Impotent Forcing

“Rise up; pull up stakes and cross over the Arnon River; behold, I have given Sihon the king of Heshbon, the Amorite, and his land into your hand. Begin to possess, and stir yourselves up against him in battle. Today I will begin to put your dread and your fear on the face of the people under all the heavens, who will hear your fame, and will tremble and writhe because of you. And I sent messengers from the wilderness of Kedemoth to Sihon the king of Heshbon with words of peace, saying, Let me pass on the highway through your land; I will go on the highway; I will not turn aside to the right or the left; you shall sell me food for silver, and I shall eat; and you shall give me water for silver, and I will drink. Only, let me pass through on my feet, as the sons of Esau who live in Seir, and the Moabites who live in Ar, have done to me, until I have crossed over the Jordan, to the land which Jehovah our God is giving to us. And Sihon the king of Heshbon was not willing to let us pass by him, for Jehovah your God had hardened his spirit, and had emboldened his heart, so as to give him into your hand, as it is this day. And Jehovah said to me, Behold, I have begun to give Sihon and his land before you; begin to possess, in order to possess his land (Deuteronomy 2:24-31; emphasis mine–CD).

Quite straightforward and clear, wouldn’t you say? God HARDENED the heart and EMBOLDENED the spirit of Sihon. Within Deuteronomy 2:24-31 we do NOT find the fatuous and fashionable figment of permissive-will or passive-hardening Calvinism. What we DO find is an invigoratingly clear and coherent teaching on God’s ACTIVE HARDENING. Let’s see what John Calvin had to say about the exceeding intelligibility of this passage:

“Moreover, the cause is there specified why (Sihon) had been so arrogant and contemptuous in his rejection of the embassy, viz., because God had ‘hardened his spirit, and made his heart obstinate.’ From whence again it appears how poor is the sophistry of those who imagine that God idly regards from heaven what men are about to do. They dare not, indeed, despoil Him of foreknowledge; but what can be more absurd than that He foreknows nothing except what men please?”

Calvin states and rejects the sophistry that God is a mere otiose spectator whose only apparent activity is nervous hand-wringing while pacing back-and-forth atop the tower of timidity.

“But Scripture, as we see, has not placed God in a watch-tower, from which He may behold at a distance what things are about to be; but teaches that He is the director (moderatorem) of all things; and that He subjects to His will, not only the events of things, but the designs and affections of men also.”

And precisely HOW does God go about subjecting the “designs and affections” of Sihon?

“As, therefore, we have before seen how the heart of Pharaoh was hardened, so now Moses ascribes to God the obstinacy of king Sihon. How base a subterfuge is the exception which some make as to His permission, sufficiently appears from the end which Moses points out.”

A person may have to be aware of the differing senses of the word “permission.” Calvin, Augustine, and others rejected what some have called an “unwilling permission” that presents God in His foreknowledge as an otiose and helpless spectator. Many (Calvin included) agree with Augustine’s dictum permissio efficax (“efficacious permission”).

To the zealous student of Benighted Brain Calvinism the distinction between a “willing permission” and an “unwilling permission” is a careful and crucial one. One view presents a king who unwillingly permits himself to be hurled from his throne by his “libertarianly free” subjects, while the other view presents a “king” who, for fear of “offering violence” to those with inalienable rights (cf. WCF 3.1), willingly permits himself to be pulled off his sovereign seat by his “compatibilistically free” subjects. And since this “king” permits not unwillingly but willingly, his subjects to do this, it must be, in some inscrutable and secret sense, in accordance with what he has desired and purposed. Clear as mud, eh?


“For why did God harden the heart of Sihon? That ‘He might deliver him into the hand’ of His people to be slain; because He willed that he should perish, and had destined his land for the Israelites. If God only permitted Sihon to grow hardened, this decree was either nought, or mutable, and evanescent, since it depended on the changeable will of man.”

Calvin realized that God has to perform “something more” than mere permission to prevent His decree from being left vanquished and smoldering by the boastful breath of man. But what is this “something more”? Is it the mutinous mingling of semi-deist, semi-dualist, permissive-decree, partially-sovereign-god Calvinism?


“Putting aside, then, all childish trifling, we must conclude that God by His secret inspiration moves, forms, governs, and draws men’s hearts, so that even by the wicked He executes whatever He has decreed. At the same time it is to be observed that the wicked are not impelled to hardness of heart by extrinsic force, but that they voluntarily harden themselves; so that in this same hardness of heart God may be seen to be a just judge, however incomprehensible His counsel may be, and however the impiety of men may betray itself, who are their own instigators, and the authors of their own sin.”

There is no secret regarding how God actively hardened, controlled, and directed the heart of Sihon. God DOES actively impel and harden AND man DOES voluntarily harden himself. God actively hardened and caused Sihon to sin in order to destroy him. God did NOT force Sihon since the word “force” implies resistance, and no man is able to resist God’s will to harden him:

“So, then, to whom He desires, He shows mercy. And to whom He desires, He hardens. You will then say to me, Why does He yet find fault? For who has resisted His will?” (Romans 9:18-19).

The customary Calvinistic response to how God hardened Sihon:

Why did God find fault with Sihon, seeing that Sihon could in no way resist His will to harden him?

Calvin concludes:

“Emphatically does Moses inculcate the same thing twice over, viz., that the spirit of Sihon was hardened by God, and his heart made obstinate, in order that God’s paternal favor towards His chosen people might be more conspicuous; because from the obstinacy of the blinded king He afforded them a just cause for war, and an opportunity for victory” (John Calvin, Commentary on Deuteronomy).

Much of Calvin’s commentary on this passage is good and some of it is not. For Calvin engaged in a little childish trifling of his own with his assertions about things like “extrinsic force,” etc. God’s active hardening of Sihon is MUCH GREATER and MORE POWERFUL than any kind of weak and impotent “forcing.”