So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.
(Romans 9:16 ESV)
Romans 9:16 is often cited by Calvinists to prove that who is saved is in no way connected with free will or any kind of “human effort.” The problem with this claim is that the wording of the translations that they appeal to is often doubtful, and the actual wording of the passage seems to indicate something different. Looking at the Greek wording, the passage doesn’t directly state anything about human will or exertion per se, but is talking about people who will and do. Notably, and perhaps even more important, there is also no word for “depends” in the verse, as is rendered in many translations. Several versions that render it with better word-for-word accuracy give us a better picture of what is being said:
” So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that hath mercy. “ [ASV]
“So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy.” [NKJV]
“So then [it is] not of him that wills, nor of him that runs, but of God that shews mercy.” [Darby]
“so, then — not of him who is willing, nor of him who is running, but of God who is doing kindness:…” [Young’s Literal]
Even the ESV (quoted above) qualifies itself with the footnote, “Greek not of him who wills or runs”.
Looking at the two renderings, “it does not depend upon man’s desire or effort” and “it is not of him who wills or runs,” they may appear to convey the same idea, but consider the exegetical implications:
By inserting the term “depend,” the former strongly implies that there is no connection between anything people do, and whether they obtain mercy or not. The latter, being more accurately translated as, “it is not of,” makes no such demand. It rather expresses that the mercy that is shown in the New Covenant flows from God, not from man (regardless of what he desires or does). The main difference in what is expressed by the two renderings is that the former conveys that nothing people do could be “selection criteria” for God showing His mercy, the latter simply tells us that people aren’t the ones who are showing the mercy -God is. Or even more concisely, the former apparently denies human cooperation in obtaining salvation, the latter only denies human origin of salvation.
The Meaning in Context
The context of Paul’s writing here is the issue of why many in Israel haven’t obtained the covenant mercy of God, while many Gentiles have. This would seem unfair to the Jews who desired Him and clung to the law. Against this, Paul makes the point that they who desire righteousness and keep the law aren’t the ones showing mercy -that is for God alone to grant. This point was addressed in the first post in this series,
At first glance, God choosing a heathen over a practicing Jew would seem to convey unjustness in God’s judgments. Here, a key point and theme of the passage is brought out: divine prerogative. That is to say, God’s blessing is His to give to whom He will in His Holy purpose. No one can claim it by accident of birth or merit of deeds. In answer, Paul asserts God’s right to show His covenant mercy to whom He wishes. It doesn’t matter what men want or do, who and how God chooses is His prerogative, no one else’s.
Since none of us merits His blessing, then none can rightfully lay claim to His favor or obligate Him to extend His covenant mercy. Man cannot ‘elect himself;’ just as in the case of His choice of Isaac over Ishmael and Jacob over Esau, it is God’s prerogative to decide to whom the promise goes.
I’ll stress again that God having the prerogative to show His mercy to whoever He wishes doesn’t imply that He chooses unconditionally. While by no means precluding the idea, the thrust of the passage in question (according to more accurate renderings) apparently being salvation’s origin (rather than its non-criteria), Romans 9:16 doesn’t serve as viable evidence for Calvinism’s doctrine of unconditional election.
Reliance upon doubtfully inserted terms in garnering scriptural support is nothing new. I recall arguing over the meaning of Hebrews 6:4-6 with an eternal security proponent some time back: I’ve heard several good arguments against that text not implying apostasy of a true believer, but this particular gentleman built his entire case around the presence of the word “if” in the passage. Imagine his shock when it was pointed out that the Greek wording of verse 6 doesn’t even contain an “if,” and that other translations now give the participle form of apostasy an apparently more accurate rendering (“have fallen away” rather than “if they fall away”). When building a case from a passage, it’s best to ensure that appeals to the wording reference actual words in the original text, and don’t rely upon version-specific translation choices or insertions. In the same way, while the wording “it depends not on human will or exertion” makes a strong-sounding polemic for unconditional election, that exact wording is very doubtful, and the more textually-reliable rendering doesn’t give anything approaching iron-clad support for it.
Romans 9:16 provides strong evidence for God’s prerogative of showing mercy to whom He wishes, but doesn’t lend such support to the idea that He lavishes His mercy on a strictly unconditional basis.