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Why Our Righteousness Is Like Filthy Rags


“But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags…” (Isaiah 64:6 KJV)


If you have heard this verse before, you know it paints a picture of how futile and unclean our righteous acts are before a holy God. If you want a better understanding of what filthy rags are, you can read this devotional. Beyond grasping and understanding what filthy rags are and what this verse means, I want to tackle the question of “why?” Have you ever considered why our righteousness is as filthy rags before God? When you put together the “what” and the “why,” I believe you will never attempt to stand before God in your own righteousness.


3 Reasons Why Our Righteousness Is Like Filthy Rags

Before I get to the “why,” I want to make a clear and definitive statement: there is only one kind of righteousness acceptable in God’s sight. That righteousness is the righteousness imputed to us by Jesus Christ. Outside of his righteousness, there is no righteousness at all. Every other attempt at righteousness outside of Christ is futile, and God will look at that righteousness as filthy rags. That said, let me give you three reasons why this is true.


Reason 1: Self-Righteous Is an Act of Pride

I don’t know if there is a word that fits better into the category of an oxymoron than self-righteous. This is an oxymoron because the statement reeks of pride (itself a sin). One of the best examples of self-righteousness that Jesus gave us was the tax collector in Luke 18, a clear picture of why our righteousness is as filthy rags in God’s sight.



To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable:


“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’” (Luke 18:9-12)


Do you see the arrogance and pride coming from this self-righteous Pharisee? He was confident in his own righteousness (pride). He looked down on everyone else (pride and arrogance). In the Pharisee’s prayer, he compared himself to others and ran down his list of accomplishments. Can you get more arrogant than that? Here we see the problem with any attempt at self-righteousness. To be self-righteous, you must first look at yourself and highlight your achievements as if you are giving God your resume. You must consider the things you have done and present them to God as a badge of honor that he must accept. Can you see the problem with this? Self-righteous people, like this Pharisee, can easily shift to entitlement, which is all based on pride (exactly what the Pharisee did). Is there any wonder this type of righteousness is a filthy rag in God’s sight? In Proverbs 6, God lists seven things that are detestable to him. Guess what the first thing is on the list? Haughty eyes, which is another way of saying pride or arrogance.



If you attempt to approach God with your own self-righteousness, the only way to justify your righteousness is to bring up all your accomplishments before him and tell God why you should be declared righteous. This is pride, and there is no wonder why God will reject it, because this type of righteousness is a filthy rag.


Reason 2: The Standard Is Not Good but Perfect

A second reason our righteousness is as filthy rags is we often measure against the wrong standard. If you go back to our friend the Pharisee in Luke 18, how did he measure his righteousness? He measured it against another person. That is the wrong measuring stick. If you want to appease yourself and make yourself look good, it is easy to find someone who has done things worse than you and compare yourself to them. This can make you feel good about yourself. How many times have you heard people say I am a good person? They usually follow it up with something like, “I have never robbed or killed anyone.” While that may be true, the standard God requires is not “to be good.” The standard is “to be perfect.” The problem is none of us can achieve it because we are all sinners. The Bible clearly states that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). The shortfall is what makes us unclean and sinful in his sight. Because we are unclean and sinful, any self-righteous act we bring forward will also be unclean and sinful. The standard is perfection, and since we are sinners, making us imperfect, any righteousness we bring will not be good enough. Our righteousness will be as filthy rags in his sight.



Reason 3: One Sin Tears the Whole House Down

The other problem with trying to be justified by our own righteous efforts is we are attempting to rebuild a house that has already been torn down. One thing we must recognize about sin is that it only takes one sin to tear the whole house down. The self-righteous person does not acknowledge this. The Pharisee in Luke 18 was rattling off his accomplishments without realizing that any one sin he committed cancels out any amount of “good things” he may have done.


“For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.” (James 2:10)


We often don’t think of sin in this light. We tend to categorize sin, making one sin worse than the other. While this may be true in one sense, there is one application of this where that does not apply. That is when you apply it to God’s standard. If you remember, Adam and Eve only committed one act of disobedience, and that one act brought sin into the world.


In the same way, one sin you commit makes you guilty before God. Outside of Jesus Christ, there is not one person who has ever lived a sinless life. When you approach God from a sinful place, you have no legs to stand on because your sin has already torn the house down. If you attempt to come to God in your own righteousness, you are offering something righteous from a house that has already been torn down because of your sin. Therefore you don’t have the capacity to bring anything of true righteousness. Should we try to do this, we are bringing God a collection of broken pieces and presenting them as complete righteousness. I hope you see why God would see them as the filthy rags they are.



How Do We Become Righteous?

So what do you offer God? You offer him your broken pieces, not as your righteous offering but quite the opposite: your recognition of what you are. The parable mentioned another person—the tax collector. Notice his prayer:


“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 18:13-14).


The Pharisee boasted of his high position while the tax collector realized his low position. The tax collector’s humility caught God’s attention, and he went home justified while the Pharisee remained in his sinful state. For any person who thinks their righteousness is worth anything, they will behave like the Pharisee and miss being justified. However, when you humble yourself and recognize you have no righteousness to offer, God can clothe you with his own. When you compare his righteousness to your own, it is easy to see why our righteousness is as filthy rags.

Courtesy; Clarence L Haynes Jr.

Matthias David
Matthias David
Working in His vine, as He does even more at mine.


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