Isaiah 64:6 (“all our righteous acts are like filthy rags”) is often quoted by folks as proof that any effort on our part to do good still comes across as pretty putrid in God’s sight. As Kevin DeYoung explains in The Hole in Our Holiness, however, that’s just bad exegesis–and it paints a terribly unflattering (and woefully inaccurate) picture of our God, to us and to the world:
The “righteous deeds” Isaiah has in mind are most likely the perfunctory rituals offered by Israel without sincere faith and without wholehearted obedience. In Isaiah 65:1–7 the Lord rejects Israel’s sinful sacrifices. They are an insult to the Lord, smoke in his nostrils, just like the ritual “obedience” of Isaiah 58 that did not impress the Lord because his people were oppressing the poor. Their “righteous deeds” were “filthy rags” (64:6, KJV) because they weren’t righteous at all. They looked good but were a sham, a literal smoke screen to cover up their unbelief and disobedience.
But we should not think that every kind of “righteous deed” is like a filthy rag before God. In fact the previous verse, Isaiah 64:5, says “you [God] meet him who joyfully works righteousness, those who remember you in your ways.” It is not impossible for God’s people to commit righteous acts that please God.
Not only is it not impossible, DeYoung goes on to note, but it is downright possible and in fact specifically commended throughout the pages of the New Testament:
Those who bear fruit in every good work and increase in the knowledge of God are fully pleasing to God (Col. 1:10). Presenting your body as a living sacrifice pleases God (Rom. 12:1). Looking out for your weaker brother pleases God (14:18). Obeying your parents pleases God (Col. 3:20). Teaching the Word in truth pleases God (1 Thess. 2:4). Praying for the governing authorities pleases God (1 Tim. 2:1–3). Supporting your family members in need pleases God (5:4). Sharing with others pleases God (Heb. 13:16). Keeping his commandments pleases God (1 John 3:22). Basically, whenever you trust and obey, God is pleased.
And whenever you trust and obey, DeYoung adds, you reflect to the world an infinitely more accurate picture of God than when you insist to others that every human act ought to be regarded as “morally suspect”:
Why do we imagine God to be so unmoved by our heart-felt attempts at obedience? He is, after all, our heavenly Father. What sort of father looks at his daughter’s homemade birthday card and complains that the color scheme is all wrong? What kind of mother says to her son, after he gladly cleaned the garage but put the paint cans on the wrong shelf, “This is worthless in my sight”? What sort of parent rolls his eyes when his child falls off the bike on the first try? There is no righteousness that makes us right with God except for the righteousness of Christ. But for those who have been made right with God by grace alone through faith alone and therefore have been adopted into God’s family, many of our righteous deeds are not only not filthy in God’s eyes, they are exceedingly sweet, precious, and pleasing to him.
Do the good the Lord has specifically prepared in advance for you to do. It truly will bring him delight–and it will bring you into greater knowledge of his character as well.