December 2023
Why Salvation Is a Matter of the Heart

It's not the head that's the problem. It's the heart.

When it comes to spiritual matters, what you see is seldom what you get. Appearances aren't just deceiving; they can be damning. History is rife with examples of hypocrisy: those who claim to be full of light but who are, in fact, dark as dungeons. A recent example reminded me just how important it is to maintain that the inside is what matters most. Salvation is a matter of the heart, not a battle for the head. And I'll explain why.

Enlightenment or Egoism?

I was recently reading Andrew Wilson's excellent book Remaking the World: How 1776 Created the Post-Christian West. In his discussion of the Enlightenment and the figures who changed the world with their intellectual and scientific accomplishments, something dark drifted to the surface. The enlightened all-stars weren't all that enlightened when it came to anthropology and a basic understanding of humanity as made in God's image. David Hume, Voltaire, and Immanuel Kant were aggressively and barbarically racist (pp. 109–113). They referred to African Americans as having "no ingenuity," as being a "low people," being "barbarous," and having "no art." Voltaire even referred to them as a "different species." And Kant went as far as to say "not a single one was ever found who presented anything great in art or science or any other praiseworthy quality." Their comments are crass enough to make anyone today blush with embarrassment or churn with hatred. How could people so allegedly "enlightened" think such things? Their conduct "raises questions about how 'enlightened' the major Enlighteners actually were" (p. 110). There was as much vain egoism for these men as there was enlightenment. They may have had bright minds, but there was darkness in their hearts, as there is for every human.

Had Hume, Voltaire, and Kant lived in today's world, they would have been canceled before you could snap your fingers. (Wilson notes how a University of Edinburgh building named after Hume was renamed during the George Floyd protests; similarly, a Parisian statue of Voltaire was removed in 2020.) And yet the Enlightenment, for the most part, is still viewed with respect and pride, as a watershed of human accomplishment. The Enlightenment has become a celebration of the head. But has it also become an ignorance of the heart? In gushing about the Enlightenment, are we guilty of staring only at the mind and turning a blind eye to the soul?

We assume that the solution for every human evil is intellectual education, not spiritual operation (Ezek. 36:26).

I think we are, and it's not limited to the Enlightenment. We still do this today. We assume that the solution for every human evil is intellectual education, not spiritual operation (Ezek. 36:26). It's the head that needs fixing, not the heart. In fact, suggesting that the latter is the real problem can even stir up animosity.

A Dead Heart, a Broken Head

I once remarked in an open forum that I believed a rejection of God is always, at base, a matter of the heart, not the head. The vehemence that met me because of that comment still stuns me. People lashed out in defense of their intellectual qualms with Christianity. And that lashing out actually proved my point. Why were people so angry? There were lots of reasons, I'm sure, but among them must have been the fact that I was assuming something deep inside them was the problem. And that problem couldn't be fixed with a book or a coherent argument in favor of God's existence. It went deeper than the head.

And while there is a close relationship throughout Scripture between the head and heart, between what we think and what we believe and worship, the emphasis for redemption begins with the heart, and then trickles up to the head (Ezek. 11:19; 36:26; Jer. 31:33; Heb. 8:10). In the classic text on the heart, God says, "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" (Ezek. 36:26). This new heart will have direct effects on the head. We gather as much from Romans 1:21, where people are judged for rejecting God's clear revelation of himself. "For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened." Dark hearts lead to futile thoughts. Renewed hearts lead to minds that are focused on heavenly things. Later in the Epistle to the Romans, Paul says, "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect" (12:2). Our minds are set on heavenly things because our hearts now live in another person, in Christ. "Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God" (Col. 3:2–3).

If a dead heart leads to a broken head, then a new heart leads to a heavenly mind.

If a dead heart leads to a broken head, then a new heart leads to a heavenly mind. But the direction is from heart to head, not head to heart. Our problem isn't just that we don't think rightly about God, ourselves, and the rest of the world. Our problem is that we don't think rightly because our hearts are corrupt. We cannot sunder the head from the heart. We can't replace spiritual operation with intellectual education.

Revelation to the Heart

This should shift our understanding of the word "revelation." While we often associate revelation with a mental awakening or deepened understanding, Scripture suggests that revelation runs deeper and is primarily targeted at the heart. In discussing the knowledge of God, which we quickly link with the head, Herman Bavinck draws our attention to the heart and the personal dimension of knowing. "Real knowing includes an element of personal concern and involvement and an activity of the heart" (p. 13). He goes on:

Indeed, to know God does not consist of knowing a great deal about Him, but of this, rather, that we have seen Him in the person of Christ, that we have encountered Him on our life's way, and that in the experience of our soul we have come to know His virtues, His righteousness and holiness, His compassion and His grace. . . . God is known in proportion to the extent that he is loved (Herman Bavinck, The Wonderful Works of God, 13).

God's revelation does not just tell us more about God; it's a call to the human will, a call to find ourselves in God. Knowing more about God isn't our primary problem—though that's certainly important! Our primary problem is that we we reject God even though we know him. That's the central message of Romans 1.

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened (Rom. 1:18–21).

The goal of God's revelation is a relational goal, and that goal is centered on the human heart. No amount of mental acuity and intellectual prowess can save a human soul. Why? Because head knowledge was never the problem; heart darkness was.


So, what are we to do with all this today? For starters, we need to think about human redemption as a matter of the heart, not the head. While I love education and encourage everyone to be a lifelong learner, the solution to humanity's maladies isn't education. Education is an aid, not a cure. It can treat symptoms, but it can't perform operations. The heart is always the root of our problems—whether it's judgementalism, bigotry, racism, materialism, environmental destruction, drug abuse, or anything else you can think of. We can't address the evils around us if we aren't willing to acknowledge heart darkness within us.

Second, we might be more intentional about how learning anything needs to have a relational component, namely our relation to God. When we learn something about life in Medieval times or conflict in the Middle East or George MacDonald's fantasy writing, how does it connect with our relationship with God? Is there gratitude to be found? Are there prayer requests to offer? Is there praise to give for the creative spirit God gives to his creatures? There's always something. And if learning is really all about relationships—relating one thing to another—then the deepest part of learning must be relating what we discover to the God of all relationships, the God who rules the heart.

It's easy to find people who are bright on the outside. The Enlightenment has been a go-to source for figures of towering intellect. What's much harder to find are people who are bright on the inside. These are people who have had heart surgery of the highest order. The brightness they hold on the inside can then work its way to the outside.

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