The gospel and abortion

[David Platt, in the Counter Culture Bible study, asked us to state how we see the gospel related to the issue of abortion. In what follows, I draw on some of the points he made in the associated study guide.]

The image of God

Humans are unique because we are created in the image of God.

In Genesis 1, God commanded the various elements: “Let there be light”, “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters”, “Let the waters below the heavens be gathered into one place”, “Let the earth sprout vegetation”, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens”, “Let the waters teem with swarms of living creatures”, and “Let the earth bring forth living creatures”. When it came to mankind, the pattern changed. God said, “Let Us make man in Our image”. Rather than commanding something to come into existence, or commanding one thing to bring another thing into existence, he “commanded” himself (!) to do the creating, and he himself is the one from whom man came.

Also, in Genesis 1, God created the various creatures to bring forth “after their kind” but of man it is said: “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness … God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” The constant repetition of our creation in the image of God is meant to emphasize it. Unlike any other creature, we are uniquely made to reflect the nature of God.

In Genesis 2:7, it further emphasizes God’s unique involvement in our creation, saying that he formed (or “fashioned”) man from the dust of the ground, and breathed his own breath into him to give him life.

In Genesis 1, mankind is given the commission to multiply throughout the earth and take charge of it. They are given every plant for food. After the fall, things change. The earth becomes hostile to man, man becomes hostile to man, God judges the world through the flood, and Noah starts over. In Genesis 9:1-7, God renews his charge to mankind, but this time he takes into account the fallenness of the world.

And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth. The fear of you and the terror of you will be on every beast of the earth and on every bird of the sky; with everything that creeps on the ground, and all the fish of the sea, into your hand they are given. Every moving thing that is alive shall be food for you; I give all to you, as I gave the green plant. Only you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. Surely I will require your lifeblood; from every beast I will require it. And from every man, from every man’s brother I will require the life of man.


Whoever sheds man’s blood,

By man his blood shall be shed,

For in the image of God

He made man.


As for you, be fruitful and multiply;

Populate the earth abundantly and multiply in it.”

Again, mankind is told to fill the earth. Again they are given dominion over it. This time they are promised that the rest of the creatures will fear them – a promise that is only necessary in a fallen world. This time they are given the right to kill and eat any living creature, except for humans.

However, they are told not to kill humans. The reason given is because humans, unlike other creatures, are made in the image of God. We have dominion over the whole earth, to do what we want with it – but God reserves the right to decide which humans live or die. Perhaps these verses implicitly grant permission for capital punishment, but when it comes to the innocent, God alone has the right to decide when life ends. The point is this: the Bible reserves the right over life and death for God alone, and the reason it does so is because we are created in God’s image. We are God’s workmanship, and no one has the right to destroy that.

Psalm 139:13-16 says:

For You formed my inward parts;

You wove me in my mother’s womb.


I will give thanks to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made;

Wonderful are Your works,

And my soul knows it very well.


My frame was not hidden from You,

When I was made in secret,

And skillfully wrought in the depths of the earth;


Your eyes have seen my unformed substance;

And in Your book were all written

The days that were ordained for me,

When as yet there was not one of them.


I am convinced by Luke 1:41-43 that the baby in the womb is a living human being, but I don’t think the verses here speak directly to that question. At least the final verse does not: it talks about the days ordained “when as yet there was not one of them”. If verse 16 were talking about the fetus, it would imply that none of his days had occurred yet, and so imply that he was not living yet.  I don’t think that’s what it means though; it is speaking, rather, of God’s foreknowledge of the Psalmist even before he existed at all. Jeremiah 1:5 is similar.

This verse isn’t focusing on what kind of thing the unborn baby is; it’s focusing on how far back God’s creating and fashioning activity extends. It says that God planned us from before we even existed, and was involved in crafting our physical being from the moment it began.

So the question isn’t when we first became alive or first became human or first became a person. It certainly isn’t when we first became viable or when we began to have a heartbeat or a brain wave or to feel pain. The question is, when did we first become the workmanship of God, made in his image? The answer is: from the very beginning.  By the time we know there is a baby there, it is already being fashioned by God and we are already forbidden to exercise our “dominion” to end its life.

The value of life

In my philosophy classes, students often discuss the morality of abortion. I’m dismayed by how frequently they assume that if a baby is going to be born into poverty, it would be a kindness to kill him instead. I often ask if they’d be willing to kill a two-year old for the same reason; many say No, but a sizable number say Yes, they would.

I’ve mulled this over for a couple of years now, and I have come to realize that it is vitally important to me that the value of someone’s life has nothing to do with how much they are suffering. Being unhappy does not diminish a person’s worth!

Jesus suffered greatly in Gethsemane and on the cross, but his life on earth was as valuable as it is possible to be. Because he suffered for love’s sake, and completely fulfilled the Father’s call for his life on earth, his life was full of meaning and purpose and majesty.

What has happened is that my students are assuming that the only value someone’s life has is that it makes him happy. When he is unhappy, then it is not worth so much anymore. What an impoverished view of human worth!

It is true that we often identify value with success. Those who are rich, happy, and influential somehow seem more worthwhile than those for whom the opposite is true. The message of Jesus’ ministry, and especially of the Beatitudes, is contrary to this. It is those who suffer, who are powerless, who are vulnerable, that are the Blessed.

I believe abortion is a tragedy, but I am not convinced at this point that it is my role as a Christian to wage a political war against it. (I’m not saying it’s not your role – I’m just not convinced it’s mine.) What I do want to stand for, though, is the truth of the enormous value of human life. In the course of debating abortion and euthanasia and evolution and many other things, we have slipped into thinking of human lives as commodities that can be assessed and then itemized in a cost-benefit analysis. The truth is that our lives have transcendent value. We are magically, mystically wonderful beings! Not because of what we do for others, and not because our lives feel good to us, but because of how God sees us and His creatorship and ownership of us. That is at the core of the gospel. You are loved; you are planned; you are called. These are at the heart of the gospel message. You matter, not because of you’ve done, and not because of how you feel about yourself, but because of your part in God’s plan.

I want people to see the baby in the womb that way, but I also want them to see themselves that way. The gospel is the story that God is telling about our lives, and understanding and receiving it lets us step into that story.

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Lust for lust

[David Platt, in the Counter Culture Bible study, asked us to write a statement about how the gospel relates to the issue of sexual exploitation. Here is my statement.]

Our culture idolizes sensuality. That means it idolizes sexual desire.

It doesn’t idolize sexual climax, but sexual desire – lust. The goal isn’t merely to have sexual desire satisfied, it’s to have it stirred up as much as possible first. Pornography isn’t about making sexual satisfaction more likely, it’s about making sexual desire more intense beforehand.

Sensuality is a focus on the body. When we are sensually driven, we tend to objectify other people, but we also objectify ourselves. We see ourselves – and seek to see ourselves – as physical machines that cannot help but follow their programming. We hide from our essential rationality and freedom to choose what to value, and pretend we have no choice at all. Think of how many times sensual lyrics or prose focus on how someone is helpless to resist their urges. Why? Because it somehow increases the sexual thrill to think of ourselves as controlled by our desires. We want to be controlled by lust, and it helps us feel the thrill more intensely if we imagine that we are.

Satan uses our desires to tempt us. Most of the time, having a desire is not itself a bad thing. We only sin because we seek to meet our own desires in our own way instead of taking them to God. We legitimately wish we could have something, so we steal it. We want praise, so we brag or otherwise seek our own glory. Initially, sexual sin is similar. Someone has a normal, natural sexual desire and it leads them to act it out inappropriately – they get a little too physical in a relationship with someone, or they look at pornography, or something.

When we begin to pursue sexual desire itself, as an idol, we move into a completely different kind of desire, one which is in and of itself unhealthy. It is not something we can look to God to satisfy, because the desire itself (the lust for lust) is unhealthy. Proverbs 30:15, 16 describes that kind of desire this way:

The leech has two daughters,

“Give,” “Give.”

There are three things that will not be satisfied,

Four that will not say, “Enough”:

Sheol, and the barren womb,

Earth that is never satisfied with water,

And fire that never says, “Enough.”

The point is that this kind of desire is by nature insatiable. It cannot be satisfied, even by God, because it is in its very nature to deny any permanent satisfaction. All it does is say “Give, give”. It is like the grave, in that its recurrence is as inevitable as death (no one will ever say, “Well, he lived, because the grave was full.”) It is like the barren womb, in that no matter what is given to it, it will never have what it needs. It is like the desert earth, which is unable to absorb the water that lands on it, and even if it did, is so immense that there would never be enough. Especially, it is like fire, which only burns hotter the more you feed it.

Feeding sensual desire will lessen it, temporarily. Images and fantasies that stirred it up become commonplace, and fail to fan it. But the desire for desire just continues to burn hotter, and more frustratingly. Eventually, something taboo becomes fuel for the fire. Its forbidden nature gives it a little more intensity, a kind of kick, which makes the thrill return. This explains why a true pornography addiction tends to escalate to harder and harder forms. What was taboo is commonplace after a while, and the addict needs something still more forbidden to keep stoking the fire.

The thing about sensuality is that, paradoxically, it’s a spiritual thing. The thrill of the lust gives us a sense of meaning, of transcendence. It makes all of life glow with intensity and purpose.  It becomes a substitute for real spirituality, for a real connection with God. It is no coincidence that so much idol worship in the Old Testament involved lots of sex.

The difference between the spirituality of the sensual and the spirituality that comes from God is twofold. First, the spirituality of the sensual makes everything seem transcendent when it is bathed in lust, but when the lust dissipates, everything seems meaningless. The more a sensual addict finds his meaning in lust, the less he can find any satisfaction in regular life. So as the thrills get weirder and weirder, ordinary living becomes bleaker and bleaker. True spirituality is completely different. When God breaks through our lives with the supernatural, it doesn’t leave the ordinary days emptier afterwards; it enriches them a little.

The other difference is the one I mentioned at the beginning: that sensuality reduces us to merely physical creatures. We come to identify ourselves with our physical desires. We cannot imagine anything else being real. But true spirituality awakens our sense of ourselves as spiritual people, for whom the body is only one factor of being alive. We become aware of our ability to reason, to value, to empathize, to dream, and especially to responsibly choose. We are transcendent, not through our physical lusts, but by finding that they are irrelevant to who we are most deeply.

Because there is no way for God to righteously satisfy the desire for sexual desire, though, those Christians who are trying to seek God for deliverance from sensual addiction will find themselves feeling as though life is gray and bleak and as though they themselves have nothing inside that can ever respond to anything but the physical. They may accept that there are serious consequences to a sensual life, but they will have trouble believing that there is any joy to be had in living a non-sensual one. They need to be encouraged that the spiritual joy that comes from walking with God will eventually become evident, and that when it does, it will feel as much a part of them as sensuality ever did, but in a way that enriches the rest of their lives instead of impoverishing it.

Anyway, how does the gospel relate to all this? The same way as it relates to abortion. It shows us that we are created in the image of God, that we transcend the physical realm, that we are anything but ordinary, and that our lives are tinged with the supernatural. When we come to Christ, we are called to more than enslavement to our physical desires, and have a higher purpose than sensuality and lust.

Jesus loves and accepts us, but the exciting thing is that he doesn’t see us as we think of ourselves. He sees us as we can truly be, in him. The gospel is a message of transformation. It’s an invitation to be born again, to be born of spirit, to become the kind of person who is far more than we ever dreamed. It’s an invitation to step into a new, transcendent identity as a child of God.

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1 Corinthians 1 and intellectual pride

OK, suppose I want to use my mind to serve God, but I am worried about becoming intellectually proud. Does God have any direction for me?

Absolutely. There are lots of Bible verses about pride in general, of course, and I love that, but there is also a specific Bible passage whose central theme is intellectual pride: 1 Corinthians 1-2.

I started to write something about this passage last week, but it sort of got away from me. Here it is, a week later, and I still haven’t really finished. What I would like to post for now, though, is lots of stuff about how to interpret it, with just a few closing comments on how to apply it.

Framing the passage

First, note the context. Paul wrote this letter to the church in Corinth. They had a ton of problems. They accepted immorality as normal for their members, turned their worship services into sideshows, and compromised the doctrine of the resurrection. They also had a real problem with spiritual pride, manifested in the form of major divisions in the church. Paul talked about that throughout the book but it is the focus of the first four chapters.

In 1:10, the instructive instructive part of the book  begins with these words:

Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree and that there be no divisions among you … (1 Cor 1:10)

Later in chapters 3 and 4 Paul reproves the Corinthians for this divisiveness. He starts by saying,

And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual men, but as to men of Christ, as to infants in Christ … for you are still fleshly. For since there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not fleshly and are you not walking like mere men? (1 Cor 3:1-3)

After offering himself and Apollos as examples of people working together in unity to serve Christ, he concludes this way:

Now these things, brethren, I have figuratively applied to myself and Apollos for your sakes, so that in us you may learn not to exceed what is written, so that no one of you will become arrogant in behalf of one against the other. (1 Cor 4:6)

In the middle of all this fall the verses from 1:17 to 2:16. There Paul narrows the topic of spiritual pride in general to intellectual pride specifically. He shows the conflict between the gospel and the arrogant wisdom of the world in 1:17-2:5. In 2:6-2:16 he contrasts that with the godly wisdom we’ve been granted in Christ, concluding that we have been given the supernatural capacity to understand spiritual things because we have “the mind of Christ”.

We will focus specifically on 1:17-2:5 and 2:14-16.

Interpreting the passage

For now, let me just make two obvious but fundamental observations about the meaning of this passage.

First, notice how anti-intellectual it seems at first glance. It sure looks like it is saying that the Christian gospel is not particularly rationally justifiable, but it doesn’t matter, and we shouldn’t try to justify it rationally anyway.

This can’t quite be right. Paul’s missionary practice, according to Acts, often involved reasoning with unbelievers to persuade them to believe. The words used to describe what he did are things like arguing, reasoning, persuading, and so on. So there must be more to it.

After a second glance, it seems likely that the real emphasis isn’t being rational but rather being proud. I think the guiding principle in interpreting the entire passage is to distinguish between seeking rationality in pride or in a way that panders to others’ pride, vs. seeking it humbly and in a way that encourages others to be humble.

At one point, I planned to walk through the verses phrase by phrase talking about the best way to interpret them, but I’ve decided that isn’t really necessary. Just go read them for yourself: (1 Corinthians 1:17-2:5, 1 Corinthians 2:14-16.)

Applying the passage

Far more interesting to me is how these verses apply to our own day. Here are the six points I see as most significant. I’ll expand on them soon.

  • Think hard, think well.
  • Don’t demand that things always make sense.
  • Don’t value intellectuals about non-intellectuals in Christianity.
  • Discern cultural strongholds of intellectual pride.
  • Understand what it means to have the mind of Christ.
  • Keep the gospel pure.
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Intellectual humility

When I was a kid in school, I was bright and caught on to ideas quickly. I got lots of A’s. One of the things that confused me was what being humble meant. Was it pride to notice that I was smarter (academically) than the kids around me? Was it more humble to pretend that wasn’t true?

I heard the story about the rich young ruler. He was unwilling to follow Christ because he would have to give up all that he had. I felt like that. I was afraid that I would be unwilling to get saved if I wasn’t willing to become a fool for Christ. How could I be humble enough to respond to God if I was aware that I was smarter than a lot of people around me?

In high school, I attended a Christian fellowship for a while that emphasized the importance of discarding “worldly wisdom” and just believing God instead. They were worried when people tried to analyze spiritual truths too much. I tried — I really tried — not to think about my faith so much. After about a year, I said to God, “God, I can’t stop thinking! No matter how much I try to just believe, my mind just keeps running. I want to be humble, and just have faith, but I can’t figure out how much it’s OK to think about everything.”

The thought that occurred to me then — as though God were speaking to me — was something like this: “Kevin, don’t you realize that I made you the way you are? That i know you like to think about everything, and that I designed you that way for a purpose? Go ahead and think all you want! Just remember to surrender your thinking to me.

These days, I approve of Christians thinking! At the same time, I think there is a danger to putting our reason ahead of God. I think intellectual pride is a very real danger for us as Christians. I think every Christian intellectual ought to be aware of the Biblical warnings for those who think well (or think they do!).

So what is the Biblical teaching about intellectual humility? I’d like to write a little about that in the next few weeks. At this point, here are the passages I want to consider:

  • 1 Corinthians 1,2  (“worldly wisdom” as a barrier to salvation)
  • 1 Corinthians 12 (intellectual humility toward other people)
  • James 3 (teaching doctrine, heresy-hunting, and intellectual humility)
  • Matthew 23 (the Pharisees and how intellectual pride can poison spirituality)
  • A word study on “humility”
  • Some scattered verses from Proverbs (intellectual integrity)

I think these passages are the core of the Biblical understanding of intellectual pride / humility.

If you are interested in this subject yourself, spend some time reading the passages above. Pray about what you already know and believe. Work out what you think intellectual humility means. Write me your encouragement, advice, or questions.

Are there other passages or topics do you think I need to consider?

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GIGO theory: Conclusion

(I’ve been critiquing what I call the “GIGO theory”.)

First, let’s review. 

Jesus said:

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. (Mark 7:17-18)

In other words, sin doesn’t just come from out there somewhere; it arises within our own hearts.

I said:

It is possible to use the GIGO doctrine to commit the same error … It is spiritually dangerous precisely to the extent that it is coupled with the false hope that we will be able to control all our sin by filtering out outside influences carefully enough.

So let’s get practical.

What difference does it really make whether we believe the GIGO model or the alternative that I’ve suggested?

We’ll start with one thing both views have in common.

1. Viewing pornography is wrong under both models.

The question is, why is it wrong?

Reason #1: modesty. The Old Testament treats being seen naked by anyone other than a spouse as a shameful thing, and warns people against shaming others by viewing them naked. Even though the people in pornographic pictures or movies are participating voluntarily, it probably still violates their modesty in some way.

Reason #2: Although external things cannot contaminate us with sin, they can certainly tempt us to sin. We should not expose ourselves to things that will draw us away from God.

Why will pornography tempt us to sin? Under the GIGO model, it’s because it is filled with images that will contaminate our minds. Under my view, it is because pornography stirs up lust that is already lying dormant within our hearts. That’s a small but important distinction.

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’; but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. Matthew 5:27-28

One consequence of this is …

2. We should avoid whatever makes us stumble.

How should we decide when it is OK to, say, watch a certain movie? There are two important questions we might ask. One is whether the movie meets some objective standard of being acceptably holy. A really important consequence of my view is that we should also ask whether it makes us stumble.

That is something that can vary from person to person. Sometimes there will be a movie or TV show that is relatively harmless for everyone else but bad for me. If so, then I should avoid it — not because I am afraid of garbage getting into my mind, but because there is something already wrong in me that the movie will stir up. It’s not a matter of figuring out which things are on some universal list of forbidden things; it’s a matter of knowing myself and my own weaknesses well enough to keep clear of anything that will draw me away from God.

If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. If your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to go into hell. Matthew 5:29-30.

Doing this will require honesty and humility.

Some teachers of the GIGO model would agree with this point. The next is where we begin to part company.

3. We should not judge others by the things they expose themselves to. 

If you were to use profane language or commit adultery or engage in occult practices, you would be sinning. But what if you simply watch a movie in which one of the characters uses profane language or commits adultery or engages in occult practices? Suppose that you are not any more tempted to do these things after watching than you were before. Can I conclude that it is sin for you to watch the movie? Is it spiritual compromise in some way?

On the GIGO model, the answer is yes. We ask: are these things holy, or unholy? Is it good or bad to swear? To commit adultery? To dabble in the occult? Clearly, unholy. They are spiritual garbage, and you shouldn’t let them into your mind. Engaging in witchcraft is wrong, and therefore so is watching a movie about someone else engaged in witchcraft.

Under the alternative approach, I ask: will this make you stumble or not? Will it hurt your relationship with God for some practical reason? And that’s a question I cannot answer for you. Perhaps watching that movie filled with swearing is spiritual compromise for you. Perhaps it is not. Perhaps reading that book about people who have affairs will tempt you to excuse sin in your own life. Perhaps it will not. It all depends on what it leads to in your own thoughts and actions.

In the meantime, if you claim that watching ___ doesn’t affect you, I should believe you until the evidence proves otherwise, because I don’t know your heart. (If the evidence does prove otherwise, I think I have a right to point that out to you.)

Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand. Romans 14:4.

4. We are not computers.

GIGO means “garbage in, garbage out” and refers originally to computers. If you feed a computer the wrong input, it will produce wrong output. It will do this because that’s what it is programmed to do. It will never stop halfway through the input and say, “Hold one a minute – this doesn’t make sense. I think there’s something wrong with my data here.” Its programming won’t allow it to.

Our natural impulses may be programmed into us, but we have the freedom to follow those impulses or not. For us it is not about right or wrong input, it’s about deception and faith and rebellion and surrender.

We should maintain a focus on the sin in us instead of the sin out there. This will keep us humbler. Equally importantly, it gives us hope and practical advice when we are harassed by images we wish we’d never seen …

5. When we are spiritually troubled by images or ideas we have been exposed to, we can fight back by looking inside.

The GIGO model implies that to overcome troubling images that I have already let into my mind I should try as hard as I can to not think about them.

My alternative suggestion leads to a very different strategy. As I see it, those images are troubling me because something in me is responding to them. Some part of me believes the lies they tell. What I need to do to fight back isn’t to forget them; it’s to search my heart to find out what I need to repent of. Why do I find myself agreeing with what I’ve seen? What truth do I need to surrender to?

Notice how neatly this response meshes with each of the passages with which we began the series.

Proverbs 23:7 For as he thinks within himself, so he is.

That is: if you are troubled by images and thoughts you don’t want to have, consider that it is what you are (meaning your present character, not your identity in Christ) that affects what you think. What is it about your present desires, values, and beliefs that is driving your thoughts? Only by changing your heart can you make long-term progress in changing how you think.

Romans 12:2 And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may approve what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.

That is: when the world presses you from the outside with all its pernicious influences, resist by changing who you are inside.  Note that it does not say to renew your thoughts (what you think about) but your mind (how you think).

 2 Corinthians 2:5 We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ …

That is: overcoming disturbing thoughts is not a matter of filtering out content but of dismantling fortresses. We have to do the hard work of dismantling false worldviews and off-kilter value systems brick by brick.

Philippians 4:8-9 Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.

That is: rather than trying to build a pristine environment which contains nothing offensive, we need to learn to hunt for something worth dwelling on in every situation. It’s not so important whether I encountered something sinful in that book I read. It’s very important whether I connected with it. It’s not what was in the book but how I responded to it that makes the most difference.

That officially concludes my GIGO series. Thanks for staying tuned in!


There is one thing I never addressed, and that is a collection of Scriptures that, in my opinion, provides the strongest possible support for the GIGO doctrine. The central passage in that collection is Psalm 101. I believe it is best interpreted as being about  peer pressure; i.e., about guarding ourselves against destructive relationships rather than against destructive statements or images. I may cover these passages soon, but not as part of this series.

Part 1    Part 2     Part 3     Part 4    Part 5    Part 6     Part 7    Part 8

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GIGO theory: Matthew 15:1-20 and Mark 7:1-23

(This is part of the GIGO series.)

OK, let’s take a careful look at Matthew 15:1-20 and Mark 7:1-23.

A map of the two passages

We’ll start by walking through the passages to see the basic structure.

I’m using the New American Standard Version, but I’ve added some paragraph breaks of my own to make the structure more visually obvious. If a word is in italics, it does not mean it should be emphasized. It means that rather than being a direct translation from an equivalent Greek word, it has been supplied by the translator in order to make the whole phrase more understandable.

Even though I usually I just quote fragments of the section I am talking about, I have left the references in so that you can roll over them to see the complete passages if you want.

1. Background knowledge

Mark begins by giving us some important background information.

“… some of his disciples were eating their bread with impure hands, that is, unwashed. (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they carefully wash their hands, thus observing the traditions of the elders …”

See Mark 7:1-4.

2. The Pharisees bring an accusation against Jesus’ disciples.

 “Why do Your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread.”

See Matthew 15:1-2 and Mark 7:5

 3. Jesus tells the Pharisees they are hypocrites.

Jesus makes two points. They are listed in one order in Matthew and in the opposite order in Mark.

For one thing, he accuses them of considering their traditions more important than the Law from which those very traditions were derived. He gives a specific example about honoring one’s father and mother, and concludes:

“And by this you invalidated the word of God for the sake of your tradition.”

See Matthew 15:3-7 and Mark 7:6-8.

In addition, he calls them hypocrites.

“You hypocrites, rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you: ‘This people honor me with their lips, but their heart is far away from me. But in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’”

See Matthew 15:8-9 and Mark 7:9-13.

In Mark, the whole passage is summarized again with these words:

 “Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men.”

See Mark 7:13.

Notice the significance of the contrast between the Law and the traditions of the elders.

4. Jesus tells the crowd a parable.

After talking to the Pharisees, Jesus tells the crowd a parable to help them understand what is going on. We’ll talk about the parable a lot later, but for now I just note that Jesus tells it.

 “Hear and understand. It is not what enters into the mouth that defiles the man, but what proceeds out of the mouth, this defiles the man.”

See Matthew 15:10-11 and Mark 7:14-16.

5. The Pharisees are offended.

Matthew (whose book focuses especially strongly on the bad relationship between Jesus and the Pharisees) adds one more saying of Jesus accusing the Pharisees of spiritual bankruptcy.

Then the disciples came and said to Him, “Do You know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this statement?”

But He answered and said … “Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind.”

See Matthew 15:12-14.

6. Jesus explains the parable.

Here is Mark’s version.

And He said to them, “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?”

(Thus He declared all foods clean.)

And He was saying, “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 7:17-23.  See also Matthew 15:15-20.)

The status of the Old Testament law

Jewish believers were required to follow the Old Testament law in every detail. Christians are not. Yet the law is part of the Christian Scriptures. So what is the exact relationship between Christians and the Old Testament law? The story recorded in Mark 7 and Matthew 15 is relevant to that question, which is almost certainly one of the reasons Matthew and Mark both chose to include the account in their gospels.

In the epistles, Paul emphasizes that through the death of Christ we have been set free from the Law. We are “not under law but under grace” (Romans 6:14). That’s a really important doctrine, and one I feel strongly about, but it isn’t the focus in this passage, so let me set it aside for now.

What does come into play in this passage, and what is often the focus in the gospels, is that during his earthly ministry, Jesus implied that He had the authority to be our new “Law-giver”. He claimed to have all the authority necessary to add to, interpret, or perhaps even modify the Law.

I say “perhaps” because one might argue that Jesus never modified the Law (Matthew 5:17-18). Yet He seems to claim the right to do so one some occasions, such as when he says “the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:28). Even in this passage, when Jesus explains the parable, Mark adds the parenthetical comment that: “Thus He [Jesus] declared all foods clean” (Mark 7:19b).

Nevertheless, even if Jesus did not modify the law, He certainly claimed the right to interpret it (compare Matthew 5:19ff; also 2 Corinthians 3:12-18). A lot of Jesus’ teaching was aimed at giving people a clearer understanding of what the Law really meant.

That is the primary issue Jesus addresses on this occasion. The Pharisees and scribes, in spite of their great learning, have completely misunderstood the point of the food laws. They did this not because they were intellectually sloppy but because they were morally blind.

The “tradition of the elders” refers to the fact that the Pharisees had added a massive number of additional rules and regulations that went far beyond the actual food laws recorded in the Pentateuch. Jesus accuses them of making these – their own traditions – more important than the very Scriptures on which those traditions were supposed to be based.

That’s part of what Jesus is doing in this passage. That’s his negative point.

The other part, though, his positive point, is the parable he addresses to the crowd. In that parable he is trying to help them reach a correct understanding of the food laws.

In other words, He is not simply saying, “This is the right interpretation because I say so.” He is saying,“Don’t you see that the Pharisees must be wrong in their interpretation? Don’t you see that the Scripture cannot be saying what they think it is saying?”

The Pharisees think that the disciples’ failure to ritually cleans their hands before eating makes them guilty of unholiness before God. Jesus says that is not true. He wants the crowd to realize why not.

The parable

As was typical of him, Jesus did not simply tell the crowds “This is what it all means: …”, but instead gave them a parable. That way they would be forced to figure out for themselves what his point was. The thing about Jesus’ parables is that most of them only make sense to people who are willing to humbly admit their own sin. Most of the parables only open up to those who open their hearts.

That is why Jesus says:

Hear and understand …

Listen to Me, all of you, and understand …

If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear …

And later to the disciples:

 Are you still lacking in understanding also? Do you not understand that … ?

Here is the parable itself:

It is not what enters into the mouth that defiles the man, but what proceeds out of the mouth, this defiles the man. (Matthew 15:10-11)

[T]here 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)

The point of the parable is that the root of sin is in our hearts, already there.

As he explains to the disciples:

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 7:17-23)


These are the things which defile the man; but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile the man.” (Matthew 15:20)

Think about the food laws for a moment. We know today that it makes sense to wash your hands before eating for health reasons. Eating with unwashed hands can contaminate your body with germs and make you sick. The Pharisees thought something similar was true, but they were not concerned about germs and hygiene. They were concerned about holiness. They assumed that, somehow, failing to cleanse oneself ritually before eating led to contamination with unholiness.  Presumably Jesus (and Matthew and Mark) would have approved of washing our hands to clean off the germs. What was problematic was the Pharisaical assumption that we need to wash our hands ritually to clean off the sin.

Jesus says, just think about it! Isn’t it clear that all your sin comes from inside you? To those who are not blinded by spiritual pride, it should be obvious that we are filled with unholy thoughts and desires. Just think about what sin is, and where it comes from, Jesus is saying, and you’ll see that the Pharisees’ take on these commandments makes no sense. Ritual uncleanness does not make us unholy before God. It cannot – because sin arises from the heart, not from the physical objects around us.


Does any of this apply to the GIGO teaching? Definitely not directly, but I believe it does indirectly.

The key is that we must avoid repeating the Pharisees’ error. Why did they think they could control sin by ritual cleansing? Because they thought of sin as something out there, something that could contaminate them when they came into contact it with it, and something that they could avoid by controlling their environment. Jesus says, how absurd! Of course sin is always a matter of our own choices, of the human heart, of the wrong desires that are within us.

It is possible to use the GIGO doctrine to commit the same error. If sin is a matter of being contaminated by things outside of us, it makes it so much easier to manage. We can control our spiritual lives by controlling our input. Everything is neatly measurable and quantifiable. Even our thought lives can be handled without requiring any real introspection, any soul-searching, any deep repentance. We just filter what comes into our minds from outside. It’s very tempting to go that route.

In my opinion the GIGO teaching is technically wrong, but I have no real beef with it as long as those who teach it stay away from the error of the Pharisees. It is spiritually dangerous precisely to the extent that it is coupled with the false hope that we will be able to control all our sin by filtering out outside influences carefully enough.

In the next and final installment I’ll talk about making all this practical.

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GIGO theory: Changing our thoughts from the inside out

The GIGO theory (described and critiqued in detail here) is the idea that one of the most important things we can do to grow in holiness is to guard our minds from being exposed to the wrong kinds of thoughts. What comes into our minds will eventually affect how we act and think.

I’ve spent several weeks arguing that the GIGO theory is only partly correct. I’ve looked at four different passages often used to support it and tried to show that they are being misinterpreted to some degree.

Even though the GIGO teaching misinterprets all those passages, I don’t think that it is all bad. It says we need to honor God in our thoughts, not just our actions. I agree. It says that what we think affects the choices we make. I agree. It says pornography is a bad thing. I agree. It says that what we think, do or say today affects what we will think, do and say tomorrow, and it offers a practical way to use that fact to grow in holiness. That’s a great idea, one which I fully support.

So where do I disagree? Mainly in this: the GIGO doctrine frequently leads people to focus in the wrong place in their battle against sin. It locates the enemy chiefly outside of us rather than in our own hearts.

The Bible talks about the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil, but all three sources of temptation are connected. The world and the devil only succeed in pulling us down because there is something in our own hearts that answers to them. I heard a story when I was growing up about some monk in the middle ages who went into seclusion in order to become more holy, and ended up writing “I went to a monastery to escape the world, and discovered the world was in me.”

It may seem funny that I would connect the GIGO doctrine with the idea of fighting external influences, when it is all about controlling our thoughts. What could be more internal than our thoughts? But the point is that the GIGO teaching encourages us to solve thought-life problems not by changing our thinking but by changing the input to our thinking. We need to change from the inside out: it offers us a way to work from the outside in instead.

So my concern is that people tend to use the GIGO doctrine to avoid having to confront and repent of the wrongness in their thinking. Instead of doing so, they just redouble their efforts to control all those evil media influences out there. Satan is happy to let us rail against Hollywood as long as it distracts us from dealing with our own self-deceit.

Jesus talked once about this tendency to try and control our sins from the outside. In his case he was responding to tendency to do so through the rituals of the Old Testament Law, specifically the food laws. You can find the story in Matthew 15:1-20 and Mark 7:1-23. In my next post I want to analyze Jesus’ words and see how the principle he illustrates in that passage is applicable to our view of thinking.

Jesus: “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


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GIGO theory: Philippians 4:8-9

The first post is in the series is here. The most recent post in the series is here.

The last passage used as a standard prooftext of the GIGO doctrine is Philippians 4:8-9.

Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things. The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

The typical interpretation of verse 8 is to use it as a filter to determine the acceptability of any thought that crosses our minds. If a thought is true, honorable, etc, then let it stay. If it isn’t, eliminate it. That is a worthy goal, but it isn’t the best and fullest interpretation of these verses.

First, note that the verse begins with “finally”. This is the conclusion of the entire instructional section of the letter – after this, Paul moves on to wrap up some personal details and then concludes the epistle. The sense is, “after everything I’ve written, let me sum it all up with one closing exhortation …”

Second, some lists in Scripture are primarily meant to distinguish several categories from each other; other lists in Scripture are used to make the same point again and again in different terms, strengthening its impact. The list here – whatever is true, whatever is honorable, etc – seems to be the second type. Paul isn’t giving us eight different standards here; he is giving us one standard restated eight different ways to strengthen the meaning.

Third, the point of the whole list is to look for what is good. The emphasis of the list is that anything that is good should count. “Whatever … whatever … whatever … whatever … whatever … whatever … if there is any … if anything…”   I believe this passage is not talking about using verse 8 as a filter, passively, for the thoughts that happen to occur to us. Rather, he is telling us pursue what verse 8 talks about: we are to actively search for things that meet the criteria. I think he is saying, “Look for anything that is worth imitating, and ponder it.”

Fourth, consider how verse 8 relates to verse 9. If verse 8 means to actively search for what is good, verse 9 is a very logical follow-up. He says, “Look for what is good around you. And don’t forget to think about my example too. Follow it as much as possible.”

So here is how I propose we look at it. Paul started the book by praying that they would grow in loving discernment, so that they might approve the things that are excellent (Philippians 1:9-10; compare Romans 12:2). Then he gave them four chapters of excellent instructions to follow. Finally, he encouraged them not to stop there. “Look for anything you can find that is good,” he said, “including my own example. Ponder those things, and imitate them. As you do so, God will be with you to guide and bless you.”

How does this blend with the GIGO model? Unlike the last two passages we considered, this passage really is directed toward individual thoughts, not whole systems of belief. As such, it supports that aspect of the GIGO teaching that says we need to keep our conscious thoughts focused on what is godly. It differs from the GIGO model, however, in that it is not about protecting our thoughts by keeping out what is bad so much as filling our mind with what is good. The danger Paul has in mind is not that we would let in something we shouldn’t, but that we would overlook something we should have spent time thinking about.

So much for the most common passages used to teach the GIGO theory. I’m still considering where to go next in the series, but there is a lot more to say. I want to look at a couple of verses that directly counter certain aspects of the GIGO model; I’d like to look at a couple of other passages that I believe provide stronger support for the model than the ones usually used to support it; and I’d like to get more specific about what I suggest as an alternative.

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GIGO theory: 2 Corinthians 10:5

(This is part 4. Part 1 is here. Part 3 is here.)

2 Corinthians 10:5 says, “we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ”. A lot of times this passage is taught as though it means, “I am guarding my thought life carefully, so that whenever a stray sinful thought passes through my mind I can eject it”.

It is true that Christ’s Lordship in our lives extends to everything about us, including not only what we do but everything we think. We are supposed to be obeying Christ with our thoughts and attitudes as much as with our actions. However, that’s not at all the point of this particular verse, which has been taken pretty seriously out of context. Here is the whole paragraph:

I ask that when I am present I need not be bold with the confidence with which I propose to be courageous against some, who regard us as if we walked according to the flesh. For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh, for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses. We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ, and we are ready to punish all disobedience, whenever your obedience is complete. (2 Corinthians 10:2-6.)

Paul is not talking about taking his own thoughts captive – he is talking about taking other people’s thoughts captive. He is warning the false teachers at Corinth that when he comes he will use the spiritual power and authority God gave him to tear down all their corrupt doctrines and punish those who have distorted the truth.

This is an exciting verse if you are doing Christian apologetics. There are lots of heretical theories out there, lots of speculative systems that are being used to discredit the gospel in people’s eyes. When Paul faced such systems, he described them as “fortresses … raised up against the knowledge of God”. He didn’t become angry or discouraged though. Instead, he confidently expected God to give him supernatural power to combat these enemy doctrines. “[T]he weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses.” Are you frustrated by the systematic belittling of the Christian faith that occurs in so many circles? This verse implies that you can be confident in God’s power to help you destroy “speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God.” It is in this sense that you can take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.

So what does this have to do with the GIGO doctrine? Very little directly, but there are some implications that may be useful. The key insight is that we ourselves have been affected by the fortresses of falsehood that Satan has erected. Each of us begins the Christian life badly confused about the truth of the gospel. Our minds are full of heresies of which we are only vaguely aware. These heretical ideas are not stray fragments of falsehood, they are complex, interrelated systems of thought (“fortresses … raised up”) that affect our actions far more than we know.

Therefore, we will sometimes need to take our own thoughts captive, to do to our own thinking just what Paul was going to do to the doctrines of the false teachers at Corinth. We need to ruthlessly weed out the lies we have been telling ourselves, and learn to believe the truth of the gospel instead.

How is this different from the standard GIGO teaching? The answers should be starting to sound familiar by now. First, the focus of this passage is not on disconnected images or random tempting thoughts; it is on systems of interconnected false beliefs. Second, the passage never implies that there is any danger from having false thoughts simply pass through our minds – they danger comes when we believe these thoughts, when we have incorporated them into a world view. On the other hand, when we do believe a fortress of falsehood, just keeping guard over our conscious thoughts won’t really help much. We need to dismantle the fortress; we need systematically to identify the lies in our own belief systems, repent of believing them, and begin to reorient our thinking to be more Biblical in those areas. Finally, the passage emphasizes that God wants us to rely on Him for all this. It isn’t just a matter of our practicing more self-control.

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GIGO theory: Romans 12:2

The introductory post is here. The previous post is here.

Next, consider Romans 12:1-2:

Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may approve what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.

In Proverbs 23:7, we noticed that who a man really is – his essential character – is revealed in how he thinks. In contrast with that, this verse says we can be “transformed by the renewing of [our] mind[s].” Does this mean that I can transform my heart and character by controlling my conscious thoughts closely?

There are four hints that this is not quite what Paul means, although it’s close. First, the prerequisite for verse 2 is verse 1, our surrender of ourselves to God. Paul assumes we have already settled the heart issue at a deep level. Second, Paul talks about the renewing of our minds, instead of the protection of our minds. That’s very interesting! Apparently the problem isn’t that things are getting in that shouldn’t, but that our thinking is following old patterns instead of the new ones God has for us. Third, Paul contrasts this with being “conformed” to the world. This suggests that the issue isn’t so much specific tempting thoughts or images as it is moral standards and value systems. Fourth, the explanatory phrase that follows says we need our mind renewed so that we will approve what the will of God is. Some translations use the word “prove” instead of “approve”. In either case, the meaning is that we will work out for ourselves in our own experience what the will of God is and that it is truly best for us.

One more hint as to Paul’s meaning comes from considering what “mind” and “thinking” refer to. On the one extreme, there is the world of our conscious thoughts. On the other, there is the conglomeration of everything that is in our minds, whether we are aware of it or not. This would include the presuppositions we hold, our value system, our buried fears and hopes, our unconscious prejudices, the perspectives from which we view the world, and much more. When we use words like “mind” or “thinking” our meanings can range from one extreme to the other or settle anywhere in between, depending on the context of what we are saying. An exploration of the word “mind” and related phrases in the New Testament suggest that the New Testament writers usually meant more than just our conscious thoughts when they used these terms.

Putting all this together, I would suggest that the best interpretation of the renewing of the mind mentioned in Romans 12:2 is this: a) first we settle the heart issue by surrendering our lives to God (verse 1), b) then we let God begin changing the ways we think – not just specific thoughts, but our moral standards and our assumptions about life and so on – so that we learn to value what he values, and c) as a result our character and lifestyle are gradually transformed into what is pleasing to Him.

So how does this affect the GIGO doctrine? It supports it in one sense. Under this interpretation, Romans 12:2 means that when we surrender any area to God, we should expect him to begin to challenge our old ways of thinking about that area. If we find ourselves thinking thoughts that we now recognize as false, we need to discipline ourselves to cast them away and believe the truth instead. However, there are some differences in emphasis from the typical GIGO approach. First, the point is not the specific thoughts, but rather the wrong standards and values that the world injects into our minds. Second, the question is not what enters our minds but how much of it we believe. Third, the danger is not primarily the thoughts that enter from the outside anyway, but rather the old, unrenewed patterns of thought still present in our own mental world. Fourth, the first and central catalyst for change in our lives is not our disciplined thoughts, but our yielded selves. Only after we have settled the heart issues can we find victory in mental battles.

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