John Piper, R.C. Sproul, and the Death Knell of Arminianism

According to John Piper, as well as R.C. Sproul,1 Romans 9:16 is the "death knell" of Arminianism, which I discovered from reading Roy Ingle's past post, "Romans 9:16," a comment from these two Calvinist scholars that I found both a bit comical and rather sophomoric. For Drs. Piper and Sproul to suggest that this one passage is the undoing of Arminianism is about as naïve and anti-academic as can be. If Romans 9:16 were, in fact, the death knell of Arminianism, or non-Calvinistic theology, then the early Church would have died a quick theological death from its inception, since the theology of the early Church is Arminian in nature, even if anachronistically considered.2

Both Piper and Sproul's Calvinistic interpretation is easy enough to understand: Calvinists believe that God can decree or perform any act, no matter how seemingly arbitrary or evil from our perspective, and that such does not call into question His holiness, integrity, or character. They quote verses such as Psalm 115:3 and Romans 9:16 and assume that the authors of holy Scripture mean to indicate their own sentiments regarding the nature of God -- He can do, literally, any act He wishes. When their interpretations are questioned by their detractors, they quote Romans 9:20, as though the issue is then settled. Never mind that context will not warrant such interpolations. Let us look carefully at Romans 9:16 contextually.

The God of Israel entrusted to His Jewish people -- who are the primary contextual referents in the chapter -- the right of spiritual adoption, His glory, His covenants, the giving of the Law, the temple worship and His promises (Rom. 9:4); to them belong "the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah" (Rom. 9:5). Just because many ethnic Jews rejected that Messiah does not render God's word of promise null and void (Rom. 9:6). Why? First, because some Jews are trusting in Jesus, and thus God's word of promise is remaining faithful to them; and second, because what makes people spiritually Jewish -- children of promise, redeemed children of God -- is not ethnicity but personal faith in Christ (Rom. 9:7, 8).

This truth is illustrated in the historical and spiritual lives of four descendants of Abraham: Ishmael and Esau, who represent children of the flesh, and who are not counted children of God (Rom. 9:9, 12); and Isaac and Jacob, who represent children of the promise, and who are counted children of God by grace through faith in Christ (Rom. 9:9, 11, 12). Thus the apostle continues:
What then are we to say? Is there injustice on God's part? By no means! For he says to Moses, "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion." So it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy. For the scripture says to Pharaoh, "I have raised you up for the very purpose of showing my power in you, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth." So then he has mercy on whomever he chooses, and he hardens the heart of whomever he chooses. (Rom. 9:14-18 NRSV, emphasis added)
The apostle assumes an argument from the truth of God which proclaims His love and choice of Jacob (even Israel, cf. Ps. 14:7; Mal. 1:2, 3; 2:12; 3:6) over Esau (or other nations) -- a choice involving Jacob to being in the Messianic line, and Israel as being the covenanted people (Rom. 9:4) through whom the Messiah was born (Rom. 9:5). Does this demonstrate injustice on the part of God? "By no means." (Rom. 9:14) How could it, since God is obliged to no one in structuring the frame of bringing His Christ into the world for the redemption of humanity. He owes no one any favor. He will very rightly have mercy and compassion on whom He chooses. Dr. Robert Picirilli notes:
The discussion . . . about sovereignty [confesses] God is not obligated to anything except His own character. But He is obligated to His own character. And His very character is righteousness. We know then even before we start that God has not acted unrighteously in anything He has ever done. So, whether we can figure out exactly why He chose Isaac over Ishmael and Jacob over Esau [to be in the Messianic line, not for personal salvation], we are already sure He acted right in doing so. We are already positive God has acted righteously and justly in rejecting Israel.3 (emphasis added)
I added the phrase "to be in the Messianic line" in brackets in the above quote to underscore the truth we know about the nature of God's election from Scripture: Isaac and Jacob were elected to receive the right of the firstborn, even though Ishmael and Esau were, technically, the firstborn and deserved that right. But God had a different plan.

Ishmael was not the child promised by the LORD to Sarah and Abraham; he illustrates the children of the flesh, those who imagine that God's blessings are entitled to ethnic Jews. The same is confessed of Esau. Isaac was the child of the promise, who represents the children of the promise, those who know that God's blessings are graciously granted to those who will trust in Christ. The same is confessed of Jacob.

Paul references God's words to Moses by way of explanation. When Moses' people had sinned while he was on the mountain, spending forty days and nights with the LORD, he pleaded with God to be merciful to them -- even to blot out his own name from His book as a substitutionary sacrifice. (Exodus 32:12-16, 32, 33) God's answer, given at Exodus 32:17-19, concludes with God noting His sovereign privilege to bestow mercy and compassion upon whomsoever He should choose. We would do well to remember that God owes no one mercy or grace or compassion. We would also do well to remember God's statement to Moses about personal responsibility: "Whoever has sinned against me I will blot out of my book." (Exodus 32:33) Thus God does not behave arbitrarily with His creatures, secretly decreeing that any disobey Him, in order to harden their hearts.

For Paul's context in Romans 9, the question his readers wondered was whether God was being unjust in rejecting ethnic Israel from His covenantal promises. The answer is twofold: not all Israel is true Israel (Rom. 9:6), and God, who alone is wholly just, reserves the right to distribute mercy and compassion (Rom. 9:15). Dr. Picirilli explains: "In other words, He wanted it clearly established that neither Moses nor Israel had any special claims on Him that took away His sovereign right to act as He chose. Nor will He show mercy to all of them, just because they were Israelites in the flesh. That is never the basis of His dealing with men. ..."4 Dr. Brian Abasciano comments:
First, Paul's use of the Old Testament in Rom. 9:1-9 urges us to take 9:15 as a statement of God's merciful character and freedom to determine the basis on which he bestows his mercy, and therefore, who will receive it. Moreover, his mercy in this intertextual context again has to do with covenant and election. In Exodus, God speaks in relation to the question of whether he will again acknowledge Israel as his covenant people. Thus, Paul is again defending God's right to choose whom he will as his covenant people generally and his righteousness in electing the Church specifically.5
From a cursory reading of Paul's letters we can note that he thought in terms of covenant and a corporate people -- a corporate people made up of specific individuals (i.e., those who place faith in Christ), certainly, but a corporate people nonetheless.6 While an individual personally abides within the covenant of God, by grace through faith in Christ, that individual is also part of a covenantal and corporate people. God elected Israel as a nation to be His people by covenant; yet not each individual Jewish person was counted righteous in His sight and considered a child of the promise. Hence God's mercy and grace extend not to a person who imagines oneself included in an "elect group," nor even an "unconditionally elect group," as many Jewish people supposed. No one is counted righteous by proxy.

"So," the apostle concludes, "it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy." (Rom. 9:16) To what does "it" refer? Should one infer that "it" points implicitly to personal, individual salvation and ultimate, eschatological redemption, by means of an unconditional election conscripted by decree before the world was made, he or she would have to contextually demonstrate the origin of that conclusion from Romans 9:1-15.

The context of Romans 9 is introduced in the first five verses and primarily regards ethnic Israel. (Rom. 9:1-5) This is expounded upon in the next eight verses regarding spiritual Israel and ethnic Israel. (Rom. 9:6-13) At no place in the first thirteen verses is Paul referring to individual, unconditional election resulting in personal salvation and ultimate, eschatological redemption. Why, then, should we hold that here at verse 16 Paul is referring even implicitly to personal salvation and redemption based upon an unconditional election?

Paul's "it" refers to the aforementioned mercy and compassion of Romans 9:15. God's mercy and compassion belong to Him alone and cannot be manipulated or demanded by human will or exertion. He owes no one mercy and compassion; He gives mercy and compassion to no one based on his or her willing it; He gives mercy and compassion to no one based on his or her efforts or personal merit (they have no merit). In the same way that God saves us by grace through faith in Christ, and not by works nor by merit, so He also grants mercy and compassion because He willingly and freely chooses to do so by grace in and through faith in Christ.

By way of illustration, Paul uses the historical event of Pharaoh, over whose rule God remained sovereign: "For the scripture says to Pharaoh, 'I have raised you up for the very purpose of showing my power in you, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth.'" (Rom. 9:17) In Pharaoh we find not an open and neutral heart to the ways of the sovereign Creator God of Israel, but a man who had been primed for this sovereign position of rule over Egypt since he was a child. Pharaoh was entitled to this position, and he maintained that sense of entitlement; he inherited it from his father, he from his father, and so on.

How much effort would God have had to exude in hardening Pharaoh's heart? The condition of Pharaoh's heart was already at a negative place spiritually. Though God confessed He was going to harden Pharaoh's heart (Exodus 4:21; 7:3), Pharaoh also hardened his own heart against the LORD (Exodus 7:13, 14, 22; 8:15, 19, 32; 9:7, 34) -- an act foreknown by God, in that He foreknew that Pharaoh would harden his own heart as well (Exodus 3:19, 20).

Was God unjust in the times He hardened Pharaoh's heart (Exodus 9:34; 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10; 14:4, 8, 17)? No, as this is what is referred to as a judicial hardening. Even with reference to the partially-hardened heart of Israel, or the hardened heart of part of Israel (Rom. 11:25), this hardened condition is judicial and conditioned on unbelief (Rom. 11:20, 22). "And even those of Israel, if they do not persist in unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again." (Rom. 11:23)

Yet, the text of Romans 9:17 itself does not mention God's hardening of Pharaoh's heart; such is inferred when coupled with the next verse (Rom. 9:18). What is explicitly mentioned at Rom. 9:17 is God's raising Pharaoh to his exalted, sovereign position over Egypt in order to demonstrate His power and for the proclamation of His name. Again, Dr. Picirilli adds:
God was as much saying to Pharaoh: I am in control of these events. My purpose is being fulfilled. My sovereign power is behind all that is going on. Your stubborn resistance will not thwart My will. In fact, your resistance itself is in accord with My will, because this contest allows Me to give an even more impressive display of My power. God's sovereign control over earth's events was in no way threatened by Pharaoh's puny resistance.7
"So then," concludes Paul, "he has mercy on whomever he chooses, and he hardens the heart of whomever he chooses." (Rom. 9:18) Because God is just, we must not think that His bestowal of mercy or of a hardened state is delivered arbitrarily. He brings about His own purposes according to His holy and just character commensurate with His sovereign plan and will. People receive either mercy or justice from the God of Israel -- mercy and grace as found in Christ, and justice for all who spurn the grace of God in Christ Jesus His Son. Yet, no one receives injustice.

"For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all." (Rom. 11:32) If the first "all" refers to every single individual without qualification then so does the latter "all." God displays His mercy in the giving of His Son Jesus Christ as the only Savior for humanity; and all who will trust in Him shall be called children of the promise, true descendants of Abraham, and children of God. Romans 9:16 is any notion other than the death knell of Arminianism -- and to suggest otherwise is poor scholarship indeed.


1 R.C. Sproul, Chosen by God: Knowing God's Perfect Plan for His Glory and His Children (Carol Streams: Tyndale, 1986), 151.

2 Kenneth D. Keathley, "The Work of God: Salvation," in A Theology for the Church, ed. Daniel L. Akin (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2007), 703.

3 Robert E. Picirilli, The Book of Romans (Nashville: Randall House Publications, 1975), 182.

4 Ibid., 183.

5 Brian J. Abasciano, Paul's Use of the Old Testament in Romans 9:1-9: An Intertextual and Theological Exegesis (New York: T&T Clark International, 2005), 223.

6 Dr. Abasciano writes: "Paul is best taken as a covenant theologian, which means that the theological concept of covenant is foundational to his theology, coloring and directing much of his thought. Indeed, the covenantal contours of Paul's theology actually bring together the forensic and participationist aspects of his thought. For participation in Christ is by faith and equivalent to participation in the covenant while justification by faith results in God's declaration/calling of the covenant status of those who believe in Christ." (219)

7 Picirilli, 183.


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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.