Scripture Reference: John 13:5-20
A Clean HeartDr. Erwin W. Lutzer | May 28, 2000
Selected highlights from this sermon
A clean heart is something every single person needs. And the One who washed the disciples’ feet is the only One who can wash our hearts. Pastor Lutzer asks and answers five life-changing questions: Who needs to be cleansed? How can we be cleansed? What is the purpose of cleansing? How often must we be cleansed? And lastly, how do we help others be cleansed?
I want you to begin today by taking a deep look into your heart, and you tell me, in silence of course, what it is that you really see.
No doubt you see some good, but you also see, if you’re honest, a lot of ugly things. That’s why not a one of us would like to have our thoughts made public, running them across a screen for everyone to see.
The fact is that, because we are sinners and the more holy we understand God to be, sometimes the more overwhelmed even we are with the small sins in our life in comparison to the holiness of God.
Way back in 1986, there was a fire in this church and we discovered something about soot and about smudge: it goes everywhere the air goes. And we found it in the most unlikely places. Even to this day, in my study, there are some books, if they haven’t been opened for about 15 years, and many of them haven’t been, you would find within them, sometimes, or along the cover, some smudge from that fire so many years ago.
I want you to know that when Adam and Eve sinned, the smudge of sin settled on every human heart and we’ve all experienced that sense of guilt, that sense of recognition that we are alienated from God, that sense of conviction that we have broken His laws, the sin that resides there in places where no detergent is able to reach it.
As a matter of fact, we live in a time when there are many people who believe in New Age religion. Strictly speaking, New Age religion says that there is no sin. Therefore, since there is no personal god, you do not need forgiveness. You can sort of forgive yourself, but that’s all you need. The problem is that the smudge of sin goes down so deeply that we desperately want to hear a word from God because we know intuitively we have violated His laws.
Remember the words of Nietzsche regarding God: “We have killed Him, but now who will wipe the blood from our hands?” We want someone to wipe the blood from our hands, but if God is dead, if God is impersonal, there is no one to look us in the eye and say to us with authority, “You are forgiven.”
Remember Macbeth? Was it not Lady Macbeth who said “a little water rids us of this deed” after she had killed the king, Duncan, and the blood was on her hands? A little water and her hands shall be clean, but as she begins in that soliloquy, and I’m only paraphrasing it, recall that she ends up saying “rather than the oceans being able to clean my hand, my hand will make the oceans bloody.” And there is no detergent to make those hands clean.
Today, if the truth were known as you sit out here in the congregation or you listen by radio or cassette tape, the fact is I’m speaking to some people, at least, who’ve done some very terrible things. And you are afraid that if what you did ever became known or if the truth ever leaked out, it would be a very sad day for you. Perhaps even criminal things, things that cannot be repaired, things that are so serious that other lives have been affected and they have been messed up. And if the truth were known, you would find this great heaviness upon you because you’ve done some things that are very, very awful.
Well, today I’m here to give you a message of hope, and the message is that He who washed the disciples’ feet is the one who can also wash our hearts, and that’s the message of John, chapter 13, and I encourage you to turn to it as we begin this exposition of what is sometimes called the Upper Room Discourse.
Last time we talked about the humility of Christ in being able to wash the disciples’ feet. And in doing so...and today we get to the real meat of the idea of what was involved in the washing. John 13, I’m picking it up at verse 5: “Then he poured water into the basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded. And so He came to Simon Peter. He said to him, ‘Lord, you wash my feet?’ Jesus answered and said to him, ‘what I do, you do not realize now, but you’ll understand later.’ Peter said to him, ‘Never will you wash my feet.’” Aren’t you so glad that Jesus didn’t agree with Peter and corrected him? “’If I do not wash you, you have no part with me.’ Simon Peter said to him, ‘Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘he who is bathed needs only to wash his feet but is completely clean, and you are clean...but not all of you.’” Ouch. “Not all of you.”
Could I pause here and say that I speak to a group of people, a congregation here at The Moody Church, and it can be said there of us as it was said of the disciples, “and you are clean but not all of you.” There are some of you here who have never trusted Christ as Savior, you’ve never believed on Him, and you’re not clean.
Now let’s look at this text and find out what’s going on. What’s happening here in this story? Obviously there’s some symbolism. “What I’m doing now you will not understand now, but you’ll do afterwards...if I don’t wash your feet, you have no part with me.” How do we interpret the text? Well, we’re going to interpret it today by answering five questions, and the text will answer-the story will answer-the five questions that we’re going to ask it today about cleansing and the cleansing of our hearts.
The first question is simply this: who needs to be cleansed? Who needs to be cleansed? And the answer, of course, is everyone. Those of you who’ve never trusted Christ–you need to be cleansed, as well as those of us who have trusted Him. And we have had, as we shall see, the bath of regeneration. We too need to be cleansed because the world is a very dirty place, spiritually speaking, and our hearts are dirty and we constantly need to make sure that our hearts are cleansed by God, as we shall see. Who needs to be cleansed? Everyone.
Now, when Jesus said “he who has been bathed does not need except to wash his feet”, what’s the symbolism that Jesus is speaking about here? He’s talking about two different kinds of baths. There is the bath of regeneration. That’s when you become a Christian, that’s when you accept Christ as Savior and you have the assurance that your name is written in the Lamb’s Book of Life. That is the bath that all of us need in order to get into heaven.
But then Jesus speaks of another kind of washing – it is the washing of the feet. He says that after you’ve had a bath, if you’re walking along the dusty path, if you had a bath before you leave home and you arrive, now all that you need is to have your feet washed. And Jesus said that “if you have your feet washed, then you are in full fellowship with me because, even though you’ve had the bath of regeneration, you sin and that sin has to continually be confessed so that we are reconciled.”
I need to put in a parenthesis here. You don’t become a Christian by having your feet washed, by confessing your sins. You become a Christian by having that bath of regeneration. All of us have met people who do not have baths, but they do keep their hands washed, and after we meet them we remember them very well and we remember that we have met them.
Do you remember Martin Luther? He used to confess his sins up to six hours a day. Every small, insignificant sin was confessed and he was still not born again of the spirit. He still did not have the bath of regeneration. So, what Jesus is saying is all of us need His cleansing. Some of you listening need that bath – that is to say, you need to accept Christ as savior. Many of you who know Christ as savior, the smudge of the world and the smudge of your heart has built up and you need to be cleansed so that you might be back in fellowship with Him.
First question: who needs to be cleansed? The answer is everyone.
Second question: how are we cleansed? How are we cleansed? Well, how was Peter cleansed? At first he says “you shall never wash my feet”, and Jesus said “if I do not wash you, you have no part with me”. And Peter responds by saying “not only my feet, but my hands and my head!” In other words, he is saying “give me a whole bath!”...because Peter loved Jesus very, very dearly. So, how did he receive cleansing? Well, the answer is that he agreed with Christ. He came to agreement and that’s what cleansing is all about, the cleansing of the heart.
When it says in 1 John 1:9, “if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from every single, individual unrighteousness”, that word “confess” means when we speak the same thing as God. Homologeō–to say the same thing as God.
So, when we confess our sins, what do we do? We agree with God that we have sinned. Gone are all the rationalizations, gone are all the excuses. Gone is all the secrecy as to what we’re doing, where we hide the sin like a morsel under our tongues, it says in the book of Proverbs. We cease doing that, and we open and expose our lives to God, and we say “I have sinned, I agree with you, I speak the same word as God.” That’s the first thing we have to agree with. But there’s a second thing that we have to agree with, and that is that Jesus Christ is capable of cleansing us from every individual iniquity.
You know, you have many people, particularly if they have sinned greatly, they’ve committed some sins that pollute their consciences, sins that hurt other people, possibly because of addictions or whatever, and they come to the point where they say, “yes, I have sinned and I realize my sin, but there is no relief from the nagging guilt, and from the harangue of conscience”...and from the siren that is within their soul constantly reminding them of their failures and their sins, and they can get no relief. Why? Because they’re willing to admit their sin, but they do not see the wonder and completeness of Jesus Christ’s death on the cross, and that, yes, it does include that sin, my friend. Yes, that one!
Remember, I told you before, how Billy Graham was being interviewed in Toronto by Pierre Burton, a well known Canadian atheist. Pierre said to him, “are you telling me that if Hitler accepted Christ on his deathbed, he could go to heaven, whereas good, sane taxpayers who don’t accept Christ go to hell?” And you remember what the answer is? Regardless of how Billy answered it, here’s the answer: the answer is yes. I know that that’s hard to say, particularly when you think of the crimes that were committed. But I’ll tell you why the answer is yes. Listen to me very, very carefully. God says “I think so much of what Jesus Christ did when He died on the cross that I can even forgive a murderer if he trusts in me, but I cannot forgive a good, decent citizen who refuses to trust in me.”
So, I say to you today that the answer to your dilemma if you cannot find forgiveness, and you say “I have sinned greatly, but there is no relief from this nagging conscience”, is to see the wonder and the beauty of what Jesus did and its completeness, my friend, for you! For that sin. Yes, that one!
Isn’t it wonderful that we have such a gospel to preach? Now, if you don’t know that, and if you don’t know how to handle the devil...I taught a Sunday school class a few Sundays ago, and I discovered that there were people in that Sunday school class who did not know these verses. Let me quote them to you and then I’ll tell you what I told them. “Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth. Who is he that condemns? It is Christ that died. Yea, rather that is risen again and is even now on the right hand of the throne of God who also maketh intercession for us.” And so you can say “Be gone, Satan!” For it is written. I discovered that there were some Christians who had been saved for years who didn’t know those verses, and I told them quite candidly, “if you don’t memorize verses like that, the devil will have you for lunch.” He’ll have you for lunch, and you will not know how to handle his accusations. Long after you’ve been forgiven, the memories will be able to destroy you, they will overwhelm you, the sense of regret will wash over your soul again and again, and you’ll be caught in a trap not knowing how to respond. And probably you’ll respond simply by confessing your sin again and again and again and again. And there will be no relief because the accuser of the brethren accuses us during the day and during the night. You must–you must!-know the Word and stand on it.
Who needs to be cleansed? Everyone.
How are we cleansed? By agreeing with God that we’ve sinned and that Jesus is adequate.
You’ll say, “Well, where are those verses that you quoted?” Is that what you want to know? There are some of you here who don’t know those verses–that’s overwhelming to me. They’re found in the eighth chapter of Romans. Don’t look now, but memorize them when you get home. Would you do that please?
Number three. Third question: what is the purpose of cleansing?
Let’s look at the text again–the story as it is here. Jesus said in verse eight, “if I do not wash you, you have no part with me.” Ouch. “You are not going to be a part of me, you’re not going to be joined to me”, if Jesus doesn’t do the washing. You’ll die with that polluted conscience. What does that mean? It means, first of all, that Jesus is saying “if I don’t wash you, you don’t have an inheritance with me. You’re not going to be a part of my kingdom. You’re not going to sit with me on my throne, as I overcame and sat with My Father on His throne. You do not receive the blessings and the promises that are given to the people of God.” That’s the first answer to the question of what is the purpose of cleansing.
The second, obviously, is fellowship. Fellowship. You see, even though we have had the bath, even though we belong to Jesus Christ and have been regenerated, we need to be in agreement with God morally and spiritually so that we can enjoy the Lord. Remember, He says, “I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and we’re going to dine together. We’re going to eat together. We’re going to have fellowship together.” And–notice this–“we will dine together, he with me and I with him.” Jesus enjoys the fellowship too, and sin mars that. Sin puts us in a position where the fellowship and the radiance of Jesus Christ in our lives is cut off.
Received a letter this week from someone who wrote to me about the doctrine of assurance. He cannot find assurance of salvation. I mean, that’s remarkable to me, and I say this facetiously, of course...even after reading my book on assurance, he still doesn’t have assurance of salvation. Exactly how that’s possible is a little puzzling to me, but nevertheless.... So, I read the first part of the letter and thought, well, what he needs is another exposition of the great doctrine of assurance. I read the last part of the letter, and he said that he is in love with a divorced woman whom he feels he cannot marry because Jesus is opposed to divorce. So, rather than being married they are living together in fornication. Well, that’s an interesting...that’s an interesting juxtaposition of stories. He lacks assurance–I wonder why! Hello? How are you doing there, friend? Can you put it together? The simple fact is, what sin does is, even if we are believers, and I don’t know whether he is or not, I don’t know whether or not he had the bath of regeneration, but as sinners who come to God and have received His forgiveness, and we belong to God and we are saved, as the New Testament speaks about, if we live in sin, fellowship with God is cut off. A cloud develops, and we can’t come to the table of fellowship with dirty hands or dirty feet. And so the purpose of cleansing is that we might be in fellowship, that we might enjoy God, because the Scripture says we have that remarkable opportunity to be filled to the fullness of God.
Let’s answer a fourth question. How often must I be cleansed? How often must I be cleansed? Well, the answer is whenever you become conscious of sin in your heart. That’s the answer. And the moment you become conscious of sin, that’s the moment of confession. Now, you say, “well, can we remember all of our sins? Can we confess all of our sins?” No. There are some sins that we commit, probably, that we have forgotten about. But here is a promise for us: if we walk in the light, that is to say, if we walk exposing ourselves to God, confessing those sins that He brings to our attention, then the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses us from sins that we might not even be aware of. So, we come in openness and honesty before the Lord, opening all of the closets of our lives to Him, and we receive His forgiveness and His cleansing. And could I point out that there is cleansing and not just forgiveness, so that the conscience becomes clear, and when we do that, then the blood of Christ keeps on cleansing us moment by moment from all sin.
You know, one of the ways that you can judge spiritual maturity is to simply ask a question: how much time elapses between the time when you become conscious of sin and your confession? So that you bounce back into fellowship with God. How long a time is there between those two events?
Now, there are some people who, when they become conscious of sin (even now, I’m talking about Christians who’ve had the bath that Jesus is speaking about)… You’ll notice first of all that there’s some who say to themselves, “Well, I’m not going to confess my sin even though I sinned because I’m going to mess up again anyway.” Well, my dear friend, you might mess up again anyway, but don’t let that keep you from fellowship with Christ now! You must confess your sin because if you don’t, you most assuredly will mess up anyway.
I remember talking to a young man struggling greatly with sexual temptations of various kinds. And he decided that what he would do is to confess his sins moment by moment. As soon as they happened–the sins of the mind–he would confess them immediately and say, “Lord, this is sin–I acknowledge it to be sin and I receive your forgiveness”, and he lived that way, he said, moment by moment as the temptations came to him and that brought about a sense of cleansing and release and deliverance. So, do not stay away from confession on the idea that you’re going to mess up again anyway. You must come when the Holy Spirit of God brings that sin to your mind. Confess it then–agree completely with God.
Or there are people who say, “Well, you know, but Pastor Lutzer, I’ve committed the same sin so often I’m embarrassed to come to God with the same sin.” We’ve all felt that way, but let’s look at it from God’s standpoint. We come to Him and say, “Oh, God, I’m confessing the same sin as I confessed last week.” God is saying, “Pardon me? What sin? Last week? I’ve forgotten about that one–why are you remembering it with so much clarity?”
Someday I’m going to preach a series of messages, or at least one message, on what God does with forgiven sin. He casts it into the depths of the sea. Isn’t that wonderful? You have all these people who have genuinely, genuinely confessed. God takes the sin and He casts it into the depths of the sea, and here God puts up a sign near the sea that says “no fishing.” And yet you find people constantly fishing, constantly dragging it out, constantly going over it again and again and again...and God says, “Why bother?” God says, “As far as the east is from the west, so far have I removed your transgressions from you.” I don’t know exactly how far the east is from the west, but that’s a long way away from Chicago, it would seem to me. What does God do with forgiven sin? He remembers it no more. Does that mean He does not know it happened? Of course He knows it happens. He means, “I do not regard it, I’m not going to hold it against you. I’m not going to be like some people who say, ‘I forgive you,’ and then constantly be throwing it back in your face.” God does not forgive that way.
And there’s some people say, “I’m going to get back in fellowship with God when I know I can hold out.” Well, my dear friend, you may never know that you are able to hold out. God will give you the grace to hold out. What I’m simply saying is this: the idea of walking with God is not just to keep fellowship with God and short accounts, as we are sometimes told. It is to keep current accounts where my whole life is constantly exposed to God, where thoughts and ideas and all these things that generate in the mind are constantly exposed to God, and the Spirit of God says that’s sin, and we say, “Yes, I agree it’s sin, and I agree that you have the right to take it out of my life forever. I agree with you, I agree with you, I agree with you, I agree with you, I agree with you.” A whole life lived like that! When you live that way, then you have a part with Christ.
I failed to mention a moment ago that, in addition to inheritance, it means, indeed, that we can enjoy Christ. Do you remember when Martha and Mary...Jesus was in their home...Martha was cumbered about with much serving and Mary sat at His feet? Interestingly, when Jesus was kind of chiding Martha-and it’s a sensitive story, because some of you are Marthas, and you think that she should be receiving more honor–I understand that. I’ve had women say to me, “Where would the world be if everybody was a Mary?” You know, you couldn’t have a banquet, you couldn’t have a supper, you couldn’t see all of the ministries that women have...let’s not go there–I think I just took a path that I had not intended to take at this point. But let’s take it from the lips of Jesus: “Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things, but one thing is needful and Mary has chosen the good part.” That’s the phrase I wanted–same word as here in the text in the thirteenth chapter. You have part with Christ, you have fellowship with Christ, and that’s the way in which we should live our entire lives: in fellowship.
How often must I be cleansed? Well, the answer is whenever I become sensitive to sin on my conscience.
One last question: how do we help others be cleansed?
You’ll notice it says–verse 12–“when He had washed their feet and taken His garments and reclined at the table again, He said to them, ‘do you know what I have done to you? You call me teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I, then, the Lord and the teacher, washed your feet, you ought also to wash one another’s feet. For I gave you an example that you should do as I did to you. Truly, truly, I say a slave is not greater than his master–neither the one who is sent greater than one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.” What a wonderful story and what a wonderful example.
How do we help one another? Well, I think it’s through humility. You know what the church really needs today, what all of us needs, is that sense of brokenness, that sense of servanthood, that sense of saying, “I’m willing to wash the feet, figuratively speaking, of others.” Since we do not believe, for reasons I won’t go into, that this should be an ordinance as such...but certainly its example is powerful and compelling as we serve one another. And in our humility as we walk in fellowship as servants, it encourages other people to say, “Yes, I want to have the same humility and the same servanthood that comes by being joined with Christ.” It is through humility and it is through service that we then wash one another’s feet and, in the process, help them to become a part of Christ.
What is the bottom line? Two life changing observations: first, number one: if you are not washed by Christ, you must remain dirty. If you are not washed by Christ, you must remain dirty.
Now listen, students, you go to the libraries of the world, you take your courses of comparative religion at the University of Chicago, and you find some other teacher out there, some other guru out there, that can cleanse the human heart, that can actually reach down and cleanse the conscience and renew the mind and give us that sense of well-being, so that we not only are forgiven but we know we are forgiven. And therefore there can be that sense of joy and relaxation in the recognition that we are forgiven by God. No one else can do that. They can tell you how to live, they can tell you what you should do, and they can even teach you to love! What they cannot do is cleanse the human heart–that is a responsibility that only God can do. That only Christ can do. So, you know, you belong to some other religion? You’re into the New Age and they’re telling you about how to live? Your heart must remain dirty.
Let me give you a second observation. Second lesson: no ritual, even if performed by Christ, can wash the human heart. No ritual, even if performed by Christ, can wash the human heart! Why is that? Jesus, so far as we know, also washed the feet of Judas. If you had looked at Judas’s feet when Jesus was done with them, they would have been as clean as Peter’s. Judas’s feet were clean, but his heart remained dirty. Verse 11: “for He knew the one who was betraying Him; for this reason He said, ‘Not all of you are clean.’” What did He mean, “Not all of you are clean”? Judas receives the same ritual as the other disciples! Oh, no, no, my dear friend, you are not...you are not cleansed by a ritual. You are cleansed by personal agreement with God, accepting Him first of all as Savior and then responding to a life of yieldedness and agreement, walking in fellowship with God for the rest of your days, constantly recognizing that God is God, we are sinners, and we agree. God says this-we say, “I agree, I agree, I agree, I agree, I agree.” It’s only through that way that cleansing takes place. It’s the transformation of the heart, not a ritual, that can do it.
You say today, “but is God really willing to forgive?” You know, there is that story of the prodigal son who went into the far country, and let me tell you another story, which has been around a while–but I believe it is true–about someone who went and committed all of the sins that he wasn’t supposed to commit, violating the rules of his parents and thinking that he could go his own way and being contaminated both within and without, and years later writing a letter to his parents and saying, “I’d like to come back home but I don’t know whether or not you’ll have me because of my track record.” And he said, “if you remember, you know, the train, when it goes into town, does go past our backyard. I’m going to come into town in a couple of days,” he said in the letter, “if you want me to come back, you tie a handkerchief on a branch of the tree in the backyard and if I see the handkerchief, I’ll stop. If not, I’ll keep going.” Well, you’ve probably guessed the end of the story, but as the train rolled into town, there was a handkerchief on every branch!
My dear friend, today the issue isn’t Christ! He does say, “Come to me.” He does say, “Be cleansed.” The problem is, we’re like Peter. “You’ll never wash my feet.” And Jesus said, “if I wash you not, you have no part with me.” So, I have to ask you today: are you washed? First of all, initially? Are you saved? Secondly, as a believer? How much time has elapsed since you confessed your sins? Did you wake up this morning and confess your sins and then have an argument on the way to church and you’ve come in here now with anger on your conscience that is not cleansed and taken away? How much time has to elapse before you walk in the light and say, “Lord, I expose my life to you”?
Jesus said, “if I wash you not, you have no part with me.” My friend, from my heart to your heart, let Him cleanse you. And let us pray...
Our Father, we want to thank you for this marvelous example of humility and cleansing. We thank you for Jesus, who was willing to stoop, but, Lord, even what we see here is nothing in comparison to what He did on the cross. And we ask today for those who have never believed on Jesus, we pray that they may understand that it is their resistance, not His, that keeps them from the cleansing. And then Your believers, whom you desire to walk in purity and holiness, Father, we ask today that there shall be a flood of prayers going up for cleansing, that we might agree with You on everything that You point out, because we know that You do desire our holiness, and You desire our undivided love and commitment.
Now, I can’t end this message without giving you a chance to pray. Would you tell Jesus whatever it is that you need to tell Him in light of what you’ve just heard? You talk to Him now, because He’s listening.
Father, we pray that You’ll help us to overcome our love of sin by giving us a greater love for You. We ask today, Father, that in grace you might break through all the defenses, all the excuses, all of the smudge that we allow to build up in our lives, and come and cleanse us individually and as a congregation. Make us clean and free from anger and lusts and covetousness and pettiness and all the things that mar our relationship with You. Come, Father, we pray, and do in us only that which You can do. Have mercy upon us, we ask, in Jesus’ name. Amen.