Some people have the idea that in the Old Testament God was only interested in rules, regulations, and duties, but in the New Testament He saw that wasn’t working and so introduced a new religion of the heart. But from the beginning, God says, “Love the LORD your God with all your heart” (Deuteronomy 6:5). What you do is not a matter of random chance. Whatever is written on your heart will shape the person you become.
John’s credit card debt had spiraled out of control. His wife had insisted on him seeing a counselor, and so, reluctantly, he agreed to go. The counselor made an assessment of his income and his expenses. It wasn’t going to be easy. Eventually the counselor came up with a plan. It would involve a radical change in John’s lifestyle, and it would take ten years to solve the problem.
John winced as he looked at the figures. “I know what I need to do,” he said. “The problem is that I don’t want to do it.” John’s predicament illustrates why change is so difficult. Knowing what to do is easy; finding the heart to do it is hard.
God has given us His commandments, showing us how we are to live. The commands are not difficult to understand. The problem is finding the heart to obey them. But God has given us a promise that makes real, deep, lasting change possible in our lives.
God told the prophet Jeremiah that He would make a new covenant. And the heart of the new covenant is a change in the heart: “This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel… I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts” (Jeremiah 31:33).
Someone said to me recently: “Pastor, I was taken to church as a child and I got nothing out of it. I didn’t understand what was being said, and when I did, it made me feel bad. It was boring, and I could not see how it was relevant to my life. The whole thing was a matter of duty imposed on me, and as soon as I had the opportunity, I left it behind.”
If that was your experience, you may find yourself wondering, “Is it really possible to love God from the heart?”
The heart is devious and sometimes quite baffling. You cannot predict the direction your heart will go: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9).
The reason the heart is perplexing is that sin has defaced it: “sin… is written with a pen of iron; with a point of diamond it is engraved on the tablet of their heart” (17:1). Like thieves breaking in and spraying obscenities on the walls of your living room, sin is an enemy that has vandalized your heart!
When sin gets written on your heart, it becomes engraved in your character. It creates the power of habit, and it is the source of the struggles within you. The intensity of the struggle will vary. For some, the heart has become a place where foul and ugly things are deeply engraved. For others, the defacing effects of sin are less severe, but the Bible is clear in telling us that, in some degree, sin is scrawled over every human heart.
No one ever spoke more powerfully about the problem of the human heart than Jesus. He said, “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” (Mark 7:21–23).
When King David repented of his sin of adultery, he asked God for two things. First, he said, “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow” (Psalm 51:7). David knew that he needed to be forgiven, washed, and cleansed.
But he did not stop there. He knew that he needed more than forgiveness, and so he prayed, “Create in me a clean heart, O God” (Psalm 51:10). David asked God to deal with his heart, because he knew that unless his heart was changed, it would lead him down the same sinful path again. So he prayed, “Lord, deal with the heart that led me to do this!”
Your heart is the control center of your life. We sometimes talk about “the way we are wired.” That gets at it. There is an inclination within us that drives our choices. So when we talk about the heart, we are talking about the core of a person’s being.
When God said that He would write His law on our hearts, He was describing a fundamental change that every one of us needs. If you are going to live the kind of life that God calls you to lead, His law will need to be worked into your heart so that external rules become inward desires.
You cannot live a righteous life simply because God says, “You shall.” If you are to become what God wants you to be, there must be an inner transformation that brings you to the point of saying freely, “I will.” The question is this: How can that happen?
Some people think strict discipline and fear of consequences will deliver good character. Fear has its place. It can modify behavior, but it cannot change the heart. When God gave the law at Mount Sinai, the people were absolutely terrified. But within a few weeks, they were dancing around the golden calf (Exodus 32). Fear did nothing to change their hearts.
There are others who think that the answer to the human condition is primarily social and economic. The argument is that if people do not have enough money or suffer from low self-esteem, they will have no hope, and the way to change this is through programs of economic aid and social reform.
Again, there is some truth in this. But when God brought His people into a land flowing with milk and honey and blessed them with freedom, prosperity, and opportunity, their hearts were no different than when they were in the desert. You cannot erase the graffiti of sin on the human heart by changing a person’s circumstances.
Could coming to church, saying prayers, or reading the Bible bring about a change of heart? Again, these are good and right things, but they do not have the power to change the heart.
Before his conversion, the apostle Paul was devoted to a religious life. He wanted to pursue God’s law, but found that his heart was pulling him in a different direction: “I do not understand my own actions,” he said. “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15). The law was powerless to change him. It was overwhelmed by the prevailing disposition of his heart.
Parents often assume that if they exercise appropriate discipline, encourage self-esteem, and bring their children to church, they will have good hearts. But often they are alarmed to find that there is an inclination in their children’s hearts that takes them in the wrong direction.
Perhaps you see that same struggle in yourself. You feel that you need to change and live a better life. But when you try, you find to your astonishment that the impulse of your heart toward selfishness, pride, lust, and greed are every bit as strong as they were before. So how can your heart be changed?
God says, “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” (Jeremiah 31:33). God alone can change your heart. No matter how hard you try, you cannot align your heart with the law of God. It’s impossible. So God says, “I will do what you are incapable of doing. I will write My law on your heart.”
The Bible calls this change of heart “regeneration” (Titus 3:5). This work of God gives you a new love for Him, a new hunger for His Word, and a new desire to walk in His ways.
The best illustration I know of regeneration is the way a human life begins. The living seed comes, and in a secret, mysterious, and wonderful way, a new life is conceived. It is instantaneous. It happens in a moment! A new life has begun within the woman’s body, and the amazing thing is, at that moment she may not even be aware of it!
The next day she goes to work, and it seems that everything is the same, but some weeks later, she begins to feel that something is changing inside her. Something feels different, and she wonders, Could I be pregnant?
Perhaps you can look back and see how God has changed your heart. There was a time when you were unresponsive to God. But then things began to change. You had a new hunger for God, a new sense of your own need, and a new desire to be clean.
Here is the explanation: you have been regenerated. New life has been implanted within you by the power of the Holy Spirit. This may have happened to you without you even knowing. But like every pregnancy, it will eventually show! Repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ are the first visible evidence of the new life that comes from God.
On one occasion, a highly respected man called Nicodemus came to talk with Jesus. “You must be born again,” Jesus said (John 3:7). The fundamental problem for this moral and religious man was that he needed a new heart.
Nicodemus was confused. How could a middle-aged man return to his mother’s womb and be born again? Jesus explained that He was not talking about a physical birth but a spiritual one: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (3:6). Nicodemus needed a work of the Holy Spirit within him that would give him a new heart.
When you are in heaven, what is at the heart of you will become the whole of you. If God has implanted new life in your heart, your deepest desire will be satisfied. In God’s presence, you will become the person you long to be.
The problem of the human heart is that it is defaced with the graffiti of sin. Our great need is that the law of God should be written on our hearts so that what He commands becomes what we desire. Only God can write His law on our hearts, and He came to us in Jesus Christ to make this possible. “If anyone thirsts,” Jesus said, “let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water’” (John 7:37–38).
1 “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. Your wealth and all your treasures I will give for spoil as the price of your high places for sin throughout all your territory. 4 You shall loosen your hand from your heritage that I gave to you, and I will make you serve your enemies in a land that you do not know, for in my anger a fire is kindled that shall burn forever.”
5 Thus says the LORD:
“Cursed is the man who trusts in man
and makes flesh his strength,
whose heart turns away from the LORD.
6 He is like a shrub in the desert,
and shall not see any good come.
He shall dwell in the parched places of the wilderness,
in an uninhabited salt land.
7 “Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD,
whose trust is the LORD.
8 He is like a tree planted by water,
that sends out its roots by the stream,
and does not fear when heat comes,
for its leaves remain green,
and is not anxious in the year of drought,
for it does not cease to bear fruit.”
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.
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