Is the Christian heart good? I've been taught for years through sermons, Sunday School lessons and various other biblical studies that our hearts, even as believers, are "deceitful" and not trustworthy. We are cautioned against relying on our hearts to make sound judgements; that sin still resides there and won’t hesitate to trip us up. Yet, God's word promises us a new heart. (Ezekiel 36:26-27) Salvation brings the Holy Spirit into our very being, or our heart, to live. Is one of these views in error? If not, how can they be reconciled?
A Scripture verse often cited in support of the view that all men's, non-believers and believers, hearts are corrupt is Jeremiah 17:9, "The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?" Taken at face value, this word is direct and clearly states the case. However, as with all of God's Word, context is critical to accurate exegesis. The time, place, and writer must be considered if the passage of Scripture would be understood and correctly applied. Here, Jeremiah has just finished writing the words of God describing the idolatry of Judah and His judgement upon His people. God's final word following that judgement, though, is a hopeful promise: "But blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in him." (Jer. 17:7) Then Jeremiah, in response, expresses what he has observed in the human heart in verse 9, asking who can understand. To which the Lord replies in verse 10: "I the Lord search the heart and examine the mind...." So while the human heart is obscure and a mystery to Jeremiah (and often to us), it is not so to God. In fact, He sees in and through each man's heart perfectly and is surprised by nothing. (I Sam. 16:7) In the Jeremiah passages and others, God has indeed acknowledged the wretchedness of the human heart. The critical question, therefore is: Has the Lord done anything about it? According to John Eldredge in Wild at Heart, He has: "Too many Christians today are living back in the old covenant. They've had Jeremiah 17:9 drilled into them and they walk around believing my heart is deceitfully wicked. Not anymore it's not." (p. 134)
In Jeremiah 30, after dealing with numerous false prophets, foretelling of Babylonian exile and the raising up of the Redeemer, God reveals with extraordinary detail His plan to restore Israel and Judah. In verse 12 He states: "Your wound is incurable, your injury beyond healing. There is...no remedy for your sore...." (emphasis mine) Because of the blatant and egregious sins of the people over so many years and despite myriad warnings, our hearts are judged hopeless. God seems to pretty much agree with Jeremiah's perspective. Jeremiah has been immersed in this struggle, relaying many calls to repent to his people from the Lord, only to witness increased depravity. His bewildered words in Jer. 17:9 are perfectly understandable. But is that the end? God tells Jeremiah in verse 17 of chapter 30: "But I will restore you [Judah] to health and heal your wounds...." Wait a minute--didn't God just say our wounds were "incurable?" Verse 22 says, "So you will be my people, and I will be your God." And then in 31:33, "'This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time,' declares the Lord. 'I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts.'" So God does have a plan to rescue us! And "what is impossible" (or incurable) "with men is possible with God." (Luke 18:27) Another description of the promise is found in Ezekiel 36:25-27, where God says, "...I will cleanse you from all your impurities...I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you...." (emphasis mine) That's amazing--the promise to be cleansed completely of sin and given a brand new heart and God's own Spirit!
But here is a bit of a dilemma. If God makes these promises to His people, and those who trust in Jesus Christ are His people, then all Christians must be clean, have new hearts and have His Spirit in them. So how can our hearts remain deceitful and untrustworthy?
Since I'd heard the "deceitful heart" view so consistently in my experience I began to consider why. It seems obvious that anyone's preference would be to have a new heart rather than keeping the old, corrupted, diseased one around after becoming a Christian. In fact, that's part of the excitement, the joy of knowing Jesus Christ! And then an illustration from the world struck me: the honeymoon axiom. You know, everything's great during the honeymoon rush of excitement, but then, after a while, harsh "reality" sets in and you have to settle down and get serious. And I wondered, is that what has happened to us in the Church? Could it be that we see salvation as the honeymoon and life afterward as the harsh reality? I suspect many of us do.
Consider a new believer who has struggled with a particular chronic sin. The gift of freedom, of a new life lived for Jesus is like finding his home after years of searching and doubting it existed at all. Pure joy pours forth from his heart and he understands, "This must be my new heart!" Set free and worshiping God with new brothers and sisters, he knows he is right with the Lord. Then, a few months later, that old familiar sin resurfaces via temptation. At first he resists but eventually gives in and stumbles. Regret overwhelms him and, forgetting that Jesus has removed it forever, he pulls on the familiar blanket of shame. Immersed in confusion and shock, he wonders, "How can this be? How can I have done this again? Isn't my sin gone? Isn't my heart new? Am I even really saved?" The undeniable reality of his sin and persistent temptation gradually lead him to conclude that, in fact, his heart must be deceitful still. A few more bruising encounters with his past combined with interpreting messages from the pulpit to say even the believer's heart is not pure, and he resigns himself to a half-faith; he loves the Lord, but doesn't believe his heart has truly been changed and sets his hope for freedom on Heaven. Can you think of anyone like this in your church? Could it be you?
Let me be bold here and simply say, this can not be God's plan for rescuing our hearts of stone! When the Lord says He gives us a new heart, that means the old heart is gone! The Holy Spirit can not live inside a sinful, corrupt, deceitful heart any more than God can tolerate sin; it is against His nature. God promised a new engine for the car, not a new paint job! Could this be an application of Jesus' teaching in Matthew 9:16-17?
The only explanation I can see for this paradoxical situation we find ourselves in is that we have allowed our experiences, our "failures," the survival of our sinful actions to reinterpret God's word, reshaping it to provide a taped-together picture of walking with Christ. I John 1:8 assures us, "If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us." This is not a denial of the new heart. Believing God's promise that we have a new heart now does not mean we have no sin! Of course believers are still free to choose the wrong path, and there will be consequences when we do. But, as Eldredge points out, our new hearts are not to blame for the deception--the enemy is, via the flesh. (Wild at Heart, p. 155)
We have allowed Satan to accomplish his greatest deception of all: persuading the sons of God that they are slaves still; consequently, we are, but to fear. (Romans 8:15-17) By reminding us of the remnant of our sin nature, he flouts Jesus finished work and denies or at least hollows our redemption. Lack of understanding of God's Word opens us to the fear that he may be right. This is what paralyzes many in the Body. Fear of exposure as a fraud, of our "deceitful" hearts, of letting God down and yes, even of condemnation, despite God's rejection of that in Romans 8:1. Flawed thinking even causes some to believe their new hearts will someday come with their glorified bodies, but that is not supported by Scripture. God's Word makes it clear that eternal life begins right now, at the moment of salvation. In fact, our new hearts and the Holy Spirit are given so that they might flow outward to others. Consider Jesus words in John 4:14, "...whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life." (emphasis mine)
Oh, what corrosive effect must this deception of the evil one have on the witness of the believer! Many may still evangelize, but they do so without His power. How could anyone speak to an unbeliever about being set free with a new heart, while believing their own is still corrupt? I don't feel I'm exaggerating when I conclude this misunderstanding of God's Word is single-handedly crippling the true fulfillment of the Great Commission.
Just imagine how powerfully the Gospel would go out among the world if believers embraced their new hearts! Picture the Body of Christ shining from within, their pure hearts attracting those God has called; their sharing of the Truth peppered with revealing their own pasts without shame. This can only occur if it is understood that "your flesh is not you." (Wild at Heart, p.144) This true evangelism is the picture of the redeemed image of God holding out His solution to the death contaminating this earth. Wouldn't most anyone who was clearly offered promises like those that God made in Jeremiah and Ezekiel jump at the chance? Freedom from fear, a brand new clean heart, God's own Holy Spirit living inside, and having your Creator as your true Father for all eternity? The attraction of sin just wouldn't stand a chance.