Romans 9-11 Part 3: The hardening and blinding of national Israel

Romans 9–11 Part 3:

The Hardening and Blinding of National Israel

By StriderMTB

God and Adam

 

How should we understand the hardening and blinding of Romans 11:7-8?

Romans 9-11 Part 1 can be found here. Romans 9-11 Part 2 can be found here. One last section of Romans 9-11 needs to be dealt with before we close out this 3 part series. Why in Romans 11:8 does Paul quote Isaiah in saying God gave Israel a “spirit of stupor, eyes that should not see and ears that should not hear”? The answer does not exist in a vacuum. Key questions need to be asked. What was the historical setting in Isaiah’s day? Was divine judgment in view? And if so, does Paul see Israel’s former situation overlapping with her present situation?

There is no doubt the general disposition and consciousness of the Jewish people in Paul’s day was similar to Isaiah’s day. In both settings we find plenty of evidence Israel’s people are entrenched in stubborn unbelief— defiantly disregarding God’s righteousness and His sovereign terms for continued covenantal blessings. No stranger to Israel’s history, Paul rightly understood Israel’s defiance is coming under divine judgment in the form of judicial blinding/hardening. Therefore the critical question that presents itself is, did God extend Israel unwarranted grace and patience prior to His judicial blinding of her?

Well if we want to take Scripture seriously—yes He did. As Paul makes clear by quoting Isaiah,

“But to Israel he says: All day long I have spread out My hands to a disobedient and defiant people (Rom. 10:21, Is. 65:2).”

As such we must categorically reject any theology that would suggest God determined Israel’s disobedience or blinded Israel prior to his judicial blinding of her.

Yet Calvinism posits just this scenario given its commitment to theological determinism that every choice, for or against God, was determined by God via divine decree. Consequently a Calvinist must concede God determined that Israel disobey and defy Him, so that He in turn could determine to harden Israel as a consequence of assuming the very posture of disobedience He sovereignly determined for her.

Make sense? No? Good—it shouldn’t.

That God would act this way towards His covenant people should strike our hearts and ears as absurd, if not diabolical. Calvinist logic ultimately makes any need to explain Israel’s history meaningless and irrelevant— for God determined her times of obedience just as equally as He determined her times of disobedience. In virtue of Romans being an epistle of deep and thorough explanatory scope and intention, we can confidently state Paul’s starting place was not one of theological determinism.

Rescuing the moral character of God from John Piper’s “Two Wills of God” view

At this juncture it is necessary to forever divide Paul from Calvinism. We are going to identify present-day Calvinism with its most popular defender—John Piper. For clarity and easier reading we all quotes of Piper will be in the color red. Piper like all true Calvinists, believes in exhaustive, theological determinism. That is to say Piper believes God has unconditionally and irresistibly predetermined every human choice—including all our besetting sins that impede our spiritual growth in God! In his online teaching, John Piper rhetorically asks,

“Has God predetermined every tiny detail in the universe, such as dust particles in the air and all of our besetting sins? Yes.”[1]

Piper then attempts to justify this belief on two premises related to the cross of Christ:

  • Crucifying Jesus was a sinful act
  • The crucifixion of Jesus was predetermined by God

In other words if God predestined the cross, and it was evil, what is the problem in saying God predetermined every evil? Piper assumes there is no problem! Piper insists God’s ordaining of the cross gives us the necessary moral grounding to answer, “yes” to the question “Has God predetermined… all our besetting sins?” Just listen to his words:

“So the crucifixion of his Son was, quoting Isaiah 53:10, the bruising by the Father of the Son. 

Therefore the worst sin that was ever committed was ordained by God. And the answer is yes. He controls everything, and he does it for his glory and our good.”[2]

John Piper is no doubt a wonderful and kind pastoral theologian who tries his best to make sense of the scriptures on behalf of others, but his unflinching, dogmatic insistence that God predetermined all our sinful struggles, reveals the very real danger of making an idol out of one’s theological system.

Unless one is already doing theology within a self-enclosed echo chamber, where meticulous, exhaustive determinism is the only voice that can be heard, it is morally incoherent to think one can point to Christ’s death for sin and assume they have good grounds to hold that God must have also determinatively predestined every sinful act of child-sex trafficking, murder, rape and spousal abuse— the very evils Christ sought to atone for and overcome in death. 

Piper’s view is so grotesque, un-glorifying and God-dishonoring, one struggles to comprehend the moral absurdity of believing it. The very fact that Piper points to the atoning death of Christ for sin as evidence God determined all sin should be our first red flag that something is amiss within Piper’s theological system, and thus everything that follows is likewise going to be skewed out of alignment with the breadth of scripture.

To attempt to highlight the crucifixion of our Lord as a hermeneutical perch to sit upon whereby we can cast God’s determinative ordination net into the world and “catch” every sin and every sordid evil event of world history is an insult to the cross and wide of the mark. Put simply to view the one act that removed the sin of the world as the hermeneutical key to justify how God could have ordained all the sordid sin of that world, is an exegetical leap that is unwarranted and misconceived. Without question it is morally absurd to think the one act of God to redeem the world from sin is a most compelling example”[3] of evidence that God determined and decreed all the sin of that world![4]

How does this relate to Piper’s interpretation of Romans? It is quite simple. Obviously if God predetermined all sin and evil, it must also mean God predetermined Israel’s sin of rebellion and unbelief. Piper is keen enough to recognize his Calvinist view can be discredited in the face of numerous commands found in Scripture to repent of sins, obey God and believe. Therefore Piper has developed a special way to interpret God’s commands to obey and believe without undermining his Calvinist view that God sovereignly wills every act of human disobedience and rebellion against His own commands. He calls it his “Two-Wills of God” view.[5]

Piper argues strenuously that God possesses two wills in regards to sin and evil. On the one hand, God hates sin and never desires that it occur. But on the hand, all the sin that God hates and does not desire to occur, does indeed occur because God intended and decreed that it ought to occur and therefore must occur. Piper attempts to split the difference by consigning one aspect of God’s will as God’s “will of command” and the other aspect of God’s will as His “will of decree.” 

With that said the following is how Piper seeks to uphold his “Two Wills View” based on Romans 11:7-9. He states,

The hardening work of God… plays a central role in the life of Israel in this period of history. In Romans 11:7-9 Paul speaks of Israel’s failure to obtain the righteousness and salvation it desired: “Israel failed to obtain what it sought. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened, as it is written, “God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that should not see and ears that should not hear, down to this very day.” Even though it is the command of God that his people see and hear and respond in faith (Isaiah 42:18), nevertheless God also has his reasons for sending a spirit of stupor at times so that some will not obey his command.

Yes, God does “have his reasons…at times” to judicially harden/blind people— and chief among them is God’s divine judgment against those who repeatedly spurned his grace, light and purpose. Though Piper ignores this critical, antecedent context, the Bible does not.

This is why the scriptures speak of key, Jewish leaders of Christ’s day as being those who “always resist the Holy Spirit”(Acts 7:51) and who “rejected God’s purpose for themselves (Lk 7:30).” In Matthew 23:37 we clearly hear the heart of God’s desire to incorporate Israel’s people into the redemptive purposes of their own Messiah, but we also hear of the unwillingness of Israel to be found in God’s will.

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem! She who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her. How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, yet you were not willing!”

As a result God’s patient long-suffering has reached an end. To the degree Israel’s people continue to reject their Messiah and pursue righteousness on their own terms under a former covenant passing away, they will find themselves to be judiciously hardened and blinded. Yet through it all God remains sovereign as one who will exploit their unbelief and use it as a means to fulfill His long desired purpose and plan to bring light and salvation to the Gentiles. He will use their disobedience (in His consequent will. See Rom. 11:11-12) to bring about what He had originally intended their obedience would achieve (in His perfect will. See Gen. 22:18). In a sense there are two wills of God, but they are not in contradiction to each other as in Piper’s view—despite his protestations to the contrary. We will explore this next.

The complementary nature of God’s “perfect will” and “consequent will” vs. the contradictory nature of Piper’s “will of command” and “will of decree”

The biblical contrast to Piper’s Two-Wills view can best be summarized as: 1) God’s morally perfect will, and 2) God’s consequent will. God’s morally perfect will is what God desires as a perfect ideal without sin’s corruption. God’s consequent will is what God wills in light of human freedom, rebellion and sin.

We see this distinction all over scripture! For example God’s perfect will is that husbands and wives not be divorced. God’s perfect will is that none perish, but all be saved. But given human sin and rebellion God’s perfect will cannot always be achieved. Thus God accommodates Himself to our fallen state and consequently wills to allow divorce despite the fact that in His perfect will He would desire there be no divorce. Similarly God, in light of human rebellion, wills to save only those who repent and believe in the truth, despite His perfect will of desire that all people come to a knowledge of the truth and be saved. One of the clearest scriptural affirmations of God’s perfect will is found in Romans 12:2. There Paul says,

“Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God.

This passage is remarkable in that it makes our discernment and obedience to God’s perfect will contingent on our choice to reject conformity to this age. We can say it is God’s perfect will that we reject conformity to the world and be renewed in our minds, “so that” we can live in a right knowledge of God’s perfect will. However not all Christians remain in God’s perfect will to reject conformity to the world. But that is not an evidence of Piper’s alleged “will of decree” that assumes God predetermined that such Christians remain conformed to this world bogged down in all their “predetermined… besetting sins.” Rather it is an evidence of God’s consequent will to allow human beings the free exercise of their will against His perfect will—even if it is to their own detriment.

Understanding God’s two wills in this way provides a complementary approach whereas Piper’s view collapses into undeniable conflict and contrariety. For in Piper’s view God actively works against the fulfillment of His own perfect will— such as His desire that all be saved or that followers of Christ not be conformed to this age. The only way Piper can avoid the charge of conflict and contrariety is to concede that God’s “will of command” is disingenuous, artificial posturing on the part of God. God never really intends for people to obey His commands. If God did, He would not actively seek to undermine His own intentions by sovereignly and irresistibly decreeing each and every violation against His own divine commands!

In contrast to the Calvinist position, the biblically based Arminian position does not twist God’s moral character into such a grotesque distortion. Scripture reveals God’s desires are indeed genuine, but God has sovereignly ordained that a realization and fulfillment of some of His desires would be contingent upon the free, moral agency of those made in His image. This preserves the interlocking, complementary tension of scripture between God’s overall sovereignty and His sovereign intention that His imagers possess a free, moral agency.

For example we are told “God desires that no man perish” (2 Peter 3:9) and God’s will is for “all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4). Yet we are also told God conditions salvation on responding rightly to God’s grace through faith.

However God can no more be said to have two different wills (as Piper distinguishes them) concerning salvation than an earthly kingdom father can be said to have two different wills when he tells his family that he genuinely desires to give dessert to all his children, but adds the complementary condition that he wills to give dessert to only those who eat all their vegetables. Obviously the father’s desire is that all his children eat their vegetables so that his underlying will to give dessert to all his children can be realized. If some of the children refuse to obey their father’s complementary condition that vegetables be eaten first, it is incorrect to therefore assume their father later denied them ice-cream because he did not will to give it to them from the beginning.

Does God seek to undergird or sovereignly undermine His desires?

Just as there is no conflict in saying a father genuinely wills to give dessert to all his children, but qualifies the actual giving of dessert on the condition of finishing one’s vegetables, so also there is no conflict in saying God genuinely wills (in His perfect will) that all respond to His work of grace and be saved, and also saying that God wills (in His consequent will) to save only those who meet His condition and respond to His work of drawing grace and believe. This is the Arminian position and there is much to commend it.

The Arminian position is that God is just and gracious, and therefore He can neither dismiss sin, nor force His sovereign desire that all be saved upon all people. So in that sense the fact that God’s sovereign desire for all to be saved goes on unrealized is due to God’s accommodating, consequent will (not conflicting will) that takes into account human freedom. Hence God conditions salvation only upon those who freely respond to His preceding, graceful initiatives and believe. For as the scriptures say, “God is the savior of all men– especially of those who believe” (1 Tim. 4:10).

Whereas in the Arminian view God’s power seeks to undergird His divine will that “all people be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4), the Calvinist view finds God intentionally undermining that divine will.

Scripture always links divine hardening/blinding with perpetual, prior resistance towards God’s will

How does all this relate to Romans 11:7-9? We can say God’s perfect will was that Israel not disregard God’s righteousness, not try to establish her own righteousness apart from belief, and thus not come under divine, judicial hardening/blinding. But given Israel’s rejection of God’s outstretched hand and persistent unbelief, God consequently wills that Israel be judged. We will deal more specifically with the text of Romans 11:7-9 at the end of this article. Right now we are simply highlighting the fact that scripture always connects God’s acts of judicial blinding/hardening with perpetual, prior disregard of God’s ways.

Not too surprisingly Piper appears to strategically downplay and tactically overlook the contextualized backstory of Israel’s self-chosen, prior disregard of God’s outstretched hand of grace. This is quite unfortunate if not troubling. For it is only when we realize God’s judicial actions of hardening, blinding and delivering people up to their own sins occur within the larger context of prior human rebellion—wherein people have already spurned God’s earlier extensions of grace—that we can confidently rest in the truth that God is not acting unconditionally, capriciously or arbitrarily with people.

Piper can’t say any of this. For remember how he qualifies God’s two wills: (1) What God wants to have happen (God’s will of command), and (2) What God unconditionally determines should and must happen (God’s will of decree). But since God’s “will of decree” has sovereignly willed every act of sin and violation against God’s “will of command”, it means God’s second will renders God’s first will unfulfilled at every turn.

Indeed in Piper’s “Two Wills View” God’s alleged “will of command” is nothing more than a schizophrenic figment of God’s confused imagination that God secretly ensures will never see the light of day.

Piper’s unwillingness to recognize two, distinct listeners in Mark’s gospel— those who still had “ears to hear” and those who did not

Piper appeals to Jesus in an attempt to undergird his view that in all matters of sin and unbelief, God’s will of decree acts in a way to thwart people from obeying His will of command. He writes,

“[Jesus] explained that one of the purposes of speaking in parables to the Jews of his day was to bring about this judicial blinding or stupor. In Mark 4:11-12 he said to his disciples,

“To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables; so that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand; lest they should turn again, and be forgiven.”

Here again God wills that a condition prevail which he regards as blameworthy. His will is that they turn and be forgiven (Mark 1:15), but he acts in a way to restrict the fulfillment of that will.”

True enough Jesus spoke in parables to the crowds, but this itself was act of judgment in order to divide between two, distinct groups:

1) Those in Israel who still “had ears to hear”[6]

2) Those who were to be judicially confirmed in their self-imposed hardness of heart and deafness.

Rather than assume His Father already unconditionally selected who would belong to which group, Jesus places the responsibility on the crowds to determine to which group they will belong. That is why a few passages later in Mark 4:23-24 Jesus says,

“If anyone has ears to hear, he should listen!… Pay attention to what you hear. By the measure you use, it will be measured and added to you. For to the one who has, it will be given, and from the one who does not have, even what he has will be taken away.”

These passages are quite remarkable. Jesus is saying people will be judged on how they respond to the measure of light and revelation they are given. To the one who responds rightly, a greater measure of light will be given. To the one who hides, ignores or rejects the light given to them, their ultimate end is to lose and forfeit whatever measure of light they formerly had. This interpretation is further strengthened within the context of the rhetorical question Jesus just finished asking, “Is a lamp brought in to be put under a basket or under a bed?” (4:21).

The upshot of all this is not complicated. In Mark 4:11-12 Christ makes the point that the hidden meaning of the parables was meant to be revealed and not remain permanently hidden! That is why He says you don’t hide a lamp under a bushel or a bed. Christ is saying His parables are a true light and one’s response to them will determine whether such light will be hidden or bring further revelation and light. Those who respond with ears to hear will be granted more light for understanding.

With this in mind Christ’s quote of Isaiah is entirely appropriate, for in Isaiah’s day it was not God, but the Israelites who had put themselves outside a place of having ears to hear for responsive understanding. Similarly Jesus said they don’t understand because they are “outside.” The question is then, outside what? Given the context it is obvious Jesus is talking about those outside the kingdom of God. And what is the kingdom of God? It is nothing less than the rule and will of God being established.

However the underlying point seeded throughout the gospels is that the Jews have rejected God’s will and rule (Lk. 7:30). Hence they were consequently “outside” the kingdom. Being outside the kingdom means they cannot understand, but that is why Christ repeatedly invited people to understand by entering into the kingdom. It begins with the acknowledgement that you don’t understand, but need to understand.

And Jesus never hid the meaning of his parables to those who acknowledged their need to understand more by asking questions. Jesus had an “open door policy” concerning being asked questions related to his parables and this fact is revealed in verse 10 when we read “those around him with the twelve” came and “asked him” for further meaning and understanding.

Who are the “those around him?” Clearly it is not his disciples for it says they were “with” his disciples. As such it must be those within the crowd who hungered for me and took Christ’s words seriously when he said they should have “ears to hear” and “should listen” and “pay attention to what you hear (4:23-24).

Jesus’s statement in Mark 4:11 about speaking in parables and his quoting of Isaiah “so that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand…is balanced out later in the same chapter. Once again Jesus is speaking to the crowds and we read,

“He would speak the word to them with many parables like these, as they were able to understand” (Mark 4:33 HCSB).

Clearly some within the crowd were able to understand! These are the seekers of verse 10 who hungered to know more. The fact that Jesus privately expounded more on His parables to “those around him with his disciples” who “asked him” (vs. 10) reveals that Jesus expected some within the crowds to have ears to hear and listen and understand. Biblically speaking “to understand” = “having ears to hear.” If and when they had ears to hear, to listen and understand, Jesus would teach them more. Hence we read, “He would speak the word… as they were able to understand.” Jesus kept pace with their level of understanding.

In Mark 7:14-16 we find Jesus repeating the need to “have ears to hear” in order to understand His teaching. There we read,

“Summoning the crowd again, He told them, Listen to Me, all of you, and understand…If anyone has ears to hear, he should listen!

Notice the key conditional of “if”and the imperative of “should” Jesus sets forth. The fact that Jesus conditions understanding on those still have “ears to hear” and says they “should listen” implies they could!

All this being said, Piper stretches his theology very thin when he implies Jesus purposed to speak in parables in order to cause or “bring about judicial blinding or stupor.” Even if this were the case it would simply mean the parables were God’s means to judicially blind those who had repeatedly rejected God’s many gracious attempts to enlighten their darkness.

Piper can’t really say this because he rejects the view people can resist God’s drawing light and grace. Even so, is it accurate to say Jesus purposed to speak in parables in order to bring about judicial blinding or stupor? Though this is possible, it is much more likely Jesus’s choice to speak in parables and His quoting of Isaiah to that effect refers to the just consequence of the Israelites’ entrenched unwillingness to hear (Mt. 23:37), rather than the cause of such unwillingness. N.T. Greek scholars have made note of how the Greek “hina”, translated “so that”, often speaks of consequential “result” as opposed to purposeful “cause”. For instance:

“(Gk hina) can indicate purpose or result. Thus Jesus’ quotation of Is 6:9-10 either offers the reason for His teaching in parables or describes the result. Matthew 13:13 reads ‘because’ (Gk hoti), and thus states the result of the hearers’ unwillingness, not its cause…Jesus’ parables had two distinct purposes: (1) to reveal truth to those who were willing to hear and believe, and (2) to conceal truth from those who willingly rejected truth because of their calloused hearts (v. 15). The hiddenness component of Jesus’ teaching may seem harsh, but since greater exposure to truth increases one’s accountability to God in judgment (11:20-24), the concealment may represent God’s graciousness toward those whom He knew would be unresponsive.”[7]

Little caveats like that above may seem insignificant but they are “game changers” in assessing the merits of Piper’s theological determinism. Far from being evidence that God possesses two conflicting wills wherein He intentionally seeks to thwart (or as Piper says, “restrict the fulfillment”) of His moral will of command by “sovereignly” decreeing every violation against it, the above passages demonstrate that God has a perfect will and a consequent will that accommodates itself to an un-decreed reality of human freedom and stubborn rebellion.

The moral ruin of Calvinist theology: God hardens and blinds people in response to His prior hardening and blinding of them

If it isn’t clear already, the case being made is that if judicial blinding and hardening are to mean anything, it must mean people are blinded and hardened as a just consequence for freely rejecting God’s previous offerings of grace, light and truth. Otherwise it would not be judicial, but arbitrary hardening. Piper cannot deny the charge of arbitrary hardening without the logic of his own position boomeranging back upon him and invalidating his reasoning as nonsense.

For in order to remain consistent with the very nature of exhaustive determinism and maintain internal, theological cohesion, Piper is forced to believe God hardens persons— not in response to them freely hardening their own hearts— but in response to His own determination that they harden their hearts.

Yes—it is that crude.

God hardens them in response to hardening them. He judges people for doing the very thing he determined they do. In Piper’s theology no one is truly in control of what they do because even their strongest desires have been determined (rendering a retreat into compatibilism equally incoherent). The morally inane logic of exhaustive theological determinism plagues Calvinism on many fronts. The inescapable conclusion is that Piper’s judicial hardening turns into determinative hardening and judicial judgment gets traded in for arbitrary judgment. This should never be believed.

As already noted, Israel was being judicially blinded as an act of judgment due to having hearts that were callous and unwilling to draw close to God despite His past graceful initiatives. It is not that God removed His heart from Israel, but Israel removed her heart from God. For this reason she will be justly confirmed in her self-imposed hard-heartedness and blindness. As it was in Isaiah’s day so also was it in Christ’s day. The nation is full of hypocrisy— having an outward form of religion without inward confession. Note how Jesus brings God’s judgment of hypocrisy during Isaiah’s day into His present day, saying,

“Isaiah prophesied correctly about you hypocrites, as it is written: These people honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me” (Mk. 6:6).

It is once again imperative we interpret difficult scriptures concerning judicial blinding in the light of proper, historical setting. Only in doing can we rightly discern why such divine action was taken. Repeatedly the scriptures make the case that God’s blinding and hardening is a consequence of not seeing, not hearing and not responding to God’s previous revelations of grace. It’s an action that justly confirms people in their unwillingness to not see, not hear and not believe– it is not a cause of such unwillingness. 

Piper’s severe mishandling of Romans 11:31-32

In his zeal to press his argument further Piper goes on to make another critical exegetical error that I can only assume is a result of reading Scripture with a rigid presupposition that tends to see Calvinism hiding behind every passage. Piper attempts to argue that God purposed and determined to make Israel disobedient “in order that” he could have mercy on Gentiles. He severely manhandles Romans 11:31-32 in order to make his case, stating,

“This is the point of Romans 11:31-32. Paul speaks to his Gentile readers again about the disobedience of Israel in rejecting their Messiah: “So they [Israel] have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you [Gentiles] they also may receive mercy.” 

When Paul says that Israel was disobedient “in order that” Gentiles might get the benefits of the gospel, whose purpose does he have in mind? It can only be God’s.” For Israel did not conceive of their own disobedience as a way of blessing the Gentiles or winning mercy for themselves in such a round about fashion. The point of Romans 11:31 therefore is that God’s hardening of Israel is not an end in itself, but is part of a saving purpose that will embrace all the nations. But in the short run we have to say that he wills a condition (hardness of heart) which he commands people to strive against (“Do not harden your heart” (Hebrews 3:8, 15; 4:7).

Did you catch Piper’s mistake? Piper thinks Paul’s connecting phrase “in order that” principally links God’s declaration of Israel’s disobedience with God’s purpose to have mercy on Gentiles. But this is to overlook Paul’s point. He has Jews principally in view! It is true that through Israel’s disobedience God’s mercy came to Gentiles, but that is a demonstration of God’s sovereign ability to bring good out of evil, and not a marker of some indomitable, secondary will that unconditionally predestined all things. In other words God’s mercy being extended to Gentiles is a resultant factor of Israel’s disobedience, not a purpose for Israel’s disobedience.

Piper mistakenly thinks Paul is stating God purposed Israel to be disobedient “in order that” Gentiles can become beneficiaries of God’s mercy. However Paul is arguing that God has judiciously declared Israel to be in disobedience so that he may have mercy on them—Israel! Paul bears this out in the next verse. The qualifier “in order that” in vs 31 refers to the object of Israel receiving the benefit of mercy through being consigned in disobedience and witnessing the breadth of God’s mercy shown to Gentiles.

Paul is not saying, “God sovereignly willed or made Israel disobedient in order that you Gentiles may receive mercy” as Piper must wrongly assume to make his point stick. Both “they’s” in vs. 31 refer to Jews! He is saying in essence, “So they [Israel] have been declared to be disobedient so that they [Israel] also may receive mercy.”

Paul’s principle aim is to lead us to the understanding that God has consigned or imprisoned all in disobedience— Jew and Gentile alike— so that one’s only escape into freedom and a right standing before God (i.e. salvation) is found in God’s gift of mercy through the Messiah. Paul unequivocally makes this point immediately after in vs 32, “For God has imprisoned all in disobedience, so that He may have mercy on all.”

Piper appears to catch himself at the end and realize Paul does have Jews in mind too, but it is too little too late. He is simply incorrect to assume God secretly decreed or intentionally purposed Israel to be disobedient via a second, divine will “in order that” mercy can principally come to the Gentiles. Neither did God purpose or will Israel’s disobedience so that he could harden her.

It cannot be stated enough: Divine mercy being extended to Gentiles has always been the plan of God ever since his covenant with Abraham and promise to use Israel as a “light unto the Gentiles.” But where national Israel failed, the faithful Israelite and Messiah— Jesus— succeeded. Through the Messiah God has ushered in a new covenant and brought to fulfillment His plan for the world. As such God’s purpose to use Israel’s disobedience and hardening (as a means to accomplish what He first envisioned her obedience would accomplish) is a resultant factor of Israel’s disobedience, not a decreed purpose for Israel’s disobedience!

God’s sovereignty: A responsive sovereignty

Scripture often reveals God can and often does repurpose His sovereign purposes in response to human freedom. God’s sovereignty can be determinative when God sees fit, but we must also take seriously scripture’s revelation that God’s sovereignty is also exercised in many instances as a responsive sovereignty to human self-determination. This too is His sovereign will. That is to say it is God’s sovereign will that His sovereignty be a responsive sovereignty, as clearly demonstrated in the potter and clay metaphor of Jeremiah 18:1-12.

As we noted in Romans 9-11 Part 2 Paul utilizes the potter and clay metaphor of Jeremiah to make his case that God is acting fully within His sovereign jurisdiction to judge Israel in response to Israel’s prior, self-chosen rebellion against God. She becomes a vessel of wrath fit for destruction due to recalcitrant resistance to God’s plan to shape her as a vessel of mercy.

Thus God’s judgment of hardening/blinding and being cut off the metaphorical olive tree of covenant union, is not in response to His own secret “will of decree” that Israel be stubborn and disobedient, but in in response to Israel’s self-determined stubbornness and disobedience. Israel’s freedom is genuine, but that freedom does not equal autonomy from God or full independence from God. Her self-determination only goes as far. Indeed she has freedom of choice, such as to obey or disobey God, but she is not so free as to chart her course against God and escape His sovereign reach. In short Israel’s freedom is not a freedom to disobey God and get away with it. In that sense she is ultimately under God’s total, sovereign control. But here we must be clear. To say Israel is under God’s sovereign control is to not to say God secretly determined all her disobedience and sovereignly decreed all her sins. That is the error of Piper’s Calvinism due to an extreme misunderstanding of divine sovereignty.

Instead Israel is under God’s total, sovereign control in the sense that God is free to nullify and revoke Israel’s freedom through divine judgment if and when Israel’s use of freedom causes her to become entrenched in self-sustained resistance. God is the master and Israel the servant, and Israel is not free to reverse this relationship. Thus God, as a potter, has the sovereign freedom and right to reshape Israel, as clay, in response to how Israel responds to Him. It is abundantly helpful to hear the esteemed O.T. scholar Walter Brueggemann on Jeremiah 18:1-12.

God’s responsive sovereignty in light of Jeremiah 18:1-12

In part 2 we explored some of Brueggemann’s helpful comments, but I want to highlight them more because they serve as an excellent anchor point in understanding our main contention. God’s divine judgments—like hardening and blinding— are acts of God’s responsive sovereignty after people have forfeited opportunities to repent through sustained resistance to God’s light and grace. Brueggemann writes,

Jeremiah observes that the potter completely controls the clay, can reshape it, and is not committed to any particular form for the clay (v.4). The potter will completely reshape the clay until the potter has it the way he wants it. The interpretation of this observation is rooted in the parallel drawn in v. 6. God can do to Israel whatever Yahweh chooses, just as the potter can the clay (cf. Isa. 45:9-11). Israel is not autonomous or independent, but is completely in the control of Yahweh. The oracle asserts Yahweh’s complete sovereignty and Israel’s complete subservience. That is the nature of the relationship, which finally cannot be avoided or denied. The metaphor of the potter and clay leads us to expect an unambiguous assertion of Yahweh’s sovereignty. The argument that follows, however, is much more subtle. Jeremiah 18:7-10 are organized organized according to a double sequence of “if… if… then.”

  1. If… I declare… that I will pluck up… (v. 7),
  2. if that nation… turns from its evil (v. 8)
  3. (then) I will repent of the evil that I intended to do to it (v. 8)

 

  1. If… I declare…. That I will build and plant it (v. 9),
  2. if it does evil in my sight… (v. 10),
  3. then I will repent of the good which I had intended to do to it (v. 10).

 

The first “if” (A.1, B.1) concerns God’s decree. The second “if” (A.2, B.2) refers to a fresh decision on Israel’s part. The “then” (A.3, B.3) expresses Yahweh’s readiness to act in new ways in response to Israel’s new behavior. In both sequences the first “if” is God’s initial decision either to plant or to pluck up. The second “if” celebrates Israel’s freedom. Israel is not fated but can act in new ways.

This mode of argument affirms, first, that God is free and can respond and, second, that Judah’s obedience is of decisive importance. In light of both these affirmations, Judah is exhorted to choose carefully how it will act, for its future depends on its action. Yahweh’s responsive sovereignty and Judah’s determinative obedience are both constitutive of Judah’s life.

In v. 11 an appeal is made that Israel should decide afresh. God has made a decree (the first “if,” in v. 7), but that decree can be changed by Judah’s action (the second “if,” in v. 8). The argument asserts Yahweh’s full sovereignty, consistent with the ability of the potter to control the clay. But the second theme, that Israel can take an initiative, violates the metaphor, for Israel has freedom that the clay does not have. The clay cannot challenge the potter, but Israel can act so that Yahweh will change. The narrative both uses the metaphor (to assert sovereignty) and violates the metaphor (to assert Judah’s zone of freedom).

In v. 12, however, the prophet dismisses all of the freedom Israel seemed to have in vv. 8-11. Now Israel’s chance to change is nullified. The clay now can take no action free of the potter. There is no more time for turning. Judah has waited too long. Judah of course had had freedom of choice. But that freedom has now been forfeited through sustained resistance and stubbornness. The text is not interested in a theoretical question of free will. Rather, it addresses the pastoral reality that resistance to God practiced so long eventually nullifies the capacity to choose life. Israel’s long-term resistance left it no longer able to choose life. Jerusalem’s judgment is sealed because Judah has been too stubborn. Judah rejects God’s plan which is for covenant obedience and chooses its own alternative plan that opts for autonomy and disobedience. Judah resolves to act autonomously, without reference to Yahweh. Judah’s plan is a plan of stubbornness which refuses the reality of God’s sovereignty. Such a refusal ends in death… the potter is not endlessly committed to working with this clay, if the clay is finally recalcitrant. The potter will finally quit, which means that the clay has no future.

Bruggemann’s exegesis of the potter-clay metaphor of Jeremiah 18:1-12, picked up later by Paul in Romans 9:20-24, seriously undermines the foundational basis for Piper’s Two-Wills View— that being his commitment to exhaustive, theological determinism. But again, it gets even worse for him.[8]

Piper’s grievous conflation of two distinct categories of “hardening”

Overly zealous to make his points stick to something, Piper wrongly assumes God’s judicial hardening is synonymous with the same “hardness of heart” that comes from persistent, willful disobedience mentioned in Hebrews 3:8 and 4:7. In those passages God warns, “Today if you hear His voice do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.”

It is quite astonishing that Piper, a pastoral theologian, conflates (1) self-chosen hardness of heart due to unrepentant disobedience with (2) judicial hardening for unrepentant disobedience, saying,

“But in the short run we have to say that he wills a condition (hardness of heart) which he commands people to strive against (“Do not harden your heart” (Hebrews 3:8, 15; 4:7).”

It is vitally important that we note there exists two distinct categories of “hardening” in the scriptures, and each is brought about by two separate causes for two very different reasons. The first category is a self-chosen hardness of heart due to a willful refusal to listen to the Spirit of God. As Zachariah 7:12 sets forth, “They made their hearts as hard as flint and did not listen…to the words that the Lord Almighty sent by his Spirit through the earlier prophets.”

So as to be doubly clear, self-chosen hardness of heart stems from repeated disobedience and an unwillingness to hear God’s voice and prior overtures of truth and grace. To “hear” God’s voice is to heed or obey God’s voice. And heeding God’s voice is largely a matter of choice. That is why there exists the conditional “if you will hear” in Hebrews 3:8 and 4:7.

Moreover the writer of Hebrews is quoting from Psalm 95:7-8 wherein the Psalmist ties in hearing God’s voice with our will to heed God’s voice, saying, “Today, if you will hear His voice: ‘Do not harden your hearts…’” The Scriptures are clear that repeatedly resisting the truth will eventually “seer the conscience” (1 Tim. 2:4) and render the heart callous and “past feeling” (Eph. 4:19).

The second category of hardening is God’s just prerogative to judicially harden persons within the first category (those unrelenting in their self-chosen disobedience and self-chosen hard-heartedness). In other words persons in the second category are those judicially confirmed by God in their self-chosen hardness of heart as an act of divine judgment. In Romans 10:21 Paul makes it clear God extended His hands “all day long to a rebellious people” but Israel repeatedly disregarded God. Consequently Israel forfeited God’s perfect will (remember Jeremiah 10:1-12) and will move from the first category of self-hardening to the second category of judicial hardening.

Since Piper’s theology assumes all human choices were previously determined via God’s will of decree, there is no place to speak of God having a consequent will when people exercise their free will and reject His perfect will. Thus it is no surprise to see Piper completely avoid the journey Israel has taken from the first category of self-hardening to the consequential second category of judicial hardening.

In his zeal to press his view, Piper completely skips over scripture’s affirmation of Israel’s freedom to resist God’s perfect will through rebellion as the cause of her self-induced hardness of heart— a hardness that in turn brings about God’s judicial hardening. He erroneously subsumes both categories of rebellious self-hardening and judicial hardening together, saying, “God holds out his hands to a rebellious people (Romans 10:21), but ordains a hardening that consigns them for a time to disobedience.”

Piper believes the rebellious heart of Israel that resisted God’s hand was brought about by God’s alleged will of decree that she have a hardened heart of rebellion. No! That completely reverses and overturns one of Paul’s main points to justify God’s righteous judgement in regards to Israel being judicially cut off the olive tree of covenant blessing. God judicially hardens Israel in response to Israel’s prior, self-hardening caused by her repeated rejection of God’s outstretched hand. Piper’s mistaken conflation of two, distinct categories of hardening is made all the worse in light of his underlying belief that God determinatively decreed all Israel’s sins that led to her being a “rebellious people.” Such a view is so morally malevolent and confused, it ought to be rebuked and renounced with the greatest swiftness.

If Piper’s theological analysis did not exist in a reverberating, self-enclosed echo chamber much of his interpretive confusion would disappear, and he would better understand how scriptural examples of judicial hardening are not a record God’s unconditional, decretive will being brought to fruition, but are rather a record of God’s accommodating, consequent will coming into play when his ideal, morally perfect will is repeatedly spurned.

Six reasons Piper’s Calvinism is overturned in Romans 11:7-8

Let’s return again to Piper’s earlier contention that Romans 11:7 supports his particular Two-Wills view. What does Paul mean when he distinguishes between “Israel not finding what it was looking for… [and being] hardened” and “the elect [who] did find it”? Does it mean God never truly desired or intended certain Jews to obtain salvation? Does it mean God pre-programed Israel’s sins? Does it mean God was behind the scenes; actively engineering a plot to ensure the nation of Israel disobeyed him and failed in her call to be a light to the nations? If not why does Paul quote O.T. passages in Romans 11:8 that speak of God giving people a “spirit of stupor, eyes that should not see and ears that should not hear”? Moreover to quote the main thrust of Piper’s contention in the form of a question, why does God do this “even though it is the command of God that his people see and hear and respond in faith (Isaiah 42:18)?” Is it, as Piper assumes, evidence that God wills one thing and then “acts in a way to restrict the fulfillment of that will.”

We have been over much of this material already, but because Piper continues to repeat the same charges in various, nuanced forms it is necessary to deal with them thoroughly.

Six quick points are in order:

(1) Firstly, the mere fact that Paul is quoting the O.T. in this way tells us Paul understood Israel to be under God’s judgment just like she was at earlier times when she spurned God’s patience and rejected God’s outstretched arms (Is. 65:2). For after quoting the Isaiah passage, he quotes David’s request that God’s enemies—his own enemies— be trapped and ensnared in their indulgence and feasting in Psalm 69:22-23. The common thread that unites all these O.T. quotes is judgment and retribution, in the form of judicial blinding, on those who have rejected God’s earlier revelations of Himself and His faithfulness. Paul imports this theme into Romans 11 because he rightly recognizes God is again judicially blinding Israel as a consequence for her own self-chosen blindness and intransigent un-teachableness. However God can still call out for repentance and for ears to hear just like Jesus will later do in the N.T.

Why?

Because Jesus knows not all Jews have succumbed to the spirit of implacable unbelief that defines their age. Some will respond— in fact many did (Mark 1:5). But generally speaking the time for extended patience and mercy on the nation has ended. The time for corporate judgment on the nation has come. A similar passage in Isaiah almost perfectly parallels the dire, spiritual condition of Israel in at the dawn of the N.T. era. In fact Jesus even quotes from it in Mark 7:7-8 to describe the general heart condition of the nation that required God’s judicial blinding as a response (not a cause) to Israel’s self-imposed unwillingness to see or hear. Jesus’s quote of Isaiah reveals that He understood judicial blinding to be the withdraw of God’s presence and light from Israel—presence and light Israel needed for continued covenant communion and understanding. For when we read the relevant passages in their entire context in Isaiah we can easily see Isaiah identifies God’s judgment of sleepiness and blindness with God’s withdraw of light and revelation from Israel’s prophets and seers.

“For the Lord has poured out on you

an overwhelming urge to sleep; [i.e. spirit of stupor]

He has shut your eyes — the prophets,

and covered your heads — the seers…

Because these people approach Me with their mouths

to honor Me with lip- service —

yet their hearts are far from Me,

and their worship consists of man- made rules

learned by rote —

therefore I will again confound these people…

and the understanding of the perceptive will be hidden” (Isaiah 29:10-14).

 

(2) Secondly, self-righteousness and confidence in outward law keeping has always been the root cause of Israel’s outward religiosity at the cost of inward confession. According to Paul the “attempt to establish their own righteousness” is the principle reason Israel “disregarded God’s righteousness” (Rom 10:3), failed to obtain “the righteousness that comes by faith” (Rom. 10:6) and was judicially judged as a result. We should never call into question the sincerity of God’s desire to mercifully seek and save the lost, the blind and the sick. But when blind sinners consider themselves already seeing, already holy, already righteous, there is little they can receive from God except discipline. The historical record on Israel is generally uniform on this point as it spans the two testament ages. Note the full context of Paul’s quoting of Isaiah in Romans 10:21,

“I spread out my hand all day to a rebellious people…

These people continually provoke Me

to My face…They say, Keep to yourself,

don’t come near me, for I am too holy for you!

I will not keep silent, but I will repay…” (Isaiah 65:3-6)

It is astonishing that people could ever think they were “too holy” for God, but Jesus charges Israel with the same self-righteous attitude, saying,

“I came into this world for judgment, in order that those who do not see will see and those who do see will become blind. Some of the Pharisees who were with Him heard these things and asked Him, “We aren’t blind too, are we?” If you were blind, Jesus told them, you wouldn’t have sin. But now that you say, “We see” — your sin remains.” (John 9:39-41).

Jesus was both the light of the world and the rock of stumbling for those who reject that light to see. The Romans were blind. The Greeks were blind. The Pharisees were blind. Jesus knew they were all blind, for that is why He came. As John declared, “The true light, who gives light to everyone, was coming into the world” (Jn 1:9). Christ confirmed, “I have come as a light into the world, so that everyone who believes in Me would not remain in darkness” (Jn. 12:46). But Jesus also confirmed that His arrival on earth signaled judgment on the spiritually prideful, “I came into this world for judgment…that those who do see will become blind” (Jn. 9:39).

It is not that God predetermined through a divine decree that they be blind. Rather God is judging their arrogance by judicially delivering them over to their own spiritual pride. It is no wonder that Jesus began His “Sermon on the Mount” saying, “Blessed are those who are poor in spirit, for theirs in the kingdom of heaven.” To be “poor in spirit” is to know your spiritual need of God. Given that the religious classes rejected their need of light, pridefully professing their sight and righteousness according to the Law, they forfeited the only true light to see their true need. Since Christ fulfilled the Law any attempt to continue to pursue righteousness according to the Law will inevitably cause them to increase in blindness and stumble over Christ, the “end of the Law for righteousness,” according to Paul (Rom. 10:4).

When Jesus told the Pharisees “your sin remains” because they arrogantly claimed, “We see” we are hearing Jesus affirm contingency not determinism. In other words we are greatly mistaken if we think it had to be this way—that it was divinely predestined. Jesus made it clear He came to seek and save the lost, bind up the broken hearted, set the oppressed free and restore sight to the blind. But like slaves refusing freedom because they proudly think they are masters, and terminally ill patients refusing treatment because they confidently think they are in perfect health, Jesus had no recourse except to judicially confirm the religious class in their own blindness and seek out others more responsive, teachable and humble.

(3) Thirdly, concerning Paul’s distinguishing of Israel and the elect, it is to our advantage to keep in mind that often (but not always) in Paul’s perspective “Israel” = God’s chosen people by Hebraic ancestry and outward law keeping, and the “Elect” = God’s chosen people by faith and internal confession. Paul is not alone in his assessment of two, distinct corporate groups. It shows up repeatedly in the words of Christ. The former group is awash in self-righteousness and pride and can receive nothing from the Lord. The other group is marked by humility and will therefore be saved by grace as promised: “God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble” (Jm 4:6; Mt. 23:12; Pr. 3:34). We see these two categories best pitted against each other in Christ’s parable of the Pharisee who went to the temple to testify of his outward works of the Law and the sinful publican who went to the temple to confess his inward poverty and need of divine mercy. We will recall only one went home justified (Lk. 18:9-14).

(4) Fourthly, to a large extent the nation of Israel forfeited divine mercy that came by way of her Messiah, and consequently, as a nation became judaically blinded and hardened because she belonged to the aforementioned former group. But as stated before, not all did. Not all had unbelieving hearts, calloused over by years of outward piety at the cost of inward confession and faith. Some truly did hear and heed the words of God under the old covenant and were therefore already God’s sheep at the time of the new covenant arrival in Christ. They recognized the voice of God—their Good Shepherd—in the voice of Jesus in the new covenant and were thus drawn to Christ as naturally as sheep being drawn to the voice of their true shepherd. As Jesus declares, “Everyone who has listened to and learned from the Father comes to Me… But you don’t believe because you are not My sheep. My sheep hear My voice, I know them, and they follow Me” (Jn 6:45; 10:26-27). Those who were already in a right relationship with the Father followed the Son because they recognized that the Son and the Father spoke in one voice. Such persons are saved by grace through faith and called the “elect,” and exist in contrast to the general term “Israel” in Romans 11:7. That is why Paul can say “Israel did not obtain” what it was searching for (i.e. righteousness) but the “elect did obtain it.”

(5) Fifthly, as already noted, Piper reveals a (ironic) blinding bias and in his treatment of these verses. He assumes that if God wills to call people to repentance on the one hand, but is then seen to blind, harden and cut off people on the other hand, what other explanation could there be except to declare God intentionally “acts in a way to restrict the fulfillment of that will”—i.e. wills to decree that Israel disobey His will of command to repent.

However Piper is presenting the fallacy of a non-sequitur. It does not follow that God determinatively decreed for Israel to disregard His “will of command” simply because God is seen to later judicially blind Israel for unrepentant disregard of His light and truth. For God can both call out for repentance to some and judicially blind others because there are two principal groups of people God has in view:

Group 1: Those who missed the day of God’s visitation due to a prior, obstinate unwillingness to “submit themselves to God’s righteousness” (Rom 10:3) and will be judicially confirmed in their obstinacy as a consequence.

Group 2: Those who have not yet succumbed to the obstinate spirit of their age and still have “ears to hear.”

Recognizing that both groups are in play in the N.T. can help us see why Jesus can declare on the one hand that the consequence of disbelief is further disbelief, further lack of understanding and further slumbering, and then on the other hand emphatically call out for belief and understanding. Jesus was always searching out hearts still willing to hear and listen. Such people are always in view in the common phrase “he who has ears to hear let him hear.” As we read in Mark 7:14-16, “Summoning the crowd again, He told them, Listen to Me, all of you, and understand…If anyone [still] has ears to hear, he should listen!”

Moreover Jesus told his disciples that the same religious class of Jews who persecuted Him will likewise persecute them because they “don’t know the One who sent Me” (John 15:21). That is to say they never knew God, never knew his Father— ever! Yet they arrogantly thought they did. Time and again Jesus warned the Pharisees He came to give light to those in darkness, but if they arrogantly say they see, but walk as if they are blind, their sin, which is the ultimate cause of their blindness, remains. However if one does not resist God’s outstretched hand of grace (Rom. 10:21), but humbly confesses their blindness and “turns to the Lord the veil is removed” as stated by Paul concerning the Jews in 2 Corinthians 3:16. Note the order. Paul does not say the veil is removed so that Jews can turn to Christ; it is removed when Jews turn to Christ.

(6) Sixth—and perhaps most important of all— we ought to interpret passages concerning God’s hardening/blinding and cutting off of Israel corporately. God’s judicial act of judgment against the nation of Israel was to deliver the nation up to its own self-imposed blindness and hard-heartedness due to their rejection of the only One who could take away the veil. But we certainly shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking God’s acts of judicial blinding, hardening and being cut off from the olive tree of covenant union are irrevocable acts that keep all Jews bound in repentance and unbelief. For Paul himself rhetorically asks, “If they repent will God not graft them in again?” (Rom. 11:23)

This tells us that Israel’s judicial hardening and blinding ought to be seen as primarily corporate in nature and only secondarily applying to individual Jews who insisted on remaining under a former covenant God no longer inhabited with His divine presence. Thus for any Jew to remain entrenched in seeking justification through the Law will in turn keep that Jew blinded in the very spirit of unbelief that brought about God’s corporate hardening upon Israel.

As we explained in Part 2, just like Israel’s prior election under the old covenant was primarily corporate in its effect and only secondarily pertained to the Jew who appropriately identified themselves with the corporate election of Israel, so also God’s judicial hardening and blinding of Israel was primarily corporate in effect and only secondarily pertained to individual Jews who stubbornly rejected God’s new covenant in Christ and sought recognition and justification under a former covenant and law no longer in effect.

In other words “corporate hardening and blinding” is the flip side of “corporate election.” As an act of judgment Paul believed Israel as a nation was being corporately hardened and confirmed in her stubborn disregard of God’s prior grace and righteousness. As long as any Jew insisted on approaching God through the Law—especially in regard to ritual sacrifices for sin—they would find themselves to be under God’s corporate hardening.

In Romans 11:7 Paul says, “Israel did not find what it was looking for, but the elect did find it. The rest were hardened…” What was Israel looking for? Paul already told us that in 9:31, “But Israel, pursuing the law for righteousness, has not achieved the righteousness of the law… because they did not pursue it by faith.”

Paul contrasts corporate “Israel” with the corporate “elect” by saying the “elect did find it.” What did they find? Paul already told us that too. They found the righteousness of covenant union that came through faith. Thus the elect are God’s corporate people united to Him by faith. Then Paul says “the rest were hardened.”

Who are “the rest”? Are they some mysterious, unknown group individually and unconditionally selected by God to not be saved before they were born? One can only arrive at this conclusion by importing a 16th century debate about the nature of predestination upon the text. Such a debate is centuries removed from anything Paul is trying to say in Romans 9-11. Paul understands “the rest” to be those among corporate Israel that “did not find what it was looking for” but nonetheless stubbornly insist on remaining within the works of the Law as a means of justification. Thus they are hardened and blinded.

But they are not hardened or blinded against Christ. They hardened within the context of rejecting Christ and remaining in the stiff and brittle, old wineskin of the former covenant passing away. To the extent they remain entrenched in unbelief in the old covenant is to the extent they are hardened and blinded within that covenant. It cannot be repeated enough. God’s hardening was not divine resistance against believing the gospel! To the contrary. Believing in the gospel was the antidote—the means by which one escaped the severity of God’s hardening and entered God’s kindness (Rom. 11:20-23).

That is the reason Paul is adamant in saying it is through belief in the gospel that a Jew can be grafted in after being cut off. And it is certainly why Paul said of his Jewish brethren, “Even to this day, whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their hearts, but whenever a person turns to the Lord, the veil is removed” (2 Cor. 3:15-16). If Calvinism were an accurate theology we would expect Paul to say, “the veil over their hearts is removed so that they can turn to the Lord.” But that is not what Paul says. As already mentioned, Paul conditions the removal of the veil on turning to the Lord.

Summary conclusion

We can summarize the conclusion of all six points as follows: The corporate nature of Israel’s “hardening” must be seen within the context of God no longer honoring the old covenant, since to do so would be to undermine the new covenant. The Jew cannot follow the Law at the expense of not following her Messiah. The Jew cannot affirm God while denying God’s Son. Thus to the degree Israel continues to try and establish her own “election” and “recognition” before God through the Law, while simultaneously disregarding her own Messiah, is to the degree she will remain in unbelief and therefore under God’s severity—His corporate hardening/blinding (Rom. 11:20-23).

Application for today

We do well to remember Brueggemann’s summary concerning Judah/Israel sealing herself in God’s judgment through her recalcitrant stubbornness, which in turn caused her to forfeit the freedom and opportunity to repent and prolong God’s patience and mercy. It does not mean every Israelite/Jew within the nation lost the chance the opportunity to repent. Such a conclusion can only be reached by interpreting the Bible through the lens of the “Enlightenment” that assigns identity on an individual basis. We must cease doing that. The Bible consigns identity within the corporate group to which one belongs—i.e. the nation states of Judah/Israel. No doubt some inhabitants of Judah did heed Jeremiah’s warnings and personally repented. But as it concerned the nation of Judah as a whole, her time of exploiting the riches of God’s patience had passed. Judgment on the nation had been decreed and this time it would not be rescinded as in times past. As Bruggemann writes,

“There is no more time for turning. Judah has waited too long. Judah of course had had freedom of choice. But that freedom has now been forfeited through sustained resistance and stubbornness… it addresses the pastoral reality that resistance to God practiced so long eventually nullifies the capacity to choose life. Israel’s long-term resistance left it no longer able to choose life.” [9]

There is an implicit warning in all of this. If we persist in rebellion and hard heartedness there comes a point where we are judiciously given over to our rebellion wherein God has no recourse except to withdraw His light and mercy. Consequently we fall into condemnation. We find this theme throughout scripture and it ought to serve as a somber warning to us all. God is not to be mocked. What we sow we will reap and if we persist in sin and un-repentance God will give us up to experience the full measure of our self-chosen sin. We become the salt that loses its flavor and is good for nothing except to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men. We become the branches that didn’t bear fruit, whither away and are subsequently cut off and thrown into the fire.

In C.S. Lewis’s parable story, The Great Divorce, one of the characters offers an analogy that is helpful. “If there’s one wee spark under all those ashes, we’ll blow it till the whole pile is red and clear. But if there’s nothing but ashes we’ll not go on blowing them in our eyes forever. They must be swept up.”

 

 

 

 

 

Appendix:
A helpful analogy in understanding God’s judicial blinding

 

We can summarize Part 3 with the following analogy:

Suppose I see a blind man walking towards a small cliff. It is not so high as to kill him but he can hurt himself—perhaps even break his leg. I run over to him and try to redirect him with my hands, but he consistently kicks me away, refusing to acknowledge he is blind. However in mercy I wrestle him up into my arms and carry him away, all the while absorbing the pain of his kicks and punches. After I place him down a safe distance from the cliff, he immediately seeks out his former direction, stubbornly insisting he is on his way home and he knows how to get there on his own. Suppose this goes on for hours, even days. I repeatedly pull him back from the precipice only to see him retrace his steps in the same direction. I dare not sleep lest he make it to the cliff before I can intervene again. I finally reach a place where I realize my attempts to keep him safe are only postponing the inevitable. For he is committed to stubbornly asserting his own “rightness” and walking in the direction of his own choosing. Despite all my warnings he will never acknowledge his blindness, ignorance or peril. Hence my attempts to save him have only created an unhealthy co-dependency that affords him temporary safety at the expense of right learning and long-term safety. For long-term safety and living is a result of right learning. As harsh as it may seem, giving him up to his own stubbornness, and allowing him to suffer the consequences of his own recalcitrant disregard of my attempts to redirect him, is the only recourse I have left. My allowing him to go his own way is in essence confirming him in his own choice to blindly injure himself. However it is not my plan to leave him lying in a heap at the bottom of the ditch, exposed to the harsh elements until he dies. Instead my plan is to cradle him in my arms, mend his wounds and hopefully set him on a course of safety.

When it comes to Israel, we are not talking about a matter of hours or days. We are talking tens of centuries! God defined His relationship with Israel for over two millennia as follows, “All day long I have spread out my hands to a disobedient and defiant people” (Rom. 10:21). Statements about God giving “Israel a spirit of stupor” need to be seen in light of Israel’s prior rejection of God’s outstretched hand of salvation. Israel already had a “spirit of stupor”—a lethargic, apathetic disregard for God. Thus God is not “giving” Israel something that wasn’t already there. God is not filling in some missing gap. The statement about God “giving” Israel a “spirit of stupor” is best understood as God withdrawing His presence, light and truth from the corrupted prophets and seers of Israel. In fact that is exactly how God qualifies His giving of Israel a “spirit of stupor” in Isaiah 29:10-11, saying,

“For the Lord has poured out on you

an overwhelming urge to sleep; [i.e. spirit of stupor]

He has shut your eyes — the prophets,

and covered your heads — the seers…”

Israel, especially during Isaiah and Jeremiah’s time, had many self-proclaimed prophets who tickled the ears of the people, giving them only false assurances of God’s protection and favor, despite Israel’s stubbornness and sin. Consequently God decides to withdraw revelation from Israel’s corrupt prophets and seers so as to judicially give Israel up to her own defiance and disobedience. In this way God judicially confirms Israel in her own, self-chosen apathy and insensitivity to His correction—i.e. her “stupor.” But that is not God’s end game. God’s end game is renewal and restoration through repentance. For God’s judgments and acts of discipline towards Israel always had a redemptive element— her correction and restoration to covenant blessing.

Paul is fully aware of this repeated theme of divine judgment and divine renewal and restoration. That is why he is keen to end his remarks on Israel’s judgement (i.e. her judicial hardening and blinding) with Israel’s eventual salvation, renewal and fullness in chapter 11.

 

 

 

 

 

[1] John Piper at: https://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/has-god-predetermined-every-tiny-detail-in-the-universe-including-sin

 

[2] John Piper at: https://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/has-god-predetermined-every-tiny-detail-in-the-universe-including-sin

 

[3] That John Piper believes in limited atonement does not change this fact, for it would still mean God decreed all sin—including the sins of the elect for whom Christ died. See at: https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/are-there-two-wills-in-god

[5] Much of the material above and below is adapted from my earlier critique of John Piper’s view found at https://atheologyintension.com/2014/12/09/the-folly-of-doing-theology-in-an-echo-chamber-a-thorough-examination-of-pipers-two-wills-view/ All the quotes from John Piper are taken from his online article “Are There Two Wills in God?” See https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/are-there-two-wills-in-god

 

[6] We first come across this phase in Deut. 29:4 where Moses voices his great frustration at Israel as follows: “You saw with your own eyes the great trials and those great signs and wonders. Yet to this day the Lord has not given you a mind to understand, eyes to see, or ears to hear.” From the beginning of their exodus God’s plan was that Israel would be given further light and revelation for the journey, but Israel must first respond in appropriate faith to the measure of revelation that had already received. When the first generation refused to trust God they were sovereignly barred from entering the land God promised them. God so desired genuine trust and belief, in response to His past faithfulness to Israel, that He refused to believe for them. Moses implies they are responsible to have a mind of understanding, eyes to see and ears to hear as an appropriate faith response to His great faithfulness to them—seen in His “great signs and wonders.” God will not do it for them by giving them a divine impartation of understanding, sight and hearing that otherwise would be absent. Indeed God gave them many opportunities to understand, see and hear through many great signs and wonders, but the understanding of faith, the sight of faith, and the hearing of faith must come from them. The HCSB commentary on Deut 29:4 agrees, saying, “Despite Israel’s seeing everything the Lord did in Egypt and in the wilderness (vv. 2-3), He had not given them a mind to understand. He had not forced them to believe against their will, but He had given them every opportunity and inducement to believe. It is at this point that divine sovereignty and human choices intersect. God makes His truth available to all people, but they can choose to harden themselves against it and thus deny themselves its blessings (Is. 6:9-10; Rm 11:8).

[7] See HSBC Study Bible Notes on Mark 4:11-12 and Matthew 13:10-13

 

[8] Brueggemann, Walter. A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI, 1998, p. 167-169

[9] Brueggemann, p. 169

About StriderMTB

Hi, I'm Matt. "Strider" from Lord of the Rings is my favorite literary character of all time and for various reasons I write under the pseudonym "StriderMTB. As my blog suggests I seek to live out both the excitement and tension of a Christian walk with Christ in the 3rd world context of Asia. I am unmarried yet blessed to oversee an orphanage of amazing children in South-East Asia. I hate lima beans and love to pour milk over my ice-cream. I try to stay active in both reading and writing and this blog is a smattering of my many thoughts. I see the Kingdom of God as Jesus preached it and lived to be the only hope for a broken world and an even more broken and apathetic church.
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4 Responses to Romans 9-11 Part 3: The hardening and blinding of national Israel

  1. Theresa says:

    Hello Matt thank you for your latest posting. I am not an academic but I seriously enjoy your work. I find your post easy to understand and your thought lines easy to follow. I’m sorry that the voices in opposition to Calvinism are not greater in number and more visible to those seeking to know God and understand His ways.
    Please keep up the good work. It would be great to see you quoted on Pinterest as there are such an overwhelming number of John Piper, John McArthur, John Edwards etc. quotes to be found but very few of a true Arminian persuasion.
    Best Regards and looking forward to reading more,
    Theresa

    • StriderMTB says:

      Thank you Theresa! That is very encouraging. I meant to post this up a few months back but lost it on my ipad. However I recently recovered it–happy day! 🙂 God bless you.

  2. fromoverhere says:

    Strider,
    Thanks for dismantling Piper’s two wills.

    On the Soteriology101 site I am regularly stating that God wants things but puts conditions (as you stated above with the dessert).

    He wanted the Angel of Death to pass over His people at Passover in Egypt, but the condition was the application of the blood on the door. Imagine if He —- in His “will of decree” “hidden will” “sovereign will” decreed for some of the Israelites to not put the blood.

    Then in the morning, while they are mourning, He says to those few…. “Why did you not apply the blood that I told you to apply, but decreed that you not apply?”

    Conflicted ruler that would be!!

    • StriderMTB says:

      Yes great example! There are literally thousands of examples one can think of wherein Calvinism renders God the most conflicted being at best and the most sinister at worst. All the best!

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