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.