When Purity Becomes an Idol


Salvation is a position, not a feeling.

When is purity an idol if God’s eyes are too pure to look at evil (Hab. 1:13)?

Three years ago, I shared a house with a number of roommates, all Christian guys. Incidentally, when implicitly discussing certain ‘intimate desires’ of mine with the house, one of the roommies counseled me to try deferring thoughts of sex until marriage.

Puritan extremists

Thank God I’ve grown in the intervening years since the roommate “counsel”. Yes, we ought to defer super explicit thoughts of sex until marriage, but I now realize that thinking of sex the way God does is beautiful and is nothing to be ashamed of, even when single. I still love them, but I won’t place myself in their kind of Pharisaic environment again.

Colossians 2:16-23 reads “Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink … [t]hese are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you. Such a person [is] puffed up with idle notions by their unspiritual mind. They have lost connection with the head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow. Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.”

And 1 Timothy 4:1-5: “The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron. They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.”

RC Sproul comments on vv. 3 and 4: “The false teachers promoted a rigorous lifestyle (cf. Colossians 2:20-23). Some Gnostics argued that since the material world was evil, the spiritual individual should avoid it…[t]he following argument focuses on foods. Paul has already affirmed marriage in 3:2, 12 …[c]ontrary to the false teachers, the Christian affirms the essential goodness of God’s creation (Gen. 1).”

In Luke 7:36-50, Jesus saved the sinful woman that had an alabaster jar. Like Simon the Pharisee, moralists think no one who claims to represent God should even touch a woman like that. In v. 50, Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” We see from the preceding Scriptures that what saves us isn’t a life of sound morals, or the abstention from things or people we consider dirty, it’s faith in Christ alone. If moralists and legalists were in Christ’s shoes, only the “clean” would be saved.

If purity is your idol, you inevitably will have a very lopsided view of God.

Biblical holiness says “since I’ve been bought with a price, I won’t hesitate to sever any body parts that jeopardize my relationship with my Savior.” Moralism says “Why don’t I sever my body parts? That way, I’m guaranteed to feel holier.” Moralism has it backwards.

I too used to be very moralistic. I fought to keep my CN desires at bay because something in my puritanical conscience made it seem dirty, and I thought a holy God would never approve, at least not without a ring on my finger. However, after researching and embracing Couples Nursing as a healthy lifestyle that is highly compatible with a Christian worldview, my view of who God is has expanded: it’s now a lot richer, deeper, and more closely matches who He has revealed Himself to be. Moralists/legalists are far too narrow-minded about God’s character and attributes. They’re striving so hard for holiness that they miss it completely, because they strive according to their own human definition of holiness.

In 1 Timothy 5:22-23, the apostle Paul says “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, nor take part in the sins of others; keep yourself pure. (No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments).”

Did you catch that? In one verse Paul exhorts Timothy to purity, then in the next he advises him to drink a little wine for health reasons. Also consider the all-too-familiar miracle of Jesus turning water to wine. The triune God directly endorses the consumption of alcohol in moderation because He knows that a little wine does absolutely nothing to defile us. It’s what comes out of us that defiles. RC Sproul again comments on v. 23: “the practice of abstaining from wine as a matter of principle perhaps reflects the influence of the false teachers’ concept of purity (4:3) … Paul recognizes the medicinal value of wine.”

God’s goal in preserving His Word was far greater than merely multiplying people’s knowledge or improving their morals. The Bible “is not an inspired book of moralisms or a book of virtues; it is, from cover to cover, a book about the glory of God in Jesus Christ through the redemption of his people who will dwell in the kingdom of Christ forever” … The center-point of Scripture is Jesus Christ himself, and the goal of the storyline of Scripture is his kingdom …we [must] make certain that Scripture transforms us and turns us toward Christ…

-Timothy Paul Jones, PhD, How we got the Bible, 18.

Christianity is so not about morality. Moralism is a false gospel with a near-perfect record in flying under the radar and creeping into the Church, even to the pulpit.

In Luke 11:37-41, “[w]hile Jesus was speaking, a Pharisee asked him to dine with him, so he went in and reclined at table. The Pharisee was astonished to see that he did not first wash before dinner. And the Lord said to him, ‘Now you Pharisees cleanse the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You fools! Did not he who made the outside make the inside also? But give as alms those things that are within, and behold, everything is clean for you.”

Purity starts from the inside out, not outside in. Again, legalism/moralism has it backwards, as Sheila Wray Gregoire expresses below:

Personally, the older I get the more I think that most rules are antithetical to the gospel. If it were honestly about rules, we wouldn’t need to “walk by the Spirit”. If rules were all that it took to achieve purity, then we wouldn’t need Jesus!

– 10 Things That Scare Me About the “Purity” Culture, on her blog, To Love, Honor and Vacuum

She goes on to admonish Christians against judging fellow brothers and sisters in Christ for having standards of purity that differ but aren’t necessarily sinful. She then emphasizes the centrality of the Spirit/gospel over the “purity culture” or man-made moralistic rules.

Habakkuk says God’s eyes are too pure to look at evil, but human purity often leads to a self-serving performance trap. God’s piety and ours are on totally different levels. He defines purity as holiness, sacredness and righteousness but we tend to see it as moralistic cleanliness, both in thought and environment, as we’ll see in the examples below. Whenever we pursue purity to “feel clean” rather than honor Jesus, we’ve just fashioned purity into an idol.

An older man at a former church recounted his marital difficulties with his ex-wife, who in hindsight wasn’t even Christian. “She was just one of these really moralistic types”, he lamented. While courting her, her pseudo-Christian worldview had him deceived, but everything hidden eventually comes to light (Luke 12:2). As the years went by, she no longer could tolerate his love for Christ, and filed for divorce. A “Christian” divorced another for being too Christian. What’s worse, her “pastors” sided with her completely.

God promises that absolutely no wrongdoers will inherit His kingdom. He says no sin whatsoever will be granted admission into Heaven but He singles out some specific sins in 1 Corinthians 6. “And that is what some of you were”, we’re told. “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”  (1 Corinthians 6:9-11)

Notice that we’re not washed, sanctified or justified by our own sense of morals, clean thoughts or virtuous upbringing but “in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” The blood of Jesus alone washes us clean. If you really want to feel clean, focus on the Crucifixion and Resurrection. Regrettably, I’ve met far too many Christians who seem to think the kind of Christian upon whom God looks favorably is the one who doesn’t drink, smoke, or use ‘bad words’ (see picture below).

Jesus Christ isn’t mentioned: the moralist’s definition of purity.

I once asked another roommate in the same house if he’d seen a certain show on MTV – one of the more tasteful ones on that network. “Nope”, he responded with speed and firm conviction, “[and that should be the response of a] Christian: I have not seen that show on MTV.” I had to caution him that being culturally aware doesn’t undermine one’s testimony as a Christian.

We had a lot of interesting discussions in that house. Around dinnertime one evening, I discussed with two roommates – including the MTV-avoider – the very realistic scenario of a Hollywood aspirant getting saved. Both were averse to the idea of having a fellow believer in Tinseltown. They wasted no time in letting me know that the aspiring star-turned-Christian must exit the highway to stardom because Hollywood is full of drug abuse, among other sinful lifestyles. “That’s what Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie do on their days off,” they asserted. Moralism is just legalism’s better looking sister. I’m glad a third roommate and I found it biblical to remain in showbiz while exercising discernment about which roles to take on.

The God who wrote Romans is the same One who wrote the Song of Solomon.

During another of our dinnertime conversations, the MTV-avoider told me that the Song of Songs makes him stumble, so he probably avoided that too. Wow. Now I think this is bordering on blasphemy. If you’re a Christian for whom the Song of Solomon is a stumbling block, I honestly don’t know if there’s a point in reading any other book of the Bible. The Song was written by a loving God who cares deeply for all believers and wants them all, single and married alike, to read and learn from Solomon’s love song.

That He intends single Christians to read it is obvious from the refrain “Do not stir up or awaken love until it pleases.” If the book were only meant for married believers, the exhortation against arousing love prematurely would be totally pointless. The God who wrote Romans is the same One who wrote the Song of Solomon. The Holy Spirit who inspired 1 Peter also inspired Proverbs 5. By staying far away from all erotic stories in the Bible, one essentially protests “God, some parts of your Word are purer than others, so I’d rather just stick to those safe parts”, when God equally wants us to understand the theology undergirding sex as much as He does suffering for the sake of Christ. Knowing what God thinks of erotic desire is just as important as knowing what He thinks of financial stewardship. The gospel is of first importance but having a solid biblical understanding of secondary topics such as sex only enhances, not weakens one’s understanding of the gospel.

I don’t see a difference between the former roommate’s avoidance of biblical erotica and non-believing Thomas Jefferson who cut and pasted pages of his Bible. We can’t cherry pick only those parts of Scripture that appeal to our tastes, personalities and thought processes while disregarding others. Such behavior is not Christian.

In hindsight, it makes sense that whenever I took prayer requests from that brother, purity was often his response.

While conversing with a fifty-something year old pastor about societal decadence, I mentioned porn and he felt slightly uncomfortable. Now I realize we all have different comfort levels and I don’t know his personal struggles but I wish the mere mention of the word once didn’t cause visible discomfort to a two-time grandfather. How can we evangelize that industry if some of us dare not utter the “P word”?

To the pure all things are pure (Titus 1:15), but to the moralistic many things are dirty.
The first chapter of Titus speaks about how the circumcision group wanted to gain personal holiness through their actions. Yet again, we see that moralism has it backwards.

I know two former church friends with too strong an ascetic leaning to their Christian faith. Both felt uncomfortable, one even judgmental, to see beer at a church social, being held in a home. Some churchgoers, like the woman mentioned above, aren’t even Christian at all. Just Pharisees in disguise.

This false view of purity is in each and everyone of us.

Although wanting Christians to have better sex lives in marriage and promoting this vision may not always feel holy, it is holy. How we feel doesn’t always match up with how God feels about us. Unless you have a biblically legitimate reason, an indefinite suppression of your sexual desire doesn’t make you holier, it makes you more sinful. Whoever does this is challenging God for gifting him/her a sex drive. The right response is to seek a spouse (see 1 Cor. 7:9). The knowledge that God will pour His wrathful judgment on the adulterous and other sexual sinners should only steer us towards marrying someone to whom we feel sexually attracted. God delights in my desires for an ANR and great sex within the covenant of marriage.

I’ve come to the conclusion that moralists are people who like it easy. They’d rather just run the other way instead of facing the battles the Lord expects us to fight. Rather than seeing the beauty in sex, they’d rather see it as dirty. Instead of loving people, they find it easier to judge them.

But Jesus didn’t save us to become moralistic goodie two-shoes. He didn’t leave His Father’s right hand, subject Himself to an unfair trial and allow Himself to be brutally murdered just so we could be converted into prim and proper, morally upright, nice guys and gals, or upstanding, patriotic citizens who in turn raise our children with sound family values.

Any Christian who thinks sex is gross makes God out to be a liar, because God declares all His creation good and pure.

In light of the foregoing, I have to be clear about something: I’m not better than anyone. Just a few years ago, I was also a very moralistic Puritan, as mentioned above. But the more I researched Couples Nursing, the more convinced I became of its biblical beauty. This coincided with my finding a solid church which for the first time wasn’t legalistic. A church whose congregants were human, real, accepting, and didn’t pretend to be sinless. Now, I’m much less of a moralist.

Although preaching sound doctrine, many men at the church have a taste for beer, and several even brew their own. The most gracious, people-friendly pastor I’ve ever known, Pastor JH shepherded this church. Praise God for well-rounded Christians who aren’t too ‘pure’ to live regular but changed lives. Of all human beings on the planet, Christians who are neither moralistic nor legalistic have it best. We get to enjoy the best of both this life and eternity.

Worshipping the golden calf

Set others free carousel
Set others free
Set others free text
Set others free, borrowed from fellow Christian blogger Mitch Teemley

Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.

— Acts 10:15

I am convinced and fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself.

— Romans 14:14

See also:

Why Moralism Is Not the Gospel — And Why So Many Christians Think It Is, by Al Mohler

Moralism is a false gospel | moralism is like legalism – CARM

The Deadly Dangers of Moralism – Grace to You

Christ Vs. Moralism – Monergism

8 Signs You Love Legalism More Than Jesus

Purity might have become your idol if…

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