Romans 9:16

Romans 9:15-16  (see also Romans 9:30-32; Ephesians 2:8)
For He says to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion. So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy.

God’s mercy does not depend upon our efforts of willing and running, as per the Law, in the manner of the unbelieving Jews, but upon God who has mercy who saves by faith, as with the believing Gentiles.

Calvinist, R.C. Sproul, comments: “The apostle declares: It is not of him who wills. The non-Reformed views must say that it is of him who wills. This is in violent contradiction to the teaching of Scripture. This one verse is absolutely fatal to Arminianism.” (Chosen By God, p.151, emphasis mine)

But Paul isn’t addressing Arminians. Paul is dealing with the false assurance of the unbelieving Jews, whose reliance is upon the Law. That’s what the “willing” and the “running” is in reference to. 

Calvinist, James White:If the overall discourse is ignored, an improper interpretation of individual texts can be offered. This is one of the most oft-missed elements of correct exegesis, normally due to the presence of traditions in the reader’s thinking.” (Scripture Alone, p.87, emphasis mine)

The real question is why don’t Calvinists follow their own advice?

The general theme of chapter 9 is that Paul is dealing with the Jewish objections to conversion to Christ. As a backdrop from the larger context at hand, the subject of the Book of Romans is that Paul is arming Christians with the gospel message for a specific target group: How to reach the Jews for Jesus. This is why you see Paul first identify with the Jews in chapter 1, and then specifically call out the Jews in chapter 2. (See Romans 2:17-12). This is why you constantly see Jewish examples throughout Romans (Abraham, David, Moses, ect.) At chapter 9, Paul starts out by affirming his love for his fellow Jews, in verses 1 through 3, and reaffirms it at Romans 10:1. From a Jewish perspective, “Why do I need Jesus? I am a son of Abraham!” John the Baptist dealt with that. Jesus dealt with that. And now here, Paul deals with it. Due to unrepentance, the Jews wanted to establish their righteousness, some other way, namely through an outward law. Paul says so at Romans 2:17. They relied on the Law, and God’s covenant was not through any outward expression, but inward faith and repentance. The rebuke of the Jews “willing and running” was not in reference to faith. It was in reference to what the Jews were doing (i.e. their reliance upon the Law). Otherwise, Paul would be rebuking them for their faith, which is the total opposite of Paul’s message. Moreover, when Paul gets to the hardening, he is not referencing the hardening of an unconditional reprobate group, but the forewarned hardening of the Jews. (See Jeremiah 18:1-3, Isaiah 6:9-10 and John 12:37-43.) The hardening is undeniably a Jewish hardening, most explicitly stated at Romans 11:25.

Calvinist, Peterson and Williams, comment: “The next verse is particularly difficult for Arminianism. ‘It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy’ (Rom 9:16). Paul explicitly excludes human desire (literally, ‘willing’) or effort (literally, ‘running’) as the determining factor in salvation.” (Why I am Not an Arminian, p.61, emphasis mine)

Calvinists are completely ignoring the dialogue of Romans 9.

Peterson and Williams add: “Paul’s conclusion to the redemptive history lesson begun in Romans 9:6 devastates theologies based on free will.” (Why I am Not an Arminian, p.61, emphasis mine)

Although the term “freewill” appears 17 times in the Bible, it doesn’t appear at Romans 9:16. So it would be odd that this passage “devastates” something that it doesn’t address. This is a Jewish context, and Paul is refuting the false assurance of the unbelieving Jews’ efforts in seeking righteous under the Law. Paul is most certainly not complaining about an Abrahamic faith. Faith is what they didn’t have, in contrast to the Gentiles. So this could have nothing to do with faith; this has to do with the Law.

Calvinist, Peterson and Williams, continue: “Romans 10 gives a complimentary answer: God’s word has not failed, but unbelieving Israel reaped what it deserved for its unbelief--God’s judgment. Paul thus sets God’s absolute sovereignty (Romans 9) side by side with genuine human freedom (Romans 10).”  (Why I am Not an Arminian, p.64, emphasis mine)

So only now at Romans 10 does Paul first begin to discuss the matter involving “unbelieving Israel”? Did it really just begin here, or is this, instead, a continuation of the prior dialogue? (This is why it is so important to first establish the nature of the dialogue, when discussing Romans 9 with a Calvinist.)

Arminians, Walls and Dongell, comment: “If Paul’s focus all along has been upon that large body of unbelieving Jews who imagine that their physical connection to the people of Israel guarantees salvation, then it is quite likely that the ‘doing of good or bad’ and ‘works’ and human ‘desire or effort’ have reference to what Paul has targeted again and again throughout Romans: Jewish confidence that possessing and doing (specific features of) the Mosaic law will guarantee salvation (e.g., Rom 2:17-29).” (Why I am Not a Calvinist, p.93, emphasis mine)


When discussing Romans chapter 9 with a Calvinist, the first thing that you need to do is to establish the dialogue. The Calvinist will enter the foray with much bluster, insisting that Romans 9 clearly teaches God’s sovereign choice of a specific people (i.e. the Calvinistically elect, which is completely erroneous, since Romans 9 never establishes an elect caste of eternally predetermined individuals). The place to begin is by establishing the dialogue. Ask: Who is Paul engaging? If the Calvinist will agree that Paul is in dialogue with the unbelieving Jews, in order to under-cut their erroneous basis for assurance, and in order to redirect assurance into the Abrahamic faith of trusting in Christ, then the second step is to establish the party being hardened. Ask: Who is the subject of the hardening? Point the Calvinist to the culmination verse of Romans 11:25. Finally, Romans 9:30-33 shows that not only are the unbelieving Jews the ones being hardened (having stumbled over the stumbling stone), but the passage also shows that the believing Gentiles are the ones receiving mercy. If Romans 9 is read from the perspective of a dialogue with the unbelieving Jews, the Calvinist’sproof-texts will vanish into thin air.

So if Romans 9 is to be understood from the perspective of Paul’s dialogue with the unbelieving Jews, then Romans 9:16 must be similarly understood, unless there was an explicit change of direction in the dialogue. (With that in mind, if Paul is criticizing the inadequacy of the works-oriented, unbelieving Jews, and if Romans 9:16 includes faith (as argued by Calvinists), then that would presuppose that the unbelieving Jews were in fact believers, whose faith, therefore, was insufficient to invoke God’s mercy.)

Paul starts by explaining things from God’s perspective, and then sums it up in verses 30-32: “What  shall we say then? That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, attained righteousness, even the righteousness which is by faith;  but Israel, pursuing  a law of righteousness, did not arrive at that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as though it were by works.” The Gentiles went the faith-route, whereas the Jews went the works-route. So if you want to know what Paul meant by the man who “wills and the man who runs,” that’s it. Paul is describing the works-route of the Jews. 

The best way to understand Romans 9:16 is through Pauls perspective. As a murderer of Christians, he saw himself as a little Pharaoh, that is, a hard-hearted, merciless murderer. Nevertheless, God showed him exceeding mercy and grace by dying for one, even such as him. Paul states: It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all. (1st Timothy 1:15) Paul adds: For I am the least of the apostles, and not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain; but I labored even more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with me. (1st Corinthians 15:9-10) God’s Prevenient Grace toward Paul did not prove in vain. Jesus confronted him face-to-face on the road to Damascus. God doesnt do that for everybody. Although we hear Christ spiritually speak to our heart through the preaching of His Word, in this case, Jesus spoke to Paul physically, and so Paul can tell you what His voice literally sounds like. Therefore, consider what Jesus said: From everyone who has been given much, much will be required. (Luke 12:48) And therefore, this is what the apostle Paul now states about himself: Yet for this reason I found mercy, so that in me as the foremost, Jesus Christ might demonstrate His perfect patience as an example for those who would believe in Him for eternal life. (1st Timothy 1:16) God displayed exceeding mercy to Paul so that through him, God might display mercy to all. Romans 11:30-32 states: For just as you once were disobedient to God, but now have been shown mercy because of their disobedience, so these also now have been disobedient, that because of the mercy shown to you they also may now be shown mercy. For God has shut up all in disobedience so that He may show mercy to all. Show mercy to who? According to Romans 5:15, Christ’s free gift of grace abounds to all. If you say that He is rich in mercy and grace only to some, then he has shut up only some in disobedience, and how would that make any sense? The same applies to Romans 5:12-15.

However, most Calvinists argue that faith is a work (despite Romans 4:5) that gives a man grounds to boast before God (despite Romans 3:27), which ultimately makes Arminianism a works-based theology. Nevertheless, faith is not a meritorious deed of self-righteousness, but rather a non-meritorious act which results in Imputed Righteousness, where God credits Christ’s righteousness to the one who has set his hope upon Him. That’s why God’s mercy is not about willing and running, but about surrendering and turning it over to Christ. Also notice that the Bible never says something along the lines of: “Salvation is by grace, not of faith, lest any man should boast.”

Adrian Rogers explains: “Listen, none of it depends upon you. It is all God. Do you understand that? That’s grace. … It’s either grace or works, not grace and works. If you were hanging over a precipice, two thousand feet below are jagged rocks, and there’s a chain of 100 links, 99 of them made of forged steel, 1 of them made of crepe paper, how safe are you? As safe as that 1 link. Now if any part of your salvation depends upon you, you’re not going to make it. You’re not going to make it. It is by grace. What did this man preach to him? He preached to him that hes a sinner, that Christ died for him. If he will put his faith where God has put his sins, that he will be saved.” (Every Christian An Evangelist: Acts 8:26-39, emphasis mine)

John Calvin comments: “The simple view which we are to take is that our being counted among the elect is independent either of our will or our efforts (Paul has put ‘running’ for ‘striving’ or ‘endeavor’). It is rather to be attributed wholly to the divine goodness, which freely takes those who neither will to achieve, nor strive for, nor even think of such a thing. … To say that we will or run to achieve it, therefore, is a mere cavil, because Paul denies that the man who wills or runs is capable of achieving election. He meant simply that neither willing nor running can achieve anything.”  (Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries: Romans and Thessalonians, p.205, emphasis mine)

  • Our willing and running neither achieves righteousness, nor obtains favor with God.
  • Gods mercy depends upon Him alone. Hence salvation is based upon trusting in Him alone.
  • Our being “counted among the elect” is based upon our position in Christ through faith.

John Calvin should have known better, since he elsewhere stated: “Now it may be asked how men receive the salvation offered to them by the hand of God? I reply, by faith. Hence he concludes that here is nothing of our own. If, on the part of God, it is grace alone, and if we bring nothing but faith, which strips us of all praise, it follows that salvation is not of us. … When, on man’s side, he places the only way of receiving salvation in faith alone, he rejects all other means on which men are accustomed to rely. Faith, then, brings a man empty to God, that he may be filled with the blessings of Christ.” (Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries: Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians, p.144, emphasis mine)

In further demonstration that a grace-alone salvation is a faith-alone salvation, take note of the fact that Paul often contrasts faith vs. works, but never faith vs. grace:

Romans 4:13:For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would be heir of the world was not through the Law, but through the righteousness of faith.

Ephesians 2:8:For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God.

In other words, it does not depend upon the man who wills and runs through the Law, but upon God who has mercy through faith.

Romans 4:16:For this reason it is by faith, in order that it may be in accordance with grace.

Galatians 2:15-16: We are Jews by nature and not sinners from among the Gentiles; nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified.

Adrian Rogers explains: “We see it discovered by Abraham. We see it described by David. And then we see it disclosed by Paul. He is saying that it is not by ritual. It is not by resolve. It is by reception. You just receive Gods amazing grace. (It’s Time for some Good News: Romans 4:1, emphasis mine)

Gods grace is received by faith: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God. (Ephesians 2:8)

Calvinism essentially teaches that for by the Fathers Elective Grace you have been regenerated unto faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of Sovereign Election, such that its not up to the man to trust in Christ, that is, to repent and believe in Him, but up to God to unilaterally, involuntarily, unconsciously and preemptively, birth the man into Christ by sovereign Regenerative Grace, that he should irresistibly believe, because he is elect.

Arminianism essentially teaches that for by Christs Atoning Grace you have been saved through faith.

Question:  What does not depend on man? What is meant by willing and running?

Paraphrase: So then [righteousness] does not depend on [man’s works], but depends on God’s mercy, and what is God’s mercy but God’s grace, which Paul then concludes: righteousness is by faith that it may be in accordance with Gods grace. (Romans 4:16)
Calvinists need to follow Pauls line of thought, whose focus is on trying to persuade the unconverted Jew to follow their forefather Abraham into the only way which may establish righteousness before God, which is not through the law, but through faith. However, Calvinists suppose that Paul intends to pit works (including faith) against grace, but which is the exact opposite of what he said: For this reason it is by faith, in order that it may be in accordance with grace. (Romans 4:16) Romans 9:16 follows the same train of thought as the preceding chapters, which is both a warning and an encouragement for unconverted Jews to embrace the Messiah, Jesus. The Jews had mistakenly relied on an unconditional national election by virtue of simply being the children of Abraham. But Ishmael and Esau were also children of Abraham, and yet the inheritance did not pass through either of them. Paul then builds into Gods forewarned hardening of Israel, illustrated at Jeremiah 18:1-13, which is a temporary and “partial hardening” until the fulfillment of the times of the Gentiles. (Romans 11:25). Citing the hardening of Pharaoh provided the segue into hardening of Israel. Paul then anticipates the Jewish reaction at Romans 9:19-20, which Calvinists misinterpret, because they have not followed the dialogue. It was Romans 9:1-3 that had set the tone for that dialogue. 
Question:  Who does Paul say that he loves at Romans 9:1-4? At Romans 9:16, is Paul addressing someone different?

Answer:  It’s the same unbelieving Jews, which is why it is completely erroneous for Calvinists to infer the words of Romans 9:16 outside of the context of a Jewish reliance upon the Law, as opposed to an Abrahamic faith, which Paul had emphasized all along.
Question:  Is there any possibility whatsoever that Pauls reference to willing and running could include faith?

Answer:  No, because that would mean that the unbelieving Jews possessed faith. So you have to take Paul’s argument on willing and running with respect to the Law, or else if it includes faith, then the subjects of his argument, that is, the unbelieving Jews, already had the faith, which by definition, an unbelieving Jew does not have. Paul’s entire dialogue with the unbelieving Jew falls apart if willing and running includes faith. (What the Calvinists are up to, is to suggest that Paul’s argument includes faith, in order to position Irresistible Grace as the only solution.)
The tunnel vision of Calvinists is that they suppose that Romans 9:16 refers to “anything that man can do,” including faith, even though Paul’s argument isn’t constructed as a challenge against Abrahamic faith at all, but instead, challenges a reliance upon the Law for obtaining righteousness. Therefore, when asking what Romans 9:16 “refers to,” you must consider the dialogue. You cannot say that Paul’s argument includes the very thing that the subjects of his argument refused. Calvinists need to think outside the tunnel of proof-texting.
Bottom line:  If, at Romans chapter 9, Paul is in dialogue with the unbelieving Jews, then the entire line of Calvinist proof-texts utterly vanishes.
The Jews trusted in everything except God, and Paul is steering them away from trusting in being “Abraham’s descendants” (Romans 9:7) and in having the Law. Romans 9:30-32 perfectly summarizes Romans 9:16, insomuch that whereas Israel was pursuing righteousness through the works of the Law, and did not attain it, the Gentiles who simply trusted in God, found it: “What shall we say then? That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, attained righteousness, even the righteousness which is by faith; but Israel, pursuing a law of righteousness, did not arrive at that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as though it were by works. Paul adds: “Do we then nullify the Law through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the Law.”  (Romans 3:30-32)
Question:  At Romans 9:16, is Paul rebuking faith?

Answer:  The unbelieving Jews efforts toward “willing and running” was in accordance to Jewish efforts under the Law, who Paul says, has their reliance upon the Law.

If Paul was otherwise distinguishing faith vs. grace, as being mutually exclusive, then the following would contradict that:

Romans 4:16: “For this reason it is by faith, in order that it may be in accordance with grace, so that the promise will be guaranteed to all the descendants, not only to those who are of the Law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all.

Romans 5:2: “Through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we exult in hope of the glory of God.