Stinky Kitchen Rags
"…All our righteousness-es are as filthy rags…"
Isaiah 64:6 KJV
"Gross. Who left this rag in the sink full of dirty dishes?" I asked.
I picked up the soaked, dripping, smelly, slimy, green towel from the bottom of the kitchen sink—pinching it with thumb and forefinger on the driest corner possible.
"Well, whoever it was, please hang it up next time instead of leaving it in the sink. Thank you," I said as I dropped the rag into a plastic bag before taking it outside to dry.
Isaiah 64:6 didn't come to mind at the time, but what a great reminder of what our self-effort looks like to God. "All our Isaiah 64:6 are as filthy rags," says the King James Version. (Yes, apparently, there's a plural for "righteousness.")
An article I read recently made this connection for me. The writer, Ann Dunagan, said:
We may think our own self-efforts help us earn "brownie points" with God. But, to Him, our human works are as worthless as stinky rags.
If we try to earn favor with God — instead of trusting in Jesus — it's like collecting yucky rags. The more they pile up, the more they stink and mildew.
Of course, the rags being referred to in Isaiah 64 are technically more ‘unclean' in a biblical sense if you know what I mean (see notes on v. 6 here and here) than smelly kitchen rags, but the picture is clear.
Colossians 3:4 says that Christ is the believer's life. Our moment-by-moment mindset is to be Christ—His perfect life, death, resurrection, ascension, intercession for us, and promised return to rule forever.
If I lose that moment-by-moment focus on Christ and fall into sin, it does me no good to try to return to God with self-effort—that's like offering Him stinky rags. Only the cleansing sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross can make us righteous before God.
Hebrews 12:10 says that God disciplines us… "for our good, so that we may share His holiness."
And 1 John 1:9 assures us that "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness."
"If we have sin in our lives, and we go on, and God does not put His hand in loving chastisement upon us, then we are not children of God," so wrote Francis Schaeffer in chapter eight of his book True Spirituality.
He went on to make the point that God disciplines us not only that we may share in His holiness, but that—as Hebrews 12:11 says—we may have the "peaceful fruit of righteousness." God wants us to experience relational peace with Him, not just be right with a rule book. As a perfect Father, He deeply loves His adopted children.
"This is what we ought to expect," says Schaeffer, "Given the biblical teaching that God really exists, that He is personal, and He has a holy character."
If this is what God is… and if I have become His child, should I not expect that when I have sinned, when I have done what is the opposite of His character, I must go back to Him as a Person, and say I am sorry?
He is not just a doctrine, or an abstraction; He is a Person who is there.
The first step of restoration after I have sinned, then, is in exactly the same line [as in becoming a Christian]. I must acknowledge that I cannot live the Christian life in my own strength or in my own goodness. I must raise the empty hands of faith for God's gift—only the finished work of Christ in space, time, and history, back there on Calvary's cross is enough. I must bring the specific sin under the blood of Jesus Christ, by faith.
Everything rests upon the reality of the fact that the blood of Christ has meaning in our present life, and restoration takes place as we, in faith, act upon that fact in specific cases of sin.
When my heart condemns me and cries, "You've done it again," I am to believe God again as to the value of the finished work of Jesus Christ for the present.
Intersecting Faith & Life:
If you want a restored relationship with God, you can have it as His child. But not until you humbly call specific sin sin.
Ask God for the grace to stop trying to return to Him with the rags of self-effort, to see and confess any sin in your life to Him, and then—as Schaeffer says—raise the empty hands of faith, counting on the availability of the blood of Christ for forgiveness and restoration in this present moment.