The Biology of Our Own Works
Disclaimer: Sometimes in our efforts to be “proper” we inadvertently avoid or water down some of the great truths of the Bible. Let’s face it, the Bible is not what modern culture would call a G-rated book. It’s not even PG, or even PG-13 in spots. To fully understand the beautiful spiritual truth in today’s essay, we’re going to have to just accept the fact that sometimes things on the surface may appear crass, but the depth of meaning revealed once we understand what is really being said is amazingly powerful.
Having said that…
Isaiah 64 is a chapter calling on God in repentance, admitting that we are nothing without Him, and that there is no God like Him. There are several good points in this chapter, and several truths that most people would wholeheartedly agree to. From verse 8 – “we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.”And from verse 5 – “You meet him who joyfully works righteousness, those who remember you in your ways.” Verse 6 is commonly quoted:
We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
In the King James, this is translated, “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.”
I have several visual memories of preachers talking about how our very best – our righteousness – is as filthy rags. Often greasy auto shop rags are described, or dirty kitchen rags are spoken of to give the listener a visual comparison for our best efforts without God. And while these comparisons are valid and true, and even Biblical, what this verse says goes way beyond a simple illustration of our cleanness being “dirty” compared to God’s cleanness. However, in order to see the full truth of this verse, we need to be willing to admit what verbiage the Bible used when describing our righteousness. The Hebrew word translated filthy in the King James was only used used once in all of the Old Testament. It is the word `iddah, and it means menstruation. I don’t know about the average reader, but I see a big difference between a greasy auto shop rag or a dirty dishcloth and a menstrual rag. I see a difference not only in the “gross” factor, but by avoiding the true comparison the scripture gives, I see a difference that causes most to miss the fullness of what this scripture is really saying.
The Bible states that the Church is the Bride of Christ. God’s relationship with us is compared to that of a husband and wife (See Ephesians 5:22-25). This relationship must be realized in understanding Isaiah 64:6. Just as a husband should love and support his wife, so God wants to work with us, and support us as we allow Him to work in and through us to bring about His Kingdom to the lost of this world.
Too many of us have the dichotomy wrong. We see things as either righteous in God, bringing forth the works of God, or righteous in our own works, bringing forth their own good, separate from God. A revival meeting can bring forth God’s righteousness, and people can find salvation, or an unsaved person who gives thousands of dollars to the poor can bring forth another form of righteousness separate from that of God. But is this correct scripturally? While I am in no way discounting the benefit of giving to the poor, we must always remember to look at things from God’s perspective. No matter how much money is given away, and no matter how rich in material wealth the poor become, they are still poor spiritually. Their journey without God has simply been made more comfortable and they are still lost without the good news of Jesus Christ. We like to believe there is a nice big neutral ground of good that we can accomplish on our own, but Jesus said, “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters” (Matthew 12:30, Luke 11:23). Read that again. If we are not gathering into the Kingdom, then we are scattering. Strong words, and I know for myself, an uncomfortable truth. In God’s Kingdom, there is no neutral ground. Those who appear to the world as “neutral” are most likely neither hot nor cold in their passion for Christ. And of those, Jesus warns that he is about to spew them out of his mouth (See Revelations 3:16).
So, what does Isaiah 64:6 say our own righteousness is? Let’s look at the anatomy of a “menstrual rag.” For those who do not recall Jr. High sex ed. let me give a quick reminder of what the menstrual cycle actually is. Every month, a mature woman prepares for pregnancy. The uterine lining is prepared for the reception of a fertilized egg, and an egg is released so that it can be fertilized. If all goes as designed, a life will be created. However, if not, the woman’s body will shed everything that was prepared, and the cycle will start again. The woman was created in honor, and has the capacity to bring life into the world, but no matter how hard a woman tries, or how sincere and loving she is in her attempts, she can not bring life into this world on her own. The woman needs to work in partnership with her husband – and so it is with us and God. No matter how hard we try, and no matter how sincere or loving our attempts are, our works can not bring life on their own. Much like the wife needs her husband to create life, we need to work in partnership with God in order to create works of any lasting value. And when we try to create good on our own, the result is equated to being no different than the result of a woman’s body preparing for life, but not joining with her husband to make that life come into existence.
Let that sink in.
We are created for good works, but we are created for good works in Christ (see Ephesians 2:10). On our own, our works are without value. The enemy has used the false dichotomy of various types of righteousness to deceive both believers and non believers. For those who don’t follow Christ, the world has been deceived into believing that their own good works are enough. How often do we hear it said, “I’m a good person, so I believe I’ll go to heaven”? As nice as it would be if this were true, our own goodness is never good enough. If it were, then Christ died in vain, for we could have been able to find our way to heaven on our own. But no matter how good we are – even if we make every effort to follow the law of God perfectly, we still fall short. Galatians 2:16 says “Yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ… because by works of the law no one will be justified.” Romans 3:23 says “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…” Romans 6:23 says “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” If you have never accepted Christ, know that salvation is a free gift, paid for by someone else, because we can not pay for it ourselves, no matter how hard we try.
Another deception of righteousness plagues believers and unbelievers as well. It is so easy for Christians to forget that it is by grace that we are saved, and not by our own works (or our own righteousness). (see Ephesians 2:8-9). How many Christians have failed God, or slowly fallen away, and refuse to believe that they can come back to Him until they have “cleaned themselves up.” Or how many non-Christians who know they need salvation want to “clean themselves up” before they are willing to come to Christ? It simply won’t work. Our efforts to clean ourselves up – to make us righteous – no matter how much we want to bring forth life in our lives, will fail. This deception is used by the enemy to delay our turning to (or back to) Christ, and he will do everything he can to destroy us in that time. We need simply to come to Him, as we are, knowing that He will gladly accept us. It was while we were yet sinners that Christ died for us (see Romans 5:8). If we ever need to come to Him or come back to Him, we simply need to confess our sins, as He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (see 1 John 1:9).
We live in a very gray world, but as Christians, we follow a very black and white King. Our righteousness, or our own good works aren’t simply an alternate path to goodness. Our goodness isn’t something we need to develop on our own before we can come into the presence of God. Our own works and efforts to be righteous are simply us trying to give birth on our own to what can only be done in cooperation with our Creator. Like the woman trying to have a baby by herself, our works for righteousness will never result in anything viable. We must, must, work in cooperation with our Creator. To not do so, no matter how great our work is in our own eyes, will result in something that could have been life, but isn’t.