Earlier today a friend of mine came to me with a great deal of vexation and frustration relating to the false religious worldview of Calvinism, in particular beliefs about total depravity. While I have not shied away from heavy criticism of the Calvinist worldview , I have seldom dealt with the scriptures that are (improperly and out of context) viewed as the foundation of the Calvinist view of total depravity. Isaiah 64:6 is one of those verses, and it reads: “But we are all like an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags; we all fade as a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind,
Have taken us away.” Since my friend came to me with concern about this verse, I would like to examine it today and look at Isaiah 64:6 as part of a larger context that avoids the excesses of total depravity while also pointing to the approach of the prophets and their identification with the sinful populace of which they were a godly part. Rather than looking at Isaiah 64:6 as a club to beat others with and to disregard their good deeds, we see in Isaiah 64 as a whole an expression of a desire for restoration on the part of a people whose sins have separated them from God.
As is common when we deal with questions about what a contentious verse means, we best understand a verse when that verse is viewed in a larger context. Obviously, the context of Isaiah 64 as a whole is worthwhile to consider as we view what Isaiah 64:6 in particular means. Isaiah 64 reads: “Oh, that You would rend the heavens! That You would come down! That the mountains might shake at Your presence—as fire burns brushwood, as fire causes water to boil—to make Your name known to Your adversaries, that the nations may tremble at Your presence! When You did awesome things for which we did not look, You came down, the mountains shook at Your presence. For since the beginning of the world men have not heard nor perceived by the ear, nor has the eye seen any God besides You, who acts for the one who waits for Him. You meet him who rejoices and does righteousness, Who remembers You in Your ways. You are indeed angry, for we have sinned— in these ways we continue; and we need to be saved. But we are all like an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags; we all fade as a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away. And there is no one who calls on Your name, who stirs himself up to take hold of You; for You have hidden Your face from us, and have consumed us because of our iniquities. But now, O Lord, You are our Father; we are the clay, and You our potter; and all we are the work of Your hand. Do not be furious, O Lord, nor remember iniquity forever; indeed, please look—we all are Your people! Your holy cities are a wilderness, Zion is a wilderness, Jerusalem a desolation. Our holy and beautiful temple, where our fathers praised You, is burned up with fire; and all our pleasant things are laid waste. Will You restrain Yourself because of these things, O Lord? Will You hold Your peace, and afflict us very severely?”
When we look at Isaiah 64:6 in the context of the entire chapter as a whole, we see what has often been argued as a harsh statement about the total depravity of humanity and the worthlessness of deeds instead serving as a confession of sin on the part of a people who is viewed as having been prophetically chastised for its sins in the destruction of the temple and in being brought into captivity. In admitting that God’s grace cannot be earned and that the wickedness of the people of Israel and Judah deserved punishment and indeed deserves more punishment, a fair view of this passage sees not self-flagellation in the model of Calvinism but rather a desire on the part of a repentant people to be restored to God. Given the glorious ending of Isaiah with its reflection on the new heavens and new earth, this prayer is implicitly answered in the affirmative that God will indeed hear the prayers of a repentant Israel and Judah and restore them to Himself once more. We have not reached that time yet in terms of ultimate fulfillment, but seeing this verse ought to encourage a repentant attitude among God’s people in a recognition of our evil deeds rather than to lead us to despair about doing anything good at all with the power of God’s Spirit within us.
This picture is magnified even further if we look at the wider context of Isaiah 64:6 as representing a general prophetic perspective where the prophet speaks on behalf of sinful people seeking restoration to God. There are, as we might imagine, quite a few aspects of this passage, and even Isaiah 64:6 in particular, which connect this verse and this passage to the larger biblical perspective of repentance and restoration. Of particular note, the filthy rags (Hebrew: ‘ed) are viewed by many commentators as relating to menstrual rags and are strikingly similar to the description of the post-Exilic high priest Joshua in Zechariah 3:1-5: “Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the Angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right hand to oppose him. And the Lord said to Satan, “The Lord rebuke you, Satan! The Lord who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is this not a brand plucked from the fire?” Now Joshua was clothed with filthy garments, and was standing before the Angel. Then He answered and spoke to those who stood before Him, saying, “Take away the filthy garments from him.” And to him He said, “See, I have removed your iniquity from you, and I will clothe you with rich robes.” And I said, “Let them put a clean turban on his head.” So they put a clean turban on his head, and they put the clothes on him. And the Angel of the Lord stood by.”
Indeed, when we see the use that Calvinists have made of Isaiah 64:6, it most strikingly resembles the attitude of Satan in condemning the priest Joshua, for which the reply was rebuke instead of praise. Although we tend to view God’s prophets as being rather harsh in their condemnation of the sins of ancient Israel and Judah, in reality what we find instead is that the prophets of God tended to identify strongly with their people and were not behaving in an accusatory fashion towards them as is popular among Calvinists. The desire of the prophets was for the people to repent of their sins and come to the Eternal seeking to be restored to a relationship with Him, recommitted to obeying His laws and walking in His ways. Far from condemning the efforts of their people to repent and recommit to following God, Isaiah (and other prophets) speaks glowingly about the restoration of God’s favor and the blessings that would come upon a repentant people. Far from confirming the Calvinist mocking of obeying God as legalism or showing a hostility to efforts at repentance and obedience, the prophet Isaiah and others identify with a sinful but repentant people and glory in that repentance and in God’s restoration of favor after that repentance. Let us hope that those who twist the Bible in order to condemn and discourage others, though, repent of their own hardness of hearts, lest they share in the fate of their father Satan the Devil themselves when Jesus Christ returns in judgment.
 See, for example: