WHY I’M NOT A CALVINIST (part one): Romans 9
It will help you if you pull out a Bible and turn to and look at Romans 9 as you read this.
I tell people I’d like to be a Calvinist but Scripture keeps getting in the way. Romans 9 is one place that gets in the way of my being a Calvinist. If I’m supposed to be a Calvinist, the Bible will just make me one. I won’t have to force it. But Romans 9 runs away from Calvinism, contradicts it. If we can’t be a Calvinist as a direct consequence of Bible teaching, then we shouldn’t be one.
At the end of Romans 8 (vv. 35-39), Paul promises that nothing will separate saved, justified people from the love of God. He anticipated some argument with that point, in light of Jewish reaction to his preaching, regarding God’s faithfulness to Israel. If God could not be trusted in His faithfulness to Israel, then how could someone count on Him for individual salvation. The argument also goes that if God elected Israel and Israel was not saved, how could anyone be assured of God’s election. Romans 9-11 defends God’s actions with Israel to buttress the truth that nothing can separate believers from the love of God.
God elected Israel (Jacob), “being not yet born” (9:11). So Israel was unconditionally elect—she couldn’t very well merit her choosing before she was born. So you see, I believe in unconditional election. Part of being elect meant that Israel had tremendous advantages (9:4-5) that one would think would lend themselves toward Israel’s salvation. God bestowed on Israel unique evidence that her God truly was the very God so that they would believe on Him, including the gift of Jesus Christ Himself, “who is over all, God blessed forever” (9:5). Jesus added to those benefits by preaching His kingdom all over Israel during His ministry there. But in Romans 9:1-4a, we see that Paul “could wish that [he] were accursed” for the salvation of Israel.
And right there at the very beginning of Romans 9 is where we begin seeing the contradiction to Calvinism. Why would Paul be willing to be “accursed from Christ” (9:3) for those God chose before the foundations of the world to damn forever? Paul surely wasn’t more loving and more righteous than God. Would he not be out of bounds in expressing such sympathy for those for whom Christ Himself did not die, if limited atonement were true? Only if God Himself were unwilling for these Israelites to perish and if Christ Himself had died for them does 9:1-5 make any sense. And that is just the start here in Romans 9.
If you are a Calvinist and you are reading this, before you start writing your missive, please read this to the end, because 9:1-5 really are hint of things to come. They fit with the rest of the chapter, but they are not all there is.
Calvinists point to 9:11 as evidence of unconditional election, and it is true. Israel was chosen unconditionally by God. And God will save Israel (11:26), so Israel nationally is chosen unconditionally unto salvation. But who are the Israelites whom God will save? They are those whom He elects on the condition of personal faith in Him. Paul distinguishes between personal election and national election in Romans 9, and he makes this crystal clear.
God continued faithful and loving to the nation. God’s Word, especially as found in the Abrahamic, Mosaic, and Davidic covenants, did not fail. Paul begins 9:6 by saying that God’s Word was still in effect for Israel, the Israel that God would save, which was not all of Israel (9:6b). True Israel, spiritual Israel, would receive the promises God made to the nation (9:7-8).
Paul illustrates the point of verses 6 and 7 in verses 8 through 13. He appeals to Genesis 21:12-13. Ishmael came from Abraham physically, but Isaac alone would receive the blessings of God’s covenant with Abraham. A Jew is unconditionally a Jew, and as a Jew, based on no merit of his own, he has been given incredible advantages. Isaac received blessings not given to Ishmael.
Genesis 21 makes national promises, but physical descent alone does not guarantee an individual will receive the blessings of those promises. The nation will unconditionally, but the persons will not. God will save those Israelites who do not reject the advantages (9:4-5) God gave. Jews who thought they would receive the blessings of the covenants just because they were Jews were sorely deceived (cf. Mt 3:9-12; Rev 20:11-15).
Isaac and Ishmael were both sons of Abraham, but they did not both receive the advantages of the covenant. Only Isaac received them, and he is a picture of the true child of God. This illustrated to Israel that it wasn’t physical descent that made one a child of promise. God didn’t have to save every descendant of Abraham. Romans 9:9 quotes Genesis 18:10,14 for this illustration. The point is that like Sarah and Isaac were chosen over Hagar and Ishmael, spiritual Israel is chosen over physical Israel. Hebrews 11:11 elucidates further on what occurred: ”Through faith also Sara herself received strength to conceive seed, and was delivered of a child when she was past age, because she judged him faithful who had promised.” The believer receives the spiritual blessings of God’s covenant with Abraham. God does make His choices and makes them based on His own terms—He’s done it in the past and He does it again.
“And not only this” at the beginning of 9:10 tells us that Paul has more explanation about the same point, except he uses a different example, that of two sons, Jacob and Esau, of the same mother and father. Again, not all the physical descendants inherit the promises, even as Esau, who was a physical descendant, did not. The election is unconditional and national. How do we know it is national? Verse 12 quotes Genesis 25:23. Consider Genesis 25:22-23:
And the children struggled together within her; and she said, If it be so, why am I thus? And she went to enquire of the LORD. And the LORD said unto her, Two nations are in thy womb, and two manner of people shall be separated from thy bowels; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger.
We can see from the Old Testament passage itself that the election is national. First, it says “two nations,” but, second, if it is personal, then every person in the one “nation” and “people” was saved, which was not the case. The very point Paul is making is that the every person in the nation was not saved and so was not true Israel. When we take Genesis 25 and Paul’s quotation of it literally, we are dealing with “two nations” and “two manner of people.” The election here relates to Israel’s rule over Edom, not about the spiritual salvation of Jacob or Esau. The rest of the Old Testament will show that this election was fulfilled, but not until after the lifetime of Jacob. In addition, verse 12 doesn’t say that Jacob would be saved and not Esau, but the “elder shall serve the younger.”
Verse 13 quotes Malachi 1:2-3, which was written a long time after the end of Jacob and Esau’s lives. And that Malachi passage also plainly refers to the nations of Israel and Edom, not individuals. Everything in that text says Malachi is referring to the nations. When he says, “I have loved you,” “you” is in the plural. God’s indignation is against “the people” (v. 4). “Loved” and “hated” in v. 13 are aorist, the one time love and hatred of national election. It isn’t an ongoing, continuous love and hatred. The love and hate related to the favor God chose in advance to give to Jacob and the loss of privilege that God determined for Esau. So the point is that the blessings of God’s covenant do not come based upon physical lineage.
Important to the understanding of a New Testament text is looking at the context of the Old Testament quotations. Those Old Testament passages will shed light on the New Testament usage. This is a major part of deriving the correct interpretation.
Scripture does teach unconditional election—unconditional national election. Personal election is conditional. That is a primary point of Romans 9. God’s national election of Israel did not guarantee personal salvation. No individual Israelite or Jew should think that his eternity is set just because his nation was elect of God. He himself needed to believe.
To Be Continued