Date: January 15, 1939

Supplication for the Spirit’s Cleansing

God, our Father in heaven:

Send us Thy purifying, strengthening Spirit that ours may be a triumphant faith in Thy Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ, and a clean, Christian life through the Spirit’s indwelling. We confess that our hearts are crowded with unclean, selfish, hateful thoughts and our lives repeatedly marked by the impress of sin. We know, too, that, if we rely on human strength, we must surrender to the temptations of the flesh. Yet we believe that the blood of Jesus Christ can cleanse us from all sin, and with unwavering certainty we know that, our transgressions removed, the Holy Spirit can strengthen and sanctify us. Send us this Comforter now to create within us clean hearts that love Thee, hate sin, and cherish every opportunity humbly to serve suffering humanity. “Ye must be born again” is the Savior’s earnest word to those who would enter the kingdom of God. Thou knowest, Lord, that above all else we would come to Thee. So grant, we beseech Thee, to all laboring under sin the faith that brings a regenerated heart and sanctified life. Then, in truth, shall we be new creatures in Christ, with old things passed away forever. We ask it in the name of Him who promised us this cleansing grace, even Jesus, the Savior of all men. Amen.

A new heart . . . will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you.Ezekiel 36:26

IN California a State university teacher makes an astonishing prediction. He promises that within a hundred years science will completely conquer crime and establish a viceless, warless world. And how is this new race of supermen to be created? The Pacific Coast scientist answers in effect: “By chemistry!” by prescription of potassium, magnesium, sodium, and other elements in different combinations and proportions!

As absurd as is this plan for perfection through chemical formulas and laboratory test tubes, many equally impossible programs are advanced by which men would banish wickedness and achieve goodness. They tell us that for a better race and a happier world we must have physically perfect parents; that weaklings and criminals must be sterilized; that members of different racial groups must be prohibited from intermarriage. Yet a sound body does not always house a sound mind. Beauty-contest winners are often conspicuous for their immorality. Does anyone besides a fanatic seriously hold that a racially pure nation will be morally pure?

Again we are told—and now I summarize the opinion of a Cornell University professor, which many share—that the impoverished working classes, the families on relief, must have fewer children,—as though this race suicide, with its contradiction of God’s Word, could ever bring a blessing upon any people! Think what would have happened if the poor had thus been penalized and their parenthood restricted in the past! Our nation would have had no Abraham Lincoln, no Henry Clay, no James Garfield, no Thomas Edison, none of a host of other illustrious leaders!

Still others approach this search for a happy, crime-free generation by insisting: “Down with the slums!” “Away with dark, dismal tenements!” With all our hearts we echo: “Down with the slums!” “Give the working-man sunlight and green grass on which his children can romp!” Do not think, however, that a man’s moral life is measured by the neighborhood in which he lives. One often sees more contentment within the cramped quarters of a poor family in a depression district than in the drawing-rooms of some millionaires, who, with all their wealth, do not know the joy of having the love and respect of their own children.

The Communists—and there are more in the United States today than there were in Russia when that country turned Red—tell the unemployed and the disgruntled worker that the world will never be better until capitalism is destroyed and all possessions, as all families, have become common property. Yet, if you look at the crimson chaos in Russia, you will conclude that atheistic Communism must come from the same hell to which it leads.

Because these programs for the joy-filled existence have failed, the cry has become: “Give us more laws, wider, stronger laws, and make men bow before them!” We tried this when the nation appended the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution and stated in effect: “We will legislate drunkenness out of existence; we will make the people temperate and sober by law.” You know what happened! A reign of crime ensued which made millions calculated lawbreakers and helped to produce deeper disrespect for governmental authority.

So we fall back on a last-line trench and try to educate the minds of men for goodness. Again bitter experience teaches us that we need more than a trained mind for honesty, decency, and truth; that a brilliant brain will not necessarily help to produce a morally blameless life. In this age, when we have more and better-equipped schools than ever before, we also have more and better-equipped prisons.

No matter how we try to strengthen men’s bodies, improve their environment, appeal to their mind, surround them by laws and lofty principles, all this is not enough, because it does not touch the human heart. That fountainhead and source must be cleansed; and because only the Spirit of God can touch your heart and mind in that way, let us turn to our heavenly Father and pray:

“GOD, GIVE US A NEW HEART!”

and then be strengthened by the assuring answer which Ezekiel (chapter thirty-six, verse twenty-six) directs to every one of you: “A new heart . . . will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you.”

I

WE NEED NEW HEARTS

When God promises “a new heart and . . . a new spirit,” He goes straight to the beginning of all human sin and sorrow and suffering. Unless the heart of man can be changed so that he loves good and hates evil, all other remedies will prove hopeless. The failure of many modern character-building plans must be traced to the fact that they work for outer change instead of inner regeneration. One cannot save a collapsing building by painting its rotten timbers. One cannot expect to repair the broken mainspring of a watch simply by polishing its case. To a much higher degree we must have—as sadly as this element is missing in our educational planning and our social work—a spiritual approach—we must change the heart! We must lift and liberate the souls of men!

How the tragedies of our day make us yearn for a refining, strengthening, purifying power that can give us “a new heart . . . and a new spirit”! Though our age has been blessed with many advantages, the human heart has not advanced a fraction of an inch to improve the distressing condition described by the sacred writer in this indictment, “Out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies.” Today especially when the advance of hatred has far outstripped all cultural and scientific progress, we should pause to survey the horrifying spectacle of men who ought to love each other, fiendishly trying to kill each other; of nations that should cooperate, trying to intimidate; of a civilization that ought to strive for peace, frantically preparing for hideous war; of agencies that should spread good will and international understanding, sowing the seeds of bad will and misunderstanding. People do not like to hear of the perverted human heart and the hate-swollen spirit of man; instead, the sugary delusion that the race is constantly improving, that men are always lifting themselves up to the higher and better things of life,—this fatal delusion preached from many modern pulpits, taught in many Christless schools, is sure to provoke the applause of human pride. But I ask you candidly: “Has any age witnessed a more convincing demonstration of the power of evil and the destructive desires in the hate-filled human heart than these days in which our lives are lived?”

A greedy heart and an envious spirit move man today when the love of gold and the longing for power has blackened the land with more crime, more dishonesty in American courts, more corruption in American governments, more fraud in American business than the worst days of any preceding generation ever saw. It is a lustful, lecherous heart that seeks to control man; it despises purity, tramples on decency, wallows in sex perversions, and gloats over everything filthy. It is a boastful spirit,—this pride that makes men worship human greatness instead of God, misleads them into believing that by their own strength and brains, without God or even against Him, they can carve the course of their own destiny. But it is a fearsome heart. When God’s retributive justice clutches men; when disease crushes them; when reverses paralyze them; when death confronts them, how quickly some of the bravest turn pale and cringe as cowards before the approach of God!

I hope you will not say: “Well, that isn’t the picture of my heart. He must be trying to describe someone else. Perhaps he refers to conditions in Europe.” How easy it is to assume this holier-than-thou attitude! We become indignant over atheism in Russia, but we forget the growing hatred of God and the increasing denial of His very existence in our own country. We hold mass­meetings to protest against Germany’s racial hatred, but we forget our semiextermination of the American Indian and our discrimination against the Negro. The wickedness of the human heart has no geographical boundaries. When I describe men’s hearts as hate-filled, lustful, dishonest, cringing, I show the unchanging human heart as, through the centuries, it has helped to produce disaster. This pictures my heart, your heart, every human heart; and if in this moment you see God with His penetrating eye and all-knowing wisdom searching your heart, far from excusing yourself or ignoring your sins, far from disguising your hearts, repeat David’s ancient prayer “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me!”

We must have that “new heart . . . and . . . new spirit”; for unless there is a drastic change and a decided improvement, we are headed for disaster. How long, do you suppose, can a nation expect God’s blessing when it has an army of more than four million criminals and an annual catalog of a million and a third major crimes, as we have? How long can the unparalleled divine favor continue to rest on us when every forty minutes a human life is taken by murder or manslaughter; when the average murderer spends only fifty-four months in prison; when more automobiles are stolen each year than one of the largest factories and assembly plants in Detroit produces? How long can our nation grow when immorality has spread to such an extent that Australia bars from entrance seventy-six lustful American magazines which your children can buy at any larger magazine stand; when a writer, banished from Europe, is welcomed to this country and advertised as the author of “one of the greatest creative works of the twentieth century,” a book which draws its description of Joseph’s temptation in Egypt (only a few short verses in the Book of Genesis) over more than 250 pages? Unless we become a morally cleaner nation; unless the heart of the American nation is turned from the reproach of destructive sin to the exalting righteousness, not all the brains, not all the power and the money m this country can guarantee the continued favor of God. To my mind one of the reasons the United States is still groaning under unemployment, uncertain business prospects, labor troubles, and other disheartening sorrows is this: we have not penitently acknowledged the chastisement of God nor humbled ourselves and corrected our ways.

More personal, however, than the welfare of our country is the welfare of your soul. For its eternal salvation you need “a new heart . . . and a new spirit.” No man can ever hope to have the promise of Heaven unless his spirit is changed. If we remain in sin, and let our heart continue to beat against God and our fellow-men, even against our better selves; if this corrupt human nature remains unchanged, then no man, no angel, not even our Lord Himself will save us from the consequences of our sins, and that means hell, everlasting death, eternal separation from God.

Because we must have this “new heart . . . and . . . new spirit” Jesus Himself, in the quiet of a Palestinian night, once told a man of wealth and learning, as He tells every one of us: “Ye must be born again.” The old, sinful, fleshly spirit, the heart of stone, must die, and in its place there must come forth a new spirit, a new heart, a new life. Jesus does not say: To enter the kingdom of God you need this form of ritual or that; but He says: “Ye must be born again!” He is not satisfied merely with a model outward appearance; He demands: “Ye must be born again!” Jesus wants more than church-membership or an imposing place in the pews; He requires far more than an interest in the Kingdom which centers in the social life of the Church; He will not be content with hand­service and lip-worship, not even with brain Christianity; more than all this He asks, as we hear His insistent voice tell Nicodemus: “Ye must be born again!” God-fearing parents, generous charities, offices in the Church, societies, participation in the choir, the reciting of the Apostles’ Creed, the praying of many petitions, the frequent attendance at the Lord’s Supper, tithes, and—with the liberty of the New Testament—even greater proportionate giving,—these are blessings that should not be minimized. First of all, however, Jesus says: “Ye must be born again!” Unless these assets and activities flow from a twice-born soul, they are but as “sounding brass” or a “tinkling cymbal.” Few tendencies are more dangerous and destructive in modernist churches than the program of coaxing people into the church without insisting upon a real change in their being, of keeping people in the churches, especially those who pay well, even though their glaringly sin-marked lives show that they have never known the rebirth without which no man can see God.

The absorbing issue before our lives must therefore be the question: “How can I receive this ‘new heart . . . and new spirit’? How can I be born again, so that my soul will be changed and my entire life created anew?” That must come not from ourselves but from God Almighty! We can change many things. Plastic surgery can alter the features of a man so that his own mother would hardly recognize him; but no plastic remolding can remake the inner man. Even fingerprints, we are told, regarded as a certain guide to human identity, can now be modified; but no process can disguise the sinner in sight of God. Heart specialists can cure cardiac conditions which a generation ago were diagnosed as fatal. Surgeons of infinite skill can operate successfully on that pulsating organ which sends the blood in vital circulation through the body; but no medical or surgical skill has been able to cure the wicked heart nor cut away its evil. A man can take a new name and transform himself from a criminal to a capitalist; but changed names do not make changed hearts. In short, you can change your address, your business, your nationality; you can change your opinion; in our neopaganism you can even change your wives and your families; but here is the immovable truth: “You yourself cannot change your old sinful heart, your old selfish spirit, your old sin-marked soul!”

II

GOD PROMISES US NEW HEARTS IN CHRIST

Praise be to His mercies and might!—God, our Father, Himself promises us: “A new heart will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you.” The change of heart that human ingenuity can never accomplish, that new birth before which our stolid mind can only stammer: “How can these things be?” “How can a man be born again?”—that new birth and life is given us by the endless love of our heavenly Father in Christ, through His Holy Spirit.

It is the glory of our Christian faith that Jesus Christ, true God, Son of the Father, and true man, Son of the Virgin Mary, came to this earth so that He could suffer the indescribable tortures of body and especially of soul that we should have suffered, die in the agony of His crucifixion the eternal death that we should have died, so that we, being “dead in trespasses and sins,” might have new life in Him. Because “the blood of Jesus Christ, His Son, cleanseth us from all sin,” once we become His through repentant faith, our heart is washed and purified by the precious blood of the cross. Once we are baptized and have faith in the promise of our Lord concerning this blessed washing of regeneration, our sins are carried away forever. Once the Spirit of God directs our vision to the cross and there we recognize “the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world” but especially our sin; the “Advocate” who pleads before God for every penitent sinner but particularly for us; the “Ransom” that paid the humanly prohibitive price of His own body for our freedom from sin and its destruction, the almighty, all­changing Spirit of God sanctifies us, and by the new birth we who were “children of wrath” become children of God. What surgery and science can never do; what sociologists, economists, and psychologists can never even begin to attain; what legislators and educators hope to achieve but never accomplish, this rebirth of the human heart, this complete change of existence, my fellow-sinners and fellow­redeemed, is produced in us through the Holy Spirit by faith in Jesus Christ as our ever-sufficient Savior!

Now, forget that I am addressing vast numbers! Try to think that my words are directed particularly to your home and to you individually as I ask: “Have you been born again? Do you have this ‘new heart and . . . new spirit’?” Don’t say: “I hold membership in a church”; for I have shown you that many churches today are not concerned with changing men’s hearts. Jesus Himself warns that “not everyone that saith unto Me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven.” Don’t say: “I try to be good. I try to do good.” You need more than that to stand before God. Don’t say: “I never smoke, drink, play cards, use profanity.” Millions of white, black, and yellow heathen could say the same thing, and you are as far from heaven as they if you build your hopes for eternity on such a flimsy foundation. Rather say that you are a sinner, that you hardly dare raise your eyes to the almighty God, because you know how securely evil can grip the human heart! Rather come to Christ with all the smirches and stains of sin! Come to faith in His love, to confidence in the cleansing power of Baptism, to conviction in the strength of God’s holy Word and the might of His Holy Spirit! Then that Savior who never refused to bless any penitent and believing soul will speak peace to you, and as He exults, “Behold, I make all things new,” and His Word triumphantly pledges, “If any man be in Christ Jesus, he is a new creature”; “Old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new,” that Savior will breathe this benediction upon you: “A new heart . . . will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you.”

How unspeakable is the beauty of this new life in Christ! Instead of hearts of hatred you can have new hearts of love. If you are living in enmity, perhaps even with those who should be dearest to you, remember Stephen, crushed by heavy rocks, as he prayed God not to count this sin against his persecutors; and with the new spirit you can forgive and forget; you can love those who hurt you, even as Christ loved those who crucified Him. Instead of hearts of falsehood you can have new hearts of truth! Some of you have been living lies, cheating your God as did Ananias and Sapphira, deceiving your fellow-men, and especially misdirecting your own soul; you should recall that, as John Stewart Mills, the applauded British philosopher, who taught falsely and lived falsely, still came to Christ on his deathbed, so the Savior is ready at all times, even in the last moments, to give you a heart of Spirit-filled honesty. Instead of souls filled with animal craving, you can have clean hearts. When, after his adultery, David prayed the Fifty-first Psalm, essentially our prayer for today, God gave him “a clean heart and” renewed “a right spirit within” him. He will do the same for you. No matter how scarlet and crimson your sins are, through faith in His forgiving love they can become white as the new-fallen snow, stainless as the fleecy wool. With His pardon you can begin life anew. Instead of affrighted hearts you can have a brave spirit. When Alan Gardner left home, separated from the influence of the Church and his godly mother, his faith ebbed so low that, when he went to buy a Bible, he waited until no customer was in the bookstore and then hurriedly made his purchase,—so ashamed was he of being identified with the Word of God. When the Spirit of God took hold of his life, he changed completely, and he could not do enough or say enough or give enough for Christ! He became an outstanding missionary, “faithful unto death” in barren Patagonia, where he laid down his life for the Savior. In the same way you, the timid, who hesitate to acknowledge Christ, can be changed as Peter was in less than two months, from a cringing denier to an outspoken disciple. Instead of having hearts filled with cares, numbed by pain, you can have cheerful souls that are exultant even in the midst of affliction. Do you think you have suffered as much, with all the sorrows that your letters describe, as Saint Paul? Yet on the Damascus road Christ gave him a new heart, and he could thank God for his infirmities. While faith in Jesus Christ may not remove the thorn from your flesh, either, as you, too, may learn that the road to the crown leads past the cross, with that new, twice-born life you likewise can count your adversities one by one as they multiply with every new day and yet thank God for these visitations of His love by which He protects your precious blood-bought souls.

Do you want this “new heart” and this “new spirit”? You can take God at every syllable of His promise. You can look to the cross of Christ, pray for the “clean heart,” the “right spirit,” the reborn life; and the love that has never led to false hopes will bring God’s own assurance to your soul, “A new heart . . . will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you.” Every page in history proves the fulfillment of Christ’s redeeming love and of the Holy Spirit’s transforming power. Nor is this only ancient history. In my Church’s mission in Nigeria, Africa, people who have been devil-worshipers and whose parents have been cannibals are leaving their sin-blackened ways. In our own work among the Maoris in New Zealand a man whose grandmother ate the flesh and drank the blood of her enemies is preaching the eternal message of Christ’s reconciliation. In India members of the robber caste come to Christ and steal no more. In war-torn China devotees of hideous idols learn to bow before Christ and in Him find peace and new life. In our own country multitudes annually receive this “new heart” and this “new spirit” by the miracle of conversion. It has been our great happiness in this mission of the air that hundreds in various parts of the nation who have never seen or met us have been born again in Christ, and they write us that their homes, their attitudes, their habits, have all been changed by the Spirit of God. It is only for the wide emphasis on this message “Ye must be born again!” that we maintain this Gospel network, that we recently added three new stations and are continually seeking to enlarge our broadcast. It is only to help give men this “new heart” and “new spirit” that we ask the support of your prayers, your interest, your testimony, your contributions for the enlargement of our work. If many can be attracted to Christ through the broadcast Word and with all the limitations of the radio, how many more can be won through direct contact with a Christian pastor!

Preaching the same Christ that I proclaim to you; holding out the same hope of salvation, not by works but through faith and faith alone; laboring shoulder to shoulder with me for the same Christ, are thousands of fellow-pastors and many hundreds of thousands of Christians who will be glad to help you and your family, your community, come closer to the loving Father, the redeeming Savior, the renewing, sanctifying Spirit. Will you not write to us or speak to the pastor of a cooperating Church in your vicinity so that your heart and spirit may be made new in Christ? A mighty demonstration and a long procession were held in San Francisco when a man who had been convicted, it is claimed, on contradictory and false testimony, was freed from life imprisonment by the pardon warrant of California’s governor. Let me tell you that God offers your immortal soul release from its eternal punishment, forgiveness sealed by the suffering and the dying of Jesus; and He extends this grace to you without the lengthy and expensive agitation that marked the liberation of that prisoner after twenty-two years. And when that remission is yours, not an earthly city, but the heavenly city, the New Jerusalem, reechoes with the praise of God’s holy angels, who rejoice every time a sinner comes to repentance and to Christ. God grant that there will be rejoicing in heaven today when many of you to whom I am speaking come to Christ to be blessed with “a new heart,” “a new spirit,” a new life!

May the God of all grace enrich you with the gift of that faith! Amen.

Published with the permission of The Maier Center, Concordia University, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48105.