For all of us have become like one who is unclean, And all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment; And all of us wither like a leaf, And our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. (Isaiah 64:6 NASB)
This verse has to be one of the most commonly misquoted, misapplied passages in Christianity. As said by Steve Jones... "The Isaiah text has long functioned as support for "orthodox" creeds and confessions.
Calvinism uses it to establish the idea that everything the natural man does is wicked - even good deeds. This helps to set up the dogma of "total inability," the engine which drives the entire Calvinist soteriology (the doctrine of salvation)
The Evangelical uses it to show that good works, obedience, virtue are all useless. This sets the stage for the doctrine of "accepting Christ" through a once-for-all act of faith". 
But here is the problem.
The Bible Speaks of Righteous People
In fact, the Bible speaks of numerous righteous people, including Abraham, Noah, Job, Daniel, David etc.
Remember Jesus' words in John 15:14... "You are My friends if you do whatever I command you". Abraham certainly did all God commanded him to do, which led to God paying him the highest compliment that can ever be paid to man - He called Abraham His "friend".
But you, Israel, My servant, Jacob whom I have chosen, descendant of Abraham My friend, (Isaiah 41:8 NASB)
God also spoke very highly of the character of Noah, Daniel and Job
even though Noah, Daniel and Job were in its midst, as I live," declares the Lord God, "they could not deliver either their son or their daughter. They would deliver only themselves by their righteousness." (Ezekiel 14:20 NASB)
But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord. These are the records of the generations of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his time; Noah walked with God. (Genesis 6:8-9 NASB)
But now your kingdom shall not endure. The Lord has sought out for Himself a man after His own heart, and the Lord has appointed him as ruler over His people, because you have not kept what the Lord commanded you." (1 Samuel 13:14 NASB)
As for you, if you will walk before Me as your father David walked, in integrity of heart and uprightness, doing according to all that I have commanded you and will keep My statutes and My ordinances, (1 Kings 9:4 NASB)
and tore the kingdom away from the house of David and gave it to you--yet you have not been like My servant David, who kept My commandments and who followed Me with all his heart, to do only that which was right in My sight; (1 Kings 14:8 NASB)
There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job; and that man was blameless, upright, fearing God and turning away from evil. (Job 1:1 NASB)
Acts 10 tells us of the Gentile Cornelius, whose good works obviously pleased God, who sent an angel to tell Cornelius that his "prayers and alms had gone up for a memorial" before Him, and instructed him to send for the apostle Peter. Peter too was given a vision in which he was told not to call unclean what God had cleansed. He was also told that he was to go with the three men who had been sent by the Father to take him to Cornelius' house. When Peter arrived, he preached the Gospel to Cornelius, his household and friends. The Holy Spirit fell on the group and they were baptized.
The point being that God looked favorably on Cornelius' good deeds, which were certainly not seen as "filthy rags".
Then Peter began to speak: "I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right." (Acts 10:34, 35)
However, this does not mean we can rely on our morality or good works for salvation. Some might think that because Cornelius was looked upon with favor before he embraced the gospel, they too may be accepted without doing so. However, Cornelius readily receive the gospel, and became a follower of Christ, when he heard it. This differentiates him from the many moral people who hear the message of God's mercy, but pay little attention. (See Salvation)
The Bible Speaks of People Who Called on The Lord
Verse 64:7 says "There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you". However this can not be a universal principle, since the Bible itself tells us that there were many that called on the Lord. Examples from the Old Testament include... (All Emphasis Added)
"For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as is the Lord our God whenever we call on Him? (Deuteronomy 4:7 NASB)
"I call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised, And I am saved from my enemies. (2 Samuel 22:4 NASB)
Moses and Aaron were among His priests, And Samuel was among those who called on His name; They called upon the LORD and He answered them. He spoke to them in the pillar of cloud; They kept His testimonies And the statute that He gave them. (Psalms 99:6-7 NASB)
'Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. 'You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart. (Jeremiah 29:12-13 NASB)
Note that although the English version of Genesis 4:26 says that at the time of the birth of Seth's son Enosh, men began to call upon the name of the Lord, this may not be an accurate rendering. In fact, there is another distinct possibility - one that paints exactly the opposite picture - that the time of Enosh was the beginning of idolatry -DETAILS
So Was Isaiah Talking Through His Hat, Or... ?
Isaiah 64:6 is quoted thousands of times from pulpits, in books and online articles, in study guides etc. to emphasize how totally depraved all of us are and how our good works count for absolutely nothing. Unfortunately, in applying this verse to all of mankind we have, yet again, totally ignored both the textual and historical context. Since every single verse in the Bible is an integral part of a particular point the author was trying to make no one should read, much less base their beliefs on stand alone verses.
While we pay lip service to the fact that the Bible does not contradict itself, I wonder if we really believe this is true. In this case, is there any particular reason we ignore the verses immediately preceding this one (and the many other like it) that says God "meets" and champions the cause of the one who waits for Him. Not something He would do if all their righteousness were like filthy rags.
For from days of old they have not heard or perceived by ear, Nor has the eye seen a God besides You, Who acts in behalf of the one who waits for Him. You meet him who rejoices in doing righteousness, Who remembers You in Your ways. Behold, You were angry, for we sinned, We continued in them a long time; And shall we be saved? (Isaiah 64:4-5 NASB)
In other words, since Isaiah had to be aware of the numerous Scriptural references to righteous people that God was pleased with, he had to be referring to very a particular group of people in very specific circumstances.
And he was! The prophet was speaking about apostate Judah.
Isaiah was a prophet to the southern kingdom of Judah and was writing at a time of great distress. His prayer, which actually begins in 63:7, is a national lament - a prayer that cries out to God from the midst of desperate grief and circumstance that seem out of control. Not only has the northern kingdom of Israel been destroyed by the Assyrians, but they are threatening to wipe Judah off the face of the map as well.
Isaiah, speaking on behalf of a backslidden nation, is pleading for God to come down, all the while recognizing that they only have themselves to blame. Judah's own iniquities have brought this judgment down on them. Isaiah even calls Jerusalem a harlot (Vs. 1:21) and says they "display their sin like Sodom" (Vs. 3:9).
As verse 5 points out, the people had sinned and been doing so for a very long time. As the next chapter makes clear, they were knee deep in idolatrous practices.
A people who continually provoke Me to My face, offering sacrifices in gardens and burning incense on bricks; Who sit among graves and spend the night in secret places; Who eat swine's flesh, And the broth of unclean meat is in their pots. (Isaiah 65:3-4 NASB)
In light of which, one has to wonder what Isaiah could possibly have meant when he spoke about their "righteous acts"?
While there is no way of knowing with absolute certainty what Isaiah was referring to, a clue may be found in the fact that the Scriptures speak over and over again of the hypocrisy of the peoples who kept the letter of the law, while ignoring the spirit of it. For example, the Lord told the nation of Israel, through the prophet Amos …
"I hate, I reject your festivals, Nor do I delight in your solemn assemblies. "Even though you offer up to Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings, I will not accept them; And I will not even look at the peace offerings of your fatlings. "Take away from Me the noise of your songs; I will not even listen to the sound of your harps. "But let justice roll down like waters And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:21-24 NASB)
Amos 8 informs us that they were keeping the Lords festivals with their bodies, not with their minds or hearts. They were not only anxious for the close of the Sabbath so they could not only recommence buying and selling, but they also cheated on their weights. By making the bushel smaller and the shekel bigger they got more money for a reduced amount of grain. They also bought the poor for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals, and sold the refuse of the wheat. All of which caused the Lord to swear that He would never forget what they were doing
"When will the new moon be over, So that we may sell grain, And the sabbath, that we may open the wheat market, To make the bushel smaller and the shekel bigger, And to cheat with dishonest scales, So as to buy the helpless for money And the needy for a pair of sandals, And that we may sell the refuse of the wheat?" The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob, "Indeed, I will never forget any of their deeds. (Amos 8:5-7 NASB)
Although the people were observing the physical requirements of the Law (the burnt-offerings, meal-offerings etc.) the Lord did not see any real righteousness in them ... their hearts being evil, were far from Him.
Was Isaiah Including Himself?
The first question to be asked is... who is the "we" that Isaiah speaks about throughout the chapter, and why Isaiah included himself in his confession, i.e. "all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment"?
The simple answer is that the prophet was not specifically referring to the sins or failings of any particular individual, but was speaking of Israel's guilt as a nation. This was not uncommon in the Old Testament. Daniel, although a righteous man himself, confessed the sins of Israel as if he himself was guilty of those sins. His confession of sin, plea for grace, and deliverance from exile began with the words
we have sinned, committed iniquity, acted wickedly and rebelled, even turning aside from Your commandments and ordinances. (Daniel 9:5 NASB)
Amos and Isaiah
Amos and Isaiah prophesied to Israel and Judah respectively - Isaiah following Amos by some 20-30 years. The Bible tells us over and over again that Judah followed in the footsteps of her sister Israel, as is very clear from numerous passages in Isaiah. For example
His watchmen are blind, All of them know nothing. All of them are mute dogs unable to bark, Dreamers lying down, who love to slumber; And the dogs are greedy, they are not satisfied. And they are shepherds who have no understanding; They have all turned to their own way, each one to his unjust gain, to the last one. (Isaiah 56:10-11 NASB)
The righteous man perishes, and no man takes it to heart... (Isaiah 57:1 NASB)
I will declare your righteousness and your deeds, But they will not profit you. "When you cry out, let your collection of idols deliver you. But the wind will carry all of them up, And a breath will take them away... But he who takes refuge in Me will inherit the land And will possess My holy mountain." (Isaiah 57:12-13 NASB)
In chapter 58, the people ask the Lord why they fasted and He had not seen. Why they humbled themselves and He had not noticed. The Lord's answer is a well known verse.
"Behold, you fast for contention and strife and to strike with a wicked fist. You do not fast like you do today to make your voice heard on high. "Is it a fast like this which I choose, a day for a man to humble himself? Is it for bowing one's head like a reed And for spreading out sackcloth and ashes as a bed? Will you call this a fast, even an acceptable day to the Lord? "Is this not the fast which I choose, To loosen the bonds of wickedness, To undo the bands of the yoke, And to let the oppressed go free And break every yoke? "Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry And bring the homeless poor into the house; When you see the naked, to cover him; And not to hide yourself from your own flesh? "Then your light will break out like the dawn, And your recovery will speedily spring forth; And your righteousness will go before you; The glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. (Isaiah 58:4-8 NASB)
So the supposed ‘'righteousness' of traipsing down to the temple to pray and offer sacrifice while oppressing the widow and orphan, spoken of by Amos was just as prevalent in Judah as it was in Israel, and brought nothing but God's contempt and anger. And yet, the people were so deluded that they believed themselves to be righteous even though they burned incense and offered sacrifices on strange altars. (Vs. 65:3-4)
Unfortunately, the pretense of having a virtuous character by observing the physical requirements of the law continued up to the time of Christ.
There is no doubt that at one time the Pharisees were the most rigid defenders of Jewish traditions, and respected religious leaders of the day with great influence over the people. Over time they, instead of the priests, became the sources of authority. The Pharisees were distinguished by strict observance of the traditional and written law, looking to a scrupulous outward obedience to God's law in order to merit blessing, all the while bragging that they were not sinners like other men.
However, Jesus openly accused them of numerous transgressions, including pride and hypocrisy,
"They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men's shoulders, but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger. "But they do all their deeds to be noticed by men; for they broaden their phylacteries and lengthen the tassels of their garments. "They love the place of honor at banquets and the chief seats in the synagogues, and respectful greetings in the market places, and being called Rabbi by men. (Matthew 23:4-7 NASB)
"Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye tithe mint and anise and cummin, and have left undone the weightier matters of the law, justice, and mercy, and faith: but these ye ought to have done, and not to have left the other undone.... Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness. (Matthew 23: 23-24, 27 NASB)
In other words, this sham righteousness, apparently widespread in that day, is what Isaiah called "filthy rags". He was addressing the hypocrisy of the nation at the time, not making a generalized statement that applied to all people of all time.
See Jesus and The Law
In complete opposition to the traditional interpretation of Isaiah 64:6, "good works" are pleasing to the Father, provided they are accompanied by a righteous heart, and are not done with selfish or self serving intent. Note the following verses in which the importance of good deed is made very clear
And whoever in the name of a disciple gives to one of these little ones even a cup of cold water to drink, truly I say to you, he shall not lose his reward." (Matthew 10:42 NASB)
Over and over again the Scriptures emphasize the importance of good deeds, instructing Christians to not only do good works, but abound in them...
For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them. (Ephesians 2:10 NASB)
And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that always having all sufficiency in everything, you may have an abundance for every good deed; (2 Corinthians 9:8 NASB)
so that you will walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; (Colossians 1:10 NASB)
Remind them to be subject to rulers, to authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good deed, (Titus 3:1 NASB)
....and consider how we can spur other Christians on towards love and good deeds:
and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, (Hebrews 10:24 NASB)
Christians are instructed to be a reflection of God's light by their good deeds that even the unbeliever may be influenced.
Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 5:16 NASB)
Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may because of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation. (1 Peter 2:12 NASB)
Wealthy Christians are commanded that their good works be as abundant as their riches
Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to be conceited or to fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy. Instruct them to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, (1 Timothy 6:17-18 NASB)
While we cannot be sure of exactly what "list" Paul was referring to, it is very likely that elderly widows received support from the church. Certainly, in order to qualify there had to be evidence of the widow's good deeds.
A widow is to be put on the list only if she is not less than sixty years old, having been the wife of one man, having a reputation for good works; and if she has brought up children, if she has shown hospitality to strangers, if she has washed the saints' feet, if she has assisted those in distress, and if she has devoted herself to every good work. (1 Timothy 5:9-10 NASB)
Finally, Jesus Himself said "For the Son of Man is going to come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and will then repay every man according to his deeds. (Matthew 16:27 NASB)
If all our good deed are as 'filthy rags' we will all be up a creek without the proverbial paddle
While Isaiah's words do not have universal application, they certainly sound a warning to us modern Christians.
All too many people consider 'serving the Lord' as doing something related to religion and church - weekly church services, tithing, helping support missions and charities etc. However, simply professing Christ as Lord, going to church, reading the latest "Christian" book, or attending the never ending "Christian" conferences (whatever those are), or drinking your coffee from a mug decorated with a Bible verse, will do nothing for us.
We can come to church and sing our hearts out. We can praise Him to the high heavens and our "Amens" and "Hallelujahs" can lift the ceiling, all of which may appear as very successful worship to us. The problem is it may not even be considered worship by the Lord, simply because He looks far deeper than surface expressions. In fact, the Lord made it very clear, on more than one occasion that the feasts and festivals, the people’s offerings, their solemn assemblies, music, and even their prayer had become a burden to Him.
Contrary to what we seem to believe, God will not accept anything we offer... even if we happen to think it is fitting and good. Unless accompanied by godliness, our religious ceremonies are worthless to Him. In fact, He may consider some of our ‘worship’ despicable. (Amos 5:21-24). To obey is all important, and takes precedence over everything else.
Unless we are obedient to His commandments, all we have done is waste our time... and His.
Unless we are obedient to His commandments, any good works we may do will simply be, in Isaiah's words, "like filthy rags".
Myth of Faith Alone
I dread to think what would happen if someone in a modern church were to preach that you have to attain a certain level of righteousness to be saved. The hue and cry would be deafening, with the preacher soundly denounced, from one end of the Christian world to the other, as a false teacher who is teaching salvation by works. But, consider for a moment Jesus' words in the sermon on the mount.... ""For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven". (Matthew 5:20)
The Christian and Worship
Worship is not something we do, such as praying, singing, kneeling, at certain select times, but consists of who we are, and what our attitude is towards God at all times. True worship remains with us all through the day, and colors every aspect of our daily lives. So, what does it take to ensure that our worship is not rejected and the Lord takes pleasure in it?
Are We Also Pharisees?
Do we regard some of our traditions with as much authority as Scripture? Tradition exerts an enormous pull on our emotions because it provides sameness, security, stability, and it feels right. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day were proud of their traditions for they believed they were given to them by God Himself. This is barely different from some in today’s churches who measure righteousness by loyalty to ‘sacred’ tradition. If you doubt the power of traditions, try to change something in your church from the way that it has been done in the past.
 Filthy Rags? by Steve Jones. http://www.auburn.edu/~allenkc/openhse/rags.html