Thursday, October 17, 2013

Does God harden the hearts of people?

Is there a Pastor alive who has not heard this question?  A rebellious child openly flaunts his or her unbelief to pious parents and the parents who raised the child in the faith wonder if there is more to it.  A review of Old Testament texts raises the point about Pharaoh or others whom the Scriptures say "God hardened their hearts."  A New Testament reference to God "handing them over" to their rebellion, disobedience, and wickedness.  What are we to make of these texts?

First of all, let us acknowledge that God needs no apologist. It is not up to us or given to us to explain the ways of God.  Like Job of old, we cannot presume to know the mind of God or question the Lord and His judgements.  What we do is give to these passages context to make clearer what Scriptures says and therefore God reveals.

In most cases when we find the declaration that God has hardened the heart, these come after the disobedience and rebellion on the part of the person hardened.  God does not act to harden the heart of a believer to unbelief.  In most cases, when we read that God has "hardened the heart" of someone, this comes after God has made repeated effort through the prophets and His messengers to break through the impenitence and unbelief of the person.  So then what God does to that person is allow their rejection to stand.  In other words, God allows them what they have sought -- to stand outside the pale of His grace. Their hearts are not hardened because God wants to do this but because they have repeatedly rejected the agent of God's grace and so the Lord allows their disposition to stand.

Example Pharaoh

Start with Exodus 4:21 and it seems to indicate that God said to Moses that he would harden Pharaoh’s heart. How this works out is not quite so simple.  The Lord addresses Pharaoh with plagues and each time Pharaoh rejects the Lord and hardens his own heart (Ex. 7:13; 7:22; 8:11; 8:28; & 9:7).  After this, God allows Pharaoh the consequence of his prideful and willful rejection.  He hardens his heart by allowing Pharaoh's rejection to stand.  It is only in this way that the language of Exodus begins to shift to God hardening the heart of Pharaoh (Ex 9:12; 9:34; 10:1; 10:20; 10:27).  God does not act arbitrarily but after Pharaoh has rejected His Word and His works.

Example Israel

The rebellious people of God often reject and refuse God's gracious will.  Sometimes God acts to bring them to repentance (exile, defeat by their enemies, etc.).  Sometimes Scripture speaks of God hardening their hearts (in particular here, Isaiah).  Israel’s hardness comes after their repeated refusal to repent.  Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth; for the LORD has spoken: “Children have I reared and brought up, but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.” Ah, sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, offspring of evildoers, children who deal corruptly! They have forsaken the LORD, they have despised the Holy One of Israel, they are utterly estranged.   (Is 1:2-4).

St John Chrysostom says of this, That the saying of Isaiah might be fulfilled: that here is expressive not of the cause, but of the event. They did not disbelieve because Isaias said they would; but because they would disbelieve, Isaias said they would…. For He does not leave us, except we wish Him….Whereby it is plain that we begin to forsake first, and are the cause of our own perdition. For as it is not the fault of the sun, that it hurts weak eyes, so neither is God to blame for punishing those who do not attend to His words.

Isaiah 63:17:  O LORD, why do you make us wander from your ways and harden our heart, so that we fear you not? Return for the sake of your servants, the tribes of your heritage.  Though the words here put the impetus upon the Lord, it is not the Lord who took it upon Himself to upset faithful and pious Israel.  They perish because they refuse His Word.  Though it may speak of God having to change, it is always the repentance of the people that is the issue.  When they turn (repent), God turns His mercy to them again.

We need not fear that God will act spontaneously, out of nowhere, to steal away our faith, render us under His judgment, and give us over to the passions of our hearts for sin.  This He will not and, indeed, has said He cannot do.  But the fruit of unrighteousness and impenitence is the hardening of the heart until it no longer recognizes nor responds to the call of God to repentance.

New Testament

Read 2 Thessalonians 2:1-17.  Here in particular I quote 9-12:  The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders, and with all wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false, in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness.  In speaking of the time after Christ's resurrection but before His coming again, St. Paul continually warns us against the temptation of evil, the wiles of Satan, and the desire of the faithful to listen to the appealing voice of lies instead of the hard voice of truth.  God does not hand them over to Satan but He may get to the point where He allows their choice of evil to stand.

Why it is such a difficult question

Prior to the advent of humanism (prior to the Renaissance), God was the undisputed center of the world and of all life.  After humanism displaced God and replaced Him with man, questions of causality became more difficult.  In the past it was easy to see God as the "cause" of good and evil because God was seen as the center of everything and of all life.  If not His active will, things happened because of His permissive will.  Now we no longer have an almighty God whose reign is over all things but a spiritual God whose power is limited to "spiritual" things -- except when we need a handy scapegoat to blame when our plans go awry or when "nature" reveals its raw power and unleashes its fury upon us.  Then we look to God not so much to rein in the power of nature as to assure us that we are still okay, though battered and bruised.  He is limited to expressing comfort and consoling us. 

Romans 9

I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit— that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.

But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring. For this is what the promise said: “About this time next year I will return and Sarah shall have a son.” And not only so, but also when Rebecca had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of his call— she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”

What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.

You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?”  Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honored use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles? As indeed he says in Hosea,`“Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’ and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved.’”  "And in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ there they will be called ‘sons of the living God.’”

And Isaiah cries out concerning Israel: “Though the number of the sons of Israel be as the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will be saved, for the Lord will carry out his sentence upon the earth fully and without delay.”And as Isaiah predicted, “If the Lord of hosts had not left us offspring, we would have been like Sodom and become like Gomorrah.”

What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, a righteousness that is by faith; but that Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone, as it is written, “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”


Ted Badje said...

Thanks for the exposition of some really difficult verses in the Bible.

ginnie said...

So good.

Janis Williams said...

Good teaching.

Unknown said...

Thank you for your exposition

Unknown said...

Thank you for your exposition