We've been studying Exodus in the Bible readings. We've spent a while discussing the hardening of Pharaoh's heart. People have been saying the same things I've heard for years: some think God hardened Pharaoh's heart first, others think Pharaoh hardened his own heart first.
I'm starting to think the bigger point is that when God hardened Pharaoh's heart, He got exactly the same results as when Pharaoh hardened his own heart. That is, man of his own will puts himself into the same hardness of heart that God brought to Pharaoh.
Occasionally God offers a divine commentary on Scripture, where one passage is a commentary on another. The story of Pharaoh's heart is one of those stories: Romans 9:14–22 is a divine commentary on the story of Pharaoh's destruction, and it really doesn't help very much. If anything, Romans 9 makes it more difficult.
Exodus 4:21 and Romans 9:14–20 are difficult passages. But the problem isn't that they're difficult to understand, it's that they're difficult to accept. What God actually tells Moses in Exodus 4:21–23 is something like this: "I want you to command Pharaoh to let My people go; and I will harden his heart so that he won't let them go, and then I will punish him for not listening." That's not very hard to understand, but it's really, really hard to accept, because it seems so unfair.
Romans 9 addresses this specific objection:
You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?” (Romans 9:19, NASB).And what is the scriptural reply to this question? It's very simple: who are you to judge God? (v. 20). That's not a very satisfying answer, but it is a deeply searching answer. It doesn't help us at all to understand Exodus 4, or even Romans 9:19. But it reveals our own hearts. And I have come to the conclusion that until we accept Romans 9:20, we can't really go on to the verses following. It's only after we accept the answer in that verse – that we have no right to judge God – that we can understand the following verses. And what do they say? That God has every right to take one man and show him mercy, while refusing to show mercy to someone else.
So let's go back to Pharaoh. Exodus tells us that before Moses ever spoke to Pharaoh, God had declared His intention to harden Pharaoh's heart "so that he will not let the people go" (v. 21). So yes, it was according to God's "determinate counsel" that Pharaoh did not listen: God was determined to destroy Pharaoh. But before there is any record at all of the state of Pharaoh's heart, the Scripture records his condemnation from his own lips: "Who is Jehovah that I should obey him?" (Exodus 5:2).
And this, I think, is a point we so often overlook in the story of Pharaoh. People who tend towards a "freewill" viewpoint spend a lot of time pointing out that Pharaoh hardened his own heart several times before God hardened it. People who tend towards an "election" viewpoint point out that God had already declared His intention to harden Pharaoh's heart before Moses ever spoke to him. (And as a point of fact, they're both correct.) But this is the bigger point, I think: whether it was God who hardened Pharaoh's heart, or Pharaoh himself (and Scripture teaches both), the result was the same. Fallen men and women may not be capable of coming to Christ on their own, but they are experts hardening their own hearts.
Which takes us back to this: Men and women – sons and daughters of Adam – are not only guilty sinners, they are lost, guilty sinners. I listened to a sermon several times over the last month or so on "The Dangers of Calvinism and Arminianism". It was really more of a long rant about "calvinists" than anything else. What I found interesting was that the speaker kept insisting the Scripture teaches a "whosoever will Gospel". This preacher would doubtless classify me as a "calvinist"; but I, too, believe Scripture teaches a "whosoever will Gospel". The problem isn't that the Gospel is limited, the problem is that men and women in and of themselves won't. The problem is that "whosoever will" is an empty set. No one wills. That's what Romans 3:10–18 teaches, right? None seeks after God. It's not so much that God prevents sinners from believing (although Matthew 13:13–16 seem to indicate He sometimes does), it's that there is no chance anyone would seek after God without His active interference. Which is, after all, what the Lord Jesus explicitly taught in John 6:37–44, but perhaps we'll save those verses for another time.