The Bible comes first, then comes theology. When we look at the Bible, do we see Calvinism? We started with Romans 9 and we continue, picking up in v. 14.
God’s love can be trusted. The national election of Israel did not assure personal salvation. Physical descent from Abraham did not guarantee the blessings of the covenant for Ishmael or Esau. Individual Jews should not assume salvation just because of national election, any more than than a physical descendant of Abraham was guaranteed the benefits of the covenant. God is righteous to elect on His own terms. He is righteous not to elect Ishmael or Esau for the Romans 9:1-5 blessings. No one can sit in judgment upon Him.
In support of the truth of v. 14, Paul quotes Exodus 33:19 in v. 15. The Exodus text refers to God’s merciful and compassionate choice of the nation Israel over the other nations of the earth. God could have destroyed the nation after she built the golden calf, but instead He lead them and protected them into the promised land, the nation, not the individuals, because the individuals weren’t saved eternally (cf. Heb 3-4). Often the word “mercy” in the Old Testament does not refer to the individual mercy of personal salvation, but to the covenant mercy to the nation as a whole.
God’s choice of Israel was based upon nothing other than mercy (v. 16). The example of God giving Israel mercy indicates that “it,” that is, mercy, comes out of the will of God, because it certainly wasn’t merited by Israel. This does apply to personal salvation, but in the context it relates to the whole nation. God’s acts of mercy to them as a nation do not then guarantee personal salvation for any of them. Paul deals with the argument that God has been unrighteous to the entire nation just because He has not saved every individual. He rebuts this from the Old Testament.
Romans 9:17 furthers the proposition of v. 16, using the example of Pharoah. God raised up Pharoah to his position. It isn’t that God “created” Pharoah for this position, but that God worked to the end that Pharoah would arrive at this exalted position over Egypt. The point of “raised up” is not that Pharoah was foreordained or predestined to Hell, but that God brought him, an already evil man, to his reign over Egypt as the leader of that nation, so that his personal wickedness could reveal itself more plainly in order then to display the glory of God (cf. Exodus 4:21).
By hardening Pharoah’s heart, God provided the blessing for His elect nation that He might be glorified (cf. Exodus 7:3). The hardening of his heart related to his not letting the people go (Exodus 7:14), not so that he would be eternally damned. As much as God hardened his heart, Exodus also reveals that Pharoah hardened his own heart (Exodus 8:15, 32; 9:7, 34). Both Pharoah and God were hardening Pharoah’s heart. As much as hardness of heart can lead to the eternal damnation of the soul, in the context of Pharoah’s heart-hardening, God was delivering His elect nation by means of the hardening, illustrating the truth of Proverbs 21:1, “the king’s heart is in the hand of the LORD.” The deliverance was not spiritual salvation, but a physical deliverance that proved God was both powerful and covenant keeping. God was not glorified in some predestined rebellion of Pharoah, but in the victory of His elect, servant nation over a humanly powerful Egypt. God brought Pharoah to power for those purposes.
Another argument is introduced in v. 19, which is essentially, why does God find fault in anyone if He has mercy on those whom He will have mercy and hardens whoever He wills to harden? The question this poses is “Is God fair?” And it is related to the next point, that is, who would be able to resist God anyhow? The problem isn’t the answer to the question, but the question itself. Paul makes that known in v. 20.
Because of their inferiority, men don’t have the perspective to challenge God with such questions. Paul pictures man’s predicament with the potter-clay imagery, which comes from Jeremiah 18-19. In the Old Testament passage, God is the Potter and the entire nation Israel is the clay (18:6). Jeremiah 18:4 is a key interpretational verse.
And the vessel that he made of clay was marred in the hand of the potter: so he made it again another vessel, as seemed good to the potter to make it.
A contrast exists between “he made” and “was marred.” The former is active and the latter passive. “Was marred” is a niphal verb, which speaks of the vessel, the men, marring or corrupting itself. You would see the same construction in Genesis 6:11-12, where the earth corrupted itself, not God. Since Israel had marred herself, God as the Potter could see fit not to use her. God had condemned and had the authority to condemn a marred pot. That was the message that the Jews with whom Paul argued needed to hear.
God would get glory through obedient Israel or disobedient Israel. Israel marred herself, so God would get glory through her captivity. God could and would also be glorified by the destruction of Israelites. God’s purpose for Israel changed based on the condition of her behavior. What Paul teaches in Romans 9 would have been nothing new for a Jew who knew Jeremiah 18-19. As clay, Israel should not have been demanding anything of her Potter, God. Jeremiah 18:10 especially enlightens us regarding Romans 9:
If it do evil in my sight, that it obey not my voice, then I will repent of the good, wherewith I said I would benefit them.
God, the Potter, will treat the clay, Israel, different, conditional upon Israel’s actions. Israel sounds like the Calvinists in Jeremiah 18, accusing God of not giving them suitable opportunity, when God had done so, and judged them based upon their faithful obedience.
In the light of Jeremiah 18-19, we understand the questions of v. 20. A fully made clay, now pot, questions the Potter, not some uncreated, formless clay. The answer is that Israel had marred herself. The formation of the clay changed conditioned upon its behavior. The sovereignty of God expressed in v. 21 is not some predetermined sovereignty, but one that chooses in accord with the condition of the clay. That’s how all of Jeremiah 18-19 reads and every other clay-potter text in the Old Testament.
Not to be lost in all this discussion is that the election of Romans 9 is national election. It contradicts a belief in personal, unconditional election unto eternal life or eternal damnation. Calvinism in its interpretation of Romans 9 fails in a proper consideration of the Old Testament texts to which Paul refers in the chapter.
More to Come.
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