Progressive Proof-Texting: Defending a Libertine Spirit With Matthew 15


by John Ellis

And he called the people to him and said to them, “Hear and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.” Then the disciple came and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?” He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up. Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.” But Peter said to him, “Explain the parable to us.” And he said, “Are you still also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passed into the stomach and is expelled? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.” Matthew 15:10-20

Recorded in Matthew 15, Jesus’ words cut two ways. On one hand, the passage challenges legalism (Neonomianism), but on the seemingly-opposite hand, it confronts antinomianism, especially the self-proclaimed progressive kind. Sadly, many legalists ignore this passage and many progressive Christians rip Jesus’ words out of context in order to justify their libertine-loving antinomianism.

Theologian and pastor Timothy Keller confronts us with the reality that “If you think the real problem out there in the world is legalism, you probably have one foot in antinomianism, and if you think the real problem with people is antinomianism, you probably have one foot in legalism [emphasis kept].”[1] The interesting thing is that Keller claims that legalism and antinomianism derive from the same theological error – misunderstanding the purpose of God’s law.

Since the vast majority of legalists and antinomians do not recognize themselves as legalists or antinomians, definitions and a brief defense of my application are in order. For starters, Dr. Michael Horton believes the two errors are, “The two most obvious dangers to be avoided with respect to sanctification … Both are errors especially concerning the relationship of believers to moral law.”[2] Legalism (neonomianism) has many related iterations[3], but its most common manifestation can be found among conservative charismatics, independent fundamentalists, and within the holiness movement. Keller helpfully distills legalism as “the belief that we will have to pry blessings out of God’s begrudging, unwilling fingers with all sorts of observances and performances.”[4]

Whether it’s the charismatics who manufacture obedience in order to prime the pump for what they believe are God’s blessing of extra faith or an extra dose of the Holy Spirit, or it’s some cultural independent fundamentalists who heap rules upon rules in order to prove their obedience to God, legalism is a soul-crushing burden. One of the ways it’s manifest (and a way that’s directly connected to Matthew 15) is the efforts to shield oneself and others from sin[5]. While not necessarily a bad motive, legalists will concoct all kinds of rules to hedge in souls from the world. Obeying the moral law becomes primarily a means to make oneself more attractive to God instead of a joyfully obedient outworking of the salvation provided by faith in Jesus. God’s grace becomes a commodity.

Antinomianism, however, “holds that the law – not only its penalty and rigor but its normative status – is completely abolished for the believer.”[6] Pastor Keller gravely warns, “Because antinomianism does not grasp God’s loving grace, it also sees the law as an obstacle to freedom and personal growth rather than as a great means by which God grows us into both.”[7]

Both legalists and antinomians misunderstand the purpose of God’s law. The law is God’s revelation of Himself and His holy standard. As the Believer’s covenant head, Jesus has kept God’s law for us. Placing our faith in the life, death, and resurrection gives us Christ’s righteousness – his law keeping. Believers are in Christ, which means that God the Father sees us in Christ. God doesn’t hold out keeping the law as a carrot on a stick in order to gain more of His favor. “For all of the promises of God find their yes in [Jesus].”[8] Since Believers are in Christ, all of God’s promises are freely and fully “Yes!” for Believers, too.

The law also reveals God’s will for Believers. Believers “long to keep it, not as a way of attaining life but as a way of living the life that they have been given by grace alone.”[9] New life provided by faith in Jesus prompts a joyful desire to magnify God’s name and point others to Him through a willing obedience to God. Giving God glory through obedient acknowledgment of who God’s revelation of Himself is the Believer’s motivation.

Antinomians, however, want to be a law unto themselves. They do not want to submit themselves to anything except their own self-fulfilling desires. Submitting to the will of the Father would require them to put to death their desire for self-fulfillment. Among other ways, this rebellion is evident in how they rip Matthew 15 out of context as a weapon wielded against anyone who takes seriously the pursuit of Holiness. For antinomians, the passage clearly means that those who evidence a concern about what they do, what they see, what they listen to, et al. are denying Jesus’ teaching of grace.

In Matthew 15, Jesus is confronting the Pharisees’ idolatrous use of the Law, not to mention the fact that the Pharisees had a history of adding to the Law. The Pharisees (and the disciples, to an unknown and constantly changing extent) believed that their position in the Messiah’s Kingdom was secure because of what they did and didn’t do. The parallel passage in Mark 7 explicitly reveals that Jesus was speaking directly to clean and unclean foods. In other words, Jesus was turning the ceremonial laws on their head to reveal that the lawgiver Himself (the Messiah) had come to earth and that He was the answer to the problem of sin. His concern wasn’t with rules; Jesus’ primary concern was that listeners (and readers) realize that no matter what they do or don’t do, apart from faith in the lawgiver Himself, they could never reach a level of holiness that bridges the ethical divide between themselves and their Creator and utterly Holy God. Humans are sinful and no amount of ceremonially clean foods can ever change that. D.A. Carson explains, “Jesus presupposes that the heart is essentially evil (cf. 7:11). But the burden of this pericope is not to be pure on the inside and forget the externals but that what ultimately defiles a man is what he really is. Jesus is not spiritualizing the OT but insisting that true religion must deal with the nature of man and not with mere externals.”[10]

As already pointed out, legalists operate under the assumption that abstention can help solve the problem of sin. In other words, God’s grace can only do so much. On the other hand, antinomians, or progressive Christians, as they’re more commonly known nowadays, use Matthew 15 as an unholy justification for their embrace of sin.

Whenever discussing the wisdom of engaging with something, like watching nudity in movies, for example, the conversation often includes this statement (for the record, I’m culling together actual quotes from several conversations that I’ve had with antinomian, progressive Christians) – “Jesus said that it’s not what we do that makes us sinful. If you have a weak conscious[11], then maybe you shouldn’t do/listen to/watch it, but grace tells us that things, in and of themselves, aren’t bad. Hence, grace has given me carte blanche freedom to do/listen to/watch it.”

Except that’s not what Jesus said nor is it what he meant. Not even close.

For starters, dissecting the argument of progressive Christians reveals that they are guilty of the fallacy of the false dilemma. In a nutshell, what they’re claiming is “If Jesus said that things don’t make you sinful, then things can’t be bad.” With this argument, they’re only allowing for two options (the other option besides accepting their conclusion is that Jesus was wrong). The argument is essentially if “A” is true (things don’t make you sinful), then “B” (then things can’t be bad) must be true, too. Meaning that “C” (things can be bad, too) cannot be true. But there are at least two “arguments” available that don’t undermine the veracity of Jesus’ claim. One of the arguments commits the fallacy of the false dilemma as well and the other option allows for the nuanced options of “C” and “D” and even “E” etc. Argument One is the antinomian’s argument above. Argument Two is that Jesus is simply wrong, and, hence, Matthew 15 can be dismissed offhand. Argument Three is built on the belief that all things are bad and humans are already sinful. The final argument, Argument Four claims that some things are bad, but humans are already sinful.

At the onset, we can dismiss Argument Two that Jesus was wrong[12]. I think that we can also quickly dismiss Argument Three that “All things are bad, but humans are already sinful.” That option is the exact opposite side of the progressive Christian’s false dilemma[13]. Plus, the Bible frequently speaks to God’s blessings being inherent in things. Psalm 104 calls God’s people to praise Him for causing, “the grass to grow for the livestock and plants for man to cultivate, that he may bring forth food from the earth and wine to gladden the heart of man, oil to make his face shine and bread to strengthen man’s heart.”[14] That leaves Argument Four, “some things are bad, but humans are already sinful,” as the remaining challenger to the antinomian, progressive Christians’ argument.

There are things, many things, in fact, that should be avoided by those who are concerned about joyfully obeying the command to pursue holiness as an outworking of the salvation paid for by Jesus. To say otherwise is rejection of the Bible’s teaching. I’ve already made this argument in a previous article; with some minor editing, I’m going to “plagiarize” myself and repeat my previous argument.

The opening verses of the Bible reveal many things. Of those things, at least three are immediately pertinent to this discussion – 1. God created everything. 2. God created everything good. 3. Things that were once good became less good. In fact, some things are so far removed from God’s definition of “good” as to render them functionally not good.

John H. Walton’s book The Lost World of Genesis is helpful when thinking through the theological implications of Genesis’ creation narrative. For starters, Walton makes a very good argument that as opposed to our modern focus on materialism (an almost myopic focus), “people in the ancient world believed that something existed not by virtue of its material properties, but by virtue of its having a function in an ordered system [emphasis kept].”[15] Taking the ancient cosmology further afield from our modern definitions, calling it a “functional ontology,” Walton explains that for the ancient Israelites, “the sun does not exist by virtue of its material properties, or even by its function as burning ball of gas. Rather it exists by virtue of the role that it has in its sphere of existence, particularly in the way that it functions for humans and humankind.”[16]

To be clear, Walton is not claiming (nor do I believe) that the ancient Israelites were unaware or even dismissed material properties of created things. Nor does Walton’s desire to bear out the rich theological teaching of the literal creation account in the Bible exist at odds with the orthodox belief that God literally created everything out of nothing. But it’s important to note that the ancients had a different perspective on the world and science than do Westerners in the 21st century. For the ancient Israelites, their primary concern was with the ontological function[17] of God’s creation. With that framework informing the exegesis, when God named the things that He had created “good,” He was referring to their functional readiness; their ability to fulfill their intended function in the service of praising God and bringing Him glory. Human’s sin, of course, broke God’s good world and rendered it not as good in some cases, and flat out not good in others (see Footnote 17 for further explanation).

Many will push back on the notion of “things” being functionally not good. In doing so, however, I believe that they are unintentionally undermining their very argument that Christians are free to engage and interact with God’s created world and the artistic expressions of created beings.

Claiming that God created all things good without taking into account the Fall and the subsequent curses recorded in Genesis 3 removes any reason to believe the claims that things are good to begin with. A person can’t legitimately use Genesis chapters one and two as the basis for claiming the innate goodness of creation if they completely ignore the next chapter.

Unless an individual wants to argue that the Fall had no effect on the world, there is precious little justification to claim that everything is still “good” in the same manner as God claimed in a specific place and time; things are no longer functioning in an unblemished manner, as God intended. Further, well-meaning Believers who argue that things like music are amoral are denying the functional goodness which is inherent in God’s creation. Nothing is amoral because God created everything good. Sin, of course, marred creation, including things; we no longer live in a world in which it can be claimed that anything is unequivocally functionally good.

Nothing in creation is functioning as God intended, included art/entertainment. And some things are less “good” (functioning properly) than other things. Discernment is needed by Christians when making choices about what “things” to engage and interact with. In Matthew 15, Jesus was not saying that “things” themselves can’t be bad; our King was simply pointing out that we’re already bad and in need of a Savior.

While Matthew 15:10-20 does offer a rebuke to legalists who believe that an ascetic interaction with God’s creation will protect them from sin and/or prompt God to shower blessings on them, the passage also confronts the self-idolatrous belief of antinomian, progressive Christians. The desire to gratify the lust of the flesh causes many to rip Jesus’ words out of context in an unholy defense for engaging and being a part of sin. The question is, “Are you seeking to honor God by your obedient pursuit of holiness because of the new life that God has given you; or, are you seeking to pervert the Gospel of Jesus Christ in order to justify your pursuits of your lust?” Jesus paid a great price for the salvation of his children. Pray the that Holy Spirit will provide you with the faith to joyfully obey God in all things.

Soli Deo Gloria

[1] Timothy Keller, Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Viking, 2015), 56.

[2] Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 664.

[3] One such iteration is called Perfectionism, which believes that Christians can achieve sinless perfection in this life. There are two versions of Perfectionism – that derived from Charles Wesley who distinguishes from known/conscious sin and mistakes, and the Pelagian belief that almost goes so far as to place a requirement for complete perfection. The “Higher Life,” or Keswickianism, is an outworking of Wesley’s teachings on sanctification and adds a healthy dose of German pietism. This is where the “saved by the skin of his teeth” view comes in – the belief that there are carnal Christians and spiritual/victorious Christians. Pentecostals find the belief in the “Higher Life” very compatible with their charismatic belief in the desired second anointing of the Spirit. Legalism creates a variety of problems across many doctrines (ecclesiology, eschatology, and pneumatology, to name three) and is a complex topic that is outside of this article’s intended scope.

[4] Keller, Preaching, 54.

[5] Think, “rock music is sensual and induces improper sensuality in the listener. Hence, all music remotely connected to rock and roll is verboten.”

[6] Horton, The Christian Faith, 673.

[7] Keller, Preaching, 55.

[8] 2 Corinthians 1:20, ESV Study Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 2224.

[9] Horton, The Christian Faith, 674.

[10] D.A. Carson, “Matthew” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984), 351.

[11] Often the phrase “bound conscience is used.” That sounds less judgmental than “weak conscience,” I guess.

[12] If you believe that Jesus was wrong, I need to write a whole other article for you. Let me know; I’ll happily write it.

[13] In their Neo-Platonims/Neo-Gnosticism, this is the position that is often the closest to that of the legalists. Once again, you see this thought cropping up in the conservative charismatic movement and much of the independent fundamentalism movement – any movements that subscribe to Keswickianism, really.

[14] Psalm 104:14-15, ESV Study Bible, 1070.

[15] John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 24.

[16] Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One, 24.

[17] Another word for it is “teleology” which means that things have an innate function. All things, including humans, are directed towards something. For example, a clock’s teleology is to keep time. If a clock is inconsistent when keeping time, it is still a clock, but it’s a bad clock. That bad clock fails to fulfill its teleology, or, in John Walton’s term, that clock fails to fulfill its ontological function.


2 thoughts on “Progressive Proof-Texting: Defending a Libertine Spirit With Matthew 15

  1. John, you have been on a writing binge in the past couple weeks. God is really prompting you to write well. Sorry I went on a “commenting” binge today. I couldn’t help myself.


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