CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Hardened Hearts and the Judgment of God

Jan 2, 2017

Now here is a topic most people would rather not discuss – and I include many pastors and church leaders here as well, not just pagans. But I must discuss it nonetheless. It is about the hardness of heart that comes due to sin, and the warnings about it as found in Scripture.

There are numerous passages that speak to this, so we had better pay close attention. One of the key texts is Hebrews 3:13 which says, “But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called ‘Today,’ so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.”

Now it is quite apparent by the context that this warning is given to believers. Verses 12-14 reads:

See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called “Today,” so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. We have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original conviction firmly to the very end.

hard-heart-2It is not my intention here to enter into the big debate about whether believers can lose their salvation, or are eternally secure, and so on. So please wait till I write a few rather longish articles on those quite complex and detailed debates before sending in your views on this thanks!

In the meantime I can recommend one book edited by Herbert Bateman on this and other passages in Hebrews called, Four Views on the Warning Passages in Hebrews (Kregel. 2007).

But if even believers are warned about the dangers of a hardened heart, how much more then are non-Christians at risk in this? And that is the focus of what I want to speak about here. The Bible says much about sin-hardened sinners and what a dangerous place that is to be in.

A key passage on this is Romans 1:18-32. Some of the scariest words of Scripture are found in verses 24, 26, 28: “God gave them over”. Sinners who continue in sin, continue to shake their fist at God, and continue to reject the truth are eventually given over by God.

Let me look at one further set of passages. Since I have again just finished reading through the book of Revelation, let me cite a few passages from there about this very issue. They are quite frightening passages indeed. They speak about God’s just judgment being poured out on the earth, and the reactions of non-believers.

No matter how bad the judgments, these sinners refuse to repent, but dig their heels in even further, cursing God. Consider a few of these texts:

Revelation 9:20-21 The rest of mankind who were not killed by these plagues still did not repent of the work of their hands; they did not stop worshiping demons, and idols of gold, silver, bronze, stone and wood—idols that cannot see or hear or walk. Nor did they repent of their murders, their magic arts, their sexual immorality or their thefts.

Revelation 16:8-11 The fourth angel poured out his bowl on the sun, and the sun was allowed to scorch people with fire. They were seared by the intense heat and they cursed the name of God, who had control over these plagues, but they refused to repent and glorify him. The fifth angel poured out his bowl on the throne of the beast, and its kingdom was plunged into darkness. People gnawed their tongues in agony and cursed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores, but they refused to repent of what they had done.

Revelation 16:21 From the sky huge hailstones, each weighing about a hundred pounds, fell on people. And they cursed God on account of the plague of hail, because the plague was so terrible.

Those are some pretty heavy duty passages. They depict all too well what happens when the human heart is hardened in sin and rebellion. Instead of allowing a bit of the fear of God to touch their hearts, they are so hardened that these terrible judgments simply harden them even further.

We do read about one other case of judgment in which hardening is not mentioned (nor is repentance). In Rev. 11:13 we read: “At that very hour there was a severe earthquake and a tenth of the city collapsed. Seven thousand people were killed in the earthquake, and the survivors were terrified and gave glory to the God of heaven.”

Scholars differ on two issues which arise here: is this real repentance and conversion in 11:13, and do these judgments contain within them a final offer of repentance, or are they simply retributive in nature? As to the first question, one can compare Nebuchadnezzer’s response in Daniel 4.

For example in v. 34 we read: “At the end of that time, I, Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes toward heaven, and my sanity was restored. Then I praised the Most High; I honored and glorified him who lives forever.” Does that indicate an expression of genuine repentance and faith? It could be.

So too with Rev. 11:13. The survivors were terrified and gave glory to God. Does that mean that real repentance took place? Some scholars say no to both cases. And was the judgment dished out simply an act of punishment or was a real offer of repentance included? There is variance of opinion on this matter as well.

However we line up on these questions, the main issue of hardened hearts must still be dealt with. As Robert Mounce remarks, “Once the heart is set in its hostility toward God not even the scourge of death will lead men to repentance.” Or as Robert Wall comments, “The world’s resistance to God’s reign and to God’s transforming grace found in Christ is constant and pervasive.”

J. Ramsey Michaels says this about Rev. 9:20-21:

For the first time, John gives full attention to the human response to these divine judgments. He has mentioned the human response twice before, but only in passing, as a way of dramatizing the severity of the judgments themselves, first in 6:15-17, where people hid in caves and cried out to the mountains to fall on them, and second in 9:6, where they desired death but did not find it. This time the human response is in spite of the severity of the judgment, not because of it. The point is made twice (vv. 20, 21) that these terrible judgments did not bring about repentance or a change of heart among those who were not killed.

Such callous hardness of heart is just so amazing to consider. But we do know that at the end of the day all men will bow the knee to God and give him glory: some will do so willingly while some will do it only under duress. As Philippians 2:9-11 puts it,

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

We have a chance now to repent and give glory to God while God offers mercy and pardon. But a day is coming when he will only offer strict justice and judgment. Then too men will bow the knee, even if it is unwillingly. Plenty could be said about all this in general, and the frightening phrase of God ‘giving them over,’ but by way of summation and exhortation, I very much like what R. C. Sproul has to say about this:

The worst thing that can happen to sinners is to be allowed to go on sinning without any divine restraints. At the end of the New Testament, in the book of Revelation when the description of the last judgment is set forth, God says, “He who is unjust, let him be unjust still; he who is filthy, let him be filthy still” (Rev. 22:11). God gives people over to what they want. He abandons them to their sinful impulses and removes his restraints, saying in essence, “If you want to sin, go ahead and sin.” This is what theologians call “judicial abandonment.” God, in dispensing his just judgment, abandons the impenitent sinner forever.

He goes on to say this:

We hear all the time about God’s infinite grace and mercy. I cringe when I hear it. God’s mercy is infinite insofar as it is mercy bestowed upon us by a Being who is infinite, but when the term infinite is used to describe his mercy rather than his person, I have problems with it because the Bible makes very clear that there is a limit to God’s mercy. There is a limit to his grace, and he is determined not to pour out his mercy on impenitent people forever. There is a time, as the Old Testament repeatedly reports, particularly in the book of the prophet Jeremiah, that God stops being gracious with people, and he gives them over to their sin.

The time is now my friends. Take up the offer now of grace and forgiveness obtained through repentance and faith before it is too late.

[1556 words]

12 Responses to Hardened Hearts and the Judgment of God

  • This is indeed a grim but timely warning. I know I have many relatives who have no time for the God who created them and breathed life into them. Indeed all that we have and are comes from Him. And yet there are few leaders today who speak out such warnings from their pulpits – or even to their own families and friends.
    As a teenager I was briefly involved in street evangelism, but confess I listened to those I thought were wiser than I, who were saying that people no longer listen to ‘soap box evangelism’ – which would be fine if there were something even more effective to take its place. But let’s face it, our world is rapidly approaching the time when it will be too late to repent and turn to God. We must motivate one another to speak more boldly to those who are unsaved, while there is still time to do so.

  • Thank you for writing on this. A great reminder to clarify a few areas which are easily lost sight of,
    Yes, mercy and pardon is offered to all but not all will respond.
    The reminder is timely.
    Thank you.

  • Bill,

    You nailed it once again my friend,
    Its refreshing and encouraging to read and re-assuring that I am not mad for holding the same position in the area of the hardness of the hearts of men, the giving over to their sin by God as in Rom 1 and the judgement of God upon the sinner. Bless you, Bless you and Bless you!

  • Thanks Ann, Sandra and Paul.

  • We studied the entire book of Revelation @ BSF (Bible Study Fellowship) last year so I was thrilled to have this sent to me.
    Thank you Bill.

    The one thing that stood out to me above ALL God’s Righteous Judgements (horrendous though they may be) was God’s absolute concern that not one of us be lost.
    God continued to give Sinners the opportunity to reach out to Him + be Saved.

    I guess I just cannot fathom that type of wickedness where you would constantly refuse to repent, be prepared to go through those awful tribulations + be separated from Our Lord + Saviour forever whilst burning in the Lake of Fire forever.

    I’m with Paul, above – you’ve absolutely NAILED it, Bill.
    Let’s hear more about what happens in Revelation!

  • “So do not pray for this people nor offer any plea or petition for them; do not plead with me, for I will not listen to you…” – Jeremiah 7:16 [NIV] is a shocking instruction from the LORD to His servant – an instruction twice reiterated later during the ministry of Jeremiah.

    To be “beyond the point of no return” when it comes to sin and repentance is indeed a frightening situation for any nation, civilisation, or, for that matter, for a human species largely resolutely joined to the idols of the present evil age. Have we in the West reached God’s “tipping point” as a culture…?

  • Sometimes, if people are allowed free rein to vent their hostility against God, they find out for themselves that they have boxed themselves in to an unfulfilled life and they have a chance to rebalance.

  • I won’t comment on it, have no fear. Perhaps I may just be permitted to state that I believe that God will preserve his saints and that no true believers will fall away, but I also believe that the warnings in Hebrews and elsewhere are real for true believers and must to be taken very seriously by them*. Thanks for your exposition Bill.

    *us, I trust!

  • Thanks David. That is actually my position as well, but as I say, it needs to be teased out in much more detail to do it justice, and it touches on a number of large doctrinal issues that must be carefully addressed as well. So hopefully some time soon I will seek to make my case for this. Stay tuned!

  • It was good to learn that God’s grace and mercy is not infinite like many Christians profess. I would have gone on thinking that. We never know it all.

  • Chasing some cross references offered in Bibles on my shelf to Revelation 22:11, I note a fascinating partial verbal correspondence between the language of the Revelation 22 verse and its setting and Daniel 12:9,10 and their related eschatological context. Is a hardening of the resolve of both saints and sinners a sign of an imminent divine visitation – as it was in the events that culminated in the Exodus from Egypt, “the house of slavery”?

  • Good stuff. It’s all a very long long way from the words on every tombstone “RIP – Rest in Peace”. According to Jesus there are the many and the few, so far more than half of all tombstones should read “WIA – Writhing in Agony”
    Yes, God has infinite grace, but he has infinite wrath as well. Sending someone to hell is an infinite judgement. God is love, but that does not mean he is ONLY love. God does everything 100% infinitely – which is the bit we humans can’t get our heads around. We hear “God is love” and think that cancels out all other possibilities. It doesn’t. Today we are living in the period of grace, but there is a time limit – individually for each person, and for the world at large. Grab it while you can, and hold onto it for dear life! It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God without it.
    Imagine it you lived your whole life convinced you were on your way to heaven, only to wake up one day realizing you are stuck in hell forever. No disaster ever comes close to that endless ending.

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