Saturday, April 20, 2019

What to think about Pharaoh's Hard Heart

Martin Luther struggled greatly with the relationship of God’s sovereignty and human free will and sin. In fact, one of the greatest books ever written on the subject entitled The Bondage of the Will, is from Luther’s pen.

I have taught before that when evil acts are committed by human beings, the full fault and responsibility rests with the person, not with God. When Luther grappled with this issue, he especially struggled with the Old Testament passages where we read that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart (Exodus 4:21; 7:3–4, 13–14, 22–23; 8:15, 19; 30–32; 9:27–10:2; 10:16–20; 24–28).

When we read these passages, we tend to think, "Doesn’t this suggest that God not only works through the desires and actions of humans, but that He actually forces evil upon people?" After all, the Bible does say that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. When Luther discussed this, he observed that when the Bible says that God hardened the heart of Pharaoh, God does not create fresh evil in the heart of an innocent man. 

It may seem as if Pharaoh were innocent until God planted this seed of evil within him and forced him to do something bad, and then after he did it, God blamed him. God sent Moses to Pharaoh with His message, “Let My people go.” When Pharaoh said no, some suggest that God arbitrarily punished him. They contend that the reason Pharaoh said no is because God hardened his heart.

Again, Luther says that God doesn’t harden people by putting evil in their hearts. All that God must do to harden anyone’s heart is to withhold His own grace; that is, He gives a person over to himself. 

In fact, we are warned not to allow ourselves to become hardened because if we look at the whole concept of hardening in its biblical perspective, we see that something happens to us through repeated sins. Our consciences become seared. The more we commit a particular sin, the less remorse we feel from it. Our hearts are recalcitrant through repeated disobedience. 

When God hardens the heart all He does is step away and stop striving with us. For example, the first time I commit a particular sin, my conscience bothers me. In His grace, God is convicting me of that evil. God is intruding into my life trying to persuade me to stop this wickedness. If He wants to harden me all He has to do is stop rebuking me, stop nudging me, and just give me enough rope to hang myself.

What we see in Scripture is that when God hardens hearts, He does not force anyone to do sins; rather, He gives them their freedom to exercise the evil of their own desires (James 1:13–15).