“Why does the minister exhort the congregation not to harden their hearts when in fact the work of redemption is solely one of God’s election?” It might indeed seem that if salvation is of grace alone according to God’s purpose in election, that it is superfluous to tell people not to harden their hearts:
(1) Their hearts will always be hard so that they cannot heed the command not to harden their hearts unless God sends them His grace. Why then exhort them?
(2) God sends His grace only to the elect, so why command and exhort all?
(3) The hearts of the elect will be irresistibly softened by the power of grace, so why exhort them not to harden their hearts?
It should be noted that hardening is both God’s work and man’s own work. Exodus teaches us that both God and Pharaoh himself hardened Pharaoh’s heart, though Exodus also teaches us that God is first! (Ex. 3:19; 4:21; 7:3, 13; cf. also Jn. 12:40 and Rom. 9:18). Nevertheless, it is also true that a man, under the sovereign operations of God also hardens his own heart (Ex. 8:15, 32). For this reason, he is always responsible for his wickedness and cannot blame God. But that does not answer our question.
The question raises the age-old problem (Augustine dealt with it already in the early history of the church) of the relationship between sovereign grace, total depravity and the commands of the gospel. How can God require of man, what he is spiritually incapable of doing without denying that salvation is by grace alone? And, Why does God require it if he is incapable – totally unable to obey apart from grace?
Perhaps we should note the several wrong conclusions that men have drawn in answering these questions. Free-willism assumes that the command implies the ability to obey and denies man’s total depravity. Hyper-Calvinism assumes the same thing, and believing in man’s depravity, refuses to command unregenerated sinners with such commands as these. Both are wrong, free-willism for its denial of man’s depravity, and hyper-Calvinism for its failure to preach the demands of the gospel to all.
There are, in fact, several good reasons for the command-reasons that make it a necessary part of gospel preaching. For these reasons, it is not only right but important that the minister does so exhort his congregation ad that the congregation heed such commands when they are preached.
Before we look at those reasons (in the next issue) let us note that the command not to harden one’s heart must be preached to both the ungodly and to the people of God Our correspondent is right when he speaks of the minister exhorting the congregation concerning this matter.
The command not to harden one’s heart is found first in Psalm 95:8 where it is addressed to the church of the OT (Acts 7:38). It is quoted and applied to the NT church in Hebrews 3:8, 15, and 4:7. In both cases, it is clear that it is addressed both to believers (Ps. 95:7; Heb. 3:12, 13) as well as unbelievers (Ps. 95:11; Heb. 4:6).
It is, however, only when we see that both in the case of the unbeliever and of the believer that there is good reason for such a command that we will as ministers be confident in warning people not to harden their hearts, and as members of the congregation pay attention to such commands. Those reasons we will look at in the next issue.
By Rev Hanko, Ronald
Pastorates: Wyckoff, NJ – 1979; Trinity, Houston, TX – 1986; Missionary to N.Ireland – 1993; Lynden, WA – 2002; Emeritus October 15, 2017.