It was about this time I conceiv’d the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection.
—Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography (1791)
Just as a judge is guided by a book of law, so the conscience is guided by an inner law which has been written on the soul by God.
—Pelagius, “Letter to Demetrias” (413)
It’s easy to do the right thing, isn’t it? At least Benjamin Franklin thought so. In his Autobiography he described the moral zeal that characterized his youthful thinking:
I wish’d to live without committing any fault at any time; I would conquer all that either natural inclination, custom, or company might lead me into. As I knew, or thought I knew what was right and wrong, I did not see why I might not always do the one and avoid the other. But I soon found I had undertaken a task of more difficulty than I had imagined. . . . Habit took advantage of inattention; inclination was sometimes too strong for reason.
Franklin went on to develop a whole system to track and encourage his moral development. In the end, he satisfied himself on some points and failed miserably on others. Doing the right thing was much harder than it seemed. But Franklin could never admit why that was so.
Charles Finney (1792-1875) was the most popular evangelist of the early 1800s. He drew large crowds and ran up an impressive tally of professed converts. His preaching was informal and emotional. It was light on theology, but heavy on conviction.
Finney’s preaching style grew out of his theology. Finney rejected the doctrines of original sin and total depravity. He couldn’t believe that man was dead in trespasses and sins. For Finney, moral depravity amounted to nothing more than a series of bad choices.
“Moral depravity, as I use the term, does not consist in, nor imply a sinful nature, in the sense that the human soul is sinful in itself. It is not a constitutional sinfulness” (Systematic Theology, 245).
In order to be saved, then, the sinner needed to choose Christ; that is, he needed to respond to merciful example set by Christ in His death and choose complete obedience. For Finney also rejected the doctrines of justification by faith and substitutionary atonement. Salvation wasn’t forgiveness on the basis of the Christ’s death for sinners. Salvation was a right relationship with God based on one’s own moral behavior. For God, Finney argued, could never receive a sinner who was still sinning. To be saved, a man must stop sinning. He must choose “entire holiness.” In other words, he must stop doing the wrong thing and do the right thing. For this change to occur, no supernatural regeneration was necessary or possible. Salvation—indeed, all of the Christian religion—was the self-originating work of autonomous man.
There is nothing in religion beyond the ordinary powers of nature. It consists entirely in the right exercise of the powers of nature. It is just that, and nothing else. When mankind become religious, they are not enabled to put forth exertions which they were unable before to put forth. They only exert powers which they had before, in a different way, and use them for the glory of God. (Lectures on Revivals of Religion, Lecture 1).
Regeneration, then, is a human thing, the result of a human choice.
Sinners are under the necessity of first changing their hearts, or their choice of an end, before they can put forth any volitions to secure any other than a selfish end. And this is plainly the everywhere assumed philosophy of the Bible. That uniformly represents the unregenerate as totally depraved, and calls upon them to repent, to make themselves a new heart (Systematic Theology, 249).
Sinners must set their hearts aright. They must recreate and regenerate themselves by an autonomous act of the human will. For Finney, it was that simple.
But later in life Finney had to admit that his ministry had largely failed; that his converts all too often relapsed into lives of immorality and spiritual coldness. Worse still, he was never able to understand or admit why that might be.
The New Covenant Promised
As Jeremiah ministered to a spiritually cold and lifeless people, he was tempted to frustration and despair (ch. 20, for example). The Jewish people boasted in their spiritual advantages, but their hearts were far from God. They couldn’t and wouldn’t do what was right. Jeremiah wrote, “They are wise to do evil, but to do good they have no knowledge” (4:22). Unlike Franklin and Finney, Jeremiah understood the root of the problem: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jer. 17:9).
It was in this historical context that God made an incredible promise to His people. He said that in a day yet to come He would institute a New Covenant with His people (Jer. 31:31-34). This covenant would excel the Mosaic covenant, not in its moral standards, but in its Spiritual power. The features of this New Covenant were to be these:
- God will write His law in the hearts and minds of His covenant people;
- God will forgive their sins;
- God will take them to be His people;
- They will own, serve and enjoy Him as their God.
- The saving knowledge of God will be so widespread and common that believers will truly know God… “for they shall all know Me.”
This New Covenant would not offer a new or easier standard of morality. God wasn’t going to lower or alter His demands for obedience. There would be no new law that would better reflect God’s holy, loving and gracious nature. What this New Covenant would do is provide God’s people with the power—that is, the ability and desire—to keep the commandments they already knew.
The New Covenant Realized
It’s clear from Jeremiah’s prophecy that the power of the New Covenant wouldn’t lie in man’s autonomous choice. For Jeremiah, there was no hope in human nature. But exactly how God could and would unleash this Spiritual power Jeremiah didn’t say—except for this: like all the prophets, he connected the new age with the coming of the Messiah.
When at the Last Supper Jesus passed the cup to His disciples, He said, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood, which is shed for you” (Luke 22:20). His reference, of course, was to the prophecy of Jeremiah. The New Covenant would be inaugurated through His shed blood. The writer of Hebrews expounds upon this doctrine throughout his book and particularly in chapters 8—10. He shows us that Jesus Christ is the great High Priest who has offered Himself once for all as a sacrifice for sin and who is, therefore, able to renew our hearts to obedience. He summarizes his argument by quoting from Jeremiah:
This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, saith the Lord, I will put my laws into their hearts, and in their minds will I write them; and their sins and iniquities will I remember no more (Heb. 10:16-17).
Conclusion: A New Heart
In Jeremiah’s day God promised that He would inaugurate a covenant that would provide His people with forgiveness of sins and a radical change of heart. He promised to overwrite the broken and fragmented ruins of the law that underlie the human conscience, what Paul calls “the work of the law” (Rom. 2:15). He would enable His people to “do good.” That “good” would be the goodness defined in His law, the law revealed in Scripture.
No, doing good is not easy. Neither is knowing good. Because man is made in the image of God, he can’t escape the innate ideas of morality and goodness. But because he is fallen and dead in sins, he can never interpret those ideas correctly. Man is by nature an idolator who wants to play God and decide for himself what is good and what is evil (Gen. 3:5). And yet he fails to live up even to his own corrupted standards, to the voice of his own conscience (Rom. 2:12-15).
Man needs a new heart. He needs divine regeneration. He needs spiritual regeneration. And this is exactly what God promises us in Christ.