The ‘Heart’: A Biblical-Theological Sketch

heartThe Bible regularly refers to the human heart. Jesus says that the greatest commandment is to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. And to love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:29-30). Proverbs 4:23 indicate that guarding the heart protects the wellsprings of life. Hebrews 4:12 tells us that God’s word judges the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And Matthew 5:8 implies that without a pure heart, we will not see God—or at least, we will not delight in seeing God.

Because the Bible says so much about the heart, it can be difficult to synthesize its contents. And yet, because the condition of our heart is so regularly mentioned and so vital to our walk with God, it is of the utmost importance that we have a good sense of what the heart is and what the Bible says about it’s condition. On Sunday, I preached a message on the heart from Matthew 5:8. What follows is some of the truths I found in the Scriptures as I prepared for that message.

I pray it may do your heart good as you consider this brief sketch.

The Heart is More Than Just the Heart

The way that “heart” is used today, and the way it was used in the Bible are not the same. Today, heart (when not referring to the organ that pumps blood) refers to that center of emotions, feelings, and desires. However, in the Scriptures the heart also included “memories, ideas, plans, and decisions” (DBT228). In the Bible, heart was “the very source of his conscious, intelligent, and free personality, the place of his decisive choices, the place of the unwritten Law (Rom 2:15), and of the mysterious action of God” (ibid.).

Since “heart” is used over seven hundred times in the Scriptures, it is impossible to relate all of its uses, but the following are a sampling of how ‘heart’ is used in Scripture.

Exodus 4:21. And the LORD said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you do before Pharaoh all the miracles that I have put in your power. But I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go.

Exodus 36:2And Moses called Bezalel and Oholiab and every craftsman in whose mind the Lord had put skill, everyone whose heart stirred him up to come to do the work.

Judges 5:15. “The princes of Issachar came with Deborah, and Issachar faithful to Barak; into the valley they rushed at his heels. Among the clans of Reuben there were great searchings of heart.”

2 Samuel 15:13. And a messenger came to David, saying, “The hearts of the men of Israel have gone after Absalom.”

Proverbs 15:13. A glad heart makes a cheerful face, but by sorrow of heart the spirit is crushed.

Proverbs 16:9. The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.

Proverbs 23:7. For he is like one who is inwardly calculating. “Eat and drink!” he says to you, but his heart is not with you.

Isaiah 29:13. And the Lord said: “Because this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, . . .”

In short, the heart is shorthand for the inner life of any man. Thoughts, feelings, decisions, and emotions all make up the heart, as described by the Scriptures.

God’s Requirement for a Pure Heart

With all the responsibilities that the Scriptures assign to the heart, it is not surprising that a holy God would demand a pure and holy heart. In fact, as is evident throughout Israel’s history and in Jesus’ indictment of the Pharisees especially, outward purity means little if the heart remains an unclean sarcophagus (Matthew 23). Therefore, the standard requirement for God is a pure heart. This is reflected in many places.

Psalm 24:4. He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false and does not swear deceitfully.

Psalm 73:1. Truly God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart.

Matthew 5:8. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

1 Timothy 1:5. The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.

2 Timothy 2:22. So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.

1 Peter 1:22. Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart.

God and the Human Heart

Outward conformity to the law is insufficient for God. God does not look at the same thing that men do, because men do not have the ability to see what is within a man. God does (John 2:23-25) and he judges accordingly.

1 Samuel 16:7 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 Lordsees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but theLord looks on the heart.”

Proverbs 21:1. The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will.

Jeremiah 17:10.  “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.” (Jeremiah 17:10 ESV)

Isaiah 29:13. And the Lord said: “Because this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, . . .”

Hebrews 4:12-13.  For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.

The Old Heart Exposed

Based on the first two premises that God demands a pure heart and that he can determine with perfect precision what’s in a heart, it is terrible to see what is in the heart. Despite the self-justification of the masses who say that deep down, “in their heart of hearts,” there is measure of goodness, the Bible gives an alternative evaluation. Throughout the whole Bible, the heart is sick, twisted, evil, and impure.

Genesis 6:5.  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.

Genesis 8:21.  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.

Proverbs 20:9. Who can say, “I have made my heart pure; I am clean from my sin”?

Ecclesiastes 9:3.  This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that the same event happens to all. Also, the hearts of the children of man are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead.

Isaiah 29:13. And the Lord said: “Because this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men.

Jeremiah 17:9.  The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?

Ezekiel 33:31. And they come to you as people come, and they sit before you as my people, and they hear what you say but they will not do it; for with lustful talk in their mouths they act; their heart is set on their gain.

Mark 7:21-23.  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.”

A New Heart Promised

Fortunately, the Bible promises a solution. God doesn’t simply demand that we circumcise our hearts (Deut 10:16). He promises to give new hearts to those in covenant with him. While for a time, the God of Israel did not give his people the heart to repent and believe (Deut 29:3), at the right time when Christ died and rose to the right hand of God, he promised that he would send out his Spirit to purify and enliven hearts who could in turn pursue purity and turn from evil.

Deuteronomy 30:6. 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.

Jeremiah 24:7. I will give them a heart to know that I am the LORD, and they shall be my people and I will be their God, for they shall return to me with their whole heart.

Jeremiah 31:33. 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.

Jeremiah 32:39. I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me forever, for their own good and the good of their children after them. 40 I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them. And I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me.

Ezekiel 11:19. And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh,

Ezekiel 36:26-27. 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. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.

A New Heart Given

Finally, in the days after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the promise of a new heart was granted. In Acts 16, Luke records how God opened her heart to receive the gospel. Likewise, Paul prays in Ephesians 1:18 that the eyes of the heart be opened by the power of God. Indeed, the word of God no longer dwells in the temple of Solomon, it dwells in the heart of Christ’s believers (Col 3:16). Paul even says that Christ himself, by means of his Spirit and his Word, dwells in the heart (Eph 3:17). A few other places in the New Testament speak about the gift of a new, true, pure heart.

Matthew 5:8. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

Romans 5:5. 

2 Timothy 2:22. So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.

Hebrews 10:22. 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.

Drawing a Few Conclusions

After reading these Scriptures, a number of features stand out.

  1. In the presence of a holy God, external purity is insufficient. God requires purity of heart. While men can clean themselves up on the outside (e.g., stop using drugs, improve their language, treat others with more respect, etc.), they cannot purify their hearts before God.
  2. The biblical view of the human heart is universally negative. While men and women can still do many good things, there goodness is restrained to the level of civic goodness. Humanity, before the Lord, is universally wicked, and the heart before God is impure.
  3. The human heart, while hidden from men, cannot be hidden from God. God sees our hearts and will judge us not simply according to our actions, behaviors, and words, but also according to our hearts.
  4. The gospel promises a new heart. Taken as a whole, the Bible doesn’t give sinful men a way to find a pure heart. It is not a roadmap to purity. In parts, the law does speak of man purifying himself  (see 1 Pet 1:22), but such purification comes after God, in his grace, has given his children a new heart. While the law teaches us of the holiness that God demands; the gospel (to which the law points) gives us a new heart. Therefore, you could say: The heart of the gospel is the good news that God gives sinners a new heart. And by that new heart, men and women are able to repent, believe, obey, and love. They have been cleansed from all those things that once defiled their heart, and now Christians are able to walk in purity by the power (and ongoing purification) of the Holy Spirit.
  5. In Christ, believers are to walk by purity. This again is not something they do in themselves (cf. Prov 20:9). It is a work of God in them, but given a pure heart by grace, the believer is called to walk in purity by means of obedience to the truth (1 Pet 1:21-22).

Surely there is more to say about the human heart, but this is a start. What else would you add to a biblical-theological sketch of the heart?

Soli Deo Gloria, dss