Free Will, Calvinism, & Romans 9



(The FreeThinking Theist)


February 9, 2015

I believe Romans 9 is one of the most misinterpreted and improperly understood passages in the entire Bible. It is due to this misinterpretation that many Christians jump to the conclusion that humans do not possess libertarian free will. However, when compared to the rest of Paul’s writings (even in the rest of Romans) the Calvinistic/deterministic interpretation of this passage cannot be correct (this is an example of bad hermeneutics)! Let me explain:

It is quite possible that Paul is not teaching about individual salvation, but rather, corporate salvation. According to the theologian, Craig Blomberg Ph.D., in Romans 9, Paul proceeds to highlight how only a remnant of Abraham’s seed, chosen by grace, reflected the true people of God throughout Old Testament times (verses 6-29, especially 27-29). During this period, as he contrasts Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob, and Esau (6-13), he is probably not talking about election to eternal salvation or damnation but about the way God’s plan for human history would work itself out in this life. After all, Esau’s reconciliation with Jacob (Genesis 33) suggests that Esau ended his life right with God. But his seed was still not part of the chosen (corporate) nation of Israel. We may speak of this as corporate (not individual) temporal election.[1]

Free Will & Biblical Support

Now, one is free to disagree with Blomberg, but his interpretation is at least possibly correct. With that said, it seems to me that when we compare the rest of Paul’s writings (including the rest of Romans), we see that not only does the Bible affirm God’s sovereignty, but also fully affirms human libertarian free will and genuine responsibility. Consider Romans 1:28-32:

“And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God [they could have but chose not to], God gave them up to a debased mind to do what *ought* not be done…. Though they know God’s decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only [freely choose] do them but give approval to those who practice them.”

Consider the vital word, “ought” in the above passage. Ought implies can and “can” implies a genuine ability to do or choose otherwise. This is otherwise known as libertarian free will.

With this in mind, it logically follows that the unsaved could have acknowledged God, but they chose not to. Therefore, God gave them the freedom to choose to live an evil lifestyle and divorce themselves from God. This is in reference to homosexual acts in verse 1:26-27. Rewind to 1:25 and one can see that this verse implies that the unsaved did, in fact, have the truth, and they chose to “exchange the truth of God for a lie.” This is the epitome of idolatry!

Other Bible passages affirm this human libertarian free will as well. In 1st Corinthians 7:9, Paul states, “If they cannot exercise self-control…” The context of this verse is referring to sexual immorality and Paul, utilizing the word, “if” (i.e., it is possible to exercise self-control), implies that we have the freedom to choose to act on our physical desires or not! We can take two things from this verse:

1- Humans possess libertarian free will and are responsible for making genuine choices.

2- Even if one is “born that way,” they’re not forced to “act that way.”

Speaking of choices, consider Deuteronomy 30:11-19. Kirk MacGregor has explained that most of the Israelites seemed to be unregenerate yet they were all commanded “to love Yahweh your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees, and laws.” Then God made it clear: “Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach….it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it….This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live” (emphasis added).

This text sure seems to affirm that even the unregenerate have the ability to choose spiritual life or death and that requires freedom of the libertarian variety.

With this in mind, also consider Joshua 24:15 (NIV): “But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve…”

Moreover, Paul makes his position regarding libertarian freedom clear in 1 Corinthians 10:13. He states, “God is faithful and will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”

Accordingly, whenever one does sin, they did not have to as there was a genuine ability to do otherwise (“a way of escape”) available for them to choose. This is exactly what libertarian free will is! Therefore, when someone freely chooses to sin it follows that they are genuinely responsible for it, not God.

Common Rebuttals

Some Calvinists have attempted to escape this defeater by objecting that these passages in 1 Corinthians are only addressed to “regenerate Christians.” They argue that Paul teaches that only the elect have free will. There are at least two major problems with this:

First, this leads to the conclusion that ONLY Christians can freely choose to sin, yet it is the unconditionally hated (with no choice in the matter) who are tortured relentlessly in the fires of hell for all eternity. It follows that the unregenerate are not responsible for the sins in this world. Accordingly, it is ultimately God who is the author of the evil deeds of the damned, and Christians are directly responsible for the rest of the evil in the world (no wonder atheists find this hard to believe).

Second, they fail to consider the cumulative case of Paul’s writings, including the scriptures I referenced above in Romans 1, which are addressing the free will of the damned and not of Christians. When considering all of the Biblical data in proper context, Paul seems to believe all humans (Christian or otherwise) possess a genuine ability to to otherwise. This is only possible if all humans possess libertarian free will.

Other Calvinists have tried to escape this problem by stating that humans have libertarian free will in all things EXCEPT when it comes to their salvation. There are several problems with this too. First, this response is ad-hoc. That is to say, it seems like a special explanation specifically for this situation so that they can save Calvinism. Second, it commits the “Taxi-Cab Fallacy.” This logical error occurs when one hops in the “taxi-cab” and assumes a certain worldview attempting to make a particular point but then jumps out of the system of thought when it goes against a certain presupposition they are committed to.

Atheists commit the taxi-cab fallacy quite often as they often admit that all things have an explanation of their existence — all things, that is, EXCEPT the universe! That is the one thing that cannot have an explanation of its existence because if it did, that explanation would have to be God.[2] Since the atheist is committed to his presupposition of the nonexistence of God, he commits the taxi-cab fallacy and states that all things have an explanation, except the one thing that would disprove their worldview. To my Calvinist friends, I say let the atheists be the illogical ones; as Christians, if we are committed to truth, we ought to be the most logical people on the planet!

There is a third problem with this ad hoc, taxi-cab fallaciousness too; it also goes against what what the Bible teaches. In fact, it goes against what Paul himself writes in the book of Romans. Paul says:

“For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse” (Romans 1:20).

Why is an atheist guilty of their non-belief? Because God has made His existence clear to all people from the beginning. They had the ability to believe otherwise, and that is why they are “without excuse.” If one could not believe something they simply did not have an ability to believe in the first place, then they do have a great excuse.

Connecting Logical & Theological Dots

All of this to say that as Christians we must affirm, as the Bible does, both God’s complete sovereignty and libertarian human freedom and responsibility. The philosophy of Calvinism (if consistent with other essential Christian doctrine) cannot do this and is therefore unbiblical. I think Molinism (the doctrine of God’s middle knowledge) connects the logical and theological dots completely to create a beautiful and perfect picture of how a sovereign God interacts with free and responsible creatures to ensure his perfect plan.

We must remember that God can create a world in which he knows with omniscient certainty how those in this world could, would, and will freely choose with no causal strings attached. As Paul says, God knows these things “before the foundations of the world” (Ephesians 1:4). Therefore, actualizing this world (he could have created another world or none at all) guaranteed, elected, and predestined all that will happen in it; including the choices of FREE, and therefore, responsible creatures!

This is also why the concept of hell makes logical sense. If we were not really responsible for choosing to “exchange the truth of God for a lie,” then the existence of the eternal Holocaust of Hell – separating sinners from God’s presence for choices they are powerless to make – would seem to make God into a moral monster, rather than the Maximally Great Being who is worthy of worship!

Bottom line: Molinism and Calvinism are both philosophies regarding certain interpretations of the Bible. I have examined scriptural data demonstrating that humans do possess a genuine ability to do otherwise and are free and responsible agents. Therefore, the philosophy of Calvinism or any deterministic view fails and is ultimately unbiblical (not to mention illogical). Molinism is the inference to the best explanation of all the biblical data.

Stay reasonable (Philippians 4:5),

Tim Stratton 


[1] Dr. Craig L. Blomberg, New Testament Survey: Epistles and Revelation, Institute of Theological Studies

[2] Read more on the Leibnizian Cosmological Argument for God’s existence here:

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About the Author



(The FreeThinking Theist)

Timothy A. Stratton (PhD, North-West University) is a professor at Trinity College of the Bible and Theological Seminary. As a former youth pastor, he is now devoted to answering deep theological and philosophical questions he first encountered from inquisitive teens in his church youth group. Stratton is founder and president of FreeThinking Ministries, a web-based apologetics ministry. Stratton speaks on church and college campuses around the country and offers regular videos on FreeThinking Ministries’ YouTube channel.

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