“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” (Isa 64:6 NIV).
This text talks about “righteous acts”. They are described, surprisingly, many would think, as “filthy rags”. How can Isaiah claim such a thing and discourage us in our eagerness to do good and change the world for the better? The explanation is simple, but often hard for us self-righteous people to accept. We would like to think that, at least to some extent, we had contributed to our salvation and deliverance. However, when it comes to our eternal salvation there is no room for human boasting (1 Cor 1:29, Eph 2:9).
Israel lived in rebellion against their God. They were disobedient to Him and served other gods. At the same time, they still served the God of their fathers by performing ‘righteous acts’ in order to, if possible, ‘compensate’ for their idolatry. These ‘righteous acts’ were perhaps not wrong in themselves but there was a problem; they were done in a context of rebellion and as such were in fact acts of rebellion.
Man ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2:17) and we see the consequences today. Few people deny the existence of evil. According to Scripture, there is also human good, but its origin is not God, but rather man’s fallen nature and his desire to be like God. Both the good and evil side of the tree is condemned by God.
Many years ago I met a widely travelled American believer who had visited Sweden a few years earlier. He said, “I have never seen so much of the good side of the tree as I did in Sweden”. In other words he said Sweden was a very good country, but where did that goodness come from? Yes, there is naturally the Christian cultural heritage, but unfortunately most of that has been lost.
Sweden likes to see itself as the “the world’s conscience”. No other country seems to do more for refugees, the elderly, the sick, the handicapped, etc. But if, just as in the days of Isaiah, these things are done in a context of rebellion and idolatry, then such “righteous acts” are like filthy rags. Sweden is regarded as one of the most secularized and apostate countries in Europe, possibly in the whole world. Many see this as a positive development, in accordance with the view that the more we develop the less need we have of God.
God’s Word is very clear about people’s future. Man is destined to die once and then face judgment (Heb 9:27). All people will stand before God’s seat of judgment. Those who have rejected His finished work and offer of salvation through faith alone will be judged at the White Throne (Rev 20:11-15). Only one thing matters there, whether I am in Adam (lost) or in Christ (saved). If I am in Christ I won’t even be there as the only possible outcome for those present will be eternal separation from their Creator.
What a tragedy to trust in one’s own ‘righteous acts’ and believe it will help on that day. The good news, however, is that it just takes one decision to secure en eternity with Christ. If we believe in our hearts and confess with our mouths that Jesus is Lord (God in a human body) then we shall be saved (Rom 10:8-10). Paul lists a number of sinful acts in 1 Cor 6 and then says that such behavior characterized us earlier (1 Cor 6:11). In other words, a change has taken place regarding our standing before God and, hopefully, also in our lifestyle.
According to Isaiah, those who trust in their “righteous acts” will fall like leaves, blown away with the wind. Indeed, he even calls these “righteous acts” misdeeds (NIV says sins). As Christians today one of the greatest challenges is to resist replacing the clear message of the gospel with belief in “righteous acts.”
If a country, city, church, family or individual thinks this goodness, with its origin in man’s fallen nature, the result of eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, can save anyone they are deceived. If Sweden as a nation trusts in its own self-made “righteous acts,” and at the same time rejects God and His Word, then this goodness is just a sophisticated form of rebellion against God.
On the other hand, we can say that the worst rebels could, in a moment, receive the status of God’s children (1 John 1:12). What grace it is to believe in Him and be made righteous apart from the law (Rom 3:21). He will not reject any who come to Him (John 6:37) and He wants everyone to be saved (2 Tim 2:4, 2 Pet 3:9).