Thank you for listening to the Ask Pastor John podcast with author and longtime pastor, John Piper. Pastor John, Here’s a short question for you today — many of the best questions are brief. And it also comes in anonymously — and many of the questions we get are unsigned. Here it is: “Hello Pastor John. Many sins harden our hearts, so what activities will unharden, or soften, our hearts?”
That is a wonderful question to me, because I don’t think I have ever put it to myself that way.
Yes . . . I suppose that’s the point of this podcast.
Right. Yes. And the first thing that happened as I began to think about it was that I realized there are two kinds of mistakes that I could make in trying to answer the question. One would be to assume that hardness of heart implies I can do nothing because a hard, dead heart can’t do anything of spiritual value. And the other mistake would be to assume that hardness of heart and the deadness that goes with it really haven’t ruined me morally and that I can be the decisive cause of unhardening my heart. I think both of those positions would be profound, unbiblical mistakes. The biblical truth lies in the gospel paradox — we could call it the new covenant paradox — in which God causes the miracle of unhardening. God causes it, and I act the miracle of unhardening. God is the decisive cause, but my acting is a real, essential part of the miracle taking place.
“God is the decisive cause of unhardening my heart, but my acting is a real, essential part of the miracle taking place.”
Here is the promise God made for all of us who experience the power of the new covenant promise that was purchased by the blood of Jesus according to Luke 22:20. Here is what he promises in Ezekiel 11:19–20: “I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in my statutes and keep my rules and obey them. And they shall be my people, and I will be their God.” Here it is again in Ezekiel 36:26–27: “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. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.”
So, the point in those passages is that God must do the decisive, miraculous heart transplant, heart replacement. If we are going to escape the hardness and deadness of that heart, the old heart has to be taken out, a new heart has to be put in — and we can’t do that surgery on ourselves. That is the point. This is God’s sovereign, gracious, saving work, and the effect of it is new, tender, obedient love toward God. And Deuteronomy puts it a little differently: “The Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.” (Deuteronomy 30:6). So, if we are going to ever turn around, stop hating God and start loving God, he has to do that heart transplant and that heart circumcision.
But now, having made that point, we have to also say that God commands us to do the very thing he promises to do in the new covenant. For example, alongside the promise of Ezekiel 36:26, “I will give you a new heart,” there is Ezekiel 18:31, “Make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit!” And right alongside the promise — the Lord will circumcise your heart — there is the command in Deuteronomy 10:16, “Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn.” And the command in Jeremiah 4:1, 4, “If you return, O Israel, . . . to me you should return. . . . Circumcise yourselves to the Lord; remove the foreskin of your hearts.” We see the same thing in the New Testament. There is the command of 1 Peter 3:8, “All of you, have . . . a tender heart, and a humble mind.” Ephesians 4:32, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted.” In other words, we are commanded to be tender — commanded not to be hard. Tenderheartedness is the opposite of hardness of heart, and we are commanded to pursue it and to have it.
“God commands us to do the very thing he promises to do in the new covenant.”
The biblical picture is that God does the decisive work of heart transplant and heart circumcision and heart unhardening, and we are immediately participants in this miracle as conscious, intentional, willing actors renouncing the old heart, cutting away with all of the opposition we can muster the old life, and embracing the new and feeding the new tenderness of heart on God’s word and by God’s Spirit.
So, very specifically in answer to the question that was asked: What activities will unharden our heart? I would say besides the divine activity which is decisive and essential, there are at least three things we are called to do as we participate in acting this miracle that God is performing: 1) beholding or seeing, 2) hearing, and 3) trusting — just a verse for each of those.
“Faith is the tender, dependent opposite of rebellion and resistance and self-reliance.”
1) Second Corinthians 3:18, “Beholding the glory of the Lord, [we] are being transformed into the same image [of God] from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” So, what do we do? We look to Jesus. We look to Jesus.
2) And if you ask, “Where and how does that happen?” Paul says, secondly, “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). So, faith is the tender, dependent opposite of rebellion and resistance and self-reliance, and faith comes by hearing. We are looking to Jesus with our ears. We look with our ears. The eyes of the heart look through the ears of the mind as the word of God is read or preached or presented to us in some way and, thus, being drawn by this sight to be conformed to him, we trust him.
3) And that is the third verse, trust. Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” So, what comes alive when the old, hard heart is crucified and dead and taken out and circumcised away and cut off, what comes alive is the new, tender heart of faith. “I live by faith.”
So, my final word to paraphrase Paul is: Work out your tenderness of heart. Be about the miraculous unhardening of your heart. For God is the one who is at work in you to remove the hardness of heart and give you a tender heart of seeing and hearing and trusting.