I Will Harden Pharaoh's Heart

Grace & Free Will

“And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them.
But I will gain glory for myself through Pharaoh and all his army,  
and the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord.”
Exodus 14, 4

Double predestination is a theological doctrine held by traditional Calvinists which basically means God has willed to create some people to be saved and others to be lost. In other words, human beings cannot freely choose whether they want to be reconciled to God and be saved or to reject God and risk losing their salvation. Their eternal destiny is a predetermined fate that is beyond their control. This particular Protestant teaching rejects the idea that our salvation partly depends on human desire and effort. It’s grounded on the conviction that no one is deserving of God’s mercy because of their sins and cannot, therefore, merit their salvation by any natural means. This part is true and acknowledged by Catholics.

Calvinists believe that because of our common sinful nature and original fall from grace, God can act with partiality. God can choose the people whom He wills to be merciful to and those whose hearts He will deliberately harden so that they cannot be saved. Hence, human free will and supernatural merit within the system of cooperative grace hold no place in this theological doctrine. Human beings are either formed of clay for either a special purpose (the glory of God) or common use (for the glory of God). Salvation is no longer a merited gift or reward but an undeserved favor (irresistible grace) only so that God can demonstrate His omnipotence and flaunt His divine will on a whim. There is justice insofar as Christ’s alien righteousness is imputed to the believer only because of their faith in His redeeming merits.

To support their belief system, extreme Calvinists usually cite Exodus 14 and Romans 9 which we will examine later, since Paul uses Pharaoh as an example for all the wicked. For now, let’s look at Exodus and see whether it’s true that God has intentionally created some people for eternal destruction, who, because of their sinfulness, can’t justly blame God for His choice; since God could have withheld His mercy from everyone if He so chose - all having fallen short of the glory of God (Rom 3:23). Is the clay in no position to argue with the potter? The answer is Yes, but in a Catholic sense. Can God justly show or withhold His mercy from whoever He chooses in His sovereignty? Again, the answer is Yes, but in a Catholic sense.

But when Pharaoh saw that there was relief,
he hardened his heart and did not heed them,
as the Lord had said.
Exodus 8:15

But Pharaoh hardened his heart at this time also;
neither would he let the people go.
Exodus 8:32

And when Pharaoh saw that the rain, the hail, and the thunder had ceased,
he sinned yet more; and he hardened his heart, he and his servants.
Exodus 9:34

Our non-Catholic friends fail to see what is actually meant by the idea of God hardening one's heart. And this explains why they choose and isolate Exodus 14 to support their preconceived notion. It doesn't mean, for instance, that God would somehow predetermine or mold Pharaoh from wanting to release the Israelites from slavery. Rather it means that God permitted Pharaoh to remain unyielding to His command. Pharaoh, unfortunately, was obstinate in heart. He refused to be persuaded even after Egypt had been hit by several devastating plagues. In fact, because of his pride, he grew even more obstinate after each plague was sent by God. Pharaoh defied God and became even more defiant. God had hardened his heart, but only because of the plagues which resulted in its increased hardening.

Thus, Pharaoh grew more defiant and unheeding with each plague because of his pride. They served to boost his ego which influenced him in his decision to remain intransigent. In this way God hardened his heart by being physically responsible for having sent the plagues. Pharaoh, on the other hand, was morally responsible for them by his persistent disobedience to the divine command: "Let my people go!" God wouldn't have commanded him at all if he had no free will and choice in the matter. I'm afraid God doesn't mould us so that we should act against His will for the sake of His pleasure of being merciful to a selected few other than ourselves and demonstrating how merciful He can be when He wants to be by acting arbitrarily against our desires.

On the contrary, God reveals His true intentions and what he truly desires for everyone who is made of the same original clay through the prophet: ‘Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die? says the Lord GOD: and not that he should turn from his ways, and live?’ (Ezek 18:23; cf. 1 Tim 2:3-4; 1 Jn 2:1-3; 2 Pet 3:9). The truth is God permitted Pharaoh to become more obstinate of his own accord, and then purposefully used his pride and ego to free the Israelites from slavery in such an awesome way, as to display His glory and might to the Egyptians.

14 What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! 15 For he says to Moses, “I
will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” 16 So
it depends not upon man’s will or exertion, but upon God’s mercy. 17 For the scripture says to Pharaoh,
“I have raised you up for the very purpose of showing my power in you, so that my name may be
proclaimed in all the earth.” 18 So then he has mercy upon whomever he wills, and he hardens the heart of
whomever he wills. 19 You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his
will?” 20 But who are you, a man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder,
“Why have you made me thus?” 21 Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one
vessel for beauty and another for menial use? 22 What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make
known his power, has endured with much patience the vessels of wrath made for destruction, 23 in order to
make known the riches of his glory for the vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory,
Romans 9

The basic principle embedded in Romans 9 is this: Those who will not see and hear, shall not see and hear. Consequently, God has mercy upon whom he wills, and he hardens whom he wills (cf. Jn. 9:41). In vv. 14-16, Paul is simply affirming that there is no injustice on God’s part in not granting what another has no natural right to (the forgiveness of their sins), since all of us who have sinned justly deserve punishment. God isn’t indebted to show us His mercy in His justice. If, on the other hand, God shows His mercy on some people, it is because of His goodness and liberality despite their sins. If he leaves others in their sins (Pharaoh or the Pharisees) by withholding his grace because of their stubbornness of heart, they are punished for their just deserts.

God’s mercy shines upon His elect, those who are willing to receive His grace and open themselves to His word, but the divine justice is handed out to the wicked and the reprobate according to what they deserve through their moral liberty and obstinacy of heart. There is no just reason why God must show His compassion to those who refuse it. We cannot force our will on God and expect Him to be merciful to us while remaining in sin. Nor can we blame God for being sinful and punished for our sins by how we choose to act against His will. No command of God is impossible for us to obey because we have all received sufficient grace in our fallen condition. God’s efficacious grace assists us in being righteous once we have directed our will to His goodness.

If we draw near to God, He will draw near to us and shower us with His grace, not by any natural merit of ours because of our sinful state, but through the sacrificial work of Jesus who has merited grace for us (Jas 4:8; Heb 10:2, etc.). There are at least thirty-five Bible verses about drawing near (not being drawn) by God which presuppose we have free will and can either accept or reject God's merciful gift of salvation.

In v. 19, Paul responds to the objection that if God rules over faith through the principle of divine election, God cannot then accuse unbelievers of sin. The apostle, however, shows that God is far less arbitrary than what might appear at first glance. He suggests in v. 22 that God does endure with much patience people like Pharaoh who obstinately resist His will. And he reiterates why God might, without any injustice, have mercy on some and not on others, grant particular graces and favors on His elect and not equally to everyone. All humankind is liable to damnation, composed of sinful clay which is the state of original sin. No single soul has a just claim on the Divine Mercy by any natural merit outside the system of divine grace.

Thus, those whom God chooses to remove from this sinful lump to bestow His graces and favor upon are for the purpose of displaying His justice and hatred for sin. This is the underlying meaning in v. 23. God is glorified by leading any of us to repentance by the riches of His kindness and His mercy which we mustn’t disregard if we hope to be saved according to the divine plan (Rom 2:4). The “vessels of mercy” are those who by the grace of God acknowledge their sins and repent with a firm desire of amendment with the help of divine grace.

By leaving others as “vessels of wrath” which are lost in their sins, Paul simply means that God has endured patiently as much as He could, thereby abandoning them in their obstinate sinfulness and withholding His grace and favor from them through their own intransigence. God knows the hearts of everyone, and so He knows who to touch and how to touch their hearts so that they come to accept His will for them. Those who are fettered by pride and selfishness are less likely to be drawn by divine persuasion. God coerces no one, and so He might decide to leave some people alone and in their sins while patiently waiting for them to have a change of heart. He has already granted them the sufficient grace they need. Only those who are humbly willing to align their wills with God benefit from His mercy by answering the call and cooperating with his helping grace. These are the ones who make every feeble effort to draw near to God with the help of His grace that He will draw near to them. We can do nothing without God despite our desire to be reconciled to Him, and so we must ask for the graces we need and will receive just by asking (Mt 7:7).

Hence, the allegory of the Potter and the clay is by no means intended to show that human beings are destitute of free will and liberty, and so are completely passive in God’s plan of redemption, unable to decide for themselves whether they want to be saved. It is used only to stress that we are not to question God why He confers his graces and favors on some and not on others, since we are no better than each other in our sinfulness. If there is any difference among us it's that some of us are humbler and less proud and thereby most likely to acknowledge our sins and be saved.

It is owing to the divine goodness and mercy that God wills to create vessels of honor by His grace and gifts of the Holy Spirit. And it is just that others, because of their refusal to repent and convert, should be given up as vessels of wrath undeserving of God’s mercy. Meanwhile, Paul's point is that God sovereignly decides whatever purpose He has for His elect when bestowing His gifts of the Holy Spirit on them. God has a unique plan for each of those who choose to love Him and obey Him, just as He has a plan for those who choose to reject Him. It’s God and not any of us who takes the initiative. But our collaboration is called for if we truly want to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth as God desires everyone to be (1 Tim 2:1-4).

I ask that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened,
so that you may know the hope of His calling,
the riches of His glorious inheritance in the saints,
Ephesians 1, 8

Early Sacred Tradition

“And pray ye without ceasing in behalf of other men; for there is hope of
the repentance, that they may attain to God. For ‘cannot he that falls arise again,
and he may attain to God.'”
St. Ignatius of Antioch, To the Ephesians, 10
( A.D. 110)

"And this is your condition, because of the blindness of your soul, and the hardness of your
heart. But, if you will, you may be healed. Entrust yourself to the Physician [God], and He will
couch the eyes of your soul and of your heart."

St. Theophilus, Bishop of Antioch, To Autolycus 7.
[inter A.D. 168-181]

“Now, in the beginning the spirit was a constant companion of the soul, but the spirit forsook
it because it was not willing to follow. Yet, retaining as it were a spark of its power, though
unable by reason of the separation to discern the perfect, while seeking for God it fashioned
to itself in its wandering many gods, following the sophistries of the demons. But the Spirit of
God is not with all, but, taking up its abode with those who live justly, and intimately
combining with the soul, by prophecies it announced hidden things to other souls.”
St. Tatian the Syrian, To the Greeks, 13
 (A.D. 175)

“[T]hat eternal fire has been prepared for him as he apostatized from God of his own free will,
and likewise for all who unrepentant continue in the apostasy, he now blasphemes, by means
of such men, the Lord who brings judgment [upon him] as being already condemned, and
imputes the guilt of his apostasy to his Maker, not to his own voluntary disposition.”
St. Justin Martyr, fragment in Irenaeus’ Against Heresies, 5:26:1
(A.D. 189)

“All indeed depends on God, but not so that our free-will is hindered. ‘If then it depend on
God,’ (one says), ‘why does He blame us?’ On this account I said, ‘so that our free-will is no
hindered.’ It depends then on us, and on Him For we must first choose the good; and then He
leads us to His own. He does not anticipate our choice, lest our free-will should be outraged.
But when we have chosen, then great is the assistance he brings to us…For it is ours to choose
and to wish; but God’s to complete and to bring to an end. Since therefore the greater part is
of Him, he says all is of Him, speaking according to the custom of men. For so we ourselves also
do. I mean for instance: we see a house well built, and we say the whole is the Architect’s
[doing], and yet certainly it is not all his, but the workmen’s also, and the owner’s, who
supplies the materials, and many others’, but nevertheless since he contributed the greatest
share, we call the whole his. So then [it is] in this case also.”

St. John Chrysostom, Homily on Hebrews, 12:3
[A.D. 403]

“‘No man can come to me, except the Father who hath sent me draw him’! For He does not say,
‘except He lead him,’ so that we can thus in any way understand that his will precedes. For
who is ‘drawn,’ if he was already willing? And yet no man comes unless he is willing. Therefore
he is drawn in wondrous ways to will, by Him who knows how to work within the very hearts of
men. Not that men who are unwilling should believe, which cannot be, but that they should be
made willing from being unwilling.”

St. Augustine, Against Two Letters of the Pelagians, I:19
(A.D. 420)

Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find;
knock and the door will be opened to you.

Matthew 7, 7