Straitening the Path
(Getting Our Heart Right With God)
Robert Wurtz II
The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the LORD; Make straight in the desert A highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted And every mountain and hill brought low; The crooked places shall be made straight And the rough places smooth; The glory of the LORD shall be revealed, And all flesh shall see it together; For the mouth of the LORD has spoken (Isaiah 40:3–5 NKJV).
I have chosen this passage to emphasize once again a vital topic associated with Biblical Christianity. The Reformers emphasized salvation by grace through faith; the Methodists emphasized holiness; and the Pentecostals emphasized receiving the Holy Spirit. The unpopular and frequently neglected topic is that of genuine repentance and more specifically getting and keeping our hearts right with God.
Of the four topics, perhaps the most acceptable (most popular) across the widest cross-section of Christianity is salvation by grace through faith. Why not? It’s the easiest part of the Gospel for an unbeliever to swallow (so to speak). Sheer neglect alone demonstrates that genuine repentance (getting the heart right with God) is the least popular of the four. Its popularity is little different today than when John the Baptist (Matt. 3:3, Mark 1:3, Luke 3:4, John 1:23) and Paul the Apostle preached it (Acts 26:20, Romans 2:4, 2 Cor. 7:9-10, 2 Tim. 2:25). Paul said in Acts 26:21 that that message was what caused the Jews to plot to kill him. This is an indisputable fact that is almost never taught, preached, or written about. Why is that?
Most will recall that our text in Isaiah 40:3-5 is quoted in all four of the Gospels (Matt. 3:3, Mark 1:3, Luke 3:4, John 1:23). This is a very significant emphasis because it demonstrates that all of the Gospel writers understood its importance. The “voice” was that of John the Baptist. The portion I wish to zoom-in on is “(…) the crooked places shall be made straight,” while not losing sight of the other aspects of correcting the deficiencies of the path. Obviously, this passage is a metaphor and not meant to be taken literally. In other words, John the Baptist was not part of a literal road crew. This was a prophetic message put to language that common people can understand.
The Hebrew word for “crooked” is aqob and it provides us with an early clue as to what this passage in Isaiah 40 is dealing with. Aqob is only used three times in this exact form in the entire Old Testament; our passage in Isaiah 40, Hosea 6:8, and the most familiar in Jeremiah 17:9, “The heart is deceitful (aqob) above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jer. 17:9). A similar Hebrew word ya’aqov is translated as “Jacob” (the one who is said to have swindled his brother out of his inheritance). So we understand Jer. 17:9 that the human heart is what is crooked. It’s like a hill or a twist in a road that impedes the progress of those who would pass by or pass over (see Gesenius’ Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon).
The task of the voice (John the Baptist) was to metaphorically straighten the crooked paths. Why did they need this process? Because despite the fact that the Jews were raised to know God’s word, went to Synagogue and Temple, they were still “crooked” in their hearts. John the Baptist even called them a brood of vipers. This is akin to Paul when he spoke of the poison of Asps being under the lips of the ungodly in Romans 3:13. Nevertheless, the focus of this study is “straightening the path.” As we will see, the path motif is threaded between the Old and New Testament.
The Path Motif
There are two basic ways that the path motif is used in the Bible. The one I wish to emphasize in this article describes the way in which the unrepentant hearts of the masses are “twisted” and impede the progress of Christ, by the Holy Spirit, who seeks to position each person to receive Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior (see John 1:12). Simply put, God is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance (2 Pet. 3:9). Jesus did not come into the world to condemn the world but that the world through Him might be saved (John 3:17). Moreover, full salvation emphasizes the fact that God wants to come into you and me and He wants to dwell in us forever (John 14:23).
Another way the path motif is used is to describe our personal walk and the specific path we are on. This aspect is related to and dependent on the heart path issue I have already discussed. Understand that the root Hebrew word for sin is hata and it occurs an astounding 580 times in the Old Testament. The basic meaning of the root is to miss a mark or to miss a way (TWOT 638). The word is used in Judges 20:16 to describe left-handed throwers who could hit targets and “not miss.” In Proverbs 19:2 there is a man who “misses his way” because he is in a hurry (RSV, NEB, KJV render the Hebrew “sinneth”). So the basic idea is to miss a standard.
God’s ultimate goal for the heart is not reformation (Ezek. 18:31) but replacement (Ezek. 36:26). However, there has to be a willingness of the individual to cooperate with God in this process. The process begins when the message (word of God) is received (believed) and the heart turns into alignment with God and His word. The Bible calls this repentance. The mind changes (Greek metanoeo) and the heart turns (epistrepho) from sin and to God in a way that is believable and demonstratable (Acts 3:19). John the Baptist and Paul expected those responding to the Gospel to, “Bring forth fruits in keeping with repentance.” This is verifiable evidence.
John the Baptist, anointed by the Holy Spirit, preached repentance and works worthy of repentance to prepare the hearts of the people for the coming of Jesus Christ and the eventual coming of the Holy Spirit. They had to receive Jesus (take Him alongside in agreement) before they could receive the Holy Spirit. So in this sense, the path through our heart (if you will) and into our innermost being needs to be cleared and straightened. What does that mean?
Getting Our Heart Right With God
You will recall that John the Baptist told the Jews, “Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance, and begin not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, That God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham” (Luke 3:8 KJV). The Jews were resting on the false assurance that they were right with God because they believed that Abraham was their father on the basis of their Geneology.
John the Baptist challenged this false assurance. Later in John 8, despite what John the Baptist had told them, Jesus found them still locked up in this false assurance. “They answered and said to Him (Jesus), ‘Abraham is our father.’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were Abraham’s children, you would do the works of Abraham. But now you seek to kill Me, a Man who has told you the truth which I heard from God. Abraham did not do this. You do the deeds of your father'” (John 8:39–41 NKJV). You will recall that Jesus then told them that they were “of their father the devil and the lusts of their father they will do.” What do you suppose that did to their assurance?
The first thing that has to be changed is our false ideas and concepts that are blocking us from truly getting our hearts right with God. Some people were “raised in church” and don’t believe they need to repent. Others are trusting in their good works. Some prayed a prayer at some point in their life and were told they are saved. What’s happening? They are locked up in these and many other false assurances and can’t move forward in God because of it.
Some think that all they need is their sins to be forgiven (justification)–not knowing that justification is a means to an end and not the end itself. After the day of Pentecost, Peter boldly preached to the people. “Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’ And Peter said to them, ‘Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.’ And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation” (Acts 2:37–40 ESV).
Notice that Peter called this generation “crooked.” Not surprisingly, this is the same Greek word used to describe John the Baptist’s message in Luke 3:5, “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low; and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth” (Luke 3:5 KJV). Those who read only the AV (KJV) will have missed the precious link between Acts 2:40 and Luke 3:5 because the KJV translates Acts 2:40 as “untoward.” We inherited “toward” from the Old English “toweard,” which was a combination of “to” and “weard,” which came from a prehistoric Germanic root meaning “to turn,” and which we know today as a suffix used to mean “in the direction of,” as in “homeward” and “backward” (WD). This translated as “untoward” in Acts 2:40 may have made sense in 1611, but the word completely obscures the text in the 21st century. In other words, Peter was saying to those who were to repent, be baptized, and receive the Holy Spirit… “Save yourselves from this crooked generation”… this generation whose hearts have still have not been made straight.
Is there an example of this? Indeed. Peter would later encounter Simon the Sorcerer Acts 8 who had believed and was baptized, but still, his heart was not right (Acts 8:21). Not surprisingly, our path motif is consistent going all the way back to Isaiah 40:3-5. The word translated “right” is the Greek word eutheias and is translated as “straight” in Matt. 3:3, Mark 1:3, Luke 3:4 and Isaiah 40:4. In other words, Simon the Sorcerer had not been through the process of getting his heart right with God–despite the fact that he had believed and been baptized in water. This is an extremely sobering and convicting truth. Here is a man who was probably demon-possessed, in the bond of iniquity and the gall of bitterness, and was about to be welcomed into the church had Peter not stopped him at the gate.
I submit that “hearts not being right with God” and the unwillingness to preach along this line is the most significant and far-reaching problem of our times. It is also the most unpopular message. Anybody can preach justification or financial prosperity. You don’t need a special anointing to do that. Why? Your telling people what they want to hear. You might even be helping comfort them in their false assurances. Simon the Sorcerer had no justification despite the fact that he believed and was baptized. Why? Because he never got his heart right with God. Dear reader, is your heart right with the Lord? Dear preacher or teacher, are you willing to emphasize genuine repentance as did Paul as he described it in Acts 26:20-21 so that a generation can truly get right with God and be saved from their false assurances?