So you fell for my click bait title. Gotcha. Before you get too riled up, please allow me to explain my title.
My title is based on the oft-quoted Isaiah 64:6. It reads:
All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. (NIV)
Many people like to quote this verse and state that our righteous deeds are worthless before God. The people who state this are trying to drive home the point that you cannot earn salvation through good works. They argue that your good works are like filthy rags before God so do not think you can stand before God and point to your good works and think God will be so impressed by them that he will grant you eternal life.
I agree that you cannot earn salvation through good deeds. I agree that if someone is thinking that they can be good enough to get to heaven through their good works, then they will be sorely surprised when they stand before God in judgment. The major reason why our good works could never earn us eternal life is because it is not our deficit of good works that keeps us out of heaven, it is our sin debt. We are not pronounced guilty before God because we did not do enough good works, we are pronounced guilty because of our sin, and no amount of good works can erase our sin. Christ is the only one who can erase our sin debt, and that is why he is the way we receive entrance into eternal life (if you would like to read more about that, please click here).
However, I have also heard people tell Christians, those who follow Christ, that their righteous deeds are as filthy rags to God. They say this to try to squash any pride and to promote humility before God at all times. They also do this because they want to stay as far away as possible from the idea that our good deeds do anything for us salvifically. However, I believe that interpretation is excessive and goes beyond the point of Isaiah 64:6. A Christian’s righteous deeds are not filthy rags to God.
Filthy good deeds
Isaiah 64:6 is set in a context of Isaiah bemoaning the sin of the nations of Israel and Judah (from now on referred to as only Israel). During Isaiah’s time Israel was unfaithful to Yahweh and followed many false gods. They also committed many evil acts (Isaiah 1:16-17, 21-23). Idol worship was rampant throughout Israel. People would worship and offer sacrifices to false gods in the hopes that the gods would do something for them.
Eventually Yahweh became to Israel as just another god to placate and to plead for favor. They would offer sacrifices to Yahweh in hopes that he might do something for them just like any idol. They were not offering their sacrifices with a pure heart out of love, devotion, humility, and thankfulness. This is why their righteous deeds were like filthy rags; their sacrifices and other good works were only meant to appease yet another god and to afford them another day of sinning.
Many people still do this today. They think that if they go to church, donate some money, pay for someone’s meal, walk an old lady across the street, then they will placate God and he will look past all their sins. They think that their good deeds allow them a little more leeway for sin. “I may have picked up a chick last night at the club, but Sunday I dipped my hand in the holy water and crossed myself, so I am good. I went to confession so my slate is clean for another round of sin.”
Those are the kinds of “righteous deeds” that are like filthy rags to God.
God said that Israel’s righteous deeds of religious acts and sacrifice had become repugnant to him due to their blatant and unrepentant sins. Yahweh starts his case against Israel in the first chapter of Isaiah by stating that their sacrifices to him are worthless.
“The multitude of your sacrifices—what are they to me?” says the Yahweh. “I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. When you come to appear before me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts? Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—I cannot bear your worthless assemblies. Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals I hate with all my being. They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands in prayer, I hide my eyes from you; even when you offer many prayers, I am not listening.” – Isaiah 1:11-15
This is not the only time in the book of Isaiah that God speaks of the worthlessness of sacrifices that are mixed with sin instead of a loving, dedicated, humble, and thankful heart. God states this in the first chapter and then in the very last chapter.
But whoever sacrifices a bull is like one who kills a person, and whoever offers a lamb is like one who breaks a dog’s neck; whoever makes a grain offering is like one who presents pig’s blood, and whoever burns memorial incense is like one who worships an idol. They have chosen their own ways, and they delight in their abominations. – Isaiah 66:3
Lovely good deeds
But Isaiah was not saying that righteous deeds done out of love for Yahweh are like filthy rags. Think about it: if righteous deeds really are only as filthy rags to God, why would God command us to do them? Clearly God thinks of them as more than just filthy rags. He thinks they are worth commanding, and none of God’s commands are filthy rags, so how can their fruit be only filthy rags?
Scripture multiple times speaks of the loveliness of good deeds to God.
The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to Yahweh, but the prayer of the upright is His delight. – Proverbs 15:8
Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess his name. And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased. – Hebrews 13:15-16
The offering of prayer from a contrite heart is beautiful to God, it surely is not filthy rags. Even our good deeds are pleasing to God. If our good deeds are only filthy rags, how can they be pleasing to God?
We are going to be rewarded for our good deeds (Matthew 10:42; 25:34-40; Luke 14:12-14). A Christian’s good deeds, if done from a loving, humble heart, are valuable to God, not filthy rags.
If we are pridefully trying to impress God with our good deeds, if they are mixed with blatant and unrepentant sin, if they are not offered through a life dedicated to Christ, then they are filthy rags.
But if we humbly follow God’s commands in thankfulness to him because of what he has done for us in Christ, then our righteous deeds are beautiful to God.