Coffee Talk


Did you know that I love questions? And since questions go well with coffee I decided to drink a very nice Guatemalan coffee (that I roasted a couple of days ago), as I write.  I hope this also helps those of you (maybe tea drinkers?) who didn’t feel free to ask some of the questions you may have had after last Sunday’s sermon. 
Mostly, I image that we wrestle with the idea of God telling Isaiah (or anyone) to go and preach SO THAT people won’t understand and turn to Him?  Doesn’t God want everyone to come to Him?  Why would God do this?  

These are really good questions, so grab a hot beverage of your choice, and let me share some of the answers that have helped me to better understand this.  

You may be familiar with the phrase, “But for the grace of God go I.”  People who say this, probably don’t appreciate just how true this is for them on a regular basis.  And if we do, this will help us to better understand how God hardens people.

It’s clear from Isaiah 6, and John’s use of it in the 12th chapter of his gospel, that God sometimes works to harden people – making their hearts dull, ears heavy, and eyes blind so that they do not understand and turn to Him for healing (Isa. 6:10).  But why?  Doesn’t He want everyone to repent and turn to Him?  So why would He intentionally work to bring about the opposite?
First of all, it’s good for us to acknowledge that this really is what’s being said – that God clearly communicates this in Isaiah 6, and that John specifically uses this to explain the unbelief of so many Jews who rejected Jesus and had Him crucified.  It’s important that we’re honest readers, and that we don’t make efforts to explain away the clear revelation of Scripture.  But… admitting to it doesn’t mean that we don’t also wonder, “Why would God do this?”
Because this answer will be brief, I imagine it may only end up creating more questions, but do not fear because… I really do love questions, and even you tea drinkers are free to write me.
My quick answer is that we wrongly assume that God’s purpose is simply to save people, and so when we read something like Isaiah 6, this just doesn’t fit with our preconceived ideas.  We need to recognize that God is not man-centered.  No, God is actually God-centered.  That being said, God desires to save, and He is loving and gracious, merciful and kind… and the salvation of people brings Him glory.  Over and over in Ephesians 1 we see that we (people) are blessed by God.  He has chosen to save us and love us and forgive us and bless us.  But over and over this passage tells us that the reason God does this… is not merely for us, but His greater purpose in saving us (vv. 6, 12, 14) is “to the praise of His glory.” 
It is not only man’s chief end to glorify God… it’s also God’s.  Why did He create the heavens?  For us to have a place to exist and enjoy?  Well, yes, but even more so, “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Psa. 19:1).  Why the exodus?  Psalm 106:7 tells us it was for “His name’s sake, that He might make known His mighty power.”  Why were the Gentiles brought into salvation?  Romans 15 says “[to] glorify God for his mercy.”
So if God’s purpose includes our salvation, but is PRIMARILY about bringing Himself glory, then we need to recognize that God is not only glorified in showing mercy to undeserving sinners, but He’s also glorified in condemning guilty sinners.  This is the conclusion of Paul, in Romans 9.  With all of the anticipated questions of fairness, Paul quotes Exodus 33, where God tells Moses,
“I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” 
In other words, God is not unjust to give mercy to some and judgment to others.  God is God, and this is His choice, and He achieves His purpose of glorifying Himself with either.  God hardened Pharaoh, and in Romans 9 Paul says that His purpose in doing so was,
“that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.”
And if we doubt that God is glorified in both mercy and judgment… or if we think He’s more glorified through mercy, then once again Romans 9 is a good place to go for our answers.
“What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to (here’s the purpose) make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy…”
It’s all about God’s glory!  And God wants us to rightly see His glory and give Him praise.  So, if we are to rightly give Him praise for His mercy, then we need to understand what mercy is.  And let’s face it, if every single person received God’s forgiving grace, would we have any concept of what we truly deserve?  Could mercy even be mercy if God were obligated to give it?  But what Romans 9 tells us is that there are vessels (people) made for the purpose of destruction, and this serves to communicate not only God’s glory in His just wrath, but it also enables us to see and understand that we deserve the same.  It enables us to understand mercy and grace, and this prompts us to give Him praise.  It’s about God, not us.  And yet, that we are able to see the perfection of God in both justice and grace, is a part of God’s love.  For He alone (because of His perfection) is able to satisfy us forever, and if He were to hide this from us then He would not fully love us.
So getting back to Isaiah… why would God harden people?  He does so in order to glorify Himself in the display of His just condemnation.  But then, I assume you may wonder, “Is God unjust in hardening people?”  If He is the one who hardens them, then how is it right for Him to also condemn them for the very thing He made them do?
Another assumption people have is in the definition of “hardening.”  They assume that all people are morally neutral and that left to themselves they either choose God or choose to rebel.  This assumption denies the result of Adam’s sin, and that God’s Word tells us that (left to ourselves) no one understands… no one seeks God (Rom. 3:11).  So with the right understanding that no one is morally neutral, but all are (or were, prior to salvation) in rebellion to God, we can better understand what it means for God to harden people. 
The saying, “But for the grace of God go I,” is more true than people realize.  The reality is that if God were to give people over to do what they want to do, everyone would be worse than Hitler.  God giving people over to what they want is not the blessing of “free will,” it is the curse of Romans 1.  As God restrained king Abimelech from sinning against Abraham’s wife Sarah (Gen. 20), so He restrains all people from being as evil as they would otherwise be.  God’s common grace extends to people in this way, and He knows what’s in their hearts.  So, when God decides to harden someone’s heart, He does not need to (and would never) give someone the desire to sin, but He knows that if He removes His restraining hand, they will sin.  And in bringing about their sin in this way, He is just to punish them for acting upon their own evil desires.
I like the illustration of a racehorse in the starting gate, raring to bolt and run.  How do we “cause” the horse to run?  By giving it something it lacks?  No, by removing the restraint of the gate.  This is an example of negative causation.  The restraint is positively causing the horse to stay in the gates, and the opposite (negative) “cause” is accomplished by opening the gates.
When God hardens people toward Him, He is not giving them something they don’t already have (original sin).  We may not perceive the extent of our natural desires (because of God’s restraint), but if He removes that restraint, our hearts grow hard toward Him, and He is just to punish us as we freely rebel against Him.
God has His purposes in both the display of His just wrath, and in the display of His mercy.  We don’t deserve the mercy (grace), but we certainly deserve His just wrath.  It’s all to the praise of His glory. 
I hope this helps, and I hope you’ll keep the questions coming.
-Pastor Brian