Righteousness as filthy rags?


Could anyone help me out here? My sister, a born-again Christian, tells me that all our righteousness is as filthy rags to the Lord. This in response to any discussion that we must “work out our salvation with fear and trembling.” What do I say to this?? Thanks!!


The verse cited to you is being taken out of context. Catholic Answers to the rescue (The Rock, March 1995)


Q: A Fundamentalist I know has been bashing my Catholic faith by quoting Isaiah 64:6, where the Bible says, “our acts of righteousness are as filthy rags.” He says this proves humans have no good works before God. What should I say in return? A: He misunderstands the verse he is quoting. It does not say that all acts of righteousness are as filthy rags to God, but that those being rendered to him in Isaiah’s day were.

In context the passage says: “Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him. You come to the help of those who gladly do right, who remember your ways. But when we continued to sin against them, you were angry. How then can we be saved? 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. Your sacred cities have become a desert; even Zion is a desert, Jerusalem a desolation. Our holy and glorious Temple, where our fathers praised you, has been burned with fire, and all that we treasured lies in ruins” (Is. 64:4-6, 10-11 [NIV]).

This pertains to a particular historical situation, not to a general condition. The passage appeals to a time when Israelites once had a right relationship with God, when God helped them against their enemies because they waited on him, gladly did right, and remembered his ways.

When they sin against him and did not repent and return to their former state, he abandoned them to the will of their enemies, so that even Jerusalem and its Temple were destroyed. (Isaiah speaks of this prophetically, before it happened.)

It was during that period of continued sin, leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C., that they had “become like one who is unclean”–they hadn’t always been like that. In this state, even the nation’s acts of righteousness appeared like filthy rags to God, so he wouldn’t help them: “When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are full of blood; wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, learn to do right!” (Is. 1:15-17 [NIV]).

Protestants are often confused about the role Catholics believe good works play in salvation, so you should clear this up for the Fundamentalist you know. You should explain to him that we do not perform good works in order to enter a state of justification. The Council of Trent stated that “nothing which precedes justification, whether faith or works, merits the grace of justification” (Decree on Justification 8).

In fact, it is impossible for an unjustified person to do supernaturally good works, since these are based on the virtue of charity (supernatural love), which an unjustified person does not have. Good works therefore flow from our reception of justification; they do not* cause* us to enter a state of justification. Good works increase the righteousness we are given at justification and please God, who promises to give us supernatural rewards on the last day, including the gift of eternal life (Rom. 2:6-7, Gal. 6:6-10).


Tell her to stop taking the verse out of context, like Martin Luther did when just coming up with his novel idea of *imputed * righteousness (God gives us his righteousness) as opposed what Christians had always believed before then, *infused * righteousness (God actually making you holy, with your cooperation). Her’s is a typical Fundamentalist practice of building an entire theology upon a single verse.

Show her the idea that men cannot be righteous is unbiblical as these verses show:

**Mt 10:41 -
He who receives a prophet because he is a prophet shall receive a prophet’s reward, and he who receives a righteous man because he is a righteous man shall receive a righteous man’s reward.

Mt 13:43 -
Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear.

Mt 13:49 -
So it will be at the close of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous,

Mt 25:46 -
And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."

Mt 27:19 -
Besides, while he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, “Have nothing to do with that righteous man, for I have suffered much over him today in a dream.”

Mr 6:20 -
for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and kept him safe. When he heard him, he was much perplexed; and yet he heard him gladly.

Lu 1:6 -
And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless.

Lu 2:25 -
Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him.

What does it mean to be righteous? Look at Matthew 25, where Jesus describes the righteous as those who do good works:

Mt 25:37 -
Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? **

Even Jesus is referred to as righteous:

**Mt 27:19 -
Besides, while he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, “Have nothing to do with that righteous man, for I have suffered much over him today in a dream.” **

The examples could be multiplied.

The passage in Isaiah which she is mangling, placed properly in context, is explicitly addressed to those in Isaiah’s time who were not sincerely following God. Thus their deeds were as filthy rags because they covered up their false hearts. Read it for your self and for her.

**Isaiah 64: 1 - 12 **

1 Oh that thou wouldest rend the heavens, that thou wouldest come down, that the mountains might flow down at thy presence, 2 As when the melting fire burneth, the fire causeth the waters to boil, to make thy name known to thine adversaries, that the nations may tremble at thy presence! 3 When thou didst terrible things which we looked not for, thou camest down, the mountains flowed down at thy presence. 4 For since the beginning of the world men have not heard, nor perceived by the ear, neither hath the eye seen, O God, beside thee, what he hath prepared for him that waiteth for him. 5 Thou meetest him that rejoiceth and worketh righteousness, those that remember thee in thy ways: behold, thou art wroth; for we have sinned: in those is continuance, and we shall be saved.

6 But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away. 7 And there is none that calleth upon thy name, that stirreth up himself to take hold of thee: for thou hast hid thy face from us, and hast consumed us, because of our iniquities. 8 But now, O LORD, thou art our father; we are the clay, and thou our potter; and we all are the work of thy hand. 9 Be not wroth very sore, O LORD, neither remember iniquity for ever: behold, see, we beseech thee, we are all thy people. 10 Thy holy cities are a wilderness, Zion is a wilderness, Jerusalem a desolation. 11 Our holy and our beautiful house, where our fathers praised thee, is burned up with fire: and all our pleasant things are laid waste. 12 Wilt thou refrain thyself for these things, O LORD? wilt thou hold thy peace, and afflict us very sore?

Any verse taken out of context is a pretense.


Don’t forget Psalm 14, it’s what Paul was quoting in Romans when he said “no one does what is right, not even one”

If you check out the context you’ll find that the Psalm is speaking about fools, and immediately after it contrasts them with the just, with whom God keeps company.

We are able, through God’s grace and in union with Christ, to perform good works that are fully acceptable to Him, all for the praise and glory of His name.


[quote=JudieK]Could anyone help me out here? My sister, a born-again Christian, tells me that all our righteousness is as filthy rags to the Lord. This in response to any discussion that we must “work out our salvation with fear and trembling.” What do I say to this?? Thanks!!

First thing to do is to tell her to throw away her bad translation and get an accurate one. It is not “filthy rags” in Isaiah 64:6, it is “menstrual rags,” (ut inmundus omnes nos quasi pannus menstruatae)

The problem with people who hold doctrines such as imputed righteousness is that they search the Bible for verses which light up for them and are seen as confirming their doctrines. In this way you can take all manner of verses which may be simply metaphorical, or an exaggeration to ram a point home, and turn them into a doctrinal system.

There is a prayer created by Saint Ambrose of Milan, and it was used as the Prayer of the Priest before he was about to commence the Holy Sacrifice. It was used both in the Milanese Rite and also in the old Celtic Rites (the Lorrha-Stowe Missal).

Saint Ambrose did not believe in Calvin’s imputed rigteousness nor in total depravity but he used the phrase from Isaiah to emphasis the great humility which the Priest needs to approach God and to approach the Holy Altar…

Prayer of Saint Ambrose

Celebrant: O God, I who presume to invoke Thy Holy Name, stand in the presence of Thy Divine Majesty: have mercy upon me, a man: a sinner smeared by the foulness of inherent impurity; forgive the unworthy priest in whose hand this oblation is seen offered: Spare O Lord one polluted by sins: in faults the foremost, in comparison to all others, and do not enter into judgment with Thy servant, for no one living is justified in Thy sight. It is true that we are weighed down in the faults and desires of our flesh: remember, O Lord, that we are flesh and there is no other source of help than Thee. Yeah, in Thy sight not even those in Heaven are much more cleansed than we earthly humans, of whom, as the Prophet said of all our righteous acts: we are in comparison as unworthy as a menstrual rag [Isaiah 64:6]. O Jesus Christ, let us live. O Thou Who dost not will the death of a sinner: grant forgiveness unto us who were created in the flesh, so that by penitential acts we may come to enjoy eternal life in the Heavens, through our Lord Jesus Christ Who reigneth with Thee and the Holy Spirit throughout all ages of ages.
R. Amen.


Hello JudieK,

I would tell her that she had better get some filthy rags. If Jesus tells us that we must obey the commandments and feed the poor to go to heaven then the advice that you do not have to obey the commandments or feed the poor to go to heaven comes from Satan. Am I Right?

NAB MAT 19:16 The dangers of riches. Another time a man came up to him and said, “Teacher, what good must I do to possess everlasting life?” He answered, "Why do you question me about what is good? There is One who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments." “Which ones?” he asked. Jesus replied “You shall not kill”; ‘You shall not commit adultery’; ‘You shall not steal’; ‘You shall not bear false witness’; ‘Honor your father and mother’; and ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’"
NAB MAT 25:41 Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.’ Then they will answer and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?’ He will answer them, ‘Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.’ And these will go off to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life."
NAB JOH 5:27

"The Father has given over to him power to pass judgment because he is Son of Man; no need for you to be surprised at this, for an hour is coming in which all those in their tombs shall hear his voice and come forth. Those who have done right shall rise to live; the evildoers shall rise to be damned."
NAB REV 22:12

"Remember, I am coming soon! I bring with me the reward that will be given to each man as his conduct deserves. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End! **Happy are they who wash their robes so as to have free access to the tree of life **and enter the city through its gates Outside are the dogs and sorcerers, the fornicators and murderers, the idol-worshipers and all who love falsehood."
Peace in Christ,
Steven Merten


Here are some more verses that negate that interpretation:

“This is how Jesus Christ came to be born. His mother, Mary was betrothed to Joseph… Her husband Joseph being a righteous man wanted to spare her publicity…” (Mt 1:20)

“Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked” (Ps 1:1)

“I tell you solemnly whoever keeps my word will never see death” (John 8:51)

“In the days of King Herod of Judea there lived a priest called Zechariah who belonged to the Abijah section of the priesthood and he had a wife, Elizabeth by name, who was a descendant of Aaron. Both were blameless in the sight of God and scrupulously observed all the commandments and observances of the Lord. But they were childless…” (Lk 1:5-7)



NAB MAT 22 The Wedding Banquet

Jesus again in reply spoke to them in parables, saying, "The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son. He dispatched his servants to summon the invited guests to the feast, but they refused to come. A second time he sent other servants, saying, ‘Tell those invited: “Behold, I have prepared my banquet, my calves and fattened cattle are killed, and everything is ready; come to the feast.”’ Some ignored the invitation and went away, one to his farm, another to his business. The rest laid hold of his servants, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged and sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his servants, ‘The feast is ready, but those who were invited were not worthy to come. Go out, therefore, into the main roads and invite to the feast whomever you find.’ The servants went out into the streets and gathered all they found, bad and good alike, and the hall was filled with guests. But when the king came in to meet the guests he saw a man there not dressed in a wedding garment. He said to him, ‘My friend, how is it that you came in here without a wedding garment?’ But he was reduced to silence. Then the king said to his attendants, ‘Bind his hands and feet, and cast him into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.’ Many are invited, but few are chosen."

NAB REV 19:6 Then I heard something like the sound of a great multitude or the sound of rushing water or mighty peals of thunder, as they said: “Alleluia! The Lord has established his reign, (our) God, the almighty. Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory. For the wedding day of the Lamb has come, his bride has made herself ready. She was allowed to wear a bright, clean linen garment.” (The linen represents the righteous deeds of the holy ones.)

Peace in Christ,
Steven Merten


Wow!!! Thanks everyone who responded… you guys are awesome! You’ve given me so much to work with!!! I knew I came to the right place! Thanks again!!!
Judie K


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