When Does God Harden a Sinner’s Heart?
One of the most asked about themes in the inbox is God’s hardening of the sinner’s heart. It’s an incredible theme throughout Romans. And no chapter of Scripture has inspired more APJ questions than Romans 9. We now have over four hundred emails on this chapter alone — loads of questions, including this really good one from a listener named Nate.
“Hello, Pastor John! I was recently reading Romans 1:24–27, and Paul seems to be saying that God gave over these sinners to dishonorable passions as a consequence of their sin. But then when I got to Romans 9:1–29, Paul seems to indicate that God himself hardens sinners in unbelief. God ‘hardens whomever he wills’ (Romans 9:18). So in the case of Romans 1, did God first harden these sinners before he gave them up to dishonorable passions? Which came first: did the sinners harden their own hearts or did God harden their hearts?
“In thinking back to the Old Testament, God first promised to harden Pharaoh’s heart (Exodus 4:21; 7:3). And then Pharaoh hardened his own heart (Exodus 8:15, 32). Then God hardened his heart more (Exodus 9:12). Then Pharaoh hardened his own heart more (Exodus 9:34). Then God hardened his heart more (Exodus 10:1, 20; 11:10). How does this dynamic work, more generally, in culture? Or are the giving over in Romans 1 and the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart different categories altogether?” How would you respond to Nate?
The first thing I want to say is that there is no hardness in the human heart against God, either from God’s decree or from human depravity, which is so hard that God himself cannot overcome it and save the hardest sinner. This is the very heart of the new-covenant promise of Ezekiel 11:19: “I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh.” Nothing is too hard for the Lord (Jeremiah 32:17).
“This rescue from hardness was a sovereign work of God, who chose us before the foundation of the world.”
Now, I start here because I know that thousands of people listening have friends and family who have been resistant to the gospel for years, and I know how easy it is to despair that they could ever be saved; they’re just too hard — or so our hearts tempt us to believe. What I want to stress here at the outset is that it is the very omnipotence, the very sovereignty and freedom of God, who says, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will harden whom I harden” — it’s that very freedom and power that is our only hope that the seeming impossibility of human hardness cannot stand before the mercy of the sovereign God. That’s where I want to start.
Cursed from Our Birth
Now let’s look at this specific question; namely, Did God first harden the sinners in Romans 1:24, 26, 28 before he gave them up to dishonorable passions? Let me quote one of those verses.
Since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. (Romans 1:28)
It’s clear that there is a sinful, rebellious condition prior to God’s giving them over to a debased mind. In other words, his removing the restraints that he often puts on sinners and sinful cultures is not the ultimate origin of their rebellion; that removal is not the ultimate origin of their rebellion. That was there before he handed them over to their own rebellion by removing all restraints.
What was their condition before this handing over — or, you could say, this hardening? What was their condition before that? Let’s let Paul describe it in Ephesians 4:17–18. It says this:
You must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart.
Paul traces the condition of Gentiles (that’s virtually all of us, but he’s going to say in a minute that the condition includes Jewish people as well) back through futile minds, through darkened understandings, through alienation from God, through ignorance, and finally, at the bottom, to hardness of heart. That’s the root problem.
And Paul makes plain that this hard, spiritual deadness is universal for Jew and Gentile, not just Gentiles, because he says in Ephesians 2:1–3,
You [Gentiles] were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience — among whom we [Jews, including himself] all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.
In Adam All Die
Here’s a great mystery. We may not be able to fully explain it, but here it is in Scripture; namely, what humans are by nature fits us for God’s just wrath. They were “by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” This is the condition of every human being. We are by nature “sons of disobedience” — that is, by nature, we disobey; it’s our nature to disobey. By nature, we rebel. By nature, we are selfish, and God-ignoring, and God-belittling. And therefore, by nature, we deserve God’s wrath.
“Our hardness is owing to God’s judgment on the whole human race in our forefather Adam.”
Now, how did that come about, that all human beings are by nature justly subject to the wrath of God because of our proneness to disobey and rebel as sons of disobedience? Paul’s answer in Romans 5 is that Adam’s sin has infected his race — that is, the punishment that fell on Adam fell on all who are part of Adam as his descendants. Here’s how Paul puts it in Romans 5:18–19: “One trespass led to condemnation for all. . . . By the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners.”
The answer to the question “Did God first harden the sinners of Romans 1 before he gave them up to dishonorable passions?” is, in this sense, yes: God passed judgment on the whole human race in Adam. Our hardness is owing to God’s judgment on the whole human race in our forefather Adam. This hardness, or deadness, or futility, which we all have from Adam on, is basic. All other texts in the Bible of God’s hardening have this as their backdrop, which means that any given case of hardening may mean that God is giving someone up to the hardening that God decreed from the beginning.
Grace from the Beginning
The reason I say “from the beginning” and “decreed from the beginning” is that Paul says in Romans 11:5–7,
At the present time there is a remnant [a believing Jewish people], chosen by grace. But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace. What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened.
Paul traces the deliverance from hardness back to the election of grace, which happened before the foundation of the world. “He chose us in him before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4). From the beginning — that is, the very beginning of God’s eternal planning before creation — he chose to save his people through Christ from this condition of hardness, which means we should be very, very thankful that our eyes are opened to the truth and beauty of Christ and that our heart of stone has been taken out, because we did not bring this about ourselves. This rescue from hardness was a sovereign work of God, who chose us before the foundation of the world to be his soft, believing children.
Our Only Hope
Now, with regard to the other question raised — namely, How does this work in culture? — that’s just another world he opens up at the end there; he just throws that one in. Are you kidding me? Throw that question in here on top of this? How does this work in culture? Let me just close with one observation.
“By nature, we rebel. By nature, we are selfish, and God-ignoring, and God-belittling.”
In view of Romans 1:24, 26, 28, it is naive to look at culture sinking deeper and deeper into sin, which, I believe, ours is, and to say only that this culture is ripening for judgment. Well, that’s true, but it conceals another more fundamental truth; namely, the sinking deeper and deeper into the bondage of sin is itself God’s judgment. That’s the point of Romans 1:18: “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.” That suppression is the handing over of God, which is a manifestation of his judgment and his wrath. The sinking of individuals and the sinking of cultures — even the disappearance of cultures — into more and more blatant sin is always owing both (1) to our natural hardness of heart against God, and (2) to God’s giving us over to that hardness.
There is one hope through the gospel, because God promises in the new covenant, which is a gospel promise in Ezekiel 11:19, “I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh.” That’s our prayer. That’s our cry for ourselves, our friends, our family, and whole cultures: that God would take out the heart of stone.