Romans 9 is the Calvinist’s mic drop. Any time some free will guy starts spouting off about being able to choose Christ or not, all the Calvinist has to do is say “Romans 9, Jacob I love and Esau I hated, who are you to answer back to God?” If I had a nickel for every time I heard some version of this…it would be every time I have discussed with a Calvinist. The inevitable Romans 9 reference comes with the assumption that non-Calvinists have ignored Romans 9, pretend it doesn’t exist, or have no answer for it.
My purpose in this article is to show that non-Calvinists have, for generations, read Romans 9 and indeed have a reading of the chapter. We read the chapter in a way that I think fits right into the rest of the book and is consistent with the chapter as well.
One of the key aspects to understanding our view of Romans 9 is who we think the objector is. Throughout Romans, Paul introduces an objector who asks questions that Paul then answers. For the Calvinist, the objector is an obstinate unbeliever who objects to their view of sovereignty as defined as meticulous determinism or compatibilism. We see the objector as a hardened Jew who is questioning God’s choice to bless the Gentiles with salvation through faith since it was the Jew who historically kept the oracles of God, and through whom the Messiah came. One of the strengths of our view, I think, is how we see this objector. Why?
- It is the same objector throughout the entire book
- Our objector jibes with the historical conflict of the day
- Our objector jibes with Paul’s purpose in the rest of the book
Let’s look at each of those (briefly):
- In Rom 2: 17-29, Paul first slams the Jews for being hypocrites and goes on to turn their entire worldview on its head by saying that circumcision was never physical. He says that it was always about the state of your heart. That anyone who follows the Law is “of the circumcision” (how the Jews defined themselves in Paul’s day) no matter if he actually received the snip or not. Then, right after that, Paul introduces the objector for the first time. It is Paul’s way of answering anticipated objections from Jews who are feeling put off by having their paradigm shifted. The objector asks (Rom 3:1), “Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision?” and Paul answers him. This is the same objector in Romans 9 who is wondering, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” The same objector in Rom 3:5, 3:9, 6:1, 6:15, 7:7, 9:14, 11:1, and 11:11. In my estimation, it is a weakness of their position that Calvinists must assume that the objector in Rom 9:19 is different from the objector the other eight times Paul uses the rhetorical device in Romans.
- Paul is writing to the church in Rome which is a melting pot of Jew and Gentile. Sometime between 41 AD and 53 AD, the Emperor of Rome, Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome. During the time of this expulsion, Gentile Christians established a thriving church in Rome. The synagogues left behind by the Jews remained abandoned since Christians did not want to be associated with Jews for obvious religious and political reasons. The Christian church in Rome was probably a series of house churches. At some point after Claudius’ death in AD 53, his successor Nero rescinded the expulsion. Both Jewish Christians and Jews flooded back into the city. What were the Jewish Christians to do? Return to synagogue? Join Gentiles in their house churches even though the Law forbid Jews from entering the homes of Gentiles? One can imagine both Jews and Gentiles looking down on one another and having a difficult time finding a way forward in unity. This is what Romans is about; see 3. below.
- Paul’s thesis for the entire book is revealed in Rom 1:16-17.
16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”
He is going to spend the rest of the book showing the Jews that they have to be righteous by faith, just like the Gentiles. They cannot sit on their blood heritage as Jews and be saved. The objector is Paul’s way of answering perceived objections to different aspects of this thesis. The Calvinist view of the objector has no part in Paul’s thesis.
The Choice of God in Romans 9
Let’s go through the flow of Paul’s thought in the chapter and while we do this, dear Reader, I would ask you to keep in mind one question: What choice of God does Paul have in mind? The Calvinist reading of Rom 9 is that Paul is saying that God chooses to effectually save some while not saving others; “Jacob I loved, Esau I hated”. In our view, Paul is talking about through which family/nation God chooses to send the Messiah/the message of salvation through. So, let’s see which choice of God is Paul talking about?
I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit— 2 that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. 3 For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh.
Paul starts with displaying his heart for the Jews. I find this interesting because, in my view, I can say that God shares Paul’s heart for the Jews. God longs for Israel to come to Him, Rom 10:21, “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people.” Yet, I do not know how Calvinists see God as sharing Paul’s heart. Paul is willing to be damned to hell for the Jews and yet God is not willing for Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross to be applied to them. Calvinists have to create two wills of God to get around this. Why does Paul feel this way about the Jews?
4 They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. 5 To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.
They were chosen by God to be adopted into His family and given the glory as God’s people. To them, He gave the covenants and the law. He also gave them the promise that through them the entire world would be blessed. In other words, the promise that through them would be the lineage of the Christ. If anyone should be enjoying the fruits the Messiah, it should be the Jews. After all, it came through them. For that reason, and because Paul is one of them, his heart grieves for them. This is the context of the objector’s first question.
6 But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel,
Paul anticipates the objection that if God had given the Jews all those blessings mentioned above, and now all those blessings have been given to the Gentiles, then God’s word has failed. God chose the Jews for the honor and blessing being in covenant with God but now God has gone back on his word and chose the Gentiles too. God failed to keep His word. Paul answers the objection by saying that Israel is not merely blood Israel. Israel has always been about faith.
and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” 8 This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring. 9 For this is what the promise said: “About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son.”
Notice the contrast Paul is making here. The contrast is between who God chooses to give the promise to, not who God chooses to be saved. Not unbeliever and believer. Not elect and reprobate. But how God has always chosen who will carry the promise. What was the promise? Effectual salvation? No, the promise was that through Abraham’s family the entire world would be blessed (Gen 12:1-3, 15:1-6, 18:17-19 etc). Look at what God tells Abraham in v. 9. He does not tell him something like “I will choose to bring you to heaven”. No, it is “I will choose to give you a son”. Paul is not equating God’s choice to give Abraham a son with God’s choice to save some and not save others. Paul is giving an example of God’s choice of through which family the nations will be blessed with the coming of the Messiah. Paul gives another example of this choice.
10 And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, 11 though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls— 12 she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” 13 As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”
God does what He pleases. Amen. God elects certain things to come to pass. Amen. What is He pleased to do? What does He elect to do? Is it to choose to save some and reject others before they ever did anything good or bad? Meticulously determine everything that comes to pass? Choose to hate an unborn child before they’ve ever done anything wrong? That’s not what this passage is saying. “God’s purpose in election” is simply assumed to mean “effectual salvation” by the Calvinist. There is nothing in this passage that supports that assumption.
Instead, what Paul is saying is that God has always chosen before they’ve ever done anything good or bad, through whom the Messiah would come. He has always chosen which family would carry the blessing of God’s covenant with Abraham. Just like He chose to give Abraham a son, God chose Jacob’s lineage to carry the promise despite Ancient Near East culture expecting it to be the older twin, Esau.
The non-Calvinist view sees Jacob and Esau as being representative of nations. It is not that Jacob and Esau, the individuals, are excluded from our view. Far from it. But that they are in view as individuals who became federal heads of nations, Israel and Edom respectively. There are four points that, in my estimation, support this view.
- Paul has been talking about the nation of Israel this whole time. He was just, in the same paragraph, talking about what defines Israel as a nation.
- Paul calls Isaac, “our forefather” which tells us exactly in what way he is talking about the individual Isaac; as the federal head of the nation of Israel. It is the same way in which Paul has Jacob and Esau, the individuals, in view; as federal heads of nations. The Calvinist, apparently, must take Paul as switching to talking about only the individual without an indication in the text that he does so.
- God called Jacob and Esau “nations” in the reference Paul is using in v. 12, Gen 25:23, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the older shall serve the younger.”
- Notice how, in the Genesis reference, God switches from the plural “peoples” to the singular “one”. It’s almost as if the “one” somehow represents the “peoples”.
- If the Calvinist view is right then Paul is spreading fake news. The individual Esau never served the individual Jacob. The nation of Edom served the nation of Israel many generations later. Indeed, God blessed the Edomites and gave them land. It wasn’t until they turned away from God and sinned against Israel that God turned on them and Israel conquered them.
- What follows logically is that the Calvinist has to see Paul as either factually incorrect or as referencing the nations of Edom and Israel when he uses the singular “older” and “younger” respectively but stops doing that in the very next sentence when Paul uses their names; “Jacob I loved, Esau I hated.”
It is God’s choice to which family/nation He gives the lineage of the Messiah. It was always God’s choice to do so. So when God gives the Gentiles the same blessing He gave Israel, there is no injustice being done. It is this choice that The Objector is objecting to in the rest of the chapter.
14 What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! 15 For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”
We agree with the Calvinist that God can have mercy on whoever He wants to mercy. That’s not our point of contention. Our point of contention is that the Calvinist assumes this to mean mercy and compassion unto effectual salvation. Instead, we see Paul as referencing the mercy and compassion of having the honor, the blessing, and the glory of the Messiah being brought through your nation.
16 So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. 17 For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” 18 So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.
Notice the purpose of Pharaoh being raised up and hardened. It’s not effectual salvation but “that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth”. So it does not depend upon human will or exertion who is chosen to carry the proclamation of God’s name, ie. carrying the lineage of the Christ, ie. proclaiming the Gospel. Paul is saying that it has always depended upon God’s sovereign choice as to who will carry the promise of the Messiah. Before Christ came it was the Jews. Now, after Jesus’ incarnation, ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection, God has sovereignly chose to open up that blessing to the Gentiles as well.
19 You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” 20 But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” 21 Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? 22 What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, 23 in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— 24 even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?
This is another question from the objector. It is it similar to the objection in v.14. How can God find fault in the Jews who no longer have been chosen to carry the oracles of God? Paul’s answer is that it was always of God’s sovereign choice which nation He molded to carry the blessing, honor, and promise of the Messiah. Who are you to say which group of people God chooses to proclaim the Gospel? You’re still responsible for you.
So “vessels of wrath prepared for destruction” is not “individuals hated by God before they were ever born or did anything right or wrong”. Instead, we see it as “those who reject the Messiah are prepared for destruction” and “those who believe in Messiah are destined for glory”. Remember, the objector is a hardened Jew who is objecting to God including the Gentiles in His family. Paul is saying, “who are you to tell God he has set this up incorrectly and salvation should be about blood heritage instead of by faith?”
Further, says Paul, God’s choice to include the Gentiles was prophesied to happen.
25 As indeed he says in Hosea,
“Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’
and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved.’”
26 “And in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’
there they will be called ‘sons of the living God.’”
27 And Isaiah cries out concerning Israel: “Though the number of the sons of Israel be as the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will be saved, 28 for the Lord will carry out his sentence upon the earth fully and without delay.” 29 And as Isaiah predicted,
“If the Lord of hosts had not left us offspring, we would have become like Sodom and become like Gomorrah”
It was never the case that all of Israel would believe in Messiah and it was always the case that God would bring in the Gentiles. So the objector has no case against God for injustice, God told him this would happen.
The Unbelief of the Jews Explained
If the Jews were chosen from the beginning to carry the promise of God, why don’t they believe? Yes, it’s true that God has now opened up the promise to the Gentiles. It was always of His sovereign choice to do so, or not, so there is no injustice. Plus, the prophets said this would happen. The prophets said there would be a remnant of faithful Israel and that God would call near those who were far off. So why do the Jews disbelieve? Is it because God chose how many of them, and which of them, would not believe from the beginning of time? Not at all.
30 What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, a righteousness that is by faith; 31 but that Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law. 32 Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone, 33 as it is written,
“Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”
The Jews do not believe because they pursued righteousness as if it was a matter of works. And they rejected the One that was trying to tell them they need to pursue it by faith. If Paul meant to say they rejected Christ because God ordained that they always would want to reject Christ, why did he not say so? Instead, Paul talks as if it is the responsibility of the Jews to pursue righteousness by faith. Non-Calvinists take Paul as saying it is their responsibility to believe, while at the same time it is God’s responsibility to choose through whom the message of faith comes.