Pastor of Iglesia Conexiones (Conexiones Church) in Jessup, MD. B.A. in Bible, B.S. English Ed., M.S. in Educational Leadership. Author.
Reformed Christians often see support for Calvinism in Romans 9. More specifically, they see support for the Calvinist doctrine of unconditional election: that, before He even created the world, God chose specific individuals to receive life, repent, have faith in Jesus, and be saved for all eternity. This calvinist doctrine implies that no human whom God predestined for salvation will ever be lost, and that no human whom God did not predestine for salvation will ever be saved. However, as we closely examine Romans 9, we discover that Romans 9 does not support unconditional election (or any other Calvinist doctrine) in any way.
The Problem Addressed in Romans 9 Is Not Calvinist Unconditional Election
First, we need to consider that the main point discussed in Romans 9 is not Calvinist unconditional election (Calvinist predestination), but Israel’s failure to attain salvation through faith in Jesus Christ (Romans 9:31-10:1). The problem is that, since they haven’t believed, God’s word appears to have failed (Romans 9:6). Romans 9 was written to address this very issue.
Paul begins Romans 9 by expressing grief for his “kinsmen according to the flesh” (verses 1-5), who are Israelites that are not Israel (verse 6).
The Conclusion in Romans 9 Is Not Unconditional Election
Paul’s explanation, his solution to the apparent failure of God’s word, is complex. However, we should consider that Paul’x conclusion is not unconditional election.
According to Paul, the reason most Israelites failed to attain righteousness (salvation) is that they tried to earn it by works of the law rather than by faith in Jesus Christ (Romans 9:32-33). Although they were zealous for God, they did not submit to God’s righteousness because they were ignorant of it, and instead they tried to establish their own righteousness (Romans 10:2-3). In other words, Judaism taught people had to earn salvation by obeying the Law of Moses, whereas the Hebrew Bible taught that God graciously grants salvation to those who believe.
Paul’s conclusion is not that God did not predestine the Israelites to salvation (nor that He predestined them to damnation)—as Calvinist unconditional election teaches. Paul’s conclusion is that Israel failed because of ignorance and legalism.
The Explanation in Romans 9 is Not Calvinist Unconditional Election
Moreover, the explanation Romans 9 gives to why Israel ignored God’s will and why they embraced legalism is not Calvinist unconditional election. Calvinist unconditional election says that God, in eternity past (before He even created humanity and the world), predestined specific individuals to be saved—but that’s not the kind of election that we find in Romans 9. There is an election, but the election in Romans 9 is not Calvinist unconditional election.
God’s Unconditional Election of Isaac
The first thing Romans 9 teaches is that not all descendants of Abraham are children (Romans 9:7). Paul observes that, in Genesis 21:12, God instructed Abraham to send away Ishmael (as Sarah had told him to do) because God would call Abraham’s seed from Isaac. In other words, the seed (descendants) God had promised to Abraham (the seed to whom God would give the promised land) would be descendants of Isaac (the son God had promised to Abraham in Genesis 18:10), not Ishmael (the son God never promised to Abraham).
Clearly, this first example of election in Romans 9 is not related to salvation: Paul is not comparing apples with apples. God promised Abraham that he would have many descendants, and that these descendants would receive a land (Genesis 12:7, 1315-16, 15:3, 15:5, 15:13, 15:18, 16:10, 17:7-10, 17:19). Although, eventually all families on Earth would be blessed through Abraham’s seed by that one descendant, Jesus Christ (Genesis 12:3, Galatians 3:16, Romans 4:13), the meaning of all this is not that all descendants of Abraham through Isaac would be saved (or that 100% of all families on Earth would be saved)—such an interpretation would deny the very issue that Paul was trying to address: that not all Jews are saved (and that those who reject Jesus are not saved). Instead, the point made in Romans 9:7 is that God, not man (Abraham), determines (elects) who will receive God’s promises.
That’s exactly Paul’s point. God determined (at the very least, from Old Testament times), that righteousness (salvation) would be by faith in Jesus Christ, not by the works of the Law (Romans 9:33, Isaiah 28:16). But this kind of unconditional election is not the Calvinist kind of unconditional election—you have to stretch the concept to see Calvinism in it.
God’s Unconditional Election of Jacob
Romans 9 also discusses God’s election of Jacob over Esau. It is the same kind of non-Calvinist election the God implemented with Isaac.
And not only this, but also when Rebecca conceived children by one man, Isaac our father— 11 for although they had not yet been born, or done anything good or evil, in order that the purpose of God according to election might remain, 12 not by works but by the one who calls—it was said to her, “The older will serve the younger,” 13 just as it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” (Romans 911-12, LEB)
Before the twin brothers Jacob and Esau were born to Rebecca, God told her that the elder brother would serve the younger brother. This election, however, was not unto righteousness (salvation), but unto receiving the seed (the multitude of descendants promised to Abraham). Notice that, in reality, Esau never literally served Jacob—because God wasn’t talking about the fate of the two boys, but about who would be the greater nation. Therefore, we read the following in Genesis:
“And Yahweh said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from birth shall be divided.“ (Genesis 25:23, LEB)
God was talking about nations and peoples, not about the two boys themselves. He was not predestining Jacob unto salvation and Esau unto damnation, but designating who would be the forefather of the multitude of descendants promised to Abraham. This prophecy was in agreement with the prophecy of Malachi:
2 “I have loved you,” says Yahweh, but you say, “How have you loved us?” “Is Esau not Jacob’s brother?” declares Yahweh. “I have loved Jacob, 3 but Esau I have hated. I have made his mountain ranges a desolation, and given his inheritance to the jackals of the desert.” 4 If Edom says, “We are shattered, but we will return and rebuild the ruins,” Yahweh of hosts says this: “They may build, but I will tear down; and they will be called a territory of wickedness, and the people with whom Yahweh is angry forever.” 5 Your eyes will see this, and you will say, “Yahweh is great beyond the borders of Israel.” (Malachi 1:2-5, LEB).
In context, God wasn’t saying that he loved the patriarch Jacob and therefore predestined him to salvation, and that he predestined Esau to damnation because He hated him. God was saying that the preservation of Israel showed that He loved them in light of the Abrahamic Covenant, and that the destruction of Edom would show that He hated them in comparison to His love for Israel. But that never meant that all Israelites living at the time of Malachi had been predestined to righteousness (salvation).
God’s Predestination of Pharaoh
According to Romans 9, God is not unrighteous: for He said to Moses that He would have mercy on whom He chose to have mercy, and that He would have compassion on whom He chose have compassion (Romans 9:15, Exodus 33:19). In context, God was not saying to Moses that, in eternity past, he predestined individuals to receive life, repent, and have faith in Jesus that they might be saved. God’s statement is a general principle that can hold true in a non-Calvinistic model. So, in the context of Exodus 33:19, God chose to favor Moses and not necessarily all Israelites (Exodus 33:16, 19)—for Moses had asked God to show favor on him and the people; and, in the context of Romans 9:15, God chose Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, Israel over Edom, and believers in Christ over unbelievers. Neither God’s words to Moses nor their context point exclusively to Calvinist concepts.
Moreover, Romans 9 reminds us that God rose up Pharaoh and hardened him in order to show through Pharaoh His power and so proclaim His name (Romans 9:17-18, Exodus 9:16). Once again, nothing in these verses necessarily indicates that God, from eternity past, predestined Pharaoh to eternal punishment in hell. God specifically rose up Pharaoh (brought him to power) and hardened his heart to show His power (through all the miracles God did through Moses against Egypt and Pharaoh) and to proclaim His name (through the fame of all the miracles God did through Moses against Egypt and Pharaoh), not to predestine him unto hell. In all likelihood, the matter of Pharaoh’s eternal destiny had been determined long ago in his life, from the time Pharaoh turned his back on God’s self-revelation to him to worship the many idols of Egypt (Romans 1:20-23). Therefore, God was hardening the heart of someone who had first hardened his heart against Him.
In the context of Romans 9, Jesus became a rock of offense and a stone of stumbling to Israel because they turned to legalism, rejected, and crucified Him—just as the Father said He would become a rock of offense and a stone of stumbling to both houses of Israel because they did not fear and honor Him (Romans 9:33, Isaiah 8:11-15, Isaiah 28:14-18). Nothing in this passage exclusively supports Calvinism.
God’s Sovereignty over Israel
Romans 9:19 anticipates the reader asking why God finds fault with humans since no one can resist God’s will. Although this question at first appears to be a response to Calvinist unconditional election (Calvinist predestination), it cannot be that since Romans 9 has not set forth Calvinist unconditional election. Instead, the question is the anticipated response to God allowing Israel to reject the Messiah just as ancient Israel rejected Him (Isaiah 8:11-15, Isaiah 28:14-18). Why does God find fault with Israel when He allowed Israel to choose to reject Him and His Messiah? The answer to the question is that God has the right to make from the same lump (Israel) a vessel for honorable use (God’s Israel composed of Israelites who believe in Jesus) and a vessel for dishonorable use (Israelites who do not believe in Jesus). Consistent with this interpretation, the clay in Jeremiah 18:5 represents Israel.
According to Romans 9:21-23, the potter (God) has authority to make of the clay (Israel) vessels for honor (an Israel compose of believers) and vessels for dishonor (an Israel composed of unbelievers), and to endure the vessels of dishonor to demonstrate his wrath and power over them, and his glory on the vessels of honor—and God has done this by imputing righteousness (salvation) only on those who believe in Jesus Christ.
Moreover, in so doing, God is following the patterns He announced in Hosea (1:10 and 2:23) and in Isaiah (1:9). In Hosea, God first rejected Israel to later give them grace: just as Romans makes it clear that God has presently rejected Israel, but in the future He will receive them (Romans 11:15, 23, 26, 31-32). In Isaiah, God had preserved a remnant of faithful believers: just as Romans makes it clear that a remnant still exists today—it is composed of all Jews who believe in Jesus (Romans 11:1-5).
Romans 9 Does Not Teach Calvinist Unconditional Election
In conclusion, it should be clear to the reader that Roman 9 has nothing to do with the Calvinist kind of unconditional election (the Calvinist kind of predestination). This kind of election is neither the problem addressed in Romans 9, nor the conclusion to which Romans 9 arrives, nor the point of the Old Testament Scriptures to which Romans 9 makes reference, nor the explanation that Romans 9 gives, nor the basis of God’s sovereign decisions about Israel. On the contrary, what Romans 9 teaches is that God had always bestowed grace on those who trust Him, and will continue to bestow grace on those who trust Jesus because He has the right to do so, and because He has chosen to do so.
© 2021 Marcelo Carcach