5th August 2023

John Piper shares


When does God harden a sinner's heart?

In Romans 1, Paul seems to be saying that God gave over these sinners to dishonourable passions as a consequence of their sin. But then Romans 9: Paul seems to indicate that God himself hardens sinners in unbelief. God 'hardens whomever he wills'

Which came first: did the sinners harden their own hearts or did God harden their hearts?

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.

Now, I start here because I know that thousands of people 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 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.

Now let's look at this specific question; namely,
Did God first harden the sinners before he gave them up to dishonourable passions?

It's clear that there is a sinful, rebellious condition prior to God's giving them over to a debased mind.
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? Paul describes it in Ephesians 4.

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 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.

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.

This is the condition of every human being.
And therefore, by nature, we deserve God's wrath.

Now, how did that come about?
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.

"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 dishonourable passions?" is, in this sense, yes.
God passed judgment on the whole human race in 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.

The reason I say "from the beginning" and "decreed from the beginning" is that Paul says in Romans 11,

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.

From the beginning - that is, the very beginning of God's eternal planning before creation - he chose to save his people, through Jesus, from this condition of hardness, which means we should be very, very thankful that our eyes are opened to the truth and beauty of Jesus 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.

How does this work in culture?
Let me just close with one observation.

In view of Romans 1, 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.

"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.
There is one hope through the gospel, because God promises in the new covenant, which is a gospel promise in Ezekiel 11,

"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.

Bible references avaiable, on request

John Piper (@JohnPiper)
is founder and teacher of and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary.
For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota.
He is author of more than 50 books, including Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist and most recently Come, Lord Jesus.

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