Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Hardness of Heart

Theological Dilemma

 Perhaps one of the biggest dilemmas theologically is understanding who hardens the heart of an unbeliever.  There is evidence that the unbeliever is responsible.  In Exodus, three times it states that Pharoah was responsible for hardening his heart in response to the plagues that God sent (Ex. 7:22; 8:15; 9:35). 

However, the same book reports that God is the One who hardened Pharoah's heart (Ex. 4:21; 7:3; 9:12; 10:1; 14:4, 8, 17).  In fact, the preponderance of the evidence indicates that in Exodus, God is credited with hardening Pharoah's heart far more than Pharoah himself.  Of the three references cited for Pharoah hardening his own heart, only one of them (Ex. 8:15) states clearly that Pharoah did "harden his heart".  The other two references may be only stating the fact of Pharoah's hardened heart and who did the hardening in those references is left open (Ex. 7:22; 9:35).  Since both of those references occur in places where it was already stated that God had done the hardening (cf. Ex. 7:3; Ex. 9:12) it could easily be argued that God is the One who hardens hearts.

The New Testament witness to this truth is overwhelming.  Romans 9:17-18 uses the example of Pharoah as a statement of how God works in salvation and concludes, "Therefore hath He mercy on whom He will have mercy, and whom He will, He hardeneth."  John 12:40 states, "He hath blinded their eyes, and hardened their heart; that they should not see with their eyes, nor understand with their heart, and be converted, and I should heal them."  In context, this is referring to the Jewish people who witnessed Jesus' miracles (Jn. 12:37).  This is an uncomfortable and radical concept: God hardened the heart of the Jewish people that they would not understand and not be converted.

The word "hardened" in John 12:40 is the word "peporomene".  It only appears five times in the New Testament (Mk. 6:52; 8:17; Jn. 12:40; Rom. 11:7 and 2 Cor. 3:14).  In Romans 11:7 Paul says that, "...the election hath obtained it, and the rest were blinded."  The word "blinded" is the word "peporomene" meaning "hardened."  In 2 Cor. 3:14, Paul teaches us again about the hardness of the Jewish people when he says, "But their minds were blinded: for until this day remaineth the same vail untaken away in the reading of the old testament; which vail is done away in Christ."  Again, the word translated "blinded" is our word "hardened."

In the Book of Mark the word is used of the disciples in Mark 6:52 and 8:17.  This further complicates the whole issue because most of our references in Exodus and all of the rest of the New Testament references referred to here would seem to support the Calvinistic understanding of the Sovereignty of God in salvation.  As a Calvinist I have no problem with God hardening the hearts of unbelievers.  But in two of the five references to peporomene in the New Testament, it is referring to disciples.  So who hardened the hearts of the disciples?  In Mark, both references have to do with miracles that Jesus performed.  Rather than driving them to a deeper understanding of Jesus, the Scriptures show that they hardened even the hearts of the disciples!

So what do we do with all of this?  In my own understanding of hardening the heart, I have usually filed this under the Sovereignty of God and the Scriptures support this.  Yet the Scriptures also allow for the responsibility of man.  Jesus holds the disciples accountable for their hardness (Mk. 8:17).  And Pharoah clearly did harden his own heart in Exodus 8:15.

An Illustration

Hardening of heart is saying as much about the nature of man as it is the Sovereignty of God.  Man's nature, being totally depraved (Rom. 3:10-18), outside of divine intervention, always tends towards hardness of heart.  Always.  It is our default setting apart from God. 

The best illustration of how this works comes from the 17th century in the writings of the Puritan Stephen Charnock.  He uses the illustration of a wax candle.  The nature of the wax is hard.  When the candle is lit or heat is applied to the body of the candle, what happens?  It melts.  But what happens when you blow out the candle or remove the heat?  It almost instantly hardens.  Our hearts are like that wax.  When God brings the heat of the Spirit of God and the Word of God, our hearts melt.  When He does not and He leaves us to ourselves, our hearts become hard because that's what we are on our own.  We are hardened by our sin and our sin nature and God holds us accountable for being what we are: rebels against His Kingdom and the laws of it.

So how does God harden the heart?  Simply by withholding the "heat" and leaving the sinner or the believer to himself.  He gives no revelation of Himself or His Word to them.  As we have already seen, He does this of His own free will. If you do not think He does, be careful.  You may be calling God a liar considering John 12:40 and Romans 9:18.

The Elderly Unbeliever

Have you ever wondered why it is that some of the most difficult people to share the gospel with are unbelieving elderly people?  Logic would suggest that those who are the oldest amongst us should be the most open to speak of spiritual things since their own mortality is staring them in the face.  Yet that is not what happens.  I have found that I would rather talk to a rock then most elderly unbelievers because the rock is softer to spiritual truths.  I have had too many elderly women cuss me out when preaching the gospel to believe that they are soft in their old age.  I have also done too many Bible studies in nursing homes.  In most cases those that come are believers.  Common sense would say that the Bible studies should be packed out, but the bingo games are always better attended.  What is happening there?  As they are left in their spiritual death, the hardness of their hearts gets worse and worse.  They are no "worse off" than any hardened sinner. But the elderly are no better off spiritually than any other hardened sinner.  Candles with the hardest wax will melt when God brings the heat.


1.  When it comes to our evangelism, our job is not to convince candles to become soft by trying to change the nature of the wax or by appealing to the wax to become soft.  Our job is to "bring the heat" of the truth of the person of Jesus Christ and the Word of God attended by the Spirit of God.  Regeneration happens when this heat brings new life to dead souls (1 Peter 1:23-25).  It's not our reasoning or the appeal of our sales pitch that saves.

2.  When it comes to our theology, we must always remember that the balance of the Sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man is always present in the Word.  Whenever we lean too far in either direction, we move into error.  Many modern Christian leaders are so afraid of Calvinism that they will hone in on Exodus 8:15 while ignoring Exodus 4:21; 7:3; 9:12; 10:1; 14:4, 8, 17; Rom. 9:17-18; Jn. 12:40; Rom. 11:7; 2 Cor. 3:14 and so on.  This is not only intellectually dishonest, it borders on dereliction of duty considering our call to teach the whole counsel of God.  By the same token, when we focus in on these latter Scriptures and ignore the former as Calvinists, then we are guilty of the same thing.  Let's be honest with the Scriptures and admit that man is held accountable for his own hardness. Let's preach as if man is accountable for his sin, because his sin will damn him on Judgment Day (Rev. 21:8). 

3.  Here's the scary thing.  The disciples were hardened.  They SAW Jesus feed the 5,000, they SAW Him walk on water, raise the dead, and cast out Legion.  They heard His teaching.  Yet they didn't "get it."

It is possible for believers to be hardened in heart.  We can be all too familiar with the Lord and His work.  We can be exposed to it on an almost daily basis and be left in our hardness.  Unless the Lord opens our eyes we will be as blind as any Pharisee.  Unless He softens our hearts we will be as hardened as any rebel.  We must pray that we are always teachable and that the Lord will always bring the heat to us.

4.  If you find that you are hard to spiritual truth, cry out to God.  The book is not closed on your life yet.  Whether the Lord will be gracious to you in your sin or not may remain to be seen in your own life.  Cry out to Him.  Ask Him to break your heart.  And keep crying out to Him until He does.  Eternity is in the balance.  "Harden not your heart, as in the provocation, and as in the day of temptation in the wilderness: when your fathers tempted Me, proved Me, and saw My work."  (Psalm 95:8-9)


Michael Coughlin said...

Well said, Jon. I appreciate your constant urge that we preach the whole counsel of God. You may not realize it, but it runs underneath the surface of all I've heard or read from you for years.

As far as the hardening of a believer's heart: I think it is possible to note that this isn't as exceptional as we may think it seems. Firstly, as far as the disciples went: I think it is notable that they did not have the full canon we have today, nor did they have the indwelling Holy Spirit.

That being said, we have indwelt believers such as Ananias who clearly seem to have had some hardness of heart remaining, even subsequent to regeneration and the Spirit indwelling.

I suspect that our need for sanctificaion and our battle with the flesh indicates the fact that we, as believers, can be hardened to God and His Truth and His Will. After all, we would agree there are no hard hearts in glory, right? So, as long as we battle with this body of sin and death, it seems even our regenerated hearts are susceptible to hardness and sin.

Just my 2 cents.

Jon Speed said...

Great points Michael. I appreciate your feedback.

Michael Coughlin said...

I appreciate your Bills giving my Browns a lesson in how to play pro ball. Hopefully, they will learn from it. ;)

Lord bless you.

Frank Rollberg said...

Excellent article.Jon. Like my Pastor Jeff Noblit says we must be balanced . The scriptures teach both and we do need to be careful we dont go into either ditch .