“Many Christians believe that all their righteous deeds are nothing but filthy rags. After all, that’s what Isaiah 64:6 seems to say: even your best deeds are dirty and worthless. But I don’t think this is what Isaiah means. The “righteous deeds” Isaiah has in mind are most likely the perfunctory rituals offered by Israel without sincere faith and without 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” (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. John Piper explains:
Sometimes people are careless 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. It is true–gloriously true–that none of God’s people, before or after the cross, would be accepted by an immaculately holy God if the perfect righteousness of Christ were not imputed to us (Romans 5:19; 1 Corinthians 1:30; 2 Corinthians 5:21). But that does not mean that God does not produce in those “justified” people (before and after the cross) 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 ground of our justification (which is the righteousness of Christ only), but as an evidence of our being truly justified children of God.
It is a dangerous thing to ignore the Bible’s assumption, and expectation, that righteousness is possible. Of course, our righteousness can never appease God’s wrath. We need the imputed righteousness of Christ. More than that, we cannot produce any righteousness in our own strength. But as born-again believers, it is possible to please God by his grace. Those who bear fruit in every good work and increase in the knowledge of God are fully pleasing to God (Col. 1:10). Presenting your body as a living sacrifice pleases God (Rom. 12:1). Looking out for your weaker brother pleases God (14:18). Obeying your parents pleases God (Col. 3:20). Teaching the Word in truth pleases God (1 Thess. 2:4). Praying for the governing authorities pleases God (1 Tim. 2:1–3). Supporting your family members in need pleases God (5:4). Sharing with others pleases God (Heb. 13:16). Keeping his commandments pleases God (1 John 3:22). Basically, whenever you trust and obey, God is pleased.
We can think it’s a mark of spiritual sensitivity to consider everything we do as morally suspect. But this is not the way the Bible thinks about righteousness. More importantly, this kind of spiritual resignation does not tell the truth about God. A. W. Tozer is right:
From a failure to properly understand God comes a world of unhappiness among good Christians even today. The Christian life is thought to be a glum, unrelieved cross-carrying under the eye of a stern Father who expects much and excuses nothing. He is austere, peevish, highly temperamental and extremely hard to please.
But this is no way to view the God of the Bible. Our God is not a capricious slave driver. He is not hyper-sensitive and prone to fits of rage on account of slight offenses. He is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love (Ex. 34:6). “He is not hard to please,” Tozer reminds us, “though He may be hard to satisfy.”
Why do we imagine God to be so unmoved by our heart-felt attempts at obedience? He is, after all, our heavenly Father. What sort of father looks at his daughter’s homemade birthday card and complains that the color scheme is all wrong? What kind of mother says to her son, after he gladly cleaned the garage but put the paint cans on the wrong shelf, “This is worthless in my sight”? What sort of parent rolls his eyes when his child falls off the bike on the first try? There is no righteousness that makes us right with God except for the righteousness of Christ. But for those who have been made right with God by grace alone through faith alone and therefore have been adopted into God’s family, many of our righteous deeds are not onlynot filthy in God’s eyes, they are exceedingly sweet, precious, and pleasing to him.
– Kevin DeYoung, The Hole in Our Holiness
– Kevin DeYoung, Filthy Rags or Fully Pleasing?
“We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. (Isaiah 64:6)
It is true that any shortcoming of God’s law offends against his perfect holiness and makes us liable to judgment, since God cannot look with favor on any sin (Habakkuk 1:13; James 2:10–11).
But what brought a person to ruin in the Old Testament (and it is the same for us today) was not the failure to have the righteousness of sinless perfection. What brought them to ruin was the failure to trust in the merciful promises of God, especially the hope that he would one day provide a redeemer who would be a perfect righteousness for his people (“the Lord is our righteousness,” Jeremiah 23:6; 33:16). The saints knew that this is how they were saved, and that this faith was the key to obedience, and that obedience was the evidence of this faith.
It is terribly confusing when people say that the only righteousness that has any value is the imputed righteousness of Christ. Clearly, justification is not grounded on any of our righteousness, but only on the righteousness of Christ imputed to us. But sometimes people are careless 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, or “a polluted garment.” “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.”
But in the context, Isaiah 64:6 does not mean that all righteousness performed by God’s people is unacceptable to God. Isaiah is referring to people whose righteousness is in fact hypocritical. It is no longer righteousness. But in the verse just before this, Isaiah says that God approvingly meets “him who joyfully works righteousness” (verse 5).
It’s true — gloriously true — that none of God’s people, before or after the cross, would be accepted by an immaculately holy God if the perfect righteousness of Christ were not imputed to us (Romans 5:19; 1 Corinthians 1:30; 2 Corinthians 5:21). But that does not mean God does not produce in those “justified” people an experiential righteousness that is not a “polluted garment.”
In fact, he does, and this righteousness is precious to God and is, in fact, required — not as the ground of our justification (which is the righteousness of Christ only), but as an evidence of our being truly justified children of God.”
– John Piper, Future Grace
– John Piper, Dirty Rags No More
“When it comes to our justification—our legal standing before God—our own good works are in no way the grounds of God’s declaration that we are “righteous.” Indeed, the gospel is good news because we are saved not by what we have done, but by what Christ has done. We are accepted by God not because of our works, but in spite of them.
So what does God think of our good works after we are saved? Here, unfortunately, Christians often receive mixed messages. Somewhere along the way we have begun to believe that our pride is best held in check, and God’s grace is most magnified, when we denigrate all our efforts and all our labors as merely “filthy rags” in the sight of God (Is. 64:6).
But does God really view the Spirit-wrought works of his own children in such a fashion? Is God pleased only with Christ’s work, and always displeased with our own?
Not at all. Time and time again, the Scriptures show that God is pleased with the righteousness deeds of the saints. God was pleased with Noah: “Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God” (Gen. 6:9). God was pleased with Zechariah and Elizabeth: “And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord” (Luke 1:6). Christ was pleased with Mary’s gift of perfume (Mark 14:6), a deed he called “beautiful.” Christ was pleased with the widow’s offering: “She put in more than all of them” (Luke 21:3).
Indeed, one could say that the entire “Hall of Faith” in Hebrews 11 is a catalog of the great deeds of the saints. Think of all that was done by Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Rahab, Gideon, Samson, David, Samuel, and others. Are all their deeds “filthy rags” in God’s sight?
Of course, we should not be surprised that God is pleased with the good works of his people. AsHebrews 11:1-2 tells us, God is pleased with these works precisely because they were done out of faith. They are good works generated from the work of God’s own Spirit in the hearts of the saints (Eph. 2:10). Sure, they are not perfect works—they are always tainted by sin to some degree. And no, we cannot think for a moment that they merit salvation. They do not. But they are the works of God’s own sons and daughters, and he delights in them.
This larger biblical context can provide the proper framework for understanding the intent of passages like Isaiah 64:6. The “filthy rags” in this passage does not refer to the Spirit-wrought works of the regenerate, but the outward religious grandstanding of the wicked (see Isaiah 58). This understanding allows John Piper to say the following:
It is terribly confusing when people say that the only righteousness that has any value is the imputed righteousness of Christ. I agree that justification is not grounded on any of our righteousness, but only the righteousness of Christ imputed to us. But sometimes people are careless 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] when my sons do what I tell them to do—I do not call their obedience “filthy rags” even if it is not perfect. Neither does God. All the more because he himself is “working in us that which is pleasing in his sight” (Hebrews 13:21). He does not call his own, Spirit-wrought fruit, “rags.” (Future Grace, 151-152).
In a similar fashion, the Westminster Confession offers a wonderfully balanced perspective on how God views the good works of his people:
Yet notwithstanding, the person of believers being accepted through Christ, their good works are also accepted in him; not as though they were in this life wholly unblameable and unreproveable 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 by many weaknesses and imperfections (WCF 16.6).
Good and Faithful
God’s delight in the works of his people is not, as some might think, a recipe for pride. Rather, it is a tremendous (and much needed) encouragement to those of us laboring in ministry. Our efforts can seem futile. We often find ourselves spent and exhausted.
What a refreshment to our souls to know that our Father in heaven actually delights in these labors! It is like salve on our blisters and a balm to our aching muscles to know that he is pleased with the faith-driven works of his children.
He is like a Father who sees the painting his 5-year old brought home from school. He doesn’t pour scorn on the effort because it is not a Rembrandt. Instead, he takes the painting, with all its flaws, and sticks it on the refrigerator for all to see.
Indeed, it is this very hope—that God might be pleased with our labors—that Jesus lays out as a motive for us. For our hope is that one day we might hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matt. 25:23).”
– Michael J. Kruger, God Does Not View Your Labors As ‘Filthy
– Justin Taylor, What Can and Cannot Change in Our Relationship with God