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Are all Our Works Filthy Rags?

The other day my wife was telling me about some comments someone had posted in regards to the canonization of Mother Teresa. I’m not going to get into the canonization as that is irrelevant, but the comments being made are what I want to focus on. The person commenting, a proclaimed non-denominational Christian, started by saying that it doesn’t matter if she is canonized or not because she is in Hell for being a Roman Catholic. This, of course, is completely ridiculous, because being of a certain branch of Christianity isn’t an automatic ticket to Hell. But this was then followed by the notion that all her works that she had done were as “filthy rags” in the sight of God anyway. And that is the comment that I would like to focus on in this article.

If you are unaware of the use of “filthy rags,” it stems from Isaiah 64:6 which says, “and we have all become as unclean, and all our righteousness is as a filthy rag; and we have fallen as leaves because of our iniquities; thus the wind shall carry us away” (CAB).

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard someone use the term “filthy rags.” It is actually pretty common among Christians of the Calvinist type. If you think about it, the idea fits right in with their idea of penal substitution. But there are a couple of things wrong with this argument that I would like to point out. First, it has been taken completely out of context, which seems to be common among Christian teachers today. And second, the Bible is very clear that works are required in our Christian lives, and are definitely not filthy rags in the sight of God.

Context is Key

4 From of old we have not heard, neither have our eyes seen a God besides You, and Your works which You will perform to them that wait for mercy. 5 For these blessings shall happen to them that work righteousness, and they shall remember Your ways; behold, You were angry and we have sinned; therefore we have erred, 6 and we have all become as unclean, and all our righteousness is as a filthy rag; and we have fallen as leaves because of our iniquities; thus the wind shall carry us away. 7 And there is none that calls upon Your name, or that remembers to take hold of You; for You have turned Your face away from us, and have delivered us up because of our sins. 8 And now, O Lord, You are our Father, and we are clay, all of us the work of Your hands. 9 Be not very angry with us, and remember not our sins forever; but now look on us, for we are all Your people. (Isaiah 64:4-9; CAB)

The context places the Israelites either during exile, or just after exile, and this passage is basically a plea for forgiveness. Notice in verse five the people say, “we have sinned; therefore we have erred.” They knew they had turned against God, and, therefore, they were “unclean” and their “righteousness was as a filthy rag.” The works they were doing were ritualistic sacrifices which God never wanted in the first place (see Did God Require Sacrifice?). Not to mention the fact that they had turned to false gods and idols. They didn’t have any righteous works, especially those that God called them to do.

One thing I’ve noticed also about this particular passage is that in verse five the writer acknowledges that God’s blessings “shall happen to them that work righteousness.” How is it that modern Christian teachers teach a whole doctrine from verse six proclaiming works are filthy rags in the sight of God, yet the verse just before speaks of how God blesses those who work righteousness? Make sense of that.

Modern Christian teachers try and place this single verse and force it onto Christians today. When you look at the context of the passage, it clearly doesn’t pertain to all people, especially spiritually regenerate Christians in the future, but about the Israelites and how they felt they stood before God at that particular time.

Sadly, we have another modern Christian doctrine that stems from a single verse taken completely out of context that is leading many Christians today to a lazy, faith-alone, imputed righteousness, Christ paid-it-all, fruitless lifestyle.

What does the Bible Say?

When we turn to the New Testament, however, and begin studying the teachings of Christ and His apostles, we quickly learn that works are actually a part of a true Christian lifestyle. Let’s take a look at some of these verses:

8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, 9 not of works, lest anyone should boast. 10 For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:8-10)

Remind them to be subject to rulers and authorities, to obey, to be ready for every good work, 2 to speak evil of no one, to be peaceable, gentle, showing all humility to all men. 3 For we ourselves were also once foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving various lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful and hating one another. 4 But when the kindness and the love of God our Savior toward man appeared, 5 not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, 6 whom He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 that having been justified by His grace we should become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.
8 This is a faithful saying, and these things I want you to affirm constantly, that those who have believed in God should be careful to maintain good works. These things are good and profitable to men. (Titus 3:1-8)

14 What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? 17 Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
18 But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19 You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble! 20 But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead? (James 2:14-20)

16 Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:16)

31 “When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats. 33 And He will set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left. 34 Then the King will say to those on His right hand, ‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: 35 for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; 36 I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.’ (Matthew 25:31-36)

To say that works are not required by God and that they are filthy in His sight contradicts a large majority of what we learn from Christ and the apostles. The verses above are only a handful of the many verses that point toward the works that Christians should do.

We are told to give to the poor, feed the hungry, pray for our enemies, teach the world about the Gospel of Jesus Christ, etc. Can you honestly say that by doing these things we are filthy rags before the eyes of God? Why would He tell us to do these things if they are filthy in His sight? Simple. He wouldn’t.

Now I must be clear. Works alone will not grant you salvation. As Paul says above, it is “by grace we have been saved through faith…not of works”. But when we choose to place our faith fully in Jesus Christ as the Son of God, we then begin a conversion. We are justified through our faith, a changing faith that leads to good works—sanctification. James’ epistle points out perfectly how faith and works are so intertwined that you can’t have one without the other. I mean, even the demons believe.  They have faith. Do you think they will be saved also? Their works truly are filthy rags before the sight of God, because their works are truly evil. But as a true Christian, with a true faith, I can promise you that our works are not filthy rags.

When we are gathered before Christ at judgement and He begins the separation, it will be based first on our faith and second on what we have done to those in need: “for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.” Do you want to be separated with the sheep to “inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world?” Or do you want Him to say “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness?”

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