Therefore they could not believe – John 12:39
How does a heart become hardened to the gospel, to Jesus? Some would say that God creates some people with a predetermined heart to accept the gospel and others with a predetermined hard heart to reject the gospel. Some would say salvation is not a matter of decision or the exertion of their God given free will. Is a heart born hard or is there a process involved? Is our heart condition predetermined apart from us or is every human culpable and responsible for their own decision for or against God and His gospel? That is what we will consider in this teaching.
Before we go any further let me begin by admitting a teaching such as this runs the risk of over simplifying the issues involved. I am not about to claim to have solved the tensions between God’s sovereignty and human free will that men far greater, incredibly far superior to this mice of a man can. But there is a message to be communicated here and it is an important one. It’s a message that calls the sinner to repent and receive the gospel while there is still time and opportunity to do so. That is an urgent and necessary message I choose to try and convey.
In the gospel of John the apostle records seven miracles of Jesus which served as signs to identify Jesus as God and Savior. However, not everyone responded to these signs in a way that led to their forgiveness of sin and eternal life. All they would have had to do to become children of God was to receive Jesus as Messiah, Savior, by faith (John 1:12). But instead John is inspired to record “But although He had done so many signs before them, they did not believe” (John 12:37). John then quotes from Isaiah 53 and Isaiah 6. Isaiah 53 is one of the greatest Old Testament descriptions of Messiah and the salvation that would come through Him. Isaiah 6 is God’s call on Isaiah to go to a people who would generally not receive His God ordained message. And then a few lines later John makes the stunning statement, “Therefore they could not believe” (John 12:39). This last verse tells us it is possible to get to a point where a person cannot believe. How does that happen? How is a heart hardened to the extent that a person cannot believe?
There is a principle God sovereignly implements which affects the heart. This principle determines the condition of a heart. It is a principle of justice and truth. This principle is described as sowing and reaping. It states a person’s decisions direct them on a path. There is a result, a consequence to a person’s decisions. This principle is found in the New Testament where it states, “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap. For he who sows to his flesh will of the flesh reap corruption, but he who sows to the Spirit will of the Spirit reap everlasting life. And let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart” (Galatians 6:7-8). Decisions (sowing) lead to momentum or consequences (reaping) in a direction. This principle states there are two options of choice, toward the flesh or toward the Spirit.
If a person chooses to make decisions based on their flesh or sinful nature their ultimate consequence will be “corruption.” “Corruption” (Greek phthora) means decay, corruption, ruin or destruction. When we look at these words of definition for “corruption” we see stages of a downward spiral of sinful decisions. When a person sows to their flesh there is a consequential degrading or decay in their heart and ability to subsequently respond to God. If they persist they digress to corruption. If they live a life against God they will end in ruin and on the final judgment day destruction in the lake of fire (cf. Revelation 20). This is the just recompense for those who sow to their flesh.
But if a person chooses to sow to the Spirit they will reap everlasting life or eternal oriented blessing. If a person sows to the Spirit it doesn’t mean they won’t have difficulty, hence the exhortation to “not grow weary.” But decisions made in the Spirit will ultimately lead to eternal blessing. We could refer to the antonyms of corruption such as revival, purity, victory, and ultimate realization of eternal life with Jesus. This is what awaits those who sow to the Spirit.
These verses in Galatians begin with the words, “Do not be deceived.” Paul who was inspired to write those words knows “the heart is deceitful” (Jeremiah 17:9). It’s possible to be self-deceived (e.g. 1 John 1:8 and 10). The principle of sowing and reaping helps us cut through the deceit and falsehood to get to the heart of the matter. This principle tells us where in truth we are with the Lord. This principle affects the heart. This principle helps us to gauge our spiritual heart condition. Are we softened and receptive or hardened and unreceptive to God and His word? This principle helps us diagnose and monitor our heart condition.
In Jesus’ parable of the Sower He describes four heart soils (Mark 4:1-20). The seed of the word of God is sown or shared with people. Some, like packed down hard paths of soil do not allow the seed to penetrate at all and Satan comes and steals God’s word from their consideration. Some people receive the word of God in only a very shallow way. They do not allow God’s word to take root so that the first trial that enters their life results in their faith withering. Then there are people who receive God’s word into an unkempt cluttered heart. For them God’s word is just one other thing in their life and the things of the world choke off the word. None of these heart responses describe a person who is genuinely saved. But there is a heart that receives the word of God and produces fruit. This is the heart that demonstrates genuine salvation. This last heart welcomes and cultivates God’s word. The first three heart soils described here are examples of inadequate and irresponsible receptivity to God’s word. The fourth heart soil takes God’s word seriously and lets it grow in them. They hear God’s word and cooperate with it to see their faith grow (Romans 10:17). God’s word tells us there is a principle that states our heart is impacted by the decisions we make. Our decisions determine the condition of our heart.
There is deception that involves contradicting this principle of sowing and reaping. Some view a disconnect or even a dissolution of the idea of decisions and consequences. Oh they still use words like “decision” and even “will” but they do so in a way that strips them of any true meaning. Decision without free will is no longer decision. Furthermore, if God were to create hearts with built in predetermined locked in responses to the gospel (which some contend He does) then it would remove all responsibility from a person as well as strip them of God’s image in them. What do I mean?
A person cannot be held responsible for something they have no other choice to do. This is common sense. If you overpower a person, take their hand, put a gun in it, constrain them holding your hand over theirs and hold a pointed gun in their hand toward someone and then you press their trigger finger and fire the gun killing the human target, are they guilty of murder? No one would convict such a person of a crime. But that is exactly what some theologians claim. They claim those created by God to reject His gospel are somehow culpable for choosing and doing exactly what God created them to do. This is irrational and unrighteous.
God created man in His own image (Genesis 1:26-27). There is something in the image of humanity that is a reflection of our Creator. What does this image consist of? Jesus physically came as a Man and so to some extent our physical appearance reflects God in Christ. God thinks. We think. Therefore our capacity to think is a reflection of our Creator. God loves. We love. Therefore our capacity to love is a reflection of our Creator. But the nature of love leads us to the greatest image of God in humanity. Love by nature involves choice. You can’t force someone to love you. Someone can’t force you to love them. Love without a free will decision to do so is no longer love, it is robotic, lifeless or at worst the perversion of love, rape.
Love by definition involves choice; the exertion of the will; decision. Humanities capacity to exert their will and make decisions is God’s image in them. Without the capacity to make decisions humanity ceases to be human and ceases to have God’s image in them. Without the capacity to willfully decide a human being loses their personhood and degenerates into an automaton. Apart from the will a person is closer to being a vacuum cleaner than a human being.
God in His sovereign determination has decided to create human beings with the capacity to make decisions. Adam and Eve were put in the rich and splendorous Garden of Eden with all its juiciness and life. God said they could eat and enjoy it all. He gave only one prohibition for which they would have to decide to obey. They were not permitted to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Eat from that tree and “you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:16-17). Well, you know the story. Satan the serpent hit them with lies and they chose to disobey God and obey the serpent (Genesis 3). And sin entered the world; a dreadful consequence (Romans 5).
God confronted the first humans about their sin. Adam blamed Eve. Eve blamed the serpent. People have been trying to evade the guilt and responsibility for sin ever since. We see these evasions in both the sacred and secular worlds.
The world through the teaching of evolution equates human beings as merely highly evolved members of the animal kingdom. Condoms are distributed in schools because educators view our children as unable to resist their animal instincts to interact sexually. The world interprets sinful decisions more in terms of guilt defying disease than acts of disobedience to the laws of nature, government or God. This is dehumanizing. Government turns away from Biblical as well as historical norms to approve and remove any guilt from those who would choose to redefine the gender God created them with. And some use laws to justify a new chameleon gender class who waffle back and forth in gender according by the mood of the day. The world responds to the guiltiness of breaking God’s inherent laws of conscience by attempting to remove culpability under the guise of biological functions or licentious laws. And we can see the resultant corruption and destruction.
Years ago comedian Flip Wilson popularized the phrase, “The devil made me do it.” It was a way of saying, “I’m not to blame, blame the devil.” Adam and Eve said something like that. Over the course of time religious human beings, seeking to understand God and His interactions with people, switched that up a bit. With the idea of God creating humanity with predetermined destinies they have altered that phrase of excuse to be, “God made me do it.” If everything, including sinful things, are authored by God as some claim, then where is human responsibility, human culpability? And is such a notion really that far from what the world teaches? Under the premise of evolutionary theory the world doesn’t say, “The devil made me do it,” or “God made me do it,” but they say, “Nature made me do it.” It’s all pretty much the same; someone else is to blame, not “me.”
Some argue, “But if humanity has free will and can decide their destinies then God is not in control; God is not sovereign; God is not God.” Such a view itself limits God. If God has created humanity with the capacity to make free will decisions, then God is greater when He asserts His redemptive plans despite such bestowed freedoms to humanity. God is so great that He can foreknow the end from the beginning and fulfill His redemptive plans while including the variable of human free will in His decisions. God is able to factor in every possible contingency. God is able to hold everything together in a cosmic order no matter how convoluted humanity tries to mess things up. That speaks far more of the immensity and stupendous power and ability of Almighty God than a view that God is a Puppet Master with us on His strings.
So, if the will of a human being is involved, how does a heart become so hard that a person cannot believe? A good example of how a heart is hardened is found in the Old Testament book of Exodus. In Exodus 3-14 we have the calling of God on Moses to confront Pharaoh and liberate God’s people from slavery. In these chapters we can see details of a hardening heart in the character Pharaoh.
Moses was eighty years old when God called him into ministry. That should be encouraging for anyone questioning whether or not God can use them in the later years of life. God calls people to missions at various times in life. He equips, enables and empowers those He calls. It isn’t so much age as it is enablement by God that determines the validity of a calling. God sovereignly empowers those He sovereignly elects to serve Him. Moses questioned God’s wisdom in calling Him. But God has a way of speaking truth and encouragement and enlightenment into a person’s life, especially the person He calls (cf. Exodus 3).
When God called Moses He told Moses ahead of time that “But I am sure that the king of Egypt will not let you go, no, not even by a mighty hand” (Exodus 3:19). God foreknew Pharaoh’s heart condition and the decisions Pharaoh would make. But that doesn’t mean God predetermined Pharaoh’s decisions or removed from Pharaoh the capacity to exert freewill and make a decision. What this does tell us is that God knows the thoughts and intents of the heart (cf. Jeremiah 17:9-10; Hebrews 4:13). God knew the heart of Pharaoh so well that he could unequivocally state what Pharaoh’s decision of the heart would be. Which raises a question for you and me; when God looks at my heart, at your heart, what does He see? What decisions does God foresee me and you making?
God does tell Moses that, “I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go” (Exodus 4:21). Maybe when you read that you think, Wait a minute pastor that sounds pretty close to God predetermining that Pharaoh would not let His people go. All I will say at this point is that good accurate exegesis and interpretation of scripture is done in context. In other words, let’s suspend a conclusion until all the evidence is in.
The next piece of evidence we see is a confession of Pharaoh himself. Pharaoh states, “Who is the LORD, that I should obey His voice to let Israel go? I do not know the LORD, nor will I let Israel go” (Exodus 5:2). For Egyptians the Pharaoh was a god incarnate. It was offensive to this “god” to be instructed by “the LORD” of the Hebrews. And so Pharaoh questions the authority of the LORD as well as indignantly objects to obeying Him. And notice his words, “nor will I.” Pharaoh voices a clear willful decision. Pharaoh decides immediately that he neither respects or will he obey the LORD. That was his decision.
Another thing we see about Pharaoh is that he “abhorred” (Hebrew baas) the Hebrews. To Pharaoh the Hebrews literally smelled offensive, were abominable, stinking (Exodus 5:20-23). Pharaoh was filled with bigotry toward the Hebrews. He detested them. It was obvious that Pharaoh had sin in his heart toward the Hebrews by the way he responded to their representative Moses.
But in the middle of this confrontation and Pharaoh’s evil reactions to Moses and the LORD we find an incredibly encouraging truth. God states, “And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt. But Pharaoh will not heed you, so that I may lay My hand on Egypt and bring My armies and My people, the children of Israel, out of the land of Egypt by great judgments. And the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD, when I stretch out My hand on Egypt and bring out the children of Israel from among them” (Exodus 7:3-5; cf. also 8:22-23; 9:16). The phrase “so that” indicates the presence of purpose. There was a divine sovereign purpose that God would bring out in the face of Pharaoh’s obstinate rejection of God’s will. Despite Pharaoh’s rejection of God, God would liberate His people, make Himself known to the Egyptians and show His omnipotent might to the world. God was not deterred by the obstacle of Pharaoh’s sinful choices. That should be tremendously encouraging to us. God is able and will bring good even in and through evil intentions.
God is able to cause all things, (including the evil He permits to exist) to work together for good for those who love Him and are called according to His purposes (e.g. Romans 8:28). For example, in Genesis 37-50 Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery. Joseph was wrongly accused of sexual misconduct. He was forgotten by the one he interpreted a lifesaving dream for. But God took Joseph’s brothers and everyone else’s evil and worked the preservation and salvation of the Messianic line of Israel through it all (Genesis 50:20). God used the injustices against Joseph to maneuver him into a position where he could be God’s instrument to save Egypt as well as His people from famine. Over time Joseph’s goodness was forgotten by the Egyptians and as God’s people flourished the Egyptians grew envious and fearful of them within their borders. But God used the hardened bigoted hearts of those who hated His people to exalt Himself and fulfill His purposes. God is able to do that.
Look at our nation, it is hell bent against God. Our nation was founded by godly men (not perfect men, but godly men) and on godly principles. Our capitol is filled with scripture quotations and attributions to the providence of God on almost every age old monument. But this nation is trying with all its might to erase any vestige or sign of the Sovereign that birthed her. The actions of this nation are rebelliously and at every turn trying to indulge in everything Holy God defines as sin and evil. And yet God is able to take what some meant for evil and use it for good. I still hold out hope, and I hope you do to, that the persistent dead ends and death working decisions of the sinful will lead to a bottoming out of our nation and even the world’s civilization. And I pray and hope that corruption will wake our nation and this world or sinner up to their need of God. I hope and pray for revival every day.
Is there evidence that Pharaoh’s decisions were an exertion of his free will? Yes there is. The scripture states of Pharaoh, “And Pharaoh’s heart grew hard, and he did not heed them, as the LORD had said” (Exodus 7:13). Notice the words “did not.” Pharaoh did something. He chose not to obey God’s command. God then adds to this by commenting, “Pharaoh’s heart is hard; he refuses to let the people go” (Exodus 7:14). To refuse is an act of the will.
Later in the same chapter it states of Pharaoh, “but indeed, until now you would not hear!” (Exodus 7:16-17). Pharaoh “would not hear!” Pharaoh willfully decided to reject God’s commands. A little further in the chapter it continues to describe Pharaoh’s response with the words, “Pharaoh’s heart grew hard, and he did not heed them, as the LORD had said. And Pharaoh turned and went into his house. Neither was his heart moved by this” (Exodus 7:22-23). The more you reject God the more likely it is you will continue to do so.
Keep in mind the LORD had inundated Egypt with bloody waters throughout the land at this point. Still to come were supernatural plagues of frogs, lice, flies, diseased livestock, a break out of boils in the skin of all the Egyptians, thunderous and damaging hail, locusts, terrifying darkness and climactically the death of all Egyptian first born children and animals. None of this broke through the heard heart of Pharaoh. Through all of it Pharaoh will exalt himself against God and His people (Exodus 9:17). That’s a pretty hard heart!
What God does do is He firms and confirms the decisions Pharaoh makes. Pharaoh’s heart “became hard” (Exodus 9:7). God implements His principle of sowing and reaping. “But the LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh; and he did not heed them, just as the LORD had spoken to Moses” (Exodus 9:12). God “hardened” and Pharaoh “did not heed” (cf. also Exodus 10:20; 11:9-10). Pharaoh decides and God implements His sovereign principle of sowing and reaping based on Pharaoh’s decisions. God institutes consequences to the sinful decisions of Pharaoh.
Pharaoh’s behavior is described as sin. It says of Pharaoh, “he sinned yet more; and he hardened his heart, he and his servants. So the heart of Pharaoh was hard; neither would he let the children of Israel go, as the LORD had spoken by Moses” (Exodus 9:34-35). “He” did it. This is something Pharaoh is doing. God is giving Pharaoh numerous opportunities to relent, repent and let His people go. But Pharaoh refuses; ten plagues and ten opportunities to give in to God, but still hard hearted refusal to let God’s people go. By the way, how many opportunities has God given you to give in to Him? Are you still hardened to Him? Are you still saying “No!” Watch out my friend.
Pharaoh himself confesses, “I have sinned against the LORD your God and against you” (Exodus 10:16). A “sin” is a willful decision to disobey a known command of God. Sin by definition and nature involves the will of man to disobey God. And the more a person sins, the harder their heart gets. Pharaoh confessed his sin but kept on sinning; kept on growing hard. The more you sin the easier it is to sin. The more you make sinful choices the harder it will be to resist making more sinful choices. This is true even after a person receives Jesus as Savior. No matter who you are, if you choose to sin, you will experience hardening of heart, dulling of your sensitivity to God and a distancing from God. Sin does that in principle and truth. Sin begets further likeliness to sin more.
The ultimate consequence of hardening your heart against God is destruction. Pharaoh bent and nearly broke when his firstborn son breathed his last in God’s final plague. But that acquiescence to God’s command was only temporary. Ultimately Pharaoh and his army pursued God’s people into the miraculously divided Red Sea and was engulfed when God closed the sea up on him and his army (Exodus 14:4-5, 8, 13-18, 26-30). That is the ultimate end of hardening your heart toward God. That is a really hard heart; a heart the “could not believe.”
God foreknew the heart of Pharaoh and what his decisions would ultimately be (Exodus 3:19-21). The outcome was just as God said it would be. Which raises again a question for us to consider? Are you rejecting God and His word? Take a moment to reflect on that question. Ask yourself, “Am I harder toward God and His word now than I was before? Am I hardened against Jesus and the gospel? Has my indecision and or refusal to surrender to Jesus and trust Him as Savior hardened me?” Indecision is decision. We are only guaranteed the opportunity to receive Jesus as Savior that we are given in the present. And when in our life with Jesus we choose to disobey Him and His word, it has a negative impact on our walk with Him; we will be less sensitive to His voice; less able to hear Him; less in tune with His presence. There are always consequences to sinful decisions. What you sow you will reap. What are you sowing? What are you reaping? When God looks at your heart what does He see? Does He see a heart softened and receptive to His Holy Word? Or does He see more of what He inspired John to write, “Therefore they could not believe”?