Cut to the Heart

By David Feddes

The young man was enjoying his usual nap in church. He had a habit of sleeping through the sermon each week, and this day was no different. He was deep in slumber as usual. But something woke him up. It wasn’t a loud noise that jarred him awake. “I seemed to be awakened by a silence,” he said, “which pervaded the room, a deep solemn attention.” Suddenly wide awake, he found himself gripped, along with the people around him, by what the speaker was saying. “What could this mean?” he thought to himself. There was a supernatural stillness except for the solemn voice of the speaker, urging any of his hearers who were without Christ to stop fighting the work of God. At the end of the meeting, the people left. “But,” said the young man, “many of us carried away the arrow in our hearts. The happiest and hardiest trembled with the conviction, that, in very deed, God was in this place.”

That’s how an Amherst College student told of his experience during what historians call the Second Great Awakening of the early 1800’s. It wasn’t called a Great Awakening just because one particular sleepyhead woke up and started paying attention.  It was called a Great Awakening because thousands upon thousands of people with no interest in Christ or his church—some who attended church but only out of habit, many others who weren’t part of a church at all—awoke to the seriousness of their sin and the wonder of knowing the living God. That young man’s experience of solemn stillness, a sense of God’s presence, fearful trembling, and an arrow through the heart, has been the experience of countless others during times of widespread spiritual awakening.

When God Comes Near

When God comes near—when Jesus Christ pours out his Holy Spirit in power—people feel an overwhelming awareness of God’s holiness and their own unworthiness. This was certainly true of the initial outpouring of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost. Shortly before leaving this earth and ascending to heaven, Jesus promised his followers, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you” (Acts 1:8). Ten days later, on Pentecost, the promise came true.

Jesus’ followers were filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke of God’s wonders to people from many countries who were visiting Jerusalem. A crowd gathered. Some of the listeners were curious. Others mocked. The apostle Peter then spoke to the crowd. He explained that the Holy Spirit’s outpouring had been foretold by God’s prophets. He told the people that although they helped crucify Jesus, God raised him from the dead and gave him the highest place in heaven as Lord and Messiah. “When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37)

That’s what happened on Pentecost, and that’s what has happened many times since. When the Lord comes in power and addresses people who have been at odds with him, they are cut to the heart. It’s not a pleasant feeling. In fact, it may be the most painful and terrifying feeling a person can have, apart from actually being banished to hell. When you are cut to the heart, God and hell are no longer just church words or swear words but overpowering realities. When you are cut to the heart, you find God to be so pure and splendid that his nearness terrifies you and makes you wish you could get away. But you are also terrified of going away from him forever. You can’t bear for God to be so close, but you can’t bear for him to be distant, either. When you are cut to the heart, you can’t live with God, and you can’t live without him. His holiness shows your sin. His light shows your darkness. You feel repelled by him, yet drawn to him. You may not know where to turn or what to do next.

In 1908 some missionaries among Chinese people reported, “A power has come into the church that we cannot control.” The shocking thing was that Chinese people were breaking down in tears and admitting their sins against God and other people. These heartbroken confessions were coming from people who were previously unemotional, sure of themselves, and concerned about their own pride and public image. Yet they were confessing sins that no amount of torture could have forced them to admit.

The missionaries who saw all this wrote, “Perhaps you will say it’s a sort of religious hysteria. So did some of us. But here we are, [people with] all shades of temperament [and] every one who has seen and heard what we have, every day last week, is certain there is only one explanation—that it is God’s Holy Spirit manifesting himself… One clause of the Creed that lives before us now in all its inevitable, awful solemnity is, “I believe in the Holy Spirit.”

Distress over sin and anguished cries for forgiveness may sound embarrassing and painful. But after the embarrassment and pain, the Holy Spirit brings joy and freedom. People are forgiven and filled with life. The church itself is cleansed and renewed, and many outside the church become Christians and join God’s family. This was the result among those Chinese people. It’s been the result in various spiritual awakenings at different times throughout history and in different places around the world. And it was definitely the result on Pentecost.

In that mighty outpouring of the Holy Spirit, people were cut to the heart by the greatness of Jesus and the grimness of their own evil, and they cried out, “What shall we do?” Peter replied, “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” (Acts 2:38). About three thousand people accepted the message and were baptized. No longer were they torn by guilt or terror. They were “filled with awe” (2:43) and enjoyed Christian fellowship “with glad and sincere hearts” (2:46).  Being cut to the heart hurts terribly, but the hurt can lead to happiness and holiness.

Divine Arrows

When the Holy Spirit glorifies the Lord Jesus, sinners are cut to the heart. It doesn’t come naturally to recognize that we are dead wrong or to admit it openly. It certainly doesn’t come naturally to confess that we’ve offended God himself and deserve hell. Instead, we keep telling ourselves we are okay. No matter how many gifts God heaps on us, we take them for granted and go on ignoring God. No matter how many warnings he sends out, we shrug them off and refuse to repent and seek God. It seems no amount of blessings or burdens can really change us. But when Holy Spirit comes in power, we are cut to the heart.

A poet who repented of his sins and became a Christian put it this way. He said the God of love shot all his golden arrows at him, but none of those arrows ever pierced the heart. Finally, God put himself in the bow and fired, and the arrow of God’s own self shot straight into the heart. What a picture of how God works! God makes himself the arrow and hits the target which no other arrow could reach.

The Lord has done many things in his creation and care for his world to show his majesty and his goodness. He has sent many prophets and messengers to speak his truth. But none of these things, no matter how good and important, could save the world. Only when God fired himself into his world in the person of Jesus Christ could the world be saved.

Likewise, in applying salvation in Christ to an individual, God can send signals, circumstances, and sermons, calling you to him. But these things, no matter how good, can’t reach a hard heart. Only when God fires himself into your heart in the person of the Holy Spirit will you change. Only then will you hate your sin, fear God’s wrath, plead for mercy, trust in Jesus as your Savior and Ruler, and experience the eternal life of God.

The world would be lost forever without Christ coming and dying and rising again, and every individual would be lost without the Holy Spirit showing us our sin and attracting us to God’s glory and love in Christ. There is no shortcut which leads to God the Father without Jesus Christ, and there is no shortcut to Christ without the Holy Spirit cutting you to the heart.

God does not flatter us. In the Bible the Lord says that “every inclination of man’s heart is evil from childhood” (Genesis 8:21). “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure” (Jeremiah 17:9). That’s what God sees when he looks into the human heart.

One crucial activity of the Holy Spirit is to make us see our heart the way God sees it. King David, guided by the Holy Spirit, prayed, “I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me… Surely I was sinful at birth… Create in me a pure heart, O God… Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me” (Psalm 51). Likewise, the apostle Paul said, “I know that nothing lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature … What a wretched man I am!” (Romans 7:18).

If you’re tempted to say, “Those guys were too gloomy,” think again. If you and I feel less sinful than Paul and David felt, the reason is that they knew God better than we do, and thus they knew themselves better than we do. When the Holy Spirit brings you into the brilliant light of God’s purity and perfection, you find out what you look like in God’s eyes, and you are cut to the heart.

The only thing that can save people with bad hearts is a heart transplant. God says to sinners, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you” (Ezekiel 36:26-27). Before God gives a new heart, he first cuts through to the old heart and removes it.

The Holy Spirit has a special blade for doing this: “the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God” (Ephesians 6:17). “For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any two-edged sword, it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hid from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Hebrews 4:12-13). God works through his Word, written in the Bible and declared in gospel preaching, to cut deep and lay us open. The Holy Spirit replaces the sinful heart with a living heart.

When Scripture speaks of being cut to the heart or when people speak of an arrow through the heart, the meaning is that we are confronted by God and convicted of sin. Even the proudest, hardest heart can be reached when the Holy Spirit pierces our defenses. Even the most godless and corrupt society can turn around when the Holy Spirit comes with power. The Spirit may do his work in a person here or there, and he may also overwhelm lots of people at the same time. On Pentecost three thousand were cut to the heart and transformed. Other outpourings of the Holy Spirit since then have brought widespread spiritual awakening and revival to many people all at once.

Korean Pentecost

On a Monday afternoon in 1907, a number of missionaries in Korea were praying, and there came upon them a sense that they would hold on to God and not let go till he blessed them. That night something happened. Missionary William Blair wrote,

Each felt as he entered the church that the room was full of God’s presence… a sense of God’s nearness impossible of description.

After a short sermon, Mr. Lee [a Korean church leader] took charge of the meeting and called for prayers. So many began praying that Mr. Lee said, ‘If you want to pray like that, all pray,’ and the whole audience began to pray out loud, all together. The effect was indescribable—not confusion, but a vast harmony of sound and spirit, a mingling together of souls moved by an irresistible impulse of prayer. The prayer sounded to me like the falling of many waters, an ocean of prayer beating against God’s throne. It was not many, but one, born of one Spirit, lifted to one Father above… He came to us in Pyengyang that night with the sound of weeping. As the prayer continued, a spirit of heaviness and sorrow for sin came down upon the audience. Over on one side, someone began to weep, and in a moment the whole audience was weeping.

Mr. Lee’s account, written at the time of the revival, gives the history of that night… “Man after man would rise, confess his sins, break down and weep, and then throw himself to the floor and beat the floor with his fists in a perfect agony of conviction. My own cook tried to make a confession, broke down in the midst of it, and cried to me across the room, ‘Pastor, tell me, is there any hope for me, can I be forgiven?’ and then he threw himself to the floor and wept and wept, and almost screamed in agony. Sometimes after a confession, the whole audience would break out in audible prayer, and the effect of that audience of hundreds of men praying together in audible prayer was something indescribable. Again, after another confession, they would break into uncontrollable weeping, and we would all weep, we could not help it. And so the meeting went on until two o’clock a.m., with confession and weeping and praying.”

The next evening, Tuesday night, the people again gathered. There one of the elders, Mr. Kim, rose and confessed, much to everyone’s surprise, that he had been fighting God and hating William Blair, the missionary. Blair writes what happened next:

Turning to me, he said, “Can you forgive me, can you pray for me?” I stood up and began to pray, “Father, Father,” and got no further. It seemed as if the roof was lifted from the building and the Spirit of God came down from heaven in a mighty avalanche of power upon us. I fell at Kim’s side and wept and prayed as I had never prayed before. My last glimpse of the audience is photographed indelibly on my brain. Some threw themselves full length upon the floor, hundreds stood with arms outstretched toward heaven. Every man forgot every other. Each was face to face with God. I can hear yet that fearful sound of hundreds of men pleading with God for life, for mercy.

After awhile, amid all that distress, Blair and other leaders gathered and asked each other, “What shall we do? If we let them go on like this some will go crazy.” But, says Blair, “we dared not interfere. We had prayed to God for an outpouring of His Spirit upon the people and it had come.” So they went around the room from person to person, trying to calm and comfort the most distressed, speaking of God’s forgiveness.

Finally Mr. Lee started a hymn and quiet was restored during the singing. Then began a meeting the like of which I had never seen before, nor wish to see again unless in God’s sight it is absolutely necessary. Every sin a human being can commit was publicly confessed that night. Pale and trembling with emotion, in agony of mind and body, guilty souls, standing in the white light of that judgment, saw themselves as God saw them. Their sins rose up in all their vileness, till shame and grief and self-loathing took complete possession; pride was driven out, the face of men forgotten. Looking up to heaven, to Jesus whom they had betrayed, they smote themselves and cried out with bitter wailing, “Lord, Lord, cast us not away forever!” Everything else was forgotten, nothing else mattered. The scorn of men, the penalty of the law, even death itself seemed of small consequence if only God forgave. We may have our theories of the desirability or undesirability of public confession of sin. I have had mine; but I know now that when the Spirit of God falls upon guilty souls, there will be confession, and no power on earth can stop it. (William Blair, The Korean Pentecost).

Responding to the Holy Spirit

Hearing about such revival can produce different reactions. To some it sounds weird and unhealthy, while others think it sounds exciting and wonder how they might be able make such things happen. But revival and mass repentance are not things we should try to generate by our own efforts. In genuine revival, Christian leaders speak God’s truth in Christ without trying to manipulate emotions or whip up mass hysteria. In fact, wise leaders work to maintain order, keep excess to a minimum, prevent error, and keep people as rational and calm as possible.

Nevertheless, when the Lord gives a mass outpouring of his Holy Spirit, the result is not always tidy and manageable. People who are cut to the heart aren’t always dignified and sensible. They may cry out and groan and fall on their face before God, no matter how undignified it might seem. They may confess their sin aloud, right on the spot, no matter how embarrassing it might be. They don’t care about anything except casting away their sins, fleeing God’s wrath, and finding his forgiveness and favor.

The long-term result of true revival is lives that are changed forever and often societies and nations that are changed as well. Before the Korean revival of 1907, the number of Korean Christians was a relative handful. Since then the number has grown to many millions. Similar things have happened in other nations through revival. So although we shouldn’t try to manufacture revival or work people into a frenzy, those of us who are Christians ought to pray and ask the Lord to pour out his Holy Spirit with fresh power to renew his church, move many to repentance and faith, and change a culture that is increasingly wicked and corrupt.

Meanwhile, as we pray for revival, we should be thankful and responsive to the Spirit where he is working in less spectacular ways. We’ve looked at how people were cut to the heart during the great Pentecost outpouring of the Spirit and during other outpourings that have occurred since then. These events were very real and important, but even as we thank God for them and pray for revival in our own setting, we must realize that the Holy Spirit also works in ways that aren’t so sudden or so dramatic or on such a large scale as in revival. He often does his work quietly and without a lot of fanfare.

But, whether quietly or dramatically, one thing is always the same wherever the Spirit is at work: people give up on themselves and look to Christ alone. In one way or another, every true child of God is cut to the heart. Not everyone has the same intensity of conviction or the same sequence of spiritual events. God deals with each as he sees fit. Many need their ego humbled and crushed before being raised up in Christ, but others experience God’s love and assurance even before they face the full horror of their sins. The beauty and goodness and mercy of Christ may flood the soul with faith, love, joy, and peace before the depths of sin are made known. In certain people, sorrow for sin and fear of judgment may last for quite some time before they receive assurance of God’s mercy in Jesus, while others have faith and assurance in almost the very instant they are made aware of their sins. Some conversions happen suddenly, others gradually. The Spirit works freely as he sees fit, so we shouldn’t insist that every individual experience, or every awakening in a larger group, must always fit the exact same sequence, timing, or intensity. Even so, it’s fair to say that wherever the Holy Spirit is truly at work, Jesus Christ is glorified and people are humbled.

It’s a grave mistake to think the Holy Spirit transforms individuals or revives multitudes without people ever being cutting anyone to the heart. How can people with no sense of God’s majesty and their own sin delight in Christ as Savior? British preacher Charles Spurgeon warned, “Today we have so many built up who were never pulled down; so many filled who were never emptied; so many exalted who were never humbled; that I the more earnestly remind you that the Holy [Spirit] must convince of sin, or we cannot be saved.”

Have you been cut to the heart? Do you know your own sin in the light of God’s holiness? Do you know your smallness in the light of God’s majesty? God’s message for you is the same gospel as always: Repent, believe and be baptized into Christ, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.