Are All Our Works Filthy Rags?

nativityDevotional Thought of the Day:
5  You welcome those who gladly do good, who follow godly ways. But you have been very angry with us, for we are not godly. We are constant sinners; how can people like us be saved? 6  We are all infected and impure with sin. When we display our righteous deeds, they are nothing but filthy rags. Like autumn leaves, we wither and fall, and our sins sweep us away like the wind. 7  Yet no one calls on your name or pleads with you for mercy. Therefore, you have turned away from us and turned us over to our sins. Isaiah 64:5-7 (NLT)

193 To disparage works like the confession of doctrine, afflictions, works of charity, and the mortification of the flesh would be to disparage the outward administration of Christ’s rule among men. Let us add a word here about reward and merit.
194 We teach that rewards have been offered and promised to the works of the faithful. We teach that good works are meritorious—not for the forgiveness of sins, grace, or justification (for we obtain these only by faith) but for other physical and spiritual rewards in this life and in that which is to come, as Paul says (1 Cor. 3:8), “Each shall receive his wages according to his labor.” Therefore there will be different rewards for different labors.

In the middle of the quote from Isaiah I underlined and italicized a “popular” verse. 

Popular for those who abuse it, as they use it to call people to convert, or to repent.   Some will wax on with great eloquence about how wrong EVERYTHING we do is, how even our best words are nothing more than filthy rags, or as the ESV says, “polluted garments”, those things made unclean because of blood or other bodily fluids.  SOme, trying to get the gut check factor in, will assume that the blood is from a female’s menstrual cycle.  But the idea is that everything we do is horrid, unclean, unable to please God.

I have heard this used as well, by good meaning pastors who are trying to properly distinguish between law and gospel, saying that all our works, even after God has baptized and cleansed us, are still nothing more than filthy rags, that we will never be able to fulfill the “Law”, and therefore we shouldn’t encourage people to try and keep the Law, or even try to apply it to our lives, lived in Christ Jesus.  (In Lutheran theology, we would refer to this as denying the Third Use of the Law)

Theologically, that isn’t the Lutheran position, as you can see in the quote in green above, from the Lutheran confessional document known as the Apology of the Augsburg Confession.  It clearly states there that we cannot disparage works of man that demonstrate Christ’s rule, His benevolent work in and through men and women.  It even talks there of mortification of the flesh, the work that Paul talked of in 1 Corinthians 9.  The confessions do quickly remind us that these works don’t merit salvation, but they do merit a reward from God,  Even if that reward is simply hearing Him say, “well done. my good and faithful servant!”  (that comment alone would bring me joy that would last an eternity, as I assume it would for any Christian!)

I would draw your attention to the very passage the quote about filthy rags comes from in the first place.  This is not a theological passage by literary style.  It is a narrative, the words of the prophet, repentant and contrite, pleading with God.  Pleading with God to rip open the divide between heaven and earth, to come into our midst, and save us.  To come and mold is, to do the very work Paul will describe in Phil. 2:10 – where we are described as God’s poiema – His masterpiece, as we are led to do the works God has prepared for us. Isaiah’s pleading is one of repentance, one of praying that God would reconcile and restore us.  That God would come and save us, bearing our sin, and suffering that we would be healed and restored.  This section about filthy rags was hoping for Jesus to come and die on the cross, and for us to be reborn with Him. 

And that my dear friend, has surely happened.

No wonder the Lutheran first generation talked of denigrating the work of God’s people as denigrating the very work, the very ministry of God! 

So be careful how you fling around this passage, and the doctrines you create or try to sustain it. For teaching, those things to people will give them the wrong idea, and you will liable for trying to paralyze the people of God.

Know that God works through His people, all His people, as He walks with them, and will do amazing things!  And proclaim this and encourage it, as God renews and revitalizes the church!




G., ed. The Book of Concord the Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Philadelphia: Mühlenberg Press, 1959. Print.

About justifiedandsinner

I am a pastor of a Concordia Lutheran Church in Cerritos, California, where we rejoice in God's saving us from our sin, and the unrighteousness of the world. It is all about His work, the gift of salvation given to all who trust in Jesus Christ, and what He has done that is revealed in Scripture. God deserves all the glory, honor and praise, for He has rescued and redeemed His people.

Posted on January 15, 2018, in Book of Concord, Devotions, Theology in Practice and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Great post!

    I am a Lutheran, and it has never sat well with me to hear a christian’s good works called “filthy rags.” If God’s Word says christians do truly good works, it seems just plain wrong to apply that derogatory label to them. It contradicts God’s own assessment!

    I do, however, have a problem understanding how any work that is tainted by sin could be called truly “good?” I thought God’s standard for true “goodness” was utter perfection, in terms of both outward and inward obedience. Since none of us meet that mark, how can anything we do be considered “good?” Any help on this point would be appreciated. Thanks!

    Joe pipkorn

    • justifiedandsinner

      thanks Joe, the paradox that is good works takes a lifetime to work through… just like we can’t nly see Article IV, but have to see Article VI of the Augsburg Confession and keep them in tension. God’s peace!

  2. Thanks for your quick response. It’s not just an academic matter to me. I find it depressi g to be doing something i know to be pleasing to God, then immediately upon feeling happy about it, i wonder if I am being prideful since in Gods eyes–or in reality (same thing) it os not truly good at all. How do i deal with that tension?

    • justifiedandsinner

      I will respond a little more tomorrow, but the simple answer is Romans 8:28…. And it takes a while to work through that…. If Good declares you righters righters righteous then He is also declaring that of what you have done…

  3. I also have OCD, so the uncertainty about not knowing how to think about it can really eat at me, and it steals my peace. Thanks again, pastor.

  4. justifiedandsinner

    Joe –
    You are welcome.
    The challenge is to remember that God is at work in you ( Eph 2:10) causing you to do the works He has planned from before time.
    That is the Holy Spirit’s work, yet it is done thorugh us, even as Article VI of the Augsburg cofnession states –

    Article VI: Of New Obedience
    Also they teach that this faith is bound to bring forth good fruits, and that it is necessary to do good works commanded by God, because of God’s will, but that we should not rely on those works to merit justification before God. For remission of sins and justification is apprehended by faith, as also the voice of Christ attests: When ye shall have done all these things, say: We are unprofitable servants. Luke 17:10. The same is also taught by the Fathers. For Ambrose says:
    It is ordained of God that he who believes in Christ is saved, freely receiving remission of sins, without works, by faith alone.
    — Augsberg Confession, The

    The challenge is that we so focus on Article IV – that we are saved by faith alone, that we don’t talk about what happens often after we are saved.

    God is with you – which means God is work in you, and through you.

I love to know your thoughts on this... please respond!