. . . In spite everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.
—Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl (1944)
The heart that was made according to God’s own heart, is now the
reverse of it, a forge of evil imaginations, a sink of inordinate affections,
and a store house of all impiety (Mark 7.21, 22).
—Thomas Boston, Human Nature in its Fourfold State (1720)
The Heart of Man
The heart of man is the religious center of his being. It is where our deepest values, affections and priorities lie. From the heart arise the issues of life (Prov. 4:23). The heart is the seat and origin of our thoughts, emotions and choices. It is where each of us says, “I.”
In our hearts we perceive, consider and discern. There we think and ponder. Our hearts may be full of wisdom and understanding, or they may be given to folly (Eccl. 1:17). We may speak the truth in our hearts, or we may utter lies (Ps. 15:2).
In our hearts we feel deeply. We may surrender our hearts to grief and sorrow; they may be wounded, sick or broken. They may be filled with joy and gladness. Our hearts may wish, desire and even pant after this goal or that. Our hearts may fear and melt.
In our hearts we purpose and choose. “A man’s heart deviseth his way” (Prov. 16:9). To lay something to heart means to take it seriously and act upon it. What we purpose in our hearts, we do. From our hearts proceed all our actions, whether they be good or evil.
And so in our hearts we stand in ethical relationship to God. It is in our hearts that we love God or deny His existence (Deut. 6:5; Ps. 14:1). In our hearts we trust Him or raise idols of our own making (Prov. 3:5; Ezek. 14:4).
Sin rises out of the heart: “For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies” (Matt. 15:19). Our hearts may be characterized by subtlety, perversity, vengeance, or pride. Our hearts may even harbor war (Ps. 55:21). And because sin is so deeply rooted in the human heart, that is where God demands repentance:
Therefore also now, saith the LORD, turn ye even to me with all your heart, and with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning: and rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto the LORD your God . . . (Joel 2:12-13).
There is a problem, however. Since the heart is man’s ultimate ego or self, a sinful heart has no desire for repentance. A sinful heart isn’t a heart that has stumble into sin, but rather one that is by nature sinful. Being sinful—that is, being in rebellion against God—it wants nothing of godliness, holiness and righteousness. It is at enmity with God at every point (Rom 8:7). And so the Bible says a sinful heart is incapable of loving God, seeking God, or coming to God (Rom. 3:11; John 5:40).
This is old news. At the dawn of human history, God “saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen. 6:5). Theologians speak of the doctrine of total depravity. This doesn’t mean that every man, or any man, is as bad as could be. It means, rather, that every man is bad at heart. And everything that arises out of man’s heart is touched by that sin (Prov. 21:4; Rom. 14:23).
The Puritan writer Thomas Boston summarized the doctrine like this: “The mind is defiled; the thoughts of the heart are evil; the will and affections are defiled: the imagination of the thoughts of the heart, that is, whatsoever the heart frames within itself by thinking, such as judgment, choice, purposes, devices, desires, every inward motion . . . is evil” (61).
The prophet Jeremiah said the same thing under divine inspiration: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jer. 17:9). The Preacher agrees: “yea, also the heart of the sons of men is full of evil, and madness is in their heart while they live” (Eccl. 9:3). A heart bound in sin is one given to madness, for sin is fundamentally insanity. It is insane to deny, reject and ignore the sovereign Creator, the God who holds our breath in His hands. Atheism, then, becomes the ultimate escape from reality, the ultimate fantasy.
A New Heart
What fallen man needs, needs desperately, is heart surgery. Man needs a new heart. And this is exactly what the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel promised:
But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the LORD, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people (Jer. 31:33).
Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh (Ezek. 36:25-26).
The prophets weren’t talking about some sort of deprogramming or wholesale memory wipe. They had no notion of swapping out one soul for another. They were speaking of an ethical reorientation or transformation that reaches to the depths of the human heart. “Not a change of the substance, but of the qualities of the soul,” Boston writes (207). “There is not a new substance created, but new qualities are infused; light instead of darkness, righteousness instead of unrighteousness.”
By regenerating grace, the will is brought into conformity to the will of God. It is conformed to His preceptive will, being endowed with holy inclinations, agreeable to every one of His commands. The whole law is impressed on the gracious soul: every part of it is written on the renewed heart (215).
Note: the whole law. Divine regeneration writes the whole law of God into the tables of a once stony heart. Contempt for God and His commandments is replaced with a wholehearted love for God and His law. David returns to this theme again and again in Psalm 119. In fact, the whole Psalm is a survey of the excellencies of God’s moral law.
- With my whole heart have I sought thee: O let me not wander from thy commandments (v.10).
- Give me understanding, and I shall keep thy law; yea, I shall observe it with my whole heart (v. 34).
- The proud have forged a lie against me: but I will keep thy precepts with my whole heart (v. 69).
- Let my heart be sound in thy statutes; that I be not ashamed (v. 80).
- How love I thy law! it is my meditation all the day (v. 97).
- I cried with my whole heart; hear me, O LORD: I will keep thy statutes (v. 145).
The spiritual heart surgery that Jeremiah and Ezekiel promised belongs to the age of Messiah. The Messiah, they knew, would mediate the New Covenant. He would make possible the forgiveness of sins. He would pour out the Spirit in abundance.
The message of the New Testament is that Messiah has come. Jesus Christ has inaugurated the New Covenant through His shed blood (Heb. 13:20). He bore the wrath and curse of the law (Gal. 3:13). He is risen and ascended. He has poured out the Spirit (Acts 2). He is now in the business of changing hearts and lives. And those who receive new lives have the law of God written in full in their hearts. They have a new allegiance to Christ and a new power to serve Him. If America is going to survive, we need changed hearts. There is no other pathway.
For Further Reading:
Thomas Boston, Human Nature in Its Fourfold State of Primitive Integrity, Entire Depravity, Begun Recovery, and Consummate Happiness or Misery (London: The Banner of Truth Trust,  1964).
Thomas Edward McComiskey, The Covenants of Promise, A Theology of the Old Testament Covenants (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1985).
Greg L. Bahnsen, Theonomy in Christian Ethics (Nutley, NJ: Craig Press, 1977).