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Q. How Does Divine Sovereignty And Human Responsibility Work With God Hardening Hearts?

Question

Isaiah 6:9-10 speaks of God hardening the hearts of men, so that they can’t believe. But if they are not of the elect, how could they believe? How can someone who is non-elect ever turn and believe and repent? So why would God need to harden anyone’s heart?

Answer

This is a good question, one that merits serious thought.

The short answer is this. The sovereignty of God and the resulting doctrine of election (on the one hand), and the biblical declaration of the responsibility of man (on the other) are not two opposing views, with only one being correct, and the other being false. Both are true. Thus, one does not have to choose one doctrinal truth and reject the other as false. God is sovereign, He does choose some and not others (Romans 9), but man is also responsible for his choices and decisions (Romans 10). So why are some people not saved? (1) Because God did not choose them (Romans 9). (2) Because they did not choose God (Romans 10).

In my opinion, a more careful look at the relevant biblical texts will support this view. So, let’s proceed to a more thorough look at the issue.

The first thing I would say is that this matter of God hardening a man’s heart is dealt with in the Book of Exodus, in relation to the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart:

God Hardened Pharaoh’s Heart:

The LORD said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you do before Pharaoh all the wonders I have put under your control. But I will harden his heart and he will not let the people go. (Exodus 4:21, NET).

But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and although I will multiply my signs and my wonders in the land of Egypt (Exodus 7:3).

16 The LORD said to Moses, “Tell Aaron, ‘Extend your staff and strike the dust of the ground, and it will become gnats throughout all the land of Egypt.’” 17 They did so; Aaron extended his hand with his staff, he struck the dust of the ground, and it became gnats on people and on animals. All the dust of the ground became gnats throughout all the land of Egypt. 18 When the magicians attempted to bring forth gnats by their secret arts, they could not. So there were gnats on people and on animals. 19 The magicians said to Pharaoh, “It is the finger of God!” But Pharaoh’s heart remained hard, and he did not listen to them, just as the LORD had predicted. (Exod. 8:16-19, emphasis mine).

Pharaoh Hardened His Own Heart:

But when Pharaoh saw that there was relief, he hardened his heart and did not listen to them, just as the LORD had predicted (Exodus 8:15).

But Pharaoh hardened his heart this time also and did not release the people (Exodus 8:32).

When Pharaoh saw that the rain and hail and thunder ceased, he sinned again: both he and his servants hardened their hearts (Exodus 9:34).

The point here is that there are two sides to this election “coin”. On the one hand, God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. But Moses also tells us that Pharaoh hardened his own heart. In this way, he becomes accountable for his sin. Otherwise, this argument would have some force:

You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who has ever resisted his will?” (Romans 9:19)1

We should also consider other texts which deal with the hardening of hearts. Once again, we will find that God hardens the hearts of some (e.g. Deuteronomy 2:30; Romans 9:18; 11:5-10). But men also harden their own hearts (1 Samuel 6:5-6; 2 Chronicles 36:11-13; Psalm 95:6-9). Men are urged and instructed not to harden their hearts (Deuteronomy 15:7; Psalm 95:8-10; Proverbs 28:14; Hebrews 3:7-19; 4:6-7) and are rebuked when they do harden their hearts (Mark 8:17-21). All of this indicates that men have responsibility in this matter of hardening their own hearts.

I believe the problem is that some folks can’t handle the fact that two, seemingly contradictory truths (e.g. God’s sovereignty, and man’s responsibility), can both be true at the same time. But think of what Peter says to us here:

10 Concerning this salvation, the prophets who predicted the grace that would come to you searched and investigated carefully. 11 They probed into what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating when he testified beforehand about the sufferings appointed for Christ and his subsequent glory. 12 They were shown that they were serving not themselves but you, in regard to the things now announced to you through those who proclaimed the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven– things angels long to catch a glimpse of (1 Peter 1:10-12).

Peter is telling us that the Old Testament prophets scratched their own heads, seeking to grasp the meaning of what they had written. How could Messiah be a suffering servant (Isaiah 52:13-53:12) and also a triumphant King (Psalm 2; 110)? How could the Messiah be a man (David’s son – 2 Samuel 7:14; Luke 3:31), and yet be God (Matthew 1:23; 5:2)? And yet both, seemingly contradictory, declarations were true, as later revelation would prove.

Now look at Romans 9 and 10: The question at hand is this: “How can it be that so many Gentiles are coming to faith in Jesus, and so few Jews are being saved (Romans 9:1-5)? The answer of Romans 9 is this: Many Jews are not being saved because God did not choose them. The answer of Romans 10 is that many are not saved because they did not choose God. Both declarations are true, but men are tempted to conclude that if one declaration is true, then the other must either be denied or ignored. Men do go to hell because God did not choose them, and also because they did not choose God (see Romans 1:16ff.).

Let’s look at the reference to Isaiah’s words in the New Testament, as cited by Jesus in the Gospels. Let’s focus for the moment on our Lord’s use of Isaiah’s words in Mark chapter 4.

9 And he said, “Whoever has ears to hear had better listen!” 10 When he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables. 11 He said to them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those outside, everything is in parables, 12 so that although they look they may look but not see, and although they hear they may hear but not understand, so they may not repent and be forgiven” (Mark 4:9-12).2

Jesus is asked by His followers why He had begun to teach with parables. Jesus explained that He was doing this so that some would not understand the gospel and would not believe. It is also clear that when His followers asked what He meant by a parable, Jesus explained it to them (Mark 4:33-34). Thus, only certain people were blinded, but not all.

The real key to understanding Jesus use of parables is found in chapter 3 of Mark’s gospel. The chapter begins with Jesus’ skeptics carefully watching to see if He would heal a man (with a withered hand) on the Sabbath. They did not seem to doubt His ability to heal, but rather wanted to catch Him in violation of the Sabbath, thereby justifying their rejection of Him and His teaching. Mark then reports some of the many healings that Jesus performed, along with His casting out demons. Next, Jesus appointed the 12 disciples and gave them authority to cast out demons. Then Jesus’ family came to take Jesus home, because they thought He had lost His senses.

If His family thought Jesus was “out of His mind,” our Lord’s adversaries were even more radical in their accusations. Since they could no longer deny that Jesus was performing many miracles, they now sought to convince people that Jesus was actually doing His miracles by the power of the devil. Jesus first showed the foolishness of such a claim, and then He followed this with a strong pronouncement of judgment on those who attributed His work to Satan:

28 I tell you the truth, people will be forgiven for all sins, even all the blasphemies they utter. 29 But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven, but is guilty of an eternal sin” 30 (because they said, “He has an unclean spirit”). (Mark 3:28-30)

Those from whom Jesus concealed the truth (so that they would not believe) were those who had witnessed many miracles at Jesus’ hand, and who had heard His teaching. Because they rejected Jesus and the gospel, and finally attributed His power to Satan, Jesus pronounced judgment on them, and taught in such a way as to conceal the truth from them, so that they would never be saved. Was this a sovereign act of God, a form of election? Yes. Was it solely the result of God’s choice, with no relationship to the hearts and deeds of His enemies? No. Both God’s sovereign choice (election) and man’s responsibility are factors in Jesus’ change in His teaching method, to the use of parables.

But there are even more factors to keep in mind. One of these is that Satan himself plays a role in the hardening of men’s hearts, resulting in their unbelief:

3 But even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing, 4 among whom the god of this age has blinded the minds of those who do not believe so they would not see the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God (2 Corinthians 4:3-4).

Here is what I find to be ironic about how some people respond or react to these seemingly opposing views of the sovereignty of God, and the responsibility of man. Among those who strongly hold to one or the other extreme, there are those whose belief raises serious doubts about their salvation. The one who believes “My salvation is up to me, and God simply ratifies my decision.” This theology (Arminianism) agonizes over questions like these: “Did I do enough? Did I do it just the right way? Did I do something to lose my salvation? Did I commit the unpardonable sin?” On the other hand, some who hold to a Calvinistic position (election) could reason: “Salvation is totally the choice and the work of God. I have nothing to do with it in the sense of bringing it about. So, since it is really all God’s work, how can I know with certainty that I am one of the elect? How can I be certain that God did chose me?”

I believe the answer is to be found in the fact that in the ministry of our Lord, and in the ministry of the early church, and now in fulfilling the Great Commission, the gospel must be preached to all mankind, who are called upon to decide to trust in the saving work of Jesus by means of His sacrificial death, burial, and resurrection.

9 because if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes and thus has righteousness and with the mouth one confesses and thus has salvation. 11 For the scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” 12 For there is no distinction between the Jew and the Greek, for the same Lord is Lord of all, who richly blesses all who call on him. 13 For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. 14 How are they to call on one they have not believed in? And how are they to believe in one they have not heard of? And how are they to hear without someone preaching to them? 15 And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How timely is the arrival of those who proclaim the good news” (Romans 10:9-15).

By His design, God’s salvation requires that the gospel be proclaimed to lost sinners, and that they be called upon to believe in Jesus for salvation. Men have a choice to make, for which they are responsible, and the outcome is salvation or condemnation. Those who do come to faith take Jesus and His apostles at their word that people are saved because they have been chosen and called by God, and because they have trusted in Jesus Christ and His saving work at Calvary by faith.

28 Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke on you and learn from me, because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy to bear, and my load is not hard to carry” (Matthew 11:28-30).

28 So then they said to him, “What must we do to accomplish the deeds God requires?” 29 Jesus replied, “This is the deed God requires– to believe in the one whom he sent” (John 6:28-29).

Everyone whom the Father gives me will come to me, and the one who comes to me I will never send away (John 6:37).

“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:44).

But you refuse to believe because you are not my sheep. 27 My sheep listen to my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish; no one will snatch them from my hand. 29 My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one can snatch them from my Father’s hand. 30 The Father and I are one” (John 10:26-30).

For I am sure of this very thing, that the one who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus (Philippians 1:6).

All of these statements are true, and we are commanded to believe them. They are meant to clearly tell us the way of salvation, and to assure us in that salvation – not to create doubt.


1 One might call attention to the fact that in the context of this question, posed in Romans 9, Paul does not refute the argument, but only the insolence of man to put God on trial (verse 20). To this objection I would only say that Paul first addresses the arrogant attitude of man as he questions God, but later, in chapter 10, he shows this objection to be false, because man is accountable for his rejection of God and of the gospel.

2 See also John 12:37-41; Acts 28:24-28; Romans 11:5-12.

Related Topics: Soteriology (Salvation)

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