Evil in Heart

[Jesus] said, ‘What comes out of a person is what defiles him. 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 7:20–23

At various points in the four Gospels, Jesus challenges superficial notions of sin that restrict transgression to external actions and violations of the letter of the law. In the Sermon on the Mount, for example, Christ corrects erroneous interpretations of the Ten Commandments that limited violations of the laws against murder and adultery to the actual killing of a person and having sexual relations with someone who is not one’s spouse, respectively. Jesus’ teaching shows that while these commands do forbid such things, we have not truly kept them if we freely engage in those things from which actual acts of murder and adultery spring. If we hate others or lust after others in our hearts, we have broken those commandments even if we never actually kill anyone or sleep with someone besides our spouse (Matt. 5:21–30).

Jesus’ encounter with the scribes and Pharisees that is recorded for us in Mark 7:1–23 also reveals sin as being more than skin deep. Verses 20–23 are the climax of the episode, which began with the Pharisees’ and scribes’ questioning why the disciples were not maintaining the tradition of hand washing that was thought to render people clean. Ultimately, Christ explains, cleanness is primarily an interior matter. The state of one’s heart determines one’s cleanness, for the heart is the origin of all uncleanness. Before any sinful deed can be committed, it must be first conceived in the heart, which is here viewed as the controlling aspect of all that a person does (v. 21). The kind of food one eats and the cleanness of one’s hands have no inherent bearing on the state of the heart. Those are external, ceremonial matters that were designed to point the Jews to their pervasive sinfulness and not to be markers of one’s moral purity. They were never meant to be permanent for God’s people, but rather passed away with the coming of the new covenant (v. 19).

In sum, Jesus reminds us that sin is fundamentally a heart problem. Holy actions flow from sanctified hearts that have been set apart and cleansed by the Holy Spirit. Dr. Sproul writes in his commentary Mark: “A man is defined by that which he holds in his heart. If the heart is evil, there will be evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, and all the other sins Jesus lists here. Eating or refraining from certain food will not change this list one iota, nor will washing one’s hands. It is the heart that must be cleansed.”

Coram Deo

We cannot excuse external acts of sin by saying our heart was in the right place, for when one’s heart is in the right place, one does not sin externally. Nevertheless, we must recognize that sin and holiness are fundamentally issues of the heart. Anyone can fake holiness before other men and women, but God is never fooled. Let us pray that our hearts would continue to be cleansed so that we might walk in true holiness before the Lord.

Passages for Further Study

Deuteronomy 6:5; 10:12–22
Jeremiah 4:4
Romans 2:29

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