It was just one of those little conversations that one gets into dozens of times a day, but the impact has stayed with me. I was talking to a gentleman who told me of a conversation he had had recently with the widow of a well-known Christian leader. She hasn't even been to church since the funeral," he said. "She told me she had never really needed God. She had her husband instead. That's the trouble with too many churchgoers. They are so busy keeping their feet clean that they do not realize they have never really had a bath."

The Scripture passage to which my friend was alluding was John 13:10. Jesus was saying that once he had cleansed a person's soul, only a periodic foot washing was necessary to keep that person "clean." One Bible scholar describes the underlying imagery as that of a man returning from the public baths, having undergone a thorough cleansing. On his way home, his sandaled feet would have become dirty, so that they alone needed the additional washing. That passage is one of my favorites. I have even used it in a sermon to encourage those who have been washed by the blood of Jesus to live in such a way that their souls are cleansed daily from the dirt of this world. Now that conversation challenged me to think again about foot washing.

Physically dirty feet can be so obvious, especially in a culture where people do not wear socks. But even in today's shoe-and-sock society, clean feet are IN. I am so grateful for that! It really is common courtesy to keep one's feet clean. No one likes smelly feet. Our world is really so much better off when we all cooperate in areas of hygiene, proper manners, etc., in order not to offend one another with literal or figurative "dirty feet."

Having lived in the evangelical world most of my life, I know all too well the figurative "foot washing" we go through in order to be acceptable to one another. But here is the problem: It is entirely possible for us to spend all our time washing our feet, and even the feet of others, while the most important matter, our need for a good total scrubbing, is overlooked. There are some people who have never been washed by the blood of Jesus, yet they have done foot washing as a service to God. Perhaps they have been so involved in that service that they never knew enough to get saved.

It is ironic that the widow's deceased husband had preached the gospel regularly and had given invitations for people to make a commitment to Christ and be cleansed by his blood. Yet evidently, that lady had not taken her husband's preaching seriously enough to make a stronger commitment to Jesus than to her marriage partner. One might say that she was so caught up with her husband in doing good that she never did what was right. She was so busy washing the feet of others—and hers in the process—that she never had a total bath herself. She had never really felt her need for the Lord because her husband had taken that place in her life.

Some church people are so busy doing the good things that they do not realize they are not part of the family yet, even though they are doing all those good things. Then when crisis comes, they are flabbergasted and they "fall apart." They stop reading the Bible, they stop attending church and they stop being involved in Christian activity. What kind of faith did they have in the first place? Perhaps they had a tremendous feeling of acceptance in the Christian community. They may even have been regarded as "godly" or "sincere" in their faith—people who seemed to exemplify the Christian graces in their lives. But their faith was not in their Lord, it was in themselves.

I think that the writer to the Hebrew Christians in the New Testament was dealing with this very problem. He was writing to a group of people who knew what it was to live in a community with strong cultural and religious expectations. They had been born Jewish, had lived as Jews and fully expected to die as Jews. They knew what was expected of them—or at least they thought they knew. Some even prided themselves on the way they kept the law. They had the "cleanest feet" in town. But then the Messiah came and shook their complacency.

He was a Jew like them, but he also was different. He had not come to minister to the people with "clean feet." He had come to give people baths—total immersion that affected their entire being.

Thus the writer to the Hebrews wrote, "But exhort one another daily, while it is called today, lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin. For we are made partakers of Christ, if we hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast unto the end." (Hebrews 3:13, 14)

Holding firmly to the end is real faith. A faith that falters when it is tried in the furnace of life is not true faith in God. It is anything but that. If you are on the verge of giving up your faith because you have heard that a well-known evangelist has fallen into immorality, or that your company has just gone bankrupt—if your reliance on God crumbles when a marriage partner dies or you have been out of work for six months—you have the wrong kind of faith. You may have kept your feet clean for years, but you have been deceiving yourself into thinking that you had no need for a real bath. Then it's time to take stock. Have you really been born again? Are you cleansed by the blood of Christ? Is Jesus Lord and Master of your life, or are your trust and allegiance in someone or something else?

The footwashing you have been doing—was it for the Lord, for an organization, or because your mate was involved? Footwashing must begin with washing the feet of Jesus, as Mary Magdalene did. Mary washed the Savior's feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. When a woman is willing to use her hair to wash someone's feet, she is saying, "My best and my proudest for your lowest." Once we bring ourselves to a point where we wash the Savior's feet with our hair, in other words, give our all, our best, then we become concerned about other people and we begin to serve. But we are not serving the people whose feet we are washing. Rather we are serving the Savior who told us we should be washing one another's feet. That's the difference between humanitarianism and Christian grace. As committed believers, we're not giving ourselves to others; we're giving ourselves in the Lord to others.

Still using the metaphor of feet, you can know your faith is genuine, not because you wash your feet or someone else's feet, but because your feet are walking with the Lord. Your toes, not your heels, are pointed in his direction. You follow him. You go where he is going and where you think he wants you to be. You have a sense of his presence as you walk with him. It comes from within and is not imposed from without. Assurance of salvation comes about by the walk, not the works.

That lady who fell away when her husband died was guilty of presumption. She had presumed that there was nothing more to experience than she had experienced. Most people who have body odor or smelly feet presume that they do not smell and that they are acceptable and presentable. Either that, or they presume that others do not have noses.

Many in the Christian world are members of The Royal Order of Clean Feet. They are great people—fun to be with. They give to missions. They attend conferences and bring casseroles and cookies to church socials. They feel at home in church, but they are deceived by their own sense of self-righteousness. Dirty feet would be obvious; a dirty heart is not. Their feet are spotless, but God says their souls are still dirty. They have never been born again.

Were you once attracted to the Messiah, and as your interest grew you were also attracted to other believers? Did you somehow like how they kept their feet clean, and you started to do the same? Perhaps years passed, and then came a crisis. You couldn't cope. Why? Because your heart did not really belong to the Messiah. When you give your heart to him, he washes it clean and comes into it permanently. You are no longer alone; he is with you. He gives you strength to go through the crisis. After all, it's what is on the inside that counts; no other arrangement is workable.

Did you ever do the right things for the wrong reasons? There are stories of missionary doctors who went to the mission field not really believing in God, just having a nominal faith. And while they were there, they discovered God and knew why they were on the mission field. There are accounts of ministers who were converted after they had been preachers for many years.

I was at a conference on evangelism recently where one of the pastors who attended gave such a story. He had come to that conference to learn how to make his church grow, and hearing the gospel during that three-day conference he was saved. He shared that experience with us, and it was dramatic. At last he put first things first.

I am not against clean feet, but let's put first things first! How about it? Go ahead and wash feet. That's within your reach. But first let Jesus wash your heart. That's a step we all need and none of us can manage.

Editor's Note: Warwick Cooper is a Baptist minister and the president of the Canadian Board of Directors of Jews for Jesus.