What kind of God hardens people against himself?

I'm a Lutheran Christian. Much like the Reformed Church, the Lutheran Church emphasizes the action of God in salvation, rather than our human actions. I believe that God gives us faith (Eph. 2:8-9) and calls us to himself (John 6:44), not the other way around. But ever since seminary, as I have begun to put aside the language of "choosing God" in favor of "God choosing us" (John 15:16), I have been struggling with this teaching known as "election." This struggle became heightened last year as my Bible study group dug into the depths of Romans 9-11 and I found myself stopped in my tracks by verses like, "Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated" (9:13). As I read about how God hardened Pharaoh's heart, I found myself recoiling. What kind of God hardens people against himself?

My struggle was made more difficult by the fact that despite the sometimes universalist-leaning seminary education I received, I have never stopped believing in hell. The Bible is too clear on this matter to ignore the stern warnings we are given. So, I wondered, does this mean that God is coldly and deterministically sending some people to a line that leads to heaven and others to a line leading to hell … simply because he feels like it? How could this be? This does not resonate with the God I see in the face of Jesus Christ. This does not jive with the Jesus who died for me. But I simply could not find a way to resolve this apparent conflict in my mind.

Finally, I had enough of the questions niggling at the back of my mind. I took a block of time to pore over Romans 9-11 with my study Bible, intent on finding some answers and coming to see how God's character of love and graciousness could exist in a world where God is the one who chooses and sends us to heaven.

And I had a breakthrough.

I read Romans 11:32 and it knocked me between the eyes: "For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all" (emphasis added).

Suddenly, I got it. Election is not about wrath or the capricious choosing of one person while another is ignored. Election is about mercy. It is about God literally pulling out all the stops to woo a stubborn human being to himself.

The Bible says something really important in 2 Peter 3:8-9: "But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance." I think in my mental struggles over election, I was ignoring this verse. When God says he doesn't want anyone to perish, but all to come to repentance, he actually means it!

God is not a cold deterministic machine in heaven. He is a Lover. His heart is filled with love for every person who has ever been born. And he is actively at work to woo every single one of them to faith in him. This means that sometimes God will send suffering into their lives to call them to faith. On my blog, I wrote about the powerful impression Laura Hillenbrand's recent biography of Louis Zamperini, Unbroken, had on me. In this story, we see a man going through tremendous suffering and enduring unspeakable deprivations, tortures, and abuses, and yet staying alive. But we also see a man who, upon his rescue from a concentration camp and return home, was in bondage to PTSD, to alcoholism, and to his brokenness. I don't know whether God causes or allows this kind of suffering in our lives, but I know it cannot exist with his permission. And I also know now that when God allows such suffering into our lives, he is on a path to woo us to himself. If Zamperini had not been brought to rock bottom through the pain that he suffered, he may never have come to faith.

In Romans 9, Paul says of his Jewish brothers and sisters who have not yet come to faith in Christ that he would be willing to be sent to hell for eternity if only they could be saved. That's powerful. But I think Paul's passionate declaration also shows us God's heart for those who have not yet come to faith. If Paul was willing to be sent to hell for those who do not yet believe, how much more is God willing to do whatever it takes! And in fact, Jesus did "descend into hell" for us, as the Apostle's Creed affirms. He did this to take the consequences of sin onto his shoulders for us. He took death and hell for us and gave us life and salvation in return.

Paul then goes on to give examples of how salvation depends on God's mercy, instead of man's effort. He reminds us of how Abraham and Sarah had a baby in their old age, which was physiologically impossible apart from God's work. Without that baby, there would be no Jewish nation and no Savior. Then Paul reminds us of Jacob and how God chose him before he had even been born or done anything good or bad. It was through Jacob's line that Jesus would be born. Finally, Paul reminds us of Pharaoh, whom God chose to resist releasing Israel from Egypt in order that the most central and important event of the Old Testament, the supernatural rescue of the Jewish slaves from Egypt, might be accomplished. (I found it helpful to note, however, that Pharaoh resists God five times before it is said that God hardens Pharaoh's heart, thus giving him over to his own desires.)

In Romans 9:19, Paul cites the objection that immediately rises in all of our hearts when we hear that salvation is all God's work and none of our own: "Then why does God still blame us? For who is able to resist his will?" In response, Paul reminds us that we should not be giving God advice on how to run the world, and he also brings up a lesser-known story from Jeremiah 18. In this story, Jeremiah sees a potter working with clay. The clay pot becomes marred, so the potter shapes it into another pot. The vision and wisdom of the potter is emphasized. In this story in Jeremiah, God reminds the prophet that no destiny is set in stone. If he pronounces judgment against someone and they then turn to him, he will revoke the judgment. If he promises blessing for someone and they turn away from him, he will bring judgment.

In verse 22, Paul says, "What if God, although choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath …?" The emphasis here is again on mercy. God is so patient with us and is pulling out all the stops to woo us to himself. God chose the people of Israel so that they could be a blessing to all the world and bring salvation to all the world (Gen. 12). And when Israel largely rejected their Savior (for a time), God used that opportunity to send the gospel to the Gentiles—but he did this so that Israel would be jealous and be saved. For every heart drawn to God and every heart hardened to God, God has in mind redemption. God's goal in all of this giving of faith and hardening of hearts is that people may be wooed to him, might come to know and love him and be saved (see Romans 11:12-16).

When I finished my study of Romans 9-11, I sat in awe of God, my eyes opened to see one very crucial fact: Election is not God's plan to save less people, but rather his plan to woo more people. Through election, God is pulling out all the stops to save each broken person on the planet.

When this stood out to me in bold print, I recognized the Jesus who died on the cross for me. I saw that merciful face of God, who is willing to do anything out of pure love for me. I realized that God really is pursuing the salvation of every human being on earth. He loves us that much. And it has changed everything for me.

Rebecca Miller is a freelance writer and editor, ordained pastor, pastor's wife, and proud mother. You can connect with her online at her blog: http://www.flatheadmama.blogspot.com.

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