“So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires.” (Romans 9:18)
The doctrine taught in this verse is called Equal Ultimacy. It has to do with double predestination. All Calvinists agree that God unconditionally elects totally depraved sinners and then exercises irresistible grace so that they believe–but what about the rest of humanity? What about those who were not elect before the foundation of the world?
My position is that God exercises the same freedom in His hardening as He does in showing mercy. In the same way that God chooses who goes to heaven and then works faith into them, so also He chooses who goes to hell and then hardens/blinds them. In the same way that election is unconditional, so also is reprobation equally as unconditional.
I understand that this view of predestination is not very popular. Most Calvinists hold that God merely passes over those whom He has not chosen. They believe in an active-passive double predestination rather than an active-active one like Equal Ultimacy. To them, he does not say to the elect, “I choose you,” and to the non-elect, “I reject you.” Rather, they say it is “I choose you, but you others I do not choose.”
The main passage that spells out Equal Ultimacy is Romans 9. Let us examine verse 18, quoted above, in its surrounding context.
A look at Romans 9
From the verses before, Paul has already shown that election is not according to the will of man. From verses 10-13 we see that God chose to bless Jacob before he had done anything good or bad, i.e. unconditionally. Yet many Calvinists stop at Jacob and ignore the second half of the account–Esau’s destiny. An important fact is that God’s hate for Esau was just as free of a choice as the love God had toward his brother. Both the blessings (being part of ‘Israel’, ‘children of God’, and ‘descendants’) and the curses (serving the younger, being hated) were determined before any possible foreseen obedience or disobedience could sway God either way.
Also, we cannot separate the quotation concerning Pharaoh in verse 17 from the teaching immediately before. Paul has just proven in verses 15-16 that God’s bestowal of mercy is a totally free choice of His. He taught that neither man’s will or man’s action play a role in their selection. So when we get to verse 17, where Paul begins with the word “for”, we can know that he is quoting Exodus to give yet another example of God choosing either to love or hate somebody apart from any foreseen choice or merit of the individual.1
After verse 17 comes the summary (“so then” in v. 18) of these three examples (Isaac and not Ishmael, Jacob and not Esau, and not Pharaoh). The conclusion is that God’s free, sovereign pleasure is the cause of both His showing mercy and His hardening.
Even if none of the preceding stories were in this passage, the parallel between having mercy and hardening found in this verse is enough to establish the doctrine. It is “whom He desires” that are both saved and hardened. In the same way that God is free to elect whosoever He wills, so also He is free to harden whosoever He wills. If one action is unconditional, there is no possible way to twist this sentence to make it say that the other action is conditional. Likewise, if one of these is an active work upon a human heart, there is no reason to say that the other is merely passive.
Next comes verse 19 where Paul anticipates the objection, “Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?” Paul is expecting that somebody in the church, after hearing the previous teachings, is going to be stirred up and retort with those words. The objection could be paraphrased, “But God is causing these people to reject Him! How then is it fair to send them to hell for what He made them do?!” First off, this objection alone is proof of Equal Ultimacy. For had Paul been teaching Arminian doctrine, or even single predestination only, nobody would raise this objection!
Second, the wording of the objection shows that Paul was teaching an active-active double predestination. We know that the question is over the “God harden whom He desires,” half of verse 18. From “find fault” we know that hardening is in mind rather than mercy. Then, by “who resists His will” we see both the unconditional and the active aspects of this hardening. So again, from my paraphrase above, this imaginary debater is upset that God finds fault in people for what He makes them do.
Third, that Paul does not deny the claim of the anticipated objection is proof that he taught Equal Ultimacy. Had Paul merely been teaching single predestination, or had he been teaching Arminian doctrine, this would have been the perfect opportunity to bring clarity! Had Paul not been teaching that God causes people to do things that would put them at fault with Him, he could have said, “Whoa! Slow down! You’re simply misreading me, guys–God doesn’t unconditionally harden sinners!” However, Paul does not clear up any confusion, which proves that the “objector” did not misread him.
Fourth, Paul’s answer to the objection is clearly double predestination. The fact that Paul did not correct the objector proves that He indeed was saying that God causing things which put men at fault. But it does not stop there. Paul’s answer is found in the Old Testament image of God as the potter and men as clay. He says that God makes vessels for honorable use and vessels for common use (vv. 20-21). Note that the potter has total freedom apart from anything in the clay. This shows us that a man’s hardness of heart is not the cause of their predestination to hell, for it is the same clay as the elect. Note also that God makes the vessels for dishonorable use (v. 21) and the vessels of wrath (v. 22). Lastly, notice that the forming is in the same way as He makes the vessels of honor. In both cases the Potter has the same freedom. In both cases the forming is done with the same causality (Potter forming, not clay self-forming).
So there is the meaning of the text. For more, see John Piper’s sermon The Hardening of Pharaoh and the Hope of the World where he lists 7 contextual reasons we should see unconditional hardening here.
Objections to Equal Ultimacy answered
I know this is a hard doctrine for many Calvinists to grapple with, both theologically and emotionally. I will not address the emotional arguments against Equal Ultimacy. To those we may say with Paul, “Who are you, O man, to answer back to God!” (Rom. 9:20). But there are many great scholarly Calvinists who reject Equal Ultimacy on theological grounds. Therefore, because these objections come from the predestinarian reading of the Scriptures, it deserves the time of day.
Objection 1: Equal Ultimacy makes God the author of sin
From what had been said it may sound like God is causing people to sin. There are several passages that speak of God’s holiness and all of His ways being just. The key verse is James 1:13, which says that “God Himself does not tempt anyone.” Therefore, they say that God cannot harden unbelievers for that would be making them sin. This is basically the only argument R. C. Sproul offers against Equal Ultimacy in his article on double predestination.
But is this argument not similar to the Arminian’s “2 Peter 3:9 argument” against single predestination? The answer to James’ text is exactly the same. A Calvinist understands that God has two wills: one revealed, and one secret. So it is with James 1:13 and hardening.
Yes, God does not tempt anybody–that is the revealed will. But we know that at times God will work in the background (by His hidden will) to cause people to do things contrary to what His revealed will is. Nobody can deny that this is so. For the Scriptures say in Psalm 105:25 that God made the Egyptians hate the Israelites. Or Proverbs 21:1, where God turns the heart of kings where He wills (we assume both good and bad decisions). Or in 2 Samuel 24:1 where the anger of the Lord incited David to take the census which God forbade. Or Revelation 17:17 where “God put it in their hearts” to wage war against the Lamb. Or Acts 2:23 and 4:27-28 where we read that “God’s hand predestined” those the murder of Jesus to occur. These texts can be harmonized with James 1:13 only when we understand that God has two wills. In the same way, Scripture reveals that God hardens the non-elect to lead them to their predetermined eternal destiny in His secret providence, which James is not touching on here.
Objection 2: They are already heading to hell; hardening would be superfluous
This argument is quite valid from the Calvinistic standpoint. If we hold to the doctrine of Total Depravity, then we know nothing needs to be done to an unbeliever to make sure they end up in hell. That is a fair argument.
In response, I simply say that the Scriptures teach that He does anyways! Whether or not God needs to harden somebody to make sure they go to hell, the Bible teaches that He does. So is it superfluous for God to harden an already hard heart? Yes, but the Scriptures still reveal this as a work of God in the hearts of the non-elect.
Those who reject Equal Ultimacy believe that God’s work with the non-elect is hands off. All men are fallen and on the way to hell, and God works in some to bring about regeneration and faith. For the rest He simply witholds that same grace, which leaves them on the road to hell. So God’s will that they end up in hell is still accomplished without God “getting His hands dirty.” William G. T. Shedd’s notes on Romans 9 give this take on it. “Not to show mercy to a man is, in St. Paul’s use of the word, to ‘harden’ him. To harden is, not to soften.”2 This however, is to redefine the very word itself! Instead, we should take the most natural reading of the word.
Objection 3: Romans 9 is the only place that talks about Double Predestination; you can’t build a doctrine from one verse!
This is fallacious on several grounds. The most important response is that God only needs to say something once for it to be true! The most we can make out of the seldom mention of Equal Ultimacy is that it is a peripheral issue that shouldn’t split a church. We can conclude based on their relative frequency that God is more interested in His children knowing how much He unconditionally loves (elects) them than how He hates the reprobates. We cannot however, conclude that because God only mentions it once that it must be a lie.
But further, any Bible interpreter or systematic theologian knows that not every doctrine has one spot where every detail is spelt out. For example, no single passage of Scripture teaches the entire doctrine of the Trinity. However, when we gather several verses together we see that there is one God, and that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all God.
Now with Equal Ultimacy may I say that, unlike the Trinity, this doctrine does have the whole position written out in one passage! But also, Romans 9 is not the only place that discusses this activity of God. In Matthew 11, after His disciples’ first missionary journey, Jesus denounces the cities who rejected the gospel. After rebuking them He turns to the Father in prayer. There we see insight into God’s work in the background and why those cities did not believe:
Another text is John 12:39-40. There John gives divine insight into why so many people didn’t believe in Jesus despite all of His miracles (v. 37). He writes,
A third proof text for Equal Ultimacy outside of Romans 9 is found just a couple paragraphs later in Romans 11:7-10. Speaking of those Jews who fell away into unbelief, Paul writes:
So again, while these passages from Matthew, John, and Romans may not spell out the doctrine of Equal Ultimacy as fully as Romans 9 does, we do see common themes throughout.
To conclude, I will say that there is so much mystery within the doctrine of God’s Sovereignty. How He does it and what it looks like will never be known in this life. We simply must rest on His Word, let God be God, and marvel at “the depth and the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God” (Rom. 11:33-36).
1 It is commonly said that Pharaoh hardened his heart first, but that is simply not true! A read through of Exodus shows uses of “God hardened his heart” and “his heart was hardened” before “Pharaoh hardened his heart.” See the verses here (Although it is true that Pharaoh was already a totally depraved sinner, and God did not turn him into an evil man.)
2 Shedd, William G. T. Commentary on Romans (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980), 291