I love the Bible because it does not argue in theological categories. When it comes to God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility, it is black and white. The truth is, the Bible makes it clear that man is free and has the ability to choose. At the same time, the Bible is unmistakably clear God is sovereign. If he were not, he would not be “God.”

In this wrestling match, somebody’s freedom has to be contingent on another. Do you want to be the one to say that God’s freedom is contingent upon yours? I don’t think so.

One example of how this plays out is in the life of Pharaoh during the plagues in Egypt. The first mention of Pharaoh’s heart being hardened is in Exodus 4:21. There it says that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart before Pharaoh did it to himself.

It is sinful and wrong for Pharaoh to harden his heart against God. Furthermore, it would wrong for him (if it were even possible) to harden another human’s heart. Yet, here is God, doing what would be sinful for Pharaoh to do on his own. In fact, Exodus says Pharaoh’s heart was hardened 18 times. Nine of those times, it was Yahweh’s doing (4:21; 7:3; 9:12; 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10; 14:4, 8). Six times it is simply stated as a fact that Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, not attributing the hardening to anyone in particular (7:13, 14, 22; 8:19; 9:7, 35). Only three times is Pharaoh credited with hardening his own heart (8:15, 32; 9:34).

This episode clearly shows that God is free in the absolute sense, and Pharaoh is free because he, in fact, did what he wanted to do. In his Freedom of the Will, Jonathan Edwards argues we should think of freedom this way: we are free because we do what we want. In the final analysis, we do what is sinful. Before salvation sin is all we really want to do anyway.

So it is clear that Pharaoh’s freedom was contingent upon the freedom of another, namely God. Lest we shout, “Not fair!” we must remember that God is not a man and we cannot project what we think is appropriate for man upon the all-wise, all-loving, omnipotent, and omniscient Creator God. For his ways are inscrutable (Rom. 11:33). As Edward writes, God is far above “the influence of law or command, promises or threatening, rewards or punishments, counsels or warnings.”[1]

This shouldn’t leave us feeling hopeless or like programmed robots or predetermined cyborgs. It should cause us to cast ourselves upon the grace of God in the cross of Christ, acknowledging our complete lack of ability to do any good. Only then will we really be free to do what God commands, for it was for freedom that Christ set us free to actually pursue holiness (Gal. 5:1).

The one who hardens hearts is also the one who softens hearts so that we might live a soft-heart kind of life. Therefore, let us pray pray as St. Augustine prayed: “Command us to do as you will, O Lord, and will us to do what you command.”

__________________

[1] Jonathan Edwards, “Concerning the Notion of Liberty, and of Moral Agency,” Freedom of the Will, (accessed February 29, 2012), paragraph 9.

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