Why Does God Still Blame Us? The Crucial Question of Romans 9

By in Uncategorized on January 20, 2020

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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