Feb. 24, 2008 at Bethesda Lutheran Church, Unionville, Ontario)
HEART OF THE MATTER
have been a minister of the gospel now for 37 years.
In this time the gospel has never ceased to shine brightly for
me. No doubt many of you
could say as much for yourself concerning the gospel. We know that there
is no substitute for it, just because we know that the gospel (which is
to say, the living Lord Jesus Christ himself in his presence and power)
penetrates to the innermost core of our humanness as nothing else can.
The gospel effects the profoundest alteration within us as
nothing else will. To have
been seized by the gospel ourselves; to know that the gospel is the
outer expression of the inner being and character of God; to have
witnessed again and again the life-long transmutation the gospel effects
in those who become steeped in it -- what is this but to have a
confidence in the gospel that no secularism can dilute nor
ecclesiastical betrayal diminish?
From time to time I relish preaching a simple sermon from a
simple text simply to remind us all once more of the truth and
trenchancy of the gospel. One
such text comes from our Lord's short statement in the Sermon on the
Mount: “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God”.
When Jesus declares that the pure in heart are going to see God
he doesn't mean, of course, that we shall see God with our eyes; the
blind person will not be at a disadvantage.
He means that the pure in heart will know an intimacy with God
that has the ring of authenticity about it.
The pure in heart will be acquainted with the mind and will and
purpose and way of God so as to know what good is to be pursued and what
non-good is to be repudiated. The
pure in heart will find a satisfaction in God that renders them
unseduceable in the face of the religious and ideological smorgasbords
that hold out so much yet deliver so little.
This is the blessing imparted as promised to the pure in heart.
And yet as surely as our Lord knows this and declares it plainly,
he knows something else and states it starkly: the human heart isn’t
pure. It has to become pure,
be made pure, for right now it isn't.
Many different words can describe our heart-condition:
fragmented, corrupt, self-serving, blind, contradictory, insensitive,
silly, uncontrollable, inconstant. The
list is endless.
So many different words describe the heart of fallen humankind
just because a heart-condition is the most serious condition we can
have. You see, “heart”
is the metaphor scripture uses most frequently to speak of what it is to
be a human being under God. “Heart”
is the single most important metaphor for understanding human complexity
and the relation of complex elements within us.
The heart is the “control centre” of feeling, thinking,
willing and discerning.
Let's think first of affect, desire.
The heart is the seat of our feelings, our desires, our passions.
The heart of fallen humankind, however, is disordered: we desire what we were
never meant to have and fail to desire what we need to have.
We passionately pursue what will only prove ruinous and just as
passionately avoid what would be our salvation.
How messed-up is the human heart?
As the seat of feeling it feels dreadful when the favourite
political party loses the election or the hometown sports team loses the
game, yet feels nothing at all when God is dishonoured.
Recall how you felt the last time you were slighted.
Even if you were slighted ever so slightly, you were outraged.
What did you feel when last you heard Jesus Christ insulted?
Likely you felt nothing.
heart is also the seat of thought and understanding.
In fallen humankind thinking, then, is distorted too.
It's not the case that we can no longer think consistently, think
logically; we can. Fallen
humankind remains able to do algebra marvellously.
Rather it's the case that our thinking serves the wrong end.
Our thinking, as logically rigorous as ever, now churns out
“reasons” that rationalize temptation, make excuses for sin, render
our selfishness perfectly reasonable and our depravity perfectly
acceptable. Paul says our thinking has become “futile”.
He doesn't mean that we can't reason -- the structure of reason
survives the Fall (or else we shouldn't be human);
he means that our reasoning leads us to futility, a dead end --
because the integrity of reason has collapsed (reason's integrity
doesn't survive the Fall.) Our
thinking leads not to an intellectual dead end; it leads us, rather, to
intellectual riches that are a human
dead end. When he insists
that our “senseless minds are darkened” he doesn't mean that we
can't do biology; he means that our biology serves a dark end and we
promote biological and germ warfare.
Not that we can't perform electronic wizardry, but that we deploy
electronic surveillance and super-sophisticated munitions and thereby
dehumanize ourselves. The
heart is the seat of thought and understanding; when the heart isn't
pure our thinking -- as rigorous as ever -- promotes a destructive,
our Hebrew foreparents the heart is also the seat of the will.
Our will is our doing. We
have a bent will; it has a bent toward doing what it shouldn't.
No child has to be taught to misbehave.
No adult has to be schooled in vindictiveness, grudge-holding,
spite, envy. I am
forever amazed at intelligent people who endorse the liberal myth of
history, the liberal myth being that history is the unfolding of human
progress. They assume that
humanly to do is inevitably to
To be sure, humankind does advance technically (laser surgery is
a technical advance on the application of leeches), yet humankind never
advances humanly. How anyone
can believe in human progress is beyond me, given overwhelming evidence
to the contrary. In view of
the countless generations of human beings who have come and gone upon
the earth, the cumulative effect of even a smidgen of progress per
generation should have rendered us all angelic by now. Yet the twentieth
century, just concluded, saw unparalleled savagery, thanks to the unholy
marriage of technology and darkened minds.
Actually, upon reflection I’m not amazed that intelligent
people believe in the myth of progress.
After all, one aspect of the darkened mind is that even
intelligent people prefer palatable falsehood to unpalatable truth.
heart is also the seat of spiritual life.
We were created to recognize God, respond to him and rejoice in
him. But our heart,
afflicted with the profoundest kind of heart trouble we shall ever have,
does not recognize God but instead prefers idols both crude and
sophisticated. We do not
respond to God but instead reject him.
We do not rejoice in God but instead seek satisfaction everywhere
Scripture uses one word predominantly to speak of our heart, one
word that gathers up all other descriptions in itself: hard.
Hard in the sense of stony, unyielding, insensitive, obstinate,
rigid; simply hard. It
doesn't beat, doesn't throb, doesn't pump life-sustaining blood.
On the other hand, whenever scripture speaks of the heart made
new at God's hand it uses a wonderful variety of expressions: heart of
flesh (it beats, throbs, pulsates, pumps), holy heart, reverent heart,
broken heart, contrite heart, new heart, pure heart, circumcised heart.
heart? What on earth is a
circumcised heart? Circumcision
was the indelible sign, the ineradicable sign, the undisguisable sign
that this person in particular had been pledged from infancy to love God
and thank him and obey him and delight in him. The
prophet Isaiah and the apostle Paul, both Jews to whom circumcision was
non-negotiable, nonetheless insisted that if one's heart wasn’t
circumcised there was no point in circumcising anything else.
Circumcision not matched by a circumcision of the heart, said
both Isaiah and Paul, is but a misleading sign, a deceptive sign, a
fraudulent sign. Baptism not
matched by faith; church membership not matched by service; Sunday
attendance not matched by sacrifice -- a misleading sign, a deceptive
sign, a fraudulent sign. It’s
the circumcision of the heart
that identifies someone as pledged to the love and service and
satisfaction of God.
Jesus insists that it is the pure in heart who see God.
A pure heart isn’t a state of faultlessness, sinlessness, or
perfection. A pure heart,
rather, is a singleminded heart, a heart dedicated to one, all-consuming
pursuit: God. But if the
heart is already in the mess we have described at length, if the heart
is in so great a mess that it will never be able to purify itself, then
how will anyone come to have that pure, singleminded heart which sees
God? If the messed-up heart
can't even recognize the truth of God, then how can the messed-up heart
even get to the point of knowing that it is messed-up?
How can the messed-up heart determine to be singleminded when the
messed-up heart isn't even aware of heart-trouble and would laugh off
singlemindedness as soon as it heard of it?
In order to answer this question I must acquaint you with a most
significant aspect of the thought of the universal church.
Throughout its history the church has spoken much of prevenient
grace. Pre, “before”; venire,
“to come”. Prevenient
grace is grace that comes before;
comes before we are aware of grace, comes before we are possessed of
faith, comes before we know our need of grace, before we have even heard
of grace. Prevenient grace
is the hidden work of God in the heart of every human being quietly
preparing that person for the moment when the morning dawns and the
truth flashes and he who has always been the light of the world is
finally recognized and acknowledged to be this.
Prevenient grace is that preparatory work of God, unknown to
those in whom prevenient grace is at work, bringing someone to that
point where our Lord's saying, “Only the pure in heart are going to
see God”, is recognized as true; to that point where purity of heart (singlemindedness
concerning God) is all-important just because seeing God is desired now
above all else.
When our forebears in Christian understanding spoke of prevenient
grace they knew that the gospel-seed which they sowed they were always
sowing in soil that God had already, beforehand,
ploughed and fertilized and watered and prepared in every way to receive
that gospel-seed which would otherwise never germinate and yield faith.
Prevenient grace is the anticipatory work of God in the
heart-troubled heart quietly rendering us dissatisfied with our present
satisfactions, quietly quickening in us a desire for “something
more” even though we can't specify what the “more” is, quietly
moving us toward that day when the gospel rings in our hearing with such
authenticity that we wonder where we could have been for twenty-five
years. Prevenient grace is
that preparatory work of God, of which we have never been conscious,
bringing us to the point of conscious faith and quickened discipleship.
In other words, prevenient grace has been operating within us,
quietly rendering us able to see and want and seize the new heart, the
circumcised heart, which is nothing else than the self-giving of our
Lord Jesus Christ forging himself within us.
What is the result of all this going to be?
Paul maintains that the result of Christ's “dwelling in our hearts by faith” is that we have “power to comprehend the
breadth and length and height and
depth of Christ's love”.(Eph.3:17-18)
Breadth, length, height, depth: Paul is speaking here of the
vastness of Christ's love for us, the sheer enormity of it.
To speak of Christ's love for us in terms of its breadth, length,
height and depth is to know that Christ's love is the environment, the
atmosphere in which we live, regardless of what we are about.
Christ's love reaches so high that it towers above even our
highest cultural achievements; so deep that our bottommost depravity
cannot sink us beneath it; so broad and long that everything about us
unfolds within this dimension. When
we were born we were born into this love, and when we die we shall die
into this love in its greater transparency.
The apostle is careful to point out that as Christ dwells in our
hearts by faith we have the “power to comprehend” Christ's
inexhaustible, immeasurable love for us.
To comprehend such love, needless to say, doesn't mean that we
merely grasp the idea of it; to comprehend it is to be seized by it, to
be possessed by it. And to
be possessed by it is to have a singleminded passion for him whose love
it is. And to have this
singleminded passion is what it is to be pure in heart.
The apostle James insists that the “doubleminded person is
unstable in all his ways.” (James 1:7-8)
Of course. The
doubleminded person is always trying to move in two contradictory
directions at once, always trying to uphold two contradictory loyalties
at once, always struggling with two contradictory impulses at once, with
the result that he is constantly distracted, constantly frustrated,
constantly heart-troubled. Kierkegaard
knew better: “Purity of heart is to will one thing”, the Danish
philosopher never tired of saying. Paul
knew that to have the power to comprehend Christ's passionate love for
us is to be freed to love him with a similar passion.
As we do so love our Lord the miracle of the new heart occurs,
the circumcised heart, the heart of flesh.
And as this takes hold of us everything of which the heart is the
seat takes hold of us as well.
Since the heart is the seat
of feeling and desire we come to desire above all else what is of
God and therefore good and therefore good for us.
Since the heart is the seat of thought
and understanding we come to cherish the truth of God and the truth
about the world and the truth about ourselves, however out-of-step we
appear to be with those whose unremedied heart-trouble finds them
misunderstanding life and romanticising death and rationalizing what we
now see to be blatantly false. Since
the heart is the seat of the will
our bent will comes to be straightened enough that at least we want to
“do the truth”, in John's splendid phrase, and begin to do it.
Since the heart is the seat
of our life in God we taste what it is to recognize him, respond to
him and rejoice in him. All
of this arises from a singleminded love that Jesus names “purity of
There is one more thing we must be sure we understand about our
Lord's word. When he says,
“Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God”, he doesn’t
mean merely that they are going to see God in some far-off future.
He means that singlemindedness issues now
in an intimacy with him that we know and cherish, issues now in an acquaintance with God's will and way that strikes us as
the only way, issues now in a
satisfaction that ends all groping and guessing.
the beginning of the sermon I said that the gospel has never ceased to
shine brightly for me. My confidence in the gospel is unshaken.
I trust yours is too. For
together we want only to persist in that singlemindedness which finds us
“seeing God” now through the eyes of faith, and will find us seeing
him even more gloriously on that day when faith gives way to sight, and
hope gives way to hope's fulfilment, and love gives way to nothing --
except more love to him who has loved us always and always will.