Jeremiah 17:9 is a famous Bible passage about the heart. It’s a verse many of us know by heart. It says this: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” Pastor John, this is certainly true of a pre-conversion heart without the Holy Spirit, but is this passage accurate regarding a converted, regenerated heart that is united to Christ? Or, is it simply wrong to apply this passage as a diagnosis for the sin struggles in the Christian life?
How Hearts Deceive
It is wrong to apply this text — Jeremiah 17:9, about the heart being deceitful above all things — to the regenerate heart without qualification. Let me start with the definition. In what sense is the heart deceitful like that? Here is my answer: the heart offers incentives and motives for behaviors that destroy us by putting the proposed action in a compelling light.
In other words, that is deceitful. It is a lie, but the heart is telling us, “Do this, because if you do this, and this, and this . . .” It is lying. It is lying us into destruction. So, evil actions can have very compelling motives that the heart offers up.
Or, flip it around. Good acts can have no motive. The heart just stays silent and doesn’t offer anything, or the heart offers corrupt motives. You can tithe in order to be seen for your good deeds and things like that. So, the heart is deceitful in the sense that it is withholding good motives from good actions and that it is offering good motives to bad actions.
‘No, Not One’
Now, before we are converted — by Christ, through faith, in the work of the Holy Spirit — we don’t have faith, “and without faith it is impossible to please [God]” (Hebrews 11:6). Therefore, we don’t please God. The mind of the flesh cannot please God.
And so, the heart is thoroughly corrupt. It is not doing anything that is Godward, and therefore it is not doing anything that is pleasing to God. It is not an overstatement when Paul says in Romans 3:10–11, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.” Now, he means that up until there is a mighty and wonderful work of grace in our hearts, which is when the new covenant happens — the one that is promised, that Jesus bought with his blood.
Christ Breaks Through
And here’s what happens in the new covenant:
Ezekiel 11:19, “I will remove the heart of tone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh.”
Ezekiel 36:26, “And 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.”
The New Testament is also filled with beautiful descriptions about what happens:
2 Corinthians 4:6, “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”
Romans 10:9, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”
Romans 2:29, “But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter.”
Romans 5:5, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”
Romans 6:17, “But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed.”
2 Corinthians 1:22, “[God] has also put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee.”
Galatians 4:6, “God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba, Father!’”
Ephesians 3:17, “Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.”
Philippians 4:7, “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
So, this is not a deceitful heart. This is a guarantee welling up in the saint’s heart. Those texts are just so thrilling to me — that in spite of all my imperfections, God has targeted my heart with omnipotent invasion.
He has moved in, given me a new heart in Christ, indwelt by the Holy Spirit. Our calling, therefore, is to bear fruit out of the abundance of the heart. Something new is going to come out as an overflow.
Hearty (and Biblical) Testament
Let’s be careful here. Our heart is not our new god, giving infallible guidance. God is God, and his word is our sure guide, but the heart is now a regenerate witness — with the Holy Spirit — to the truth of God.
“In spite of all my imperfections, God has targeted my heart with omnipotent invasion.”
We are being changed from one degree of glory in our hearts to another (2 Corinthians 3:18). Our hearts are being brought to affirm, to approve, what is the will of God, what is good, acceptable, and perfect (Romans 12:2).
So, we should not say of our new Spirit-indwelt hearts, “It is deceitful above all things and desperately corrupt.” We should say, “Apart from Christ, I would be deceived. Apart from Christ, I would be corrupt. But I am no longer apart from Christ. I have the mind of Christ — by grace through faith.”
If you don’t qualify that with those texts that I just gave, then you are going to give a totally wrong impression as to what has really happened to the believer. I mean, we are supernatural people. God has moved in on us, and to minimize or belittle that by using descriptions of an unregenerate heart to describe a regenerate heart is a huge mistake.
Context Is Key
Here is what I would recommend, that the person go back and look at the preceding verses for Jeremiah 17:9 and those that follow it. Both of them relate to fruit. Therefore, you take Jesus’ words: “Make the tree good, and its fruit is good. Make the tree bad, and its fruit is bad” (Matthew 7:17–18).
In other words, I think that if you look at the context there of Jeremiah 17:9 — at the relationship between the heart and fruit — and then apply Jesus’s words to that, you will see that Jesus intends for us to understand that a corrupt and deceitful heart will bear corrupt and deceitful deeds. A new tree bears different fruit.