Do you need G-d to change your heart?

Judaism places a lot of emphasis on the concept of free will.  Maimonides, the esteemed Jewish rabbi of centuries ago, declared “The truth about which there is no doubt at all is that all of man’s actions are given over to him”. In this view, man is given both a good inclination and an evil inclination, and can master both of these through discipline. According to Rashi, “you have the ability to subdue” the evil inclination. Therefore, since G-d requires righteousness and holiness, this puts the onus on man to earn his salvation.

Judaism’s view of free will is taken from a misunderstanding of G-d’s Word. Where Scripture reads,

Genesis 6:5

“And G-d saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.”

Judaism takes the word for imagination יֵ֙צֶר֙ (yetzer) to mean an inclination or tendency. 

The Kabbalist Chaim Luzzatto expressed the Judaic view as follows: that man “is the creature created for the purpose of being drawn close to G-d. He is placed between perfection and deficiency, with the power to earn perfection. Man must earn this perfection, however, through his own free will”, saying also, “Man's inclinations are therefore balanced between good (yetzer hatov) and evil (yetzer hara), and he is not compelled toward either of them. He has the power of choice and is able to choose either side knowingly and willingly.”

Luzzatto’s view, however, vastly overestimates the power of man, which is merely weakness before G-d. Scripture testifies that every imagination of man’s heart has been wicked since the Fall. When G-d promised never to flood the earth again, this did not suggest that man has improved morally one little bit. He was still the same (Genesis 8.21).

If we accept that through Adam’s Fall, man plunged himself into depravity, then it follows that his mind, heart, thoughts, affections, and imaginations are all fallen, along with his sinful actions. 

The man who lies, steals, or looks with lust is also the man whose will is enslaved to sin. He can never choose righteousness, and he can never obey the law that he so naturally breaks. And here’s where the question of free will comes in: once we accept that the will is enslaved to sin, it becomes evident that sinful man cannot choose to follow G-d by an act of free will, nor indeed are any of his sinful choices made from free will either. 

Joseph, reflecting on his brothers’ wicked plot to sell him into slavery in Egypt, declared:

Genesis 9:20

“But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but G-d meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive”

Thus the choices that Joseph’s brothers made were sovereignly ordained by the Lord. 

Later in the Pentateuch, we see that G-d hardens Pharaoh’s heart to oppose Moses, as the Lord declares: “And the Lord said unto Moses, Go in unto Pharaoh: for I have hardened his heart, and the heart of his servants, that I might shew these my signs before him” (Exodus 10:1)

In both cases, the Lord ordains the actions of the wicked in order to accomplish His will. In a similar manner, it is only possible for men to be made righteous if the Lord regenerates them, changing their hearts and therefore their affections. And so we read of the Messiah that “Thy people shall be willing in the day of thy power, in the beauties of holiness from the womb of the morning: thou hast the dew of thy youth” (Psalm 110:3)

The Messiah of Israel, being G-d Himself, will make people’s hearts willing to serve him, but none can make his own heart willing. As the Holy Spirit says in Jeremiah (17:9)

Jeremiah 17:19

“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?”

Without G-d redeeming a man, no act of the will can change his heart. Hence King David says in the Psalms “And enter not into judgment with thy servant: for in thy sight shall no man living be justified” (Psalm 143:2) and yet “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow” (Psalm 51:7). 

The sin of pride leads people to believe that they can train their wills to obey G-d’s holy commands, when in fact they are totally depraved, and hopelessly inclined towards all evil. Those who stubbornly cling to the precepts of Christless Judaism are saying in their pride: “I do not need G-d to change my heart when I can change my own heart”. But no man can change his own heart. As Jeremiah laments (Jer 13:23), “Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil.” 

For you to be saved, you must despair of yourself and your sinful nature, and lean wholly on the Messiah whom the G-d of Israel sent, that is Jesus Christ of Nazareth, who is able to put a new heart within us (Ezekiel 36:26).

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