Spiritual Hardening

In a Brief Survey of the Epistle of Paul to the Romans
Based on sermons preached in PCC Worship Services, July 2003 to Sep 2005
Part 45a of 83

17 For the scripture saith unto Pharaoh, Even for this same purpose have I raised thee up, that I might shew my power in thee, and that my name might be declared throughout all the earth. 18 Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth” (Romans 9:17-18).

We are studying a portion of the book of Romans that many people fear to touch. It contains what is regarded as a very controversial doctrine, namely, the doctrine of sovereign predestination, or perhaps more accurately, the doctrine of sovereign double predestination.

This doctrine asserts that God has from all eternity ordained some to eternal life and some to damnation. Everyone in the world is either God’s elect or they are His reprobate. In the picture painted by Paul, they are either Vessels of Mercy or Vessels of Wrath (v. 22-23).

There are those who deny this doctrine all together. They assert that God did not pre-determine anyone to be saved or condemned. God has made it possible for everyone to be saved, they say. So everyone has an equal opportunity to be saved.

Then, there are those who agree that God has elected some to salvation, but they deny that God has reprobated anyone. If anyone perishes, they say, it is because of their sin, not because God has appointed them to be vessels of wrath from eternity. In other words, they believe in single-predestination rather than double-predestination.

But as we saw in our previous study, this doctrine is plainly taught by the apostle Paul. Indeed, to make it very clear what he is saying, Paul even anticipates objections to what he is saying. If we read the objections honestly, we will see that they are not objections against the doctrine that God has not predestined anyone. Neither are they objections against the doctrine of single-predestination, i.e. the doctrine that God has predestined the elect but not the reprobate.

No one would question God’s fairness (as in v. 14) if Paul is saying that God did not elect. And no one will suggest that God has no right to find fault (as in v. 19) if Paul is not teaching that God has predestined the wicked unto damnation.

The objections which Paul anticipates in verses 14 and 19 are objections against the doctrine of sovereign double-predestination: that is God elected some unto salvation and reprobated the rest (and not simply passed them by).

But since this is a hard doctrine for many, we want to take a second look at it again in this additional study. In particular, we want to take a closer look at what the apostle is saying in regards to the hardening of pharaoh’s heart in verses 17-18.

Let us consider, first of all, how God hardens the heart. Or in particular how did God harden the heart of Pharaoh? Was it actively, or was it passively?

1.  How does God harden
the Heart?

a.   To harden the heart of someone is to make him blind to God’s truth, or to make him obstinate so that he refuses to obey God.

He whose heart is not hardened flows like hot wax so that he can be moulded by God Word into the kind of person God wants him to be.

But he who whose heart is hardened, is like the solid wax stuck on a wooden table and can only be removed by a scraper and steel brush.

A heart that is hardened is stubborn in disobedience. Paul tells us that God hardens whom He wills (v. 18). But how does God do so?

Most theologians suggest that God does not harden the heart of anyone actively. Jonathan Edwards, for example, suggests that God does not “by any positive efficiency harden any man’s heart” for otherwise, “God would be the immediate author of sin.”

Think of a pot of liquid wax. How do you make it into solid wax? Well you can simply leave it to cool down in room temperature. Or you can turn on the air conditioning and the fan. What Edwards is saying is that when God hardens the reprobate, He simply leaves it to cool down in room temperature.

In this thinking, the heart of everyone in the world is like a pot of liquid wax over the stove. The Holy Spirit is keeping the wax liquid. When God is said to harden the heart of anyone, what He does is simply to turn off the heat, and the wax hardens by itself. In that sense God does not harden anyone’s heart directly or by any positive act.

Those who hold to this doctrine will remind us that Pharaoh hardened his own heart, which of course, is true. Let’s look at a few examples.

Turn first to Exodus 7:22. Moses had just performed the first miracle of the ten plagues. The water in the river turned into blood. All the fishes died, and the water became undrinkable.

How did Pharaoh react? We are not told how he reacted to that calamity, but we are told that his magicians, somehow, was able to convince him that they were able to do the same thing. And Pharaoh reacted to that. Look at Exodus 7:22—

“And the magicians of Egypt did so with their enchantments: and Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, neither did he hearken unto them; as the LORD had said.”

Pharaoh was blinded to all that the Lord was doing. All that he saw was that his magicians could do something similar, and it was enough for him to refuse to obey God.

Again turn to Exodus 8:15. This was after the plague of frogs. As before, the magicians tried to do the same thing, but this time Pharaoh was not amused. He wanted the land rid of the frogs! His heart was softened enough to go to Moses to beg him to get rid of the frogs. Moses did what he desired. But we are told:

“…when Pharaoh saw that there was respite, he hardened his heart, and hearkened not unto them…” (Ex 8:15).

Pharaoh’s heart was, as it were, soft for a moment. But once the frogs were removed, he was relieved, and He hardened his heart and refused to obey the Lord.

Altogether, five times we are told that Pharaoh hardened his own heart. In addition to the two, there are Exodus 8:32, 9:7 and 9:34.

b.  But can we really conclude from these verses that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart only indirectly and passively? Can we conclude that God simply let Pharaoh react to the circumstances that He brought about? Can we conclude that Pharaoh’s heart was on the stove and God simply turn off the fire and let his heart solidify?

I used to think that this must be the case. Because I found it hard to imagine how God could harden anyone’s heart and yet hold the person responsible for his sin.

But while it may satisfy human logic to think this way, it simply does not do justice to the biblical revelation.

Turn again to Exodus 4:21. The occasion was when God first sent Moses to speak to Pharaoh to let His people go.

“And the LORD said unto Moses, When thou goest to return into Egypt, see that thou do all those wonders before Pharaoh, which I have put in thine hand: but I will harden his heart, that he shall not let the people go” (Ex 4:21).

This is amazing isn’t it? God would enable Moses to do wonders before Pharaoh, but He himself would harden Pharaoh’s heart so that Pharaoh would not be moved to let the people go.

And notice that contrary to the common thinking that God simply let Pharaoh harden his own heart, we see God suggesting exactly the opposite. He would give Moses the power to do wonders before Pharaoh. What were the wonders for? They were supposed to melt Pharaoh’s heart!

God was going to break through providence to do certain things that should naturally melt Pharaoh’s heart. But God would by His sovereign power intervene to harden his heart!

And not only here, but ten times in the book of Exodus we are told that God would or had hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that Pharaoh would not let the people go (see Ex 4:21; 7:3, 13; 9:12; 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10; 14:4, 8)—

·        Exodus 7:3—

“And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and multiply my signs and my wonders in the land of Egypt.”

·        Exodus 7:13—

“And he hardened Pharaoh’s heart, that he hearkened not unto them…”

·        Exodus 9:12—

“And the LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh, and he hearkened not unto them…”

·        Exodus 10:1—

“And the LORD said unto Moses, Go in unto Pharaoh: for I have hardened his heart, and the heart of his servants, that I might shew these my signs before him.”

·        Exodus 10:20—

“But the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart, so that he would not let the children of Israel go.”

·        Exodus 10:27—

“But the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he would not let them go.”

·        Exodus 11:10—

“And Moses and Aaron did all these wonders before Pharaoh: and the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart, so that he would not let the children of Israel go out of his land.”

·        Exodus 14:4—

“And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, that he shall follow after them; and I will be honoured upon Pharaoh, and upon all his host; that the Egyptians may know that I am the LORD.”

·        Exodus 14:8—

“And the LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and he pursued after the children of Israel…”

c.   Five times, it is said that pharaoh hardened his own heart; ten times it is said that God hardened pharaoh’s heart. What can we conclude from the biblical data?

It is hard to escape the conclusion, is it not, that God did put forth some positive power to harden Pharaoh’s heart. And it is not merely about turning off the stove and removing the influence of His Holy Spirit.

With all due respect to Edwards and many great theologians who follow his line of thinking, I do not think that it is right to say that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart only passively and indirectly.

In the first place, I do not think it is right to say that everyone’s heart is like a pot of wax on the stove. I do not think that the Holy Spirit is exercising restrain in the heart of the reprobate and keeping it liquid. No, no; the heart of the reprobate is dead in sin and trespasses. It is a heart of stone according to Ezekiel. The Holy Spirit is operating only in the heart of the elect to melt it or to keep it liquid. 

In the secondly place, it appears to me that when God is said to harden the heart of anyone, He actually turns on the air-conditioning and fan to make what is already hard even harder! He does not simply turn off the stove because there is no stove to turn off.

However, the biblical data does suggest that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart by his sovereign power in such a way that pharaoh hardened his own heart at the same time.

Or to put it in another way: Pharaoh hardened his own heart because God by His sovereign power hardened his heart. Pharaoh’s heart was like solid wax that was getting more solid by the moment. God caused a cold wind to blow over it so that it hardens even more.

“The king’s heart is in the hand of the LORD, as the rivers of water: he turneth it whither-soever he will” (Prov 21:1).

How does God do it? Our finite mind will never be able to comprehend, but we know that He does. He could and has on many occasions struck individuals with physical blindness. Thus, He can strike anyone man with spiritual blindness; or make him blinder than he is already.

And yes, it is possible for a person to be more blind than he already is.

·        The man who sees, whose heart is liquid, obeys God’s commandment out of love for Him. He obeys the spirit and the letter of the Law.

·        The man whose heart is hardened may obey the letter of the law, but not the spirit of the law.

·        One whose heart is even harder may refuse even the letter of the law.

·        And He whose heart is even harder than that, may do directly opposite to what God wants him to do.

This was the case with Pharaoh. His heart was so hardened that he not only refused to obey God, but tried to make it even harder for His people.

God hardened his already hard heart by His sovereign power.

But now the question we must ask is: Was the case of pharaoh an exceptional case?

…to be Continued Next Issue

—JJ Lim