Predestination and free will according to Romans

14 What shall we say then? Is there injustice with God? Far from it! 15 For He says to Moses, “I  have mercy on whom I have mercy, and show compassion to whomever I show compassion;” 16 so then, it does not depend on the person who [m]wants it nor the one who runs, but on God who chooses to show mercy. 17 For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very reason I raised you up, in order to demonstrate My power in you; that My name might be proclaimed throughout the earth.” 18 So He has mercy on whom He desires, and hardens whom He desires.

19 You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For who has resisted His will?” 20 On the contrary, who are you, you foolish person, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, “Why did you make me like this,” will it? 21 Or does the potter not have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use, and another for common use? 22 What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with great patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction? 23 And He did so to make known the riches of His glory upon objects of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory (Rom9:14-23)

The nature of the difficulty

A difficult passage for many, including those of us who want to demonstrate God’s fairness, justice and intelligible goodness towards everyone. But it can become downright impossible for the many who understand there to be only two categories of people; the one group destined for unimaginable glory as the corporate Bride of Christ; the rest to face  eternal perdition – both groups being equally unworthy. It is no wonder many Christians reject or try to water down Paul’s teaching on God’s elective grace: the doctrine of predestination. Not only is it too bitter for them to stomach but it insinuates that the God who the Bible declares to be love personified is (at best) an unfeeling Cosmic Chess-master.

Truly, this is a travesty, but can be resolved when the three soteriological categories I am adducing have been perceived. Also when it is made clear what is actually required of those who are to receive the highest honors (cf. Phil3:13-14). Only then God shall be seen to be what He actually is: loving, equitable and magnanimous, albeit with a cosmic strategy that will continue to flummox many, principally in view of His utilization of evil for the greater good.

God’s sovereign choice

 Be assured, God’s sovereign choice in the election of His chosen people is biblically irrefutable and it is not restricted to the teaching of Paul (e.g. Jn1:13; Jn6:44; Acts13:48). In terms of what the Apostle is teaching in this chapter it is indeed the case that God chooses to prepare some for glory whilst He hardens the hearts of others ensuring their perdition (vv18+23) – but for most people He does neither. Truly, God has not predestined many if any of our non-Christian family, friends and colleagues to be “vessels of wrath fitted for destruction” (v22). If He had it would be a travesty of the angel’s message of “Good News of great joy that shall be to all people (Lk2:10), not to mention a derogation of the saving work of Christ.

So, either there must be three soteriological categories (i.e. the majority are neither saved in the present nor destined for Hell in the future) or God from a human perspective is incomprehensibly harsh and unjust, which itself would challenge what the Bible teaches concerning Him. But be in no doubt, Paul is saying in Romans9 and in his overall teaching that whether one comes to Christian salvation or not is entirely a matter for God – it is not within any individual’s power to apprehend the grace of Christ – “It does not depend on the person who wants it nor the one who runs, but on God who chooses to show mercy” (v16).

Those such as the Protestant Reformers who took the narrower view yet rightly acknowledged predestination tried to make the case that God’s nature is incomprehensible to the human mind, even to someone who has been saved. Effectively they were saying that qualities such as love, kindness and compassion, even as these qualities are defined in Scripture, mean something quite different when they are applied to God. That is absurd in itself, all the more so when one considers that man is made in God’s image and in the saint at least that image is being restored such that like Paul “we have the mind of Christ” (1Cor2:16).

Applying the doctrine of predestination within the traditional binary soteriological model also trashes any concept of effectual free will, acknowledged by the earliest Church Fathers some of whom had received the Faith from the Apostles themselves or their immediate successors so they cannot have uniformly been in error.

The role of natural law

Again, the matter is resolved once the prevailing pre-Augustinian perspective on the role of natural law is restored [see earlier post]. For whilst no one can come to Christ unless drawn by the Father (Jn6:44) it is perfectly within man’s power to respond positively to conscience and effectively serve “Christ” as the Matthew25 sheep unknowingly did through a life that is humane and compassionate (v40). Others again will choose to go in the way of Cain (Jude11), love no one but themselves, reject the promptings of  conscience and sound reason to an extent that such faculties no longer function, in the process ceasing to be fully human, bringing divine retribution upon themselves.

 The example Paul gives of the latter group is the wicked and intransigent Pharaoh. He refused Moses’ repeated request to deliver God’s people from slavery in spite of the clear demonstration of God’s reality and power through the plagues He brought upon Egypt. But God does not harden the hearts of those who show respect to His law that is written in their hearts(Rom2:15); those who endeavour to do what is lawful and right, albeit often failing in the process. Yet Paul is adamant that those who shall be saved are not chosen on the basis of merit but sovereign choice (v16). The Christian-persecuting Saul of Tarsus was himself a prime example.

Even in his case, the apostle affirms God had mercy on him because he acted in ignorance (1Tim1:13). For God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked. He desires all men ultimately to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth (1Tim2:4) God will show mercy wherever He can and especially where ignorance is involved. But not for Pharaoh and others who stubbornly resist the promptings of conscience and choose a path of evil. He punishes them by hardening their hearts, making them even more deserving of punishment than they were before. This can only be right and just.

Reconciling predestination and free will

But what will remain a difficulty for some is that Paul infers that God as Potter has a hand in fashioning the souls of those He intends should be wicked and worthy of destruction. Paul provides a partial explanation for God’s rationale in this passage. It pertains to the demonstration of His own power and glory. And it is for the sake of those chosen to share in that glory as joint-heirs with Christ (v23). But there is a broader perspective which Paul hinted at in Rom8:20-21. I covered this in recent posts and explained in chapters 6&7 of my book**. Also, how the three soteriological categories I have been outlining not just resolve the election/free-will conundrum but  accord with the rest of Scripture. “What shall we say then, is there injustice with God? – Far from it!”

The LITTLE BOOK OF PROVIDENCE: a seven-part synopsis of the bible: Download a free PDF of e-book suitable for desktop computers HERE [updated September 2023] or a Large-print version for mobiles HERE [565 pages]

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