Is Your Righteousness Really Like Filthy Rags?
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. (2 Cor. 5:17)
We were on our way back from a mission trip. For me, going abroad had been a huge sacrifice of time, energy and resources. It was costly, but I felt the Lord calling me into it, and while there I saw the Lord move through the faithfulness of young men and women who had made the same sacrifices to go. As I turned to a buddy on the flight home, I began to rejoice in what we had seen and praise God for giving us the boldness to make the trip. Another friend leaned over, in the midst of our praise, and said, “Don’t forget though, all of our righteousness is like filthy rags.”
How many times have you said something like this to yourself or to others? “Well, you know, I can’t do anything right. I’m just a terrible sinner.” Is this really true? Is the Christian still fundamentally incapable of living righteously?
No. The answer is no. The Christian is, on the contrary, the only person who is now capable of living righteously.
As a Christian, as one who has believed upon the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation and has been brought into union with Christ, you are no longer fundamentally a sinner. You are now fundamentally righteous, united to a Savior who owns your identity. Do Christians still sin? Absolutely. This is not an argument for practical perfection in this life, but the believer now sins as a righteous man or woman by virtue of their union to Christ.
Often, someone will appeal to Isaiah’s words in Isaiah 64:6, “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.” They then look at the believer and say, “Do you see how wicked we are?” However, Isaiah doesn’t begin or end his thought in this one verse, and by applying it out of context, we encounter a problem.
Isaiah 64:5-9 says, “You meet him who joyfully works righteousness, those who remember you in your ways. Behold, you were angry, and we sinned; in our sins we have been a long time, and shall we be saved? We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have made us melt in the hand of our iniquities. But now, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.”
Isaiah moves from discussing the righteous man to talking about the unrighteous who must be saved. In this context, Isaiah 64:6 is properly understood to be referring to the individual in need of salvation from the sin that binds him. Christians are no longer bound by their sin, though they remain marked by its presence. If you continue to read, Isaiah 65:1-7 describes the false righteousness of the people, which helps clarify when “righteous deeds” are like filthy rags. God is angry at the pseudo-righteous deeds of religious hypocrites. He is not telling His people that righteous living is impossible.
Hebrews 10:14 says, “For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.” It is in the tension of this verse that we must live. The Christian is perfect—in Christ. The Christian is imperfect—in the life he lives in this present age.
Shaped By Holiness
Can the Christian behave righteously? I sure hope so, because the New Testament is full of commands to live holy lives and pursue righteousness. What is the Sermon on the Mount if not the Savior’s plea for a people to be shaped by righteous living? What are Paul’s words to “put to death the deeds of the body” if not an exhortation to flee from unrighteousness (Rom. 8:13)? John writes, “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 John 2:1). In Christ, we have the ability to follow the command to live righteously.
What are we supposed to do with Proverbs and James if we can’t walk in the wisdom and the commands that they present? James 1:22-25 says, “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.” This is a reminder of Jesus’ words to the disciples in John 13:15-17, when after washing their feet, Jesus tells the disciples, “For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.”
In Future Grace, John Piper affirms the Christian’s opportunity to live righteously. He 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 (Rom. 5:19; 1 Cor. 1:30; 2 Cor. 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.
Does this truth minimize sin? Absolutely not! “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Rom. 6:1-2) Our union to Christ, and the identity of righteousness we are given therein, doesn’t make sin less grievous—it makes it more grievous! The Christian is not like a beggar who goes into the gutter to feast; the Christian is like a bedazzled prince going down into that same gutter. The believer is more disgusted by sin because he is now radically shaped by its opposite: holiness.
Does this maximize human ability? Absolutely not! Like Paul says in Colossians 1:28-29, “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.” The believer is called to live righteously, but it is the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit that provides the believer the ability to do this work. God has called us to good works, which He has specifically prepared for us (Eph. 2:10).
So, Christian, you are no longer who you once were. You no longer stand apart from Christ. You have been brought in, rescued from your alienation. You are invited into living, by the power of the Holy Spirit, a righteous and holy life.
Go forth and sin no more. You need not.