The True Nature of the Christian’s Heart
If we are to live healthy spiritual and emotional lives as believers, it is vital that we understand clearly the true character of the hearts of those who are regenerated by God’s Holy Spirit.
In particular, it is imperative that we understand the distinction between wickedness and wretchedness. The Bible tells us that the heart is deceitful and desperately wicked (Jer. 17:9), while the Apostle Paul declares himself to be a wretched man (Rom. 7:24). How are we to understand these declarations? Surely they describe the heart of the natural man. But how, if at all, do they apply to those who are regenerated? Are the hearts of believers simply less wicked and wretched than they were prior to their regeneration? This appears to be the common assumption. Yet, it is an erroneous and damaging assumption.
Serious confusion of understanding and great anguish of soul result when we wrongly regard the words wicked and wretched as being synonymous. We do well, therefore, carefully to examine these two terms, noting especially any differences between them. The wicked man is throughout Scripture described in terms of his being evil, guilty, and offensive. The wicked are consistently contrasted with the righteous who are regarded as being good, just, and submissive to God. The Day of Judgement will be a time when the wicked and the righteous will be separated from each other (Matt. 13:49), but it will not be a day when those who are wicked are made righteous. Therefore, it should be clear to us that we who are in Christ ought not to consider ourselves or our brethren in Christ to be in any sense wicked. We may act like the wicked at times, but such action, as we shall see from what follows, issues from our wretchedness, not from wickedness.
When we consider the definition of the words used in Scripture that are translated wretched we can appreciate how greatly different wickedness is from wretchedness. The wretched man is one who is distressed, weak, and miserable. In other words, the wicked man is evil, while the wretched man suffers evil; the wicked man desires to do evil, whereas the wretched man deplores his evil doings; the wicked offends because he is strongly driven by his evil desires, while the wretched offends as a result of the weakness and imperfections of his righteous nature that is undergoing the process of sanctification. This distinction holds even when we consider what Jeremiah says about the heart being deceitful and desperately wicked, and even if we regard what he says there to apply to the hearts of the regenerate. This is so because the word in Jeremiah 17:9 that is translated in both the King James and the New King James versions as wicked, comes from a Hebrew word that means weak, sick, frail, incurable.
The implications of our believing ourselves and our brethren in Christ to be even partly wicked are bitter and painful for ourselves and for others. Such erroneous belief invariably leads us to have low esteem for our own thoughts, motives, words, and actions, and for those of our brethren, and also to esteem lightly the regenerating and sanctifying work of the Lord in our lives. It is supremely difficult for us to love our brethren and to exercise the judgement of charity toward them when we are convinced that they are self-deceived and wicked souls who ever desire to sin against God, to reject his Law, and to spurn his grace. How difficult, if not impossible, it is for us to be filled with loving gratitude to God and with the joy of the Lord that is our strength when we are convinced that he has done little more in us than to make us only a bit less wicked than are the unregenerate, while he demands that we be perfect as he is perfect.
When Scripture tells us that we are new creatures in Christ and that for us all things are new (2 Cor. 5:17), that we were dead in sin but now we have been raised up to eternal life by God in Christ (Eph. 2:5,6), and that the dominion of sin has been broken in our lives (Rom. 6:1-14), the Word of God is clearly informing us that we are no longer wicked but are righteous, not only in status, but also in disposition of heart by which we hate sin and hunger and thirst for righteousness.
But if we are no longer wicked, why are we wretched? As Paul makes clear, that wretchedness does not come from our new hearts and transformed minds (Rom. 7:15-23). Rather, it comes from our flesh (Rom. 7:18), or what he also calls the body this death (Rom. 7:24). What this means is not that our physical bodies are any more evil or more difficult for God to redeem and sanctify than are our hearts and minds. Rather, it means that so long as we are in this life, we drag around with us the dead remains of what we once were apart from Christ. Those remains annoy us and serve to retard our spiritual progress in sanctification. They also exert a kind of momentum whereby unless we are vigilant to let the Word of Christ dwell richly in us, directing our way and empowering us in that way, we shall revert, at least for a time, to old sinful patterns of thinking, feeling, and acting. But such reversions cause us grief, not gladness, and they result from our weakness and frailty, not from wickedness.
If we believe ourselves to be wicked, we shall seek to hide our shame with the fig-leaves of our denials and the filthy rags of our own attempted righteousness, and we shall despise our brethren, whom we suspect to be at least as wicked as we think ourselves to be. We shall also resent the Lord as we wrongly believe that he expects wicked men to do righteous deeds. When we know ourselves to be fundamentally righteous and incidentally wretched, we cry to God for mercy and we find mercy abundantly supplied to us by God (Rom. 7:25). In that merciful provision we rejoice in the deepening realization that for us, there is now no condemnation from our God (Rom. 8:1). In turn, we who have tasted such divine mercy delight with patience and loving kindness to show mercy to our brethren who, like us, are distressed by frailties from which they desire liberation.
William Harrell is Pastor of Immanuel Presbyterian Church, Norfolk, Virginia
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