The Hardening of a Heart and The Awakening of the Spirit
This past week (5/23/21), in my sermon over Esther 7, I discussed Haman's heart and his hardness towards God's people due to his perpetual pattern of sin. This led me to conclude that Haman had sinned himself out of an opportunity for forgiveness. At the same time, I qualified this by saying, anyone can receive forgiveness--as grace abounds to the vilest of sinners (Rom. 5:20). At face value, these truths can appear contradictory, this is self-recognized, and it is for this reason that I will seek to explain what the Bible means by the hardness of heart and how we can understand it in light of the gospel.
To have a hardened heart is to have a heart that rejects the Lord's decree in favor of its own schemes.
Hardening the Heart
Hardening of the heart is first mentioned in the book of Exodus, where God says to Moses, "I will harden his heart" (Ex. 4:21a). This is a clear reference to the Lord actively intervening in the lives of his creation. He does this in such a way where he not only interferes with features of the created order but also the intentions and affections of his created beings. What is even more stunning is what the hardening of the heart provokes: "I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go" (Ex.4:21). This appears antithetical to the Lord's plan, as his purpose of sending Moses was to liberate his people (Ex. 3:10). But, in the Lord hardening Pharoah's heart for this purpose, the effect of a hardened heart is revealed: it is rebellion against the Lord's plan. To have a hardened heart is to have a heart that rejects the Lord's decree in favor of its own schemes. While this may be concerning that the Lord actively solidifies some people's hearts, we should also note that Pharoah hardens his own heart in the Exodus narrative (Ex. 8:15). This leaves us with a paradoxical reality of God being sovereign over Pharoah's transgression, while Pharoah is morally culpable for despising the Lord's command.
While Pharoah's story may be distant from us, his heart is not. Every human being since the fall of Adam and Eve is susceptible to the same inclination (Rom. 5:12-14), a wicked heart that seeks to usurp God's role as God. It is for this reason, we would do well to listen to the author of Hebrews: "exhort one another every day, as long as it is called "today," that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin" (Heb. 3:13). Here, the author reflects upon Israel's past failures in the wilderness and encourages the present-day audience to abandon their former ethical failures. It is these past failures that inform the way people can harden their hearts. The author even warns us not to persist in sin to the point of having "an evil, unbelieving heart leading you to fall away from the living God" (Heb. 3:12). This informs us that sin will progress in a manner unto which it has a suffocating effect upon people to the extent that they will not be saved. It should be mentioned that this passage is written to believers, but it is written as a warning to lead them to persist in their faith, not to contradict the security of the believer ("once saved always saved"). Nevertheless, this passage is inciteful for how the growth of sin in an unbeliever's life will stifle their ability to respond to the gospel. The greater their exposure and acceptance of sin in their life, the less likely they are to respond to the gospel. This would appear to be consistent with the teachings of Romans 1, where the more people persist in sin (Rom. 1:21-23, 25,27), the more God gives them up (Rom. 1:24,26,28). Once again, God is sovereign, and man is responsible for the hardening of their hearts. And the hardening of man's heart is so pervasive that it hinders their ability to respond to the gospel.
As humans, we produce the very things we love, therefore our natural capacities (physical actions) are determined by our volition (want to).
Man's Will and The Spirit
The problem of a hardened heart prompts the questions of how, or can, someone respond to the gospel? The question can be answered two-fold by making a distinction between man's volition and natural capacities. Man's volition is the motor that drives his decisions, it's the wants that determine his actions, it's the affections that motivate his physical response. We are all volitional creatures, doing the very thing we want to do. As Jesus says, "a good tree bears good fruit and a bad tree bears bad fruit" (Matt. 7:17), so also do we as humans act in accord with our heart's longings. As humans, we produce the very things we love, therefore our natural capacities (physical actions) are determined by our volition (want to). In the case of someone with a hardened heart, i.e. Pharoah, Haman, or the people of Romans 1, their hearts desire to live evil unbelieving lives and are left unable to respond to the Gospel. It can then be determined that the person suffering from a hard and impenitent heart cannot respond to the gospel because they will not, for the will determines the capability. From what we can see, Haman's will to rebel against God's people has cut him off from naturally responding to the gospel (God's covenant promises).
With man's opportunity to respond to the gospel being rendered morally void, it appears as though all who have callused themselves to God at one point would be unable to receive God's gift of the forgiveness of sins. In one sense, as noticed above, this is true, but considering the Bible's witness to the work of the Holy Spirit, there remains an alternative solution. The Old Testament's prophetic picture of the New Covenant describes a day in which the volition, moral capacities, of all God's people will be renewed to abide in the Lord's plan of salvation. "Behold the days are coming declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant...I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people" (Jer.31:31,33). Notice, the Lord's work on the heart has the opposite effect of hardening: his people have the law implanted on their hearts, a sign of love for God's commandments, and this grants them entrance into God's covenant community. The way the Lord changes a hardened heart is he cuts away the old affections and establishes a new will that lives, breathes and yurns for faithfulness to him. In this sense, is someone ever outside of God's saving grace? No. As Jesus said, "The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the spirit" (Jn 3:8). In this manner, God can bring anyone to a new volition, an unhardened heart, by his work of the spirit.
"it is as hard a thing to repent as it is to make a world or raise the dead!" - Thomas Brooks
Thomas Brooks once wrote, "it is as hard a thing to repent as it is to make a world or raise the dead!" The most alarming aspect of a hardened heart is that there is no guarantee it will go away. And the more we persist in sin, the more callused and numb we become to the gospel. The scariest thing about rejecting the gospel is not that we are not guaranteed tomorrow, but that we are not guaranteed to respond tomorrow. As a matter of fact, Romans 1 would seem to support that we are less likely to respond to the gospel the next day after rejecting it.
This truth should rattle us as Christians and spark an ambition for repentance. We should analyze our lives and recognize the areas that we are falling short in and seek the mercy of God and ask for his grace to enable us to repent. It is with the stakes of a hardened heart and no guarantee of repentance, that I ask you to examine yourself and seek forgiveness from God and exhortation from your local congregation. I will leave you with Stephen's words, and with them, I pray we would not be like his opponents, "You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you." (Acts 7:51)
Grace and Peace,