The book of Judges repeatedly employs a chilling phrase to depict the waywardness and corruption of God’s people: “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). God’s people had forsaken His law and their covenant with Him, and did whatever they wanted to fulfill their sinful desires. It’s also a fitting summary of the world we live in today, as our culture is overrun by chaos and corruption. We’re seeing every day the consequences of a society doing what is right in its own eyes.
To make sense of the wretched state of the world, we first need to see through the world’s deceptive excuses for sin. In particular, we need to understand that sin is not the fault of external factors—it can’t be blamed on your education, upbringing, or economic situation. The world of psychology will point to every conceivable external rationalization for why people act the way they do. But Scripture is clear—the problem of sin is internal.
Jesus Himself made that very point in a confrontation with the Pharisees. Israel’s religious elite were obsessed with external religion. They reduced the law of God to a burdensome list of rituals and practices, and held up themselves and their good works as the standard of holiness. But their piety was empty, and they hated Jesus for exposing their hypocrisy.
After one such confrontation in Mark 7, Christ explained why the external religion of the Pharisees was impotent to address the sinner’s true spiritual needs. Regarding the danger of eating ceremonially unclean foods, He said, “Listen to Me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside the man which can defile him if it goes into him; but the things which proceed out of the man are what defile the man” (Mark 7:14–15). His point was clear—the sinner isn’t corrupted by external actions, forces, or influences. His defilement is already present within him.
When the disciples later asked Jesus for further explanation, He drove the point home vividly.
Are you so lacking in understanding also? Do you not understand that whatever goes into the man from outside cannot defile him, because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and is eliminated? . . . That which proceeds out of the man, that is what defiles the man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man. (Mark 7:18–23)
The threat of sin and corruption is not external. In the specific case the Lord cited, both clean and unclean foods are consumed and eliminated in the same way. They are of no lasting spiritual consequence—especially when compared to the corruption that already resides in the sinner’s heart. Christ is saying you’re not wicked because of what happened to you on the outside; you’re wicked because of what you already are on the inside. He’s saying there is something wrong with your heart—not the physical internal organ, but with your inner self, including your mind, thoughts, attitudes, motives, and desires.
In verses 21 and 22, Christ identifies some specific categories of sin that flow out of man’s corrupt heart. “Evil thoughts” refers broadly to the bad motives, designs, and intentions cultivated internally. “Fornications” encapsulates all kinds of deviant sexual sin. He adds “thefts, murders, adulteries”—all external sins that are initially conceived in the mind. “Deeds of coveting and wickedness” speak to sins of greediness, along with the kind of malicious intent that seeks to harm others. But because the point isn’t merely the outward expressions of man’s sinful heart, Christ also identifies some of the inward evil attitudes that give birth to those evil deeds, including “deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness” (v. 22).
The Lord concludes in verse 23 with the summary statement, “All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man.” All of man’s sin flows from the inside out. The Pharisees were completely backward in their thinking because they had put their trust in external religion. At the beginning of Mark 7, they were criticizing Christ and His disciples for not observing the ceremonial laws regarding handwashing. Christ’s response was essentially, Your hands may be clean, but your hearts are filthy. They were counting on outward piety to win them favor with God, with no consideration for their internal corruption. They had neglected the lesson of 1 Samuel 16:7, that “God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”
The heart of the human problem has always been the problem of the human heart. And only God can do the transformative work necessary to regenerate a sinful heart—to “give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and . . . remove the heart of stone from your flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26).
But before God changes us, we need to agree with His grim diagnosis of our hearts. Next time, we’ll consider the extent of sin’s corrupting influence.
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