What is “Purity” Actually About?

What is “Purity” Actually About? August 12, 2020

What is the relationship between purity and the concepts of honor and shame?

Understanding how the language of (un)cleanness works can help us in several ways. For example, we can discern the broader connotation of such imagery in the Bible and in our lives. We can improve our ability to interpret the Bible and contextualize its message.

Purity Matters

Some people, like Tom Steffen, think purity-cultures exist alongside guilt-, fear-, and honor- cultures. I respectfully disagree. I think purity language falls under the honor-shame category. Separating them seems redundant to me.

But there’s a bigger point to make than how one classifies cultures. Whether one is “pure” or “unclean” is no small matter; it frequently speaks to one’s identity, status, and character. As mentioned in my previous post, we often use purity metaphors when speaking about morality…

“He’s a filthy pig!” “They have a dirty mind.” “No one has clean hands.”

Unfortunately, I’ve noticed a subtle flattening of the metaphor among people. They treat it as though it primarily were legal language. For instance, “The judge will wipe it off your record.” Or, “You have a clean slate.” In these sentences, “clean” and “wipe” act as dead metaphors. They lack potency. One hardly notices the imagery. They simply mean, “No crimes are charged against you.”

However, we do not invoke a mere “legal” metaphor when we speak of (im)purity and (un)cleanness. Fundamentally, purity is not a legal category. If we miss this point, we can overlook the effect of such imagery and its significance in Scripture.

What is Purified in Hebrews?

Christians often use generalized phrases to describe salvation. “He has washed away my sin.” “He has cleansed me.” These certainly have roots in the Bible. The sacrificial system in Leviticus famously describes how the people of Israel removed ritual impurity through sacrifice.

Concerning these sacrificial practices, the writer of Hebrews says,

“gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper but deal only with food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation” (Heb 9:9–10).

Someone might easily interpret him as if to suggest the purification rituals are archaic and antithetical to Christianity. However, we find that the author of Hebrews does not dismiss such language; rather, he reappropriates it.

Hebrews 10:1–2 expands on the imagery of Hebrews 9. It says,

For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have a conscience for sins?[1]

In light of the new covenant, Hebrews 9:14 proclaims, “how much more will the blood of Christ… purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.” Therefore, “let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience” (10:22).

The wider context adds further support. Hebrews 8:10, 10:16 repeat the promise from Jeremiah 31:33, where the Lord says,

“This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws on their hearts, and write them on their minds.”

When Christ “purifies our conscience,” he cleanses our hearts (cf. 10:22). In effect, Hebrews refers to the fulfillment of the new covenant promise foretold in Jeremiah.

More Thoughtful Use of Purity

Across time and culture, people intuitively appeal to purification language to draw comparisons about morality and identity. At least we can all be more thoughtful about how we use such comparisons. When the Bible speaks of our being cleansed or purified, writers are not merely saying, “You have no crime on your permanent record.”

While that language has validity, it only scratches the surface of biblical meaning.

The Bible is concerned with far more than external or legal purity; it can hardly be called salvation if our legal record is erased but our hearts are contaminated with the basest of desires. God cares about our hearts. This is why he grants us new hearts. The Spirit transforms our sense of honor and shame.


[1] The ESV uses “any consciousness of sins” rather than “a conscience for sins” for in v. 2, despite the συνείδησις having a consistent meaning throughout the surrounding context.

Photo Credit: Pixabay

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