Does God Harden Hearts?
- Dr. Roger Barrier Preach It, Teach It
- 2014 9 Apr
Editor's Note: Pastor Roger Barrier's "Ask Roger" column regularly appears at Preach It, Teach It. Every week at Crosswalk, Dr. Barrier puts nearly 40 years of experience in the pastorate to work answering questions of doctrine or practice for laypeople, or giving advice on church leadership issues. Email him your questions at email@example.com.
My bro-in-law… recently posted this query to me via e-mail: Question from reading John 12:39-41 – my commentary says, “people in Jesus' time would not believe despite the evidence. As a result, God HARDENED their hearts. He simply confirmed their own choices. After a lifetime of resisting God, they were so set in their ways, they wouldn’t even TRY to understand Jesus’ message.”
So I was wondering why God hardened their hearts, if their hearts were already hardened? I was just puzzled … do we “give up” on hard hearts while continuing to pray for them? What did I miss?
Thank you so much for your time!
A seventy-seven-year-old father, husband and grandfather was dying. Years and years of family prayers for him to come to Jesus fell upon deaf ears.
I get the call. Family asks, "Will you please go and visit him. We've prayed for many years for him to follow Christ and be saved. We are out of chances. He will not leave the hospital alive. We are asking you to give it a try. You are our final hope. Will you please go?"
An hour or so later as I entered his room, he said, "I know who you are. You're the pastor of that church that my children attend. I know why you're here. You're here to talk me into becoming a Christian. My kids sent you for one last try, didn't they?"
"You know them well, don't you?"
"Well," he said, "Go ahead; I've heard it all before; one more time can't hurt."
So, with that open door, I began: "God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life," I shared the gospel from start to finish. I finished with an invitation from John 3:16: "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." The gospel can't be any clearer than that.
“Would you like to receive Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?"
With chilling finality he responded: "I've said ‘no’ to Jesus for so many years that I don't think that I could become a Christian even if I wanted to."
Now, is it possible to say "No" to the gospel of Christ so many times that God finally says, "OK, if that is the way you want it, I'll harden your heart and I'll never ask you again."
Could the Father ever give up on someone who has rejected Him too many times? That is one way to look at Hebrews 6:4-6:
It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance, because to their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.
Some would explain this passage as a fourth-class-conditional sentence from a Greek perspective (I’ll explain more about that in a minute). Others point to the six things "tasted" as proof that this is a person who has never actually experienced (eaten) the saving grace of Christ. Others say that this is a Christian who has committed apostasy and thus fallen from grace and lost his salvation.
However, when we interpret the passage, we have to wonder about the implications. Christians argue a lot about "Once saved always saved." Somewhere along the way we have to deal with the issue dealt with in Hebrews six, "once lost, always lost."
The person mentioned in Hebrews "hardened" his heart so God hardened it right back. He couldn't come to Christ even if he wanted to come. The essence of this concept is John 6:44: "No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him…"
The writer to the Hebrews makes it clear that we must come to Christ the first time we hear the gospel. Otherwise, we run the risk of hardening our own hearts and missing salvation as described in Hebrews 3:7-11:
So, as the Holy Spirit says:
"Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts
as you did in the rebellion, …
during the time of testing in the desert,
where your fathers tested and tried me
and for forty years saw what I did. …
So I declared on oath in my anger,
'They shall never enter my rest.'"
A "hard heart" is a callous and wrinkled thing that refuses to follow the guidance and promptings of God. A hard heart is synonymous with spiritual ignorance and alienation from God (Ephesians 4:18). In 1 Corinthians 3:1-3, Paul used the Greek words "fleshen" and "fleshly" to describe soft and hard hearts. "Fleshen" refers to soft-new-born baby skin. "Fleshly" describes the skin of someone in their 80s who has spent a life-time out in the sun. Their skin is hard, wrinkled and discolored.
Pharaoh's heart was double "fleshly" hard. Why? Because both he and God contributed to making it like stone.
Many struggle with the idea that God hardened Pharaoh's heart and thus Pharaoh was forced to live heart-hardened whether he wanted to or not. It seems so unfair. Especially when we see that God hardened Pharaoh's heart before Pharaoh even hardened his own heart (Exodus 7:3; 8:15).
On the other hand, it seems to me that hardening Pharaoh's heart was quite just and fair.
Pharaoh was no saint. He was a totalitarian dictator who oppressed his subjects, not just the Hebrews. Egypt was a wicked and sinful. By hardening Pharaoh's heart and unleashing the ten plagues, God was finally bringing judgment on a wicked and sinful man--and nation. God punishes sin.
As the plagues proceeded, Pharaoh increased his own pride and obstinacy to the point that his heart was completely calloused toward God and his plans (Exodus 8:15).
If that explanation fails to satisfy you, then be thankful that God tells us exactly why He hardened Pharaoh's heart:
For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.”
If we recklessly continue in our sin, Paul clearly states in 1 Timothy 4:1-2 and Romans 1:18-25 that God can give us over to depravity, and from that point on He lets us have our way. Eventually, we cycle down to destruction with hardened hearts.
By the way, we get all upset about God hardening Pharaoh's heart. Hardening Pharaoh's heart should not surprise us. God hardens hearts all over the Bible (for example, Isaiah 6:9-10 and 63:17). Hardening hearts has to do with sin, justice and punishment.
I believe that God can darken the heart of any unbeliever. He can also enlighten it if that unbeliever decides to follow Christ (1 Corinthians 2:14-16).
Regarding the hearts of Believers in Christ, I believe that once the Holy Spirit turns on the light He will never turn it off (John 3:1-21). This is the truth of Hebrews 6:1-4. The passage is a fourth class conditional sentence.
A first class condition is always true. For example, Satan said to Jesus, "Since (If) you are the Son of God, turn these stones into bread…" A fourth class conditional sentence is true if something could be done, but the fact is, it can't be done.
For example, if I could see the earth from the moon tonight I would have a beautiful view of the earth. That is true. But the fact is, there is no way I can get to the moon tonight.
In the same way, the writer to the Hebrews is saying, "If it were possible for someone to fall away from Christ, then he/she could never come back again. But the fact is, true Christians can never commit apostasy." (If someone appears to commit apostasy, then this very action is proof that this one was never a Christian in the first place.) God will never harden the heart of a Christian. We might say, "Once enlightened, always enlightened."
My heart grieves for those who say, "No", while God is saying, "Yes". Doesn't yours?
Bob, I hope my answer is helpful to you and your brother-in-law.
Dr. Roger Barrier retired as senior teaching pastor from Casas Church in Tucson, Arizona. In addition to being an author and sought-after conference speaker, Roger has mentored or taught thousands of pastors, missionaries, and Christian leaders worldwide. Casas Church, where Roger served throughout his thirty-five-year career, is a megachurch known for a well-integrated, multi-generational ministry. The value of including new generations is deeply ingrained throughout Casas to help the church move strongly right through the twenty-first century and beyond. Dr. Barrier holds degrees from Baylor University, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Golden Gate Seminary in Greek, religion, theology, and pastoral care. His popular book, Listening to the Voice of God, published by Bethany House, is in its second printing and is available in Thai and Portuguese. His latest work is, Got Guts? Get Godly! Pray the Prayer God Guarantees to Answer, from Xulon Press. Roger can be found blogging at Preach It, Teach It, the pastoral teaching site founded with his wife, Dr. Julie Barrier.