Monday, October 06, 2008

2 Considering the heart of Man

The Heart

It is our task to put things in their proper place. This excludes worshiping them unless that is their proper place. Worship is, therefore, reserved for God alone. To worship other things is to improperly perceive their value and, consequently, pervert their worth and usage.

There is a saying that most of us have heard – “He had a change of heart”. This is intended to mean that the person in question changed their mind or “feelings” about something. It could refer to anything from a job one was planning to accept to that which they were going to eat for breakfast. It could be something life altering or a relatively meaningless matter. I mention this because the mundane use of such a phrase can lead to the misinterpretation of the Biblical concept of having a change of heart. It has become very common to associate “the heart” with a romantic, sentimental, emotional idea that is reminiscent of a holiday such as valentine day. In this chapter we will offer a definition for “the heart” and consider as we prepare for the next chapter in which we will consider what it means to have a change of heart as it relates to the Biblical doctrine of repentance.

As we think about the topic of the heart and its relationship to repentance we should see that that which we considered in the first chapter regarding the essence of sin will prove to be helpful as we attempt to gain understanding of the “heart” as it is presented in Scripture. There are an incredible number of passages which lead us to understand that the heart is associated with the moral center of man. Unfortunately, many of the descriptions of the heart in Scripture are references to sin, unrighteousness and evil. On the other hand, if a sinner is to be reconciled to God and escape a life of sin, unrighteousness and evil, there must be a change of heart. The essence of sin has been shown to involve exchanging the truth of God[1] for a lie[2] and making the choice to worship and serve “self” supremely. This must be understood as a voluntary commitment to the ultimate end of serving self-interest supremely. If this is the core problem then the solution must address this problem. If sin involves denying God (“they did not honor Him as God”[3]) in favor of self-supremacy then repentance toward God will involve a reversal of this situation[4]. That which one is supremely committed to is otherwise known as one’s “heart”. It is of great importance to clarify the nature of the “heart” as we attempt to understand the nature and essence of genuine repentance.

Snapshots of the Heart

Among a very long list of Scripture passages which speak of the heart, we read that God once revealed that every intent of the thoughts of man’s heart was only evil continually[5]. We are informed that man establishes this evil heart from his youth[6]. Though this is true we are also told that in order to “find” God and maintain a right relationship with Him, we must search for Him and love Him with a whole heart[7]. Further we learn that God evaluates the heart in His effort to determine a man’s true moral state[8]. The preceding sentence is both a profound Scriptural revelation and theological consideration. We are told that a man can have his heart wholly devoted to God and that a man can turn his heart from God[9], that people do evil because they do not set their heart to seek the Lord and that the plans of the heart ultimately belong to man[10]. Though the above references are not exhaustive, they serve to emphasize the importance of the role of the heart. Since Scripture instructs us to keep a close watch over our hearts for from it flow the issues of life[11], we should understand that if our lives are to be conducted in a manner that is consistent with our created design; if we are to produce fruit that remains, it starts by properly “positioning” the heart. Though we know that behind every proper heart is the initiating work of God, we also understand that man’s cooperative involvement is a necessary ingredient for having a right heart. It is my conclusion that God is always doing what is proper and appropriate for moving us toward righteousness. The missing ingredient (when there is one) is found to be on our side of the relationship. The more understanding we have about our moral obligation to properly respond to and cooperate with God, the more we increase the potential of bringing to pass that which God intends. What follows is intended to add clarification to our definition of the heart and, further, offer insight into the nature of true repentance.


It is common understanding that life consists of a wide variety of choices. As we go through each day, we have the occasion and responsibility to make choices which shape our lives. Also, it is generally realized that our choices are not all of the same importance. Though most (if not all) people acknowledge this simple reality, they do not necessarily consider the fact that not all choices we make are the same type of choice. Following is a description of three different types of choice, one of which we will directly associate with the heart.

We will begin by naming and offering a basic definition of each of the three categories of choice. We will then provide an illustration designed to clarify the distinction between each category. This will be followed by an investigation of the Scriptural information that lies behind these conclusions ending with clarification about the category of choice that is most directly associated with the heart. Our goal in this chapter is to set the stage for understanding what genuine repentance actually is and, as well, what it is not.

Executive Choice

This category of choice involves decisions that are made which produce action. Before each “mechanical” action we engage in or execute, a choice is made that issues forth the aforementioned action. It is safe to say that the average person is not overtly conscious of most of the choices made in this category. Though, in the course of life, this type of choice becomes so routine we are often not conscious of it, actual choices are genuinely made prior to each action executed. It is also true that executive choices are so numerous that we would have great difficulty attempting to count them or track each one.

Subordinate Choice

This category of choice involves making or establishing plans and strategies. Though the three types of choice we are considering are distinct from one another they also work in conjunction with one another. Combined with executive choice, our plans are carried out or acted upon. Subordinate choices tend to be less numerous than executive choices and are choices of which we are generally more conscious. It is to be understood that executive choices are being engaged in for some reason; there is something we are attempting to accomplish or carry out. The foundation of our executive choices are the plans and strategies we establish; our subordinate choices. Our plans and strategies exist, however, because we intend to further a purpose established by another realm of choice. This is the essential reason we refer to this area as subordinate. Both executive and subordinate choices are extensions of the next category of choice to be considered. Subordinate choices are, in this sense, sandwiched between executive choice and supreme choice.

Supreme Choice

As we have identified Executive Choice with a choice of action to be engaged in and Subordinate Choice with plans and strategies established, we will now identify Supreme Choice with one’s prevailing purpose or the ultimate motive behind our plans and, consequent, actions. We must draw attention to the fact that we use words like “supreme”, “prevailing” and “ultimate” for very strategic reasons. The choice that is made in this realm lays the foundation for one’s moral identity; the foundation upon which one’s character and consequent life is established. The plans made in life and the actions engaged in are, in an ultimate sense, for the purpose of furthering, accomplishing or fulfilling this most central and foundational decision. It is with this in mind that we can appreciate the Biblical teaching of Proverb 4:23 which states, “Watch over you heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life”.

There is a very distinctive feature to this realm of choice that is not true of the two previous categories. Though actions and plans can be quite numerous, supreme choice has a much more limited dimension to it. In fact, as we make an effort to define this realm of choice as it appears in Scriptural revelation, we find that all human beings are limited to one of only two supreme choices or prevailing purposes of life. In other words, when all things are reduced to their most fundamental reality we will find that every human being lives for only one of two possible supreme or ultimate purposes. This prevailing purpose is known in Scripture as one’s heart.
We will consider further clarification for properly understanding this specific type of choice, but before doing so we will consider an illustration that simply helps us appreciate the distinction between the three types of choice under consideration. It must be strongly emphasized and kept in mind that this illustration will not due justice to the unique qualities of supreme choice. It is simply intended to aid in highlighting the distinction between the three types of choice we have thus far identified. We will yet need to give specific attention to supreme choice if we are to effectively define, describe and understand it.


Having gone jogging, a man returns home and sits on the porch in front of his house. Sitting there he realizes how thirsty he is. This being the case, he establishes the purpose of quenching his thirst. In this illustration, though this does not accurately capture it’s essence (as mentioned above), the decision to quench his thirst reflects supreme choice. In other words, this is an ultimate purpose that has been chosen which lays the foundation for further choices to be made. In order to fulfill this purpose he might plan to go across the street to the water fountain in the park, go to the nearby convenience store, get something out of his refrigerator, go to the local barroom or drink from the faucet in the kitchen. These plans represent various options that exist on the level of subordinate choice. Having scanned his options (whether thoroughly or haphazardly) one of the plans is chosen to carry out his purpose. However, a plan is of no use unless it is acted upon, carried out or executed. This is where executive choice comes into play. In order to carry out a plan, which is designed to fulfill a purpose, one must execute a series of actions, each involving a choice (whether conscious or “instinctive”). For example, if he chooses the plan of going across the street to the water fountain in the local park, he must choose to stand up, walk, check for traffic, reach his hand out to grab the knob on the fountain, turn the knob, lower his face into place, suck in the water, swallow the water, etc. Hopefully, this illustration highlights the fact that these three levels of choice are distinct and that each has its place and importance.

Scriptural Information

The fact that each person on the face of this planet must choose an ultimate purpose for which they live is an often overlooked and under emphasized truth, even within the body of Christ (the pillar and support of the truth). Yet upon close evaluation we notice a very interesting and prevailing pattern when it comes to the issue of the ultimate commitment or path of pursuit available to human beings. When we reduce or simplify the Scriptural information regarding this dimension of life we find that the options are always twofold in nature.

Consider the chart at the beginning of this article.

The bottom line is that when we are faced with that which we purpose to pursue and promote as a supreme end, we do not have a wide variety of options. We are either walking upon a narrow path which leads to life or a wide path that leads to death. The point we want to make sure we get is that every person on the face of this planet has resolved to walk one of the two available paths; build upon one of only two possible foundations. Tying back into chapter one, we are purposing and promoting either God’s pleasure and will supremely or self-pleasure and self-will supremely. Hopefully, the explanation that follows and the application that concludes this chapter will help the reader realize how crucial an understanding of this perspective is and how potentially detrimental an ignorance of this perspective can be. It may be true that there are a variety of “unique” means we use (plans and actions) to walk the path we commit to but it must be held firmly in mind that there are only two ultimate purposes for which a human being can choose to live.

Supreme Choice Revisited
Having introduced, defined and illustrated the three types of choice, we will continue by offering further insight into the nature and importance of Supreme Choice. It is this level of choice that establishes moral character. In other words, it is possible to have two people who are pursuing identical plans (being part of a local church) and who have engaged in identical or similar actions (saying prayers, reading books, singing songs, listening to sermons, etc.) in order to carry out this plan while one of the two is morally virtuous in God’s sight and the other is not? This is because moral virtue is first and foremost an issue of the heart and the heart relates to the ultimate motive from which our plans and actions flow. Let’s go a step further by saying that neither one of the two individuals in our example drinks, smokes, fornicates, cusses, etc. Though they engage in identical plans and actions and abstain from certain outward acts of sin, is it possible that one of the two is morally virtuous in God’s sight while the other is not? I suggest that the determining fact regarding one’s moral virtue is one’s chosen and established end, ultimate intention or supreme/prevailing choice. If an individual engages in all that is described above in an effort to supremely benefit self (or even human-kind; the creature), they have fallen short of the glory of God. If, on the other hand, an individual engages in the above plan and conduct for the ultimate end of honoring and pleasing God, purposing to promote His kingdom and benefit others as a result, they are virtuous. Moral virtue is not determined by what one does (though plans and actions are significant) but by why one does what they do. If one’s ultimate motivation is self-serving (the reward/benefit I get or the punishment I avoid) they are yet in sin, even if they use a religious mode of operation to promote this end. In order to emphasize this very important concept, I will comment upon a teaching of Jesus found in Mt16:24 & 25.

The Heart

The heart is not a thing that causes personality but rather a term that describes the central use of the will (in conjunction with our mind and emotions) to identify the ultimate end to which we will live. There is an interesting relationship between one’s conduct, character and heart. Though there is sufficient Scriptural evidence that teaches that conduct flows from the heart[13], it is also a worthy consideration regarding how such a heart, from which this conduct flows, is established. In other words, we are faced with the question, does our heart determine our choices or do our choices determine our heart? This is a very important and interesting area of investigation. In a significant way our choices establish our heart and our heart leads to our choices. There is an intricate balance and relationship in this area of human experience. It appears, however, that the weight of Scriptural revelation leads to the conclusion that we are responsible to set (resolve or establish) the purpose and focus of our heart because we realize how it affects our future decisions and direction. Passages which speak about setting one’s heart[14], watching or guarding one’s heart[15], changing, turning or returning one’s heart[16] and general patterns revealed[17] throughout Scripture seem to indicate that the condition of one’s heart is established by a primary choice which lead to future subordinate choices and actions. This is what is referred to as the Supreme Purpose of Heart.


In the case of genuine repentance and conversion, the choice we are speaking of that establishes a right heart is very specific. The word “repent” literally means to change the mind. When speaking of repentance unto the remission of sin, the change of mind that is needed is in regard to one particular issue. It is to change ones mind about who (or what) they will serve supremely. Every human being must resolve whether they will build upon the foundation (motive) of promoting one’s own pleasure, interest and benefit supremely or upon the foundation of promoting God’s pleasure, interest and “benefit” supremely. The fundamental question to ask is “Is our obedience a manifestation of purposing to please God or of wanting get something from God, for self; is God an ends or a means?”

There is a concern that is often expressed at this point. Many ask if it is possible to live without being concerned about oneself. The proper way of dealing with this concern is to point out that genuine repentance does not require that we have no concern for self. It requires that our concern for self is not supreme and that it is kept in its proper place and perspective. An ultimate motive will prevail as our supreme goal and purpose against which all others will be measured and regulated. One will be supreme while the other will be subordinate and take on shape according to the supreme nature of the other. Is it right to give attention to the concerns of life? Yes, but in accordance with that which is pleasing to and acceptable by God. We cannot serve two masters. One will be supreme while the other becomes subservient.

It is our task to put things in their proper place. This excludes worshiping them unless that is their proper place. Worship is, therefore, reserved for God alone. To worship other things is to improperly perceive their value and, consequently, pervert their worth and usage.
[1] “The truth of God” is a phrase referring to the fact that God is intrinsically the Supreme Being, the ultimate authority and most qualified to rule wisely and lovingly.
[2] “The lie” is the delusion of self-supremacy and the consequent lifestyle it produces.
[3] Romans 1:21
[4] Consider Matthew 16:24 and 1 Thessalonians 1:9 in this regard.
[5] Ge.6:5
[6] Ge.8:21
[7] Dt.4:29; 6:5
[8] Ps.17:3; Jer.17:10; 1 Thes.2:4;
[9] 1 Ki.15:4; 11:9
[10] 2 Chron.12:14; Pr.16:1
[11] Pr.4:23
[12] This passage clearly teaches that man has only one ultimate or prevailing commitment (master).
[13] Pr.4:23, Mt.15:19, 2 Chron.12:14, Ep.3:17, 18; etc
[14] 1 Chron.22:19; 2 Chron.12:14, 19:3; Ezra 7:10
[15] Pr.4:23
[16] Dt.30:10, 14; 1 Ki.8:48
[17] Ro.1:21, 2:5, 6:17

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