If They Are Unable To Believe, Why The Parables?

This post will answer an excellent question that I received recently in response to Mark 4:11-12, which states,

Mark 4:11-12 And He was saying to them, “To you has been given the mystery of the kingdom of God, but those who are outside get everything in parables, 12 so that WHILE SEEING, THEY MAY SEE AND NOT PERCEIVE, AND WHILE HEARING, THEY MAY HEAR AND NOT UNDERSTAND, OTHERWISE THEY MIGHT RETURN AND BE FORGIVEN.”

This question has been posed to me in several of the following ways:

1. Why would Jesus need to speak to them in parables so they wouldn’t understand, since according to total inability, they wouldn’t have trusted in Him and “been forgiven” even if He would have clearly spoken the message (outside of God’s regenerative work)?

  • This seems to imply that had Jesus not spoken in parables to these people, they may have understood, turned, and been forgiven.
  • So if a person has to be regenerated before being able to “turn” what is the point behind Jesus speaking to these folks in parables?

2. Of course, all Christians agree that there is a sense in which Jesus did this to fulfill prophecy, but in the text it gives a reason as well; so that they would “not understand, turn, and be forgiven.”

3. According to the Calvinistic doctrine of total inability, if people are already unable to respond, turn, etc., why would God need to use a parable? Why would He need to do anything at all? (!)

4. If man is not going to “understand, turn, and be forgiven” outside of regeneration, why did Jesus need to speak in parable so that they would not “understand, turn and be forgiven”?

All of these are excellent questions and I hope to provide a biblical answer in what follows. Let’s look again at the text in Question:

Mark 4:11-12 And He was saying to them, “To you has been given the mystery of the kingdom of God, but those who are outside get everything in parables, 12 so that WHILE SEEING, THEY MAY SEE AND NOT PERCEIVE, AND WHILE HEARING, THEY MAY HEAR AND NOT UNDERSTAND, OTHERWISE THEY MAY RETURN AND BE FORGIVEN.”


Question: Why would God use a parable to harden those who were, according to the Calvinistic doctrine of total inability, naturally set against embracing Christ to begin with?

Answer: To further harden the hearts of these reprobate Jews against the gospel as a form of judicial, divine judgment for committing the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit as recorded earlier in Mark 3:28-29.

  • Hendriksen confirms this regarding the parallel passage, “What we have here in Matt. 13:14, 15 is a further commentary on 12:31, 32 which tells us how the blasphemy against the Spirit is punished. It is because by their own choice the heart of the people has become dull or fat, that it is made dull or fat. It is because by their own unwillingness to listen their ears have become hard of hearing, that they are made even more so. And it is because they have deliberately closed their eyes, that these eyes are shut even more tightly.” William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary – Exposition of the Gospel According to Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1973), 555-556.
  • Reymond states in regard to the use of these parables in Christ’s preaching, “Many Scriptures affirm that heart-hardening is an effect, and thus one purpose, of preaching to the nonelect (cf. Isa. 6:9-13; Mark 4:11-12; John 9:39; 12:38-40; 2 Cor. 2:15-16).” Robert Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Nasville; Thomas Nelson, 1998), 360 fn 20.
  • Curt Daniel states in regards to John’s comments after quoting Isaiah 6:9-10 (i.e., “John 12:39-40 For this reason they could not believe, for Isaiah said again, 40 “HE HAS BLINDED THEIR EYES AND HE HARDENED THEIR HEART, SO THAT THEY WOULD NOT SEE WITH THEIR EYES AND PERCEIVE WITH THEIR HEART, AND BE CONVERTED AND I HEAL THEM.”), “He [God] actually prevents the reprobate from spiritually seeing and hearing. Of course, the are quite pleased to stay that way. They do not want to see and hear.” Curt Daniel, The History and Theology of Calvinism (Springfield, MO: Good Books, 2003), 304.

Regarding the use of parables he goes on to say, “For the elect, God used the parables to grant knowledge and faith. But for the reprobate, God used them to confuse and harden. Of course, it develops gradually. Like the disciples, an elect may be confused. But as He reads and hears more, he gradually understands more and comes to faith. Conversely, a reprobate, may at one time have a certain amount of understanding (intellectual assent to the facts of the gospel, which is also called “assensus”), but in time gradually lose it (cf. vs. 12 [of Matt. 13:14-15]), Ibid, 304.

Remember, as Dr. Curt Daniel notes above, Matthew’s parallel passage provides a verse that gives us some greater detail, Matthew 13:12 “For whoever has, to him more shall be given, and he will have an abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him.” Thus, Matthew 13:12 tells us that whatever information the Pharisees did believe about Jesus, as a form of judicial sentencing, God would actually take away what little understanding they already had through the use of the parables.

Matthew Henry has confirmatory statements regarding this passage in this regard:

I. The way of teaching that Christ used with the multitude (v. 2); He taught them many things, but it was by parables or similitudes, which would tempt them to hear; for people love to be spoken to in their own language, and careless hearers will catch at a plain comparison borrowed from common things, and will retain and repeat that, when they have lost, or perhaps never took, the truth which it was designed to explain and illustrate: but unless they would take pains to search into it, it would but amuse them; seeing they would see, and not perceive (v. 12); and so, while it gratified their curiosity, it was the punishment of their stupidity; they wilfully shut their eyes against the light, and therefore justly did Christ put it into the dark lantern of a parable, which had a bright side toward those who applied it to themselves, and were willing to be guided by it; but to those who were only willing for a season to play with it, it only gave a flash of light now and then, but sent them away in the dark. It is just with God to say of those that will not see, that they shall not see, and to hide from their eyes, who only look about them with a great deal of carelessness, and never look before them with any concern upon the things that belong to their peace.” [Matthew Henry Commentary on Matthew 4:1-20. Bibleworks 7.0 software reference.]

These referred to by Daniel and Henry are the same ones that “believed” on Jesus in John 8, but Jesus exposed their second seed “faith” (Mk. 4:16-17) for what it was. We will look at this passage as a real-time example of what is going on in the fulfillment of Isaiah 6:9-10 as quoted from the LXX in Mark 4:11-12.

John 8:28-44 So Jesus said, “When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am He, and I do nothing on My own initiative, but I speak these things as the Father taught Me. 29 “And He who sent Me is with Me; He has not left Me alone, for I always do the things that are pleasing to Him.” 30 As He spoke these things, many came to believe in Him. 31 So Jesus was saying to those Jews who had believed Him, “If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 33 They answered Him, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never yet been enslaved to anyone; how is it that You say, ‘You will become free ‘?” 34 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin. 35 “The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son does remain forever. 36 “So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed. 37 “I know that you are Abraham’s descendants; yet you seek to kill Me, because My word has no place in you. 38 “I speak the things which I have seen with My Father; therefore you also do the things which you heard from your father.” 39 They answered and said to Him, “Abraham is our father.” Jesus said to them, “If you are Abraham’s children, do the deeds of Abraham. 40 “But as it is, you are seeking to kill Me, a man who has told you the truth, which I heard from God; this Abraham did not do. 41 “You are doing the deeds of your father.” They said to Him, “We were not born of fornication; we have one Father: God.” 42 Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love Me, for I proceeded forth and have come from God, for I have not even come on My own initiative, but He sent Me. 43 “Why do you not understand what I am saying? It is because you cannot hear My word. 44 “You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth because there is no truth in him. Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.

Notice the progression: (1) The context begins with the Sanhedrin being confused as to His identity in John 7:45-52, then skipping the Pericope Adulterae, (2) we land perfectly into one of His great “I AM” treatises from 8:12ff and lo and behold, in verse 22, John tells us that the primary audience are the Jews who were probably still freshly attuned to the identity of Jesus per the confusion from the previous day with the Sanhedrin. (3) Now, in this context we have those Jews who are “believing” on Him (vv. 8:30-31) in some sense but notice that this is *not* saving faith because these same “believers” reveal their true colors as children of the devil as Jesus reminds them in verse 43 that they “cannot hear His word.” (vv. 33-44).

Now, note that the text makes clear reference to the fact that there are two requirements to being saved (1) belief [per vv. 30-31] and (2) perseverance in Christ’s word as the authenticating earmark of a true disciple. These professing Jews quickly fell away like the second seed mentioned in Mark 4:16-17.

“In a similar way these are the ones on whom seed was sown on the rocky places, who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy; 17 and they have no firm root in themselves, but are only temporary; then, when affliction or persecution arises because of the word, immediately they fall away.


1. The use of a parable in the hardening of these Jewish reprobates is necessary for the fulfillment of Isaiah 6:9-10 as seen in Mark 4:11-12. Such use by Jesus further clarifies His identity as the promised Messiah thereby condemning them more as they continue in their committal of the unpardonable sin from Mark 3:28-29. Thus, this is a SPECIAL Jewish/covenantal, divine hardening fulfilled only in the Israelite infidels of Jesus’ day who experienced an emotional and temporary non-saving faith that was later to be snuffed out by the judicial hardening of their hearts by God. Again, this was done in response to their willful committing of the unpardonable sin by rejecting their own Messiah. It is important to point out again that this judicial hardening was for the Israelites alone and that this special, retributive hardening would be the fulfillment of prophecy that would eventually lead to the breaking off of the Old Covenant people and the grafting in of the Gentiles into the root so as to bring about the “one new man” of Ephesians 2:15-16 (cf. Rom. 11:7-10). This is important in light of number 2 below.

2. God does *not* absolutely need to specially harden these Jews or anyone else for that matter, for the Jews already “[could not] hear [His] words” even though they “believed.” (John 8:43, 30-31) and amongst the pagan Gentiles “. . . there is no God-seeker.” (Rom. 3:11 – lit. Greek trans). However, for the purposes of prophetic fulfillment as mentioned in # 1 above, God specially and specifically covenantally hardened these Israelites to remove *all ability* to understand and perceive Jesus’ identity and message because such served as part of the ordained means for fulfilling God’s decree for their participation in killing their own Messiah (Acts 2:22-23; 4:27-29).

3. They had “believed” in some sense (John 8:30-31), but such was not a faith produced by conversion, for only those who continue in Christ’s word will be His authentic disciples. Thus here, Jesus hints at the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints.

4. The use of the subjunctive mood with the entirety of the verse is translated somewhat inconsistently in the ESV, NASB, and NKJV so as to give the impression that these reprobates have the inherent ability to obtain true spiritual salvation. But as you’ll see, a more consistent translation is provided in the NET below:

NET Mark 4:12 so that although they look they may look but not see, and although they hear they may hear but not understand, SO THEY MAY NOT REPENT AND BE FORGIVEN.”

So, it is clear from the use of the subjunctive aorist verbs (as more clearly translated in the NET) that this special prophetic hardening was for the purpose of sealing their doom.

In conclusion, Mark 4:12b is probably a hypothetical impossibility reflecting God’s covenant love still being extended to Old Covenant Israel. In other words, had they not been judicially hardened in accordance with Isaiah’s prophecy after committing the most high sin against Yahveh the Son (the blasphemy of the HS), they “might” have believed had they not been the subjects of God’s dark providence. From the standpoint of God’s sovereign decree, this is impossible, but from the standpoint of His moral will and as a sign of His continued covenant love to them He still extended the gospel call. Thus, what’s in the latter half of verse 12 is merely a written expression of that continued forbearance, love, and patience for Abraham’s physical seed. So, there is a sense in which the non-elect Jews here may hypothetically be saved if they’ll only repent and believe per God’s moral will, but God’s sovereign decree will be fulfilled nonetheless so there is no actual saving grace given to them as they are reprobate. For another example of a hypothetical impossibility read Acts Chapter 27 comparing verses 22-26 with verses 31 and 34.

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4 Comments on “If They Are Unable To Believe, Why The Parables?”

  1. scripturesearcher Says:

    Many of us are in total agreement with this interpretation and we thank you for the correct presentation so that all readers can understand.


  2. Gordan Says:

    Dustin, thanks so much for the care and concision you’ve applied to this question. I happen to know a woman who has wrestled with this precise issue for months, and though I was unable to answer her concerns in a manner that made sense to her, I emailed her a link here and she very shortly wrote me back, very excited, and releaved that things finally made sense to her, in a way that she could see was imminently Biblical. I say that by way of encouragement, just to let you know that sometimes real people, and not budding theologians, get on here and get blessed. Praise God.

  3. Thanks for the encouragement fellahs!

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