Wretched or Redeemed? The Age Old Battle For Identity
Lately, for the last few years, I have been growing in a strong disagreement about the nature of the heart and how sinful we actually are. At least in the New Covenant in Jesus. For a long time I, as well as thousands of believers, have held up Jeremiah 17:9 as the standard measure for myself as a Christian. While, at times, it has been good to see the sinfulness of my sin, I think the identity of who I am in Christ has been lost. I relate to myself more through my indwelling sin than through the indwelling Son. This is a problem. Part of it comes from an interpretation of Jeremiah 17:9 that I do not believe is in context.
9The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?
This verse has become the one size fits all description of all believers. Our hearts are deceitful. They are also desperately wicked. With that combination, how could anyone understand them? The scripture is true, right? Yes! But only in context. As all scripture, we have to look at Jeremiah in context to interpret it rightly. Does that verse really describe how all believers should see themselves in Christ? I don’t think so. Here are three reasons why:
1. This passage falls in an OT text describing the sin of Israel as a nation. Verses 1-4 talk about God’s judgment to Judah. God is going to give their wealth to the nations (Babylonian majority) that take them into captivity. Verses 5-8 quote Psalm 1 indicating the cursing and blessing for turning their heart away from the Lord. Then it transitions quickly to the person who does not turn away and submits to God righteous judgment. This person is like a tree planted next to the water. When verse 9 comes, God appears to be contrasting man’s inability to know the heart versus God’s ability to know and know it well. In verse 10 God says as much, that he knows the heart and will reward those who seek him. Jeremiah 17:9 is a statement of God’s wisdom to know everything, even the heart of man. It’s not a statement of the corporate identity for all of God’s people. Besides, there are people in the OT whose hearts did not turn away from God. If that’s true than Psalm 1 is a reminder of the possibility to have a heart after God. Not a contradiction to the reality.
2. Later on in the same book, God details what the New Covenant will be like. This New Covenant is also used in Hebrews chapter 8 and in context it is clear that this covenant’s fulfillment is in Jesus Christ. 31 “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, 32not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. 33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” 35Thus says the LORD, who gives the sun for light by day and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar—the LORD of hosts is his name: 36“If this fixed order departs from before me, declares the LORD, then shall the offspring of Israel cease from being a nation before me forever.”
The language here could be allegorical. God could mean something symbolic about the state of the heart, but I find that hard to swallow. God is saying that he will write his law on the hearts of the people. This is a description of God’s corporate people. From his perspective, he has written his law on our hearts. This means that we have a corporate and individual desire to obey God. Whereas Israel did not. The question we have to ask is this, what does it mean to God that his law is written on our hearts? Are our hearts still deceitful and desperately sick after he changes them, giving us a desire to obey him? Jeremiah 31 is the New Covenant people. The church. You and I. It seems like it would be defeating the purpose to give us new hearts, that are not any different than the old ones.
3. Lastly, staying in the OT, Ezekiel 36 also speaks of New Covenantal people. 22“Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord GOD: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. 23 And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the LORD, declares the Lord GOD, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes. 24 I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. 25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26And 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. 27And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. 28 You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. 29And I will deliver you from all your uncleannesses. And I will summon the grain and make it abundant and lay no famine upon you. 30 I will make the fruit of the tree and the increase of the field abundant, that you may never again suffer the disgrace of famine among the nations. 31Then you will remember your evil ways, and your deeds that were not good, and you will loathe yourselves for your iniquities and your abominations. 32 It is not for your sake that I will act, declares the Lord GOD; let that be known to you. Be ashamed and confounded for your ways, O house of Israel. Again, this is strong language. For the sake of brevity, as if, I will not try to get into all the details here but we have to wonder. If God puts a new heart and spirit within me, based upon his New Covenant with us, do we still have deceitful hearts that are desperately sick and impossible to understand? Personally, I think many people have tried to be humble and own the responsibility of their sinfulness and have misinterpreted some scriptures. This misinterpretation has prevented many godly people from experiencing the grace and freedom in Jesus. Leaving them to focus on an identity that no longer has dominion over them. If I’m right, we need to reexamine how we examine ourselves. Before that can happen, we must look for NT evidence to support either the Jeremiah 17:9 view or the Jeremiah 31 view. That will be in part 2.