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Are GOOD WORKS polluted rags as some would suggest?by Leonard Alt

She says, "It doesn’t matter if GOOD WORKS are meaning just plain works or works of the law, they are all 'as polluted rags'" (Is 64:6).

Betty (a person on social media) is one of many who confuse "good deeds" with "good works."  And since these "good deeds are like polluted rags," she sees Isaiah as speaking against "good works." She was not aware of the larger context; the book of Isaiah actually speaks for "good works." 

"All our good deeds have become like polluted rags; we have all withered like leaves and our guilt carries us away like the wind" (Isaiah 64:6).

On the surface, it is easy to see why she thinks "good deeds," are not good at all.  Look at it for yourself, these good deeds it says quite literally "have become like polluted rags." However, when we look at the larger context, we see something quite different. In order to get the larger context and the proper sense it is useful to look at several chapters before and after Isaiah 64:6. Isaiah, never spoke against good works; he spoke against evil works. Asking good questions will help lead us to the full context.

What are these good deeds?

Why are these good deeds like polluted rags?

Isaiah speaks for good works.

Are these good deeds the same as good works?

Isaiah speaks against evil works.

Some will say there is no difference in the type of works.

First of all, what are these good deeds?  They must have been doing something good otherwise the text wouldn’t say “good deeds” The good deeds that they were doing were fasting and other religious observances, in Isaiah 58:3. Fasting is something good and even though they were fasting, God did not hear it!

"Why do we fast, and you [God] do not hear it" (Isaiah 58:3). 

Why are these good deeds like polluted rags displeasing to God? Fasting in and of itself is not LIKE a polluted rag otherwise Jesus would never have fasted "forty days and forty nights" (Mt. 4:1-2). And so, fasting on the one hand is good and so why would God say that these good deeds are like polluted rags?  Isaiah gives us the answer. 

"Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. (Isaiah 58:3-4)."

The reason their good deeds (fasting) were referred to as polluted rags is because they were mistreating their laborers, carrying out their own pursuits and fighting with one another. God ignored their fasting not because they were doing good works, but because their works were evil.

Isaiah speaks for good works and calls these works fasting: "Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?" (Isaiah 58:6-7).

Are these "good deeds" the same as "good works?"  According to Isaiah, they are not the same. The "good deeds" in Isaiah are fasting and other religious observances. "Good works" in Isaiah are freeing the oppressed, feeding the hungry, taking care of the homeless and clothing the naked.  

Some look at the "good deeds" that are LIKE filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6) and wrongly conclude that these "good deeds" are "good works." They then conclude that these "good works" are like filthy rags, therefore Isaiah is speaking against "good works."  Please notice that Isaiah is not speaking against good works. He is speaking for good works (Isaiah 58:6-11) and against evil works (Isaiah 59:6-9). 

Rather than taking exception to what Betty and others were saying, I asked them to give me the context of Isaiah 64. And a number of people tried answering my question, but none of the answers had anything to do with the context. It then occurred to me that these are people of very good intention, who have borrowed from their own tradition, not realizing that what they were taught was at odds with what Isaiah was saying.

Isaiah speaks against evil works: “It is your sin that makes him hide his face so that he will not hear you (Isaiah 59:2). Their works are evil works, and deeds of violence come from their hands. Their feet run to do evil and they are quick to shed innocent blood.  Their thoughts are destructive thoughts; plunder and ruin are on their high ways” (Is 59:7).

The point is this, the good deeds (fasting) in Isaiah are not good works, secondly good works are never referred to as filthy rags any place in the entire Bible. God did not speak against good works. Calling good works, filthy rags is not a use of Scripture, but an abuse of Scripture. 

Some will say there is no difference in the type of works spoken of in scripture. To them all works are the same; however, what they don't seem to realize is that the word "works" is used in many different ways. Here are some examples.  

Works of the law: (Rm 3:28-31)

Good works: (Eph. 2:10; Isaiah 58:6-7)

Works of Jesus: (Mt. 7:22)

Works of evil: (Isaiah 59:57)

Dead works: (Heb. 9:11-14)

His workmanship: (Eph. 2:10)

The first thing we need to do when we hear the word "works," is to go into the context and find out what type of works it is!