God’s Will and His Mercy
“For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.’ So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.”- Romans 9:17-18
Every professing Christian must have a doctrine of election, because references to the elect and the Lord’s election of people to salvation are too numerous for anyone who loves God’s Word to ignore (for example, Matt. 24:22; 2 Tim. 2:10; 1 Peter 1:1). Thus, the question is not whether one has a doctrine of election, but whether one’s doctrine of election is derived from the text of Scripture or is read into the biblical teaching on the subject.
Probably the most popular view of election among professing Christians is what theologians often call the “prescient view of election.” The prescient view says that God elects people for salvation based on His knowledge of who will respond in faith to the gospel message. Often it is presented with a statement such as “the Lord looks down the corridors of time into the future, sees that Sally will believe the gospel, and then chooses her for salvation.” In this understanding of election, the Lord’s choice is based in some sense on the chosen individuals themselves. Their foreseen faith is the reason God chooses to save them.
As popular as this view is, Scripture does not teach it. First, as we noted in our study of Romans 8:29-30, biblical foreknowledge pertains to God’s love of persons, not God’s knowledge of what they will do (though God certainly knows what we will do in the future). Foreknowledge is God’s decision to love a person. Second, if the Apostle were teaching that the Lord chooses people for salvation based on His knowledge that they will believe in Christ, why raise the matter of God’s justice? No one would question whether the Lord is just to save those who will respond in faith; this would be obviously just because God promises to save those who trust in Him. Third, Paul never explains that election is God’s choice to save based on foreseen faith and not His own good pleasure. In fact, the Apostle emphatically asserts that we cannot locate God’s reasons for election anywhere but His will.
Having turned to Moses to prove God’s freedom to show mercy according to His will (9:15-16), Paul turns to Pharaoh to show God’s freedom in the flip side of election to salvation, namely, reprobation. He chooses those to whom He will show mercy and those whom He will harden by withholding mercy (vv. 17-18). This choice is not arbitrary, but the Lord never tells us why He chooses some people and not others. God “has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills”; it is not that He has mercy on those who He foresees will believe and hardens those who He foresees will not believe.
John Calvin writes that we may not look for any cause of election other than God’s will: “We ought particularly to notice these words to whom he wills, and, whom he wills: beyond this he allows us not to proceed.” We cannot locate the reason why the Lord chose to save us in ourselves in any way, even in God’s knowledge that we would respond in faith. Salvation is by grace alone—we are not elected because the Lord knew we would believe; we believe because we were elected.
Passages for Further Study
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way, you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, and you do not make more than 500 physical copies. For web posting, a link to this document on our website is preferred (where applicable). If no such link exists, simply link to www.ligonier.org.
Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: From Ligonier Ministries, the teaching fellowship of R.C. Sproul. All rights reserved. Website: www.ligonier.org | Phone: 1-800-435-4343