A passage of scripture such as this can be difficult to understand and reconcile in your heart unless you look at scripture as a whole. It is important to understand God's nature and man's free will in relation to a statement such as this. In the context of Romans 9, Paul is teaching that just because Israel was the natural descendants of the covenant made with Abraham, it did not automatically include them in the promise. The offspring of the promise came through faith in Jesus. Mankind is faced with a choice, to believe in this message and be saved or to reject it and be condemned. God has elected those who have chosen him based upon his foreknowledge of their choice ( Romans 9:11 ). But in the same way, his power and mercy will be displayed in those who reject him as well ( Romans 9:23 ). Because in His foreknowledge He knows the end from the beginning and works to bring His plan to fulfillment and to display his power.
Paul uses the example of Pharaoh in today's passage. God's mighty power was displayed over and over while he brought the Israelites out of captivity in Egypt. Over the centuries, people still recount the events that took place in during this time. At the time of Pharaoh, everyone knew that the God of Moses was the only true God because of the incredible display of power. The scriptures say that God raised up Pharaoh for the very purpose of displaying His incredible power and making His name great ( Exodus 9:16 ). In today's passage Paul tells us that God hardens the hearts of those he wants to make his name great, which is exactly what happened to Pharaoh ( Romans 9:18 ). However, it is important to understand that in this whole process Pharaoh had amble opportunities to repent and let God's people go. He saw the countless displays of God's power and instead of softening his heart towards God, he hardened it. He had free will in the matter but he chose not to respond to God. After a certain point, he was past the point where he could even respond to God and therefore God harden his heart so maximum power could be displayed in what he did. It is important to understand it all started with Pharaohs choice to disregard God and not God's choice to harden Pharaoh's heart.
God is able to bring good out of evil. In our own time God used the atrocities of Hitler to bring the nation of Israel back into possession of their promised land. Hitler was faced with a choice the same as Pharaoh, but it is evident in his tyrannical reign that he chose to reject God and hardened his heart towards him. He walked further and further away from God's mercy and because of his choice to reject God and walk in such evil, God used his choices in life to display his power in the end and bring about good from it. God did not cause Hitler to massacre the Jews, nor was it His will to do so. But God's power was evident in the outcome of the horrible event by them coming into possession of their land. God could have brought the Israelites back to the land in thousands of ways but in is infinite power he was able to work through an agent of the devil to accomplish his will and ultimate plan, even though Hitler had free will in the matter.
Hitler has a choice same as Pharaoh. You have a choice as well. God has sent the Holy Spirit into the world to call and bring people unto himself. He starts from a very early age, speaking grace to us and softening our hearts towards God. Then when we hear the gospel message proclaimed we either respond to it and accept this good news or we reject it and walk away from it. Our choices in life dictate the outcome, God will not overrule your free will. We have many opportunities in this life to come to him, the Holy Spirit will convict and draw you to God. However, the more times you reject him, the harder your hearts become towards him. When this happens, there is a point where the Holy Spirit stops calling. This is called being reprobate. The only way you get in this position is by choice, by free will. This is why Paul said in Hebrews, "Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts..." ( Hebrews 3:15 ). Don't let your heart get hard towards God, soften it before him so that you can accept this gospel message.
In yesterday's verse, Paul said, "It does not, therefore, depend on man's desire or effort, but on God's mercy" ( Romans 9:16 ). God is merciful towards you. He loves you and His desire is that you will come to him. Today, if you have never made responded to His call, do not harden your heart but accept with gladness the gospel message which has the power to save you. Today, I rejoice in the fact that I am saved. God's power will be displayed in my life because I am His child and my will is His own. Today, may the Lord bring you revelation of this important truth, amen!