Let's begin with a question. Isaiah 64:6 KJV: Are "All our righteousnesses" "as filthy rags"?
Isaiah says, Yes. Then question two: Is it impossible, in this age, for us fallen humans, to do righteous acts?
The Prophet's Larger Picture
"All our righteousnesses are as filthy rags" is part of a longer section of the book of Isaiah dealing with God's purpose.
What's going on here? Let's back out from the text for a larger "establishing shot." Let's look at the surrounding chapters. Rewind to Isaiah 61:10-11, open there, and follow along.
God has a garment of salvation for His people, a robe of righteousness. He will cause righteousness to spring up.
God has not abandoned Jerusalem His city. He is working to restore her. He promises to deliver her (62:1-5). He is acting to bring that day. Verses 6-7 say that He has appointed watchmen on her walls to protect, warn and intercede. In verse 10 He calls His servants to lift up the standard. In verse 12 He reminds us that His people will be holy people.
In 63:1-6 God comes as warrior executing vengeance and redeeming His people. The people of God are incapable of saving themselves. God is alone in restoring them. In 63:7-14 God's goodness is seen in His compassion toward Israel. He remakes Israel. See at verses 8-9:
For He said, 'Surely, they are My people, sons who will not deal falsely.' So He became their Savior. In all their affliction He was afflicted, and the angel of His presence saved them; In His love and mercy He redeemed them, and He lifted them and carried them all the days of old.
Israel passed through troubles that humbled him and led him to rely upon God, troubles that built character. When they relied upon Him He saved them. When they relied upon themselves they went astray.
Verses 10-14 outline this process. He would deliver them, then they would turn and rebel. Then He would labor with them, discipline them, and bring forth good for them. Verse 14 ties it all together:
As the cattle which go down into the valley
The Spirit of the Lord gave them rest.
You led Your people,
To make for Yourself a glorious name.
God led them. There were many occasions where He needed be stern to grow them and bring them to Himself. But He had made them His people and He remained faithful. He led His people, not to make a name for them but a glorious name for Himself. He revealed His character as the faithful Father, the ultimate caregiver.
Verses 63:15-19 are Isaiah's prayer. This should remind you of Daniel's prayer later in his book in the ninth chapter. Daniel confessed the sin of his people as his own sin and repented and pled with God to restore. In this passage, Isaiah laments the current apparent absence of visible acts of divine power. Isaiah admits that God's people have travelled far from God. Abraham would not know them. Israel would not recognize them. Isaiah pleads for God to act, even to discipline His people.
The plea continues in Isaiah 64. Verses 1-5 highlight God's faithfulness. Verse four repeats this surprise we saw back in 63:8 where God says His people will not deal falsely. In 64:4 God is identified as acting on behalf of the believer who serves for Him. Verses 6-7 contrast, describing again the unfaithfulness of His people. Isaiah pleads for God to intervene. Isaiah 64:12 reveals that even as they feel abandoned, they see themselves as under the discipline of God. In other words--there is still hope!
Chapter 65 assures us that God will intervene, judging and delivering. Verses 1-5 describe their unfaithfulness. In verses 6-7 God promises judgment and in 8-16 describes what He will do. Those who turn to Him and seek Him will be helped, while those who choose evil will be condemned. Verses 13-16 describe how God addresses the two distinct groups, the faithful who return and, in contrast, the wicked who confirm themselves in wickedness. In 65:17-25 Jerusalem is delivered and God's purposes fulfilled.
If we went back further, to Isaiah 59:2, we'd find that the sins of Israel had separated them from God. So, there is the "big picture" stuff. These chapters are all about God's purpose for Jerusalem.
Isaiah 64:6 in its own Neighborhood
Let's look now more closely at 64:6 in its own immediate neighborhood--chapter 64. We'll use the NASB which is very literal. Chapter 64, verses 1-3:
Oh, that You would rend the heavens and come down,
That the mountains might quake at Your presence--
As fire kindles the brushwood, as fire causes water to boil--
To make Your name known to Your adversaries,
That the nations might tremble at your presence!
Isaiah sees his nation in a moral fail. Israel is under God's judgment. It feels as though God has abandoned His people. But Isaiah knows the bigger picture. He pleads for God to intervene.
Isaiah appeals to God that in fact it is God's character which stands out to him:
For from days of old they have not heard or perceived by ear,
Nor has the eye seen a God besides you,
Who acts in behalf of the one who waits for Him.
That's "Him," capital H, Him, God. God is the only God; everything else is fraud, human construction. But Isaiah is confident that God hears his prayers. He's confident that God is determined to accomplish His purposes for Jerusalem. God is a personal God. He is very close to each of us, even to prophets!
Isaiah has sought God with a faithful heart. And God has preserved for Himself a remnant. Now 64 verse five:
You meet him who rejoices in doing righteousness,
Who remembers You in Your ways.
Behold, You were angry, for we sinned,
We continued in them a long time;
And shall we be saved?
Recall our question at the beginning. Is it impossible, in this age, for us fallen humans, to do righteous acts? The words of the prophet at Isaiah 64:5 don't make any sense if none do righteousness. Isaiah admits he has sinned, and identifies himself with his fellow Hebrews, God's sinning people, as later does Daniel. But what he says about God--that God experiences pleasure and joy when He interacts with humans who do righteousness--is a very interesting thing for him to say here. The only kind of people there are, are fallen humans. Some behave wickedly. Some do righteousness. Israel is not doing unrighteousness because of inability to do righteousness; they are in apostasy by choice.
Israel's condition is described in Isaiah 64:6-7:
For all of us have become like one who is unclean,
And all of our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment;
And all of us whither like a leaf,
And our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
There is no one who calls on Your name,
Who arouses himself to take hold of You;
For You have hidden Your face from us
And have delivered us into the power of our iniquities.
Isaiah identifies himself with the entire Hebrew nation. He says "all of us." But notice, they have become "like." They did not begin in rebellion. They became rebellious; choices were made. Their iniquities--not Adam's or someone else they can blame their actions on, but their very own decisions to do evil--have taken them away.
Their uncleanness is like a filthy clothe or garment with blood on it. As a people they are likened to whithered, dead leaves. Neither are they turning to God. They are wallowing hopelessly in their sins. God would have them arouse themselves to turn to Him but they show no inclination toward that.
Unless God intervenes there is no hope. But He has a plan, a design, a purpose for His people.
Someone wisely said, "sin is its own punishment." In other words, sin is both inherently bad, and, one sin leads to another; each time the downward path is more easily traversed. Without God's power, we are indeed trapped in the power of our sins.
Finally, verses 8-12 record Isaiah's plea for God to forgive and restore. He will, answers chapter 65, describing the judgment of the wicked and the deliverance of the faithful. The divine purpose for Jerusalem will be fulfilled.
But now that we have thought together about the context of the "filthy rags" verse, Isaiah 64:6, we should ask ourselves some fresh questions.
Is it legitimate to pull Isaiah 64:6 out of its context, apply a questionable interpretation to it, and make the result a major plank in one's understanding of righteousness by faith?
When we look to the writings of Paul, writer of the foremost NT material on RBF, the absence of not only that superficial interpretation of Isaiah 64:6 but the literally complete absence of Pauline reference to it in the NT is very conspicuous. Why doesn't Paul quote it somewhere--anywhere--in Romans 1-5 to help us understand the complete impossibility of fallen humans to create meritorious salvific works? It was never used thus by Paul.
We are not saying we cannot refer to the verse, or that the verse has no application to our understanding of righteousness by faith. We are only saying that we should understand what Isaiah himself meant when he used it. We should not grab a verse and attach random assumptions to it.
Ellen G. White Main Isaiah 64:6 References
Some will be curious how Ellen G. White uses isaiah 64:6. Consider examples from three of her most widely published books.
In The Desire of Ages
First The Desire of Ages:
There was no excuse for the blindness of Israel in regard to the work of regeneration. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Isaiah had written, 'We are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags.' David had prayed, 'Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.' And through Ezekiel the promise had been given, 'A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. And I will put My Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in My Statutes.' Isaiah 64:6; Psalm 51:10; Ezekiel 36:26, 27. . . . How, then, are we to be saved? 'As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness,' so the son of man has been lifted up, and everyone who has been deceived and bitten by the serpent may look and live. 'Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.' John 1:29. The light shining from the cross reveals the love of God. His love is drawing us to Himself. If we do not resist this drawing, we shall be led to the foot of the cross in repentance for the sins that have crucified the Saviour. Then the Spirit of God through faith produces a new life in the soul. The thoughts and desires are brought into obedience to the will of Christ. The heart, the mind, are created anew in the image of Him who works in us to subdue all things to Himself. Then the law of God is written in the mind and heart, and we can say with Christ, 'I delight to do Thy will, O my God.' Psalm 40:8. (The Desire of Ages, pp. 174, 176).
The passages referred to by Ellen White all speak to the need for regeneration. God takes the initiative. Jesus dies in sacrifice for us on the cross. His love is drawing us to Himself. And there is an important condition: we must not resist His drawing.
If we do not resist, we are drawn to the foot of the cross in repentance. This is authentic Hebrew repentance--sorrow for sin and a turning away from it. This is not contemporary sin-and-live repentance, which is only a sorrow for the consequences of sin. Remember what she wrote: "There was no excuse for the blindness of Israel in regard to the work of regeneration."
Hear again her remarkable statements. "Then the Spirit of God through faith produces a new life in the soul. The thoughts and desires are brought into obedience to the will of Christ. The heart, the mind, are created anew in the image of Him who works in us to subdue all things to Himself." Finally, "Then the law of God is written in the mind and heart, and we can say with Christ, 'I delight to do Thy will, O my God.'"
If God's law is written in our heart, if the heart and mind are created anew, if our will is brought into obedience to the will of Christ, how then would the resulting works be "filthy rags"? Filthy rags works are the works which precede regeneration. Notice, she doesn't say we are saved by these works. But she says we are regenerated.
Steps to Christ
In Steps to Christ Isaiah 64:6 is referred to once, on pages 28-29:
We may have flattered ourselves, as did Nicodemus, that our life has been upright, that our moral character is correct, and think that we need not humble the heart before God, like the common sinner: but when the light from Christ shines into our souls, we shall see how impure we are; we shall discern the selfishness of motive, the enmity against God, that has defiled every act of life. Then we shall know that our own righteousness is indeed as filthy rags, and that the blood of Christ alone can cleanse us from the defilement of sin, and renew our hearts in His own likeness.
This powerful statement is from the chapter about true repentance. It is not about how we are born but about what we have become. When the Spirit of God brings conviction, the unconverted person sees defilement in every choice he has made. And it is true. All that we have done, without intentionally seeking to do God's will, is defiled.
But--good news!--the blood of Christ can cleanse us from the defilement of sin. No qualifications are suggested here for only a limited or partial cleansing. Our hearts are able to be renewed in the likeness of Christ.
In Christ's Object Lessons
White also uses Isaiah 64:6 in Christ's Object Lessons in the 40 paragraph chapter "Without a Wedding Garment." Read the chapter. It took me about 16 minutes. There you'll find three different robes. We'll look at those robes in order. The "filthy rags" statement comes under the third of these robes.
White Robe of Innocence
First is the "white robe of innocence."
The white robe of innocence was worn by our first parents when they were placed by God in holy Eden" (Christ's Object Lessons, p. 310).
While wearing this garment, "They lived in perfect conformity to the will of God. All the strength of their affections was given to their heavenly Father."
But you and I are born disordered. We come into existence as humans who are not the way humans were designed to be. We inherit weakness resulting from the fall of our first parents. It is not guilt but a defect. As we physically mature our brain develops and in the course of time we become morally accountable. But by then we are already advanced in crafting the second kind of robe or garment spoken of in the chapter: fig-leaf garments.
When Adam and Eve disobeyed, they tried to replace their lost robe of innocence with a garment they made out of fig-leaves. Ellen White describes this variously as "worldy citizen dress," "common citizen dress", "garments of their own devising," "works of their own," "garments of earth." This garment is of entirely human design and manufacture.
Robe of Christ's Righteousness
Finally, there is a third kind of garment called "the wedding garment," "the robe of Christ's own righteousness," "His [Jesus'] own righteousness", and "the robe of heaven."
This robe, woven in the loom of heaven, has in it not one thread of human devising. Christ in His humanity wrought out a perfect character, and this character He offers to impart to us (Christ's Object Lessons, p. 311).
This is spoken of as
The character which all must possess who shall be accounted fit guests for the wedding (ibid., p. 307).
And on page 310:
by the wedding garment in the parable is represented the pure, spotless character which Christ's true followers will possess.
Here too, as in The Desire of Ages reference, the whole picture is transformative:
This robe, woven in the loom of heaven, has in it not one thread of human devising. Christ in His humanity wrought out a perfect character, and this character He offers to impart to us. 'All our righteousnesses are as filthy rags.' Isaiah 64:6. Everything that we of ourselves can do is defiled by sin. But the Son of God 'was manifested to take away our sins; and in Him is no sin.' Sin is defined to be 'the transgression of the law.' 1 John 3:5, 4. But Christ was obedient to every requirement of the law. He said of Himself, 'I delight to do Thy will, O My God; yea, Thy law is within My heart.' Psalm 40:8. When on earth, He said to His disciples, 'I have kept My Father's commandments.' John 15:10. By His perfect obedience He has made it possible for every human being to obey God's commandments. When we submit ourselves to Christ, the heart is united with His heart, the will is merged with His will, the mind becomes one with His mind, the thoughts are brought into captivity to Him; we live His life. This is what it means to be clothed with the garment of His righteousness (ibid., pp. 311-312).
This is very similar to The Desire of Ages statement above. The language is clearly transformative. So it is no surprise that
Those who reject the gift of Christ's righteousness are rejecting the attributes of character which would constitute them the sons and daughters of God (Christ's Object Lessons, p. 317).
Notice that "everything that we of ourselves can do is defiled by sin" (p. 311). "Of ourselves" means which of the three garments? The robe of innocence and the robe of Christ's righteousness are both gifts from God. The only robe that is "of ourselves" is the "fig-leaf garment."
Christ's character is wrought out in our human character. It is not imputed, not merely counted. It is imparted, actually given.
On the Robes and Garments
We are all today either wearing the robe of Christ's righteousness, or fig-leaf garments. Every person we meet in the supermarket or at work, is clothed the same way. The only way any can be in the kingdom is to receive this expensive robe given by Christ.
Tying-Off Isaiah 64:6: Conclusion
So the presentation of today's message ends. What in summary shall we say about Isaiah 64:6? That verse says
We are all like an unclean thing,
And all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags;
And we do fade like a leaf
and our iniquities, like the wind,
have taken us away.
By the apostasy of the nation, Israel had sinned and thus chosen a course creating a separation between itself and God. But God persisted in His plan to build and restore Jerusalem. He would give it every possibility for success. He would discipline and build. Isaiah admits Israel's need and guilt.
Isaiah 64:6 is part of Isaiah's confession that Israel is bereft of righteousness. There is none Israel can call its own. The nation is guilty; 63:8 says God seeks people of truth; 64:4 says that God delivers those who serve Him; 64:5 says that God meets with the one who does righteousness. God is engaged in making a people who are different.
Those who would use this verse to claim humans are somehow incapable of doing righteousness are ignoring context. Like Israel, we have no righteousness of our own, and yet God can work righteousness through us.
As a double-check to our understanding of the verse itself in its context, we considered three sections in Ellen White's published writings where she referred to Isaiah 64:6. In each sample case we found transformational language closely associated with the verse.
Apart from God, we only do unrighteousness. We must have the robe of Christ's righteousness. Christ's sacrifice for us saves us, yet His beautiful character is also gifted to us so that we are made like Him. "We live His life." There is righteousness in the life.
We never save ourselves. The works that arise in our lives are never meritorious toward our salvation. But it is impossible to live Christ's life without living a transformed life.
Truth shines more brightly, not less, when understood better. With deep humility we give thanks that Jesus is pleased to work His good pleasure in us (Philippians 2:13).
Outline of Isaiah chapters 62 - 66:2
- 62.1-5 God will not rest until Jerusalem's righteousness is bright
- 62.6-7 God has appointed intercessors on Jerusalem's walls to warn and intercede
- 62.8-9 God will restore Jerusalem
- 62.10 God appoints a mission for His servants: lift up the standard
- 62.11-12 God will create Jerusalem a holy people
- 63.1-6 God Himself redeems Israel from her enemies
- 63.7-14 God Himself redeemed His people yet they rebelled
- 63.15-19 God chastens Israel
- 64.1-12 Israel admits guilt, desires God to save
- .1-5 God's faithfulness
- .6-7 The unfaithfulness of His People
- .8-12 A plea for divine intervention
- 65.1-7 God will execute judgment against the unfaithful in Israel
- 65.8-10 God will deliver His faithful
- 65.11-16 God will execute judgment against the unfaithful in Israel
- 65.17-25 Jerusalem will be delivered and God's purposes fulfilled
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