Why Foot Washing Is Not A Sacrament

Heidelblog reader Randy writes to ask why footwashing (pedilavium) is not regarded as a sacrament. The answer is twofold: 1) from the nature of the sacraments; 2) from the nature and intent of the act of footwashing in the life of our Lord.

In the ancient world foot washing was an act of hospitality. When the “three men” appeared to Abraham at Mamre (Gen 18:4) he invited them in and called for water to be brought and for their feet to be washed. Of course, we learn through the the narrative that the three men were rather more than that. N. J. Opperwall, in his entry s.v., “foot washing” in the revised ISBE (1979) suggests that when John the Baptist said that he was unworthy to unloose the sandals of the coming Messiah, he was referring to the act of foot washing, which was typically left to servants as menial work. Thus, when our Lord girded himself with a towel and washed feet of the disciples:

Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come forth from God and was going back to God got up from supper, and *laid aside His garments; and taking a towel, He girded Himself. Then He poured water into the basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded. So He came to Simon Peter. He *said to Him, “Lord, do You wash my feet?” Jesus answered and said to him, “What I do you do not realize now, but you will understand hereafter.” Peter said to Him, “Never shall You wash my feet!” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me.” Simon Peter said to Him, “Lord, then wash not only my feet, but also my hands and my head.” Jesus said to him, “He who has bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean; and you are clean, but not all of you.” For He knew the one who was betraying Him; for this reason He said, “Not all of you are clean.” So when He had washed their feet, and taken His garments and reclined at the table again, He said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call Me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a slave is not greater than his master, nor is one who is sent greater than the one who sent him” (John 13:3–16; NASB).

Obviously, since Jesus’ actions are in conjunction with the Passover, just before his death, and in connection with the institution of the Supper, the impulse to make foot washing into a sacrament has been strong in the history of the church. By the late Patristic period (5th century) it was a ritual in places (e.g., North Africa and elsewhere). In the modern Roman communion it is a ritual associated with Maundy Thursday, just before Good Friday. Among non-Romanists, the Pietist Moravian Brethren have practiced foot washing as have the Anabaptist Mennonites as have the Seventh Day Adventist sect (vide Opperwall).

In John’s narrative John intends Jesus’ act to foreshadow his coming death. We know this because of his rebuke of Peter (v. 8), who sees what is about to happen. He understands right away that Jesus proposes to wash his dirty feet. In the ordinary scheme of things, this is backwards. Jesus is their leader, their rabbi, their master. It is not for him to wash feet but for his followers to wash his feet but Jesus says, “if I do not wash you, you have no part in me.”

Obviously, Jesus also did this to set an example for the church. If God the Son incarnate is willing to gird himself with a towel and to perform the most menial, even humiliating act of hospitality, to wash the dirty, stinky feet of his sandal-shod disciples—go about in the desert in San Diego or Israel and see how quickly filthy your feet become—then how much more ought we be willing to subordinate ourselves to our brothers and sisters for whom Christ died? Scripture says, “If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you” (vv. 14–15).

If Jesus did this deliberately to set an example for the church, then why has not the church adopted this practice as a sacrament? The first part of the answer is that the question assumes that sacraments are practices created by the church and not instituted the by the Lord. It is understandable why one might think this since through the course of the Middle Ages the church did create five false sacraments and seek to impose them on believers despite the fact that they were not instituted by the Lord himself, which Roman scholars admit. They hold that the church has the authority to institute sacraments not instituted by our Lord. Such authority, however, was never given to the church by our Lord himself. Further, the earliest church recognized this and only observed two sacraments. The five false sacraments were not officially recognized as sacraments until the late 13th century. Thus, the church herself did not seek officially to add to the dominical sacraments for more than a millennium. Even then, foot washing was not among them.

The Heidelberg Catechism (1563), one of the confessional standards of the Reformed churches, explains what the sacraments are:

66. What are the sacraments?

A. The sacraments are holy visible signs and seals, appointed of God for this end, that by the use thereof, he may the more fully declare and seal to us the promise of the gospel, viz., that he grants us freely the remission of sin, and life eternal, for the sake of that one sacrifice of Christ, accomplished on the cross.

Not every symbolic act by our Lord is a sacrament. After all, Jesus picked grain on the Old Testament (Jewish) Sabbath, to make a point (or more) about the Sabbath. The church does not have a sacrament of grain picking on the Sabbath. He rode into Jerusalem on a donkey to make a point. He did many things to make a point but none of them are sacraments but two: baptism and the Lord’s Supper. These two rituals he intentionally imposed on the church as abiding practices in order to signify his death, to serve as a sign of initiation into the visible covenant community (baptism) and to serve as sign and seal of nourishment in the covenant community (Lord’s Supper—these two categories, by the way, come from the Reformed theologian Petrus van Mastristrich).

In the institution of the Supper our Lord commanded us to perform the ritual of drinking the cup and eating the bread—he did not command us to dip the bread into the wine (intinction):

And when He had taken some bread and given thanks, He broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” And in the same way He took the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood (Luke 22:19–20; NASB).

He also commanded the visible church to baptize (Matthew 28:19): “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”

So, though his ritual foot washing of the disciples may share some of the characteristics of a sacrament (it is a ritual that points to Christ’s death), it does not share all of them. It was not instituted as a perpetual ritual. It was not imposed on the church by the Lord nor is it mentioned as a sacramental practice by the apostles. As Opperwall mentions, the only time foot washing is mentioned after John is in 1 Timothy 5:10 and there it is an indicator that a widow has been hospitable. To the degree it was practiced in the apostolic period it was a private matter of hospitality and kindness and not as a public, sacramental, ecclesiastical ritual.

Without the authority of our Lord and his disciples we dare not impose a practice upon the church and upon Christ’s people. That would be binding their consciences, which leads us to another vitally important pair of principles: sola Scriptura and the “rule of worship.” That Rome and three other groups practice ritual foot washing is interesting but the sole, final authority for Christian faith and practice is God’s Word. This is what it means to confess sola Scriptura (according to Scripture alone). This protects the freedom of the Christian. It prevents the church from creating and imposing all manner of practices and “good ideas” upon the Christian conscience.

The “rule of worship,” which is intimately connected to the “rule of faith,” i.e., that handed down to us by the Apostles in holy Scripture, says that we may do in public worship only what the Lord himself has commanded. In the modern period this rule has come to be known as the “regulative principle of worship” but the RPW and the Rule of Worship are one and the same. In Belgic Confession (1561) art. 7 we confess:

We believe that those Holy Scriptures fully contain the will of God, and whatsoever man ought to believe unto salvation is sufficiently taught therein. For since the whole manner of worship which God requires of us is written in them at large, it is unlawful for any one, though an apostle, to teach otherwise than we are now taught in the Holy Scriptures….

This is our answer to those who have a “good idea” about a practice we ought to adopt in worship: Has Christ instituted it? If not, then we may not do it. The Lutherans and Anglicans/Episcopalians have an alternative principle. They confess that they may do in worship whatever is not forbidden. Thus, the Anglicans espeically have added many practices over the years without regard to whether Christ has imposed them on the church as part of the rule.

What should we do with foot washing? The first thing to do is to recognize that we do not live in 1st century Judea. Most of us have baths and showers in our homes. We do not walk everywhere and most of us wear shoes. Second, the way Christians show hospitality in their homes is a matter of Christian liberty. if you wish to wash your guests’ feet when they visit, by all means do it but we ought not to seek to impose our personal preferences upon the visible church.

The church as an institution should seek to be as welcoming as possible. As much as lies within us, as much as we may do without diminishing the discomfort inherent in the Christian message, we ought to make people feel welcome in public worship. We ought to have the same mind (as Paul says in Philippians 2) as Christ. Just as he did not consider equality with God something to be “grasped,” and poured himself out as a servant, so too we ought to do the same for one another, for those for whom Christ died. In that way we honor the significance of Jesus’ act of washing the disciples’ feet.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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  1. I’ve often wondered whether there was another more symbolic meaning behind Jesus’ washing of his disciples feet than just an example of humbling one’s self in servitude toward one another. When Peter is rebuked by Jesus for not wanting to accept the foot washing offer of servitude, he exclaims, “Lord, then wash not only my feet, but also my hands and my head.” Jesus tells him that this is unnecessary because, “…He who has bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean; and you are clean…”

    Is this not a subtle way of Jesus using the foot washing as an admonition to the disciples to forgive each other for their sins. And is Jesus saying that “your whole body is clean because you have bathed” not an indirect reference to their baptisms. That is, they have had their sins forgiven by a Holy God as promised in baptism, a symbolic cleansing and washing of the soul. Whereas, they will “walk” through life sinning, an unpreventable consequence of their broken and corrupted nature. So, the washing of the feet symbolizes the forgiveness of each other for their feet dirtying walk (sinning) after Jesus has departed. Thoughts?

  2. An interesting observation comes from Petrus Dathenus in the Pearl of Christian comfort. “Having been washed by Jesus, we still need a daily washing of our feet.” I understand this to mean that our feet are daily washed by Jesus as we continually need Him to wash away our sin as we live a life of repentance, mindful that we are still sinners in our daily walk, who understand that in this life we will always be sinners needing His cleansing of our conscience, and that He is always there to wash our feet even after we have been justified and our whole person had been made clean before God.

    • Amen. Knowing our condition, sinners needing to repent and seek forgiveness, and the amazing blessing of His power and will to forgive and remove sin assures me that He abides in me and I abide in Him. I treasure the work of His Spirit to make us holy as He is Holy.

  3. I was not familiar with any of Petrus Dathenus’s writings, but it seems like he got it exactly right! Thanks for the reference.

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