What does the Bible say about filthy rags?
The Bible references filthy rags just one time in Isaiah 64:6, which says, “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.” The focal point of the verse shows the unclean nature of humans as we are covered in sin and incapable of standing in God’s presence.
Humans are born with sin, which separates us from the presence of God, as He is incapable of sin and cannot be in its presence, or He would no longer be perfect. When Adam and Eve ate the fruit, they chose to follow their own will instead of God’s will, which led to a separation from God. Now all humans are as filthy rags, dirty and incapable of purity. Let’s take a closer look at what this verse means and how you can shed your filthy rags to be in the presence of God.
Christian quotes about filthy rags
“The moment we begin to feel satisfied that we are making some progress along the road of sanctification, it is all the more necessary to repent and confess that all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags. Yet the Christian life is not one of gloom, but of ever increasing joy in the Lord. God alone knows our good works; all we know is His good work.” — Dietrich Bonhoeffer
“The more I trust in my self-righteousness, seen by God as “filthy rags,” the more my sense of “deservedness” or entitlement will actually keep me from knowing Christ. Hell comes from pride leading to merit leading to divine entitlement. Heaven results from unworthiness leading to desperation leading to grace and mercy.” Randy Smith
What does the Bible Mean, Our Righteousness is as Filthy Rags?
The imagery of “filthy rags” emphasizes the inherent sinfulness of humans, emphasizing the idea that no amount of good works or adherence to moral laws can meet God’s requirements for holiness. Look at Ezekiel 24:13, which says, “On account of your unclean lewdness, because I would have cleansed you and you were not cleansed from uncleanness, you shall not be cleansed anymore till I have satisfied my fury upon you.”
Even the most commendable human efforts are insufficient to obtain God’s level of purity. The book of Isaiah in this chapter follows the prophet Isaiah as he and those following him are in exile and follows their challenges of rebuilding and redefining their identity. In chapter sixty-four, Isaiah writes a prayer acknowledging the sinful and moral shortcomings of the people of Isaiah, comparing them to filthy rags.
During his lamenting, Isaiah focuses on how people are incapable of achieving their own righteousness as we are so far from it; attaining righteousness would be impossible. The term “filthy rags” offers a metaphorical representation of the inadequacy of human efforts to reach moral purity. Humans need God to take filthy rags and turn them into clean pure cloth.
Isaiah 64:6 highlights the necessity of divine grace as we cannot rely on our own deeds to obtain salvation. This underscores the emphasis on the paramount role of salvation given as a gift and how it’s only attainable through faith in Jesus Christ. Adam and Eve entered the world without sin, pure as snow. However, they disobeyed God’s only commandment (at the time), and their pureness turned dirty.
Now all men and women are born with the dirtiness of snow, which separates man from God as He cannot be in the same space as dirtiness, as He is clean. God needed to find a new way to make humans as clean as He is to allow us to be in His presence, which is why He sent His son. Jesus came into the world both fully man and fully God, completely pure without sin. He took our uncleanliness upon Himself and took the punishment for our sins to allow us not to be like filthy rags to God.
Isaiah 64:6 “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.”
Ezekiel 33:13 (ESV) “Though I say to the righteous that he shall surely live, yet if he trusts in his righteousness and does injustice, none of his righteous deeds shall be remembered, but in his injustice that he has done he shall die.”
James 2:10 (NIV)” For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.”
Romans 3:23 (NASB) “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
1 John 1:8-10 “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.”
Jeremiah 23:6 (ESV) “In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.”
Ezekiel 24:13 “Now your impurity is lewdness. Because I tried to cleanse you but you would not be cleansed from your impurity, you will not be clean again until my wrath against you has subsided.”
The Doctrine of Total Depravity
The Doctrine of Total Depravity suggests that the fall of man (Adam and Eve eating from the fruit) led to the consequence of every person entering life both morally and spiritually corrupted and incapable of coming to God on their own. Essentially, everyone falls short of the Glory of God and is unclean, therefore cannot be in the presence of God (Romans 3:10-12).
Total depravity stems from John Calvin, who started the Calvinism branch of Protestantism focusing on the five points of doctrine summed up in the acronym TULIP, with “T” standing for total depravity. While often misunderstood, the Bible teaches that all are corrupted by sin, including their minds, wills, emotions, and flesh. Basically, all humans sin because we were born into sin brought about by the fall of Adam and Eve, the first humans.
Furthermore, because humans are “dead in transgressions” (Ephesians 2:5), they are bound to their love of sin. This love of sin leads to a life of sin and consequently a distance from God. They then choose to willfully live in sin instead of accepting the free gift of salvation. Often, this also leads to hostility towards God (Romans 8:7) as sin controls the person, which is why we need to give up ourselves and take up the way of Jesus (Matthew 16:24).
2 Corinthians 4:4 “The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”
Ephesians 2:1-5 “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, 2 in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. 3 All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. 4 But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5 made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.”
Jeremiah 17:9 “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?”
Romans 8:7 (ESV) “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot.”
Romans 7:18 “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not.”
Romans 3:10-11 (NKJV) “As it is written: “There is none righteous, no, not one; 11 There is none who understands; There is none who seeks after God.”
Isaiah 53:6 “All of us like sheep have gone astray, Each of us has turned to his own way; But the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all To fall on Him.”
John 3:19 “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.”
1 Corinthians 2:14 “But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.”
Ephesians 2:15 (KJV) “Having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; for to make in himself of twain one new man, so making peace.”
Salvation is a Work of God, not Man
Many people believe that works are what provide salvation, but this is not true! Ephesians 2:8-9 says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one can boast.” Work is needed for salvation, but not by humans; by God, and He already did the labor. God created a way for humans to be clean by sending His son to die for our sins.
Humans cannot save themselves from their sinful nature, but God can and already did. As one man (Adam) brought death and sin to the world, one man (Jesus) brought redemption. Further, this gift of salvation requires acceptance and faith but does not require any works such as abilities, acts, works, or characteristics. It’s a gift given lovingly to everyone, fully displaying His love for us. When we accept this gift, God works through us, which helps to save others. As we grow in faith and communication with the Lord, He gives us a desire to do His will instead of our own (Psalm 37:4).
While we cannot earn salvation, our salvation results in works for God’s people or serves as evidence of salvation (James 1:22; James 2:14-26). James 2:17 says, “So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” When we have accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior, we are saved, and salvation changes our will to God’s will, which produces works. Without works, then we have not allowed God to replace our will with His will.
While many people believe they can do works to seem right in the eyes of God or man, they are still following their own path instead of God’s. He must be the one directing our paths as He is the one who created all things and the only perfect being capable of saving. Those trying to focus on works before accepting God’s will are seeking pride and a desire to be in control.
Isaiah 64:6 illustrates the profound gap between human righteousness and God’s standard of holiness. This metaphor serves to emphasize that no matter how hard we try, our efforts are insufficient for achieving the purity and moral perfection required by God.
Ephesians 2:8-9 “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast.”
Ephesians 2:5 “made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in our trespasses. It is by grace you have been saved!”
Romans 9:16 “So then, it does not depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy.”
John 6:44 “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day.”
Acts 4:12 “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”
John 15:16 “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you.”
Romans 8:33 “Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies.”
Colossians 3:12 “So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.”
What does it mean to be saved by grace?
Proverbs 14:12 says, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end leads to death.” When we accept the gift of salvation, we choose to follow God’s will and allow Him to direct our path and our will. As stated above, we cannot do any works to get to God, but God can and did when He sent His son to die on the cross for us.
When we accept salvation, we become empty vessels ready to become filled with God. Then God can fill us with grace—undeserved favor—and save us from sin, which comes from our sinful self-will. Because of God’s grace, we are saved from our self-will and filled with His perfect will, with all the blessings, peace, and fulfillment He brings.
Many Christians believe the grace of God means we will receive a reduced punishment for sins when, in fact, it means we will not receive punishment at all. Hebrews 9:27 says, “And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.” While those who have not accepted salvation will have to stand before God for judgment, those who are saved have asked Jesus to stand up for them on the day of judgment.
God will see the sinlessness of Jesus, and how Jesus followed God’s will, and how Jesus was already punished for the sins the person committed, and close the case. This person will spend eternity with God. For this reason, we are saved by God’s grace alone, not grace and works. Essentially, all the credit goes to God because we cannot do anything to be saved; it must be from God.
Romans 11:6 “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.”
Romans 6:23 (ESV) “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Romans 4:4 “Now the wages of the worker are not credited as a gift, but as an obligation.”
Romans 3:24 “and are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”
Ephesians 1:7 “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace.”
Romans 5:1-2 “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. 2 Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.”
John 1:17 “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”
Romans 8:1-2 “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, 2 because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death.”
What does the Bible say about self-righteousness?
Self-righteousness refers to an attitude or mindset where someone believes they are morally superior or convinced of their own virtues or worth. In a religious context, it can also refer to a more pious person who believes they are favored or justified before God without humility or grace for others. Biblically, self-righteousness refers to the idea that we can somehow become acceptable to God on our own. Essentially, those who are self-righteous are prideful of themselves and not of God.
Romans 3:10 states, “As it is written: ‘None is righteous, no, not one.’” Anyone who claims to be self-righteous goes against the Word of God. For example, the Bible tells us not to be wise in our own eyes but to fear the Lord and turn from evil.
Proverbs 3:7 – “Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil.”
Numerous verses throughout the Bible, including teachings from Jesus Himself, highlight the problems of self-righteous behavior, including our sinful nature that separates us from God. It’s essential to recognize that Jesus is the only person who was born righteous.
Without Him, none of us can attain righteousness. However, instead of seeking righteousness through Jesus, many people fall into the trap of comparing themselves to others. Yet, many compare themselves to others looking for righteousness instead of measuring against Jesus, the only one ever to be righteous.
Because of Jesus, we can obtain the gift of righteousness, but only through His sacrifice was this possible. God alone can provide righteousness as our sinful natures make us incapable. Jesus died on the cross to share His righteous status with humans.
Look at Philippians 2:7-8, “But He made Himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” Jesus took all the sins of humanity onto Himself and accepted the punishment for those sins so He could stand before God on judgment day for everyone.
Proverbs 30:12 – “There are those who are clean in their own eyes but are not washed of their filth.”
Matthew 23:28 – “So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”
Luke 16:15 – “And he said to them, ‘You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God.'”
Romans 10:3 “For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness.”
Proverbs 30:12 (NLT) “They are pure in their own eyes, but they are filthy and unwashed.”
1 Corinthians 4:7 – “For who sees anything different in you? What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?”
Titus 3:5 “he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.”
Galatians 6:3 – “For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself.”
Luke 10:29 “But wishing to justify himself, he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
In conclusion, “filthy rags” as mentioned in Isaiah 64:6 offers a powerful metaphor for the inadequacy of human righteousness when compared to God’s standard. Humans are filled with sin and cannot obtain salvation alone. God sent Jesus to make us pure as divine intervention to save everyone from the punishment of death. While we are unclean and unrighteous, through faith, we can be saved and spend eternity in God’s presence.