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Filthy Rags or Fully Pleasing?

Advance excerpt from Kevin DeYoung’s forthcoming book, The Hole in Our Holiness

Many Christians believe that all their righteous deeds are nothing but filthy rags. After all, that’s what Isaiah 64:6 seems to say: even your best deeds are dirty and worthless. But I don’t think this is what Isaiah means. The “righteous deeds” Isaiah has in mind are most likely the perfunctory rituals offered by Israel without sincere faith and without wholehearted obedience. In Isaiah 65:1–7 the Lord rejects Israel’s sinful sacrifices. They are an insult to the Lord, smoke in his nostrils, just like the ritual “obedience” of Isaiah 58 that did not impress the Lord because his people were oppressing the poor. Their “righteous deeds” were “filthy rags” (64:6, KJV) because they weren’t righteous at all. They looked good but were a sham, a literal smoke screen to cover up their unbelief and disobedience.

But we should not think that every kind of “righteous deed” is like a filthy rag before God. In fact the previous verse, Isaiah 64:5, says “you [God] meet him who joyfully works righteousness, those who remember you in your ways.” It is not impossible for God’s people to commit righteous acts that please God. John Piper explains:

Sometimes people are careless and speak disparagingly of all human righteousness, as if there were no such thing that pleased God. They often cite Isaiah 64:6 which says our righteousness is as filthy rags. It is true–gloriously true–that none of God’s people, before or after the cross, would be accepted by an immaculately holy God if the perfect righteousness of Christ were not imputed to us (Romans 5:19; 1 Corinthians 1:30; 2 Corinthians 5:21). But that does not mean that God does not produce in those “justified” people (before and after the cross) an experiential righteousness that is not “filthy rags.” In fact, he does; and this righteousness is precious to God and is required, not as the ground of our justification (which is the righteousness of Christ only), but as an evidence of our being truly justified children of God.[1]

It is a dangerous thing to ignore the Bible’s assumption, and expectation, that righteousness is possible. Of course, our righteousness can never appease God’s wrath. We need the imputed righteousness of Christ. More than that, we cannot produce any righteousness in our own strength. But as born-again believers, it is possible to please God by his grace. Those who bear fruit in every good work and increase in the knowledge of God are fully pleasing to God (Col. 1:10). Presenting your body as a living sacrifice pleases God (Rom. 12:1). Looking out for your weaker brother pleases God (14:18). Obeying your parents pleases God (Col. 3:20). Teaching the Word in truth pleases God (1 Thess. 2:4). Praying for the governing authorities pleases God (1 Tim. 2:1–3). Supporting your family members in need pleases God (5:4). Sharing with others pleases God (Heb. 13:16). Keeping his commandments pleases God (1 John 3:22). Basically, whenever you trust and obey, God is pleased.[2]

We can think it’s a mark of spiritual sensitivity to consider everything we do as morally suspect. But this is not the way the Bible thinks about righteousness. More importantly, this kind of spiritual resignation does not tell the truth about God. A. W. Tozer is right:

From a failure to properly understand God comes a world of unhappiness among good Christians even today. The Christian life is thought to be a glum, unrelieved cross-carrying under the eye of a stern Father who expects much and excuses nothing. He is austere, peevish, highly temperamental and extremely hard to please.[3]

But this is no way to view the God of the Bible. Our God is not a capricious slave driver. He is not hyper-sensitive and prone to fits of rage on account of slight offenses. He is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love (Ex. 34:6). “He is not hard to please,” Tozer reminds us, “though He may be hard to satisfy.”[4]

Why do we imagine God to be so unmoved by our heart-felt attempts at obedience? He is, after all, our heavenly Father. What sort of father looks at his daughter’s homemade birthday card and complains that the color scheme is all wrong? What kind of mother says to her son, after he gladly cleaned the garage but put the paint cans on the wrong shelf, “This is worthless in my sight”? What sort of parent rolls his eyes when his child falls off the bike on the first try? There is no righteousness that makes us right with God except for the righteousness of Christ. But for those who have been made right with God by grace alone through faith alone and therefore have been adopted into God’s family, many of our righteous deeds are not only not filthy in God’s eyes, they are exceedingly sweet, precious, and pleasing to him.

Learn more about The Hole in Our Holiness by Kevin DeYoung.


[1] John Piper, Future Grace (Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 1995), 151.
[2] See Wayne Grudem, “Pleasing God by Our Obedience,” in For the Fame of God’s Name: Essays in Honor of John Piper, ed. Sam Storms and Justin Taylor (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 277.
[3] A. W. Tozer, The Best of A. W. Tozer, Volume 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1978), 121.
[4]Ibid.

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3 Comments »

  1. Touching massage.

    Comment by Al Mac — August 20, 2012 @ 9:17 am

  2. I read this and still believe our righteousness is as filthy rags. To think otherwise either brings God down lower or lifts us up higher. The latter seems to be most popular around those who believe somehow and/or someway they’ve touched a level of good, even if it is God who gives it to them. Even when boasting it’s God who is great, they still take credit for being the yielding vessel.
    On our best days with are still contaminated with impurities, seen and unseen. Even if its God’s grace that imparts our righteousness it is immediately contaminated by our fleshly container that leaches it dirt of evil.
    To think otherwise makes God rather small.

    Comment by Monty Wentzel — December 9, 2013 @ 8:47 am

  3. Disagree with this article. BIG TIME.
    Our most righteous are as filthy rags. As stated in the bible. Honestly, when you do something good, you cannot tell me there was some sort of feeling look at me. example. In church someone sings a special, you know they are worried about sounding good. And when someone does sound good the get a better applause. Sounds like there is a tad bit of something in there not clean don’t it. That goes with all of our righteous acts. Even though it is like a filthy rag because that is all we can offer that does not mean God is not pleased with us when we do things for him. He can still be pleased. It still just has some kind of sin in there. That is why it is not our works that get us into heaven. It is our belief in Jesus.
    God does not like sin but he still is pleased when a non-believer helps an old lady across the street. Even if he is not going to heaven. I agree with the statement from Monty. You are trying to lift yourself up a bit higher than you should.

    Comment by Steven — January 12, 2014 @ 11:18 am

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