Romans 9:18 – Reflections on God’s mercy, His hardening, and the so-called doctrine of double predestination
By Ben Brumund
The strict parallelism between mercy and hardening suggests that mercy and hardening function the same way – that just as God shows mercy to whom He wishes, He hardens whom He wishes. Some deny this, arguing that God’s hardening functions like the ‘handing over’ of sinners to their sin which they themselves had already chosen (see Romans 1). Yet, this is a problematic approach, as it takes the ultimate initiative away from God and places it with man. Against this, first, Exodus 4-14 does not clearly indicate that Pharaoh’s hardening of himself was God’s basis for hardening him. In fact, a good case can be made for the opposite. God predicts twice (4:21 and 7:3) that He would harden Pharaoh’s heart, and there are five passive references (with God being the implied subject) to Pharaoh’s heart having been hardened (7:13, 14, 22; 8:11, 15). Second, Paul clearly states that God hardens ‘whom He desires.’ There is no qualification of this. God does as He pleases. Third, the most natural response in the world to the question of Romans 9:19, ‘why does God still blame us?’ would have been to say, ‘because you deserved it due to your actions.’ Yet, Paul does not use this line of argument. It is not the point Paul is making. God is just in bestowing mercy and hardening as He will because He is free to do so and His will requires no justification by any standards of human logic or morality. Hardening which leads to damnation then (9:22-24, 11:7) is a sovereign act of God not caused by anything in those individuals who are hardened.
This text, then, appears to provide support for the doctrine of ‘double predestination’: God decides, on the basis of nothing but His own sovereign pleasure, to bestow His grace and so save some individuals, and to pass over and so damn others. As it is so contrary to our common perceptions of human freedom and divine justice, it is inevitable that this doctrine is destined to be the object of more negative reaction and consternation than any other. Yet, we must recognize that God’s hardening is an act directed against human beings who are already in rebellion against God’s righteous rule. God’s hardening, then, does not cause spiritual insensitivity to the things of God; it maintains people in the state of sin that already characterizes them. This does not mean that God’s decision about whom to harden is based on a particular degree of sinfulness with certain human beings; He hardens whomever He desires. But, it is still simultaneously true that God hardens whomever He desires and human beings, through sin, are still responsible for their own condemnation. Mercy and hardening are different in this respect: hardening is always deserved; mercy is always undeserved.