(Jn. 13:8) Does the washing of the disciples’ feet refer to justification?

CLAIM: Jesus tells Peter, “If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me” (Jn. 13:8). Some commentators hold that this refers to Christ washing away our sins in justification. Is this the case?

RESPONSE: We respectfully disagree with commentators such as Carson,[1] Morris,[2] Tenney,[3] and Kruse.[4] While we are sympathetic to this interpretation, we hold that Jesus is not explaining justification here for several reasons:

First, Jesus affirmed that Peter was already saved. In verse 10, he says, “You are clean, but not all of you.” Of course, Jesus was referring to Judas not being saved in this passage. This means that Peter was already justified before Jesus washed his feet.

Secondly, Jesus (presumably) washed Judas’ feet. However, if Jesus washed Judas’ feet, this would imply that he was a believer, which he wasn’t (Jn. 6:70; 17:12; Mt. 26:24).

Third, Jesus tells us that we should wash one another’s feet. If Jesus was speaking about justification when he washed the disciples feet, then in what way should we do this for one another (v.14)? This must refer to the cleansing that comes from serving and being served by others. Peter was too proud to wash and be washed. He was too proud to serve and be served. See Watchman Nee’s excellent chapter, “Mutual Refreshing” in Love Not the World.

Jesus’ action speaks of the way that God takes on the position of a servant, rather than claiming his rightful position as Lord and God (v.13; c.f. Mk. 10:45; Phil. 2:5-8). When he tells Peter “If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me,” we take this to mean that Peter needs to be washed and humbled before he can serve others. In the same way, as his followers, we are supposed to love one another with similar humility (vv.34-35).

[1] Carson writes, “That is always true: unless the Lamb of God has taken away a person’s sin, has washed that person, he or she can have no part with him.” Carson, D.A. The Gospel According to John. Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press, 1991. 464.

[2] Morris, L. (1995). The Gospel according to John (p. 548). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

[3] Tenney, M. C. (1981). John. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: John and Acts (Vol. 9, p. 136). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[4] Kruse, C. G. (2003). John: an introduction and commentary (Vol. 4, p. 277). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.