Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet is a well-known account. I remember hearing this John 13:1-20 narrative as a child in Ghana. The story was always explained as an act of humility meant to encourage Christian service.
While this idea is certainly there—for our LORD Himself states: “I have given you an example that you also should do just as I have done to you” (John 13:15)—my hope today is to focus, not so much on the deed but, on doctrine. We will mine John 13 for a clear understanding of our justification and progressive sanctification.
And where are these lofty ideas in a simple foot-washing passage? Let’s get closer and see! First the context: John 13 takes place on the night of the Lord’s betrayal. He gathered with his disciples in an upper room to observe the Feast of the Passover (John 13:1).
The group had traveled that day through the always dusty streets of Jerusalem and with nothing but sandals to cover their feet, the men reclined to supper with dirty feet. During the meal—and perhaps inspired by their Luke 22:24-30 discussion on which of them would be the greatest—Jesus leaves his dinner, lays aside his outer garments, takes a towel and a basin and begins to wash the feet of his disciples (John 13:3-5).
Jesus is met with protest in approaching Simon Peter. He insists on sparing the Lord—and perhaps himself—the embarrassment of such a low act. Here, we find the following exchange: “Jesus answered him ‘If I do not wash you, you have no share with me Simon Peter.’ Simon said to him, ‘Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!’ Jesus said to him, ‘The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean’” (John 13:8-11). And here, we take up our miner’s hat and dig!
No one is justified before God on the basis of his/her own righteousness. Simply put, we have no merit able to purify us before God. The Bible states that on our very best day, our most righteous act is but a filthy rag (Isaiah 64:6). As such, ‘If [Christ does] not wash you, you have no share with [Him] (John 13:8).
Namely, the “work” of our justification is Christ’s alone. On the cross, the believer’s sin is reckoned to Christ and is atoned for by His death on their behalf (Romans 3:25). Moreover, those in Christ are accounted as righteous on the basis of His imputed righteousness (Romans 4:6-8; 2 Corinthians 5:21). As stated: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).
And once saved always saved. Our Lord states in John 10:28: “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” Essentially, the crediting of your sins to Christ, His death on your behalf, the transfer of His righteousness to you, your justification before God—all this is secured once and then for all eternity.
In other words, atonement of sin is settled for those whose trust is in Christ alone. So then God doesn't love you less when you sin today and more when you obey tomorrow. Instead He loves you because you are His—an adopted son/daughter, made clean through His Son and sealed and preserved by His Spirit (2 Corinthians 1:21-22; Ephesians 1:13-14).
But what of your persistent sins? Here, we find that Christ still washes the feet of His disciples. What do I mean? “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean” (John 13:10). Those justified in Christ are Simul Justus et Peccator—at the same time just (or righteous) and sinner. We are positioned in Christ and are seen by God through His imputed righteousness yet inherently we sin. We are clean saints with dirty feet. But just as our justification is achieved by God alone, so is our sanctification enabled by Him alone.
He enables the Christian to grow in practical righteousness as He empowers him/her to work out the fruit of their justification (Philippians 2:12-13). This is in essence, the constant “washing of our feet.” And while the Lord uses various means in this work, His Word remains the primary cleansing agent (John 17:17).
He will certainly accomplish His work in us, even our final sanctification (1 John 3:2-3)! In the meantime, He approaches, towel and basin in hand to wash our feet. Do not meet Him with offence or pretense. Let the Word expose the dirt and wash you anew today.