Paul has a rather unpopular teaching in Romans that people prefer to skip over or explain away and it goes like this: “God shows mercy and compassion on whoever he wants and hardens whoever he wants.”
Paul links this teaching back to the story of Pharaoh who seemed caught up in a bit of a divine enigma. On one hand, God sent Moses to tell Pharaoh to set the Hebrews free, but on the other hand, God also hardened Pharaoh’s heart so he wouldn’t set the Hebrews free. To make matters more confusing, Paul seems to liken this enigma to salvation: God will bring some into the faith and others he may harden against it.
What’s going on here? This doesn’t feel like the “free-will-God-wants-everyone-to-be-saved” Gospel we were told about. Do we just let that version of the gospel go now?
No, because that gospel is biblical too and has passages that support it. What is needed, rather, is a more robust view of how the gospel and salvation work. So here’s a few quick points to try to help us understand it better.
While we have free will, we are not therefore in charge of our salvation. Salvation is always solely an act and offering of God. We cannot save ourselves. After surveying how we use our free will and all of the various aspects of our life, God decides whether or not he, in his own free will, will extend salvation to us. Yes, salvation is a free gift from God, but he is the one who chooses to give it. We cannot earn it or steal it from him.
In this paradigm, Pharaoh is an example of someone that God chose not to give salvation to. This isn’t because Pharaoh was destined to be this way, but because he walked a path of judgment his whole life. The free will things this evil dictator did to the Hebrews were unthinkable. Pharaoh eventually reached a point where God’s judgment on him was final while he was still alive. He may have still been breathing, but his sentence on the day of judgment was already death. For this reason, God would continue to harden Pharaoh’s heart in order to craft a more epic salvation story for the Hebrews. In his prejudgment of Pharaoh’s free will, God used Pharaoh’s evil and chaos against him.
I’ve heard two ministers tell me that while they’ve been sharing the gospel, they’ve come across people who wanted it that they had a spiritual sense weren’t ready for it. They both needed to pause and address the person: “Are you serious about this? There’s going to have to be some intense changes.”
Perhaps you’ve sensed that too in some people. The gospel isn’t a prayer in the form of magical incantation. It’s a metamorphosis. Entering into it is no little deal.
As far as it goes for us, we are to preach the gospel at all times in all places, knowing that, as the Bible says, “God wants everyone to be saved.” But we are in charge of planting the seeds of salvation while God is the one in charge of growing them into salvation. Yes, God even wanted Pharaoh to be saved, but Pharaoh instead lived in a way that brought about ultimate judgment. And instead of just letting him pass away in his sleep, God instead used that judgment to craft a story that glorified his name.
Pharaoh’s an extreme example of judgment but there are also other people like Pharaoh who are extreme examples of mercy. King Manasseh, for example, seemed just as extreme as Pharaoh, and yet God saw something there that allowed Manasseh to repent and receive salvation and turn his life around. God sees more than we see. He sees the heart. And in his omniscience, he extended to Manasseh what he did not extend to Pharaoh, even though they look similar to us on the outside.
God is always prone to mercy. That much is evident in the greatest revelation of God: Jesus on the cross. So may we follow the great commission, continue to intentionally and extravagantly plant the gospel, and allow God to bring about life.
*This devotional was created out of the themes of Romans 8:31-39 found in today’s reading at CommonPrayer.net. Below are the various AI-created pictures I typed into existence via Mid Journey to mock up artwork for today’s post. Much of today’s teaching on Pharaoh’s hardened heart is inspired by Dr. Michael Heiser’s comments in The Naked Bible Podcast.