Category: Righteousness


unclean-things“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.”

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: Proverbs 15:9 says, “The LORD detests the way of the wicked, but he loves those who pursue righteousness.” If God wants us to pursue righteousness, then what about verses such as Romans 3:10 that say, “There is none righteous, no not one”? If no one is righteous, then who can really pursue it? Are those verses contradictory?

Before we can pursue righteousness, we need to define it. The word most often translated “righteousness” can also mean “justice, justness, or divine holiness.” In the broadest sense, righteousness can be defined as “the condition of being acceptable to God as made possible by God.” God’s standard is what defines true righteousness; His power is what enables it. Unless God is its author, we will never possess righteousness. No amount of man-made effort will result in righteousness. To be righteous is to be right with God. A heart that is right with God results in a life that bears “fruit” (John 15:1–2; Mark 4:20). Galatians 5:22 lists some of that fruit.

A common substitute for true righteousness is self-righteousness. Self-righteousness is the opposite of what God desires. Self-righteousness makes a list of rules and checks them off, congratulating itself on how well it is doing compared to others. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day were masters of self-righteousness, but Jesus had harsh words for them: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness” (Matthew 23:27–28).

To pursue righteousness means we must recognize that we cannot please God in our sinful state (Romans 8:8). We turn from trying to justify ourselves by our good deeds and instead seek the mercy of God. We desire that He transform our minds (Romans 12:2) and conform us “to the image of His Son” (Romans 8:29). In the Old Testament, men were declared righteous when they believed God and acted on it (Genesis 15:7; Galatians 3:6; James 2:23). Before Pentecost (Acts 2:1–4), people pursued righteousness by keeping God’s Law, seeking holiness, and “walking humbly with God” (Micah 6:8). No one was justified by rule-keeping but by the faith that enabled them to obey God (Romans 3:20; Galatians 2:16).

Likewise, today we are justified by the faith that leads us to Jesus (Romans 3:28; 5:1; 10:10). Those who are in Christ continue seeking God in order to please Him (Colossians 3:1). When we come to faith in Christ, He gives us the Holy Spirit who empowers us to pursue righteousness for its own sake (Acts 2:38). He commands us to “walk in the Spirit” (Galatians 5:16, 25). Walking in the Spirit means we live a lifestyle of total surrender to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. We cultivate the ability to hear God and the habit of obeying His voice in everything.

We pursue righteousness when we pursue the character of Christ and desire holiness more than fleshly indulgence. We avoid the temptation to become self-righteous when we understand that true righteousness begins with godly humility (Psalm 25:90). We remember that Jesus said, “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). When we spend time in the presence of God, we become more aware of our own sin and shortcomings. A dingy shirt looks white beside a dark wall. But, when compared with snow, the same shirt looks dirty. Pride and self-righteousness cannot remain in the presence of a holy God. Pursuing righteousness begins when a humble heart seeks the continual presence of God (James 4:10; 1 Peter 5:6). The humble, believing heart leads to a lifestyle of righteous action acceptable to God (Psalm 51:10).

Dictionaries define “righteousness” as behavior that is morally justifiable or right. Such behavior is characterized by accepted standards of morality, justice, virtue, or uprightness. The Bible’s standard of human righteousness is God’s own perfection in every attribute, every attitude, every behavior, and every word. Thus, God’s laws, as given in the Bible, both describe His own character, and constitute the plumb line by which He measures human righteousness.

The Greek New Testament word for righteousness primarily describes conduct in relation to others, especially with regards to the rights of others in business, in legal matters, and beginning with relationship to God. It is contrasted with wickedness, the conduct of the one who, out of gross self-centeredness, neither reveres God nor respects man. The Bible describes the righteous person as just or right, holding to God and trusting in Him (Psalm 33:18-22).

The bad news is that true and perfect righteousness is not possible for man to attain on his own; the standard is simply too high. The good news is that true righteousness is possible for mankind, but only through the cleansing of sin by Jesus Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. We have no ability to achieve righteousness in and of ourselves. But Christians possess the righteousness of Christ, because “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). This is an amazing truth. On the cross, Jesus exchanged our sin for His perfect righteousness so that we can one day stand before God and He will see not our sin, but the holy righteousness of the Lord Jesus.

This means that we are made righteous in the sight of God; that is, that we are accepted as righteous, and treated as righteous by God on account of what the Lord Jesus has done. He was made sin; we are made righteousness. On the cross, Jesus was treated as if he were a sinner, though he was perfectly holy and pure, and we are treated as if we were righteous, though we are defiled and depraved. On account of what the Lord Jesus has endured on our behalf, we are treated as if we had entirely fulfilled the Law of God, and had never become exposed to its penalty. We have received this precious gift of righteousness from the God of all mercy and grace. To Him be the glory!

[SEE ALSO: Justification]