by John M. Frame,
[Pastor’s Column: Life at New Life]
Question: (a) What can you do, if anything, with “rebellion of the heart?” (b) You are tempted, tested, and tried–you want to repent, but your heart doesn’t.
The person described in the question, evidently, has not only been “tempted, tested and tried,” but has also committed sin. That is to say, he or she has not only been tempted, but has yielded to that temptation. Otherwise, there would not be anything to “repent” from. So the basic question is: what do you do when you’ve sinned and you want to repent, but your heart doesn’t do it? (Remember as we discuss this question what “repentance” means. It is not only feeling sorry for your sin, but actually turning away from it and turning to Christ, so that you stop committing the sin.)
Well, we’ve all had that feeling sometimes: we would like to change, but something within us, it seems, won’t go along. We think of it being sort of like an ailing automobile: the car wants to go, but something inside it, say, the carburetor, isn’t working quite right, so it won’t move. Or an ailing person: Alice would love to play tennis, but her back won’t let her do it. So it seems, often, when we commit sin. We would like to stop, but something within us (the questioner calls it the “heart”) won’t let us stop.
But look, now: The “heart,” in scripture, is not like a bad carburetor inside a car, or like a bad back slowing down someone’s body. The heart (in the religious sense, of course, not the physical organ) is the person at the deepest level- what he or she really is. My heart is me. Your heart is you. “Rebellion of the heart,” then, is rebellion of the person). It is my rebellion and yours.
So the heart is not something inside us that, contrary to our best intentions, won’t work right. A rebellious heart means that our intentions are not good. Having a rebellious heart means nothing more nor less than this: we wantto sin. The picture of a broken “part” inside us is a bad picture and a dangerous one, for it is a way of excusing sin: “I’m not to blame,” we think; “that broken part is.” But we are to blame, we are responsible.
Now there are times when we feel like the person described in the question: as if we want to repent, but can’t. At those times, however, I think the real problem is more like this: we want to repent, but we don’t want itenough. We want to repent, but we also enjoy the sin. We want to stop, but, inconsistently, we also want to keep doing it. That’s a more biblical way of putting it: not “I can’t,” but “I won’t.”1 That way, we accept the responsibility instead of putting it off on some inner “carburetor.”
And then, after accepting the responsibility, what do we do about it? Repent, of course! Quit saying “I can’t.” That comes from the devil. If you are a Christian, you can. Ask God’s help and ask the help of elders and other Christians if you find it difficult. But don’t give up the battle. Remember I Cor. 10:13: “No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.” Hear that? “You can stand up under it!” That’s great news! Don’t call God a liar. Trust him and obey.
If you need more motivation, think again of the awful price Jesus paid to save you from sin. Think of the unmeasurable love displayed by him in his death for you. Then ask his help to live a life pleasing to him.
1 There is a sense in which an unregenerate person cannot change. Thus we talk about “total inability.” However, (a) Christians are not in this position. By the Spirit of God, they can change. And (b) even the unbeliever is responsible for his inability. He “can’t” because he “won’t,” and because his “won’t” cannot be overcome except by grace. Thus even for the unbeliever, the “can’t” is really a kind of “won’t.”