Do True Believers Have Wicked Hearts?
THE MATTER OF THE HEART
The reality about which I’ll be writing is not something that I’ve always known and believed. It’s with great sadness and grief that, for the first few years of my Christian life, my view of my own heart as one redeemed by Christ and regenerated by the Holy Spirit was erroneous, unhealthy, and worst of all, unbiblical. It was a view that was shaped and forged, not by Scripture, but by contemporary preaching and thinking within the Christian world. It was one of those things that I heard so much from the pulpit that I ended up believing it, without even questioning it.
The matter to which I’m referring is the matter of the heart. How often have you heard well-meaning Christians say, “Oh how our hearts are so wicked”? Often times, they'll quote Jeremiah 17:9 and claim that it describes our experience as Christians. Sadly, it's often quoted in response to a great fall as somewhat of an explanation as to why they sinned. "My heart is so deceitful and desperately wicked," they'll groan. We’ve read it in Christian books, and we've heard it in preaching, Christian music, and in Christian conversation. So I ask,
Do true Christians have wicked hearts?
I included the word true to make the distinction between true and false Christians, just as Paul considered it necessary to mention the "false brothers" who sought to destroy the freedom that Christians have in Christ (Galatians 2:4). In seeking to answer this question, we need to look beyond “Christian experience” and the bumper sticker theology that many cling to today. We must look to the final authority on all matters of faith and practice: the Holy Scriptures. The question that ultimately matters at the end of the day is,
What does the Bible say about the hearts of true Christians?
I’ll be drawing primarily from the New Testament, not because the Old Testament is irrelevant or unhelpful in this study, but because the reality of the new covenant, regeneration, conversion, sanctification, and Christian experience is spoken about more in the New Testament. Are you ready?
"THE HEART" IN THE NEW TESTAMENT
The word heart appears 178 times in the English Standard Version of the New Testament, and out of those 178 times there is not a single mention of the true Christian’s heart being wicked…not a single one. The only thing that might be questionable is in Matthew 15:19, where Jesus says,
For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.
Is our Lord referring to the heart of an unbeliever or the heart of a believer? If one says, “Both,” then we can join the multitudes of religious people in our churches today who believe that there is no difference between the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the sheep and the goats, the wheat and the weeds, the children of God and the children of the devil. We can join the multitudes who believe that the only difference between Christians and unbelievers is the fact that Christians are forgiven.
Before coming to such a conclusion, we ought to listen carefully to what our Lord says in Luke 6:43-45, because He makes it very clear who He’s referring to in Matthew 15:19:
For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thornbushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.
In that passage, our Lord teaches that the good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good:
Good Person + Good Treasure Within = Good
He also teaches that the evil person out of his evil within produces evil:
Evil Person + Evil Treasure Within = Evil
It’s the evil person’s heart from which “evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, [and] slander” flow. In Matthew 15:19, Jesus is referring to the natural, evil, wicked, unbelieving person who is still in his or her sins. He's not referring to one of His own.
At this point, because of modern preaching and thinking, some may rise up and object, "But there are no good people who have good treasure within." If this is you, perhaps you're thinking about Romans 3:12, where Paul wrote, "No one does good, not even one," not realizing that what Paul was doing in Romans 3 was proving that all - both Jews and Gentiles - are by nature under sin and under the just condemnation of God. Paul was describing fallen man apart from the sovereign, saving, sanctifying grace of God. It isn't until chapter 6 that Paul begins to describe Christians as those who have "died to sin" and now "walk in newness of life" (Romans 6:2, 4).
GOOD PEOPLE WITH GOOD TREASURE
Despite popular belief, the Bible teaches that there are indeed “good” people who have “good treasure” in their hearts. Of course, Scripture makes it clear that this isn’t an inherent goodness that comes from them, but a God-wrought goodness that flows from them as the result of being saved by His grace. Luke testifies to this reality:
[Barnabas] was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. (Acts 11:24)
When the apostle Paul concluded his letter to the Romans, he could say with confidence,
I myself am satisfied about you, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another. (Romans 15:14)
The Holy Spirit within the Christian produces goodness:
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness... (Galatians 5:22)
Compare the words of Christ in Luke 6:45 (“The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good”) with what the apostle John wrote:
Whoever does good is from God; whoever does evil has not seen God. (3 John 11)
So it's clear from the Word of God that
1) There are good people, 2) who are full of goodness, 3) who have good treasure in their hearts, 4) and as a result, do and produce good.
This Biblical evidence is more than enough to shatter the popular belief of well-meaning Christians who say that no goodness whatsoever can reside in or flow from Christians.
THE HEARTS OF TRUE BELIEVERS
Having seen that it's the heart of the evil, unregenerate man that is full of "evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, [and] slander," what does the New Testament teach about the Christian’s heart? What does God say about the hearts of His children?
1. THEY ARE PURE IN HEART
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. (Matthew 5:8)
So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart. (2 Timothy 2:22)
…love one another earnestly from a pure heart... (1 Peter 1:22)
Note: This pure heart is the result of regeneration. Peter connects the reality of having a pure heart with the new birth in the very next verse: "...since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God..."
2. THEY HAVE HEARTS FULL OF GOOD TREASURE
The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good. (Luke 6:45)
3. THEY HAVE RIVERS OF LIVING WATER FLOWING FROM THEIR HEARTS
Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.' Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive... (John 7:38-39)
4. THEY HAVE HEARTS THAT HAVE BEEN CLEANSED
...and [God] made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. (Acts 15:9)
5. THEY HAVE HEARTS INTO WHICH THE SPIRIT HAS POURED THE LOVE OF GOD
…God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:5)
6. THEY HAVE BECOME OBEDIENT FROM THE HEART
But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed. (Romans 6:17)
7. THEY HAVE HEARTS IN WHICH GOD'S SPIRIT HAS COME TO DWELL
[God] has also put his seal on us and given us His Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee. (2 Corinthians 1:22)
8. THEY HAVE HEARTS INTO WHICH GOD HAS SHONE HIS LIGHT OF SAVING KNOWLEDGE
For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (2 Corinthians 4:6)
9. THEY HAVE HEARTS IN WHICH THE SPIRIT OF CHRIST DWELLS
And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ (Galatians 4:6)
10. THEY HAVE HEARTS INDWELT BY THE LIVING CHRIST
…that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith... (Ephesians 3:17)
11. THEY HAVE HEARTS GUARDED BY THE PEACE OF GOD
And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:7)
12. THEY HAVE HEARTS UPON WHICH GOD HAS WRITTEN HIS LAWS
I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts...(Hebrews 8:10)
13. THEY HAVE HEARTS THAT HAVE BEEN SPRINKLED CLEAN
…let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. (Hebrews 10:22)
14. THEY HAVE HEARTS THAT ARE CONTINUALLY STRENGTHENED BY GRACE
Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings, for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace. (Hebrews 13:9)
This is how the Christian's heart is referred to in the New Testament.
"I WILL GIVE YOU A NEW HEART"
Lastly, I want to point out what God, in Ezekiel 36, promised His people. He describes the glorious reality of regeneration and precisely what takes place when a dead sinner is born again and made alive in God. Listen to His words:
And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (Ezekiel 36:26–27)
Do you see the foolishness of going around grumbling, “My heart is so wicked”? What are you saying about the almighty, regenerating power of Ezekiel's God? What are you saying about the God who does all things well? What are you saying about the work of Christ, which made it possible for you to receive a new heart? Not only is this mindset erroneous, but it’s insulting to the God who gives new hearts to His people. In this passage, God makes it clear that the Christian doesn’t have both an old and a new heart, but only a new heart. The old heart of stone has been removed, and all that remains is the new heart. The old heart has passed away; behold, the new heart has come.
WHEREIN LIES THE PROBLEM?
If the Christian's heart is not wicked, then wherein lies the problem? The New Testament describes the flesh as that aspect of believers that remains wicked, deceitful, and corrupt. Never are these words used to describe the hearts of believers. The flesh is that aspect in us that resists and violently opposes the desires of the indwelling Spirit of God (see Galatians 5:16-24). J. I. Packer rightly defines the flesh in the lives of believers as
their fallen, Adamic instinct which, though dethroned, [is] not yet destroyed, [but is] constantly distracting them from doing God’s will and alluring them along paths that lead to death. (Concise Theology)
What does all of this mean? It means that if we, as Christians, are going to ascribe wickedness, deceitfulness, wretchedness, evil, or sinfulness to something in us, we're to ascribe it to the flesh, and not to the new heart that we've received from God. We must not call "impure" and "wicked" what God has called "pure" and "good." We dare not call "a fountain of iniquity" what God has called "an outflow of living water." It's a grave error to call "a den of sin" what the Lord has called "the dwelling place of Christ."
MISUNDERSTANDING AND MISAPPLYING JEREMIAH 17:9
Do we really have the audacity to take Jeremiah 17:9 and apply it to the spotless Bride of Christ? It’s not a humble or lowly thing as a Christian to walk around claiming that your heart is deceitfully wicked, sinful, and corrupt. In light of what God has said in His Word, to make such a claim is bold and foolish. Christian, the Son of God bore the awful weight of your sin and guilt, exposed Himself to the fury of God’s holy wrath, and poured out His soul to death in order to give you a new heart, which is a foretaste of the new heavens and the new earth.
As a young Christian, I remember sitting under a faithful pastor (for whom I am deeply grateful) who repeatedly quoted Jeremiah 17:9 and applied it to Christians. Recently, as I was listening to one of the local Christian radio stations, I came across his radio program where I heard him say something that I can remember him telling the congregation on a regular basis. He encouraged Christians to get alone before God in order to ask Him to show them their hearts. He said that as God revealed their hearts, they would see so much wickedness that they would be forced to tell Him, "Enough! Please stop! I’ve seen enough Lord!" As I heard this, I thought, "Dear God, then what's the difference between the godly and the ungodly? What 'greater glory' is there in the New Covenant if our hearts are still wicked and evil? What good is the promise of a 'new heart' if You can't fulfill such a promise?"
Can you imagine the God who delivered up His precious Son in order to purify for Himself a people for His own possession, looking at those same people and throwing their sins in their face as He reveals nothing but wickedness and corruption in their hearts, the hearts that He gave them? Can you imagine the God who inaugurated and ushered in the New Covenant by slaughtering His Beloved Lamb in our place, looking beyond that redeeming blood and the greater glory of the New Covenant through which we were given new hearts, and showing us nothing but wickedness and evil in those hearts? O may God help us if we bow to and embrace such a theology! It’s my prayer – if you’re a Christian – that you would see yourself in light of what the Son of God accomplished for you on the accursed tree, in light of what the Spirit of God has wrought in you through regeneration, and in light of the glory of the New and Everlasting Covenant into which the Father has brought you. You have a new heart. It's clean, pure, and good. The Triune God resides there.
Again, I speak not as one who has always known and believed these things. Had it not been for the kind, correcting hand of God, I would still be “humbly boasting” about my “wicked heart.” It’s as though with one hand, God shut my mouth, and with the other hand opened my eyes and pointed me to His Word to see the fruit of Christ's death, the nature of the Spirit's regenerating power, and the greater glory of the New Covenant into which the Father has graciously ushered me. This wasn’t some high, holy, extravagant discovery of mine, but a painful, much needed rebuke from a kind, loving, merciful Father who wants every redeemed child of His to see themselves as He sees them. He showed me my folly and ignorance so that I can now confess with Job,
I have uttered what I did not understand. (Job 42:3)
Do you see our great enemy’s motive in getting Christians to believe that their hearts are still wicked, sinful, and corrupt? If a professing Christian believes that wickedness still remains at the very core of his or her being (the heart), then they don’t feel so bad when they sin, since they’re just behaving according to their nature and living out what’s in their heart. They become numb to sin and end up becoming hardened by the deceitfulness of sin! They slip into sin and ease their conscience by saying, “Oh well, we’re all human! No one’s perfect! After all, my heart is deceitful and desperately wicked as Jeremiah 17:9 says! My pastor tells us this all the time!” The truth is, if a person continues in sin and in such a mindset - without repentance - it will be evident that they never knew Christ and were never born of God to begin with. They may have repeated a "sinner's prayer," walked down an aisle, or raised a hand, but they were never truly regenerated. They never received a new heart and were never made alive in Christ. They began what they thought was the Christian life, but beyond the surface of their supposed "Christianity" laid an old, stony, dead, deceitful, and wicked heart that would eventually show it's true colors by casting off the outer garments of Christianity and plunging itself again into the fleeting pleasures of sin! On the other hand, if a true believer adopted such a twisted view of his or her heart to the degree that they eased their conscience every time they sinned so that sin became a small thing to them, we can mark it down: love will chasten them (Hebrews 12:6).
If Satan can get a Christian to believe that they’re still wicked, sinful, and corrupt at heart, at the very core and center of their being, he can…
1. Depreciate the cross in their minds and the precious blood of the Lamb that made it possible for their hearts to be cleansed, purified, and made new.
2. Devalue the power of God (in their estimation) to save believers from the power of sin.
3. Desensitize them to the heinousness, horror, deceitfulness, and seriousness and sin.
4. Demotivate them from striving after the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.
5. Deter them from approaching the throne of grace with confidence and boldness.
6. Demobilize them from going and fulfilling the great commission and charge of their Master to proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.
In conclusion, am I saying Christians are sinless? No, not at all. Am I saying there’s no struggle? By no means. What I’m saying is that the wicked, sinful, and corrupt aspect that remains in Christians is the flesh, and not the new heart that they've received from God in regeneration. True believers do not have wicked, sinful, and corrupt hearts. Any wickedness, deceitfulness, sinfulness, or corruption that can be found in believers lies in the flesh. This is why the flesh must be starved, subdued, weakened, and put to death on a daily basis. The apostle Paul tells us that
those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires (Galatians 5:24).
He also said,
For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live (Romans 8:13).
I would plead with all of you who profess to be Christians to examine yourselves - examine your hearts - in light of the Scriptures to determine whether or not you’ve been born from above. Don’t define “normal Christian experience” by your own experience, or by what many pastors may spout from the pulpit in an attempt to normalize sin. God has clearly defined what a Christian is and what a Christian looks like in His unchanging, eternal Word. If you find yourself convicted and condemned when you read the Word, but you continue to blow off and ignore that conviction by telling yourself, “I know I’m a Christian,” you’re deceiving yourself and you're living a lie. If you believe that your heart - the very core of your being - is wicked and corrupt, and your life overflows with wickedness and corruption, it’s because you are wicked and corrupt, you’re still a child of the devil and on you're way to hell (1 John 3:8-10). Unless you repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ you will perish in your sin. The good news of the gospel is that Jesus Christ is able and willing to save even the vilest sinners and give them new and pure hearts that are fit for the glory and enjoyment of heaven. Come to Him.
Father in heaven, may the Bride of Christ come to realize who she is in Your eyes and in the eyes of her Blessed Bridegroom. May she stop calling 'wicked' and 'sinful' what He, by the blood of His cross, has obtained and joyfully pronounced as 'new, pure, spotless, and clean.' Thank You for the blood of the New Covenant, for giving us new hearts and new spirits, and for the indwelling of Your Holy Spirit. Thank You for removing our old, dead, deceitful, and calloused heart which was numb and dead to You, and for giving us a tender heart of flesh that is sensitive to sin and able to be warmed and stirred by You. We know that we sin, and it grieves us exceedingly. Teach us to recognize wherein our remaining wickedness, sinfulness, and corruption lies - in the flesh. By Your Spirit, cause us to be violent with it, putting it to death that we might live to Your glory.