The Bible never says that “cleanliness is close to godliness,” and yet the phrase is persistently associated with the Christian life. Where does it come from, and is there any part of that statement, which rings true for the life of the Christian? God gave his people instructions for how to be clean, so cleanliness must be important, but in what way? And what is meant by “cleanliness”?
Is Cleanliness Really Close to Godliness?
These very words were first used by John Wesley in a 1778 sermon. He provided no source for the idea. But Wesley is not responsible for the ancient prejudice, stretching back long before the time of Christ: beliefs in the importance of “Jewish separatism [...] begin in the distinctions, which God drew between the ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ animals, which were to be put on the ark, so as to survive the flood,” explained Bob Deffinbaugh.
The main purpose of ritual purification laws was unrelated to hygiene, although bodily cleanliness played a role. “There is, to be sure, an incidental contribution made by the laws of purity/impurity to hygiene,” wrote Joe M. Sprinkle, especially as they pertain to sexually transmitted diseases, leprosy, and viruses.
But Sprinkle maintains that “all the laws of purity, even where arbitrary, cultivated in the Israelite the virtue of self-control, an indispensable first step in the attainment of holiness.” Interpretations of God’s laws, which focus on bathing habits have missed the point: everyone is dirty, inwardly; Jesus alone has cleansed those of us who believe in him for salvation.
“The purity system arguably conveys in a symbolic way that Yahweh is the God of life (order) and is separated from that which has to do with death (disorder).” Death, blood, emissions, all forms of dirtiness: they symbolized the flesh, which is sin and death. God’s forgiveness, living as one indwelled by the Spirit, is life (Romans 8).
Is Cleanliness Is Close to Godliness in the Bible?
Deffinbaugh uses Peter’s epiphany about clean and unclean foods to flesh out the nature of Jewish prejudice and legalism.
In Leviticus 20:25, we read God’s commands regarding clean and unclean food: “You shall therefore separate the clean beast from the unclean, and the unclean bird from the clean. You shall not make yourselves detestable by beast or by bird or by anything with which the ground crawls, which I have set apart for you to hold unclean.”
When God gave the law to Moses, his intention was the same then as it would be years later. They propounded the idea that one was only right with the Lord when his or her behavior was right. They wanted to accomplish their own righteousness and set limits for everyone else’s righteousness at the same time.
Deffinbaugh explains, “God had chosen Israel and had set them apart from the other nations of the earth, not because they were so great, or so holy, but simply because He chose them.” God was the source of their holiness, their cleanness. The priests and scribes could not achieve it. When the Lord told Peter in a vision to kill something and eat it,
Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has made clean, do not call common” (Acts 10:14-15).
This vision was not about food, but about the transformation of the heart, which takes place in a relationship with Christ. After his vision, Peter would meet with a Gentile convert named Cornelius. Peter entered the man’s house, where Cornelius tried to worship Peter. The Apostle corrected Cornelius, saying “I too am a man” (Acts 10:14-15,26).
He then saw many people gathered and explained, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean” (Acts 10:28). Peter had realized that he was made holy by the cleansing blood of Jesus Christ and not by any work of his own.
There is plenty of dirt in the New Testament: dirt shaken from sandals; mud and spit in someone’s eyes; touching lepers; being touched by the sick and the poor and the filthy. Messy tears, dead bodies, blood: Jesus was frequently unclean in the ritual sense. And yet, his ministry elevated the law, and the reasons God gave it: his glory and our good.
The woman with the 12-year bleed was supposed to separate herself; Leviticus 15 outlines the regulations she would have faced. Jesus highlighted the total and perfect cleansing he brought to all people when he not only healed the woman but restored her. He cleansed her of more than blood but of stigma, shame, and isolation.
She could now be part of society. This woman’s faith glorified God, and Christ’s blood would ultimately make her well, for eternity. Our uncleanness is constant, we cannot be cleansed by any method of our own. But nothing can prevent the cleansing power of Christ’s blood once a person has believed and has been saved.
The New Testament and Salvation
The New Testament turns a lot of old ideas on their head without contradicting God. Because of their rebellion, legalistic Jews had distorted the law. During his ministry, Jesus pointed out the many contradictions they were guilty of, starting with “you have heard it said,” followed by “but” (several times in Matthew 5 alone).
Jesus was not challenging his Father’s Word but cleansing popular renditions of it from centuries of idolatrous build-up, revealing the true nature of God’s expectations. He was resurrecting the law to its rightful place while also explaining the fullness of his work on the cross.
No person was able to become perfect no matter how many times he or she bathed. According to the Lord’s own demanding laws, people were frequently prevented from coming before him, but he desired a relationship with his people.
Jesus taught the law in its uncompromising fullness: not “an eye for an eye” but “love your enemies;” not “murder is a sin” but “anger towards your brother is murder” (Matthew 5). A lot of cleansing was required.
But when it comes to cleansing, Christ’s death was sufficient for all of it. We see the enormity of what he did on the cross in a more accurate light when we understand the magnitude of our depravity and helplessness.
What Does 'Cleanliness Is Close to Godliness Mean for Us?
All people need rescuing from the same adversaries Adam and Eve faced: sin, Satan, and death. That rescue was dirty and gory. Yet, as the old hymn goes, “What can wash away our sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.”
As believers stand before the Lord, it’s the blood of Christ, which makes them clean. Cleanliness is not next to godliness, but those who are washed in the blood of Jesus are cleansed from the stain of sin.
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Candice Lucey is a freelance writer from British Columbia, Canada, where she lives with her family. Find out more about her here.