|Being grieved for the hardness of their heart.| -- Mark iii.5.
Love may also be reversed. Failing to cherish, to uplift, and to enrich, it consumes and destroys. This is a mystery which man can not fathom. It belongs to the unsearchable depths of the divine Being, of which we do not wish to know more than has been revealed. But this does not alter the fact.
No creature can exclude itself from the divine control. No man can say that he has nothing to do with God; that he or any other creature exists independent of God; for God upholds, bears, and carries him from moment to moment, giving him life and power and all his faculties. Even Satan is not self-existing. If it pleased God to discontinue his existence, he would cease from being. Satan and all his demons and all flesh live and move and have their being in God. This apostolic word does not signify an intimate, acquaintance with the secret of the Lord, but is merely the clear and sober statement of every creature's essential relation to the Creator. Whether sinner or saint, angel in heaven or demon in hell, even plant or animal, each lives, moves, and exists in God.
Hence to withdraw oneself from God is utterly impossible. Psalm cxxxix. is not merely a sketch of the divine omnipresence, but much more; in holy sense, a testimony and confession from the very root of man's being, of the creature's absolute inability to withdraw himself from God's active control. The misery of the lost in hell consists in the fact that in their unholy and wicked hearts they are subject to the active, divine control. The cry which once escaped from moaning lips, |Let me alone before I go hence| (Job xx.21), is the presentment of the unavoidable control of God, which overwhelms the ungodly as a calamitous flood. If God would let them alone, there would be no hell and no misery. The unquenchable fire would be quenched, and the worm would die. But He does not let them alone. He continues His hold upon them. And this causes the eternal pain, and overwhelms them with destruction and condemnation forever.
It is represented sometimes as tho God's material dealings were to be continued with every man, whether good or evil, while His spiritual dealings are confined to the elect. But this is a mistake. It is true His sun rises upon the good and the evil, and His rain comes down upon the just and the unjust; but the same is true spiritually: There is this difference, however, that while the just and the unjust are both profited by the rain and sunshine, the radiation of the Sun of Righteousness and the rain of grace result in blessing for the elect and in destruction for the lost.
This is clearly illustrated by the effects of the rays of the sun in nature. In March they melt the snow and warm and fertilize the soil, while in August they harden the field and scorch its fruit. This is caused by the field's too close proximity to the sun in summer, while in spring it occupies the right position in relation to the sun. And this applies to the Sun of Righteousness. Standing in the proper position regarding that Sun, one feels its fostering and fertilizing effects; but forsaking that position through self-exaltation, aspiring to loftier heights, he discovers immediately that the Sun of Righteousness no longer can bless him, but must consume him with divine fire.
The Scripture teaches this fearful truth in various, ways and under various images. St. Paul says that the same Gospel is to one a savor of life unto life, and to another a savor of death unto death. Concerning the holy Infant, Simeon prophesies that He is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and the prophet declares that to the saints Messiah shall be a rock of defense, and to those who forsake their God He shall be an offense and a stone of stumbling. There are branches apparently on the same vine: yet some are cast into the fire, and others blossom and bear much fruit. It is one clay and the same potter; yet from the same lump are formed a vessel of honor and a vessel of dishonor; but in both cases it is the same power.
The Scripture introduces this operation unto death and destruction with the somber word; |hardening of heart|; especially when the hardening is the result of resisting eternal Love,
Not every effect, however, of the divine operation, destructive to the sinner, is in itself a hardening of heart. There is also a mere |giving up,| or |letting alone.| This is followed by the more gloomy |darkening.| And only then comes the deadly operation in its proper and limited sense, |hardening of heart,| in its worst and most fearful degree.
The mildest and yet awful form of this destruction consists in the fact that, according to the testimony of the apostle, the Lord gives the impenitent sinner over to a reprobate mind: |Wherefore God gave them up to uncleanness; who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshiped and served the creature more than the Creator| (Rom. i.24, 25). Again he declares in verse 26: |For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections.| And for the third time in verse 28: |And as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind, to do things that are not convenient, being filled with all unrighteousness.|
This |giving up| is related to the |darkening,| of which St. Paul speaks in the same connection (ver.21): |They became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened.| In Rom. xi.8, he describes the same thing in the words of Isaiah: |God hath given them the spirit of slumber, eyes that they should not see, ears that they should not hear.| Thus the |darkening| and |the spirit of slumber| are the gradual transitions between the |being given over to a reprobate mind| and the |hardening of heart| in its proper sense.
When a sinner is given over to a reprobate mind, the Lord allows him the desire of his heart. He had opened for him another way; but the sinful heart's desires and inclinations bend in a different direction. At first, divine Love, watching over him, prevents him from gratifying these desires. And for this he would thank God, if his heart were right. But he murmurs at this loving interference of his heavenly Father, and seeks the means to obtain what God so far denies him. A painful tension is the result: on the one hand, the sinner bent upon the execution of his evil intentions; and on the other, God, who temporarily prevents this by withholding the opportunity. But when the sinner persists in his evil course and sears his conscience, then God finally withdraws His loving care; the tension ceases; He lets the sinner have his desire; and the latter, given over to a reprobate mind, revels in the gratification of his unholy passions; and, instead of mourning in repentance before the holy God, enjoys his victory.
However, even from this awful condition return is possible. For the first joy of victory is followed by a positive and painful feeling of disappointment. Surely he has conquered, but his conquest is unsatisfactory: first, because every sinful gratification alarms the conscience, and this is misery to the soul; secondly, because unholy pleasure is always exhausting and disappointing, never yields what it promised, never proves to be what first it seemed. In such moments salvation is still possible. Better feelings may be aroused, and may lead the sinner to realize that God is right and loves him better than he loves himself. And, acknowledging that God is right, he may cease to justify himself. Then salvation's gates are open, and he may not be far from the heavenly kingdom.
But, overcoming the feeling of disappointment, he falls immediately into a deeper depth. Then he explains his feelings in the opposite way: disappointed not because he has already drank too deeply from the cup of sin, but not deeply enough. He acknowledges his disappointment, but he fancies that greater boldness in sin will remedy this. And so comes the turning-point. When the fearful thought is once conceived and admitted, and the heart's demon-like desire has sprung up deeply and systematically to revel in sin's pleasures, then he is lost. Then |the vain imagination and darkening of a foolish heart |is added to being | given over to a reprobate mind.| Then the spirit of slumber takes possession of him. He can no longer discern the real cause of his dissatisfaction and disappointment. Sin intoxicates him more and more. And the more he indulges the greater his blindness for the consequences. Things lose their forms. The phenomenal take the place of the real. He has eyes, but not for the real and the true; ears, but not for the voice of the eternal Speaker. And so he rushes on from one sin to another; dissatisfied with sin, yet thirsting after more. As St. Paul says, even anxious to see others sin.
In the way of salvation it is |Grace for grace|; but in the way of sin, it is sin for sin. To stand still is impossible. The path inclines.
Thus God lets the sinner go. He intoxicates him so that he does not see the precipice that yawns before him. And this opens the way for the hardening. Every effort to make such a one the subject of saving grace is like casting pearls before swine; then Immanuel must hide His love, that seeing he see not, and hearing he understand not.