Why Your Deeds Are Not Like Filthy Rags

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.

Post your comments below.

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46 thoughts on “Why Your Deeds Are Not Like Filthy Rags

  1. David, amen brother. This is something a lot of Christians miss, including people like me who sometimes bash on human righteousness and works. Thanks for the well-balanced thought.

    Kevin

  2. I understand your point and if I may I have a few thoughts. I think that we would agree that what is righteous in mans eyes is filth to God, but when we align our will with the will of God, His righteousness He sees reflected in us. The same can be said about the verse that goes, “There are none righteous, no not one.” Man in his unsaved condition is an affront to Holy God, it is only when the blood of Christ is applied to our souls that we become able to please God and even then not on our own. Through living and walking in the spirit following the leadership of Jesus we become vessels of honor.

  3. Whether or not Isaiah’s passage may be used to justify the unworthiness of our righteousness is separate of how believers ought to understand the nature of their righteous deeds. As an aside, I am inclined to disagree with DeYoung and Piper in this context (see Alec Motyer’s commentary on Isaiah, pg. 520; John Calvin as well for alternate interpretations in his commentary on this passage, as well as Calvin’s understanding in the Institutes III.18). Historically the Reformed have held to this passage as instructing believers about the nature of their works, not just the abhorrent nature of Israel’s false works. The passage speaks of not just works, but the persons themselves. It’s not just the false works, but the person from whom the works flow. Isaiah includes himself within that context and so we must consider that Isaiah considers this concept to apply to believers.

    The point though is that we should still maintain the unworthiness of believers works apart from Christ. The Westminster Confession states quite clearly that:

    16.5. We cannot by our best works merit pardon of sin, or eternal life at the hand of God, by reason of the great disproportion that is between them and the glory to come; and the infinite distance that is between us and God, whom, by them, we can neither profit, nor satisfy for the debt of our former sins, but when we have done all we can, we have done but our duty, and are unprofitable servants: and because, as they are good, they proceed from his Spirit; and as they are wrought by us, they are defiled, and mixed with so much weakness and imperfection, that they cannot endure the severity of God’s judgment.

    16.6. Notwithstanding, the persons of believers being accepted through Christ, their good works also are accepted in him; not as though they were in this life wholly unblamable and unreprovable in God’s sight; but that he, looking upon them in his Son, is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfections.

    I agree that God accepts our works/deeds but they are not accepted on the basis of any worthiness in themselves. The apostle Paul proves as much in Romans 7 on his inner conflict and resolves this not by convincing himself of some sort of worthiness they might have but looking to the liberation brought by Christ and his Spirit. The problem is that we can delude ourselves and become self-conceited in thinking that now we have been forgiven that our works in and of themselves are pleasing to God and think that we have some sort of inherent righteousness in ourselves, which is patently false. Certainly God forgives us and the Spirit works righteousness in us but, as Christ says to his disciples “So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.'” (Luke 17:10), so we must caution ourselves in thinking that our works merit God’s approval. His approval is purely gracious and wholly on account of Christ.

    I do not think at all you intend or suppose we should boast in our own righteous works, but I think that how we understand our righteous deeds must be qualified in that, apart from the cleansing of Christ, no work of ours, even Spirit-wrought, would endure God’s judgment.

    1. Nate, you bring up some good points. I especially love how you mention the Reformers in general and John Calvin in particular, a person who’s writings I love and respect dearly. Obviously, we are saved by grace through faith. It is entirely by God’s grace that we receive justification before him. All I’m trying to say in the post is that, while total depravity befalls us all, in our regenerate state, we can do deeds and works that are not like filth before God, but that are actually pleasing to him (Eph. 5:10). If God predestined good works for us to walk into (Eph. 2:10), if that was God’s idea, how does that make it filth? In Isaiah 64 . . . In the context of this verse, just right before it in verse five, we learn, “You [God] meet him who joyfully works righteousness, those who remember you in your ways.” We can perform righteous deeds. There are dozens of other texts that I can quote. So while everything an unregenerate person does is sin, believers can in fact do good deeds that are pleasing to God if done for his glory, and their neighbors good. We can please our father.

  4. Just a note: There are 2 extremes. Both are wrong but only one were addressed here.
    Yes, we shouldn’t use “There’s nothing that I can do to please God. Even my greatest works and deeds are nothing but filth before him.” as an excuse to sit back and do nothing, James 2.
    But we should also remember, that no man is capable of doing any good. The only good work “we” do is the work our Heavenly Father does through us in Christ, Ps 14&53 and Philip 2:13.

    1. Hi, Roelf. Thanks for jumping in. I agree with you when you said we shouldn’t sit back and do nothing. You also said, “no man is capable of doing any good.” I believe that is true for unregenerate persons, but not for Christians. Regenerate believers can displease God, sin, and stray. However, and only by God’s grace, they perform good deeds that are pleasing to God if done for God’s glory and their neighbors good (Eph 5:10).

  5. I saw the title of this, and my first reaction was, “Wait, what?” For some reason I felt a little defensive. But I’m glad I took the time to read this and understand what you were saying. I very much agree. There are several places in the bible where God mentions His people (Abraham, Moses, and so many others as mentioned in Hebrews 11) doing things by faith and that it was counted to them as righteousness. It wasn’t that their works saved them but that their works pleased and glorified God. Thank you for making me think on that in this perspective!

  6. Can I jump in and say, we don’t do the good, it is Christ doing it thru us? Even our faith is from God. There is no good man, not one who seeks God. Any righteous deed we do, God puts it in us to do. Please correct me, if I am wrong. This is all new to me. I only recently discovered teachings by Mcarthur, and R,C. Sproul. And I have not been able to get enough since! God bless.

    1. I absolutely love R.C. Sproul and I am an advocate of John MacArthur. I’ve read a lot of Sproul. I’m not sure what his stance is on this, but as you can see above — Kevin DeYoung, and John Piper — both of whom Sproul would support, say we can do good works if we do them for God’s glory.

    2. Be encouraged! I heard what you wrote sounding more like this: Galatians 2:20, King James Version (KJV): I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me. Reinforced by: Acts 3:11-12, KJV: And as the lame man which was healed held Peter and John, all the people ran together unto them in the porch that is called Solomon’s, greatly wondering. And when Peter saw it, he answered unto the people, Ye men of Israel, why marvel ye at this? or why look ye so earnestly on us, as though by our own power or holiness we had made this man to walk? Here, the focus upon works, rather than spirit content in the living, seems to be the source of potential error.

      1. I really like what you put here to illustrate the post. To me it brings quite a bit of clarity to what the post is saying. I’ve always wondered about the point in our righteous deeds if it’s all just God doing it. It’s like we’re robots and all that. I’ve come across John piper for some time but only more recently got deeper into his teaching. Some of the pre destination stuff I do not like because i almost hear it as, well God saved me, I can’t do anything to please Him so what am I really supposed to bother doing with my life.
        If that makes any sense!??

      2. Yeah, it makes sense. I love John Piper and his Ministry has profited me greatly through the years. I’d encourage you to search the Scriptures diligently on the doctrine of predestination. The Word is our final authority.

      3. “Someone”, in my understanding, by saying “new life” and “rebirth”, no carnal process of reproduction is intended. Believers are to understand sacred definitions, consecrated meanings, and divine values as they apply to things of the world, and its natural events that otherwise are familiar, mundane, ordinary, and pedestrian. Awareness within the living is to be reconfigured making it knowable and “visible” that existence and all sacred process proceeds through emanation from Deity (i.e., that divinity beams, pulses, radiates, shines). Since the time of Adam, GOD has demonstrated, established and proclaimed what believers are to do to have continuous relationship with Deity. Those who are born again, are to “grow up” again, and become mature (we say, perfect, ready, ripe) to greet the Lord at his coming to harvest the earth. For now, as children of GOD, made certain by divine promise and prophecy, believers are to learn, grow, and prepare being focused through the work of spreading the Gospel. Be encouraged!

  7. I don’t know why, but this discussion reminds me of a time when my son was very young and could reach only the bottom rung of the lawn mower’s handle. He wanted to help my husband — his daddy – mow. So, my husband let him walk with him for a row or two. My son was pushing as hard as he could, but it was really my husband, who was holding onto the upper rung, who was providing the power. Still, my husband and I were so delighted with our son’s earnestness and cuteness. Not sure how this applies, except that I do agree that we need to avoid both extremes with the verse in Isaiah. I know it helps me to realize that my best deeds miss the mark of Christ’s glory and goodness, but that, by God’s grace, I will see a harvest if I don’t get weary in well doing. Galatians. There’s no room for boasting, but there is room for believing that God will work through us for good. Well, that’s just my two cents.

  8. Good post! Our good deeds give evidence of what we already believe and earn us nothing but do bring glory to God. It is all about the heart and our motivation for what we do and say. Are we seeking the praise of men or of God! Thanks for writing!!

  9. Thank you David for this excellent post! Context is important to really understand the Holy Scriptures. For instance, when David says “I am a WORM and no man!!” – I bet your bottom dollar he was depressed!! He didn’t really believe he was a worm – at least, not from what we understand about his character. And yet, there are Christians who believe they are lower than worms!! But IF WE BELIEVE THE LIE – WE WILL LIVE THE LIE! ! Amen? Be blessed – Reuben.

  10. I agree that Bible verses need to be read in context, preferably finishing reading the entire chapter before reaching any conclusions about any particular verses.

    There can be many things that guide our work. They may include the teachings of Jesus, the guidance of the Holy Spirit, Bible verses, justice, acts of compassion or sympathy. Professional experience and science also have their roles.

    For me I do not doubt the value of good work. Of course any action can have unintended consequences, but that is just the nature of our world. Some of Paul’s work attitude can be found in Roman chapter 15 – no negative self talks in there.

    1. I like that added scripture. Wow, I’m learning tonight! On a side note, To think of how Paul was encouraged to go to non believers and preach rather than those who have heard is something I hadn’t seen about his ministry before, and I’m a real word life student!
      Anyway, yes, he does talk and boast openly, but only about what Christ has accomplished through him, and so it is that we return to the fact that it is Christ doing the work through Paul, and us, and if it weren’t then it would be but filth?

      1. Hi, Samuel. Glad you were encouraged. Only God knows everything, but I think — based on Scripture — that there’s nothing an unregenerate (non-Christian) person can do to please God. But for regenerate persons (Christians), we can, through our effort and God working through us, please God and do good works. It’s not a “either/or,” it’s a “both/and.” Hope that helps.

  11. Thank you for this post. I would like to add a passage in support of your position. Revelation 19:7-8 Let us be glad and rejoice and give Him glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and His wife has made herself ready.” 8 And to her it was granted to be arrayed in fine linen, clean and bright, for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints.

  12. So glad I came across this post of yours, since I covered this verse in my book where I was discussing what Jesus counts as sin in his Sermon on the Mount. I am advocating CONTEXT all the time in all I discuss, so this point you make will be addressed in a later chapter on righteous living and how it applies. Thank you for a new insight I had not considered before. We should all contextualise practically EVERY verse we hear quoted since so much is used with a ‘political’ intent to make a point: some even call it proof-texting, but we all do it, let’s be honest! Here in Northern Ireland, we have ‘staunch protestants’ (of which I suppose I AM one) who are usually ‘militant Calvinists’ who try to poo-poo ‘good works’ to the point that they preach that as long as you’ve raised your hand in a gospel service and said the ‘sinner’s prayer’, that’s it! Yes, grace achieves that, but that is NOT the end of the disciple’s walk after Jesus! I perceive many Christians who think that attending four services a week in place of the pub constitutes ‘good works’ and actually achieve nothing by way of righteousness that God seeks.

    For me, what I wrote about sin is that Isaiah himself said in this verse “all of US…” and so included himself as an unrighteous one, and was not calling out to a ‘nation of idolaters’, but had the humility to recognise his OWN sin as far below God’s standard. Even our lord Jesus himself displayed such humility when he replied to the rich young man, “Why do you call me good? No one is good, except God alone.” (Luke 18:19) Such humility is the beginning of finding the righteousness that is only imputed through Christ and then how that works out in our lives and must be seen by others – how else would we make Christ attractive?

  13. LOL! As if anyone would be interested in this tiny population! No, I jest; we have a fair number of World Champions in many sports for such a small nation, so we do have some pride. We ARE a small population – Rory McIlroy grew up across the street from my mother’s apartment!

    Just think of the evangelical churches here as a microcosm of US Republicans (though don’t use the word ‘Republican’ here – ROFL!), since the politics is the same rabid right-wing rantings I hear from across the water.

    I’m different! God made each of us unique; we all have a wonderful mind to use for his glory. Enjoying your posts. Grace be with you.

  14. Be encouraged! Stirred up by some of the ideas, here, I’m prompted to share the thought that the believer’s prayer is more to be, Lord, create in me a clean heart, than, Lord, make me an instrument to do good works. Believers are cautioned to stay alert (watch and pray); there is great subtlety, here (i.e., barely visible differences; hidden shifts in focus, meaning, and value). What we must do should naturally flow from whom we must become. Like the Sadducees of the Savior’s day, in our efforts to establish our beliefs as free of occultism and superstition, fruitful, practical and pragmatic, we often focus upon a “social gospel” and works without proper regard for divine spirit. Consider again the Scriptures (But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us. 2nd Corinthians 4: 7, KJV; John 14:10 Believest thou not that I am in the Father, and the Father in me? the words that I speak unto you I speak not of myself: but the Father that dwelleth in me, he doeth the works. Galatians 2:16 Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.) Even believers experience conflict among the various inward laws of flesh and mind described by the Apostle Paul (Romans 7: 12, 13, KJV: 12 Wherefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good. 13 Was then that which is good made death unto me? God forbid. But sin, that it might appear sin, working death in me by that which is good; that sin by the commandment might become exceeding sinful.). All may experience such inward laws as appetite, compulsion, conviction, intent, impulse, and obsession. Works do pertain to expression, manifestation and perfection of ones spiritual content, however, our works can not accomplish justification, redemption, and salvation before the Father apart from the Son. Thanks for sharing.

  15. Good job, brother David. What you wrote at the beginning brought to mind the phrase you probably already know: “A text out of context is a pretext”.
    Keep up the Good Work.
    Kevin Cox West Palm Beach, Florida

  16. I think 2 ideas are clashing. Our works are filthy rags apart from Christ! Like stated in the article Eph. 2:10 by God’s grace we walk in them. It is Christ in us who the Father is pleased with and the works of righteousness done by Him in us. Phil 2:13. Our works of righteousness are filthy rags, but Christ works are perfect and righteous. Now that we have been sealed he works through us and is pleased. He is pleased with himself, for it is no longer I who live but Christ. So I think context is important in understanding this, if I believe He is now pleased with my works now that I have faith then I miss the point. Galatians 3:3. Yet by faith I walk as the called whom he justified and is renewing daily.

  17. Still seeing many interesting comments coming through on my email alerts, and much truth, Praise God. This is the ‘tension’ that I think we all experience in our life, that knows we are justified by grace yet also knows that we must live a righteous and generous life towards others with outward works of love and caring, yet such works cannot save us… in my book, I’ve dealt with the portion of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 where our Lord Jesus teaches us that all outward sins have their origin in a heart that is in need of changing. Jesus (like all the prophets before him) teaches his followers that a right heart turned towards God (the heart that his Spirit has regenerated) will ultimately move us towards a life less sinful and more marked by love and good works. It’s not a case of chicken and egg for us since he has ended the debate: for Jesus followers, good works come FROM a changed heart.

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