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Analysis of Romans 9 and Calvinistic Arguments


While studying Bible passages about Calvinism, God’s sovereignty, and man's free will, Calvinists frequently turn to Romans 9 as a favorite proof-text. The chapter contains multiple passages, which appear to support Calvinism. Therefore, this article will analyze the entire chapter in its context, discussing the arguments raised by Calvinists.

Careful examination of the context of Romans 9 reveals that Paul was explaining God’s right to predetermine and use the nation of Israel to produce the Messiah. The Jews profited greatly from this arrangement; however, such a relationship did not guarantee God’s mercy unto salvation. God maintained and exercised His right to use nations to accomplish His promise to Abraham, and furthermore, He demonstrated His prerogative to save individuals as He deemed best. As long as Israel would seek to establish their own righteousness by the law of Moses, over-emphasizing their national part in God’s plan, they would fail to be saved. God’s promise for mercy was ultimately extended to whomever would live by faith, not necessarily those who required the law of Moses, nor necessarily those who descended from Abraham.

The spiritual salvation of individuals, especially a predestined, unconditional election, is not the subject of Romans 9. Vindication of God’s judgment regarding the nation of Israel is the primary point. However, detailed analysis of the immediate context, plus the context of the Old Testament passages, which Paul quoted, clearly teaches that God’s mercy has always been conditioned upon man's repentance.

The Calvinistic View

The Calvinistic viewpoint focuses on the following verses, which are quoted here along with typical explanations:

... (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)

A Calvinistic Argument: Paul is laboring to show that our salvation is not dependent upon what we do ("not of works"); furthermore, we are saved based on God’s predetermined election ("the purpose of God according to election"). As an example of this election, Paul selects Jacob and Esau to demonstrate that God loved Jacob and therefore chose him unto salvation, while God hated Esau and chose him unto condemnation. God clearly chose and predestined their fates independent of their works ("the children not yet being born, nor having done any good or evil"); therefore, God’s election is unconditional, and our destiny is predetermined!

For He says to Moses, "I will have mercy on whomever I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whomever I will have compassion." So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, "For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I may show My power in you, and that My name may be declared in all the earth." Therefore He has mercy on whom He wills, and whom He wills He hardens. (Romans 9:15-18)

A Calvinistic Argument: Here we see God’s sovereignty clearly being exercised ("on whomever I will"). Not man - but God has chosen who will be saved and who will be destroyed ("not of him who wills ... but of God who shows mercy"). Moreover, Paul uses Pharaoh as an example of one whom God hardened, just so God could demonstrate His power and sovereignty by punishing him. In addition to the Lord’s sovereignty, His predestination again is manifested, because God raised up Pharaoh for this purpose. It was God who chose, created, manipulated, hardened, and destroyed.

You will say to me then, "Why does He still find fault? For who has resisted His will?" But indeed, O man, who are you to reply against God? Will the thing formed say to him who formed it, "Why have you made me like this?" (Romans 9:19-20)

A Calvinistic Argument: Often free-will advocates claim that Calvinism is not fair. In these verses, Paul anticipates that charge and condemns all who would question God. We have no right to challenge God’s fairness.

Does not the potter have power over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel for honor and another for dishonor? What if God, wanting to show His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, and that He might make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy, which He had prepared beforehand for glory ... (Romans 9:21-23)

A Calvinistic Argument: Admittedly dreadful, God has chosen, designed, and prepared certain people for destruction. Their only purpose is to serve as objects of God’s wrath, so the elect can better appreciate God’s mercy toward them and His power. Likewise, the elect were chosen, designed, and prepared to serve - but, they were fashioned to serve as objects of His mercy and therefore glorify Him.

In these verses we see an undeniable demonstration of God’s sovereignty, predestination, and unconditional election. Before people were born, and before they had opportunity to perform good or evil, God divinely chose who would be saved as the objects of His love and mercy, and He chose who would be destroyed as objects of His hatred and wrath. In both cases, God’s glorious power is demonstrated, and His wrath and mercy are clearly manifested and contrasted.

Answering the Calvinist, Examining the Context

Were those arguments convincing? To many Calvinists, these proof-texts are unassailable and entirely persuasive. If these passages seem overwhelming to you, may I suggest that you are suffering from the same challenges that confront all good Bible students? Too often, we bring a prejudiced view to the Bible texts. Even our definitions of words are too frequently loaded with a bias that essentially proves our conclusion. In essence, we have guaranteed the triumph of our conclusion before we begin to reason from the facts, just by our definitions.

Our prejudices and our fears prohibit us from doing what is required: Honestly, diligently reading an entire passage based on its context. After forming an interpretation, we must repeatedly test and refine our interpretation by comparing it to all the words in the text, looking for contradictions as well as support - all the while, ignoring the tug of our human allegiances. ... This takes time, and regrettably patience is not one of our innate virtues. Plus, we like to be right. Therefore, too often we rush to judgment, gravitating toward words that support our view, while unconsciously dismissing troubling words that detract from our cherished conclusions. Those words that aggravate, we promise to answer another time, but conveniently, that time never comes and our prejudiced conclusions stick. Even worse, if we are not careful, our heart becomes hardened in our original conviction, because we believe our doctrines overcame careful examination. When in reality, our beliefs and our heart were never truly opened to serious challenge.

One goal of this essay is to recognize and sidestep that trap. We will carefully make a detailed study of this passage, in light of the Calvinistic arguments, observing and answering each word or phrase that challenges either side. After you finish reading this article, if you feel that this responsibility has been betrayed, you would be our friend by raising this matter to the author's attention. This will enable the author, as well as all readers to benefit through future revisions of these comments.

First, A Word on "Words"

Many people, especially those who identify with Calvinism, generally associate the words "predestination", "election", and "foreordination" with Calvin's definition of those terms. However, that is not necessarily true, and it is certainly not fair.

Please consider "predestination" and "foreordination". Both words simply mean to "choose beforehand". However, there is nothing in these words to suggest the basis of the choosing.

Yes, "predestination", "foreordination", and "election" are Bible doctrines. They are affirmed in multiple Scriptures (Romans 8:29-30; Ephesians 1:5, 11). However, we must be careful not to assume the basis of the choice! We must be careful not to assume that every occurrence of these words supports Calvin's view, because we should not assume his definition of these words!

Yes, God made a choice concerning who would be saved and who would be lost before the world began. However, we should take the time to properly define these words, as provided by the Scriptural context - and not rush to assume a loaded definition. This diligence is key to realizing the truth and resolving our differences on these points.

There is an old saying about debates, logic, and reasoning that goes something like this, "He who defines uncontested, wins." ... This is a case where many of us have accepted a prejudiced definition that inherently accepts the Calvinistic conclusions. We must be careful not to blindly accept any man's definitions without comparing them to their Scriptural usage. Let each compare his definition with the other's definitions to make sure that we are "speaking the same thing" (I Corinthians 1:10), and let us be sure not to "load" our definitions with our conclusions merely restated, so that our conclusions invariably arise from our "premises" without thorough examination. As we study Romans 9 in its context, we will repeatedly need to make application of this point.

The Context Surrounding Romans 9

Paul's inspired book to the Romans was written to a church containing both Jewish and Gentile Christians. Their opposing backgrounds presented difficult problems for the congregation. Paul developed common solutions for a common need, in spite of their cultural differences. He elaborates on God’s nature and justification, and he reminds them of their responsibilities to God as well as to each other. Frequently, Paul anticipated the questions and reactions of each side and replied accordingly. This letter is extremely logical, moving from one issue to the next along a consistent theme of justification by faith in the gospel for the Jew and Gentile alike. The main points of this great epistle's chapters are as follows:

  1. Introduction of theme, and Gentiles' condemnation for descent into depraved idolatry.
  2. Jews' condemnation for disobedience to the law of Moses.
  3. All stand guilty before a just God. Therefore, justification by His mercy and our faith.
  4. Justification by faith apart from perfect keeping of Jewish law.
  5. Hope and comfort by faith through God’s love and Christ’s sacrifice, contrasted with death, guilt, and condemnation introduced through Adam's sin, perpetuated by all.
  6. Dead to sin through baptism into Jesus’ death, and resurrected for new life in God' service.
  7. Jews freed from bondage of law of Moses, through Christ’s death, and all freed from bondage to sin through Jesus’ deliverance.
  8. Free from carnal mind to walk after the law of the Spirit. Security in God’s love in the face of tribulation.
  9. God’s right to reject national Israel for salvation after using them to produce the Messiah.
  10. Israel's rejection of a universal call to both Jew and Gentile to believe on the Lord.
  11. Israel's fall through unbelief, Gentiles salvation by faith, and salvation of a Jewish remnant through grace.
  12. Moral Applications: Therefore, be transformed and live sacrificially, devoted unto God.
  13. Submit to the government and neighbors - put on Jesus Christ.
  14. Do not condemn or cause brother to stumble, based on scruples as a Jew or Gentile.
  15. Serving others and glorifying God with one mind - Paul's personal plans.
  16. Paul's personal salutations and warning to avoid divisive brethren.

Romans 9 is immediately preceded by the profound encouragement, promise, and hope of security in the Lord. (Please read Romans 8:31-39 for background.) After Paul's climatic declarations, both Jew and Gentile readers might have questioned him based on the case of then current Israel. At that time, Jewish persecution was increasing. Their rejection of the Lord was becoming more complete, while the Gentiles were turning to the Lord in droves. Yet, it was clear at that time, that as a nation, the Jews were rejecting God and being rejected by Him. Both Jew and Gentile might ask, "Had God not elected and predestined Israel?" Paul seems to have anticipated such a question, because he moved from a proclamation of God’s love and the elect's victory in Christ to the situation regarding God’s elect nation, Israel, in chapter 9.

Comments on Romans 9

God’s Rejection of Physical Israel

Now, Paul turns his attention toward the state of the Jewish people, his people:

I tell the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and continual grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my countrymen according to the flesh, who are Israelites, to whom pertain the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the service of God, and the promises; of whom are the fathers and from whom, according to the flesh, Christ came, who is over all, the eternally blessed God. Amen. (Romans 9:1-5)

Ask yourself, "Who is Paul concerned about?" Is it not national, physical Israel? Paul, being a Jew himself (Philippians 3:4-6), declares the subject to be his "brethren" and "countrymen according to the flesh", not spiritual brethren. The Jewish people were the chosen recipients of God’s blessings. He selected them and delivered from Egyptian captivity in a glorious manner ("to whom pertain the adoption, the glory"). (Recall the 10 plagues and Pharaoh's defeat in the Red Sea.) God made covenants with their father Abraham and with the Israelites at Mount Sinai, and He gave them the law there through Moses ("to whom pertain ... the covenants, the giving of the law"). The nation of Israel ministered and served God in the temple ("to whom pertain ... the service of God"). They were the descendents of the patriarchs and recipients of God’s three-fold promise to Abraham (become great nation, possess Canaan, and bless all nations through a descendant - Genesis 12:1-7; 13:14-18; 22:17-18). Finally, it was through the Jewish lineage that Jesus Christ came, Who was the fulfillment of the seed promise to bless all nations (Galatians 3:16).

The nation of Israel was chosen to be the means of God’s blessings for all people. This choice produced great blessing for them (consider Deuteronomy 4:1-40), which they did not deserve (Deuteronomy 9:4-7; 4:37; 7:7-8). Yet, clearly, their national state before God was one of condemnation and rejection. Paul grieved for them. He even, almost, wished that He could be personally condemned, in exchange that they might be saved. But, of course, he would not ultimately do such (Luke 14:26), nor was it even possible.

God’s Election By Promise, Not Heritage

Again remembering the backdrop of Romans 8:31-39, please imagine yourself in the audience of this letter's early reading. Maybe the Jews felt disgruntled? Maybe the Gentile Christians were concerned that God’s election for them might also fail? Paul seems to here address the appearance that God’s promise and efforts failed for the Jews, for he says:

But it is not that the word of God has taken no effect. For they are not all Israel who are of Israel, nor are they all children because they are the seed of Abraham; but, "In Isaac your seed shall be called." That is, those who are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God; but the children of the promise are counted as the seed. (Romans 9:6-8)

Here we are introduced to the concept of "spiritual Israel" versus "fleshly" or "physical Israel". In 9:3-5, Paul discussed Israelites who were identified "according to the flesh". But, here in 9:6, we are told that, "They are not all Israel who are of Israel". This sentence makes no sense, unless one realizes there are two distinct groups of people recognized by God as the "people of Israel".

We have already been introduced to fleshly, national Israel, but we have previously inferred they were not all saved (Romans 9:1-3). Therefore, this second "Israel" figuratively represents those spiritual people (as opposed to "fleshly" or "physical"), whom God had rescued from spiritual bondage and given a covenant, just as He rescued physical Israel from Egyptian bondage and gave them a covenant. This figure is not unique to this passage, rather it is commonly used throughout Scripture to refer to a set of spiritual, holy people, which overlaps but does not completely include the set of all Jewish people. (Compare this figure to the similar symbol of two "Jerusalems", found in Galatians 4:21-31.) We will later see that God’s plan was always for the Gentiles to ultimately have access to this blessed circle, as well as the Jews.

God’s intention was never to spiritually save all of Abraham's seed, just because they were his descendents. The Israelites should have known and been comfortable with this general concept. They were intimately familiar with at least two occasions where the patriarch's lineage was separated and God’s promise to Abraham was conferred to one branch and not the other. For example, God chose Isaac over Ishmael to receive the promise and covenant given to Abraham (Genesis 17:21), even though both were sons of Abraham. And, God chose Jacob over Esau to receive the promise of Abraham, even though both were sons of Isaac and grandsons of Abraham. Over a thousand years before the Jewish nation was rejected, God showed the Jews that the blessings were extended based on God’s promise and choice, not on ancestry alone.

God’s Election To Produce the Messiah - Not Related to Salvation

For this is the word of promise: "At this time I will come and Sarah shall have a son." And not only this, but when Rebecca also had conceived by one man, even by our father Isaac (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 9:9-13)

Now, please ask yourself this question, "Up to this point, has Paul been focused on the election of individuals or nations?" Go back and reread verses 1-5. Physical, national Israel has clearly been the topic of Paul's and his readers' shared concern. Now, in these verses, Paul turns his attention to two specific cases, as examples of his previous point. Unfortunately, the Calvinist begins reading here - without the benefit of the previous context. Consequently, although the passage never mentions salvation, the Calvinist assumes that the discussion pertains to the predetermined, unconditional election of individuals unto salvation, specifically Jacob over Esau. However, the context we have already studied proves the discussion is focused on the judgment of the Israelite nation.

Furthermore, please notice that Paul quotes two Old Testament passages, which he believed to support his point ("for the children ... it was said to her, ... as it is written"). Therefore, we should be able to look at these two passages in their context. Under the influence of inspiration, we know that Paul would not use these passages in conflict with their original meaning (Titus 1:2). By reading them, as the Jews themselves would have previously read hundreds of times, maybe we can better understand Paul's point. Did God’s election of Jacob over Esau pertain to an election of individuals unto salvation? Or, did God’s choice relate to the roles played by nations in God’s scheme to fulfill the promises to Abraham and produce the Messiah?

But the children struggled together within her; and she said, "If all is well, why am I like this?" So she went to inquire of the LORD. And the LORD said to her:"Two nations are in your womb, Two peoples shall be separated from your body; One people shall be stronger than the other, And the older shall serve the younger." (Genesis 25:22-23)

Who was in Rebecca's womb? She was carrying two individuals, yes. But, God foresaw two nations, two peoples, and He clearly informs Rebecca of that truth. It is from this vantage point that God foretells her that the "the older shall serve the younger". In other words, the nation that descended from the older brother would serve the nation that descended from the younger brother. This passage offers no prophesy or foreordination regarding the two brothers as individuals.

Now some may insist these passages still refer to individuals; therefore, please consider this question, "As individuals, did Esau (the older brother) serve Jacob (the younger brother), or did Jacob serve Esau?". Please recall that it was Esau who threatened to kill Jacob (Genesis 27:41). Jacob fled from Esau (Genesis 27:42-28:5), and when Jacob returned, it was Jacob who was terrified of Esau (Genesis 32:3-22)! Jacob sent all his possessions, including his wives and children, as gifts to Esau and bowed down 7 times before him (Genesis 33:1-11)! In their lifetimes, Jacob came far closer to serving Esau, than Esau ever came to serving Jacob. Therefore, if this prophecy referred to the individuals, it failed! Since God’s prophecies cannot fail, this prophecy of the younger’s supremacy must not be referring to individuals!

Furthermore, please remember, that Esau and his people sprang to supremacy earlier, having kings well before Jacob and the Israelites (Genesis 36:1-43, especially vs. 31). And, Esau's people, the Edomites, tormented the Israelites during their journey to Canaan (Numbers 20:14-21). After the periods of conqueroring Canaan and the judges, during the united kingdom and the reign of David, Israel finally begins to pull away from Edom’s dominance:

He also put garrisons in Edom, and all the Edomites became David’s servants. And the LORD preserved David wherever he went. So David reigned over all Israel, and administered judgment and justice to all his people. (I Chronicles 18:13-14)

Finally, after over one thousand years, when Babylon and Greece successively attacked Edom, a final distinction and judgment becomes clear. Israel survives as a remnant, but the Edomites were virtually wiped out (Ezekiel 4:21-22; Ezekiel 25:12-14; 32:29; 25:15; Joel 3:19; Malachi 1:4) with the few survivors being absorbed into the Israelite nation (Amos 9:12). It was from this vantage point, over a thousand years after the original prophecy, that the second Old Testament quotation was originally uttered:

The burden of the word of the LORD to Israel by Malachi. "I have loved you," says the LORD. "Yet you say, 'In what way have You loved us?' Was not Esau Jacob's brother?" Says the LORD. "Yet Jacob I have loved; But Esau I have hated, And laid waste his mountains and his heritage For the jackals of the wilderness." Even though Edom has said, "We have been impoverished, But we will return and build the desolate places," Thus says the LORD of hosts: "They may build, but I will throw down; They shall be called the Territory of Wickedness, And the people against whom the LORD will have indignation forever. (Malachi 1:1-4)

The Edomites, descendents of Esau, were a "people against whom" God’s wrath and indignation moved. They were "hated", because they were wicked. However, this "hatred" is not absolute, but relative. The word, "hatred", is only raised in contrast with God’s "love" for the people of Jacob. (Please, recall that the Edomites were blessed with land and nation as well. Also, compare to Jesus’ usage of "hatred" toward family relative to the required "love" for Him, Luke 14:26.) In this quoted context of Malachi 1, the ultimate distinction between Esau and Jacob was that God spared a remnant from Jacob's seed, through whom came the Messiah, but Esau's seed were destroyed. This context shows applicability to the role of the nations, not the salvation of the original fathers.

Occasionally, a Calvinist may acknowledge that the context of Romans 9:1-15 is indeed dealing with nations, not individuals, and reply, "But, that makes my point even stronger! God is sovereignly saving or condemning entire nations, not just individuals!" This statement overlooks the second aspect of the Calvinist assumption: The context is dealing with a nation's role in God’s providence and plan to bring forth the Messiah, not the salvation of a nation. Otherwise, we would be forced to conclude that all Edomites were condemned and that all the Jews were saved. However, that clearly is not the case. The pages of Scripture contain a multitude of Jews, who were clearly consigned to hell (for example, Judas, Matthew 26:21-24; the wicked Pharisees and Sadducees of Jesus’ day, Matthew 23:13-26; etc.). Therefore, it is impossible to conclude that this passage relates to the salvation of entire nations, because the entire nation of Jews was clearly not saved!

Paul is not laboring to develop the predestination of individuals unto salvation or condemnation apart from their works. He is first demonstrating God’s choice to use the Jewish nation to produce the Messiah and receive Abraham's three-fold blessing (inherit Canaan land, grow to great nation, and produce seed who would bless all nations). From this point, he is secondly arguing that God does not owe the Jews spiritual salvation, even if they are Abraham's seed. People are saved according to God’s promise, not by virtue of their ancestry. The exact conditions of God’s promise for salvation are not discussed here - only that election is not a right by birth, even for the Jew.

Vindication of God’s Election and Reprobation

What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? Certainly not! For He says to Moses, "I will have mercy on whomever I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whomever I will have compassion." So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy. (Romans 9:14-16)

Paul's discussion continues by anticipating a charge from a dissatisfied Jew. (Recall, it was the Jews, over whom Paul was grieving. It was the Jews, whom Paul described as receiving God’s blessing of Abraham's promise. It was the Jews, who were not entirely saved, despite being Israelites according to the flesh. Romans 9:1-7). As is so often the case, when we do not get what we want, we cry out, "That's not fair! I have been robbed!" Paul seems to anticipate such a reaction, so he observes God’s right to determine the basis for one's reception of mercy. It is God’s mercy that is extended unto salvation; therefore, God gets to choose who receives that mercy. We don't get to choose who receives mercy. No matter how deeply we want, no matter how diligently we strive, we cannot choose who will be the recipients of God’s mercy. That alone is His sovereign choice. ... However, let us be careful here: Does this passage reveal the basis of God’s choice? Could God choose people apart from their works? Yes, that would be His choice! Alternatively, could God choose people based on their works? Yes, that would be His choice! Or, could God choose people with red hair, or people over 6 feet tall, or ...? Yes, He could choose based on whatever purpose He chooses! That alone is His right and prerogative. However, that purpose is not manifested here! Only assumption and prejudice can inject a basis into the passage. (Again, we must be careful not to assume Calvin's connotation of election and predestination.) We will have to look elsewhere to learn the basis of God’s choice and bestowment of mercy...

He who covers his sins will not prosper, But whoever confesses and forsakes them will have mercy. Happy is the man who is always reverent, But he who hardens his heart will fall into calamity. (Proverbs 28:13)

Let the wicked forsake his way, And the unrighteous man his thoughts; Let him return to the LORD, And He will have mercy on him; And to our God, For He will abundantly pardon. (Isaiah 55:7)

... be clothed with humility, for "God resists the proud, But gives grace to the humble." (I Peter 5:5b)

Why does God draw near to some people, but not others? Why does God extend mercy and grace to some people, but not others? These verses clearly teach that penitent humility is the basis of God’s choice. These are the people that God has chosen as the objects of His mercy. He could have chosen selfish, proud, cruel, wealthy, intelligent, or strong people, but instead, He chose humble people. We cannot challenge that choice. It is His mercy, and He can extend it to whomever He wishes. No matter how hard we try, we cannot change God’s basis for election. For example, we cannot be proud or stiff-necked and receive God’s grace, because he has chosen humility as one characteristic of the elect. He is the One setting the rules and making the decisions - not us - and rightly so.

Indeed, this was the very point made to Moses in Paul's quotation: The Israelites had severely broken God’s covenant through the golden calf (Exodus 32). God informed Moses that He would no longer travel with them (Exodus 33:1-6). Moses pleaded with mercy on behalf the people (Exodus 33:7-13). The Lord agreed to grant mercy to Moses, and He promises Moses salvation ("I will give you rest"), but not to the people (Exodus 33:14). Moses again pleaded for mercy (Exodus 33:15-16). And, the Lord agrees to go with the Israelites at Moses' requests, but He answers with the above quotation (Exodus 33:17-19). Although God respected Moses, and although He often granted mercy to the people for Moses' sake, neither He nor the people possessed ultimate control over God’s terms for final rest. No matter how diligently Moses struggled or willed, it was God’s choice, and Moses could not change God’s final decision!

As a side note of clarification, please keep in mind that this entire discussion refers to those previously condemned under sin (Romans 3:23). God, by force of His just nature, would be indebted to bestow salvation upon any who kept His law perfectly (Romans 4:1-4). However, since all have sinned, all are in need of mercy. Therefore, that impractical exception of perfect obedience, is not even considered here.

"Not ... But"

The keen Calvinist may observe, "But, the text plainly says that salvation is 'not of him who wills, ... but of Him who shows mercy! This statement completely eliminates the influence of man's will on his salvation."

The key to proper understanding of this critical verse is to recognize the "not-but" construction. This phrasing, commonly used throughout the New Testament, is frequently employed not to eliminate one constituent, but rather it is used to emphasize one factor over another. It is not a statement of exclusion, instead it declares relative significance. The following examples make this abundantly clear:

"Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to everlasting life ..." (John 6:27)

Then Jesus cried out and said, "He believes in Me, believes not in Me but in Him who sent Me" (John 12:44)

In this first verse, is Jesus commanding us not to work for earthly food? Clearly, the answer is no! Elsewhere, we are commanded to work under the penalty of not receiving food to eat (II Thessalonians 3:10). Or, in the second verse, is Jesus commanding us not to believe in Him? Again, the answer is clearly no! Elsewhere, in the same book, John expresses that belief in Jesus is the very purpose of his letter (John 20:30-31). Jesus is merely emphasizing the root of belief in Him. Belief in Jesus is ultimately an expression of belief in the Father.

In the case of Romans 9:21, God’s determination for the basis of receiving mercy is more essential than our will to be saved. To justify, please consider the case where God does not wish to extend mercy. Can man save himself then? Emphatically, no! God’s will is supreme and cannot be thwarted (Isaiah 43:13). No matter how vigorously such a man seeks to assert his will, he cannot escape God’s justice. (Recall Pharaoh as example: Did he want to be judged and destroyed? How hard did he seek to establish his will?) God alone has the right, authority, and power to offer mercy upon whatever basis He chooses. However, does this fact necessitate or elaborate on God’s will or the basis of His extended mercy? No! He could just as easily choose to extend mercy based on some conditional character trait as based on some secret, unconditional purpose. His choice is the crucial one, because man cannot force God to choose, although God could force man to choose, if He so desired. However, recognition of the supremacy of His choice in no way eliminates nor excludes our choice any more than labor for spiritual food eliminates labor for physical food, or any more than belief in the Father negates belief in the Son! We must be careful not to insert our prejudices into this declaration. We must allow God to declare His will to us, lest we be found fighting God.

God’s Rejection of Israel Compared to Pharaoh

For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, "For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I may show My power in you, and that My name may be declared in all the earth." Therefore He has mercy on whom He wills, and whom He wills He hardens. (Romans 9:17-18)

As further proof to his point, Paul recalls a negative example, the reprobate king of Egypt, Pharaoh. God hardened this man's heart, prolonging his rebellion, so God could use him as an object of wrath to demonstrate His power. Truly, this man did not receive God’s mercy. In fact, God chose to harden his heart. However, we must ask, "Was this hardening apart from Pharaoh's will or in concert with it?" The passage does not say, because that question is not Paul's concern. He is defending God’s right to manipulate the obstinate and use them for His own purposes. He is not discussing how these objects originally became obstinate. We will have to look to the background of this Old Testament reference to answer that question:

"But I am sure that the king of Egypt will not let you go, no, not even by a mighty hand. So I will stretch out My hand and strike Egypt with all My wonders which I will do in its midst; and after that he will let you go. (Exodus 3:19-20)

And the LORD said to Moses, "When you go back to Egypt, see that you do all those wonders before Pharaoh which I have put in your hand. But I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go. Then you shall say to Pharaoh, 'Thus says the LORD: "Israel is My son, My firstborn. So I say to you, let My son go that he may serve Me. But if you refuse to let him go, indeed I will kill your son, your firstborn." ' " (Exodus 4:21-23)

Afterward Moses and Aaron went in and told Pharaoh, "Thus says the LORD God of Israel: 'Let My people go, that they may hold a feast to Me in the wilderness.'" And Pharaoh said, "Who is the LORD, that I should obey His voice to let Israel go? I do not know the LORD, nor will I let Israel go." (Exodus 5:1-2)

God knew that Pharaoh would not release the people from captivity. Yet, He commanded Pharaoh ("that I should obey His voice") to let the people go free, and He threatened Pharaoh, if he did not release the people. What was the result of this command and threat? It was the same result produced whenever any proud or arrogant man receives a command or threat. God first manipulated Pharaoh's proud heart simply by issuing a command under the threat of severe penalty for disobedience. Does this imply that God was responsible for the guilt associated with Pharaoh's hardened heart?

No! First, please recall that Pharaoh had already proved himself to be an extremely wicked king. His predecessor was fearful of the Israelites and first subjected them to severe labor and bondage (Exodus 1:8-14). When that failed to reduce their numbers, he instructed the Hebrew midwives to kill the males as they were born (Exodus 1:15-21). When they failed to execute his command, the predecessor commanded all the Israelites to kill their male newborns (Exodus 1:22). Eventually, this king died, and the Pharaoh under discussion came to power. Did he recognize the severity of the Israelites' bondage, the cruelty of their labor, or the wickedness of their population control? No! In fact, we see that Israelites cried out to the Lord under this king's rule because of their cruel bondage (Exodus 2:23-24). There is no indication that he relaxed any of their labors. Furthermore, after Moses spoke to him, Pharaoh accused the people of being lazy and idle. He ordered their labor to be increased by forcing them to fetch straw for their bricks, and the Israelites' leaders were beaten for failure to make the existing quota (Exodus 5:4-19). Truly, this man had proven himself to be extremely wicked, well before Moses ever spoke a word to him. He could have been destroyed by the Lord before Moses spoke with Pharaoh, yet God spared him for some reason.

Secondly, Pharaoh's hardening was not performed contrary to his will or apart from it. Ten different times, the Scriptures speak of God hardening Pharaoh's heart (Exodus 4:21-23; 7:1-6; 9:12; 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10; 14:4, 8, 17). But, five different times, the Scriptures also speak of Pharaoh hardening his own heart (Exodus 5:2; 8:15, 32; 9:34; see also I Samuel 6:6)! In fact, the Scriptures establish a pattern during these plagues. Each time, Moses reissued the command to release the people, Pharaoh would harden his heart, causing Moses to bring a plague on the Egyptians from the Lord. Eventually, Pharaoh would beg Moses to cease the plague, promising to let the people go. On one occasion, Pharaoh confessed that he had indeed sinned, and it is from this occasion that Paul takes his quote:

Then the LORD said to Moses, "Rise early in the morning and stand before Pharaoh, and say to him, 'Thus says the LORD God of the Hebrews: "Let My people go, that they may serve Me, for at this time I will send all My plagues to your very heart, and on your servants and on your people, that you may know that there is none like Me in all the earth. Now if I had stretched out My hand and struck you and your people with pestilence, then you would have been cut off from the earth. But indeed for this purpose I have raised you up, that I may show My power in you, and that My name may be declared in all the earth. As yet you exalt yourself against My people in that you will not let them go. Behold, tomorrow about this time I will cause very heavy hail to rain down, such as has not been in Egypt since its founding until now. ... Then the LORD said to Moses, "Stretch out your hand toward heaven, that there may be hail in all the land of Egypt -- on man, on beast, and on every herb of the field, throughout the land of Egypt." And Moses stretched out his rod toward heaven; and the LORD sent thunder and hail, and fire darted to the ground. And the LORD rained hail on the land of Egypt. So there was hail, and fire mingled with the hail, so very heavy that there was none like it in all the land of Egypt since it became a nation. And the hail struck throughout the whole land of Egypt, all that was in the field, both man and beast; and the hail struck every herb of the field and broke every tree of the field. Only in the land of Goshen, where the children of Israel were, there was no hail. And Pharaoh sent and called for Moses and Aaron, and said to them, "I have sinned this time. The LORD is righteous, and my people and I are wicked. Entreat the LORD, that there may be no more mighty thundering and hail, for it is enough. I will let you go, and you shall stay no longer." (Exodus 9:22-28)

God warns Pharaoh that He could destroy him immediately, but he has spared him solely for the purpose of demonstrating His power. And, so God sent another plague, because Pharaoh continued to exalt himself above God’s people! Pharaoh was to blame for the guilt of the plagues - not God. After the hail destroyed so much of their land and people, a crushed Pharaoh finally repents, acknowledges his sin, and confesses the Lord’s righteousness. Was the Lord responsible for Pharaoh's sin? No! The Scriptures confirm that Pharaoh was guilty, because he sinned. But, this was not the end of Pharaoh's story...

So Moses said to him, "As soon as I have gone out of the city, I will spread out my hands to the LORD; the thunder will cease, and there will be no more hail, that you may know that the earth is the LORD's. But as for you and your servants, I know that you will not yet fear the LORD God." Now the flax and the barley were struck, for the barley was in the head and the flax was in bud. But the wheat and the spelt were not struck, for they are late crops. So Moses went out of the city from Pharaoh and spread out his hands to the LORD; then the thunder and the hail ceased, and the rain was not poured on the earth. And when Pharaoh saw that the rain, the hail, and the thunder had ceased, he sinned yet more; and he hardened his heart, he and his servants. So the heart of Pharaoh was hard; neither would he let the children of Israel go, as the LORD had spoken by Moses. (Exodus 9:29-35)

Here we see another way that God hardened Pharaoh's heart: leniency. If the Lord had continued to oppress the Egyptians, Pharaoh certainly would have crumbled underneath God’s hand. But, by deliberately sending incrementally stronger plagues, and by relenting at Pharaoh's cries for relief, God effectively hardened Pharaoh's heart. Each time Pharaoh "escaped" a plague or sensed leniency, he would harden his heart. Thereby, both God and Pharaoh worked in concert to harden his heart. Pharaoh provided an arrogant, proud heart, suitable for hardening, and God provided the commands, threats, and leniency - an environment suitable for hardening.

Now some might argue that God’s actions toward Pharaoh made God in part responsible; however, it is critical to note that God uses the same methods on the elect:

Or do you despise the riches of His goodness, forbearance, and longsuffering, not knowing that the goodness of God leads you to repentance? But in accordance with your hardness and your impenitent heart you are treasuring up for yourself wrath in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who "will render to each one according to his deeds" ... (Romans 2:4-6)

The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance. (II Peter 3:9)

The Lord is no respecter of persons (Acts 10:34). He offers longsuffering, incremental chastisement, and relief to all, even those He loves (Hebrews 12:5-11). Yet, it produces salvation in some and hardening in others. Why? What is the difference? Look back at Pharaoh. God supplied an environment to promote change (repentance for some, hardening for others). But, upon whom does Scripture lay the final blame? Pharaoh! He is the one who sinned, because he chose to use a God-given opportunity for enlightenment, repentance, and relief as an opportunity to sin even more - not once, but ten different times! In a similar example, even the heathen Philistines recognized God’s longsuffering and Pharaoh's hardening of his heart (I Samuel 6:5-6). In both cases, it could have gone either way. Pharaoh could have repented, because: God touched his heart; Pharaoh recognized God; Pharaoh recognized his sin; and he repented outwardly (Exodus 9:14, 27). But, Pharaoh chose to further sin, while the Philistines chose to repent under the hand of God’s plagues. They were healed (I Samuel 6:1-16), while Pharaoh was temporarily used for God’s purpose and finally destroyed.

Clearly, God, Who declares "the end from the beginning" (Isaiah 46:10), knew Pharaoh's heart and that he would reject God, as God foretold. However, God exercised His right choose the punishment of Pharaoh, so that it would suit his purposes. This is Paul's point: God’s right to manipulate the obstinate for His end. Could it be that just as God persevered with Pharaoh, so that He might exercise some greater purpose, He also persevered with physical Israel, so that He might exercise some greater purpose, such as the production of the Messiah? Paul will continue to develop this theme and drive this point home with his readers.

Vindication of God’s Condemnation and Manipulation

You will say to me then, "Why does He still find fault? For who has resisted His will?" But indeed, O man, who are you to reply against God? Will the thing formed say to him who formed it, "Why have you made me like this?" Does not the potter have power over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel for honor and another for dishonor? (Romans 9:19-21)

Paul, again anticipating the reader's reaction, considers a follow-up question. Based on the context, the unbelieving, rejected, even hardened Jewish nation appears to be the original concern (verses 1-6, 14). Therefore, it is concluded that the anticipated charge would most likely arise from a disagreeable Jew, seeking to justify himself by charging God with unfairness. In essence, this impenitent Jew is blaming God for his own rejection and condemnation, as if God’s judicial hardening or manipulation was the cause of his original sin and ultimate judgment.

This challenge is sternly answered - not because the reader has challenged the truthfulness of the message, but because the reader has accepted its truthfulness and accused God in dissatisfaction and desperation. Therefore, Paul reminds his readers the infinitely removed positions that they and God occupy by quoting two Old Testament passages. The first passage reminds us of God’s right to manipulate the life of the individual (Isaiah 45:9). Specifically, it was a warning to the Persian King, Cyrus, whom God raised up and used to release the Israelites from Babylonian captivity (Isaiah 45:1-9). Please note again, this election and fashioning was not one unto salvation, but of providential preparation, so that Cyrus might do a great work in saving God’s physical people. The second quotation is taken from Jeremiah's lesson received at the potter's house:

... So I went down to the potter's house, and I saw him working at the wheel. But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him. (Jeremiah 18:1-4)

In this parable, the potter represents the Lord, and the clay represents the children of Israel during the days of Jeremiah. First, please note that the clay became "marred in his hands". The potter's intention was not that the clay be marred, because after the marring occurs, he then forms it "into another pot". Clearly, the potter had not predestined what would occur, because his intention was originally to fashion "another pot" than the final one.

Then the word of the LORD came to me: "O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter does?" declares the LORD. "Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned. And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it. Now therefore say to the people of Judah and those living in Jerusalem, 'This is what the LORD says: Look! I am preparing a disaster for you and devising a plan against you. So turn from your evil ways, each one of you, and reform your ways and your actions.'" (Jeremiah 18:5-11)

God proclaims His power to fashion Israel as He saw fit, just as the potter did. However, please notice that their "fashioning" was not independent of their will. In fact, it was a consequence of it! God promised to change His plans for a nation, based on whether it repented or turned to evil! Here God clearly manifests His basis for mercy or wrath, and what is the basis? Humility, repentance, and obedience - or the lack thereof. Admittedly, this passage merely proves that a nation could exhibit free moral will through either repentance or disobedience, but can a nation exhibit a collective free will, if its individual constituents have none?

God's judicial hardening can be seen from other passages that also support man's voluntary rebellion and his initial hardening as justification for God's further hardening of him, so that he may be either destroyed or used for some other purpose in God's providence:

O LORD, You have seen how I am wronged; Judge my case. You have seen all their vengeance, All their schemes against me. You have heard their reproach, O LORD, All their schemes against me, The lips of my enemies And their whispering against me all the day. Look at their sitting down and their rising up; I am their taunting song. Repay them, O LORD, According to the work of their hands. Give them a veiled heart; Your curse be upon them! In Your anger, Pursue and destroy them From under the heavens of the LORD. (Lamentations 3:59-66)

“For all those things My hand has made, And all those things exist,” Says the LORD. "But on this one will I look: On him who is poor and of a contrite spirit, And who trembles at My word. He who kills a bull is as if he slays a man; He who sacrifices a lamb, as if he breaks a dog's neck; He who offers a grain offering, as if he offers swine's blood; He who burns incense, as if he blesses an idol. Just as they have chosen their own ways, And their soul delights in their abominations, So will I choose their delusions, And bring their fears on them; Because, when I called, no one answered, When I spoke they did not hear; But they did evil before My eyes, And chose that in which I do not delight.” (Isaiah 66:2-4)

The coming of the lawless one is according to the working of Satan, with all power, signs, and lying wonders, and with all unrighteous deception among those who perish, because they did not receive the love of the truth, that they might be saved. And for this reason God will send them strong delusion, that they should believe the lie, that they all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness. (II Thessalonians 2:9-12)

Continuing to examine Romans 9, we read:

What if God, wanting to show His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, and that He might make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy, which He had prepared beforehand for glory ... (Romans 9:22-23)

Here, Paul begins to more directly introduce his point: God merely persevered with Jewish nation, so that He might work out a larger scheme. The vast majority of physical Israel, who rejected God in faithless rebellion and idolatry, and who rejected and continue to dismiss His Messiah, were "vessels of wrath prepared for destruction". Their sins and stubbornness warranted wrath much earlier, but God suffered long with them, so that He might work out His purpose through them.

Frequently, Calvinists may observe the phrases, "vessels of wrath prepared for destruction", and "vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory", and assume Calvin's connotation of preparation - an unconditional, individual predestination.

Now, we mortals can discuss how we must exercise longsuffering in following through on projects or activities that we start. How often do we naively, ignorantly, accidentally, or even deliberately dig a hole for ourselves and must therefore labor to dig our way back out?

But God!? How can a perfect, omniscient, omnipotent God ever exercise longsuffering with Himself? If He has sovereignly decided, decreed, and designed these wicked machines, then He is really being longsuffering with Himself! His efforts exerted upon these vessels that He wholly prepared reduces to a struggle with Himself! How can He possibly exercise longsuffering with them, essentially Himself, unless He failed to foresee, control, or prepare for these exasperating beings? ... Or, unless He gave them an option, and He now forebears with their abuse of His freedom? ... If this passage teaches Calvinism, then it contradicts Calvin's view of a supreme God. Since it is therefore self-contradictory, Calvinism is wrong - or this verse is wrong. (Truth does not contradict itself or Scripture - Titus 1:2, 9; John 17:17.)

The ongoing context reveals the manner of preparation: God’s general plan to redeem both Jew and Greek in Christ through faith! Suffice it to say, this involved some "preparation". Lastly, Paul's letter to Timothy shows that the vessel's "preparation" is also partially dependent upon the "vessel":

But in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver, but also of wood and clay, some for honor and some for dishonor. Therefore if anyone cleanses himself from the latter, he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified and useful for the Master, prepared for every good work. (II Timothy 2:20-21)

God has prepared the plan, the Man (Jesus Christ), and the means. However, we must avail ourselves of that gracious plan through penitent faith, if we hope to partake in those glorious blessings.

God’s Usage of the Jews to Save the Gentiles

... even us whom He called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles? As He says also in Hosea: "I will call them My people, who were not My people, And her beloved, who was not beloved. And it shall come to pass in the place where it was said to them, 'You are not My people,' There they shall be called sons of the living God." Isaiah also cries out concerning Israel: "Though the number of the children of Israel be as the sand of the sea, The remnant will be saved. For He will finish the work and cut it short in righteousness, Because the LORD will make a short work upon the earth." And as Isaiah said before: "Unless the LORD of Sabaoth had left us a seed, We would have become like Sodom, And we would have been made like Gomorrah." (Romans 9:24-29)

As we approach Paul's closing points in this section, we are reminded that God long ago planned and prophesied to bring the Gentiles into His kingdom. The Gentiles had not enjoyed the blessings of being a chosen people, as had the Jews. The Gentiles had enjoyed none of the blessings that Paul mentioned at the beginning of this context (9:4-5). Yet, in the Jewish Old Testament, God had foretold that He would claim the Gentiles as His beloved people. At the time of those prophecies, He was preparing the means of salvation for spiritual Israel (consisting of faithful Jew and Gentile), and He was preparing the occasion of physical Israel's destruction. Both were realized in the rejection of God’s Messiah and His kingdom.

In contrast to the Gentiles' hope, God foretold that only a remnant would be saved of the Israelites. In fact, if it had not been for God’s plans to spare a remnant, they would have been annihilated like all the other nations that had preceded them. As we learn later in Romans, the nation of Israel had not yet outlived its usefulness. However, its days were drawing near, when its role would be completed and God would end the Jewish nation, just like preceding nations.

Righteousness Promised By Faith

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)

Here is Paul's closing summary for this section: The Gentiles will be saved, because they sought God through faith. However, even though used by God, the Jewish nation was condemned by God, because they had sought to establish their own righteousness, independent of God, based on perfect obedience to the law. They had no excuse for their obstinance. God’s rejection and hardening of the Jews was accomplished by requiring them to do the very thing they detested. They had to recognize that God would save the world through one of their brethren, Jesus, and not through the whole nation. They had to trust in God through His Messiah, not their twisted version of the Messiah, not their ancestry, and not their obedience to the law.


It is ironic that a passage, designed to exemplify God’s right to choose who will be saved and by what means, has been used to mandate an election and calling defined by a man! Calvinism, and so called "orthodoxy", have philosophically defined God’s sovereignty, such that it is impossible for God to choose who will be saved, at least outside of Calvin's choice. Free-will, man's choices, and an individual's character are theoretically prohibited from serving as a basis of God’s choice, even though this passage was designed to vindicate God’s right to choose who would be saved. However, if we look closely at Romans 9 and its referenced passages, we can observe where God has manipulated nations in His grand scheme, or judicially hardened rebellious individuals. Yet, He still allowed the ultimate fate of both nation and individual to be chosen through either penitent obedience or stubborn disobedience.

Yes, Romans 9 clearly teaches God’s sovereignty and the immutability of God’s election. However, we have learned to be careful and not to interject our prejudices into the context. By exercising diligence (II Timothy 2:15; II Peter 3:14-18), we have examined the context of the Old Testament passages quoted by Paul, so we could clearly see that God’s unconditional election only applied to the role of nations in producing the Messiah, not the salvation of individuals (Genesis 25:22-23; Malachi 1:1-4). Although God may judicially harden an individual, it only occurs after an individual demonstrates himself to be opposed to redemption through his rejection of God’s message, God’s discipline, and God’s mercy (Exodus 3:19-20; 4:21-23; 5:1-2; 9:22-28). Finally, God may certainly fashion either a nation or an individual for salvation or condemnation, but God will modify His plans based on the subject's response (Jeremiah 18:5-11). Only through one's cleansing himself of evil works may he be fashioned and prepared for salvation, good works, and use by the Master (II Timothy 2:20-21). Yes, God has made an irrevocable choice, and His choice is to save those who humbly trust in His Son, repent, and obey (Proverbs 28:13; Isaiah 55:7; I Peter 5:5; Matthew 7:21-23). The gospel is designed to invite, touch, and draw these people, and it will by no means fail, because God is its Author (Isaiah 55:11).

Unless otherwise noted, all quotations are from the New King James Version, copyright © 1994 by Thomas Nelson Publishers.

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