The Bible Says Our Good Works Are as Filthy Rags

works are as filthy rags

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)

Evangelicals believe that humans, Christian or not, are incapable of good works; that all goodness comes from the Christian God; that works apart from God that “seem” good are actually done for the wrong motivations and reasons. According to Isaiah 64:6, our works are as filthy rags, the rags, according to many Evangelical preachers, that lepers wrapped around their putrefying flesh. In other words, our good works, apart from Jesus working in and through us, are puss-filled, awful-smelling bandages. One reader told me that she heard one pastor say that the filthy rags in Isaiah 64:6 were the rags used by menstruating women. Gross right? That’s the whole point — to make people see and believe that “their” good works are filthy and vile before the thrice-holy God.

This kind of thinking, of course, causes great psychological damage to people who, with good intentions, try to be loving, kind, and help to everyone. Be overheard “bragging” about your good works and Sanctified Sally or Pastor Blowhard will most certainly rebuke you for taking credit for what Jesus did. Evangelicals are beaten coming and going when it comes to good works. They are reminded of the fact that the Bible says, faith without works is dead and work while it is yet day, for the night is coming when no man can work. Congregants are cajoled over their lack of devotion and commitment to Jesus and their lack of shining-in-the-light-of-day good works. And what happens when they change their ways and start working day and night in Jesus’ vineyard? They are warned about taking credit for their works or finding satisfaction in helping others. Pastor Blowhard thunders from the pulpit, Jesus alone deserves all the praise, honor, and glory for our good works. Without him, our works are but filthy rags.

Is it any wonder so many Evangelicals are downright discouraged and depressed? Being told over and over that one is a worthless piece of shit and that one’s life is n-o-t-h-i-n-g without Jesus is sure to ruin any thoughts of self-esteem. Pastors frequently remind congregants that the Bible commands them to deny self, to take up their crosses and follow Jesus. It is this notion of denying self that lies at the root of so much of the damage done by Evangelical preachers. Self is viewed as something that must be crucified, put to death. The Apostle Paul repeatedly told first century Christians of the importance of crucifying the flesh. Paul also talked about Christians presenting their bodies as living sacrifices to God. This thinking has led countless Evangelicals to deny themselves not only material gain, but normal, healthy human emotions.

Somewhere along my life as a Christian, I died. My life was swallowed up by God, Jesus, the church, and the ministry. I lost all sense of who was Bruce Gerencser. It took me several years after walking away from Christianity to reconnect with self, with my emotions. I was shocked to find how buried my life had become under the weight of living for and serving the divine taskmaster, the Christian God; the deity who demanded everything from me and gave me little in return. No matter how hard I worked in Jesus’ coal mine, I still felt vile and dirty. How could it be any other way, right? I was a sinner, and my only saving grace was Jesus, not any of the good that I had done. I remained, as Isaiah 64:6 says, a dirty, vile, puss-filled rag.

Did your pastor or other church leaders use Isaiah 64:6 as a weapon to destroy your self-worth and good works? If so, please share your thoughts in the comment section.

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 60, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 39 years. He and his wife have six grown children and eleven grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

Bruce is a local photography business owner, operating Defiance County Photo out of his home. If you live in Northwest Ohio and would like to hire Bruce, please email him.

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25 Comments

  1. Brian

    It is very important to turn us against ourselves and especially easier if done when we are very young children. I believe Jesus had some very good things to say but Christianity is a sickness. None of us are perfect but nobody deserves what evil Christianity says of them, the judgement from on high. It’s a crock of shit that came out of the caves with the bipeds and has not yet been given up. Thank-you for speaking truths in a church-world so full of lies, Bruce.
    -a preacher’s son

    Reply
  2. Lynn123

    How could we know that a lot of evangelicals are discouraged and depressed?

    Reply
    1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      Uh, I was a Evangelical pastor for 25 years. This bought me into contact with lots of people.

      Reply
      1. Lynn123

        Did they tell you why they were discouraged and depressed?

        Reply
        1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

          Sometimes.

          Reply
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  4. Ami

    I wasn’t a pastor. I was just forced into church from the age of 2 weeks until escaping at 17 or so.

    I can say that I never met a single Christian who felt they were ‘right with God’. They were *always* trying to get there, berating themselves and talking shit about every other Christian they knew, though. “So and so needs to GET RIGHT with God NOW!!!”

    So and so may have been wearing skirts too short or been seen talking to that ‘whore’ bartender. (That whore was a battered woman who had taken her two babies and escaped from her husband in the middle of the night, he later found her and while trying to break in and kill her he fell off the ladder and died. Justice.)

    She was doing the only work she could find. And keeping them fed. No one from the church ever tried to help, of course. She wasn’t our kind, as she never showed up for church services.

    I doubt that anyone considered that she’d been working until 2 AM on Saturday night/Sunday morning. She was a whore because she was around alcohol and didn’t have a husband.

    I’m sorry, where were we?
    Oh yes.
    There were a lot of people in our little town out of work, poor and often hungry. But our good works went in another direction.
    Our church raised thousands of dollars to send Bibles to Bolivia.

    After they raised all that money, they got together and patted each other on the back and were exalted together, thinking about how proud their God would be.

    Reply
  5. ObstacleChick

    Thanks for the post! It always seemed extreme to me that humans were considered so vile, so filthy, so disgusting, that even our works are as filthy as the most horrifyingly revolting thing that one could imagine. It always rankled me inside that all of our works (good ones, that is) should be attributed to Jesus. The only ones we could claim were the bad ones because we were sinful creatures, so we were only capable of sinful works. Of course, the fact that it rankled me was proof that I was a vile, disgusting creature full of sin, and maybe even being tempted by Satan as he may have put the thoughts in my head. Surely, pride is sinful, and feeling rankled at having to attribute all my works to Jesus is evidence of sin (or Satan, take your pick).

    “Sanctified Sally” – that’s a good one – I knew a few of those back in the day and still see a few on social media….. Makes me think of Dana Carvey’s “Church Lady” character in old Saturday Night Live episodes…..

    Reply
  6. Sally

    Holy Moly Bruce, that was a saddening thing to read first thing in the morning. Even as a recovering Catholic who can’t shed the good Catholic guilt it was heavy. That concept in and of itself is straight-on emotional abuse. There is a world of difference between “God is perfect and we should strive to model his perfect love and blah blah blah even though we know we will never achieve that level” and “You are shit and will always be shit”. Also take mucho offense to the menstrual rags thing – God gave me this uterus to make more people, how it works must be divine also, right? Also with the not taking credit for your own actions thing – how many pastors/ministers do we see DAILY singing their own praises, putting their own names on the signs outside their churches? Prideful much, there? Mmm mmm mmm.
    P.S. LOVE that the town you live in is “Ney”. That’s awesome.

    Reply
  7. Bob

    In answer to your question, Isa 64:6, along with Romans 3, didn’t give me issues compared to the berating / mental beating with a club idea that the only way to serve God and not be a failure was to go to a Bible college (sometimes referred to as a Christian university, although why some backwoods, unaccredited school where 75 – 80% of the faculty have no more than a degree from the same or similar institution can call itself a university is beyond me). No consideration is given for the reality that each of us have different interests and abilities, most of which have absolutely nothing to do with what is “offered” at a Bible college. The old cult mentality – destroy people’s sense of individuality and pressure them into conformity to the group.

    Reply
  8. Rebecca

    My experience with fundamentalist churches has been more limited than most people here.

    Most of the time when I’ve heard these verses presented it has been in a more relative way with an understanding that in terms of the perfect holiness and righteousness of God we all fall short. In comparison, even our righteousness is seen as “filthy rags” and also that a right relationship with God comes as a gift, not based in anything we can do.

    I don’t feel that most of the fundamentalist preachers are out to cause deliberate harm, and may truly not understand how this preaching can impact people in different and harmful ways. I hope that I’m right about this, and it’s just not me wanting to think the best.

    But, I do think this whole issue of Scriptural interpretation and application is huge. To me, the command of Jesus to love our neighbors as ourselves is central, and impacts how I would view interpret, and apply the rest of Scripture. I mean how can we love ourselves or anyone else if we think we are utterly worthless pieces of dung?

    Probably some people are going to be more impacted than others by this, too, depending on their own temperament and personality, or even stuff like a genetic predisposition to depression or OCD.

    I remember the year I spent at BJU one guy that I knew beat himself up over listening to rock music..like this was a great sin or something. I had a very difficult time identifying with his concern because even though I was a Christian, I had come from a very different type of church background. There was more a focus on grace rather than law.

    I think how we’re reared as kids, and what’s placed in our mind then is huge. It can impact us for a lifetime.

    Reply
  9. Lynn123

    Bruce,
    I’m not sure that the filthy rags idea does cause great psychological harm. After all, after they tell you that, they announce the good news that Jesus saves you, you’re his child, you’re gonna be in heaven forever. They present the problem and then the answer for the problem. And if you’re a Calvinist, it’s even better-he selected you personally before he made the world.

    I’ve just never heard anybody say, wow, I’m depressed because my good works are as filthy rags. I admit there are some miserable Christians, but I think that’s more likely those that having nagging doubts about the validity of it all. Maybe it’s the doubters that are the miserable ones.

    No doubt there are Christians that have low self-esteem, but their personality traits tend naturally in that direction and/or their parents are not great at helping them have self-esteem. In my case, I think I was a natural worrier-type person, very serious, always thinking, plus I had a very negative father and a mother who was a very different personality from me. I think those things had more impact that anything an IFB preacher was yelling at me. (lol)

    Reply
    1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      It does.

      Reply
      1. Zoe

        It does.

        Reply
  10. Tammy

    Yes, one hundred percent to all you wrote, plus add in the female factor. Women are exceptionally rotten just for being born with a vagina rather than a penis. How does it go again: a supposedly superior being created me, but I failed (even though it knew I would beforehand), so the sentence is eternal agony even though my fallen nature was decided well before I was born, but wait-Jesus!, with a disclaimer of don’t ever sin again, but you will sin again (repeatedly), but then you get the Jesus shampoo again, and then you do good stuff, but it’s all just shit because you can’t really do anything good at all. And by the way, you’re female so everything anyone ever does wrong on the planet is your damn fault. And you don’t have any power even though you’re also equal to males because Jes-alizer!, but not really. So, go fix the men some sammiches and clean up the mess while you’re at it, you filthy whore!

    Yep, nothing toxic in that at all. I always felt like I was fundamentally (no pun intended there) worse than anyone else. It’s incredibly difficult to overcome that type of harm. But the part that makes me saddest is that I missed so much being wrapped up in a smothering quilt of self-loathing.

    Reply
  11. Trenton

    I was always taught that humans were vile sinners and only by grace and faith we were saved. Mix that with end times bs from Tim Lahaye and I suddenly had a very negative outlook on life where I sort of gave up on the world. Needless to say, I eventually found out that the worldly vile sinners were much nicer and more accepting of me as I am than most christians and eventually slid down the slippery slope of disbelief.

    Reply
  12. John Arthur

    The bible is not the Word of any god, but was written by barbaric savages. This appalling assessment of human beings by the unknown Trito-Isaiah and followed by Paul is nonsense, but many Fundamentalists utilise it to produce guilt in congregants and to make them feel worthless. It’s an appalling abuse of clerical power, all in the name of some supposed Word of an invisible god.

    Reply
    1. Lynn123

      Isn’t it like what any salesman does? First you must convince your target that they have a very big problem. Then you provide the solution to their problem. If they fail to convince the target that he/she has this problem, they can’t make the sale.

      Of course if your product is approval by God and eternal life-that’s a pretty impressive product, hence, many takers.

      What’s interesting to me is how many people are truly convinced they are filthy rags, worms, etc, etc. I think that’s not that believable for many people if they give it some thought. I think the prevalent idea is to try to be a good person and you’ll go to heaven. Most people aren’t sitting around parsing it all like theologians.

      Reply
  13. Rebecca

    I think part of the problem is that many of these preachers seem to lack wisdom and balance in how to apply and interpret the Scripture.

    I think there is a legitimate place to talk about the harmful and logical consequence of sin. For instance, Bruce addressed these sexual predators even within the church who look at the gospel as nothing more that a “get out of jail free card..” These are folks that IMO have latched on to a cheap kind of grace that does nothing to lead to a genuine amendment of life, or a need to make restitution to the victims.

    But, on the other hand, there are folks in the church already struggling with self loathing, and poor self esteem, prone to fall into “work’s righteousness.” These are people that need to hear more about grace, and about their infinite value just as human beings created in the image of God, apart from anything else. We are “fearfully and wonderfully made..”

    But, of course, this is what you’re going to get with a flat, one dimensional interpretation and application of the Bible.

    Reply
    1. Lynn123

      It’s kind of overwhelming when you see all the different groups with their different takes on what the Bible says. A couple years ago, a relative that doesn’t go to church called the Bible “the good book.” At the time, I thot that was so simplistic, because I knew the Bible and that there’s a lot of awful stuff in there along with all the nice-sounding stuff.

      Now, I think he has the right idea. He’s a very intelligent person, and I think he just sees the Bible as a book that reminds you to try to be a good person. Now, that just sounds lovely. I’ve lost all desire to fight about what the Bible says. I’m with the people that go to church on Sunday and try to be encouraged and try to get something from it that reminds them to be a good person-and, who knows, maybe there is some kind of God out there-it’s a mystery. Respect the mystery.

      Muslims probably see the Koran as a book that tells them how to live a good life. Buddhists, Hindus, etc. are all trying to find a way to a higher level.

      I totally agree that people need to hear lots about grace, loving yourself, being kind to yourself-especially us first-borns-we tend to have high standards for ourselves. Maybe it’s because it’s been so long since my years of having IFB preachers yelling at me three times a week about how sinful we are–it no longer moves me. If they did it today, I’d just sit there totally unaffected, feeling less respect for them and maybe feeling kinda sorry for them-I mean….a grown man up there yelling….lol So stupid! And unsexy!

      Reply
  14. Becky Wiren

    When I was a Christian, I worried about all the “bad” things I did. Funnily enough, most of those bad things revolved around impressing God. How to eat, dress, think, donate to church (always a tithe, even when poor!), etc. Now that I no longer worship the Christian god, my rule for living is: try to help your fellow man as much as you can.

    As a functionally disabled person, the help I give is different than the help a healthy, energetic person can give. But it still matters to me.

    Reply
    1. Rebecca

      Good for you, Becky.

      Reply
  15. Karen the rock whisperer

    My FSM, I apparently lucked out being raised Catholic! Never heard the “filthy rags” verse until I was an adult atheist. I was raised with the idea that I was securely saved by God’s grace, but I’d damn well better get out there and demonstrate my salvation with good works. Otherwise, God would be really, really disappointed in me, and I didn’t want to disappoint God, did I? How was I going to stand before Him on Judgment Day and explain why I didn’t spread His Love and care for my fellow men?

    There were never any threats of hell; you had to commit a mortal sin (think evil crime against a person or people) and not be absolved of it by a priest before you died for a Catholic to be sent to hell. The kinds of things they were thinking about just aren’t associated with children. But there was threat of term-limited punishment after death, called Purgatory, where a soul is purified enough to share heaven with God. Nobody ever told me what that was like, but the implication was pretty bad. Nothing like hell, though.

    This was actually a pretty gentle theology for a little kid, especially with lots of emphasis on God being a loving father, when I hear stories of what Fundagelical children suffered.

    I think it made it easier for me than most Fundagelicals to leave religion behind. Of course, rejecting God was one of those mortal sins, and I struggled with the specter of hell for awhile. I also attended an Evangelical church for a few years after I abandoned Catholicism, and acquired a little bit of the head-bending garbage from that church. But ultimately, I can’t believe in something for which I see no scientific evidence.

    Reply
  16. Steve

    Huhuhuhuhuhuh, “puss”, huhuhuhuh – Beavis & Butthead

    Reply
  17. Daniel Wilcox

    Hmm…In the last 30-40 years we did, indeed, hear a lot of similar sort of language from Christian leaders, how all humans are “worthless” as you wrote: “Being told over and over that one is a worthless…is sure to ruin any thoughts of self-esteem.”

    Especially revolting was being told by the Christian book (The Explicit Gospel by Matt Chandler, Southern Baptist megachurch leader) at one of the last churches that I went to that all infants at conception/birth
    “are in essence, evil” and that every toddler is toddling to “Hell”!

    HOWEVER, when I was growing up Baptist in Nebraska in the 1950’s, we kids received a mostly different message. I still remember with a deep warm glow in my heart, about we were taught that all kids were of infinite value, that we were deeply loved, that everyone of us was unique, etc.!

    Yes, we knew back then that the Roman Catholics and others believed that babies were born in sin and had to be baptized, BUT we didn’t believe such horrific doctrine. We believed that every infant is precious and innocent.

    Do you think that our particular branch of moderate Baptist fundamentalism was an exception, or that with the rise of modern Calvinism, many Christian churches began to emphasize the extreme negative in the 60’s-to-2018?

    Just curious.

    Reply

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