Watch over your own heart with diligence, for from it flows the springs of life. (Proverbs 4:23)
I have known men who began well, who began their careers and families with a steadfast commitment to honour God, to be faithful to their wives and children, and to keep a lid on their fleshly desires. Sadly, many of those men, as their careers wind down and they move into their retirement years are divorced, estranged from their children, and giving little evidence of the commitment to Christ they so long ago professed. I have often wondered, if asked to preach their funerals, what I would say. Would I tell their loved ones and friends, 'Yes, I know he was a Christian and I can give you biblical assurance that he is now with Jesus.' Would I be able to say that?
What went wrong? How did this happen? And what can I say to instruct you so that the same does not happen to you, so that you finish your race well without bringing shame to Christ, your family, or yourself? Solomon is instructing his son on how to live in the midst of a plethora of temptations, not the least of which are lurid women and bad friends. Within this context he tells his son what he must do, how he must do it, and what results from it. Note first of all his instruction. 'My son, watch over your own heart.' By heart he means the very citadel of his soul, the gateway to the rest of his body. A citadel is a military fortress which serves to protect an army and the people they serve. We know the heart is key to biblical holiness from what follows in the succeeding verses where Solomon speaks of the eyes, the mouth, and the feet, calling us to discipline these members of our bodies, something Paul also told the Romans to do (Rom. 6:12-13). Jesus told us to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength (Matt. 22:37). Joel says, 'Rend your hearts, and not your garments' (Joel 2:13). David says, 'Thy word I have treasured in my heart, that I may not sin against Thee' (Psa. 119:11).
To watch over oneís heart is to pursue a personal inquisition of the heart. David asked God to search him, to know his heart, to try him and know his anxious thoughts, to see if there is any hurtful way in him, and to lead him in the everlasting way (Psa. 139:23-24). And in order to pursue this personal inquisition of the heart you must know yourself well, your sinful proclivities, your patterns of recurring sin, those things that seem constantly to bring you down. A recovering alcoholic knows he cannot be around alcohol or anyone who drinks. He must stay away from them. A man who is tempted to sexual sin while on business trips must ask his friends to pray for him, even to check in with him each night in his hotel room, or if possible and practical to take his wife with him. A man tempted to spend money frivolously learns that he cannot carry a credit card with him, except perhaps his business credit card, that he must pay cash for only what he needs.
And how can you guard your heart, the citadel of your soul? Solomon says we do it with all diligence. I suggest three things, the first of which I have just mentioned. First, you must nightly pursue a personal inquisition of the soul. By this I mean, at the end of the day, as you prepare for bed that night, ask yourself a series of questions like these ó 'how have I sinned in my speech today, how have I sinned in my thoughts, what have I done contrary to Godís law, what are the deep seated idols that manifest themselves in sinful values, words, and deeds? And when the Holy Spirit shows you your sin, be quick to humble yourself, to confess it as sin, to ask Jesus for his grace and holiness, and once again to claim Christís mercy and renewal.
Second, you must daily pursue a personal visitation of the Holy Spirit. Paul tells us to not quench the Spirit (1 Thess. 5:19), to not grieve the Spirit (Eph. 4:30), and to be filled with the Spirit (Eph. 5:18). Just as a man who offends his wife with unkind speech finds a wall of separation between them, so our sin breaks fellowship with God Isa. 59:1-2, Psa. 66:18). You are still married and you still love your wife when there is tension, but you nonetheless know things 'just arenít right.' And so it is with God and our sin. Your sin brings a degree of separation from him which can lead to a lack of power over sin, a decrease in passion for Christ and his kingdom, and a downgrade of purity in thought, word, and deed. So each day, when you detect that God is far away from you, when you sense dryness or coldness to the things of God, then be very quick to repent, to ask for the Spiritís filling.
And third, you must regularly pursue personal holiness for without this you will not see God (Heb. 12:14). It is wonderfully and gloriously true that no one can snatch the believer from Godís hand (John 10:28-29), that nothing will separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 8:38-39), and that we are born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, that we will receive an inheritance that will not fade away (1 Pet. 1:3-4). But it is also true that one who goes on sinning wilfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth will find that there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain, terrifying expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire that will consume Godís adversaries; that while one who sets aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses, so one will incur a stricter judgment who tramples under foot the Son of God, who ignores the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and who insults the Spirit of grace, for it is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Heb. 10:26-31).
This means, my dear friend, that you should ask God to keep you from presumptuous sins (Psa. 19:13). Do not presume upon Godís grace. Your decision for Christ, your emotional experience, your knowledge of God and salvation may not mean anything. 'You believe that God is one. You do well, but the demons also believe and tremble' (James 2:19). Well, then, how can you know that you are a true Christian? How can you be sure that you will finish the race well? A seldom discussed, but vital principle is that your assurance of salvation goes up or down with your obedience. In 1 John 3:17-22 the Apostle says, 'If any among you has the worldís goods and sees a brother in need and closes his heart to him, then how can the love of God abide in him? Little children, let us love, not in word or tongue, but in deed and truth. By this (by our love in deed and truth, by our obedience to Godís law) we will know that we are of the truth, and will assure our hearts before God in whatever our hearts condemn us, for God is greater than our hearts and he knows all things.' On the one hand, the Christian knows he belongs to God because his sin condemns him. He knows he is guilty. Those about whom I worry are the professing Christians who never admit wrong doing, who never apologize, who are always in the right, who walk aimlessly and blindly through this life, giving no evidence of humility or meekness. John goes on to say, 'Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God; and whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do the things that are pleasing in his sight.' So, on the other hand our obedience causes our confidence, our assurance that we truly belong to God, to increase. Note also that the true believer can be displeasing to God, that he may frown upon our actions, values, and attitudes, something I hear some pastors today say is impossible.
So my dear friend, will you nightly pursue a personal inquisition of the soul, will you daily pursue a personal visitation of the Spirit, and will you regularly pursue personal holiness? Run back to Jesus in sincere repentance, claiming his blood for your forgiveness and the Spiritís presence and sanctifying power. You will need to do this daily, many times each day, and in so doing you will finish your race well, hearing those blessed words, 'Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world' (Matt. 25:34).
Rev. Allen M Baker is Pastor of Christ Community Presbyterian Church in West Hartford, Connecticut.
Al Baker's sermons are now available on www.sermonaudio.com.
If you would like to respond to Pastor Baker, please contact him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org