For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.
John 3:16 NKJV
…(for the children not yet being born, nor having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works but of Him who calls), it was said to her, “The older shall serve the younger.” As it is written, “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated.”
Romans 9:11-13 NKJV
These 2 passages are often used in the good old-fashioned Free Will vs. Sovereignty debate. Maybe a Calvinist will post the Romans 9:11-13 passage to stump the non-Calvinist, and then the Free-Willer will respond by saying, “Well, what about John 3:16?! Aha!” It would be a humorous exchange if it was not so depressing. First of all, both are setting up one passage of Holy Writ against another, which seems a strange thing for Christians who believe in the inspiration of Scripture to do. But, to be fair, each of them thinks that their opponent is misinterpreting the passage they reference, and so they attempt to give them a clearer passage that they cannot possibly fail to understand. But instead of dealing with the first passage quoted, each side runs to its storehouse of verses with which to respond.
Such Scripture warfare is certainly silly, though most of us have been caught up with it at some point or another, especially if we have spent any time online as Twitter Theologians. But the silliness of it is not what is most depressing about this particular example. What is most disheartening is that the 2 passages quoted above are saying virtually the same thing, and yet both sides of the debate fail to recognize that. But you might say, “Saying the same thing?! What are you talking about?!” Thank you for asking, let me explain.
Both passages address the same debate that was taking place in the early years of the Christian Church. And, no, that debate was not the Calvinist / Arminian debate. They were discussing the Jewish / Gentile controversy. Each passage, in its own specific context and terminology, is expressing that salvation is not ensured to people because they keep the Law of Moses and are physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Let’s take a look at how this happens in each case.
Let’s start with John 3:16. To most of us, this is likely the least controversial verse in the whole Bible. Every Christian sect wholeheartedly delights in it and finds nothing to hide from in its meaning. But when Jesus spoke these words to Nicodemus, they were revolutionary, to say the least. Up until this point in history, the Jewish people could claim the corner market on God’s love and promises. But with this verse, Jesus turned that all on its head. With the words, “God so love the world … that whoever would believe,” Jesus just opened salvation up to the Gentiles through faith. He established a new way of entry into the promises of God. No longer were people called to entrust themselves to the Law of Moses, but they were called to entrust themselves to Jesus Christ, God’s Son. Salvation was for all, Jew and Gentile, and it was to be received through faith, not the works of Moses’ Law.
We won’t take time here to go into the entire context of John’s Gospel, but in the immediate context of John 3, we see that Nicodemus, a devout adherent to the Law of Moses, was told that his devotion to Torah and his place among the Jewish people was not enough for him to gain access into God’s kingdom. He was told that he must be born again! John 3:16 tells him how he, and everyone else, must receive this new birth, namely, through faith in Christ, not through adherence to the Law. This theme began in John 1:11-13 and concludes with John 20:30-31.
He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.
John 1:11-13 NKJV
And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.
John 20:30-31 NKJV
Ok, well what about Romans 9:11-13? We have a nearly identical argument made, though with very different illustrations, in Romans 9. Paul was attempting to explain why on earth the Jews were rejecting the Gospel while the Gentiles were receiving it and being saved. Paul sets out to explain why not everyone born in the line of Israel (i.e. Jacob) was actually part of God’s Israel (Rom. 9:6). And he concludes in Romans 9 with a summary of his argument in Romans 9:30-33. He explains that God has chosen to save those who place their faith in Christ, not those who are merely physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob with a devotion to the Law of Moses. He explains that the Jews were unwilling to accept salvation through faith in Christ, and chose instead to cling to the Torah as their boast. This was their downfall.
So what was Paul illustrating in Romans 9:11-13 with Jacob and Esau? Esau was the firstborn son, so he should have been given the inheritance, but God sovereignly chose to fulfill His purposes through the younger son, Jacob. In the same way, the nation of Israel and the Law of Moses first appear in Scripture. They are the firstborn, according to the flesh, but not according to the promise. Instead, God had predetermined from the foundation of the world to create a people from every nation through Jesus Christ. So in this passage, Paul is telling unbelieving Jews that they are Esau! And he is teaching that all who believe in Christ, Jew or Gentile, are the children of promise. Not Israel of the flesh, but the Israel of the Spirit through faith in Christ.
But it is not that the word of God has taken no effect. For they are not all Israel who are of Israel…
Romans 9:6 NKJV
What shall we say then? That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have attained to righteousness, even the righteousness of faith; but Israel, pursuing the law of righteousness, has not attained to the law of righteousness. Why? Because they did not seek it by faith, but as it were, by the works of the law. For they stumbled at that stumbling stone. As it is written: “Behold, I lay in Zion a stumbling stone and rock of offense, And whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame.”
Romans 9:30-33 NKJV
So, that these passages are wielded as opposing swords in the Calvinist/Arminian debate is not only depressing, it is also ironic since they address the same issue and teach the same truth. They each conclude that people become the children and people of God through faith in Jesus Christ, not through their ancestry or adherence to the Law of Moses. The non-Calvinist is in error when they run to John 3:16 as soon as Romans 9:11-13 is quoted. They should stand their ground and clarify the meaning of the passage. Yes, I know, time to explain is not always given in theological debates, especially those that take place on platforms like Twitter. But if that is the case, then better to say nothing at all, than to muddy the waters by throwing verses at brethren who are already convinced of their own perspective. If the issue cannot be discussed properly, maybe turn to topics that are more mutually edifying like prayer, evangelism, or world missions.
As for my Calvinist brethren who take offense at my interpretation of Romans 9:11-13, I encourage you to spend some time comparing Paul’s line of reasoning in Romans 9 with his thinking in Galatians 4:21-31. If you do not feel inclined to see the connection, then let me encourage you to pray without ceasing, evangelize with great boldness and work with others to bring the Gospel to the nations!