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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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Comments (16)

Topic: Filthy Rags?
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Guest says...
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.
13th December 2014 7:29pm
James - webmaster says...
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 ... Read More
13th December 2014 7:32pm
gigsblast blog says...
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.
13th December 2014 7:36pm
Laura says...
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.
13th December 2014 7:44pm
Eric says...
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 else's 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 Jesus' 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 ... Read More
13th December 2014 7:46pm
Maria says...
Thanks for the audio version, I enjoyed it.
13th December 2014 7:48pm
The Thinker says...
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.
13th December 2014 7:50pm
Gail says...
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 ... Read More
13th December 2014 7:52pm
Trev X says...
Did anybody actually 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.
13th December 2014 7:54pm
Mudd says...
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 ... Read More
13th December 2014 7:57pm
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