What does scripture say about the human heart? Is it good, evil or something else? What has God promised to do with peoples hearts? Can hearts be influenced, changed, transformed and softened? What are the key characteristics that distinguish a Christians heart from others? Does Jesus want our hearts? Can God see our hearts?
“Heart” (Hebrew léb; Greek kardia) occurs approximately 1000 times in scripture and is often disguised in translation. It has an immense range of meaning. (Elwell, W.A. & Beitzel, B.J., 1988. Baker encyclopedia of the Bible, p.938.)
The heart’s position is normally thought of as being located at the center of a person’s being. In the scriptures it is commonly depicted as the control center. It encompasses the intellect (Gen 6.5), the emotions (1 Sam 2.1), the desire (Ps 37.4) and the will (1 Chr 12.38) of a person.
I’ll run us through some of the more prominent passages to do with the human heart. Focusing more on its moral associations. There are good and bad passages. But in the end I point to the work Jesus and the Spirit can do in peoples hearts – so bear with me.
- Hearts can be evil, deceitful and defiling (Gen 6.5-9; 8.20-22; Jer 17.9-10; Mk 7.20-23)
- Hearts can be circumcised, written on and renewed (Dt 30.1-10; Jer 31.31-34; Eze 36.23-29; Heb 10.19-22; Rom 2.28-29)
- Hearts can be transformed to become good and honest (1 Sam 13.13-14; Lk 6.43-45; 8.9-15)
- God wants believing, loving and obedient hearts (Rom 10.5-11; Dt 6.4-6; Rom 6.17-18; Eph 6.6)
- Hearts can be influenced either way
- God looks at the heart (1 Sam 16.6-12)
- We should pray for peoples hearts (Eph 3.14-17)
Hearts can be evil, deceitful and defiling (Gen 6.5-9; 8.20-22; Jer 17.9-10; Mk 7.20-23)
It is self-evident in our fallen world that hearts can be evil. This is easily backed up by several well-known passages in scripture.
5 The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his HEART was only evil continually. 6 And the Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his HEART. 7 So the Lord said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.”
8 But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord. 9 These are the generations of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God. (Gen 6.5-9)
The scripture speaks about ‘the wickedness of man’. ‘Every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually’. We will look at contrary passages shortly, but for now this statement is very strong and one-sided.
It says only evil comes out of the heart (nothing good comes from the heart) and this happens continually (it doesn’t stop for periods of time).
It says the heart is an evil thought generating machine. Pumping along.
The passage makes a distinction however with Noah. Noah is favoured, righteous, blameless and he walks with God. I think scripture is implying something different about Noah’s heart and we will see passages which could be applied specifically to him to understand why he is distinct from the evil masses.
20 Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and took some of every clean animal and some of every clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar. 21 And when the Lord smelled the pleasing aroma, the Lord said in his HEART, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s HEART is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done. 22 While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.” (Gen 8.20-22)
Noah obeys the LORD and after he is rescued from the flood he worships the LORD with a burnt offering from the remaining clean animals. The LORD receives his offering and repeats his assessment of man’s heart. He says the ‘intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth’.
Much later on the prophet Jeremiah will issue a series of condemnations on the people of Judah.
17 “The sin of Judah is written with a pen of iron; with a point of diamond it is engraved on the tablet of their heart, and on the horns of their altars, 2 while their children remember their altars and their Asherim, beside every green tree and on the high hills, 3 on the mountains in the open country. (Jer 17.1-3)
He contrasts the cursed man (Jer 17.5) who puts his trust in other men, with the blessed man (Jer 17.7) who puts his trust in the LORD (Jer 17.5-8). Then he says;
9 The HEART is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?
10 “I the Lord search the HEART and test the mind, to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds.”
11 Like the partridge that gathers a brood that she did not hatch, so is he who gets riches but not by justice; in the midst of his days they will leave him, and at his end he will be a fool.
12 A glorious throne set on high from the beginning is the place of our sanctuary. 13 O Lord, the hope of Israel, all who forsake you shall be put to shame; those who turn away from you shall be written in the earth, for they have forsaken the Lord, the fountain of living water. (Jer 17.9-13)
This statement doesn’t say anything good about the heart. The heart is deceitful and sick.
In context Jeremiah is addressing many in Judah who have forsaken the LORD.
Is he speaking about the hearts of the blessed who trust in the LORD? Or only the cursed who trust in men? In verse 10 the LORD seems to be reminding everyone He judges their hearts, minds and deeds. Verse 9 in context could function to get all men, whether cursed or blessed, to consider their hearts before the LORD in light of his judgment and the fact hearts are deceitful.
Jeremiah warns of the dangers in forsaking the LORD (Jer 17.12-13).
People can delude themselves thinking they are right with God when they are not. They need to continually trust in the LORD and make sure they are doing so.
In the gospel Jesus helps his audience understand that food does not defile a person.
14 And he called the people to him again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand: 15 There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.” (Mk 7.14-16)
Evil thoughts that come out of the heart defile a person.
20 And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. 21 For from within, out of the HEART of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, 22 coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (Mk 7.20-23)
Jesus starts with evil thoughts. These evil thoughts lead to a whole string of sinful behaviours and attitudes.
Evil and uncleanness come from inside us.
How does what Jesus said function in the wider context of the passage? The people were obeying the law of Moses and wanted to avoid foods that made them unclean. Based on their intention to keeping the food laws, Jesus hopes for a similar attitude to be applied to evil thoughts which may comes out of the heart. Jesus wants all people to resist evil thoughts coming out of the heart because these defile and lead to sin.
Okay, so I’ve looked at a few passages which speak of the human heart in negative terms. There is probably a lot more. But is this all the scripture say about the heart? Does scripture say anything about the heart can be done? Good question. Yes it does.
Hearts can be circumcised, written on and renewed (Dt 30.1-10; Jer 31.31-34; Eze 36.23-29; Heb 10.19-22; Rom 2.28-29)
God makes a series of very important promises and prophecies in the story of Israel.
The prophecies begin as early as Deuteronomy. Moses predicts the disobedience and exile of Israel. But promises the LORD will draw them back to himself and the land. In the passage Moses says something quite important about what God will do to the heart.
30 “And when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among all the nations where the Lord your God has driven you, 2 and return to the Lord your God, you and your children, and obey his voice in all that I command you today, with all your HEART and with all your soul, 3 then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have mercy on you, and he will gather you again from all the peoples where the Lord your God has scattered you. 4 If your outcasts are in the uttermost parts of heaven, from there the Lord your God will gather you, and from there he will take you. 5 And the Lord your God will bring you into the land that your fathers possessed, that you may possess it. And he will make you more prosperous and numerous than your fathers.
6 And the Lord your God will circumcise your HEART and the HEART of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your HEART and with all your soul, that you may live.
7 And the Lord your God will put all these curses on your foes and enemies who persecuted you. 8 And you shall again obey the voice of the Lord and keep all his commandments that I command you today. 9 The Lord your God will make you abundantly prosperous in all the work of your hand, in the fruit of your womb and in the fruit of your cattle and in the fruit of your ground. For the Lord will again take delight in prospering you, as he took delight in your fathers, 10 when you obey the voice of the Lord your God, to keep his commandments and his statutes that are written in this Book of the Law, when you turn to the Lord your God with all your HEART and with all your soul. (Dt 30.1-10)
Within this long passage the LORD promises to bring them back into the promised land and restore them. For our purposes He also promises to circumcise the heart and his people will again obey him with all their heart.
Normally, according to the law of Moses, the male penis was circumcised.
Circumcision represented the cutting off of the evil in a person and was a sign of the covenant people of God (Gen 17).
In a few locations as we will see circumcision is also spoken of where the heart is circumcised (Dt 10.16; Jer 4.4; Rom 2.29). A spiritual cutting off of the evil in a person’s heart, also suggesting a new and better covenant involving inward (not external) surgery.
Here is Jeremiah’s prophecy.
32 not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD.
33 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their HEARTS. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
34 And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” * (Jer 31.31-34)
The LORD promises to issue a new covenant. In the old covenant the LORD gave Moses the law on tablets of stone. They were written down and had to be repeatedly read every year. People had to memorise them and teach their children.
In Jeremiah the LORD promises to write his law on peoples hearts.
They would know by heart what was good and evil. They would obey the LORD from the heart. Once again the LORD puts emphasis on inner and spiritual renewal. The process is accompanied with forgiveness of sins (cf. Mt 26.28) and a renewed people of God.
Another of the Old Testaments great promises involving the heart is in Ezekiel.
23 And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the Lord God, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes. 24 I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. 25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleanness, and from all your idols I will cleanse you.
26 And I will give you a new HEART, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the HEART of stone from your flesh and give you a HEART of flesh.
27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. 28 You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. 29 And nI will deliver you from all your uncleanness. And I will summon the grain and make it abundant and play no famine upon you. (Eze 36.23-29)
Israel has abandoned the LORD, disobeyed his law and turned to idolatry. The LORD has punished Israel, but like many long passages of doom and gloom (i.e. judgment), Ezekiel has bright rays of hope.
The LORD promises to give his people new hearts of flesh and new spirits.
As with Deuteronomy and Jeremiah, this will bring about the ability to obey the commands of God and a renewed people of God.
All of these promises, especially Ezekiel’s, anticipate what God will do through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. Speaking about Gentile believers obeying the precepts of the law Paul says in Romans.
19 Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near with a true HEART in full assurance of faith, with our HEARTS sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. (Heb 10.19-22)
28 For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. 29 But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the HEART, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God. (Rom 2.28-29)
He has seen Ezekiel’s prophecy fulfilled.
Hearts are washed clean by Christs blood and circumcised by the Spirit.
This happens when hearing the gospel, the Spirit does its work and people come to believe Jesus is the risen Lord and Christ.
Consequently with circumcised hearts these Gentiles receive praise from God. People with washed hearts are able to enter the Holy Places with confidence (Heb 10.19). People can now call on God from pure hearts (2 Tim 2.22; cf. 1 Tim 1.5; 1 Pet 1.22)
Hearts can be transformed to become good and honest (1 Sam 13.13-14; Lk 6.43-45; 8.9-15)
“In Christian terms, such transformation involves believing the gospel from the “honest and good heart” that provides fruitful soil for the Word of God (Lk 8:15; Rom 10:9). The true heart draws near to God, loves him with all its intellect, feeling, and will (Lk 10:27; Heb 10:22). Then God becomes to the heart strength, reward, renewal, grace, peace, and joy (Ps 73:26; Is 57:15; Acts 2:46; Phil 4:7; Heb 13:9). So the ancient ideal becomes possible again, that of being “a man after God’s own heart” (1 Sm 13:14; Acts 13:22).” (Elwell, W.A. & Beitzel, B.J., 1988. Baker encyclopedia of the Bible, p.939.)
One famous and positive statement about a person’s heart was about David. King Saul disobeyed the LORD and turned from him. So the LORD chose another to succeed him as king. The LORD had a special criterion for who he would pick.
13 And Samuel said to Saul, “You have done foolishly. You have not kept the command of the Lord your God, with which he commanded you. For then the Lord would have established your kingdom over Israel forever. 14 But now your kingdom shall not continue. The Lord has sought out a man after his own HEART, and the Lord has commanded him to be prince over his people, because you have not kept what the Lord commanded you.” (1 Sam 13.13-14)
The LORD seeks a man ‘after his own heart’.
In some way David’s heart is likened to the LORD’s. How so? The expression is accompanied by a future assessment of David’s obedience (David would have been a child at the time), comparing it to Saul’s. Which suggests a person with a heart similar to the LORD will seek to become more like the LORD in righteousness and holiness as the LORD is.
If we skip forward to the gospel, Jesus compares two kinds of people. The good people have a special kind of heart.
43 “For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, 44 for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thorn bushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. 45 The good person out of the good treasure of his HEART produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the HEART his mouth speaks. (Lk 6.43-45)
Here Jesus describes the ‘good person’ with ‘good treasure’ in his heart.
An almost direct opposite of the depiction of humanities heart in Gen 6 and 9 we read earlier (which is part of the reason why I exempted Noah from this judgment). Jesus is primarily speaking about what the ‘mouth speaks’, but we cannot eliminate their actions from what the good heart produces.
The parable of the sower shows a range of responses to the word of God and says a couple things about the heart that holds it fast.
9 And when his disciples asked him what this parable meant, 10 he said, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God, but for others they are in parables, so that ‘seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.’ 11 Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God.
12 The ones along the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their HEARTS, so that they may not believe and be saved.
13 And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe for a while, and in time of testing fall away.
14 And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature.
15 As for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good HEART, and bear fruit with patience. (Lk 8.9-15)
The parable states the word of God comes into peoples hearts. Those that hold it fast and keep on holding are said to have ‘honest and good’ hearts.Like several passages we have reviewed a good heart is one which produces good fruit.
In the gospel of John, Jesus says some wonderful things about having the Spirit.
‘Out of his HEART will flow rivers of living water.’ ”
39 Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified. (Jn 7.37-39; cf. Prov 18.4)
Having the Spirit will have a profound effect on what comes out of the heart.
So what does it mean to have a good heart?
This is a nice introduction to the gospel.
God wants believing, loving and obedient hearts (Rom 10.5-11; Dt 6.4-6; Rom 6.17-18; Eph 6.6)
The gospel is the story of Jesus. The proclamation of his birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension into heaven and future judgment. In the gospel story Jesus is announced as Lord and Saviour.
Do you believe these things about Jesus?
The gospel and the Holy Spirit work together to produce faith. This faith, faith in Jesus, is the key characteristic of every Christians heart.
Paul says in Romans;
5 For Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them. 6 But the righteousness based on faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’ ” (that is, to bring Christ down) 7 “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’ ” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). 8 But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your HEART” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); 9 because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your HEART that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the HEART one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. 11 For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” (Rom 10.5-11)
You might remember the Deuteronomy prophecy I quoted above? Paul has it in mind. He is essentially saying the coming of Jesus and the gospel has fulfilled this prophecy. When people come to believe Jesus is the risen Lord, they are return to God from their spiritual exile so to speak.
When people believe Jesus is the risen Christ they appear righteous in God’s sight and they are saved.
This belief lies within a persons heart. We can easily and unhelpfully separate belief from love, affection and good works. Don’t do this. John Calvin the great reformer corrects this separation in his Institutes of the Christian religion.
“Did they duly ponder the saying of Paul, “With the HEART man believeth unto righteousness,” (Rom. 10:10,) they would cease to dream of that frigid quality. There is one consideration which ought at once to put an end to the debate, viz., that assent itself (as I have already observed, and will afterwards more fully illustrate) is more a matter of the HEART than the head, of the affection than the intellect.” (Calvin, J. & Beveridge, H., 1845. Institutes of the Christian religion, Edinburgh: The Calvin Translation Society.)
Faith IS a heart issue. Calvin will then go on to argue a persons faith ties justification and progressive sanctification [aka regeneration] together inseparably. A distinction between Lutheran and Calvinistic theology.
The Shema is the greatest commandment of the law of Moses.
4 “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.2 5 You shall love the Lord your God with all your HEART and with all your soul and with all your might. 6 And these words that I command you today shall be on your HEART. (Dt 6.4-6)
It commands our hearts to love the LORD. Therefore love is a heart issue as well. As we see in this passage, loving God involves obedience. Keeping the commands of the LORD (cf. Josh 22.2-3,5). We can see this kind of heartfelt obedience in the Roman audience Paul writes too.
17 But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the HEART to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, 18 and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. (Rom 6.17-18; cf. Eph 6.6)
In summary – the scripture says faith, love and obedience are all characteristics of the heart of the one who believes Jesus is the risen Lord.
Do you believe Jesus is the risen Lord? Is he your Lord? Do you seek this kind of heart?
Hearts can be influenced either way
“One fundamental assumption of Scripture is that the human HEART is constantly open to influences from above and from below. God would “lay hold of [human] hearts” (Ez 14:5), “incline hearts” to his truth and ways (Ps 119:36), “put into … hearts to carry out his purposes,” both for judgment and for salvation (Rv 17:17). The alternative to divine “possession” is the demonic influence that can drag the heart down to utmost evil (Jn 13:2; Acts 5:3). The same heart that can be “deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (Jer 17:9) can also become the shrine of divine love and the Spirit (Rom 5:5).
In that openness to infinite good or evil, the scriptural dimensions of the human heart are revealed.” (Elwell, W.A. & Beitzel, B.J., 1988. Baker encyclopedia of the Bible, pp.939–940.)
Holding many of these passages together we can say that many hearts are inclined towards evil continually (Gen 6,9). Hearts are deceitful and sick (Jer 17). Only evil comes from them (Mk 7).
But God has promised to fix this problem. This sad state can only be corrected by a supernatural work of the Spirit in a person heart when they hear the gospel and believe in Jesus.
People depend on God to change their hearts.
Only hearts transformed by God can be said to be good and honest. Even these still struggle with sin and evil, but now their inclination is towards good things. Seeking God, having faith in him, loving God and others, obeying God’s commands.
God looks at the heart (1 Sam 16.6-12)
When Abraham believed God and his promise of offspring, God looked into his heart and saw that faith. His faith was counted as righteousness. God looks at peoples hearts. We can see this thought in the LORD’s selection of king David.
6 When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is before him.” 7 But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him.
For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the HEART.”
8 Then Jesse called Abinadab and made him pass before Samuel. And he said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” 9 Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” 10 And Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel. And Samuel said to Jesse, “The Lord has not chosen these.” 11 Then Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but behold, he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and get him, for we will not sit down till he comes here.” 12 And he sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy and had beautiful eyes and was handsome. And the Lord said, “Arise, anoint him, for this is he.” (1 Sam 16.6-12)
We can see from the passage the LORD looks deeper than the surface. At the time the people were looking for someone with physical strength, agility, fighting ability and leadership.
But when God looks at people he sees something deeper. He looks for hearts who will seek him, follow him, depend on him, love and obey him. We can apply all these to the way we view Jesus. The LORD looks at the heart to work these things out.
God looks at your heart too. What kind of heart will you strive to have?
We should pray for peoples hearts (Eph 3.14-17)
This wonderful work he does by dwelling our hearts.
14 For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, 16 that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your HEARTS through faith (Eph 3.14-17)
In light of this study we clearly should pray for our own hearts, for the hearts of our friends and families and for the hearts of those who have yet to have faith in Jesus.
Copyright © Joshua Washington and thescripturesays, 2016. All Rights Reserved.