Understanding Romans 9, Part 2, Why Does God Show Mercy or Harden?

By Grant Hawley


If you haven’t seen part 1 of this series, please check it out here. In it, we looked at the context and theme of Romans 9, and in this article, we will look at why God hardens some and shows mercy to others.

Romans 9 teaches us that God hardens some people and shows mercy to others. Calvinism says that God does this as a sovereign decree without consideration of any response or activity on the part of human beings. This Calvinistic doctrine is called Unconditional Election, and it forms the U of the TULIP acronym. Romans teaches us why God hardens some and shows mercy to others, however, and this article will look at what Romans says about it.

Calvinism also teaches that all human beings are already hardened from birth to the point that they cannot respond to the gospel by believing unless they are first regenerated (regeneration is when people receive eternal life and the Holy Spirit comes to indwell the person). This is called Total Depravity and it is the T of the TULIP acronym. Scripture teaches that regeneration comes as a result of faith, not the other way around (Eph 1:13, 2:5, 8), but that’s another article for another day. What we discuss in this article is when and why this hardening occurs.

Why Does God Harden Some and Show Others Mercy?

The first question we want to address is why does God harden some and show others mercy? Is it a mystery hidden in the mind of God, or is it something He has revealed in His Word?

Before we answer this question, we need to understand why it is that some think that God’s decision is a mystery. The verses that, out of context, can seem to suggest this are Rom 9:10-13, which say:

And not only this, but when Rebecca also had conceived by one man, even by our father Isaac (for the children not yet being born, nor having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works but of Him who calls), it was said to her, “THE OLDER SHALL SERVE THE YOUNGER.” As it is written, “JACOB I HAVE LOVED, BUT ESAU I HAVE HATED.”

This is confusing for many because they are missing one of the main themes of Romans 9, namely, that it looks at the advantages of the Jews in God’s program for the ages. When Paul quotes Gen 25:23 in Rom 9:12, he is referring to nations (“two nations are in your womb”), not individuals, just as Moses was, and as God was when He first said it. Thus, “the purpose of God according to election” (Rom 9:11) has to do with God’s choice of Israel to be His representative nation. We see the same thing when Paul writes of Israel, “Concerning the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but concerning the election they are beloved for the sake of the fathers” (Rom 11:28). If election in this passage (Romans 9–11) had to do with individuals being chosen from eternity past to be regenerated and then believe the gospel, how could those who are beloved concerning election be enemies concerning the gospel?

When we understand that Israel’s purpose as a nation is in view when unconditional election is concerned in Romans 9, then nothing in the context suggests that God’s decision to show mercy on some and harden others is a mystery.

One major theme in Romans 9-11 is that, other than a remnant, God has hardened Israel for the time being (See especially Rom 11:7-10, 25.). Israel has been pursuing righteousness, but instead they were hardened. Paul said, “So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy” (Rom 9:16). Paul also writes:

“For He says to Moses, “I WILL HAVE MERCY ON WHOMEVER I WILL HAVE MERCY, AND I WILL HAVE COMPASSION ON WHOMEVER I WILL HAVE COMPASSION.” (…) Therefore He has mercy on whom He wills, and whom He wills He hardens. (Rom 9:15, 18)

Is God unjust? Is the answer simply that God gets to choose whom He will have mercy on and whom He will harden because He’s God and we can’t say anything about it because we are His creatures? Well, actually, yes, that is true (Rom 9:20). We can’t argue with God because He makes the rules. But thankfully, it is also true that God is truly just, and he doesn’t do this arbitrarily.

Knowing God’s righteous character, Paul asks the question we all have, why did God harden Israel when they were pursuing righteousness and show mercy on the Gentiles who didn’t pursue righteousness at all? Romans 9:30–10:4 reads:

What shall we say then? That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have attained to righteousness, even the righteousness of faith; but Israel, pursuing the law of righteousness, has not attained to the law of righteousness. Why? Because they did not seek it by faith, but as [if] it were, by the works of the law. For they stumbled at that stumbling stone. As it is written: “BEHOLD, I LAY IN ZION A STUMBLING STONE AND ROCK OF OFFENSE, AND WHOEVER BELIEVES ON HIM WILL NOT BE PUT TO SHAME.” Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and seeking to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted to the righteousness of God. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.

God doesn’t take into account how hard you run or will to do righteousness because, as Paul established back in Rom 1:18-3:20, no one meets God’s righteous standard no matter how hard they try. In fact, the law does nothing but to condemn mankind. What He does take into account is how we respond to Jesus. God offers His righteousness as a free gift to anyone who believes in Jesus, and we can stumble at that stumbling stone, or we can believe and not be put to shame. By and large, Israel in Paul’s day stumbled. They wanted their own righteousness instead of God’s because, in all their zeal, they still didn’t know any better.

Thus, God hardens hearts in response to their response to Jesus Christ. It isn’t done in eternity past, or even from birth, but only from intentional rejection. This is exactly what we would expect from Paul’s discussion about wrath from chapter 1:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. (Rom 1:18-21)

God’s wrath follows man’s rejection of His righteousness.

This also matches what we see in the Gospels. From Matthew 4-12, Jesus is preaching to Israel that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand and doing miracles to prove His message, but it isn’t until the religious leaders attribute the miracles Jesus does to Beelzebub that Jesus begins to teach in parables, hiding the truth from those who were unwilling to receive it (Matt 13:10-11). Again, hardening comes after rejection.

God is just, and not only because He gets to make the rules. He’s just because He always does the right thing. He does not deal out wrath/hardening arbitrarily, and He is incredibly patient before doing so “ALL DAY LONG I HAVE STRETCHED OUT MY HANDS TO A DISOBEDIENT AND CONTRARY PEOPLE” (Rom 10:21, quoting Isa 65:2). Even more so, He has sent His Son Jesus to die for our sins and rise from the dead so that He can give righteousness freely to anyone who is willing to take it freely.


In conclusion, God is just. He does not toy with His creation nor does He judge arbitrarily. God hardens those who reject Jesus and He shows mercy on those who believe in Jesus.

Grant Hawley is Pastor of Bold Grace Fellowship, Director of Bold Grace Ministries, and the author of many books on grace, discipleship, and other topics. Grant is serving as the executive editor of the upcoming peer-reviewed theological journal from Grace School of Theology and Free Grace Alliance. Grant is also a member of the Council on Dispensational Hermeneutics and of the Executive Council for the Free Grace Alliance. He lives in Allen, TX with his wife, Tamara, and son, Rock.

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