You might ask why a “new heart” would be worth getting, or what is even meant by such an unusual expression. Heart transplants are not uncommon in this era of advanced medical procedures, but I suppose you understand that what I mean in raising the subject of getting a new heart has nothing to do with our physical selves. Rather, it is a moral or spiritual change that is in view here.
Men have always been responsible to their Creator God, responsible to obey Him without question or reservation for self. But from the very first temptation of the woman in the Garden of Eden, because of which both the woman and the man transgressed, all mankind has been shown to incline toward self-interest and away from their entirely good, faithful, and wise God. Adam and Eve distrusted God, and turned away after what tasted good as food, looked good to the eyes, and promised to be good for the mind. So began the long slide of the human race into departure from and rebellion against the God and Father of all.1
Jehovah gave Israel the Law by Moses in order to test what was in man’s heart, what were his affections and desires, and they who were placed (willingly) under the Law promptly broke it, and continued to do so. When God sent prophets to bring them back to Himself by means of warnings and pleadings, it mostly fell on deaf ears, and on hearts that were hard as stone. We might observe that Ezekiel in particular gets to the very heart of the matter of Israel’s departure and rebellion at the very end of Judah’s history under the kings. He puts on them, by the word of the Lord, the responsibility for making themselves “a new heart and a new spirit”, while casting away their transgressions, so that they would be kept from a moral death under His righteous judgment (Ezekiel 18:30-32).
Did the house of Israel (Judah in particular) heed Jehovah’s pleadings at that late hour? No, they did not, and so they were destroyed as a nation, who once were meant to be head of the nations, and punished for many years before God in mercy brought a small remnant back to Immanuel’s land.2 Then, when Immanuel (Jesus the Christ) arrived there centuries later, He was rejected by those who occupied that place, the Jewish people and their leaders.
“He came unto His own, and His own received Him not”, is the testimony of St. John at the very beginning of his gospel (John 1:11). When given every advantage, to the point even of having their Messiah among them in the character of “God with us”, they failed to hear Jehovah’s long-standing appeal to make themselves a new heart. Such a new heart would have received His Servant Jesus from the beginning of His manifestation to Israel by John the Baptist (John 1:31). Therefore, all was lost to them on the ground of their responsibility, and their hearts remained “deceitful above all things, and incurable.”3
We have established, I trust, that all men under responsibility to God have not only sinned against, departed from, and rebelled against their Maker, but they have also rejected or despised the One whom He sent to be their Savior. That One, Jesus, after it is testified that He knew what was in the heart of man, plainly tells Nicodemus that a radical change had to occur in the hearts of His people before they could enter, or even see by faith, the kingdom of God that He represented.4 No doubt Nicodemus should have understood the Lord’s reference (by allusion) to the prophet Ezekiel’s figure of the stony heart5 and its incurable character, which must be replaced by a living and reponsive heart of flesh that is completely new! But Nicodemus and others who were teachers in Israel had apparently lost this understanding long ago. Meanwhile, their hard and unbelieving hearts looked for signs, but refused in any case to believe, when miracles were so plentiful and obvious during Jesus’ ministry of mercy and grace.
Notice that Jesus does not tell Nicodemus nor the Jews to cause themselves to be born again, nor to make themselves a new heart. He does not put on them that responsibility, for by then it had become manifest that this would just not happen on that ground, on the principle of responsibility. A teacher in Israel should have understood by Ezekiel’s prophetic writings (in chapters 11 and 36), that Jehovah would replace their stony hearts with a new heart of flesh, wholly by means of and on the principle of sovereign grace. God will surely fulfill His promise and bring about this change unilaterally in a coming day when He gathers His earthly people out of all countries, and brings them into their own land. Jesus in John 3:1-15 simply laid out the necessary condition upon which any soul, at any time in history, would be able to look by faith upon Him lifted up on the cross, receiving the testimony of God; He does not address the responsibility nor the initiative for the change of heart that results in such a faith.
All must be on the ground of pure grace, for man under responsibility has so utterly failed. God can only work with and in a new heart, a heart that is alive and responsive, to bring about conformity to His Son. “Another heart”, like the one King Saul acquired,6 is a temporary change, and of a different order entirely than the heart-change to which Ezekiel testifies. Saul perished an ungodly man on the mountains of Gilboa, though early in his life he seemed to exhibit the very best of man put under responsibility. But it was not enough, could never be enough, to reach the standard of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).
It is that glory — Christ’s glory — that will be manifested in us and to us in that coming day when He will be glorified in all them that believe.7 And all the glory redounding to Christ in that day will not have been because we met some standard of responsibility to do or become anything, for it can only be because of His amazing grace.
1 Genesis 3, 4, 6, 11, & 13:13, etc.; Romans 1:18-32; Acts 17:24-31; Ephesians 4:6
2 Isaiah 8:8; Matthew 1:23
3 Jeremiah 17:9 (JND New Translation)
4 John 2:23 – 3:15
5 Ezekiel 11:19 & 36:26
6 I Samuel 10:9
7 John 17:22; Romans 8:18-21; II Thessalonians 1:10; I Peter 1:6-11