The Holy Spirit and the Heart

This is article is the 14th in an ongoing series on the Holy Spirit. To read the other parts in this series, click here.

The presence of the Holy Spirit is of crucial importance for the Christian life. The New Testament everywhere assumes, and often states that all Christians have the Holy Spirit. Without the Holy Spirit, there is no Christianity, and there is no church (see parts 12 and 13).

In the Spirit, all Christians are “baptized into one body,” and all Christians “drink” of “one Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:13). “In the Spirit of our God” as well as “in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” all Christians were “washed,” “sanctified,” and “justified” (1 Cor. 6:11). The Spirit was supplied to Christians at the beginning of their Christian walk “by hearing with faith” (Gal. 3:2b, 5). Anyone who does not have the Spirit does not belong to him (Rom. 8:9; 1 John 4:13), but those who do have the Spirit are sons of God and heirs with Christ (Rom. 8:14-17; Gal 4:6-7). The Holy Spirit is directly tied to our hope for resurrection (Rom. 8:11).

Of particular importance is the way the New Testament describes a close connection between the Spirit and the heart. God has “sent” the Spirit of his Son into our hearts.

And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!”

Galatians 4:6

God’s love has been “poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.”

Hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

Romans 5:5

The Spirit in our hearts is given to us as a guarantee of the fulfillment of God’s promises.

And it is God who establishes us with you in Christ, and has anointed us, and has also put his seal on us and has given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee.

2 Corinthians 1:22

Although the connection between the Spirit and the heart is noticeably important in the New Testament, there are many things about the connection that I struggle to understand. The confusion stems not so much from what the Bible says, but from many of the common phrases and explanations used by others. For instance, it’s not uncommon to hear people say things like “The Holy Spirit is speaking to my heart” or “working on my heart” or “I feel the Holy Spirit in my heart.” Others will go to great lengths to try to explain how the “Holy Spirit influences the human heart only through scripture” or “in conjunction with the word.” It’s easy to get bogged down when people start arguing over whether the Holy Spirit works “directly” or “indirectly” on the heart, both of which are descriptions that are foreign to scripture. Although I’m not convinced those who use such phrases are always in error, I struggle to know who’s right and who’s wrong, because I have a hard time knowing what they mean when they use such phrases.

There is, however, something very important about the connection between the Spirit and the heart that I find easy to understand, that is, how the Bible describes the human “heart” as being at the very root of the problem of mankind, and how the Bible points to the Holy Spirit as the solution to that problem.

The Heart Problem

One reason it is important to notice this Spirit-heart connection is because the Bible describes the condition of the human “heart” as being at the very root of the problem of mankind. It is the “heart” that was darkened by a failure to acknowledge God as God.

For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened…Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves.

Romans 1:21, 24

In speaking of the Jews, Paul says it is the heart that has become “hard and impenitent.”

But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.

Romans 2:5

On the other hand, if people are going to be saved, they must believe “in the heart” and obey “from the heart.”

If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For the with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.

Romans 10:9-10

But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to that standard of teaching to which you were committed.

Romans 6:17

Logically then, if the problem with mankind is going to be solved, it will require that the “heart” be repaired. That’s why it is the “heart” that is need of “circumcision.” This is where the Holy Spirit comes into play.

For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.

Romans 2:28-29

The Need For a New Heart

Both Moses and the prophets spoke of the need for the heart to be circumcised.

Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and no longer be stubborn.

Deuteronomy 10:16

Circumcise yourselves to the LORD;
remove the foreskin of your hearts,
O men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem;

Jeremiah 4:4a

Both Jews and Gentiles are frequently described as having “uncircumcised” hearts (Jer. 9:25-26; Ezek. 44:7-9). But on numerous occasions the prophets spoke of a coming day, when God would fix the heart problem.

For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.

Jeremiah 31:33

I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me forever, for their own good and the good of their children after them. I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them. And I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn away from me.

Jeremiah 32:39-40

The Spirit as the Solution to the Heart Problem

Throughout the Old Testament, the “heart” was often viewed in close connection with a person’s spirit (cf. Deut. 2:30; Ps. 51:10, 17; 77:5, 8). This makes sense when we remember that the word “spirit” was used to refer to a person’s mindset, or the words that they were thinking (See Part 1). So it shouldn’t strike us as surprising that when Ezekiel spoke of God giving his people a “new heart”, he said this would happen when his people are given a “new Spirit.” The result of this “new heart” and “new Spirit” will be that God’s people will be able to walk in God’s statutes and keep his rules.

And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, so that they may walk in my statutes and keep my rules and obey them. And they shall be my people, and I will be their God.

Ezekiel 11:19-20

And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.

Ezekiel 36:26-27

This is the theme Paul builds on in the book of Romans.

For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, not is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.

Romans 2:28-29

In the Old Testament, Israel was identified by the fleshly sign of circumcision. Now, Israel is identified by the circumcision of the heart. As a result of having our hearts circumcised by the Spirit, we new serve “in the new way of the Spirit”.

But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.

Romans 7:6

As we read through other New Testament passages, we see this same idea emphasized time and time again. In Colossians, Paul identified the “circumcision made without hands” as baptism. This of course makes sense, given that Paul believed it was the Spirit who was active in baptism (Part 13).

In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.

Colossians 2:11-12

In 2 Corinthians, Paul describes the Spirit as “writing” a letter from Christ on the Christian’s heart.

You yourselves are out letter of recommendation, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all. And you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone, but on tablets of human hearts.

2 Corinthians 3:2-3

Even if there are things about the Spirit and the heart that we do not understand, what is clear is that the Bible identifies the Spirit as the solution to the heart problem. If you want to recognize a true child of God, don’t look at their physical attributes. Look at their heart. According to Paul, a true Jew is identified by those who have a renewed heart. In continuity with the Old Testament prophets, Paul sees this renewal as a work of the Holy Spirit.