The heart is at the core of our basic human problem and its solution. The perverted human heart is the source of sin. The renewed human heart is the root of righteousness. Jesus’ brother James sums it up well in his pointed call to wholehearted devotion: “Cleanse your hands, sinners! Purify your hearts, you divided souls!”
Unadulterated worship, uncompromised action and undefiled speech: all flow from a pure heart.
Numerous scriptures emphasize the centrality of our heart in the spiritual life. Here are just a few from some key leaders of God’s people:
Deuteronomy 6:4 Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. 5 Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. 6 These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts.
1 Kings 8:58 May he [the LORD our God] turn our hearts to him, to walk in all his ways and to keep [his] commands
Psalm 86:11 Teach me your way, O LORD, and I will walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart, that I may fear your name.
Proverbs 4:23 Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.
Matthew 6:21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Luke 6:45 The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks.
The analogy with the literal bodily organ is apt: as our heart pumps life-sustaining blood that enables all our physical functions, so also it is the source of all our words and deeds. If the heart is so central and important, how do we make it pure?
One typical religious answer is to try hard to make our heart good. We work to do the right things so our lives are pure. The problem is that this turns the process backwards. Jesus says right action flows from a right heart; it doesn’t make it right. God creates our hearts anew, and his grace empowers the righteous deeds that flow from them. Good works do not dig the well; they flow out of the spring.
The opposite answer is to sit back and wait for God to make us good. God is indeed the initiator and the power broker in the process, but this, too, misses the true dynamics of the process. It lays all the responsibility on God, and lets us off the hook under the assumption that God does it all. It’s as if we’re just to lay on the table unconscious while God performs a heart transplant. God certainly does the operation, but we must be fully awake and involved. At times, the surgery hurts because there’s a cold calloused heart to be cut out. Yet Scripture consistently calls us to willful obedience and engagement. We must choose to deny ourselves, pick up the cross and follow our crucified King.
A third answer is to look inside ourselves. Find the good in yourself and develop it. The problem here is that we possess neither this good nor the power to develop it. The Bible teaches that we are rotten to the core. We can do good things (because we still have vestiges of God’s image within us), but we can’t consistently do the right things for the right reasons (i.e., from a pure heart). Our motives are always twisted and selfish. We must change the motivation to do truly good and gracious deeds. Again, we’re back to the source, to the why behind our works, to our hearts.
We are not self-justifying workers but receivers of grace. Even in paradise, humans lived and worshipped God in a grace-bathed Garden that he planted. They engaged in royal and priestly service to their Creator and Provider. God’s commands always follow his redemption and assume his provision. Human obedience always responds to his prior grace. As soon as we sink into self-justification, as soon as we think we can save ourselves, so soon do we deny the grace of God. When we try to be our own savior, we fail every time.
But neither are we entirely uninvolved. We are not just passive recipients, but participants. We gratefully receive God’s grace, and we live in response. We work out our salvation, knowing God is the one energizing us to do his will. We are never neutral. We always move toward or away from him. Purity happens when we humbly submit. We stop dancing to our own drum and let him lead us to dance in his rhythm. In Paul’s words, we walk in step with the Spirit.
Finally, we do not fan into flame hidden embers of our own goodness. Rather we receive the fresh fire of God’s presence through the Holy Spirit. Once dead in sin, Christ makes us alive. Our lifeless hearts are revived and reanimate our bodies to live resurrection life. God’s own Spirit, not our dormant divinity, is the source of this new-creation life. God cleanses us from impurity, gives us a new heart and a new Spirit and moves us by his Spirit to keep his covenant.
God’s grace changes us and moves us to willfully, joyfully worship and obey him. Our faith in him is expressed in our love toward him and others. This sacrificial, self-giving love begins in God. It came to us when Christ died for us. It lives through us as the Sprit lives in us. These works of the triune God generate a renovation of the heart.