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If any one says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him, that he who loves God should love his brother also. Every one who believes that Jesus is the Christ is a child of God, and every one who loves the parent loves the child. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome. For whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that overcomes the world, our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?

Suppose you knew that a Christian friend of yours was doing something wrong—at least wrong as far as you could judge by the Scriptures. How would you answer if he said, “I know that it is not what the Bible specifically commands, but I think it is the most loving thing. And since love is the highest ethical norm of Scripture, therefore I think what I am doing is right”?

A False Kind of Ethical Reasoning

This kind of reasoning is very widespread among Christians today—a reasoning, namely, that finds a catch-word in Scripture like “justice” or “mercy” or “love” or “peace” or “kingdom of God,” and then makes that catch-word the criterion of right and wrong without letting the specific commands of Scripture determine the content of the criterion.

In other words a principle that has biblical sanction is lifted out of Scripture and the more detailed contours of that principle which are given in the specific commands of Scripture are ignored while the principle is shaped by someone’s personal agenda.

It is an easy mistake to make because the Bible doesn’t answer every moral question directly. We do have to use principles like justice and love and peace to weigh various alternatives where the situation may be different than anything the Bible addresses.

But it seems to me that what is happening today in all kinds of moral issues is that in the name of certain biblical principles the actual commands and teachings of Scripture are being rejected. In other words principles are being taken over from the Bible but the actual content of those principles is being fleshed out by personal desires and social pressures, not by the specific commands and examples of Scripture.

I will give some examples of what I have in mind later. But we need to see first that our text today speaks directly to this problem. Let’s walk through this text together and let this issue emerge as we see the flow of John’s thought.

The Test of Whether Your Love for God Is Real

The first unit is 4:20–5:1 and the main point of this unit is a familiar one, namely, that the test of whether your love for God is real is whether you love your fellow believer. Verse 20 puts the point negatively and verses 21 and 5:1 put it positively.

You Can’t Love God If You Don’t Love Your Brother

In 4:20 John says, “If any one says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.”

In other words, religious piety that does not produce practical deeds of love is just empty talk—or worse than empty. John would say it is a lie. A person who sings, “I love you, Lord, and I lift my voice to worship you, O my soul rejoice,” and holds bitterness in his heart and shows no love to visitors is a liar. His song is a lie.

The way you treat your visible brother or sister is the proof of whether you really delight in your invisible Father and cherish his promises.

I don’t think John is saying in verse 20 that it is easier to love a brother that you can see than it is to love God whom you cannot see. You might get that impression from the verse (“He who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen”). And that’s why a lot of people stumble over it.

Isn’t he simply saying this: If you really love God—if you really rest and delight in all that God is for you, in all his amazing promises, then you WILL love your brother. You will be so full of hope and joy and freedom that you will love to spread the good things of God to as many people as possible. But, he adds, there is no way to know whether you really love God since he is not around to see. You can’t hug him or bow down in his visible presence or take an order directly from his lips.

There is only one way to know whether your claim to love God is a self-deception or not, namely, in the way you relate to the people you can see (cf. 4:12). If you don’t love your brother whom you can see, then there is open evidence that you can’t be telling the truth when you talk about the invisible workings of your heart toward an invisible God.

So verse 20 says negatively, “If you don’t love your visible brother, then you can’t be loving the invisible God.”

The One Loving God Loves the One Believing in Jesus

In 4:21–5:1 John says the same thing positively. “And this commandment we have from him, that he who loves God should love his brother also. Every one who believes that Jesus is the Christ is a child of God, and every one who loves the parent loves the child.”

The literal rendering of 5:1 is, “Every one who is believing that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God.” In other words the verse teaches that faith is the result and evidence of being born again, not that being born again is the result of faith. There is a change in tense that the English versions obscure: “Every one who is believing (present tense) . . . has been born of God (perfect tense).” New birth precedes and enables faith. Not vice versa.

Then the second half of the verse says that every one who loves the begetter loves the begotten. Every one who loves God loves those begotten of God. Every one who loves the divine Father also loves the human child.

When you put the two halves of the verse together, the point becomes: Every one who loves God loves those who believe that Jesus is the Christ, since believing in Christ is the mark of having been born of God, and every one who loves the Father loves those to whom he gives new birth.

That is the first unit in this text, 4:20–5:1. And the main point is the familiar one that loving your fellow believers is the test of whether you really love God or not.

The Test of Whether Your Love for People Is Real

The second unit is a brand new thought. It’s found in 5:2–3. It’s the point I referred to at the beginning of the message. “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.”

Up until now in this book of 1 John the question has been: How can we know for sure that we love God or believe God or are born of God. And the answer has always come back that you can know how it is with you and God by whether you love your brothers and sisters on earth. Love to man has been the test of love to God.

But here in 5:2 is a brand new question. It’s so different we are prone to think we must have read it wrong. It seems backward from everything we’ve seen so far. “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God.” Surely he meant to say the reverse, didn’t he: “By this we know that we love God, when we love the children of God”? But that is not what he says. He says that the test of whether we really love people is whether we love God.

Circular Reasoning?

Now this seems very circular. On the one hand in 4:20 he says, “If any one says, I love God, and hates his brother, he is a liar.” In other words, love to man is the proof of our love to God. But on the other hand he says in 5:2, “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God.” In other words, love to God is the proof of our love to man.

This seems to destroy our assurance on both counts. If loving man provides the assurance that you are really loving God, and loving God provides the assurance that you are really loving man, then where does assurance start? Where can we find a sure foothold to begin with? How can I use my love for God as a test of my love for man when the question asked me in that test is: Do you love man? All I can say is: That’s what I am trying to find out!

Keeping Non-Burdensome Commands

Maybe if we read on there will be a solution. Verses 2–3 say, “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.”

Since verse 2 says that love for God is the test of our love for people, John tells us something about the test. He says in verse 3 that love for God means keeping his commandments and not experiencing them as burdensome. “This is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.”

Well, if this is the test to see if we are really loving our brothers and sisters, then it doesn’t sound so circular after all. It would go something like this: “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we keep God’s commandments and don’t experience them as burdensome.” In other words the test of the genuineness of your love to the children of God is whether you let the commandments of God govern your relation to them and whether these commandments are burdensome to you.

Two Halves of This Test

This is really worth thinking about. Let’s take the two halves of this test one at a time.

1. The First Part of the Test

First, we look at the part that says we know that we love the children of God when we keep his commandments. This is John’s answer to the people in our day who take a catch-word from the Bible and then make that catch-word the criterion of right and wrong without letting the specific commands of Scripture determine the content of the criterion.

Defining Love on Our Own Terms not Scripture’s

For example, some folks take the catch-word “love” and say that this is the biblical ideal for human relationships, but then let their own view of what love must be cancel out particular commands and teachings of Scripture. We can mention a few instances.


Many today will argue that the loving thing to say to practicing homosexuals is not that homosexual activity is sin but that promiscuity is sin. Find one partner and be faithful to him. They say it would be unloving to forbid sexual satisfaction to someone who has a homosexual preference. So the biblical norm of love is used against the biblical teaching of Romans 1 that says homosexuality is against God’s created order and will bring judgment upon those who practice it.

John would say that the test of real love toward a homosexual would show itself by keeping the commandments of God and in that way seeking the eternal good of the homosexual. To take a biblical concept like “love” and give that concept your own meaning and then use that meaning to cancel out specific commandments of God does not qualify as love according to 1 John 5:2. He says, you can know you love the homosexual if you obey God’s commandments.

Church Discipline

Another example would be church discipline. If a church member is involved in open, persistent, and unrepented sin, what will love dictate? Having plead with an unrepentant person privately and in groups and as a church, do we remove that person from the fellowship according to the commandment of Matthew 18:17? Or do we take the catch-word approach and say, “That would not be the loving thing to do.” According to 1 John 5:2 you can know whether you love someone by whether you let the commandments of God govern your relationship.

Roles for Men and Women in Marriage and Church

Another example would be the issue of whether there are biblically sanctioned differences between roles for men and women in marriage and in the church. Here the catch-words vary. Some take the idea of “equality” from Galatians 3:28. Some take the idea of “personhood” from Genesis 1:27. Some take the idea of “giftedness” from 1 Corinthians 12. And some take the idea of “love.” And the result is usually the same: the meaning given to the catch-word is used to cancel out some of the commandments of God.

When the Scripture says, “The husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body . . . As the church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands. Husbands love your wives, as Christ loved the church,”—that is, when the Scripture teaches a role distinction for husbands and wives modeled on the distinction between the roles of Christ and the church, the standard feminist response is: that contradicts equality, or that contradicts personhood, or that contradicts giftedness, or that contradicts love. And therefore we don’t accept it.

And so some of the commandments of God are nullified because the general concept of “equality” or “personhood” or “giftedness” or “love” is not given its content by the most relevant specific biblical teachings, but instead they get their content somewhere else. But 1 John 5:2 would say, “If you want to know whether your ideas about the role relationships between men and women are loving, then measure your ideas by the commandments of God, even if you have to go against social pressure.” God’s commandments will be vindicated in the end.

The Discipline of Children

One other example concerns the discipline of children. I heard a man on the radio last Wednesday advising a young mother on the phone what to do if her two-year-old son said NO when she told him to put his arm in his jacket. The radio authority said, “Don’t reprimand him and insist on obedience. Instead try telling him a story, and when his attention is diverted, slip his arm in the jacket.” Why? This is more loving.

Radio, television, books, magazines, newspapers, cassette tapes, videos—everybody has ideas about how you should love your children. And again and again some principle is used to nullify the commandments of God in Scripture. “He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him . . . Discipline your son while there is hope; do not set your heart on his destruction” (Proverbs 13:24; 19:18).

If you want to know whether you are loving your children or not, don’t hold your finger in the winds of contemporary thought. Instead ask, “Am I keeping the commandments of God toward my child?” Not just: “Am I using some biblical catch-phrase that sounds loving?” But: “Do I seek to understand and implement the specific teachings of Scripture with regard to my children?”

Real Love Is Guided by God’s Commandments

Now the point of all these examples is simply to show that in John’s mind you can’t talk about loving man without bringing God into the picture—”By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments.” Many things in the world look loving (as Paul said in 1 Corinthians 13:3), but they are not real love unless they are done out of love for God and guided by his commandments.

That’s the first half of the test of whether our love for people is real. Now for . . .

2. The Second Part of the Test

When John says that you can know that you are really loving the children of God when you love God, he means not only that your relationships must be guided by the commandments of God but also that those commandments must not be burdensome. Verse 3, “This is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.” The love for God that can test the genuineness of our love for man is an experience of God in our relationships with people that not only causes us to submit to his commandments but also to do it freely rather than begrudgingly. When you have this experience of God—what Elizabeth Elliot calls the “glad surrender”—then you have assurance that your love toward the children of God is real and no mere self-deception.

Turning God’s Commandments from Burden to Joy

So our final consideration should be: How can you get to the point where the commandments of God are not a burden but a joy.

Verses 4 and 5 give the answer. The commandments are not burdensome “because whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that overcomes the world, our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?”

Overcoming the World Through New Birth and Faith

Verse 4 says that two things overcome the world:

  1. that which is born of God, and
  2. our faith.

Recall the relationship between faith and new birth in verse 1: every one who has faith has been born of God. New birth gives rise to faith in the promises of Christ. And this faith overcomes the world. And that takes away the burdensomeness of the commandments of God.

Burdensome Commands of God and the World

How does this work? What is the connection between the burdensomeness of the commandments of God and the world? It seems to be twofold: the commandments of God are burdensome to us on the one hand because the world tempts us to believe that obeying God’s commandments is not as satisfying as disobeying them, and we tend to agree with the world, and on the other hand, there is something in us that loves to agree with the world. Before new birth we are “of the world” (4:5). Anything contrary to the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and pride in possessions is a great burden and folly to unregenerate man.

It’s a burden to be sexually chaste if you believe the message of the world that fornication or adultery really will give you more satisfaction. It’s a burden to be honest on your tax returns if you believe the message of the world that more money would bring you satisfaction. It’s a burden to witness to a colleague if you believe the message of the world that Christians are foolish and getting egg on your face is to be avoided at all costs. It’s a burden to say, “I’m sorry; I was wrong,” if you believe the message of the world that more satisfaction comes from keeping up the front of strength.

God Overcomes the Lies of the World

But if the world could be overcome, then the commandments of God would not be burdensome. They would be the way of joy and peace and satisfaction. What can overcome the temptations of the world? What can unmask the lies of the world?

Answer: God can. And he does it by causing us to be born again so that we can see the infinite superiority of the promises of Christ over the promises of the world. The result is that we trust Christ and by trusting him overcome the temptations of the world.

Faith says to every temptation of the world: NO, BE GONE! I know where true satisfaction is to be found. God has loved me with an infinite love. He promises to work everything together for good for those who love him. He withholds no good thing form those who walk uprightly. Nothing you offer can compare to the joy of his fellowship now and the glory to be revealed hereafter. World, you have lost your power. I have become the glad slave of a Good Master. His yoke is easy and the burden of his commandments is light.

A Closing Invitation

I close with an invitation. For the Lord holds out many good things to you in this text.

If you want to know that your love for others is real and not just self-deception, if you want to have the power to obey the commandments of God, if you want to find a life that is loving and at the same time not burdensome, if you want to overcome the deceptive power of the world, then consider the infinite superiority of the Son of God and put your faith in his forgiveness for your sins and his promises for your future. Whoever has the Son has life!

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Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

Ponder with me the lesson of Pilate’s authority over Jesus.

Pilate said to Jesus, “You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” Jesus answered him, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above.” (John 19:10–11)

Pilate’s authority to crucify Jesus did not intimidate Jesus.

Why not?

Not because Pilate was lying. Not because he didn’t have authority to crucify Jesus. He did.

Rather this authority did not intimidate Jesus because it was derivative. Jesus said, “It was given to you from above.” Which means it is really authoritative. Not less. But more.

So how is this not intimidating? Pilate not only has authority to kill Jesus. But he has God-given authority to kill him.

This does not intimidate Jesus because Pilate’s authority over Jesus is subordinate to God’s authority over Pilate. Jesus gets his comfort at this moment not because Pilate’s will is powerless, but because Pilate’s will is guided. Not because Jesus isn’t in the hands of Pilate’s fear, but because Pilate is in the hands of Jesus’s Father.

Which means that our comfort comes not from the powerlessness of our enemies, but from our Father’s sovereign rule over their power. This is the point of Romans 8:25–37. Tribulation and distress and persecution and famine and nakedness and danger and sword cannot separate us from Christ because “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Romans 8:35–37).

Pilate (and all Jesus’s adversaries — and ours) meant it for evil. But God meant it for good (Genesis 50:20). All Jesus’s enemies gathered together with their God-given authority “to do whatever God’s hand and God’s plan had predestined to take place” (Acts 4:28). They sinned. But through their sinning God saved.

Therefore, do not be intimidated by your adversaries who can only kill the body. Not only because this is all they can do (Luke 12:4), but also because it is done under the watchful hand of your Father.

Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows. (Luke 12:6–7).

Pilate has authority. Herod has authority. Soldiers have authority. Satan has authority. But none is independent. All their authority is derivative. All of it is subordinate to God’s will. Fear not. You are precious to your sovereign Father. Far more precious than the unforgotten birds.

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What does the Bible say about Meditation? Scripture frequently mentions meditation and meditating on the teachings and laws of God. It is important that we think deeply and reflect on what we believe and our actions. Without this introspection, we can forget the importance of living righteously and following the lessons of the Bible. Learn more from our list of Bible verses about meditation!

  • 63 He went out to the field one evening to meditate, and as he looked up, he saw camels approaching.
  • 3 You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in you.
  • 8 Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.
  • 6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
  • 8 Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.
  • 2 but whose delight is in the law of the LORD, and who meditates on his law day and night.
  • 4 Tremble and do not sin; when you are on your beds, search your hearts and be silent.
  • 14 May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer.
  • 3 My mouth will speak words of wisdom; the meditation of my heart will give you understanding.
  • 6 On my bed I remember you; I think of you through the watches of the night.
  • 34 May my meditation be pleasing to him, as I rejoice in the LORD.
  • 15 I meditate on your precepts and consider your ways.
  • 78 May the arrogant be put to shame for wronging me without cause; but I will meditate on your precepts.
  • 148 My eyes stay open through the watches of the night, that I may meditate on your promises.
  • 5 I remember the days of long ago; I meditate on all your works and consider what your hands have done.
  • 13 Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching. 14 Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through prophecy when the body of elders laid their hands on you. 15 Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress.
  • 97 Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long. 98 Your commands are always with me and make me wiser than my enemies. 99 I have more insight than all my teachers, for I meditate on your statutes.
  • 10 Then I thought, “To this I will appeal: the years when the Most High stretched out his right hand. 11 I will remember the deeds of the LORD; yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago. 12 I will consider all your works and meditate on all your mighty deeds.”
  • 20 My son, pay attention to what I say; turn your ear to my words. 21 Do not let them out of your sight, keep them within your heart; 22 for they are life to those who find them and health to one’s whole body.
  • 1 Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers, 2 but whose delight is in the law of the LORD, and who meditates on his law day and night. 3 That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither— whatever they do prospers. 4 Not so the wicked! They are like chaff that the wind blows away. 5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous. 6 For the LORD watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked leads to destruction.
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Just recently I have “come out” in regards to my Reformed convictions. This is scary and liberating at the same time. It is scary because, as a Calvinist,  I have been on the receiving end of some of the most vicious, vitriolic and vile speech I have ever seen in my life. But, it’s liberating because, now, I get to write more freely about things which I feel are important about the issue. Romans 9:19 is one of those things.

Romans 9 is one of the most discussed passages, I dare say, in the entire debate over Calvinism—I believe rightly so.[1] Nobody (I can’t imagine) objects to the idea that Romans 9 is about God’s sovereignty. I don’t even think that anyone objects to the fact that this passage is, at least in part, about election, and God’s sovereignty in such. Much of the debate, however, is whether or not the passage addresses sovereignty and election on an individual or corporate basis. In other words, is this passage talking about God choosing (electing) individuals for salvation (i.e., a certain person is chosen to be saved but not the other person), or it is talking about some sort of corporate election (i.e., God has elected that those who believe will be saved)?

I have seen and been involved in much debate over this issue for a while now. Some may say that it is ultimately impossible to determine which “election” this passage is talking about. I disagree.

This is where Roman 9:19 comes in. The reason why I think this verse, in particular, is an important one for this discussion is two-fold.

First, Paul, quite gifted in rhetoric, often uses imaginary objectors to help make his points. As it turns out, these are incredibly useful not just for Paul, but also for those reading him (us). Let me demonstrate what I mean. Looking at the context of Romans 9:19, we see that Paul has just finished telling his readers that God loved Jacob and hated Esau (v. 13), that he has mercy on whomever he desires (v. 15), that nothing God does in terms of election has anything to do with human will or effort (v. 16), that Pharaoh himself in the Exodus narrative was raised up for the sole purpose of showing God’s glory in his own destruction (v. 17), and that, finally, God not only has mercy on whomever he wills, but “he hardens whomever he wills”(v. 18).[2]

Here comes the statement under discussion:

You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” —Romans 9:19

How is this verse helpful for us? Here is how. Paul’s imaginary objector offers an exegetical guidepost for us as we read Paul’s argument. Here is what I mean. If we are reading Paul up to this point, and his statements do not cause us to ask this question that is raised by his imaginary objector, then it is likely that we have arrived at an incorrect understanding of this passage. Paul’s own response to the objection shows us this. Notice that Paul doesn’t say after the objection, “No, you’ve got it all wrong. You see, what I am saying is that God is sovereign, yes, but in a way in which people still determine their own destinies and fates.” No, he says, “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God?” (v. 20). The reader’s objection is predicated on a correct understanding of Paul’s statements—namely, that God is the one who softens and hardens hearts as he wills, not as man wills of himself. It is not the objector’s conclusion that is being corrected (i.e., the God is that sovereign), but the very fact that they are objecting (i.e., that humanity is left not responsible for their actions). A few commentators help bring this to light.

Thomas Schreiner remarks:

The question would scarcely be raised this way if the previous verses taught that the ultimate factor in human destiny were human choice.[3]

R.C. Sproul comments (on the objection raised in Romans 9:14, but applicable here):

This is this particular objection that is raised by Arminianism again and again and again. And one of the reasons I am convinced that I am understanding Paul in Romans is that because every time I teach the Reformed doctrine of election I get the same objection from my Arminian friends: “There is unrighteousness with God!” And the fact that Paul is anticipating that response gives me confidence that I have understood the position he is coming from.[4]

John Gill comments:

We may be assured, that since the objections are the same, the doctrine must be the same that is objected to: and this we gain however by it, that the doctrines of particular and personal election and reprobation, were the doctrines of the apostle; since against no other, with any face, or under any pretence, could such an objection be formed.[5]

In other words, as Sproul above proposed, we can be sure that our interpretation of this passage is the right one because 1) individual/particular election is the only thing that would have elicited such a response from Paul’s objector, and 2) this is the response Calvinists typically receive after explaining their docrtine of election.

Here is Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown:

This objection shows quite as conclusively as the former the real nature of the doctrine objected to—that it is Election and Non-election to eternal salvation prior to any difference of personal character; this is the only doctrine that could suggest the objection here stated.[6]

Matthew Henry concurs with Gill:

Had the apostle been arguing only for God’s sovereignty in appointing and ordering the terms and conditions of acceptance and salvation, there had not been the least colour for this objection.[7]

Henry here is arguing against this notion that what Paul is speaking about is that God has only elected or predetermined what type of person will be saved (i.e., the one who believes). He is exactly right, too, in my view. If Paul were arguing such, then his predicted objection in this verse would make absolutely no sense. It would be unwarranted and out of place.

Disclaimer: I understand that I have not referenced Arminian commentators. Right now, I am concerned with the exposition of the Reformed interpretation so that it is clear. Perhaps I will devote a second installment later on dealing with Arminian interpretations. I just want to show how, in my opinion, this objection leaves little room for an Arminian interpretation of this passage.

So, that concludes the first of the two reasons why this question asked by Paul’s objector is important—it serves as a valuable exegetical guide.

The second reason I think this question is important is not (necessarily) a Scriptural one, but a practical one—very similar to Sproul’s and Gill’s comments above. In my many conversations with those of the Arminian persuasion (or anyone outside of the Calvinist(ic) “camp”), I cannot tell you how many times that, when I have expressed my view of God’s sovereignty in salvation, I have received the rebuttal, “Well, if that is true, then God has no grounds to condemn us. If he controls who is saved and who is not—especially if he even controls the hardness of the heart as the text says—we can’t be blamed for not believing. It is clearly his will for the reprobate.” For example, just the other day someone commented on a Facebook thread (of which I was a part), “My problem with the idea that God…predestined every action…is it would remove all responsibility for us and make us not responsible for our choices.” How close that is to Paul’s objector here! I am often absolutely stunned by the similarity—even on the verbatim level—of many of these responses to that of Paul’s objector in Romans 9:19. Yet not once has anyone with whom I have interacted acknowledged this—at least openly.

This tells me one thing: the Arminian interpretation of Romans 9 (i.e., that it speaks of some form of corporate election—really anything but individual or particular election) is very likely deficient. Why? Well, again, the “corporate” interpretation of Romans 9 does not produce the objection given in Romans 9:19. It simply can’t. The fact that God has only determined what type of person is saved (i.e., the one who believes) ruffles no one’s feathers (except perhaps an atheist). Of course God isn’t going to save those who reject him! The idea that God himself chooses to have mercy on whomever he wills, however, does ruffle feathers, as Paul’s objector demonstrates. The only time I ever get an objection in the vein of Romans 9:19 (and, again, they are many times even indistinguishable from Paul’s very words) is when I talk about individual election to salvation and God’s absolute, immutable sovereignty in the matter. This is very telling to me.

In my humble opinion, Romans 9:19 is, if not the crux, one of the most important facets of the Calvinistic interpretation of Romans 9, to which so far I have yet to encounter anyone who has been able to give a satisfactory answer (with the exception of a couple cases where the entire Epistle to the Romans was marred beyond recognition). This is something that needs to continue to be discussed between Calvinists and Arminians, not with the motive of being right or proving someone else wrong, but with the desire to arrive at the truth. And, lest someone think this a trivial matter, I truly believe that this is one of the most important debates we can be having within the church right now. Our beliefs about salvation—the way God makes it work—affect quite literally every part of Christian life. Our view of salvation is crucial to everything from evangelism to raising children. The harder we fight for truth in this area, the better.

Let’s fight for truth, not with each other.

[1] I realize that not all of Romans 9 is about this issue. Therefore, from this point forward, when I say “Romans 9” in the context of the Calvinism discussion, I am particularly talking about vv. 1-24 (possibly all the way to v. 29).

[2] Scripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[3] Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans, ed. Moisés Silva, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998), 515.

[4] Wade Davis, RC Sproul Why Are Reformed Christians Influenced by Arminianism, n.d., https://www.youtube.com/.

[5] John Gill, Exposition of the Whole Bible, Romans 9:19

[6] Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown, Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, Romans 9:19

[7] Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994), 2218.

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