Vol.VIII No.VII Pg.5
September 1971

Filthy Rags?

Robert F. Turner

As a small boy I often heard sectarian preachers proclaim: All our righteousnesses are as filthy rags.. (Isa. 64:6) and I wondered why God was so critical of mans efforts to serve Him. Later, hearing this passage used by Baptist debaters, I realized that they were saying, man, no matter how much good he does, must be saved by Jesus Christ. We were in agreement on that point.

But they used this filthy rag bit to argue that baptism was not essential to mans salvation — baptism was a filthy rag. I could point out the difference in mans own righteousness (trying to lift himself) and a self-denying submission to Gods righteousness (Rom. 10:3); but the Baptist debater knew that God commanded baptism, and he still called it filthy rags. This didnt make sense, then or now. Isa. 64:6 has been grossly misused.

Its context, verse 5, says, Thou meetest him that rejoiceth and worketh righteousness... and the A.S. footnote on meetest is sparest. The same word (paga) is found in Isa. 47:3 where the A.S. has spare, and Keil and Delitzsch translate receive or pardon. Apparently the word means a meeting that has purpose or consequence in view, either friendly or hostile. On Isa. 64:5 K.&D. say come to meet in the sense of coming to the help of; and they cite and approve another rendering, if we had continued in Thy ways, then we should have been preserved. A. Clarke cites the Syriac version, Thou meetest with joy those who work righteousness. God is happy to see men obey. Isa. 64:6 says, we are all become as one that is unclean, and all our righteous- ness are as a polluted garment... (A.S., emph. mine.) God would like righteousness on our part, meaning obedience to Him; but we are no longer serving Him — our garments are polluted. (And if preachers would discover what the filthy rags were, they might not speak so freely of this before a mixed audience.) This passage is encouraging righteousness on mans part, not making light of it. (See Ezek. 3:20-21) The system of works versus the system of faith, as argued in the N.T., is not under consideration in these passages.

And even when we get to the New Testament, there are no disparaging statements about mans obedience to God. On the contrary, the Apostle of Love writes, If ye know that He is righteous, ye know that every one also that doeth righteousness is begotten of Him. And, ...he that doeth righteousness is righteous, even as He is righteous. (1 Jn. 2:29; 3:7) That certainly doesnt sound like filthy rags does it?

Paul, in the Roman letter, quickly corrects the man who thinks he can be saved by works (doing so perfectly that he is blameless or justified) by pointing out that all have sinned. All must have forgiveness, and this is possible only in Christ. (Rom. 3:23-f) Salvation is, therefore, by faith (the system of trust in Jesus Christ) not by a system of Law in which there was no ultimate forgiveness. But Paul commends obedience and good deeds. (Rom. 2:6 -11) Stubborn unrighteousness is the filthy rag.