How Close Is Cleanliness to Godliness?

How Close Is Cleanliness to Godliness? July 9, 2023

Georg Pencz (1500–1550), Christ Healing the Leper, from The Story of Christ, 1534–35, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1917 Source/Photographer; Creative Commons

How close is cleanliness to godliness? What kind of cleanliness matters most when considering godliness? This is the subject of my new post.

According to, “John Wesley, the co-founder of Methodism, may have been the originator of the slogan ‘cleanliness is next to godliness.’ In 1791, he referenced the phrase in one of his sermons as we use it today. Wesley wrote, ‘Slovenliness is no part of religion. Cleanliness is indeed next to Godliness.’”

I’m a big fan of Mr. Wesley, but I must confess there are times when I hope he’s not right. If he is right, you’d think I’m one of the most godless people alive. All you’d need to do to make your assessment is peak inside my higgledy-piggledy office in the wake of one of my many research projects when I’m buried in my work. You’d think a cyclone hit!

I will grant Mr. Wesley that cleanliness is important according to the Bible. I just finished Leviticus this morning as part of my biblical devotions. Leviticus prizes cleanliness and order, including rituals involving washing. But as I’m sure Wesley would agree, the cleanliness that God prizes most is internal. The psalmist David puts it best when he cries out to God for forgiveness and cleansing: “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me…You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.” (Psalm 51:10, 16-17; NIV)

Jesus brings the point about internal cleanliness home with force in contending against pharisaical fixation on purity codes that did not reflect a concern for the transformation of the heart. Amid the debate with religious leaders who took offense with Jesus because his followers did not ceremonially wash their hands before eating, he provides the following instruction: “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.” (Matthew 15:17-20; NIV)

I’m sure it was difficult for many members of the religious establishment to grasp Jesus’ deeper reading of the Law. With this point in mind, can you imagine what the religious establishment would have thought of Jesus touching the leper to heal him?! By touching the leper, he broke the letter of the law (See Leviticus 5:3). By healing him, Jesus fulfilled the spirit of the Law (Luke 5:12-13).

There is no opportunity to engage in a detailed analysis of Jesus’ view of Jewish purity laws, as important as that subject is. For my present purposes, I will speak more broadly. Of course, there is a place for washing one’s hands before preparing food and eating meals. Personal hygiene is important for individual and public health. But just like working out at the gym, it is important that we do not neglect the significance of spiritual and virtuous exercise and the pursuit of purity of heart. Here we could learn a thing or two from Jesus, as well as his followers John Wesley and his brother Charles, Augustine of Hippo, and Teresa of Avila, to name a few.

Here I can also learn a thing or two from a few of my son Christopher’s caregivers. Some of you know that my son endured a catastrophic brain injury two and a half years ago. He is completely dependent on others for his care. One of Christopher’s CNAs takes a personal interest in his wellbeing. She does not simply change and reposition him. She finds ways to encourage and help him to respond. While washing and disinfecting her hands and wearing gloves much of the time, she also washes Christopher’s being with affection.

This CNA is a spiritual person. It is not simply what she says, but how she lives that conveys her spiritual sensitivity. While cleanliness may be next to godliness, cleanliness of the heart involving the fruit of the Spirit on display in her is even closer to godliness. In fact, the fruit of the Spirit is godliness.

What is this fruit of the Spirit? Paul describes the fruit of the Spirit in his letter to the Galatian church: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law” (Galatians 5:22-23; NIV). This CNA, who is a grandmotherly figure, models these qualities in abundant measure. She manifests love and joy in Christopher’s presence. She communicates forbearance or patience, kindness, and gentleness, and all the other qualities combined.

Let me share with you a short account of her patience, kindness, and gentleness. The other day she informed me how she is trying to teach Christopher to wash his face and sponge brush his teeth. She places the washcloth or sponge brush between his thumb and clenched fingers or in his right hand (if she can open it) and gently encourages him to wash and brush. She never shows impatience and is always encouraging, kind, and hopeful.

Christopher is not quite there yet, but he is trying. He will ever so slowly move the washcloth or sponge brush toward his face. My son wants to comply with her instructions. He longs to be independent. His hand with the washcloth or sponge brush will inch along, pause, proceed, pause again, and sometimes stop before it reaches its destination, namely, his cheeks or mouth. But his CNA never gives up, nor does Christopher, nor do I. He’ll get to the point of washing behind his ears someday.

There is a process of purification going on inside me. But it’s slow, painstakingly slow. I am learning what really counts in life as Christopher’s CNA models cleanliness of heart and as Christopher tries to respond. If only you could see the character in development and display of goodness manifest in the CNAs disposition and in her and Christopher’s forbearing and patient spirit as he tries to wash and brush and clean. All my years of formal instruction never prepared me for this informal training and does not compare with the priceless instruction I am now receiving.

I find my soul being washed as I am in their presence. It cleanses my heart from all the moral filth I feel inside me. Her consoling voice and Christopher’s painstaking efforts to respond in kind to her kindness drowns out the toxicity in my spirit and on the airwaves and social media channels where people interrupt and attack one another as disgusting and despicable. My CNA and son teach me how vital it is that we model love and empathy, patience, kindness, goodness, and self-control.

Our sense of self-righteousness and others’ seeming impurity on issues that divide us politically and socially in this country takes our self-righteous eyes off our own need to become pure of heart. The social psychologist Jonathan Haidt claims that without addressing such self-righteousness and without growing in empathy for our ideological opponents, a divided America will never heal. While he and John Wesley would differ on the existence of God, they would agree on the need to address the problem of distorted affections and expand our moral intuitions.

Jesus calls on us to do more than wash our mouths with soap. He urges us to repent of murderous thoughts and slander and nurture the fruit of the spirit in our interaction with one another. Cleanliness might be next to godliness. But patience, kindness, and goodness are godliness, and involve the cleanliness of one’s spirit and character. Such cleanliness matters most. And so, we must do everything possible to pursue the purification of the heart. On this point, I would assume Mr. Wesley and my son’s CNA would agree.

About Paul Louis Metzger
Paul Louis Metzger, Ph.D., is Professor of Theology & Culture, Multnomah University & Seminary; Director of The Institute for Cultural Engagement: New Wine, New Wineskins; and Author and Editor of numerous works, including Setting the Spiritual Clock: Sacred Time Breaking Through the Secular Eclipse (Cascade, 2020) and More Than Things: A Personalist Ethics for a Throwaway Culture (IVP Academic, forthcoming in August 2023). You can read more about the author here.
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