Does God Actively Harden the Reprobate? – A brief look at 2 Corinthians 4:4 in light of Romans 11:8

Introduction: Over the past year, there has been much discussion regarding the article written by one Dr. Hartley on his interpretation of 2 Corinthians 4:4 as the “god of this world” being God and not Satan. It has been suggested that the idea of God actively causing sin in the unbeliever can lead to the symmetrical view of election/reprobation as held by Hypercalvinists per some discussion on various Reformed forums and e-mail lists.

However, before we go down the road of wondering whether Dr. Hartley and others like him are Hypercalvinists, let’s all take a look at a passage that I studied in some depth in a recent Greek exegesis class I took on Romans 9-11:

Romans 11:8 just as it is written, “GOD GAVE THEM A SPIRIT OF STUPOR, EYES TO SEE NOT AND EARS TO HEAR NOT, DOWN TO THIS VERY DAY.”

The word translated “gave” here is the Greek edoken (:edwken), which is the aorist ACTIVE indicative 3rd person singular of didomi (di,dwmi). No commentator I’m aware of has ever made the strange assertion that the “God” (qeo.j) of Romans 11:8 is a reference to Satan and I’m sure that all Christians would see such an interpretation as preposterous. As already mentioned, this aorist (past tense completed action) verb is in the ACTIVE voice, meaning that it was God who actively gave these unbelieving Jews their blinding stupor. It does not say that God “created fresh evil” in their hearts, for there is plenty of godless rebellion in every son of Adam to make them naturally hate God (Rom. 8:7-8). However, the text does say that God actively gave this stupor to the unbelieving Jews of Paul’s day. Since Dr. Hartley’s paper has become the subject of much discussion, you can rest assured there will be controversy surrounding his interpretation of 2 Corinthians 4:4, but I’m more convinced that most of us need to rethink the idea that God wasn’t and isn’t actively involved in the hardening of unbelievers in light of the clear context and exegesis of the “gave” in Romans 11:8.

Many Calvinists have typically made a distinction between God actively drawing the elect and then passively leaving the non-elect to their own devices to basically self-destruct. This is why election/predestination has been typically taught as asymmetrical, or uneven in the sense that God actively draws His people to Himself, but “passes over” the reprobate and leaves them to their own sins. It is indeed true that God withholds His saving mercies from the non-elect, but it does not follow that because God withholds salvation from men, that He isn’t just as intimately involved in developing the circumstances that cause them to hate Him more and accumulate more judgment to themselves. Incidentally, we see quite the contrary in the Scriptures:

Exodus 4:21: The LORD said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders which I have put in your power; but I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go.

Notice that the text says that God Himself will harden Pharoah’s heart. The Hebrew verb for “harden” is qZEåx;a], and it too, like the Greek version[1] that underlies this OT English passage, uses “harden” in the sense that God was actively doing the hardening.

Joshua 11:20 For it was of the LORD to harden their hearts, to meet Israel in battle in order that he might utterly destroy them, that they might receive no mercy, but that he might destroy them, just as the LORD had commanded Moses.

Notice that the verse above clearly says that the hardening of the pagan nations so as to cause them to come against Israel in battle was of the LORD. It was His desire to see these nations defeated and overcome by the nation of Israel without mercy (cf. Rom. 9:15).

Psalm 105:25 He turned their heart to hate His people, To deal craftily with His servants.

In the immediate context of Psalm 105, it is apparent that the ones who had their hearts turned by God to hate Israel were the Egyptians. There are many more passages that could be studied[2], but the above should suffice to make the point that God not only actively chooses to save some of the wicked from their sins, but He also chooses to harden the wicked in their sins as well.

However, as was stated earlier, this does not mean that God creates fresh evil in the hearts of sinners. On the contrary, what seems to occur based upon the biblical evidence is that God actively transforms the heart of the elect sinner into a God-lover while actively choosing to not do so to the heart of the non-elect sinner. God then actively and continually manipulates the heart of the non-elect sinner via secondary causation by setting up the circumstances for him to do what God wants him to so as to store up more wrath for himself wherein he will be eventually shown forth as a trophy of God’s judgment (cf. 2 Chronicles 18:19-22). In my view, this would be a more biblically accurate way to describe an assymetrical understanding of election and reprobation. In other words, it is indeed God’s active choice that the reprobate be born, blaspheme his name, have salvation withheld from them, be damned, and then be utilized as a great display of His justice in the courts of heaven (Rom. 9:17, 22) just as much as it is God’s active choice that the elect be born, glorify His name, be saved, and then be utilized as a great and glorious display of His mercy in the courts of heaven (Rom. 9:16, 18, 23). The difference in the two lies not in God actively choosing to save one versus passively rejecting the other, but instead in God actively choosing to transform one via primary causation (i.e., the drawing of the Holy Spirit unto Christ as rendered effectual by regeneration) and actively choosing to leave in sin and then subsequently harden the other for His own purposes via secondary causation. In conclusion, the idea that God does not actively cause the unbelief of the reprobate via secondary causes so as to ensure that they cannot “see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” for His own purposes does not appear to be founded in Scripture, but in the minds of men.

[1] The Septuagint, which is the Greek translation of the OT often abbreviated as LXX. It was frequently quoted by Jesus and the apostles in the NT.

[2] I.e., Judges 9:23-24; 1 Sam. 16:14; 2 Sam. 16:10-11, 1 Kings 22:20-23; and 1 Chron. 10:4, 14.

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3 Comments on “Does God Actively Harden the Reprobate? – A brief look at 2 Corinthians 4:4 in light of Romans 11:8”

  1. Gordan Says:

    Very fine post. Very clear scriptures.

    And yet, not all will be convinced, even those who claim to believe in Sola Scriptura.

    ** sigh **

    Getting pessimistic in my middle-age.

  2. Thomas Twitchell Says:

    It is God that forms the heart, it is God that guides it, and renders every decision that it makes. Even the words of the lips is from the Lord and by the words of a man’s mouth he will be justified. What is left that man can do outside the will of God?

  3. G Says:

    Then why would God bestow free will? Exactly what do you think “made in His image” means? The ability to procreate? The ability to have cognitive thought? The ability to reason, wonder, imagine, invent, and create? Or perhaps it’s the ‘free will’ to choose love for God over love for self.

    God explicitly hardened hearts in Scripture to ensure his point could be fulfilled. At the same time, you’ll note that those hearts that were hardened were also direct devices of Satan, and hence God was simply making sure that their human fear of death and destruction didn’t get in the way of what their hearts had originally intended.

    A murderer may get scared and run off when he sees some police, but in his heart… he’s still a murderer. Perhaps God just made sure that the human weakness of fear didn’t deter these people’s intentions, thus carrying out His larger plan.

    I think that a repentant heart is always open to be ‘softened’ by God… but you’ve got to accept your sin as sin, against God, and not just be worried about the potential repercussions.

    If there were certain elect, and certain non-elect… that would mean God created man with the intent of using them as nothing more than a prop in his quest for praise… FROM HIS OWN CREATIONS?

    I think you’ve missed the concept of God’s desire to love and be loved by His creations.


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