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Biblical Counseling Coalition: Grace & Truth

Jeremiah 17:9—Is It True of the Believer?

Jeremiah 17 9 Is It True of the Believer

BCC Staff Note: You’re reading Part Three in a multi-part series written by biblical counseling educators. You’ll enjoy great diversity in this series, not only related to the authors, but also to the topics. We simply asked a number of biblical counseling educators to craft a blog post about anything they wanted to discuss related to biblical counseling and education. Some are focusing on their teaching ministry. Others are focusing on their personal educational journey. Still others are focusing on relating important theological issues to everyday life. Enjoy! You can read part One by Heath Lambert at Mental Illness, Psychiatric Drugs, and Counseling Education and Part Two by Howard Eyrich at 5 Tools for Making Training Effective.

The Condition of Our Heart

Jeremiah 17:9 may be one of the most famous verses in Scripture. There’s hardly a week that goes by that I don’t hear reference to or personally think about it. Our experience struggling against our own temptations, desires, and unruly emotions, and helping others with the same, tells us that the vivid language of this verse is accurate. Our hearts truly are deceitful and desperately wicked!

Biblical counseling likes this verse because of the accurate theology of the heart it teaches. It removes our naivety. It strips us bare with its blunt language. It penetrates literally to the core of our being. Unlike the secular psychologies we believe there is a desperately wicked problem with the human heart.

For these reasons, we believe it is a crucial verse to understand. However, for the purposes of this article, I would add that it must be properly interpreted. If it is not properly interpreted and taught it can easily be used in an out-of-balance way. We could lead Christian counselees to believe that this is their current condition.

But Does It Apply to the Believer?

When I am teaching a theology of the heart, I often use this verse and I am asked a question like; “Does Jeremiah 17:9 still apply to a believer?” Or, “How does this verse apply to a believer?”

Let’s use these questions to guide the rest of our discussion.

Just because we can relate to the language experientially and just because it teaches an accurate theology of human nature does not mean that we should relate this verse to ourselves the same way it applies to unbelievers. It is vital that we not allow our experience to be the interpretive guide. As believers we must not only understand the immediate context and the greater context of Jeremiah, but also how the New Testament answers our questions.

It is easy to focus in on one tree so much that we lose sight of the forest. Of all people, biblical counselors should be accurate in Bible interpretation since our main guide is the Scriptures. If we misinterpret it we are misusing the tool that guides us. Inaccurate interpretation would mean it is not truly biblical counseling!

Let’s think about the immediate context, the larger context of Jeremiah, but then how the New Testament helps us understand this verse. For the sake of space I will not be writing out the verses but will rely on you looking them up for reference.

The Context of Jeremiah

This is a classic text about God’s people caving into idolatrous “peer” pressure even to the point of child sacrifice (as hard as that is to believe, see verses 1, 2, and 5). He further contrasts the person who is trusting in the LORD with those who are idolatrous (verses 5-8). If child sacrifice doesn’t reveal the condition of humanity, what does?  He then says the heart (the inner man of our mind, will and emotions) is deceitful (an insidious supplanter) and desperately wicked (it has an incurable wound, see also Jeremiah 15:18).

Is this true of humans is not the same as asking, is this true of believers? We need to be more nuanced. Is it true of humans is an easy one to answer. We see these attitudes and actions coming out of the inner person as reported on the evening news every day!

But we must nuance this more for believers in light of what is promised in the New Covenant. Could it be that Jeremiah purposely addresses it in juxtaposition to this passage? Jeremiah 31 looks even more beautiful against backdrop of 17:9!

Our Lord referenced His New Covenant when at the “last supper” He said, “This cup… is the new covenant in my blood…”(see Luke 22:20). He was initiating something new and part of the new is a new heart (Ezekiel 36: 26 and Jeremiah 31: 33). This raises the question then, “If I have a new heart in Christ why do I still sin?” Answering this question will help us understand the nature of the New Covenant heart and the believer’s relationship to Jeremiah 17:9.

I believe it can be demonstrated that the constitution of the New Covenant heart is not perfect but in progression because the New Covenant being fulfilled is also progression not perfection. It is between the “already and the not yet.” It is not black and white but a gradation from black to white with lots of shades of gray in between! Are there remnants of the insidious supplanter and the wound? Yes! But are we being healed? Yes again.

Because of the New Covenant we have a new disposition. We have a new inclination. We have a new ability to fight sin and even desire to do so. But even with the new inclination there is still “remnant” sin. There is still remnant “deceitfulness” and desperate wickedness in my soul. I am not totally pure (boy, do I know it!).

Paul’s Understanding of the New Covenant

This understanding that the heart is already and not yet is demonstrated in the clearest Pauline passage about the New Covenant. In 2 Corinthians 3 Paul contrasts the inferiority of the Old Covenant with the superiority of the New Covenant. This had to be thrilling for Paul as he realized that what Jeremiah and Ezekiel had prophesied had come true and was coming true.

The progressive nature though is clearly explained in the last verse of the chapter where Paul states that we are “being transformed from one degree of glory to another” [emphasis added]. My inner person has a new leaning progressively (away from self and toward God and others). It has a new disposition (instead of worship of self, worship of God). It has new desires (instead of fulfilling its own wants it progressively asks what can I do to please God). Instead of seeing how much fame it can accumulate for self it progressively asks how can I make God famous? This is the New Covenant being fulfilled in a progressive way.[1]

According to Jeremiah this New Covenant is going to be mediated by the Holy Spirit in our lives and this is exactly what Paul affirms in 2 Corinthians 3:18. The changes just mentioned are exactly what we would expect to see if the Holy Spirit is working in a life. The way the Holy Spirit goes about fulfilling this New Covenant is through a process of change whereby we are being transformed. Notice Paul does not say that we will be instantaneously transformed at the moment of salvation but that we are “being transformed from one degree of glory to another.”

So, we are between the already and not yet but the process is going on. The “new heart” was made to change. The promises started to be fulfilled with the life and death and life again of our Lord. We are living in a time when the promises are being fulfilled and many are yet to be fulfilled. We are living in a time of eschatological tension. Paul describes this tension elsewhere in Galatians 5 when he says the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit and the Spirit against the flesh (verse 17). We are “torn between two ages, two values, two lives.”[2]

I feel it. Do you?

If we do not answer the questions I have posed there can be extreme discouragement or naivety. Both would be the result of misunderstanding the doctrine of progressive sanctification or the already and not yet aspect of the new covenant and the new covenant heart. In other words, Yes, I have a new heart in Christ but the way He made this heart is that there is an already and not yet aspect to it.

The naivety and discouragement could be in a number of directions. If someone believes this verse in no way applies to believers then there is naivety of remnant sin (e.g. those who tell us that since we have a new heart in Christ we can trust inner passions and desires). This person would misunderstand the progressive nature of the New Covenant.

On the other hand, if someone uses this verse without qualification or implies because of lack of clarification that it applies to believers, he or she would be guilty of under emphasis of our new position in Christ.

So, use this verse in counseling to teach counselees about the heart and even the immediate context to teach about the tendencies of the heart to “trust” in man which leads to idolatry (verse 5). But, as much as you emphasize the tendencies of the heart toward deceitfulness and desperate wickedness please emphasize the New Covenant as well. Make sure to talk about the fulfillment of the New Covenant in the book and how the constitution of the heart has changed and is changing according to chapter 31 and also 2 Corinthians 3:18. Most importantly, worship because of the Gospel and what God has provided and is providing to change us!

Join the Conversation

What do you think of this description of the New Covenant heart? How does this description of our new heart in Christ help clarify or confuse the issues? How would you explain to a believer how Jeremiah 17:9 applies?



[1]Dr. Paul Thorsell (Professor of Theology, The Master’s College) helped sharpen my thinking through his dissertation titled, “Spirit and Law in the New Age: A Study of the Pauline Conception of the New Covenant” (1991).

[2] Page 117 of Dr. Thorsell’s dissertation.

This entry was posted in Christian Living, People in Need of Care, People Who Offer Care, People Who Train Caregivers, Sanctification, Sin, Theology and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.
 
  • Matt Mumma

    Thank you so much for this article. It will prove to be very helpful for my ministry and teaching.

  • colin mattoon

    Thanks for this article, I have been thinking about this question recently. I think biblical counselors have to wrestle with the nature of the new heart precisely so we know how to handle texts like this one. In my thinking I think there are basically two possibilities. The first is basically what you have layed out. The new heart is new but not completely perfect and obedient at all times. The second possibility is that the new heart is perfectly obedient but is at war with the old/sinful nature which often leads us astray. We often sin because we choose to follow the desires of the old nature rather than the desires of the new heart. The key texts I would add beyond what you have already cited seem to be Rom 6:17 and Gal 5:16-17 which seems to indicate believers undergoing progressive sanctification are currently “obedient from the heart” and that the spirit and flesh are opposed and warring but the core disposition of a believer with a new heart is to want to obey God since the flesh is tempting the Christian to “keep you from doing the things you want to do”. This would seem to indicate Galatians 5 is teaching the thing you want to do is obey (as Rom 6:17 also teaches). I think these texts should lead us to wrestle with the concept that the new heart is perfectly obedient but the old sinful nature fights this new heart and thus our sanctification is an ongoing progressive process. I’m still thinking and pondering how perfect the new heart is and contribute to further thinking about this question. I don’t want to claim I have the answer and am settled on this question.

    I think regardless of which of these two positions someone comes to hold I think there are two important implications for ministry; first, as you said, Jer 17:9 should not be applied to a new covenant believer without nuance and hermeneutical precision. There are important differences between believers and unbelievers and between old covenant believers and a new covenant believers. Applying Jer 17:9 without critical thinking isn’t going to help anyone. Second, even if the new heart is perfectly obedient sanctification is still progressive because this heart constantly wages war with the old sinful flesh/nature. We cannot begin to veer into an overrealized eschatology that teaches we can become perfectly holy, without sin, or that the Christian norm does not involve a progressive ongoing process of growth. What do you think?

    • Bob

      Know the law – and follow that.

      Psalms 119
      105 Your word is a lamp to my feet
      and a light to my path.

      Psalms 19.7 The law of יהוה is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of יהוה is sure, making wise the simple.

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