God hardening Pharaoh’s heart is a difficult subject for many to talk about. Calvinists, for example, go too far and use this as “evidence” for the false doctrine of double predestination. They make a twofold error in this regard. First, they believe that because God predestines or elects Christians for salvation, this must also mean He predestines unbelievers for damnation. (This is a logical conclusion, but the Scriptures do not speak on election this way. More on that in a little bit.) There is no opportunity for the latter to repent, and if a Christian “falls away” from the faith, the Calvinist would say they were never saved in the first place (Calvinists don’t believe Christians can fall away from the faith, but we won’t discuss that here). How do you know you’re elect, then? By the fruit of your good works.
In an unnecessary effort to defend God’s sovereignty, Calvinists doom anyone they deem to be an unbeliever to Hell without any possible reconciliation to God through Christ, even Christians who don’t produce enough good works as proof of their election and thus leave the Christian uncertain of their salvation. The problem is that no person, not even a Christian, can ever produce enough good works to be certain that they’re one of God’s saved elect.
Conversely, the Scriptures only speak on election in terms of salvation, never damnation. In other words, when the Scriptures speak on election, it only speaks on the election of Christians in Christ and never on an election of unbelievers. As our Confessions say, “The eternal election of God, however, or praedestinatio (that is, God’s preordination to salvation), does not apply to both the godly and the evil, but instead only to the children of God, who are chosen and predestined to eternal life, ‘before the foundation of the world’ was laid, as Paul says (Eph. 1[:4, 5]). He chose us in Christ Jesus and ‘preordained us to adoption as His children'” (FC SD XI, 5). Election is for the hope of Christians, not for the fatalistic doom of unbelievers or the hopelessness of Christians who never seem to do enough good works (no one can).
Second, regarding Pharaoh, the Scriptures neither here nor anywhere else lay forth Pharaoh as a paradigm for unbelievers who are elected for damnation; that is a rationalistic, Calvinist undertaking. God did indeed say He would harden Pharaoh’s heart (Exodus 7:3), and He did, yet the culpability is attributed to Pharaoh, not God (8:15, 32; 9:34). If God elected unbelievers for damnation, this would make Him the author of evil. If God is the author of evil, He cannot be good, and we cannot trust Him.
Moreover, to remain theologians of the cross and not become theologians of glory like the Calvinist, what do the Scriptures say for the reasoning behind God’s hardening the heart of Pharaoh rather than making vain attempts to peer into the hidden mind of God? God did not harden Pharaoh’s heart to damn him to Hell and therefore set him up as the example for preordination to damnation. Rather, the Scriptures say God hardened his heart for three other reasons: (1) that the Egyptians will know He is Yahweh, (2) to bring His people out of Egypt, and (3) that God may be glorified (7:3-5; 14:4).
Thus, to answer the question, “What about the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart,” the answer is: Who cares? Glory be to God! For He is Yahweh! For He has brought His people out of Egypt that they may be His people and that He may be their God (6:7)! Furthermore, dear Christian, do not fret that you have not done enough good works as “evidence” of your election, because you never can. Christ has already done all that was necessary to save you. “My grace is sufficient for you” (2 Corinthians 12:9). What do you think you can do with your meagre little works that Christ has not already done?
God’s election is not to caution you or cause you doubt, or to terrify you into submission (that’s Islam), but rather to comfort you. He chose you “before the foundation of the world, that [you] should be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined [you] for adoption to Himself as [a son] through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of His will… In Him [you] have redemption through His blood,” not the fruit of your works, “the forgiveness of [your] trespasses, according to the riches of His grace,” not the riches of your good works in quality or quantity (Ephesians 1:4-5, 7).
Therefore, you always have Him, and He always has you. If you are ever worried that you have lost Christ, you have not lost Him, for a person who has lost Christ or the Holy Spirit would not be so worried about it.
Theology Terms Used
- Double Predestination: the Calvinist doctrine that God both chooses who is saved and who is damned to Hell.
- Election/Predestination: “the doctrine that, based solely on his grace, God elects or predestines some individuals to salvation before the creation of the world. Those who are elect come to faith and are saved” (Mueller, 526).
- Theology of Glory: A theologian of glory essentially tries to peer into the hidden mind of God that is not revealed to us in the Scriptures, whereas the theologians of the cross simply says what the Scriptures say and understands the hiddenness of God in view of Christ’s suffering on the cross.
- Theology of the Cross: Luther created and defined this term in his 1518 Heidelberg Disputation, “The person deserves to be called a theologian, however, who understands the visible and the ‘backside’ of God [Exodus 33:23] seen through suffering and the cross. A theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theologian of the cross calls a thing what it actually is” (Wengert, 84).
Mueller, Steven P. Called by the Gospel: Called to Believe, Teach, and Confess: An Introduction to Doctrinal Theology. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2005.
Wengert, Timothy J., Hans J. Hillerbrand, and Kirsi I. Stierna. The Annotated Luther: The Roots of Reform. Volume 1. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015.