Does God Regard Our Righteous Deeds with Disdain?
How often have you heard a preacher or teacher say that God rejects our personal righteousness and that the only righteousness that He will accept is His perfect righteousness in Christ? This is very common in tracts, books, and on Internet articles. There is a sense in which this is true.
We acknowledge that none of us is perfectly righteous (Romans 3:10). We cannot depend on our righteousness that is derived from the Law but we must seek the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith (Philippians 3:9). We are not saved on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness but according to Gods mercy (Titus 3:5; cf. Romans 10:4). To be justified by our righteousness, we would need to be sinless and entirely righteousand this would need to last a lifetime.
In order to attempt to prove that our righteousness is worth nothing to God, many writers and preachers cite Isaiah 64:6 which says, All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment; and all of us wither like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. He goes on to charge, There is no one who calls on Your name, who arouses himself to take hold of You; for you have hidden Your face from us and have delivered us into the power of our iniquities (v. 7).
It is important for us to recognize the condition of these Israelites referred to in this section of Isaiah. In the previous verse, we read, You meet him who rejoices in doing righteousness, who remembers You in Your ways. Behold, You were angry for we sinned, we continued in them a long time, and shall we be saved? (v. 5). Notice here that God is positively inclined to the one who rejoices in doing righteousness! Does this sound like he despises true righteousness, as has often been inferred from verse 6? What God abhors is hypocrisy, when one who professes to practice righteousness is actually unrighteous! God hates sin especially when one claims to be righteous. The text (v. 5) says that God was angry at Israel because of their sin, just as He always is. Verse 7 also says that God had delivered Israel into the power of her iniquities or lawlessness.
In this context, we can see that the sins of Israel made them unclean and their righteous deeds (in that state) were like a filthy garment. Israels sins or lawlessness would take them away (v. 6). The verse we are discussing would seem to mean that the righteousness under discussion is a righteousness that is external and performed by those in sin and hypocrisy.
Homer Haley comments:
This uncleanness may be ceremonial or moral, but in either case it makes the people unfit to approach the Lord. . . . Their righteousnesses are as a polluted garment, a garment soiled by a woman during her menstrual period, making her and the garment impure and untouchable (cf. Lev. 15:19-30, 33). In such an unholy state their life and strength fade as a leaf (cf. 1:30, 34:4); and their iniquities, like the wind, carry them away from Jehovah and from their true spiritual fatherland (A Commentary on Isaiah, p. 510).
Terry Briley also takes note of this verse in Isaiah 64. He observes that the purity laws of Leviticus warn Israel of the dangers of bringing that which is unclean into contact with the holy. . . . [The passage] may reflect Isaiahs opening chapter, in which Israels religious deeds are contaminated by their sinful lives. Uncleanness that invalidates the cultic practices by which one maintains purity and fellowship with God yields disastrous results (The College Press NIV Commentary: Isaiah, Volume 2, p. 300).
In Isaiah 1, God expresses His displeasure with Israel for they continued their righteous activities with a totally wrong motive. Therefore, He rejected their multiplied sacrifices (v. 11-13). He said, I hate your new moon festivals and your appointed feasts, they have become a burden to Me; I am weary of bearing them (v. 14). He went on to charge them, Even though you multiply prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are covered with blood (v. 15). In light of this religious hypocrisy, Yahweh God commands, Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from My sight. Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, reprove the ruthless, defend the orphans, plead for the widow (vv. 16-17). We can see that God is not against sacrifices, prayer, or feasts, for He commanded these observances. What He is against is religious observance and external righteousness that is insincere and doesnt come from a heart of love and faithfulness.
This may be the very situation that God denounces in our original text of 64:6. This may be the righteous deeds that God rejects. Earlier God had said, I will declare your righteousness and your deeds, but they will not profit you (57:12). Righteous deeds that are merely external and insincere will profit no one. Commenting on Isaiah 64:6, Andy McClish writes, They were unclean both morally and ceremonially, to such a degree that even what they would offer to God in the name of righteousness was as repulsive as a polluted garment. The language employed there is meant to convey, in graphic terms, how sin separates man from all that is pure and holy (Isaiah, Fourth Annual Houston College of the Bible Lectureship, Volume 2, pp. 300-301).
In light of this, I would affirm that God is not opposed to our righteousness. True, He is opposed to all our righteous deeds that are done while we are in sin and living in hypocrisy (64:6). But throughout the Bible, we see the importance of living in absolute righteousness. Jesus said that we are to practice our righteousness but not do so to be seen of people (Matthew 6:1). He warned, Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven (5:20). We had better have the righteousness about which He speaksfor we cant enter the Kingdom without it! The Lord said that only the righteous will enter eternal life at the judgment (25:46).
The remainder of the New Testament shows how vital righteous living is and how tragic unrighteousness is. Paul says that we are to present the members of our body as instruments of righteousness to God (Romans 6:13). We are to consider ourselves to be slaves of obedience resulting in righteousness (v. 16). In fact, we have become slaves of righteousness (vv. 18-19). The apostle says that the kingdom of God is righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (14:17).
Paul continues by saying that when we come to Christ, we put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth (Ephesians 4:24). The fruit of the Light consists in all goodness and righteousness and truth (5:9). As Christians, we are to put on the breastplate of righteousness (6:14). The apostle tells his companion Timothy to turn from sin and pursue righteousness (1 Timothy 6:11; cf. 2 Timothy 2:22). One of the chief purposes of the Scriptures is that we might be trained in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16).
Many other passages speaks of the essentiality of righteousness or righteous acts in our life, but lets notice one more in Revelation 19:8. Here, at the marriage of the Lamb (Christ) to His bride (the people of God), we read that it was given to her [the bride] to clothe herself in fine linen, bright and clean; for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints. We should never disparage righteousness for this is what the true saints will be wearing in heaven!
Not only is it necessary to practice righteousness, but we are to avoid unrighteousness. Paul asks the pointed question, Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? (1 Corinthians 6:9). He then gives a listing of different kinds of unrighteous or sinful behavior and relationship (vv. 9-10). In another place, he says that all unrighteousness is worthy of death (Romans 1:29, 32). We can see that righteousness is essential and unrighteousness must be renouncedif we are to enter the new heavens and the new earth, in which righteousness dwells (2 Peter 3:13).
Sadly, there are many professing Christians who think that they are unconditionally eternally secure and can live their life for the flesh. Some of these hypocritical people knowingly sin, deliberately disobey God and His holy will, and serve their appetites. They knowingly live in unrighteousness. Let these people know that God will not accept such hypocrisy! He calls on all to repent of their unrighteousness and begin to live in loving and true righteousness!
Is our righteousness like a polluted garment? Does God reject our righteousness? Yes, if we are living sinful and hypocritical lives. But if we are trusting in God to save us through Christ Jesus, if we have repented of all our sins and are living a sincere and devoted life before the Lord, then God delights in our righteous life! What will it be for you?