For Christians, Is Uncleanness a Sin?

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First, we will define what uncleanness is based on the original language Hebrew (OT) and Greek(NT) terms. Then, we will look at numerous NT verses that speak on the subject. Next, we will deal with the Christian and uncleanness. Finally, we will take an in-depth look at uncleanness throughout the Old Testament and into the New Testament from a trusted Bible Encyclopedia, followed by a reliable Theological Dictionary and a conclusion by Edward D. Andrews.

Uncleanness (Heb. טֻמְאָה tumah Gr. ἀκαθαρσία akatharsia) The Hebrew (טֻמְאָה tumah) in the Old Testament meant uncleanness, impurity, i.e., ceremonially uncleanness for a violation of a standard of the covenant (Lev 5:3; 16:16; Nu 5:19), note: some of these offenses are quite serious, of a moral nature.[1] The Greek (ἀκαθαρσία akatharsia) in the New Testament meant 1. immorality, sexual impurity (Ro 1:24; 6:19; 2Co 12:21; Gal 5:19; Eph 4:19; 5:3; Col 3:5; 4:7+); 2. filth, impure, unclean things (Mt 23:27; 1Th 2:3+) note: some verses and entries may overlap.[2]

Matthew 23:27 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
27 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because you resemble whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness [καθαρσία akatharsia].

Romans 1:24 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
24 Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity [‘uncleanness’ καθαρσία akatharsia], so that their bodies would be dishonored among them.

Romans 6:19 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
19 I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity [‘uncleanness’ καθαρσία akatharsia] and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.

2 Corinthians 12:21 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
21 I am afraid that when I come again my God may humiliate me before you, and I may mourn over many of those who have sinned previously and not repented of the impurity [‘uncleanness’ καθαρσία akatharsia], sexual immorality and sensuality that they have practiced.

Galatians 5:19 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
19 Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: sexual immorality, impurity [‘uncleanness’ καθαρσία akatharsia], sensuality.

How to Interpret the Bible-1

Ephesians 4:19 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
19 who being past feeling gave themselves up to shameless conduct, for the practice of every uncleanness [καθαρσία akatharsia] with greediness.

Ephesians 5:3 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
But sexual immorality, and all uncleanness [καθαρσία akatharsia], or greediness, must not even be named among you, as is proper among holy ones;

Colossians 3:5 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
5 Deaden, therefore, your members on the earth: sexual immorality, uncleanness [καθαρσία akatharsia], passion, evil desire, and greediness, which is idolatry.

1 Thessalonians 2:3 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
3 For our exhortation does not come from error or impurity [‘uncleanness’ καθαρσία akatharsia] or by way of deceit.

Christians are not under the Mosaic Law and its cleansing requirements, even though the Mosaic Law and its customs were still applicable and binding when Jesus was on earth. (John 11:55) The Mosaic Law had “a shadow of the good things to come”; ‘but the substance [or reality] belongs to Christ.’ (Heb 10:1; Col 2:17) Hence, Paul wrote concerning these purification matters:

Hebrews 9:11-28 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

Redemption Through the Blood of Christ

11 But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things having come, then through the greater and more perfect tent not made with hands, that is, not of this creation; 12 and not through the blood of goats and calves, but through his own blood, he entered the holy place once for all, obtaining eternal redemption. 13 For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled sanctify for the purity of the flesh, 14 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.

Mediator of a New Covenant

15 That is why he is a mediator of a new covenant, in order that because a death has occurred for their release by ransom from the transgressions under the first covenant, those who have been called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance. 16 For where a covenant is, there must of necessity be the death of the one who made it. 17 For a covenant is valid only over the dead, for it is never in force while the one who made it lives. 18 Therefore even the first covenant was not inaugurated without blood. 19 For when every commandment had been spoken by Moses to all the people according to the Law, he took the blood of the calves and the goats, with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people, 20 saying, “This is the blood of the covenant that God commanded for you.” 21 And in the same way he sprinkled both the sacred tent and all the vessels of the ministry with the blood. 22 And according to the Law, nearly all things are cleansed with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.

The Heavenly Sanctuary

23 Therefore it was necessary for the copies of the things in the heavens to be cleansed with these, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. 24 For Christ did not enter a holy place made with hands, a mere copy of the true one, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us; 25 nor was it that he would offer himself often, as the high priest enters the holy place year by year with blood that is not his own. 26 Otherwise, he would have needed to suffer often since the foundation of the world; but now he has appeared once at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. 27 And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after this comes judgment, 28 so Christ also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time without reference to sin to those who eagerly await him for salvation.

So, the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ cleanses Christians from all sin and unrighteousness. (1Jo 1:7-9) Christ “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word” in order for it to be spotless, holy, and without blemish, “a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.” (Eph 5:25-27; Tit 2:14) Every member of this Christian church, therefore, should not “having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins” but should endure to outwardly evident the fruitage of God’s Spirit (2Pe 1:5-9), remembering that “and every branch that does bear fruit he [God] prunes, that it may bear more fruit.”—John 15:2-3.

Christians must ongoingly possess a high standard of physical, moral, and spiritual cleanness, guarding against “every impurity [or defilement, NASB] of the flesh and spirit.” (2Co 7:1) Given what Jesus said, “There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.” The Christian who benefits from the cleansing blood of Christ must focus on spiritual cleanliness. They maintain “a pure heart” and “a clear conscience” before God. (Mark 7:15; 1Ti 1:5; 3:9; 2Ti 1:3) “To the pure, all things are pure, but to the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; but both their minds and their consciences are defiled.” (Tit 1:15) If Christians want remain clean and pure in heart follow the advice of Isaiah 52:11 (UASV), which says: “Depart, depart, go out from there; touch no unclean thing; go out from the midst of her; purify yourselves, you who bear the vessels of Jehovah.” (Ps 24:4; Matt. 5:8) Then, Christians’ “hands” in a figurative sense will be cleansed (James 4:8), and God will view them as clean persons.—2Sa 22:27; Ps 18:26; see also Dan. 11:35; 12:10.


Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible

Cleanness and Uncleanness, Regulations Concerning. Aspect of Hebrew religion having physical, ceremonial, moral, and spiritual significance. Though these senses of clean and unclean can be distinguished with reference to their contexts, they also merge into and illustrate each other; the physical and ceremonial contexts point to a moral state of the worshiper and to a spiritual relationship between God and his people.

The OT vision of a people’s relationship with God is along moral and personal lines, God’s personal nature being expressed in his giving of the Law to Moses. The personal and uniquely consistent character of Israel’s Lord made him morally a completely different being from the many gods of pagan cultures. Unlike the Lord, the baals of the Canaanites were capricious and vicious; nobody expected them to be ethically consistent. Israel’s Lord, on the other hand, could be trusted to keep his word (a verbal communication through his chosen prophets). Nobody, not even the high priest or the king, was above the Law, which expressed not only God’s character but also his sovereign will for the individual and the nation. His moral consistency carried over into his miraculous interventions into history to protect his people, to judge them and their enemies, and to redeem humanity itself.

Cleanness as defined in the Book of Leviticus, therefore, was always conditioned by the presence of the personal God who gave the Law. As the people sought to approach the Lord, they necessarily did so on his terms and therefore within the framework of the cultic ceremonies he had prescribed. Details of the Levitical ceremonies were designed to illustrate the moral implications of the sinner’s approach to God and God’s provision for his people to become morally clean in his sight.

The meaning of the Levitical system was stated clearly in the psalmist’s words: “Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false, and does not swear deceitfully” (Ps 24:3, 4). One’s state of cleanness depends not only on external actions, but also on an internal relationship with God. As a result, the sinner’s inability to satisfy the moral demands of a holy God leads to his or her complete dependence on God and on God’s provision for satisfying his own demands. That provision was detailed in the Law.

Early History

Gentile Religious Background. The gentile conscience was no doubt a strong influence on the development of ethnic notions of clean and unclean. The subjective sense of sin’s uncleanness is universally encountered in one form or another in the literature of every great religion, whatever explanation is given for it. Many religions have rites of purification based on water and washings. The Hebrews’ ritual avoidance of certain objects, some because of their holiness and others because of their unholiness, finds an analogy in the taboos of many primitive religions, including some of those with which the early Hebrews came into contact.

The similarities between Hebrew and other ancient religions are easily established by superficial comparison. It would be surprising if there were none. Those differences that give biblical religion its distinctive character, however, must be accounted for.

Biblical Religion Before the Mosaic Era. The few references to notions of clean and unclean in Genesis bear certain similarities to other religions but also point to the development of those notions in Hebrew thought after the exodus. For example, God referred to the distinction between clean and unclean animals in his instructions for Noah’s ark (Gn 7:2–9). Birds were included in the clean things offered to God by Noah as an act of worship after the flood (Gn 8:20). Such references imply a concept of clean and unclean things even before the flood.

Rachel excused herself from standing up and showing due respect to her father because, she said, “the way of women is upon me” (Gn 31:35). If she was referring to her menstrual period, the household idols in her camel saddle were ritually unclean because she was sitting on them (cf. Lv 15:19). In another instance God told Jacob to go to Bethel and build an altar there. Jacob’s response was to “destroy the idols” and to demand that all those in his household “purify” themselves and change their clothing (Gn 35:1–3). Clearly, some kind of ritual purity was thought appropriate for such an act of worship.


Levitical Prescriptions

Ceremonial and Moral Law. The relationship between the external ceremonial details of the Mosaic Law and the internally directed moral requirements of such parts of it as the Ten Commandments is one of the fundamental issues of OT theology. It is possible to demonstrate that throughout the OT, uncleanness and sin are virtually synonymous. In many passages sin is described as uncleanness (e.g., Lv 16:16, 30; the ordeal of the bitter water in Nm 5:11–28; Zec 13:1).

The relationship between ceremonial and moral cleanness can be illustrated from passages mentioning clean hands on the one hand (2 Sm 22:21; Jb 17:9; 22:30) and a clean heart on the other (Pss 24:4; 51:10; 73:13; Prv 20:9). The prophet Isaiah felt convicted of “unclean lips” when he was in God’s presence; a purifying coal, perhaps representing forgiveness and atonement, cleansed him (Is 6:5–7). In many passages cleanness represents innocence before God (Jb 11:4; 33:9; Ps 51:7–10; Prv 20:9), and uncleanness is said to come from sin (Ps 51:2; Is 1:16; 64:6).

A ritual bath for Jewish purification in preparation for worship in the temple.

Causes of Uncleanness. From the Mosaic Law a number of causes of uncleanness can be derived.

  1. Some foods were not to be eaten. Various laws concerning animals make a “distinction between the unclean and the clean and between the living creature that may be eaten and the living creature that may not be eaten” (Lv 11:46, 47). Permitted food was what was acceptable to God (see also Dt 14:3–21; Acts 15:28, 29).
  2. Diseases, especially leprosy, produced an unclean state (Lv 13; 14). The story of Naaman refers to leprous defilement (2 Kgs 5:1–14). The Gospels refer often to lepers (e.g., Mt 8:1–4; 10:8; 11:5; Lk 4:27). Many swellings, sores, and rashes were included under that heading, including Hansen’s disease (modern leprosy). The defilement of disease included all things touched by a diseased person (Lv 14:33–57).
  3. Bodily discharges were unclean, and contact with them defiled a person for various periods of time. Emission of semen produced uncleanness until the evening, whether in intercourse (Lv 15:16–18) or inadvertently during the night (Dt 23:10). An unnatural discharge, since it usually indicated disease, made a person unclean for seven days after it had ceased (Lv 15:1–15). Menstruation also produced uncleanness lasting seven days after it ceased (Lv 15:19–24; 2 Sm 11:4). Sexual intercourse during that time made both partners unclean (Lv 15:19–24; 20:18). Contact with the spittle of an unclean person produced uncleanness for a day (Lv 15:8).
  4. Dead bodies, or even parts of them such as bone, caused uncleanness (Nm 19:16). Persons who touched a dead body were unclean for a month, and only after that period could they celebrate their own Passover if they had missed it (Nm 9:6–11). The high priest could not even bury his own parents because of his special ritual responsibilities (Lv 21:10, 11; cf. Nm 6:7; Hg 2:13; Mt 23:27).
  5. Idolatry was the greatest source of spiritual defilement. The entire nation of Israel was defiled because of it (Ps 106:38; Is 30:22; Ez 36:25), as were the Gentiles (Jer 43:12). Consequently, contact with Gentiles was thought to produce defilement. The gospel’s universal appeal confronted that conviction (e.g., Jn 4:9; Acts 10:28; cf. Gal 2:11–14). Closely related to the defilement of idolatry was the defilement caused by unclean spirits (Zec 13:2; cf. Mt 10:1; Mk 1:23–27).

Laws About Objects. Certain laws illustrate the principle that uncleanness was transmitted much like a contagion. Dead bodies contaminated what they touched, as did dead insects and certain crawling things (Lv 11:29–38). It is interesting that dry grain, running spring water, and water in a cistern were expressly excluded from that law of contamination; perhaps otherwise starvation would have resulted, dead insects and mice being found in grain and water every day in an agricultural community. Unclean pottery had to be broken, but wooden vessels merely required washing (Lv 15:12). Even uncovered pots in a house where a person had died became unclean (Nm 19:15); everyone who entered the house was unclean.

Because of their idolatrous associations the possessions of pagans were unclean; therefore booty taken in war had to be cleansed by fire or washing (Nm 31:21–24). Clothing of wool, linen, or leather could contract unclean “leprosy” from diseased persons and had to be tested. If the leprous spots (greenish or reddish patches) spread after a test period, the garments had to be burned (Lv 13:47–59; 14:33–53).

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Laws About Places. The land and people of Israel were holy; they could be defiled by the uncleanness of economic oppression or idolatry (Jos 22:17–19; Ez 22:24). Jerusalem was a holy city, but it could be defiled by the sins of its people (Jer 13:27; Lam 1:8) or by the blood of its slaughtered inhabitants (Lam 4:15).

The temple could be defiled by unclean persons. It was necessary for Hezekiah to cleanse the temple after Ahaz’s idolatrous worship (2 Chr 29:15–19); Nehemiah had to cleanse the rooms in which Tobiah had been (Neh 13:9). One of the functions of the Day of Atonement was removal of impurities transferred to the temple by the sins of the Israelites during the past year (Lv 16:16–19, 31–33).

An unclean place received the pieces of a leprous house after its demolition (Lv 14:45). The Valley of Hinnom became Jerusalem’s garbage dump in later years, giving rise to the visions of “Gehenna” as a place of eternal punishment in NT eschatology. Since the Israelite camp was a holy place, care was taken to bury human excrement outside its boundaries (Dt 23:12–14). The value of that simple expedient in preventing disease during military excursions can hardly be exaggerated, since plagues were a great scourge of ancient armies.

Laws About Food. Certain kinds of animals were unclean and thus could not be eaten (Lv 11; Dt 14:3–21). Animals that died of old age, disease, or injury, or had been wounded by predators were unclean. Animals that did not both chew the cud and have a cloven hoof were unclean, a definition that included pigs, camels, badgers, and rabbits among others. Among fish Israelites could eat only those that had both fins and scales. Birds of prey and scavengers were unclean. All winged insects were unclean except hopping insects (locusts, grasshoppers, and crickets). A large classification of “crawling things” was prohibited, including worms, lizards, snakes, weasels, and mice. In addition to all those was the ancient prohibition against eating blood (Gn 9:4; Lv 17:14, 15; Dt 12:16–23; Acts 15:28, 29).

Purification Rites

Purification by Lapse of Time. Secondary contamination could often be canceled simply by waiting until the evening (Lv 11:24) or for 7, 14, 40, or 80 days. Dead bodies contaminated what they touched for 7 days (Nm 19:11), as did menstruation (Lv 15:19). When a child was born, the mother’s unclean state lasted 7 days for a boy and 14 days for a girl. For 33 days afterward for a male child, and 66 days for a female, the mother could not touch any sacred thing.

Purification by Water. Contact with unclean things such as bodily discharges often required washing of hands and clothing, usually accompanied by a time lapse of a day (Lv 15:5–11).

Purification by Ceremonial Substances. Ceremonial substances used in purification rites included the ashes of a red heifer mixed with water (Nm 19:1–10), and (in cases of leprosy) cedarwood, scarlet cloth, hyssop, and blood (Lv 14:2–9). When the altar was used in a purification ceremony, only blood was suitable, since the altar was the place of sacrifice for sin (Lv 16:18, 19; Ez 43:20).

Purification by Sacrifice. Sacrifice was the ultimate source of both ritual and moral purification. All bodily discharges except sexual ones were purified by offerings of doves and pigeons (Lv 15:14, 15, 29, 30). Childbirth required a lamb and a bird (Lv 12:6). Poor people could offer birds in place of an animal (Lv 12:8; 14:21–32; Lk 2:24).

In sacrifice, blood was symbolic of a life given and therefore a death experienced; the uncleanness of disease or sin was thought of as being transferred to the victim, thus removing the uncleanness (Lv 14:7). Sacrificial death therefore always had a substitutionary element. Only blood sacrifice could provide the moral cleansing necessary for sin itself; such sacrifice was therefore the basis of all cleansing, including that of disease.


Purification by Fire. Some contamination could be removed only by fire, such as contamination of metal pots (Nm 31:22, 23). Incest was punishable not only by death but also by burning the bodies (Lv 20:14). Idolatry had to be put away by total destruction of the objects and by burning (Ex 32:20). Cities consecrated to pagan deities were to be burned.

New Testament Development. The NT did not reject the OT concept of clean and unclean, but rather reinterpreted it in a new context. It stresses in particular the moral sense of the concept as well as the identification of uncleanness with sin.

The Teachings of Jesus. The Gospels were written in the context of OT law and its Pharisaic and Sadducean accretions. Jesus obeyed the Law, but was often at odds with the practical casuistry (moral system) that had grown up around it.

Jesus taught that true defilement came from the sinner’s heart and not from outside contamination (Mk 7:14–23; Lk 11:41). A central element in his teaching was his attack on the ceremonial externalism of the Pharisees. Thus it has been said that Jesus “internalized” the Law. It would be more correct to say that he forced attention to the Law’s demands on people’s inner lives.


The intrinsic wickedness of demons is underscored by the use of the term “unclean spirit” throughout the Gospels. In fact, the word “unclean” itself always appears in the Gospels in the context of spirit, a detail that illustrates the NT shift of emphasis from ritual uncleanness to sin and its guilt.

Acts and the Epistles. An important episode in the life of the early church came in Acts 10, when God taught the apostle Peter that Gentiles were not unclean in themselves and that Peter was obliged to receive them. The result was Cornelius’ conversion.

Jesus’ assertion that uncleanness originates in the heart bore fruit in the apostle Paul’s doctrine of Christian freedom. Paul, a Pharisee who could say of himself that he had never broken an external law, came to see that nothing is unclean in itself (Rom 14:14); rather, “everything is indeed clean” (Rom 14:20). Although everything is lawful, not everything is expedient (1 Cor 6:12), because everything that “does not proceed from faith is sin” (Rom 14:23). The statement that everything is lawful was a repudiation of ceremonialism.

Throughout the epistles cleanness is the result of obedience of the heart flowing from regeneration; it is based on the cleansing power of the atonement (see Rom 6:19; 1 Thes 2:3, 4, where uncleanness is strictly moral). Repentance and confession procure the cleansing power of Christ’s blood (1 Jn 1:7–9).

The Atonement. The atonement was the final cleansing agent for sin and its moral results (Heb 9:14, 22; 1 Jn 1:7), doing in reality what the blood of bulls and goats only typified. Thus those who are “washed … in the blood of the Lamb” (Rv 7:14) are seen as wearing clean white robes (Rv 15:6; 19:8–14).

The cleansing power of Christ’s blood in the unrepeatable historical event of the cross is not mystical. His blood, symbolizing the life given and the death died by the Son at the behest of the Father, satisfies the attributes of personal justice of the triune God. Because the personal character of a righteous Father was vindicated, the personal forgiveness of sinners is morally possible. God can be in history only what he is eternally: he is both just and the justifier of believers in Christ (Rom 3:24–26).

Regeneration and Faith. Even OT believers recognized that an internal change had to accompany the sacrifices in order to bring about true cleanness. Thus David invited God to “create in me a clean heart” (Ps 51:10), noting that ceremonial sacrifice is no substitute for real repentance (Ps 51:16, 17). Jesus showed his disciples the connection between cleansing and regeneration: “You are already made clean by the word which I have spoken to you” (Jn 15:3). The apostle Paul described regeneration as a “washing” (Ti 3:5) effected by the Holy Spirit applying the cleansing Word (Eph 5:26). The apostle Peter likewise used the language of cleansing to describe the Word’s regenerating action in connection with faith (1 Pt 1:22).[3]

Theological Dictionary

Cleanness, Uncleanness. Like other ancient Near Eastern civilizations ancient Israel had a concept that we call ceremonial or ritual cleanness (ṭāhôr) and uncleanness (ṭāmē). Therefore, the OT contains many laws describing what made one become unclean and the purification ritual necessary to return to the desirable status of being clean. These laws for cleanness concentrated on prohibited food (Lev. 11), bodily emissions (15), various kinds of skin disease (13), death (Num. 19:11–19), and places (Lev. 18:24–30). Purification rituals varied but included a waiting period (12:2–5), a cleansing agent such as water (15:5), blood (14:25), or fire (Num. 31:23), and a sacrifice or offering (Lev. 5:6).

Various explanations have been offered for these laws of cleanness and uncleanness. A summary of the more important ones follows.

The distinctions were hygienic. Unclean animals were unfit to eat because they were carriers of disease, while the clean animals were relatively safe to eat. Washing and purification have always been consistent with sound medical practice.

The distinctions were cultic. Unclean animals were closely associated with the negative religious practices of Israel’s neighbors and therefore were to be shunned completely by ancient Israel.

The distinctions were symbolic. This is an anthropological approach developed by Mary Douglas (Purity and Danger). She suggests that systems of distinguishing cleanness and uncleanness were really ways of ordering the universe. Laws of cleanness symbolized wholeness and normality, while the laws of uncleanness symbolized chaos and disorder. Priests had to be free from physical deformity (Lev. 21:17–21); improper unions (Lev. 20:20) and mixtures (19:19) were prohibited. Clean animals conformed to a standard (pure) type, while unclean animals departed from this standard in one way or another (ch. 11).

Each of these explanations has some value, but the symbolic interpretation is more comprehensive and has been gaining additional supporters.

Israel’s approach to cleanness was also connected to Yahweh and his holiness. Priests were to distinguish between both the holy and profane and the clean and unclean (Lev. 10:10). While cleanness and holiness were not identical, cleanness was one important aspect of holiness, and priests were extensively involved in many purification rituals. So we may conclude that the laws of cleanness were indirect aids to remind the ancient Israelite of the purity and holiness of his God (11:44–45).

In the NT the ceremonial aspects of cleanness (katharos) and uncleanness (akathartēs) gave way to an emphasis on moral purity and impurity. Jesus stressed that it was not what went into a man that defiled him, but what came out of him (Matt. 15:1–20; Mark 7:1–23). Mark (7:19) added that Jesus declared all foods to be clean. However, this issue was not easily resolved in the early church. Unclean foods distinguished and divided Jews, including Christian Jews, from Gentiles (Acts 10 and 15). However, when Gentiles were incorporated into the church, the food laws lost their symbolic significance and were eventually dropped. Acts 15:9 indicates that both Jewish and Gentile believers were clean because of God’s work of cleansing, not because of observing dietary laws. The book of Hebrews went on to show that the work of Christ made not only purification rituals but also other OT ceremonial practices unnecessary. Romans 14:14 sums up the NT position: “No food is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean then for him it is unclean.”
                   J. C. Moyer

Bibliography. J. Hartley, ISBE (rev.) 1:718–23; G. J. Wenham, Leviticus; “Theology of Unclean Food,” EvQ 53:6–15.[4]

The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised

NT Understanding of Clean and Unclean

  1. Unclean The word “unclean” in the NT is most frequently joined to “spirit” to connote a demon. Uncleanness is not a ritual term, but a moral one denoting man’s wayward behavior that keeps him from fellowship with God. Included are licentiousness, covetousness, and sexual abuses (Eph. 4:19; 5:3; Rom. 1:24). Uncleanness is classified as one of the works of the flesh that prohibits following the Spirit’s leadership (Gal. 5:17ff). From these defilements the believer must cleanse himself to live a separate and unique life (2 Cor. 7:1).
  2. Clean The question of ritual purity was quite prominent among various sects of Jews at the time of Jesus, e.g., the Essenes bathed three times a day to ensure their compliance with the law. Jesus and His disciples often found themselves in conflict with the Pharisees over this question; for instance, the disciples were criticized for eating with unwashed hands (Mk. 7:1–7) and Jesus for dining with sinners (Lk. 15:1f; 19:1–10). Jesus, in contrast, accused the Pharisees of having forgotten the weightier matter of justice in their zeal to follow the law (Mt. 23:23ff); He compared them to whitened sepulchers, full of dead men’s bones (Mt. 23:27). In light of the laws regarding ritual purity and death, Jesus could scarcely have used a more pungent reproach. In anticipation of the new covenant, Jesus went further in deliberately setting aside the whole question of ritual purity. He taught that it is words flowing from a corrupt heart that defile a man, not food, which merely enters the mouth on the way to the stomach (Mk. 7:14–23). The early Church appealed to this teaching to affirm that Jesus Himself had declared all foods clean (Mk. 7:19). Jesus desires a moral life style flowing from a pure heart, which He Himself sanctifies by the Holy Spirit (Jn. 14:20f, 23; 17:17).

SANCTIFICATION: You Have Been Sanctified?

The NT emphasizes that the one who confesses his sins and walks in the light is cleansed from all sin and unrighteousness (Jn. 1:7, 9). Every believer, Jew or Gentile, is clean, for God purifies the heart by faith (Acts 15:9; cf. 10:9–16, 34f). This idea is radical, for it declares that the Jewish believer in no way is defiled by the Gentile believer and the Gentile, truly purified, also has full access to God. To show the new position of the believer before God, He. 10:22 draws on the double imagery of sprinkling with ashes of a red heifer one defiled through contact with a corpse (Nu. 19) and of the bathing of the high priests’s body before serving on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:4); that is, the Christian, cleansed from the curse of death for sin and freed from an evil conscience, has boldness to enter the presence of God as a priestly intercessor.

The Word also plays a crucial role in the cleansing, for it is the obedient response to its proclamation that transforms the inner man (Jn. 15:3; cf. Eph. 5:26). The only rite of washing to symbolize the transformation is baptism, which is administered a single time. Thus purity of heart becomes the uncompromising demand and the possibility of the NT (Mt. 5:8; 1 Pet. 1:22; 1 Tim. 1:5; 2 Tim. 2:22). A pure heart produces the inner confidence to pursue earnestly the demands of God (1 Tim. 3:9; 2 Tim. 1:3; He. 10:22).

The goal of the believer’s life is still holiness (e.g., 1 Pet. 1:14ff). He is to pursue purity in all aspects of his life (cf. Jas. 4:7f). He is not regulated by a set of laws, but by a liberty under his own responsible character directed by the Holy Spirit. As Paul exhorts, “Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, and make holiness perfect in the fear of God” (2 Cor. 7:1). The principle which Paul lays down in Rom. 14:14, “that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean,” clearly shows that the Christian is entrusted with critical facilities to discern the proper use of his Father’s world.

Cultic purity is no longer necessary under the new covenant because the atoning work of Christ as its foundation has proleptically secured the restoration of harmony between man and nature (cf. Rom. 8:19–23). A redeemed nature no longer defiles and hinders man’s approach to God. Jesus emphasized His lordship over nature by performing various miracles; He particularly healed lepers. The word most often used is “cleansed”; it means that the leper is fully restored physically and cultically (Mt. 8:2ff; 10:8; cf. 2 K. 5:10–14 where “cleanse” also means “heal”). These miracles point to the total healing that His redemptive work will bring. Further, just as the dedication of the first-born and the first-fruits according to the OT released the rest of the flock and the crops to God’s people (Ex. 22:29; 23:19; 34:26; Nu. 18:15), so the death of God’s first-born released the world back to man for its proper enjoyment as originally intended. Although this redemption is not finalized, the NT believer has been given a foretaste of the complete redemption by being freed from the tremendous burden of maintaining the standards of ritual purity.[5]

Young Christians

Closing Thoughts from Edward D. Andrews

The New Catholic Encyclopedia (1967, Vol. VII, pp. 378-381) states the origin of the belief immaculately conceived (free from original sin): “. . . the Immaculate Conception is not taught explicitly in Scripture . . . The earliest Church Fathers regarded Mary as holy but not as absolutely sinless. . . . It is impossible to give a precise date when the belief was held as a matter of faith, but by the 8th or 9th century it seems to have been generally admitted. . . . [In 1854 Pope Pius IX defined the dogma] ‘which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary was preserved from all stain of original sin in the first instant of her Conception.’” This belief was confirmed by Vatican II (1962-1965).—The Documents of Vatican II (New York, 1966), edited by W. M. Abbott, S.J., p. 88.

Focusing on Mary in Luke 2:22-24, the Bible says: “Well then, sin entered the world through one man [Adam], and through sin death, and thus death has spread through the whole human race because everyone has sinned.” (Rom. 5:12, JB; Catholic Bible.) This would include Mary. The Bible explicitly states that per the provision of the Mosaic Law, 40 days after Jesus was born, Mary made an offering at the temple in Jerusalem a sin offering for purification from uncleanness. Mary, being a descendant of Adam, inherited Adamic sin (missing the mark of perfection).—Luke 2:22-24; Lev. 12:1-8.

Focusing on Leviticus 12:1-8, giving birth meant a period of uncleanness for the mother. If the baby was a boy, she was unclean for seven days, the same as during her menstrual period. On the eighth day, the child was circumcised, but for another 33 days, the mother was unclean concerning touching anything holy or coming into the sanctuary, though she did not make unclean everything she touched. If the baby was a girl, this 40-day period was doubled: 14 days plus 66 days. Thus, from birth, the Mosaic Law distinguished between male and female, giving the latter a subordinate position. In either case, at the end of the period of purification, she was to bring a ram less than a year old for a burnt offering and a young pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering. If the parents were too poor to afford a ram, as was the case with Mary and Joseph, then two doves or two pigeons served for the cleansing sacrifices.—Lev. 12:1-8; Lu 2:22-24.

Leviticus 12:2, 5—What about childbirth made a woman “unclean”? The reproductive systems were created to produce perfect human life. However, because of the effects of inherited sin, imperfect and sinful life was transmitted to the offspring through these reproductive systems. The brief periods of ‘uncleanness’ linked with childbirth and other concerns, such as menstruation and seminal emissions, reminded the Israelites of this hereditary sinfulness. (Leviticus 15:16-24; Psalm 51:5; Romans 5:12) The mandatory purification laws would help the Israelites value and respect the requirement for a ransom sacrifice to cover mankind’s sinfulness and eventually restore human perfection after the second coming of Jesus Christ. Thus, the Mosaic Law became “our tutor to lead us to Christ.”* (Galatians 3:24) Again, the human reproduction transmitted imperfection and sin, a woman who gave birth was required to observe a period of uncleanness, after which she was to make atonement through a sacrifice.—Lev. 12:1-8.

* Lit pedagogue; Gr παιδαγωγός paidagōgos. The tutor in Bible times was not the teacher but rather a guardian who led the student to the teacher.

The object and effect of the sin offering were declared to be the forgiveness of sin (Lev. 4:20, 26, 31, 35; 5:10) and cleansing (ceremonial purgation) from the pollution of sin (12:8; 14:20; 16:19; etc.). It was thus the offering among the Hebrews in which the ideas of propitiation and of atonement for sin were most distinctly marked. Its presentation presupposed the consciousness of sin on the part of the person presenting it (cf. 4:14, 23, 28; 5:5).—Merrill F. Unger, “Sacrificial Offerings,” ed. R.K. Harrison, The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1988).

Let’s quote the last words from The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia above. “Although this redemption is not finalized, the NT believer has been given a foretaste of the complete redemption by being freed from the tremendous burden of maintaining the standards of ritual purity.” Even with Jesus’ redemption of Christians as sinners, we are not to the end yet. Jesus tells us at Matthew 24:13 “the one who endures to the end will be saved.” Presently, Christians have been credited a clean status, a righteous standing before God even though they are sinners because the ransom sacrifice of Christ covers Adamic sin, inherited sin, and sinful actions. More on this shortly. Christians still have to work to maintain their righteous standing before God, but do not confuse this with works to earn salvation because salvation cannot be earned. As we saw repeatedly from above in the Bible, “uncleanness” includes much more than sexual immorality. It can refer to things like …

  • Spiritual Cleanness: (2 Corinthians 6:14-18; Revelation 18:4; 2 John 10-11)
  • Moral Cleanness: (Hebrews 4:13; 1 Corinthians 6:9-11)
  • Mental Cleanness: (Philippians 4:8; Matthew 15:18-20)
  • Physical Cleanness: (Deuteronomy 23:12-13)
  • Clean Speech: (Ephesians 4:25, 29, 31; 5:3; Revelation 21:8)

Committing a Single Sin and the Practice of Sinning

  • 1 John 3:4 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
    Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness.

Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness. John also distinguishes between committing a single sin and the practice of sinning, as we can see by comparing 1 John 2:1 and 1 John 3:4-8 as rendered in the Updated American Standard Version. Sin is lawlessness (ἡ ἁμαρτια ἐστιν ἡ ἀνομια [hē hamartia estin hē anomia]). The article with both subject and predicate makes them coextensive and so interchangeable. Doing sin is the converse of doing righteousness (2:29). The present active participle (ποιων [poiōn]) means the habit of doing sin.[6]



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[1] James Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains : Hebrew (Old Testament) (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997).

[2] James Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains: Greek (New Testament) (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997).

[3] Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel, “Cleanness and Uncleanness, Regulations Concerning,” Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), 478–481.

[4] Walter A. Elwell, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology: Second Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 271–272.

[5] J. E. Hartley, “Clean and Unclean,” ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1979–1988), 722–723.

[6] A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1933), 1 Jn 3:4.

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