Why Our Best Works are but Filthy Rags

Do you ever have that feeling where you look at other people and secretly feel really smug about your own righteousness? Do you ever derive some perverse sense of pleasure when others screw up, because it makes you feel that little bit better about yourself knowing that at least you’re not quite as bad as that? I suspect that most of us go through life with a sense that we’re basically pretty good people – we’ll admit that we’re not perfect (we’re only human, after all!) but we’re mostly decent and upstanding in the grand scheme of things. We often do good, lending others a helping hand, giving money to those less fortunate, allowing that pregnant woman to take our seat on the crowded train, sacrificing our time and energy to support a struggling friend. These are all wonderful things to be doing – and let’s strive to do so more and more – but the Bible warns us that we’re in real danger the minute we start relying on these good works of ours to justify ourselves, that is, to start thinking that God must be really pleased with us because of all the great things we’ve done. If we start thinking our good works are grounds for pride, we’re in real trouble.

Just as last week we saw that the Apostle Paul counted all his righteous deeds as loss compared to the righteousness of Christ, so the prophet Isaiah spoke of our good works in these stark words:

“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.” (Isaiah 64:6, NIV)

In the sight of God, even our best deeds are like filthy rags compared to the awesome purity of his holiness. His holiness is like a consuming fire that burns up all impurity in an instant. When Isaiah was confronted with a vision of God, he was so overcome with a sense of his guilt and unworthiness that his immediate reaction was to cry out, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5). Likewise the prophet Malachi describes the coming of God’s presence in these terms:

“But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver” (Malachi 3:2-3)

Here and now we may be tempted to take pride in our good works, but when the Lord Jesus comes in judgement all of the secrets of mens’ hearts will be laid bare, and all of our motives will be exposed. It won’t be enough to show what we did: we will be required to explain why we did it as well. How many of our good deeds will really stand up to that level of scrutiny? How often did we really have mixed motives for our righteous acts, perhaps seeking to look good in the eyes of others or to avoid being thought of as selfish? Often when I fail to do the right thing in a given situation, my first thought is not of how I have wronged God and others, but rather fear that others will think less of me. That can be a powerful motivator to try harder next time. But if we think we can be made right in God’s eyes by doing things purely for the sake of upholding our reputation, then we’re sorely mistaken. That’s not serving God – that’s serving ourselves, and that is the essence of sin.

I remember finding that thought quite shocking as a young Christian: the idea that a seemingly good deed could be as sinful in God’s sight as something obviously wrong like theft or adultery. But that’s because I was defining sin in terms of external actions rather than as an attitude of the heart. It is striking that the first of the 10 Commandments is entirely an internal action: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength”. And that explains why idolatry is such a serious offence to God: it is loving something created in place of loving the creator. If you do outwardly “good” things out of love for your favourite idol, be that the desire for reputation, for status, for money, for security, or just to impress someone special to you, no matter how seemingly good the act, if it’s done for the wrong motives it’s still deeply offensive to God and in fact is tantamount to adultery.

When I was a first year student at university, I did all manner of crazy things in order to try and impress a girl I was rather fond of. I even went as far as taking ballroom dancing lessons so that I could spend more time with her (I would say that it was an opportunity to demonstrate to her how suave I was, but that would require me to have had some skill on the dance floor!) My desire to please her overcame my natural desire to avoid dancing like the plague, and made me act in all sorts of out-of-character ways. It’s exactly the same with all our idols: what we love will always show itself in how we act, and that will often manifest itself in very respectable looking acts of apparent righteousness. But in God’s sight they are but filthy rags, symbols of our betrayal of him.

The prophet Jeremiah portrays it like so:

“Be appalled, O heavens, at this; be shocked, be utterly desolate, declares the Lord,

for my people have committed two evils:

they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves,

broken cisterns that can hold no water.” (Jeremiah 2:12-13)

When we act to please our false gods, it’s like sticking two fingers up at God and saying that he’s not worth pleasing – at least, not as much as our idols are. Throughout the Bible, God frequently uses the image of a marriage covenant to describe his relationship with his people Israel. Their idolatry is then compared to the actions of an unfaithful bride – sometimes in quite brutal terms! Take the next chapter of Jeremiah, for instance:

“Have you seen what she did, that faithless one, Israel, how she went up on every high hill and under every green tree, and there played the whore?” (Jeremiah 3:6)

So be careful of resting on your good works as grounds for pride – they may not be quite as good as you think they are!

Pride and the Example of Paul

Why the Apostle Paul’s Example Removes Our Grounds for Pride

Last week I showed that if anybody has grounds for pride, it is surely the Lord Jesus Christ. But maybe the fact that Jesus is such a special case means that you find his example hard to relate to. Of course I don’t have as much grounds for pride as Jesus – he’s God! – you might say. But as far as ordinary people go, I’m pretty special. “God, I thank you that I am not like other men”, as the Pharisee prayed in Luke 18:11. Other men are far worse than me: “extortioners, unjust, adulterers” But as for me, I’m so much more religious than them: “I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” But if we want to play the religion card as our grounds for pride, there’s another very strong contender in the race that we’ll find ourselves competing against: the apostle Paul.

Before his conversion, Paul was an incredibly religious man. He was the absolute model Jew. “If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh,” he writes in Philippians 3:4-11, “I have more.” If you’re feeling smug about your good works, I can assure you that they’re not a patch on mine, says Paul. Then he goes on to list his religious qualifications: “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews;” Paul’s heritage and pedigree are absolutely top notch. He’s a bona fide, full-blooded Jewish male, raised according to all the laws and customs passed down from God by Moses. But he went far beyond the call of duty: he continues, “as to the law, a Pharisee”. The Pharisees get a pretty bad wrap these days, but at their core they were a group of people who were fanatical about holiness – they were absolutely devoted to obeying God’s law in all of its minutiae, even down to the level of tithing the herbs and spices that grew in their window garden. That’s how committed they were to keeping God’s law, and they were great at it: “under the law, blameless” writes Paul. From what he goes on to say next, Paul clearly isn’t suggesting here that he kept the law perfectly and could have earnt his way into God’s good books, but he is saying that as far as the external, outward requirements of the law went, he was unrivalled. And it wasn’t just a dry formalism, either; Paul’s was a religion full of zeal and vigour in the service of God: “As to zeal, a persecutor of the church.” He may have been mistaken about the right way to do God’s will, but once he’d identified what had to be done there was not a shred of hesitation or holding back in how he went about it. Paul had Christians firmly in his sight and he wasn’t going to lose track of the scent until he’d completely eradicated all hints of this terrible heresy.

Paul was exactly the kind of believer you’d want to have in your congregation. He’d never skive off synagogue on a Saturday morning because of an important football match; he’d never be distracted from what he was supposed to be doing by some pretty girl; he’d never be bribed into making compromises; he’d never shrink back from speaking the truth from fear that it might make him unpopular; he’d be the first one there at the monthly prayer meeting and the last one to leave; he’d be the most generous of your regular givers and would contribute hefty sums to that one off appeal to raise money for a new roof; he’d be on every committee, even the truly tedious ones; whatever religious works you find yourself tempted to take pride in, Paul would be there doing it better and more energetically, leaving you and your paltry efforts in the dust.

“But,” says Paul, “whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” After his conversion, Paul now sees all of his religious works as a complete waste of time – indeed, as loss, because all they did was put up a smoke screen that prevented him from recognising his need of the Lord Jesus. “For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish (lit. dung) in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith”. By trusting in his own efforts, all Paul was doing was digging himself deeper and deeper into a godless hole. His own righteousness seemed incomparably cheap and shabby next to the perfect, spotless righteousness of Christ, a level of righteousness that could be found only by forsaking his own efforts to make himself right with God and trusting wholeheartedly in Christ’s finished work on the cross.

Even the mighty Paul, impeccable, immovable, incorruptible, even Paul recognised that his own religious works were but a pale shadow next to the righteousness of Christ. They were worthless, the sort of thing you’d take about as much pride in as a pile of horse manure. Boasting in your own works would be like taking a bunch of used nappies along to the Antiques Roadshow and trying to argue that they were worth as much as some centuries-old Ming vase: you’d be laughed off the show and told to never come back. “For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him… that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” For all his religious works, even a zealous Pharisee like Paul would still one day die and rot, and without Christ there’s not a thing his good works could do to save him.

We see this same attitude of Paul’s played out in 2 Corinthians 11:21-33. Comparing himself to the false “super-apostles” who boasted in their works, Paul begins to mock them by adopting their own false logic:

“But whatever anyone else dares to boast of- I am speaking as a fool- I also dare to boast of that. Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they offspring of Abraham? So am I. Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one – I am talking like a madman – with far great labours, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepness night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.”

Paul shows that whatever grounds for pride the super-apostles of Corinth thought they may have had, he had more. Nobody had gone to greater lengths for the sake of the gospel than him. And yet there is nothing arbitrary about the list of things Paul has chosen to mention here. As heroic as they may make him look, there’s also something slightly pathetic about the list, don’t you think? Earlier the Corinthians have described Paul as a man whose “bodily presence is weak, and his speech of no account.” (2 Corinthians 10:10) and here we read of him being beaten, stoned, shipwrecked, cold and exposed. This small little man seems to spend his whole life in constant shame, always one step away from disaster, whilst the cosy super-apostles get on with their comfortable lives in Corinth at the expense of the church there. The explanation comes in v30: “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.” Paul chooses to boast not of the things that show how great he is, but of the things that show how small and weak and pathetic he is. He boasts of the things that show that all he has accomplished could not possibly have been accomplished in his own strength, but in the strength and power of the Lord his God. The God who says, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). When the human vessels that God works through are so obviously mere clay pots – cheap plastic cups that are used once and then thrown away – well it’s then that God’s infinite power is most clearly perceived. “Therefore,” says Paul, “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

If you think you have grounds for pride, surely they are nothing compared to the apostle Paul’s? And yet he knew it was utterly vain to try and boast in his own righteousness – even as great as his was – and chose instead to boast in how utterly weak and pathetic and dependent on the God of grace he was.

Pride and Christ’s Example

Why Jesus’ Example Removes Our Grounds for Pride

All of us love to feel good about ourselves. Some of even have a few reasons: perhaps we have a great skill or talent, perhaps you’re just a really stand-up chap. If there was one man in the history of the world who had grounds to be proud, surely it was the Lord Jesus Christ. There were many reasons why he might have been inclined to exalt himself:

Jesus could have been proud because of his earthly heritage. Firstly he was Jewish, a member of God’s chosen people to whom were entrusted all the oracles of God (Romans 3:2). He was born into a devout family who brought him up according to all the laws that God had instituted, such as taking him to the temple as a baby to present him to the Lord (Luke 2:22). More than that, he was “descended from David according to the flesh” (Romans 1:3) – as if being part of the chosen people of God was not noble enough, specifically he was from the house and line of David, the great king of Israel to which all other kings were compared, the one after God’s own heart, and whose reign marked the glory days of Israel’s history as a nation. To David was given the promise that God would establish the throne of his kingdom for ever, and that one of his descendants would forever rule over God’s people. You can imagine people clamouring to establish direct descent from David and the substantial prestige that would be associated with that. My family once got really excited at the discovery that there might be a link between my Grannie and Lord Kitchener (the guy with the amazing moustache in the original “Your country needs you!” posters). Given my complete inability to grow a moustache I suspect there wasn’t much truth behind the claim, but we love the idea of being related to important people, and the more important the person the more pride we feel at being associated with them. As a descendant of Israel’s greatest king, Jesus had great grounds for pride.

Jesus could have been proud because of his existence since times immemorial. Before the foundations of the world Jesus existed along with his Father: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.” (John 1:1-2) He existed before all others and so is greater than all others. Coming after King David was enough to receive the reflected glory of his ancestor, and yet how much more is coming before David? As Jesus points out in Mark 12:35, even David submits to the Christ as his Lord. That would have been a shocking idea to the people at the time, since in Jewish thought the order in which you were born establishes a hierarchy: children must always honour their parents, and the eldest child always received the largest share of the inheritance. Yet Jesus existed long before David, in fact he never had a beginning, and so David calls him his Lord. Or take the most revered figure in Jewish history: the patriarch Abraham, from whose line came the whole Jewish race. In Jesus’ day, just as now, the Jewish people took great pride in their relationship to Abraham, and yet Jesus says to them, “Before Abraham was, I am”. Jesus precedes all the greatest figures of Jewish history by virtue of the fact that he existed long before them. In a game of Bible hero Top Trumps, Jesus would win hands down against all the others. As the one who alone was with God since before the world began, Jesus had great grounds for pride.

Jesus could have been proud because of his eternal destiny. He is the anointed king to whom God promised: “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.” (Psalm 110:1) His position as God’s Christ makes him the ultimate king before whom none can stand: those who continue to oppose his rule he shall break with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel (Psalm 2:9).
He is the one at whose name every knee shall bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (Philippians 2:10-11). He is the lamb upon the throne, before whom shall stand for all eternity a great multitude that none could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, forever praising him and giving him great glory. These are things which he knew full well throughout his earthly life, and indeed we are told that it was because of the joy set before him that he was able to endure the cross (Hebrews 12:2). Jesus’ favourite way of referring to himself was as “the Son of Man”, a phrase which brings to mind Daniel 7:13-14, and the one like a son of man presented before the Ancient of Days, to whom was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed. Imagine how Barrack Obama must have felt the night after he was elected as the President of the United States of America – and yet that was only for four years, and as much as he might like to pretend, Obama doesn’t really have control over America’s enemies. Even Obama has a long way to go before being nominated as the President of the Whole World throughout all of time, and yet that’s exactly what Jesus is, with supreme authority over everything and everyone. As God’s supreme king, Jesus had great grounds for pride.

Jesus could have been proud because of his magnificent works. He was the author of all creation: “For by him, all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities- all things were created through him and for him.” (Colossians 1:16) We’re told that through him God created the world, and that even now he upholds the universe by the word of his power (Hebrews 1:2-3). Think of the most majestic thing you have ever seen in all of creation – maybe it’s an incredible sunset, or a stormy day on the Cornish coast, or a geyser spewing out steam, or that amazing “pop” you get when opening a jar of marmalade for the first time, or a mighty blue whale, or an exotic bird of paradise, or maybe your husband or wife – Jesus created that in all of its glorious intricacy and beauty. As John 1:3 puts it: “All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.” Whilst on the earth, Jesus demonstrated his lordship over creation again and again. He stood on a boat in the middle of the perfect storm: as the winds howled around him and the mighty waves threatened to sink them, Jesus merely had to speak and the storm immediately ceased, running away with its tail between its legs. He healed every kind of sickness and disease, such that those who moments before were at deaths’ door were suddenly running around serving him dinner. He even raised the dead, calling the rotting corpse of his friend Lazarus out of the grave so that he might live again. Not surprisingly, Jesus attracted huge crowds who were constantly banging on his door and hoping to see what he might do next. As the mightiest miracle worker of all time, Jesus had great grounds for pride.

I hope you will agree that the Lord Jesus Christ had every reason to be proud. Yet the great surprise is that he was not, and indeed was the humblest man ever to walk the earth, and came to the human race as a servant. “Though he was in the form of God, he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:6-7). If you think you have grounds to be proud then I can assure you that they are nothing compared to the reasons that Jesus had to be proud, and yet he felt no need whatsoever to boast or stand on his rights. Instead he emptied himself of all that he was, condescending even to come in to the world as a naked, screaming baby born into a smelly stable. “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45) Even this mighty king, the eternal ruler, the one who was and is and is to come, greater than Moses, mightier than David, more majestic than the Grand Canyon – even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many by his gruesome execution on a Roman cross. It should make us ashamed for all our pathetic attention seeking, to think that we have more reason to boast than the Lord Jesus, to think that somehow we deserve recognition, when even the King of Kings lived and died in such obscurity and shame.