All right, our theme this week is “The Sufficiency of Scripture,” and it occurred to me, that might be a new term to many of you. I had never heard the expression “the sufficiency of Scripture” until John MacArthur began to preach on that subject sometime in the late 1980s. Even though I had graduated from Moody Bible Institute, taken I don’t know how many hours of theology, and studied history as well, church history, somehow if I came across that term, it escaped me: the sufficiency of Scripture. I had no clue what it meant, and I think some of you may be in the same boat. And so, in this hour I want to introduce the topic. We’re going to talk about what it means and what it doesn’t mean, and how it ought to shape our faith; and that’s basically my introduction. And then, a long way into my message, we’re going to look at a familiar Old Testament passage that has implications for this theme.
Now I am sure most of you, if not all of you, have heard the Latin phrase “sola Scriptura.” It means Scripture alone, and it’s one of the five solas we talk about in connection with the Protestant Reformation: sola Scripture, Scripture alone. We have sola fide, which means faith alone. That means faith is the sole instrument of our justification. Sola gratia, which means grace alone, grace as the efficient cause of our salvation. We have solus Christus, which means Christ alone as the sole object of our faith and the only true Savior of fallen humanity. And also soli Deo Gloria, which means all glory belongs to God alone.
Those are the five solas, and the first two that I named constitute the vital backbone of evangelical Protestant Christianity. Those two principles, sola Scriptura and sola fide, are sometimes referred to as the formal and material principles of the Protestant Reformation. Sola fide is the material principle. It’s the principle point of doctrine over which Protestants diverged from medieval Roman Catholicism: justification by faith alone. And even though I’m sure many of you understand what that means. This is such an important point of gospel that I want to explain it a little bit just for the sake of those who may be new to this concept.
Justification: This doctrine means that whatever good works we do contribute nothing whatsoever that would commend us to God or earn His favor. And even as redeemed people empowered by the Holy Spirit, we cannot earn any kind of merit or improve our standing before God through our own works. Romans 4, verse 5 says, “To the one who does not work.” It doesn’t mean he doesn’t do any good works, but he’s not working to try to earn justification. “To the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.”
Now you know, of course, that what Jesus said we need to have right standing before God is perfect, impeccable righteousness. He said, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” That’s Matthew 5:20. So we have to ask, “How high is that standard?” because the Pharisees kept pretty rigidly to the Law as they understood it. How high is the standard God requires of us? Jesus answers that question in verse 48, “You must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
The only way to obtain such a full and flawless righteousness is by imputation from Christ, so that just as He took our sins and paid the price for them, His righteousness is imputed to believers, and therefore they can stand boldly before the throne of a perfectly righteous, infinitely holy God whose eyes are too pure to look on evil, and who cannot tolerate wrongdoing, according to Habakkuk 1:13. And all of that means the case would be hopeless if not for the righteousness of Christ, which is perfect. But Scripture says those who have yielded to Christ as Lord trusted Him as Savior have a righteous standing before the throne of God because Christ’s own righteousness is imputed to them, or put to their account, 2 Corinthians 5:21, “For our sake God made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.”
So believers are clothed in that perfect, spotless righteousness, and it covers them completely. Isaiah 61, verse 10, “He has clothed me with the garments of salvation, and wrapped me in a robe of righteousness.” That’s the doctrine of justification by faith, and that is the material principle of the Protestant Reformation. It’s also the lynchpin of gospel truth. You don’t really understand the gospel until you grasp that truth. And, by the way, the material principle when we say that, the material principle of any religion or religious movement is the central doctrine that anchors and explains all the beliefs that are distinctive to that movement, so that the formal principle speaks of – that’s the material principle, the major doctrine.
The formal principle speaks of the source, the authoritative source from which that doctrine is drawn. So you have these twin principles in every religion. The formal principle determines and shapes and tests, and if necessary, corrects the doctrine. And these are standard terms in theology. In Eastern Orthodoxy, the formal principle is Scripture plus holy tradition. In Roman Catholicism, the formal principle is Scripture plus tradition, plus the pope, plus the teaching and authority of the church, which is known as the magisterium. And in charismatic practice, the formal principle is Scripture plus direct revelation from the Holy Spirit.
The Protestant view is sola Scriptura. Scripture alone is the formal principle of historical Protestantism, and that means that the Bible is the sole and sufficient standard by which every truth claim is to be tested, so that there is no other authority that’s equal to Scripture. Religious tradition can’t rise to that level. Popes and bishops don’t have authority that is equal to Scripture. God’s Word is not subject to the rulings of synods and church councils. All ecclesiastical opinions must be judged by Scripture, not vice versa.
And Scripture is not only the supreme authority for Reformation-minded Christians, we also confess that Scripture is sufficient. That’s our theme, and I want to explain it. What we’re saying is that Scripture is the only infallible medium through which God has given us everything that is required for life and godliness.
Now that phrase, “everything that is required for life and godliness,” you might recognize. Those are words borrowed directly from 2 Peter 1, verse 3, where Peter assures all of us as believers that we are not lacking anything we need to glorify God and grow in the knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and goodness. Again, those are Peter’s exact words. In other words, as you’ve heard John MacArthur say for years, “It is folly to think that unless we borrow from secular psychology we just don’t have solid answers for people who are struggling with things like anxiety or depression or phobias or fixations or instability or any kind of other soul problems.
It’s wrong to suggest that if Christians don’t import principles of style and strategy for marketing experts or entrepreneurial wizards, then the church is never going to be able to reach people in this generation. You hear people say that, but it’s absurd. It’s absurd to think that if the only things we have to say are in the Bible, then that’s so lame and uninteresting by itself that preachers need to watch and exegete whatever’s popular on HBO or Netflix every week. We can blend that with platitudes taken from the Bible in order to make the Bible seem relevant.
The reality is that almost everything that is wrong in the evangelical movement today could be cured if evangelicals understood and truly embraced the sufficiency of Scripture. But they don’t. And, in fact, look what has happened, for example, to the Young, Restless, Reformed Movement. John referred to that this morning.
Less than a decade ago, the fact that so many young people were rediscovering the core principles of the Protestant Reformation, it seemed so promising and so exciting. Thousands of young men in positions of church leadership – and many were training to be pastors – were talking about gospel-centered ministry and extoling the doctrines of grace and defending essentials truths like substitutionary atonement, giving new emphasis to the principle of sola fide and the doctrine of justification; and it actually looked for one brief, shining moment like there might be a new wave of reformation and revival even in the evangelical movement in the West. Some spoke of it as a Reformed resurgence, others were calling it the New Calvinism, and a lot of good things were being said together for the gospel. And the Gospel Coalition began having biennial conferences in alternate years that at the beginning they promised to stay focused on the defense and proclamation of the gospel; and at the time, it seemed like they were answering and trying to correct the post-modern drift of the emerging church movement. Some of you will remember that.
The emergents were aggressively trying to inject post-modern notions about subjectivity and the pliability of truth into the church, trying to blend post-modernism and the gospel. And they ultimately embraced all kinds of theological aberrations, the emergents did, everything from universalism to ferocious frontal attacks on the doctrine of the atonement, borrowing heavily from already discredited liberal doctrines and trying to adapt to post-modern narratives, and it was quite a mess for those early parts of this new millennium. But then, T4G and TGC came along and said, “No, we’re going to defend the doctrine of substitutionary atonement,” and they began having conferences that drew crowds of Christians in the thousands, including a lot of young people who said that they likewise were committed to gospel truth, and great things seemed to be happening.
And on top of that, exactly ten years ago, no less than Time magazine featured a cover article titled “Ten Ideas Changing the World Right Now,” and the third item on their list was the New Calvinism. I don’t think Calvinism had enjoyed such status since the age of the Puritans. But suddenly Calvinism seemed to be such a growing force among young evangelicals that it even captured the attention of the secular press. And I have to say, those were hopeful and heady days. But in less than a decade’s time, most of the encouraging signs and emphases have simply melted away.
Let’s be honest about that. Some of the best-known young leaders who initially seemed to aspire to leadership among the Young, Restless, Reformed have either disqualified themselves or left the ministry completely. You have Darrin Patrick and Josh Harris and Mark Driscoll. Driscoll says he now believes the doctrines of grace are garbage; that’s his exact word. Josh Harris divorced his wife and came out as an atheist. And these were the leaders of that movement.
Meanwhile, the focus among younger evangelicals has shifted to social justice. And in the past two years alone, lots of articles have been written and speeches have been made insisting that social justice is a gospel idea, it’s a gospel issue. And not only a gospel issue, but this is the one issue we’re now supposed to give our full attention to. The problem with this is that the idea of social justice is itself a secular idea, and it is absolutely not a gospel issue that belongs in the same category as the doctrine of the atonement or the doctrine of justification by faith, or the incarnation of Christ, or any other doctrine that is actually part of the gospel message. And it seems clear that the large mass of evangelicals who were calling for a return to gospel-centered Christianity a decade ago, most of them are now turning their attention elsewhere.
And so, let’s face it; the current evangelical fixation on social justice is an agenda that was borrowed from the secular academic realm, and those at the very forefront of the movement almost universally regard privilege as injustice. It’s based on a Marxist notion of equality and the exploitation of economic and ethnic distinctions; and the remedies that have been advocated by most evangelical social warriors have a distinctly left-leaning political slant, including the redistribution of wealth and ethic quota systems and open borders, and they frequently make judgements about guilt and victimhood based solely on skin color. None of those, none of those are biblical ideas. Some of them are blatantly racist. And, in fact, I think it’s fair to say that the idea of justice that this movement has been defending has very little in common with what the Bible says about justice. You won’t hear today’s social justice advocates put a lot of emphasis on the punishment of evildoers. But that’s a biblical idea. That’s a great component of the biblical idea of justice.
And you certainly won’t catch them advocating the principle of 1 Thessalonians 3:10 either, that if anyone is not willing to work, then he’s not to eat. And in June there was a resolution passed by the Southern Baptist Convention that implicitly admitted that the whole idea, the evangelical idea of social justice is heavily dependent on ideas that the world finds fashionable. The infamous Southern Baptist resolution on critical race theory and intersectionality declared that these theories – critical race theory and intersectionality – which are rooted in cultural Marxism, they said they are – and I’m quoting their exact language: “These are helpful, analytical tools that can aid in evaluating a variety of human experiences.”
Instead of acknowledging the secular roots of these ideas, they implied that these are actually gifts of God’s common grace. They classified them under the rubric of truthful – these again are their exact words: “These are truthful insights found in human ideas that don’t explicitly emerge from Scripture.” You get that? They’re saying these are helpful and important ideas that stem from human thinking and not – they don’t emerge from Scripture. I hope you can see how that argument hands a rhetorical hammer and chisel to those who want to chip away at the sufficiency of Scripture.
I had a conversation this summer with Paul Washer in which he made a very perceptive remark. He said he believes the problem with the Reformed resurgence – the so called New Calvinism that was embraced by the Young, Restless, and Reformed – what killed that movement, he said, was its failure to embrace sola Scriptura, the sufficiency of Scripture in particular. The New Calvinism, for a while at least, did do an admirable job proclaiming sola fide and the doctrine of justification through faith alone and the principle of substitutionary atonement. In other words, they embraced the material principle of the Reformation.
And I’m grateful for any revival of interest in the doctrine of justification. That doctrine had been neglected by evangelicals for almost the entirety of the 20th century. Not that they denied it, but they simply took it for granted and then forgot it. And so I was thrilled when so many among the Young, Restless, Reformed people rediscovered the doctrine of justification began to proclaim it. But they didn’t have a matching emphasis on the formal principle, sola Scriptura, especially when it comes to the doctrine of biblical sufficiency. And to a large degree, I think the sufficiency of Scripture was omitted from their agenda on purpose, because the New Calvinism was deemed new specifically because they wanted to make room for charismatic doctrine.
There was also a very strong remnant of pragmatism that drove the methodology of many of the young neo-Calvinists. They actually were trying to amalgamate the doctrine of God’s sovereignty with some of the previous generation’s pragmatic methodologies. So they were imitating the look and feel of seeker-sensitive philosophy while preaching total depravity and the primacy of divine grace. And those are contradictory ideas; and ultimately, it seems their pragmatism won the tug of war rather than their confidence in the sovereignty of God and the inherent power of the gospel message.
And furthermore, all pragmatic methodologies have at their root – if you think about this: To have a pragmatic approach to ministry has at its root a de facto denial of the sufficiency of Scripture. A pragmatist is concerned with what works rather than what is true, what Scripture says. The pragmatist looks beyond Scripture to business models and marketing strategies, and he formulates his ministry philosophy accordingly. And the measure of how pervasive this is today can be seen in the large number of churches that put on a vaudeville show or a wrestling match hoping to attract the unbelieving world.
There’s just no question that strategy works if the goal is to draw a crowd. Many people are doing it successfully, if that’s the goal, to draw a crowd. But is that biblical? Of course not. No one in any previous generation of church history would ever have thought to desecrate a worship service like that. But most, if not all – I looked at a list recently of the largest mega churches in America, and most, if not all of them, specialize in putting on a spectacle. They’ve lost the concept that the church is the gathering of God’s people to come before God together; and God’s all-sufficient Word is supposed to be the centerpiece of our corporate worship.
So, why is it that so many of today’s evangelicals are drawn away so easily from the principle of sola Scriptura, both in their world view and in their worship? Why is that? And here I am convinced is the problem. For decades, evangelicals have been taught both by precept and by example, that experience is the lens through which we should evaluate the Bible and its doctrines. But that’s exactly backwards. We need to scrutinize and evaluate our experience in the light of God’s Word. Most churchgoers today have been conditioned by years of evangelical tomfoolery to come to church in quest of an experience, not because they want to hear truth and respond with true praise to God, but because they’re looking for an experience.
Now, again, I realize I’m making a very long introduction here, but this is the central point that I want to explore with you. If we truly believe that God’s Word contains everything necessary for His glory, for the sinner’s salvation, for faith and for life, and furthermore, if we say we look to Scripture as the supreme and sufficient test of all truth claims, then Scripture must be the judge of our experience and not vice versa. And I’m not exaggerating when I say that I think the typical evangelical today is prone to get it exactly backwards. If Scripture doesn’t jive with their experience, they’ll reinterpret the passage; or more often, perhaps, they simply ignore it. And in effect then, their whole religion is shaped by experience; and, in fact, that is paganism’s epistemology. It is a form of paganism. You hear what I’m saying? That is how Pagans think. That’s the whole basis of Pagan religion.
But it’s also how the average evangelical today thinks. It’s not, “What does the Bible say about it?” but, “How do I feel about it? What does this verse mean to me?” And thus, people construct their own individual view of religion and God, and it’s shaped by self-centered desires and personal preferences, because after all, shouldn’t religion be a personal thing? And to complicate matters further, most people who approach their faith that way desperately want to be thought hip to the culture and clever and politically correct and philosophically sophisticated and scientifically enlightened or whatever. And so, first, they shape a worldview that harmonizes with those goals, and then they try to weave it with Scripture. The result can never be truly biblical, because 1 Corinthians 1, verses 27 through 29, “God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God.”
Have you ever noticed that Jesus never corrected anyone for being unsophisticated or out of step with the times or just too hopelessly lowbrow to impress the intelligentsia. He didn’t rebuke people for that. In fact, contrary to one of the most popular misconceptions of these post-modern times, Jesus never scolded the Pharisees for being too concerned about sound doctrine or correct hermeneutics. His rebuke to them and to the highest religious leaders of His day, Matthew 22:39, “You are wrong because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God.” He rebuked them because they weren’t Bible-centered enough.
Now think about that expression He used: “You don’t know the Scriptures or the power of God.” Think about this. As Paul says in Romans 1:16, “The gospel is the power of God for salvation.” And that, of course, points us right back to the Scriptures as the principle instrument of God’s power.
He’s not talking about charismatic miracles there. When He says, “You don’t know the Scriptures or the power of God,” He’s rebuking them for one thing, their failure to have the right perspective of Scripture. So when he tells the Sadducees, “You don’t know the Scriptures or the power of God,” He’s saying that both intellectually and experientially they were biblically uninformed.
They had never truly subjected either their minds or their hearts to the truth of God’s Word. They let their own prodigious egos sit in judgment over Scripture rather than vice versa; and because of that, these guys weren’t just a little bit spiritually stunted, they were on the broad way that leads to destruction. That’s what Jesus was saying to them. They were no better off than the Gentiles whom they considered unclean and unenlightened. In fact, they were just like the Pagans in their ignorance of the Scriptures and the power of God.
That’s a remarkable thing for Jesus to say to the highest, most respected religious rulers in Israel, right? And what intrigues me is how Jesus singles out this one error as the nub of their problem. They hadn’t given Scripture its rightful place. They deluded it. They even nullified it with their traditions. He said something similar to the scribes and Pharisees in Mark 7, verse 8. He said to them, “You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.” Again, they weren’t Bible-centered enough.
Now, obviously, at the root of their problem, they did not believe that Scripture alone was sufficient. They foolishly thought and they probably genuinely believed that they were improving Scripture by adding to it. But in verse 9, Jesus tells them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!” which is the inevitable result when someone departs from the sufficiency of Scripture. It’s what Christian psychology was doing to Soul Care 20 years ago, nullifying the Word of God by adding human ideas to it. This always leads to a full-scale rejection of Scripture. You can see that clearly in the history of once sound seminaries that have apostatized or who denominations that have abandoned the faith. None of them began on the downgrade with the intention of trading their orthodoxy for heresy and unbelief. That wasn’t their goal. But the problem is, for those who lose their confidence in the authority and sufficiency of Scripture, that’s where that road inevitably leads.
Now with all of that as background – and that was an almost unforgivably long introduction, I apologize – I want to examine together with you an Old Testament text that reminds us why we need to turn the popular evangelical formula on its head and let the Word of God interpret our experiences rather than the other way around. And we’ll focus mainly on one verse, and it’s a verse you probably have even memorized. I know you’ve heard it countless times. It’s Jeremiah chapter 17, verse 9: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?”
And do turn there, Jeremiah 17, because I want to look at that verse in its context. There are some significant implications for the principle of sola Scriptura in the passage that precedes our verse. So let’s start with verse 5, Jeremiah 17. And by the way, verse 5 starts with the words, “Thus says the Lord,” which signifies this is the beginning of a fresh prophetic discourse. So, this is a perfect starting place even though it comes five verses into the chapter.
Jeremiah 17:5, I’ll read it. “Thus says the Lord: ‘Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength, whose heart turns away from the Lord. He’s like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see any good come. He shall dwell in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land. Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. He’s like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit.’”
Now our verse: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” Now does that passage call to mind another well-known section of Scripture? It should. That text that I just read sounds like a backward echo of the first Psalm, doesn’t it?
Psalm 1, verses 1 and 2 starts like this: “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,” – and so on – “but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on His law he meditates day and night.” So the psalm speaks of someone who is absolutely immersed in the Word of God. He’s not just reciting it from rote memory, but this is what delights him and is what fills his heart and mind.
The text in Jeremiah also mentions, “The man who trusts in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord,” and it does say some of the same things as Psalm 1: “He’s like a tree planted by water,” Jeremiah 17, verse 8. Psalm 1 says, “Its leaf does not whither.” Jeremiah 17:8 says, “Its leaves remain green.” Same idea. Psalm 1 says, “The tree yields its fruit in its season.” Jeremiah 17 says, “It does not cease to bear fruit.”
So these are clear parallelisms and they are deliberate. Jeremiah’s prophecy is purposely cast in similar language to Psalm 1. It is a mirror image of the psalm; and that means when Jeremiah makes this contrast between verse 5, “The man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength,” – and verse 7 – “The man who trusts in the Lord, whose trust is in the Lord,” you need to be aware that the defining mark of the one who trusts in the Lord is the exalted place Scripture occupies at the center of his affections, his thoughts, and his worldview. That’s what distinguishes the righteous man, and Psalm 1 makes that clear.
Conversely, think about what Jeremiah is saying with regard to the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength. By definition, that means this is someone who does not believe in the sufficiency of Scripture; that’s why he trusts in the arm of the flesh. And by the way, this was a perpetual snare to Old Testament Israel, just like it is among 21st century evangelicals – we’re no better. Israel and Judah repeatedly trusted the arm of flesh in one way for another.
For example, in Isaiah’s time, Hezekiah, king of Judah, at one point made an alliance with Egypt because he thought that was necessary to help protect him from Assyria. He was one of the best of Judah’s kings, but he did this foolish thing, and Isaiah repeatedly condemned him for it.
Isaiah 31, verse 1: “Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help and rely on horses.” This is the prophet speaking against the king. “Woe to those who trust in chariots because they are many and in horsemen because they are strong, but they don’t look to the Holy One of Israel or consult the Lord!” And then he says this: “The Egyptians are man, and not God, and their horses are flesh, and not spirit.” And Isaiah wove into that prophecy a rebuke that makes it clear, doesn’t it, that Hezekiah’s error was a failure to trust God’s Word.
What the alliance with Egypt signified was that the king of Judah apparently did not think God’s promises were sufficient to keep Jerusalem safe from this powerful adversary. And so in verse 2 of that passage, Isaiah reminds the king, “The Lord does not call back His words, but will arise against the house of the evildoers and against the helpers of those who work iniquity.” In other words, you can trust the promises of God, they are sufficient.
But Isaiah goes on to say this: “The Egyptians are man, and not God, their horses are flesh, and not spirit.” And then he says this: “When the Lord stretches out His hand, the helper will stumble, and he who is helped will fall, and they will all perish together.” That’s a warning to Hezekiah. The helper there is Egypt. It’s not Assyria, the attacking army, it’s Egypt, the one whose help Hezekiah had sought.
“The helper will fall.” And he says, “He who is helped will also fall.” That’s Judah. In other words, the prophet is telling the king that this alliance with the Egyptians signified a lack of full trust in the word of the Lord. So, if Hezekiah pursues this course of action, both Egypt and Judah would suffer defeat. And in the gracious providence of God, the Assyrians did soundly defeat the Egyptian army before they could come to Judah’s aid. And then when the Egyptian defeat drove Hezekiah to his knees in prayer, the Lord spectacularly defeated the Assyrians in one of most dramatic events that’s ever recorded in the Old Testament. I love this account; and I have to abbreviate it for you. But it happened like this.
On the way back from a series of decisive victories, the Assyrian army camped outside Jerusalem with almost 200,000 soldiers and war machines and with every intention of destroying the entire city of Jerusalem. This was a force of armies that Judah could not possibly hope to repel. And then the Assyrian king sent word to Hezekiah demanding his surrender; and in that demand for surrender, he said many vile things; but he summed up his message to Hezekiah with these words. Now remember, this comes from the attacking army to the king of Judah, and it’s recorded for us in identical verses that are recorded both in 2 Kings 19, verse 10, and also Isaiah 37, verse 10.
Here’s what he told Hezekiah the king of Judah. He said, “Do not let your God in whom you trust deceive you with His promises.” It was a direct attack on the authority and the truthfulness of God’s Word; and that’s when Hezekiah prayed for deliverance, and the Lord answered through the prophet Isaiah who said this: “The king of Assyria shall not come into this city,” declares the Lord. “For I will defend this city to save it, for my own sake and for the sake of My servant David.”
And you know what happened? That very night, Scripture says, “The angel of the Lord went out and struck down 185,000 in the camp of Assyrians.” I don’t know if they got the flu or what happened, but they all died overnight.
And Scripture says this: “And when people arose early in the morning, behold, these were all dead bodies.” I don’t know whether to say that’s a glorious sight or not – so many dead bodies – but it was glorious the way the Lord fulfilled His promise and delivered Jerusalem. He did it in a way that reminded Hezekiah and his people that God’s Word can be trusted, His promises are sufficient, and He doesn’t need assistance from worldly sources in order to fulfill the promises He makes to His people. His Word is sufficient. That’s the lesson.
Now, by the way, that full narrative about Hezekiah and Isaiah is found in 2 Kings 18 through 20, several chapters. And Isaiah also includes it in an almost word-for-word section where it’s identical in chapters 36 through 39 of Isaiah. It’s a great portion of Scripture. If you’ve never studied it, you should.
But anyway, look again at our text. Jeremiah 17, verse 5: “The man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength, whose heart turns away from the Lord,” this is someone who is lacking faith in the authority and sufficiency of God’s Word. His root problem is that he doubts the promises of God. Whether he would say that and admit it or not, that’s his problem; and that is a sinister variety of unbelief.
On the other hand, “The man who trusts in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord,” that’s the man in Psalm 1, whose life is centered on the Word of God. His worldview is shaped by Scripture, and he trusts implicitly in the truthfulness and sufficiency of what God has said. As we sang earlier, “What more can He say than to you He has said?”
So I hope you can see the implicit in this text from Jeremiah 17 is an affirmation of the principle of sola Scriptura – the authority, the centrality, and the sufficiency of God’s Word, so that to trust in the Lord is to live one’s life in accord with God’s Word, and to believe that it is infallibly true, and to refuse to look to fleshly or worldly sources for the spiritual help we need; because after all, God’s Word is sufficient for all of our spiritual needs.
And then, after this inspired reflection on ideas that parallel Psalm 1, Jeremiah adds a warning in verse 9 – this is our verse – and it stands as a kind of closing bookend to those first four verses that resemble an upside-down meditation on Psalm 1. Look again at the first words of this little prophetic discourse right after, “Thus says the Lord,” – and this is God Himself speaking through the prophet, and it’s a curse – ‘Cursed is the man who trusts in man.”
Now to hammer home that point, “Cursed is the man who trusts in man,” he wants to drive it home in a way that steps on all of our toes. He says essentially in verse 9 this curse applies particularly if the person you are trusting is yourself, because it’s utterly foolish to put your trust in yourself and in your own heart, because, verse 9, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can understand it?”
By the way, Proverbs 28:26 drives home this same point. It says, “Whoever trusts in his own mind is a fool.” Most translations say, “He who trusts in his own heart is a fool.” The Holman Christian Standard Bible says, “The one who trusts in himself is a fool.” And any way you translate it the idea is the same: a sinful self-confidence is the root of all kinds of foolishness. We cannot and must not put any trust in our own instincts and intuitions, or our feelings, or our perceptions, or the judgments we make, or the opinions we hold, or our innate intelligence or – in some of our cases – our lack thereof.
In fact, Proverbs 28:26 would have been a fitting life verse for me. And I wish I had grasped this in my teen years: “He who trusts in his own heart is a fool.” Our hearts are deceptive and sick and confusing, and that’s why we cannot let experience determine for us what is true and what we trust. That is a role that rightfully belongs only to Scripture.
And notice three things our verse says about every fallen person’s heart. First, it lies to you. “The heart is deceitful above all things.” Second, it’s incurable. The text says, “and desperately sick.” But the Hebrew word there is a word you’d use to say someone is irreversibly diseased, fatally ill, terminally ill. And, third, you can’t possibly make sense of it. “Who can understand it?” And that’s a rhetorical question that assumes a negative reply: “No mere mortal can know it accurately.” You don’t even really understand your own heart. And if you’re honest enough, you’ll confess that.
And so, the remainder of the time we have together in this session I want to consider each one of those properties of the human heart in that order. First, it is deceitful. Second, it is sick. And, third, it is confusing. So we’ll start with the fact that our hearts are deceitful.
Your heart lies to you all the time, and it’s because it is your heart. It generally deceives you in the easiest way possible by telling you just what you want to hear. That’s how your heart deceives you. You know, “You’re a good person. The thing you did wasn’t a sin, it was just a mistake. Everybody makes mistakes. And God shares your political opinions and your sports team preferences, and He must, because after all, He thinks just the way you do.” That’s what your heart tells you. And that is one of the most pervasive of all human brands of self-deception: we remake God in our image.
In Psalm 50, God recites a list of sins that the wicked have committed. And then at the end of that catalogue of their transgressions, He tells them, “These things you have done, and I have been silent; you thought that I was one like yourself.” But the Lord says, “Now I rebuke you and the charge is laid before you.” So their fundamental error, the belief that led them astray and into this host of evil deeds was the totally false assumption that God was just like them.
Listen, everyone who thinks he can figure out God by his own intuition, everyone who does that winds up with a small “g” god who is a carbon copy of self. It may be the grossest and most evil of all human depravity to think like that, that, “Well, I can understand God because He’s just like me.” You’ve made yourself God. And can I be really honest? We’re all prone to that. That’s what John Calvin meant when he said, “The human heart is a factory of idols.” That’s what Isaiah is saying to all of us when he says, “The human heart is deceitful.”
Your heart will put your own ego in the place where only God should be. And there just one remedy for that: the Word of God. If you don’t meditate on it day and night and let that shape your conception of God, you’re going to end up with a twisted conception of God; and in all likelihood, your god will just be a dressed up image of what you see in the mirror. That’s how deceitful our hearts are.
Almost every time I quote Jeremiah 17:9 in a sermon, someone afterwards will ask whether this actually applies to believers, because they say, “After all, sure, the fallen human heart is deceitful and wicked. But don’t we get new hearts at regeneration?” And it’s true that Ezekiel 36, verse 26, the Lord Himself says, “I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put with you. I’ll remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.” And I know that’s an eschatological promise that applies to the day that is spoken of in Romans 11:26 when all Israel will be saved. But that’s also an adequate and apt description of what happens to every believer at the new birth. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”
So do we still have to distrust our hearts? The answer is yeah, because until we are finally glorified and perfectly conformed to the image of Christ, there are remnants of our old fleshliness that cling to us and deceive us. And that is what Jeremiah 17:9 is talking about. It’s what James describes in James 1, verses 14 and 15, when he says, “Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. And then desire, when it has conceived gives birth to sin.”
So even as a regenerate believer, all the worst temptations you face and all the worst follies you are guilty of are actually a result of twisted, deceitful desires that arose from within your own heart. You can’t blame the Devil for the evil that you do. He and his minions may put temptations in your way; but if there weren’t that old habitus of sin still remaining in your flesh, the Devil could never defile you. He didn’t defile Christ.
And by the way, Jesus said the same thing, Matthew 15, verses 18 through 20, “What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart comes evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, thefts, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person.” And you are not fully immune from any of those things as a Christian because you are still subject to carnal desires and fleshly self-deception.
Ecclesiastes 9, verse 3: “The hearts of the children of man are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live,” meaning you won’t be totally free from that depravity until your final glorification. So don’t trust your heart; you can’t trust it. That’s one of the key reasons you need to let Scripture interpret your experiences rather than vice versa.
Here's a second thing in our verse. First, our hearts are deceitful. Second, our hearts are sick. And Jeremiah uses a word that means miserably feeble – literally that’s what it means. But it goes way deeper than that English expression could possibly convey. If you want to get Calvinistic with it, it means totally depraved – which is how the King James version renders the verse.
“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked.” That expression “desperately wicked,” it actually translate a single Hebrew word that has several shades of mean – and they all apply. In fact, the Amplified Bible tries to get the whole gamut of meanings into that one statement. That’s not always a good idea, but I think it works here.
Here’s how they render the first part of that verse. They say, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and it is exceedingly perverse and corrupt and severely, mortally sick!” – and then they add an exclamation mark for emphasis, which, I don’t know about you, but I didn’t really need that.
This is the doctrine of total depravity. It’s another reason God’s Word rather than personal experience should define for us what we believe. And actually, this is really an amplification of the first point: “Our hearts are deceitful.” And they’re not just mildly misleading, but they are totally and thoroughly untrustworthy, perverse, and incurable. Incurable is one of the meanings of that, one of the shades of meaning of that Hebrew word.
And not only will your own heart deceive you, don’t forget that the so called evangelical district of the visible church today is overloaded with charlatans and false prophets – especially if you include the whole TBN clown car. Listen to what Jeremiah says about them. He is talking about TBN here, I’m certain.
Jeremiah 23:26, “How long shall there be lies in the heart of the prophets who prophesy lies, and who prophesy the deceit of their own hearts?” So the point he’s making is that the false prophets and teachers of bad doctrine are themselves self-deceived. They don’t just tell lies to the people who hear them, they have first lied to themselves, and then they prophesy the deceit of their own heart. And I’m convinced, many of them actually believe the lies that they’re telling. It takes an irrational mind to do that; but I think they possess an irrational mind.
This is the danger of thinking that spiritual truth is best discovered within one’s self. That’s the very worst way to deny the sufficiency of Scripture, because it’s full incurable arrogance. And, again, incurable is one of the meanings of this word behind this expression “desperately sick.” We cannot fix what’s wrong with our own hearts. The Word of God has that power, but it’s not instantaneous or automatic. And, in fact, I’ll have more to say about that in a minute.
But this idea of an incurable sickness is actually an echo of another well-known and oft quoted text from Jeremiah: Jeremiah 13:23, “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots?” The answer is obviously no.
Then he says, “Then also you can do good who are accustomed to do evil.” He says if you’re tainted with total depravity, you can’t fix that any more than the leopard could change his own spots. You don’t have the power to renew your own heart.
The kind of heart renewal we need, even as regenerate people, is what David in his regenerate state prayed for after his sin with Bathsheba. Psalm 51, verse 10: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” And only when a life is immersed in the Word of God does that happen. So let’s talk about that.
Look at the third property of our fallen hearts here that he names. To review – Number One: Our hearts are deceitful. Number Two: Our hearts are sick. Now, Number Three: Our hearts are confusing. And Jeremiah makes this point with that rhetorical question, “Who can understand the human heart?”
And, of course, as I already said, the way he asks that question in this context demands a negative answer. No mere mortal can understand the human heart. Every fallen human heart is so hopelessly secretive and dishonest and irrational and confusing, so full of folly and so motivated by duplicity and incurable wickedness, that we can’t even make sense of our own hearts.
But there’s also another answer to that rhetorical question: “Who does know our hearts better than we know them ourselves?” God does, of course, and the verse right after our text says so.
Look at verse 10: “I the Lord search the heart and test the mind.” God sees every thought we think, and He’s not confused by it. The same truth is found in 1 Samuel 16, verse 7; again, a verse you know: “The Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” Psalm 139, of course, is full of this truth: “O Lord, You have searched me and known me! You discern my thoughts from afar. Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O Lord, You know it altogether.”
And listen to what Jesus says to the church at Thyatira in Revelation 2, verse 23. He says this: “I am He who searches mind and heart.” That’s practically a direct quotation from verse 10 in our chapter; and yet, Jesus says it about Himself in Revelation 2:23. It’s one of the proofs of His deity, because this is something only God can do. It’s a feature of His omniscience. He knows everything, including the secret thoughts of His creatures.
And this is what David celebrates in Psalm 139 – I already quoted it: “You discern my thoughts from afar.” And I have two more verses from that psalm that I want to show you. But, first, while you’re thinking of God’s ability to discern our thoughts, I also want to remind you that He has built that ability into His Word.
Hebrews 4:12, “The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” God’s Word not only discerns our secret thoughts and motives better than we can for ourselves, it acts like a mirror that exposes our own hearts to us so that we can see and not be fooled by the deceit and the desperate wickedness that is hidden in our own hearts. God’s Word does that for us. That’s why you need to allow God’s all-sufficient Word to shape your world view, to show you what truth is, and to correct the thoughts and intentions of your heart. Do you see that?
Now back to Psalm 139 again and I’ll close. In fact, turn there, Psalm 139 – I’ll make this the end for you – and let’s take a quick look at this together. I promise I won’t drag this out.
Have you ever noticed the thread that runs through this psalm with the word “thoughts”? David is clearly pondering the idea of what goes on in his mind and how to mold his own thoughts in a way that is righteous. First, he recognizes that what’s happening in his mind is not hidden from God.
Verse 2: “You discern my thoughts.” And by the way, you often hear people site that truth as if it exonerates us somehow, you know, “Well, the Lord knows my heart.” And I always cringe a bit when I hear someone say that as if it were a boast. I try not to say that without remembering what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 4:4, “I’m not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me.” Just because my own heart justifies me doesn’t mean I’m guiltless in God’s eyes.
That’s one of the ways, one of the key ways our hearts are deceitful. “He searches the heart and tests the mind, to give to every man according to his ways.” And before you quickly take comfort in that thought, remember that’s what the verse says right after we’re told that our hearts are deceitful above all things and desperately sick. It’s not supposed to be there for our encouragement.
So, in Psalm 139, when David is actually praising God for knowing his thoughts, this could not have been even for David a purely comforting thought. But in verse 7, he picks up the theme of thoughts again – verse 17 rather; look at verse 17 – only this time it’s not God’s perfect knowledge of David’s thoughts. This time it’s David saying how precious and perfect and past finding out God’s thoughts are. “How precious to me are Your thoughts, O God!”
Now you’ve got to ask here, “How did David know God’s thoughts?” There’s only one way: through the Scriptures. David is declaring his devotion to the Word of God. And there’s no surprise in that. Maybe no one ever said more in favor of the principle of sola Scriptura than David. That’s what Psalm 19 and Psalm 119 are all about.
But notice this. He comes right back to the idea of his own thoughts, and then he closes this psalm with the prayer that Christian Ebner sang for us earlier, verses 23 and 24: “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts!” He’s praying for this. “And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” That needs to be our prayer as well.
And if you boil it down to its bare essence, this is a plea for God to straighten out these deceitful and desperately wicked hearts of ours. And David of all people knew very well that he needed the work of the Word in his heart. Psalm 119, verses 11 and 12: “I have stored up Your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you. Blessed are You, O Lord; teach me Your statutes!” Is that your prayer? If not, I pray that by the end of this week it will be. Join me in prayer right now.
Lord, Your Word is as full of wisdom and instruction as our hearts are full of mischief. Give us a burning desire to know and to submit to Your Word, not just the teaching and instruction and righteousness, but also the reproofs and rebukes. And may Your Spirit apply Your Word to our hearts with power throughout the remainder of this week and also as we go back to our individual homes and vocations. May our lives so resonate with the truth of Your Word, that Your holy name is glorified in us, we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
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