Hey D----, thanks so much for the encouragement you've been to Brad and I. I thank God for the fellowship that we share in the knowledge of Christ, even though we've never met. My prayer is that our knowledge might become crystal clear in the great mystery of the gospel so that we may abound in love (Philippians 1:9-11). None of what we believe is merely mental: it is truth that is meant to fill our minds, then affect our words and actions. Unfortunately there are many obstacles each step of the way. May God enable us to clear them all!
Your question is so important, because this matter of the new heart is at the forefront of the New Covenant (Jer. 31:33). Obviously if we want to understand the New Covenant (and therefore Christianity) we must know what this means. It should be easy for us to see that misunderstanding this point will have tragic consequences. Since the Biblical language is not completely unambiguous, and since we all often approach the Bible with lots of preconceived ideas and/or lack of needed information, it is no wonder that there are different views, or absence of views, in the Church. I want to offer some observations that I hope will be helpful, and try steering the interpretive ship in what I believe is the right direction.
Though it may often be taken for granted, it is helpful to notice that the passages in Ezekiel (11:18-20, 36:25-28) and the Jeremiah/Hebrews passages are all speaking about the same thing, even though they use different wording. In fact, the different wording enables us to see multiple aspects of the same phenomenon. All of them are referring to the salvation of Israel, the phenomenon of conversion from darkness to light, of being delivered out from under the curse of the law into God's blessing. The knowledge of God is central to each of them; Israel goes from not knowing God to knowing Him. The forgiveness of sins is explicit in the Jeremiah/Hebrews passages and is the linchpin upon when all the other blessings depend. The forgiveness of sins is also in the Ezekiel passages, though implicitly and not explicitly. If it were not, then nothing that Ezekiel says would happen.
In Jeremiah/Hebrews, the wording is that God will "put His laws in their hearts, and write them in their minds." The fact that Heb. 8:10 and 10:16 reverse the order of "heart" and "mind" shows that they are synonymous. In the Ezekiel passages, the wording is different: "A new heart will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you; and I will take away your stony heart, and give you a heart of flesh." But though the wording is different, are they speaking about two different things? Or should we understand them to be speaking about one thing from different perspectives?
It has been my experience (maybe you have found otherwise?) that most commentators interpret the Ezekiel passages without any mention of the law. They tend to interpret the "heart of stone" being turned into a "heart of flesh" as a general transformation of the nature of man from being insensible to spiritual things (in general) to being sensitive to and conscious of spiritual things (in general). They draw much attention to the differences between "stone" and "flesh", as to how one is insensible to talk and touch while the other is sensible. Matthew Henry is typical - notice the key word "insensible" and the words that are related to it, as well as how generally he speaks:
"That, instead of a heart of stone, insensible and inflexible, unapt to receive any divine impressions and to return any devout affections, God would give a heart of flesh, a soft and tender heart, that has spiritual senses exercised, conscious to itself of spiritual pains and pleasures, and complying in every thing with the will of God." (Commentary on the Whole Bible, Ezekiel 36:26)
Actually, there are two distinct things that Henry points out. One is insensibility, and the other is inflexibility. The first has to do with the fact that a stone doesn't sense anything. The second has to do with the fact that a stone is difficult (if not impossible) to bend. A thing may be insensible and flexible, like clay. Most of what Henry says has to do with sensibility. Only the last phrase about "complying" has to do with flexibility, and that regarding generalities.
I personally believe that the emphasis upon "sense and sensibility" (to borrow a phrase from Jane Austen!) that pervades most interpretations is incorrect, and that the real point of Ezekiel's prophecy has to do with flexibility: a heart that listens, or complies in the words of Henry, versus a heart that is stubborn and rebellious. We seem to mean this when we speak of someone being "hard-hearted." We mean they are stubborn, and that they rebelliously won't listen, rather than that they can't listen. In fact, it would seem that, Scripturally, insensibility is the fruit of a stony rebellious heart (Ezekiel 12:2), and not to be equated with it. People cannot hear because they will not hear; so really, the emphatic problem is not insensibility but stubbornness. Now if this is true, we need to ask about what it is they will not/cannot hear. We need to ask whether Ezekiel is speaking in generalities or if he has something specific in mind. In Jeremiah/Hebrews the issue is specifically about God's law being written on their hearts and minds. But in Ezekiel, is it just that Israel will one day comply "in every thing with the will of God" generally? That is, for example: Israel will stop being stubborn and will believe in six-days creation, etc.
The context of Ezekiel 11:18-21 and 36:25-29 should provide us with sufficient clues that Ezekiel is not speaking generally but is speaking about the same specific thing that Jeremiah is talking about: God's law. In both passages, the converting, saving work of God immediately follows a time of judgment upon Israel in which they are scattered and afflicted throughout the nations. This should at once make us think about the law and the curses that were promised by God if Israel failed to obey the law. The final and most prominent curse is that Israel would be kicked out of their land and scattered among the nations (Lev. 26:33-39). But hear what God says next:
"If they shall confess their iniquity, and the iniquity of their fathers, with their trespass which they trespassed against me, and that also they have walked contrary unto me; and that I also have walked contrary unto them, and have brought them into the land of their enemies; if then their uncircumcised hearts be humbled, and they then accept of the punishment of their iniquity: then will I remember my covenant with Jacob, and also my covenant with Isaac, and also my covenant with Abraham will I remember; and I will remember the land... and they shall accept of the punishment of their iniquity: because, even because they despised my judgments, and because their soul abhorred my statutes." (Lev. 26:40-43)
See how the heart is spoken of! The proud heart is humbled and thus it acknowledges that it has sinned and has been punished by God because of its sin. The humble heart accepts the truth of the law: 1) that it is guilty according to the law, and 2) that it has been punished according to the law. It accepts the truth that it has despised God's judgments and abhorred God's statutes. On the opposite hand, a proud heart refuses to acknowledge the truth that it is sinful, and that God has punished it on account of its sins. It refuses to accept the truth that it has despised God's judgments and abhorred God's statutes.
The fact that Ezekiel, in both passages, mentions Israel as scattered throughout the nations immediately prior to their salvation shows us that the central issue of the law is in view. Furthermore, both passages in Ezekiel tell us that the direct result of Israel receiving a new heart is complicity with the law:
"And I will give them one heart, and I will put a new spirit within you; and I will take the stony heart out of their flesh, and will give them an heart of flesh: that they may walk in my statutes, and keep mine ordinances, and do them: and they shall be my people, and I will be their God." (11:19-20) "And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them." (36:27)
This must not be missed: the new heart has everything do with the law. Once Israel receives the new heart, they will walk in the law of God. It is only when the law of God is kept that Israel can dwell securely in the land (11:17, 36:28) thus explaining the central place that this heart conversion has in relation to the land. I believe we can now safely say that when Ezekiel prophesies about God removing Israel's stubborn heart of stone and giving them a complicit heart of flesh, he is not thinking in generalities (i.e. that Israel will one day comply with God in a general way, as Matthew Henry said), but he is thinking in specific: one day Israel will humbly acknowledge what she has for so long been stubborn to acknowledge: God's law. Consider, as conclusive proof of this interpretation, the words of the prophet Zechariah who came some years after this prophecy of Ezekiel:
"But they refused to hearken, and pulled away their shoulder, and stopped their ears, that they should not hear. Yea, they made their hearts as an adamant stone, lest they should hear the law, and the words which the Lord of hosts has sent in His spirit by the former prophets: therefore came a great wrath from the Lord of hosts." (Zech. 7:11-12)
Their heart is stone because they stubbornly refuse to hear the law of the Lord. One day they will have a heart of flesh, and they will humbly hear the law of the Lord.
So this brings us back to Jeremiah/Hebrews and the original observation that Jeremiah/Hebrews and Ezekiel are all talking about the same thing from different perspectives. All have to do with the heart, and all have to do with law. In one it is emphasized that Israel will have the law written in their heart. In the other the emphasis is that God will give them a new compliant heart that walks in the law. The one emphasizes God's saving action in changing a rebellious heart to acknowledge the law; the other emphasizes the law, the thing that is written in the heart by God. Put even more simply, Jeremiah says that the law will be written on Israel's heart by God. Ezekiel says that the law will be written on Israel's heart by God. Jeremiah is looking at the conversion of Israel from the perspective of what Israel will one day come to understand. Ezekiel is looking at that same conversion from the perspective of why Israel will one day come to understand it. Both Jeremiah/Hebrews and Ezekiel finish their "heart" prophecies by saying: "And I will be their God, and they will be my people."
In light of all this, how are we Christians, informed as we are by the New Testament, supposed to understand this salvation phenomenon?
First of all, we must acknowledge that the changing of a man's heart from proud (and therefore insensible) to humble (and therefore attentive) is the sovereign work of God. This, I believe, is the lesson we learn from Ezekiel. I am not now making any statement as to how God does this, but only that it is His work. God knows the ways to humble man and to get man's attention. But the truth is that He does this, because in His love and mercy God does not allow the entire world to plunge headlong into perdition through pride and folly. By doing this He is good, not obligated; treating us in a way that we do not deserve.
More important is Jeremiah's emphasis upon what is written in the heart. What does it mean that God's law is written in the heart? What does it mean that we shall walk in the law of God and do His commandments?
Let's consider Jeremiah 31:33-34, the New Covenant. There are four main elements to the New Covenant. I'll list them in the order that they appear in the passage, and apply them to the New Covenant member:
1) a man in the New Covenant has the law written in his heart
2) a man in the New Covenant is one of God's people
3) a man in the New Covenant knows the Lord
4) a man in the New Covenant has all of his sins forgiven
Every one of these things is true for any believer in Jesus. A Christian is a New Covenant man. A Christian is not trying to get his sins forgiven, is not trying to know the Lord, is not trying to become one of God's people, and is not trying to have the law written in his heart. These are all things that are already true for him.
Every one of these things is true for any believer in Jesus because of the blood of Christ. The New Covenant is in the blood of Christ: "This cup is the New Covenant in my blood, which is shed for you." (Luke 22:20, 1 Cor. 11:25) It came became a reality because of Jesus' death, and without that death there would be no New Covenant. We can therefore say that a Christian has his sins forgiven because of the blood of Christ, knows the Lord because of the blood of Christ, is one of God's people because of the blood of Christ, and has the law written in his heart because of the blood of Christ.
While all these things happen the very moment a person becomes a Christian, we can probably outline a cause and effect relationship between each of the elements. This is the logical order; it has nothing to do with time. First, God writes His law in our hearts. Then we receive the forgiveness of our sins. Then we know the Lord and become one of God's people. That the first and the last element are together in Jer. 31:33 shows that being God's people is the end result, and this happens, fundamentally, when the law is written in our hearts. This "having the law written in the heart" is obviously a huge deal that must be unpacked; it is shorthand for much; it contains everything that takes you from being without God to being God's own. God's people are the people who have the law written in their hearts. 31:34 is probably giving us more insights into the inner workings of verse 33. When God takes out my stony heart and gives me a heart of flesh, I acknowledge the law for what it is, moral perfection with wrath against disobedience; I see my guilt and I realize I am under condemnation; I then turn to Christ in order to be justified through faith, and am forgiven of all my sins through faith in Christ; having been forgiven, I have now come to know God for the kind of God that He is (Ex. 34:6-7, John 1:18), a God of perfect righteousness and grace; I am now one of God's people.
As you can see, I am interpreting "the law written in the heart" as acknowledging the law for what it is (or, understanding the law). Remember in Hebrews 8:10 and 10:16, how "mind" and "heart" were interchangeable? So also Jeremiah 31:33, the place where the law is written is in the "inward parts" and the "heart"; both which are interchangeable. The meaning of the Hebrew word "qereb" (translated "inward parts") is the thoughts of man. Beautifully, the Septuagint translates it as "dianoia", which explicitly means the mind (the author of Hebrews follows the Septuagint, using the word "dianoia"). "Heart" of course can mean many different things, from thoughts, to will, to emotions, etc. The context must determine which of these is being pointed to. What does "heart" mean here? Since it is paralleled and interchangeable with the mind, we are to understand "heart" as synonymous with the mind. Therefore (and not surprisingly when seen of the light of the New Testament!), the whole point of the New Covenant is that the law will be written in our minds.
Since the mind is in view, we are not to think that Jeremiah is talking about the law becoming an "inner principle" as opposed to an external commandment. Not only is that neglecting the key point of the mind in the passage, it does nothing to explain how the law becomes an "inner principle". Jeremiah would then be leaving us with an inexplicable statement. Does God just magically do it? Do I just suddenly and inexplicable want to obey the law from the heart once I become a Christian? Is the New Covenant really just about a mystical constitutional make-over? No! There is no bypassing of the moral universe here. The New Covenant is all about God humbling our hardened hearts so that we have ears to hear the law of His lips. The law of God tells us loudly and clearly that which our consciences whisper day in and day out: moral perfection, moral perfection, moral perfection (aka. righteousness), which mankind absolutely hates hearing about due to pride. They are stubborn and not complicit in their hearts toward this truth about righteousness, because they know that it will kill them, stamping out their pride. But it is hearing the truth about righteousness that not only kills us, but makes us alive. Through understanding righteousness we come to know ourselves to be sinners, but more than that, we come to know God as our Savior. By seeing righteousness we see our own unrighteousness, and we see His righteousness, and we see the gift of righteousness that His love wondrously provided for us through Christ. This is how crucial it is to understand righteousness, and this is what it is to have the law written on our hearts/minds.
"Hearken unto me, you that know righteousness, the people in whose heart is my law." (Is. 51:7)
There it is (the parallel)! Those who know righteousness are the people of God. To know righteousness is to have the law in your heart. To have the law in your heart is to know righteousness.
Now the effect of this knowledge, as I have said, is eternal salvation. However, included in this new mind is also is the key to a transformed life right now (Rom. 12:2). Every Christian has the law written in his/her mind, understands righteousness, and has consequently been justified through faith in Christ. No matter what kind of day they are having, good or bad, this is objectively true for them as members of the New Covenant. Yet every Christian has the daily task of remembering and reckoning these great objective truths to be so (Rom. 6:11, Eph. 2:11-13, Col. 3:1-3, Titus 3:8, Philemon 1:6, 2 Pet. 1:12, etc.). Forgetting them does not mean that you don't believe them, it only means that you cease to be affected by what you believe. Remembering and reckoning the truth about the law, righteousness and our identity in Jesus Christ is, according to the New Testament, what empowers and motivates our lives to serve God. The man who has learned to fill his mind with the things of the Spirit on a daily basis is the man who is keeping in step the Spirit (Gal. 5:25). The fruit of the Spirit are the fruits that blossoms when we remember the amazing gospel truths that we as Christians believe. This is the way that the New Covenant truth about the law written in our minds is practical. God's law is already in our minds if we are Christians. The question is: are we daily bringing it to remembrance?
Due to the fact that we live in a fallen world, have a fierce and powerful adversary, and are full of weaknesses, it is not likely that we will perpetually set our minds on things above so as to walk in unbroken perfection of love, joy and peace (though I think that some have gotten much farther than others settle for; for example, Paul).This shouldn't discourage us, because we are not saved through remembering but through faith. If anything, knowing these obstacles should stir us up to more diligence. One day, when we are face to face with Christ, forever beholding Him with our eyes, we shall be like Him, never again to sin, for everything will then be based upon sight, not faith. Then our lives will be practically what they are now objectively: blameless. Not that we will, at that future time, possess our own righteousness by which we can stand, but our lives will remain transformed only because we will ever see that there is no other righteousness except the one righteousness from God that is freely given through Jesus Christ. Our standing will be forever in grace, and our lives will be forever transformed by this truth. It will be true forever what is true today: the Lamb of God, Who is the revelation of God's law and God's love in the gospel, is He Who empowers us and inspires us to love (1 John 4:19).
This then is the meaning of Ezekiel's prophecy: "And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them." (36:27) First, that through faith in Christ I am counted as righteous before God, as one who blamelessly walks before God without turning to the right hand or to the left, a man in whom the righteousness of the law is fulfilled. I have done righteousness when I put my faith in Christ. Through faith I join the ranks of Abel, Noah Abraham and Job. Through faith apart from my works, I am counted as having done all that is required. Secondly, the fruit of love (which is the essence of the law) is practically produced in my life at the present time through remembering and reckoning the truths that I believe. This is not now perfect, but one day it will be. In glory I will love God perfectly when I see His love for me perfectly, without weakness and distraction. Ezekiel is indeed referring to that future time when Christ returns and Israel will have this glorious vision. For us Christians today, we walk by faith and not by sight. By faith we know what will yet be seen. As for right now, we see through a glass dimly, and await the fullness of the glorious vision ourselves.
This is how I understand the "heart" prophecies of Jeremiah and Ezekiel. I'd love your feedback and any criticisms you might have. We are straining to see together, and if we can help each other clear away obstacles and misconceptions so that we can see the Lamb more fully, we will have done a great service.
In His amazing grace,