Author: Kevin George
This book is a work in progress. Posts on this blog are to enable readers to examine the manuscript and make commentary. These blog posts are NOT the final version!
Isaiah 64:6 has been a popular verse since the Reformation (Martin Luther – early 1500s). Isolated from its context, this is what it says, “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” KJV.
A lot of bad theology and psychological manipulation has been based on this isolated passage. But this verse is usually being used out of its context, and is not to be applied to everyone. Isaiah 64 is a prayer of Isaiah to God, which actually begins in chapter 63, verse 15. Isaiah is praying for the nation of Israel in his day, which had gone into great wickedness. It would be much like someone praying for America today.
Notice in the “filthy rags” verse that Isaiah mentions “we have all”, and “all our” and “we all” and “our iniquities” and “take us”. This would be no different than what a righteous man today would be saying when praying for his nation. He is a member of that nation, and so he includes himself. In verse 9 Isaiah even specifies, “…we are all your people.” So, it is within this context that Isaiah is saying that they are so far from God that even what they as a nation are hypocritically claiming as “righteousness” is still “as filthy rags.” It is a condition that describes this group of people, the nation of Israel at that time.
Does this “filthy rags” apply to all individuals? No. Notice what Isaiah says in the same chapter, verse 5, immediately before this popular “filthy rags” verse: “You meet him who joyfully works righteousness, those who remember you in your ways.” So, there were individuals who worked righteousness within the nation of Israel, and God rejoiced in them and met with them! Is Isaiah going to change his mind in the very next verse and say that the righteous works of these righteous individuals are filthy rags? No. Verse 5 shows that God recognizes the individuals within the group, and acknowledges them. The group as a whole is filthy, but when examined within the group, there are a few exceptions. (God is not an idiot! He can discern between the few righteous and the many wicked.)
While much of the time this “filthy rags” verse is used wrongly in ignorance, those who are teachers have the burden of verifying that they are being truthful. “To whom much is given, much shall be required.” To further add to the error, this “filthy rags” idea is often used to claim that even when we strive to do right we are being filthy, as if sacrificing to do right is being self-righteous, and as if sinning is a source of humility! If that is so, why bother attempting to do right? Many people have resigned in despair, or seek to please God through their intellect instead of living righteously. But God seeks for and blesses those who are living righteous. Consider the following passages, and then be sure your theology is popular with God, no matter what men may say:
*Note: God’s definition of “righteous” is a reference to uprightness, integrity, and good deeds, not absolute, infinite sinless perfection.
Some theological lines of thought claim that until Jesus died there was no ability to resist sin, that it is only through him and/or his blood that we have the power to resist. However, we read in Genesis 4:7 that God told Cain, “If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you refuse to do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires you, but you must master it.” Cain had the ability to purge his sinful thoughts and behavior, some 4,000 years before Jesus! Also, blood is not the only thing used for atonement. Flour was also used, see Leviticus 5:11-12.
Consider this popular verse in 2 Chronicles 7:14: “If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” Not only did they have the ability to stop sinning, God promised forgiveness if they would stop. The coming of Jesus did not occur for about another 1,000 years after this was written!
God forgave (past tense) people before Jesus too: “You forgave the iniquity of your people; you covered all their sin.” Ps. 85:2
Sin and the Sinner
A common thought pattern within PSA proponents is that a person who has sinned is forever a sinner. But this is like saying that someone who swam once is forever a swimmer. This line of logic leads to thinking that a person will always be sinning, and to say otherwise is to claim sinless perfection. But some Bible passages give the impression that a person can stop sinning, or at least there are no passages that state that we will continue sinning as long as we are living this life. There are no, “I’m just a sinner saved by grace” statements in the Bible, or “I’m not perfect, just forgiven” as some today like to say. To the contrary, we are told to stop sinning as if we can actually do so. Surely this cannot be, as it would seem to be teaching a doctrine of sinless perfection.
A Christian should be an ex-sinner, not an active sinner, and an ex-sinner should not be called a sinner. Labelling an ex-sinner as a sinner diminishes the biblical expectation that Christians should stop sinning. It presumes failure and makes sinning an expected common practice, rendering it less sinful. The Bible calls believers “saints”, not because they have achieved a status of impeccability, but because sin is no longer a normal activity of their lives.
We should consider that sin from a Hebraic perspective may be different than strict black-versus-white categorical choices. Right and wrong, sin and righteousness, are often thought of as paths that we choose to walk. For example we read:
“He guides me in the paths of righteousness for the sake of His name.” Psalm 23:3
“Lead me, O LORD, in your righteousness because of my enemies; make your way straight before me” Psalm 5:8
“Show me Your ways, O LORD; teach me Your paths…He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way” Psalm 25:4, 9
“Righteousness will go before him and make his footsteps a way” Psalm 85:13 ESV.
Apparently Hebraic thought is more concerned with the path that we have chosen to travel. The path has priority over the occasional failures along the way. Indeed, we read that “the righteous falls seven times and rises again” Proverbs 24:16. This is not to say that sin is excusable, rather what matters is also what happens after the sin, whether it will be confessed and forsaken and the path of righteousness will be chosen again or whether the person will turn and deliberately choose to travel the path of the wicked. Consider your life – are you seeking to travel a path of righteous living, even though you may occasionally stray, or have you abandoned this path and chosen the path of the wicked? A person who is deliberately travelling the path of righteousness is not a practicing sinner, though he may occasionally stumble and sin. The sinner is the one who has chosen the path of sin, the path of the wicked who lives in rebellion against God and the order He intended for our lives.
Sin and Transgression are not the Same
Romans 4:15 “Because the law brings punishment – [for] where no law is, neither [is there] transgression [parabasis].” “Parabasis” means “going aside, or going over, like crossing a line, an infraction”; also used in Hebrews 2:2 “For if the word spoken by angels was steadfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just recompence of reward”. Parabasis is the transgressing or violation of an instruction, specifically, in Romans, the Mosaic law. Without there being an actual law, there cannot be a violation of that law. Gentiles, who are not under Mosaic law, cannot be transgressors of that law.
Sin, “harmatia” is missing the mark, an error. It could be a minor error or a very egregious error. In the case of sin it is erring to abide by the expectation that God had for us, not living according to His divine order. Both Jews and Gentile can commit “harmatia”, sin.
“Where no law is” in Romans 4 verse 15 is indicative of there being places or circumstances where there is no law, specifically outside of Israel and Mosaic Law jurisdiction. But when and where there is a violation of that written law, there is wrath, judgment according to that law “every transgression and disobedience received a just recompence of reward” Hebrews 2:2. For those who are under the Mosaic Law, a transgression of that Law would also be a sin.
There is also such a thing as committing a transgression “parabasis” against another person. Jesus mentions this in Matthew 6:14-15 “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” ESV. In this instance, the word “trespasses” or “paraptōmata” is indicative of doing something out of proper order, a customary social order or basic normal behavioral norm. Jesus is not necessarily speaking of the codified, written Mosaic Law.
Paul describes 2 categories of sin in Colossians 3. The first category should be sins that are never to be again committed and there is no process of gradual transforming sanctification. The second category is a continual process of sanctification.
Category 1: “Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry: 6 For which things’ sake the wrath of God cometh on the children of disobedience: 7 In the which ye also walked some time, when ye lived in them.”
Category 2: “8 But now ye ALSO put off all these; anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy communication out of your mouth. 9 Lie not one to another, seeing that ye have put off the old man with his deeds; 10 And have put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him.” KJV
Righteousness – Where Do We Get It?
In Matthew 5:6 Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” According to Jesus, God will bless those who deliberately seek righteousness. He also said, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:13). See also Luke 5:7 and Matthew 5:20. Other Bible passages state the same, “The way of the wicked is an abomination to the LORD, but he loves him who pursues righteousness”, “Whoever pursues righteousness and kindness will find life, righteousness, and honor” Proverbs 15:9, 21:21 ESV.
Righteousness is a virtue, just as are love, patience, and humility. We must choose to pursue, sometimes even grope, for these things. Virtues cannot be transferred! A virtue is not a status, not a position or a state of being.