Romans 9 and the sovereignty of God

Romans 9:10-21

*Rebekah’s children had one and the same father, our father Isaac. Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad—in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls—she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” Just as it is written: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”

What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh: “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.

One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?” But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? "Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’ " Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?*

I am finding it hard to read through this scripture without coming to a “Calvinist” type conclusion that God chooses who is saved and who is not saved - and that there is no role for our own personal will/choice/desire. How does Catholic teaching argue against the Calvinist/reformed interpretation of this section of scripture? How do we walk through this scripture in a “Catholic” way?

Since God can see the future , He knows who will respond to grace and who will choose to go their own way.
So, bearing that in mind with Esau and Jacob He chose Jacob ahead of Esau
Also, He knew that Pharao had badwill towards the Israelites so He must have withdrawn His grace from Pharao and the end result was the hardening of Pharao’s heart.
A little bit like Jesus attempts to win back Judas and even calls him friend while Judas is in the act of betraying Him
But eventually lets him go his own chosen way to perdition.
It’s about God’s respect for our free will !

Hi Michael,

Out of an infinite number of possible world, God chose to create this one, where free will would bring certain results. So, in this sense, we can say that God chose to save some and to damn others.

But the fact remains that free will is free, and that God cannot be blamed for the misuse of it. God wanted a world where there would be love, and there cannot be love wilthout free will.

Does this answer your concerns?


Election and predestination is incomplete without understanding the foreknowledge of God, which is found elsewhere in the Scripture

1 Peter 1:2 who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father

Romans 8:29 For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined

God has given everyone a free will, but God being all-powerful and all-knowing has known all along who will use their free-will to follow Him or not follow Him. And based upon that knowledge of His, He will determine how He uses each and everyone to serve Him. He will even use those who He knows are going to reject Him to serve His ultimate purpose. God will give people more or less graces based upon His plan, while those graces from God can either soften the hearts of the wicked which keeps them from exercising all the evil that they are capable of doing, or He will not give them those graces which allows them to do exactly what they want to do, which can be used by God as a way of punishment or trials to others which has a purpose for a final outcome that brings about a better good.

Thanks Verbum,

I’m afraid it doesn’t answer my current question (“concerns” is too strong a word at this point). I’m hoping for an exegesis of this text from Romans (verse by verse if necessary) that is in line with Catholic teaching (I understand the overall Catholic teaching, but I need someone to go through this text specifically).

Here is a link to the verse by verse commentary from St. Thomas Aquinas

The pages start at 372 as you can type in the page at the top of the pdf. Aquinas is the best in the buisness!

Dear Michael96,

Admittedly, the passage you cite from Romans chapter nine does* appear* to lend itself to a Calvinistic interpretation at first sight. I suppose like so many false teachings they do, at least on the surface, seem quite plausible, biblically speaking. This is how all the cults gain converts because their appeal to the bible seems to be so convincing. Be that as it may lets take a look at the passage and surrounding context.

  1. It is surely the Jewish nation as whole, rather than individuals, to which St. Paul is refering, thus he speaks in verses 3 and 4 of his “brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh. They are Israelites…”.

  2. Contary to Calvinistic doctrine, you will notice that nothing is said here of any ‘selection to wrath’. St. Paul is speaking of the national selection of the Jews for puposes of mercy and pity only, I mean to be the chosen people of God (see verses 14-15).

  3. Now as verse 16 makes quite clear, the selection of men to be the favoured children of God doen’t depend upon their own will, or acts, or efforts, but upon God’s will. They may loose such a privilege by wilful and unrepented sin. But by a life of holiness, good works and faith they can make their calling and election sure, as St. Peter teaches us, though their initial state of privilege in Baptism comes from the will of God alone. Once again this does not sit comfortably with the once saved always saved teaching of Calvinism.

  4. In His mercy God gives to some privileges which it is in their own free will to make good use of, or to forfeit, (and if they make good use of them He conforms them to them for ever). So, on the other hand, if people, of their own free will “harden” their hearts, to the end of their lives against His will, as Phararoh did, then He confirms them in their hardness, and their final ruin in Hell is realised (compare Exodus 8 15,32, 9.34 with Exodus 7. 13, 9. 12).

  5. As regards “the vessels of wrath” (verse 22), this is a key text for the Calvinists. Now on the surface it does seemingly support their novel ideas. But you will note that St. Paul says absolutely nothing, nor implies nothing, about people being elected to eternal punishment (that is a subjective deduction made to uphold a doctrine), only “the vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory” (verse23). No doubt God knows that some will become objects of His wrath, and some of His grace. He does not pre-destine any to Hell, although He knows that some will end up in Hell, but that is not the same thing is it. He gives all of us the gift of free will and, indeed, the due scope and opportunity for using it. He will judge us according to our use of our opportunities. Remember, it is the wicked men themselves who fit themselves for destruction (granted a destruction foreknown by God) by their own sin and disobedience.

  6. What is for certain is that St. Paul, even in Romans, did not teach “unconditional election”, that is that if we are elected by God we can never finally loose are salvation. In other words once we have been saved we are always saved. This Calvinistic doctrine cannot be supported, Thus in a few chapters after this one St. Paul warns the Gentiles, who have been “grafted” on to to the “olive tree” (that is the ancient Jewish Church, now the Catholic Church), “Note the kindness and the severity of God: severity towards those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provide you continue in his kindness; otherwise you will be cut off” (Romans chapter 11: 22). So our election is to privilege not automatically to eternal life; the promises are conditional upon us remaining faithful to Jesus and enduring unto the end. This is what our Church teaches and what we believe.

So to conclude St. Pauls words in the passage you ask about, taken by themselves, do seem to leave no room for our moral responsibility, but they must be taken in conjunction with other passages, like the one in the preceeding paragraph and chapters 1 and 2 of Romans.

It is good that you are studying the meatier passages of the New Testament, keep up the good work. I do hope that what I have said has thrown at least a little light on this passage.

Warmest good wishes and prayers,


Of course He does - you didn’t think we did, did you :slight_smile: ? The mistake is in the conclusion; because that conclusion does not follow.

Where Catholics are apt to go wrong, is in thinking that because God is Sovereign, therefore, man cannot be free. This is a misconclusion. Instead, the picture is, that because God is Sovereign, therefore man is able to be free. Human freedom - like all creaturely freedom - is dependent on, and is caused by, and absolutely requires, the Sovereign & Infinite Freedom of God. Created freedom is so far from being hindered by or contradictory to the Sovereign Freedom of God, that it it is founded upon it.

Human freedom is not autonomy - if the two are identified, then human freedom seems to be impossible if God is Sovereign. There is a further complication - we must be clear as to what we mean by freedom. There are several kinds of freedom of will and several kinds of free choice.

How does Catholic teaching argue against the Calvinist/reformed interpretation of this section of scripture? How do we walk through this scripture in a “Catholic” way?

A book I’ve found extremely helpful - and it’s by a Calvinist - is Election and Free Will, by Robert A. Peterson. It deals with the issue of FW at great length, Biblically, reasonably, & has a very good “tone” - the author was particularly concerned not to be unkind or ungracious or unfair to the positions of others, and he succeeds. If more Christian authors wrote in the manner he does, there would be far less bitterness & far more goodwill among Christians, Catholic and not. It has a detailed “Index of Scripture”, and is only about 200 pages long. (FWIW, those who want a book that bashes Catholics, will have to go elsewhere.)

Romans 9 & the NT generally contain a lot of Calvinism because:
*]Calvinists often get a lot of things right
*]The NT generally - including Romans 9 - is about the God Who saves His People, through His purpose - which He has disclosed in these las tdays in Christ Jesus. God is in charge. That is one of the most important lessons of the Book of Revelation. And because He in charge, He cannot be thwarted - the creature’s disobedience and rebellion merely become further ways by which God “turns all things to good”. Whereas man acts “within” space and time, God is supra-historical; we are “determined” by many things in the world - God by contrast is utterly free of all determining factors. A God Whom nothing at all determines, is a God Who is unimaginably & utterly free.
[/LIST]This means that whereas man is free and God is free, they do not “collide” - any more than an author can “collide” with a character in a book he writes. Like all analogies,
that limps. They are as different as that, only far more so. God is so “different from” every creature, every one of which is as nothing before Him (the Bible and the Fathers make all that clear), that God and creatures can “meet” only if God takes the initiative - God must humble Himself to come down to our nothingness. Which is what Christians believe He has done in Jesus of Nazareth.

As for our wills, choices & desires - they must be conformed to God; a Christian is Christ’s slave, not his own property. If God is in charge, man cannot be in charge. Romans 9 is difficult - it may help to bear in mind that what is going on is not a display of raw power without righteousness or equity; but that, on the contrary, it is the very nature of God to be Righteous; to imagine God as unrighteous, is to imagine what is impossible and unreal. It’s conceivable that, as the Apostle is a flawed human being, “Who are you…back to God ?” is brow-beating the “opposition” - conceivable, but not a necessary conclusion.

One criticism of the Apostle’s argument might be that his quotation of Malachi’s words about Jacob & Esau does not do justice to what Genesis says about them. It doesn’t - because Malachi is re-interpreting the Genesis story for the sake of his own message; this kind of difference between NT author & original OT source is a result of changes within Judaism that led to new understandings of the texts.

It seems to me the predestination spoken of here has to do with benefits/graces/roles that God predestines to give, or not give, to certain people while they are still living on earth. If I’m not mistaken,Calvinistic predestination has to do with where we will go after we are no longer living on earth – that is, each person is predestined to hell or heaven, by God, before we are born and regardless of how we live on earth.

One form of predestination that obviously applies to all people has to do with which parents we are born to. God predestined me to be born to Catholic parents – a great benefit that meant I received the life of grace as an infant. (Obviously, I did nothing to merit it.) Others He predestined to be born to Hindus, atheists, …

Dear Nita,

You are quite correct in stating that St. Paul’s discussion of predestination pertains to this world and not to the next. Calvinism has wrongly used his argument in Romans chapter 9 (especially verses 10-12) to prove a false doctrine of absolute predestination to heaven or hell by an unalterable divine decree.

Against such an outrageous and scandalous theory we should bear in mind the following two points:

  1. The two texts from scripture cited in Romans chapter 9 verse 13 are, as you have observed, concerned not with the eternal salvation of Esau and Jacob but with their earthly life. Moreover, St. Paul himself is discussing the election to the Messianic promises of Israel, not the election to heaven or hell.

  2. The expression “I have hated” (verse 13) should not be pressed since it is a part of a qoutation. Furthermore, when contrasted with “I have loved” it may be taken as a Hebrew idiom and translated “I have loved less”, that is, I have not chosen (compare: Gen 29:30; Luke 14: 26; Deut. 21:15-17; Judges 14:16; Prov. 14:20).

Anyone who does their best with all goodwill and dies sincerely repentant of their sins can certainly attain salvation through the merits of Christ. Let the Calvinist demonstrate from anywhere in this entire chapter, or indeed the Roman Epistle generally, where St. Paul speaks unmistakably of a selection to wrath. On the contrary, he will find that the Apostle does by no means take eternal life as signed, sealed and delivered.

Warmest good wishes,


Here is a good link on Rom 9:

Here is a thread on the issue too, see posts 227-229 & 232

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