De-Calvinized - A Non-Calvinistic Perspective on Romans 9
Romans chapter 9 is often referred to as the foundational proof text of Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, and Total Inability.
Total Depravity (Total Inability)
This is the teaching that man has no ability to choose or reject the offer of salvation without the Holy Spirit first awakening his spirit. This stands as the fundamental starting point of the calvinist position…the starting point of Calvinist soteriology.
This is the teaching that God has arbitrarily (for no apparent reason) chosen (or elected) some to salvation and some to damnation.
This is the position that Christ’s death on the cross was not given for all and that it was sufficient only for those for whom Christ died…the elect.
Let me first answer a very important question….and one that I hear often in social media groups where Soteriology is discussed. “Why is the vast majority of content regarding Romans 9 from the Calvinist position? Doesn’t this overwhelming consensus declare that it is the correct interpretation?”
The simple answer…is no. Since those that hold to a traditional view of soteriology don’t interpret Romans 9 as individually redemptive in nature, there is no compelling reason for us to refer to it when discussing soteriology. Why would we?!
From our perspective, Paul lays out a compelling case in Romans that clearly describes salvation offered to all men, provided for all men, and available to all men; while in Romans 9-11 Paul lays out a compelling case for God’s dealing with rebellious and hardened Israel to bring about the Seed of Abraham.
[To clarify: “Traditional Soteriology” is defined as the position that the earliest church fathers held to…a position that recognizes the sovereignty of God over all things and that beneath that sovereignty God has given to man the ability and culpability for their response to him. This position is defended in Salvation Through the Eyes of a Prodigal - a defense of traditional soteriology.]
So let’s dig in and try to understand the context of the passage and an accurate interpretation of this passage!
Here we go!!
Does Romans 9 teach Calvinism? This seems like a simple question…with a simple answer. But simple doesn’t always mean easy. In this extensive article we are going to lay the foundation for a proper contextual understanding of Romans 9.
No book in the Bible is discussed more (in the context of salvation) than Romans…and no chapter is brought up more in our modern discussions than Romans 9. Romans is Paul’s defense of the Gospel…so it makes sense that we would turn to Romans for a deeper understanding of the gospel…what salvation really is and how it is transmitted from God to man.
However, to say there is disagreement on how to interpret Romans 9 would be an understatement.
Romans 9 is full of verses that are used on all sides of the Soteriological spectrum to “say” different things. Consider these favorites!
Romans 9:13 As it is written, Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated.
Romans 9:15 I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy
Romans 9:20 Who art thou that replies against God?
Romans 9:21 vessels unto honor, and vessels unto dishonor
Romans 9:22 - vessels of wrath fitted for destruction
1. One interpretation states that that Romans 9 stands as an illustration of the power of the gospel from Romans 1-8…a continued thought.
Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated…are in a redemptive context
I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy…speaking of redemptive mercy
...And whom he will he hardeneth..that God hardens the hearts of those not predestined to receive his mercy
...Vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour…those who are chosen for salvation and those that are chosen for wrath..Unconditional Election
**And if you disagree with their interpretation, this verse get’s thrown at you!! (verse 20) “Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus?”
Who are you to question God and his sovereign election?!?!?!
2. Another interpretation views Romans 9 as serving a separate function in Paul’s letter, still salvation but a different angle. It communicates Paul’s anguish over Israel.
Paul is answering the questions that a jewish objector would have in response to all that Paul has said about the Jewish people in chapters 1-8 of Romans.
This view would hold to an interpretation that “Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated” are in the context of God showing mercy to individuals or nations to bring about the pathway to redemption.
They would claim that the verse that declares that “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy” isn’t speaking in a context of redemptive mercy but God’s mercy on rebellious/hardened Israel
They would believe that the “vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour” are those Jews that God used to bring about the pathway to redemption…both in their seeking the messiah as well as their rejection.
The incredible danger of this passage is that people want to pull out a verse here and a verse there…and in doing so inevitably end up twisting God’s Word to mean what they want it to say. At the worst, we make it say something different than God intended. However, at the very best, we make God’s truth difficult to understand and hidden from view.
Consider for a moment what Paul has already stated in Romans chapters 1-8….
Romans 1 - All are sinners
Romans 2 - All are without excuse
Romans 3 - Even those of Israel must come by faith
Romans 4 - Example…Abraham’s faith
Romans 5 - The contrast of Jesus Christ and Adam
Romans 6 - Grace is not a license to sin
Romans 7 - This doesn’t make the law bad…or without a purpose
Romans 8 - Suffering, Glory, and the wonderful end to this part of Paul’s writing…Nothing can separate us from the love of God!
Part One - Paul's Heavy Heart: Romans 9:1-5
So let’s read Romans 9:1-5…
1 I say the truth in Christ, I lie not, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Ghost, 2 That I have great heaviness and continual sorrow in my heart. 3 For I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh: 4 Who are Israelites; to whom pertaineth the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises; 5 Whose are the fathers, and of whom as concerning the flesh Christ came, who is over all, God blessed for ever. Amen.
In verses 1-3 Paul has a heavy heart. This is a much different tone than Romans 8 which ends with a triumphant declaration of God’s love. In fact, without reading chapters 1-8 sequentially, you might be tempted to thing this is a separate letter because of the drastic change in tone and focus. **Notice what is different
1. Paul is focusing on Israel at both the beginning and end of the chapters nine, ten, and eleven. Now we understand that the chapter divisions aren’t inspired, but there is a clear change in focus. (9:3, 9:33, 10:1, 10:21, 11:1)
2. Paul is reflecting back on Israel’s history. Though he does talk of Israel in chapters 1-8, he becomes very specific in this passage.
-Abraham, covenants, Isaac, Genesis 12 promise, Jacob, Esau, Hosea, Isaiah, Moses, Tribe of Benjamin, seed of Abraham, prophets, David…
3. Paul’s tone is filled with heaviness and heartache. This is quite a change from the ending of chapter 8 with the exuberant declaration of God’s eternal love!
4. Paul is conversing with an imaginary person. While this isn’t abnormal to Paul, this is such a lengthy conversation and is clearly a shift from the previous chapters in Romans. For example, the instances from earlier in Romans are an answer to one question; Romans 9-11 stand as a full conversation with many question/answer exchanges.
3:3 What advantage then hath the jew?
3:9 What then? Are we better than they?
3:27 Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? Of works? Ney; but by the law of faith
4:1 What shall we say then that Abraham our father, as pertaining to the flesh, hath found?
6:1 What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin?
7:7 What shall we say then? Is the law sin?
Chapters 9-11 are unique…he is having a conversation that covers a few chapters as opposed to just giving an answer to one simple objection….
…So this must be one big objection…one big issue that Paul feel as if he needs to cover!
It is clear that Paul is making a shift in the focus of his discussion on Salvation. It is still about Salvation (about redemption)…but instead of focusing on us (as the recipients of salvation) Paul without dispute puts his focus on Israel. They stand as the recipient of mercy…but not defined in the text as redemptive mercy. They are the recipient of grace, though not necessarily redemptive grace.
Paul is also not speaking of Israel as followers of Jehovah, but Israel as a nation, culture, people group. This is seen in Romans 9:3 where he states, “For I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh:”
Paul uses similar language in Romans 10:1-2 when he states, “Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is, that they might be saved. For I bear them record that they have a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge.”
They stand as God’s chosen people, but clearly are not the recipients of redemptive mercy!!
Paul then gives more clarification as to who he is speaking about in verses 4-5 (already referred to them as his kinsmen according to the flesh).
4 Who are Israelites; to whom pertaineth the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises; 5 Whose are the fathers, and of whom as concerning the flesh Christ came, who is over all, God blessed for ever. Amen.
This is the chosen nation of God that has brought me to this place of heartbreak. They were the recipients of the glory, the covenants, the law, and the promises! This has a similar flavor to Paul’s words in Romans 3:1-2 where he states, “What advantage then hath the Jew? or what profit is there of circumcision? Much every way: chiefly, because that unto them were committed the oracles of God.”
Not only are these the ones that possessed the oracles of God, but they also were in the lineage of the fathers…those who were the patriarchs of Paul’s great nation (fathers of the flesh). He is referring to (and will refer to them specifically in a few verses) Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and David. He doesn’t leave out the prophets either: Moses, Isaiah and Hosea.
And these are the ones for whom Christ came as the Messiah. Paul states in verse 5 that these are “of whom as concerning the flesh Christ came.”
They are the people that for the sake of that same heritage and national calling…Christ came to be their Messiah!
Paul, in his introductory remarks, is clearly taking this conversation on salvation to a different place. These first five verses stand in such stark contrast to the previous eight chapters that we must step back and ask what Paul is trying to communicate that is different than before. With Israel being the focus of his words here, it is evident that he is not speaking about the wonderful salvation that we have, but about the pathway through which the Redemption was brought to the world…the nation of Israel!!
Before we end this first portion that stands as an introduction to the chapter, we must finish with one of the most critical verses in the entire chapter. Verse 6 becomes the key to our interpretation…the lens through which we view this imaginary conversation that Paul is having with a Jewish skeptic.
v.6 Not as though the word of God hath taken none effect. For they are not all Israel, which are of Israel.
It is this verse that Paul introduces the conflict…the rub…the discord and friction. All of this (the choosing of Israel and providing them with such a great and godly heritage)…it’s not as though God’s promises to Israel have failed.
Here is the question… "Has God failed his people?” Israel was God’s chosen nation..his people. And yet he came unto his own and his own received him not! Did God’s grace fail Israel?
Understanding what Paul is trying to accomplish in Romans 9:1-5 is foundational to understanding the context of the rest of the chapter!
Part 2 - Israel, But Not Actually Israel: Romans 9:6-13
To some degree, it may appear that God’s plan for Israel was a complete failure. He came unto his own (the ones chosen as his own) and his own received him not. So Paul anticipates that question…Has God’s plan failed for Israel? Did the potter break his promise to the clay, to Abraham?
Paul is quick to clarify that “they are not all Israel, which are of Israel.” (v6b). Not everyone that claims the nationality of Israel gets to claim the spiritual heritage of being part of God’s plan as a child of God.
Just because a person is part of the nation of Israel does not mean that they are a child of God. Paul makes that clear in verses 7-8 where he states, “Neither, because they are the seed of Abraham, are they all children: but, In Isaac shall thy seed be called. 8 That is, They which are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God:”
Paul is establishing the fact that God isn’t forced to show mercy on anyone based on their nationality. Rather, he shows mercy on those he chooses to show mercy on! This is not a new argument that Paul is bringing up in this text. It was stated similarly in Romans 2:28-29.
28 For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: 29 But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.
So if the children of Israel aren’t the children of God just by their lineage, who are the children of God? That is a question that Paul anticipates and clarifies in the second half of verse eight.
v.8b “…but the children of the promise are counted for the seed.”
They are counted…today in the present…continuing to happen in the present. Today, tomorrow, the day after…but doing it in the present tense. This is the first mention of the “reckoning” those not in Israel as though they are in the body of Christ.
Notice what is missing? Paul is not in any way declaring “how” they are reckoned into the body of Christ, only that those that are children of the promise are counted for the seed.
So how are people counted as children of promise? Though Paul doesn’t declare it right here, he openly declares in the next chapter that the reckoning into the kingdom comes by faith! In fact, all through the Scriptures that reckoning is based on faith!
Is it possible that Paul is declaring that God looks to the future and unconditionally elects those that “will be” the children of the promise? Not from this text. Paul’s declaration of the “counting” occurring in the present tense excludes that God elected in the past tense or that he looked forward in the past and would count in the future tense. The counting as children of the promise occurs in the present tense when the unbeliever calls out in faith in the present tense. (Romans 10:9-13)
Paul is not done, however, with his history lesson and explanation of God’s choosing of Israel as the pathway to the Messiah.
9 For this is the word of promise, At this time will I come, and Sara shall have a son. 10 And not only this; but when Rebecca also had conceived by one, even by our father Isaac; 11 (For the children being not yet born, neither having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works, but of him that calleth;) 12 It was said unto her, The elder shall serve the younger. 13 As it is written, Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated.
What was the “word of promise” that Paul references in verse nine? It is simply the promise that God made to Abraham that through his seed all nations of the world would be blessed. Was it a promise of salvation? Did God promise that all those descendants of Abraham would be counted as children of the redemptive promise apart from their faith?
Clearly no. If you struggle with that answer then consider the alternative. If God’s promise to Abraham was a redemptive promise, then all that are in Israel (as a nation) are in Christ…and this clearly contradicts what Paul has established in this passage, not to mention the whole of Scripture that declares that salvation is not given to any man apart from saving faith.
So if the promise to Abraham was to bring in the Messiah along a pathway to redemption for the world, we are faced with simple question….a math question. How many sons of Isaac could be in the lineage as a patriarch of Israel?
The answer is simple. One.
God chose Isaac, not Ishmael…the promise could only be fulfilled through one son. Ishmael and his descendants were not chosen to fulfill that promise (Ishmaelites) through no fault or action of their own. Esau and his descendants were not chosen to fulfill that promise (Edomites) through no fault or action of their own. Jacob and his descendants were chosen to fulfill that promise (Israelites) through no fault or action of their own.
Though all three are direct descendants of Abraham, only Jacob was chosen to be in the lineage of the promised seed which would lead to the Messiah. Please understand, God didn’t choose to save one and condemn the other before they were born as some people attempt to read into this text.
Rather, God choose to use the weaker and younger brother to show his power and goodness (just like he did when he chose David to be king) through no action of his own…but by God’s own will and choosing.
Remember this very important truth about mercy. Just because God showed mercy does not imply that God showed salvific mercy. While salvation always gives us a glimpse of God’s mercy, mercy doesn’t always refer to salvation. Jesus himself taught that God’s provision of sunshine and rain unconditionally to all of humanity is an expression of His mercy (Matthew 5:43-45).
While this part of the passage doesn’t teach unconditional election as some claim, it does accomplish two very important things.
First, this passage gives us a glimpse into the history of Israel and the reality that nothing was left up to chance! The path of redemption was not a collection of random events by random people that happened to bring the Messiah into the world. There was a chosen path to the Messiah that God ensured would lead to Christ’s redemptive sacrifice on the cross.
Second, this passage declares that Jewish nationality has never equalled salvation! The gospel has never been reserved for some but has always been available to all who believe!
Part Three - Merciful to Whom He Wills: Romans 9:14-18
We need to recognize a pattern that Paul has established all through the book of Romans…make a statement, expect questions, and then address those questions.
Here is the next objection: Many Israelites believed that they were a child of God on the basis of their nationality…obedience to the law. Those Israelites would say that God had not followed through on his promise to save all Israel…that would be unrighteousness on his part.
Romans 9:14 What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? God forbid.
This verse is key to understanding this passage. Paul had just proven that God had the right to fulfill his promise of a seed and nation through whichever descendent he chose. Paul declares that God’s display of mercy in choosing Jacob over Esau is just…that he can show mercy on whom he want to show mercy!
Paul is not (within any context seen in this passage) now making a connection to redemptive mercy being shown to a select group and not to all. In fact, gentiles are not even in the picture of this conversation till Paul brings them into the conversation in verse 24.
15 For he saith to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.
Just like Jesus did in John 3 (as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness) Paul uses an OT flashback as an illustration. In Exodus 32 the children of Israel built a golden calf and began to worship that idol.
32:30 Moses goes before the Lord to make atonement for them.
32:34 “Therefore now go, lead the people unto the place of which I have spoken unto thee: behold, mine Angel shall go before thee: nevertheless in the day when I visit I will visit their sin upon them. 35 And the LORD plagued the people, because they made the calf, which Aaron made.”
Then in Exodus 33, God shows mercy to his rebellious people. We see this in the following verses.
33:5 For the LORD had said unto Moses, Say unto the children of Israel, Ye are a stiffnecked people: I will come up into the midst of thee in a moment, and consume thee:
33:17-19 And the LORD said unto Moses, I will do this thing also that thou hast spoken: for thou hast found grace in my sight, and I know thee by name. And he said, I beseech thee, shew me thy glory. And he said, I will make all my goodness pass before thee, and I will proclaim the name of the LORD before thee; and will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will shew mercy on whom I will shew mercy.
God remains angry…but God was faithful to carry out his promise through unfaithful Israel. God was merciful in not destroying those that were in rebellion…so as to accomplish his plan of redemption
We are carefully addressing these verses because they are often used in the context of salvation. Some will use them to say that God will save those whom he wants to save…whomever he wishes and due to nothing they have done (meaning arbitrarily).
We have to remember the original problem that Paul is addressing in this passage. It was not confusion about the transmission of salvation from God to man…it was the issue of God’s faithfulness to Israel despite their unfaithfulness to him. Was God unfaithful to his chosen people Israel? Had God failed them?
16 So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy.
So then it is not of him that willeth…what is the “it”? Some would suggest that “it” refers to the individual salvation of people arbitrarily chosen by God to receive his mercy.
And yes...arbitrary is the right word, though is often elicits sharp responses. If God supposedly chooses believers to himself through nothing they have done, that is the definition of arbitrary. However, we have already established from the text that Paul isn’t speaking of salvation anyway.
The “it” is the election or choosing of rebellious people to fulfill the promises to Abraham to bring about redemption. How can this be? Well, because the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham was not dependent on his descendants and their good works. It was a covenant relationship that God made with Abraham…independent of the people’s obedience.
Well, if God can use rebellious Israel to accomplish his plan of redemption and bring himself glory, can he also use the rebellion of Pharaoh to do the same? Yes again! Paul uses a parallel illustration from the OT making that same point!
17 For the scripture saith unto Pharaoh, Even for this same purpose have I raised thee up, that I might shew my power in thee, and that my name might be declared throughout all the earth.
God used the blindness of Pharaoh (that hardened his own heart) to bring about the first Passover…and the blindness of the Pharisees to bring about the last Passover!
God has not failed because of your (Israel’s) unfaithfulness, but God has chosen to fulfill his plan of redemption through and despite your unfaithfulness!!
18 Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth.
Does this passage say that God hardened both their hearts? No.
Egypt had rejected the God of Joseph, enslaved the Jewish people, worshipped the sun and moon, child sacrifice, and utterly rejected Jehovah. Pharaoh was dwelling in hardness toward Jehovah.
The Jews that rejected Jesus as the Messiah did so of their own volition…he came unto his own received him not! In fact, Mark 3:1-6 tells us that Jesus was grieved at the hardness of their hearts when they were angered that Jesus would heal a man’s withered hand on the Sabbath.
What we find is that God only hardens the hearts of those that are already living in rebellion…for a purpose. From this we seem to see two types of hardening in Scripture
1. Self Hardening - when a morally accountable person through their sinful actions and desires grows stubborn and calloused to the gospel. This is seen in Romans 1:21-1:23. They turned their back to God and hardened their heart.
2. Judicial Hardening - God taking an active role in binding the conscience of an already hardened person, blinding them from the truth. We always see God using this to accomplish a greater redemptive purpose. This is seen in the final verses of Romans one where God gives them over to their reprobate mind…and as a result they end up hardened in their wickedness.
This passage offers us an incredible glimpse into the pathway of redemption…that God willingly used people that were rebellious and hardened to accomplish his plan.
Part Four - Vessels of Honour and Dishonour: Romans 9:19-24
So we come to another argument that arises in the text…Paul anticipates an objection, states the objection, and then addresses the objection.
Objection: How can God hold the unbelieving Jews accountable for their rejection if God actively used their hardened state for his purpose? They could claim “It’s not my fault..God did it!”
v.19 Thou wilt say then unto me, Why doth he yet find fault? For who hath resisted his will?
Thou…an Israelite that was hardened to accomplish God’s promise…this is the person that Paul has been talking to this entire time.
Me…an Israelite that God showed mercy to to accomplish his purpose…Paul had received the mercy of God as one living in rebellion and yet called to be an apostle.
v. 20 Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus?
v.21 Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour?
v. 20 Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus?