And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart . . .
Few Biblical words are more frequently mis-defined and misunderstood in the modern church than the word heart. It is usually understood as emotion. When evangelical ministers declare, “We believe in heart-felt religion at this church,” what they really are saying is that they affirm and practice an emotional religion. This understanding is often to opposed “head religion,” as in, “We believe in heart religion, not head religion.”
The fact is, however, the Bible will not permit such a narrow definition. The Biblical term “heart” does indeed include emotion, and we are not true to the Biblical teaching if we neglect this important facet (Pr. 27:11; Neh. 2:2). “Heart,” nonetheless, means much more than emotion. It clearly includes the mind, or reason. For instance, the Bible declares that, “For as he [man] thinketh in his heart, so is he” (Pr. 23:7). Gordon Clark is correct when he suggests that “heart” is essentially synonymous with the English word self. In its Biblical denotation, the heart is really the core of man’s being. It is the part of man that constitutes him most clearly as a being made in God’s image — spirit, consciousness, mind, volition, emotion, and so on. It does not specifically denote man’s corporeal nature, though it does not specifically exclude it. The heart is the depth of man’s being. We might say, in a generic sense, the heart is man’s God-given ontology.
Biblical terms are not often used in a technical, theological sense. God in the Bible employs, for the most part, common, everyday language to transmit His revelation. This is why we can read that man’s first duty is to love God with all of his heart, soul, strength, might, and mind (Mk. 12:30; Lk. 10:27). The meaning here is not so much to separate out each of these facets, as though each were a separate aspect of man by which he is to love God. Rather, this terminology is a shorthand expression for “man in the totality of his being.” In fact, the term heart can, in large part, encompass each of these facets. To love God with our heart, soul, strength, might, and mind, is simply to love God with all of our heart, in the fullness of our being.
God Monopolizes the Heart
In Biblical psychology, the heart, the self, the core of man, his ontology, is the object of God’s dealings. This is quite evident in the Old Testament doctrine of regeneration. God told Israel that circumcision of the flesh, while essential, was not the fundamental mark of true religion — it may have been the fundamental external mark, but the fundamental mark of true religion was said to be circumcision of the heart (Dt. 10:16 and 30:6). The same is true of regeneration in the New Testament era (2 Cor. 3:3).
When God regenerates a man’s heart, He regenerates the man’s being. This is to be understood ethically, not metaphysically. In other words, God doesn’t, for example, give man a new brain or new hands or a new liver or a new personality. He dramatically reorients the “self,” originally made in God’s image, but fallen and born into sin. This affects man in every aspect of his being: his mind, emotions, will, subconscious, body, and so forth. Regeneration doesn’t render a man sinlessly perfect; it does, however, renovate man definitively and set in process the forces that one day, in man’s bodily resurrection, results in the complete experiential sanctification.
Men draw near to God because of God’s prevenient, sovereign work in their hearts (Dt. 29:4). Likewise, when men draw away from God, they depart first within and by means of their heart (Dt. 30:15-19). If one of the greatest theological errors of the modern church is its identification of the word heart merely with emotion, one of its greatest applicational errors is to identify the source of apostasy as something other than the heart.
Apostasy First Ontological, Not Confessional
We orthodox Protestants are committed to strict, doctrinal identity and the creedal and confessional standards such identity requires. With proper nuance, we are right to do this; and if we ever grow soft on the issue of doctrinal fidelity, we will be well on our way to apostasy.
But — and note this well — when the church arrives at that point, it will have already taken the first few steps. The source of the history of apostasy in almost all Protestant denominations in the late nineteenth and the twentieth centuries is not the abandonment of the Westminster Confession of Faith or the Augsburg Confession or the Book of Concord or the London Baptist Confession of 1689. The source of the defection is a defective heart. No man who loves God with all of his heart ever abandoned the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. No man whose heart burned with devotion to God ever defied God’s authority in the Bible. No man whose heart was right in the sight of God ever questioned the virgin birth, sacrificial atonement, bodily resurrection, or future Second Coming of Christ. As a neophyte Christian, he may not have properly understood these doctrines, but he would never deny them. This is to say that theological orthodoxy is a necessary, but not sufficient, criterion of Biblical Christianity. More is needed. That “more” is a godly heart.
The Antidote to Apostasy
Merely reinstating and enforcing submission to the ecumenical creeds and Reformation confessions will never clean up liberalism and other theological perversions like ordaining homosexuals in the major denominations. Why? Because liberalism and other theological perversions did not begin with an abandonment of creeds and confessions. They began with apostasy in the heart. Sound, Biblical, God-honoring doctrinal symbols are the effect of a white-hot devotion to the sovereign, Triune God that fuels the intellect to such an extent that it demands nothing less than an accurate, systematic understanding of the Bible. The heart fuels the intellect — just as it fuels the emotions, the will, the affections, and even the body. When the heart is persistent in its pursuit of God and His will, that pursuit can never be limited to a single facet of man’s being. It is a totalistic principle that pushes relentlessly for dominion of man in totality. This is why pietism is such a crippling and unnatural religious disease. It suggests that the effects of devotion to God can be exhausted in only one or two facets of man’s being: private prayer and Bible-reading, for example. This is to deny the fullness of man as being created in God’s image. As Abraham Kuyper noted, our devotion to God cannot be divided and limited to only certain aspects of our being. To love God with all of our heart is to love Him in mind, affection, emotion, will, body, subconscious, activity, and so on.
A massive, impending reformation depends, from a human standpoint, on a revival of holistic heart religion. Many of the Puritans often preached extensively on what they termed the “affections.” Even some Calvinists belittle this emphasis, noting (often correctly) that the Puritan forebears became obsessed with private spirituality. We should not fail to recognize, however, that emphasis on the “affections” is a Biblical emphasis (Pr. 23:26; Mt. 12:35; Ac. 11:23). Why is this? When man’s affections, his heart, are properly aligned, he will, if soundly instructed, relentlessly press those affections outward to every aspect of his thought and life. On the other hand, a man whose affections are cold can work toward reforming the church, education, science, the arts, and so on, but he will enjoy only marginal, if any, success. Why? Because his ontology is not fueled to undertake the task.
One of the supreme responsibilities of Christian fathers, ministers, and other teachers is to foster and instill godly affections. They must excite their hearers, listeners, and parishioners with a profound, comprehensive love for God and the Sacred Scriptures, for the Faith, for the people of God, and for the kingdom of God and its advancement.
Where the heart goes, there goes man.