Filthy Rag Righteousness

By Tom Roberts

“But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags. . .” (Isa. 64:6).

Among some brethren today who have become enamored with (and tainted by) aspects of Calvinism, the above passage is being used as a proof-text that man is passive in the plan of salvation due to his depraved character. While there are some who are not consistent on this subject and will not adopt the entire Tulip theology of Calvinism which includes “total hereditary depravity,” others are preaching that man is indeed depraved to the extent that he cannot “do” anything to be saved – God must do it all. Quotations can be given from brethren who are insisting that any attempt to have man “doing” anything with regard to salvation is equal to salvation by works or trusting in ourselves and not God. Such brethren are proceeding ever further into the quicksand of denominational theology and are already “over their heads” without realizing it.

Try to understand, if you are unfamiliar with this error, just what is being taught by the use of this passage. Calvinism teaches that all of mankind has become depraved in body and soul due to the inheriting of sin from our fathers (from Adam until now). Because of this depravity, no man is able to think good thoughts, understand the Bible, perform any good works, etc. If man (any man) is to be saved, this salvation must come wholly, totally and exclusively from God because, in this view, man’s depravity has made him incapable of doing anything good. Standard arguments among denominations reject baptism on the grounds that it is a “work” and that man is depraved and cannot “do” anything to save himself. This is the basis for the doctrine of “salvation by faith alone.” Adherents teach that salvation is wholly of grace and that the “faith of Ephesians 2:8, 9 is a gift of God (rather than salvation itself being a gift). Thus God brings about salvation by His own power and grace without any action on the part of the man.

Faithful brethren have always rejected this error. There is nothing in the obedience of faith that nullifies the grace of God. Such passages as John 6:29; 8:39; Acts 10:34, 35, etc., show that man is required to “work out your own salvation” (Phil. 2:12) by obeying the conditions of God’s grace. Yes, man can freely choose to do right, understand the truth and obey it (Rom. 6:16-18). He can do the works which God has appointed him to show faithful obedience just as Abraham did for his own justification. This “doing” is not the “worketh” that is condemned in Romans 4:4ff. The Jews were condemned for trusting in works for salvation and not trusting in God. But they were never condemned for faithful obedience.

When anyone takes the passage in Isaiah 64:6 and uses it to teach the depravity of man and an inability to obey God because of that depravity, they have committed at least two evils. First of all, they have violated the context. Secondly, they have arrayed one Scripture against all the other Scriptures which show the free morality of man.

Context. Isaiah was a prophet sent to a people who had rebelled against God, were hypocritical, and yet who still claimed to be faithful servants of God. A quick reading of Isaiah will show this to be the case: 1:2-9, 10-17 is but one example. Under these circumstances, every act that Israel did was an abomination to God. The very things required by the law (observance of sabbaths, sacrifices, etc.) became acts of hypocrisy because of the rebellious attitude of the Jews. It is for this reason that Isaiah could truthfully say that ” We are all as an unclean thing” (64:6). It is for this reason that he could charge that all the “righteousness” (their lawful deeds) were as “filthy rags.” Friends, it was not that the Jews were depraved due to inheriting Adam’s sin that caused this charge against them. It was because they had willfully rebelled against God and God would not receive their hypocritical worship. For those of you who think otherwise, let me pose this question to you: Was there ever a time when worship of man was anything other than “filthy rags”? If so, what made it so? Was Isaiah condemning the Jews because they were depraved by birth or because they were hypocritical? I suggest a careful reading of Isaiah to see the truth.

Arraying Scripture Against Scripture. No greater sin can we commit than to suggest that one Scripture teaches something that other Scriptures condemn. To do so is to charge God with something less than honesty and to accept that the Bible is not consistent with itself. Yet those who would use Isaiah 64:6 to state that man is depraved and unclean from his birth are guilty of this very thing. There are too many Scriptures that show the innocence of a child at birth, the ability of man to choose good from evil, the reflection of man of his Creator (made in His image), and his free morality than to take this one Scripture out of its context and use it deceitfully.

In the light of the truth, it makes me not a little angry for some person, let alone a brother in Christ, to suggest that man is totally passive in the plan of salvation and that whatever he does (faith, repentance, baptism, etc.) are as “filthy rags.” Think, brethren! The very obedience that God has asked us to do which is patterned after the faithful obedience of Christ (Heb. 5:8, 9) is filthy rags? Never in a million years! In the words of Peter, “in every nation he that feareth him and worketh righteousness is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:35). Can a sinner work? Yes. Are sinners’ works acceptable to God? Yes, when they show the trust of the sinner toward God. Does the sinner have something to do in his own justification? Yes, as he righteously works those things which God has assigned as conditions of grace. This is the proper relation of “salvation by grace through faith” (Eph. 2:8, 9).

Guardian of Truth XXIX: 6, pp. 178, 182
March 21, 1985