Deep Cleaning of Pride and Legalism

Do you wash your car, vacuum cleaner, or oven regularly? I try to keep my car clean, but from time to time, I notice how filthy it is where the car door hinges to the body. I think, “Oh, I should clean that soon,” and then completely forget about it until the next time I notice the filth. Ditto for my oven and vacuum. Some dirt is easy to spot. Most of us want to get rid of the obvious mud that gets tracked into our homes or the discarded packaging from delivered things. But small amounts of dirt and dust turn into grime when we neglect cleaning. It’s the same with our hearts and minds. We can fall into the bad habit of realizing we have ungodly or rebellious thoughts and desires and think, “Oh, I need to talk with God about that soon and confess,” and then forget about it. But God uses all our circumstances—together with His Word—to teach us how to walk with him. He often uses our relationships, advice from others, work issues, family projects, or significant life changes to sanctify us, teaching us to confess immediately for quick repentance. I wondered what would happen when I moved pieces of furniture that haven’t been moved for over four years? If I hadn’t done some spring cleaning in March, I would have found filthy baseboards and floors behind my heaviest pieces, but I only saw a buildup of a few months rather than years. We should keep  “short accounts” of our sins or offenses, Christian jargon for confessing our sins before they become filthy issues that require significant reconciliation with God and others. 

We Need What Israel Needed 

“There are those who are clean in their own eyes but are not washed of their filth.” (Proverbs 30:12) Although Proverbs 30:12 points to those who do not know God as we do, we are still vulnerable to those sins of our former unbelief or snares from Satan. They, “in their own eyes, in their own conceit and imagination, trusting in themselves that they are righteous…have not their eyes opened or enlightened to see [what we can see]—the plague of their own hearts, the spirituality of the law of God, the perfection righteousness requires; the righteousness and holiness of God himself; or the imperfection and insufficiency of their own. Did they, they would not seem pure and righteous to themselves.” (1) In the Book of Isaiah, the prophet presents everything and everyone by their relationship with God. A key theme in Isaiah is Israel’s offense toward God with outwardly impressive religious rituals that conceal empty hearts. Another theme is man’s duty to repent, trusting in the holy God who rules all things. See Isaiah 66:1-4; 28:16-17; 31:1. (2) Any time we move forward in life without any idea of God’s involvement, we are in danger of trusting in ourselves or others as if we are pure. Either we admit that we are weak, tempted, and unrighteous, in need of frequent cleaning, or we move away from the Lord as Israel did, leading to God’s dramatic discipline. We, like Israel, are prone to prideful self-confidence and legalism, which we must repent of if we want inner cleanliness and intimacy with Christ. 

Either Like the Pharisee or the Tax Collector

We should never take for granted the work of God’s Spirit in us, thinking that our salvation somehow precludes us from vanity and pretentiousness. Scripture is rich in its teaching about the dangers of these sins. “There are those—how lofty are their eyes, how high their eyelids lift!” (Proverbs 30:13) “Above others, on whom they look with scorn and contempt; as those who have more riches than others, and boast of them; they despise their poor neighbours, and disdain to look upon them: and such also who have more knowledge and wisdom than others, or at least think so; they are puffed up in their fleshly minds, and say of the illiterate or less knowing, as the proud Pharisees did, ‘this people, who knoweth not the law, are cursed:’ and likewise those who fancy themselves more holy and righteous than others; these, in a scornful manner, say, ‘stand by thyself, I am holier than thou;’ and thank God they are not as other men are, as publicans and sinners.” (Gill on Prov. 30:13) We should not exclude passages that compare believers with unbelievers since we usually don’t measure up to Jesus’s standard in his parables, miracles, and teaching. In Luke 18, Jesus told a parable to “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: ‘Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.’” (Luke 18:9-14) “The Pharisee does not really pray at all. He asks God for nothing, and his thanksgiving is merely a form. He glances at God, but contemplates himself. He thanks God for what he is, not for what God is.” (3) The Pharisee was as close to the holy place in the temple as possible, but the Tax collector was far away. The holy place did not scare the Pharisee at all, unlike Peter who fell and asked Jesus to depart from him (Luke 5:8). “Sinful people don’t rush into the presence of the holy, they flee from the presence of the holy. The tax collector was in fear and trembling just in the outer court, not even able to lift his gaze to heaven, but only on the floor, beating his breast. He begged God to be merciful to him, who only had his sin, without any excuses for it. He knew that only God’s grace could help him.” (4) The Pharisee was one of the most respected religious leaders in Israel but trusted in his position and deeds for God’s approval, which hindered him from being washed from his spiritual filth. We can also fall into that trap, sometimes just for a day. That’s when we should cry out for mercy, like the tax collector, to be washed by Christ, confessing our prideful independence.

Deep Cleaning 

Those who think they are sinless and will not be washed by God become spiritually filthy, just like our floors under our furniture when untouched. But we have the privilege of confessing our pride and legalism, so it doesn’t build up into rubbish that separates us from the Lord. Most people don’t like to do deep cleaning—it isn’t easy or fun—although there are a few people who enjoy it. We do it because it helps our homes, garages, cars, appliances, tools, and furniture to last longer and look better. Doing the deep cleaning of our hearts isn’t fun or enjoyable like worship, fellowship, hospitality, or service. Repentance is hard work, and it should be continuous. Perhaps we ought to think of it like looking at the contents of our fridges. Cleaning out the refrigerator keeps it from reeking of spoiled food, with the stench spilling over into our kitchens. In the same way, the filth of unconfessed pride or self-justification dirties our relationships and witness. “It is not enough to admit that one is a sinner. One has to repent of that. In fact, to acknowledge that we are sinners and not repent of it, is to blaspheme God. This tax-collector here not only recognized that he was a sinner, he also confessed it before God and begged God for mercy…When we come into the presence of God, let us come not with an attitude of self-justification, but with an attitude of dependence upon his mercy. For the point at issue here was not the track-record of the Pharisee or tax-collector, but the present attitude of their minds towards God.” (5) “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom.  Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.” (James 4:8-10)

Related Scripture: Job 9:30-31; Proverbs 16:2; 21:2; 30:32; Jeremiah 2:22-23; Daniel 9:19; Matthew 5:20; 6:5-13; Luke 11:42-44; Hebrews 10:19-22; 1 Peter 3:21; Revelation 3:17; 7:14.

Notes:

  1. Gill, John, “John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible,” Proverbs 30:12, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/geb/proverbs-32.html
  2. English Standard Version Study Bible Notes, Introduction to Isaiah—Key Themes, (digital edition), Crossway, 2008.
  3. Zondervan Bible Commentary, F. F. Bruce General Editor, Luke 18:9-14, One-Volume Illustrated Digital Edition.
  4. Ligonier Ministries, The Pharisee and the Tax Collector devotion, https://www.ligonier.org/learn/devotionals/pharisee-and-tax-collector/
  5. Sproul, R. C., “A Walk with God: An Exposition of Luke’s Gospel,” Luke 18:9-14, Electronic Book, 2016.

June 10, 2021   

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