The Bible clearly teaches that God is good and there is nothing evil in Him at all (Jas 1:17), so when we come across a passage that seems to suggest He is responsible for hardening a person’s heart we naturally find the idea troubling. It re-opens the question of God’s character. Is He pure goodness or does He have a dark side? Could He be responsible for causing a person’s stubborn disobedience, or is it our own choices that cause this? We need an answer because these two views of Him actually represent two different Gods. Can I trust that everything He does is good? Can I run to Him with any problem and assume His will is to save and restore? The statement that “He hardens whom He desires” raises this troubling issue.
What does Paul say? (Ro 9:14-18)
You’ll notice as we read through Romans Paul repeats certain phrases, and we encounter two of them in this passage. Before we explain these verses, let’s discover what he means by these:
1) “What shall we say then?”: What answer do we give to the doubts or confusion produced by what I just said? (Ro 3:9; 6:1, 15; 7:7; 8:31).
2) “So then”: Here is the lesson we are to learn from this (Ro 5:18; 7:3, 12; 8:12).
v14 - If Jacob and Esau were both sinful yet God gave eternal life to Jacob but not his twin brother, that makes it appear God is ignoring the promises in the Law (Dt 30:15-20) and is engaging in favoritism. Is God unjust?
v15 - No, God is functioning according to His predetermined plan (Ro 8:28-30). His grace cannot be earned or deserved. It is a freely-given gift and He alone decides to whom He will give this gift. That’s the answer He gave Moses when he begged for mercy for Israel after they worshipped the golden calf (Ex 32:8-10).
v16 - We cannot force God to give us mercy by trying to live a good life and zealously keeping His laws. He has the right to set His own standard, and He’s chosen to grant mercy to those who repent and believe regardless of their previous lifestyles.
v17 - This process flows in two directions. Not only does He give grace, He also withdraws it. Scripture shows us an example of someone God “hardened” after he refused to repent. He took a hard-hearted king (Ex 7:14) and actually “hardened” him further. He gave him the stubborn courage, probably through heightened pride and anger, to keep saying “no” long after most reasonable people would have released Israel out of simple self-preservation, if not repentance. Pharaoh’s stubbornness made it possible for God to perform a series of remarkable miracles (Ex 7:3) which enhanced His reputation in Egypt (Ex 7:5) and the surrounding nations (Ex 9:16; 15:14-16). In a sense, this was an early form of evangelism.
v18 - And this process is still at work today. God has the right to give mercy to Gentiles (and believing Jews) (Ro 10:12, 13) even though they previously lived sinful lives, and to use the hostility of unbelieving Jews to redirect the focus of early church evangelism away from Israel and the synagogues and onto responsive Gentiles (Ac 13:42-52).
In the same way as He used Pharaoh’s stubbornness to help evangelize the nations surrounding Egypt, He was using the hostility of the Jews to do the same. In both cases His motive is to save the greatest number of people.
Hardening the heart
Basically, what we want to know is, do humans harden their own hearts or does God reach in to prevent someone from repenting or cause them to do evil? The answer emerges when we understand a truth taught by Jesus, Moses, Isaiah and Paul:
1) Jesus (Mt 13:10-17): Jesus places the ultimate responsibility on us, but also says God is an active player in the process. He says some people are willing to hear God’s Word and obey, and others are not. Those who don’t, harden themselves to escape feeling guilty. But not only do humans harden their own hearts, when they do God withdraws His presence leaving them in even greater darkness. He explains that the reason He taught in parables was to reach the obedient without further hardening those unwilling to repent.
2) Moses (Dt 29:2-4; 30:15-20): Moses told the nation they lacked spiritual understanding because they refused to believe and obey (also: Heb 3:7-19). He appealed to their will saying if they chose to obey they would be blessed, but if they chose to rebel they would be cursed (Dt 30:15-20). The warning here is if they hardened their hearts God would respond by withdrawing His hand of protection knowing full well the calamity that would befall them.
3) Isaiah (Isa 29:13, 14; 6:8-13): Isaiah says the problem starts with the people, they withdraw from God, then He withdraws from them. Spiritual revelation will cease and they will be left to the foolishness of their human reasoning. Isaiah 6:8-13 is the passage Jews quote in Matthew 13:14, 15. God told Isaiah his prophetic ministry would actually serve to harden the people’s hearts more because they would refuse to repent. He said nothing Isaiah (or God) could do could prevent the coming calamity.
So, do I withdraw from God, or does He withdraw from me? The answer is both, but I am the one who initiates the problem. I harden my heart and then He withdraws the presence of His Spirit leaving me to be helplessly dominated by my own sinful nature and exposed to demonic deception. I am left enslaved to my fallen nature and whatever demonic influence the devil sends. This hardens me further.
Not permanent (Ro 11:23)
The good news is that those who have been hardened can still repent. Having told us that many Jews had been hardened and were being used like Pharaoh, and even having called them (along with Gentiles) “vessels of wrath” (Ro 9:22), Paul makes it absolutely clear that fallen condition need not be permanent. It is a symptom of their rebellion, but if they choose to repent, the disease can be healed, “And they also, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again.” This surprising note of hope is a beautiful reminder that God always remains willing to forgive. He always longs for the prodigal to come home (Lk 15:11-32) and welcomes all who do.
God doesn’t take the Holy Spirit away from a born-again believer, so long as faith still burns in their hearts. He dwells inside us (Ro 8:9-11) but I’m sure we’ve all discovered we can become spiritually dry. We can go through seasons when He seems far away, when no one seems to be listening when we pray, when the influence of our flesh grows stronger and stronger. Obviously, some measure of this hardening process can happen to us as well. Here are truths we need to remember:
1) God inhabits the entire universe. It’s impossible to be anywhere without Him being present (Ac 17:28; Ps 139:7-12).
2) God inhabits the physical body of a believer (Ro 8:9-11). We become living temples (1Co 6:19).
3) But His active presence is not everywhere all the time. There are times and places His presence abides strongly and times and places He feels very absent. Believers are warned not to “grieve the Spirit” (Eph 4:30) or “set our mind on the flesh” which produces death (Ro 8:6).
Softening the heart
If I find I’ve hardened my heart and His presence has withdrawn from me what should I do?
1) Seek (Jer 29:11-14) “You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart” (v13)
• How bad does it have to get before I stop coasting and seek Him in earnest?
2) Repent (Isa 40:3, 5) “A voice calling, clear the way for the Lord in the wilderness, make smooth in the desert a highway for our God… then the glory of the Lord will be revealed.”
• Remove all obstructions
3) Wait (Isa 40:31) “…those who wait for the Lord will gain new strength; they will mount up with wings like eagles, they will run and not get tired, they will walk and not become weary.”
When we seek, we find Him; when we repent, He returns; when we wait, He strengthens.
1) Are there things you stubbornly refused to hear from God because you didn’t want to obey? What changed your mind?
2) Describe one of the sweetest moments of fellowship you’ve ever had with God. How did you feel in that moment?