Pastor of Iglesia Conexiones, and author of Biblical Prayer for Today's Believers: Transform Your Prayer Life (available on Amazon).
When Calvinists read Romans 9:17-18, they assume it proves the Calvinistic doctrine of unconditional election. According to the doctrine of unconditional election, before He created the world, God predestined every person to either believe in God and spend eternity in Heaven, or to reject God and spend eternity in Hell. Thus, when Calvinists read Romans 9:17-18, they think the passage is saying that God determined that Pharaoh would reject God and spend eternity in Hell, and that the decision to reject God was a decision that God made for Pharaoh, so Pharaoh had no choice.
Exodus 9:16 in Context
Romans 9:17, however, is quoting Exodus 9:16, where God tells Pharaoh that He has raised him. The idea of God raising Pharaoh is that God was lifting Pharaoh so everyone around him could see what would happen to him (what God would do to him): “for now I [God] will stretch out my hand, that I may smite thee [Pharaoh] and thy people with pestilence; and thou shall be cut off from the earth. And in very deed for th0is 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 9:15-16, KJV). God wanted all the world to see what God would do to Pharaoh (whom the Egyptians honored as a god) so everyone would recognize God.
The original text is not talking about eternity, Heaven, Hell, salvation, or damnation; it is talking about what God was doing in the times of Moses with an individual on Earth. That God’s words and actions toward Pharaoh are evidence of the enmity between God and Pharaoh cannot be denied, but that Pharaoh will be sentenced to Hell for ever and that God predetermined before creation that Pharaoh would rejected Him are ideas that are not reflected in the text.
Romans 9:17 in Context
What then is the purpose of Exodus 9:16 (which is quoted in Romans 9:17) within the context of Romans 9? Its purpose is to demonstrate that God has determined to have mercy on some and not on others, to bestow the blessings of the Abrahamic covenant on some and not on others. In the previous verse (Romans 9:16), Paul concluded that God has determined to show mercy and compassion only to some of the Israelites present with Moses (you can read the author’s previous article, Romans 9:14-16 and Unconditional Election, to understand how the author came to that conclusion); Romans 9:17 is elaborating on verse 16 by demonstrating that God has chosen not to bestow mercy and compassion on others. The point is that God is sovereign and that He has revealed He has the right and the power to make that choice. Nevertheless, the criterion by which God makes this choice is not revealed in Romans 9:17. Thus, to teach that Romans 9:17 teaches unconditional election, Calvinists must look elsewhere in the Bible.
When Did God Harden Pharaoh's Heart?
What about Romans 9:18? Romans 9:18 makes reference to the instances when God hardened Pharaoh’s heart (Exodus 7:13, 7:22, 8:15, 8:19, 8:32, 9:7, 9:12) as God said He would do (Exodus 4:21 and 7:3). Do Romans 9:18 and the instances in which God hardened Pharaoh’s heart demonstrate unconditional election? Once again, the answer is no, they do not.
In Exodus 5:2, when the word of God was first delivered to Pharaoh, Pharaoh rejected God’s word. Even though God determined to harden Pharaoh’s heart in Exodus 4:21, before Pharaoh rejected God’s word, God first hardened Pharaoh’s heart in Exodus 7:13, in a time after Pharaoh had rejected God’s word. It is possible that when God determined to harden Pharaoh’s heart in Exodus 4:21, God was relying on His foreknowledge of Pharaoh’s response: as God states in Exodus 3:19 (before God revealed His plan to harden Pharaoh’s heart), “And I am sure that the king of Egypt will not let you go, no, not by a mighty hand” (Exodus 3:19, KJV). In fact, Pharaoh’s rejection of God’s word in Exodus 5:2 cannot be attributed to God hardening Pharaoh’s heart, because on Exodus 7:13 God is still planning to harden Pharaoh’s heart in the future, showing that He had not yet hardened Pharaoh’s heart.
What Was Pharaoh Resisting?
But more important than the timeline of when God determined to harden Pharaoh’s heart and when God actually hardened Pharaoh’s heart is the object toward which God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. In Exodus 4:21, God tells Moses, “but I will harden his heart [Pharaoh’s heart], that he shall not let the people go” (Exodus 4:21, KJV). On Exodus 7:3-4, God says, “And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and multiply my signs and my wonders in the land of Egypt. But Pharaoh shall not hearken unto you, that I may lay my hand upon Egypt, and bring forth mine armies, and my people the children of Israel, out of the land of Egypt by great judgments” (Exodus 7:3-4, KJV).
On Exodus 7:13, we read: “And he hardened Pharaoh’s heart, that he hearkened not unto them” (Exodus 7:13, KJV); and further ahead, we read: “and Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, neither did he hearken unto them” (Exodus 7:22, KJV).
Pharaoh’s heart was repeatedly hardened by God to Moses and Aaron’s message, and this resulted in Pharaoh not letting the Israelites leave Egypt. God was hardening Pharaoh’s heart, yet He was still demanding that Pharaoh would let Israel go (Exodus 5:1, 7:16, 8:1, 8:20, 9:1, 9:13, 10:3, 10:4). Nevertheless, it is important to realize that God was not hardening Pharaoh’s heart to the message of salvation, but letting Israel depart from Egypt (which was the previous Pharaoh’s original fear, see Exodus 1:9-10).
Thus, Exodus does not teach that God was hardening the heart of a sinner to reject God’s message of salvation so the sinner would be condemned to Hell; what Exodus teaches is that God was hardening the heart of a sinner who had already rejected God (Exodus 5:2), and the hardening of the heart was against the message of letting Israel leave Egypt.
Why Did God Harden Pharaoh's Heart?
God hardening the heart of Pharaoh should actually be seen as a form of judgment upon Pharaoh for previously rejecting God’s general revelation of Himself (Romans 1:18-25). Moreover, not only had God revealed Himself to Pharaoh generally through nature, but God had also revealed Himself to Pharaoh through the presence of Israel in Egypt and the influence of Joseph in Egypt. The most likely scenario is that Pharaoh, in order to continue ruling as Pharaoh, had chosen to dedicate his life to idols instead of embracing the God of Israel.
What Romans 9:18 Really Teaches
What then is Romans 9:18 teaching? Romans 9:18 teaches that God is sovereign to have mercy on whom He wills and to harden whom He wills, but it does not reveal the criterion by which God decides on whom He will have mercy and on whom He will not have mercy. Romans 9:18 does not say that from eternity past God elected Pharaoh to spend eternity in Hell, it only says that based on what we read in Exodus, it is clear that God has some process by which He determines who will be saved and who will not be saved.
Romans 9:17-18 makes reference to God's election of Pharaoh and God's sovereignty. Nevertheless, God's election of Pharaoh is not the unconditional election proposed by Calvinism: God was not electing Pharaoh to reject God, but God was electing Pharaoh because Pharaoh had already rejected God; and the election was not unto Heaven or Hell, but unto using Pharaoh as an example for the nations.
Moreover, God's sovereignty in Romans 9:18 is not the kind of sovereignty that overrides the human will, but the kind of sovereignty that responds to the human will. God, in His sovereignty, decides to the individual's choice to repent and trust God or not.
If you have further questions about Romans 9 and unconditional election, take a look the author's previous articles on the topic: Is Jacob's Election A Case of Unconditional Election?, God Hated Esau? What's Up with That!, and Romans 9:14-16 and Unconditional Election.