What Is a Clean Heart?
Many years ago, while we were making a pastoral call on a certain family, one of the members offered this objection to the Bible, “The Bible commands us to give our hearts to God. Now, this is absurd, for the heart is nothing but a muscle.” We replied that this is figurative language. The ancients believed that the intellect resided in the brain, as that is the most important organ of the body. They believed that the seat of the affections was in the heart, as that was the next most important organ of the body, so that the term heart has come to mean the affections of man. It is a figure of speech to denote the affections. When the Bible speaks of the heart, it usually means the affections.
Philosophers have divided the affections into two classes — the good and the bad; these are also called the benevolent and the malevolent affections. The former include love, friendship, kindness, benevolence, gratitude, meekness, pity, patriotism, etc. The latter include hatred, anger, malice, revenge, jealousy, emulation, etc. Some one has defined dirt as “matter out of place.” That is, when we look at the deep, rich soil out of which the wondrous prosperity of our Western country is produced, we look on it with pleasure, and even speak of its attractiveness and beauty. But if we get a portion of it on our garments, or persons, or into our houses, we call it dirt, and seek to get rid of it as a disagreeable thing, because it is soil out of place — “matter out of place.” A clean heart is one that has nothing in it that ought not to be there. Every good affection is in it, and no evil affection. If there is one evil affection, it causes the heart to be unclean. A clean heart, in other words, is a heart t hat is the home of every good affection and has none of the evil affections in it. It is
“A heart from sin set free.”
This being the case, there are some experiences that are contrary to this definition that are sometimes mistaken for this experience, which it will be profitable for us to consider.
1) A clean heart is not a clear intellect. Here is where many are confused in their conception of a pure heart. They think the experience of a clean heart means the possession of a perfect judgment, so that its possessor is beyond the possibility of making any mistakes. This is the reason that many good people will have nothing to do with the subject. As we have just shown, the heart is the affections — not the intellect. The chief seat of religion is in the affections and not in the intellect. It is “with the heart that man believeth unto righteousness,” and not with the intellect. The divine command and requisition is to “believe in thine heart,” not in thy brain or intellect, in order to be saved. A man may have good affections and not have a good intellect. If this were not so, then there would be little hope of the salvation of the majority of mankind. A man may love God perfectly and not be a good mathematician. He may love God with all his heart and not be a good financier, or understand how to do business successfully. A woman may not know how to make good bread and yet feed daily on the “bread of life.” A man may not be able to reckon up a column of figures correctly and yet be able to reckon himself dead to sin constantly.
2) A clean heart is something entirely distinct from, and more than an emotional experience. Here is where many are beclouded in seeking a clean heart. They seem to think it lies wholly in the emotions. Salvation is not emotion. The emotions of joy and peace are the result of salvation and not salvation itself. True religion consists in doing the will of God. When we can do his will without any evil affections in our hearts, then we have a clean heart. A little boy whom we knew, broke his arm. When the doctor came to set the bone, he became frantic and said, “Don’t let him touch me, mamma. Give me medicine.” He was willing to take a good deal of medicine if he could prevent the bone being set. An opiate or something to make him feel good seemed just as good to him, and better, than to have the bone set. There are thousands of Christians who do not want the bones set, they just desire a religion that will make them feel good, whether they are right or not. They want to feel good more than to be good. A sincere soul seeks to be right, no matter how he feels. His first desire is to be right. A great many are still seeking Christ like the multitude of old, for the sake of the loaves and the fishes. They want to be happy and retain an unclean heart. And in making their chief quest to obtain happiness, they get neither. While those who obtain a clean heart have joy and peace as the result. The old story of the man who had his choice of the King’s daughter as his wife, or half the kingdom, illustrates this point. He chose the daughter, and after a while he had the whole kingdom, as his. They who seek happiness get nothing, while they who get a clean heart have joy and peace as the result. Let us be sure we are seeking salvation itself and not merely the results of salvation.
3) A clean heart is not the same as the experience of regeneration or conversion. The scriptures give us the examples of those who were in saved relations with God, who had some evil tendencies in their hearts. Take the case of the church at Corinth. Paul writes to them, “And I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual but as unto carnal, even as unto babes in Christ.” They were brethren, they were in Christ, although they were babes in Christ. He declares that they were “carnal.” They had emulation and jealousy in their hearts. Their hearts, therefore, were not clean. Take another example. Lot was a justified man. Peter calls him, “Just Lot.” God could not destroy Sodom until he had gotten his servant Lot, out of it. And yet he had the spirit of the world – covetousness – in his heart, or he never would have lived in such surroundings. Jesus said, in his high priestly prayer concerning his disciples, “They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.” They were as separate and distinct from the world as he himself was, and yet to say they were not the children of God would be to say the same of Jesus. He says again, “None of them is lost.” They must have been saved, therefore. And yet an hour or two before that they were in a quarrel as to who should have the best place at the table, and Jesus had to rebuke them for showing this spirit. This shows that people may have salvation and yet not have a heart that is free from unholy dispositions. Therefore, we must from scripture conclude that the experience of a clean heart is something separate from and beyond the experience of conversion. Any careful student of the Bible will see that the epistles are full of exhortations to the church (not the unconverted), to seek a clean heart. When we are converted God gives us “a new heart;” not a change of heart. But we find evil tendencies still, that need — to be removed.
The term, “a clean heart,” is scriptural, for we hear David in the fifty-first psalm praying, “Create in me a clean heart, O God.” Prayer for a clean heart is therefore scriptural. The nearer we stick to scriptural language in our praying the more likely we shall be to have a scriptural experience. The book of psalms was the prayer book of the ancient church, and all the varieties of experience which the soul is capable of voicing in prayer are in the book of psalms. It is right, therefore, to pray for a clean heart. And if it be right to pray for a clean heart, it surely must be right to obtain it. If God will not hear this prayer, then the doctrine of prayer breaks down. If God will not answer scriptural prayers, what prayers will he answer? If he will not answer prayer for a clean heart, then it is useless to pray for it. If he will not answer this scriptural prayer we may well be in doubt whether he will answer any prayer. The doctrine of prayer stands or falls right here. For if prayer for a clean heart is not to be answered, then who can tell what prayer is to be answered, or whether any prayer is to be answered? It is not fanatical, then, to pray for and obtain a clean heart, for it is a scriptural prayer. More than this, we hear the church everywhere praying for it as if they believed it possible. There are many praying for it everywhere, but not so many obtaining it. We wish in the succeeding chapters to show where many switch off and fail to have the prayer answered, so that our readers may not switch off at any of these points, but “lock the switches and go through on the main line,” and have the prayer answered in their experiences.
We notice that the church everywhere are praying and singing for a clean heart. If God can not or will not grant this request, let us stop making it. If we do not believe he can, or if we think he is unwilling, let us stop mocking God with useless prayers. If we believe it possible, then let us pray with Wesley,
“O for a heart to praise my God!
A heart from sin set free!
A heart that always feels thy blood,
So freely spilt for me!”