DOES ROMANS 9:14-18 SUPPORT CALVINISM?
by Shawn Brasseaux
In Calvinistic circles, one finds the idea that God “in His sovereignty” hardens some individuals but has mercy on others. He supposedly has mercy on those whom He has chosen to save (the so-called “elect”); He hardens everyone else so they cannot believe and receive salvation. Romans 9:18 is used in this regard: “Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth.” Does Romans 9:14-18 support Calvinism? Dear friends, we must notice the context!
The Bible says in Romans 9:14-18: “ What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? God forbid.  For he saith to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.  So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy.  For the scripture saith unto Pharaoh, Even for this same purpose have I raised thee up, that I might shew my power in thee, and that my name might be declared throughout all the earth.  Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth.”
Beloved, as you can imagine, these are some very fearful verses for so many preachers! Calvinists have so abused these words of God that few enjoy them. Bible teachers are afraid to comment on them, so they largely stay quiet. Ignorance remains, as the Calvinists are mostly the ones teaching these verses. However, dear friends, there is good news. We can remove the shackles of religious bondage and tyranny! We can enjoy these verses; we can rejoice in their simple truths! May we approach these verses in context and leave the traditions of men out!
THE BACKGROUND OF THE PASSAGE
To contradict his ministry and message, unbelieving Israel asked the Apostle Paul in verse 14 of Romans chapter 9: “ What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? God forbid.” Paul answered them by appealing to the Old Testament: “ For he saith to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.  So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy.”
The Apostle appealed to another Old Testament verse: “ For the scripture saith unto Pharaoh, Even for this same purpose have I raised thee up, that I might shew my power in thee, and that my name might be declared throughout all the earth.  Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth.”
“Is there unrighteousness with God?” (Romans 9:14b). In light of verses 1-13, is God unfair in choosing a people to serve Him (Jacob, or nation Israel) and a people to serve them (Esau, or Edomites)? Is God unfair in selecting only believers in Israel to serve Him? Is He unfair in rejecting unbelieving Jews? Verse 14 concludes with “God forbid!” (“God protest!,” “May God never let that happen!”). Paul argues that God will have mercy on whom He will have mercy and He will harden whom He will harden. However, when you look at the context, whom is God hardening and on whom is God having mercy? Let the Bible, not the theologians, tell you!
ROMANS 9:15-16—MERCY ON WHOM?
We return to Romans 9:15-16 to read: “ For he saith to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.  So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy.”
According to the context, on whom is God having mercy and compassion? The nation Israel! Romans 9:15 quotes Exodus 33:19; God is speaking about Israel after she had just sinned with the pagan golden-calf idol. For sake of comparison, note Exodus 33:19: “And he said, I will make all my goodness pass before thee, and I will proclaim the name of the LORD before thee; and will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will shew mercy on whom I will shew mercy.”
Go back to Romans 9:16: “So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy.” This has nothing to do with God taking away someone’s free will. That is the Calvinist’s “spin” on the verse. It is not saying God saves people only on the basis of God “sovereignly” choosing them (rather than them choosing to trust Him). That too is the Calvinist’s “spin” on the verse. What the verse is saying is that God exercising mercy is independent of man’s plans or actions. Even though Israel had rebelled against God with the golden calf, God as God still had the right to offer them His mercy. Israel’s sin was not the issue; God’s mercy, Him holding back His wrath against their sin, was the issue.
ROMANS 9:17-18—HARDENING WHOM?
Romans 9:17-18 says: “ For the scripture saith unto Pharaoh, Even for this same purpose have I raised thee up, that I might shew my power in thee, and that my name might be declared throughout all the earth.  Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth.” According to the context, God is hardening Pharaoh. Exodus 9:16 was spoken to Pharaoh: “And in very deed for this cause have I raised thee up, for to shew in thee my power; and that my name may be declared throughout all the earth.”
Romans 9:17 is not talking about God hardening individuals throughout human history (as Calvinists teach). It is not talking about God hardening individuals today (as Calvinists teach). It is about Pharaoh whom Moses confronted before Israel was delivered from Egyptian slavery. Technically, this is a national issue—Egypt and Israel. Romans 9:11-13, another favorite passage of Calvinists, is also a national issue—Israel (Jacob’s descendants) and Edomites (Esau’s descendants). In short, Calvinists are using verses that apply to nations, and making those verses apply to individuals. It just will not work, and will only further confuse the Bible!
The Bible says nothing about God choosing Pharaoh for hardness. Pharaoh exercised free will: he willfully rejected God’s Word. In light of Pharaoh not wanting to accept and believe God’s Word, God’s Word hardened Pharaoh. God simply took Pharaoh’s unbelieving heart, exposed it for what it really was, and then used it as an opportunity to demonstrate His power was greater than Satanically-controlled Pharaoh. As Proverbs 29:1 says, “He, that being reproved hardeneth his neck, shall suddenly be destroyed, and that without remedy.” Pharaoh had nearly 20 opportunities to believe God’s Word and let Israel go (Exodus 4:21, 5:1-2, 7:3, 7:13-14, 7:22-23, 8:15, 8:19, 8:32, 9:7, 9:12, 9:34-35, 10:1, 10:11, 10:20, 10:27, 11:9-10, 14:4, 14:8, 14:17). It was a combination of God hardening Pharaoh using His Word and Pharaoh hardening himself by rejecting God’s Word:
- Exodus 4:21: “And the LORD said unto Moses, When thou goest to return into Egypt, see that thou do all those wonders before Pharaoh, which I have put in thine hand: but I will harden his heart, that he shall not let the people go.”
- Exodus 7:3: “And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and multiply my signs and my wonders in the land of Egypt.”
- Exodus 8:15: “But when Pharaoh saw that there was respite, he hardened his heart, and hearkened not unto them; as the LORD had said.”
- Exodus 8:32: “And Pharaoh hardened his heart at this time also, neither would he let the people go.”
- Exodus 9:12: “And the LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh, and he hearkened not unto them; as the LORD had spoken unto Moses.”
The consistent testimony of the Scriptures is that God gives people plenty of opportunities to accept His Word by faith. Jesus said that He would have gathered Jerusalem but Jerusalem refused to have Him. Matthew 23:37: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!” Finally, John 5:39-40,43: “ Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me.  And ye will not come to me, that ye might have life. …  I am come in my Father’s name, and ye receive me not: if another shall come in his own name, him ye will receive.” God did not choose these people for judgment and unbelief; they chose it for themselves!
Jesus Christ said that if any man wants to know God’s will, then he would know God’s will. John 7:17 could not be clearer: “If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself.” Free will! Free will to do God’s will! Free will! Free will to reject God’s will! Free will!
First Corinthians 1:21: “For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.” God is willing to save them who believe; it says nothing about God wanting to save “the elect,” or those He has chosen for heaven. It says nothing about “God will save them whom He has not hardened.” Furthermore, we read nothing about “hardening the lost” and “having mercy on the chosen” in the first five chapters book of Romans. These five chapters are the foundational presentation of the Gospel of the Grace of God. If hardening and having mercy were so important with respect to soul salvation, the Holy Spirit would have placed it in the first five chapters of Romans. Rather, hardening and having mercy is found in Romans chapter 9. The context of Romans 9 is dispensational and national. It has nothing to do with individuals, and it has everything to do with God setting aside Israel while He deals with the Gentile nations.
Please refer to the companion study, “Does Romans 9:20-21 support Calvinism?,” which explains the next set of verses in Romans chapter 9. You may also read, “Jacob have I loved, Esau have I hated?,” for an exposition of the chapter’s opening verses. See links below.