Question: "Why are all of our righteous acts considered filthy rags?"
Answer: “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” (Isaiah 64:6). This passage is often used as a proof text to condemn all our acts of goodness as nothing more than “filthy rags” in the eyes of God. The context of this passage is referring specifically to the Israelites in Isaiah’s time (760—670 B.C.) who had strayed from God. Isaiah was writing concerning his nation and their hypocrisy. Yet he includes himself in the description, saying “we” and “our.” Isaiah was redeemed and set apart as a prophet of God, yet he saw himself as part of a group that was utterly sinful. The doctrine of total depravity is taught clearly elsewhere in Scripture (e.g., Ephesians 2:1–5), and the illustration of Isaiah 64:6 could rightly be applied to the whole world, especially given Isaiah's inclusion of himself in the description.
The term “filthy rags” is quite strong. The word filthy is a translation of the Hebrew word iddah, which literally means “the bodily fluids from a woman’s menstrual cycle.” The word rags is a translation of begged, meaning “a rag or garment.” Therefore, these “righteous acts” are considered by God as repugnant as a soiled feminine hygiene product.
As Isaiah wrote this, the Israelites had been the recipients of numerous miraculous blessings from God. Yet they had turned their backs on Him by worshipping false gods (Isaiah 42:17), making sacrifices and burning incense on strange altars (Isaiah 65:3–5). Isaiah had even called Jerusalem a harlot and compared it to Sodom (Isaiah 3:9). These people had an illusion of their own self-righteousness. Yet God did not esteem their acts of righteousness as anything but “polluted garments” or “filthy rags.” Their apostasy, or falling away from the law of God, had rendered their righteous works totally unclean. “Like the wind, [their] sins were sweeping them away” (Isaiah 64:6). Martin Luther said, “The most damnable and pernicious heresy that has ever plagued the mind of man is that somehow he can make himself good enough to deserve to live forever with an all-holy God.”
Though self-righteousness is condemned throughout the Bible (Ezekiel 33:13; Romans 3:27; Titus 3:5), we are, in fact, commanded to do good works. Paul explained that we cannot do anything to save ourselves, but our salvation comes only as a result of God’s grace (Ephesians 2:8–9). Then he proclaimed that “we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10; see also 2 Corinthians 3:5).
Our salvation is not the result of any of our efforts, abilities, intelligent choices, personal characteristics, or acts of service we may perform. However, as believers, we are “created in Christ Jesus for good works”—to help and serve others. While there is nothing we can do to earn our salvation, God’s intention is that our salvation will result in acts of service. We are saved not merely for our own benefit but to serve Christ and build up the church (Ephesians 4:12). This reconciles the seeming conflict between faith and works. Our righteous acts do not produce salvation but are, in fact, evidence of our salvation (James 1:22; 2:14–26).
In the end, we must recognize that even our righteous acts come as a result of God within us, not of ourselves. On our own, our “righteousness” is simply self-righteousness, and vain, hypocritical religion produces nothing more than “filthy rags.”