Reformed Approach to Romans 9:14-25

Augustine of Hippo

Augustine of Hippo produced a first concise interpretation of Romans 9 to which reformed commentators approach Romans 9:14-25. Expositing Romans 9:16, Augustine noted that God “loved Jacob in unmerited mercy, yet hated Esau with merited justice”. He explained,

Since this judgment [of wrath] was due them both, the former learned from what happened to the other that the fact that he had not, with equal merit, incurred the same penalty gave him no ground to boast of his own distinctive merits (Augustine 2005: n.p)

None, according Augustine, “is set free saved by unmerited mercy” and none “is damned save by a merited condemnation.”(ibid). God chose some individuals to bestow His mercy and others, the not chosen, His justice. Augustine expounded,

Certainly wrath is not repaid unless it is due, lest there be unrighteousness with God; but mercy, even when it is bestowed, and not due, is not unrighteousness with God. And hence, let the vessels of mercy understand how freely mercy is afforded to them, because to the vessels of wrath with whom they have common cause and measure of perdition, is repaid wrath, righteous and due.(Augustine 1887: 423–4)

Martin Luther understood Romans 9:15 to mean, “I will have mercy on whom I intended to have mercy, or whom I predestinated for mercy.”(Luther 1976: 139), He went further,

“I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion (9:15). That means: I will give grace, in time and life, to him concerning whom I purposed from eternity to show mercy. On him will I have compassion and forgive his sin in time and life whom I forgave and pardoned from all eternity.(ibid)

According to Reformed approach, Paul in Romans 9:14-25 solved the objection concerning the righteousness of God in election by dividing “his subject into two parts”. John Calvin explained,

Paul divides his subject into two parts; in the former of which he speaks of the elect, and in the latter of the reprobate; and in the one he would have us to contemplate the mercy of God, and in the other to acknowledge his righteous judgment. His first reply is, that the thought that there is injustice with God deserves to be abhorred, and then he shows that with regard to the two parties, there can be none.(Calvin & Owen 2010: 354)

For Calvin, Romans 9:14-25 teaches that the cause of God, electing some and passing by other, is only found in His own purpose “for if the difference had been based on works, Paul would have to no purpose mentioned this question respecting unrighteousness of God, no suspicion could have been entertained concerning it if God dealt with every one according to his merit.” (ibid 354)

Foreseen the fall of all men before time, God bestowed mercy upon those He chose in Christ Jesus before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in His sight (Eph. 1:4), and hardening those He before time gave over into the sinful desires of their hearts (Rom 1:18-32, 11:7-10, Mark 4:12, John 12:40) according to the council of His will.

Most Reformed commentators view Romans 9:14-25 as teaching an absolute election of individuals. Arguing that Romans 9:14 gives a proof that Paul is talking about “unconditional predestination” of individuals, Michael Eaton contended,

“God saves some and he does not say others. It is that exposition that leads people to say, ‘But that is not fair.’ A real predestination of individuals to salvation has been the theme of verses 6-13.”(Eaton 2010: 165)

Eaton, as many Reformed commentators, tend to overlook Paul’s group distinction of those according to the promise, Isaac and Jacob, representing the the true Israel and those who are according to flesh, Ismael and Esau. As seen in Wesleyan-Arminianism Approach to Roman 9:14-25, it is difficult to contend for group election without imply individual election.

Question: If not holding reformed view of election, what do you find incorrect with Augustine, Calvin and Luther’s approach to Romans 9?

I am open for correction, edification and constructive critiques from my fellow Reformed theologians.


Augustine of Hippo. (1887) A Treatise against Two Letters of the Pelagians R. E. Wallis, Trans.) in P. Schaff (Ed.), A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series, Volume V: Saint Augustin: Anti-Pelagian Writings (P. Schaff, Ed.)  New York: Christian Literature Company.

________________ (2005) Handbook on Faith, Hope, and Love. Enhanced Version Traslated by Albert C. Outler.  CCEL Online Edition.

Calvin, J., & Owen, J. (2010). Commentary on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans . Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.

Eaton, Michael(2010) Romans. Preaching Through the Bible. Kent, UK: Sovereign World Trust.

Luther, Martin (1976) Commentary on Romans. Trans. J. Theodore Mueller. Kregel Publications. Grand Rapids.

Photography credit: Cover: Georgetown University