Cleanliness and godliness

Cleanliness and godliness

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My nephew’s wife, a school nurse in Spokane, Washington, reported decreasing sickness before corona closed her school. She surmised: “Students are washing their hands more thoroughly.” Aha! As you wash, do you sing “Happy Birthday” -- the “Doxology” -- something else?

In a John Wesley sermon from 1778, we first find the phrase: “Cleanliness is next to godliness.” Let’s meditate on it.

The need

Cleanliness criteria are ancient. When our first parents chose sin, they unleashed an avalanche of contagion on us.

Tame (Hebrew) -- pronounced: ‘taw-may' -- helps us measure this avalanche. We translate tame as: “unclean,” “defiled” or “polluted.” Used 300x in the Old Testament, it refers to countless defilements.

Note: Etymological dictionaries suggest “contamination” is from: com (“with) + tangere ("to touch"). Could the base word be tame, not tangere?!

Physical contamination

Bible authors recognized some ailments, like some skin diseases, come about by tame. They warned against contact with a dead body or with some molds. Such contact was tame. Think of self-quarantined lepers calling out: “Tame.”

The Jews made ritual cleanliness habitual. In contrast with some cultures, Jews buried/covered feces and urine in a hole. Priests risked personal safety inspecting contaminated individuals and dwellings. These civil laws are generally understood to have applied to the nation of Israel during Bible times. They were not perpetual moral law.

Moral filth

But, civil law and moral law did have a connection -- a relationship called, “general equity.” Causing another person to be infected or risking death due to negligence of these health laws violated the Moral Law, specifically, the Sixth Commandment: “Do not murder.”

Apply the teaching of The Westminster Confession of Faith Larger Catechism Question 135 to today: “The duties required in the Sixth Commandment are, in all ways, carefully studying and lawfully endeavoring to preserve the life of ourselves and others -- by just defense against violence (including, corona virus) -- comforting and nurturing the distressed while protecting and defending the innocent.” Aha!

Other interpersonal pollution

Leviticus 18:30 -- “Keep my requirements. Do not follow any of the detestable customs that were practiced (here in the Promised Land) before you came and do not defile (tame) yourselves with them. I am the LORD your God.”

In Leviticus 18, God calls us not to idolize our sexuality. There he defines tame as adultery, bestiality, incest, homosexuality, intercourse with a woman during her period (Lev. 18:20, 23, 24; for fornication see: Ezekiel 23:17).

Spiritual pollution

Friend, loving anything but God and his ways is idolatry. Alluring God-substitutes are the viruses of our souls. Beware: John Calvin alleged our hearts are idol factories. In our brokenness, we naturally love to find alternatives to God. Such idols insouciantly anesthetize/attack our souls.

As with corona, initially, we may not even know we’re infected.

But destructive consequences come: Ezekiel 22:3,4, “O city that brings on herself doom by shedding blood and defiles (tame) herself by making idols. You have become defiled (tame) by the idols you have made.”

Such spiritual pollution led them to them killing their babies. Ps. 106:37 They sacrificed their sons and their daughters; the land was polluted (chaneph) with blood. 39Thus they became unclean (tame) by their acts.

Friends, we naturally muck up our souls and God’s creation.


God loves many, forgiving them in Christ. In Christ, Christians become part of a new creation. We bow our hearts/We bend our knees/Oh Spirit come make us humble/We turn our eyes/From evil things/Oh Lord we cast down our idols. So give us clean hands/And give us pure hearts/Let us not lift our souls to another (Chris Tomlin).

With new resources, Christians in Rome upped the ante, caring for the sick -- even during plagues. The Antonine Plague of the 2nd century might have killed off a quarter of the Roman Empire. Christianity spread as Christians cared for the sick and offered a spiritual model whereby plagues were not the work of angry and capricious deities but the product of a broken Creation in revolt against a loving God (Lyman Stone, “Foreign Policy” 3/13/2020).

Christian, God has loved us and given his Son for us. So, we love those in need.


Thus, in 1527, when the bubonic plague struck Wittenberg, Martin Luther refused to flee the city but stayed and cared for the sick.

Hear Luther in: "Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague:” “Very well, by God's decree, the enemy has sent us poison and deadly offal (“by-products”).

Therefore, I shall ask God mercifully to protect us.

Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine, and take it.

I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance infect and pollute others, and so cause their death as a result of my negligence.

If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me. Here I have done what he has expected of me and so, I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others.

If my neighbor needs me, however, I shall not avoid place or person, but will go freely."

On Aug. 3, 1528, this decision apparently cost Martin the life of his daughter, Elisabeth, born Dec. 10, 1527. Katharina during her pregnancy with Elisabeth was impacted by the plague. Katharina wrote: "The good Lord gave me a little girl, the sweet little Elisabeth. After eight months, the sweet little Elisabeth said goodbye to her father and her mother to go to Christ, passing through death into life.”

Between 1527-1529 Luther valiantly/poignantly wrote: “Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing, were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing. You ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is he; Lord Sabaoth (Lord of armies) his name, from age to age the same; and he must win the battle. Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also; The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still, His kingdom is forever!”

Friend, let’s meditate and take action.

Steve Bostrom, descendant of Swedish homesteaders, husband of Via, father of eight, father-in-law of seven, and grandfather of 13, loves Helena and serves here as a pastor at large. He is ordained by the Presbyterian Church in America. To contact him, email:


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Emma Jean Loney, a 10 year old student of Dutton MT, passed away on May 5, 2020 with her mother Courtney Loney.

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