We’ve noticed your standards are really slipping. Your men don’t do it the way our forefathers have done it for generations. We can’t agree with you on this. Why aren’t you washing your hands before you eat? What’s happening?
In paraphrase, this was the question that the Pharisees brought to Jesus in Mark 7:1-5. The Pharisees thought that external things were the enemy. As a result, they created a fear-based ministry of condemnation and shelter from the world. They created a long list of do’s and don’ts and imposed this list on everyone as though it were doctrine. What was sneaky about this is that the list looked reasonable, safe, even orthodox. Nothing in their list could be easily refuted from Scripture; after all, you couldn’t find a verse that said it was a bad idea to wash before eating. But their mistake was in asserting that these ideas, these merely man-made precepts, were actually doctrine or teaching that was derivable from Scripture. And more seriously, their mistake was in focusing on this to the exclusion of truly having a heart in pursuit of God (Mark 7:6). The Pharisees were fond of quoting writers from 300 years ago who said that these checklists were sound, but they couldn’t demonstrate their relevance from Scripture itself.
The Pharisees had a fundamental misunderstanding about the heart of man. They thought, as do all fallen men by nature, that corruption comes from without. Thus they focused on surface-level outward things. Functionally, they failed to recognize that “no separation from the world” could ever make them right with God, as the hymn Not In Me so beautifully lays out.
Jesus’s response to this massive failure was to quote Isaiah 29:13, which reads:
This people draw near with their words
And honor Me with their lip service,
But they remove their hearts far from Me,
And their reverence for Me consists of tradition learned by rote.
The sobering reality is that this Pharisaical mindset is with us today. There are many whose reverence for God consists of “tradition learned by rote” rather than by a true, humble desire to have a heart that is near to God.
A Biblical, Reformed anthropology is not afraid to get messy in the real world. It’s not afraid because it recognizes that the real danger of corruption is from the heart, not from a failure to observe external checklists created by a fear-based ministry of condemnation. “There is nothing outside the man which can defile him,” Jesus said in Mark 7:15. It’s taken me a long time to figure out that a lot of serious Bible people don’t actually believe this when the rubber meets the road. They might even be 5-point Calvinists on paper, but they haven’t applied it to the real world. They don’t have a Reformed anthropology in practical daily life.
Many times, this accurate exegesis of Mark 7 is rebuked as an antinomian license to sin, but there’s a simple test that you can apply to any checklist to sniff that out, and that is this: by upholding the checklist, will you be strengthened to fulfill the prayer to not be led into temptation (Matt 6:13)? Remember, the goal in all we do is to have a heart that is drawing close to God. You know you’re in Pharisaical territory when the checklist has absolutely nothing to do with this. Eating with hands that have been washed or not has nothing to do with whether your heart will be wandering away from God into temptation. It doesn’t pass the test. It has no validity.
We have the permission and liberty to get as radical as we need to on ourselves when we’re fighting temptations that steal our hearts from God (Matt 5:29). But when it comes to imposing checklists of random do’s and don’ts that mere men have come up with — that has no place in the kingdom of God. Such checklists usually achieve the exact opposite of genuine spiritual piety; by lifting their adherers up with pride, they leave their hearts farther away from God, not nearer. If that’s you, you better watch out, because Jesus is coming after you.
I could showcase a checklist of precepts that are popular in certain Christian circles that fail to pass the test, but I won’t, because I want you to wrestle with it. Are you in a church where much time is spent “teaching as doctrines the precepts of men” (Mark 7:7)? In functional terms, what side of this passage are you on, really?