How Does God Harden Hearts?
Therefore He has mercy on whom He wills, and whom He wills He hardens (Rom. 9:18).
In the well-known story of Israel’s exodus from Egypt, God is described as hardening Pharaoh’s heart so that Pharaoh disobeys God. In point of fact, ten times God is said to harden Pharaoh’s heart, six times it simply says it was hard, and three times Pharaoh is said to harden his own heart. What is going on here and what can we learn about God’s sovereignty and human responsibility from this episode of real history? First, know for certain that God never makes a sinner desire or choose evil, neither does He ever create sin or put sinful affections in a person’s heart. Perish the thought! God is all good and only good. God cannot look upon sin (Hab. 1:13) meaning He cannot approve of it, condone it, or tolerate it to go on unpunished. He will and must punish every sin with perfect justice. All evil, meaning all sin, comes from the creature and not at all from God who is only and always perfectly righteous and holy (Jer. 17:9; Psa. 33:4; 34:16; 145:17; Rev. 15:4; 19:2; etc.). All sin is created and acted upon in the fallen hearts of men and angels. In fact, it is only because of God’s restraining influence in the “common” activity of His Holy Spirit that sinners do not become utterly sinful. So how does God harden sinners without being the cause of sin?
In western Pennsylvania where I live, our roads are notoriously known for steep hills and sharp curves. If you are in a car and in a hurry, the one thing you do not want is to get stuck behind a truck. And the worst of all is when you find yourself behind a cement mixer. Now if the truck’s mixer is empty you will be fine, but if it is filled with cement you will slow to a crawl on every hill. How can you tell the difference? When a cement truck is filled with cement, the mixer is always slowly rotating. It must or else the cement will quickly harden and become useless to the builders. It is the nature of cement to harden, so much so that all that it needs to harden is to be left alone, to lie unagitated by the turning of the mixer. This is how sin acts in the heart. It would naturally infect and corrupt the heart utterly if left to itself. Therefore, all that God has to do to harden sinful human beings is to withdraw His common, preventive grace and give the sinner over to what he already loves and wants to do. Like cement naturally hardens the moment the mixer stops turning, so the fallen human heart will naturally harden the moment God begins to withdraw the restraining activity of His Spirit. The seeds of every sin are already in the fallen human heart, all that God has to do for a person to embrace any evil is simply to give them over to it.
God is patient and merciful and continues to give evil people opportunities to repent, and while He never entirely abandons any human being in this world, He will eventually allow stubborn sinners to be carried along further into the chosen sins of their evil hearts. Thus, some of the most frightening verses in all of Scripture speak of the judgment of God where He gives sinners over to their sins: “Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies among themselves… For this reason God gave them up to vile passions. For even their women exchanged the natural use for what is against nature” (Rom. 1:24, 26). When God is said to harden human hearts, He does not create or put evil in the heart in the slightest degree, neither does He cause the will to do evil. It is also incorrect to say God merely permits man to do evil (see WCF 5.4). God is active in the hardening of hearts, it is an act of judgment. He removes the restraining influence of His Spirit in some particular way so that the sinner freely chooses to do that particular sin.
When God hardens a sinner it is an act of judgment with regard to the sinner, but with respect to His own plan, God not only keeps sin from frustrating it, but His power and wisdom are so great that He actually causes the sinful rebellion of His enemies to bring to pass His good and perfect plan. May our good and sovereign God be pleased to deliver us from the fearful judgment of His hardening, and may He give us tender hearts that are wise to hear and swift to repent so that we do not harden ourselves: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts” (Heb. 4:7b).
Ray Heiple (M.Div. RPTS, D.Min. RPTS) is the Senior Pastor of Providence Presbyterian Church (PCA), host for the TV program Origins (CTVN), teacher of Bible and Apologetics at Robinson Township Christian School (RTCS), and author of Preaching with Biblical Motivation (P&R, 2017), and Pocket History of the PCA (CDM, 2017).