For a moment, I want for you to imagine a messy car. You know the kind—it belongs to a friend or family member and when they come to pick you up, you open the door and you are overwhelmed with sights and smells that do not naturally belong together: dirty workout clothes stiffened with stale sweat, assorted fast food bags complete with month old hardened French fries, and numerous receipts and candy wrappers every where. The car is filthy, and the feeble air freshener hanging from the rear view mirror only aggravates its pungent odor. The irony of it all is that the driver is completely comfortable riding in the midst of their own disarray and stench.
This is a picture of the corruption of the human heart described by the prophet Jeremiah and reaffirmed by Jesus as he challenged the Pharisees (Jer. 17:9; Mark 7:21-23). Martin Luther described this condition as incurvatus in se, curved inward upon itself. It is a fundamentally selfish orientation arising out of deep insecurity and restlessness, grounded in a loss of awareness that we are beloved.
If we slip back into the car image above, Satan would be something like an OCD friend who is constantly pointing out to us how dirty the car is, how ashamed of it we should be, and always nagging us to clean up the car. We are plagued by this accusation and condemnation, which we not only embrace and internalize but also mercilessly intensify with the insatiable voice of perfectionism.
Too often, I have heard this portrait of the human heart preached as the ongoing Christian reality.
Yet, we forget that the Bible is a narrative, with development in plot, building to a climax with the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ resulting in the subsequent outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
It is important to note that both the words of Jeremiah and Jesus precede all of these events and are not reflective of the breadth of the promises of the gospel.
In the Old Testament, a new covenant was promised by God because of humanity’s inability to obey the former (Jer. 31:33-34; Ezek. 36:25-27; Heb. 8:8-12, 10:16-17).
The promise of the gospel is that our old heart would be removed and would be replaced by a new one, removing all idols and impurities (Ezek. 36:25-27). The shed blood of Christ cleanses our conscience leaving no consciousness of sin (Heb. 9:14; 10:2). The author of Hebrews further reminds us that our sins are not only forgiven, but also forgotten (Heb. 10:16-17).Furthermore, the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross is said to cleanse us of all sin and unrighteousness (1 John 1:7,9) leading to an experiential restoration within our hearts of the love of God (Rom. 8:15-17; Gal. 4:6-7) through the Holy Spirit.
Augustine said it best, “God, we are created for you, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.” Sometimes we preach what was intended to be the floor as the ceiling, condemning ourselves to spiritual immaturity and a restless heart. The secret of the gospel is that the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit are sufficient to cleanse the inside of the car…. we have been promised a new heart. What this means is that the OCD friend can no longer accuse or condemn, shame us, or drive us into the wearisome self-cleansing that marks many Christians (Romans 8:32-38). If you are being shamed for your past, this is not the voice of God. If the voice within is scrutinizing your life harshly rather than with gentleness, this is not the voice of Christ (Heb. 5:2).
Will we be tempted? Until the day that we die. Will we endure sickness? Until Christ returns and the redemption of our bodies is completed (Rom. 8:18-25). Will we stumble into sin? If we sin we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous (1 John 1:2). Yet it is like a bug flying though an open window and hitting us in the face, momentarily obscuring and distorting our view. The entire interior is not once again made dirty, nor do we need to stop the car for 3 days in order to mourn. No, we wipe off our faces and roll up the window and our vision is restored. If we confess our sins, we are immediately cleansed of all unrighteousness by faith (1 John. 1:9; Jas. 5:16). The only way the inside of the car can become dirty is if we intentionally continue to fill it with trash.
In Wesleyan thought, every believer who has been justified and experienced regeneration through the Holy Spirit has been liberated from both the guilt and power of sin. For many, this is the pinnacle of the Christian existence, leaving them with only a measure of assurance of the love of God. Yet, the portrait painted above regarding the promises of God speaks of something deeper, higher, and broader, conceived in the heart of God before the foundation of the world. This portrait depicts entire sanctification as Wesley proclaims it in his sermon Christian Perfection and his treatise A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, a second work of grace after justification/regeneration wherein the heart is perfected in love. This is what is promised in the Word, yet it is not often preached.
Why is that so? We compare our experience with the Word and find them incompatible. Rather than proclaiming the fullness of the promises of God in Jesus Christ and allowing the Word of God to call us higher than our experience into participation in the divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4), we preach and teach theology that reduces the Word to what has been accomplished in our own lives. This is the pinnacle of arrogance and pride.
Let the Word stand firm, and the promises of God ring true. Let hope arise in the people of God that there is yet more of God that He desires to reveal to His people. May our hearts be set on fire by the Living flame of Love as we fix our eyes on the promises of God that are ‘yes’ and ‘amen’ in Jesus Christ. Let us by faith lay hold of God in prayer declaring, “I will not let you go until you bless me.” There are some things worth contending and asking for until they come. The perfection of our hearts in love so that our lives might be characterized by sacrificial love and joyful obedience is one of them. This is the fullness of the gospel promise. “Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the Day of Judgment, because as He is, so are we in this world.” (1 John 4:17)