Lecture 5, Does God Create Unbelief?:

If God alone is responsible for the salvation of the elect, does that mean He creates unbelief in those He didn’t elect? Examining this question in this message entitled “Did God Create Unbelief?” Dr. Sproul clearly establishes that God is not the author of sin and does not create unbelief.

Message Transcript

Probably the strongest statement we find anywhere in the Scriptures that deals directly with the question of predestination is in the ninth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans. In that particular text he deals with the election of Jacob rather than Esau. Not only does this text speak heavily to the matter of predestination in general, but it also has significance for the controversial question of whether or not predestination is double.

Let’s take some time in this session to look at the ninth chapter of Romans and give attention to what the Apostle says in it.

Twin Brothers Not yet Born

I will begin in verse 9 of chapter 9:

For this is the word of promise: “At this time I will come and Sarah shall have a son.” And not only this, but there was Rebecca also, when she had conceived twins by one man, our father Isaac (for though the twins were not yet born and had not done anything good or bad, in order that God’s purpose according to His choice might stand, not because of works, but because of Him who calls) it was said to her, “The older will serve the younger.” Just as it is written, “Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated.” (Rom. 9:9–13)

Here, when Paul seeks to illustrate his understanding of divine election, he uses an example of two men for purposes of illustration. It’s significant that the two he chooses are brothers, and not only brothers, but twin brothers. That is, they have the same family, the same background, and the same geographical location—everything that could possibly be the same is the same. They are, in fact, “womb-mates.” (Thank you, I get a little punchy after we study predestination for this long.)

In his consideration of these two men, Paul labors the point that one is preferred over the other before either is born. That statement, “before they were born,” raises the question of God’s foreknowledge.

The most popular view of predestination that rejects the Augustinian view is what we call the foreknowledge view of election. Its basic thesis is this: predestination simply means that God, from all eternity, looks down through time, knows in advance what people will do, and then chooses people on the basis of that foreknowledge.

We notice that chapter nine of Romans speaks sharply to this question. We read, “For though the twins were not yet born and had not done anything good or bad” (Rom. 9:11). Let’s just look at that phrase.

Paul does not say that God had not known what they were going to do, nor that He had known what they were going to do. He simply declares that the twins hadn’t been born yet, and they hadn’t done anything. So, all the text explicitly teaches is that God’s choice of Jacob over Esau was made before they were born.

Awkward Silence

The foreknowledge view would agree that God’s predestinating choice is done at the foundation of the earth before anybody is born. Everybody agrees that predestination is accomplished in the mind of God before people are born. But the foreknowledge view says that, though God makes the choice before people are born, He makes it in light of what He knows they will do after they are born.

We have silence in this passage with respect to that question specifically, but if ever in biblical content there was an awkward silence, here it is.

What I’m getting at is this: if the Apostle had any desire to make clear that the electing, predestinating actions of God are done with a view to the future actions of man, this would have been the place to say it. In other words, if the biblical view is the foreknowledge view, namely that God always chooses in light of His knowledge of future decisions, then why doesn’t the Bible ever say that? It never says it. And if it ever had the opportunity to say it, here it is.

Not only does Paul not say this, but he also takes the time to say that the choice was made before they were born and before they had done any good or evil. We have to ask the question: Why does he include that? If his purpose was to communicate a foreknowledge view of election, the addition of these words would certainly confuse the people of God, wouldn’t it?

God’s Purpose Will Stand

Let’s go on further: “Though the twins were not yet born and had not done anything good or bad.” What is Paul’s concern here? “In order that God’s purpose according to His choice might stand” (Rom. 9:11).

The emphasis in the passage is on God’s purpose. Paul is saying that the reason the decision is made before they’re born, before they’ve done anything good or evil, is so that God’s purpose will stand.

Do you see that the flavor of this passage is totally opposed to the concept of a foreknowledge view of predestination? What other reason could we give for the Apostle’s emphasizing this fact that they had not done any good or evil?

Not only had they not done it in space and time, but by implication, they had not done it even in the mind of God. That is, from God’s perspective, there is no good or evil taken into consideration. The reason the Apostle gives for having said it this way is “that the purpose of God might stand according to His choice, not because of works, but because of Him who calls.”

The foreknowledge view says that God looks down into the future and sees that some people will make the correct choice and others will make the incorrect choice. This view suffers from basing election upon a good work: believing.

“This is the work of God, to believe in the one whom He has sent” (John 6:29). In one sense of considering the biblical concept of good works, the supreme good work is to place one’s trust in Jesus Christ. But Paul is saying that God’s purpose of election is clearly not because of human works, but because of Him who calls.

The bottom line is that the Arminian view, which has various styles, shapes, and forms, makes the final decision for our salvation rest upon a human choice, not upon a divine action. I think Paul is annihilating that position here as strongly as he possibly could by emphasizing that it is not because of works, but because of the One who calls. The accent and the credit for your redemption is to be given to God—to God alone is the glory.

Injustice in God?

Now, “In order that this purpose might stand, and that it not be because of works but because of Him who calls, it was said to her, ‘The older will serve the younger’” (Rom. 9:11–12). That is, the reason God made this choice was to demonstrate the supremacy of Him and His purpose.

“As it is written, ‘Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated’” (Rom. 9:13). I’ll come back to that phrase in a moment because I know that provokes all kinds of problems with the idea of hatred, but let’s first look at verse 14.

Romans 9:14 is a rhetorical question: “What shall we say then? There is no injustice with God, is there?”

How does Paul answer his own question? Does he simply say, “No, there’s no injustice with God”? No, he uses the most powerful form of emphasis that he can. Some translations read, “May it never be!” or other ones, “God forbid!” The answer to his question, “Does this indicate injustice in God?” is, “Absolutely not! That’s unthinkable” (Rom. 9:15).

An Objection Anticipated

I want to speculate for a second and ask you to think about this: Why do you suppose the Apostle asks this rhetorical question?

Paul is a teacher. When teachers teach, they know going into their lessons that sometimes students will have difficulty understanding what the teacher is communicating. A good teacher anticipates opposition and where problems will arise.

Paul is obviously a teacher anticipating a protest from his hearers when he says, “What shall we say then?” And what particular thing does he expect people to say when they hear this? “It’s not fair! Is there injustice in God?” (Rom. 9:14).

My question is: Why does he anticipate that objection? Well, there are two possible reasons.

He could be anticipating this objection because he may be thinking: “There may actually be some people reading this letter who are muddleheaded enough to be of an Augustinian persuasion and find in my words an Augustinian view of election. That would obviously be unjust, so all I have to do to keep that from ever happening is say: ‘Is there injustice in God? Obviously not!’” So much then for Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, Luther, and so on. Maybe that’s what he’s anticipating.

Or maybe Paul himself is Augustinian and he’s had experience teaching the doctrine of predestination where, every time the subject is mentioned, the initial response of people is, “That’s not fair!”

I have a sneaking suspicion that this is the reason the Apostle raises this rhetorical question. I want you to understand that nobody ever raises that question about the Arminian view. In fact, the Arminian view is designed in such a way that it isn’t a problem.

I take comfort in the fact that the same questions raised about my view of predestination are the ones the Apostle Paul had to deal with: “Is there unrighteousness in God?” Because on the surface, it sounds like it.

When you talk about a divine, sovereign choice before anybody has done good or evil, without a view to their future actions, strictly according to the sovereign purpose of God so that His purposes may be seen, of grace, not human works, then the obvious question we’re going to ask is: “Well how can that be fair?”

Paul says, “Is there unrighteousness in God?” Then he answers his own question with an emphatic “no”: “May it never be! For He says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy upon whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion upon whom I will have compassion’” (Rom. 9:14–15).

Mercy upon Whom He Will Have Mercy

Again, if I can speculate: If I were the Apostle, and if I were teaching a foreknowledge view of election and had these objections to deal with, what would I fall back on?

If I were going to pull the plug once and for all on any charge of God’s being unfair, I would say: “Wait a minute, God’s not unfair. God is not unjust because, even though this decision is made before anyone’s done any good or evil, it’s made with a view to their future choices. So, the bed you make is the bed you sleep in.” That would pull the plug forever.

But Paul doesn’t do that. Instead, he falls back on the divine prerogative to exercise mercy upon whom He will exercise mercy. The whole point of the passage is that some people receive a measure of mercy that others do not.

Again, no one receives injustice at the hands of God. Esau is not selected as an object of divine mercy, but that is not an injustice against Esau. It’s not an injustice because, even before he is born, Esau is known by God as a fallen person.

When God does His electing, He always does it in light of the fall. God only chooses fallen sinners for salvation. All of God’s choices about salvation presuppose the need for salvation; otherwise there would never be any such thing as election. It would be a waste of time for God to elect unto salvation people who don’t need salvation. So, the whole process of election is with a view to a fallen, lost human race.

When God considers the whole world, He knows that the whole world is fallen. And He knows that if He gave justice to a fallen race, everyone would perish. But God chooses to grant mercy to some—Jacob receives mercy; Esau receives justice.

Is there anything wrong with that? We say, “It’s not fair,” and what we mean by that is, “It’s not equal.” What lurks in our minds is this problem: If we have two men who are judged guilty and are under the sentence of death, and God is gracious to one, shouldn’t He also be gracious to the other one? Is it fair for the governor to grant executive clemency to one prisoner and not to the rest? It certainly isn’t equal. But one person receives grace; the other person receives justice. There is nothing about which he has any right to complain. There is nothing unjust about it.

A Blasphemous Charge

God reminds us, again and again, that it is His right to grant His mercy upon whom He will grant His mercy. If He grants mercy to one, He is not obligated to give it to the other.

If we think that God is ever obligated to be merciful, we’re not thinking about mercy anymore because mercy, by definition, is not obligated. Mercy is something that God does voluntarily. He’s not bound to do it. He doesn’t have to do it. He’s not required to do it. He does it out of the sheer goodness of His heart.

We can never say to a merciful God that He is not merciful enough. This is the thing that scares me. I hope you will never say to a merciful God, “God, you are not merciful enough.” It is blasphemous to charge God with not being merciful enough because that charge implies that there is sin in God. It implies that God has not done what He should have done and that He should have been more merciful.

Who are you to say to your Creator, by whose mercy you draw every breath that you breathe, that He has been lacking in mercy?

“For He says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion’” (Rom. 9:15).

Not upon the One Who Wills

Now for the coup de grace, the verse that I think should, in all honesty, end Arminianism forever: “So then, it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but upon God who shows mercy” (Rom. 9:16).

The Arminian view does not say that it depends all on man and not on God. The Arminian view says that without God’s mercy there would be no salvation, and that is true, but it also depends on our choice. It depends both on God’s grace and upon our choice so that we must exercise our wills apart from divine activity in order to be saved. Election depends upon human choices in the foreknowledge view. And Paul says, “No it doesn’t.”

How could he say it any more clearly? “This is not based upon the one who wills or upon the one who runs, but upon God (there is the dependency) who has mercy.”

Then he goes on to say: “For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘For this very purpose I raised you up, to demonstrate My power in you, that My name might be proclaimed throughout the whole earth.’ So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires” (Rom. 9:17­–18). That is a hard saying. Let’s take a look at that for a moment.

Holy Hatred

I mentioned earlier this problem of, “Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated” (Rom. 9:13). What does it mean that God “hates” Esau?

When we use the English term hate, we think of an attitude that comes from a posture of malice. In this sense, we are forbidden to hate people. We are called to love even our enemies (Matt. 5:44).

But is there any way the Bible uses the term hatred that does not carry that sinister connotation to it? Well, yes, there’s the hatred of sin, but remember David in the Old Testament when he says, “I hate my enemies with a perfect hatred” (Psalm 139:22)?

There is such a thing as a holy hatred. A hatred of wickedness, yes, but it is more than that. You know how we have that statement, “Hate the sin but not the sinner”? God doesn’t say here, “Jacob have I loved, Esau’s sin have I hated.” He says, “Jacob have I loved, Esau have I hated.”

In Romans 9:13 you have antithetical parallelism going on in a Hebrew mode. All “hatred” means in this passage is the absence of a special divine favor. God is giving a special divine favor, a gracious, loving action, to one which He withholds from the other. It does not mean that God has these terrible inward feelings of malice toward Esau. But God does withhold this particular divine favor from Esau. Jacob is given a gift that Esau does not receive. That’s all the Jew means by that.

This raises the question of whether or not predestination is double.

Two Views of Double Predestination

I’ve heard many people say, “I believe in predestination, but I can’t stand double predestination.”

There are two different views of double predestination that have been presented throughout church history and have been vying for acceptance.

Equal Ultimacy

The first is that view we call equal ultimacy. This is sometimes called the “symmetrical” view of predestination, meaning that predestination has two sides to it: election (salvation) and reprobation (damnation), and God works on both sides in a symmetrical way. In this view, God works in the life of Jacob and He works in the life of Esau.

We also speak in terms of what we call positive-positive decrees. The positive-positive schema looks like this: In the case of the elect, God so predestines certain people (like Jacob) to be saved that He ensures their salvation by unilaterally intruding into their lives and creating faith in their hearts. In the case of the reprobate, God also so predestines their damnation that He intrudes into their lives by creating evil or unbelief in their hearts. In this understanding, there is a positive action in the lives of both people—creating faith in the heart of one man and unbelief in the heart of the other. This is what we mean by the “symmetrical” view.

This view has been overwhelmingly rejected by Augustinians and Calvinists. It is not the Augustinian view. Some people call it “hyper-Calvinism.” I think it is a serious insult to John Calvin to call it “hyper-Calvinism.” It’s not hyper-Calvinism; it’s sub-Calvinism, or worse, anti-Calvinism. Hyper-Calvinism would mean “super-Calvinism.” Calvin would not appreciate that particular nomenclature.

The Augustinian View

The Augustinian view holds that predestination is certainly double because not everybody is saved. Some people are elect and some are not, so we have two sides of the coin and have to deal with both sides of the problem. However, the schema is positive-negative.

This means that, in the case of the elect, God does intrude into their lives and sovereignly create faith in their hearts. But in the case of the rest of mankind, He lets them to themselves. He does not come in and create evil or unbelief in their hearts, but rather He passes over them, letting them to themselves. God’s activity here is negative, or passive, rather than active.

Do you see the difference? In the case of the reprobate, the reprobate do what they want to do on their own steam. God is not creating fresh evil in their hearts. God is not coercing them to damnation. He is simply passing them over, leaving them to their own devices.

But the immediate question that comes up is: Why, then, does Paul say in Romans 9 that God gives mercy to some and others He hardens?

Pharaoh’s Hardened Heart

The classical example of God’s hardening is the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart in the Old Testament. That’s a difficult one, and I am running out of time, so I’ll try to do it quickly.

Even when we speak of hardening, we have to distinguish between active hardening and passive hardening, or what we would call direct hardening or indirect hardening.

There are two ways that God can harden the heart of Pharaoh. One is that He could come down, intrude into Pharaoh’s life, and actively create evil in the heart of Pharaoh. In order for God to accomplish His purposes He could make Pharaoh sin. But if He does that, then what? How could God, if He’s just and righteous, force Pharaoh to sin and then punish him for that sin? That would make God the author of sin, which is an absolute no-no, biblically.

There is another way Pharaoh could have his heart hardened. Remember that Pharaoh is a sinner, and all of us are sinners. But all of us have our sin, to some degree, checked and restrained by certain opposition around us that keeps us from being utterly depraved.

When men achieve levels of power such that they become outside the bounds of normal restraints, their ability to sin freely increases. The only thing keeping Pharaoh from being utterly wicked is the restraining power of God. It certainly wasn’t the government of Egypt that was keeping him in check. Only God’s restraints were keeping Pharaoh from being more wicked than he actually was.

If God wants to harden Pharaoh’s heart, does God have to create fresh evil there? All He has to do is remove His hands and give Pharaoh all the space he needs. That is how Pharaoh’s heart is passively hardened, which is itself a just act of divine judgment upon him.

The gospel does the same thing in the lives of the reprobate. The more that people hear the gospel and freely reject it, the more their hearts become hardened. In this drama, Pharaoh hardens his own heart. All God does is remove the restraints, so Pharaoh is responsible for the hardening of his heart.

So we see that, in this scheme, in the concept of election, all men are fallen, and all men are wicked. God gives mercy to some, as in the case of Jacob, and the others He leaves to themselves. They receive justice. The other group receives mercy so that God might be honored and that His purposes might stand.


This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.