Pastor John, you were recently at a conference where Doug Wilson referred to Jesus’s words in Matthew 12:34, where we read this: “For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” You raised a question there about the verse. Would you tell us what you asked and what’s the takeaway for us today?
I asked the question not at all out of disagreement with anything Doug was saying. In fact, I was just totally tracking with his message, which I thought was excellent, about the mouth and how it speaks in relation to the heart. But that text — “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” — creates a bunch of problems for me.
And it is not Doug. He doesn’t create the problems. God creates the problems for me, because he said this. This is the word of Jesus, not the word of any mere man. It is one of the scariest verses in the Bible for me, because Jesus also said that “on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak” (Matthew 12:36).
And I say, “Oh, my goodness. So out of the abundance of the heart the mouth is speaking all these careless words, and I am going to be judged because those careless words signify what my heart is really like.” That is a scary situation that we are in.
A Guard Over My Lips
A related problem — this is the one I raised — is this: In Psalm 141:3 it says, “Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips!” And there are other passages that talk that way.
“It can be a beautiful sign of sanctification that you have just put the brakes on a thought that you wish you didn’t have.”
Now here is the problem: If I am about to say something hurtful, lewd, or unkind because my heart is producing it, and I catch it at my teeth and don’t say it, like this text seems to say I should — so you see it coming up and you say, “Nope you don’t; get out” — am I a good person? I mean, am I a hypocrite?
The heart really did produce that nasty thought, and it was on its way to becoming a word, and I stopped it from becoming a word. So my question to Doug was, Is that a virtue? I mean, or am I just a hypocrite at that moment? And I thought Doug’s answer was exactly right.
Blessing and Cursing
He said something like this: The desire and the ability to stop the unkind or angry word, or lewd or hurtful word, at the teeth before it gets out and does its damage may also be a sign of sanctification. It may also be a work of that same heart. That heart is not only producing that ugly thought on the way to becoming a word, but that same heart — we have only one heart — is also producing the hatred of what it just produced.
It is producing a desire that nobody be hurt by that, and it is producing regret that it ever produced such a thought and, therefore, it is, in fact, or at least can be — I say can be because you might be a pure hypocrite, but you don’t have to be — a beautiful sign of sanctification that you have just put the brakes on a thought that you wish you didn’t have.
So, of course, it would be better if our hearts, for example, never felt any vengeful feelings. It would be better if our hearts never created any vengeful word on the way into being. The gospel is designed to change the heart. We should obey Jesus. “First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean” (Matthew 23:26). We shouldn’t focus just on what comes through our teeth, but focus on what happens in our hearts. We want to be changed at the roots.
Chopping Bad Fruit
But what came out of that little interchange for me that has been so helpful is that you fight at two levels. You fight to transform your heart with biblical, gospel truth. Just as you have been forgiven by Jesus, you become a tenderhearted, forgiving person. Now that is a heart change that comes from dwelling on the gospel.
“We shouldn’t just focus on what comes through our teeth, but focus on what happens in our hearts.”
But since we are sanctified slowly and progressively, there is another effect that the work of the Spirit has in our lives, and that is to help us see when our hearts are failing and to put a check on that so that we stop that.
And one last thing emerged. I don’t know that any of us said it at that moment, but in subsequent thinking it seemed to me that if a vine or a branch keeps producing bad fruit, and you chop it off often enough before it matures and poisons anybody, the branch just may get the idea, “Oh, we don’t produce that in this heart.” And so the secondary means of sanctification also becomes a means to the primary heart change.