Why Does God Blame Them?
For Arminians, one of the trickiest verses of Scripture to explain is Romans 9:19-20. I am often asked the meaning of this verse, where the rhetorical question is asked, “Why does God still blame us? For who is able to resist his will?” Because most Arminians would answer this question by asserting that we are able to resist his will, they are befuddled that Paul gives a quite different response. Calvinists seize on this point, using Paul’s answer to prove the wrongheadedness of the Arminian theology.
For example, Lutzer, quotes the objection in Rom 9:19, and says, “If Arminianism were correct, we would expect Paul to answer, ‘God finds fault because men have a free will and therefore could have chosen to be obedient.’ Here is his opportunity to set the record straight. But Paul said nothing about free will” (Doctrines, 214). Sproul goes further, contending that the complaint would not even be raised by anyone who was not a Calvinist: “We wonder why the apostle raises this objection. This is another objection never raised against Arminianism” (Chosen, 152). Both these authors argue that Paul’s words betray his belief in a view of predestination that is parallel to what Calvinism teaches.
Why does Paul discuss a matter that is never raised against Arminianism? Why does he not respond to this objection with an appeal to free will? Is it because he did not believe in free will? Hardly. Is it because he did not believe free will has a role in God’s election? Quite the contrary. Once we understand the flow of Paul’s argument in Romans 9, we will see that free will was a subject that stood behind a question Paul is already in the process of answering. Let us see how this is the case.
The issue prompting Paul to pen Romans 9 is that God’s people, Israel, has rejected her messiah, Jesus. Since God has made his promises to them, it seems that God is no longer able to fulfill his promises. So Paul makes the important statement in verse 6, “It is not as though God’s word had failed.” How could it be possible that God’s word could fail? He is faithful to fulfill all his promises. He is God, and it is simply not possible for him to lie or to fail. It is because Israel, as an act of her own free will, has acted contrary to God’s will, that the thought can even be entertained.
Paul’s answer is that Israel has actually not acted contrary to God’s will. Everything is going exactly as God has planned. Pharaoh acted contrary to God’s will in refusing to let God’s people go when told to do so, right? actually, no. Well, yes, he was contradicting God’s will to refuse to do what God wanted him to do, but he was really just a tool in God’s hand to execute his will. That is why he told 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” (Exod 9:16; Rom 9:17). Similarly, Israel, in resisting God’s will for her, is actually playing onto God’s hand. Because of her rejection of Jesus, the gospel is being proclaimed in all the earth, and the Gentiles are receiving it and being saved, thus fulfilling the promise to Abraham that through him all the nations of the earth would be blessed (Gen 12:3).
It is after making this point in Romans 9:14-18 that Paul shifts to ask the rhetorical question, “Who has resisted God’s will?” So the argument of chapter 9 has gone as follows: 1) if Israel has freely chosen to reject Jesus, then has she prevented God from fulfilling his promises to her? 2) No, not only will God still fulfill them despite her unbelief, her unbelief actually helps God to bring them to fulfillment. 3) If her unbelief is helping God, then why does God blame her for it? It should be easy to see at this point why it would be a step backwards to revert to the question of free will. That is the thing that started this whole process, and Paul needs to move forward in his argument, not backward.
The person asking the question, “who has resisted his will,” is not asking about whether free will exists. He assumes it does. He is arguing that, since Israel’s free will decision against God’s will was actually according to God’s will, she should not be judged for it. To think Paul should have said, as Lutzer suggests, that “God finds fault because men have a free will and therefore could have chosen to be obedient,” completely misses the point.
The question of Romans 9:19 is not whether Israel could have chosen to be obedient. It is that her failure to do so is actually furthering God’s purposes, and therefore, God’s word has not failed. But she is still guilty because she still is resisting God. Pharaoh’s resistance to God also furthered his purposes, but he still deserves judgment. Similarly, Israel is ripe for judgment for her resistance to God, despite that God is using that resistance to further his purposes. So when Paul responds to this question by challenging the questioner, he is taking the argument to its next logical step, the same step that Isaiah took when the same charge was raised to him. That is why Paul quotes from Isaiah 29:16 and 45:9 in verse 20. It is the logical direction for the argument to flow to implicate the questioner and to prove his guilt. So Romans 9:19-20 is really not about Calvinism vs. Arminianism. It is not about God’s sovereignty overruling man’s free will in election. It is about God’s sovereign ability to fulfill all his promises despite man’s free will decisions that seem to hinder him. Rather than hinder God, they only help him. Now that is sovereignty in action.
Erwin Lutzer, The Doctrines that Divide: A Fresh Look at the Historic Doctrines that Separate Christians. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1998.
R.C. Sproul, Chosen By God. Wheaton: Tyndale, 1986.