Paul Anticipates—and Answers—Objections to Election in Romans 9
To say God’s mercy ultimately originates as a response to foreseen faith or mercy is to affirm election does depend on human will and exertion, rather than on God (contrary to v. 16).
Martyn Lloyd-Jones once said if no one ever accuses you of preaching antinomianism, then you probably aren’t preaching justification the way Paul did. Why not? Because Paul anticipates this very objection in Romans 6:1: “What shall we say then—shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?” So if people make the same accusation against our preaching, it’s a good indication we’re preaching the gospel like Paul did.
The same could be said of the doctrine of election in Romans 9. Twice in this chapter, Paul raises what appear to be natural objections against his teaching on election (Rom. 9:14, 19). I say “natural” because these are the same objections people still make when election is taught a certain way. You can read them in books and hear them in sermons. In fact, before Romans 8 helped me to understand it more clearly, I leveled these same two objections against the doctrine of unconditional election.
So here’s my claim: in Romans 9, Paul teaches the (Calvinist) doctrine of unconditional election—the teaching that God chooses to save some and not others, not based on anything in them (whether faith or fruit, present or foreseen), but based solely on his sovereign will and purpose. Evidence for this view comes in two steps: first, Paul addresses two of the same objections still raised against Calvinistic doctrine; and second, he doesn’t answer the objections the way an Arminian would.
So what are the objections?
1. Unconditional Election Makes God Unjust
We see this objection in verse 14. Paul has just been discussing two Old Testament case studies in election. First, God chose Isaac over Ishmael (Rom. 9:6–9); second, he chose Jacob over Esau (vv. 10–13). Paul stresses that Jacob was chosen and loved over Esau unconditionally—“though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad, in order that God’s purpose of election might continue” (v. 11).
To which the natural human response is, “But that’s not fair! To claim God chooses and rejects people without any regard to their character, whether good or bad, would make God unjust!”
Which is exactly why Paul raises that objection in verse 14: “What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part?” As with Lloyd-Jones’s quip about antinomianism, the mere fact that Paul predicts this objection indicates that he’s teaching unconditional election. After all, how often does the Arminian teaching of conditional election based on foreseen faith provoke such a response?
But though this argument favors unconditional election, it doesn’t settle the matter. After all, Arminians also deny God is unjust in election. So we need to listen to Paul’s explanation for why this charge is “by no means” true before we declare victory for either side. Perhaps the objector has misunderstood Paul. If so, we should expect some clarification.
So, how does Paul respond to the objection? Does he say, “By no means! For though God may have chosen Jacob before they were born, that doesn’t mean he didn’t foresee that Jacob would be a believing man and Esau a profane man”? Does he say, “And just to be clear, I’m not talking about the election of individuals to salvation, but only of nations to special service”?
Answer: no, he doesn’t.
Instead of responding like an Arminian, he doubles down on God’s sovereign right to show mercy and compassion to whomever he wills (Rom. 9:15). It’s true that Scripture presents Esau as wicked and Jacob as believing. And it’s certainly true God foresaw all this (since he foresees everything). But this can’t be the basis of God’s choice, since it would defeat the whole purpose of announcing the choice “when they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad.”
Of course, there are verses that say “With the merciful you show yourself merciful” (2 Sam. 22:26; cf. Matt. 5:7). But that’s not what Romans 9:15 is addressing. Romans 9:15 is addressing the deeper reality of why some people are merciful to begin with. Romans 9:15 (“God has mercy on whom he wills”) is pointing to a more profound reality than 2 Samuel 22:26 (“God has mercy on those who show mercy”). To say God’s mercy ultimately originates as a response to foreseen faith or mercy is to affirm election does depend on human will and exertion, rather than on God (contrary to v. 16).
In short, God chose Jacob not because Jacob was any better than Esau, and God rejected Esau not because Esau was any worse than Jacob. God’s choice had nothing to do with anything in them, foreseen or otherwise. This teaching provokes the objection in verse 14 and the explanation in verses 15–16.
Which bleeds over into the second objection.
2. Unconditional Election Destroys Human Responsibility
We see this objection in verse 19. As an additional example of God’s sovereignty, Paul cites Exodus 9:16 and claims that God raised up Pharaoh for the purpose of showing off his power and making a name for himself in all the earth (v. 17). From which Paul draws the inference: “So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills” (v. 18).
This language of “hardening,” though not present in Exodus 9:16, comes from the broader Exodus narrative in which God commands Pharaoh to let Israel go while simultaneously hardening Pharaoh’s heart to keep him from letting them go. God’s “purpose” in this repeated hardening was to drag out the process so as to allow him to “get glory over Pharaoh” in a way that would spread his fame abroad (Ex. 14:4; Josh. 2:8–11).
The idea of God sovereignly hardening Pharaoh in accord with his own purpose, rather than as a response to Pharaoh’s (evil) willing and running, provokes the objection in verse 19 and still provokes it today: “You will say then, ‘Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?’” (Rom. 9:19). How can God blame Pharaoh for refusing to let his people go (and he does, Ex. 9:34) if Pharaoh is simply fulfilling God’s purposes? If the idea of unconditional election is offensive (“he has mercy on whomever he wills”), then the idea of unconditional hardening is doubly offensive (“and he hardens whomever he wills”).
Again, the fact that this objection is even raised suggests our interpretation is on the right track. But as before, this doesn’t settle the matter. We must first listen to Paul’s response to see if the objector has misunderstood him.
And once again, Paul’s response is telling. Does he respond by arguing, “But remember, God only hardened Pharaoh’s heart after Pharaoh had hardened his own heart”?
Answer: no, he doesn’t. Instead, he questions the critic’s right to even lodge the objection (Rom. 9:20). He then doubles down on God’s sovereign right, as the potter, to make vessels for whatever uses he sees fit (vv. 20–21)—whether for “dishonor,” “wrath,” and “destruction” (vv. 21–22) or for “honor,” “mercy,” and “glory” (v. 23).
It’s not that God fashions vessels arbitrarily. It’s simply that his choice isn’t based on anything in the vessels themselves. Moses and Pharaoh were “from the same lump” (Rom. 9:21), just as Jacob and Esau were from the same man (v. 10) and had lived in the same womb at the same time. The type of vessels they became was rooted not in their will or exertion, but in God’s purpose to “show his wrath and make known his power.” And what’s his ultimate goal? To make known “the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy” (v. 23)—vessels who wouldn’t fully appreciate the glory of that mercy unless seen against the backdrop of his wrath (vv. 22–23).
Preaching Election Like Paul
John Piper acknowledges,
[Given that the] theological issue at stake [in Romans 9] reaches to the heart of our understanding of God . . . there is great value in being willing, if the grammatical and historical evidence demands it, to let Paul say something different from what we would initially prefer” (172).
As you read Romans 9, do your thoughts on election sound more like Paul’s, or like those of his objector? Romans 9 offers a rare opportunity for Christians to test their theological positions. It’s not often that common objections to biblical doctrine get explicitly raised in Scripture, much less answered. Given how difficult the doctrine of unconditional election is for fallen humans to submit to, this probably isn’t an accident.
So don’t let such a rare gift go to waste. Test yourself. Because if you’ve never been accused of making God unjust and man a puppet, then you’re probably not preaching election the way Paul did.
Editors’ note: This article was originally published at The Gospel Coalition.