Exploring the theological implications of God's choices in Romans 9:13-18                                                                       by Jack Kettler


“As it is written, Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated. 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.” (Romans 9:13-18)


From the viewpoint of Reformed theology, Romans 9:13-18 illuminates God's sovereignty in electing certain individuals for salvation while passing over others. Paul's reference to Malachi 1:2-3 in verse 13, where God loved Jacob but hated Esau, underscores that God's choice is not based on human merit or effort.


In verses 14-15, Paul addresses the question of fairness by asserting God's right to show mercy and compassion to whomever He chooses. This aligns with the belief in unconditional election, where God's choice for salvation is solely based on His will, not human merit.


Verse 16 brings forth a comforting truth, one that is central to the “Doctrines of Grace” theology in which salvation is not dependent on human will or effort. This reinforces the belief in “total depravity”, which asserts that humans, due to their inherently sinful nature, are incapable of seeking God or contributing to their salvation.


In verse 17, Paul cites the example of Pharaoh, who was raised by God to demonstrate His power and mercy. This illustrates another key concept of Reformed theology, “reprobation,” where God passes over certain individuals, allowing them to remain in their sinful state to serve His purposes.


Finally, verse 18 reiterates the reassuring truth of God's sovereignty in hardening hearts and showing mercy, emphasizing the Reformed theology’s belief in irresistible grace, which holds that God's elect will inevitably respond to His call and be saved.


In summary of the above:


From a Reformed theological perspective, the concept of free will is considered inadequate to refute Romans 9:13-18 or to make the text more palatable to an unbeliever because it assumes that human choice plays a role in determining salvation. Reformed theology, on the other hand, emphasizes God's sovereignty and the belief in total depravity, stating that humans are incapable of seeking God or contributing to their salvation due to their inherently sinful nature.


In the context of Romans 9:13-18, the Reformed theological interpretation highlights that salvation is not dependent on human will or effort but solely on God's sovereign choice (verse 16). This understanding is further reinforced by Paul's assertion that God has the right to show mercy and compassion to whomever He chooses (verse 15), indicating that salvation is not a result of human merit or decision-making.


Additionally, the concept of free will is considered inadequate because it does not account for the Reformed doctrine of irresistible grace, which maintains that God's elect will inevitably respond to His call and be saved. This belief is supported by Romans 9:18, which emphasizes that God has the power to harden hearts and show mercy according to His sovereign will.


Consider the following comments on Romans 9:18 from Gill's Exposition of the Entire Bible:


“Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will,... These are the express words of the former testimony: it follows, and whom he will he hardeneth; which is the just and natural consequence of what is contained in the latter; for if God could, or he did, without any injustice, raise up Pharaoh, and harden his heart against him and his people, that he might rise up against him and destroy him by his power for his own glory, then he may harden any other person, and even whom he will: now this hardening of men's hearts may be understood in perfect agreement with the justice and holiness of God: men first harden their own hearts by sinning, as Pharaoh did; what God does, is by leaving them to the hardness of their hearts, denying them that grace which only can soften them, and which he is not obliged to give, and therefore does them no injustice in withholding it from them; by sending them both mercies and judgments, which through the corruption of their hearts, are the means of the greater hardening of them; so judgments in the case of Pharaoh, and mercies in the case of others; see Isaiah 6:10; by delivering them up into the hands of Satan, and to their own lusts, which they themselves approve of; and by giving them up to a judicial blindness and hardness of heart, as a just punishment for their impieties.” (1)


Gill’s comments discuss the concept of divine hardening of hearts, particularly referencing the story of Pharaoh in the Bible. It suggests that God may harden the hearts of individuals, as seen with Pharaoh, for his own purposes without injustice. It argues that individuals first harden their own hearts through sin, and God's action in hardening is by allowing them to remain in this state, withholding grace that could soften them. This hardening can occur through various means such as the denial of grace, sending mercies and judgments that further harden hearts, delivering individuals to their own lusts, and allowing them to experience judicial blindness and hardness of heart as a punishment for their sins.


In summary, according to Reformed theology, the concept of free will is not an adequate rebuttal to Romans 9:13-18 because it contradicts the core biblical beliefs in God's sovereignty, total depravity, and irresistible grace.


Stated logically:


1.      Premise 1: Free will requires that individuals have the ability to make genuinely uncaused choices.

2.      Premise 2: Uncaused choices cannot be rational or morally responsible, as they are arbitrary and not grounded in reason or character.

3.      Premise 3: A moral agent must be able to make rational and morally responsible choices.

4.      Conclusion: Therefore, free will arguments fail, as they require uncaused choices, which are neither rational nor morally responsible, contradicting the necessary conditions for moral agency.


The following hypothetical story by Christian philosopher and theologian Gordon H. Clark makes the point that the free will argument is no solution to lighten or soften the Romans 9:13-18 text:  


“On the road below, to the observer’s left, a car is being driven west. To the observer’s right a car is coming south. He can see and know that there will be a collision at the intersection immediately beneath him. But his foreknowledge, so the argument runs, does not cause [that is made necessary] the accident. Similarly, God is supposed to know the future without causing it.”


“The similarity, however, is deceptive on several points. A human observer cannot really know that a collision will occur. Though it is unlikely, it is possible for both cars to have blowouts before reaching the intersection and swerving apart. It is also possible that the observer has misjudged speeds, in which case one car could slow down, and the other accelerates so that they would not collide. The human observer, therefore, does not infallible foreknowledge.”


“No such mistakes can be assumed for God. The human observer may make a probable guess that the accident will occur, and this guess does not make the accident unavoidable; but if God knows, there is no possibility of avoiding the accident. A hundred years before the drivers were born, there was no possibility that either of them could have chosen to stay home that day, to have driven a different route, to have driven a different time, to have driven a different speed. They could not have chosen otherwise than as they did. This means either that they had no free will [understood as a liberty of indifference] or that God did not know.”


“Suppose it be granted, just for the moment, that divine foreknowledge, like human guesses, does not cause the foreknown event. Even so, if there is foreknowledge, in contrast with fallible guesses, free will is impossible. If man has free will, and things can be different, God cannot be omniscient. Some Arminians have admitted this and have denied omniscience [the open theists], but this puts them obviously at odds with Biblical Christianity. There is also another difficulty. If the Arminian . . . wishes to retain divine omniscience and at the same time assert that foreknowledge has no causal efficacy, he is put to explain how the collision was made certain a hundred years, an eternity, before the drivers were born. If God did not arrange the universe this way, who did?”


“If God did not arrange it this way, then there must be an independent factor in the universe. And if there is such, one consequence and perhaps two follow. First, the doctrine of creation must be abandoned. . . . Independent forces cannot be created forces, and created forces cannot be independent. Then, second, if the universe is not God’s creation, his knowledge of it past and future cannot depend on what he intends to do, but on his observation of how it works. In such a case, how could we be sure that God’s observations are accurate? How could we be sure that these independent forces will not later show us an unsuspected twist that will falsify God’s predictions? And finally, on this view God’s knowledge would be empirical, rather than an integral part of his essence, and thus he would be a dependent knower. These objections are insurmountable. We can consistently believe in creation, omnipotence, omniscience, and the divine decree. But we cannot retain sanity and combine any of these with free will.” (2)


As seen from the above quote, Gordon H. Clark argued against the concept of free will from a Reformed theological perspective. His main arguments can be summarized as follows:


1.      Incompatibility with God's sovereignty: Clark asserted that free will is incompatible with the idea of an omnipotent and sovereign God. He believed that if humans have free will, their choices could potentially contradict or override God's sovereign plan, resulting in a limitation of God's power and authority.


2.      Contradiction with divine foreknowledge: Clark argued that the concept of free will contradicts the idea of God's foreknowledge, as it implies that God's knowledge of future events is dependent on human choices. According to Clark, this undermines God's omnipotence, as it suggests that God's knowledge is contingent on human decisions rather than being absolute and certain.


3.      Impossibility of uncaused choices: Clark maintained that free will requires uncaused choices, which are logically impossible. He argued that every choice must have a cause, whether it is a conscious decision or an unconscious desire. Since uncaused choices cannot exist, free will, as traditionally understood, is an incoherent concept.


4.      Inconsistency with moral responsibility: Clark believed that free will is inconsistent with moral responsibility, as it assumes that individuals can be held accountable for their choices even if they are arbitrary and uncaused. He argued that genuine moral responsibility requires choices to be based on reasons and character, which is not possible if free will is understood as an uncaused choice.


In Conclusion:


Gordon H. Clark's arguments against free will primarily revolve around the incompatibility of free will with God's sovereignty, divine foreknowledge, the impossibility of uncaused choices, and the inconsistency of moral responsibility. Therefore, those who interpret Romans 9:13-18 in such a way as to not offend people are mishandling the Scriptures.


“Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15)

The above study was Groked and perfected with Grammarly AI.




1.      John Gill, Exposition of the Old and New Testaments, Romans, (Grace Works, Multi-Media Labs), p. 255.

2.      Gordon Clark, From God and Evil (Unicoi, TN: Trinity Foundation, 2004), 25 26. Cited in Reymond, What Is God? pp. 132, 133.


Mr. Kettler, a respected author and theologian, has previously published articles in the Chalcedon Report and Contra Mundum. He and his wife, Marea, are active members of the Westminster, CO, RPCNA Church. Mr. Kettler's extensive work includes 18 books defending the Reformed Faith, which are available for order online at Amazon.