7. Filthy Rags?

But doesn’t the Bible teach that our righteous acts are filthy rags? No, this is simply another example of a revisionist Christian history. Nothing could be more pleasing to God than our continued righteousness; it is for this reason God sent His Son, that we would be righteous and holy.

So where does the myth come from? It’s based in reformed theology. According to this doctrine, man has literally zero role in his salvation. Further, man couldn’t do good even if he wanted to. The reformers taught that we could not come to Christ by faith even if we wanted to, but rather it was entirely (and arbitrarily) predestined by God who would and who wouldn’t come to Him. One of the natural conclusions of this theology is that even the good we do, is inherently evil. Isaiah 64:6 is used to support this theology; however, before the reformers, this verse was rarely, if ever, quoted by the early church—it was apparently considered of little consequence. Yet, as a result of the importance of this concept to the reformer’s doctrine of total depravity, it is one of the most oft quoted passages of the Old Testament today. Here it is:

But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away. (Isaiah 64:6)

Now I encourage you to read it in context. This is Isaiah speaking in a penitent prayer to God, referencing and speaking on behalf of rebellious Israel. This is not God speaking about all of humanity for all time, but rather an emotional plea to God for a rebellious people, a very specific people—the prophet’s contemporaries.

Simply do a biblical word search for “righteous,” “upright,” and even “blameless” to see what you come up with. Regardless of translation, you will find literally hundreds of references to men and women who were considered “righteous” before God apart from Christ—that is, without an “imputed righteousness.” You will likewise find numerous references in the wisdom literature of the righteous commended by God. There is equal consistency in the New Testament. Prior to faith in Christ, Zacharias, Elizabeth, John the Baptist, Joseph the father of Jesus, Simeon, Joseph of Arimathea, and Cornelius were all called “righteous” and were praised for their conduct. This certainly does not mean these people were without sin (see for example Romans 3:9-10); it just means that they lived their lives pleasing to God, striving to adhere to His precepts. Never does God consider this filthy or bad.

In fact, John, the beloved apostle of Jesus’ inner circle, said this in his first epistle:

And everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure. Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness. You know that He appeared in order to take away sins; and in Him there is no sin. No one who abides in Him sins; no one who sins has seen Him or knows Him. Little children, make sure no one deceives you; the one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous; the one who practices sin is of the devil; for the devil has sinned from the beginning. The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil. No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God. By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother. (1 John 3:3-10, emphasis added)

In this single passage we see concurrence with what we have covered thus far. Lawlessness is defined here as sin, (that is, disobedience to Christ’s law), consistent with the passages we discussed in Matthew 7 and 13. We also see that Jesus came to destroy the works of the devil; not just to forgive our sins, but rather to free us from sin—to break the chains and release us from the Law of Sin and Death. Again, His atonement was to change us, not just to perform a legal transaction.

However, the passage was here introduced to dispel the myth of imputed righteousness. Jesus did not suffer and die for us to simply accept a hypothetical, spiritual “righteousness” that in actuality never manifests itself in our lives. He came to destroy the works of the devil, so that through Him we would be reborn free from the bondage of sin, and walk in ACTUAL righteousness by the power of the Holy Spirit. John says that he who PRACTICES righteousness IS righteous, not he who simply believes himself to be righteous “in Christ.” In fact, he explicitly says MAKE SURE NO ONE DECEIVES YOU otherwise! Have we accepted the deception of a false “gospel?” John again says that the one who does not practice righteousness is of the devil. This is no symbolic righteousness here; clearly one can not “practice” something that is not real. This refers to a genuine, lived-out righteousness, the purpose of Christ’s atonement!

– Marc Carrier

8 thoughts on “7. Filthy Rags?

  1. Great post! I went to one of those “reformed” churches for a while, and the entire conversation was about how horribly depraved we are. I argued about our choice to accept Jesus, His work through the Holy Spirit, and what we state we must be in after He cleanses us from sin.
    Jesus also said: “Go and sin no more.” This must be possible or He would not waste His time and breath saying it.


  2. In the article you stated:

    “you will find literally hundreds of references to men and women who were considered “righteous” before God apart from Christ”

    I am not sure I agree that because someone lived before Christ that their righteousness was apart from Christ. Consider the following passage of scripture:

    “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw [it] and was glad.” Then the Jews said to Him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have You seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.” [John 8:56-58 NKJV]

    Is God traveling through time and subject to the same constraints within it in the same way that human beings are?

    Is it not possible that the redemptive work of Christ does not necessarily sit within our perception of the historical timeline? (I say redemptive because Christ’s work was clearly in some way redemptive. You would have to throw out a great deal of scripture, reason, and logic to evade seeing this.)

    Also, the point about the passage in Isaiah is having humility before God and is basically the same point being made by the book of Job when he abhors himself and repents in dust in ashes after seeing God even though no specific sin is ever laid to his charge.

    Consider with what group Jesus had the harshest dialog with, and why. Righteousness is good, and attaining it should be our daily goal. It is God’s desire for our life. The danger lies in the place where our righteousness becomes derived from self alone without regards to humility or God and “weightier [matters] of the law: justice and mercy and faith.” [Matthew 23:23 NKJV]


  3. Good points there Mash, especially in your conclusion. But I would hesitate to compare Isaiah with Job. Isaiah was repenting to God on behalf of Israel that had completely fallen into apostasy, and held onto only a few empty ceremonial traditions smugly thinking that these were enough to please God (the “filthy rags”). Job, on the other hand was in fact a righteous man, and his repenting was a case of him trying to search out and identify anything that might explain the calamities that had befallen him. The overall point of the article, of course, is to show how far off base reformed theology is in explaining the relationship between faith and works and how such theology does very little to encourage an obedient love/faith relationship that must be walked out in order to be granted eternal life.


  4. This is a clear teaching of lordship salvation which is not biblical. An evidence of this is your reponse “an obedient love/faith relationship that must be walked out in order to be granted eternal life”. Eternal life is not granted by what we do, but what Christ did on the cross. Our deeds after salvation, are judged for rewards at the Bemus seat judgement. An exposition of 1 Cor 3:9-15, clearly show some Christians will have absolutley nothing to show for their life in Christ, but they themselves will be saved, “yet as so through fire”.

    Let me be very clear here. I do not believe in easy believeism and absolutley believe that we should have good works in our life after salvation, as an evidence of our genuine faith. Just as we are commanded to be baptized after conversion as both an act of obediance and evidence of our genuine faith. However if we are not obedient to baptisim, it does not eliminate or disqualify our salvation.

    The other major probelm here is with “repentance” and what is meant meant by it in the gospels and other books of the NT. We have to determine bibically, what the suthors were referring to when they said we must repent.

    Many understand the term repentance to mean “turning from sin.” This is not the biblical definition of repentance. In the Bible, the word repent means “to change one’s mind.” The Bible also tells us that true repentance will result in a change of actions (Luke 3:8-14; Acts 3:19). Acts 26:20 declares, “I preached that they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds.” The full biblical definition of repentance is a change of mind that results in a change of action.

    What, then, is the connection between repentance and salvation? The Book of Acts seems to especially focus on repentance in regards to salvation (Acts 2:38; 3:19; 11:18; 17:30; 20:21; 26:20). To repent, in relation to salvation, is to change your mind in regard to Jesus Christ. In Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost (Acts chapter 2), he concludes with a call for the people to repent (Acts 2:38). Repent from what? Peter is calling the people who rejected Jesus (Acts 2:36) to change their minds about Him, to recognize that He is indeed “Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36). Peter is calling the people to change their minds from rejection of Christ as the Messiah to faith in Him as both Messiah and Savior.

    Repentance and faith can be understood as “two sides of the same coin.” It is impossible to place your faith in Jesus Christ as the Savior without first changing your mind about who He is and what He has done. Whether it is repentance from willful rejection or repentance from ignorance or disinterest, it is a change of mind. Biblical repentance, in relation to salvation, is changing your mind from rejection of Christ to faith in Christ.

    It is crucially important that we understand repentance is not a work we do to earn salvation. No one can repent and come to God unless God pulls that person to Himself (John 6:44). Acts 5:31 and 11:18 indicate that repentance is something God gives—it is only possible because of His grace. No one can repent unless God grants repentance. All of salvation, including repentance and faith, is a result of God drawing us, opening our eyes, and changing our hearts. God’s longsuffering leads us to repentance (2 Peter 3:9), as does His kindness (Romans 2:4).

    While repentance is not a work that earns salvation, repentance unto salvation does result in works. It is impossible to truly and fully change your mind without that causing a change in action. In the Bible, repentance results in a change in behavior. That is why John the Baptist called people to “produce fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8). A person who has truly repented from rejection of Christ to faith in Christ will give evidence of a changed life (2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 5:19-23; James 2:14-26). Repentance, properly defined, is necessary for salvation. Biblical repentance is changing your mind about Jesus Christ and turning to God in faith for salvation (Acts 3:19). Turning from sin is not the definition of repentance, but it is one of the results of genuine, faith-based repentance towards the Lord Jesus Christ.

    Read more: http://www.gotquestions.org/repentance.html#ixzz2hVSSaDg3


  5. If you have read this series from the beginning you will see that the author is comparing the theology of the reformers (today’s “orthodox” teaching in most protestant/evangelical churches) with the very clear and simple words of Jesus Christ. We’re finding out that the “Gospel of Jesus” is different from the “Gospel of the Theologians” in a few significant areas. This series will conclude with Part Eleven, after which I will post a link to the complete study.


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