I am a part of a denomination that is in the Holiness Tradition. This tradition has had a long history of encouraging people to grow in God’s grace and holiness over their lives, never wanting to stay content at any certain place along the way. We love and serve an infinite God, so there is infinite room for growth. This tradition encouraged people to seek, not only after salvation, but also after sanctification, so they could truly be partakers of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4).
At some point along the way, there was a strong emphasis upon what kind of dress people wore, what kind of entertainment people enjoyed, and what kinds of food or drink people were supposed to avoid. Each of these issues can have serious consequences on the spiritual state of an individual, so it was very good to have practical teaching upon them to help people grow in grace. Yet something happened where the tradition focused more on those external actions than most other things.
It is in this context that Jesus’ words about the Pharisees is applicable. Jesus just debated with them about the ritual purity, or lack thereof, of his disciples because they were eating with unclean hands. They did not wash in the ritualistically prescribed way. Jesus’ response was that food cannot make one unclean, but what is on the inside can. His disciples, coming from the same mindset as the Pharisees, did not understand and asked for a further explanation:
18 He said to them, ‘Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, 19 since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?’ (Thus he declared all foods clean.) 20 And he said, ‘It is what comes out of a person that defiles.21 For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22 adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.’
Here is the issue. The Pharisees were talking about ritual impurity and Jesus was talking about sin. Doing impure things can lead to sin, but they do not necessarily do so. In the same way, the kinds of drinks one has can lead to sin, but not necessarily. The kinds of clothes one wears can lead to sin, but not necessarily. The kind of entertainment one joins can lead to sin, but not necessarily. More often than not, if someone is going to sin because of food and drink, clothing, or entertainment, they chose those mediums because they already had the sin in their hearts. The external actions did not cause the sin, but gave a way to express the sin that was already there.
This means that for someone who does not struggle with certain sins, those very same categories that were shunned in the Holiness Movement may not have been sinful. We need to encourage people to grow in grace, but that does not mean we are to create rules above and beyond what the intention and meaning of Scripture is and apply them to all people everywhere. Jesus and the early Church did not even do this. To truly experience holiness in life, we need to deal with the sins in our own hearts. Often times that will change our behaviors and our choices for food, dress, and entertainment. Yet it is vitally important that we have the proper order and perspective. A changed heart will lead to a changed life. Rules to change lives will lead to a Pharisaic life.