The Heart of the Matter
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The Heart of the Matter

Mark 7:14–23  (ID: 2729)

Having demonstrated that tradition must bow to Scripture, Jesus began to teach on the source of human defilement. Since the problem is internal, He explained, there is no external solution. We are all “unclean”—and, as Alistair Begg notes, the only way to be made clean and right before a holy God is by trusting in Christ’s righteousness.

Series Containing This Sermon

A Study in Mark, Volume 3

Prophet, Shepherd, Healer, and Provider Mark 6:6–8:21 Series ID: 14103

Sermon Transcript: Print

I invite you to turn to the Gospel of Mark and chapter 7, and we’re going to read from the fourteenth verse. It’s page 713 in the church Bibles. Page 713, Mark 7:14:

“Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, ‘Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a man can make him “unclean” by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him “unclean.”’

“After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. ‘Are you so dull?’ he asked. ‘Don’t you see that nothing that enters a man from the outside can make him “unclean”? For it doesn’t go into his heart but into his stomach, and then out of his body.’ (In saying this Jesus declared all foods ‘clean.’)

“He went on: ‘What comes out of a man is what makes him “unclean.” For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man “unclean.”’”

Amen. Let’s just pray before we look at this passage:

And now, gracious God,

Make the Book live to me, O Lord,
Show me yourself within your Word,
[And] show me myself and show me my Savior,
And make the Book live to me.[1]

For Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Well, for those of you who may be visiting us this morning, we’re continuing our studies in Mark, and we’re picking it up at verse 14, which is where we left it last time. Jesus had been confronted by the Pharisees. They had surrounded him and asked him why it was that his disciples were breaking the traditions of men, particularly “the tradition[s] of the elders,”[2] and they had a question concerning the issues of purity and the issues of authority. It was essentially two questions rolled into one. And Jesus answered the first part (from verse 6 to verse 13 we have that recorded), and Jesus shows there that “the tradition of the elders,” which was an oral tradition of additions that had been made to the Mosaic law, was not binding and authoritative, and all that was binding and authoritative was the Scripture itself. And those of us who were present in the evening last time will recall that we said, therefore, in light of that, it is important for us that we have a small t for tradition and a large S for Scripture. All of our traditions, no matter how cherished they may be, must bow to the authority of God’s Word.

Jesus then, in verse 14 as it’s recorded for us, goes on to answer this second question—not the authority question but the purity question, this matter of defilement: “Why is it that your disciples don’t wash their hands before they eat—at least some of them don’t?” And this was expressive of the Pharisees’ preoccupation with ceremonial purity. The discussion is not a discussion about hygiene, the practicality of washing before eating, but it has to do with the idea of acceptance with God and cleanness before God being viewed as something which man contributes to by means of externalism.

And Jesus is concerned about this, and that’s why we’re told by Mark that he “called the crowd to him.” Back in 6:34 we read that “Jesus landed and saw a large crowd,” and “he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd,” and “so he began teaching them many things.” He realized that the crowd was in need of information. They needed to understand who God is. They needed to understand what God is like. They needed to understand who they are and what they are like. And the information that Jesus provided was the information which comes to these scattered sheep from the one who himself is the declared “good shepherd.”[3]

All of our traditions, no matter how cherished they may be, must bow to the authority of God’s Word.

Once again he’s concerned on the same basis, because the sheep must not be led astray by false shepherds, and it is therefore of vital importance that they do not get the wrong end of the stick when it comes to the discussions that have just been taking place between Jesus and the Pharisees. And so he issues what is essentially the call of the prophet from the Old Testament. When you read the Old Testament, you clearly understand that the prophets are not standing around on the street corners giving a couple of suggestions to anybody who may be interested, but rather they are like town criers, heralding and making sure that people are paying careful attention to what they have to say. And the reason for that is because what they’re saying is none other than the Word of God: “Listen to this. This is important. You must understand this,” and so on. So Jesus comes as the great and ultimate Prophet, and he does the same thing: “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Listen, everyone, and understand.” If we don’t understand, then we need to listen more carefully, and we need to pay attention.

Let us notice in passing that Christianity is all about the use of the mind; that Christianity is historical (it actually happened); that it is rational (it makes sense); that it is empirical (it can be put to the test). You have to go somewhere else other than Christianity, in some other spiritual or religious realm, to be introduced to the kind of approach to God which starts from the disengaging of the mind. And some of you may have fiddled around with yoga, and you may believe that somehow or another it has nothing at all to do with that which disengages the mind. And I want you to know that at its root, it definitely and certainly does. I haven’t been on the banks of the Ganges River in India for nothing and watched as these young devotees to Hinduism were put through their paces. And in that trancelike experience to which they were introduced by the priest, they were clearly disengaging their minds in order that it might be filled will all kinds of notions. Well, that is not the case. Christianity engages our minds. It engages our emotions. It challenges our wills. And so Jesus issues this call: “Listen … everyone, and understand.”

And then, in a nutshell he puts his thesis. Verse 15: “Nothing outside a man can make him ‘unclean’ by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him ‘unclean.’” In other words, the problem, Jesus says, is not on the outside; it’s on the inside. What defiles us is not food that goes into our stomachs but the sin which comes out of our hearts.

Now, this was revolutionary. The Pharisees felt themselves to be in a position of authority in the things they were demanding, and Jesus, as it were, just takes the axe to the root of that tree. He’s not setting aside the law of God. He’s not introducing his followers to some form of lawlessness that is intuitive and self-manufactured, but rather, he is setting aside the additions and the accretions to the law of God, which were now being regarded by the Pharisees as being equally sacrosanct and equally demanding because the Pharisees were consumed and preoccupied with the externals. For the Pharisees—and, indeed, for modern-day pharisees—the key to acceptance with God, the key to holiness, the key to godliness had everything to do with outward performance. It was largely that which was taking place on the outside.

Now, to say that is to immediately recognize that the issue is not some esoteric question that is locked in the first century. Because if we are honest, there may be some of us here this morning whose religious background is such that you have chosen to believe or you’ve come to believe that as long as you do certain things that men or women have told you to do and as long as you refrain from engaging in certain other conditions, then that will be the means of your being declared right before God. If that is the case, then this passage is going to be of vital importance to you. Also it becomes apparent that the issues that emerge from the human heart, according to Jesus, are not peculiarly first-century issues. Indeed, they are alive and well in the twenty-first century. And just to make sure that we understand that, let’s go to that list for just a moment and reread it.

What does Jesus say comes out of the heart of man? Well, he gives us a list of thirteen things. If “evil thoughts” are the heading, as they might be—which is an interesting idea. He starts with “evil thoughts” because the Pharisees were so concerned about what they were doing or not doing, but Jesus knew what they were thinking, just as he knows what we are thinking. And so he says, “Let’s just be very, very clear that an evil heart produces evil thoughts. Evil thoughts will then emerge, either in the mind or in action, down these following paths.” And look at them carefully. We’re not going to work through them. It’s a sorry list, and there would be no great advantage in spending time pondering each of them—six nouns, first of all, in the plural, followed by six nouns in the singular: “Sexual immorality, theft,” or stealing, “murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly.” Quite a list!

If you’re looking for them, just go to the grocery store. If you’re looking for them, pause for a moment in the airline terminal while you’re buying a newspaper or chewing gum and allow your eyes to scan the magazine racks, and there you will find all of this list, with variations on a theme. For this is the list that represents the hearts of men and women. It’s not a nice list. It’s not a savory list in any way. It is unsavory in every way. And yet not only is it tolerated in the twenty-first century; in much of our literature and in many of our movies and in many of our expressions of culture it is, as I say, not simply tolerated but celebrated.

And it begins with “evil thoughts,” and it ends with “folly,” foolishness—that folly which Romans 1 addresses: the folly of the individual who has turned his back upon God and has decided to worship “created things rather than the Creator” himself;[4] the folly of the person who regards himself as being particularly wise, and yet behind a facade of wisdom he’s become a foolish man or a foolish woman.[5] In other words, this folly represents the dominant disposition of man in his fallen state. Man, spiritually insensitive, not knowing God and not interested in knowing God—that’s the foolishness that is expressed here; the spiritual insensitivity of man, who has turned his back on God, does not know him, and does not wish to know him.

Now, we need to be very, very clear that this is not a description of a certain kind of man. In fact, in this section, Jesus uses the definite article in a way that doesn’t come across in any of the modern translations. You have to go to the King James Version to get it. He is referring to the man. He is not referring to a man, a certain kind of man, but man as man. In other words, this is descriptive not of a certain kind of individual but a description of all of humanity in our fallen state. And if you have time this afternoon or in the week that lies ahead, I commend to you Romans 1:18 and following as a cross-reference.

Now, even, in our culture, when people are prepared to acknowledge the unacceptable nature of this list… And they may say that it is unacceptable or not particularly desirable. They won’t say that it is actually sinful and wrong, because after all, we live in a world where nothing really is wrong. It might be wrong for you and right for me and so on, and we’re then able to justify just about every kind of idea and notion under the sun. But where there is an attempt to interact with this kind of list, the explanation for these things is largely covered under three headings. I’m not going to expound them, but I want to identify them.

When people explain why it is that your morning newspaper tomorrow will contain tales of theft, lewdness, envy, adultery, fornication, immorality, and so on, the explanation that will be offered falls under one of three words. Word number one: environment; number two: education; number three: example.

And contemporary sociologists will explain that the reason that Mr. So-and-So must have done something like this is because of his environment. It’s his environment that made him do it. Either it was too poor an environment, which is why, because of his poverty, he decided to jump out in rage and get a pistol and let everybody know how badly he felt about things; or, they’ll say, it is because his father was so wealthy and has so much that he decided that he had to react against the wealthy background that he had and get a pistol and go and do something unmanageable and unkind to someone else. So we got it covered both ways.

[It doesn’t] matter if you’re born
To play the king or [the] pawn,
For the line is thinly drawn
[Twixt] joy and sorrow.[6]

And so it must be environment.

Or perhaps it is his lack of education: “If only he had gone to a proper school or a better school, he probably wouldn’t have done that.” Now, that becomes a real problem when we discover that the immorality and the fornication and the murder and the mayhem is now happening in the Ivy League. So we’re going to have to adjust again. No, we want it both ways: “No, it’s the absence of education. No, it’s the presence of education.”

Well, no, the problem is that he didn’t have the right kind of examples—that his father left home when he was three and he didn’t grow up, you know…

My dad left home when I was three;
He didn’t leave much to my ma and me,
Just this old guitar and an empty bottle of booze.
And I don’t blame him that he run and hid,
But the meanest thing that he ever did,
Was before he left, he went and named me Sue.

You know? And

He must’ve thought that was quite a joke,
’Cause it got a lot of laughs from a lot of folk,
And it seemed I had to [struggle] my whole life through.
And some girl’d giggle, and I’d get red,
And some guy’d laugh, and I’d bust his head,
’Cause life ain’t easy for a boy named Sue.[7]

You see? See, the problem is there. It’s ’cause I’m down here on the tracks. I’ve had bad examples. I’ve had no examples. And you go to the other side, and he says, “No. No, the problem is I’ve had wonderful examples who let me down.”

Now, you’re sensible people, and you read your newspapers, and you see your lives, and you watch your children, and you view your grandchildren, and you can see the panorama of life, many of us from the second half of the twentieth century right up till today. And we have to say as sensible people living in the world, “Is this explanation credible? Is this providing men and women with the kind of answer that is necessary to explain the human predicament? Or is it a crock? Is it an attempt by humanity to feel better about itself by explaining away the predicament? ‘It could never be my problem. Whatever is wrong with the world, it must be something on the outside affecting me.’”

And the fact of the matter is that as significant as each of these areas is… And they are significant. Our environment plays a part. Our education plays a part in our lives. Examples play a part in our lives. We would be foolish to suggest they didn’t. But as significant as each area may be, they neither explain the problem, nor do they provide the solution. The problem cannot be explained by these three e’s; the problem cannot be alleviated by these three e’s. And yet I guarantee if you keep this in your mind going through this week, you’ll find it again and again and again: “The way we’re going to be able to deal with this is we’ve just got to tell people, that we just need to let them know. As long as we let them know, they’ll take care of it.” Well, neither history nor human personality bears us out.

Now, having gone to that list, and just to settle it in our minds, to make sure that we realize that this is not some first-century debate but a twenty-first-century and ongoing issue, let’s go back to verse 17. Because he leaves the crowd, he goes into the house, and his disciples ask him about the parable.

Aren’t you so glad for the person who was in your class who put up his hand when everybody was pretending they knew the answer to everything, and he said, “I’m sorry, but I don’t understand paragraph one”? And everyone said, “Oh, come on, come on,” but they were very pleased. I know, ’cause I was often the person: “I’m sorry, I don’t understand it.” Said, “Oh Begg, come on. Dimwit!” But then afterwards someone came to me and said, “I’m glad you mentioned that, ’cause I didn’t understand it either.” And frankly, I think I was more representative than people were prepared to admit.

But if you say to yourself, “I’m not sure I’m getting this,” then you’re in good company, because the disciples weren’t getting it either. And Jesus has to say to them, “You know, you’re not any brighter than the crowd, are you?” Verse 18: “Are you so dull? Are you just as stupid as the group that I’ve been speaking to?” It doesn’t seem very nice, does it? But it’s very direct. And the fact is, they were. We’ve just seen in chapter 6 that after he comes walking to them on the water, after he has just fed the five thousand, they think he’s a ghost! And in 6:5[1], it says, “They were completely amazed, [because] they had[n’t] understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened.” We’re going to see this again and again and again.

And so he says, “Well, let me just go through this with you in a little bit more detail. Don’t you see that nothing that enters a man from the outside can make him unclean?” In other words, food can’t make a man or woman a sinner, any more than abstaining can make a man or a woman holy. That’s what he’s saying. And Mark, with the benefit of hindsight—and you have this in parenthesis at the end of verse 19—says, “In saying this, Jesus [was] declar[ing] all foods ‘clean.’”

Now, if you think about the fact that Peter was probably the eyewitness most influential in the writing of Mark’s Gospel, and you fast-forward in your mind, or you backtrack in your mind, to Acts chapter 10, where Peter receives that vision about the food, remember, coming down, and he has to learn that he can eat that stuff, and he can eat with the gentiles, and the key to his acceptance with God is not to be found in the food that he’s eating or the food that he’s not eating[8]—if Peter, then, was the one explaining that situation to Mark, then Mark writes with that benefit of hindsight, and he says, “And actually, what Jesus was doing here was declaring, ‘All foods are clean.’” So, if you like, verse 19, Jesus declares all foods clean; verse 20, Jesus declares all hearts dirty. All foods clean; all hearts unclean. The source of defilement is not external; it is internal.

If you like, as we’ve said on a number of occasions before, the heart of the human problem is the problem of the human heart—that, as Jeremiah the prophet puts it in Jeremiah 17:9, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure.” “Beyond cure.” This sort of pharisaical approach is as useful as being diagnosed with a systemic illness, being diagnosed with acute leukemia, and deciding to treat it by going to the department of dermatology to have a facial scrub. Anybody who did that would be regarded as being out of their minds. If the problem is endemic, if the problem is systemic, then there is no possibility of it being addressed by externalism. And yet today throughout the city of Cleveland, people will do and fail to do, will attend, will participate, on the strength of the notion that as long as we’ve got it clear and clean on the outside, everything is okay.

In verse 19, Jesus declares all foods clean. In verse 20, he declares all hearts dirty. The source of defilement is not external; it is internal.

Now, there is a sense in which this is repetitive; and therefore, let’s allow the repetition of it to hit us, because that’s why it’s here. At the core of our being the problem is located. At the core of our being the problem is located.

It’s a fascinating period in history, isn’t it? Because we’re all now so environmentally wired in. We recycle, and we are green, and the BMW is no longer the “ultimate driving machine” (at least, it’s only in small print); it is the “experience of joy.” Why? Well, it sounds a little much to say that, and after all, its engines are guzzling a lot of gas. Therefore, we’d better get them to stop guzzling as much gas, and while we’re doing that, we’ll talk about joy.

And what about all the poor smokers now in the world? You say, “Poor smokers?” Yes, I say, “Poor smokers”! I feel bad for people who smoke, for multiple reasons. First of all, ’cause they’re killing themselves, but secondly, because now they have to go in boxes. When you arrive at Gate 62 in Los Angeles terminal, the poor souls are in there in a pen, just smoking by themselves, isolated. And people can stare at them, like, “Whoa, look at that filthy person! I can’t believe… That’s disgusting! I can’t believe you’re doing that.” Now we’re all so phenomenally righteous. We discovered smoking, you know. So now humanity across the board is able to find something to make it feel good about itself: “I don’t do that, so I can look down on you because you do.” The fact that I may have the filthiest mind walking past you—I can feel better, because I know you have filthy lungs. And filthy lungs is a ten; filthy minds, in our minds, is a four. Therefore, on the basis of things, you should be in that box. Get in there!

And everybody is completely preoccupied with it. Do you think it is just fascinating, do you think it is possible, that since there is a devil who blinds the minds of men and women, do you think that there is an underlying demonic commitment to the new world religion that is eco-friendly, so that everyone in the world, irrespective of whether they’re Muslim, Jewish, or Christian, can agree on one thing? “Don’t spit your chewing gum there. Do not spoil this. Do not do that.” So we can all get really serious about our environment, because we don’t want it to be polluted. You say, “Well, isn’t that a Christian preoccupation?” Not a preoccupation. It is a Christian virtue. Because “the earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof.”[9] And therefore, a Christian ought to be concerned about ecology. A Christian ought to be concerned about environment.

But the real concern, the real pollution, is not out there. The real pollution is in here. So while the whole of society is concerned about pollution, the only area of pollution that it is unwilling to address is the pollution that Jesus addresses here. “Your hearts,” he says, “are polluted.” It’s not a particularly appealing story, is it? It’s certainly not going to be quickly absorbed by folks who’ve come to church in order that they might feel good about themselves—someone who decides that they want to follow Jesus so that he can be a crutch to kind of help them through their days.

And he looks us in the eye as those who profess to be his followers, and he says, “Do you get this? Whatever comes in through your mouth goes to your stomach. It comes in one end, and it goes out the other end.” That’s what he says. It’s kind of like “men talk.” I mean, this is locker room talk—gets them all in the locker room, says, “Okay, guys, here’s the deal: in one end, out the other. That’s how it works.” I think they may have laughed. And while they were still laughing, he says, “But don’t let’s think about your stomach. Let’s think about your heart. Because your heart is sinful. And that’s why it responds to environment. The environment cannot make you sin. The environment simply appeals to that which is inside of you.”

And every sin is an inside job. Every time I sin, I sin. I didn’t sin because I had a bad example or no example. I didn’t sin because my environment and my background and the street I grew up in was a bad street. I didn’t sin because I had too much education or not enough education. I sinned because I have a sinful heart. That’s what Jesus is saying.

Now, for those of you who read the newspaper—and it’s a significant group—you will have read on February the nineteenth, as I did, that the American Psychiatric Association had released its new bible for psychiatrists. The bible for psychiatrists is The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. And if you’re alert to these things at all, you know that the peculiar challenges of psychiatry is to wrestle with humanity and, if you like, the heart of man, the subconscious center of man, the thing in a man that makes him the man. And psychiatry has to wrestle with this and deal with this, because it recognizes that deep inside the human psyche there is, if you like—it’s a deep well, and it does down, and it’s muddy down there. And if that mud gets stirred up, the human personality is capable of just about anything, irrespective of education, example, and environment. And all kinds of horrible activities and dreadful, unthinkable actions take place.

And the psychiatric world has to determine what is diagnosis, what is cure, what is spiritual, what is physical, what is simply intellectual, and so on. And in the course of this piece—and I won’t read it to you all; I don’t think you’d necessarily be thrilled with it—but it says, “Just because two examiners concur that a person qualifies for a particular diagnosis”—“just because two examiners concur that a person qualifies for a particular diagnosis”—“does not mean that he [or she] has an authentic mental illness. How do we know, for example, that a person diagnosed with major depressive disorder ([which is] the formal designation for pathological depression)”—how do we know that that individual “is not actually suffering from a bout of natural if intense sadness brought on by a shattering loss, a grave disappointment … a scathing betrayal”[10]—or, we might actually add, the deep-seated conviction of sin? How do we know? If sin is a Christian neurosis, which is a standard psychiatric response to the notion, then there is no possibility of somebody then saying, “Well, I think it must be that you need to go and see Jesus and have your heart sorted out,” because there’s no such thing to deal with.

And so, says the writer—a lady who is a psychiatrist and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a lecturer at Yale University School of Medicine—she says, “The manual will not help us here. In fact, a number of changes proposed for the DSM”—i.e., or, for example, “new diagnoses for binge eating, hoarding and hyper-sexuality”—“are likely to inadvertently place large swaths of normal human variation under the umbrella of pathology.”[11] You see what I’m saying? What this lady is saying is, “This is normal.” I don’t know if she’s saying it’s wrong, but she’s saying, “This is what happens.” And if we’re not careful, then we will simply diagnose these people into yet another chapter of disorder, thus failing to reckon on the possibility that in actual fact, what we’re facing is covered by Jesus in this passage.

Now, I don’t mean to be dismissive of psychiatry. I’m certainly not. And I don’t mean to plow around in areas that I should leave well alone. But I think in order to try and make the point, that helps me. I hope it helps you. Once again, we have here, trotted out before us, the man who had all these bodies, the Jeffrey Dahmer of Cleveland—all these bodies, all these women. And whatever we want to say about the psychiatric evaluation of things, what Jesus says is the root cause of that is a sinful, selfish, preoccupied heart. And only a Savior can fix that. That’s why when we started this study, we prayed,

Make the Book live to me, O Lord,
Show me yourself within your Word,
Show me myself and show me my Savior.
That’s why I encourage you to read your Bibles.

You’re sensible people. You can think this out. The Bible clarifies these issues. The Bible alone gives a radically different view of ourselves and of our world. The Pharisees were hiding behind a smoke screen of externalism. Instead of allowing the law of God to search their hearts and show them a need of a Savior, they took all of their rules and their regulations and their traditions, and they held them to themselves to make them feel better about themselves. They failed at the same time to see that no amount of isolation—no amount of isolation from the bad stuff or from the bad people—could protect them from the idolatry and the immorality of their own hearts.

That is ultimately the folly of any kind of religious system that suggests that, not least of all the Amish community. And I have a few good Amish friends. And I spoke with two people who’ve come out of the Amish community last Sunday evening, and they came to me, and they said, “The things that we were studying in Mark chapter 7 are the very issues that are endemic in in our community”—the idea that somehow or another, as long as I keep myself externally from the bad stuff and from the bad people, I will be fine. Loved ones, we can take ourselves to the furthest point of the universe and lock ourselves in a closet, but we will not there be able to deal with the immorality and the idolatry of our hearts. They will be right there with us in the closet.

That’s why Jesus says, “I have to show you what you’re like.” That’s why we sang in our first hymn, “He makes his people glad, and he makes the sinner sad.”[12] You say, “Well, I don’t want to sign up for a Christianity that makes you sad. I thought I was coming to church ’cause I have actually been sad!” Yeah, but have you been sad for the right reasons? Because if you haven’t, then I’ve got bad news for you: as sad as you think you are, you’re going to have to get a little sadder before you start getting gladder. Because the real sadness is the sadness of facing the fact that when I try my very best, I can’t do anything to make myself acceptable to God. And then the gladness comes in the realization that God has done for us what we cannot ever do for ourselves.

We are by nature dignified, because we’re made in the image of God. We’re rational. We’re social. We’re moral. We’re spiritual. Animals aren’t. But we’re not only dignified; we’re degraded, devalued, depraved. That doesn’t mean that we’re as bad as we could possibly be, but it does mean that there is no part of our humanity that is untouched by our rebellious hearts. Our hearts are wrong, and they pump pollution through the system.

So we have only one chance: a new heart. This is the diagnosis. We finally go in; they say, “You have heart failure. We’ve done just about everything for you we possibly can. We’ve got the one that makes you dehydrate and the one that makes you hydrate and the one that makes you fill up with fluid and the one that takes the fluid out of your lungs. We’ve done it now to the point where it’s just impossible for us to treat you. The only possibility is a new heart.” And that’s exactly what the Bible says. You can monkey around with the balances and do all these kind of things, but eventually, it’s a new heart that’s needed.

Don’t you think that’s why the Pharisee went to Jesus at night? The best that the Pharisees could offer was probably epitomized in the life of Nicodemus. You can read about him in John chapter 3. And he goes to Jesus by night, and he says, “Good teacher, you must be from God, because nobody could do the miracles you’re doing if God were not with him.” And Jesus says, “Let’s just cut through it, Nicodemus. You must be born again.” “What? How could I go back into my mother’s womb and be born again?” Jesus said, “We’re not talking physical birth. We’re talking spiritual birth. Here’s what you need to do: you need to repent, and you need to believe. You need to turn from your self-acceptance and your self-justification, and you need to believe that I have provided for you the answer to that which you so desperately need.”[13]

Have you ever done that? Do you believe this good news? Have you ever believed the good news? Do you understand the good news? I hope you do: that God accepts us as sinners, not because of any merit of our own but on account only of his mercy; that he finds it possible to accept us because of what Jesus has done upon the cross. He didn’t die there as an example. He died there as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. He died there our death, the death that we deserve because of our polluted hearts. His heart was perfect. His heart was broken. His life was destroyed so that our hearts might be made new. The Holy Spirit does this. The Holy Spirit regenerates us. The Holy Spirit indwells us, makes us new.

It really comes down to where we finished last time, and here we finish, and that is: Are we going to appeal to God on the basis of merit or justice, or are we going to be sensible and go to him on the strength of mercy?

The story is told that one of the kings of England, who, when the time came for him to have his portrait done, life had worked him over pretty well, and he wasn’t exactly what you would call in his prime. He didn’t have his teenage figure anymore. He looked more like Rumpelstiltskin, and things that should be up were down and so on; his chest had dropped into his drawers, and so on. And as he tried to drag himself together and sit for the portraiture to begin, he looked at the painter, and he said, “Now, listen: I want this portrait to do me justice.” The painter looked at him and must have thought… He said, “King, what you require is mercy, not justice. If I gave you justice, you will not like what I paint. Therefore, you must rely on my mercy.” And eventually, that’s the divide. That’s the issue.

“Why do your disciples not wash their hands before they eat?”

“Because they don’t have to. Why do you set aside the commands of God to put your traditions up on the top? Don’t you understand that it’s not what is on the outside going in that matters but what is on the inside coming out?”

Well, I leave it with you. Let us pray. And when our time ends, if you would like a little booklet called The Story, you can find it out on the tables or in the prayer room through the doors to your left and my right.

Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to your cross I cling;
Naked come to you for dress
And helpless come to you for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Jesus, or I die.[14]

Hear our prayers, O God, and let our cry come to you. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.

[1] R. Hudson Pope, “Make the Book Live to Me” (1943). Language modernized.

[2] Mark 7:5 (NIV 1984).

[3] John 10:11 (NIV 1984).

[4] Romans 1:25 (NIV 1984).

[5] See Romans 1:22.

[6] Paul Simon, “Flowers Never Bend with the Rainfall” (1965).

[7] Shel Silverstein, “A Boy Named Sue” (1969). Lyrics lightly altered.

[8] See Acts 10:10–48.

[9] Psalm 24:1 (KJV).

[10] Sally Satel, “Prescriptions for Psychiatric Trouble,” American Enterprise Institute, February 19, 2021,

[11] Satel.

[12] Isaac Watts, “Going to Church” (1719). Paraphrased.

[13] John 3:2–10 (paraphrased).

[14] Augustus Toplady, “Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me” (1776). Lyrics lightly altered.

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.