This is not an insignificant question. Calvinists believe in salvation, creation, and predestination in such a way that “God is in control,” complete control. So much control that we human beings have no free will.
Here is the classical controversial excerpt, Romans 9:14-24
What then are we to say? Is there injustice on the part of God? Of course not! For he says to Moses: “I will show mercy to whom I will, I will take pity on whom I will.” So it depends not upon a person’s will or exertion, but upon God, who shows mercy. For the scripture says to Pharaoh, “This is why I have raised you up, to show my power through you that my name may be proclaimed throughout the earth.” Consequently, he has mercy upon whom he wills, and he hardens whom he wills. You will say to me then, “Why (then) does he still find fault? For who can oppose his will?” But who indeed are you, a human being, to talk back to God? Will what is made say to its maker,”Why have you created me so?” Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for a noble purpose and another for an ignoble one? What if God, wishing to show his wrath and make known his power, has endured with much patience the vessels of wrath made for destruction? This was to make known the riches of his glory to the vessels of mercy, which he has prepared previously for glory, namely, us whom he has called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles.
How are we to reconcile this passage with the notion of free will? It can be done 2 ways:
- Directly understand the Romans passage itself more carefully and within context
- Provide different verses to oppose this false interpretation against free will and thus show that the Bible assumes the free will of human beings
#1 Does Romans 9 really deny free will?
Protestant apologist James Hardwick (ironically arguing like a Catholic) insisted that we have to read the passage within the Hebrew context:
“What this boils down to is that Paul presents us with a paradox in Romans 9, one which he, as a Hebrew, saw no need to explain. ‘..[T]he Hebrew mind could handle this dynamic tension of the language of paradox’ and saw no need to unravel it as we do. And that means that we are not obliged to simply accept Romans 9 at ‘face value’ as it were, because it is a problem offered with a solution that we are left to think out for ourselves. There will be nothing illicit about inserting concepts like primary causality, otherwise unknown in the text…. The rabbis after the NT explicated the paradox a bit further. They did not conclude, however – as is the inclination in the Calvinist camp – that ‘a totally unalterable future lay ahead, for such a view contradicted God’s omnipotence and mercy.’ They also argued that ‘unless God’s proposed destiny for man is subject to alteration, prayer to God to institute such alteration’ is nonsensical. Of course the rabbis were not inspired in their teachings. Yet their views cannot be simply discarded with a grain of salt, as they are much closer to the vein than either Calvin or Arminius, by over a millennium and by an ocean of thought…. In this case, taking the negatives in Rom. 9:16 creates a clear contradiction between 9:16 and later passages in Rom. 9, as I show. Calvinists of course solve this dilemma by calling anyone who asks the question heathens and saying they need to give glory to God.”
Here is a VERY persuasive insight by Theodoret of Cyr:
“Those who are called vessels for menial use have chosen this path for themselves . . . This is clear from what Paul says to timothy: ‘If anyone purifies himself from what is ignoble, then he will be a vessel for noble use, consecrated and useful to the master of the house, ready for any good work.’ ” He is refering to 2 Tim 20-21. Paul uses the same vessel terminology, but it is quite clear that free will and human responsibility is involved!
Church Father St. John Chrysotom:
“Paul says this in order not to do away with free will but rather to show to what extent we ought to obey God. We should be as little inclined to call god to account as a piece of clay is…. God does nothing at random or by mere chance, even if you do not understand the secrets of his wisdom [i.e. reasonableness, rationality]. You allow the potter to make different things from the same lump of clay and find no fault with him, but you do not grant the same freedom to God! . . . How monstrous this is. It is not on the potter that the honor or dishonor of the vessel depends but rather on those who make use of it. it is the same way with people – it all depends on their own free choice.”
Methodist commentator Adam Clarke points out that Paul is harkening back to Jeremiah 18:
“. . . Verse 21. Hath not the potter power over the clay] The apostle continues his answer to the Jew. Hath not God shown, by the parable of the potter, Jer. xviii. 1, &c., that he may justly dispose of nations, and of the Jews in particular, according as he in his infinite wisdom may judge most right and fitting; even as the potter has a right, out of the same lump of clay, to make one vessel to a more honourable and another to a less honourable use, as his own judgment and skill may direct; for no potter will take pains to make a vessel merely that he may show that he has power to dash it to pieces? [Quotes Jer 18:1-10] The reference to this parable shows most positively that the apostle is speaking of men, not individually, but nationally; and it is strange that men should have given his words any other application with this scripture before their eyes.”
Here are some more Scripture verses regarding the metaphor of the vessel:
Proverbs 26: 23-24
“Like an earthen vessel overlaid with silver dross
Are burning lips and a wicked heart.
He who hates disguises it with his lips,
But he lays up deceit in his heart.”
Notice that the individual vessel creates the wickedness in his heart.
“Just so will I break this people and this city, even as one breaks a potter’s vessel, which cannot again be repaired….”
As Clarke point out with Jer 18, God uses the metaphor of the vessel to talk of the destiny of nations and peoples, not individual destinies.
“Israel is swallowed up;They are now among the nations Like a vessel in which no one delights.”
Again, the vessel is the NATION of Israel.
“For this is the will of God, your sanctification; that is, that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each of you know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor, not in lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God….”
Looks like Paul echoes his remarks in 2 Timothy: we sanctify and honor the vessels that we are, at least partially, by our own free acts (or non-acts, abstentions). Free will is what it means to be in possession of one’s “own vessel.”
Clarke continues with what it means for God to harden hearts and whether He doomed the Jews to damnation:
“Pharaoh and the Egyptians were vessels of wrath-persons deeply guilty before God; and by their obstinate refusal of his grace, and abuse of his goodness, they had fitted themselves for that destruction which the wrath, the vindictive justice of God, inflicted, after he had endured their obstinate rebellion with much long-suffering; which is a most absolute proof that the hardening of their hearts, and their ultimate punishment, were the consequences of their obstinate refusal of his grace and abuse of his goodness; as the history in Exodus sufficiently shows. As the Jews of the apostle’s time had sinned after the similitude of the Egyptians, hardening their hearts and abusing his goodness, after every display of his long-suffering kindness, being now fitted for destruction, they were ripe for punishment; and that power, which God was making known for their salvation, having been so long and so much abused and provoked, was now about to show itself in their destruction as a nation. But even in this case there is not a word of their final damnation; much less that either they or any others were, by a sovereign decree, reprobated from all eternity; and that their very sins, the proximate cause of their punishment, were the necessary effect of that decree which had from all eternity doomed them to endless torments. As such a doctrine could never come from God, so it never can be found in the words of his apostle.”
It is worth noting that Scripture explicitly says that Pharaoh hardened his own heart himself: Ex 8:15, 8:32, 9:34; 1 Sam 6:6. Plus there are explicit warnings in the Bible not to harden your own heart: Deut 15:7; Ps 95:8; Heb 3:8,15; 4:7.
#2 What does the rest of the Bible say?
Before trying to see what the rest of the Bible says in general, it would be advisable to see what the rest of the book of Romans says! Surely, Paul could not have contradicted himself within the very same book.
Romans 1:18-32 through to 2:8: the famous passage about judgment, clearly highlights the fact that men are at fault for their sin. God’s “wrath” (1:18 ) only comes after the rebellion and sin. So God “gave them up” (1:24,26,28; cf. Heb 3:8,12-13,15; 4:7). God is not to blame for the sins of men (as one would be forced to conclude by denying free will, for blame cannot be assigned to one who is not free to choose between good and evil).
A BibleGateway search of “free will” turns up two entries:
Philemon 1:14 “…but without your consent I did not want to do anything, so that your goodness would not be, in effect, by compulsion but of your own free will.”
There you go! Free will must be real! Paul in the Bible says so. He extols the greater value of good works freely done.
Ezra 7:13 “I make a decree, that all they of the people of Israel, and their priests and the Levites, in my realm, that are minded of their own free will to go to Jerusalem, go with thee.”
Another search engine turned up 72 instances of “free-will,” almost all of them regarding “freewill-offerings” in the Old Testament.
From the so-called Apocrypha (which Luther arbitrarily and with no authority removed from the Bible):
“Say not, It is through the Lord that I fell away; for you ought not to do the things that He hates: nor say, He has caused me to err; for He has no need of the sinful man. The Lord hates all abomination, and they that fear God love it not. He Himself made man from the beginning, and left him in the hand of His counsel. If you be willing, you shall keep His commandments, and perform true fidelity. He has set fire and water before you: stretch forth your hand unto whether you will. Before man is life and death, and whichsoever pleases him shall be given to him” (Sirach 15:11-17).
Again, explicit reference to free choice. Even if a Protestant refuses to accept it as inspired (though the Jews of that time, including the Apostles, thought it was), it is at least an historical example of Jewish belief in free will. This passage is quoted by St. Augustine in his On Grace and Free Will.
Paul claims that others have free wills:
“If anyone thinks he is behaving improperly toward his virgin, and if a critical moment has come and so it has to be, let him do as he wishes. He is committing no sin; let them get married. The one who stands firm in his resolve, however, who is not under compulsion but has power over his own will, and has made up his mind to keep his virgin, will be doing well” (1 Cor 7:36-37).
“And I am giving counsel in this matter, for it is appropriate for you who began not only to act but to act willingly last year: complete it now, so that your eager willingness may be matched by your completion of it out of what you have” (2 Cor 8:10-11).
“All that will to live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution…” (2 Tim 3:12).
“Slaves, be obedient to your human masters with fear and trembling, in sincerity of heart, as to Christ, not only when being watched, as currying favor, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, willingly serving the Lord and not human beings” (Eph 6:5-7).
St. Peter believes we have free will:
“…shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God….” (1 Pet 5:2)
Jesus, who was truly man, had free will:
“Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done” (Lk 22:42).
“For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me” (Jn 6:38).
“Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!” (Jn 21:22)