Christian, your good deeds are not filthy rags or polluted garments in the sight of God.
Yes, I know, this is every Lutheran pastor's favorite verse to quote when proclaiming the Law:
We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. (Isaiah 64:6a)And to an extent this is true. It is true for the person is is without faith, for the one who is apart from Christ. The context of Isaiah 64 suggests not a faithful people redeemed by their God, but a stiff-necked people wantonly wallowing in their sin:
"Behold, you were angry and we sinned; in our sins we have been a long time, and shall we be saved?" (Isaiah 64:5b)Men and women who have been baptized into Christ, however, are not in this state. Christians are redeemed by the blood of Jesus and all their sin has been covered. Their good deeds, therefore, do please God, despite their sin.
Saint Paul declares in Romans 14:23, "Whatever does not proceeds from faith is sin." The entire argument that Paul is making for the Romans assumes that the inverse of this statement is also true: "Whatever does proceed from faith is not sin (i.e. is righteous)."
So it is right to say that a person's works, apart from Christ, are nothing but filthy rags. But we must always add that proviso. We cannot say that a Christian's good deeds are filthy rags because a Christian is, by definition, redeemed. Their good deeds necessarily please God and are seen by God as righteous for the sake of Christ.
This is where the rub occurs. As Lutherans we want to give Jesus Christ all the credit for our salvation. We are justified by grace through faith, not by works. That line is stark and sharp. It may not be crossed. When we stand before God we plead to have no righteousness of our own, but only a righteousness that comes by faith in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:9)
Yet the good deeds of Christians please God. They are not the cause of our salvation. Quite the opposite. They flow out of our justification. In baptism we become a good tree, and a good tree bears good fruit.
This strikes at the heart of the Reformation: How can I be sure that my works please God? The Roman Church had built up a system of man-made works that were supposed to atone for sin. The reformers were at pains, not only to point out that these works were not necessary for salvation, but that there are works which God actually commands, and which actually please Him.
Once our works are released of the weight of having to earn our salvation they can be properly seen as actions that God delights in because through them He serves our neighbor. God's people were freed from trying to earn salvation with man-made works to do that actual work of God as taught in the Ten Commandments.
Are my good works tainted with sin? Yes, but God does not look at that because of what Jesus has done for me. Assurance of God's good pleasure comes from being grafted into Christ. So now all that I do pleases God because I am in Christ. Anything done apart from faith is sin, so anything done in faith is not sin, but righteousness.
So to deny that the good works of a Christian please God is to deny the Gospel. How could God not delight in the obedience of His children?
Christian, God sees your good deeds apart from your sin for the sake of Christ. Every good work that you do is a delight to your Father in heaven because Jesus has washed out the sin and left only righteousness behind.