In my first ministry job, one of my responsibilities was to lead a Bible study for college students during Christmas break. A friend and church member graciously let us use his basement living room, the only catch being that it was unheated, but we could build a roaring fire in the fireplace. Going out of town one week, he left us the firewood and kindling and gave me a key. I asked the first couple of students if they would go on in early and light the fire to start warming the room. I failed to realize, however, that they did not know the crucial step of opening the damper, the heavy metal piece that closes off the chimney so cold air cannot come flooding down. Instead, they walked down, balled up some newspaper, added kindling and wood, and let it rip.

Blissfully unaware, standing in the driveway, I suddenly noticed smoke billowing up the stairway into my friend’s kitchen and heard a histrionic, shrieking smoke detector inside. I ran in, dashed down the stairs, and promptly stumbled over one of the students, who was sitting on the landing trying to take the battery out of the smoke detector. I was thinking to myself—and said out loud—“What are you doing?” He replied, “The beeping is distracting me and keeping me from thinking, so I’m trying to silence this smoke detector.” The student may have thought that he was fixing the problem by silencing the smoke detector, but he actually had fixed nothing. Even more, he’d made the real problem worse by dealing with the wrong thing, not putting out the fire that was pouring smoke into the house.

Jesus says that hearts are like that. We can have a heart on fire—and not in a good way—and not realize what the real problem is. We can run around trying to silence the smoke detector and not realize the actual raging problem we have. In doing something, we can end up doing the wrong thing.

True Change Comes from the Inside Out

In Mark 7:1–23, Jesus contrasts two different ways of approaching faith, and He teaches that our biggest problem is not with our hands but with our hearts—that true change comes from the inside out, not the outside in. Mark 7:1–13 focuses on attempts at change from the outside in, a common approach in many religious systems. The Pharisees and scribes ask Jesus about eating with defiled hands. This wasn’t a question of personal hygiene. Rather, it was a religious washing—one of many religious traditions that had emerged over the centuries. This washing of hands is an example of the broader human tendency to elevate traditions to the level of religious duty even though those traditions are man-made, not of God’s command. Such traditions start simply as a way of living out our faith, but so often they become a replacement for true faith, the enemy of faithfulness to God. Notice how quickly Jesus amps it up in response. It’s as if He has no time for this question. He goes right on the attack.

Why does Jesus seem so aggressive? Because, even though they don’t realize it, this is not a question of faith at all. He says, “You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men” (Mark 7:8). He quotes Isaiah, a prophet who was himself dealing with a very religious society that had long departed from God in its heart, a society full of outward faith but inward apostasy. Jesus looks at the Pharisees after this question and says, “You’re just like Israel in Isaiah’s time—ready to be judged because you’ve rejected God.” So this is not just how people work out their faith. It’s become a replacement for their faith, and they don’t even realize it.

True Change Is an Outworking of Grace

When we work outside in, it often starts as an attempt to be serious about God’s law and His will, an attempt to live out faithfulness in life. It frequently ossifies, however, becoming a moral code, not a life-transforming outworking of grace. When it comes to human-created regulations around our faith, two things go wrong again and again.

First, those human rules go beyond what God wants. The corban regulations governing the support of the temple that Jesus mentions in verse 11 presumably started as an attempt to live out God’s Word fully and faithfully, to devote resources to God’s work in sacrificial generosity. But before long, they became full of human additions, no longer a faithful application of God’s Word but instead a series of human-based behavior codes. And the people advocating them couldn’t see the difference.

Second, these behavior codes became in the end a replacement for authentic faith, a human set of regulations that had replaced authentic worship of God. They appeared to do the right things, but in a way that ignored the rest of God’s Word and made them, in the end, the wrong things.

Parenting so easily devolves into this (as I’m sure mine has many times): behavior modification in our kids rather than heart change. We just set a bunch of rules for the rules’ sake and forget the ultimate goal.

Outside-in righteousness always fails. It fails because sin is inside us, and it’s indelible.

Sometimes, church can be like that. Churches very quickly create activity and behavior codes that are really human codes. It can so quickly become a focus on all the activities, the rules, the attendance. Every church has implied behavior codes, and if you fail to adhere to them, you know it very quickly. You can feel it, even if you’re not sure what code you just violated. Understanding this is so important, and it is why Jesus amps it up so quickly here. We should be careful that what we require of ourselves and others is really what God asks and not something that we have created, because we are always tempted to create cultural mores that end up replacing true, biblical faith.

This is the huge personal implication: we can look religious and pious on the outside yet be far from God. And that can be true even if we have been in church for many years. Most Pharisees had been careful Jews from birth. They were from good families, had been in synagogue from before they could remember, did exactly the right things, and were respected by everyone for it. Theirs was a careful faith, a pious life, and a good, solid, respectable religion. And Jesus says it was a rejection of God (Mark 7:6–9).

What Does It Mean to Be Right with God?

It’s easy to have a careful piety but to have the wrong heart inside it and actually be alien to God, even if we’ve been in church our whole lives. Attempts to change—either others or ourselves—from the outside in always fail. Jesus tells us why in verses 14–23 as He turns to the inside out.

In Mark 7:14, Jesus turns to another set of religious laws that Jews of the day kept—the food laws. In other words, Jesus is still talking about the same basic question: What does it mean to be right with God? Judaism of the time had food laws, based on the Old Testament regulations in the Pentateuch, and Jesus resets our understanding of those laws. Those laws had a point and a purpose, but Jesus says that the people of His day had missed it. They had started to think that rigidly keeping the food laws made them right with God. He says: “What you eat just goes on through you. It cannot make you right with God in your heart.”

Outside-in righteousness always fails. It fails because sin is inside us, and it’s indelible. The problem is not “out there.” It is inside our hearts. Consider verses 20–23:

He said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (Mark 7:20–23)

Jesus says that merely cleaning up the outside is no better than taking the battery out of the smoke detector while the fire rages. It cannot truly fix the problem; the fire of evil still burns inside us.

And that sin inside us is indelible, not something we can fix by controlling outside factors. In verses 21–23, Jesus lists thirteen things that come from the heart, six that deal with our behaviors and seven that deal with our attitudes. In other words, the problems are more than skin-deep, more than just following the rules and the letter of the law. Not only must we avoid murder; we must not be angry or jealous of our neighbor. Not only must we avoid adultery; we must put to death every inclination that leads us to lust or envy.

The people in Jesus’ day looked up to the Pharisees because they believed that they had a high view of the law, but Jesus says that the religious leaders didn’t have too high a view of the law; rather, it was too low. To truly keep the law, we must obey more than just the letter of the law; we must keep it in our motives, in our attitudes, in our minds—even before thoughts become actions. And when that is the bar, who can clear it?

We do not need a bandage. We do not just need a change in diet. We need heart surgery. Even more than that, because apart from grace our hearts are permanently unclean, we need someone to give us a new heart. We need a heart transplant. And as Mark’s gospel will go on to declare, in Jesus’ death and resurrection, that is what we receive. It’s what the prophet Jeremiah foretold:

Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more. (Jer. 31:31–34)

How to Die Well

The Wholly Holy Love of God