Last time, we talked about the fact that it’s not what we do that makes us holy or sinful. It’s what’s in our hearts. As authors Johnson and VanVonderen put it:

Sin is more than a behaviour issue; sin results when we forgot to trust in the real God for our identity and spiritual strength, or when we place our trust in something other than our Source.

If I use drugs, steal, or commit adultery in an attempt to meet my needs, it is sin. What makes it sin is not that I performed a behaviour on the “bad list”—although I did do that. The sin is that I tried to draw life or significance from something that could not give it. Instead of trusting God I trusted a false god. That is missing the mark. [1]

If, on the other hand, I teach Sunday school class, serve on a committee or put money in the offering in order to validate myself or earn approval from God or someone else, it’s also sin. What is a sin about it, however, is not that I didn’t do behaviours on the “good list” (because I did do them). It’s that I tried to draw life and significance from something that could not give it. Instead of trusting God I turned to a false god—positive-looking, but false just the same. That also is missing the mark. [2]

With this, we begin to see that when we do good works in order to be seen by men, the removal of heavenly reward that Jesus talked about in His sermon on the mount is not simply because we’ve misplaced our priorities and valued the praise of men above the approval of God. It’s more elemental than that. It’s because doing our righteous deeds in order to be seen by others is outright sin. 

Let’s finish our discussion today by exploring how this impacts our interpretation of a few other scriptures relating to sin and righteousness.

Good Works vs. Filthy Rags

How easily we fall into the trap of esteeming the opinions of human beings. Perhaps this is why the prophet Isaiah stated, “All our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.” [3]

Our righteous deeds are often tainted with the sin of placing our trust in something other than our Source. Yet, when we allow the Holy Spirit to draw us into a sense of communion with him, resulting in deeds of righteousness, then the words of the apostle Paul to the Ephesian church become true of us.

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them. 

(Ephesians 2:9-10)

When our focus is on our Source, we are able to step out of our righteous deeds being like filthy rags, and into the good works that God has already prepared for us to do. 

If God has created our good works, and we know that “everything that God has created is good,” [4] then our good works cannot be filthy. Our good works become acts of holiness simply because we do not derive our righteousness from them. The joy-inducing, life-giving God is our Source, not our good works.

A Matter of the Heart

These ideas also illuminate why Jesus pointed the Pharisees to the example of David when His disciples were accused of breaking the rules. 

Let’s remind ourselves of the story:

And it happened that He [Jesus] was passing through the grain fields on the Sabbath, and His disciples began to make their way along while picking the heads of grain. 

The Pharisees were saying to Him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” 

And He said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he was in need and he and his companions became hungry; how he entered the house of God in the time of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the consecrated bread, which is not lawful for anyone to eat except the priests, and he also gave it to those who were with him?”

(Mark 2:23-26)

Jesus makes it clear that God did not consider the disciples’ and David’s actions as being sinful, despite their apparent lawlessness. 

What if this is because their hearts were right with God? What if this was because they were trusting in God for their identity and spiritual strength? What if they were trusting Him as their Source? 

What if their actions were not ones of rebellion and disobedience, but of simple, trust-filled acceptance of God’s provision for their very real physical needs for food? 

As Richards and O’Brian note in their book Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, “In ancient worldviews it went without saying that relationships (not rules) define reality….Rules didn’t (and, in many places, still don’t) describe the bulk of the matter; they merely described the visible outworking of an underlying relationship, which was the truly defining element.” [5]

This is the spiritual reality that the Pharisees had forgotten. Rules are, in many ways, easier to follow. They’re more concrete, easier to understand. But they are not the way to godliness.

When they replace our relationship with God, rules become sin. Not because the rules themselves are sinful. But because our focus is no longer on the One who deserves it. We have replaced our Creator with a created thing as the object of our veneration, and that is the definition of idolatry. 

May we each submit our hearts to our heavenly Father, that He may cleanse, restore, and illuminate them with the true intent of righteousness, with the true meaning of what it means to love, and please Him.

Being a true Tribal Member (Jew) is a matter of the heart, not of blood or ceremonial law. It is the same with the cutting of the flesh (circumcision) ceremony. It is a spiritual matter, not a physical one. One might perform the ceremony perfectly according to tribal law for all to see, but it is not what happens on the outside that counts. It is what happens spiritually, on the inside, that has true meaning. Such a person seeks honor from the Great Spirit (God) and not from human beings.

(Romans 2:28-29, First Nations Version)


[1] The word “sin” is an archery term that literally means “to miss the mark.” Anything that does not hit the bull’s-eye of righteousness is considered sin.

[2] David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen, The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, (Grand Rapids, MI: Bethany House Publishers, 1991), p. 9 of 10 in chapter 19 in ebook.

[3] Isaiah 64:6.

[4] 1 Timothy  4:4.

[5] E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013), p. 7 of 26 in Chapter 7 in ebook.

(Picture Source)