A Silk Purse from a Sow’s Ear
By John Pearson
According to Wiktionary (“a collaborative project to produce a free-content multilingual dictionary”), the expression “to make a silk purse from a sow’s ear” means “to produce something refined, admirable, or valuable from something which is unrefined, unpleasant, or of little or no value” (https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/make_a_silk_purse_of_a_sow%27s_ear).
Perhaps there is no better way to describe in the common vernacular the work of the Holy Spirit on the human heart.
Indeed, the Bible is replete with expressions of the miraculous transformation of something “of little or no value” into “something refined, admirable, or valuable.” While we fallible humans might view someone steeped in sin as of little or no value, we should be thankful that the Lord knows the heart. Think of the woman taken in adultery, the woman at the well, or even Saul, one of the disciples’ most ardent foes, who was transformed into Paul, one of Christ’s most faithful disciples.
It is important to note that although this transformation is done as a free gift to mankind, one must participate in the effort on a personal level to ensure fitness to receive this gift.
On first examination, this gifting seems to be a bit of a paradox. In temporal life, quite often if someone chooses to present a gift to another, there need not necessarily be any action on the recipient’s part to qualify. However, the plan of salvation is not a birthday party, and diligent effort is indeed required to be fit to receive the gift of salvation.
Without doubt, the promises of salvation are plentiful in God’s word. They are plentiful and they are secure. But they are also conditional. Although God’s love is unconditional—He loves the sinner to the same degree as He loves the saint—His promises are conditional. If we do not fulfill the conditions associated with a given promise, we cannot expect to benefit from that promise.
A favorite promise is the one found in Ezekiel 11:16–21: “Therefore say, ‘Thus says the Lord God: “Although I have cast them far off among the Gentiles, and although I have scattered them among the countries, yet I shall be a little sanctuary for them in the countries where they have gone.”’ Therefore say, ‘Thus says the Lord God: “I will gather you from the peoples, assemble you from the countries where you have been scattered, and I will give you the land of Israel.”’ “And they will go there, and they will take away all its detestable things and all its abominations from there. Then I will give them one heart, and I will put a new spirit within them, and take the stony heart out of their flesh, and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in My statutes and keep My judgments and do them; and they shall be My people, and I will be their God. But as for those whose hearts follow the desire for their detestable things and their abominations, I will recompense their deeds on their own heads,’ says the Lord God.” ’ ”
This promise of a new heart is repeated in Ezekiel 36:22–32: “Therefore say to the house of Israel, ‘Thus says the Lord God: “I do not do this for your sake, O house of Israel, but for My holy name’s sake, which you have profaned among the nations wherever you went. And I will sanctify My great name, which has been profaned among the nations, which you have profaned in their midst; and the nations shall know that I am the Lord,” says the Lord God, “when I am hallowed in you before their eyes. For I will take you from among the nations, gather you out of all countries, and bring you into your own land. Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them. Then you shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers; you shall be My people, and I will be your God. I will deliver you from all your uncleannesses. I will call for the grain and multiply it, and bring no famine upon you. And I will multiply the fruit of your trees and the increase of your fields, so that you need never again bear the reproach of famine among the nations. Then you will remember your evil ways and your deeds that were not good; and you will loathe yourselves in your own sight, for your iniquities and your abominations. Not for your sake do I do this,” says the Lord God, “let it be known to you. Be ashamed and confounded for your own ways, O house of Israel!” ’ ”
Notice that in both of these passages there is a reason for this action on God’s part.
In Ezekiel 11, it is only those who have separated themselves from detestable things and abominations who are recipients of one heart and a new spirit, the result being that they “walk in My statutes and keep My judgments and do them.”
In Ezekiel 36, the basis of the promise is to uphold the honor of God’s holy name, “which has been profaned among the nations.” Although no specific action on the part of the recipients is stated, it is clear from verses 31 and 32 that the recipients of a “heart of flesh” had been cleansed from all their filthiness and from all their idols through cooperation with God as He did this miraculous work in them.
Remember that in Ezekiel 33:11, God had said, “Say to them: ‘As I live,’ says the Lord God, ‘I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn, turn from your evil ways! For why should you die, O house of Israel?’ ”
Clearly, God could not fulfill His promises to Israel until they had met the conditions by turning from their evil ways. Failure to do so could only result in death.
The role that one must play in being fit to receive this wonderful free gift is made evident not only in Scripture, but also in the Spirit of Prophecy.
“Those who are living upon the earth when the intercession of Christ shall cease in the sanctuary above are to stand in the sight of a holy God without a mediator. Their robes must be spotless, their characters must be purified from sin by the blood of sprinkling. Through the grace of God and their own diligent effort they must be conquerors in the battle with evil. While the investigative judgment is going forward in heaven, while the sins of penitent believers are being removed from the sanctuary, there is to be a special work of purification, of putting away of sin, among God’s people upon earth.” The Great Controversy, 425. [Emphasis added.]
The obvious question here is, What “diligent effort” is required on each individual’s part in the “putting away of sin”?
First, we must believe when we repeat David’s prayer for a clean heart and a right spirit that God answers that prayer. We must use that “measure of faith” each has been given to grasp the promise that if we delight ourselves in the Lord, He shall give us the desires of our heart (Psalm 37:4). It should also be understood that our desires must be in accord with His plan of salvation. He certainly is not going to give Satan the desires of his wicked heart.
Then we must understand what our “diligent effort” is to include. When God answers our prayer for a new heart and a right spirit, will we suddenly no longer be tempted by our besetting sin? Would that it were that easy! No. Unfortunately, Satan and his evil agents will continue to bring temptations before us.
Remember that Christ was tempted up until He took His last breath: “And those who passed by blasphemed Him, wagging their heads and saying, ‘You who destroy the temple and build it in three days, save Yourself! If You are the Son of God, come down from the cross.’ Likewise the chief priests also, mocking with the scribes and elders, said, ‘He saved others; Himself He cannot save. If He is the King of Israel, let Him now come down from the cross, and we will believe Him’ ” (Matthew 27:39–42).
In answer to our prayer, the Lord does not remove temptations from our pathway, but instead He gives us the power to resist those temptations. Just as Christ, by faith, resisted every effort on Satan’s part to get Him to deny His faith, we are promised that same victory “through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13). Remember that God’s people are characterized as “those who keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus” (Revelation 14:12).
Paul provided what is arguably one of the most encouraging promises in God’s word when he wrote to the Corinthians, “No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it” (I Corinthians 10:13).
That “way of escape” that God makes involves the exercise of faith in His promises and availing ourselves of the abundant grace He so freely and generously provides that enable us to resist the efforts of the enemy of souls to dissuade us from the path of truth and righteousness.
When the enemy comes in like a flood, we must have the presence of mind to call upon God, “who performs all things for me” (Psalm 57:2).
Isaiah expressed the same faith in God’s protection and assistance in Isaiah 26:12: “Lord, You will establish peace for us, for You have also done all our works in us.” [Emphasis added.]
Even Jeremiah, often referred to as the prophet of doom or the weeping prophet, understood and wrote a powerful expression of God’s work in our hearts: “They shall be My people, and I will be their God; then I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear Me forever, for the good of them and their children after them. And I will make an everlasting covenant with them, that I will not turn away from doing them good; but I will put My fear in their hearts so that they will not depart from Me” (Jeremiah 32:38–40).
Jesus also acknowledged the work that God does to enable us to bear fruit ripe for repentance: “Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit” (John 15:2).
Although this pruning process can be unpleasant and even painful, it is a necessary process in shaping one’s character into the image of Christ. Then the transformation from sow’s ear to silk purse will be complete.
One of the most encouraging (if indeed it is possible to rank the wonderful promises in God’s word) is found in Philippians 1:6: “… being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ.”
What a glorious day that will be when that small cloud appears in the east and the saints can say in unison, “Behold, this is our God; we have waited for Him, and He will save us. This is the Lord; we have waited for Him; we will be glad and rejoice in His salvation” (Isaiah 25:9).
“Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely; and may your whole spirit, soul, and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful, who also will do it” (I Thessalonians 5:23, 24).
“Therefore we also pray always for you that our God would count you worthy of this calling, and fulfill all the good pleasure of His goodness and the work of faith with power, that the name of our Lord Jesus Christ may be glorified in you, and you in Him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thessalonians 1:11, 12).
“But may the God of all grace, who called us to His eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after you have suffered a while, perfect, establish, strengthen, and settle you” (I Peter 5:10).
“I thank my God always concerning you for the grace of God which was given to you by Christ Jesus, that you were enriched in everything by Him in all utterance and all knowledge, even as the testimony of Christ was confirmed in you, so that you come short in no gift, eagerly waiting for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will also confirm you to the end, that you may be blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (I Corinthians 1:4–8).
“Now to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling, and to present you faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy, to God our Savior, who alone is wise, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and forever. Amen” (Jude 1:24, 25).
All quotes NKJV unless otherwise noted.
John Pearson is the office manager and a board member of Steps to Life. After retiring as chief financial officer for the Grand Canyon Association, Grand Canyon, Arizona, he moved to Wichita, Kansas, to join the Steps team. He may be contacted by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.