The ninth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans is a challenging one. He begins by lamenting that his fellow Israelites have in the main rejected Christ, saying he has “great sorrow and constant anguish in his heart” (Romans 9:2). Yet Paul understands that God’s ways are mysterious and inscrutable to human beings. He notes that God established a covenant with Abraham that extended to his son Isaac, but not to Abraham’s other sons. (Abraham had a son, Ishmael, through his wife’s Egyptian maid, prior to Isaac. He also had six sons by a second wife following the death of his first wife, Sarah.) Likewise, Isaac had two sons, Jacob and Esau, and though Esau was the firstborn, God extended the promises of the covenant to Jacob and his descendants, rather than to Esau and his descendants.
What then are we to say? Is there injustice on the part of God? Of course not! For he says to Moses:
“I will show mercy to whom I will,
I will take pity on whom I will.”
So it depends not upon a person’s will or exertion, but upon God, who shows mercy. For the scripture says to Pharaoh, “This is why I have raised you up, to show my power through you that my name may be proclaimed throughout the earth.” Consequently, he has mercy upon whom he wills, and he hardens whom he wills. (Romans 9:14-18)
At first glance, this sounds like God is arbitrarily bestowing favors on one person and cursing another. But Paul is adamant that there is not injustice on God’s part. To understand verse 18 (“he has mercy upon whom he wills, and he hardens whom he wills”), we have to ask the question, who does God will His mercy upon? And the answer is everyone! He calls all people to Himself. He offers His mercy to everyone and freely gives it to those who ask for it.
But what can Paul mean when he says God hardens the heart of those He wills? God gives us free will. He permits those who sin, who harden their hearts against His mercy, to persist in their sin. He still calls us back. He is still the Father waiting anxiously for His prodigal sons and daughters to return. But He never forces us. And indeed, the more we persist in sin, the easier it becomes to sin. The more we harden our hearts, the easier it becomes to harden them more. Pharaoh is the classic Biblical example of this, but I suspect many people have had experiences of persisting in a particular sin until their consciences were dulled to it. God permits our hearts to be hardened in these cases because it usually takes a dramatic jolt to awaken our consciences and lead us to repentance. Often we need and receive more of God’s mercy to soften our hearts, recognize our sin, and repent. And certainly God is extraordinarily patient with us.
You will say to me then, “Why [then] does he still find fault? For who can oppose his will?” (Romans 9:19)
If God hardens our hearts, as Paul says in verse 18, it raises the question of whether we have free will, or any real moral accountability. Paul’s moral exhortations to his Roman audience in chapters 12-14 make it plain that Paul believes (as the Church has always taught, and as human beings almost universally believe) that we have free will. Our choices may be constrained by the circumstances God places us in, but we still can make choices. And we will render an account of our choices to God in the fullness of time.
Paul addresses this in chapter nine by echoing God’s response to Job:
But who indeed are you, a human being, to talk back to God? Will what is made say to its maker, “Why have you created me so?” Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for a noble purpose and another for an ignoble one? What if God, wishing to show his wrath and make known his power, has endured with much patience the vessels of wrath made for destruction? This was to make known the riches of his glory to the vessels of mercy, which he has prepared previously for glory, namely, us whom he has called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles. (Romans 9:20-24)
God has a purpose in everything He does, and His ultimate purpose is our salvation. Whether we are faced with good things in life or bad, our role is to trust Him, to remember, as Paul wrote earlier, that “God works all things for the good of those who love him” (Romans 8:28).
The story of Esau is instructive here. Esau did lose his birthright and was not heir to the promise. Yet he grew wealthy, lived a long and prosperous life, and was reconciled with Jacob:
[Jacob] himself went on ahead of them, bowing to the ground seven times, until he reached his brother. Esau ran to meet him, embraced him, and flinging himself on his neck, kissed him as he wept. (Genesis 33:3-4)
God had a plan for Esau, just as He has a plan for you and me.
Lastly, a word on predestination, a concept running just below the surface of chapter nine, and which Paul touches on in chapter 8.
Those he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, so that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined he also called; and those he called he also justified; and those he justified he also glorified. (Romans 8:29-30)
The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains what is meant by predestination:
To God, all moments of time are present in their immediacy. When therefore he establishes his eternal plan of “predestination”, he includes in it each person’s free response to his grace (CCC, 600).
God bestows His saving grace upon us; we each freely choose to accept His saving grace and be saved, or reject it and be separated from His love (forever, if we persist in rejecting Him). Because God takes the initiative in reaching out to us, and because God knows what our choice will be, Paul can describe those who are saved as being predestined by God.
However, the Church also teaches that “God predestines no one to go to Hell” (CCC, 1037). To be sure, God knows ahead of time who will reject Him and go to Hell. The difference is that while God takes the initiative to save us, individual men and women take the initiative to reject God. For those who are saved, God chooses them before they choose Him. But those who reject His saving grace have only themselves to blame. (1)
(1) The idea of “double predestination,” that God predestines some people to Heaven and others to Hell, was expounded most prominently by the Protestant leader John Calvin in the 16th Century. It has never been a teaching of the Catholic Church, and I doubt whether many Protestants would support this idea today, as it is so clearly incompatible with an all-loving God. I still needed to work out for myself how we can believe that people are predestined for Heaven but not for Hell, and I think the distinction is in who takes the initiative.
Image: The Reconciliation of Jacob and Esau by Peter Paul Rubens (downloaded from Wikipedia Commons).