This Lump of Clay (God has mercy & God hardens—Romans 9)

“Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden” (Romans 9.18). In this verse, Paul could not have been more unequivocal and yet most of us struggle to fully understand it, much less accept it at face value.

While researching this issue, I came across a blog site written by a Catholic priest who rather elegantly takes the position that I think most theologians take with respect to the issue of “God hardening Pharaoh’s heart”. It’s a position with which I respectfully and passionately disagree. This blog invites reader response. The following is my response which is currently “awaiting moderation”.

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With all due respect, Msgr., I disagree with your position and hope you have the courage to share this with your readers.

Your position is that God “hardening Pharaoh’s heart” was not God exercising his sovereign will over and above and in the place of Pharaoh’s free will, i.e., God did not cause Pharaoh to do something he wasn’t going to do anyway. Your position appears to state that God hardening Pharaoh’s heart is “voluntary” on the part of Pharaoh–in other words, in no way did God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart temporarily supplant, displace or override Pharaoh’s free will–indeed, “God hardens in such a way that he uses [Pharaoh’s] own will, whom he hardens, for the executing of his judgment and his acceptance that [Pharaoh’s] will against him is definitive.”

You go on to cite in support of this position that it is Pharaoh who hardens his own heart in the first 5 plagues and “it is only after this repeated hardening of his own heart, that the Exodus text shifts, and speaks of God as the one who hardens.” You state that only after “Pharaoh’s repeated demonstration of his own hardness” does God in effect “‘cement the deal’ as a kind of sovereign judgment on Pharaoh.”

If I am understanding you correctly, your position implies that 1) Pharaoh’s repeated self-imposed hardness to not let the Israelites go, 2) coupled with God’s foreknowledge that Pharaoh’s disposition against God’s will would not change, 3) results in God “declaring and permitting” Pharaoh’s heart to be hardened in some definitive way. Wow! I’ve never considered God’s sovereignty so passive in its nature. On the contrary, I’ve always thought of it as authoritative—clearly something that stands over and above man’s free will if it so chooses.

My first question is—given your definition of what it means for God to harden Pharaoh’s heart—what is the point of Scripture making a distinction between “Pharaoh hardening his own heart” and “God hardening Pharaoh’s heart”? Your explanation dilutes the latter so much that it becomes a “distinction without a difference”. According to you, Pharaoh would not have let the Israelites go anyway. God just “cemented” this reality in some “definitive way”. What exactly does that mean? If something’s going to happen anyway, and I am God and therefore know in my omniscience it’s going to happen, how can anything I do make it happen in a more “definitive way”? The bottom line is, given your interpretation, God “hardening Pharaoh’s heart” made absolutely no practical difference in the outcome of events. So again, I ask, what is the point of God stating he’s the one who hardened Pharaoh’s heart? Doesn’t your position actually make God’s “sovereign will” look rather impotently bound by man’s free will?

It certainly does not set the Lord apart like God says it will in Exodus 7. God said “but I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my miraculous signs and wonders in Egypt, he will not listen to you” (Exodus 7.3—4). Under your interpretation, God sounds disingenuous in this verse, if not braggadocios. Doesn’t it sound like God is “taking credit” for something that would have happened anyway, given Pharaoh’s disposition?

I suggest for consideration an entirely different interpretation of events. Pharaoh’s own arrogant stubbornness propelled his unwillingness to do God’s will through the first 5 plagues. After the 6th plague, however, I believe Scripture implies that Pharaoh would have broken down and let the Israelites go (this does not speak one way or the other to the issue of whether Pharaoh would have fully repented and turned to the Lord, though I assume not). But 5 plagues was not the full measure of God’s will and plan, and thus, in his sovereign will and authority, God intervened into human affairs and propped Pharaoh up by “hardening his heart so that he would not listen to Moses and Aaron” for another 5 plagues and then some. God continued hardening Pharaoh’s heart until the full measure of his will and plan regarding these events was accomplished—that his name be proclaimed in all the earth as the one who freed his people from Egyptian slavery. In other words, God hardening Pharaoh’s heart indeed changed the course of events that free will on its own accord would have rendered.

I don’t understand why people resist this notion. It appears that God works his sovereign will almost exclusively in conjunction with man’s free will. Occasionally, however, God deems it necessary to interpose his will over and against man’s free will. We Christians do not seem to have a problem with this notion as it applies to the immaculate conception. To put it bluntly, God imposed himself on Mary’s free will by impregnating her virgin egg with his Holy Spirit, indeed, while she was engaged to be married to Joseph. Although God told Mary this would happen, he certainly did not ask for her or Joseph’s consent in the matter.

How is the immaculate conception ANY different from God imposing himself on Pharaoh’s free will? On the one hand, God imposed himself on the free will of Pharaoh to deliver his people from bondage to Egyptian slavery by revealing himself as the one true God with the power to perform such miraculous signs of plagues, to establish himself as the Father of the law that he would soon deliver through the hands and labor of the Israelites. On the other hand, God imposed himself on the free will of Mary to deliver his people from bondage to sin by revealing himself as the one true Light with the power to perform such miraculous signs of healing, to establish himself as the Father of grace that he would soon deliver though the blood and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Granted, Mary came to see her will being imposed upon by God as a wonderful blessing—that Pharaoh did not do the same is not God’s fault or responsibility.

Yes, I would imagine that God’s foreknowledge of Pharaoh’s evil disposition did factor into his decision to supplant Pharaoh’s free will—God is a fair and just God. But we must understand that God’s sovereignty rules over and comes before everything else, including man’s free will. And sometimes, though we may not see it clearly, we are called to simply trust in God’s fairness and justice. Paul reminds us of this when, right after referring to God making use of Pharaoh to accomplish his very purposes, he states unequivocally that “God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden” (Romans 9.18). This is both a frightening and wonderful reality for Christians to embrace. In short, this verse reminds us who God really is—Creator AND Ruler of the Universe!

Please don’t do what the moderns do and dilute the latter part of this Scripture into some meaningless concoction that is “always consistent” with man’s free will. Poppycock! God’s sovereignty is not bound by man’s free will. Cannot the Potter do what he wants with this lump of clay we call fallen mankind? Who are we to question God’s actions or motives (Romans 9.21)? Indeed, shouldn’t every believer stand ready in fear and trembling for God to use him or her in whatever way he chooses? Even if it be “the way of the Pharaoh”, then we should praise God for using us to accomplish his great purposes!

 © 2014 by Patrick Lloyd—the WORD runs deep publishing  (TWRD Short # 023)

One thought on “This Lump of Clay (God has mercy & God hardens—Romans 9)

  1. Mylene

    originally posetd to in the incorrect date Maybe I’ll have a different perspective when i read the passages in the future. From what I gather it’s about “lip-service” and “control.”Pharaoh wanted control and told them where to worship, where to make sacrifices, and where to pray. It’s a bitter denial of God power that he wanted to have some “say.”Are we like this to some degree? We give permission, but sometimes have boundaries. In certain cases, it’s warranted. However, I wonder in some cases, we put boundaries out of fear and loss of control.

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