Why Romans 9:10-24 Should Not Be Understood as God Predestining People to Hell
Romans 9:10-24 reads:
10And not only this, but there was Rebekah also, when she had conceived twins by one man, our father Isaac;
11for though the twins were not yet born and had not done anything good or bad, so that God's purpose according to His choice would stand, not because of works but because of Him who calls,
12it was said to her, "THE OLDER WILL SERVE THE YOUNGER."
13Just as it is written, "JACOB I LOVED, BUT ESAU I HATED."
14What shall we say then? There is no injustice with God, is there? May it never be!
15For He says to Moses, "I WILL HAVE MERCY ON WHOM I HAVE MERCY, AND I WILL HAVE COMPASSION ON WHOM I HAVE COMPASSION."
16So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy.
17For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, "FOR THIS VERY PURPOSE I RAISED YOU UP, TO DEMONSTRATE MY POWER IN YOU, AND THAT MY NAME MIGHT BE PROCLAIMED THROUGHOUT THE WHOLE EARTH."
18So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires.
19You will say to me then, "Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?"
20On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, "Why did you make me like this," will it?
21Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for common use?
22What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction?
23And He did so to make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory,
24even us, whom He also called, not from among Jews only, but also from among Gentiles.
The Romans text above is controversial because it seems to indicate that God predestines some people for hell while on others He chooses to have mercy. The Bible does speak to God ordaining all of our days (Psalm 139:16), and certainly He knows ahead of time who will reject Him and who will receive Him. Toward the end of this chapter in Romans, Paul speaks of some having faith while others did not have faith but tried to live by the law, thus rejecting God’s grace (v. 30-31). Thus, Paul is not teaching that people do not have a choice, that they do not make a choice, or that they are helpless to choose. Paul is merely pointing out in this passage that God is sovereign over all things. Pharaoh chose to harden his heart against God, yet ultimately God was sovereign over this decision. Pharaoh was still accountable for his decision, and God judged him. Paul anticipates that a reader might think that if God wills the hardening, then why does He still hold a person responsible for being hardened? Paul doesn’t answer this directly, nor does he try to solve the paradox of God’s decreed will and the free will of man. He merely says that who are we to tell God what He is purposing. In other words, we are to let God be God and do what He will.
Paul then gives a “what if” scenario, saying what if God had indeed made some people for wrath and some for mercy so that He could showcase mercy on some. But surely Paul understood that God could have shown mercy to all people because all have sinned (Romans 3:23). It is not as though God needed some people to be hardened so that He would be empowered to show His mercy. He could have shown mercy to everybody. Thus this argument must be understood to communicate that God could do whatever He wanted to because of His power and sovereignty, but man in his finite understanding is not going to understand it all. If God in one sense did create some for wrath and some for mercy, who are we to challenge Him? But Paul does not come right out and say that this is precisely how we should view things. Thus, he speaks in terms of “what if.” It would be unfair to the nature of God to infer simply from these verses that God has predestined some to hell, thereby eliminating their ability to choose mercy and implying some evil intention of God. It would be more accurate to conclude that God has ordained all things, knowing what all people will choose, though they are still responsible to choose. In addition, it is essential that we understand God’s desire to want all to repent and that He gets no pleasure, joy, or satisfaction is seeing some refuse His mercy. He doesn’t want any to blaspheme His Spirit (Luke 12:10), for His Spirit calls to all people (Matthew 22:14).
I believe this conclusion is supported by several passages in Ezekiel, in addition to many others which point to God’s love for all the lost (see article). But these verses in Ezekiel are remarkably clear, and they are repeatedly several times in different chapters. The first is Ezekiel 18:23 in which God says, “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord GOD, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?” The obvious implication is that God gets no joy or pleasure from seeing a person die in their sins. He wants them to repent. This message is repeated in Ezekiel 18:30-32 which says, “Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, each according to his conduct,’ declares the Lord GOD. ‘Repent and turn away from all your transgressions, so that iniquity may not become a stumbling block to you.’ ‘Cast away from you all your transgressions which you have committed and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! For why will you die, O house of Israel? ‘For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone who dies,’ declares the Lord GOD. ‘Therefore, repent and live.’” God is placing the burden of decision upon Israel to choose to repent and live, lest they be judged and face God’s wrath. God wants them to repent, but Israel has hardened its heart, except for a remnant. The final passage is Ezekiel 33:11 which says, “Say to them, As I live, declares the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?” Isaiah 48:11 makes it clear that God acts for His own sake and glory. What He says would bring Him the greatest pleasure is for all the wicked to repent. Thus, it makes sense that He wants none to perish but is willing that all will come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9). This is what would delight the heart of God. Yet somehow God knows that not all will choose Him because they will harden their hearts. Somehow God has foreknown that this would happen, but still He allowed it to happen. Somehow God’s foreordaining of these events doesn’t dismiss the responsibility or free choice of man. They must both exist.
In one sense, given that God foreordains and foreknows all things, it seems that God does indeed ordain people for hell. Yet this conclusion is totally contradictory to God’s heart and nature. Thus, we cannot accept this as a conclusion, and we must believe that, though He knows the future before it happens to absolute precision and certainty, man still chooses to reject God against God’s desired will. This doesn’t thwart God’s sovereign purposes, but it does go against what He wants.
God does not ordain people to hell against their will; furthermore, He takes no pleasure in seeing the wicked perish. May God draw more and more to Himself as no amount is too many, though, sadly, He knows that only a few will respond in faith and repentance.