Over the years, we have taken up a lot of questions from listeners who struggle with self-doubt — wondering if they are in fact an unbeliever; asking whether they have committed the unpardonable sin; asking whether they have or will fall away; asking whether they are one of the non-elect. There are a lot of sober, fearful, self-reflective questions like these that come up all the time in the emails we get. That’s true today in this question from Aaron.
“Hello, Pastor John! I’d like to first say that you have truly been a blessing to me. I thank God for you. I’ve recently started to pursue a better relationship with the Lord. I often come across this phrase, though, in the New Testament about the ‘hardened heart.’ My question is: How would I know if my heart was hardened against God? What does this mean? And how can I ensure that I don’t have a hardened heart toward God?”
Let’s start with the most general meaning of “hardness of heart” in the Bible, and then we can move to the specifically Christian meaning of “hardness of heart” in relation to God — and how to avoid it or how to get rid of it.
The most general meaning of the hard heart is a heart that lacks ordinary feelings of tenderness and compassion — for example, compassion for the poor. “If . . . one of your brothers should become poor . . . you shall not harden your heart . . . against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him” (Deuteronomy 15:7–8).
“We avoid getting a hard heart by being in a healthy community of believers who exhort us every day.”
Or not just compassion for the poor, but also compassion for the sick or the disabled. In Mark 3, Jesus sees a man with a withered hand in the synagogue, and he says to the people surrounding him, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” (Mark 3:4). “But they were silent.” Now, that was not a hard question to answer, right? Is it okay to save life or to kill? And they were silent. And it says Jesus “looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart” (Mark 3:5).
So, the most common meaning for “hardness of heart” is a heart that cannot be touched and moved and made to feel tender emotions — empathy, sympathy — toward suffering. It’s like a stone; it can’t feel what it ought to feel. So, Jonathan Edwards, in his book Religious Affections — which I recommend very highly; it was powerful in my life at a certain point about fifty years ago — defines hardness of heart like this. After he surveys so many texts, he says, “Now, by a hard heart is plainly meant an unaffected heart, or a heart not easy to be moved with virtuous affections, like a stone, insensible, stupid, unmoved and hard to be impressed” (Works of Jonathan Edwards, 2:117). That’s Edwards’s definition.
We can see that same reality as the Bible moves from the ordinary lack of feelings for the poor and the disabled to a lack of responsiveness to God. The hard heart refuses to hear God, refuses to turn to God in repentance. Zedekiah, it says, “stiffened his neck and hardened his heart against turning to the Lord” (2 Chronicles 36:13). In other words, he felt no compelling desire to repent and turn to the Lord. He was unfeeling, unresponsive, like a stone to all the efforts made by the prophets to speak truth into his life.
We see it even more generally in Romans 2:4–5: “Do you presume on the riches of God’s kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath.” God’s kindness, God’s patience, God’s long-suffering, Paul says, ought to melt the heart with thankfulness and humility and repentance, and instead it meets with a heart of stone — unresponsive, unmoved, unthankful, proud, insolent. When the word of the Lord came to the people through Zechariah the prophet, it says, “They made their hearts diamond-hard lest they should hear . . . the words [of] the Lord” (Zechariah 7:12).
So, hardness of heart in the Bible is a heart that is like stone in that it is unmoved, unfeeling, unresponsive — sometimes to human suffering, but, worst of all, unmoved, unresponsive, unfeeling toward God’s word and God’s mercies, God’s gospel offers. The warmth of God’s mercy shines on it, and it doesn’t melt. The reign of God’s grace pours out on it, and it doesn’t soften. Diamond-hard, it resists God.
Stone Made Flesh
So, we ask, how do we get rid of it, or how do we avoid getting it — a hard heart? Getting rid of a hard heart is decisively, the Bible says, a work of God — a miracle, a gift — and we should ask for it if we don’t have it.
Here’s Ezekiel 36:26–27 — this is a beautiful statement of the new covenant that Jesus fulfills when he sheds his blood for sinners:
I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh [that is, a tender heart that can feel, can be touched]. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.
That’s the same, I think, as what we call being born again or being made alive or being called out of darkness into light. It’s a gift, it’s a miracle, it’s a work of God, and we should receive it as a gift.
Keeping a Tender Heart
Second, once we have been given a soft heart, we avoid getting a hard heart — reverting to hardness — by being in a healthy community of believers who exhort us every day, and help us recognize the deceptive nature of sin. Now, I say that because that’s exactly what Hebrews 3:13 tells me to tell you. It says, “Exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” That’s amazing. Get in a good community where you’ll be exhorted day by day with pointers to the deceitfulness of sin.
Sin is deceitful. It tells lies, and those lies harden the heart. If we don’t counter the lies of sin with the truth, our hearts are going to grow hard. And God has designed fellow Christians to remind us of this truth — the beauties, the preciousness, the worth, the satisfying nature of God and his ways, and the lies of sin. People need to speak that into our lives.
Sin tells us that God and his ways are not satisfying. That’s the main message of sin. Let me say it again: the main lie of sin is that God and his ways are not satisfying. And if we give place to those lies — we accept them; they start to grow in our heart — we become stones toward the all-satisfying God. Instead of God, sin becomes our satisfaction. We love sin. Sin has tricked us and made itself to look like what satisfies and made God look boring and unsatisfying. God begins to bore us, and if no one steps in and helps us feel the deceptive folly of sin, we’re going to wake up someday utterly like a stone, unable to enjoy God.
So, Hebrews 3:13 says, “Don’t let that happen.” Instead, confirm your calling, confirm your election. Show that you are a true Christian. How? By both exhorting and receiving exhortations every day “that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.”