“All things are pure to the one who is pure, but to the one who is defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure. Indeed, even their mind and conscience is defiled.”
Scripture is rich and filled with deep, bounteous theology; it also contains many short, crisp, and concise statements that shape our conversations and thoughts. Yet, statements, especially pithy ones like we find in this verse, are often taken out of context and are misconstrued to communicate that which they were never meant to communicate. So, what does Paul mean when he says that all things are pure to those who are pure?
In context, we find Paul making an accusation in the previous verse against those who would teach Jewish myths and commands of men, for those who teach such lead people away from the Truth. And, a major part of Jewish law and practice is that of ritual purity. You must not touch this or eat that and if you have been defiled by coming into contact with an “unclean” person or thing, one had to go through ritual washings to become pure once again.
Yet, when Jesus addresses this matter with the Pharisees, he insists that it is not the things that are outside of the body that defile, but that which comes from the heart (Mark 7:18-23). God conveys the same idea when he speaks through the prophet Isaiah and tells the people though they draw near with their lips, they are far from him in their heart (Isaiah 29:13). Thus, God demands that they no longer bring vain sacrifices (Isaiah 1:13), but instead demands that the making oneself clean comes from ceasing to do that which is evil in his sight (Isaiah 1:16-17). Thus, food and drink and contact with gentiles cannot defile a person…only the state of his heart can do so.
Thus, the Christian, purified and declared righteous in the eyes of God is the person that Paul is speaking of when he speaks of “the one who is pure.” In turn, all things are pure to the Christian…not in the sense that we can do anything that we want, but in the sense that these things in the world around us cannot make us impure as the Judaizers were teaching. Similarly, when it comes to those who are unbelievers — who are impure because their heart is still defiled by sin — no amount of ritual can make them pure because they are defiled and unbelieving — “the righteous will live by faith.”
Too many people have read this to suggest that all things are permissible for the Christian — even Biblically immoral activity. Such an interpretation ignores the context not only of Titus, but of the Bible as a whole. In fact, it is precisely because the pure are born-again believers of God that they reject the immoral things of this world and flee to the things of God. In the end, it is the assumption that one can become impure by contacting external things and that one becomes pure through external rituals that Paul is writing against. And thus, we ought not read this verse as permission to reject God’s moral law; we ought to read this as an admonition to reject the myths and commands of men that come through the Judaizers (and any other group that would impose a legalistic set of rituals.