Do True Christians Have Wicked Hearts?

THE MATTER OF THE HEART

The reality about which I’ll be writing is not something that I’ve always known and believed. It’s with great sadness and grief that, for the first few years of my Christian life, my view of my own heart as one redeemed by Christ and regenerated by the Holy Spirit was erroneous, unhealthy, and worst of all, unbiblical. It was a view that was shaped and forged, not by Scripture, but by contemporary preaching and thinking within the Christian world. It was one of those things that I heard so much from the pulpit that I ended up believing it, without even questioning it.

The matter to which I’m referring is the matter of the heart. How often have you heard well-meaning Christians say, “Oh how our hearts are so wicked”? Often times, they’ll quote Jeremiah 17:9 and claim that it describes our experience as Christians. Sadly, it’s often quoted in response to a great fall as somewhat of an explanation as to why they sinned. “My heart is so deceitful and desperately wicked,” they’ll groan. We’ve read it in Christian books, and we’ve heard it in preaching, Christian music, and in Christian conversation. So I ask,

Do true Christians have wicked hearts?

I included the word true to make the distinction between true and false Christians, just as Paul considered it necessary to mention the “false brothers” who sought to destroy the freedom that Christians have in Christ (Galatians 2:4). In seeking to answer this question, we need to look beyond “Christian experience” and the bumper sticker theology that many cling to today. We must look to the final authority on all matters of faith and practice: the Holy Scriptures. The question that ultimately matters at the end of the day is,

What does the Bible say about the hearts of true Christians?

I’ll be drawing primarily from the New Testament, not because the Old Testament is irrelevant or unhelpful in this study, but because the reality of the new covenant, regeneration, conversion, sanctification, and Christian experience is spoken about more in the New Testament. Are you ready?

“THE HEART” IN THE NEW TESTAMENT

The word heart appears 178 times in the English Standard Version of the New Testament, and out of those 178 times there is not a single mention of the true Christian’s heart being wicked…not a single one. The only thing that might be questionable is in Matthew 15:19, where Jesus says,

For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.

Is our Lord referring to the heart of an unbeliever or the heart of a believer? If one says, “Both,” then we can join the multitudes of religious people in our churches today who believe that there is no difference between the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the sheep and the goats, the wheat and the weeds, the children of God and the children of the devil. We can join the multitudes who believe that the only difference between Christians and unbelievers is the fact that Christians are forgiven.

Before coming to such a conclusion, we ought to listen carefully to what our Lord says in Luke 6:43-45, because He makes it very clear who He’s referring to in Matthew 15:19:

For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thornbushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. 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.

In that passage, our Lord teaches that the good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good:

Good Person + Good Treasure Within = Good

He also teaches that the evil person out of his evil within produces evil:

Evil Person + Evil Treasure Within = Evil

It’s the evil person’s heart from which “evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, [and] slander” flow. In Matthew 15:19, Jesus is referring to the natural, evil, wicked, unbelieving person who is still in his or her sins. He’s not referring to one of His own.

At this point, because of modern preaching and thinking, some may rise up and object, “But there are no good people who have good treasure within.” If this is you, perhaps you’re thinking about Romans 3:12, where Paul wrote, “No one does good, not even one,” not realizing that what Paul was doing in Romans 3 was proving that all – both Jews and Gentiles – are by nature under sin and under the just condemnation of God. Paul was describing fallen man apart from the sovereign, saving, sanctifying grace of God. It isn’t until chapter 6 that Paul begins to describe Christians as those who have “died to sin” and now “walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:2, 4).

GOOD PEOPLE WITH GOOD TREASURE

Despite popular belief, the Bible teaches that there are indeed “good” people who have “good treasure” in their hearts. Of course, Scripture makes it clear that this isn’t an inherent goodness that comes from them, but a God-wrought goodness that flows from them as the result of being saved by His grace. Luke testifies to this reality:

[Barnabas] was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. (Acts 11:24)

When the apostle Paul concluded his letter to the Romans, he could say with confidence,

I myself am satisfied about you, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another. (Romans 15:14)

The Holy Spirit within the Christian produces goodness:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness… (Galatians 5:22)

Compare the words of Christ in Luke 6:45 (“The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good”) with what the apostle John wrote:

Whoever does good is from God; whoever does evil has not seen God. (3 John 11)

So it’s clear from the Word of God that

1. There are good people,
2. who are full of goodness,
3. who have good treasure in their hearts,
4. and as a result, do and produce good.

This Biblical evidence is more than enough to shatter the popular belief of well-meaning Christians who say that no goodness whatsoever can reside in or flow from Christians.

THE HEARTS OF TRUE BELIEVERS

Having seen that it’s the heart of the evil, unregenerate man that is full of “evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, [and] slander,” what does the New Testament teach about the Christian’s heart? What does God say about the hearts of His children?

1. THEY ARE PURE IN HEART

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

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

…love one another earnestly from a pure heart… (1 Peter 1:22)

Note: This pure heart is the result of regeneration. Peter connects the reality of having a pure heart with the new birth in the very next verse: “…since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God…”

2. THEY HAVE HEARTS FULL OF GOOD TREASURE

The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good. (Luke 6:45)

3. THEY HAVE RIVERS OF LIVING WATER FLOWING FROM THEIR HEARTS

Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’ Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive… (John 7:38-39)

4. THEY HAVE HEARTS THAT HAVE BEEN CLEANSED

…and [God] made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. (Acts 15:9)

5. THEY HAVE HEARTS INTO WHICH THE SPIRIT HAS POURED THE LOVE OF GOD

God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:5)

6. THEY HAVE BECOME OBEDIENT FROM THE HEART

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. (Romans 6:17)

7. THEY HAVE HEARTS IN WHICH GOD’S SPIRIT HAS COME TO DWELL

[God] has also put his seal on us and given us His Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee. (2 Corinthians 1:22)

8. THEY HAVE HEARTS INTO WHICH GOD HAS SHONE HIS LIGHT OF SAVING KNOWLEDGE

For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (2 Corinthians 4:6)

9. THEY HAVE HEARTS IN WHICH THE SPIRIT OF CHRIST DWELLS

And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ (Galatians 4:6)

10. THEY HAVE HEARTS INDWELT BY THE LIVING CHRIST

…that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith… (Ephesians 3:17)

11. THEY HAVE HEARTS GUARDED BY THE PEACE OF GOD

And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:7)

12. THEY HAVE HEARTS UPON WHICH GOD HAS WRITTEN HIS LAWS

I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts…(Hebrews 8:10)

13. THEY HAVE HEARTS THAT HAVE BEEN SPRINKLED CLEAN

…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. (Hebrews 10:22)

14. THEY HAVE HEARTS THAT ARE CONTINUALLY STRENGTHENED BY GRACE

Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings, for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace. (Hebrews 13:9)

This is how the Christian’s heart is referred to in the New Testament.

“I WILL GIVE YOU A NEW HEART”

Lastly, I want to point out what God – in Ezekiel 36 – promised His people. He describes the glorious reality of regeneration and precisely what takes place when a dead sinner is born again and made alive in God. Listen to His words:

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. (Ezekiel 36:26–27)

Do you see the foolishness of going around grumbling, “My heart is so wicked”? What are you saying about the almighty, regenerating power of Ezekiel’s God? What are you saying about the God who does all things well? What are you saying about the work of Christ, which made it possible for you to receive a new heart? Not only is this mindset erroneous, but it’s insulting to the God who gives new hearts to His people. In this passage, God makes it clear that the Christian doesn’t have both an old and a new heart, but only a new heart. The old heart of stone has been removed, and all that remains is the new heart. The old heart has passed away; behold, the new heart has come.

WHEREIN LIES THE PROBLEM?

If the Christian’s heart is not wicked, then wherein lies the problem? The New Testament describes the flesh as that aspect of believers that remains wicked, deceitful, and corrupt. Never are these words used to describe the hearts of believers. The flesh is that aspect in us that resists and violently opposes the desires of the indwelling Spirit of God (see Galatians 5:16-24). J. I. Packer rightly defines the flesh in the lives of believers as

their fallen, Adamic instinct which, though dethroned, [is] not yet destroyed, [but is] constantly distracting them from doing God’s will and alluring them along paths that lead to death. (Concise Theology)

What does all of this mean? It means that if we, as Christians, are going to ascribe wickedness, deceitfulness, wretchedness, evil, or sinfulness to something in us, we’re to ascribe it to the flesh, and not to the new heart that we’ve received from God. We must not call “impure” and “wicked” what God has called “pure” and “good.” We dare not call “a fountain of iniquity” what God has called “an outflow of living water.” It’s a grave error to call “a den of sin” what the Lord has called “the dwelling place of Christ.”

MISUNDERSTANDING AND MISAPPLYING JEREMIAH 17:9

Do we really have the audacity to take Jeremiah 17:9 and apply it to the spotless Bride of Christ? It’s not a humble or lowly thing as a Christian to walk around claiming that your heart is deceitfully wicked, sinful, and corrupt. In light of what God has said in His Word, to make such a claim is bold and foolish. Christian, the Son of God bore the awful weight of your sin and guilt, exposed Himself to the fury of God’s holy wrath, and poured out His soul to death in order to give you a new heart, which is a foretaste of the new heavens and the new earth.

As a young Christian, I remember sitting under a faithful pastor (for whom I am deeply grateful) who repeatedly quoted Jeremiah 17:9 and applied it to Christians. Recently, as I was listening to one of the local Christian radio stations, I came across his radio program where I heard him say something that I can remember him telling the congregation on a regular basis. He encouraged Christians to get alone before God in order to ask Him to show them their hearts. He said that as God revealed their hearts, they would see so much wickedness that they would be forced to tell Him, “Enough! Please stop! I’ve seen enough Lord!” As I heard this, I thought, “Dear God, then what’s the difference between the godly and the ungodly? What ‘greater glory’ is there in the New Covenant if our hearts are still wicked and evil? What good is the promise of a ‘new heart’ if You can’t fulfill such a promise?”

Can you imagine the God who delivered up His precious Son in order to purify for Himself a people for His own possession, looking at those same people and throwing their sins in their face as He reveals nothing but wickedness and corruption in their hearts, the hearts that He gave them? Can you imagine the God who inaugurated and ushered in the New Covenant by slaughtering His Beloved Lamb in our place, looking beyond that redeeming blood and the greater glory of the New Covenant through which we were given new hearts, and showing us nothing but wickedness and evil in those hearts? O may God help us if we bow to and embrace such a theology! It’s my prayer – if you’re a Christian – that you would see yourself in light of what the Son of God accomplished for you on the accursed tree, in light of what the Spirit of God has wrought in you through regeneration, and in light of the glory of the New and Everlasting Covenant into which the Father has brought you. You have a new heart. It’s clean, pure, and good. The Triune God resides there.

Again, I speak not as one who has always known and believed these things. Had it not been for the kind, correcting hand of God, I would still be “humbly boasting” about my “wicked heart.” It’s as though with one hand, God shut my mouth, and with the other hand opened my eyes and pointed me to His Word to see the fruit of Christ’s death, the nature of the Spirit’s regenerating power, and the greater glory of the New Covenant into which the Father has graciously ushered me. This wasn’t some high, holy, extravagant discovery of mine, but a painful, much needed rebuke from a kind, loving, merciful Father who wants every redeemed child of His to see themselves as He sees them. He showed me my folly and ignorance so that I can now confess with Job,

I have uttered what I did not understand. (Job 42:3)

Do you see our great enemy’s motive in getting Christians to believe that their hearts are still wicked, sinful, and corrupt? If a professing Christian believes that wickedness still remains at the very core of his or her being (the heart), then they don’t feel so bad when they sin, since they’re just behaving according to their nature and living out what’s in their heart. They become numb to sin and end up becoming hardened by the deceitfulness of sin! They slip into sin and ease their conscience by saying, “Oh well, we’re all human! No one’s perfect! After all, my heart is deceitful and desperately wicked as Jeremiah 17:9 says! My pastor tells us this all the time!” The truth is, if a person continues in sin and in such a mindset – without repentance – it will be evident that they never knew Christ and were never born of God to begin with. They may have repeated a “sinner’s prayer,” walked down an aisle, or raised a hand, but they were never truly regenerated. They never received a new heart and were never made alive in Christ. They began what they thought was the Christian life, but beyond the surface of their supposed “Christianity” laid an old, stony, dead, deceitful, and wicked heart that would eventually show it’s true colors by casting off the outer garments of Christianity and plunging itself again into the fleeting pleasures of sin! On the other hand, if a true believer adopted such a twisted view of his or her heart to the degree that they eased their conscience every time they sinned so that sin became a small thing to them, we can mark it down: love will chasten them (Hebrews 12:6).

If Satan can get a Christian to believe that they’re still wicked, sinful, and corrupt at heart, at the very core and center of their being, he can…

1. Depreciate the cross in their minds and the precious blood of the Lamb that made it possible for their hearts to be cleansed, purified, and made new.

2. Devalue the power of God (in their estimation) to save believers from the power of sin.

3. Desensitize them to the heinousness, horror, deceitfulness, and seriousness and sin.

4. Demotivate them from striving after the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.

5. Deter them from approaching the throne of grace with confidence and boldness.

6. Demobilize them from going and fulfilling the great commission and charge of their Master to proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.

In conclusion, am I saying Christians are sinless? No, not at all. Am I saying there’s no struggle? By no means. What I’m saying is that the wicked, sinful, and corrupt aspect that remains in Christians is the flesh, and not the new heart that they’ve received from God in regeneration. True believers do not have wicked, sinful, and corrupt hearts. Any wickedness, deceitfulness, sinfulness, or corruption that can be found in believers lies in the flesh. This is why the flesh must be starved, subdued, weakened, and put to death on a daily basis. The apostle Paul tells us that

those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires (Galatians 5:24).

He also said,

For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live (Romans 8:13).

I would plead with all of you who profess to be Christians to examine yourselves – examine your hearts – in light of the Scriptures to determine whether or not you’ve been born from above. Don’t define “normal Christian experience” by your own experience, or by what many pastors may spout from the pulpit in an attempt to normalize sin. God has clearly defined what a Christian is and what a Christian looks like in His unchanging, eternal Word. If you find yourself convicted and condemned when you read the Word, but you continue to blow off and ignore that conviction by telling yourself, “I know I’m a Christian,” you’re deceiving yourself and you’re living a lie. If you believe that your heart – the very core of your being – is wicked and corrupt, and your life overflows with wickedness and corruption, it’s because you are wicked and corrupt, you’re still a child of the devil and on you’re way to hell (1 John 3:8-10). Unless you repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ you will perish in your sin. The good news of the gospel is that Jesus Christ is able and willing to save even the vilest sinners and give them new and pure hearts that are fit for the glory and enjoyment of heaven. Come to Him.

Father in heaven, may the Bride of Christ come to realize who she is in Your eyes and in the eyes of her Blessed Bridegroom. May she stop calling ‘wicked’ and ‘sinful’ what He, by the blood of His cross, has obtained and joyfully pronounced as ‘new, pure, spotless, and clean.’ Thank You for the blood of the New Covenant, for giving us new hearts and new spirits, and for the indwelling of Your Holy Spirit. Thank You for removing our old, dead, deceitful, and calloused heart which was numb and dead to You, and for giving us a tender heart of flesh that is sensitive to sin and able to be warmed and stirred by You. We know that we sin, and it grieves us exceedingly. Teach us to recognize wherein our remaining wickedness, sinfulness, and corruption lies – in the flesh. By Your Spirit, cause us to be violent with it, putting it to death that we might live to Your glory.

Recommended Resource:

Salvation By Grace Alone?

GRACE ALONE, WORKS ALONE, OR GRACE WITH WORKS?

What do we mean – or what should we mean – when we say that we are saved by grace and grace alone? We mean that none of our human efforts, works, intentions, resolutions, or strivings can ever put us in a right standing before a holy God. None of these things can justify us. We mean that we are saved – from beginning to end – by the sheer kindness and unmerited favor of Almighty God. Our works, our “good” deeds, and our religious performances – none of these things contribute to our salvation.

The apostle Paul said,

And to the one who does not work but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness… (Romans 4:5)

Elsewhere he said the same thing three different ways in the same breath:

…we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified. (Galatians 2:16)

And then there’s the classic passage in Ephesians 2:

…by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)

The Pharisee in the temple boasted of his works – his fasting and his tithing – and he went home condemned rather than justified, whereas the repentant, self-proclaimed “sinner” whose hope was in God’s mercy alone – and not in his works – went home justified and forgiven rather than condemned (Luke 18:12-14).

For grace to truly be grace, it cannot be mixed with our works:

But if [election] is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace. (Romans 11:6)

Paul makes it very clear that if we seek to earn salvation by our attempts to keep the law of God, we place ourselves under the dreadful curse of God:

All who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” (Galatians 3:10)

A common hope that many people cling to today is that they are “trying to keep the 10 Commandments,” not realizing that by doing so, and by holding to this mindset, they are placing themselves under the curse of God.

NULLIFYING THE GRACE OF GOD

The second we believe that we can be saved by our “good works” we nullify the grace of God, and if we nullify the grace of God we forfeit our only hope of being saved by God. Paul wrote,

I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose. (Galatians 2:21)

In other words, Paul comes to two logical (and Biblical) conclusions: If sinners can earn a right standing with God by their obedience to the law, 1) they have no need of God’s grace, and 2) they have no need for Christ’s death. What Paul is saying is that grace would be nullified and the cross would be meaningless if he were to live as though he could earn a right standing before God by his obedience to the law.

The idea of nullifying or setting aside the grace of God ought to terrify us. Why? Because if we set aside God’s grace, mercy, kindness, and patience, all we’re left with is His holy justice that demands our punishment. Yet, this is exactly what happens whenever someone seeks to add his or her good works to the pure spring of God’s grace.

This is one of the many heresies linked with Mormonism. Instead of boasting and basking in the grace of God as man’s only hope of being saved, the Book of Mormon affirms that

it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do. (2 Nephi 25:23).

After all we can do? Grace is not a cherry to top the ice cream of man’s works. Grace and works are a deadly mixture. Yet, this mixture is found elsewhere in the Book of Mormon, where Moroni declares that God’s grace is enough for man only after man has sought to love God by living a life of self-denial (Moroni 10:32). The Mormon scholar, Bruce McConkie, went as far as claiming that the New Testament epistles were written

to exhort the saints to that personal righteousness which leads to salvation. (Mormon Doctrine, p. 168)

He goes on to twist the Biblical concept of God’s grace by saying,

Grace is granted to men proportionately as they conform to the standards of personal righteousness that are part of the gospel plan. (Mormon Doctrine, p. 241)

In stark contrast to the Book of Mormon, the clear teaching of the Bible is that man’s salvation depends entirely upon God’s grace, apart from our works and our supposed “personal righteousness” that many believe they have.

If you add your works,
you nullify His grace,
and if you nullify His grace,
you incite His wrath.

If I loaned you a car to drive from New York to Los Angeles and promised you a successful journey as long as you filled the car with gasoline every time you needed to refuel, you wouldn’t think twice about filling the tank with gasoline. However, if for some reason you decided to fill the gas tank with Cherry Slurpees from 7-Eleven at your first stop, you would completely forfeit your chance of making it to Los Angeles in that car. It wouldn’t happen. The engine would be ruined. Why? Because the engine was meant to run on gasoline, not Slurpees.

In the same way, God saves sinners solely on the basis of His grace, but when someone seeks to be saved on the basis of his or her works and their religious performance, they forfeit their only hope of being saved. Such a person can be likened to the fool stuck at the gas station in a puddle of red slush.

DOES GOD OWE US FOR OUR LABORS?

Salvation cannot be earned. The very meaning of the word earn has to do with obtaining something in return for labor and/or services. But here’s the thing: who among our fallen race can offer any kind of labor or service to the Most High God in exchange for the forgiveness of sin? Who among us can stand before God in all of His resplendent holiness and claim to have something worthy to offer Him? To even think that God can be appeased and impressed by our human performance only proves one’s ignorance of the true and living God. Paul asks in Romans 11:35,

Who has given a gift to [God] that he might be repaid?

The obvious answer is, “No one!” because there isn’t a single son or daughter of Adam who can offer anything of any value or worth to God. Man is defiled within and without. Jesus likened fallen man to a bad, diseased tree that cannot bear good or healthy fruit (Matthew 7:18; Luke 6:43). Until the diseased tree is cured, it will always and only produce bad fruit. In the same way, until God regenerates and renews a sinner, nothing good will ever flow from the sinner’s life. He or she may display honorable characteristics, but this is owing entirely to God’s image in them. At the end of the day, the one thing we’ve earned, the one thing we’re entitled to, and the one thing God owes us is eternal punishment for the way we’ve spurned His greatness, resisted His rule, and exchanged His glory.

HOW THEN CAN WE BE SAVED?

Since we can’t earn forgiveness, work for our salvation, or purchase a right standing in God’s kingdom, what must we do to be saved? First of all, we must look away from ourselves and ensure that we’re not placing any “confidence in the flesh” (Philippians 3:3). To have confidence in the flesh means to trust in your works and in your own ability to impress God, as Paul would go on to reveal (Philippians 3:5-6). We must realize that our best deeds, our most impressive performance, and our most righteous acts amount to nothing more than filthy menstrual rags before the holiness of God (Isaiah 64:6). If we’re to be saved, we must abandon all confidence in any supposed “righteousness” that we claim to have and shut our proud mouths before the undeniable verdict of our Maker:

None is righteous, no, not one;
no one understands; no one seeks for God.
All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good, not even one.
(Romans 3:10-12)

FAITH IN THE LORD JESUS CHRIST

We are saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8). To have faith, or to believe, means that you cease from boasting in yourself and trusting in your performance, and shift your hope and trust to Jesus Christ. It means you stop boasting in yourself and begin to boast exclusively in Jesus Christ and Him crucified (Philippians 3:3; Galatians 6:14). True faith looks outside of self and onto Christ. 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 (Romans 10:9). God saves sinners when they cease from trying to impress Him and simply cast themselves on His mercy (Luke 18:13), knowing that they deserve His anger and punishment. True faith is an empty hand that receives the free gift of eternal life that was earned for us through the perfect life and sacrificial death of Jesus Christ. To believe in Jesus is to rest in who He is and what He’s done. Timothy Brindle defines faith as

just an empty hand that receives the grace of the precious Lamb.

Charles Haddon Spurgeon offers a helpful illustration to describe the nature of true faith:

Do let me put this very plainly. Faith which receives Christ is as simple an act as when your child receives an apple from you, because you hold it out and promise to give him the apple if he comes for it. The belief and the receiving relate only to an apple; but they make up precisely the same act as the faith which deals with eternal salvation. What the child’s hand is to the apple, that your faith is to the perfect salvation of Christ. The child’s hand does not make the apple, nor improve the apple, nor deserve the apple; it only takes it; and faith is chosen by God to be the receiver of salvation, because it does not pretend to create salvation, nor to help in it, but it is content humbly to receive it. (All of Grace)

He goes on to say,

Faith is the tongue that begs pardon, the hand which receives it, and the eye which sees it; but it is not the price which buys it. Faith never makes herself her own plea, she rests all her argument upon the blood of Christ. She becomes a good servant to bring the riches of the Lord Jesus to the soul, because she acknowledges whence she drew them, and owns that grace alone entrusted her with them. (All of Grace)

REPENTANCE TOWARD GOD

Not only are we commanded to believe in Christ, but we’re commanded to repent (Mark 1:15; Acts 17:30). True faith is always accompanied by true repentance. Repentance, simply put, is turning from sin to God. True repentance is seen when idol worshippers turn from their idols to serve the living and true God (1 Thessalonians 1:9). Repentance is a change of mind that always results in a change of behavior and direction. In Acts 9, Paul’s mind changed from thinking that Jesus Christ was a deceitful blasphemer to being convinced that He’s the Lord of glory, and this change of Paul’s mind affected his behavior and the overall direction of his life. He went from trying to destroy the church of Jesus Christ to proclaiming boldly that Jesus Christ was the Son of God (Acts 9:20). His repentance was real. His faith in the Lord Jesus proved to be genuine.

The Shorter Catechism refers to repentance as

a saving grace, by which a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, does, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it to God, with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience.

REPENTANCE AND FAITH: THE WAY TO EARN GOD’S FAVOR?

At this point, I should point out that God does not regard our repentance toward Him or our faith in Christ as offerings that make us acceptable to Him? There are many who have sadly gone astray at this point. They find themselves reading the Bible, serving in local churches, and yet they have no assurance, no peace, no joy, and no victory over sin. When a concerned Christian digs deep and begins to ask what they’re clinging to and hoping in, the answer slowly makes it’s way to the surface: they’re looking to their repentance, not to the Redeemer. They’re looking to their faith, not to the Founder and Perfecter of faith – Jesus Christ. They’re trusting in their trust, not in the Savior. Faith in Jesus is what saves, not faith in faith. Repentance toward God is what saves. Any supposed “repentance” that falls short of actually turning to God and resting in His grace is not real repentance. Repentance is real when, like the prodigal, we actually land in the Father’s arms. Faith is real when, like prodigal, we actually come to the Father. The prodigal didn’t fall short of coming back to his father. Yet there are so many who, like the prodigal, have abandoned the pigpen and have begun to make their way to the Father, but have contented themselves in the fact that they’ve left the pigpen. They foolishly rest in the fact that they’re on the road back to the Father, and they even have the audacity to call this “repentance and faith.” This is a sad and dangerous place to be! The only place where we can and should find rest is when we’re united again to the Father. Don’t linger on the road that leads to the Father’s house and call that repentance. It’s not.

It doesn’t matter what filthy, polluted pigpen you’ve abandoned. If you don’t end up like the prodigal in the Father’s arms, you’re lost.

Don’t place your faith in your faith, and don’t look to your repentance. They’re not works or offerings by which we earn God’s favor. Trust in Jesus Christ and look to Him! When we repent and believe in the gospel, we are not performing a work by which we earn God’s favor or forgiveness. On the contrary, we’re simply turning away from every false hope in order to cling to Jesus Christ alone as our only hope of being saved. We’re simply abandoning all earthly confidences, and placing the entirety of our confidence in Jesus Christ. As Paul said, it’s only through Jesus that we’ve “obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand” (Romans 5:2). To be crystal clear:

Jesus alone makes us acceptable to God!

However, for the sake of the argument, let’s pretend as though God did regard our repentance toward Him and our faith in Christ as works or offerings by which we could earn His favor and forgiveness. First of all, we would no longer have a gospel worth proclaiming. There would be no good news or glad tidings to spread! In fact, if God forgave us on the basis of how passionately and perfectly we repented and believed in His Son, this would be dreadful, terrible news! Our repentance would have to be absolutely perfect, and our faith would have to be flawless, because we’d be trying to earn the favor of an absolutely perfect God.

If God regarded repentance and faith as offerings by which sinners could earn His favor, no one could ever be saved, because as one old saint put it, even “our best repentance needs to be repented of.”

The point he was trying to make was that no repentance is a perfect repentance. Who among us, at the moment of conversion, turned fully and completely away from every sin and every idol with the purest motives, the greatest love for God, and the most passionate zeal for His glory and greatness? No, the common confession of so many faithful Christians is,

I wish I knew then what I know now. I turned from certain sins, and I abandoned certain idols, but there were other idols that God, in time, shattered in my life by His loving discipline. I didn’t repent of every sin immediately, because I was involved in things I didn’t realize we’re sinful. I continued in them for a season until the Spirit of God, through the Word of God, exposed these sins and helped me to turn from them. It was only after His hand had been heavy upon me that I realized that there were things in my life as a young Christian that were very displeasing to Him. But by His grace and faithfulness, He is slowly and surely cleansing me from all my idols (Ezekiel 36:25).

God isn’t looking for a worthy offering from us. He isn’t demanding that we offer Him a perfect repentance or a perfect faith, the same way that someone offered a perfect lamb as an offering in the Old Testament. No, the perfect, spotless Lamb has already been offered once for all time to bear the sins of His people. This is the only offering – resulting in forgiveness – that ever was and ever will be truly acceptable to God. The vocal expression of true repentance and faith, when found in the heart of a sinner, says,

God, the offering of Your Son on the cross is the only thing that can satisfy Your justice and effectively put away my sin and my guilt. It’s the only thing that can cancel the endless record of debt that I owe You for having violated Your holy law. It’s the only means by which I can stand before Your throne, gaze upon Your face, and not be damned to eternal punishment. It’s my only hope of being forgiven, saved, justified, and reconciled to You.

By our repentance toward God and our faith in the Lord Jesus, we are abandoning all other hopes of being saved, and we are saying to God,

I cannot save myself. I’m done trying to earn Your favor. Apart from Your grace and mercy, there’s nothing in heaven or on earth into which I can place my hope and confidence. I have no reason in myself as to why You should forgive me and save me. I’ve taken all the ‘good’ things I’ve done and all the bad things I’ve done, and I’ve thrown them all into a pile before the cross, and I’ve fled from that pile of dung to cling only to Jesus. Have mercy on me, the sinner. If there’s no grace in You, there’s no hope for me.

SALVATION IS BY GOD’S GRACE ALONE

With Peter, we confess without apology or shame that

we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus. (Acts 15:11)

We now know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for our sake He became poor, so that we by His poverty might become rich with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places (2 Corinthians 8:9; Ephesians 1:3).

We confess that God’s grace alone is the basis for which He

chose us (Romans 11:5),
predestined us for adoption into His family (Ephesians 1:5-6),
called us (2 Timothy 1:9),
regenerated us (Ephesians 2:5),
caused us to believe in Him (Acts 18:27; Philippians 1:29),
caused us to repent (Acts 11:19; 2 Timothy 2:25),
justified us (Romans 3:24),
forgave us (Ephesians 1:7),
and saved us (2 Timothy 1:9).

We boast not in ourselves, but in the grace that our God lavished upon us before the ages began:

[He] saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began… (2 Timothy 1:9)

Before they were born, and before God had formed the earth, God’s elect had already been given grace, and it would be this grace (or unmerited favor) that would serve as the sole basis for which every salvation blessing would be lavished upon them.

To say that we are saved by grace and grace alone is to say that our salvation – from beginning to end – has nothing to do with our good performance or our ability to impress the living God. On the contrary, it has everything to do with the glorious grace of God that leaves no room for those who receive it to boast or brag about themselves before His holy presence.

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works. (Titus 2:11-14)