Jul 16, 2006

Defilement from Within (Part 2)

Mark 7:9–23

We cannot conquer sin merely by altering our behavior, for the root of our depravity lies in our own hearts. Today, R.C. Sproul continues his study of the book of Mark by examining the teaching of Jesus on the nature of sin.


Our text this morning as we return to our study of the Gospel According to Saint Mark is Mark 7:9–23. I’d ask the congregation to stand for the reading of the Word of God.

He said to them, “All too well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition. For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and ‘He who curses father or mother, let him be put to death.’ But you say, ‘If a man says to his father or mother, “Whatever profit you might have received from me is Corban”—’ (that is, a gift to God), then you no longer let him do anything for his father or his mother, making the word of God of no effect through your tradition which you have handed down. And many such things you do.”

When He had called all the multitude to Himself, He said to them, “Hear Me, everyone, and understand: There is nothing that enters a man from outside which can defile him; but the things which come out of him, those are the things that defile a man. If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear!”

When He had entered a house away from the crowd, His disciples asked Him concerning the parable. So He said to them, “Are you thus without understanding also? Do you not perceive that whatever enters a man from outside cannot defile him, because it does not enter his heart but his stomach, and is eliminated, thus purifying all foods?” And He said, “What comes out of a man, that defiles a man. 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.”

This is the unvarnished Word of God, coming by the inspiration of the third person of the Trinity for our instruction and our edification. Please be seated. Let us pray.

O Lord, as we continue now with our study of the teaching of Jesus, we beg for the help of the Spirit of truth that we may understand these words correctly, and that they may penetrate into our hearts, lest we be defiled. For we ask these things in His name. Amen.

Three Kinds of Legalism

In our last treatment of this chapter, we saw that this discussion Jesus had with the religious leaders of His day was provoked by their criticism of the disciples’ failure to go through the procedure of ritual cleansing with the washing of their hands before they ate. When we looked at that part of the discussion, I mentioned that the conflict was about one form of legalism.

We hear that word legalism bandied about, sometimes quite loosely, in the Christian community. It can be confusing because there is more than one type of legalism by which the truth of God’s Word is distorted. In fact, there are several types, and I’m not going to go into all of them, but I want to mention three. These are perhaps the three most common kinds of legalism that we encounter.

Justification by Works

The first kind of legalism is perhaps the most devastating. It is a legalism by which we believe that we can be justified in the presence of God by doing the works of the law. This is identified as legalism because it undermines the way of salvation that God declares so plainly in Scripture; namely, that we are justified by faith and by faith alone, and that the only righteousness that can possibly avail for us is an alien righteousness, not our own. It is the righteousness of Jesus. If you are trusting in any other righteousness than the righteousness of Jesus, then you have been caught in the snare of that type of legalism.

Adding to the Law

The second type of legalism is the one we addressed last time in this chapter, in which the traditions of men bind God’s people where God has left them free. It is adding to the law of God things that God does not command or forbid. We’ve already examined that kind of legalism.


The third most frequent form of legalism that we encounter is the one in view in the text that I just read before you. It’s what I call “loophole-ism.” The legalist is the Philadelphia lawyer, who looks at the law of God and tries to discern a way to get around it. He’ll try somehow to adhere to the letter of the law but trample underfoot the whole point and the spirit of the law.

You may remember, for example, the prohibitions in Israel about limiting one’s travel on the Sabbath to what was called a “Sabbath-day’s journey,” which was a very short distance. The rabbis found a way to get around that prohibition. During the week, they would have merchants put one of their toothbrushes under a rock a certain distance from their home, and then under another rock the same distance away with another toothbrush, because the rabbinic law allowed the establishment of residency by putting some article that you owned into a piece of real estate. So, the Jews got around the law by putting toothbrushes along the road, and they could go from domicile to domicile until they reached the destination they desired. This was clearly loophole-ism and an attempt to get around the law of God.

Jesus’ Encounter with Loophole-ism

The rabbis were masters of this kind of casuistry, and we see it in this encounter Jesus has with them with respect to the Old Testament principle of Corban. Corban had to do with the giving of gifts, or the setting aside of private property or personal wealth to the devotion of God. This was a good principle, but it was so twisted and distorted by the rabbis that they used the principle of Corban as a loophole to get around one of the most important laws of God—the commandment that required people to honor their father and their mother.

Listen to the exchange that goes on between Jesus and the leaders. Jesus says to them, “All too well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition.” Notice that Jesus doesn’t say, “The problem with you is that you keep the law and the tradition.” Rather, He says: “You get around the law, you reject the law, and you replace the law of God with your tradition. In fact, you’re using your tradition as an excuse to keep from obeying the law of God.”

Jesus makes specific reference to the fifth commandment: “For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘He who curses father or mother, let him be put to death.’ But you say…” Notice the contrast Jesus is making. Moses is the spokesperson for God. Moses is delivering divine revelation. These religious experts are delivering their opinions, which fall far short of divine revelation. The Pharisees and the rabbis were not agents of divine revelation, but Moses was, so Jesus says, “Moses said this, but you say that.”

Now, what is it that the Pharisees say? “But you say, ‘If a man says to his father or mother, “Whatever profit you might have received from me is Corban”—’ (that is, a gift to God), then you no longer let him do anything for his father or his mother, making the word of God of no effect through your tradition which you have handed down. And many such things you do.” What’s going on here?

The Jews developed a sense of deferred giving where a promise was made by a person that, upon his death, he would bestow all of his worldly goods to the church or to the work of God—in this case to the tabernacle or the temple. This meant that he would not have to use his personal wealth for anything else during his lifetime because it had already been committed to God. So, in the name of piety, a person could escape his obligation of caring for his parents in times of infirmity or in their old age, when they may have been too fragile to support themselves: “I’m sorry Mom; I’m sorry Dad—I’d like to help you out, but my finances are Corban. They are all committed to the Lord, and I can’t take the Lord’s money and give it to you.” Now, of course, he was allowed to spend as much of his own money on himself as he wanted during his lifetime. The vow of Corban did not prohibit the individual from spending all the money he wanted on himself until he died; he just couldn’t spend it on anybody else. So, this tradition emerged that tried to sanctify a way to get out from under the responsibility that God puts upon His people to give honor to their parents.

One of the things we notice about Jewish people, even to this day, is that no ethnic group does more for the care of their aged parents than the Jewish community. Despite all of this rabbinic nonsense, the principle set forth in the Old Testament by Moses has been preserved even to this day. Family takes care of family and does not depend upon other institutions like the government to take care of their family in times of crisis. There were, however, those who tried to use this rabbinic tradition to avoid that responsibility.

We must be careful, because there was a legitimate place for Corban in the Bible. But, a righteous interpretation of this principle could never be used to cancel out another principle set forth by God. Herein is a lesson for us.

The Analogy of Faith

There is a science in theology and in biblical studies that we call the science of hermeneutics. You’ve heard of hermeneutics—Herman Eutics is a plumber in Apopka. No, hermeneutics is the science of biblical interpretation. It teaches objective principles and rules that govern our treatment of the text, lest we turn the Bible into a wax nose, shaped and formed for our own desires, which is what the Pharisees did.

At the heart of the biblical and theological principle of hermeneutics in Reformed theology is the law called the “analogia fidei,” or the analogy of faith. It quite simply says this: no portion of Scripture must ever be set against another portion of Scripture. There are two assumptions here. The first assumption is that all of Scripture is the Word of God. The second assumption is that God does not speak with a forked tongue. What God reveals in His truth is always coherent and consistent.

We’ve been told that consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. If that adage is true, then we have to say that the tiniest mind to be found is the mind of God. Consistency, however, is the sign of clarity of truth, and God’s Word is consistent with itself. We ought not willy-nilly set one portion of Scripture against another.

We see that happen in the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. When Satan tries to seduce Jesus and quotes Scripture to Him, he says: “Jesus, doesn’t the Bible say that the Lord will give His angels charge over you lest you dash your foot against a stone? If that’s true, why don’t you jump off the pinnacle of the temple and wait for the angels to catch you?”

Do you see the nature of the temptation? Satan takes the Scripture and says, “Let’s see if the Scripture is true.” And Jesus says to Satan: “I hear your idea, but you’re guilty of violating the analogy of faith. You’re operating with a poor hermeneutic. You’re setting Scripture against Scripture. The Bible also says, ‘Thou shalt not put to the test the Lord your God.’ If I’m going to be obedient to that, I can’t acquiesce to your suggestion.” Jesus would not allow the Word of God to be broken by any other suggestion or addition.

That’s what’s in view in our passage. These people with their traditions had done all kinds of contortions to get out from under the clear manifestation of the truth of God. And Jesus says, “You make the Word of God of no effect through your tradition.”

Scripture, Tradition, and the Question of Authority

The biggest theological controversy to ever take place in church history occurred in the sixteenth century. On the surface, it seemed as if the whole controversy raged over one doctrine—the doctrine of justification by faith alone; the gospel itself.

When Martin Luther was brought into disputes with the princes of the church, they reminded him that his understanding of justification was not the understanding of the tradition of the church. They reminded him that holy mother church had explained justification in different categories than those he presented. But Luther said: “Here is what the Bible says. My conscience is held captive by the Word of God. I’ve got to submit to that, not to your traditions.”

Behind the scenes, the secondary issue was the question of authority. Where does the authority lie? Is it in Scripture alone, or is it in Scripture and tradition? Does tradition really trump everything else because tradition gives the binding interpretation of Scripture? For all practical purposes, it’s not only that you have two sources—Scripture and tradition—but really that you have one—tradition—which becomes more important than the Word itself.

I don’t understand how any sentient creature could read the New Testament teaching about justification, particularly in Paul’s letter to the Romans, and draw from that anything that resembles the Roman Catholic doctrine, which is based upon tradition. It isn’t just Roman Catholics who fall prey to this problem, however. We all do. We all begin to trust our traditions and give them more weight than the actual weight of Scripture. Ultimately though, we believe that the final arbiter of all theological and moral debate must be the Word of God. That’s what this debate is all about between Jesus and His contemporaries: “You make the Word of God of no effect by your traditions.” That’s the judgment.

It’s so easy for us to look at that from two thousand years’ distance and say, “Shame on those Pharisees, shame on the rabbis, shame on the medieval theologians of Rome.” Aren’t we glad we never do that? It is a temptation to believers in every age and in every Christian community to put our love lines to our own traditions and give them more exalted authority than the teaching of Scripture itself. In doing so, we make the Word of God of no effect. Is there anything more diabolical than that?

Jesus says that this activity the rabbis do with the Corban is not an isolated instance. He completes His rebuke by saying, “Many such things you do.” In other words, He’s saying to the religious leaders of the day: “You do this all the time. You go out of your way to minimize the import of God’s Word and its binding character on your lives.”

Defilement Comes from the Core

After this, Mark says that Jesus calls the multitude to Himself and says, “Hear Me, everyone…” Let me quickly comment on that. When Jesus says, “Hear Me; listen, everybody,” He’s calling them to attention to hear an authoritative pronouncement. Jesus is now giving an oracle from God.

Listen to what He says: “There is nothing that enters a man from outside that can defile him; but the things which come out of him, those are the things that defile a man. If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear!” “Listen,” He says, “it’s not what you eat, it’s not what you drink, it’s nothing from the outside that goes into you that defiles you or contaminates you.” He goes on to say, “Whatever you ingest goes to your stomach and then is eliminated.” What God is concerned about here is not your stomach or your hands, but your heart, because that’s where defilement arises—in the very core of your being.

We need to understand that defilement comes from the core because we all admit that we are sinners. We say, “To err is human, to forgive is divine—nobody’s perfect,” but we still have this idea that sin is something on the edge. It’s tangential. It’s peripheral to our existence. Jesus says: “No, the defilement comes from the very core of your being. Sin arises not from your stomach, nor from your hands, but from your heart. It comes from the very center of your being.”

Do you remember what the Old Testament says about this? “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he” (Prov. 23:7). As a man thinks in his heart, so is he. It’s strange because we usually think of the brain as the organ of thought, but the Bible doesn’t say, “As a man thinks in his mind, so is he.” We have all kinds of conflicting thoughts in our minds, but what we really believe is that which drives our behavior. We may have ideas that go in one ear and out the other side, or may we entertain them for a while in our thinking, but it’s that which pierces the heart that drives how we live. As a man thinks in his heart, as a man thinks at the very core of his existence, so is he. And Jesus says, “This is where defilement happens.”

Jesus concludes this discussion by giving a catalog of all kinds of sins because the disciples didn’t get it either. I’ll just read it for you quickly. He says: “Don’t you understand that whatever enters a man from the outside can’t defile him? What comes out of a man, that’s what defiles him. Out of the heart comes this: evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lewdness, the evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness.” Foolishness is right up there with adultery. All of these things come from the heart, and the only way we overcome them is when the heart is cleansed.

I remind you, dear friends, that being born anew, being converted to Christ, does not automatically, finally, and fully cleanse the heart. The cleansing of the heart is a lifelong pursuit, and that’s one of the reasons we come to the Lord’s Table. We come to be strengthened and to be nurtured by our Redeemer, so that our hearts may be made clean.

The transcript has been lightly edited for readability.