FIRST, WASH YOUR HEART: Going deeper than rituals


ave you met the church police? These people think they can look at others (who are not in their little group) and discover their shortcomings, sins, and failures. Amazingly, they never seem to perceive any sin in their own life.
When the church police (the Pharisees) of Jesus’ day asked why His disciples were going to eat bread without washing their hands, Jesus confronted them head-on (Matthew 15; Mark 7). This wasn’t just a matter of washing hands before eating; the Pharisees were concerned about the method used.

First, their religious tradition said to wash with fists clinched, to be sure to get all the germs off their hands. Make a fist with one hand, and use it to scrub the open hand. The second tradition said to wash their hands way above the wrists. Failure to do so meant some terrible form of judgment.

Sadly, the Pharisees based their relationship with God on these types of things. Traditions had become their overwhelming focus. In the Old Testament, God had given Moses Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai; but by the time Jesus arrived on the scene, there were about 630 rules to observe! Every generation added their own biases and stipulations as to how people ought to live. Jesus points out they were not just limited to washing hands, but even “the washing of cups, pitchers, copper vessels, and couches” (Mark 7:4 NKJV).

Reading this, I concluded that my wife would have made an excellent Pharisee. She is a germ-a-phobe on steroids! When we travel, we carry three bags: mine, hers, and the bag with all the cleaning supplies. It doesn’t matter where we stay (and we’ve stayed in some lovely places), nothing can be taken out of the clothes suitcases until the room has been scrubbed down with Lysol. We don’t just clean the room; we also scrub inside the dresser drawers! And if I dare to pick up the TV remote control before she’s had a chance to clean it, may my soul find mercy! We even bring a set of our own sheets to place over the furniture that we will sit on.

The Pharisees had become so focused on the external performance of others that they missed the central issue: A personal relationship with God is not based on externals but on the condition of the heart. Jesus said the poison of their legalism was so deadly that it nullified every other spiritual activity they may have done—“And in vain they worship Me” (v. 7 NKJV).

For those of us grew up in a “Bible Belt” church where everything we did was scrutinized, this text evokes haunting memories. The Holiness Movement rightly pursued holy living for the believer, but often the outward observations were seen as the only path to holiness. This mentality missed the inner work of the Holy Spirit.

With thinking like that, it should be no surprise that the Holiness Movement had a strong church-police presence. I grew up in a pastor’s home, and I remember my dad getting calls from church members saying they saw another member’s vehicle parked at the movie theater. I also remember calls to my dad attacking him because he watched football on TV. The heartbreaking truth is that many people were pushed away from the kingdom of God by the misguided stipulations of legalism and its enforcers.
Jesus told His followers that evil comes “from the heart” (Matthew 15:18). “To eat with unwashed hands does not defile a man” (v. 20 NKJV).

1. We must steer clear of the desire to police other people’s lives.
There are sins revealed in Scripture which are clear for everyone to see. In Mark 7:21-23, Jesus said, “For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lewdness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within and defile a man” (NKJV).
These things do not need any judgment from us; for people who lead such lives bring judgment upon themselves.

Also, we are not empowered to judge others through the filter of our conscience. One example is my inclination to wear a suit and tie when I preach. I have had some Sundays when I have tried not to wear a tie, and it was comfortable. Felt good! Then I remember seeing a picture of myself without a suit and tie preaching in our pulpit, and I immediately thought it just didn’t look right. No one approached me and made mention of it; it just didn’t sit right with me. However, we have other ministers on our staff who don’t wear a suit and tie when they preach, and I never say a word to them about it. I won’t violate my conscience, but I’m certainly not going to put my conscience on them. The same should be said of each of us.

2. While we must break free from the tendency of legalism, we must never break free from the pursuit of holiness.
I believe this is where the church exists today. We have broken loose, for the most part, from years of legalism. We have broken free of the rules, regulations, and thought patterns that for so long enslaved us. However, as I look at us, I must ask, Are we still pursuing holiness? Are we still seeking a holy lifestyle before the Lord?

Hebrews 12:14-15 tells us to “pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord: looking carefully lest anyone fall short of the grace of God” (NKJV). Seeking holiness is part of our daily mission as followers of Christ. In our interactions with others, we must take care that these are holy relationships. In our pursuits of business and careers, we must seek that those endeavors are marked by holiness. And in our quest for recreation and entertainment, the pursuit of holiness cannot be forfeited. Without holiness, no one will see the Lord!

3. The issues within your heart will not duplicate those of anyone else.
Several years ago, a fellow pastor and I went on a mission trip. The hosts took us to an animal reserve, where we saw hippopotamuses in their natural environment. We arrived early that morning, and we positioned ourselves on top of a hill overlooking the river. There were dozens of these creatures playing in the river and sometimes sparring with each other.
The one thing our hosts hadn’t prepared us for was the odor. Words cannot describe how awful these animals smelled, even from a distance. Everything those hippopotamuses do is done right there in the river. The smell was so offensive that we stood on top of that hill with our hands covering our faces. However, the smell never bothered the hippopotamuses at all. That’s their environment; that’s where they live every day!

It is easy for us as believers to live in a naturally sinful world and exist with naturally wicked hearts. It would seem we are so used to sin that it doesn’t bother us anymore. We forget just how offensive sin is to the holiness of God. How ugly are those hidden sins that we leave in our heart? Just look at the cross of Jesus. Consider the horror that Christ endured and know that’s how offensive those little sinful traits are to God.
We don’t need the church police, but we do need to police ourselves. We don’t need others holding us to their conscience, but we need to be holding ourselves to our conscience.

Jerry Madden is lead pastor of Praise Cathedral Church of God in Greer, South Carolina. This article is adapted from his book, Jesus Said . . . (2019, Pathway Press).