Is the Christian's Heart Still Deceitful and Desperately Wicked?
THE MATTER OF THE HEART
The reality about which I’ll be writing is not something that I’ve always known and believed. 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 unbiblical and unhealthy. It was a view that was shaped, not by Scripture, but by popular preaching and thinking within the Christian world. It was one of those things that I heard so much from the pulpit that I believed it without ever questioning it.
The matter to which I’m referring is the matter of the heart. It’s common to hear well-meaning Christians sigh and say things like, “Oh, our hearts are so deceitful and wicked.” They'll quote Jeremiah 17:9 and say that it describes our experience as Christians. We’ve read it in Christian books, and we've heard it in Christian preaching, Christian music, and in Christian conversation. It’s everywhere.
So here's the question: Do true Christians still have deceitful and desperately wicked hearts? I include the word true to distinguish between true and false Christians, even as the apostle Paul mentioned the "false brothers" who sought to destroy the church's freedom in Christ (Gal. 2:4). In answering this question, we need to look beyond Christian experience and the bumper sticker theology of today 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 do the Scriptures say regarding the hearts of true Christians?”
To answer this, I’ll be drawing primarily from the New Testament, not because the Old Testament is irrelevant or unhelpful, but because the reality of the new covenant, regeneration, conversion, sanctification, and Christian experience is dealt with 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 all those occurrences there isn’t a single mention of the Christian’s heart being wicked. The only passage 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 we say both then we can join the multitudes of religious people in our churches today who believe that there is no essential difference between Christians and unbelievers except for the fact that Christians are forgiven. Before coming to such a conclusion, we ought to listen carefully to what Christ says in Luke 6:43-45, where 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."
Jesus 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). Clearly, it’s the evil person’s heart from which “evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, [and] slander” flow, not the hearts of those who are new creatures in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17).
“But what about Romans 3:12?” a thoughtful objector might ask. “Doesn’t Paul teach there that no one does good, not even one?” On the surface, it appears to be a fair objection. But again, lets consider what Paul is doing in this section of Romans 3. He’s concluding his powerful argument that “all, both Jews (Rom. 2:1-29) and Greeks (Rom. 1:18-32) are under sin” (Rom. 3:9), which is a way of saying that all human beings, whether religious or irreligious, are sinners who are under the righteous wrath of God (Rom. 1:18). In Romans 1:18-3:20, Paul is describing the natural man apart from the “newness of life” that comes to a person by way of his or her union with Christ (Rom. 6:4).
GOOD PEOPLE WITH GOOD TREASURE PRODUCING GOODNESS
Scripture teaches that there are indeed “good” people who have “good treasure” in their hearts. However, Scripture is clear: this goodness isn’t inherent to or produced by the natural man. It’s a God-wrought goodness that comes through our union with Christ. “[Barnabas] was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith” (Acts 11:24). Toward the end of his letter to the Romans, Paul could say with confidence, “I myself am satisfied about you, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness…” (Rom. 15:14). Even as a healthy fruit tree bears fruit, the Holy Spirit produces goodness within the Christian’s life: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness...” (Gal. 5:22). Learning from his Master (Lk. 6:45), the apostle John wrote, “Whoever does good is from God; whoever does evil has not seen God” (3 Jn. 11).
In the end, the testimony of Scripture reveals 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, produce goodness. This goodness resides exclusively in the hearts of those who’ve been saved by God’s grace, from God’s wrath, and for God’s glory. To say that no goodness whatsoever can reside in or flow from the Christian is contrary to the teaching of Scripture.
THE HEART OF THE CHRISTIAN
Having seen that it's the heart of the evil, unregenerate person from which "evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, [and] slander" flow, what does the Bible say about the heart of the Christian?
1. Their hearts are pure.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” (Matt. 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 Tim. 2:22)
“…love one another earnestly from a pure heart...” (1 Pet. 1:22)
Note: the “pure heart” of which Peter speaks is the result of the new birth. He ties the ability to love one another from a pure heart with the new birth in the very next verse: "...from a pure heart, since you have been born again..." (1 Pet. 1:23). The new birth includes a new, pure heart.
2. Their hearts are full of good treasure.
“The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good...” (Lk. 6:45)
3. Their hearts have been cleansed and sprinkled clean.
“…and [God] made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith.” (Acts 15:9)
“…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.” (Heb. 10:22)
4. God’s love has been poured into their hearts.
“…God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” (Rom. 5:5)
5. Obedience to the gospel flows from their hearts.
“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..." (Rom. 6:17)
6. God’s Spirit resides within their hearts.
“...[God] has also put his seal on us and given us His Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee.” (2 Cor. 1:22)
“...God has sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Gal. 4:6)
7. The light of God’s saving knowledge has shone in their hearts.
“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 Cor. 4:6)
8. Christ dwells in their hearts.
“…that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith...” (Eph. 3:17)
9. Through prayer, the peace of God guards their hearts.
“And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 4:7)
10. God’s laws have been written on their hearts.
“I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts...” (Heb. 8:10)
11. Their hearts are continually strengthened by the grace of God.
“Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings, for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace...” (Heb. 13:9)
“I WILL GIVE YOU A NEW HEART”
It’s worth noting that the Old Testament is by no means silent regarding the hearts of God’s new covenant people. In Ezekiel 36:26-27, God lays out the glorious reality of regeneration and precisely what would take place when His stone-hearted, stiff-necked people are reborn and made alive by His grace: “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.”
In light of such clear statements and promises, should it not concern us that many who claim to be under the new covenant still believe that their hearts are “desperately wicked”? What does such a belief say about the regenerating power of Ezekiel’s God? If we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works (Eph. 2:10), what does this type of mindset say about our God who does “all things well” (Mk. 7:37)? What is it saying about the work of Christ that made it possible for God’s elect to receive new hearts? Is it not insulting to the God who promises new hearts to His people to maintain a view that is entirely contrary to this?
The promise in Ezekiel 36:26-27 is very clear: the new heart will replace the old one. It’s not going to live side-by-side the old one or simply have more influence than it. No, the old, stony heart will be removed and the new one will take its place. Even more gloriously, God promises in Jeremiah 32:40 that these new hearts will be filled with the fear of Him, making it impossible for His people to ever turn away from Him again. Talk about the surpassing glory of the new covenant compared to the old!
WHEREIN LIES THE PROBLEM?
So if the Christian's heart is no longer evil or wicked, then where does the problem of remaining sin lie? The New Testament teaches that “the flesh” is that aspect within the Christian that remains weak, wicked, and deceitful. The flesh stubbornly resists and opposes the desires of the indwelling Spirit of God (Gal. 5:16-24). Taking the New Testament’s teaching on the flesh, J. I. Packer helpfully 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 attribute weakness, wickedness, wretchedness, and evil to something within us, we're to attribute it to the flesh, and not to the new hearts that we've received from God. We must not call impure and wicked what God has declared to be pure and good, and we dare not call a den of sin what God has called the dwelling place of Christ (Eph. 3:17).
MISUNDERSTANDING AND MISAPPLYING JEREMIAH 17:9
It also means that we should never take Jeremiah 17:9 and apply it to the spotless Bride of Christ. It’s not a humble or lowly thing for a Christian to walk around claiming that his or her heart is still deceitful and desperately wicked. In Scripture, the heart isn’t merely the muscle that pumps blood through the human body. It represents the core of who and what a person is: “As in water face reflects face, so the heart of man reflects the man” (Pro. 27:19). So to claim that the Christian’s heart is still deceitful and desperately wicked is to claim that the Christian, though forgiven and saved, is still deceitful and desperately wicked at the very core of his or her being. This is diametrically opposed to the Word of God. The Son of God bore the awful weight of our sin, exposed Himself to the fury of God’s holy wrath, and poured out His soul to death in order to establish the new covenant in which God promised to replace our stubborn, calloused hearts with new ones that would forever fear His awesome majesty.
As a young Christian, I can remember sitting under a pastor (for whom I am deeply grateful) who regularly quoted Jeremiah 17:9 and applied it to Christians. Several years after leaving his church I came across his radio program and heard him say something that I can remember him telling the congregation on a regular basis. He encouraged Christians to get alone before God to ask Him to reveal their hearts to them, and said that as that happened, 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, "Then what's the difference between the children of God and the children of the devil? What ‘surpassing glory’ is there in the new covenant if our hearts are still wicked, evil, hard, and stubborn? What good is the promise of a 'new heart' if God isn’t able to fulfill such a promise?"
Can you imagine the God who delivered up His precious Son in order to purify 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? Can you imagine the God who inaugurated the new covenant by slaughtering His spotless Lamb in our place, looking beyond that cleansing flow of blood and the greater glory of the new covenant, and revealing nothing but wickedness and evil in the hearts of His children?
If you’re a Christian, I invite you to see yourself in light of what the Son of God accomplished for you on Calvary, in light of what the Spirit of God has wrought in you through regeneration, and in light of the new and everlasting covenant into which the Father has brought you. You have a new heart. It's clean. It’s pure. That healthy sense of the fear of God comes from that new heart (Jer. 32:40). Best of all, the Spirit of God’s Son resides there (Gal. 4:6).
A PLOY OF THE ENEMY
One of Satan’s signature strategies has always been to twist and teach the opposite of what God has said. For example, in response to God telling our first parents, “You shall surely die,” Satan says to them, “You will not surely die” (Gen. 3:4). It’s no wonder then why he would labor to get Christians to believe that there’s no real difference between the nature of the believer and the nature of the unbeliever, when God says there’s a massive difference. As expected from the father of lies, he strives to convince God’s people that they still have evil, unbelieving hearts, even though God has declared them to be new. Do you see what lies at the heart of this strategy? The goal of this strategy is two-fold: he attacks the truth of God’s Word and the truth of the Christian’s identity. In the end, God appears to be a liar and the church appears to be just like the world. He can gradually numb the Christian’s conscience if he can get the Christian to believe that whenever he sins he’s simply behaving according to his nature. Dogs bark, cats purr, fish swim, birds fly, and Christians live in sin. When believers claim to still have deceitful and desperately wicked hearts, sin becomes a normal thing. After all, isn’t it normal for deceit and wickedness to flow out of a deceitful and wicked heart?
If Satan can convince Christians that they’re still wicked, sinful, and corrupt at heart, at the very core and center of their beings, he can...
- Depreciate the cross and the blood that made it possible for them to receive new hearts.
- Devalue the power of God to save believers from the controlling power of sin.
- Desensitize them to the heinousness and seriousness of sin (sin becomes normal).
- Demotivate them from pursuing the holiness without which no one will see the Lord (Heb. 12:14).
- Deter them from approaching the throne of grace with boldness and confidence.
- Demobilize them in the work of the Great Commission.
THE WAY FORWARD
In conclusion, am I saying Christians are sinless? Not at all. Am I saying Christians don’t struggle? By no means. What I’m saying is that the wickedness and corruption that remains within the Christian is in the flesh. These impure waters don't flow from the pure, God-given fountain of the believer's heart.
The new heart to the believer is what a good engine is to a car. Like this engine, the Christian’s heart has been equipped with everything good to live and labor for the glory of God. The problem in the Christian’s life is found in the fleshly passions that wage war against the soul (1 Pet. 2:11). The flesh to the Christian is more like what a defective steering system is to a car with a brand new engine. The car has all the power it needs to go from point A to point B, but the driver has to stay alert and pay careful attention to the car’s tendency to swerve into oncoming traffic because of its faulty steering system. Similarly, the Christian, at the very core of his being, has a heart that fears God and hates evil, but the flesh, like the defective steering system in car, has a natural and often powerful inclination to swerve off the narrow path and end up in a ditch.
This is precisely why Christians are commanded to “put to death the deeds of the body” (Rom. 8:13), “make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires (Rom. 13:14), “walk by the Spirit” (Gal. 5:16), “sow to the Spirit” (Gal. 6:8), “abstain from the passions of the flesh” (1 Pet. 2:11), and arm themselves with the mindset of Jesus Christ (1 Pet. 4:1-2).
A PRAYER FOR THE CHURCH
Father in heaven, may the bride of Christ collectively come to realize who she is in Your eyes and in the eyes of her Bridegroom. Through the illumination of Your Word, may she stop calling wicked and sinful what He, by the blood of His cross, has obtained and pronounced as new, pure, spotless, and clean.
Thank You for the new covenant and its accompanying promises: new hearts, new spirits, and the indwelling of Your Spirit. Thank You for replacing our old calloused hearts with tender hearts that are sensitive to sin and capable of being warmed and stirred by Your Word and work.
We acknowledge that we still sin and stumble in many ways, and we hate it. By Your Spirit, help us to be violent with our flesh, putting it to death that we might live and glorify Your name. For Jesus’ sake, Amen.
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