A New Heart
But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God. —Romans 2:29
The world is a mess, and it’s always someone else’s fault. Every rational person on the face of the earth knows something is wrong, and every single one is pointing at some other guy saying, “He’s to blame.” At the same time, the world tells us how wonderful we really are and how much good we deserve and all that we’re entitled to, and our pampered hearts agree. So when life surprises us and becomes hard, it has to be someone else’s responsibility.
We need to hear the gospel again. Only the gospel tells us the truth about God and about ourselves. The gospel changes the subject from how we stack up compared to the next guy to how we stack up compared with what we could have been if we’d paid attention to God. The gospel repositions us emotionally before God from demanding to repenting. And when we stand before God and begin to see him more clearly, we stop thinking, “But I’m an exception. I have an excuse.” We start thinking, “Now I see, and I don’t have a leg to stand on. I need God’s grace.” It’s so freeing to admit that. It’s how we enter into newness of life, and there is no other way.
God loves us so intensely he is willing to pierce our bulletproof excuses, so that he can pour his grace into our hearts with real healing. That is what God wants to do today. He’s offering is something better than what we think we deserve. He’s offering us a good thing we know we don’t deserve – a new heart. The Holy Spirit is able to create in us a heart cleansed of guilty secrets, a heart that feels so accepted through the cross that we can admit any truth and live in ongoing renewal. If you need a new work of God in your heart, he is ready, and I want to help you get there. Let’s all open our hearts to him now through his Word.
In Romans 1:18-5:21 Paul is explaining the gospel in two steps. Step one is our problem (1:18-3:20), and step two is God’s remedy (3:21-5:21). We’re in the problem section right now. We’re learning to see ourselves with new realism, the way God sees us. He sees three human profiles in the world today, and each type of person is excusing himself from God. But why is the human heart allergic to God? Is it really because we’re so confident? I don’t think so. It’s because we’re guilty and afraid. We know we don’t have a leg to stand on. But if we admit it, we have to open up to God and let him take control. So the first work of the gospel is to help us open up to God by showing us who we really are.
In Romans 1:18-32, Paul confronts Mr. Self-Indulgence. He sees the world as his playground, with no rules but his own appetites and ego. Mr. Self-Indulgence is far from God, but he has an excuse: “What can I know of God way out there?” And the answer is, “The ‘out there’ you’ve made into a barrier to God is the very thing God created to reveal himself to you. The creation in all its vastness and glory is a megaphone declaring God. Mr. Self-Indulgence, you have no excuse for not welcoming God into your life.” But God can give Mr. Self-Indulgence a new heart.
In Romans 2:1-16, Paul confronts Mr. Moral High Ground. He upholds a strict moral code and looks at Mr. Self-Indulgence with scorn. He thinks he’s better, but he’s always looking for loopholes. Mr. Moral High Ground is avoiding God, but here’s how he justifies himself: “I may not be perfect, but at least I know the difference between right and wrong, which is more than I can say for Mr. Self-Indulgence!” And the gospel says to Mr. Moral High Ground, “God is pouring out on you his riches of kindness, forbearance and patience. The only reason you don’t feel it and humble yourself and relax is your hard heart. You have no excuse for not melting before God in repentance.” But God can give Mr. Moral High Ground a new heart.
In Romans 2:17-29, our passage for today, Paul confronts Mr. Biblical Worldview. He knows the Bible, believes the Bible, teaches the Bible. He knows the will of God in the law of God. And that knowledge makes him so sure of himself. He may be irritating to others, but he excuses himself: “Obviously, the problem is out there. The world doesn’t understand how much they need me. My opinions would make such a difference.” But the gospel says to Mr. Biblical Worldview, “Your theology hasn’t gone deep enough yet. The true mark of God’s people is not how much of God’s will they know but how deeply they feel about God’s will and their own sin and his grace.” God can give Mr. Biblical Worldview that new heart.
All three human profiles – immoral, moral and religious – the Bible says that all are “under sin” (Romans 3:9). All of us need God’s grace. The Lord wants to take every one of us to the place where we stop comparing and bow down before him and say to him, “I fall short of the glory of God, and I can’t blame anyone else. God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” That’s where God wants to take us – humility and repentance and openness. It’s where we find newness of life, it’s how we stay in newness of life.
But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast in God and know his will and approve what is excellent, because you are instructed from the law; and if you are sure that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth – you then who teach others, do you not teach yourself? —Romans 2:17-21
Paul addresses a Jewish person because God had entrusted to the Jewish nation his moral law in the Old Testament. We can picture Paul here sitting at a table in some inn somewhere in the Mediterranean world during his travels. Paul is there with a devout Jew, a man schooled in the law of God. They’re having dinner together. They’re talking through the gospel. Paul must have had thousands of conversations like that. In our passage he’s boiling those conversations down to thirteen verses, and we get to listen in and find ourselves here.
Now, what’s right with Mr. Biblical Worldview sitting there with Paul at that table? He is right to believe and cherish and study the Bible. He is right to care about the law of God. He is right to be disturbed that so many people don’t know the good will of God for their lives. There’s a lot right with this man.
So what’s his problem? The key is the word “sure” in verse 19: “. . . and if you are sure that you yourself are a guide to the blind.” Mr. Biblical Worldview is so sure of himself. He doesn’t see that having God’s law isn’t making the impact on him that God intended. He doesn’t see that, if God wants to speak to the world through him, then God wants to speak first to him. God gave the law to this man, to humble him into a listening frame of mind. But in his self-assurance, he doesn’t listen. Paul could sympathize. He himself had been that way all his life. Then Paul saw something new.
There are two kinds of certainty among Bible-loving people. The Bible is all about truth and certainty. It’s a treasure of infinite value in this world of confusion. But there are two ways to respond to biblical truth. One kind of certainty thinks, “Here I have in my hand ‘the embodiment of knowledge and truth’ (verse 20). One thing’s for sure – I want to study this, so that I can change. I need newness of life!” That kind of certainty is humble and open. That’s what the Bible is for. The other kind of certainty thinks, “Here I have in my hand ‘the embodiment of knowledge and truth.’ One thing’s for sure – I want to study this, so that I can enlighten others. They need to change!” That kind of certainty is sincere, but way too sure of itself. It’s self-exalting – and irritating to others. That’s Mr. Biblical Worldview. He sees himself as qualified to teach others, and Paul doesn’t deny it. He just points out a problem. God gave the Bible to us all not only to keep us from the sins of the flesh but even more to keep us from the sin of the heart – pride. Being certain about God’s truth is lovely in the sight of God. We must never cast doubt on the Bible’s full truth-value. But shouldn’t that certainty start changing Mr. Biblical Worldview first? When we read verse 24, we can see Paul leaning forward over the table, looking his friend right in the eye and saying, “The primary problem in the world today is not all those bad Gentiles out there. The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” That comment did not help dessert go down easily. But let’s think about it.
Take abortion. It’s a very Gentile thing to do. It’s what people do when they don’t know the law of God. That child does not belong to the mother or the father or the state. That child belongs to God. He loves that child. He has a purpose for that child. It doesn’t matter if that child is handicapped or the next Einstein, killing that helpless child is killing the good will of God for the next generation. Mr. Biblical Worldview would agree. He knows the law of God: “You shall not kill.” But where does the sin of abortion come from? It comes from a deeper sin, down in the heart. It comes from a selfish heart that says, “My plan for my life is more important than your life. Me first.” And that me-first mentality is in every one of our hearts. It’s in the church. But it’s possible to overlook the deeper sin while condemning the obvious sin – especially if the outward sin happens to be the one I personally am not so tempted by. Mr. Biblical Worldview is right to be against abortion, because God is against abortion. But Mr. Biblical Worldview is so sure of himself he can’t see how he’s saying, “My form of me-first-ism is okay, but yours is sin.” And then he wonders why people aren’t listening to him. The truth is, me-first-ism in all its forms will stay strong in America today until the Holy Spirit gives enough Americans a new heart that says “Christ first, no matter what the cost to me.” We need God to touch all our hearts so that we can create a life-giving culture. That will happen through the gospel and in no other way, no matter how much we condemn our culture of death.
A friend of mine was being filmed for a PBS special on the Christian movement in America today. He was the last one on a list of prominent Christian leaders the film crew was interviewing around the country. The PBS people had visited some highly influential Christian leaders. My friend asked them if anyone had shared the gospel with them. They said no. By that time they had a bellyful of other concerns, but no one had shared the gospel with them. So my friend did, and they listened. It is right for the church to speak against public sins with a prophetic voice. But the gospel always comes first and last. Only the gospel can change hearts, and the change begins with us. On November 4th, vote your convictions. But every day remember the most important and the most urgently needed message in all the Bible: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:16-17).
For circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision. . . . A Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God. —Romans 2:25, 29
Why does Paul mention circumcision? Because God gave the rite of circumcision to Abraham, the father of the Jews, as a mark on his very body, like a tattoo, declaring that he belonged to God (Genesis 17). God had made promises to Abraham, promises that Christ would come and clean up this tragic world and lead us into a new world of peace and righteousness and justice, filled with the glory of God. Abraham believed God’s promises. He chose God. He put the promises of God in the constellation of his mind as a new North Star to guide him through the here-and-now. And as long as his nation, the Jews, followed in the footsteps of that life-changing faith, that new allegiance, their circumcision meant something. But without a life backing it up, the rite of circumcision became evidence against them, exposing their hypocrisy.
But then here’s some Gentile guy in the outlying nations who hears of God’s promises and believes them and re-aligns his life accordingly, but he doesn’t bear the covenant mark on his body – his outsider status is, in God’s sight, a mere technicality. God cares more about a new heart than outward protocols, even his own protocols.
This is why “fire-insurance Christianity” won’t work. Someone says, “Sure, I’m a Christian. I’m no pagan. So I’ll get baptized and join a church and take communion. But don’t expect me to change. Don’t expect me to live for Christ. It isn’t Christ I want; it’s hellfire I don’t want.” That’s fire-insurance Christianity. It’s common today. But that kind of “faith” is a waste. It’s a waste of God’s time, and it’s a waste of your time. It only exposes hypocrisy. It may get human applause, but if offends God.
How does God love people like that, people like Mr. Biblical Worldview? The prophet Ezekiel explained how:
I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. . . . I will give you a new heart. I will remove your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my Spirit within you. —Ezekiel 36:23, 26-27
This is the love of God. He provides everything we need. What do we have to offer God? Nothing but this stone inside. This stony heart looks at the cross of Christ and feels nothing. It hears the gospel and feels nothing. It receives blessing upon blessing and feels nothing. But what does God do? He gives a new heart – not just new rules but new feelings within like reverence and trust and tenderness and humility and hope and gladness and relief and joy. We blame others. We evade responsibility. That’s a stony heart. But in the gospel God says, “This tragic world is your fault, but I’m taking it on as my responsibility. I will go to the cross and take the blame, all of it. And I will send you my Spirit to arouse in you new life, new sensitivities, new capacities, that died inside you all the way back in the Garden of Eden. I will resurrect your dead heart. I will provide everything you need. Do you need faith? I can give it. Do you need honesty? I can give it. This is my love, my grace. Will you receive it?”
I wonder if it’s time for you to put your hope in God again. I wonder if it’s time for you to rediscover the grace of God. Maybe it’s time to stop blaming someone else and just fall into the arms of God. He can do you a renewing work in your heart. Will you ask him?
Think of it this way. If you get into trouble and you dial 911, will they come? Or will the guys down at the fire station look at your number on caller ID and look at each other and ask, “What do you think, guys? Do they deserve it?” Is that what they do? Or do they just come?
What if you dial 911 to God? Will he come? Or will God check caller ID and look around at the angels and say, “I gave this guy 100 get-out-of-jail-free cards, and here he’s calling for the 101st time. Can you believe the nerve of this guy?” Is God like that? Or if you dial 911 to God, will he just come?
If you see yourself in Romans 1:18-2:29, if you know you have no excuses left, nothing but need, and you know you don’t even have a good heart toward God and you blame even him but you know how wrong you are and how much change you need, this is what you must know. God is attracted to need. God is attracted to failure. God is repelled by pride. But he moves toward people with real problems who are ready to get with him. That’s who God is. And he is ready to do a new work in your heart. If you dial 911 to God, do you think he’ll come? Are you willing to try?