“So they took furnace soot and stood before Pharaoh. Moses threw it toward heaven, and it became festering boils on man and beast. 11 The magicians could not stand before Moses because of the boils, for the boils were on the magicians as well as on all the Egyptians. 12 But the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart and he did not listen to them, as the Lord had told Moses.” Exodus 9:10-12 (emphasis added)
After reading this passage in Exodus 9 (above) and Paul’s commentary on this passage in Romans 9, the question arises, “Does God harden hearts?” Another way of expressing this question would be to say: Is God making it so that people intentionally harden their hearts against Him? If this is the case, that would certainly seem to be an evil thing for God to do. If God was hardening the hearts of people, He would be forcing those people to be aligned against Him. Jesus said, “Anyone who is not with Me is against Me” (Matt. 12:30). In other words, God would be forcing people to be aligned with Satan. The Bible is clear that God is good (Ps. 100:5; 119:68) and that His creation was very good (Gen. 1:31), so it would seem out of character for a good God to force His good creation to be evil (aligned with Satan). Therefore, while it may seem that God directly hardens hearts, in reality the Bible is clear that God only creates the circumstances wherein men choose to harden their own hearts.
On Free Will
Although there is a previous post on free will, the topic of free will should be covered again briefly in order to lay the foundation for the rest of the discussion at hand. God endowed mankind with what is known as free will. Adam and Eve had the ability to choose between doing good and doing evil (Gen. 1:16-17), and eventually they chose to do evil (Gen. 3:6-7). Because the first two people – Adam and Eve – sinned, their sinned passed on to all mankind (Rom. 5:12). Because of man’s inherent sinful nature, no man is good or does anything good (Rom. 3:10-18).
Man does not do anything good because his inherent sinfulness corrupted all parts of his being (Rom. 1:18-32), which would certainly include his free will. Because man’s free will to choose between good and evil has been corrupted, man left to himself now chooses only sinful things instead of good things (again, Rom. 3:10-18). The problem is with man’s desire – the apostle Paul calls this the desire of the flesh. Fact: man chooses what he wants most. Since man’s will is corrupted by sinfulness, what he wants most is always something sinful. In other words, man now has the free will only to do sinful things.
Since man’s free will is corrupted by his sinfulness, man is willfully aligning himself against God. It would make little difference if God intervened and hardened a man’s heart because man’s heart is already hard against God. The fact is, “There is no one who seeks God” (Rom. 3:11). Yet it would still seem out of character for a good God to harden a man’s heart.
Looking in the book of Exodus to the section on the plagues (Exod. 7 – 11), there are several passages which say Pharaoh hardened his own heart (Exod. 7:14; 7:22; 8:15; 8:19; 8:32; 9:7; 9:35) and several passages which say the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart (Exod. 9:12; 10:20; 10:27; 11:10). Some have said that Pharaoh hardened his heart several times at first, then the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart after Pharaoh’s heart was already very hardened anyway. Again, it seems out of character for a good God to harden a man’s heart.
A careful reading of Exodus 7 – 11 shows that God only creates the circumstances wherein men choose to harden their own hearts. God created the plagues which caused Pharaoh to harden his heart. Thus it is safe for the writer of the book of Exodus (presumably Moses) to write, “the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart,” because the Lord created the circumstances which caused Pharaoh’s heart to harden. Yet the many passages which state that Pharaoh hardened his own heart seem clear. God did not harden Pharaoh’s heart; Pharaoh hardened his own heart because of circumstances God created (in this case, the plagues).
God does things which cause people to alter their behavior throughout the Bible. For example, in Hosea 5:12-15, God creates circumstances in an attempt to soften the hearts of His people. God said through the prophet Hosea, “For I am like a lion to Ephraim and like a young lion to the house of Judah. Yes, I will tear them to pieces and depart” (Hos. 5:14). God said he would tear Ephraim and Judah apart like a lion, so that they would turn back to Him. God did not force His people in Ephraim and Judah to turn back to Him, but He created circumstances that would cause His people to turn back to Him.
In the words of Michael S. Horton, “No one is saved by divine coercion and no one is rejected apart from his or her own will.” In other words, God does not force anyone to do anything. Why would God give people the ability to make choices if He did not want them to make choices?
In the case of unbelievers like the Pharaoh of the Exodus, God allows such men to continue in their hardness of heart. Sometimes, God will create circumstances which may indirectly cause such men to harden their hearts further. Some “extreme Calvinists” (Hyper-Calvinists a.k.a. “Sub-Calvinists” or “Not Calvinists”) will say something like, “God is actively creating unbelief in the lives of those who do not believe.” To a great extent, they are very wrong; terribly wrong. But to another extent they are somewhat right, they are just uneducated; they have not spent enough time reading the Word.
They are somewhat right because God is creating the circumstances wherein the hearts of unbelievers are hardened against God, but in another sense the extreme Calvinists are completely wrong because those unbelievers are choosing of their own free will to continue in their unbelief. Certainly, God may have created (or allowed) some circumstance in their life which caused them to have greater unbelief (ex. a car accident involving a loved one), yet such a person is still responsible for his own sin of unbelief. Romans 6:23 clearly teaches that there are wages for sin. Horton says, “God uses means in his judging as well as saving work. The same signs that created faith in Israel hardened Pharaoh and his lieutenants.” In other words, God will sometimes create circumstances for the benefit of His own people that will sometimes indirectly cause other people to harden their hearts. In other words, man is responsible for his own actions.
So how does this apply to believers today? How did they come to their point of belief? As already noted, sinfully-corrupted man only chooses sinful things, so how does man ever get to the point of choosing something good (that is, choosing to believe in God)? For man to be able to choose to believe in what Jesus has done for him, something has to change.
To enable a man to believe in Christ, God frees the chosen man (His elect) from bondage to sin. Of course, such a man will continue to choose what he wants most, and now free from his bondage to sin, he will be able to see that the best thing for him is to choose to believe in God. God does not force anyone to be saved. God enables His elect (the ones He has chosen to save) to choose Him by freeing them from their bondage to sin. At which point, God’s grace is seen to be so marvelous, some would say God’s grace is irresistible. In other words, once a man is freed from his bondage to sin (once he is regenerated), he will definitely choose God and at that point he is definitely saved.
Therefore, when people say things like, “I just don’t believe God drags people kicking and screaming to be saved,” or something like, “I can’t believe God would forcefully align someone with Satan,” then I say, “Good. The Bible does not say either of those things.” God does not force anyone to be saved and He also does not force anyone further away from Him.