Monday, April 11, 2016

Communicable Defilement

Yesterday I shared some thoughts about the Levitical laws having to do with uncleanness and ritual defilement, and I applied them to the subject of mankind’s relationship to its Creator.

Since nothing happened to Israel in a vacuum and precious few of their laws are without some practical application to the Christian life, today I’d like to look at the issue of ongoing defilement and uncleanness in the era beyond the Law of Moses.

But before we do that, we need to take one last look back at Leviticus.

Two Types of Defilement

The first type of defilement found in Leviticus is the ordinary, garden-variety or “common” uncleanness associated with daily living that I described in yesterday’s post. Such uncleanness had to do with death and both normal and abnormal bodily functions; the type of defilement that not even the most conscientious Israelite could avoid indefinitely.

But a second type of defilement is spoken of in Leviticus 18. This sort of defilement was much more serious and less likely to be an everyday occurrence. Adultery, child sacrifice, homosexuality and bestiality all put the sinner in this much more hazardous category of defilement. These sorts of defilements were not simply forbidden by Mosaic law but by natural law: they were understood to be violations of even the unenlightened pagan conscience; so much so that even the nations that did not have the law were held accountable by God and punished for violating them. They were acts of wickedness that were never to occur in Israel.

It is perhaps because these sorts of sins were associated with the people of Canaan, and because God declared that the land would “vomit them out” on account of them, that Israel quickly came to associate all Gentiles with defilement and uncleanness, though this was not explicitly declared in the law. Thus Peter was not alone in thinking of Gentiles as unclean and refusing to associate with them.

All very interesting, to be sure. But what does all this have to do with Christians?

Defilement and Christians

First the good news: Let’s be clear that first category of Levitical regulation about uncleanness was fully dispensed with at the cross of Christ. It is like the rest of the law of Moses in that it has been entirely satisfied. We who have died with Christ are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive. Technical compliance with the rules of Leviticus is not necessary for the believer today. As Peter aptly inquired of his fellow disciples who were enthusiastic about law-keeping:
“Why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?”
Why indeed? To demand compliance with the Levitical law for believers is to put God to the test. Let’s not do that.

The Mouth and the Heart

The Lord Jesus taught explicitly what the Old Testament faithful like Isaiah recognized intuitively: that defilement was always first and foremost a spiritual issue, even for the Jew. As he said:
“What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.”
Thus the follower of Jesus Christ is to be far more concerned with his conscience than the specifics of his actions and what he touches or tastes. To this end, Hebrews tells us that the blood of Christ has dealt with that issue once and for all:
“For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.”
Here we are reminded that it is not only futile but actively defiling to rely on our good deeds as a means of salvation. Our works offered in any attempt to placate God or save ourselves are precisely as appealing as an Israelite contaminated by touching a corpse.

William Macdonald puts it well:
“It cleanses [the conscience] from those dead works which unbelievers produce in an effort to earn their own cleansing. It frees men from these lifeless works to serve the living God.”
Indeed. What a relief to be free of that burden.

Sources of Christian Defilement

Still, though our consciences have been purified by the blood of Christ, the law was designed to create an ongoing awareness of the sorts of spiritual defilement that result naturally from living in a fallen world: “Through the law comes knowledge of sin”. It is wise for believers to be aware of the sources of such potential spiritual uncleanness, sources such as:
  • binding partnerships with unbelievers. Paul uses the word “unclean”, with all its Old Testament connotations, to describe the unbelieving party to agreements of this nature. And uncleanness is communicable. Elsewhere Paul qualifies this: he is not forbidding association with unbelievers, but partnerships (a marriage entered into before one partner was saved is the exception to this).
  • ongoing association with professing believers engaged in sexual immorality. Paul says “not to even eat with such a one”. To do so is defiling to us. Furthermore, it tempts our sinning brother or sister to believe what they do is of no particular importance.
  • the abominations and perversions listed in Leviticus 18 (adultery, homosexuality, bestiality … and child sacrifice, of which abortion is surely the most common variety today). These, as we have seen, are violations of conscience for which even the heathen of Moses’ day were held accountable. They constitute the sort of uncleanness that precedes and stands outside the Levitical law. Such things are always wrong, no matter where we stand in human history. The fulfillment of the Levitical law in the cross of Christ does not suddenly make these lifestyle choices optional for the believer, no matter what Rachel Held Evans and others may have to say on the subject, because they were wrong before the law was given, and wrong for those to whom the law was never addressed.

    (There is some good news in this bad news, I should probably add, even though such things are declared to be abominable to God. Unlike the Canaanites who perished in the judgment of God, those who repent of their actions today are forgiven and fully cleansed from all defilement in his eyes (though not necessarily exempted from every natural consequence of their actions). “Such were some of you,” Paul tells the Corinthians. “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God”.)
Touch No Unclean Thing

There are other sources of defilement of which Christians need to be wary. Most, happily, do not fall into the category of abominations and perversions. But my point is this: defilement is very much a communicable thing. It was not restricted in Israel to the person who was originally defiled, but spread to all those with whom he or she had contact.

Where the uncleanness we encounter is of the ordinary day-to-day variety, the intercessory work of Christ and the word of God are more than sufficient to deal with it. But where the potential defilement is in the category of ongoing, unrepented sexual sin, more may be necessary. There is a reason that both in the Old and New Testaments we read:
“Therefore go out from their midst,
and be separate from them, says the Lord,
and touch no unclean thing; then I will welcome you …”
The quote is from Corinthians, but Paul is riffing on Isaiah here, reminding Christians that some of those old principles still apply even if we live in a period of history characterized by grace rather than by law.

“Touch no unclean thing” is pretty clear, is it not? Defilement remains communicable.

It may be tempting to turn a blind eye to friends and family members that claim to be Christians and seek fellowship with us even though they refuse to repent of practices the Old Testament refers to as “abominations” and “perversions”. Such appeals to our sense of tolerance are becoming commonplace. But if we do so, we are not being loving. Our virtue signaling is nothing more than selfishness and cowardice.

Further, we are risking defilement of our own, and confirming those we love in their own sin.


  1. "Here we are reminded that it is not only futile but actively defiling to rely on our good deeds as a means of salvation."

    Does this need clarification? I thought, if I recall correctly, that you yourself had previously drawn a distinction that should go along with this. By that I mean the following. If you are a Kindergartener, e.g., your teacher will certainly inculcate you with the notion that good behavior will get you farther in her/his class compared to unruly and disruptive behavior. This of course then extends throughout a lifetime where putting your best foot forward in any life situation (job, social, etc.) is generally perceived as a beneficial method of obtaining advancement, approval, appreciation, in short, is rewarded. Thus, the religious, mature, person certainly would/should not imply that there is a direct transaction, an exchange of goods going on with God to purchase favors or salvation but is following learned behavior that God himself undoubtedly wants us to have for our own benefit. In a sense though that can nevertheless also be interpreted as a type of trade - I'll follow your rules if there is a benefit derived from doing so that I would like to have. A trade after all?

  2. Well, the contrast in the Hebrews passage is between the futility of works as a means to obtain salvation and the work of Christ applied by faith to the believer, which is wholly sufficient in the eyes of God. What I could not do, Jesus did.

    Now if I choose out of love for Christ to engage in works after the fact solely because I love him, that's an entirely different thing, no?

    There's no quid pro quo there that I can see.

    1. I disagree Tom. You must realize that I describe a situation where this early learned good behavior in response to deriving benefits is what a child already does without consciously linking it to Christ. This often can and will continue in a person's life, undoubtedly due to God's goodness, even though such a conscious linkage may come for a person (sometimes much) later or not even until death. Hence what you perceive as a transaction of good works for salvation never happens (in the person's mind). And yet it is clear that God is interested in and inspiring people even in that goodness that temporarily seems removed from him. Since God will certainly prefer for a person to be such rather than vile it nevertheless comes down to an (inspired) transaction of good works for salvation.

  3. So, let me get this straight ...

    You're suggesting some people are aware enough to recognize that their good behaviour gets them ahead with God (you've said it's trained into them because they are able to grasp that there's an incentive to be had; they wouldn't engage in that behaviour if they hadn't got that far in their thinking), and yet these same people remain not quite aware enough to recognize that it is their good behaviour that is getting them ahead with God (you say they don't perceive it as a transaction, even though they are now mature adults)?

    Is that a fair characterization?

    1. What I am saying is that with good parenting children can learn that good behavior is rewarding. And that can continue later in life. Further, there are therefore people who are good people whose motivation is to live like that under their own impetus. Their impetus is not necessarily to please God whom they may not yet have paid attention to but might at some later point in life. When they do they will inadvertently have traded up in their relationship with God due to having been "good people."

    2. You missed it, Q.

      God isn't interested in our righteousness. It can't hold a candle to His, and it's no favour to Him whatever we do or don't do. That's how the Bible sees it.

      So nobody's "trading up, because "relationship" with God is something they don't have at all. There's nothing to "trade" with.

      You *must* be born again. Just as Jesus said.

    3. IC, "born again" is already included in "God whom they may not yet have paid attention to but might at some later point in life." See this.

      My final take on this. If you have strived to live a good life you have traded up simply because you have a greater chance to maintain that demeanor also after becoming "born again." There is less probability for the person who did not live that way and they might more easily fail and revert again. The former would be more pleasing to me (and by extension I can also assume to God) hence the good works of the former before being born again certainly do pay off, count for me (and God) and cannot be ignored as being immaterial. That to me is sound psychology and we will simply have to disagree if it is not for you.

    4. Well, whether it's for you or me would seem less important than what it is for God, no?

      The Bible is quite clear on the point that deeds do not ingratiate us to God, nor do they have any value to Him unless they're done by one of His children, those "born again of the Spirit." Gratitude, not hope of earning salvation, is the only motive that makes deeds truly good.

      If that's right, then what you and I think is neither here nor there, is it?

    5. Again, I disagree. As I said, the hypothetical person being discussed was raised and tried to act rightly before discovering God (reborn by the Protestant definition) with no intention of striking a bargain with God before or after to have works count towards salvation. Nevertheless that person will have derived benefits from their upbringing and good character even just due to the natural order of things. Second, God is our father and as such I will certainly impute fatherly motives to him regardless of where his children currently are in life. As a matter of fact he is even more concerned, like any parent, about those children who are net yet safely in his fold, and will not be stingy with his concern and love towards them regardless of where our particular human ethics and understanding will place them.

    6. I like your thought that there is no "striking a bargain with God before or after to have works count toward salvation." On the basis of the Word of God, I think that's very sound. And I agree with the idea that the Lord knows His own, even before they know Him. I don't disagree that anyone -- Christian or not -- is going to derive certain practical advantages (having nothing to do with salvation, of course) if they choose to behave well. Or rather, they may...or they may simply experience a lot of inconvenience from having to behave morally when others do not...or they may even experience resentment and persecution from those who are determined to be less moral. But either way, all of that has nothing to do with salvation, of course. I think we agree on that.

      But as the Word of God says in John 1, " as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become the children of God." That is, only to "as many as received Him," meaning to those who are born again through faith in Christ. To be God's child, you have to be born into His family, you see.

      He's not the Father of the wicked, nor is He the father of those who by their own efforts behave well but are not born again through faith in Him. And in Scripture, there is no other basis for entrance into the family of God but through faith in Jesus Christ: first things first.

      So we may not be disagreeing all that much. Maybe our only current point of discussion is whether works done before salvation are of any interest or merit in the eyes of God. Other than that, perhaps we're actually agreeing.

    7. I think this point has come up before in our discussion, and I think we agreed that we do not have insight regarding who is and who is not saved since that knowledge belongs to God alone. At no point in a person's life are we therefore entitled to draw that conclusion. Nevertheless we are entitled and even obligated to assign probabilities to that or we could not warn our neighbor in the face of sin, as we must. And that is only part of how God shows his fatherly concern also for those who have not yet accepted him. This therefore proofs that he indeed values the actions of all as his children even if they are still removed from him, (and who Protestants would therefore not call his children?) just what you would expect a father to do. I am a father and there would be no circumstance where I would not care for my child. Where the confusion comes in is that there is the bitter fact that we are temporal and there will come a point of no return for both parties for the sake of maintaining peace in a household (in heaven).

    8. As you say, we don't know who is saved and who is not. Agreed. However, that does not imply that God does not know, or that they do not, of course -- especially when there are specific criteria in scripture for what is required for one to truly become a "child of God." Others clearly DO know what you and I do not.

      Of course you're right to say that a father always has regard for his children: but not everyone is his child, as scripture also makes clear. As you say, there are those who will persistent refuse to become "children of God," even though they could, if they wished to do so. And yes, we can lament their choice, but hardly fault God for honouring their free will in respecting that bad choice when they have decisively and repeatedly made it.

    9. Should have done this earlier but did a little more research, and yes, you are basically correct. The bible does refer to all men indeed as being children of God the creator, and him caring for us in that capacity. Except that there is still the issue of original sin and our fallen nature. The distinction in most people's mind comes in where we associate childhood with a father figure, which is the natural and immediate way to think about that relationship but then Christ and the NT additionally contrasts or extends that with the fact of our redemption and adoption into divine sonship, which is different. It is then when we are redeemed and found worthy to be in the eternal presence of God but only with our active consent and willingness to accept the consequences of believing in and living by Christ's teaching. So, yes, that adoption is indeed different by requiring a certain level of responsibility and by then elevating us closer to God beyond the mere human concept of a child-parent relationship.

    10. Actually, that's not quite what I said.

      It is true that the Bible makes some mention of everyone being the "offspring" of God, as in (Acts 17:28), as a mere result of having been created by Him. That is, we are all "children" of a sort. EVERY human being is, the worst sinner and nicest person alike.

      But this has nothing whatsoever to do with salvation, and is very clearly NOT what John is talking about. Many of those who are "offspring" or "children" in that first sense only are actually rejectors of salvation, as seen in John 1:11 -- in fact, that very verse draws the stark distinction: everyone is "His own" by right of creation, but not "His" by way of salvation. Some of those who are only "children" in a creation sense are actually bound for a lost eternity (see John 8:44, which identifies them as actually "children of the devil," not by creation but in regard to salvation).

      The key question for all of us, then, is "Are you ONLY a 'child' in the sense of having been originally created by God, as all human beings are, regardless of their moral condition -- or are you His SPIRITUAL child, born again into the family of God through faith in Jesus Christ?"

      Only the latter enjoy a genuine parent-child relationship with God; the rest have abdicated any relationship with God they might have had, and have claimed the Evil One as their true "father," just as Christ Himself said of them. And I don't hesitate to stand on HIs assessment there: He would know, and would have the right to say that.

      As for our being "found worthy, " I submit to you that none of us ever is. The only way we get to God, and to become His true children, is through faith in Jesus Christ, His true Son. If, then, we are "found" in our own strength, standing on our good deeds, we shall only be "found lacking." So we'd best be "found in Him," (Phil. 3:8-9) that is, not on the basis of what WE are, but on the basis of who Christ is, not recommending ourselves to God on our own works of righteousness.

      I hope that is clearer. It's an important distinction, I believe.

    11. Hi IC, really, but your comment strikes me as no different from what I said except it was put somewhat differently. However, you are in the religious instruction business (including on this website) and I am not and I will not quibble or split hairs concerning what I consider to be minor differences. Also, I know Tom would come to my defense if you were completely wrong O.O.

    12. And I tremble at the possibility of being accosted by Tom. However, if we do agree that, as Jesus said, "You must be born again," (John. 3:7) then yeah, we're on the same page.

      Good talking to you again.

  4. "Since God will certainly prefer for a person to be such rather than vile it nevertheless comes down to an (inspired) transaction of good works for salvation."

    That doesn't follow at all.

    I may want my child to be good, but that doesn't mean he's my child merely *because* he's good, or *only if* he's good. The prior question is this "Is he my kid?"

    Jesus said, "You must be born again." Without the new birth from God, good works are of no value or consequence to Him. You are simply not His child; and whether or not you do good says nothing at all about Him -- just about you.

    But, of course, which one of us can be as good as God? And even if we could (which we clearly cannot), what is that to Him? Isaiah 64:6 tells us that even a person's "righteous deeds" can be nothing more than "filthy rags" in the eyes of God. How much more "filthy" are those self-righteous deeds we use to hold up before Him and say, "See? You have to accept me. I'm good enough for you."

    This is the point: our "righteousness" is nothing to Him unless we are His children already. And for that "you must be born again." (John 3:7)