When you have two options and you choose one of them, that means that you do not choose the other option. The early church chose Matthias and not Barsabbas to be an apostle (Acts 1:23–25), and Paul chose Silas and not Mark to travel with him (Acts 15:39–40).

If you select a certain number of individuals for something, that means that you are not selecting the remaining individuals. The early church chose seven men and not other men to serve tables (Acts 6:1–6), and they chose to send certain men and not other men to Antioch (Acts 15:22–27). After Jesus rose from the dead, God ordained for Jesus to appear “not to all the people” but specifically to those “who had been chosen by God as witnesses” (Acts 10:39–41).

That is how choosing works in everyday life. If you pick an apple from a bowl full of apples, you are choosing only one apple and not choosing the rest of the apples. In a similar way, if God chose to save certain individuals, then he chose not to save the others.

But the Bible says more than simply that God did not choose some. The Bible says that God accomplishes reprobation through means. How does God carry out his decree of reprobation? God accomplishes reprobation by hardening hearts, blinding eyes, and deafening ears.1

How Does God Harden?

Peter Sammons thoughtfully organizes the means of reprobation into four categories: abandonment, hardening, personal agency, and nonpersonal agency.2 I think it is simpler to say that the primary means is hardening and that the other categories are ways that God hardens.

God Hardens by Withholding Grace

Our sinful hearts are worse than we think. It should not surprise us when a horde loots a store when no police are present or available. God has kindly given God-hating rebels all kinds of restraining grace so that people do not behave as wickedly as they possibly could (e.g., Gen. 20:61 Sam. 25:34, 39). One way that God hardens individuals is simply by withholding grace. God withholds grace when he hides Jesus’s message from people (Matt. 11:25–26Luke 10:21; cf. Matt. 15:14). God withholds grace when he removes moral restraints and gives people up to what their sinful hearts desire (Rom. 1:24, 26, 28).

This is why A. A. Hodge describes hardening as “doubtless a judicial act wherein God withdraws from sinful men, whom he has not elected to life, for the just punishment of their sins, all gracious influences, and leaves them to the unrestrained tendencies of their own hearts, and to the uncounteracted influences of the world and the devil.”3 R. C. Sproul explains:

All that God has to do to harden people’s hearts is to remove the restraints. He gives them a longer leash. Rather than restricting their human freedom, he increases it. He lets them have their own way. In a sense he gives them enough rope to hang themselves. It is not that God puts his hand on them to create fresh evil in their hearts; he merely removes his holy hand of restraint from them and lets them do their own will.4

God Hardens through Sinful People

God uses wicked people to accomplish his purposes. This includes humans such as Joseph’s brothers (Gen. 50:20), the Sabeans who murdered Job’s servants and plundered his livestock (Job 1:15), the Babylonians (Hab. 1), and Judas (John 17:12). This also includes Satan and demons (1 Chron. 21:1Job 1:7–12). God can accomplish his decree of reprobation by hardening hearts and blinding eyes through wicked people (see 2 Thess. 2:8–10Rev. 13:5, 8Rev. 17:8, 12–18).

God Hardens with the Truth

God hardens people with the truth (e.g., Isa. 6:9–10Matt. 13:14–15). This reminds me of the treacherous Dwarfs at the end of C. S. Lewis’s The Last Battle. The Dwarfs sense that they are confined in a pitch-black stable, and when Lucy picks some fresh flowers and asks Diggle the Dwarf if he can smell them, he angrily shouts, “How dare you! What do you mean by shoving a lot of filthy stable-litter in my face?”5 For those being saved, the truth is “the aroma of Christ . . . a fragrance from life to life,” but to others the very same message is “a fragrance from death to death” (2 Cor. 2:15–16). Believers consider Jesus the cornerstone as “precious,” but “those who do not believe” reject the cornerstone; unbelievers “stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do” (1 Pet. 2:6–8).

Is That Fair?

Roger Olson, an Arminian theologian, says that if reprobation is true, it is difficult for him to distinguish God from Satan:

Taken to their logical conclusion, that even hell and all who will suffer there eternally are foreordained by God, God is thereby rendered morally ambiguous at best and a moral monster at worst. I have gone so far as to say that this kind of Calvinism, which attributes everything to God’s will and control, makes it difficult (at least for me) to see the difference between God and the devil.6

Is it fair for God to harden, blind, and deafen sinners? Is it fair that God accomplishes reprobation by withholding grace and by hardening hearts, blinding eyes, and deafening ears? It is crucial to remember two truths:

1) God is the supreme Creator, and we are his creatures. Paul anticipated the “unfair” objection:

You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? (Rom. 9:19–21)

God is all-powerful, all-good, all-knowing, and all-wise, and we are not. So it should not surprise us that we don’t fully understand him and his ways.

2) When God hardens, blinds, and deafens an individual by withholding grace, that person is not innocent but already guilty. God shows mercy to certain sinners, and he hardens certain sinners.

We are not innocent, neutral people whom God chose to save or pass over. Each of us is a rebel against the King, an idolator, a wicked traitor. And God sovereignly and graciously chose to rescue some sinners and to condemn the rest.

God ultimately causes reprobation but not in the same way that he sovereignly chose to save individuals. God hardens, blinds, and deafens sinners but not in the same way that he softens the hearts, opens the eyes, and opens the ears of sinners. Michael Horton contrasts how God hardens and softens hearts:

God is not active in hardening hearts in the same way that he is active in softening hearts. Scripture does speak of God hardening hearts, not only in Exodus 7:3 and Romans 9:18 but also in Joshua 11:20John 12:40Romans 11:72 Corinthians 3:14. Yet it also speaks of sinners hardening their own hearts (Ex. 8:15Ps. 95:8Isa. 63:17Matt. 19:8Heb. 3:8, 13). However, no passage speaks of sinners softening their own hearts and regenerating themselves. Human beings are alone responsible for their hardness of heart, but God alone softens and in fact re-creates the hearts of his elect (1 Kings 8:58Ps. 51:10Isa. 57:15Jer. 31:31–34Ezek. 11:19; 36:262 Cor. 3:3; 4:6Heb. 10:16). In short, God only has to leave us to our own devices in the case of reprobation, but it requires the greatest works of the triune God to save the elect, including the death of the Father’s only begotten Son.7

We must not conclude that God’s hardening, blinding, and deafening contradicts his goodness. God gives common (non-saving) grace to all humans. He often gives more temporal material blessings to unbelievers than he does to believers. But unbelievers are sinners who despise God’s goodness and deserve condemnation (Rom. 2:4–5). “Everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light” (John 3:20; cf. John 6:44, 65); “no one seeks for God” (Rom. 3:11). Unbelievers are responsible moral agents who willfully reject what God has revealed about himself. God is just and good, and God always does what is just and good (Gen. 18:25Ps. 119:68).

This is a guest article by Andrew David Naselli, a contributor to Predestination: An IntroductionThis post originally appeared on crossway.org; used with permission.

Notes:

  1. Sometimes God hardens, blinds, or deafens individuals in a particular situation but not necessarily for eternal death. For example, God hardened King Sihon specifically that he would not let the Israelites pass through his land (Deut. 2:30), which illustrates Proverbs 21:1: “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; / he turns it wherever he will” (cf. Ezra 6:22; 7:27Prov. 16:1, 9; 19:21Isa. 10:5–7). In this chapter I am focusing on instances in which God hardens, blinds, and deafens with reference to eternal death. For lists of passages that distinguish God’s divine reprobating activity as either eternal or noneternal, see Richard M. Blaylock, Vessels of Wrath, 2 vols. (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2023), 1:177–78, 2:185–86.
  2. See Peter Sammons, Reprobation and God’s Sovereignty: Recovering a Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic, 2022), 227–81.
  3. A. A. Hodge, Outlines of Theology, 2nd ed. (New York: Hodder and Stoughton, 1878), 223.
  4. R. C. Sproul, Chosen by God (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1986), 145.
  5. C. S. Lewis, The Last Battle, The Chronicles of Narnia (New York: HarperCollins, 1956), 166.
  6. Roger Olson, Against Calvinism (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 23; see also 84–85, 104, 110, 180, 190.
  7. Michael Horton, For Calvinism (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 57–58.
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