Filthy Rags

Catechetical sermons preached in PCC Evening Worship Services, Feb 2013 to Dec 2017

WSC 82 of 107

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.

Isaiah 64:6

WSC 82. Is any man able perfectly to keep the commandments of God? 

A. No mere man since the Fall is able in this life perfectly to keep the commandments of God,1 but doth daily break them in thought, word, and deed.2  

1Eccl 7:20; 1 Jn 1:8, 10; Gal 5:17; 2Gen 6:5; 8:21; Rom 3:9–21; Jas 3:2–13. 

 We have been studying the doctrine that we believe as a church by expounding the text underlying the Westminster Shorter Catechism. This has brought us through a study of the Ten Commandments.  

We must now consider the question that most naturally follows any consideration of the Ten Commandments: whether we can keep them perfectly. 

This is the eighty-second question of our Catechism: “Is any man able perfectly to keep the commandments of God?” 


No mere man since the Fall is able in this life perfectly to keep the commandments of God, but doth daily break them in thought, word, and deed.

WSC 82

This is the doctrine. But where in the Scriptures is it taught? And why is it essential to believe it? It is taught in numerous places. For example, the proof texts given in our catechism list: Ecclesiastes 7:20; 1 John 1:8, 10; Galatians 5:17; Genesis 6:5; 8:21; Romans 3:9–21; James 3:2–13. 

But for our purpose, we want to look at another familiar verse, namely Isaiah 64:6: 

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.

With the Lord helping us, we want to do three things with this verse. First, we must consider its background; secondly, we want to draw three doctrinal propositions consistent with the answer we are given to affirm in WSC 82; and thirdly, we must consider its implications for our lives. So, this sermon will have three parts: (1) Background, (2) Doctrine, and (3) Application. 


The prophet Isaiah ministered in the Kingdom of Judah at a time of great uncertainty. He began his ministry when King Uzziah was reigning. King Uzziah started as an excellent king. He walked in the ways of David and built the nation’s army and infrastructure as no one else had before. But at the peak of his career, pride overcame him. He sought to do what he was not permitted to do. The Lord struck him with leprosy, and he lived the rest of his days as a leper. 

Jotham, his son, who took over the throne, was quite a good king. He reigned for sixteen years. But when he died, Ahaz took over. And what a wicked king he was! As if to outdo the wickedness of the kings in the north, he even carried out human sacrifices! 

The Northern Kingdom of Israel came to an end in the twenty-first year of King Ahaz when the Assyrians razed Samaria to the ground and carried most of the remnant into exile. That was the year 722 BC.  

Hezekiah was serving as a co-regent with Ahaz during this time. He became the sole king only in 715 BC.  

Hezekiah was a good king. He tried to bring about a reformation in the land. It was a massive undertaking, but the tide of apostasy had now gained an unstoppable momentum. 

It was against this rather sad and confusing background that Isaiah preached. Our text may also be understood against this background. 

Isaiah understood that the troubles that had come upon the nation resulted from their apostasy from God. Apostasy is sin. Sin had polluted the nation and made them unacceptable to God. Because of sin, even their most righteous acts are tainted and sinful. “All our righteousness are as filthy rags,” he says. The words translated “filthy rags” literally means “menstrual cloth.”1 It refers to the rags women used during their monthly cycle in ancient times. Isaiah is suggesting that their righteous words, deeds and thoughts are like soiled menstrual cloths. They are polluted and of no further use. You can use a floor cloth to wipe your feet, but you will never use a soiled menstrual cloth for anything. Unless it is first cleansed, it cannot be useful for anything. It is fit only to the discarded.  

As a result, says Isaiah, “We all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away.” That is to say, we all become light and insignificant. Remember that the Hebrew word for ‘glory’ means ‘weight’. Glory is spiritual weight, and so weightlessness is insignificance. Sin has made us like a dry leaf blown away by the wind rather than a delectable fruit.  

Here, then, is the context and meaning of our text. 


What doctrine may we draw from this verse? Let me propose three things. 

a. Firstly, it is clear that man’s righteousness is filthy when compared to God’s righteousness. 

What does Isaiah mean by “all our righteousness.” Quite clearly, anyone who hears him will know he is referring to anything done or said that may be regarded as good and right, at least in the sight of man. 

If it is regarded as filthy in the sight of man, it would not be understood as righteousness. 

What are some things the Jews would regard as right and good? No doubt, as a religious people, they would understand their religious duties, worship, sacrifices, observance of holy days, fasting, prayers and the keeping of God’s commandments as right and good! 

But these things are really filthy rags. In whose eyes? No doubt, in God’s eyes. All their religious exercises, which appear to be clean and good in man’s eyes, are filthy rags in God’s eyes. 

Man’s standard of acceptable righteousness, when compared with God’s standard, is deplorable. It is like calling black white, the smell of a rotting snail perfume, and a faeces-smeared pizza delectable. Man’s standard of righteousness is simply not reliable. 

But why?  

In the first place, man looks at the outward appearance, whereas God looks at the heart. Man is impressed by whatever appears good outwardly. A billionaire gives a million dollars to charity. It looks good. But the Lord is not impressed. The widow with her two mites impresses Him more.  

In the second place, man judges subjectively according to his own miserable standard, whereas God judges objectively according to His perfect standard. Habbakuk was furious that God was sending the Babylonians to chastise Judah. Why? Because he thought that Judah was more righteous than the Babylonians! But God is not bound by his judgement or his standard. “The just shall live by his faith,” He says (Hab 2:4). Only His own standard qualifies as righteousness. Those who depend on their own righteousness will perish. 

In the third place, God is perfectly holy. He is, as Habbakuk also insists, “of purer eyes than to behold evil, and canst not look on iniquity” (Hab 1:13). Fallen man, on the other hand, is not only guilty in Adam, but lives with a sinful nature inherited from Adam. Job’s friend Eliphaz is undoubtedly correct in his assessment, Job 15:14: 

What is man, that he should be clean? and he which is born of a woman, that he should be righteous? 15Behold, he putteth no trust in his saints; yea, the heavens are not clean in his sight. 16How much more abominable and filthy is man, which drinketh iniquity like water?

For these three reasons, we say that man’s righteousness is filthy when compared to God’s righteousness. But this leads us to our second doctrine, which is that… 

b. Sin pollutes everything that fallen man does. 

Isaiah says, “We are all as an unclean thing.” To be unclean is to be polluted or defiled. Why are we polluted or defiled? Because of iniquities or sins! “Our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away,” adds Isaiah. 

As I mentioned, this is why man’s righteousness is filthy compared to God’s righteousness. But it is also why man’s righteousness is not truly righteous in the first place. 

A fallen man cannot do anything perfectly at any time because of his indwelling sin. Because of our sin nature, every one of our thoughts is mingled with impurity, every word spoken is fraud with imperfection, and sinful motives stain every deed.  

Think of a man trying to clean up his house. He sweeps and mops and dusts and wipes. It would seem that he is doing a good job. But what if I tell you that this man has a terrible infectious skin disease, and he is leaving his infected DNA on everything he touches? 

This is the case with us: Whatever good work we try to do is polluted with our sin. Whenever we try to keep the commandments of God, our sin will corrupt our effort. Our motives are not pure. We do not do anything out of perfect love for Christ or for our neighbour. All that we do fall short of the glory of God. God requires one hundred per cent righteousness, whereas we consistently and constantly fall short of that standard because of indwelling sin. 

c. Thirdly, it is clear from this verse and other explicit verses of Scripture that sin affects everyone and continues to do so until we die. That is, everyone who descended from Adam by ordinary generation, or everyone except Christ. Therefore, as our Catechism puts it: 

No mere man since the Fall is able in this life perfectly to keep the commandments of God, but doth daily break them in thought, word, and deed.

What about unborn babies? Well, they may not yet have actual sin, but they are guilty in Adam, and they are not able to keep God’s commandment. 

What about young babies or those who are mentally incapacitated? Well, it is the same as with unborn babies. If they have any moral consciousness and fail to love or glorify God by their words, deeds or thoughts, they sin. 

What about believers? These have been born again and have a nature that loves righteousness and is enabled to do righteousness. We are created in Christ Jesus unto good works, says Paul (Eph 2:10). Do we sin constantly, too? 

The answer is yes: Even believers constantly break God’s commandments daily in thought, word and deed. We see this in Isaiah’s words. Notice how he 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.

Who is this “we”? Clearly, Isaiah includes himself, a born-again prophet of God. Isaiah understands that even his own righteousnesses are as filthy rags in God’s sight. 

Recall the event in Isaiah 6. Isaiah is being called to the ministry. He sees a vision of the Lord sitting upon the throne, and the seraphim calling out “Holy, holy, holy” as they cover their faces and feet. What is Isaiah’s response? He says: 

Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts.

Isa 6:5

In the light of the glory of God, Isaiah sees his own sin as he has never seen before. Then, a seraph takes a live coal off the altar, touches his lips with it, and declares: “Thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged” (v. 7). 

Isaiah understands that he is still a sinner before God, and unless his sin is purged and forgiven by the Lord himself, He will perish. His own righteousness does not meet God’s standard and is unacceptable to God. 

Yes, believers, unlike the unregenerate, are enabled to keep God’s commandments. For that reason, we do not say that believers are still totally depraved, at least not in the sense of the definition of the Canons of Dort from which the term is derived. Yet believers cannot keep the commandments of God perfectly in this life. 

Yes, they desire to keep God’s commandments and do good work, but unless they are enabled by the Holy Spirit, working in them to will and to do of God’s good pleasure, they can do nothing. And except the righteousness of Christ covers them, their work is unacceptable to God. 

So because of the Holy Spirit’s contribution and because the righteousness of Christ covers us, our good works are accepted by God. Yet it is a fact that we do fall short of the glory of God in all our obedience. 

This is why Paul says in Romans 7: “For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do” (v. 19). Paul is not speaking of Old Testament saints or himself before his conversion as some claim. He is writing about his present experience. He is speaking about the struggle between his new man and the old man, the remnant of his corruption. 

This remnant of corruption will only be eradicated when we leave this present world. In the meantime, we break God’s commandments in our thoughts, words and deeds daily. 


We have seen three doctrinal points from our text: (1) Man’s righteousness is filthy when compared to God’s righteousness; (2) Sin pollutes everything that fallen man does; and (3) Sin affects everyone, young and old, believers and unbelievers, so that indeed no “No mere man since the Fall is able in this life perfectly to keep the commandments of God, but doth daily break them in thought, word, and deed.”  

How should we respond to this doctrine? Let me suggest three responses. 

a. First, if it is true that no man can keep God’s commandments perfectly in this life, then let us be grateful to Christ for saving us. Let us understand that none of us can contribute a single stitch to the garment of our salvation. Roman Catholicism and Arminianism are both wrong. We do not contribute to our salvation. Yes, we are to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. That includes keeping God’s commandments and using the means of grace, but that should be done with the attitude of love and gratitude, not of fear, nor of wanting to secure a better standing before God or, worse, of securing temporal blessings. 

Let us not misunderstand the Lord when He teaches us to seek first the kingdom of God that all these things shall be added unto us. He is not saying He will bless us according to how much we do for Him. No, no; He gives graciously. All whom He loves will love Him in return and will seek first His kingdom out of love and gratitude, and He, in turn, will bless them out of love. It is a bond of love, not a contract of work and payment. Make no mistake.  

If your attitude towards Christian service and the keeping of God’s commandment is still that of seeking God’s favour, you are quite mistaken. Not only are your righteousnesses filthy rags in God’s sight and deserve no rewards, but you will be severely disappointed because God is not obliged to bless according to your good works. Indeed, He sometimes chastises out of love those who are serving Him fervently. If you serve Him with the right attitude, you will count it all joy when He sends trials. But if you serve Him with the wrong attitude, you will become bitter and cynical.  

Are you already bitter and cynical because you feel you have poured out your life for the Lord, and He has not blessed you in return? Remember: your righteousnesses are filthy rags in the eyes of God! Or are you serving with joy, love, and gratitude? Then know that your service, though a filthy rag, is accepted by the Lord as a sweet savour sacrifice for Christ’s sake! 

Secondly, if we know that no mere man can in this life perfectly keep the commandments of God, then let us repent of our sins daily. Yes, we have already been forgiven through the blood of Christ, but let us remember to seek God’s Fatherly forgiveness.  

This is why the Lord teaches us to pray, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”  

I am not saying that we should have a morbid Christian life where we examine ourselves daily in intricate details to ferret out every single minute infraction of God’s commandment to confess and repent of them specifically. Martin Luther did that until he discovered the doctrine of justification by grace through faith.  

Instead, I am saying that every Christian ought to be humble regarding his own righteousness and that we must come before the Lord daily to acknowledge our sins. Our attitude should not be like that of the proud Pharisee who thanked God for his righteousness and religious acts. Instead, We should be like the Publican who prayed for mercy or propitiation for his sin.  

It is a good practice to begin the day by asking the Lord for mercy and strength to live the day, and to end the day thanking the Lord for grace to live the day, asking Him to forgive your sin, and thanking Him for mercy in the Lord Jesus Christ. To do so, it may be good to run through the Ten Commandments to be reminded of any major infraction you have committed during the day. 

Has it been your practice, beloved brethren and children, to seek forgiveness for your sin? If not, it may be you have not fully understood what our catechism is teaching us, namely, that none of us can perfectly keep the commandments of God in this life.   

Thirdly, if we know that all our righteousnesses are filthy rags and no mere man can, in this life, perfectly keep the commandments of God, then let us disabuse our minds of any perfectionistic attitude. What is a perfectionistic attitude?  

Well, it is an attitude that produces at least three spiritual maladies. We may name them memorably as (1) Emperor’s Suit, (2) Ballerina’s Dream, and (3) Debtor’s Guilt. 

Let me explain. 

Emperor’s Suit comes from “The Emperor’s New Clothes” by Hans Christian Anderson. It is about two tailors who promised the emperor a new suit that is invisible to those who are unfit, stupid or incompetent. For obvious reasons, the emperor pretended he could see it, and when he paraded before his subjects, everyone also pretended to admire it until a little child pointed out that he was wearing nothing. In our case, the emperor’s suit is a misguided notion of personal perfection.  

Of course, every well-taught Christian will acknowledge that he is a sinner, but then, if you have a perfectionistic attitude, you will view yourself as wearing a perfect robe: only that it is not the robe of Christ’s righteousness, but your own robe of moral perfection. You may be wearing the robe of Christ’s righteousness, but you wear your own robe of perfection over it! You will think yourself to be always right and perfect in your observance of the law. So you get offended when listening to sermons and suspect that the preacher is talking about you. And you get offended and defensive whenever anyone admonishes you or ventures to give you some advice. 

Are you such a person? Are you perhaps unwittingly imagining that you are wearing a robe of moral perfection?  

By Ballerina’s Dream, I am referring to those who expect the world to be prim and proper, like the dream of a ballerina. Because they have not really grasped the doctrine of total depravity and the sinfulness of fallen man, they expect things to be perfect. They think of themselves as nearly perfect and expect others to be the same. They get all flustered and angry when things do not turn out as expected. Why can’t people do their job as I do? Why can’t he drive as considerably as me?  

Do you live in a ballerina’s dream, brethren? Are you frustrated because the world and church have not met your expectations? 

Debtor’s guilt is the other malady of the soul of those with a perfectionistic attitude. It is the attitude of the unforgiving servant when he tells the master that he will pay everything back. It is, of course, impossible to repay the debt, but some cannot believe they are forgiven solely for Christ’s sake. They feel they must do something. They have no peace or rest in their heart because they feel they must repay Christ. This is the debtor’s guilt. 

Their attitude towards fellow man has carried into their attitude towards Christ. You know the attitude. Someone buys you a can of Coke, and you feel you must pay back or buy a can of Coke in return. Your conscience gives you no rest, for you have not learned to receive anything freely. So after a while, you hate it when other people want to do good to you, because you find yourself having many debts to pay. You cannot understand the concept of grace. You must repay. 

Every debt is like a dirty blotch on your prim and proper garment. It troubles you because of your perfectionistic attitude.  

Do you end up constantly trying to repay Christ for saving you? Do you get disheartened when you fail and have not repaid Christ sufficiently? Yours is not an attitude of gratitude. It is an attitude of debt. It is an attitude borne out of a failure to grasp the idea that all our righteousnesses are but filthy rags in God’s sight and that none of us can keep God’s commandments perfectly, but does daily break them in thoughts, words and deeds.  

Those who understand the doctrine will serve gratefully and cheerfully according to the number of talents given to them. Though their conscience accuses them of grievously breaking all of God’s commandments, they will not be filled with guilt that they have not paid their debt. They know that they can never pay. They will eternally be grateful to Christ because they know God accepts them for Christ’s sake.  

They know that they are righteous in God’s sight because Christ’s righteousness is imputed to them. They are righteous in God’s sight by true faith in Jesus Christ. For in Christ, they are accepted as righteous and holy, and regarded by God as those who have never committed sin and who have kept God’s commandment perfectly. They are, therefore, no longer under the condemnation of the law, though the law remains their guide in a life of joy and blessing. 


Once again, here are the three things we should take away from the doctrine of our text and catechism: (1) let us reaffirm our dependence upon Christ for our salvation, for we cannot contribute a single stitch to the garment of our salvation. (2) Let us confess and repent of our sins daily. (3) let us disabuse our minds of any perfectionistic attitude towards ourselves or our brethren. Amen. 

JJ Lim