What does “faith without works is dead” mean in relation to the scripture that tells us that our works are like filthy rags before the Lord?
Some years ago I was talking with a couple about what type of church they were looking for, and during the conversation the husband described himself and his wife as being “Christian.” I thought it was an interesting comment. He did not say they were Christians. He used the word “Christian” as a description of the type of person they were. It was not clear they understood that living like a Christian does not make a person a Christian.
You Cannot Be “Christian”
This is the point of Isaiah’s comment that “our righteousnesses are as filthy rags.” There is nothing a person can do to become a Christian because we are not as holy as God. This is a major difference between God and us. Yes, God is powerful. He is all knowing. He is many wonderful things. But it is His holiness that really separates us from Him. He is described as “Holy, Holy , Holy” (Isaiah 6:3) and we are described as sinners (Rom. 5:19). Isaiah describes our good works as “filthy rags.” The actual Hebrew words are very graphic. Isaiah actually said that our righteous deeds are as “menstrual 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. (KJV) Isaiah 64:6
THERE IS NONE WHO DOES GOOD, THERE IS NOT EVEN ONE. (NASB) Romans 3:12
It is our sin that has come between us. It is our sin that is sending many men and women to eternal punishment, and we are called to be holy just like Him (1 Peter 1:16).
Good Deeds For The First Time
When a person becomes a Christian by depending on Jesus for the forgiveness of their sins, they are able to do good works for the first in time their life.
For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (NASB) Ephesians 2:10
Once we become a Christian by faith, we are able for the first time in our life to make “polished pearls in gold settings” for God. Ephesians 6:7-8 gives us insight as to what makes a good deed – it is serving the will of the Lord from the heart. For some, our “good deeds” are wood, hay and “junk.”
Now if any man builds upon the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each man’s work will become evident; for the day will show it, because it is to be revealed with fire; and the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work. (NASB) 1 Corinthians 3:12-13
So it is Christians who do good deeds that please the Lord.
Marks of a Christian
Filthy rags turned into polished pearls. This is the mark of a Christian. The real mark of a Christian is that they are “Christian” in conduct AND attitude. This is the point the Holy Spirit makes in James 2:14-26. True faith without good deeds is dead.
For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead. (NASB) James 2:26
Do you claim to be a Christian, but your life shows no ongoing pattern of “good deeds?” Then listen to this verse,
Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself. (NASB) James 2:17
For those of us who are Christians, the following verse is a call by our precious Lord to good deeds,
And why do you call Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say? (NASB) Luke 6:46
Bishop Tucker of Uganda was an artist, but how did he become a bishop? One day he was painting a picture of a poor woman thinly clad and pressing a babe to her bosom, wandering homeless on a stormy night on the dark, deserted street. As the picture grew, the artist suddenly threw down his brush, exclaiming “Instead of merely painting the lost, I will go out and save them.” He went to Africa.