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Why John Calvin was wrong about Romans 9

JohnCalvin Copyright by Bob Rogers, Th.D.

   John Calvin was wrong about Romans 9.
Calvin, the Protestant reformer of Geneva, Switzerland, was a great theologian. He became famous for his emphasis on the sovereignty of God and God’s predestination of our salvation. But in his commentary on the ninth chapter of Paul’s Letter to the Romans, John Calvin took predestination beyond anything the apostle Paul intended to say.

Qualifications of what I’m saying

   Don’t misunderstand me. I believe that salvation is completely by the grace of God and cannot be earned by our good deeds. I believe that God is merciful and just, and I believe in the sovereignty of God. I also believe that when we believe in Jesus Christ as Savior, the Bible says that we are chosen, or predestined.

   My disagreement is with a specific brand of Calvinism and with a specific statement made by John Calvin in his own commentary on Romans. Many will argue that Calvin himself took a different position in some of his other writings, and that may be true, but it does not change the fact that Calvin was wrong in his commentary on Romans 9.

 

The key verses and Calvin’s comments

   The debate centers around the key verses, Romans 9:18, 22 (HCSB): “So then, He shows mercy to those He wants to, and He hardens those He wants to harden… And what if God, desiring to display His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience objects of wrath ready for destruction?”

   Calvin says in his commentary on Romans 9, “Paul teaches us, that the ruin of the wicked is not only foreseen by the Lord, but also ordained by his counsel and his will… that not only the destruction of the wicked is foreknown, but that the wicked themselves have been created for this very end—that they may perish.” (John Calvin, Commentary on Romans.)

   John Calvin’s interpretation of Romans 9:18 and 22 has been called double-edged predestination. This interpretation teaches that the saved are predestined to be saved, but also that the lost are predestined to be damned. At first glance, one can see how Calvin would interpret this passage the way he did. But a study of these verses in light of the entire chapter reveals a completely different picture of what Paul was saying.

 

God is not unjust

   Calvin’s interpretation makes God arbitrary and implies that God is unjust. Yet Paul reminds us in Romans 9:14, “Is there injustice with God? Absolutely not!” Let’s go through the chapter and see how God is both merciful and just.

 

Hardened clay and melted butter

   When Romans 9:18 says that God shows mercy on whom He desires and hardens whom He desires, this does not mean that God is arbitrary or unfair. Let’s look at the context of this statement. In the previous verse, verse 17, Paul spoke about Pharaoh, who hardened his heart and would not let the people of Israel go from slavery. But if one reads the story in Exodus, one finds that half of the time it says God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and half of the time it says Pharaoh hardened his own heart. What Exodus described was the process by which God brought out the hardness that was already in Pharaoh’s heart. As Dale Moody says, “The sun that hardens the clay melts the butter.” (The Broadman Bible Commmentary, vol. 10: Acts- I Corinthians, “Romans,” by Dale Moody, p. 230.) Thus God was not making Pharaoh do something that Pharaoh didn’t already want to do. Likewise, God does not take away our free will to obey or disobey.

 

The clay pot and the potter

   Next, we note that Paul uses the example of a clay pot to illustrate predestination. He says in verses 20-21, that we have no right as mere humans to talk back to God about His will. It is interesting that Jeremiah 18:5-10 also uses the clay pot illustration to show how God reacts differently when we respond differently. Jeremiah says that if a people whom God warns will repent of their evil, then God will relent of his disaster and not inflict on them the disaster God had planned. This shows how predestination works in the mind and heart of God. Of course, God in His foreknowledge already knows what we will do, so when we choose Christ, God speaks of having chosen us.

 

A choice by faith

   Romans 9:30-33 shows how salvation comes by a free choice to believe the gospel, not by arbitrary predestination. It does this by drawing a contrast between Gentiles who obtained righteousness and the Jews who did not obtain righteousness. What was the difference? It was their faith! Verse 30 says the Gentiles obtained a “righteousness that comes from faith.” Verse 31 says Israel did not achieve this righteousness. “Why is that?” Paul asks in verse 32. His answer: “Because they did not pursue it by faith.”

 

Objects of wrath and objects of mercy—treated differently

   With all of this in mind, let us return to the key verses that are central to this debate, Romans 9:22-23. These verses have been interpreted as teaching double-edged predestination, because they speak of the “objects of wrath ready for destruction” and “objects of mercy that He prepared beforehand for glory.” However, what many people miss here, is that Paul describes the objects of wrath (the damned) and the objects of mercy (the saved) in different ways in this passage. The Greek grammar in verse 22 describes the “objects of wrath ready for destruction” with a perfect participle in the middle or passive voice.  Thus it describes the objects of wrath, which refer to the lost, as “having been made ready for destruction,” which may mean they prepared themselves for destruction by their own unbelief. Notice also that God “endured with much patience the objects of wrath.” In other words, God patiently waited for their free choices, because, as 2 Peter 2:9 says, God is not willing that any be lost.

   However, the Greek grammar is different when referring to the “objects of mercy” in verse 23. Paul describes the “objects of mercy” as those “that He prepared beforehand for glory.” This time, Paul uses the active voice to describe God’s action of salvation. In other words, Paul speaks of the saved as actively being predestined by God beforehand, but Paul speaks of the damned as passively being predestined, implying it is the result of their own choices, which God in His omniscience already knew they would make.

 

Why John Calvin was wrong

   John Calvin said that the apostle Paul taught in Romans 9 that God created the wicked for the purpose of damning them to Hell. But when we read Paul’s words carefully and in context, we see that Calvin was wrong. Instead, Paul says that God is not unjust. He says that God hardens the heart, but those are hearts that have also freely chosen to harden themselves. He says that we are like clay pots that cannot question God who forms them, but those same clay pots do have a choice to respond to the potter’s hands. If anybody is an object of God’s wrath, it is because that person has failed to obtain salvation by faith. The choice is always ours, but God always knows what choice we will make.

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About Bob Rogers

Hospital chaplain in Mississippi. Formerly a pastor for 33 years in Mississippi and Georgia. Historian and avid cyclist.

Posted on September 17, 2013, in Books and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Whoever said Calvin was perfect ??
    Is your understanding of Every Doctrine in Scripture perfect.??
    I wonder?

  2. I’ve recently been confronted with the view that God foreknows, but doesn’t predestine. In light of Romans 8:29, how do you separate God’s foreknowledge and His ordainment? Please use Scripture.

    • I do not separate foreknowledge from predestination. The verse you gave is a good example of how the two work together, as well as 1 Peter 1:1-2 which says we are “chosen according to foreknowledge.” The two work hand in hand. Foreknowledge explains predestination. Because God already knows beforehand what will happen, it is certain to happen, and thus can be spoken of as predestined.

  3. The problem is not our will. The problem is our nature. Our wills are bound to our nature. We choose freely in accordance with our nature. We will not choose contrary to our nature until our nature changes. Therefore, we must be born again. Once our nature is changed then we choose freely and accept God. The choosing this day whom you will serve begins the day you are regenerated.

    The issue of foreknowledge is God knows. If God knows then history is locked in God’s mind. It will happen exactly how He foreknew it would. It can’t and won’t be any different then how He knows it will. Therefore, from your mother’s womb you are predestined for Heaven or He’ll based on God’s sovereign knowing.

    I don’t understand our redefining of terms. Of I said I harden the clay you would say I haredened the clay because the clay got hard. No I was instrumental in hardening it. Dead means lifeless. Blind means can’t see. Regeneration means no power, no switches work, nothing turns on, therefore, go to Home Depot and buy a generator to regenerate or restore power. It seems we have one dictionary for life and another dictionary for Bible terms. I just say what the Bible says and define Bible terms with any given dictionary. I don’t try to change words and meanings to iron out the mystery.

  4. I think I commented the last time you sent this out. I’ll just ask two question. How can God ever be unjust when we deserve whatever God does to us in His righteous justice? He does not have to save anybody. Second, we already have a heart of stone so how much harder does God have to make us? It’s like saying God makes us more dead when we are already dead in our trespasses. How dead do we have to be? Even if we have free will as you define it, God still creates you knowing you will not choose Him, therefore, He created you for Hell because He knows that is what you will choose. Therefore, instead of creating you, why didn’t He not create you rather than create you “for Hell”. The great mystery that has fired up debates for years!!

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