Summary: God’s grace toward us is unlimited.
Today we continue our series of messages on the topic of "grace". At root, the question we’re examining is "how can we know God?" How do we bridge the chasm between ourselves and our Creator? Given the fact of our sin and our guilt; and the fact of God’s perfect justice and holiness; how can we be reconciled to God? How can we be forgiven? In other words, how do we enter into a right relationship with God, and then how do we continue in a right relationship with God?
Throughout human history, people have been trying to answer these questions. And in doing so, they’ve developed an endless variety of religious systems through which they’ve attempted to close the gap between sinful men and a holy God. But in then end, all of these systems boil down to one of two basic approaches. The first approach depends on our works, or on some combination of God’s work and our work. It requires that we do something to pay for our sin. It demands that we fulfill some condition to atone for our misdeeds, to show how very sorry we are for violating God’s laws. Now, the specific act that’s required of the person seeking forgiveness varies tremendously. It could be something as simple as repeating a prayer a certain number of times. It could be some act of personal sacrifice, such as making a large financial gift. It could be an act of self-denial, such as fasting, or refraining from certain types of food for a period of time. It could even be an act of intentional self-abuse, such as cutting yourself with knives, or beating yourself with a whip, or making a long journey walking on your knees. Typically, the more serious the sin, the more difficult and painful the works required to pay for the sin.
That’s the first approach. And under this approach we can classify every religious system ever devised, with the sole exception of Biblical Christianity. Because at the core of every religion other than Christianity we find man trying to approach God through his own works, we find man trying to earn, or merit, God’s favor and acceptance.
The problem with all of these systems is that they don’t work. They can’t work. Why? Well, first of all, the "good works" that they depend on are not viewed by God as having any value whatsoever. So those who rely on their works to gain God’s acceptance, are trying to buy something precious, something of immense value, with something that is literally valueless. In fact, it’s worse than that. When we come to God bearing our own so-called "good works," when we offer him our own supposedly righteous deeds, as an exchange for his love and forgiveness, so proud of what we’ve done, so confident of his approval, we are offering Him something that He finds repugnant. They are less than worthless; they are repulsive. [Example of a cat bringing you the dead mouse it has killed].
Now, in order to adequately convey the force of this verse, I have to get a little earthy. The Hebrew word translated here as "filthy rags" is one that is used to describe soiled underwear, or menstrual rags. So what this verse says is that when we try to offer God our good deeds in exchange for his approval, it’s as if we are offering him a pair of dirty, smelly old jockey shorts. Why? Because all of our works are tainted by sin. They may seem fine to us, but to God, who is completely holy, they’re polluted; like a cup of pure, clear water, with just a single drop of urine added to it. They’re disgusting to him. He wants nothing to do with them. Anything we do in order to establish our own righteousness, God rejects as worthless.