In all the studying that I have been doing for the "Ten Rounds with God" sermon series, one phrase keeps getting repeated in a couple different ways - pharaoh hardened his heart, and pharaoh's heart was hardened. In some ways it has taken me back to the many times where I would hear this, along with "Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated" and "For those whom He foreknew He also predestined" as proof that God chooses some for salvation, and condemns others.
I have often wondered about these phrases. While my upbringing was thoroughly in Wesleyan-Arminian Holiness belief, there was a time when I was educated in a Christian school located in a fundamental, independent Baptist church that was thoroughly aligned with the Calvinist doctrine. Among Calvinism's most foundational beliefs is that some people are chosen for salvation, while others are not, and we as humans do not have a say in the matter one way or the other. It is purely out of God's own choosing.
This never set right with me, as it went against everything I had ever been taught in Sunday School and church, but I could not deny that there were verses in the Bible that really seemed to support this idea. So for the majority of the years I spent at this Christian school I was very confused on the whole issue.
Just a quick word of warning, this might get a little long, and somewhat technical.
Now there is something I want to get clear. I don't intend to make this post into condemning a particular doctrine, nor anyone who might read this and be in agreement with said doctrine. Neither is it my intent to solve any issues that have existed for hundreds of years. At the same time though I understand that there is a great misunderstanding on both sides of what is meant. There are some Arminians I have known who will accuse Calvinists of believing in an unloving, spiteful God. I have known many Calvinists who will claim that if God is not sovereign in all areas, particularly in the matter of salvation, than God is not sovereign at all. In essence they would accuse an Arminian (such as myself) in believing in and promoting a weak God.
For the record I do not believe that Calvinists believe in an unloving God. They will say that, because He chooses to save some proves that He is loving, as He is not under obligation to save any. Yet this is an area where many well meaning Arminians have been hung up.
First, it paints all Calvinists with quite a broad brush. The Westminster Confession, considered to be a standard text for study among Calvinists, seems to advocate for a position that was later termed to be "Soft Compatibalism Determinism", as opposed to "Hard Determinism" and "Libertarian Determinism." Trying not to get too technical I will go into the basic differences among the three.
Hard determinism says that free will is nothing but an illusion, and all of our choices are really nothing but the endless cycle of cause and effect, as in a chain reaction. Human behavior thus becomes predictable, as it can be studied as one might study Newtonian physics. It also says that we, being subject to cause and effect, are not really responsible, moral agents, and as such cannot be held responsible for any good or bad done in our world. This is what I would suggest most Arminians would say all Calvinists believe. While it might be true that some believe this, I doubt that highly to be the truth that all in fact do.
Libertarian determinism on the other hand claims that to not be in possession of free will is absurd and illogical, and see free will as a prerequisite for self-awareness. It is not incongruent that there are many decisions we make, both large and small on a daily basis, that aren't rooted in a previous cause, as hard determinists believe. Yet, those who believe in Libertarian determinism don't always take into account that there are factors which we don't have any control over that, undoubtedly, play a role in our decision making.
That brings us to a soft compatibalism determinism. The description might be a little misleading as those who believe in "hard" and "soft" are as equally committed to their belief in determinism, but where the big difference is has to do with how the outside physical and metaphysical forces, some of which may be internal, affect us. A soft compatibalist will say that there isn't anything we can do to affect the forces of the physical and metaphysical world (in other words our freedom of will will always be constrained by something), but within those forces we are presented with choices that we do have some ability to exercise. The American system of justice is built on this belief. A person can be found to have perpetrated an illegal action, but his guilt or innocence is left to be determined if he was capable of making a better moral choice or if the act came about because of his environment.
It is the third option in which the wording of the Westminster Confession most closely aligns itself. God establishes certain conditions within some people, and within their world, in which they are presented with salvation. The person would choose then salvation, as the conditions are met, and they would not want to choose to not be saved. In that way God alone is responsible for creating the conditions by which a person would freely choose salvation.
Second, it shows that it is possible to believe in both God being sovereign over every decision everybody ever made but allowing for us to exercise free will within a strict set of circumstances. To be fair this is where many, if not most of the Calvinists I know personally, reside.
That is not to say however that it is correct, only that it is possible for one to believe in both a completely sovereign God and humanity's free will.
Another aspect that often gets thrown into the mix is that if God knows what the future is, it must already be determined. Otherwise the future could quite easily change and we might be able to circumvent God's will.
The question though I wish to pose to you (that is if you have read this far) is, does knowledge of the future have to mean that it is predetermined?
We, as finite creatures, live within constraints known as time and space. It is not possible for us to live simultaneously in two or more places at the exact same time. But both time and space are creations, and the question becomes would the creator be under the same constraints as we are? If the answer is no, then that would open up the possibility of existing outside of time, and perhaps the ability to see and even exist in all time simultaneously.
Now if you are thinking if that means God must be like the "clock maker" that the Deists believed in (God set the world in motion and simply let it go its natural course from there), you should know that it does not have to mean that at all. In fact, we see instance after instance of God intervening in time and space and throughout our history.
But at the time of Creation, God formed humanity from the dust of the earth, and breathed His very life into him, and that man became a living being. In placing part of Himself into the man, humanity was given the ability to think, to reason, to love, but was also invited into taking an active part within creation. At one point God brought to the man the animals of the earth, and whatever the man named them, that's what they were. From the beginning God intended there to be a partnership between Himself and humanity, something that He would not have with the rest of creation.
Yet, standing outside of time and seeing all of time and place simultaneously, God saw humanity's rebellion. And therefore God enacted a plan of redemption for humanity through certain people and nations.
It isn't that Arminians do not believe in things such as predestination or foreknowledge. I absolutely believe in both. But what we must guard against making those concepts out to be something they are not. When the Bible speaks of predestination, of foreknowledge, it is not revealing that certain people or a certain number of people were chosen and the rest were condemned. Rather, it is speaking of groups of people that God chose to work His plan through.
Abram demonstrated faith in God, and God credited it as righteousness to him. And God made a promise to Abram, saying that he would become the father of many nations, and through him the world would be blessed. Abram's name was changed to Abraham.
Abraham had two sons: Ishmael and Isaac. God chose to work His plan through Isaac rather than Ishmael, not because Ishmael was bad, but because God made a choice. That however did not mean that Ishmael and his descendants were cut off from the blessing that would come through Isaac.
Likewise, God chose Jacob over Esau to continue to enact His plan of redemption. The greater passage does not say Esau was incapable of attaining salvation, that he was cut off from God for all eternity. Individual salvation is not the focus of the passage. In fact it is not the focus of any passage of scripture.
Even God's chosen people were not guaranteed salvation because of their elected status. The Apostle Paul goes to great length to talk about that. Israel was God's chosen people, not because salvation was their exclusive right, but that through them God would bless the entire world. Salvation is not limited.
Yet, these various people were predestined to fulfill a specific part of God's plan for the redemption of all of humanity.