Hearts and Hands
It is beyond question that God wants ‘clean hands and a pure heart.’ What God desires is not one or the other, but both – doing the right thing for right motives.
However, when we do what is as right as best we know it with as sincere hearts as we are able, we, our actions, and our hearts are acceptable to God only through the merits of Christ. None of us lives now in God’s favour or will go to heaven in the end because of anything we do or are. Unless our righteousness of life and heart are found outside of us, we have no God-pleasing righteousness. All good works as ‘wrought by us . . . are defiled, and mixed with so much weakness and imperfection that they cannot endure the severity of God’s judgment’ (Westminster Confession of Faith XVI:5). Our good works are never ‘in this life wholly unblamable or unreprovable in God’s sight’ but are accepted only by God’s ‘looking upon them in his Son’ (WCF XVI:6). The only righteousness of hand or heart that makes anyone acceptable to God is imputed by God from Christ to the believer.
I heard a person quoted as saying he asked God to strike him dead rather than that he should live to dishonour the name of Christ. Beyond the rashness of such a prayer, it is a prayer which if answered literally would mean instant death for anyone who prayed it. Moreover, God sometimes proves the glory of his grace in sparing those who have publicly and ignominiously dishonoured his name. I hardly think God made a mistake forgiving and restoring David and Peter, and, had they not fallen as they did, the rest of us might end despairing with Judas. The reason any of is spared, however relatively righteous our lives and relatively pure our hearts, is by grace alone or else by merit.
Then, it seems to me that we must remember that an unrighteous action, as an action, is not made righteous by a sincere heart and that a righteous action is not, as an action, made unrighteous by an insincere heart.
Though we may have grown up hearing the illustration that sincerely believing you are taking aspirin for your headache won’t make you any less dead if you take poison instead, we may take that no further than demonstrating that sincerity can’t save you if you do not believe one gospel. But, this is true also of our actions as believers. We can act with good hearts and the best of motives, so far as we know our hearts and motives, yet we can be doing wrong thing. Conversely, we can do the right thing, yet in our hearts harbour malice and pride.
To question the righteousness of an action is not the same as to question the honesty of the heart or the sincerity of the motive. To say that an action looks bad is not the same as to say it necessarily exposes a bad heart. On the other hand to assert purity of heart, true as it may be, does not mean that what we do does not have any evil impact.
On the other hand, suspicion of motive or even proof of an evil motive does not make the action unrighteous. A case in point is that Paul rejoiced that Christ was preached even by those who preached Christ to advance themselves and to harm Paul. Preaching Christ, even from a bad heart is still preaching the gospel. Calvin no doubt served the cause of righteousness, albeit imperfectly, when his temper got the best of him in controversy.
Of course, our aim for ourselves and prayer for others must always be for clean hands and pure heart – so long as we remember that such is possible absolutely of Christ only, and of ourselves never more than relatively. And what makes us, our hands and our hearts, acceptable to God is the clean hands and pure heart of Christ alone.
William Smith is a PCA minister in Mississippi
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