One of my regular readers, Phil, posted a comment at the bottom of a recent piece, with some great questions on the nature of repentance and God’s judicial hardening. I promised I would try to answer these questions as best I could, but since my response has turned out to be really rather long, rather than posting it on the comment section of that piece, where no-one except Phil will read it, I though I’d post it as a separate piece where a few more might be able to access it. So here goes, with Phil’s questions in bold, and my feeble attempts to answer them underneath.
So when God judicially hardens someone in a sinful lifestyle, are you saying it is not an irrevocable curse? If we plead for mercy, may God reverse this hardening and bring the individual back to repentance?
I think the key to this is to bear in mind Deuteronomy 29:29:
“The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.”
Whilst it is true that God sometimes hardens people irrevocably — Romans 9:22 speaks of “vessels of wrath prepared for destruction” — you and I cannot possibly know who they are. The Scriptures contain many examples of people who, for all intents and purposes looked like they were indeed sinners hardened beyond redemption, but who did indeed repent.
So think Manasseh, who did “much evil in the sight of the LORD”, who “burned his son in the fire as an offering”, and who “shed very much innocent blood, till he had filled Jerusalem from one end to another” (2 Kings 21). Yet 2 Chronicles 33 shows him humbled and repentant. Think Nebuchadnezzar, as proud and lofty as Pharaoh, and yet in Daniel 4 we have evidence of his repentance. Think the people of Nineveh, whom God had appointed for destruction, yet who repented at the preaching of Jonah. Think of the thief on the cross.
In each one of these examples (and more could be mentioned), it looked like these people were vessels of wrath fitted for destruction. Yet they weren’t. God had mercy on them, humbling them and bringing them to repentance.
All of which means that — as I understand it — we can’t say of anyone on earth today that they have been hardened beyond redemption, although in the secret councils of God, it may we’ll be true. And so yes, we pray on.
Or is repentance only possible for a sinner who has not yet begun to be hardened? Esau could not obtain repentance even though he sought it with tears.
Regarding Esau, I think we have to ask what it was he was seeking. Here’s the text of Hebrews 12:15-17:
“See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears.”
The question is what was it he sought with tears? Did he seek repentance, carefully with tears, only for God to refuse it to him? Or was it the blessing he sought with tears, but which he failed to obtain because he had forfeited it when he sold his birthright for a mess of pottage? I am very convinced that it is the latter of the two for reasons I’ll come to in a moment. But first let’s assume for a moment that it is the former. What would that mean?
Firstly, it would mean that it was Esau and not God who was the driver of repentance. But the Bible teaches elsewhere that it is God that draws us to repentance and not we who are naturally drawn to repent (eg. John 6:44).
Secondly, it would mean that Esau’s determination to repent was genuine, but that God rejected it. However, the Bible teaches elsewhere in numerous places that all those who sincerely repent shall be received and not rejected (eg. John 6:37).
And thirdly, it would make a mockery of the numerous verses where God pleads with man to repent, saying that he has “no pleasure in the death of the wicked” (Ezekiel 33:11) and that he “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4).
All of which is to say that the “it” that Esau carefully sought was not repentance, but the blessing which he perceived had been stolen from him by his brother. He couldn’t accept that his brother had been preferred over him, and that this had come about not primarily because of Rebekah’s plan for Jacob to take the blessing, but ultimately because Esau had forfeited it when he esteemed his birthright less than a bowl of stew. In the sovereign will of God, he lost the blessing too.
It’s really important to note what that birthright was. It wasn’t just a normal elder brother inheritance deal; it was fundamentally connected with the covenantal promises given to Abraham and to Isaac. And so what Esau gave up for one meal wasn’t just the temporal inheritance due to an elder brother; it was God’s plan of redemption for the whole world that he despised, which is why the writer to the Hebrews calls him unholy or profane.
His shedding of tears wasn’t over his despising of the Abrahamic covenant, but the fact that he missed out on the perks which went along with his father’s blessing. You can see this in his reaction in Genesis 27:34:
“As soon as Esau heard the words of his father, he cried out with an exceedingly great and bitter cry and said to his father, ‘Bless me, even me also, O my father!’ But he said, ‘Your brother came deceitfully, and he has taken away your blessing.’ Esau said, ‘Is he not rightly named Jacob? For he has cheated me these two times. He took away my birthright, and behold, now he has taken away my blessing.’ Then he said, ‘Have you not reserved a blessing for me?’”
The bitter cry of this passage is the same as the tears that are talked about in Hebrews 12. But they’re not tears of repentance towards God. They’re tears of missing out on the blessing. And most crucial to this discussion, notice that far from recognising his part in it, he actually blames the loss of his birthright on Jacob. “He stole it from us” as Gollum might say. Except that he didn’t. You gave it to him Esau because you didn’t give two figs for it.
In summary, Esau’s tears were not tears towards God seeking repentance only to be denied it; they were tears towards his father, having been denied the blessing, which came about because he had sold the birthright and despised God’s covenant.
On another point, the apostasy of the UK is not quite the same as the apostasy of Israel, is it? Israel was, as a nation, God’s chosen people; the UK is not. If the NT church is the equivalent of the OT nation of Israel, then what people prayed for in the book of Judges might guide us about how to pray for the church today, but can we also use it as a template for our prayers for the UK as a whole?
This is a complex question, the answer to which could fill many books (and has done), but I’ll do my best to summarise what I think is the biblical position.
In one sense, it is true to say that the UK and the ancient nation of Israel are not the same. Israel was the people of God in a way that the UK is not and never will be. It had the tabernacle, a priesthood, the sacrificial system, the moral law, the ceremonial law, and the civil law. Clearly the UK, nor any other nation is analogous to this.
It is also correct to say that the new Israel is the church. That is, the covenant people of God are not Israel (neither the Jewish people or the state of Israel), but the church of Jesus Christ. We in the church are the ones who believe in the Abrahamic covenant to bring blessing to the world through the seed of Abraham – that is, ultimately through Jesus Christ — and we are the ones who are the recipients of this blessing through the Gospel.
However, this causes some issues. In the death of Jesus Christ, the sacrificial system, the sacrificial priesthood, and the ceremonial law were all fulfilled. And so we don’t need any more animal sacrifices, since the atonement for sins has now been made. We don’t need a priesthood offering up sacrifices, because the great High Priest has offered himself up. We don’t need any ceremonial laws, such as food laws and washings, since God has pronounced all foods to be clean, and our baptisms represent a once and for all washing/cleansing.
What the church is (or is meant to be), is basically a proclaimer of the Gospel – the good news of Jesus’s death, resurrection and ascension –, the discipler of individuals, families and indeed the nations, and the place where man meets with God through worship.
But what about the moral and civil laws? Is it the case that ever since the ascension of Jesus, God has been uninterested in civil and moral government, and the laws of the land? Is it the case that he is happy for laws to be under the control of secular authorities, just so long as the church is allowed to proclaim the Gospel?
The answer is absolutely not. Let me repeat that again: ABSOLUTELY NOT. In Psalm 2, for instance, we read this:
“I will tell of the decree: The Lord said to me, ‘You are my Son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession’… Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled.”
This is all connected with the ascension of Jesus, where he sat down at the right hand of God the Father, having received the kingship after his death and resurrection. What is he given? Individual believers? The church? That little corner of peoples’ minds devoted to religious things? Nope. He is given the whole world. Every square inch, as Abraham Kuyper once said.
In other words, Jesus claims not just some people from each nation for himself — he claims the nations themselves for himself. Here’s Psalm 24 testifying to this truth:
“The earth is the LORD’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein.”
And here’s Jesus himself claiming the same thing:
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”
Jesus claims the nations, and he will have them. And if he claims the nations, he claims their Governments. And their judiciaries. And their Parliaments. And their media. And everything else you can think of in any nation. By his death and resurrection, God the Father has made him king of all lands and everything in them, and gradually throughout history he will bring them all under his rule until the whole world, the whole creation is submitted to him:
“But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet” (1 Corinthians 15:25-27)
Of course many, if not most nations, are disobedient at the moment. Yet some nations have covenanted together to recognise the truth of Christ’s Lordship in the past. The UK is one of them. It is constitutionally a Christian nation. Its monarchs have for centuries recognised at their coronation that they rule under the rule of the King of kings. Its MPs have made their pledges to serve with their right hand on a Bible. Its law courts have insisted on witnesses pledging on the Bible too.
The UK can be said to have acknowledged the Lordship of Christ over it in a way that many other countries have not (yet). And it has done so not just in the “religious” realm, or the church realm, but in the civil realm too.
What has happened over the past 50 years, perhaps even 100, has been a national apostasy, including both the church and the civil realm. Britain, which rightfully belongs to King Jesus, has turned its back on him. It has shoved him out of just about every part of life where his authority was once recognised, and it continues to do so. And it is every bit as bad as the apostasy of Israel of old.
All of which means the following: Number one, this is a nation under judgement. Number two, that judgement will increase as our apostasy worsens. Number three, we desperately need to repent before calamity comes upon us. And finally, yes you can, and yes you should be praying for this country in exactly the same way as you could and should have prayed for the ancient nation of Israel, had you been a Jew. Just as you might have prayed that Manasseh stops bowing the knee to Baal, you should be praying that Theresa May and the government she leads stops bowing the knee to Baal (or tolerance’n’diversity as he’s called these days) and serve the Living God and his Anointed One lest — in the words of Psalm 2 — he comes and smashes this nation like a potter’s vessel.