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Question: "Why are all of our righteous acts considered filthy rags?"

Answer:
“All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away” (Isaiah 64:6). This passage is often used as a proof text to condemn all our acts of goodness as nothing more than “filthy rags” in the eyes of God. Yet, it is also a passage that is often misapplied because it is taken out of context. The verse preceding says, “You [God] meet him who joyfully works righteousness” (Isaiah 64:5). The passage in Isaiah 64:6 is actually referring specifically to those ancient Israelites at that particular point in time (760—670 B.C.) who had strayed from God, not to all of mankind in general. The proper interpretation calls for this passage to be applied in its historical and specific setting; not in a universal or theological context.

The term “filthy rags” is quite strong. The word filthy is a translation of the Hebrew word iddah, which literally means “the bodily fluids from a woman’s menstrual cycle.” The word rags is a translation of beged, meaning “a rag or garment.” Therefore, these “righteous acts” are considered by God as repugnant as a soiled feminine hygiene product.

As Isaiah wrote this, the Israelites had been the recipients of numerous miraculous blessings from God. Yet they had turned their backs on Him by worshipping false gods (Isaiah 42:17), making sacrifices and burning incense on strange altars (Isaiah 65:3–5). Isaiah had even called Jerusalem a harlot and compared it to Sodom (Isaiah 3:9). These people had an illusion of their own self-righteousness. Yet God did not esteem their acts of righteousness as anything but “polluted garments” or “filthy rags.” Their apostasy, or falling away from the law of God, had rendered their righteous works totally unclean. “Like the wind, [their] sins were sweeping them away” (Isaiah 64:6). Martin Luther said, “The most damnable and pernicious heresy that has ever plagued the mind of man is that somehow he can make himself good enough to deserve to live forever with an all-holy God.”

Though self-righteousness is condemned throughout the Bible (Ezekiel 33:13; Romans 3:27; Titus 3:5), we are, in fact, commanded to do good works. Paul explained that we cannot do anything to save ourselves, but our salvation comes only as a result of God’s grace (Ephesians 2:8–9). Then he proclaimed that “we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10; see also 2 Corinthians 3:5).

Our salvation is not the result of any of our efforts, abilities, intelligent choices, personal characteristics, or acts of service we may perform. However, as believers, we are “created in Christ Jesus for good works”—to help and serve others. While there is nothing we can do to earn our salvation, God’s intention is that our salvation will result in acts of service. We are saved not merely for our own benefit but to serve Christ and build up the church (Ephesians 4:12). This reconciles the seeming conflict between faith and works. Our righteous acts do not produce salvation but are, in fact, evidence of our salvation (James 1:22; James 2:14–26).

In the end, we must recognize that even our righteous acts come as a result of God within us, not of ourselves. Paul summarizes this by saying, “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Corinthians 15:10).

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