Righteousness As Filthy Rags

Righteousness As Filthy RagsText: Isaiah 64:6

There is confusion in the religious world about the fundamental topics of faith and salvation. Some believe we are saved by faith alone. Some think that we cannot do good because we are born totally depraved. What does the Bible say? Our text is a verse that is sometimes used to defend these misconceptions. Let us consider the context and see what the Bible actually teaches.

How This Verse Is Used

  • Sometimes used as a “prooftext” – a verse pulled out of context that sounds like it teaches something; used by those who believe in salvation by faith only, total depravity of mankind (Calvinism)
  • What some think this phrase means (“all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment“) – some ideas: (1) works of righteousness will not save us, (2) to try to be saved by righteous works is to try to earn one’s salvation, (3) seeking to be saved by righteous works actually makes one unclean, (4) salvation is wholly the work of God, (5) we must trust in Him to save us rather than trying to save ourselves

Remember the Context

  • This was a prayer to God for mercy and help – recognition of God’s greatness (v. 1-4); acknowledged their sins (v. 5-7); seeking God’s help and favor (v. 8-12)
  • Two important points to notice – God shows favor to those who work righteousness (v. 5); but they sinned (v. 5), were taken away by iniquities (v. 6), and would not call on the Lord (v. 7)

What the Bible Teaches about Righteousness and Works

  • Let’s compare what the Bible teaches with the Calvinistic teachings about this verse (listed above)
  • “Works of righteousness will not save us” – these works are either God’s works or man’s works; man’s works of righteousness will not save us (Titus 3:5; Ephesians 2:8-9); God’s works of righteousness are revealed in the gospel (Romans 1:17) and must be practiced (1 John 3:7)
  • “To try to be saved by righteous works is to try to earn one’s salvation” – we cannot earn salvation (Romans 3:23; 6:23; Luke 17:10); salvation is by grace (Ephesians 2:8), but it is not unconditional [more on this later]
  • “Seeking to be saved by righteous works actually makes one unclean” – the example of the Pharisees is often cited (Matthew 23:23, 27-28); yet they were condemned for neglecting parts of God’s standard and unclean for lawless deeds; good works will never make us unclean
  • “Salvation is wholly the work of God” – salvation is absolutely dependent upon the Lord (John 14:6; Acts 4:12; Titus 2:11); but there are conditions that must be met to be saved (John 8:24; 2 Peter 3:9; Romans 10:9-10; 1 Peter 3:21)
  • “We must trust in Him to save us rather than trying to save ourselves” – yes, we trust Him to save us (1 John 2:28), yet this does not mean we do nothing to save ourselves (Acts 2:40; 22:16; Philippians 2:12)

Conclusion

  • We cannot be saved without faith (John 8:24; Hebrews 11:6) – yet we cannot be saved by faith alone (James 2:24)
  • Faith and works must go together (James 2:20-22, 26) – if they do, we can trust God to save us

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