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Friday, February 14, 2020

Are all of our works really just filthy rags before God? (Isaiah 64:6)

In this Quickie Apologetics post, I will take a look at one of the most abused passages of Scripture which I routinely see Protestants quote in "support" of Faith Alone theology. That passage, or better yet thought fragment, is from Isaiah 64:6, which says:
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.
The first thing to notice here is that there has to be some context to this. The idea that you can just lift a phrase like "all our righteous deeds are filthy rags" and turn this into some universal principle is just outrageous. It is anti-Biblical when a person can just take a snippet of the Bible and build theology around it. This embarrassing approach to God's Word is found in Protestantism at all levels, but especially the moderately-educated folks who think they actually are being true to God's Word. Such an approach makes the very idea of "righteous acts" completely meaningless when used elsewhere in Scriptur if there's really nothing righteous about them. But can we honestly say that nobody in the Bible has ever done a righteous act? I'm sure some Protestants would love to make such a claim, but that just shows their agenda has no actual intention of taking God's Word seriously. 

Now for the dagger. Let's be true Christians (i.e. Catholics) who actually love the Bible and just take a look at the context, just one verse prior:
5 You meet him who joyfully works righteousness, those who remember you in your ways. Behold, you were angry, and we sinned; in our sins we have been a long time, and shall we be saved?
Here, Isaiah says God is pleased when people do righteous deeds and remember God's commandments. This is impossible if their good deeds are always filthy before God. Surely no Protestant is desperate enough to nullify this text in favor of the next verse. If that's the case, then you really cannot dialog with someone who isn't interested in real exegesis. The truth is, the plain teaching of this chapter is that it is speaking specifically of the Israelites who had turned to continual sinful living, hence "in our sins we have been a long time". In other words, they've made it a habit of sinful living, so much so that their good deeds don't amount to anything. If you're only doing good deeds externally while internally full of corruption, those good deeds don't amount to anything. Of if you decide to be on bad behavior all year but decide to start doing good when you know punishment is coming, then those good deeds are a mockery. If a husband is living in an adulterous relationship, then any good deeds he does for his actual wife are worthless and an insult to her. It's like when a child repeatedly misbehaves and only turns to good behavior when the parent gets upset and comes over.

So the next time a Protestant tries to quote "all our righteous deeds are filthy rags" at you, know that (1) their Biblical credibility is gone, and (2) just quote the prior verse.

8 comments:

guy fawkes said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Takmid said...

Aways loves when someone tries to argue using only a few verses and you just need to read the entire chapter or book to refute him. In these cases, you know the guy literally never tried to really read anything.

When this happen with unbelievers is kinda funny, when it happens with believers, is also sad.

Miguel said...

(I know, I deviated from the central theme of the publication (very good, by the way) but I don't know how to contact you for these topics. I apologize, dear friend.)

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Hey Nicky How are you? I hope that excellent.
I greet you from Mexico, the most Catholic country in Latin America.
I discovered your page thanks to an entry by the Catholic philosopher Edward Feser, and I wanted to give you something.

On this page (https://verdadpalabra.blogspot.com/) there are some entries (section on the right) dedicated in response to a Catholic regarding the primacy of Peter and the Roman Papacy. No one in LATAM has refuted them and I would like you to read them and give your thoughts about it, friend. Similarly, if you do not have time, I will refute them myself (with the favor of God) one day when I have time. But for now I am very interested in the opinion of a great in Catholic apologetics like you.

Blessings in the name of Jesus.

Michael Taylor said...

Nick,

Hope you're doing well....

I just can't help commenting on your rant on Isaiah 64:6.

Nick>>The first thing to notice here is that there has to be some context to this.<<

Yes, please remember that this is the industry standard. You'll need to hold yourself and your church to that same standard. So no reading in vows of perpetual virginity into Luke 1:34, or an infallible papacy into Matthew 16:18, or the Assumption of Mary into Revelation 12, etc. I mention this, because any Protestant misuse of Isaiah 64:6 pails in significance to the non-contextual, eisegesis that is omnipresent in official Roman documents.

>> The idea that you can just lift a phrase like "all our righteous deeds are filthy rags" and turn this into some universal principle is just outrageous. <<

Torture a text long enough and it can be made to say anything. We are in agreement on this.

>>It is anti-Biblical when a person can just take a snippet of the Bible and build theology around it.<<.

Hello, Pot calling Kettle....

>>This embarrassing approach to God's Word is found in Protestantism at all levels, but especially the moderately-educated folks who think they actually are being true to God's Word.<<

And it's found in Rome at its highest levels--so much so that you've infallibly defined yourself into absurdities that cannot be undone because your church thinks it's infallible....At least we can correct any misuses of Isaiah 64:6. But with so many texts, your'e absolutely stuck. Take Rome's eisegetical and egregious misuse of Luke 22:32, which has the force of an allegedly ecumenical council behind it:

Vatican 1: 6. For the Holy Spirit was promised to the successors of Peter not so that they might, by his revelation, make known some new doctrine, but that, by his assistance, they might religiously guard and faithfully expound the revelation or deposit of faith transmitted by the apostles. Indeed, their apostolic teaching was embraced by all the venerable fathers and reverenced and followed by all the holy orthodox doctors, for they knew very well that this See of St. Peter always remains unblemished by any error, in accordance with the divine promise of our Lord and Savior to the prince of his disciples: "I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren."[Luke 22:32]

Ummm... where to begin with this bombastic bull-pucky?

First, Rome claims for itself what everyone claims--namely that it does not make up new doctrines, but simply hands down what was taught be the apostles and that the Holy Spirit assists them in doing so. You won't find a denomination out there that doesn't make the same claim. Few of them (including Rome), however, can actually demonstrate that their beliefs can be traced back to the Apostles themselves. Since the stream of so many of Rome's beliefs dry up long before the apostolic age, we won't tarry here to point them all out.

Second, there is an historical claim here, namely, that "all the venerable fathers" and "all the holy orthodox doctors" believed the See of Peter was "unblemished by any error." There is no credible church historian who wouldn't laugh at this historical claim for being demonstrably untrue. In fact, not only can it be shown that *not* all the fathers and doctors believed in Rome's infallibility, in the sense Vatican I requires, but that more likely *none* of them did.

But the real egregious claim here is that Luke 22:32 has *anything* to do with papal infallibility. To paraphrase you: "The idea that you can just lift a phrase like ' have prayed for you that your faith may not fail' and turn this into some universal principle is just outrageous." Yep. It's outrageous all right. And it cannot be remedied because it's embedded into the very fabric of Rome's claim to infallibility.




Michael Taylor said...

And now to address the rest:

Nick>>Now for the dagger. Let's be true Christians (i.e. Catholics) who actually love the Bible and just take a look at the context, just one verse prior: 5 You meet him who joyfully works righteousness, those who remember you in your ways. Behold, you were angry, and we sinned; in our sins we have been a long time, and shall we be saved?<<

Even better would be to read the entire chapter. Isaiah is interceding by way of confessing Israel's sin. The contrasts between the good Israel once did and its present sinful state are everywhere present in the chapter. Protestants who lift one "catch phrase" from the entire chapter may very well be guilty of misunderstanding what the "filthy rag" refers to. But more responsible commentators have long noticed that such language is typical in scripture for making a dramatic contrast between our relative goodness and our nature corrupted by sin.

Here's something Jesus says along those same lines: “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, 23 but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!" (Matthew 6:22-23).

It's not that we are incapable of performing morally good actions. It's that we do so as those who are inherently sinful. Jesus believes it is possible to be "full of light," and therefore spiritually healthy. But sin is also a possibility, even for those who seem to be healthy. When those with a jaundiced eye perform good actions (righteous deeds--as Isaiah would say), the relative light in them is still reckoned as "darkness" by a Holy God who can see their motives for what they are. Anyone can honor God with their lips. But that doesn't mean their hearts are near to Him.

When Protestants say, "all are righteous deeds are as filthy rags," we are saying that all our pretentions to being morally good people are, in light of a Holy God, fall far short of the divine standard. That's a general principle found everywhere in Scripture, and so it is possible to apply it when it is an apt description of God's wayward people. But it would be wrong to apply this principle universally to everyone at all times. By God's grace we can do righteous deeds that God considers praiseworthy.

Nick>>So the next time a Protestant tries to quote "all our righteous deeds are filthy rags" at you, know that (1) their Biblical credibility is gone, and (2) just quote the prior verse.<<

Or better yet, ask them what they mean by that. Chances are they're not saying that we can do no good whatsoever. That's just a canard on your part and a typical Catholic misreading of Calvin applied to all Protestants with a very broad brush.

Be well.

Nick said...

Hello Michael,

Your first post was a largely irrelevant rant about Luke 22:32.

Your second post basically confirms what I was saying about this passage being abused. It is not some general principle, that's my point. If you want a general principle, point elsewhere. I can personally testify that I've seen this verse abused by various Protestants over the years, often times with the mindset that even our post-conversion works fall short and cannot play any role in our salvation.

Michael Taylor said...

If abuse is the issue, then Luke 22:32 is back on the table. Whatever abuse Protestants may make of the "filthy rags" verse pails in significance to the abuse of the Vatican.

But most people who appeal to Isaiah 64:6 are not "abusing' the text. They're stating the obvious: We often do good things with the wrong motives or we try to run a record of good deeds before a Holy God--only to find out that our deeds aren't nearly good enough.

What's undeniably abuse and scripture twisting and evidence of your church's fallibility is its official use of Luke 22:32, not to mention the demonstrably false claim that the ECFs all understood the verse in the same way.

Irrelevant? Hardly.

Nick said...

Maybe Luke 22:32 is being abused, but that's not the focus of this post.

The clear meaning of Isaiah 64:6 is that the Israelites had a track record of intentionally violating the Torah that God no longer considered their good works to have any value. It is basically speaking of apostasy. That scenario has NOTHING to do with doing good things with the wrong motives or having imperfections in our good works. The text is about the Israelites being on bad behavior as long as they can get away with it, then trying to turn to good behavior when they think punishment is coming, without any real intent of changing their lifestyle.