A Bad Heart
Adapted from a Sermon by J.C. Ryle
The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? (10) “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.” Jeremiah 17:9-10
THE first of these two verses contains a very strong saying, and one which the world in general is not at all disposed to believe. “The heart is deceitful above all things,” says our text. “I deny it,” says the unconverted man. “To be sure, my heart is very careless and very thoughtless, but it is an honest heart after all.” “The heart is desperately sick,” says the text. “Nothing of the sort,” replies the sinner. “I know that I neglect the means of grace very much, and perhaps I do not live as I ought to do, but I am sure I have a good heart at the bottom.” “Who can understand it?” asks the text. “Understand it!” we are told: “why, we do not pretend to be such saints as you want us to be, but at any rate we do understand our own hearts, we do know what our faults are.”
And so, you see, it appears that there are two positions, and one of them must be false. The everlasting Bible is on one side, and flesh and blood on the other; God says one thing, and man says another.
Now, I will try to persuade you this morning that the Scripture account of the heart is strictly and literally true and correct; it is a faithful likeness, a lively picture, and it must not be softened down and called figurative and extravagant, because it sounds rough and plain, and leaves you no room for boasting.
Would that the Holy Spirit may bring many of us this morning to a right understanding of our own hearts! It is almost impossible to say how immensely important it is to have a clear view of our natural state: Scripture says: “with the heart one believes and is justified,” (Rom 10:10) “from it (the heart) flow the springs of life“; (Prov 4:23) “man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.”(1 Sam 16:7)
In short, unless you really know the character of your own heart, you will never value the Gospel as you ought, you will never love the Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity, you will never see how absolutely necessary it was that He should die on the cross, in order to deliver our souls from hell and bring us to God.
Let me therefore,
In the first place, prove to you the truth of the words “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick”;
secondly, to say a few words to remind you that God knows what is within you,—“I the LORD search the heart”; (Jer 17:10) and,
thirdly, point out briefly the only remedy that can do you any good, if you would be saved.
It is my earnest desire and prayer that you may all come to Christ and be delivered from the wrath to come; but this will never happen until you are convinced of sin, and you will never be thoroughly convinced until you know that the root and source and fountain of it all is within you, even in your own hearts.
I. Now, as to the natural deceit and wickedness of every man, woman, and child that is born into the world, first and foremost what says the Scripture? How is it written? What do we read? Let us take a survey of the Bible.
Hear the book of Genesis: “The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually”; (Gen 6:5) “The intention of man's heart is evil from his youth.” (Gen 8:21)
The first book of Kings: “There is no one who does not sin.” (1 Kings 8:46)
The book of Psalms: “The LORD looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one.” (Ps 14:2,3) “The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, doing abominable iniquity; there is none who does good.” (Ps 53:1)
The book of Job: “How can he who is born of woman be pure?” (Job 25:4) “Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? There is not one.” (Job 14:4)
The book of Proverbs: “Who can say, “I have made my heart pure; I am clean from my sin”?” (Prov 20:9)
The book of Ecclesiastes: “Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins” (Ecc 7:20) “The heart of the children of man is fully set to do evil.” (Ecc 8:11) “The hearts of the children of man are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live” (Ecc 9:3)
The book of Isaiah: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way.“ (Is 53:6) “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.” (Is 64:6)
Hear the words of the Lord Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew: “Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person.” (Matt 15:19)
The same words more fully in the Gospel of Mark: “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (Mark 7:21-23)
Consider this pure heart, this good heart which people speak of; these are not texts which describe the character of the wicked only; they are written of all mankind in general; of you and me and the whole world, and they ought to be sufficient proof of that which Solomon declares, “He who trusts in his own heart is a fool.” (Prov 28:26 NASB)
But let us now consider what Bible history teaches us on this point. It is possible someone may imagine that these are all single texts, and probably do not mean something quite so strong as they first appear. But do not be deceived; you will find nothing to encourage you to think well of yourself; man’s natural character is everywhere described in the same colours,—it is all black, very black.
Perhaps you may sometimes try to think that the Bible is a book which contains the history of many good men, and an account of God’s loving-kindness to us, and a great store of good advice. No doubt it does contain all this, but it contains something more too: it contains the true description of man’s heart, it strips off the flimsy coverings which pride and self-conceit throw over our natural dispositions, and it shows us man as he really is; it gives us continual proof from first to last of the inbred wickedness of our hearts, it supplies us with countless examples of our inclination towards sin, unless we are restrained and bent back by the grace of God.
Search the Scripture for yourselves on this matter and see! This is not some strange and peculiar doctrine; This is that plain, humbling truth which the Holy Spirit endeavours in every possible way to drive into our hearts, in that blessed volume which was written for our warning.
You can hardly turn to a single part of Bible history in which this doctrine does not come right to the surface. Look at the men before the flood! Who would have thought, with Paradise as a witness before their eyes (for it would seem that until the flood Paradise existed on earth), who would have thought they could have turned their backs on God, and given themselves up to all manner of lusts and sin? And yet they did so, in spite of every warning, and God was compelled to drown the whole world, excepting eight persons.
Look at men after the flood! Doubtless you would expect that every one would flee from sin as if it were a serpent, remembering God’s wrath against iniquity; and yet, behold, the first thing that we meet with is the calling of Abraham and his family to preserve the remembrance of God upon the earth; the whole world had become so sinful and idolatrous, that the Lord Jehovah was compelled to interfere, as it were, in a special way, and choose out one man’s home, that he might not be entirely forgotten.
And in case you should imagine things were not so very bad, and this calling of Abraham not so very necessary, the next event we meet with is the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, because of their abominable wickedness.
Look at the history of Israel, the chosen family itself. They went down into Egypt and dwelt there, and two hundred years after, they had gone back so far in spiritual things that they had forgotten the name of the God of their fathers. They were brought out by miracles with a mighty hand, and yet they had hardly got into the wilderness when they murmured and desired to return to Egypt.
They were taken into the land of Canaan, and had the purest and the best of laws given to them, and yet Joshua was scarcely buried when they fell away after idols. Time after time you read of their being in hard captivity for their sins, time after time you read of God delivering them; and yet a few short years and it seems to have been all forgotten.
The Lord gave them judges and kings, and priests and prophets and ministers, and preachings and warnings; and yet their history, with a few exceptions, is a history of unbelief; and backsliding and transgression and crime down to the very day when they crucified the Lord Jesus Christ Himself.
What can we say to these things? If ever there was a nation free from outward temptation and inducement to sin, it was the Jews; they were hedged in and fenced in on every side by the strictest rules, which prevented them mixing with other nations, and nevertheless you see what they were. You can only account for it by taking the Bible reason: they had the root of all the evil within them, they were men like ourselves, and as such they had hearts deceitful above all things and desperately sick; and like too many among ourselves they would not believe it, and so they fell.
But that is not all we see in the Bible. You can hardly turn to a single family, even of the best of God’s servants, in which the natural corruption of our hearts does not appear more or less in some one of the branches. The firstborn in Adam’s house was Cain, a murderer. The family of Noah, that just man, contained Ham, the wicked father of Canaan, the accursed race. Abraham was the father of Midian, an idolatrous people who deceived Israel in the wilderness, as well as of Isaac. Isaac was the father of Esau, that “profane person,” as well as of Jacob. Jacob was the father of Reuben, who defiled his father’s bed, as well as of Joseph. Eli, the priest of the Lord, was the father of Hophni and Phinehas, who made people abhor the offering of God. David was the father of Absalom and Amnon as well as of Solomon. Hezekiah, that good man, was the father of Manasseh, the most wicked of the kings of Judah. Why am I telling you these things? I tell you them to show you that good education and good example cannot alone make the children of the saints good, without the grace of God; to show you how deeply rooted is the corruption of our natural dispositions.
But we can go even further. You can hardly turn to a single character, among the holy men described in the Bible, who did not, to his own horror and dismay, fall at one time or another. Noah planted a vineyard, and was one day found drunken. David committed adultery with the wife of Uriah. Peter denied his Lord three times. What does this prove? It proves beyond a question that the most excellent of the earth have found that the root of all their sinfulness is inside them; they never boasted of the purity or goodness of their hearts, they have demonstrated the truth that, although Satan does much and the world does much, still, after all, the great enemy is always within us; it is a heart deceitful above all things and desperately sick.
Consider this for a moment and think of it: the men who were the friends of God, who lived most closely to Him, were those whom we find grieving and mourning over their sinful hearts most bitterly. Surely the heart must be more treacherous than you supposed.
Well, perhaps you will say, all this may be very true; the men we read of in the Bible certainly sinned very much; but things have changed now that we live under the light of the Gospel. Things may have changed certainly in some respects; but the heart is just the same. There is not the smallest proof of any change there.
So long as the news contains accounts of crime in one shape or another of all descriptions; so long as penitentiaries and prisons are full and new ones are continually being built; so long as hundreds and thousands are every year tried and punished, and yet next year there are as many more committed; so long as men make a god and an idol of money, and take the name of the Lord in vain, and neglect God’s church, and show an utter lack of affection and kindness to their own relations, and are angry and passionate on the slightest occasion, and think very lightly about sexual immorality, and think it clever and fair to deceive their neighbours, and do not hesitate to say what is not true if it serves their interest, and covet each other’s money and house and land and property from morning till night, and get drunk, as if they gloried in ruining soul and body at once,—so long as such things go on in the face of God who sees it all, and the Bible which condemns it all, and the Church which witnesses against it all; so long may we rest assured that the only possible reason which can be given for it is the plain account of our text: “The natural heart of every man is deceitful above all things and desperately sick.” There must be some hidden cause and fountain within us, or men would never be guilty of such enormous folly.
But we will pass over other proofs of this nature, which you are all aware of. Rather let us consider a few questions which perhaps you may not have considered.
What, then, is the reason that men are so active and industrious in their business and so careless about their souls? They give up their whole heart and soul and mind to their labouring and planting and building and gardening; they rise early and go to bed late; they rouse themselves; they are in earnest; they think it wrong not to be diligent and hardworking; but as for serving God, they seem to think it their duty to sit still and do nothing.
What is the reason that men have always so many excuses to make in the service of God?—the most ridiculous, the most trifling seem to satisfy them, and yet they know that if they gave such excuses to an earthly employer, they would be dismissed at once.
What is the reason that men pay such respect to those above them on earth?—their landlord, their boss, the rich and the famous, are always treated with a proper reverence and deference; and yet the Lord God Almighty, the Maker and the Judge of all things, is honoured when it is convenient, as if it was rather a favour to attend His house and hear His ministers.
What is the reason that men can give smooth names and soften down practices which God detests, and talk of the sexually immoral as progressive, and a drunkard as a merry, cheerful man, and a riotous reveller as a wild man; while one who is striving to lay hold on Christ is called mad, and one who has a tender conscience is called narrow-minded, and one who thirsts after holiness overly righteous?
What is the reason that many can talk much and show much knowledge about this world’s matters, but are grave and silent and ignorant about their souls—can remember everything bad which they meet with, but forget the good—can hear of others dying, and never look at their own state—can see death coming near their own doors, and yet neglect to make preparations to receive him?
These things are quite amazing, but are they not true? Man, so wise, so prudent, so thoughtful as he is about the life that now is, seems a fool in the matter of the world to come. And why? “He has within him a heart deceitful above all things, and desperately sick.”
And what is the reason that people who profess and call themselves Christians often find fault with scriptural doctrines, and say they must be wrong, they cannot be the truth of God, they are too humbling, too strict: and yet they will not take the trouble of looking into their Bibles, to see whether these things are really so.
What is the reason that so many go on saying they know all these things, and yet they never do them? They are almost ready to be offended if we doubt their understanding of the Gospel; but there they stop, their knowledge does not seem to make the slightest difference in their lives.
What is the reason that so many use the outward forms of religion but never pray in secret,—that so many hear the Gospel preached week after week and never apply it to themselves, and go away from church as cold and unmoved as if they had gone to be witnesses of instruction given to their neighbours, but not meant for themselves?
What is the reason that so many encourage themselves with the idea it will be all right in the end, and yet they cannot say why; and so many make a great profession, and try to deceive ministers, as if God did not see it all; and so many desire to have the name of spiritual Christians on earth, who clearly are not bearing the Cross nor showing the mind that was in Christ Jesus?
Truly there is only one reason to be given, and that is the Bible reason. Conduct such as just been described,—and these are common, everyday matters,—such conduct is so utterly unlike the way in which men act about the care of their bodies and the things of this world, that there must be some hidden reason, some secret fountain of evil within us.
It is really impossible to observe how differently people generally live from the plain precepts of the Bible; it is impossible to consider the number and the variety of the ways in which God’s law is continually broken, and not to see the most decided proof that man’s natural heart is indeed deceitful above all things and desperately sick.
Truly indeed were the words added, “Who can understand it?” Who can ever understand how men can shut their eyes against such light, and live in such a way as too many do? Job thought he knew his heart, but affliction came and he found he did not. David thought he knew his heart, but he learned by bitter experience how woefully he was mistaken. Peter thought he knew his heart, and in a short time he was repenting in tears. If you love your souls, you ought to pray for some insight into your own corruption; the most advanced saints of God do never quite discover the exceeding sinfulness of that old man which is in them.
II. In next place, here are a few words about the second part of our text..
We read, “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.” There are two things written here: one is that, although you do not know your own hearts, the Lord God Almighty does, and keeps a close watch over them; the other is that He will one day call you to account, and judge you accordingly.
And do you not observe here what the mind of the Spirit points to? Some men might say, God will not be extreme to mark what is out of order, I will have peace though I walk in the imagination of my heart; but the prophet sweeps away these refuges of lies by warning us of searching and of judgment immediately after he has declared to us the deceitfulness of man’s heart.
Remember, now, O unconverted man, that God has set your secret sins in the light of His presence; the vilest imaginations of your wicked heart, the deeds you have so carefully concealed from the sight of men, the abominable thoughts which you would not have your dearest friends suspect,—all have been seen through and through by that Pure and Holy One who will one day be your Judge.
Remember that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth;” (Rom 1:18) that the wicked will be turned into hell, and all the people, too, who forget God, and neglect so great a salvation; that hell is everlasting misery: ten thousand times ten thousand years will pass away, and the worm and the fire will be just the same, and this is the place to which you are going.
You do not like to believe the account that has been given of your natural heart; but look back over your life and tell of one single day in which you have done all that God required and left nothing undone: you cannot find it; and what will you do when each of the three hundred and sixty-five days in each of the ten, twenty, forty, sixty years you may have lived will come to light, when thousands of little things you now forget will all appear, and God will ask you, “What have you got to say, why these things should not condemn you?”
Do not be deceived, but bear in mind that James has said one single offence will make you guilty, that Jesus teaches that in God’s account a thought or a feeling is as bad as an outward act, that one lustful look is adultery, and that hatred is murder. Better be humble now and confess you did not know your own vileness, than flatter your vanity and self-conceit, and perish for all eternity.
III. In closing, a last word to those who are feeling disposed to say, “At this rate, who can be saved?”
Let us briefly look into the only remedy that can do you any good: the biblical answer to this question. Now certainly from an earthly perspective salvation would be impossible, but with God all things are possible, and God has laid before us a path by which the vilest may get to heaven. You may think that this is going too far, that it is spoken too strongly; but you cannot say that it goes beyond the Bible.
Consider then, miserable sinners, although your hearts are deceitful above all things, and desperately sick, although there is no health in you, consider that God loves you exceedingly. He has given His only-begotten Son to suffer for your sins; and now whosoever believes in Him shall not perish, shall not be condemned, but shall have everlasting life.
“Who can be saved?” All, all who give up their iniquities, and grieve over them, and put their whole trust in Jesus Christ. But what about these deceitful hearts? Repent and believe, and God will wash them in the blood of the cross, will make them as it were new, will create them again in righteousness and true holiness; will fill them with the Holy Spirit, will put love where there was hatred or indifference, will put peace where there was doubt and anxiety, will put strength where there was wickedness.
In truth your sin does indeed abound, but you will find, if you will only try it, that grace does abound far more. And to those who are just now thinking well of their own state, and not alarmed about their souls, and rather offended at the picture that has been drawn of their hearts—I ought to say our hearts, for my heart is naturally just as abominable as everyone else’s.—O unhappy sinners, I urge you to pray God that you may see clearly the corruption of your nature!
I tell the young among us, your hearts are desperately sick, and so long as you put off repentance and calling upon God you are like an infant playing with a knife—you are like a fool playing with a tiger. To those among us who are getting on in life, your hearts are desperately sick, and so long as you hold back and talk of a more convenient time for coming to Christ, you are adding stone to stone and brick to brick to that great wall which you have built up between yourselves and the Kingdom of Heaven.
Your hearts are deceitful above all things, and unless they are changed, the Bible says you will most surely perish. But in the name of the most loving Master I offer to you a complete remedy; I proclaim to you the freest salvation. I entreat you not to reject it.
Come to Jesus: He did not come to save the wise in their own eyes, but to seek that which was lost. Come to the Lamb of God: He takes away the sins of the world; and though your hearts may be full of iniquity they will be changed, “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” (Is 1:18)
But mark my words: God has witnessed that except you choose this way, the way of repentance and of faith, you shall have no salvation, and the more free and gracious are the offers which you reject, so much the more heavily shall you be judged in the last day.
Therefore “seek the LORD while he may be found; call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.” (Is 55:6,7)