Is Our Sincere Righteousness Like Filthy Rags?

Is our sincere righteousness like filthy rags?

Is Our Sincere Righteousness Like Filthy Rags?

Richard Hollerman

If you are like me, you have heard again and again that all of our good deeds are like “filthy rags,” thus we must not depend on them for our right standing with God. They count for nothing in regard to salvation. In fact, God abhors them, thus we too should look on our righteousness as abominable! Is this true—or is there something that we are missing?

First, just what does Isaiah say? “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” (Isaiah 64:6).The ESV has something similar: “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment” (Isaiah 64:6a).

Second, what is being said here? Does God look down on our sincerely held righteousness? Apparently this “righteousness” was not a manifestation of sincerity and truth. As God said earlier in the book, “I will declare your righteousness and your deeds, but they will not profit you” (Isaiah 57:12). When one is living in sin, his or her deeds will do nothing to win God’s favor! God is looking for a heart that is sincere, blameless, and pure, and not merely external “righteous” deeds.

The passage speaks of our being saved (v. 5b). “Shall we be saved?” We can’t be saved as long as our lives are sinful and corrupt. Homer Hailey says: “Even the believers in Israel, with whom the prophet stands, have become affected by the national sins.” He goes on to observe, “He sees the nation as one that is unclean.” Hailey continues: “This uncleanness may be ceremonial or moral, but in either case it makes the people unfit to approach the Lord (see Hag. 2:12-14). Their righteousnesses are as a polluted garment, a garment soiled by a woman during her menstrual period, making her and garment impure and untouchable (cf. Lev. 14:19-30, 33); and their iniquities, like the wind, carry them away from Jehovah and from their true spiritual fatherland” (A Commentary on Isaiah, p. 510). (Such a garment would bring about “uncleanness”—Lev. 15:19-24, 33; 20:18).

As long as they continue in sin, there is a separation between them and God (cf. Isaiah 59:2). As long as they remain in sin (64:5), as long as they have iniquities (vv. 6, 7), as long as no one calls on Yahweh’s name (v. 7), they will not be saved (v. 5b). Only by humbling themselves, repenting of their sins, and seeking God’s true righteousness, will they be delivered and be right with God!

Third, why would God consider this righteousness as “filthy rags”? Generally, God favors righteousness in thought, in attitude, and in behavior. He is righteous and He requires righteousness. But apparently these people did not have a true, inner righteousness that seeks God and sincerely wants to obey Him. This superficial “righteousness” is what God rejects and considers to be a “filthy garment” (v. 6). It is not that righteousness is something that God despises, but He does despise a “righteousness” that is unholy, half-hearted, and insincere.

Fourth, is it right for us to say that God rejects our holy life and behavior? Does He turn away from and denounce a sincerely-held righteousness that characterizes a life that is true, loving, blameless, and sincere? We think not. As Hailey observes, “Their iniquities, like the wind, carry them away from Jehovah and from their true spiritual fatherland” (Ibid. p. 510). God doesn’t condemn the sincerely righteous person.  Terry Briley thinks that this statement reflects “Isaiah’s opening chapter, in which Israel’s 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” (Isaiah, p. 300).

Fifth, it would seem that what God is denouncing is the sinfulness of the nation that makes them “unclean” (Isaiah 64:7a). As W. E. Vine says: “All this provides a warning as to the effects of persistent departure from the ways of God. Wilful [sic] apostasy leads to forgetfulness of God. So it was in Israel. There was none that called upon His Name, that stirred up himself to take hold of God. Insensibility to sin produces insensibility to God’s claims and to His mercies” (Isaiah, p. 211). God denounces hypocrisy, half-hearted religion, worshiping with an inner relationship with God.

Sixth, we must not denounce or minimize the sincere “righteousness” that is part of a sincere walk with God! Think of Zacharias and Elizabeth who “were both righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord” (Luke 1:6). Remember also that Yahweh God said to Noah, “You alone I have seen to be righteous before Me in this time” (Genesis 7:1). It is also important for us to remember that “the righteous” will enter eternal life at the Last Judgment (Matthew 25:46). On the other hand, “the unrighteous” will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9-10).

Even though we think that this verse is commonly misapplied and misunderstood, we must acknowledge that none of us deserves eternal life and a place in God’s kingdom. Although God does require us to be righteous and delights in our righteousness, we just can’t merit His eternal favor and acceptance. We are nothing without Jesus Christ and His sacrificial death!

As we consider this frequently-quoted verse (Isaiah 64:7), let’s remember that none of us is absolutely righteous in all our ways (Romans 3:10). We all need the mercy and grace of God, given to us through Jesus Christ our Lord (2 Corinthians 5:21). On the other hand, let’s also remember that God delights in righteous living, righteous thoughts, righteous attitudes, and righteous behavior. We should not minimize this or explain it away.




Comments are closed.