Earlier this year I wrote a post questioning whether we should use Jeremiah 17:9 to describe the believer’s heart. Now I want to follow up by challenging a similar use of a statement in Isaiah 64:6: “all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags” (KJV), or “all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment” (ESV).
It’s one thing to quote this statement in an evangelistic setting, to emphasize the impossibility of earning a righteous standing before God through personal obedience. But are the Christian’s righteous deeds dirty in God’s sight?
Sometimes it feels like mine are. I fall so short of my own expectations, let alone God’s. And even when my actions approximate biblical commands, my motives may well be a mix of godly and ungodly intentions. Do such struggles equate to “filthy rags,” however? Am I doomed to being unable to please God in this life?
Looking at the Context
As a first step to answering the question, we must consider the contextual meaning of Isaiah 64:6. In anticipation of the Babylonian exile, in 63:15–64:12 Isaiah provides Jewish deportees a prayer to use in crying out to Yahweh for deliverance and restoration. The statements in 64:6 provide a humble confession of Judah’s sin as the reason for the judgment of the exile. Each line of the verse pictures sin in devastatingly graphic terms.
- “We have all become like one who is unclean.” This alludes to the Mosaic category of ritual impurity that disqualified Israelites from the place of worship.
- In translating the second description, the NET Bible boldly reflects the imagery as commonly explained in the lexicons and commentaries: “All our so-called righteous acts are like a menstrual rag in your sight.” Like the first line, this statement points to ritual impurity but in the most repugnant of terms (cf. Ezek 36:17).
- “We all fade like a leaf” pictures the people as shriveling up and decaying under divine judgment.
- The final description then depicts the irresistible power of the judgment: “our iniquities, like the wind, take us away” (cf. Ps 1:4).
No less a proponent of the doctrine of total depravity than John Calvin denied that Isaiah’s “filthy rags” simile refers to every human being. Instead, the prophet is describing the Jews who would suffer God’s wrath through captivity and thereby recognize the repulsiveness of their own righteousness before a holy God. Calvinist E. J. Young, however, argues that we may legitimately apply Isaiah’s statement to all efforts at righteousness by the unsaved (The Book of Isaiah, 3:496–97). That seems correct to me, particularly in light of other biblical data (e.g., Gen 6:5; Prov 15:8; 21:27; 28:9; Rom 8:8; Eph 4:17–19). The question is whether “filthy rags” also applies to acts of righteousness done by the regenerate.
The Christian’s Righteous Acts
The answer is a bit complex given the progressive nature of our sanctification. “We all stumble in many ways” (Jas 3:2). In fact, to deny that we commit acts of sin is to commit the sin of lying (1 John 1:8, 10). Yet the problem is deeper than acts of sin. The flesh and its sinful desires are ever present inside of us (Gal 5:17). Furthermore, the believer’s sin grieves the Spirit (Eph 4:30). And sin can attach itself even to seemingly righteous deeds. It can, for instance, impede our prayers (Matt 6:14–15; 1 Pet 3:7). So even when we’re doing something good like praying, the Lord may not be pleased. As the Puritans used to say, we may need to repent even of our repenting.
Lest we drive ourselves crazy with such introspection, however, consider another set of biblical teachings. Amazingly, through love the believer is able to fulfill the Law (Rom 13:8–10; cf. Gal 6:2). The key is the indwelling Holy Spirit. Through Spirit-engendered righteousness, joy, and peace, we can actually be pleasing to God (Rom 14:17–18; cf. Gal 5:22–23). Our prayers can likewise please the Lord (1 Tim 2:1–3). So can our provisions for the material needs of others (Phil 4:18; 1 Tim 5:4; Heb 13:16). As can our Christ-like endurance of unjust suffering (1 Pet 2:20–23).
Do such assurances imply that our God-pleasing actions are flawless in every respect? I doubt it. Perhaps some human analogies can help us understand how this all works.
- A child brings home a drawing she did at school, and her mother is thrilled by it—not because it’s beautiful artwork but because the child worked hard at it and did so with a considerable desire to make her mother happy.
- A middle-school basketball player is commended by his coach—not because he didn’t miss any shots all season but because of clear improvement in a particular area.
- A student gets an A on a project—not because it reflects the finest work theoretically possible but because it represents a high degree of proficiency relative to the student’s grade level.
- An employee receives a company award—not because she has never made any mistakes but because of consistent productivity over a long period of time.
You get the idea, and you can probably think of analogies from other realms of life. Tie in as well Psalm 103:13–14: “As a father shows compassion to his children, so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust.” This fatherly disposition on God’s part moves him not only to forgive us when we fail but to accept our modest efforts to obey him. And he can do this because his ultimate standards of perfection have already been satisfied for us by Christ (Rom 5:17–19; Gal 4:4–5; Phil 3:8–9).
The Perspective of Heaven
What if you’re still tempted to believe that your good-faith, Spirit-reliant efforts to obey and serve God are trash? Revelation 19:6–8 should comfort you even as it stuns you.
Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the roar of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, crying out, “Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure”—for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.
In the closing line, the predicate is literally “righteousnesses” (plural), exactly parallel to “righteousnesses” in Isaiah 64:6. The ESV rightly takes the word as referring to “righteous deeds” done by believers. Here, however, the deeds are not filthy rags but “fine linen, bright and pure!”
This does not compete with or undermine the righteousness of Christ. Rather, our righteous deeds are based upon and inspired by his (cf. Rev 7:14). They are a reflection of his character that was worked into us throughout our earthly lives. And for all eternity they will testify to the Lord’s gracious acceptance of the righteous actions his Spirit enabled us to carry out.
Photo credit: Joel Naren on Unsplash