Who in the Body of Christ is not familiar with the debate over Romans 9? What disciple has not asked themselves, “Could I have rejected God’s offer of salvation, or did God predestine my salvation and make sure I accepted it?” Since the doctrines of Calvinism are hotly debated up until the present day, and the disciple is familiar with some of its arguments, it is hard not to read this modern debate into the Bible’s teaching in Romans chapter 9. The disciple sees his own reflection in the text. If Paul is not defending Calvinism, what is he talking about? That is what we will survey in this post.
Who was Paul arguing with? To whom does Paul say, “Who are you, O man”? Who is this “man”? To answer this we need to jump over to Romans chapter 2, verse 1, “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges.” The context shows us that Paul is rebuking the Jews for being just as guilty as the Gentiles. So in Romans 2:17 he says, “But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast in God….” He concludes this argument in Romans 3:9 by saying, “What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin.” In Romans 9 Paul once again has a hypothetical debate with this “Man.”
After expressing his desire for the salvation of the Jewish people in verses 1-5, in verses 6-7 he says, “But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring.” This is the same argument he made in Romans 2:28-29, “For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter.”
If the beginning of Romans 9 is not enough to convince us that Paul is arguing with the Jews about some objection they have against God’s way of salvation, then let’s look at the end of the chapter. Once again Paul sums up his argument, “What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, a righteousness that is by faith; but that Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works” (Rom. 9:30-32) Paul sums up Romans 9 by explaining that the Jews had not yet been saved in large numbers because as a nation they were seeking to be righteous through the Law of Moses instead of through faith in Christ.
This gives us the context of the chapter. It has nothing to do with God “unconditionally” choosing anyone. Instead, Paul is defending God’s sovereign right to choose the “conditions” of salvation. The Jews believed that their ancestry from Abraham guaranteed them a place in God’s kingdom and salvation. Paul told them that God had the right to choose a plan of salvation that included the Gentiles as well. Paul was not defending God’s right to “limit” salvation to some select individuals chosen for no other reason than “God’s sovereign will”; he was arguing God’s right to “extend” salvation to the whole world by making faith, not the Law of Moses, the condition for acceptance by God.
Now that we know who Paul is arguing with and what he is defending, let’s take a fresh look at the chapter.
Paul longs for the salvation of the Jewish people. He shares that this longing is one of the motivations for his ministry to the Gentiles in Romans 11:13, “Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry in order somehow to make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them.” These are not the words of a man who believes God has unconditionally predestined some men to salvation and others to die without Christ. These are the words of an apostle preaching salvation to all men on the basis of faith.
The Jews felt they had a “birthright” in God’s kingdom. Verse 4 says, “To them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, etc.” They believed that since they were the “chosen people of God,” they must get first place in everything. And indeed the Gospel is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Rom. 1:16). But Paul reminds them that Abraham’s blessing was given to Isaac, even though Ishmael was the rightful heir as the “firstborn.” This reference proved that God always had the right to bring about his salvation by whatever means he determined. God is not “required” by tradition, ancestry or anything other than his loving character to save mankind. No one can tell God, “You owe me salvation!”
Paul continues this line of reasoning by using another example of Abraham’s ancestry. Jacob, like Isaac, was not the “rightful” heir to the promises of Abraham. Culturally speaking, God “should have” built the nation of Israel through the line of Esau. But in order to reveal that God, not Man’s culture, is the author of salvation, he chose Jacob for the task of building a nation that would introduce the Savior to the world, and he rejected Esau for that calling. He didn’t choose Jacob to build the nation because he was “good,” nor did he reject Esau because he was “bad.” While both boys were in their mother’s womb God told Rebekah, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the older shall serve the younger” (Gen. 25:23).
We must note a few things about these verses. These verses are not teaching that God predestined Jacob for eternal life and Esau for exclusion from eternal life. It is clear from the context of Romans 9 and Genesis 25 that Jacob was chosen to be the father of a nation, and Esau was not chosen for that purpose. Nor does this passage say that Jacob was eternally chosen for this purpose, we only know that God’s plan for his earthly life was announced to his mother during her pregnancy. Let’s also take a moment to consider Paul’s quotation from Malachi 1:2-5. In that passage it is clear that Esau refers to the nation of Edom, and Jacob refers to the nation of Israel. With this quote Paul makes it even more clear that Jacob and Esau’s destinies as the fathers of two nations was what God determined at their birth. And just as Jesus didn’t mean we should literally hate our parents if we want to be his disciples (Luke 14:26), there is no reason to assume that God really “hated” Esau who had not even sinned yet. It simply means that God had rejected Esau for the purpose of building the nation of Israel.
Before we move on, we should reflect not only on the examples Paul is using, but also the implications it has on his argument. Paul is arguing with Jews who think they have a “right” to salvation and blessing. After all they are descended from Isaac and Jacob. But in Paul’s argument he is saying, “Yes, you guys are the firstborn, and humanly speaking you have the “right” to receive God’s blessings, but remember, God can reject the firstborn and give the birthright to the younger son as he did with Ishmael and Isaac, and Esau and Jacob.” Paul is saying, “Israel, you are Ishmael and you are Esau!” He made this same argument in the book of Galatians 4:21-31 where he said that Jerusalem was represented by Hagar and her son, but the Church is represented by the son of promise, Isaac.
Romans 9:6-13 (another layer)
There is another truth Paul is trying to point to with the examples he is using (i.e. Isaac/Ishmael, Jacob/Esau). In verse 6 Paul points out that just because someone is descended from Israel (Jacob), doesn’t mean they are part of Israel (Jacob). In other words, being part of natural Israel doesn’t automatically make you a part of the true chosen people of God. Remember, Paul is having a hypothetical argument with unbelieving Jews who assume that all Jews are elected (chosen) simply because they are Jews. But he is telling them that being a natural descendant is not good enough to make them the heirs of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He is saying the same thing John the Baptist said when he warned the Jews, “Do not tell yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our Father,’ I tell you the truth, God is able to raise up children for Abraham from these rocks.” Paul, and John the Baptist, are boldly proclaiming that it is God’s divine prerogative how He will fulfill the promises He made to the patriarchs.
Paul drives his point home by using Isaac, Ishmael, Jacob and Esau as examples. God made a promise to Abraham’s descendants that they would receive the promises given to Abraham, but then He adjusted the terms of the promise. You see, it is not ALL of Abraham’s descendants that God intended to inherit the promise, shown by the fact that Ismael, a descendant of Abraham, did not inherit it. God limited the receiving of the promise from the general category of “Abraham’s descendants” down to the more narrow category of “Isaac’s descendants.” Did God have a right to do this? Every Jew would certainly believe He had the right, especially since they were descendants of Isaac. But then God does it again! He limits the line of Abraham’s descendants who will inherit the promise even further. Not only will not all of Abraham’s descendants inherit it (e.g. Ishmael’s line) but not even all of Isaac’s line would receive it. God limited it to Jacob’s line, cutting out Esau, who was not only a descendant of Abraham, but even of Isaac. Would the hypothetical Jews Paul is debating with oppose God’s right to treat Esau so “unfairly”? Of course they wouldn’t! They would say God was completely just in His decision. But again, we can’t help remembering that it would be easy for them to give God this concession since they would not be harmed at all by Him making free use of His sovereign prerogative. You see, from a Jewish perspective God had the right to fulfill or limit His promises however He wished.
The difficulty for them comes when God does it again! God has not only limited Abraham’s descendants to the line of Isaac (excluding Ishmael’s line), nor merely has he limited it to Jacob’s line (excluding Esau’s descendants), but now He has limited Israel’s (i.e. Jacob) line to only those who are connected with Jesus Christ! Not all who are descended from Israel are of Israel, but only those who are found in Jesus Christ, both Jew and Gentile. Though unbelieving Jews cry “Foul!” at this point, Paul declares this to be God’s sovereign right, just as it was in the cases of Isaac and Jacob. God is just! God has the right to limit His salvation (i.e. the promise of Abraham) to those who believe in Jesus Christ, even if many descendants of Israel are left out of the chosen people of God. This is the point of Romans 9, which can clearly be seen in the conclusion found in verses 30-33.
So after telling the unbelieving Jews that their ancestry can’t save them, the question is, “Is that fair?” Was it fair that God rejected Jews who were zealous for the Law of Moses and for the traditions of Israel and instead accepted these Gentiles who simply believed in Christ after generations of idolatry? Doesn’t he owe the Jewish nation something for all their hard work? The answer he gives to these questions is found in verses 15-16, “’I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’ So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.”
Many read this answer and say, “See, God sovereignly and unconditionally decides which people will be saved.” If we take these verses alone we can see why they come to that conclusion. But we can always come to wrong conclusions if we take scripture out of context. Consider Philippians 2:12, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” Thank God we only have to read verse 13 to find the balance, “For it is God who works in you.”
Those who read Romans 9:14-18 out of context misunderstand Paul’s point. He is not saying that God arbitrarily, without any identifiable conditions, decides who will receive mercy. Though no one could question him for doing that. “But it clearly says that it doesn’t depend on ‘human will or exertion,’” Many argue. Yes it does, and if we consider the context we can see what this means.
Romans 9:31, “Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works.” The “human will or exertion” referred to in 9:16 is a reference to the Jews claiming a right to salvation by their commitment to the Law of Moses. Romans 4:4-5 already made this principle clear, “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.” To hear the some talk one would think that the faith of man is a “work of the Law” that is opposed to God’s grace. But Romans 4:16 already made it clear that the promise of salvation “depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace.” God chose to show mercy on the condition of faith because it is the only “work” of man that gives glory to God. Romans 4:20 makes this clear when it says about Abraham that he was “strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised.” When men trust God for salvation, this does not mean they can “boast.” Faith boasts only in God because it acknowledges that he is faithful and able to do what he has promised.
The passage doesn’t only say God shows mercy, but also that he “hardens” some. Again we must not assume that God does this randomly or without any discernible reason. Romans 1:28 says that when men don’t “see fit to acknowledge God,” he gives them up “to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.” Because “by unrighteousness” they “suppress the truth” God’s wrath comes upon them (Rom. 1:18). This wrath is poured out by giving “them up to dishonorable passions” (Rom. 1:26). Just as God’s mercy is given upon certain conditions, namely faith; God’s hardening is also given upon certain conditions, namely willfully rejecting the truth. One only needs to read the Exodus account to see how often Pharaoh hardened his own heart to the clear warnings of God to see this principle in action.
Again we must return to Paul’s argument in Romans chapter 9. Paul uses Pharaoh as an example of one that is used to glorify God, though he has chosen to rebel against him. Paul is saying, “Just as God used Pharaoh’s rebellion for his own purpose and glory, he will also use the rebellion of the Jews for his own purpose.” How does he use their rebellion? Romans 11:11 gives us the answer, “Through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles.”In Romans 9:19 we hear the complaint of the unbelieving Jewish nation, “You will say to me then, ‘Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?’” This same argument was anticipated in Romans 3:5-7, “But if our unrighteousness serves to show the righteousness of God, what shall we say? That God is unrighteous to inflict wrath on us? (I speak in a human way.) By no means! For then how could God judge the world? But if through my lie God’s truth abounds to his glory, why am I still being condemned as a sinner?” God did not make them rebel, but when they did, he used their rebellion for his own purposes. The Jews thought if God is benefitted by their rebellion, God should not find fault with them, but this is only the reasoning of rebellious men.
“But what about God’s right as the potter? Romans 9:20-24 clearly says that he sovereignly makes men how he wants them to be!” some argue. But this passage is referring to Jeremiah 18:1-11. When we look at that passage we see that the context is God reasoning with the nation of Israel. God was telling them that he has the right to judge any nation that won’t obey him. He also says that if that nation will repent, God will change his plan for destroying them. So God urges them, “Now therefore, say to the men of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: ‘Thus says the Lord, Behold, I am shaping disaster against you and devising a plan against you. Return, every one from his evil way, and amend your deeds’” (Jer. 18:11). In Jeremiah 18:7-8 he had just told them, “If at any time I declare concerning a nation or kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it.” The image of the potter and the vessels is not one of eternally predestined and unconditional fatalism, it is the just judgment of God on those that refuse to repent. And it is the promise of mercy to those who will repent. That’s why Paul can say about Israel, “And even they, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in again, for God has the power to graft them in again” (Rom. 11:23). Paul was not teaching the fatalism of a universal divine decree, but the just judgment of God on willful rebellion and the responsibility of men.
Here Paul begins to wrap up his debate. He uses a passage that calls Israel His people, and applies it to believers in Jesus, both Jews and Gentiles. And then he gives a little hope for Israel by saying that some Israelites, like Paul himself, would certainly follow Christ in faith and be saved.
Now we are back to the conclusion of Romans 9. There was a question as to why the Jews had not received the Gospel but the Gentiles were open to it. Romans chapter 9 was written to explain that the Jews had fallen to pride. They had assumed that they had a monopoly on God. But since they refused to follow God’s plan of salvation by grace through faith, they stumbled.
Conclusion: When we understand who Paul is arguing with and what he is arguing about, we find that Romans chapter 9 doesn’t say anything about the modern debate on unconditional predestination. If we read our theological atmosphere into Romans 9 we will assume that Paul is writing about the issues we are wrestling with, instead of what the early church was wrestling with. We must remember that “the Bible was God’s word to them, before it was his word to us.”