I love the answer in this question regarding God giving us free will saying :

"..and without choice, there can be no true obedience, or true love, only mindless followers with no will of their own."

And I do believe so. God gives us free will to be able to genuinely love Him, to genuinely obey. but:

Exodus 11: 10 states ".. but the LORD hardened Pharaoh's heart, and he would not let the Israelites go out of his country."

This kinda complicates things, God - loving, kind, and who has given us free will, is the same God who hardens hearts. Another reference is :

Joshua 11: 20 saying "For it was the LORD himself who hardened their hearts to wage war against Israel, so that he might destroy them totally, exterminating them without mercy, as the LORD had commanded Moses."

This is very clear that the LORD himself hardened their hearts. Is this contradictory to God's claimed character or is there other meaning to it when God 'hardens' a heart? Because by itself it seems as if God is pushing people to wage war, or to do things outside what could have been an individual's free will.

  • God hardened Pharaoh's heart by showing mercy in removing the plagues as soon as Pharaoh had Moses pray for their removal. Like any hardened criminal Pharaoh hardened his own heart in response to the authority figure showing leniency. Thus Exodus puts it both ways: God hardened his heart, he hardened his own heart. Commented Mar 26, 2014 at 4:14
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    But in joshua 11:20 it is explicitly that God is the actor doing the hardening along with the clear statement of purpose which is - that they may wage war against Israel. How is this then?
    – muffin
    Commented Mar 26, 2014 at 5:01
  • @muffin I always saw it as God giving Pharaoh what he wanted. Pharaoh first hardened his own heart again and again, then God only firmed it for him. See this in action today here: Romans 1:28.
    – Steve
    Commented Mar 26, 2014 at 13:00
  • ... so I worry when people say that they'll receive God when they're on their deathbed!
    – Steve
    Commented Mar 26, 2014 at 13:18
  • @muffin, I think the thing is Joshua is a different situation than Pharaoh. Pharaoh was shown miracles from God and so on, the Caananites weren't. Pharaoh's hardening was certainly mainly his own doing, his response to God's leniency. In Joshua I suppose God was acting more directly, although I doubt it takes much hardening to make people fight to defend their homeland. Commented Mar 26, 2014 at 20:16

5 Answers 5


A friend of mine who has been reading a great deal of John Calvin's Institutes said something to me a couple months ago which has been resonating within me ever since. At this point (as of today, that is) I'm beginning to think that what my friend had to say--thanks, in part, to Calvin--is probably closer to the truth than what I believed previously.

What did my friend say? I'm glad you asked that! He said, and I paraphrase:

Unfortunately, many Christians tend to bandy about the words "free will," as if we are somehow on the same level as God in this regard. Now no one would likely even suggest she or he were on the same level as God, but does not attributing "free will" to human beings, simply because they are created in the image of God, imply that? Perhaps a far better expression than "free will" would be "the ability to choose." Now I can live with that!

Having talked with my friend just today, I think he is saying that God has not given an absolutely free will to those He created in His image; rather, He has given them the ability to choose, or to make choices. Only God's will is truly free.

God can do, say, or think virtually anything and everything He wants to do, say, or think. I say virtually, of course, because God cannot lie, He cannot be unfaithful to His holy word and His promises, and most significantly, He cannot think, say, or do anything which is not in keeping with His holy and perfect will, Being, and character. (Oh, and no, He cannot create a rock which is too heavy even for Him to lift, because God does not even entertain a single, solitary, illogical thought, let alone engage in illogical behavior.)

Of the scores of Bible passages I could quote in support of my last paragraph, I will quote but one, and that is 2 Timothy 2:13 NAS:

"[Even] if we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself."

Put differently, God cannot be anything but what He is, and He is perfection personified. The heavenly hosts realize this truth, and that is why they worship God ceaselessly, and will continue doing so through all eternity. Furthermore, God is immutable, unchangeable, and His holiness assures us of His unchangeableness. In this regard, the hymn writer caught some of the transcendence of God when he wrote,

"Immortal, invisible, God only wise,

In light inaccessible, hid from our eyes.

Most blessèd, most glorious, the Ancient of Days,

Almighty, victorious, Thy great name we praise. (words by Walter C. Smith, 1824-1908)

All this to say, there are times when God intervenes in the affairs of mere mortals, and for His own purposes and according to His own sovereign will does things which both surprise and mystify us. After all, He alone is God. We are not. God told Isaiah,

"'For my thoughts are not your thoughts,

Nor are your ways My ways,' declares the LORD.

'For as the heavens are higher than the earth,

So are my ways higher than your ways,

And my thoughts than your thoughts'" (55:8-9).

This is not to say, however, that God, as in the account of the hard-hearted Pharaoh of Moses' day, completely bypassed Pharaoh's will. God's will simply trumped Pharaoh's will in the matter. Pharaoh was free to choose to ignore God's word through Moses, but only because it was God's will for Him to do so. Only God's will is free; Pharaoh's will, on the other hand, was constrained and hemmed in by God's sovereign will. Then too, the hardening by God of Pharaoh's heart was at least in part because Pharaoh hardened his heart first. That is at least something to think about.

Does this mean we are not free to choose whether we harden our hearts or not? No, but it does mean our choosing takes place within a larger context; namely, God's ultimate (aka decretive, sovereign, or hidden) will. As one author put it, and I paraphrase for perhaps better clarity,

This understanding of [God's] sovereign will does not imply that God causes everything to happen. Rather, it acknowledges that because He is sovereign, He . . . permits or allows whatever happens to happen. This aspect of God’s will acknowledges that even when God passively--seemingly, to us--permits things to happen, He . . . [in fact] chooses to permit them, because He always has the power and right to intervene. God can always decide either to permit or stop the . . . events of this world. Therefore, [only] in the sense He allows things to happen, has He . . . [willed them to happen] . . ..

God, in other words, can intervene at any time and at His discretion. In doing so, He neither obviates our wills nor makes us choose to do His will; rather, His decretive will trumps our finite human wills. In Jeremiah 18 we read,

"'Arise and go down to the potter's house, and there I will announce My words to you.' Then I went down to the potter's house, and there he was, making something on the wheel. But the vessel that he was making of clay was spoiled in the hand of the potter; so he remade it into another vessel, as it pleased the potter to make. 'Can I not, O house of Israel, deal with you as this potter does?' declares the LORD. 'Behold, like the clay in the potter's hand, so are you in My hand, O house of Israel'"(vv.2-6).

Apostle Paul mirrors these words in Romans chapter 9, which apropos your question includes a section on God's dealings with Pharaoh:

What shall we say then ? There is no injustice with God, is there? May it never be! For He says to Moses, "I WILL HAVE MERCY ON WHOM I HAVE MERCY, AND I WILL HAVE COMPASSION ON WHOM I HAVE COMPASSION." So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, "FOR THIS VERY PURPOSE I RAISED YOU UP, TO DEMONSTRATE MY POWER IN YOU, AND THAT MY NAME MIGHT BE PROCLAIMED THROUGHOUT THE WHOLE EARTH." So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires. You will say to me then, "Why does He still find fault ? For who resists His will ?" On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God ? The thing molded will not say to the molder, "Why did you make me like this," will it? Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for common use?

The key verses, above, would seem to be verses 18-20, which I paraphrase as follows:

God chooses either to have mercy upon or to harden whomever He wills. If we say to God, "Well, how can you blame Pharaoh for hardening his heart if You are the One who hardened it? Evidently, no one can resist your will!" By saying that, you miss the point. Who are you, a mere lump of clay in the Master Potter's hands, to question His ways and say "You can't do that, God!"? What hubris!

There is no contest between God's will and ours. God's will always trumps ours, because He will sovereignly bring to pass the plans He formulated within the Godhead from eternity, before time existed. As Paul said in Ephesians, chapter 1:

". . . we [have] been predestinated according to His purpose, who works all things after the counsel of His will" (part of v.11)

In His sovereign will God gives us the ability to choose to obey or choose not to obey His revealed will, whether it be delivered to a stubborn and proud Pharaoh through Aaron and Moses, or to an average Joe or Jill today through His written word, the Scriptures.

In conclusion, until the end of time, I imagine, God's image bearers will never cease trying to reconcile two seemingly irreconcilable, yet inevitably true, biblical statements. I put forward only two such statements:

"'Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light'" (Matthew 11:29-30 KJV).


"'No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day'" (John 6:44 NASB Updated Version).

What other two seemingly irreconcilable biblical statements can you come up with? I leave it to you.

  • Thank you for the lengthy, but direct answer. Pharaoh's hardening came to me as mind control. As a Christian myself, I do believe in God's sovereignty, as He is God and he does what He pleases. I couldn't agree more about God "trumping" our will. This was more of a question of God's character, not his ability to do things. The hardening of hearts especially in the book of Joshua for the purpose of making war was just out of His character. I do understand that all things happen by His will and that His will is pleasing and perfect. I still have to ponder more about it though. But yeah Thanks!
    – muffin
    Commented Mar 26, 2014 at 8:50
  • Is Calvin's beef with us having "free will" more than that God's is "free-er," and so ours must be (somewhat) less that completely "free?" The sentiment of the argument seems valid to me, I just don't see why he takes issue with saying that we have "free will." Does "free will" have to mean "absolutely free will?"
    – mojo
    Commented Mar 26, 2014 at 16:56
  • @mojo: We are God's finite critters; consequently, we have a finite free will. God on the other hand is infinite in His being, and His will is completely unfettered, save by His character (as indicated in my answer). I hesitate using the standard "apples and oranges" locution, but perhaps it is apt. Or, think of our will as a pebble, and God's will as Mt. Everest! The pebble and the mountain are made of basically the same stuff, but my oh my what a contrast between the two! I might even go so far as to say the notion of free will is not biblical, though choosing is very biblical indeed. Commented Mar 26, 2014 at 22:38
  • Wouldn't this line of reasoning require us to come up with a new vocabulary of "finite" words for virtues/concepts embodied by God, like love, truth, compassion, mercy, gentleness, etc.? I naturally concur that God is infinitely greater than us in every way imaginable, but isn't it safe to assume that if we're speaking about humans, we don't mean to say that they are on par with God in any way?
    – mojo
    Commented Mar 27, 2014 at 13:08
  • @mojo: Not sure I understand where you're going. Perhaps this will help: we need, I think, to distinguish between God's virtues and God's image, particular His image within us. Virtues stem from, or issue forth from, His image. I'm oversimplifying, but God's image, both within Himself and within us, His image bearers, has three components: intellect, emotion, and will. Conscience and all the "finite" words you listed, issue from interaction among all three components. God, of course, has no "conscience," since He is perfection personified and cannot waver--as we can--between good and evil. Commented Mar 27, 2014 at 18:38

I think the free will thing is also difficult to comprehends. Jesus says that my sheep will know my voice, which lets us know that everyone does not hear the call. But God calls us. In the parable of the sower, some seeds fell on shallow ground, some fell amongst thorns and were strangled out, and some fell on good soil, and eventually took root and produced (I am not quoting here but rather paraphrasing). This leads us to believe that our ability to please God is based on the condition of our heart, and simply put - not all of us have a heart for God. Not all are called. So "free will" is a complicated issue. I always pray to have a tender heart.


I believe this is a mistranslation. It is against the nature of God to "harden" someone's heart. God wants all to believe and follow Him. However, I believe the true wording is that Pharaoh hardened his own heart

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    What evidence do you have to support this? Commented Mar 28, 2014 at 0:20
  • If you have found a mistranslation, you may way to ask on hermenutics Commented Mar 28, 2014 at 17:09
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    @ScottSeverance - Here is an interesting exposition of this point of view. Also notable is 1 Samuel 6:6 which says that it was Pharaoh who hardened Pharaoh's heart.
    – Calvin
    Commented Mar 29, 2014 at 6:31

Jeremiah 29;11 For I know the thoughts I think toward you, saith the LORD, thoughts of peace, and not evil, to give you and expected end. I begin my answer with this verse because we must clearly understand, that God is on our side, and He knows the beginning and the end. God's love for us makes it impossible for him to do us harm! We as humans, have free will, that enables us to choose.

Pharoah's repeated rejection of God, proves, without question, that God does not overide man's will. Matthew 12;32 provides the answer to Pharoah's problem. Matthew 12;32 And whosoever speaketh a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but whosoever, speaketh against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither the world to come. Pharoah had the same problem as Lucifer; the I problem, more specific; SELF. Continual rejection of the Holy Spirit eventually closes all avenues for repentence. Consequently, one becomes a casualty of their own doing. God cannot interfere with our ability and choice to self destruct. When the Holy Spirit convicts us of our sins, we are to acknowledge them, be genuinely remorseful, and turn away from them. More importantly, we must relinquish our will to the Holy Spirit. WE cannot of ourselves, imitate the life of Christ, we must cooperate with the Holy Spirit.

Romans 7;18,22,25 For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. For I delight in the law of God after the inward man. I thank God through Jesus Christ our LORD. So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin.


I believe we need to be careful to say that we don't have a free will. It's clear in the word that God has given us a choice to choose His will or the not.

EX. Adam and Eve, if they didn't have a free will to choose God's will then they wouldn't have been given a command in the first place. Also why did sin enter the world, the Bible is clear that sin enters by being enticed by our own desires(James 1:14).

This being said, God has granted us the ability to choose. Also why is the Bible full of commandments if they are all settled, is it because God just wants to be in charge. Or is He a loving Father that truly wants what's best for His children?

I find it hard to believe that God forced Pharaoh to choose to disobey. More I find it easy to believe the word in Romans 1:28...And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.

It's an easier explanation to explain that God made man. God gave man direction and there and wages to obeying and disobeying. And if we continue to disobey then our hearts are hardened more and more. Such in the case of Pharoah.


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