One of the most misused, misquoted, and misunderstood Scriptures in the Bible comes from Isaiah 64:6, where Isaiah writes, “We all have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.”
Many in the church have read this over the years and assume that all of our righteous deeds are nothing but filthy rags. This may sound something like, “There’s nothing that I can do to please God. Even my greatest works and deeds are nothing but filth before him.”
But I don’t think that’s what Isaiah means.
Like all verses in Scripture, in order to truly understand this verse, we must first understand the context. We are bound for error if we haphazardly pick any verse and make inferences with respect to its meaning.
In his book, The Hole in Our Holiness, Kevin DeYoung helps us understand this text:
The ‘righteous deeds’ Isaiah has in mind are most likely the perfunctory rituals offered by Israel without sincere faith and wholehearted obedience. In Isaiah 65:1-7 the Lord rejects Israel’s sinful sacrifices. They are an insult to the Lord, smoke in his nostrils, just like the ritual “obedience” of Isaiah 58 that did not impress the Lord because his people were oppressing the poor. Their ‘righteous deeds’ were ‘filthy rags’ (Isaiah 64:6, KJV) because they weren’t righteous at all. They looked good but were a sham, a literal smoke screen to cover up their unbelief and disobedience.
But we should not think that every kind of ‘righteous deed’ is like a filthy rag before God. In fact, the previous verse, Isaiah 64:5, says, “you [God] meet him who joyfully works righteousness, those who remember you in your ways. It is not impossible for God’s people to commit righteous acts that please God.
What father do you know looks to his children and says, “Your works are worthless, and they are nothing but complete trash in my eyes?” Hopefully none. Or maybe some earthly fathers are like that, but our heavenly Father isn’t one of them.
John Piper also adds to the conversation in his classic book, Future Grace:
Sometimes people are carless and speak disparagingly of all human righteousness, as if there were no such thing that pleased God. They often cite Isaiah 64:6 which says our righteousness is as filthy rags . . . But that does not mean that God does not produce in those ‘justified’ people an experiential righteousness that is not ‘filthy rags.’ In fact, he does; and this righteousness is precious to God and is required, not as the grounds of our justification, but as an evidence of our being truly justified children of God.
Christian, your greatest works are not like filthy rags. In fact, God has prepared good works for you to walk into (Ephesians 2:10). It is true that we sin and stray and sometimes do things from impure motives, but our deeds can please God the Father. We know that our deeds are not displeasing to God if we do them for his glory and our neighbor’s good. Indeed, it is a beautiful truth that those of us who have the righteousness of Christ can also commit righteous deeds that are pleasing to him.
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