If You’re Guarding Your Heart You’re Probably Doing it Wrong


“Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” – Proverbs 4:23 NIV / Photo: (c) Jason Stern

Guarding the heart seems to be pretty important since we’re directed to guard it “above all else.”

What if I told you we’ve been doing it wrong?


About 12 years ago I was in a leadership bible study and our pastor said something that made me stop short.  My internal alarms went off.  He was teaching on salvation and I thought I heard something really odd.

He said that a person’s spirit, body and soul had to be saved individually…and that this was up to the believer to accomplish. Hmmm…  I’d never heard such a thing and it didn’t sit right with me. Maybe that is what you believe, but to me, this falls outside of a scriptural understanding of salvation.

checklistHe went on to say that the heart was the equivalent to a person’s spirit and that the spirit controlled a person’s emotions. This created a tidy checklist for getting our emotions under control (heart/spirit), our thinking under control (soul) and our bodies physically fit (body).  I found I was the only person in our leadership group who objected to this teaching and, to make a long and painful story short, we ultimately parted company with that church. Before leaving, however, the Lord prompted me to dig into the Scriptures as well as into ancient cultural word usage in order to understand why what I perceived instinctively as incorrect theology was actually so. The result of that study is shared here below.

*Note, if you want the TL;DR [too long; didn’t read] summary, click here, otherwise continue:

Heart and Soul

The human soul and spirit are so intertwined that Hebrews 4:12 tells us that it can be separated by only one thing: the Word of God, which is “living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit … able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”

What is the difference between human soul and spirit?  Is the “heart” the human spirit, or is it part of the human soul? Can we find out?

This study seeks to provide that the word “heart” in the Bible refers to an identity bound in the soul; specifically to the “mind,” rather than the spirit.  While not widely understood by the public, this definition of heart is supported by Strong’s Lexicon, Young’s Analytical Concordance, Vine’s Expositional Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, and many others.

Our problem is that we are far away from the original words.  The bible was not written in English, but was given to us originally in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, with a few lesser-known languages, too.  We “know” that, but we still “think” that what we read in English is exactly what it “seems” to say. The issue is that we are interpreting it through a cultural lens that has been provided us by history, rather than than Scripture.

Allow me this: Let’s take a few minutes to look at the original meanings of words for authority over the words’ evolved English common roots. I realize this can get a bit tedious, but stick with me. It’s important that we know why:

  1. The spirit is not the heart.
  2. The heart is not just the emotions.
  3. The heart contains the mind, will and emotions, and
  4. the spirit drives it.

Bible English vs. Common English

Michael Marlowe, editor of Bible-researcher.com, suggests that the “heart” of the problem (haha) concerns “Bible English” vs. “Common English.”  For example, he submits the phrase “a man after [God’s] own heart,” spoken of King David in 1 Samuel 13:14, and alluded to in Acts 13:22.

This phrase is often thought to mean that David was emotionally attached to God, that he longed for God’s affection, or did things to win his love, etc., but in reality, the phrase means something quite different. Marlowe writes that in today’s common thinking:

“The word ‘heart’ refers [just] to emotions, especially love; but in Hebrew and in Biblical Greek, the words for “heart” (leb and kardia, respectively) are used in reference to the mind in general, in much the same way that we use the word “brain.” So when the Bible speaks of God’s “heart” it means his thoughts or his plan, not his emotions. When the Biblical authors wanted to refer to the emotions, they used words corresponding to our words for lower organs—the intestines and kidneys—not the heart. For example, [in the original text] the Apostle Paul exhorts us to “put on bowels of mercies” in Colossians 3:12, [which has now been replaced in modern parlance, asking that we have] “compassionate hearts.”[1]

David, then, was a “man after God’s thoughts.”  This study will look at the Old Covenant and New Covenant renderings of the word “heart” “spirit,” “soul,” and “mind” to determine their meanings.  We will rely on trusted commentaries, lexicons, and concordances readily available to researchers.

And while the subject matter is complex, scholars tend to agree that “heart” can be used interchangeably with “soul,” but not with “spirit.”  [For a comparison of the words used in this study, see the chart at the end of the article.]

Old Covenant Heart

Throughout the Old Testament the Hebrew word leb is translated to the English word “heart.”  Strong’s Concordance assigns this word the number 3820.  Leb is translated as “heart” 508 times in the King James Version (KJV) and over three hundred times in the New American Standard Version (NASB).

As an example, in Ezekiel 36:26-27, God prophesies that He will give His people a “new heart and a new spirit:”

“Moreover, I will give you a new heart3820 and put a new spirit7307 within you; and I will remove the heart3820 of stone from your flesh and give you a heart3820 of flesh.  I will put My Spirit7307 within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.                               – Ez. 36:26-27 [Emphasis mine]

In Hebrew, the scripture looks like this (not much like English, huh?):


Then if leb means “heart,” then what does that actually mean? We learn that it means the “will, emotions, and intellect.”[2]  Further, the Lexicon outlines the biblical usage of leb/heart:

  1. inner man, mind, will, heart, understanding; inner part, midst
  2. midst (of things)
  3. heart (of man)
  4. soul, heart (of man)
  5. mind, knowledge, thinking, reflection, memory
  6. inclination, resolution, determination (of will)
  7. conscience
  8. heart (of moral character)
  9. as seat of appetites
  10. as seat of emotions and passions
  11. as seat of courage[3]

The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia defines heart [leb/kardia]:

“As the central organ in the body, forming a focus for its vital action, it has come to stand for the center of its moral, spiritual, intellectual life.  “In particular the heart is the place in which the process of self-consciousness is carried out, in which the soul is at home with itself, and is conscious of all its doing and suffering as its own.” (Oehler).”

And notes that:

“The heart in Scripture [and unlike in secular context] is variously used, sometimes for the mind and understanding, sometimes for the will, sometimes for the affections, sometimes for the conscience, sometimes for the whole soul. Generally, it denotes the whole soul of man and all the faculties of it, not absolutely, but as they are all one principle of moral operations, as they all concur in our doing of good and evil.”[4]

In the triune makeup of a human being, (spirit, soul, body) leb fits squarely into the “soul” region, rather than the “spirit” region.  (The impact of this point is considered more in detail in the New Testament section.)

Matthew Henry writes concerning the heart passage in Ezekiel 36:26, “Renewing grace works as great a change in the soul, as the turning of a dead stone into living flesh[5]” [Emphasis mine], and the editor of Easton’s Bible Dictionary admits that:

“According to the Bible, the heart is the centre not only of spiritual activity, but of all the operations of human life.  “Heart” and “soul” are often used interchangeably (Deuteronomy 6:5; 26:16; Compare Matthew 22:37; Mark 12:30,33)…. The heart is also the seat of the conscience (Romans 2:15). It is naturally [fallen and] wicked (Genesis 8:21), and hence it contaminates the whole life and character (Matthew 12:34; 15:18; Compare Eccl. 8:11; Psalms 73:7). The heart must be changed, regenerated (Ezek. 36:26; 11:19; Psalms 51:10-14), before a man can willingly obey God.

At this point, it should be helpful to take a glimpse at the Hebrew word for “spirit,” or ruwach, to draw a distinction:


  • spirit (of the living, breathing being in man and animals) – a gift, preserved by God, God’s spirit, departing at death, disembodied being.
  • spirit – as seat or organ of mental acts, rarely of the will, as seat especially of moral character. [7]

With this knowledge, Ezekiel 36:26 rendered in a transliterated manner would read like this:

“Moreover, I will give you a new leb [will, emotions, and intellect] and put a new ruwach [gift of God; seat of moral character] within you; and I will remove the leb of stone from your flesh and give you a leb of flesh.  I will put My Ruwach within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.
– Ez. 36:26-27 [Emphasis mine]

The Word of God through Ezekiel was that God would put His Spirit into His people in addition to giving them a new heart.  He would give us a heart of flesh, instead of a hard, cold stony heart. He would do a new thing!

But what about inn Proverbs 2:10? The Word says: “For wisdom will enter your heart3820 And knowledge will be pleasant to your soul.”5315

This is an example of Hebrew repetition.

In Ezekiel, leb [heart/soul] and ruwach [spirit] are used in the two statements.  In Proverbs, leb [heart/soul] is used again, but a new word is introduced: nephesh.[8]  Nephesh is defined by Strong’s #5315 as “that which breathes, the soul, the inner being of man; seat of emotions and passions.”  Recall that heart [leb – 3820] means “the inner part; the soul.”  Therefore, the Scripture from Proverbs shows that heart is used synonymously with soul [nephesh – 5315].

The Old Testament utilizes leb3820 and nephesh5315 synonymously and sometimes interchangeably, but ruwach7309 [spirit] is never used as a synonym for soul.7

New Testament Heart

In the New Testament, the word most translated “heart” is kardia [Strong’s 2588] and is defined below. The definition should sound familiar to that of leb, above:

Kardia denotes the centre of all physical and spiritual life;

  1. the soul or mind, as it is the fountain and seat of the thoughts, passions, desires, appetites, affections, purposes, endeavours
  2. of the understanding, the faculty and seat of the intelligence
  3. of the will and character
  4. of the soul so far as it is affected and stirred in a bad way or good, or of the soul as the seat of the sensibilities, affections, emotions, desires, appetites, passions.[9]

As with nephesh in the Old Testament, on a few occasions in the Greek the word psuche5590 is used for heart.  It is translated: the soul; the seat of the feelings, desires, affections, aversions (our heart, soul etc.)[10]

Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words presents this passage:

The heart.  Chief organ of physical life (“for the life of the flesh is in the blood,” Lev. 17:11), occupies the most important place in the human system. By an easy transition, the word came to stand for man’s entire mental and moral activity, both the rational and the emotional elements. …

As to its usage in the NT it denotes (a) the seat of physical life, Acts 14:17; Jas. 5:5; (b) the seat of moral nature and spiritual life, the seat of grief, John 14:1; Rom. 9:2; 2 Cor. 2:4; joy, John 16:22; Eph. 5:19; the desires, Matt. 5:28; 2 Pet. 2:14; the affections, Luke 24:32; Acts 21:13; the perceptions, John 12:40; Eph. 4:18; the thoughts, Matt. 9:4; Heb. 4:12; the understanding, Matt. 13:15; Rom. 1:21; the reasoning powers, Mark 2:6; Luke 24:38; the imagination, Luke 1:51; conscience, Acts 2:37; 1 John 3:20; the intentions, Heb. 4:12, cp. 1 Pet. 4:1; purpose, Acts 11:23; 2 Cor. 9:7; the will, Rom. 6:17; Col. 3:15; faith, Mark 11:23; Rom. 10:10; Heb. 3:12.

The heart, in its moral significance in the OT, includes the emotions, the reason and the will.[11] [Emphasis mine.]

As with almost all NT scriptures, Romans 10:9-10 use kardia [mind/soul] for heart.

“If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your kardia2588 that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the kardia2588 a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation.” – Romans 10:9-10 [Emphasis mine]

Here’s the original Koine Greek (looks pretty different from English, huh?):


In Romans 10:9, the Apostle Paul is actually pulling from Deuteronomy 30:14.  The word “heart” in Deut. 30:14 is lebab3824 a variation[12], of leb3820 and is translated: soul.

In simple terms, kardia = leb/lebab = soul. 

With this view, the passage lends to the idea that in preparation for a ‘renewed spirit’ from the Lord, both our body (mouth, v. 9) and soul (kardia/lebab, vv. 9, 10) must be prepared and act together in unison and harmony.  Thus, in the kardia, man believes, and with the body (mouth), man confesses.  God breathes a brand new pneuma5414 [the Greek word for spirit] into the person, resulting in a new creation and a public recognition of salvation.

2 Cor. 5:17: Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.

Where there once was a dead spirit, lost through sin, God miraculously breathes new life! 


Our Stony Hearts Conquered by Love (c) Jason Stern

The Bible tells us that unregenerate man is spiritually dead. If the heart was the spirit, how could an unregenerate person believe in Jesus as Lord with something that is dead?  How could he believe with a dead spirit?  He could not.


But if his heart is actually his soul, the Scripture fits. Spiritually dead people still have souls.

In Romans 10:9-10 the man is responding to the Lord’s command by activating the new heart that he has been granted. In return for this act of obedience, the Lord Jesus demonstrates grace and mercy that only the Ruler of the Universe and the Son of Man could—He gives the man the greatest gift: an eternal spirit! [Consider John 3 in this light.]

The reason we have problems now with our understanding of heart is that the Bible uses it differently than the rest of the world did (and still does).

In the Holman Bible Dictionary,[13] scholar Gerald Cowen writes that: “The New Testament … gives kardia a wider range of meaning than it was generally accustomed to have.” 

Outside of Scripture, other Greek writers did not tend to use kardia as a synonym for the soul.  But to Hebrew Christians:

  • The heart became the focus for the…intellectual and spiritual life.
    • The heart and the intellect are closely connected, the heart being the seat of intelligence.
  • The heart is connected with thinking and desire and will:
    • As a person “thinks in his leb, so is he” (Proverbs 23:7). To ponder something in one’s heart means to consider it carefully (Luke 1:66; Luke 2:19). All of these are functions of the mind, but are connected with the heart in biblical language. [Emphasis mine.]
    • Thus, 2 Corinthians 9:7: “Every man according as he purposes in his kardia, so let him give.” The conscious decision is made in the heart (Romans 6:17).
  • On the negative side, depravity is said to issue from the unredeemed heart:
    • “The [unredeemed] leb is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9).
    • Romans 1:24 describes how God gave them up “through the lusts of their own kardia, to dishonor their own bodies.”
    • Jesus said that out of the unredeemed kardia comes evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander (Matthew 15:19). In other words, defilement comes from within rather than from without. [13]

The heart [kardia] is the:

  • field where seed (the Word of God) is sown (Matthew 13:19; Luke 8:15)
  • place where the natural laws of God are written
  • place of renewal.[14]

Therefore, the New Testament tells us that the Greek word, kardia, is synonymous for soul, just as leb is in Hebrew.

What about these “Compound” Passages?

In some cases, the ancient languages had better words to use than our present-day English.  For example, in English we have the word “love.”  Greek has at least three words to express love: agape (perfect, unconditional love), phileo (brotherly love), and eros (sexual love – this version is not used in the NT).

To show you how we run right by this without stopping, consider John 21:15-17.  In it, Jesus asks Peter, “Do you agape me?”  Peter answers, “I phileo you.”  Big difference!  This is followed by the same question and answer in 21:16.  Finally, Jesus changes the question and asks Peter in verse 17, “Peter, do you phileo me?” To which Peter exclaims, “Lord, you know all things. You know that I phileo you!”  We miss much in that passage by only having our English “love.”

Mark 12:30 says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind and with all your strength.”

In this verse, remember that heart is kardia (2285) [will, intellect, emotions], soul is psuche (5590) [seat of the feelings, desires, affections, aversions] and a new word is introduced for mind: dianoia (1271) [understanding, feeling, desiring].

Some scholars tell us that the New Testament writers inserted this additional Greek word for “mind” here in order to explain to their Greek/Roman readers that when the Hebrew refers to “heart,” he means the mind-soul.

How It Might Sound to Us

In Mark 12:30, Jesus is answering the question regarding the “greatest commandment” by quoting Deuteronomy 6:5: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your leb and with all your nephesh and with all your might.”

These verses are called `The Shema’ from the Hebrew word, ‘Hear,’ and are regarded as the essence of Hebrew religion. They are always quoted in every synagogue service, and are repeated twice daily by the orthodox. These words are the opening statement in Jewish services.[15]

In ‘The Shema,’ God “covers all the bases” with this command and starting with the heart, He goes deeper by saying, to effect: You shall love the Lord with all of your heart (with all of your will, your emotions, your intellect, your understanding, your desire) and finally even with your physical body.

I imagine that if we heard this in our language, it would be in the form of repetition with modern punctuation:

“You shall love the Lord Your God with all your soul, all your soul, ALL YOUR SOUL!”*


The heart/soul includes the mind, the will, the emotions and while it is the place where the spirit dwells, the heart is not the spirit.

If we are going to resolve the complications between “Biblical English” and “Common English” in these verses we just have to dig in and study.

In Conclusion

Have we been guarding the wrong thing?  A broken heart is not a broken spirit, but it is a broken mind.

Perhaps we have spent too much time telling dwelling on the intellect or, conversely, the spirit!  If we teach people to focus on the learning the rules alone and not enough time allowing the Spirit of God to influence us, they will become “hard-hearted.” If we teach them to focus too much on the spirit, they will lack understanding of the deeper lessons from Scripture.

I believe the former was the sad fate of the Pharisees, who started out as the “good guys,” but who spent so much time trying to cross all the “T”s and dot all the “I”s that they ended up missing God. And I believe the latter in more recent times, have thought that as long as they “feel” good and try to “be” good, that God will be pleased.

The heart, to paraphrase Marvin Vincent, is “the driver of the soul and the seat of the spirit.”[21]The heart is the place in which God continually shapes and molds the Christian.  This is why a Christian can be both righteous and wicked with his heart.  His renewed spirit does not have this fault.  While evil hearts are plenteous, the only “evil spirits” mentioned in the Bible are demons, not people.  If a Christian is faithful and is walking in the Spirit of Christ, Jesus will be faithful to “renew his mind” and bring balance to his whole being.

That’s why He gave us new spirits, too, to continually point us to Him and away from the ways of sin and death.  The mind being renewed is your heart. It is the place where Jesus will be faithful to complete his good work in you. The spirit is a gift from Him and it constantly draws His followers to Him.

May your heart, the fountain and seat of your thoughts, passions, desires, appetites, affections, purposes, and endeavors be blessed and renewed in Christ Jesus.  And may we all submit the direction of our understanding, will and character to his rulership.


Comparison Chart

Word Language Origin Simple Definition Detailed Definition Scripture References Strong’s Number
Leb Hebrew heart, will, emotions, and intellect Midst of things, heart of man, soul, heart of man, mind, knowledge, thinking, reflection, memory, inclination, resolution, determination of will, conscience, etc. Ezek. 36:26-27, Ps. 4:7

Jer. 17:9, etc. throughout

Ruwach Hebrew spirit spirit (of the living, breathing being in man and animals) – a gift, preserved by God, God’s spirit, departing at death, disembodied being.

seat or organ of mental acts, rarely of the will, as seat especially of moral character.

Ezek. 36:26-27, Ps. 51:11, etc. H7307
Nephesh Hebrew soul that which breathes, the breathing substance or being, soul, the inner being of man; seat of emotions and passions Gen. 2:7, Job 2:6, Prov. 2:10, etc. H5315
Kardia Greek heart, soul or mind Centre of all physical and spiritual life;

the soul or mind, fountain and seat of the thoughts, passions, desires, understanding, faculty and seat of intelligence, will and character


Rom. 10:9-10,

Phil. 4:7,

Rom. 1:24,

Matt. 15:19, etc. throughout


Psuche Greek soul, breath the soul; the seat of the feelings, desires, affections, aversions (our heart, soul etc.) Heb. 4:12, 1 Thess. 5:23, etc. G5590
Pneuma Greek spirit the disposition or influence which fills and governs the soul Acts 11:15, Eph. 1:17, etc. G4151
Dianoia Greek understanding the mind as a faculty of understanding, feeling, desiring Eph. 1:18,

1 Pet. 1:13

Phronema Greek thoughts/


what one has in the mind, the thoughts and purposes Rom. 8:6-7,

Rom. 8:27

Noema Greek thought Mental perception; thoughts or purposes 2 Cor. 10:5

Phil. 4:7



TL:DR = Common English usage of the word “heart” is not the same as biblical usage. In the Bible, the word heart is equivalent to soul. It contains your mind, will and emotions, not just your emotions. The Bible never uses the word heart to refer to a person’s spirit. That’s the short version, but the long one is much more interesting!

End Notes

For those who want to dig deeper:
In Heb. 10:16, the Holy Spirit writes that He will “put My laws upon their heart2588, and upon their mind1271, I will write them.”  Note that when studied using the Greek lexicon, heart is kardia [soul] and mind here is dianoia [understanding][16]. Let’s translate that: “He will put his laws in your soul and give you understanding.” Romans 8:27 utilizes several of these words again:  “He who searches the hearts2588 knows what the mind5427 [phronema: inclination/purpose] [17] of the Spirit4151 [Pneuma/Spirit/Breath] is….”[18]

Again: “He who searches the soul knows what the purpose of the Spirit of God is…” First Thessalonians 5:23 concludes, “May the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit4151 [pneuma: life breath] and soul5590 [psuche: seat of feelings, desires] and body be preserved complete….” It is a totality.

[1] Marlowe, Michael, MA. Study on New Living Translation. Subparagraph “After God’s own Heart.” http://www.bible-researcher.com/nlt.html

[2]Strong’s Lexicon: heart – http://www.blueletterbible.org/tmp_dir/words/3/1118110632-6328.html


[4]The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. Heart: http://www.studylight.org/enc/isb/view.cgi?number=T4199

[5] Matthew Henry’s Commentaries on Ezekiel 36:


[6] Heart. Easton’s Bible Dictionary. http://www.studylight.org/dic/ebd/view.cgi?number=T1699

[7] Ruwach. http://www.blueletterbible.org/tmp_dir/words/7/1118112685-5918.html

[8] Nephesh. http://www.studylight.org/lex/heb/view.cgi?number=05315

[9] Kardia. Strong’s Lexicon. http://www.studylight.org/lex/grk/view.cgi?number=2588

[10] Psuche. Strong’s Lexicon. http://www.studylight.org/lex/grk/view.cgi?number=5590

[11] Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words: Heart. http://www.menfak.no/bibelprog/vines?word=¯t0001335

[12] Lebab. Soul. http://www.studylight.org/lex/heb/view.cgi?number=03824

[13] Holman Bible Dictionary. “The Heart” by Gerald Cowen. http://www.studylight.org/dic/hbd/view.cgi?number=T2654

[14] Holman Bible Dictionary. Heart. http://www.studylight.org/dic/hbd/view.cgi?number=T2654

[15] Coffman Commentaries on the Old Testament. Deuteronomy 6.

[16] Dianoia. http://www.studylight.org/lex/grk/view.cgi?number=1271

[17] Phronema. http://www.studylight.org/lex/grk/view.cgi?number=5427

[18] Pneuma. http://www.studylight.org/lex/grk/frequency.cgi?number=4151

[19] Hebrews 6:1-3.

[20] MacArthur. Ephesians. Page 44. Chicago: Moody Press.

[21] Martin Vincent. Word Studies in the New Testament. Excerpt on kardia among study of Precept Study of Romans 6. http://www.preceptaustin.org/romans_615-20.htm

[22] Noema. http://www.studylight.org/lex/grk/view.cgi?number=3540