a well of life: but violence covereth the mouth of the wicked.

(Pro 10:16) The labour of the righteous tendeth to life: the fruit of the wicked to sin.

(Pro 10:21) The lips of the righteous feed many: but fools die for want of wisdom.

(Pro 10:24) The fear of the wicked, it shall come upon him: but the desire of the righteous shall be granted.

Psa 11:5 The LORD trieth the righteous: but the wicked and him that loveth violence his soul hateth.

Psa 33:1 Rejoice in the LORD, O ye righteous: for praise is comely for the upright.

Psa 34:15 The eyes of the LORD are upon the righteous, and his ears are open unto their cry.

Psa 37:16 A little that a righteous man hath is better than the riches of many wicked.

Psa 37:30 The mouth of the righteous speaketh wisdom, and his tongue talketh of judgment.

Pro 10:3 The LORD will not suffer the soul of the righteous to famish: but he casteth away the substance of the wicked.

Pro 10:11 The mouth of a righteous man is a well of life: but violence covereth the mouth of the wicked.
#5 - Eric - 08/28/2010 - 18:52
Thanks for the audio version, I enjoyed it.
#6 - marie - 04/08/2011 - 07:51
This theme has interested me! Their works were not perfect nor were they themselves perfect, but Scripture calls them good nonetheless. We have no reason to believe that their righteousness was "filthy" in the sight of God, but rather works well pleasing to Him.
#7 - donne russe per matrimonio - 04/15/2011 - 10:12
I have thoroughly enjoyed this discussion. It has been enlightening from both perspectives. I am most afraid however of what I see in many 'church' people. Many are quite proud of what they have never done and never said and quite "Pharisee" like make sure that we all know it. If these are "good works" then I am sure the filthy rags verse applies here.
How one can believe they have salvation without the blood of Christ atoning for their imperfections is a slowly creeping error that should be uncovered.
#8 - The Thinker - 09/10/2011 - 06:57
I think the deception of Satan is very subtle, as his servants are disguised as "servants of righteousness." If we truly allow Christ to be the End of the law for righteousness, then we are able to understand and submit to HIS righteousness. Truthfully speaking, no one deserves to enter the kingdom of God because no one is good, no one is righteous, and all sin. Apart from Him we can do nothing, and we are all still in our sins. Flesh and Blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, so we must be born from above - by the Spirit (in the higher, spiritual realm of consciousness- understanding by the Spirit what God has FREELY given us). It is only by Grace through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, the Righteous One, that we enter in...not by works. We enter in through His blood and HIS righteousness...the gates are HIS righteousness...He IS the gate. We don't need to focus on our own good works, but on the finished work of Christ. Whenever we can get that foundation laid right and settle it in our minds, then we are truly a new creation - made new in the spirit of our minds, created to be like God in True righteousness and holiness. Then we are all on an equal playing field, with HIS righteousness as the measuring stick...and then there will be no more pride over one another. This is what I think the church has misunderstood. But it's the most important thing, because this IS the gospel. "The life I live in the flesh, I live BY FAITH in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me."
Thank you!
#9 - Gail - 09/27/2011 - 15:02
Did anybody acually read the article?
Look, you can believe in total depravity if you want, but do not use bogus arguments. Steve eloquently debunked the absurd exegesis of Isaiah 64:6. Why would the prophet Isaiah randomly insert a universal truth in the midst of a description of Judah's sad state? This is simply nothing more than Reformed proof texting. So stop whining that we who disagree with the flawed interpretation of Isaiah 64:6 are condoning works based salvation. We are simply pointing out a bad argument.
#10 - Trev X - 02/21/2012 - 03:15
Saved or Unsaved
I would like to thank Mr. Jones and everyone who has commented over the years on this post. The variety of comments provide clear views of both sides of the issue. I grew up being taught that my good works as a Christian were as "filthy rags." Now that i'm studying for the pastorate, i am compelled to apply it to NT principles.

The application of Isaiah 64:6 hinges upon hermeneutics in light of the dispensation we live in. The prophet Isaiah likened Judah's right acts to filthy rags (KJV), or polluted garments (ESV). In the Hebrew, the word filthy or polluted reads "idda" which is literally translated menstruation. In the eighth century B.C., the women did not have sanitation pads, tampons, or diva cups. The translation here is very crude. It speaks of a garment that soaks up gross bloodiness. Now what does the NT say about our righteousness in Christ? He took upon him our gross immorality with His blood right?

As a believer, we are God's workmanship, created in Christ unto good works (Ephesians 2:10). But does God compare a believer's right acts to menstual cloths like those of the rebellious Israelites in Isaiah's time? The Scriptures repeatedly proclaim that the blood of Jesus Christ as a cleansing for us (e.g.1 John 1:7). It takes blood to atone for our sins (Hebrews 9:22). Blood was the only acceptable sacrifice to God from the time of Cain and Abel (Gen. 4), throughout the history of the Israelites (Lev. 1:2), until the time of Christ (Rev. 1:5).

Jesus Christ has now taken away our bloodguilt (John 1:29) as a sacrifice once for all through His blood (1 Peter 1:19). These are the bloody menstrual garments spoken of in Isaiah 64:6. Christ took them away, nailing them to the cross (Col. 2:14).

As a believer, the discussion is no longer about my righteousness in the Mosaic Law. It is a "righteousness that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith." (Philippians 3:9). The conversation should not be about us, because our righteousness, holiness, and redemption is in Christ (1 Cor. 1:30). It is because of this that God will credit it to us as righteousness (Rom. 4:22-25).

I am not wrapped in a crude and bloody cloth as the Israelites were. I have been clothed with spotless garments in Christ (Rev. 3:5). I am clothed with Christ rather than filthy rags. Through this realization i can humbly show my faith by good works (James 2:18) without guilt. I rest in my discovery of the pointed truth in Philippians 3:8-9. This verse is the answer to the question raised.

"And be found in Him [Christ], not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ- the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith." Philippians 3:9
#11 - Mudd - 03/03/2012 - 13:50
You are exactly correct. A verse ripped from it's context and used as a pretext. Isaiah 64:6 is a poetic lament, not a statement on the sin nature of man. The translation of this verse from ancient Hebrew is a guess at best.
#12 - Miles - 05/05/2012 - 20:28
Sorry for previous post. Your format will not accept my Hebrew script. Here is the literal translation.

Young's Literal Translation (YLT)

6 And we are as unclean -- all of us, And as a garment passing away, all our righteous acts; And we fade as a leaf -- all of us. And our iniquities as wind do take us away.

#13 - Miles - 05/05/2012 - 20:34
Evangelistical Pastor Elect
I agree with Steve in general works. However, there is a clear distinction in the works of man from his/her own agenda verses the works of one's heart motive directed by the righteousness and love of Yahweh, our Lord, our God in such a one.

Please always state/ post scripture correctly. The Bible states that we all have sinned and came short of his glory. Past tense not present nor future. The Bible states that for one to think he/she has not sinned, still past tense, is headed for destruction. Please do not predict sin into anyone's present nor future. Because according Scripture the Bible say, sin not. That Yahweh hates sin. That sin separates us from God. So therefore, if it is written/inspired, we must believe that sin can be obsolete from our lives. We must desire and be persuaded that nothing shall separate us from the love of Yahweh, our Lord, our God. Encourage to stay focus and press towards the mark of the high calling which is in Christ Jesus. Be blessed all.
#14 - Evangelist King - 10/01/2013 - 12:05
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