Filthy Rags?

Posted by on 6 Apr 2013 in Pastor | 1 comment

More than once, here at the Tabernacle, I’ve heard people in prayer, praising God for his grace in saving and accepting us despite “all our righteousness” being “as filthy rags”. The prayers are always well meant, and so “amen” to the overall point – we’re saved only by grace – but let’s be clear about the filthy rags thing.

It’s based on a Bible verse which has kind-of entered our consciousness but we probably couldn’t find it if asked. I had to look it up on the internet just now – it’s Isaiah 64:6. Perhaps some of the misunderstanding comes from the King James Version “all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags”. Note the plural – it’s not about some invisible thing, the good-standing-with-God  called ‘righteousness” as we understand the word in these New Testament days. The New International Version is clearer… “all our righteous acts are like filthy rags”. It’s about acts; things we do.

Under the Old Testament covenant, works counted for salvation in that the sacrifices people offered in the temple (animals, grain, etc) were accepted by God as atonement for sin. I think Isaiah is making the point that if the peoples’ hearts aren’t right (and they weren’t: read the surrounding chapters) then the sacrifices (righteous acts) won’t count for anything.

Here in New Testament days, I’m concerned that if we tell each other that all our righteousness is as filthy rags, we’re in danger of running down things which the Lord actually likes.  Helping your neighbour is not a filthy rag. Bringing up kids well is not a filthy rag. Serving your local church is not a filthy rag. Turning up for prayer meetings is not a filthy rag.

The trouble comes when we imagine that we’re saved for eternity by righteous acts. That’s when a good deed becomes, in the sight of God, a filthy rag. An old t-shirt which you wouldn’t have worn out of the house – it was OK for car maintenance –  but now it’s been used to wipe up something unspeakable and it’s headed straight for the bin. The good deed probably has genuine value to the elderly person you just helped down the steps, or the village you installed a water supply for. But for salvation purposes, it stinks.

Fortunately, Jesus died on the cross and rose again on the third day. That’s the only source of any righteousness in our lives. And if I’m honest there’s still a little legalist inside me, hinting that some good deed of mine has made me a little more deserving of God’s love; and (really being honest now) he also hints that other people, “worse” people, deserve God’s love less than me. That’s when I need to hear someone confessing that all our righteous acts are like filthy rags if we think they’re going to save us.  And at the same time I need to know that the good-standing-with -God (righteousness) imputed to me through Jesus is an extraordinary, unimaginable gift of grace and that it is enough.

At the Tabernacle we’re starting a series of messages about grace in our morning worship times. I leave you to decide whether I’m leading us that way because I think the whole fellowship needs to hear it, or just because I still need to hear it, and probably always will do, this side of heaven.

One Comment

  1. Agreed. Faith not works. I’m reading a book by Tim Keller called ‘Galatians for You’ and he says , of the gospel message: ‘As soon as you add anything (eg prosperity, righteous acts etc) or take anything away from the gospel, you have lost it entirely. The moment you revise it, you reverse it.’
    The gospel is that we are saved by grace through Christ’s work and nothing else (eg righteous acts) at all.

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