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Free Will and Romans 9

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In this post I’ll be looking at a passage of scripture from the book of Romans and offering some brief reflections on how this passage relates to the problem of God’s sovereignty versus human free will. By the end of the article you’ll see why I consider this to be one of the most fundamental passages in all of Paul’s epistles, and why it is drawing me back quite strongly to the Christian faith.

Here’s the passage I’d like for us to consider:

15 For God said to Moses,

“I will show mercy to anyone I choose,
    and I will show compassion to anyone I choose.”

16 So it is God who decides to show mercy. We can neither choose it nor work for it.

17 For the Scriptures say that God told Pharaoh, “I have appointed you for the very purpose of displaying my power in you and to spread my fame throughout the earth.” 18 So you see, God chooses to show mercy to some, and he chooses to harden the hearts of others so they refuse to listen.

19 Well then, you might say, “Why does God blame people for not responding? Haven’t they simply done what he makes them do?”

20 No, don’t say that. Who are you, a mere human being, to argue with God? Should the thing that was created say to the one who created it, “Why have you made me like this?” 21 When a potter makes jars out of clay, doesn’t he have a right to use the same lump of clay to make one jar for decoration and another to throw garbage into? 22 In the same way, even though God has the right to show his anger and his power, he is very patient with those on whom his anger falls, who are destined for destruction. 23 He does this to make the riches of his glory shine even brighter on those to whom he shows mercy, who were prepared in advance for glory.

(Romans 9:15-23 NLT)

In my article entitled God’s Grand Game I set out my arguments in favour of a vision of reality that shows God in sovereign control of all events. I argued that God is unfolding a plan for creation in the same way that a puppeteer controls the puppets in a puppet show. From this perspective, I argued, we do not have free will.

Christians tend to vehemently defend free will, because it’s difficult to argue in favour of key Christian doctrines like divine judgment, the fall of man, sin, and salvation, if we are not genuinely free. However, I would like to argue here that in Romans 9 Paul writes in accordance with the view that all will is God’s will, and that we do not have free will.

While it might seem unfair that God would destine some people for mercy, and others for destruction, the thrust of Paul’s teaching is that we should accept this and not question God about this.

In the following brief video I expand upon some of the other scriptures that demonstrate God is in sovereign control of all events and that we don’t have free will. If there is a convincing case for this perspective in Scripture (and I believe there is), then I feel I would be able to make sense of the Christian faith, and reconcile the gospel with my fervent belief that God is the animator of all creation.

38 comments

  1. Romans 9 through 11 is typically a go-to passage for Calvinist-Arminian debates on sovereignty-free will issues, but the truth is that Paul isn’t thinking of either concept at all in these passages. He is thinking of Gentile/Jewish relations in mixed community and how each group is to comport themselves with each other, and how to function together in community going forward, which was a major issue in his day, but not so relevant for most of Church history, which is probably why it’s not read by many with that perspective as a priority.

    By the way, I’m three-quarters through your book “God Beyond Religion”. While I don’t come to the same conclusions as you on numerous issues, I find it a delightful read. I love the thinking process and truly you are a philosopher, so we are kindred spirits. I’ve found myself really enjoying reading your thoughts and I feel I know you much better. Very glad I bought the book.

    1. Hi David!

      Many thanks for your comment. Would you then say that the passage I quoted isn’t relevant in terms of theology?

      I’m delighted your copy of my book arrived and that you’ve been enjoying it, despite any disagreements. That’s very encouraging. Thanks once again for buying the book!

      Peace and blessings,

      Steven

      1. No, I would not say that. I would say that the theology being presented must be prioritized through the lens that Paul is a deeply religious man who practiced Judaism and was fiercely loyal to his people. To properly understand Romans 9 one must have at least some basic familiarity with the concept of covenant and of Jewish philosophies on merit, covenant and righteousness. There is much I could say but I don’t like getting too deep on comment threads.

        1. Hi David. I certainly appreciate that it would be difficult to cover everything relevant here in a blog comment. I’m not sure I understand where you’re coming from, so if you’d like to recommend any books or articles for further reading I’m certainly open to that. Or if you ever feel like emailing, I’d be happy to discuss the issues further in that way (though I’m sure you’re a busy man and might not have time).

          I’m just keen to understand whether you think there is something erroneous in my reading of what Paul’s words in Romans 9 are saying about the divine sovereignty / free will issue specifically. I would hate to be misinterpreting the passage, especially because it’s right at the heart of my struggle with Christianity, as I’m sure you appreciate.

          1. I hear your heart in your comments. Yes, give me your email if you would, or do I already have it? I will be happy to dialogue with you and recommend some reading that you may find of interest. By the way, I don’t think your reading is “wrong” per se, just not, in my opinion, taken with the correct priorities, if that makes sense.

            1. Hi David! My email address is at the top of my Contact page (here). I think you have my old email address which still works, so either is fine. I don’t like to publish my email address in the comments (for various reasons), so please forgive me directing you to the Contact page.

              Thanks for clarifying concerning your views on my reading of Romans 9. I’m keen to understand your position, even if we disagree, so an exchange by email would be really helpful, if you can spare the time.

              Thanks for engaging with me on this!

            2. Stephen, I’ll take some time by the end of the weekend to engage by email. If you feel that some of that exchange is worth bringing public, you have my permission to do so, but let’s see where we go with this. As I alluded to in a previous comment, I like the sorts of questions you ask, I just feel that you need more information in some areas to properly evaluate things, and I think that your conclusions in a few areas may shift based on the information you are starting with. I’d rather discuss that privately than run the risk of coming across as critical in a long thread.

            3. Hi David. Yes that’s fine, I understand what you’re saying. Will look forward to your email. Today I am spending some time watching teaching and debates on the book of Romans on YouTube. It seems that the major issue is the degree to which God is sovereign over events in His creation. I have fairly strong views on this but am also open to challenges. God bless you and thank you.

            4. Hi David. Don’t worry, I’m able to consider perspectives that people offer that aren’t focused on the free will debate, (although, just to note, in a Calvinist interpretation of Romans ideas like free will and election are very important. I realise that you have a different perspective, and I’m keen to try to understand your views).

              Thanks for the link, will check it out!

            5. Yes, within the Calvinist framework, that is their priority of focus. I have found, almost unilaterally, that Calvinism is entirely antithetical to Judaism and to the worldview of the men who wrote the Bible. I also, just so you know, completely disagree with Martin Luther on nearly every point he tried to make. I disagree with each and every one of the 5 solas.

          2. This is a good interchange, and I don’t intend to intrude much. I merely want to echo David’s initial thrust — about what Paul is probably not thinking about.

            I might add that Paul’s concerns, as evidenced in that particular context, and in the letter to the Romans overall at that time, are not necessarily the same as Steven’s are today. They aren’t necessarily different concerns, either, but it’s important to interpret the text in its (1) literary and (2) historical contexts — taking even more care with the latter, because we will naturally have more distance from it.

            I am not all that schooled in Romans, so I shan’t say more, other than to note that I intend to compare the NLT text with a few other versions. I have almost never found that the NLT rises to the level of a solid translation at any point on the mechanical – to – paraphrastic spectrum, but I’ve heard that it’s better in the OT stories. Perhaps it does OK here in Romans, but I want to compare it to, say, the NRSV, the RSV, the NASB, the NJB, and the NET.

            1. Hi Brian! Great to hear from you. I’m certainly open to reinterpreting my reading of Romans 9 if someone is able to provide me with an alternative reading that makes sense. I have invited David to email me to discuss the passage further, as he felt there is too much to say for a comments discussion (which is perfectly understandable). I extend the invitation of an email exchange to you, too, Brian – if you feel there’s something I’m missing or misunderstanding.

              Regarding the different translations, I read the passage in a few different versions (NLT, NKJV, ESV) before publishing the post, and they all spoke to me in the same way. I also read the passage in the context of the book of Romans as a whole (in fact, I wasn’t planning to write a post on this specific passage, it just jumped out at me as being particularly important). But feel free to share any insights from other translations if you wish.

              Best wishes, Steven

            2. Thanks, Steven. I was glad to hear you had compared other versions. After comparing a few more, I don’t know that I have any additional insight on a “micro” level, although a couple of words piqued my interest, and I did a little sleuthing. Zooming out a bit, though. . . .

              I note that your passage begins in v. 15. Few if any versions I’m seeing (including Greek versions) begin a section there. I think this observation could make a difference in interpretation.

              I have been paying attention lately to Paul’s habits and methods viz. quotation and echoing of OT/Hebrew Bible texts. I should think that noting Paul’s use of OT texts in a somewhat larger Romans context might shed light on something here, as well. For instance, where is he quoting from? Is Paul assuming any sort of contextual knowledge of the original passage? Is he stringing together texts to make points unrelated to their original import? Was there any “history of interpretation” of said source that might come into play for the first readers/hearers of Romans 9? I have no particulars in mind here, really; my questions come from other studies.

              One surely also finds in this Roman passage a focus on God’s glory and power. I would see the “will” (divine or human) as secondary here.

              Just a few afternoon bits for your consideration.

  2. It’s great that you thinking through this; however, I disagree with you, lol.

    First, I’d disagree with you about us not having free will because the Bible seems to teach that we do indeed have free will. For example, Romans 1 talks about people bearing responsibility for rejecting God; it would be strange indeed for God to punish them for rejecting him when they couldn’t accept him, which I think you’d agree with. It thus seems that determinism takes a lower view of both God and mankind than does the Bible. In addition to this verse, we could also point to the Adam and Eve narrative in Genesis, to Paul’s urging people to be saved in 2 Corinthians 5.20, and to Jesus saying that he wanted to gather Jerusalem to himself in Matthew 23.37, but they weren’t willing. You could perhaps argue that free will is illusory in each of these cases, but that seems to be an unnecessarily low view of both God and humanity: I personally think God would be far greater if he gave free will to his human creatures and was able to work with them nonetheless! Determinism reduces us to robots while making God a cruel despot. Furthermore, it seems to be general human experience that we have free will.

    To believe in determinism even though the Bible and human experience seem to contradict determinism, you’d need a pretty clear didactic verse that says that teaches determinism. You may think that Romans 9 contains that verse; however, I would argue that Romans 9 can’t be used to support individual determinism. If you read the entirety of Romans 9, you’ll see that Paul isn’t talking about individual election; instead, he’s talking about corporate election. That is, Paul is talking about the way that God manipulates nations to achieve his purposes, not about how God manipulates individuals. For example, in Romans 9.13, Paul quotes the book of Malachi in which God is talking about the nations that stem from Jacob and Esau. Furthermore, in Romans 9.15, Paul quotes Exodus 33; in context, God tells Moses that he will have mercy on whom he chooses when Moses is praying for the nation of Israel as a whole. However, saying that God predestines nations or groups of people to a certain end doesn’t equal saying that the individuals in that nation or group are predestined to those purposes.

    1. Hi Nicholas,

      I’d disagree with you about us not having free will because the Bible seems to teach that we do indeed have free will.

      Did you watch the video embedded in the post in which I presented a series of scriptures showing that we don’t have free will? I note that you didn’t respond to those scriptures.

      It thus seems that determinism takes a lower view of both God and mankind than does the Bible.

      Two points here. Firstly, I’m not an advocate of determinism. I don’t believe God set events in motion in the past and they are unfolding in a ’cause and effect’ way as theological determinism posits. Instead I believe in a living and active God who is unfolding all events in this moment, being omnipresent and omnipotent.

      Secondly, I think that saying God is in control of everything is actually a high view of God. A lower view of God would limit His control over events, which is what you seem to be doing.

      Determinism reduces us to robots while making God a cruel despot.

      We’re not at all like robots, much more like puppets. The passage in Romans 9 that I quoted seems to be saying it’s not our place to judge God.

      However, saying that God predestines nations or groups of people to a certain end doesn’t equal saying that the individuals in that nation or group are predestined to those purposes.

      This seems so illogical. Nations are made up of individuals! How can God be in control of nations but not the people that comprise those nations?

      Best wishes and thanks for your comment.

      Steven

  3. I did watch the video, and it’s well made. You are very tech savvy! I certainly think there are responses to the verses you cited; however, it was a lot of different verses lol. In short, I would argue that saying that God is in charge of the universe doesn’t equal the claim that we don’t have free will. It certainly seems possible that God could be in charge of creation while allowing us free choices within his creation: God’s omnipotence does not necessarily violate our free will.

    So, according to Jeremiah 20.23 and Proverbs 20.24, both of which you cite, I would say that by giving me certain gifts and abilities, God directed my steps towards being a musician; however, it doesn’t follow that I didn’t freely choose to be a musician. My free choice to be a musician is consistent with God’s directing my steps towards that end. Those verses could mean that God gives us pushes towards certain things; however, the verses I cited in my first comment seem to imply that we can resist God’s callings and pushes.

    You also cite Exodus 4.11 as saying that God is control of our sense: I agree, God certainly is in control of whether I am born blind, deaf, etc. I don’t think that equals that I don’t have free will, however.

    You also cite Psalm 75.6-7 and say that God is the one who is control of people’s lives, no matter what station of life they’re in. I agree that God is in control, but once again, I’m would argue that saying that God is in control doesn’t mean that we don’t have any free will. I guess this is the crucial difference between our positions: You take a harder view of divine sovereignty and claim that your view makes God greater. I wholeheartedly disagree, but that’s the great thing about free speech!

    I would argue instead that God is made greater by allowing his human creatures to have free will; instead of being puppets, as you argue, we are capable of real decisions. According to my view, God is not deceiving us by giving us an illusion of free will: He has really given us free will and entered into our story through Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection. I don’t think God has to remove free will to be in control; I think that God is so wise and so great that he can give us free will while remaining in control.

    Lastly, what I mean when I say that God’s predestining a nation to certain ends doesn’t equal his predestining the individuals in the nation to those ends is an effort to avoid a division fallacy. If a group or a nation has the quality that they will soon fall under God’s judgment, it doesn’t follow that every person in the nation will fall under God’s judgment. For example, in Joshua, the Canaanites were destined for God’s judgment; however, Rahab, one of the Canaanites, escaped the judgment by her actions. In contrast, Achan was a part of a nation destined for God’s blessings; however, he didn’t receive the blessings because of his actions.

    Thanks for letting me disagree with you on your own website lol!

    1. Thanks, Nicholas, for such a detailed and thoughtful response. It will help others to see the the areas of disagreement we have, and decide for themselves where they stand (which is one of the purposes of this blog 🙂 ).

      It certainly seems possible that God could be in charge of creation while allowing us free choices within his creation: God’s omnipotence does not necessarily violate our free will.

      I think this gets to the crux of the matter. In my understanding, everything that exists is an expression of God, as true omnipresence means God is literally everywhere (including in every cell of our bodies). If there is anywhere in creation where God is not, then God is limited, which I don’t believe He is – He is boundless.

      Perhaps you believe that you are somehow in control of all your bodily processes, making yourself breathe, and digest, and grow, etc. But I firmly believe God is in control of every aspect of my being. He grew me from nothing into a human being, and He will carry me away when I die (to wherever I go).

      Thanks again, Nicholas. I appreciate the discussion!

    1. Thank you, Caribou! (Should I call you Caribou?) Yes, it’s so important that we aren’t prideful and approach our search for truth with humility. It’s something I try to do, though I may fail at times.

      Thanks for reading!

        1. Interesting. I have found it liberating realising that God is sovereign over all of creation, and that He is in control of all the details in my life. But it’s also a challenge, because I find the Christian scriptures so compelling. My perspective is certainly quite different to a lot of Christians (though Christians are always disagreeing) but when I read the words of Jesus they have so much authority that I feel I must take Christianity seriously. How about you?

          1. Yes exactly. It took a lot of pressure off my shoulders, I must say. I felt peace in my soul and things I’d wrestled with (like say Pharaoh or Nebuchadnezzar or Herod) suddenly it became clear. While I don’t believe God tells me what toothpaste to use, I do believe he gives me the ability to reason and make decisions. He guides my thoughts, so to speak. I come from a background in witchcraft and nature worship so to have One call me out of the darkness into His glorious Light has given me a different perspective. Initially I believed in “free will” but as I read and studied the Scriptures, it didn’t seem to fit. Then hearing it taught logically, I have come to realize God’s truth not human “truth” (aka wishful thinking). Certainly arguments can be made, as they have been for hundreds of years. But I know the peace and serenity I have gained falling in line with what God says about Himself rather than what we as a prideful people WANT to believe. It’s not enough for me to make enemies over, but I am convinced in my faith and will stand fast in it.

  4. God is in control of all things. The purpose of the creation is to raise up His sons. He is the Author and Finisher of this work, beginning with our faith. We do not “choose” Jesus. God puts faith in us so that we can approach the Lord. From there, it is the work of Jesus that brings about salvation. It is by grace though faith — all of it. All things are under His control for the purpose of raising up some — not all.

    This idea about God creating some to live and others to be destroyed raises a lot of other issues within traditional Christianity.

    Christians like to say that God loves everyone. This is not true. He is good to all in allowing them to live in the first place. The wicked are used to hone those who He is raising up. These are then destroyed.

    ALL things were created by God’s wisdom and for His purpose. Christians do not like this idea because they want to make God pleasing to man, and many traditions within Christianity make it hard to accept. Like our ideas about hell, for example. If God really created people to be tortured forever, that would seem terrible. He does not. He creates some for life and some for destruction. It is a Second Death.

    Did He not create the tree of knowledge of good and evil? Did He not purpose from the beginning that the punishment for sin is death? Was not Jesus who is The Word with God at the beginning of all things, and indeed all things made by The Word — even that tree which mankind ate from and “fell?”

    God created light and darkness and both come together for what God deems good. We might not deem it good, because we think we are owed “good” things. What we call evil is the absence of what we see as our right of existence. We have no right. We have no right to live at all. If man never had sight, would he consider it robbery or evil if he was blind? However, all things come together for the good of who God has predestined to salvation.

    If God did not choose some to be saved and not all, what about all the nations outside of Israel that existed before Jesus? What happens to them? Are they in hell (or as the bible actually teaches, will the be raised at the second resurrection and cast in to the lake of fire?) Why do some have faith and others do not? Are they better people? Is our faith a work we must perform, or is our salvation of God? We cannot have it both ways.

    Though God is in control, we do live according to free will. We cannot see things as God sees things. If we really believe what God’s word says, how can we deny that God is in control of all things? I think the scriptures make this point very clear, and we really have to start dancing around the subject in order to view it any other way.

    1. Hi Amanda! It’s very refreshing to read your comment, which strikes me as being very Biblical and full of truth. I know (because I follow your blog) that you are committed to an earnest search for truth, rather than simply believing what appears to be comforting.

      You make some really good points. I might not like the idea that God predestines some people to torment (and I appreciate that using the term hell is too simplistic a reading) but the thrust of what Paul is saying in Romans 9 is that it’s all a part of God’s plan, and that we don’t have the right to question God.

      It’s very convicting thinking in this way. I really don’t want anyone to suffer, and I desperately want to be held in God’s favour always. The true Christian life is one of perseverance through many trials (the book Pilgrim’s Progress comes to mind). I will continue to pray for discernment concerning how I should live my life and what I should believe.

      Thanks again, Amanda.

      1. “I will continue to pray for discernment concerning how I should live my life and what I should believe.” That’s the best approach, I think. It’s dangerous to assume our traditions are correct. Just because someone goes to school to be a pastor and learned traditions does not mean they give accurate info. I don’t judge them because I can’t, but I do not you cannot institutionalize the Holy Spirit of God. Spirit-led Christians and teachers will come to the truth by he who is The Truth. Keep searching, brother!

  5. Really interesting video, Steven, good work!

    It made me think of panentheism, and I was wondering if you have any list of quotations from the Bible that support this understanding of God?

    All the best

  6. Steven, I am enjoying reading your stuff. I think the literal interpretation and presentation of scripture is great. Going back to the comments, I can’t comprehend claiming Christianity while denying the five Solas and denying Luther’s condemnation of salvation by works.

  7. Steven,

    I wrote extensively on Romans 9 in that 32-page paper I’ve never sent you (because I don’t want to bombard you more than I already have!) I list several reasons why Romans 9 should not be interpreted to mean that God sovereignly controls everything, including individual eternal destinies. Here is Reason #4

    Objection 4) When interpreting a complex line of reasoning such as Paul presents here, it is always helpful to look for a summary statement at its conclusion. Paul begins his summary statement (v. 30) by asking, “What then shall we say?” If the blueprint interpretation were correct, we would expect Paul to answer by saying something like, “The sovereign God has determined who will be elect and who will not, and no one has the right to question him.” Instead, Paul summarizes his argument by saying:

    That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith, but Israel, who pursued a law of righteousness, has not attained it. Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works. (Rom 9:30-32 italics added)

    Paul appeals to the morally responsible choices of the Israelites and Gentiles. One group chose faith, the other works. The Jews were “broken off” and “hardened” because of their unbelief (Rom 11:7, 20, 25) while the Gentiles were “grafted in” because of their faith (Rom 11:20).

    God is not arbitrary. He has mercy on people and hardens people in response to their belief or unbelief. And he is willing to change his mind when people change! If Gentiles become arrogant and cease walking by faith, they will once again be “cut off.” And if the Jews who are now hardened will not “persist in their unbelief” God will “graft them in again” (Rom 11:22-23).

    You might also consider the original “Potter and Clay” analogy from Jeremiah 18: 1-10 where God (the Potter) explicitly states that He is willing to “change His mind” about nations if they exhibit a change in behavior. That’s all for now!

    ~ Don

  8. Hello Steven, great reflection on this passage. I’m a Christian, have been since the age of 16, and wrestled with this debate. I ended up taking 4 years to get a degree in Christian Education and Bible, and sat in theology classes listening to both sides of this debate. Now many years later, and having experienced more of life, I’ve come to firmly believe in God’s Sovereignty. It’s been very comforting for me to know that all the difficulties I’ve faced along my path are ordained by a loving good and gracious Father. Though I don’t always understand why things happen, I resign myself to a child like trust in God, through faith in Christ. Do I believe God is a pupetier? No. My reasons why are too long to explain here. Suffice to say, there’s a mystery I think we will never understand. That’s the divine connection between God’s Sovereignty and free will. I personally believe that where there is debate, there’s a mystery we have not yet grasped. For we all see through a mirror dimly lit, according to scripture. Thanks for sharing and inspiring deeper reflection. God bless you 🙏🏻

  9. Hi. Very thought provoking. I’ll need to listen again soon. In the mean time, I would be interested to know your thoughts about Molinism or Divine Middle Knowledge as espoused by Wm Lane Craig. Thanks, by the way, for following my blog, joshualetter.com.

    1. Hi Thomas!

      Thanks for stopping by. To answer your question, I’m yet to find anyone who can explain Molinism and Divine Middle Knowledge to me in a way that makes sense. I’m not sure whether that’s because there is a problem with the doctrine, or whether it is just a very complex perspective (or both).

      I would argue that the truth is a lot simpler than Molinism seems to suggest. God is in control of all things, and we don’t have free will. There are of course implications for this perspective which I have discussed at length on this blog and in my books. For a quick overview, check out this post.

      Peace and blessings,

      Steven

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