God Has a Free Will! (Exposition of Romans 9:14-29)

I am speaking this morning from the text before us on God’s free will. What is free will? Do human beings have one? Does God have one?

The will defined simply is the ability of the mind to make choices. Human beings, because they are made in the imago Dei (image of God), have this ability. God, because He is God, also has this ability. What does it mean? Does it mean that I can do anything? Can I choose to fly? No, my free will is limited by my nature. It is not my nature to fly, so I’m not free to fly. Similarly, the Bible teaches that I’m not free to choose God because it is also contrary to my nature. That’s why we need new natures that are given to us by the Holy Spirit at regeneration. Therefore, a good definition of free will is the ability of the mind to make choices in accordance with our natures.

This definition of “free will” also applies to God’s free will. He too is bound by His nature. Therefore, He cannot sin! Why? Because it is not His nature! But God does have a free will and, unlike human beings, He has an accompanying good and holy nature. Therefore the response to the question “Can God Do All Things?” in the catechism that I’m teaching my children says, “Yes, God can do all His holy will!” God cannot lie, tempt to sin, share His glory, or sin Himself! But this morning’s text tells us that God is free to exercise his will in three important ways. First, by showing His compassion as He wills. Second, by forming His creatures as He wills. Third, by calling His children as He wills. Let’s read the text of Romans 9:14-29 together.

What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? God forbid. (15) For he saith to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. (16) So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy. (17) For the scripture saith unto Pharaoh, Even for this same purpose have I raised thee up, that I might shew my power in thee, and that my name might be declared throughout all the earth. (18) Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth. (19) Thou wilt say then unto me, Why doth he yet find fault? For who hath resisted his will? (20) Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus? (21) Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour? (22) What if God, willing to shew his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction: (23) And that he might make known the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy, which he had afore prepared unto glory, (24) Even us, whom he hath called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles? (25) As he saith also in Osee, I will call them my people, which were not my people; and her beloved, which was not beloved. (26) And it shall come to pass, that in the place where it was said unto them, Ye are not my people; there shall they be called the children of the living God. (27) Esaias also crieth concerning Israel, Though the number of the children of Israel be as the sand of the sea, a remnant shall be saved: (28) For he will finish the work, and cut it short in righteousness: because a short work will the Lord make upon the earth. (29) And as Esaias said before, Except the Lord of Sabaoth had left us a seed, we had been as Sodoma, and been made like unto Gomorrha.

I. God’s Free Will in Showing His Compassion, vv. 14-18.
The first way in which God’s free will is exercised in this passage is by His showing compassion to whomever He wills. Our text this morning begins with a possible objection raised by the apostle Paul himself against his previous teaching that God has the right to choose who His people are (vv. 6-13). He choose Jacob and rejected Esau. This revelation causes the automatic human response: “Not fair!” or in the words of this text: “Is there unrighteousness with God?” Paul responds to this question with the strong negation of “God forbid.”

But Paul goes on to show that our appeal to God’s righteousness at this point is foolhardy. We need mercy not justice!!! The truth of the matter is that all of us deserve God’s wrath. We were all born sinners and therefore all deserve God’s eternal punishment. “Fair” or righteousness would mean that all go to hell! Thankfully, however God has chosen to deal toward many in mercy.

How does Paul respond to this objection? By looking to the Scriptures (vv. 15 & 17)! We are usually guilty of looking to ourselves and judging God by what we feel is right instead of what He has revealed as right! We forget that our thought processes and emotions are tainted by our sin nature, but God has revealed His character and ways in Holy Scripture. Our responsibility is not to force God to fit in the box of our preconceived ideas about Him, but rather to conform our thinking to how He has revealed Himself in Scripture!

In the first of the two texts quoted by Paul in this section, God’s sovereign right to show mercy and compassion on whomever He wills is stated. This quotation is from Exodus 33:19. The context is Moses’ request to see God’s glory to which God responded with these words:

I will make all my goodness pass before thee, and I will proclaim the name of the LORD before thee; and will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will shew mercy on whom I will shew mercy.

Notice that God’s response to Moses’ request to see His glory is to “proclaim the name of the LORD before” him which is then explained as God’s sovereign right to be gracious to whom He wills and to have mercy on whom He wills. The name of God in Scripture means more than just the title that He is called. It refers to the totality of His character. In other words, the character of God is summed up in God’s prerogative of choosing upon whom He shows mercy. The implications of this idea is spelled out in verse 16. Our obtaining of mercy is not dependent upon our efforts, but upon God’s mercy.

Paul next quotes from Exodus 9:16 in verse 17. The context of this quote is the plagues that were brought upon Egypt at the time of the Exodus of the children of Israel from the land of Egypt. During the midst of the plagues, God told Moses to go and speak to Pharaoh these words:

And the LORD said unto Moses, Rise up early in the morning, and stand before Pharaoh, and say unto him, Thus saith the LORD God of the Hebrews, Let my people go, that they may serve me. For I will at this time send all my plagues upon thine heart, and upon thy servants, and upon thy people; that thou mayest know that there is none like me in all the earth. For now I will stretch out my hand, that I may smite thee and thy people with pestilence; and thou shalt be cut off from the earth. And in very deed for this cause have I raised thee up, for to shew in thee my power; and that my name may be declared throughout all the earth. Exodus 9:13-16

How did God show His power in Pharaoh and cause His name to be declared throughout all the earth? By hardening Pharaoh’s heart so that he would not let the children of Israel go. The verse immediately preceding the passage above states:

And the LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh, and he hearkened not unto them; as the LORD had spoken unto Moses. Exodus 9:12

At the end of Exodus 9, we likewise read:

And the heart of Pharaoh was hardened, neither would he let the children of Israel go; as the LORD had spoken by Moses. Exodus 9:35

Later in the book of Exodus, in chapter 14, the plagues are over and Pharaoh has finally decided to let God’s people go. However, before they get too far away, the LORD speaks to Moses:

And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, that he shall follow after them; and I will be honoured upon Pharaoh, and upon all his host; that the Egyptians may know that I am the LORD. And they did so. Exodus 14:4

Question: If God wanted His people delivered from Egypt, why did He keep hardening Pharaoh’s heart so that he wouldn’t let them go? Answer: So that God could show His superior power and to declare the greatness of His name.

What then ties the two passages of Scripture quoted by Paul in Romans 9:15 and 17 together? The fact that in each of these texts God is declaring His Name! God’s glory is on display both in those upon whom He shows mercy and also those whom He hardens! For Paul, God’s righteousness is not about Him being “fair” based on human standards, but is “his absolute faithfulness always to act for his name’s sake and for the preservation and display of his glory” (John Piper, The Justification of God, p. 150).

II. God’s Free Will in Forming His Creation, vv. 19-23.
Not only does Paul assert God’s free will in showing His mercy, but he also shows God’s free will in forming His creation. This assertion is again in response to a potential objection from the first century reader. The objection has been stated many times and is probably in many of your minds right now. We can rephrase the objection from verse 19 as follows: “If all this is true, then why does God hold men responsible for their own action?” Paul’s response to this potential objection is not to go into a lengthy philosophical discussion of the relationship between Divine sovereignty and human responsibility. Others have done that. I’ve even written a paper on the topic. But Paul here does not attempt to explain this tension, instead he declares that we have no right to even ask the question!

Look at Paul’s fiery response in verses 20-23. Paul is appealing here to the idea of God as creator and human beings as His creatures. The argument is basically that God has the right to do whatever He wills with His creatures. The imagery used is the language of the potter and the clay (See Isaiah 29:16 & 45:9). God is the potter and we are the clay. Just as the potter has the ability and right to make vessels as it pleases him, so also God has the right to do as He wills with His own creation. Ladies and Gentleman, God is God! He is not the old man upstairs! He is not a genie that waits to do our bidding! He is the sovereign Creator of this universe! In the words of Nebuchadnezzer,

His kingdom is from generation to generation: And all the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing: and he doeth according to his will in the army of heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth: and none can stay his hand, or say unto him, What doest thou? Daniel 4:34-35

Is this the God you worship? If not, you’re not worshiping the true God! Instead you’re worshiping an idol created in your own mind. This is the God of the Bible! God revealed Himself to us in this way. You may say, “I can’t worship a God like that.” Well, there are no other options. He is the one true God. C.S. Lewis commented once about the kind of God human beings want:

We want, in fact, not so much a Father in Heaven as a grandfather in heaven–a senile benevolence who, as they say, ‘liked to see young people enjoying themselves,’ and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, ‘a good time was had by all.’
C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1962), p. 40.

The only problem is that this is not the God of the Bible. The God of the Bible has a free will in whom He shows compassion and in forming His creatures.

III. God’s Free Will in Calling His Children, vv. 24-28.
In this final section, Paul identifies who exactly the chosen are. The chosen ones, “the vessels of mercy” (v. 23), are the “called” ones (v. 24). This reminds us of the “golden chain of redemption” in Romans 8:29-30. Those who were foreknown and predestined were also called. But who are the called? Well, up to this point in Romans 9 Paul has discussed God’s right to choose the true Israel out of ethnic Israel. Here, Paul says that God has not only chosen His elect from among the nation of Israel, but also from among the Gentiles! This is the mystery of this present age! That many of national Israel would be hardened in order that many of the Gentiles could be shown mercy.

Paul shows that although this is a mystery it is not new. Paul offers five quotations from the Old Testament, two from Hosea and three from Isaiah. The first two are from Hosea. In verse 25, Hosea 2:25 is quoted. In verse 26, Hosea 2:1 is quoted. In verse 27, Isaiah 10:22 is quoted. In verse 28, Isaiah 28:22 is quoted. In verse 29, Isaiah 1:9 is quoted.

The first two quotes from Hosea show God’s sovereign will in calling Gentiles to become His children. The last three verses show that God’s plan has never been to save every individual within national Israel, but instead to save the remnant within Israel. This is God’s free will in calling His children!

The message this morning is that God has a free will. He has a free will in showing His compassion, forming His creatures, and calling His children.

As clear as the teaching of God’s sovereignty is in Scripture, it is equally clear that God has called all men everywhere to believe in Christ and repent of their sins.

Part of God’s sovereign will is to show mercy. Do you realize that you need mercy, not justice? If so, call on Him! He has promised to save all those who call upon Him. In the very next chapter of Romans, in Romans 10:13, the Bible says, “For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.”


  1. Jonathan,

    Probably, if you mean in the understanding of the will as the ability to make choices according to our desires (I said nature.).

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