Category Archives: hardening

How Can a Dead Person Believe Unless God Makes Him Alive?

How can a dead person believe unless God first makes him alive? This is a question that is asked by Calvinists. Ephesians 2:1-9 states that we are dead in sin, that we are saved by grace, and that we are made alive in Christ. And there are many other passages that state we are dead in sin. Given that a physically dead corpse can’t do anything, how can a spiritually dead person do anything like believe? Could Lazarus raise himself from the dead? Of course not!

The implication here is that a corpse can’t do anything. A corpse can’t consent to being made alive, and so therefore it must be God who makes us believe. So says the Calvinist.

How does the Arminian come to a different conclusion? It’s important to start by noting that we strongly agree with what scripture teaches. Humanity is dead in sin. We are saved by grace. We are made alive in Christ. We can not believe in Christ unless God first gives us the grace to enable us to believe.

The disagreement is over the Biblical definition of what spiritual death entails, as it relates to our relationship with God. Being spiritually dead does not mean that we are corpses that have no spirit and make no decisions, as the Calvinist implies. Instead, being spiritually dead means that our sins have hardened our hearts and have separated us from God. To “be dead” in this sense is to be separated from Christ, and to not desire to be reconciled with Him. To be alive in Christ is to love Him and to be in relationship with Him. Our sins keep us separated from God and we are dependent on Him to initiate the reconciliation that enables us to believe.

The Calvinist mixes a non-religious understanding of physical death with the Bible’s definition of spiritual death. The Calvinist is defining spiritual death as a corpse with no spirit, like Lazarus was before Jesus raised him from the dead. But a spiritually dead person is not the same as a physically dead one. Prior to God’s grace, a non-believer does not seek God, but he is still physically alive, still has a spirit, and still makes decisions. After God begins to draw the non-believer through grace (and He draws everyone), then the non-believer is enabled to believe.

This kind of death (separation) first took place after the fall of Adam and Eve. After they sinned they did not immediately die physically, but they were immediately separated from God. The first thing they tried to do was to hide themselves from God (Genesis 3:8).

Speaking of non-believers, Paul describes spiritual death in Ephesians 4:18-19:

They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed.

Notice that in this passage the non-believer is not a corpse unable to make decisions. Non-believers are “darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts.”

Jesus also describes death this way twice in the parable of the Prodigal son (Luke 15). Speaking to the servants the father says “this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” To his older son the father says “we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”

In the parable the son was not a corpse. He was able to make decisions, including the decision to go home. Yet, the father still said he was dead! That’s because the son was separated from relationship with his father, and was dependent on the generosity of his father in order to be reconciled. The same is true of us in our spiritual death and separation from our Father.

Jesus describes the concept of separation and its effects in John 15:5-8

I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.

We are alive in Christ. Separated from him we can do nothing. When we are spiritually dead, it means that we are hardened against God, and are not in relationship with Him. We are dependent on His drawing grace that enables us to believe.

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The Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart

The LORD said to Moses, “When you return to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders I have given you the power to do. But I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go. -Exodus 4:21 NIV

A recurring theme in Exodus is the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. Pharaoh repeatedly goes back on his word and refuses to release the Israelites as he promised. At first Pharaoh hardens his own heart. Then God hardens Pharaoh’s heart. Each time after God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, Pharaoh changes his mind and refuses to let the Israelites go.

God hardening the heart of Pharaoh is referred to in Exodus 4:21, 7:3, 10:1, 11:10, 14:4, 14:8, 14:17. It is also alluded to by Paul in Romans 9:17-18.

This “hardening ” of Pharaoh is of particular concern to the Arminian. On the face it seems to indicate that that God was coercive and changed Pharaoh’s heart to cause him to do something that he wouldn’t have done otherwise. If God worked in a coercive manner with Pharoah, He could presumably act in similar ways towards others. This seems to contradict the notion that God’s character is intrinsically good. If God is good in a sense that we can begin to grasp, He wouldn’t arbitrarily change a person’s heart to make him do evil things.

Thankfully, we really can trust God. He is good, and His character is above reproach.

To better understand the “hardening” of Pharaoh , it is important to note that the Hebrew word chazaq (translated as “harden” in English) does not carry the same connotation in Hebrew that it does in English. Chazaq is usually translated as “encourage”, “strengthen”, “repair”, “fortify” and “assist”. In God’s Strategy in Human History, Forster and Marston note that:

The English phrase hard-hearted carries to many people overtones of cruelty or unrepentance. Thus “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart” could be taken to mean that God prevented him from repenting. We are not saying that those who translated the AV RV and RSV intended this, but rather that the ordinary English reader could get this impression- and in our experience often does! This puzzles him, for the Bible clearly teaches that God is not willing that any should perish, but desires all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth…God, we may be sure, would rather that Pharaoh had repented than perished in the Red Sea…The paradox need not arise if we remember that a phrase in one language should not be simply equated with a phrase in another.

Forster and Marston provide a chart that documents occurrences of the word chazaq. It is a term that is frequently used in the Old Testament (They document 55 examples outside of Exodus). The only time chazaq is translated as “harden” is in reference to Pharaoh in Exodus. In all other occurrences, chazaq is translated as “strengthen”, “encourage”, “repair”, “fortify”, etc.

Here are a few examples:

In the passages above, chazaq describes assisting or encouraging someone with a course that they have decided on. It means helping someone to do what they already want to do.

The same is true of God in his dealings with Pharaoh. God did not change Pharaoh’s heart to make him want to kill the Hebrews. Pharaoh already wanted to kill them. What God did was give Pharaoh the courage to follow through with what he already desired to do. Pharaoh was an evil man, but he was also timid and fearful of the Hebrews and their God. God simply gave Pharaoh the tenacity to follow through with the desires of his evil heart.

Understood in this sense, we can see that God’s dealings with Pharoah were above reproach. As a result, we can be confident that God’s dealings with us will also be good and trustworthy.

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