Watch over your heart with all diligence,For from it flow the springs of life. – Proverbs 4:23 NASB
“While I was with them, I was keeping them in Your name which You have given Me; and I guarded them and not one of them perished but the son of perdition, so that the Scripture would be fulfilled. – John 17:12 NASB
Picture if you will, an ancient city, surrounded by protective a wall. At intervals along the wall picture watchtowers, where watchmen would scan the horizon, looking for threats as they approached in order to warn the city before the danger was upon them. This is the idea behind the word in Proverbs 4:23 translated as “Watch over”. This is a fantastic insight: the things which our hearts attach themselves to are the most important things. We may know what we ought to do, but what rules us in the end is what we love. This is so important and so true, that clearly the target of the enemy of our souls is not our lives, or our health, but most importantly, our hearts. Thus the most insidious forms of evil are not the threats against our lives, but rather take the form of temptation. The valued treasure you hold is your inmost desire, your heart.
This is entirely true. Early in my life, in my youthful zeal, this was a great delight. “Yes!” I thought. “I will guard my heart and keep it pure. I will watch out for threats to my desire, and I will keep it pure, so I can freely follow my desire in the center of God’s will.” That worked until 5 minutes later, when I encountered a sexy young woman, and yes, I LOOKED. Then I would “repent”, and start all over again with my already impure heart. And what I found was, as a believer, my trajectory was not upward. I was not getting better and better and more and more successful at keeping my heart pure. I was getting worse and worse. I had failed at watching over my heart. The springs that flowed from my heart were addictive, destructive, and seemingly open to almost every temptation. My resistance seemed futile.
Was I a bad Christian? Was I failed in my progressive sanctification? Of course I was. I was evil and corrupt and rotten to the core. And what was worse, I kept denying the truth of it. I kept thinking, “I can do this from now on – I can watch over my heart with all diligence!” Until it got bad enough, and I finally realized the truth: I cannot do this. I will never be able to do this. Purity of heart and diligent watchfulness over my pure heart are standards to which I will never ever attain. And I despaired! These were black times.
Now, in talks with others in “accountability groups” and such, I came to see that I was not alone. It almost seemed like all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Not just theologically, but truly. All of us were floundering under a thinly disguised sense of condemnation, failure, and rejection, and we all hated God. Rightly so, He was a judgmental monster who stood ready to condemn us in the most immediate and existential way over the tiniest infractions. And our infractions were not really so tiny after all. We were all lumbering along pretending success because the truth was far too ugly to face. The only conclusion under this purity of heart narrative is that we are without hope, and that God is abundantly justified to condemn us and to reject us. All of which is true.
The Conversation Within the Godhead
In John 17, we have a remarkable account of God the Son’s conversation with God the Father about us – the church that was coming into being at that very moment. Many people write about the problems with the church at large: the worship is wrong, the preaching is wrong, the congregation is wrong, the politics are wrong, the outreach is wrong, the priorities are wrong, everything with the church is wrong wrong wrong wrong wrong. Oh my! Even within the church, perhaps especially within the church, there is no more hypocritical and corrupt group of people on earth! And this is so true. It really is. Perhaps this is because the whole world is full of nothing but hypocrites, and the worst of them finally realize they need acceptance somewhere and turn to the church. Whatever the cause, we can for a moment ignore these voices, and turn to Jesus. What do the members of the Godhead think about the church?
The Church is the Father’s Gift to His Son
6 “I have manifested Your name to the men whom You gave Me out of the world; they were Yours and You gave them to Me, and they have kept Your word. – John 17:6 NASB
Forget about asking questions such as “How does the Father possess us?” and “How is this fair to those who remain in the world?” Those are good questions, but we are shelving them right now. The important point, the point Jesus is making, is that we are the Father’s gift to His beloved Son. God can conjure up universes with a word, and galaxies full of stars are a drop in the bucket to Him. In the church He has manifested His the manifold wisdom and has crafted a gift of inestimable and eternal worth, and in the conversation of the persons of the Godhead, this is what is most true. He is the groom and we are the bride, and this is the wedding of the aeons. All the angels want an invite (1 Peter 1:12). He is overjoyed. And He is highly concerned for our welfare, out of an intense and genuine love.
The Church Knows and Believes
Not five minutes prior to this prayer, Jesus had this conversation with the 11 disciples:
4 “And you know the way where I am going.” 5 Thomas said to Him, “Lord, we do not know where You are going, how do we know the way?” 6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me. 7 “If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; from now on you know Him, and have seen Him.” 8 Philip said to Him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” 9 Jesus said to him, “Have I been so long with you, and yet you have not come to know Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father; how can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10 “Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father is in Me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on My own initiative, but the Father abiding in Me does His works. – John 14:4-10 NASB
They were a long way from demonstrating a stable and nuanced grasp of Jesus’ identity and purpose. I even read a little bit of exasperation here on Jesus’ part. In fact, just a few sentences before the john 17 prayer, they finally seem to have a slight grasp of things:
28 “I came forth from the Father and have come into the world; I am leaving the world again and going to the Father.” 29 His disciples said, “Lo, now You are speaking plainly and are not using a figure of speech. 30 “Now we know that You know all things, and have no need for anyone to question You; by this we believe that You came from God.” 31 Jesus answered them, “Do you now believe? – John 16:28-31 NASB
These are not people who appear to be grounded and solid in their understanding of the new covenant. They are barely hanging on by their fingernails here. Yet, when Jesus turns and talks to the Father about them, He expresses a tremendous confidence in their knowledge and faith:
6 “I have manifested Your name to the men whom You gave Me out of the world; they were Yours and You gave them to Me, and they have kept Your word. 7 “Now they have come to know that everything You have given Me is from You; 8 for the words which You gave Me I have given to them; and they received them and truly understood that I came forth from You, and they believed that You sent Me. – John 17:6-8 NASB
This is absolutely remarkable! Who would agree with Jesus that these guys, whom He knew would shortly abandon Him and deny Him, that they had kept His word, and that they had successfully received His word and had truly understood and believed the amazing truth about Him? Clearly Jesus sees something in them here that a normal person could not see.
And that is The Point. You may think, “I do not understand all of this theology. I do not grasp these things about the trinity and the cross and propitiation and the finer points of law and gospel.” Many experts would judge rightly that you do not grasp these things. But let me ask you a question: if you were preparing for a test, and your classmate asked you what 11 X 11 was, and you said 121, wouldn’t you be frightened if they insisted that you were wrong? Yet, the teacher would insist that you are correct. It doesn’t matter how your peers judge your knowledge, it matters that the real authority judges by the truth. And in this case, even you may judge yourself incapable, but the true authority is God. And God in the persons of the Godhead agree that you do know. So the reality is, you do!
Because the gospel is not a complex message of deep theology. It does lead to that and theology is a beautiful and necessary thing. But the gospel is this: Christ has saved you because He died for your sins. All of your sins. Including your lazy thinking and lack of knowledge about theology. It isn’t that you save yourself by understanding all these things perfectly. It is that He saves you, and good theology explains that. I hope you will come to grapple with understanding the hypostatic union, but I really hope that you trust that Jesus has that figured out way better than the best theologian.
Kept and Guarded
Which brings us around to our original point. In all things – your righteousness, your belovedness, your knowledge, your assurance of salvation – it is not you who establishes or maintains these things. Through the law, through the expression of the law in the cross, God has killed you. He aims to destroy your confidence in your own devices. He is the viper who strikes and kills (John 3:15). In all things, He is the savior who raises you from the dead (John 3:15-16). In His conversation with the Father, Jesus says that He has kept them and guarded them (John 17:12). I think that I am capable of being my own watchman, that I can keep my heart pure. However, I cannot do it. But He can keep me safe from outside influences, and He can guard me from my own wandering. He is the shepherd who protects me, not only from wolves, but from my own wandering. I cannot depend upon myself to do these things, and I have come around to distrusting my own judgements. But I trust Him. When I feel unlovable, I can trust that He always loves me. When I feel dumb and embarrassed and stupid, He says that I know. When I feel faithless and sinful, He says that I have believed. We think we can so act that we might lose our salvation, but the conversation in the Godhead is that He guards us, and that we are far too important in heaven’s plans to let go. We are now the beloved toddler playing in the front lawn, who is being watched carefully lest we wander out into the traffic. We are greatly and dearly loved, and no mere sin is going to ruin our salvation. Isn’t our sin why Jesus died for us? How could sin be the thing that disqualifies us then?
Don’t Our Actions Matter?
No. Our faith in the gracious faithfulness of God “matters”. Believe it. You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God (Colossians 3:3).