Wise as Serpents: Does the Christian Still Have an Evil Heart? (Part 24 of Sermon Series)
Question: Does the Christian, a regenerate person, a truly justified person, still have an evil heart? Lots of professing Christians reply to that question is, “Oh yes! Absolutely! The Christian still has an evil heart.”
We want to show you how that erroneous idea is being taught, and the devastating effect on people’s lives because of getting the answer to that question wrong.
Let us give you an example of some fogginess in teaching regarding the nature of the heart of the Christian. This is an example of a person who still has not come to clarity about the nature of justification and sanctification and who the Christian really is in Jesus Christ as a new creation.
The example we’re going to give is Leslie Vernick’s article Indicators of an evil and wicked heart (22 Jan 2015). It is actually quite a good article in that Vernick is recognizing that (1) not all sinners are the same, and (2) there are people that are just plain evil. It’s very good when people like Vernick to come to realise these things! It’s not mainstream thinking in the church. And we wouldn’t be surprised if Leslie got some flack from the biblical counseling community for saying that not all sinners are the same and there are some people who are just plain evil.
So a lot of her article is spot on, and we honor her for that. What she says here is excellent:
As Christian counselors, pastors and people helpers we often have a hard time discerning between an evil heart and an ordinary sinner who messes up, who isn’t perfect, and full of weakness and sin.
I think one of the reasons we don’t “see” evil is because we find it so difficult to believe that evil individuals actually exist. We can’t imagine someone deceiving us with no conscience, hurting others with no remorse, spinning outrageous fabrications to ruin someone’s reputation, or pretending he or she is spiritually committed yet has no fear of God before his or her eyes.
With wise insight, based on her extensive counseling experience, Vernick then lists and describes some of the traits that an evil person possesses:
1. Evil hearts are experts at creating confusion and contention.
2. Evil hearts are experts at fooling others with their smooth speech and flattering words.
3. Evil hearts crave and demand control, and their highest authority is their own self-reference.
4. Evil hearts play on the sympathies of good-willed people, often trumping the grace card.
5. Evil hearts have no conscience, no remorse.
Vernick then notes two typical tenets (fundamental beliefs) that an evil heart holds to:
6. [An evil person thinks:] My horrible actions should have no serious or painful consequences.
When they say “I’m sorry,” they look to you as the pastor or Christian counselor to be their advocate for amnesty with the person he or she has harmed. They believe grace means they are immediately granted immunity from the relational fallout of their serious sin. They believe forgiveness entitles them to full reconciliation and will pressure you and their victim to comply.
7. [An evil person thinks:] If I talk like a gospel-believing Christian I am one, even if my actions don’t line up with my talk.
If week after week you hear the talk but there is no change in the walk, you have every reason to question someone’s relationship with God.
Part of our maturity as spiritual leaders is that we have been trained to discern between good and evil. [Jeff and Barb think that Leslie is being overgenerous or naive here: would say that most of today’s leaders are not trained to discern good from evil]. Why is that so important? It’s important because evil usually pretends to be good, and without discernment we can be easily fooled (Hebrews 5:14).
When you confront evil, chances are good that the evil heart will stop counseling with you because the darkness hates the light (John 3:20) and the foolish and evil heart reject correction (Proverbs 9:7,8). But that outcome is far better than allowing the evil heart to believe you are on his or her side, or that “he’s not that bad” or “that he’s really sorry” or “that he’s changing” when, in fact, he is not.
But there is a portion of Vernick’s article that is an example of wrong-thinking or at least foggy-thinking regarding just who a Christian is.
The statement in Vernick’s article that we are about to critique shows, in our opinion, that she has not yet quite sorted out some of the wrong teaching that she has been taught. And this is the kind of faulty teaching that many of us were taught as we grew up in the church.
The Bible clearly tells us that among God’s people there are wolves that wear sheep’s clothing (Jeremiah 23:14; Titus 1:10; Revelations 2:2).
It’s true that every human heart is inclined toward sin (Romans 3:23), and that includes evil (Genesis 8:21; James 1:4). We all miss God’s mark of moral perfection. However, most ordinary sinners do not happily indulge evil urges, nor do we feel good about having them. We feel ashamed and guilty, rightly so (Romans 7:19–21). These things are not true of the evil heart.
Vernick actually words these ideas more accurately than many, but do you see the doctrinal fogginess in that second paragraph? Vernick makes a blanket statement that includes all of us. She says ‘every human heart,’ the heart of every human being universally, unregenerate believer and regenerate Christian alike, is inclined toward sin and evil. If that blanket statement is true, the heart of the Christian is inclined towards evil. That is to say then, Leslie Vernick would say that Jeremiah 17:9 — The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it? — applies to the Christian.
This leaves regenerate Christians wondering just exactly who they are in their very personhood in Christ. And it leaves Christian victims of abuse vulnerable to massive finger-pointing and condemnation from everyone in the church who has foggy thinking like Vernick has —which is most of the church, because this doctrine has not been properly taught for a long long time.
This confusion, this error, is causing rampant confusion in the church. And it is enabling wicked people to creep in and remain in the pews and in leadership positions in the church and in the biblical counseling world.
Leslie Vernick applies Romans 3:23 to every human heart. Let’s look at Romans 3:21-24:
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,
Does this passage teach that the Christian’s heart is “inclined toward evil? No; it does not. Paul is speaking about the unregenerate human heart, whether Jew or Gentile, which is in need of justification through the redemption in Christ Jesus.
Vernick further underscores her belief the Christian’s heart is inclined toward evil by citing Genesis 8:21, a verse which tells us about the Lord’s thoughts after the Flood, when Noah was making his offering —
And when the LORD smelled the pleasing aroma, the LORD said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done. (Gen 8:21)
Is this verse teaching that the intention of the Christian’s heart is evil from his youth? No. Clearly it is speaking of unregenerate man. Fallen man. The kind of humanity that the Lord had just wiped out in the Flood.
If you believe that the Christian’s heart is inclined toward evil, how is that going to direct you when you counseling someone, even someone who is a regenerate Christian? Your counselling will tend to go this way: “Your problem is your sin. The issues in your life, the PTSD in you life, the issues in your marriage, etc., are all due to your own sin, or, to put it another way, your character defects. You’ve got to look to your own sin, You need to work on your own character.” This kind of thinking tends to ignore the fact that there are many many people in this world who are suffering immensely due to the sin of someone else! It results in situations where a person who has PTSD gets hammered with counsel like this: “You wouldn’t be waking up at night with these terrifying dreams if you had enough faith!” That is what tends to happen if a pastor or counselor holds to this notion that the heart of the Christian is deceitful and wicked. And Jay Adams championed the idea that all Christians are counselors — so the church is awash with ‘counsel and advice’.
Now, we are not saying that Leslie Vernick counsels victims of abuse by saying “You’ve got to look to your own sin!” We have read her books and it is clear that she does not take a hard victim-condemning line, and that she correctly points out the characteristic sin-patterns of abusers. We rejoice that Leslie is more wise on these things than many of her colleagues in the biblical counseling world. But it seems that, like many of us, she has been wrongly taught and so is still somewhat foggy and confused about some things.
So you see the problem. Verses like Jeremiah 17:9, Genesis 8:21 and Romans 3:23 are being taught as if they apply just as much to the Christian as to the unregenerate.
The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it? (Jeremiah 17:9 NKJV)
People are citing verses like that and saying, “The Christian’s heart is still evil!” They are applying Jeremiah 17:9 to a regenerate person. When I (Jeff) say to them, “That’s not talking about a Christian! Don’t you understand what the Lord does in Christ to us?” these people are confounded. It seems like it’s the first time that someone has plainly said to them: The regenerate Christian does not have an evil heart.
When we talk about the heart we are talking the person, who the person is, the heart being the seat of the affections. It is that personhood that defines the things that we love and even the things that we hate, and therefore it defines largely who we are. Let us look that Jeremiah 17:9 in its context.
There is a curse pronounced on the man who does not believe and trust in the Lord:
 Thus says the LORD: “Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength, whose heart turns away from the LORD.  He is like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see any good come. He shall dwell in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land.
There is a blessing pronounced on the man who trusts in the Lord:
 “Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD, whose trust is the LORD.  He is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit.”
And Jeremiah then says, “Yeah; but there’s a problem!”
 The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?
But Jeremiah then assures us the Lord is able to deal with that problem:
 “I the LORD search the heart and test the mind, to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds.”
To paraphrase: “I the Lord, can look into the heart. I can look into the heart of every human being and I am able easily to discern if it is a deceitful, desperately sick heart; or if it is a heart that trusts the Lord. So I can rightly pronounce my curse on the one, and my blessing on the other.”
Is the regenerated heart of the Christian who is a new creation in Christ deceitful above all things and desperately wicked? No! What the Lord is declaring here, through Jeremiah, is His blessing upon the man who trusts in the Lord, and that even though the wicked man’s heart is so deceitful that no human being can sort out its webs of lies, the Lord can and does! Therefore, the righteous man can be encouraged — because the Lord, without error, gives to every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds.
Along with this teaching that all sinners are the same and that the Christian’s heart still remains evil, is the common notion that you can never judge or discern what a person is: you can never judge whether a person is wicked and evil, or whether the person is righteous in Christ. People will adamantly resist any idea that we as Christians are able to discern and make a pronouncement about whether a person has an evil heart.
But the Bible urges us to discern the wicked. If we are not discerning the wicked, how can we ever beware of them?
For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.
Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.
Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. (Mat 7:14-21)
If we are not discerning evil people who have crept in amongst us, we are not ‘taking care’. Hebrews 3:12 —
Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God.
If we are not discerning the wicked, we will not be able to identify wicked hypocrites who are esconsed in the church and excommunicate them as we are commanded to in 1 Corinthians 5.
We can indeed recognize the evil person. There is a vast difference between the heart of the Christian and that of the unregenerate man. And an even greater difference between the heart of the Christian and the heart of the evil unregenerate man, the man whose conscience is totally seared — the sociopath, the kind of person we might even call reprobate.
This is where the great error is among Christians and churches today. Over and over again we hear it – that no one but the Lord can know the heart, no one but the Lord knows if a person is a Christian or not, and therefore if a person claims to have faith in Christ we must take them at their word because after all, the inclination of even the Christian’s heart is evil.
Ezekiel 36 talks about regeneration — the new birth —and how God gives us a new heart when He brings us to saving faith. This is the passage that Jesus had in mind when he was speaking to Nicodemus in John 3.
“Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord GOD: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the LORD, declares the Lord GOD, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes.
I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 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. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (Ezekiel 36:22-27)
Likewise Jeremiah 31:33 speak about the New Covenant, describing how God will write His law upon our hearts — our tender heart tissue, whose regular muscular beating is essential to keep our bodies alive — and contrasts that with how the law was previously written on stone, a hard external inanimate substance.
And yet this great error seems to be prevalent to day: that a person can be a Christian and yet have a heart that is inclined, in its leaning, in its very nature, to evil. Is it any wonder, then, that that churches are not discerning between evil and righteousness, and that evil people are able to parade as christians quite comfortably?
Often at this point in the discussion about the nature of the Christian, Romans 7 comes up, especially verse 24.
Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? (Rom 7:24)
Romans 7 is a difficult passage. People debate about whether Paul is talking about himself before he was a believer, or about himself after conversion — as a Christian. Some people say: “See? Paul says he is a wretched man! All Christians still have evil hearts, so when Paul’s talking about his wretchedness he is referring to that.” But consider the context:
Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. (Rom 7:20-25)
This is talking about the same thing that Galatians 5 addresses. It’s talking about the spirit warring against the flesh.
“I myself serve the law of God with my mind” is talking about the Christian’s heart: the born-of-the-Spirit heart upon which God has written His law so that the Christian is inclined to love God’s precepts — I delight in the law of God, in my inner being.
“Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” is talking about the flesh: the remaining sin which the Christian still battles against, and will battle against until the resurrection takes place and that sinful flesh will finally be done away with.
Regeneration frees us from the penalty of sin and the power of sin. But we will not be free from presence of sin until the resurrection in the heavens and the new earth.
What is the nature of the essence of the Christian’s being?
The Christian is a person who does not want to sin but has sin dwelling in him, ultimately to be set free by Christ at the resurrection.
The Christian is a person who “delights in the law of God” in his heart, but whose flesh (members) has a principle (law) of sin operative in it, warring against the true person he is in his inner being.
The Christian is a person for whom evil lies close at hand, but who is not evil is in his very identity. His very identity used to be evil: before God brought him to saving faith, he was defying God. But not anymore. God has regenerated his inner being, given him a new heart, brought him from death to life and written His law upon his heart so that his heart now delights in God’s ways and he delights in God’s law, even though his flesh still wars against it.
There are many passages in scripture which tell us who the Christian really is:
And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. Whoever says “I know him” [I’m a Christian!] but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him. (1Jn 2:3-5)
And by extension, we may also know that a certain person is not in Him.
Here’s another passage:
We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death. Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. (1Jn 3:14-15)
We love other true believers. But we don’t have the same kind of feeling for the false christians who parade as brothers! We are vexed by their wicked ways, just as Lot, a righteous man was tormented in his soul by the wickedness he saw and heard day after day (2Pet 2:8). We shrink from evildoers who parade as Christians. We flee from them! And we long for the church to obey 1 Corinthians 5:11-1 and put the evildoers out of the church, so we can be safe.
These are things that we cannot (must not) get wrong. We must reject any teaching that a person walking in habitual, unrepentant, ongoing sin is a Christian. That person is not to be allowed refuge in our churches. We must forcefully reject the notion that a Christian’s heart is inclined toward evil. We must forcefully reject the notion that because we are all sinners we must not and cannot judge anyone.
And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming. If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him. (1Jn 2:18-29)
Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD, whose trust is the LORD. He is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit. (Jeremiah 17:7-8)
Audio and PDF versions on this sermon here. But bear in mind that the PDF is much less extensive that this blog post. In these posts, Barb has transcribed, recast for clarity, and amplified a lot of what Jeff preached extempore in the sermon.
For further reading
David Needham, Birthright: Christian, Do You Know Who You Are?
London (Baptist) Confession of Faith 1689, Chapter 13, Of Sanctification. (boldface added)
1._____ They who are united to Christ, effectually called, and regenerated, having a new heart and a new spirit created in them through the virtue of Christ’s death and resurrection, are also farther sanctified, really and personally, through the same virtue, by His Word and Spirit dwelling in them; the dominion of the whole body of sin is destroyed, and the several lusts thereof are more and more weakened and mortified, and they more and more quickened and strengthened in all saving graces, to the practice of all true holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord. ( Acts 20:32; Romans 6:5, 6; John 17:17; Ephesians 3:16-19; 1 Thessalonians 5:21-23; Romans 6:14; Galatians 5:24; Colossians 1:11; 2 Corinthians 7:1; Hebrews 12:14 )
2._____This sanctification is throughout the whole man, yet imperfect in this life; there abideth still some remnants of corruption in every part, whence ariseth a continual and irreconcilable war; the flesh lusting against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh. ( 1 Thessalonians 5:23; Romans 7:18, 23; Galatians 5:17; 1 Peter 2:11 )
3._____ In which war, although the remaining corruption for a time may much prevail, yet through the continual supply of strength from the sanctifying Spirit of Christ, the regenerate part doth overcome; and so the saints grow in grace, perfecting holiness in the fear of God, pressing after an heavenly life, in evangelical obedience to all the commands which Christ as Head and King, in His Word hath prescribed them. ( Romans 7:23; Romans 6:14; Ephesians 4:15, 16; 2 Corinthians 3:18; 2 Corinthians 7:1 )