Is the Phrase "Cleanliness Is Next to Godliness" Biblical?
- Amanda Idleman Contributing Writer
- 2020 20 Feb
How many of us have heard our mothers preach to us that “cleanliness is next to godliness?” Many of us have heard it so many times and so many ways that we actually assume this is a Proverb from the Bible.
While the concept was pushed by the church it’s not actually a Proverb or from the Bible at all.
Many times, these widely known sayings can influence our thinking, but the saying themselves lack biblical truth. It’s important that we take the time to research the things we accept as true.
It’s our job to dig a little deeper and fact check ideas that sound good to us but we aren’t sure where the idea actually came from.
This common saying was born out of the 19th-century church and has influenced our thinking of what it should “look like” to be a proper Christian. The saying itself does not have a biblical foundation.
The Bible uses becoming “clean” as a spiritual act that Jesus does for us through the cross and his ability to forgive us. God loves us all, no matter our means or how clean and tidy our lives appear on the outside--Which is great news to those of us who may be lacking in the “housekeeping” department!
Let’s evaluate what we can learn from this phrase.
What is the Origin of the Phrase "Cleanliness is Next to Godliness"?
According to Patheos from the 1500’s until about 1800’s bathing sort of fell out of fashion. People actually believed bathing could be unhealthy!
Which we now know that just the opposite is true. Prior to this time period and especially in the Ancient world people generally valued cleanliness and bathing.
Thankfully, during the 19th century some of the Protestants decided to push cleanliness as a concept in hopes that a value on physical cleanliness would also lead to a people embracing a cleaner lifestyle.
The famous phrase “cleanliness is next to godliness” can be found in a 1778 sermon by John Wesley. These words stuck and had a huge impact on the culture of the day. During the late 1700’s and through the 1800’s the church began to take on social justice as part of their mission.
The idea of cleanliness and faith even influenced the branding of newly emerging soap companies. The Ivory Soap brand we all know and love took its name from Psalm 45:8.
The idea that our physical cleanliness impacts our spiritual well-being took the world by storm.
At the same time that cleanliness became a Christian cause, so did many other issues the world was grappling with at the time. Christians were working to help end slavery, fighting against child labor, educating the poor, and more.
Cleanliness as a value just was part of a broader message that’s aim towards a moral cleansing of a generation. Reformation was the focus for the church. “Cleanliness is next to godliness” is probably one of the most famous statements that lives on from this era.
Many of us are still wondering how much our outsides have to do with our spirituality all these years after this message was given.
What Does the Bible Have to Say about Cleanliness and Godliness?
The Bible uses many metaphors that paint a picture of God “washing us of our sins and spiritual impurities.” These passages have little to do with our physical level of cleanliness but rather point us to our need for a Savior who is capable of forgiving our sins.
God washes us not of physical dirtiness but cleanses our souls.
Ezekiel 36:25-26 says “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”
This passage is one of many that shows us God’s desire to purify us in a spiritual sense so that we can come alive in Christ!
Without God giving us a new heart and removing our impurities, we cannot be in a relationship with him. Having sterile homes, immaculate clothes, and Pinterest perfect lives will do nothing to save our souls.
Isaiah 1:18 says “Come now, let us settle the matter,” says the Lord. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.” It is only through the spiritual cleaning that Jesus’ death on the cross that we can gain our salvation!
What are some modern take-aways from this 19th Century saying?
1. The Messages We Push as Christians Matter
This is an old saying that almost everyone still knows. I doubt John Welsey had the first clue of how famous his words would become!
While the heart behind the message was noble and we can all agree cleanliness is important, his message still missed the truth of the Biblical message of what God says about washing us clean.
God doesn't care what you look like on the outside; His primary concern with humanity is the state of their hearts!
We live in the Digital Age where truth is hard to come by and we have the ability to push messages out online daily about our beliefs via social media. Our words may not go “viral,” we do have a responsibility to think critically about what we are promoting as truth online.
Have we done our research to make sure the messages we promote as Truth stand in line with what the Bible actually says? Are we sharing these ideas to bring others to know God’s love or to promote our own personal agendas?
Will the messages we share with others build up those around us or will they bring more disunity and divisiveness to our community?
These are important questions to ask ourselves when we are declaring something is a Word from God to the world around you.
Today maybe one of the hardest times to determine who the false prophets are with so many trying to shout their truth at us. Diligence is required on the part of all Believers when it comes to our words.
2. God Cares Most About Our Hearts
Some of the most lost people of our world can come in the most put-together packages. Matthew 19:24 paints a worrisome picture for the well-off.
It says, “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
Thankfully, there is hope for those of us who are wealthy! In verse 26 Jesus says that with Him all things are possible, meaning even those us that have trouble setting aside our riches for Jesus can know Him through God’s grace.
Psalm 51:10 paints a beautiful picture of what God does want to do in our lives. It says, “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” His hope is that more than wanting to look the part, we would genuinely have a heart that desires Him.
Proverbs 4:23 says, “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” Before we do anything else we have to evaluate our intentions.
Integrity is the state of being whole or undivided. That’s what God wants for us; that we live our lives with oneness, where our thoughts, actions, intentions, and character are unified for God’s purpose. We don't want to hide our true selves, while, on the outside, look like we are doing the "right thing."
If you are struggling to keep your outsides together, don’t worry. God still loves you!
1 Samuel 16:7 says, “But the LORD said to Samuel, "Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The LORD does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart."
When we get too focused on how things appear, we can become distracted from what God truly wants us to see.
The message of the Bible is one of Spiritual rescue that makes all the difference on how we live our physical lives. God cares about the heart. He’s not so worried about the appearance of our outside packaging.
Maybe then we should spend a little less time focused on how things look but rather where we stand in our relationship with Him.
If you have perfected your exterior but neglected your interior, God wants so much more for you. He wants to give you a passion and love for Him that will turn your world upside down in the best sort of way.
Amanda Idleman is a writer whose passion is to encourage others to live joyfully. She writes devotions for the Daily Bible Devotions App, she has work published with Her View from Home, also for the MOPS Blog, and is a regular contributor for Crosswalk.com. You can find out more about Amanda on her blog or follow her on Instagram.
Photo Credit: ©Unsplash/Sarah Dorweiler
Amanda Idleman is a writer whose passion is to encourage others to live joyfully. She writes devotions for My Daily Bible Verse Devotional and Podcast, Crosswalk Couples Devotional, the Daily Devotional App, she has work published with Her View from Home, on the MOPS Blog, and is a regular contributor for Crosswalk.com. You can find out more about Amanda on her Facebook Page or follow her on Instagram.