It’s a kid thing — you pretend you have power to control things, and in order to be convincing, you make sure your commands match what’s going to happen anyway. “I told the sun to come up this morning, and it did!”
Is that what God’s sovereignty, or predestination, or foreknowledge, is like?
Sometimes the biblical language seems to indicate God taking a very active role in every little thing that happens — other times it seems that God allows his creation to take its course. Likewise, sometimes it seems that God must intervene before we can believe, and other times it seems we are responsible.
If the Bible is a whole book — and I think it is — then both of these perspectives must harmonize in some way.
I just happen to be reading Isaiah and the Gospels. Isaiah because it’s where I am in a current cover-to-cover reading project, and the Gospels because of the textbook I borrowed from our pastor. Tonight I noticed this quotation from Isaiah in Matthew:
“‘You will keep on hearing, but will not understand;
You will keep on seeing, but will not perceive;
For the heart of this people has become dull,
With their ears they scarcely hear,
And they have closed their eyes,
Otherwise they would see with their eyes,
Hear with their ears,
And understand with their heart and return,
And I would heal them.'”
This quotation makes it sound like if people don’t understand the Gospel, it’s their own responsibility. God wants to heal them, but they won’t let him.
But in Isaiah, it reads like this:
“Go, and tell this people:
‘Keep on listening, but do not perceive;
Keep on looking, but do not understand.’
Render the hearts of this people insensitive,
Their ears dull,
And their eyes dim,
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
Hear with their ears,
Understand with their hearts,
And return and be healed.”
This time, it looks like God doesn’t want to heal them, so he hardens their hearts. They can’t be held responsible, because he’s the one keeping them from understanding.
Some folks, preferring Matthew’s wording, explain this kind of predestination as simply foreknowledge — God knows ahead of time that people will harden their hearts. This makes the wording in Isaiah sound like the kids’ game: “I told you to harden your heart.” It doesn’t seem to be an adequate harmonization.
Does God want all people to be saved? Does he love all people? Does he send the rain — positive or negative — on the just and unjust alike all the time, or are some or all circumstances specific rewards or punishments? Does he intervene to harden some hearts and enlighten others, or does he only intervene in one case or the other? Does God’s active role nullify our responsibility, or vice versa, or can they co-exist without diminishing one another?
We Christians tend to have our favorite ways of thinking about these questions, and sometimes even have a collection of supporting passages. But do our answers take adequate account of the whole Bible? Every time I start to feel more persuaded of a particular stance, I seem to find verses that support the opposite…
By the way, here’s the same passage in the other Gospels:
“so that ‘while seeing, they may see and not perceive, and while hearing, they may hear and not understand, otherwise they might return and be forgiven'” (Mark 4:12).
“…so that ‘seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand'” (Luke 8:10).
“‘He has blinded their eyes and he hardened their heart, so that they would not see with their eyes and perceive with their heart, and be converted and I heal them'” (John 12:40).