Does God harden hearts?

Bill Covert Doctrine

I received a question in the past related to the idea of God hardening the hearts of some people toward Himself.  Below is the question and response:

I wanted to ask you about the statements in Exodus when the Word says that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. I have always heard these explained to justify the doctrine of election for salvation. I don’t believe in the doctrine of election for salvation, yet I struggle with what these verses mean. Can you shed some light?

I also do not agree with the doctrine of election for salvation…though once, I was convinced of this doctrine of election for salvation, I have changed my mind on this. But I also do not hold an Arminian view of salvation which includes the concept of being able to loose your salvation.

I will explain my position on salvation. We have been teaching that God made man with a mind so that we can know Him, emotions to love Him, and a will so we can choose to obey Him. It is clearly obvious that God put the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden for man to express his freedom of choice even in his state of perfection.

That said, once man rebelled against God, scripture is clear from that point on that every inclination of man’s heart is evil all the time even from conception…meaning our human nature is to rebel against God and all that He stands for. Therefore, left to our devices, void of God’s truth, we will always choose to suppress the truth of God and exchange His glory and divine nature for a lie and we will turn toward idolatry and immorality (Rom 1:18-32) so that the scripture is fulfilled that says “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God (Rom 3:11-12).”

Now, when sinful man is exposed to God’s truth through the principles in His Word to the point of understanding the gospel, and Christ is lifted up before him in a very clear and understandable way, man’s mind is illuminated and he now is presented with a true choice: Either choose Christ or choose to stay separated from God (John 12:32, Rom 10:17). In my mind, I visualize man being take back into the Garden and presented the two trees…the tree of Life (which is Christ) and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (which is rebellion against God). At this point, sinful man truly has a choice. If man does not choose Christ, then, by default, He has chosen rebellion and will remain separated from God unless at some point the sin-filled man finally does choose to believe and accept Christ. If sinful man chooses Christ, then his salvation is secure for eternity.

Here is what I came across in this study of “God hardening Pharaoh’s heart.” First of all, in the context, it clearly is not talking about election for salvation, and even in Romans 9, the biggy for those professing the doctrine of election, it is not referring to salvation in Christ, but rather God’s choosing of people to accomplish his will in bringing about the Promised Deliverer for all people (Rom 5:18, 1 Tim 2:6, 2 Peter 3:9). Here is a quote that I came across in reference to “God hardening Pharaoh’s heart” from the website (Note: this site no longer exists.)

 The Egyptian king is portrayed as arrogant and stubborn but it is important to remember that G-d did not take away pharaoh’s Free Will. The reader might be led to that conclusion when encountering the English verse, “God hardened pharaoh’s heart..,” but the Hebrew text in Exodus 9:12 employs the word hazaq — which means the Creator literally strengthened the ruler’s heart. This allowed the pharaoh to believe that his side was winning, while the entire ten plagues took their toll. Thus, God’s word would be fulfilled. This was vital so that pharaoh would realize that the God of Israel was stronger than pharaoh’s gods and that He was a God of justice. Pharaoh would have to admit that he was wrong.

Each time the Scriptures refer to the Lord hardening Pharaoh’s heart, the Hebrew word “hazaq” is used, which means to strengthen, to seize, to hold onto (the Strongest NIV Exhausted Concordance). In a sense, God strengthened Pharaoh’s heart and, as a result, Pharaoh chose to hold even more firmly and passionately to his disbelief and pride. God did not take away Pharaoh’s free will, He simply strengthened Pharaoh’s heart, and Pharaoh used his free will to rebel even more firmly against God. I hope this is making sense. Now then, when the scripture refers to Pharaoh hardening his own heart, the same Hebrew word is NOT used, but the Hebrew word “kabed” is used which means to honor oneself, to make hard, dull or stubborn. In this context, Pharaoh was choosing to reject God with even more stubbornness than before in order that he himself would be honored and glorified. What’s really going on here is a battle of wills, Pharaoh’s will versus God’s will and God, being all powerful, even helped Pharaoh out by strengthening Pharaoh will “power” if you will…and yet, God demonstrated His omnipotence by overcoming Pharaoh’s will!

So, God did not “turn off” Pharaoh’s ability to make a choice. God never does this for anyone, even today. Even if God is choosing to harden the hearts of the Jews today, I believe it would be in the same context of strengthening their hearts. As a result, the Jews choose to hold more firmly yet to their rejection of Christ, and all of this: to accomplish God’s plan and will on Earth (just as in Pharaoh’s day)!

In my understanding, the doctrine of election that we see in scripture is not election unto salvation as the Calvinists have extrapolated. The New Testament doctrine of Election can be understood two ways. 1) It clearly contains the Old Testament concept of God choosing whoever He wants for service to accomplish His will, such as Pharaoh, Abraham, Jacob, Paul, etc. (those who believe and those who do not believe) 2) The NT doctrine of Election also seems to contain the concept of being chosen (elect) in Christ. Let me explain this further: The NT clearly states that we are chosen in Christ or elect in Christ. This concept is the idea that we are “chosen” BECAUSE we are in Christ, not chosen to be in Christ. We are put into Christ. Water baptism is a picture of this. The Scriptures teach that Christ is the Elect One, the Elect of God. Because Christ is elect and we are in Him, then we too are elect by virtue of being in Him! We have all that Christ has because we are in Him! So NT election can refer to these two concepts.

About the Author

Bill Covert

Bill is an elder, house church leader and teaching pastor of Hope Community Church. He resides in Williamsport, PA with his wife, Sue.