Why does Christ want some to not believe? That’s a perplexing question for a lot of Bible readers who scratch their heads when they meet texts like Matthew 13:13 and Luke 8:10. Today the question arrives from a listener named Max — a question for Pastor John, who joins us over Skype again. “Hello, Pastor John! Can you explain Jesus’s parable in Luke 8:9–15, in which he quotes Isaiah 6:9? In Isaiah 6:10, God says to ‘make the heart of this people dull, . . . lest they see with their eyes, and . . . understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.’ What perplexes me is that God purposefully keeps people from salvation even though 1 Timothy 2:4 states that God wants all people to repent and receive salvation. Please help me to understand this seeming paradox and, if possible, God’s reasoning behind hardening certain hearts to keep them from repentance.”
There really are two questions here. They’re both good. One is, Does 1 Timothy 2:4 imply that God’s desire for all to be saved rules out his decisive sovereignty over who is in fact saved? So, if he desires all to be saved, are you going to draw the inference that he can’t be involved in choosing some to be saved and some to pass over and not be saved? That’s one question.
The other question is, What is God’s reasoning or purpose behind preventing some people from seeing the truth and being saved in Luke 8? Now, let’s take those one at a time and then relate them.
First Timothy 2:1–4 goes like this:
I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
This text raises the question, If God desires all people to be saved, why are not all people saved? That’s the question. And the typical modern (and by modern I mean the last two to three hundred years) answer is to say that man’s free will, his self-determination, keeps God from doing what he desires to do — namely, save them.
“Nobody is made blind to God who loves to see God.”
Now, I don’t think that’s a biblical answer. I think that’s a philosophical presupposition brought to the text and taught nowhere in the Bible. I don’t think man has that kind of free will — that kind of self-determination that can thwart God’s sovereign will to save whomever he pleases by overcoming their hard heart and their resistance and rebellion and giving them a new heart of faith.
In Paul’s teaching, faith is a gift of God, not a creation of man out of his own ultimate self-determination. It’s not a product of free will understood as self-determining power. You can see that in Philippians 1:29, you can see it in Ephesians 2:8, but you see it especially in Acts 13:48, where Luke says that it is those whom God has chosen and appointed who will actually believe when they hear the gospel. It goes like this: “The Gentiles . . . began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed.”
I take this to mean that human self-determination is not the ultimate explanation for why all people are not saved, even though Paul says God desires all people to be saved in 1 Timothy 2:4. In fact, Paul says as much in these very letters to Timothy. For example, in 2 Timothy 2:24–25, he says this: “The Lord’s servant . . . [should correct] his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth.”
Now, that very phrase (more literally translated, “unto a knowledge of the truth”) is the same exact phrase used in 1 Timothy 2:4, where God desires all people to come to a “knowledge of the truth,” which not all do. So, on the one hand, God desires all to come to a knowledge of the truth in 1 Timothy 2:4. And on the other hand, 2 Timothy 2:25 says God may perhaps grant, as a gift, that some particular people will come to a knowledge of the truth.
So, I think Paul makes it clear that what hinders God’s desire for people to repent and come to a knowledge of the truth, what keeps that desire for all to be saved from rising to the level of decisive action, in which everybody would be saved, is not the power of human self-determination — so-called “free will” — but rather the fact that God may or may not grant repentance and faith.
At one level, God desires all to be saved. He does not delight in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 18:23). But another commitment in God, another commitment to act with wisdom and justice and a wider love — love seen through a wider perspective, a wider lens — prevents him from acting on the desire for all to be saved in a way that saves all.
Blinded in Judgment
So, in reference to Max’s question about Luke 8, about God’s choosing not to liberate some from their rebellion and spiritual blindness, what we have seen so far is that this is not a contradiction of 1 Timothy 2:4, where God desires all people to be saved. He desires it, but he doesn’t always perform it. And Max is asking, “Well, please help me understand God’s reasoning behind the hardening of certain hearts to keep them from repentance.” And then he quotes Luke 8:9–10. When Jesus’s disciples asked him what the parable of the sower meant, he said, “To you it has been given . . .” So, it’s a gift: they don’t deserve it; they didn’t earn it.
To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God, but for others they are in parables, so that [and here’s the divine purpose] “seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.”
And Max sees rightly that this is an allusion to Isaiah 6:9–10, where God gives Isaiah the painful task of preaching with the effect of hardening. God says to Isaiah,
Go, and say to this people:
“Keep on hearing, but do not understand;
keep on seeing, but do not perceive.”
Make the heart of this people dull,
and their ears heavy,
and blind their eyes;
lest [this is God’s purpose] they see with their eyes,
and hear with their ears,
and understand with their hearts,
and turn and be healed.
This is God telling Isaiah what his preaching is going to do. The explanation of hardening in Isaiah’s and in Jesus’s ministry is that this design of God’s word is judgment. It’s judgment upon sin. This dulling, hardening effect of the preaching is not happening to people who love the word of God. He’s not going out and finding people who love and submit to the word of God and then preaching so that they become hard-hearted. No.
“Faith is a gift of God, not a creation of man out of his own ultimate self-determination.”
No one is made blind against their will. Mark that. This indifference to God is what they want. There’s nobody kicking and screaming, moving into blindness, saying, “Oh, I want to see!” There are no innocent people under the judgment of God’s blinding. None. Nobody is made blind to God who loves to see God. This blindness and dullness are judgments for sin; they are the handing over into blindness to be blind.
Mercy on All
And I’ll end with this: Where is this judgment leading? What’s the big picture? And Paul tells us in Romans 11:25–26. He says to us Gentiles,
Lest you be wise in your own sight, I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And in this way all Israel will be saved.
The Gentiles are us, and they come through the great world mission of the church. So, judgment is leading to salvation. Later in that same chapter, in Romans 11:32–33, 36, Paul says,
God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all.
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! . . . For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.