Calvinist Election Refuted in Romans 11: A Concise And Devastating Article By A Professor of New Testament And Greek

Article by Günther H. Juncker, re-posted from SEA

According to Calvinism, Rom 11:5-7 teaches double predestination. On the one hand there is a “remnant” that is elect and has been “chosen” for salvation from before the foundation of the world. And on the other hand there is “the rest” who are the non-elect, or reprobate, who have been created and irreversibly predestined to hell. The reprobate by definition cannot be saved because God does not want them saved. He does not love them (rather he “hates” them) and Jesus did not die for them. These God justly “hardens,” like Pharaoh, to keep from salvation since God does not want them saved but in hell.

According to Paul, however, “the rest” who are not elect and not “chosen” can be saved. In fact, many of them will be saved. Saving them is, from one angle, the very point of the Gentile mission! If Paul is correct then Calvinism is, in a word, refuted. Clearly if “the rest” can be saved, then they are not the reprobate of Calvinistic double predestination theology. The fact that some are “chosen” does not entail that others are irreversibly reprobated or “rejected.” Since the chosen “remnant” actually comes from the ranks of “the rest” it is thus not enough to say, as any Calvinist could say, that the existence of a remnant proves that God has not rejected Israel. It is specifically “the rest,” described in detail in the immediately preceding paragraph (Rom 10:16-21), that God has not rejected. But how to be sure? Simple. Follow the pronouns in Romans 11 to see what Paul himself actually says about “the rest.” God loves them. He shows mercy to them. He desires that they be saved. Some of them can and will be saved.

1I say then, God has not rejected His people, has He? May it never be! For I too am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin. 2God has not rejected His people whom He foreknew. Or do you not know what the Scripture says in the passage about Elijah, how he pleads with God against Israel? 3“Lord, they have killed Your prophets, they have torn down Your altars, and I alone am left, and they are seeking my life.” 4But what is the divine response to him? “I have kept for Myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” 5In the same way then, there has also come to be at the present time a remnant according to God’s gracious choice. 6But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace. 7What then? What Israel is seeking, it has not obtained, but those who were chosen obtained it, and the rest were hardened; 8just as it is written, “God gave them a spirit of stupor, Eyes to see not and ears to hear not, Down to this very day.” 9And David says, “Let their table become a snare and a trap, And a stumbling block and a retribution to them.10Let their eyes be darkened to see not, And bend their backs forever.” 11I say then, they did not stumble so as to fall, did they? May it never be! But by their transgression salvation has come to the Gentiles, to make them jealous. 12Now if their transgression is riches for the world and their failure is riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their fulfillment be! 13But I am speaking to you who are Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle of Gentiles, I magnify my ministry, 14if somehow I might move to jealousy my fellow countrymen and save some of them. 15For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead? 16If the first piece of dough is holy, the lump is also; and if the root is holy, the branches are too. 17But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, being a wild olive, were grafted in among them and became partaker with them of the rich root of the olive tree, 18do not be arrogant toward the branches; but if you are arrogant, remember that it is not you who supports the root, but the root supports you. 19You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” 20Quite right, they were broken off for their unbelief, but you stand by your faith. Do not be conceited, but fear; 21for if God did not spare the natural branches, He will not spare you, either. 22Behold then the kindness and severity of God; to those who fell, severity, but to you, God’s kindness, if you continue in His kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off. 23And they also, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. 24For if you were cut off from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and were grafted contrary to nature into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these who are the natural branches be grafted into their own olive tree? … 28From the standpoint of the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but from the standpoint of God’s choice they are beloved for the sake of the fathers; 29for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. 30For just as you once were disobedient to God, but now have been shown mercy because of their disobedience, 31so these also now have been disobedient, that because of the mercy shown to you they also may now be shown mercy. 32For God has shut up all in disobedience so that He may show mercy to all.

Truly, this passage should be an eye opener for those who have not taken God’s salvific, propitiatory agape love for the entire world (John 3:16; cf. 1 John 2:2) seriously enough. In short, if Rom 11:5-7 is not describing the reprobate of Calvinistic double predestination then it is safe to say that there are no such people. What Calvin meant by terms like “elect” and “chosen” and “hardened” has nothing to do with what Paul meant by these terms. The Calvinist system is foreign to Paul and twists Paul’s terms to mean things that they never meant. Same goes for expressions like “vessels of wrath” that for Calvin meant reprobate and irreversibly predestined to hell; whereas for Paul it simply meant presently under God’s wrath but able to come out from under that wrath through faith in the Gospel (cf. Rom 2:4-5). In fact, for Paul all believers were once “vessels of wrath” (Rom 1:18-3:20; cf. Eph 2:3)! In other words, if the so-called “reprobate” can be and are being saved and grafted into the Olive Tree, then there is no such thing as the “reprobate” as Calvinism understands the term. May God spare us from dogmatic interpretations that distort the Gospel and diminish God’s goodness, love, and mercy toward the whole cosmos and every single person in it!

“I can prove that Calvinistic double predestination is biblical. Let me begin by redefining some of Paul’s terms in Romans . . . .”
Dr. Günther H. Juncker
Professor of New Testament & Greek
Toccoa Falls College
Toccoa Falls, GA 30598
Related Posts:

Brian Abasciano Responds to Thomas Schreiner’s Recent Review of His Book on Romans 9:10-18

Excerpt:

Concerning the hardening of Pharaoh, after a note of agreement, you just assert positions opposite to mine without substantiation. So I’ll take the opportunity to share something merely anecdotal. Before publishing the book, I submitted my chapter on the hardening of Pharaoh to a distinguished Reformed scholar who is writing a major commentary on Exodus, asking for feedback. I was expecting some serious pushback or criticism of my reading. But to my surprise, the scholar largely agreed with my reading and, if anything, seems to think the divine hardening even less deterministic than I do and plans to cite my work. It is not as if it should be obvious that the divine hardening of Pharaoh was deterministic or irreversible.

Brian Abasciano, “A Response to Thomas Schreiner’s Review of my Book on Romans 9:10-18″

Related articles:

Brian J. Abasciano, “Corporate Election in Romans 9: A Reply to Thomas Schreiner”

Brian Abasciano, “Clearing Up Misconceptions About Corporate Election”

Dr. Brian Abasciano Responds to Dr. Dan Wallace on the Issue of Corporate Election

Brian Abasciano on the Corporate Perspective of Paul and His Culture, The Translation of Romans 9:6b, and Corporate Election in Romans 9

Brian Abasciano on the Meaning of “Calling” 

Klein, William W. “Paul’s Use of Kalein: A Proposal”

Brian Abasciano, Paul’s Use of the Old Testament in Romans 9:1-9: An Intertextual and Theological Exegesis (This is Dr. Abasciano’s doctoral dissertation and the basis for his first book on Romans 9.  It is essentially the same as his first book on Romans 9, but longer)

Corporate Election Quotes

Corporate Election Quotes

The following is a series of important excerpts from some of the best scholarly works espousing the corporate view of election.  Taken together, these quoted sections give a very detailed description of the fundamental elements of the corporate election view, answering many common questions related to the view as well as addressing and correcting common misconceptions.  The authors’ names precede each section of excerpts and the books or articles the quotes are culled from are listed after the quoted sections, along with page numbers.  The articles are hyperlinked to their original sources, and books to where they can be purchased.  Related links can also be found at the end of the post.

Dr. Brian Abasciano

(Since several sources from the above author are being quoted in this first section, the asterisks serve as markers that a new source is being quoted)

Most simply, corporate election refers to the choice of a group, which entails the choice of its individual members by virtue of their membership in the group. Thus, individuals are not elected as individuals directly, but secondarily as members of the elect group. Nevertheless, corporate election necessarily entails a type of individual election because of the inextricable connection between any group and the individuals who belong to it.  Individuals are elect as a consequence of their membership in the group.  (Clearing Up Misconceptions About Corporate Election, pg. 6)

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God chose the people of Israel in Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob/Israel (Deut 4:37; 7:6-8).  That is, by choosing Jacob/Israel, the corporate/covenant representative, God also chose his descendants as his covenant people. It is a matter of Old Testament covenant theology. The covenant representative on the one hand and the people/nation of Israel on the other hand are the focus of the divine covenantal election, and individuals are elect only as members of the elect people. Moreover, in principle, foreign individuals who were not originally members of the elect people could join the chosen people and become part of the elect, demonstrating again that the locus of election was the covenant community and that individuals found their election through membership in the elect people. (Abasciano, Corporate Election in Romans 9, 353)

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We have already noted that God’s Old Covenant people were chosen in Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. More specifically, God chose Abraham and his descendants, but limited his election of Abraham’s descendants to only some of them by his choice of Isaac as the head of the covenant through whom Abraham’s covenant descendants were to be reckoned. He then limited his election of the covenant descendants even further by his choice of Jacob as the head of the covenant. At the same time, and as already pointed out above, people not naturally related to Jacob and so not part of the elect people could join the chosen people, becoming part of the elect. On the other hand, individual members of the elect people could be cut off from the covenant people due to violation of the covenant, rendering them non-elect.

Finally, the Apostle Paul would argue, God limited his election even further to Christ as the head of the New Covenant (Gal. 3–4; see especially 3:16; cf. Rom. 3–4; 8), which is the fulfillment of the Old. Paradoxically, this also widened the election of God’s people because all who are in Christ by faith are chosen by virtue of their identification with Christ the corporate covenantal head, opening covenant membership to Gentiles as Gentiles. Just as God’s Old Covenant people were chosen in Jacob/Israel, the Church was chosen in Christ (as Eph. 1:4 puts it). And as Ephesians 2 makes clear, Gentiles who believe in Christ are in him made to be part of the commonwealth of Israel, fellow citizens with the saints, members of God’s household, and possessors of the covenants of promise (2:11-22; note especially vv. 12, 19). Indeed, any Jews who did not believe in Jesus were cut off from the elect people, and any believing Gentiles who stop believing will likewise be cut off, while anyone who comes to faith, whether Jew or Gentile, will be incorporated into God’s people (Rom. 11:17-24).

In the New Covenant, God’s people are chosen corporately as a consequence of their union with Christ, which is effected by faith. While this is not quite the traditional Arminian position, it fully supports Arminian theology because it is a conditional election. Most directly, such election is conditioned on being in Christ. But then being in Christ is itself conditioned on faith, meaning that the divine election of God’s people and the election of individuals for salvation is ultimately conditional on faith in Christ. (Misconceptions, pp. 7, 8, emphasis his)

It is true that corporate election does not refer to the election of each individual separately from Christ or the group, but this does not in any way nullify the election of each individual member of the group as a result of the group’s election. It is also true that corporate election does not refer to the choice of anyone to join the elect people. The concept of covenantal election or election unto eternal salvation simply does not apply to entrance into the elect people.  It actually refers to a people being chosen to belong to God, to receive the benefits of his covenant promises (ideally), and to live according to his covenant commands (Gen. 18:19; Deut. 4:20; 7:6-9; 14:2; Ps. 135:4; Eph. 1:4ff.; 1 Pet. 2:9-10). All of this applies to each individual in the New Covenant as a consequence of membership in the elect people, and more profoundly, of being in Christ by faith, which is what makes someone a part of God’s people. (ibid., pp. 10, 11)

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What is imperative to see in relation to the nature of the election Paul envisions in Rom. 9.10-13 is that the significance of the individual Jacob’s election for Israel was that they were elect by virtue of their identification with him. Their election was ‘in him’, and thus intrinsically consequent upon his. This dispels another of the main objections to taking election as corporate in these verses – that the individuals Jacob and Esau are obviously in view to one degree or another, and therefore so is individual election (of individuals as autonomous entities).  This objection fails to apprehend the relationship between the election of the corporate representative and his people. The corporate representative’s election is unique, entailing the election of all who are identified with him. Its significance was never that each individual member of the elect people was chosen as an individual to become part of the elect people in the same manner as the corporate head was chosen. Rather, the individual possesses elect status as a consequence of membership in the elect people/identification with the corporate representative. In the case of the divine covenantal election, God chooses his people by his choice of the covenant head.

A great obstacle to the view that Paul is teaching direct election of individuals as individuals to become part of his people and receive salvation is the fact that the corporate view is the view of the Old Testament generally and the texts Paul interprets in Romans 9 specifically as well as the standard view of Judaism in Paul’s day. Moo, an outspoken advocate of individual election, admits as much and concedes, ‘We would expect Paul to be thinking of “election” here in the same terms, an expectation that seems to be confirmed by the OT texts that Paul quotes’. This is exactly right. As I have argued elsewhere, the burden of proof lies squarely upon those who would argue that Paul departs from the standard biblical and Jewish concept of election.  Therefore, it is an insuperable problem for the individual election view that everything Paul says here in Romans 9 fits comfortably into the view of corporate election, which could speak of the inclusion or exclusion of individuals vis-à-vis the covenant without shifting the locus of election itself to the individual.  Indeed, Paul’s olive tree metaphor in Rom. 11.17-24 evidences the view of corporate election perfectly. Individuals get grafted into the elect people (the olive tree) and participate in election and its blessings by faith or get cut off from God’s chosen people and their blessings because of unbelief, while the focus of election clearly remains the corporate people of God, which spans salvation history. The natural understanding of Jacob’s election in a first-century context would have led readers to apply Paul’s example to the character of the corporate election of God’s people rather than to the individual. Advocates of individual election in Romans 9 appear to have jumped to applying election directly to individuals because of individualistic assumptions foreign to Paul and his socio-historical milieu.

Thus, Paul’s argument based on Jacob and Esau is salvation-historical. Based on the circumstances of their conception and the timing of the divine call/proclamation of Jacob’s election as the covenant heir, Paul concludes that the election of God’s people was not dictated by any distinctive of either twin, but by the sovereign will and call of God. Generally speaking, by basing the foundational election of his people on his sovereign call rather than some meritorious distinctive of Jacob or de-meritorious distinctive of Esau, God ensured that he remained free to choose who his people are according to his own good pleasure. More specifically, he ensured that he remained free to choose the head/mediator of his covenant for any (or no) reason whatsoever, and thereby to choose similarly who his people are. Most specifically in the context of Paul’s argument, God’s sovereign call of Jacob and his descendants ensured that he could call only those who believe in Jesus Christ seed of Abraham if he so chose, that is, regard them as his covenant people, and thereby fulfill his purpose of blessing the whole world in Abraham, for Israel’s election depended wholly on his sovereign will from the beginning and therefore remained subject to the dictates of his own will. (Abasciano, Paul’s Use of the Old Testament in Romans 9:10-18, An Intertextual and Theological Exegesis, pp. 59-61)

Paul’s doctrine of election is Christocentric. He believed Christ to be the seed of Abraham, the true Israel and embodiment of the covenant people of God, who was the heir to the Abrahamic covenant promises (Gal. 3.16) and the mediator and head of the new Covenant (1 Cor. 11.25; 2 Cor. 3.6), which is essentially the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant. By believing in Christ, Christians come to be ‘in Christ’ and therefore share in his identity as the covenant representative. Consequently, they are also the seed of Abraham and sons of God – that is, the elect people of God – through faith in Christ.

Thus, Christ fulfils the election of Abraham/Isaac/Jacob/Israel and every promise of God is fulfilled in him (2 Cor. 1.19). God’s sovereign freedom over the election of the covenant head guarantees his sovereign freedom over the election of the covenant people. Just as individual Israelites were elected as a consequence of their identification with Jacob, individual Christians are elected as a consequence of their identification with Christ through faith.  As Eph. 1.4 puts it, God chose the Church in Christ. The ‘in Christ’ phrase indicates covenant identification and solidarity with Christ as the corporate head/representative, and therefore implies covenant membership as well. As a result of faith-union with Christ, Christians share in Christ’s election. (ibid. 61, 62)

William W. Klein

The Old Testament data concerning God’s election naturally leads to a major conclusion- election is primarily a corporate election.  The election of the priesthood puts this in bold relief.  God chose the priests as a category, but individual Levites could be disqualified.  The Davidic dynasty certainly follows this pattern.  Though “election” can apply to individuals, more frequently it applies to the election of corporate groups.  In fact, the scattered references to elect individuals find their significance in the context of the election of the community…. At its core, election in the Old Testament is corporate- the election of a people to bear the name of God. (God’s New Chosen People, pg. 35, 42, emphasis his)

In our study of the Old Testament we discerned the pattern that God chose Abraham and his seed to be his chosen nation.  Correspondingly, God chose Christ and those “in Him” to be his chosen people.  God’s free and sovereign electing grace has chosen the community of those “in Christ.”  Christ is God’s chosen One, and the church is chosen in him. (ibid. 260)

An understanding of salvific election as corporate also shifts the focus of many debates about election.  Some of these debates may be beside the point.  The debates often center on the issue by asking: Has God chosen specific individuals to save, and, if so, was it on the basis of foreseen faith or simply a matter of God’s sovereign will?  We have concluded that this question does not trouble the biblical writers.  God has chosen to save a people, and in New Testament language that people is the church.  In the old covenant a person entered the chosen nation of Israel through natural birth.  In the new covenant a person enters the chosen body, the church, through the new birth.  To exercise faith in Christ is to enter into his body and become one of the “chosen ones.” (ibid. 265)

These data present an impressive case that election is not God’s choice of a restricted number of individuals whom he wills to save, but the description of that corporate body, which, in Christ, he is saving.  God has covenanted to save his people through their identification with Jesus, his beloved and elect Son.  To become a member of that chosen people requires faith in the gospel.  Anyone who believes may enter into this elect nation. (ibid. 266)

Robert Shank

Here [in Isaiah 42:1, 6f.] is one of the most beautiful concepts in the Holy Scriptures concerning the instrumentality of Christ in Election.  Jehovah says of the Servant- Messiah, “[I will] give thee for a covenant of the people.”  The Messiah is Himself the Living Covenant of reconciliation and election, through whom the grace of God flows to the people, Israel and the Gentiles together are accepted.

Christ is the Elect, the one Mediator between God and men, the Living Covenant of reconciliation and the election, the electing God, the locus standi in whom alone men are elect and outside whom no man is elect.  In the face of many affirmations of Holy Scripture, it may in truth be said that Christ, who is our Life (Col. 3:4), is Himself the Election.  Instrumentally and comprehensively, the election is Christocentric. (Shank, Elect in the Son, 44, 45, emphasis his).

In Paul’s Ephesian doxology, as in certain other Scriptures, an essential aspect of election is explicit: the election is Christocentric.  The first step toward a correct understanding of the Biblical doctrine of election is the recognition that the election of men is comprehended only in Christ; outside of Christ there is no election of any man. (ibid. 29)

In the realization of the kingdom purpose of God, the election is first of Christ and then of men in Him.  Clement, first century bishop at Rome who could speak of Peter and Paul as being of his own generation, wrote in his First Epistle to the Corinthians, “God…chose out the Lord Jesus Christ, and us through him for a ‘peculiar people’” (64:1).  [Frederick] Godet affirms that, in election, “Christ Himself is its first object; and hence He is called the Elect, absolutely speaking, Isa. Xlii. 1: Luke ix. 35 (most approved reading).  His brethren are elect in Him, Eph. i. 4-6. (ibid. 31; Shank quotes Godet from his Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, p. 326, italics his).

A second aspect of election is implicit in Paul’s Ephesian doxology: the election to salvation is corporate as well as Christocentric…Obviously, the corporate body of the elect is comprised of individuals.  But the election is primarily corporate and only secondarily particular.  The thesis that election is corporate as Paul understood it and viewed it in the Ephesian doxology, is supported by the whole context of his epistle:

…gather together in one all things in Christ…the redemption of the purchased possession…his inheritance in the saints…the church, which is his body…who has made both one…to make in himself one new man…that he might reconcile both unto God in one body…the household of God…all the building fitly framed together…an holy temple…builded together for an habitation of God…of the same body…the mystery from the beginning of the world [now disclosed in] the church [as fulfillment of] the eternal purpose which he purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord…of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named…glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages…one body…the body of Christ…the whole body fitly joined together…increase of the body…we are members of one another…Christ is the head of the church…the saviour of the body…Christ loved the church and gave himself for it, that he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, that he might present it to himself a glorious church…they two shall be one flesh [but] I speak concerning Christ and the church.

The concept of the corporate body of the elect is intrinsic in all the above excerpts.  Consider 2:12, “you were without Christ, being aliens in the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise….”  The concept of the corporate election of Israel, a concept derived from many Scriptures, is clearly apparent.  The concept of corporate election is equally apparent in Paul’s assertion that Jews and Gentiles together are “reconciled to God in one body on the cross” (v. 16).  The New Testament comprehends believers, not in isolation, but as members of the body of the elect.  The election of individual men cannot be isolated from “the church, which is his body” any more than it can be isolated from Christ Himself. (ibid. 45, 46)

[Shank compares Calvinist election with the corporate view]:

A central thesis of Calvin’s doctrine of election may be stated thus:

The election to salvation is of particular men unconditionally, who comprise the corporate body incidentally.

A central thesis of the Biblical doctrine of election may be stated thus:

The election to salvation is corporate and comprehends individual men only in identification and association with the elect body.

With this thesis before us, let us cite Lange’s comment on Romans 8:28-30:  “…Christ is the elect in God’s real kingdom in the absolute sense, so that all His followers are chosen with Him as organic members, according to their organic relations (Eph. I).”  Lang cites Hoffmann (Schriftbeweis, vol. I, p. 227) to the effect that “election relates not merely to individuals, but to the entire body, and, accordingly, to individuals as members of the body.” (ibid. 48, all emphasis his)

Paul Marston and Roger Forster

The central idea in the election of the church may be seen from Ephesians 1:4- it is that we are chosen in Christ.  The church is elect because it is in Christ and he is elect…The Bible does not say that we were chosen to be put into Christ, but that we were chosen in Christ.  Our election is not separate from his election (Marston and Forster, God’s Strategy in Human History, pp. 149, 150, emphasis theirs).

Paul also mentions election in Romans 8:32-34:

He that spared not his own son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not also with him freely give us all things?  Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect?  It is God that justifies.  Who is he that shall condemn”  It is Christ Jesus that died, yea rather, that was raised from the dead, who is at the right hand of God.

It is important to remember that the issue of “no condemnation” was first raised in Romans 8:1: There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.  There is no condemnation “to the ones in Christ,” and when Paul returns to this theme in Romans 8:33, 34 he naturally refers to “the chosen ones of God.”  They are chosen in Christ, and so are free from condemnation.  The link may become even clearer to us if we consider Isaiah 50:6-9:

I gave my back to the smiters and my cheeks to them that plucked off the hair.  I hid not my face from shame and spitting.  For the Lord God will help me; therefore have I not been confounded: therefore have I set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be ashamed.  He is near that justifies me; who shall contend with me?  Let us stand up together; who is my adversary?  Let him come near to me.  Behold the Lord God will help me; who is he that shall condemn me?

In this passage Isaiah is speaking of the Messiah, the elect One of Isaiah 49:7.  Paul, however, in Romans 8:31, 33-34, applies these words to the church, the “elect ones of God.”  Surely the thinking behind this is that the “elect ones” are able to say “Who shall condemn?” because they are in Christ, the elect servant of God, who alone could say such a thing in his own right.  We are elect and free from condemnation only because we are in the elect One of God…The implications of being chosen in Christ may be made clearer by analogy, and it might be best to begin with an analogy implied in scripture itself.  This is the analogy of God’s choice of Jacob.  The descendents of Jacob were not chosen to be put into Jacob; rather they were chosen in Jacob.  Their chosenness was not distinct from his chosenness.  Individuals were chosen only because they were part of the chosen nation; the election was a corporate one.  This is even clearer if we consider Gentiles who became proselytized into the Jewish nation and faith.

We have already looked at a good example of this in Ruth the Moabitess.  In becoming an Israelite she became part of the chosen nation.  She was now chosen in the nation of Israel.  This does not mean that she was chosen to be put into Israel, for though the opportunity was God-given, that was her own decision.  Rather, she became chosen in Israel, and Israel’s election had now become her election.  Likewise, all other proselytes entered into Israel and so shared Israel’s election.

An obvious parallel exists between this and the Christian’s election in Christ.  When people enter into Christ then not only does his death become theirs, but his election becomes their election.  They are chosen in him, and his chosennes was established before the foundation of the world.  But to be chosen in him is not the same as being chosen to be put into him…The prime point is that election of the church is a corporate rather than an individual thing.  It is not that individuals are in the church because they are elect, it is rather that they are elect because they are in the church, which is the body of the elect One.  Ruth was not chosen to become an Israelite but in becoming an Israelite she partook of Israel’s election.  A Christian is not chosen to become part of Christ’s body, but in becoming part of that body (s)he partakes of Christ’s election. (ibid. 152-155, bold emphasis and italics theirs).

Jerry L. Walls and Joseph R. Dongell

The reality of our incorporation into Christ saturates Paul’s thinking and helps us grasp the idea of divine choice and predestination as taught in this passage [Eph. 1:4-5].  It is in him that we have been chosen and predestined (Eph. 1:4-5), just as it is in him that we have been seated in heavenly places (Eph. 2:6-7).  This means that Jesus Christ himself is the chosen one, the predestined one.  Whenever one is incorporated into him by grace through faith, one comes to share in Jesus’ special status as chosen of God.  As Markus Barth expresses it, “Election in Christ must be understood as the election of God’s people.  Only as members of that community do individuals share in the benefits of God’s gracious choice.”  This view of election most fully accounts for the corporate nature of salvation, the decisive role of faith and the overarching reliability of God’s bringing his people to their destined end. (Walls and Dongell, Why I Am Not A Calvinist, pg. 76)

[In regards to Romans 8:29-30, compared with Rom. 5:12-17; 6:3-4)] Those now residing “in Christ” live in a new reality and benefit from the mighty events of death and resurrection that Jesus himself experienced.  The apostle can therefore address believers themselves (all whom are “in Christ”) as those who have been buried with Jesus, or as those who have died with him, or as those who have walked in newness of life, or as those who will experience the resurrection “with him” (Rom. 6:4, 8).  Since Jesus is the primary character in the events of God’s redemptive drama, we experience these only indirectly, by being “in” the lead player.  It is difficult to overstate just how significant for the whole of Pauline theology is the corporate vision of the church finding its identity, its salvation, its wealth and security “in him.”

Here we are back to the same ground already covered regarding Ephesians 1:4-5, where believers are described as having been chosen and predestined “in him.”  This only encourages us all the more to read Romans 8:29-30 as referring not to a specific, set number of persons who individually progress through the five steps without mathematical gain or loss, but to the whole body of Christ, without particular focus on the individuality of its members.  The people of God as a whole, having been incorporated into Christ, are most certainly destined to arrive at the goal God has established from the beginning.  Each of us is assured of participation in that most certain end, provided we remain among this people and remain in his kindness (Romans 11:22). (ibid. 82)

Paul distinguishes the irrevocable call of the nation of Israel as a whole from the fate of individual Israelites.  While the final destination of the people of God is absolutely certain, the future of any given individual is determined by his or her continued faith and trust in God.  Gentiles who believe are grafted into the ancient olive tree, whereas Jews who fall into unbelief are broken off.  Since faith is the sole condition for remaining engrafted, Paul issues both warning and hope.  On the one hand, those Gentiles who have recently been engrafted into the ancient tree through faith must humbly guard against falling into unbelief, since they too would be severed from the tree.  On the other hand, the natural branches lying on the ground can be “grafted into their own olive tree” if “they do not persist in unbelief” (Rom 11:23-24).  In other words, the destiny of God’s people as a whole is unchanged throughout the ages, though each individual branch participates in this salvation only if he or she remains engrafted by faith (cf. Jn 15:5-6).  As Paul Achtemeier explains, Paul teaches destiny without teaching individual determinism. (ibid. 87)

Related articles:

Corporate Election (Resources)

What Does “Calling/Called” Refer to in the Bible?

Dr. Brian Abasciano on the Conditionality Implied in Romans 9:16 and its Connection to John 1:12-13

“So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.”  Romans 9:16 (ESV)

“But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” John 1:12-13 (ESV).

Piper’s further, detailed argument for 9.16 as speaking of unconditional bestowal of divine mercy founders on both fundamental presupposition and its particulars. For the former, Piper assumes that the language of 9.16 is incompatible with God bestowing his mercy on a condition sovereignly determined by himself. But our exegesis has found this to be a false assumption. As for the particulars, appeals to 9.11-12 and Exod. 33.19 are contradicted by our exegesis of these texts as well as of 9.16, and the reader is directed to the relevant portions of the present volume. Curiously, Piper’s final main argument invokes Phil. 2.13 (because of the somewhat similar language of ‘willing’ (τὸ θέλειν) and ‘working’ (τὸ ἐνεργεῖν)) as somehow ruling out any condition for the bestowal of God’s mercy. But that text does not particularly talk about God’s mercy (except insofar as any blessing of God can be considered mercy) and it does not indicate anything about God’s bestowal of mercy, or any divine action, being unconditional. Piper seems to be overreaching here, and we conclude that Phil. 2.13 is largely irrelevant to Rom. 9.16 and the question of the conditionality of the mercy it mentions.

Piper, 154 n. 3, notes one further reference, cited by Sanday/Headlam as an analogy to 9.16 (though Piper mistakenly refers to 9.6): Jn 1.12-13. This reference actually works against Piper because the regenerating act of God there, performed by God alone, is presented as the divine response to human faith (cf. justification in Paul’s thought, which is performed by God alone in response to human faith). John 1.12 indicates that people become children of God by faith. That is, upon believing, God gives them the right to become something that they were not prior to believing – children of God. John 1.13 then clarifies that they become children of God not from human ancestry (that is the significance of ‘not of blood, nor of the desire of the flesh [which equates to sexual desire that might lead to procreation], nor of the will of a husband [who was thought to be in charge of sexual/procreative activity]’), but from God, describing their becoming children of God as being born of God. ‘Becoming children of God’ and ‘being born of God’ are parallel expressions referring to the same phenomenon (it would be special pleading, and a desperate expedient at that, to argue that becoming God’s child and being born of him are distinct in the Johannine context or that the text would allow that a person could be born of God and yet not be his child), so that God’s act of regenerating believers, making them his own children, is a response to their faith.

The parallel with Rom. 9.16 is significant and quite supportive of our exegesis. Both contexts make the point that elect status (which equates to sonship; cf. Rom. 9.8) is not bestowed by human ancestry, but by God, whose will is to choose as his own those who believe in Christ. Even if one were to deny that reference to θελήματος σαρκός or θελήματος ἀνδρός is to human ancestry specifically and insist that it refers to human willing in general, it would not make the divine action of regeneration any less a response to human faith and hence any less conditional on it. Nor would this be inconsistent with Jn 1.13’s attribution of the act of regeneration to God. The text indicates that God is the one who grants the right to become children of God and the one who regenerates. His doing so in response to faith is a matter of his discretion and would not somehow make the human choice to believe the source of regeneration instead of God any more than it makes it the source of justification. (Excerpt from footnote #153 on page 191 of Paul’s Use of the Old Testament in Romans 9.10-18: An Intertextual and Theological Exegesis, by Dr. Brian Abasciano, paragraph breaks added for easier reading)

Where Calvinism Gets Romans 9 Wrong: Proof-Texting From a Translation Choice

So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.
(Romans 9:16 ESV)

Romans 9:16 is often cited by Calvinists to prove that who is saved is in no way connected with free will or any kind of “human effort.” The problem with this claim is that the wording of the translations that they appeal to is often doubtful, and the actual wording of the passage seems to indicate something different. Looking at the Greek wording, the passage doesn’t directly state anything about human will or exertion per se, but is talking about people who will and do. Notably, and perhaps even more important, there is also no word for “depends” in the verse, as is rendered in many translations. Several versions that render it with better word-for-word accuracy give us a better picture of what is being said:

” So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that hath mercy. “ [ASV]

“So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy.” [NKJV]

“So then [it is] not of him that wills, nor of him that runs, but of God that shews mercy.” [Darby]

“so, then — not of him who is willing, nor of him who is running, but of God who is doing kindness:…” [Young's Literal]

Even the ESV (quoted above) qualifies itself with the footnote, “Greek not of him who wills or runs”.

The Significance

Looking at the two renderings, “it does not depend upon man’s desire or effort” and “it is not of him who wills or runs,” they may appear to convey the same idea, but consider the exegetical implications:

By inserting the term “depend,” the former strongly implies that there is no connection between anything people do, and whether they obtain mercy or not. The latter, being more accurately translated as, “it is not of,” makes no such demand. It rather expresses that the mercy that is shown in the New Covenant flows from God, not from man (regardless of what he desires or does). The main difference in what is expressed by the two renderings is that the former conveys that nothing people do could be “selection criteria” for God showing His mercy, the latter simply tells us that people aren’t the ones who are showing the mercy -God is. Or even more concisely, the former apparently denies human cooperation in obtaining salvation, the latter only denies human origin of salvation.

The Meaning in Context

The context of Paul’s writing here is the issue of why many in Israel haven’t obtained the covenant mercy of God, while many Gentiles have. This would seem unfair to the Jews who desired Him and clung to the law. Against this, Paul makes the point that they who desire righteousness and keep the law aren’t the ones showing mercy -that is for God alone to grant. This point was addressed in the first post in this series,

At first glance, God choosing a heathen over a practicing Jew would seem to convey unjustness in God’s judgments. Here, a key point and theme of the passage is brought out: divine prerogative. That is to say, God’s blessing is His to give to whom He will in His Holy purpose. No one can claim it by accident of birth or merit of deeds. In answer, Paul asserts God’s right to show His covenant mercy to whom He wishes. It doesn’t matter what men want or do, who and how God chooses is His prerogative, no one else’s.

Since none of us merits His blessing, then none can rightfully lay claim to His favor or obligate Him to extend His covenant mercy. Man cannot ‘elect himself;’ just as in the case of His choice of Isaac over Ishmael and Jacob over Esau, it is God’s prerogative to decide to whom the promise goes.

I’ll stress again that God having the prerogative to show His mercy to whoever He wishes doesn’t imply that He chooses unconditionally. While by no means precluding the idea, the thrust of the passage in question (according to more accurate renderings) apparently being salvation’s origin (rather than its non-criteria), Romans 9:16 doesn’t serve as viable evidence for Calvinism’s doctrine of unconditional election.

Proof-Text Pitfalls

Reliance upon doubtfully inserted terms in garnering scriptural support is nothing new. I recall arguing over the meaning of Hebrews 6:4-6 with an eternal security proponent some time back: I’ve heard several good arguments against that text not implying apostasy of a true believer, but this particular gentleman built his entire case around the presence of the word “if” in the passage. Imagine his shock when it was pointed out that the Greek wording of verse 6 doesn’t even contain an “if,” and that other translations now give the participle form of apostasy an apparently more accurate rendering (“have fallen away” rather than “if they fall away”). When building a case from a passage, it’s best to ensure that appeals to the wording reference actual words in the original text, and don’t rely upon version-specific translation choices or insertions. In the same way, while the wording “it depends not on human will or exertion” makes a strong-sounding polemic for unconditional election, that exact wording is very doubtful, and the more textually-reliable rendering doesn’t give anything approaching iron-clad support for it.

Bottom Line

Romans 9:16 provides strong evidence for God’s prerogative of showing mercy to whom He wishes, but doesn’t lend such support to the idea that He lavishes His mercy on a strictly unconditional basis.

Where Calvinism Gets Romans 9 Wrong: “Not of Works” means “No Conditions”

10 And not only this, but when Rebecca also had conceived by one man, even by our father Isaac
11 (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),
12 it was said to her, “The older shall serve the younger.” [quoting Genesis 25:23]
13 As it is written, “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated.” [quoting Malachai 1:2-3]
(Romans 9:10-13)

The Appeal

The typical Calvinist treatment of the text quoted above goes something like this:

…Paul chooses the twin brothers Jacob and Esau as a case study in divine election. Paul sets out to prove that election to salvation flows solely from God’s will and purpose

Furthermore, in order to make it absolutely clear that election has nothing to do with human merit or choice, Paul says that God chose one to salvation (Jacob) and one to reprobation (Esau) before they were even born; before either had done good or evil.

(Schwertley, Brian; “Chosen by God: The Doctrine of Unconditional Election”)

The standard apologetic for Calvinists is to frame the analogy of Jacob and Esau as representative of elect versus non-elect individuals, then go on to interpret Jacob’s election being “not of works” as being an analogous expression of, “nothing a man does or chooses can have anything to do with whether he’s elected/saved”- AKA “Unconditional Election.”

The Catch

As we’ve noted before from the context of the passage, the contrast being given in the Jacob vs Esau analogy isn’t meant to reflect the difference between John M. Elect and Joe D. Reprobate, but between national Israel and the true Israel of God (the Body of Christ), which illustrates God’s choosing of those who walk by faith over those who live under the Mosaic law.

Since Paul isn’t contrasting individuals, but the corporate bodies of national Israel and those who are true children of Abraham through faith, there is very little basis to interpret the statement that election and salvation are “not of works” to mean that “no conditionality is involved.” A far more fitting interpretation is that the “works” he’s referring to are the works of the law that national Israel attempts to keep. That is to say, election isn’t based upon how well one keeps the law given at Sinai, which partially explains why many in Israel are not among the chosen (which is what Paul is explaining in the chapter, note verses 1-8). This interpretation also fits the context much better in that it correlates precisely with the point Paul makes in his conclusion of the matter at the end of the chapter (verses 30-33),

30 What shall we say then? That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have attained to righteousness, even the righteousness of faith;
31 but Israel, pursuing the law of righteousness, has not attained to the law of righteousness.
32 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.
33 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.” [quoting Isaiah 8:14 and 28:16]
(Romans 9:30-33)

Israel has not obtained righteousness because they sought it not by faith, but by the works of the law. This goes hand-in-hand with the fact that being chosen unto righteousness is not of works, but rather of God who has rejected those who rest in the law in favor of the those who follow in Abraham’s footsteps of faith, and calls us into fellowship with His Son. The analogy of one being chosen over the other before they’d committed any good or evil is very fitting then, both in highlighting the irrelevancy of the law in terms of our salvation, as well as in a more literal sense, for the sacrifice of our Lord and the redemption to which we are called to in Him were planned from the very beginning (Eph 3:9), even before any law had been given.

Bottom Line:

The scriptural teaching that election is not of works doesn’t preclude conditions to salvation (such as faith, which is not a work), but rather indicates that the choice of to whom God shows His mercy isn’t based upon adherence to the works of the Mosaic law.

Does Erwin Lutzer Offer False Hope to Calvinist Parents?

I hope to do a few posts on Erwin Lutzer’s[1] book, The Doctrines That Divide: A Fresh Look at the Historic Doctrines That Separate Christians.  One might expect that such a book would look to lessen division and ease tension between Christians, but it seems that Lutzer’s purpose is more to present certain divisive doctrines and explain why his views of the doctrines are correct.  Many of the issues center on the major doctrinal disagreements between Catholics and non-Catholics and as a non-Catholic I agree with Lutzer’s general assessment against Catholic dogma.  However, Lutzer’s book is not limited to the divisions between Catholics and non-Catholics.  Lutzer also examines doctrinal controversies within protestant Christianity and one of these main controversies centers on the debate concerning Calvinism and Arminianism.  Unfortunately, Lutzer does not set himself apart from the many Calvinist authors who misrepresent Arminianism and the history of the controversy in an apparent attempt to paint Calvinism as orthodoxy and Arminianism as a sort of unfortunate heresy left over from the protestant break with Catholicism.  I hope to take a closer look at many of Lutzer’s claims and arguments in a series of posts.  This post, however, will simply examine an important difficulty with Calvinism that Lutzer rightly identifies along with his proposed solution.

In dealing with the Calvinist doctrine of unconditional election Lutzer ponders the problem of evangelism in Calvinism.  He concludes that Arminians are really no better off than Calvinists with regards to the effectiveness (or ineffectiveness) of evangelism in their theological system (more on that in a future post), as well as why one can supposedly have confidence in his or her elect status in Calvinism even though the decree of election is secret (for serious problems regarding salvation assurance in Calvinism see this post).  He then shifts to an interesting question and takes only a paragraph to dispatch the concern with what he seems to think is a sufficient solution.  He writes,

God’s choice of those who will be saved appears to be neither random nor arbitrary.  He planned the context in which they would be converted.  That is why I have never wondered whether my children are among the elect.  Since they were born into a Christian home, we can believe that the means of their salvation will be the faithful teaching of God’s Word.  God’s decision to save us involved planning where we would be born and the circumstances that would lead us to Christ.  Election is part of a total picture. (The Doctrines that Divide, pg. 217, italics his)

The person I borrowed Lutzer’s book from wrote “very comforting” in the margin next to this paragraph.  But does Lutzer’s solution really offer enough certainty to provide a Calvinist with any real comfort concerning the eternal destiny of their children?  I don’t see that it possibly can given fundamental Calvinist assumptions and the way that they have traditionally handled certain passages of Scripture to support unconditional election.

Lutzer seems to be suggesting that if one is born in a Christian home, that person will grow up to hear the gospel and be converted.  Is that really what he thinks?  Surely he is aware of cases where children have grown up in Christian homes under godly Biblical teaching and yet rejected God and lived and died as unbelievers.  It seems to me that there have been many Atheists who grew up as children of ministers[2].  Indeed, in Calvinism the “means” or “context” is never enough.  The reprobate can hear the gospel a thousand times and will never believe it.  In fact, God has made it impossible for him or her to believe.  While the proper means and context may be a necessary ingredient in Calvinism, without an irresistible regenerating act of God no amount of means or context can ever avail.  How can Lutzer assume that because his children are being placed in a context where they can receive the means of conversion that conversion will necessarily follow?  He can’t if Calvinism is true.  Sadly, if one of his children is among the reprobate no amount of context or means can help that child.  Context and means cannot change a decree that was made by God from eternity.  Context and means cannot help a reprobate who will forever be denied the regenerating grace of God in accordance with an unchangeable eternal decree.

To be perfectly frank, what right does Lutzer have to even hope that his children are elect when reprobation supposedly magnifies God’s glory?  What if God wants to magnify His glory by reprobating one of Lutzer’s children?  In such a case Lutzer’s hopes would be in stark contrast to God’s desire to magnify Himself and His glory through the reprobation of one of Lutzer’s children.  Perhaps God wants to display His “mercy” and “love” in one child by contrasting His electing love of the one child with His reprobating hatred of the other child.  Perhaps this reprobation will help the elect child to better recognize and revel in God’s mercy and grace and thus magnify God’s grace and mercy in that elect child in such a way that would not have been possible had the other child been elected as well (or perhaps this reprobation will serve to help Lutzer better appreciate His own election as well).  Such thoughts are hard to even write, yet these are the unavoidable implications of what Calvinists regularly teach concerning God’s grace and supposed reasons for reprobating most of humanity.[3]  But even beyond that we have a traditional Calvinist proof text that flatly contradicts Lutzer’s claims,

Not only that, but Rebekah’s children had one and the same father, our father Isaac.  Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad- in order that God’s purpose in election would stand: not by works but by him who calls- she was told, “The older will serve the younger.”  Just as it is written: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” (Romans 9:10-13)

This is the primary Calvinist proof text for unconditional election and this passage completely undermines Lutzer’s claims.  Esau and Jacob were born to quite possibly the godliest family on the planet at that time.  They grew up under godly teaching and instruction.  Yet, despite all of that, according to Calvinism, Esau was hated by God from the womb and this hatred is supposedly to be equated with the eternal decree of reprobation.  If the first born son of Isaac can be a hopeless reprobate (despite his father’s love for him over his supposedly unconditionally “elect” son), then why can’t one of Erwin Lutzer’s children likewise be a hopeless reprobate despite the context and means of being brought up in a godly environment?  In fact, if we can learn anything from this, God might very well reprobate the favorite child of the parent for His good pleasure and for the sake of somehow magnifying His grace and mercy in the elect.  Again, such things are hard to even contemplate, yet these are the fundamental underlying assumptions of Calvinism’s doctrine of unconditional election.

Another example would be the sons of Eli the priest.  Not only had these children been brought up by a godly father (probably one of the most godly men in Israel at the time), but they had also been brought up in the ministry.  Despite this, both of Eli’s sons became so wicked that God put them to death[4].  What better context and means could they hope for than to be the children of a father who was devoted to serving God daily?  One might argue that the fault lied with Eli’s failures as a father, but who among Christian fathers has not fallen short?  If the “means” and “context” includes perfect parenting skills, we are all in trouble, including Erwin Lutzer.

The simple fact is that Calvinism can provide no such comfort to Lutzer or any other Christian parent.  Nor can Lutzer really explain how God’s choice of one over the other is not ultimately “arbitrary” or “random”.  Simply talking about means and context doesn’t explain how God’s choice to elect and save some from the mass of equally depraved humanity is not arbitrary.

Calvinists typically claim that God’s choice is not arbitrary even though there is nothing to differentiate the one who is chosen and the one who is reprobated.  After all, both were depraved God haters prior to God’s choice (according to traditional infralapsarian Calvinism).  That is why the choice is considered unconditional.  Nothing in the person or about the person (like faith) conditions God’s choice.  Calvinists might try to solve this problem by claiming that the reason is hidden in God and we cannot know it.  It seems random and arbitrary to us but we can supposedly be sure that God has a good reason for choosing one and reprobating the other, even if there is absolutely nothing in or about either person to condition the choice[5].  Perhaps this provides the key to the only possible comfort Calvinist parents can have.  While Calvinist parents cannot have comfort that all (or any) of their children will be elect, those parents can at least take comfort in the fact that if God did reprobate any (or all) of their children, He had a very good secret reason for doing so.[6]


[1] Erwin Lutzer is the senior pastor of the historic Moody Church in Chicago

[2] One need only check out a few atheist websites to find several who came from Christian homes.

[3] It has become increasingly popular for Calvinists to claim that God can only be ultimately glorified and His attributes fully displayed by reprobating the greater part of humanity in order to help the elect fully appreciate and understand God’s mercy and grace towards them.  In such a scheme the eternal torment of the reprobate is to a large degree for the sake of the elect that they might somehow see God in a greater light and love Him more.  This concept was popularized by Calvinists like Jonathan Edwards and has been reintroduced with great support by contemporary Calvinists like John Piper.  Such a scheme also seems to make sin and reprobation necessary for Gods’ attributes to be fully displayed, threatening His holiness and quite possibly His aseity as well.

[4] 1 Samuel 2:12-34

[5] Likewise, Peterson and Williams assert that unconditional election should not be considered arbitrary while failing to explain why this should be so, preferring instead to punt to mystery: “But why must God’s sovereign decision to love some be considered arbitrary?  All deserve wrath; none deserve his grace [which is precisely why it seems arbitrary].  He freely chooses to bestow saving grace on billions of undeserving sinners.  That is not arbitrary; the Bible itself teaches that election is the result of God’s love and will [but this only begs the question that God’s love and will is not arbitrary in election, the very issue in dispute].  His gracious choosing ultimately transcends our reason, but it is not arbitrary.” (Why I am Not an Arminian, pp. 65, 66- bold emphasis and brackets mine)

[6] The typical Calvinist retort to such things is to claim that the Arminian system creates the same difficulties.  Even if this were the case it wouldn’t change the fact that Calvinists like Erwin Lutzer are offering hope and certainty that the fundamental tenets of Calvinism cannot provide (and flatly contradict).  Still, Arminianism does fare better as parents can be assured that God indeed loves all of their children and truly desires their salvation, hearing prayers and continually revealing Himself in accordance with those prayers and His desire for them to be saved.  While Arminians do not believe that God does such things in a way that guarantees results (i.e., God works resistibly and not irresistibly), Arminians are in a far better position to reveal God’s love to their children since there is no doubt that God truly desires their salvation and Christ certainly died as a provision of atonement for them.  In contrast, consistent Calvinists cannot even truthfully tell their children that Jesus loves them in any meaningful way or that Christ showed His great love by dying for them.  Indeed, God may hate them just as He hated Esau and have no desire to save them.  Likewise, Christ may not have died for them at all.

Where Calvinism Gets Romans 9 Wrong: Prerogative Equals Unconditionality

Continuing with the series on Romans 9, we’ll now address the issue of God’s prerogative in saving who He wishes and how Calvinists often misinterpret its implications.

God’s Prerogative Reaffirmed

When speaking to zealous Calvinists, especially those who are very young and/or “educated” by internet echo chambers, the strawmen abound. It’s not uncommon to hear nonsense like,

“Arminians believe that man uses faith to save himself!”

“Free will means that God HAS to save someone who chooses to have faith!”

“The poor Arminian god can’t save people because he’s not sovereign enough to make them believe!”

The problem is further exacerbated by factually sloppy reformed polemicists who put forth no effort whatsoever towards accurate portrayal when discussing Arminian theology, James White being one of the worst offenders,

“…while the synergists get a lot of mileage out of preaching “Jesus loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life if you will only let him into your heart” the absolutely necessary counterpoint to their feel-good proclamation is “however, I can never tell you He can truly save you perfectly and completely because, after all, my entire point is that He is helpless aside from your cooperation. (White, J. , ‘Phil Johnson on “Desire”‘)”

In contrast to White’s blundering portrayal of God being helpless, the scriptural teaching that he attacks so vehemently paints a far different picture than the one he attempts to dupe believers with. In the initial post in this series, we saw that God has an absolute divine prerogative to save whoever He wishes to. On that particular issue I have no disagreement with our Calvinist brethren. What that prerogative entails is another matter altogether.

Sovereignty Defined

The term “sovereignty” itself denotes power, dominion, and authority. A king is sovereign over his country, a man is sovereign over his house. To say that God is “absolutely sovereign” is simply to say He’s omnipotent –all-powerful over everything. I wouldn’t think anyone who believes scripture to dispute such a claim. As stated above, this naturally extends to who is saved; God not only has power to save, but a divine right to choose who is saved.

From that premise, the reasoning of most (sans those few who are more logically astute) Calvinists goes something like:

“God can save whoever He wants, therefore God saves who He wants to on an entirely unconditional basis.”

Those of you versed in logic may recognize that this type of reasoning is a non-sequitur, a fallacous conclusion that doesn’t necessarily follow from the premise(s).

The Critical Flaw in the Calvinist’s Reasoning

The reason why such logic doesn’t follow is that power tells us what one is capable of, not how that power is used. One who exercises his power one way rather than another isn’t more powerful for doing so. This can be easily demonstrated from an example of temporal authority. Let’s say there’s a general in the U.S. military who has been assigned an aide. The aide’s task today is to fill out some forms. The general has several options to get him to do so:

1. Give the order for him to do so and expect him to obey it without supervision.
1. Give the order for him to do so and expect him to obey it while occasionally checking on his progress.
3. Give the order for him to do so and stand over his shoulder to ensure he obeys it.

Q: Which of these options, if taken, will give the general more authority?
A: None. His rank and how he carries out his mission are two separate issues.

Q: Which of these options, if taken, is an indicator of a more power and/or authority on the general’s part?
A: None. All of these options are within a general’s authority to employ. His choosing one or the other tells us nothing beyond that.

How much authority someone has is no indicator of how said power will be used. Much as in the case of the general above, how and on what basis God chooses to save sinners is His prerogative; one method doesn’t make Him “more sovereign” than another, nor does His omnipotence necessitate only a particular method. This is why the occasions in which the over-zealous Calvinists hurl the typical “you deny God’s sovereignty” charge against someone who believes in conditional election merely show that they’re ignorant of what God’s sovereignty actually means and entails.

Armed with these mistaken principles, Calvinists then proceed to interpret Romans 9 in a likewise errant fashion, so that when the chapter speaks of God’s prerogative in who He saves, e.g. “I will have mercy on whomever I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whomever I will have compassion,” many eager young Calvinists automatically read, “I will have mercy on whomever I will have mercy, which of course means that I do so on an entirely unconditional basis in accordance with the Westminster confession!” In fact, such a statement doesn’t tell us God’s basis for His choices, merely that who is saved and how is His to decide, which does not preclude His saving people on the conditional basis of faith in Christ.

Bottom Line:

The concept of God having power to choose who to save itself tells us nothing about how or upon what basis He chooses to save.

Where Calvinism Gets Romans 9 Wrong: Who do Jacob and Esau Represent?

After posting my exegesis of Romans 9, I deemed a follow-up series of posts necessary to show why the observations made therein are relevant to the debate on the conditionality of election. Interestingly, I’ve had a few comments that my exegesis sounds “Calvinistic;” this is quite far from the truth. Said post was actually foundational for showing where Calvinists often misinterpret the chapter.

The first major exegetical error that most Calvinists make with regards to Romans 9 is confusing who and what Paul is using his analogies (Isaac & Ishmael, Jacob & Esau) to describe. Looking at the text in question,

9 For this is the word of promise: “At this time I will come and Sarah shall have a son.”
10 And not only this, but when Rebecca also had conceived by one man, even by our father Isaac
11 (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),
12 it was said to her, “The older shall serve the younger.” [quoting Genesis 25:23]
13 As it is written, “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated.”

Rev. John Samson delivers commentary typical of the of the Calvinist position,

Regarding this issue of election, of God choosing one and not another, the Apostle denies in very clear and emphatic language that there is unrighteousness or unfairness in God. There is no injustice in God, and lets remember, there was no righteousness in us, which would require God to be gracious to us. … God reserves the right to dispense His mercy as He sees fit, to the person or persons He chooses.

I would agree with Rev. Samson and other Calvinists to the ideas that God is just in choosing as He wishes to, and that He’s under no obligation to save anyone. Where they drop the ball comes out in the latter sentence: equating God’s choosing as illustrated in Romans 9 with individual persons. In the Calvinist mindset, Isaac and Jacob represent individuals who are elected by God, and Ishmael and Esau represent those who are rejected (reprobate). Employing that assumption, they attempt to build something along the lines of, “God chose Jacob over Esau prior to their even being born! This demonstrates that God unconditionally chooses which people He wants to save.” In short, they see the difference between Jacob and Esau as being directly analogous to the difference between one who is elected by God and one who is rejected.

The Chapter’s Context

A close examination of the passage reveals the standard Calvinist interpretation to be oversimplified and decontextualized. Looking again at the very beginning of the chapter, does Paul’s main point pertain to why unbelievers in general are rejected? Looking at the verses that lead up to the analogies, it reads,

1 I tell the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit,
2 that I have great sorrow and continual grief in my heart.
3 For I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my countrymen [or kinsmen] according to the flesh,
4 who are Israelites, to whom pertain the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the service of God, and the promises;
5 of whom are the fathers and from whom, according to the flesh, Christ came, who is over all, the eternally blessed God. Amen.
6 But it is not that the word of God has taken no effect. For they are not all Israel who are of Israel…

As can be easily seen, the context of the chapter up to where the analogies are used is addressing why many of the Jews fail to obtain God’s promises (while many Gentiles in the church do). It must also be noted that Paul isn’t switching subjects when he employs the analogies, the wording in verses 6-9 is particularly clear:

7 nor are they [the Jews] all children because they are the seed of Abraham; but, “In Isaac your seed shall be called.”
8 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.
9 For this is the word of promise: “At this time I will come and Sarah shall have a son.”

Many of the Jews are not the seed of Abraham because the children of the flesh aren’t accounted as his seed, the children of promise are. The analogies of Abraham’s descendants are then used to illustrate the contrast between the Israel of flesh and the Israel of promise. That Paul is still addressing the issue of national versus spiritual Israel is made even more apparent by the conclusion of his message in the chapter,

30 What shall we say then? That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have attained to righteousness, even the righteousness of faith;
31 but Israel, pursuing the law of righteousness, has not attained to the law of righteousness.
32 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.
33 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.”

Israel is in fact the major theme of Paul’s exposition that begins in Romans 9 and continues to the end of Romans 11. Given the context of the chapter, the analogies of Isaac and Jacob being rejected in favor of their younger siblings then can only pertain to national Israel (Paul’s kindred according to the flesh that he loves) and its rejection in favor of spiritual Israel (his spiritual kin in Christ). In other words, Jacob and Esau aren’t being used to contrast some given saint and Joe-the-Generic-Unbeliever, but they’re figures of two distinct groups: the children of the fleshly covenant of Sinai, and the children of promise through faith (which is largely, though not exclusively composed of Gentiles – Romans 11:1-5).

The Calvinist methodology of interpreting Jacob and Esau as a representation of how individuals are chosen then is a decontextualized over-stretching of the analogy, and thus fundamentally flawed. The context of the chapter plainly dictates that the analogies demonstrate the choosing of one group over the other according to God’s eternal purpose in Christ.

Possible objections by Calvinists

Some Calvinists may object that Jacob and Esau were individuals, and thus would most naturally be expected to represent individuals. This objection falls short for a few reasons:

1.) As I pointed out in the original post, the figures of Isaac and Ishmael were used explicitly in Galatians 4:21-31 to convey the two covenants (and the members thereof).

2.) The original word of promise cited in Romans 9 even refers to the children as nations (i.e. representative heads of two people groups),

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 25:23)

They were the corporate heads of the nations of Israel and the Ishmaelites, and analogously represent the children of the flesh under the old covenant, and the children of promise under the new.

A second objection is that what applies to a group must apply to to all of its members as well, so if a group is specifically group is chosen, then every individual in that group must be specifically chosen. This is what is known as “fallacy of composition,” assuming that what applies to a group must necessarily apply to all of its members. Counter-example: “The U.S. military was of substantial power to topple the government of Iraq, therefore every member of the U.S. military was of substantial power to topple the government of Iraq.” The counter-example shows such reasoning to be unsound, since it took a substantial number of members to be an adequate fighting force to overthrow a government, because what applies to a group doesn’t necessarily apply to every member. Therefore, a group being chosen doesn’t imply that all of its members are chosen in the same way or sense.

A third possible objection is that much of the language in Romans 9 is singular, which a major objection by Thomas Schreiner to the concept of corporate election in Romans 9 (“Does Romans 9 teach individual election unto salvation? Some exegetical and theological reflection”, JETS 36/1 (March 1993) 25-40). Dr. Brian Abasciano pointed out in his reply to Schreiner that Paul’s usage of the singular is consistent with the collective singular (i.e. a collective group represented by a singular head) language employed throughout the Old Testament, as demonstrated by the language in Genesis 25 above. And finally, even if phenomena that pertain to individuals are spoken of in Romans 9, this doesn’t change the fact that the context of the chapter, including the preceding verses, leaves no room for interpreting the Isaac/Ishmael and Jacob/Esau analogies as anything but the natural and spiritual nations of Israel, not individuals.

Romans 9 in Context: God’s Just Prerogative in Confounding All Confidence in the Law of Works

Introduction

Romans 9 is one of the most controversial and often-misinterpreted passages of scripture among evangelicals. Controversy, however, should not make us timid when it comes to the things of God. This inspired chapter is valuable for teaching doctrine, and should not be ignored or glossed over. At the same time, it should not be treated as a comprehensive statement of Christian soteriology by itself, for the chapter is not written in isolation, but is strongly rooted in the context of both Testaments, touching on concepts present in the other Pauline epistles and the gospels, and quoting from the Old Testament frequently. The goal of this writing is a sound, objective exegesis of Romans 9 to explain the principles therein, expound upon its themes, and to show where and how its teachings fit into the contexts of the rest of the book of Romans, and scripture as a whole. All quotes are from the NKJV unless otherwise specified.

1 I tell the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit,
2 that I have great sorrow and continual grief in my heart.
3 For I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my countrymen [or kinsmen] according to the flesh,

In the opening of the chapter, Paul displays the strongest of sympathy for his fellow Jews, his apparent inference being that he so greatly wishes their reconciliation in Christ, that he would forfeit his own salvation if that could bring about their being saved.

4 who are Israelites, to whom pertain the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the service of God, and the promises;
5 of whom are the fathers and from whom, according to the flesh, Christ came, who is over all, the eternally blessed God. Amen.

The tragedy of the majority of Jews rejecting Christ as their Messiah is only heightened when the covenant relationship between God and the children of Israel is considered. It was for Israel that He worked wonders as He did no other nation (Exodus 34:10), and as far as things in this world that pertain to God are concerned, there is much profit to being a Jew (Romans 3:2). Further, the patriarchs such as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, the prophets, apostles, as well as Jesus Christ Himself all came from this chosen people of God.

Since they are the people to whom the promises were given and to whom pertain all these blessings, this raises obvious questions: Why are so many Jews unsaved after the word of God has been preached to them? If God made the covenant with Abraham and his children, then why are so many of his descendants altogether excluded from it (Matthew 8:11-12)? Explanation of this apparent discrepancy in light of God’s righteousness is the primary focus of Romans 9.

6 But it is not that the word of God has taken no effect. For they are not all Israel who are of Israel,

Paul’s explanation begins with continuation of a subject brought up back in chapter 3:

“For what if some did not believe? Will their unbelief make the faithfulness of God without effect?” (Romans 3:3)

He immediately begins to answer the underlying questions with the distinction between national Israel and the true Israel of God, a principle that he put forth in chapter 2.

“For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh; but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God.” (Romans 2:28-29)

It’s on this basis that Paul denies the idea that God’s word has taken no effect: it has, just not within those that men would naturally expect.

7 nor are they all children because they are the seed of Abraham; but, “In Isaac your seed shall be called.” [quoting Genesis 21:12]

The point is made that just because one is technically one of Abraham’s physical offspring, this does not guarantee that he will be reckoned as such when it comes to whether he is blessed with faithful Abraham. This is well-illustrated with Abraham’s own sons, his eldest Ishmael, rather than receiving the inheritance of their tribe, was sent away in favor of the younger child of promise, Isaac. So one should not assume that merely being a child of Abraham entitles him or her to the same blessings as he. This line of thought echoes what Christ stated to His fellow Jews,

“Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones.” (Luke 3:18)

8 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.
9 For this is the word of promise: “At this time I will come and Sarah shall have a son.” [quoting Genesis 18:14]

The distinction between the children according to the flesh and the children of promise is further drawn and clarified here as analogy to the respective states of the natural Jews and believers in Christ. Ishamel was a child of Abraham according to the flesh (his eldest, no less), yet was not the son of promise, and thus not reckoned as his seed. He was blessed, but it was with Isaac that the covenant was established.[a]

Likewise, natural-born Jews are the descendants of Abraham according to the flesh, but if they’re not the children of promise, then with regards to the covenant of grace, they’re no more counted as Abraham’s seed than Ishmael was. Who are these children of promise then? How is one accounted as Abraham’s seed? The answer, as will be demonstrated, is revealed in the conclusion of the chapter, and treated more thoroughly in the epistle of Romans and Paul’s other letters. Interestingly, this isn’t the only time that Paul has used this analogy. It also appears in Galatians chapter 4.

“Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not hear the law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons: the one by a bondwoman, the other by a freewoman. But he who was of the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and he of the freewoman through promise, which things are symbolic. For these are the two covenants: the one from Mount Sinai which gives birth to bondage, which is Hagar—for this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and corresponds to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children— but the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all. For it is written: “Rejoice, O barren, You who do not bear! Break forth and shout, You who are not in labor! For the desolate has many more children Than she who has a husband.” Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are children of promise. But, as he who was born according to the flesh then persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, even so it is now. Nevertheless what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the bondwoman and her son, for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman.” So then, brethren, we are not children of the bondwoman but of the free.” (Galatians 4:21-31)

Hagar, in Paul’s analogy, represents the old covenant of works. Her offspring, the children of her bondage, are the natural Jews who are under the law. In verses 10-13, the analogy of the natural children versus the children of promise (represented by Isaac’s twin sons) is extended to show that the works of the law which the Jews perform are irrelevant to whether they will inherit the promises.

10 And not only this, but when Rebecca also had conceived by one man, even by our father Isaac
11 (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),
12 it was said to her, “The older shall serve the younger.” [quoting Genesis 25:23]
13 As it is written, “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated.” [quoting Malachai 1:2-3]

Just as in the example of Isaac and Ishmael, the example of Jacob and Esau again displays the purpose of God overriding man’s expectations and going against all outward appearances. Yet again the elder and favored heir apparent is rejected by God in favor of a younger supplanter. Paul likewise employs the imagery of Esau as representing the children of the fleshly ordinances in opposition to the children of promise. Just as he lost his birthright and failed to inherit his father’s blessing, so the nation of the Jews that received the covenant at Sinai largely finds itself (for now) shut out of the kingdom, while lowly Gentiles press in and inherit the promises.

The wording “not of works, but of Him who calls” is pertinent to the example. Those who are natural Jews only, the children of bondage who rest in the law (cf Romans 2:17) are confident that they are partakers in the blessings of Abraham because of their obedience to the old covenant. Paul’s contradiction of these notions of self-righteousness is a consistent theme throughout Romans, expressed in his declaration that only faith in Christ can save from sin, and that salvation is impossible through the works of the law.[b] Here, Paul highlights the irrelevance of such works by way of his analogy: one of the twins was chosen before either of them had done anything good or evil, so that God’s purpose according to His choosing would prevail. The one who received the blessing didn’t lay claim to it by either birthright or his works, but was graciously chosen for it by God, as is His prerogative. So in the same way, the point being made is that the works of the law are not a factor in whether one obtains God’s favor. The idea conveyed in Jacob being chosen over Esau apart from any works is that the Jewish keeping of the Mosaic law isn’t the basis upon which God chooses to save, therefore the Jewish pursuit of righteousness through the works of the law in comparison to the Gentiles’ general alienation from God’s statutes isn’t relevant to whether one is chosen. Both have fallen short. This being the case, many among the natural Jews who were born into the commonwealth of Israel have sought to establish their righteousness in the keeping of the law, but have nonetheless failed to obtain the promises of God. All the while the Gentiles, the lowly dogs who were by nature strangers to the promises (Ephesians 2:12), have obtained them by faith in Christ (Romans 4:13, Hebrews 6:12). To a devout Jew who valued keeping of the law highly and thought this something of great worth in the eyes of God, taking the kingdom from those who strive to keep God’s law (albeit imperfectly) and giving it to apparently less worthy Gentile usurpers who obtain it through faith without ever having kept the law might seem quite unjust, which leads Paul to His next statements.

14 What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? Certainly not!
15 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.” [quoting Exodus 33:19]
16 So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy.

At first glance, God choosing a heathen over a practicing Jew would seem to convey unjustness in God’s judgments. Here, a key point and theme of the passage is brought out: divine prerogative. That is to say, God’s blessing is His to give to whom He will in His Holy purpose. No one can claim it by accident of birth or merit of deeds. In answer, Paul asserts God’s right to show His covenant mercy to whom He wishes. It doesn’t matter what men want or do, who and how God chooses is His prerogative, no one else’s.

Establishment of divine prerogative, rather than any explanation of it, is Paul’s main thrust here. The grounds for God’s prerogative, though not explained directly in chapter 9, should be evident from the context of the book of Romans: with the obvious exception of Christ, no Jew or Gentile can keep the law in full. All stumble and break its statutes despite their best efforts. Since all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory[c], including the Jews. Since none of us merits His blessing, then none can rightfully lay claim to His favor or obligate Him to extend His covenant mercy. Man cannot ‘elect himself;’ just as in the case of His choice of Isaac over Ishmael and Jacob over Esau, it is God’s prerogative to decide to whom the promise goes.

17 For the Scripture says to the 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.” [quoting Exodus 9:16]
18 Therefore He has mercy on whom He wills, and whom He wills He hardens.

The corollary of God’s prerogative in who He wishes to save is that He also has the right to reject whoever He wishes, as no one has power or right to demand a share of His promise. Rejected as they may be from His mercy, God does have use for such people in His plans, and puts them in key positions to suit His own purposes, as in the case of Pharaoh, or those who condemned Christ.[d]

Likewise, God has power over the human will, and can harden it against receiving the word on whatever basis He wishes to suit His purposes. The issue of divine hardening[e] (also referred to metaphorically as blindness and being given over to wickedness, cf Romans 11:25, 2 Corinthians 4:4, 1 Timothy 4:1-2, Romans 1:28) is not thoroughly explained in Romans 9, since again, Paul’s focus here isn’t explanation of God’s methods, but a defense of His prerogative as sovereign Lord. The scriptures are, however, by no means silent on the issue. It’s addressed several times in the New Testament, including earlier in Romans, from which we offer a cursory overview to provide context for the subject in chapter 9. Jesus spoke of the Jews being blinded to Him and His message after their rejection of Him:

Now as He drew near, He saw the city and wept over it, saying, “If you had known, even you, especially in this your day, the things that make for your peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment around you, surround you and close you in on every side, and level you, and your children within you, to the ground; and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not know the time of your visitation.” (Luke 19:41-44)

From the context, this was apparently in retribution for their refusal to humble themselves and hear Christ. It must be noted that one cannot simply come to Christ by force of will, it must be granted by God that he may believe (John 6:65); Jesus made it clear that the stiff-necked pride God often characterized many Jews by (as in His criticism of them that’s quoted in Romans 10:20) would in fact keep one out of the kingdom of God.[f]

Divine hardening is often shown as an apparently ‘cooperative effort,’ so to speak. The example cited, Pharaoh, for instance, is shown to have hardened his own heart (Exodus 8:15, 32, 9:34, 1 Samuel 6:6) in addition to the near-total blindness to any reason God inflicted upon him which led to his catastrophic decisions regarding Israel. Paul spoke of similar judgment passed against those who forgot God in the opening chapter of Romans:

“And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a debased mind, to do those things which are not fitting….” (Romans 1:28)

Exegesis of divine hardening wouldn’t be complete without comment on where Paul picks up on the issue of Israel’s being blinded to the gospel. In chapter 11, he expands upon the concept of the Jews’ blindness, indicating that it was done so that the gospel could be shared with all men (Romans 11:32), which is in direct accord with his words to the Jews at Antioch, for though he first stated,

“Men and brethren, sons of the family of Abraham, and those among you who fear God, to you the word of this salvation has been sent.” (Acts 13:26)

Yet after they had begun to contradict and blaspheme, he declared,

“It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken to you first; but since you reject it, and judge yourselves unworthy of everlasting life, behold, we turn to the Gentiles.” (13:46b)

So God’s use of divine hardening against many in Israel has a greater purpose, though this isn’t discussed in detail until chapter 11. Notably, the blindness spoken of pertaining to the Jews in chapter 11 is shown to not be irreversible, but rather, God’s gifts and calling for and to them will never be revoked.[g]

This state of hardness of heart is also not universal for all Jews, as a small remnant are still saved according to God’s gracious choosing (Romans 11:5), similar to what was spoken in Isaiah 10:22-23 which is quoted later in this chapter. God’s prerogative both to give and withhold His blessing immediately destroys any objection that someone might ‘compel’ God to share His covenant mercies, since, suffice it to say, no one can receive them apart from God’s willingness. However, the idea of God hardening someone’s heart would in and of itself raise objections from some, an expected objection is dealt with by Paul in verse 19.

19 You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For who has resisted His will?”
20 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?”
21 Does not the potter have power over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel for honor and another for dishonor?

Paul dismisses the objection with his underlying appeal to divine prerogative that he put forth in verses 14-16. Simply, God as Creator has the right to do what He pleases with what is His (compare this to Christ’s words in Matthew 20:15). Man is in no position to question Him or His methods. So from the same group of people, as in the case of Israel according to the flesh, He chooses to save some and harden others. While he does provide one reason why God may harden some men’s hearts below, Paul in fact makes no attempt to directly answer the objector’s ‘why,’ much less justify whatever basis or means God employs in hardening one’s heart, nor need he. Such lines of questioning presuppose that God is somehow accountable to man to explain His actions (contra Job 9:12) or obligated to share His blessing with certain peoples, which notions Paul categorically negates in declaring God’s authority over creation.

22 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,
23 and that He might make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy, which He had prepared beforehand for glory,
24 even us whom He called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles?

Paul offers God showing His wrath so that we may understand His glory and mercy as one good reason for His hardening men’s hearts while patiently bearing with them a long time despite their sentence of destruction. It would indeed be hard for finite beings who don’t understand what wrath is to truly understand what mercy is. The author repeats a similar sentiment in chapter 11,

“Therefore consider the goodness and severity of God: on those who fell, severity; but toward you, goodness, if you continue in His goodness. Otherwise you also will be cut off.” (Romans 11:22)

Where the unbelieving are concerned, as in the case of Joseph’s brothers, God finds a way to turn even the wickedness of men to His own ends (e.g. Genesis 50:20). Our being “prepared beforehand” refers to God’s working of election and predestination through His power, wisdom, and foreknowledge (which he mentions in 8:29, compare to 1 Peter 1:2) among both the Jewish remnant and Gentile believers.

25 As He says also in Hosea: “I will call them My people, who were not My people, And her beloved, who was not beloved.”[quoting Hosea 2:23]
26 “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.” [quoting Hosea 1:10]

These verses are quoted primarily in reference to the Gentiles, who were formerly excluded from God’s promises, and reckoned by the Jews as little more than dogs. Despite such lowly birth, God’s ultimate plan of mercy towards the Gentiles is hinted at in the dialogue between Christ and the Syro-Phoenician woman in Mark 7:26-29, heavily implied in Jesus’ sermon to His fellow Jews about mercy shown in Sidon and Syria rather than in Israel (Luke 4:24-27), and concluded by Peter and the Jerusalem council (Acts 11:17-18). This is not to say that God has totally forsaken the nation of Israel.

27 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.
28 For He will finish the work and cut it short in righteousness[h], Because the Lord will make a short work upon the earth.” [quoting Isaiah 10:22-23]

Paul quotes these passages as prophetic authority that the salvation of the Gentiles as well as a remnant of the Jews has been God’s plan all along, as He’d declared through the prophets of old.[i] He continues with this idea into chapters 10 and 11, referencing God’s declaration in Deuteronomy 32:21 that He will provoke the Jews to jealousy by foreign peoples who don’t know His law. Note that the word for “short” and “cut short” (syntemno) in verse 28 can also imply something done hastily or expediently. Given the quote’s source (Isaiah 10:22-23), the rendering that the NIV and some other versions employ, “For the Lord will carry out his sentence on earth with speed and finality”, is likely more accurate.

29 And as Isaiah said before: “Unless the Lord of Sabaoth [lit. Lord of Hosts] had left us a seed, We would have become like Sodom, And we would have been made like Gomorrah.” [quoting Isaiah 1:9]

The wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah that received fiery retribution from above are used as figures of utter destruction. They have an end, and a pronounced one at that, implying that if God had not been gracious in granting the blessings of Abraham to a remnant of the Jews, they would have perished as surely and completely as those cities that defied God. Yet it is still a small remnant among the children of Israel both in Paul’s day as well as our own. To the questions that Paul’s statements at the beginning of the chapter raise, why are so many law-keeping Jews are rejected from receiving the promise while many believing Gentiles enjoy God’s blessing, Paul elucidates that this was in fact what God has chosen to do. To objections that this would make God unrighteous for forsaking the children of the Sinai covenant, Paul distinguishes between the nation of Israel and the Israel made up of the children of promise. To charges of unfairness, Paul appeals to God’s prerogative in both bestowing and withholding His mercy, and cites examples of His subverting the expected order of things in making the younger heir to the promise over the elder in the Old Testament. As for many of the Jews, if being born to the chosen people and trying to keep the law of God don’t make one a child of promise, then what does? Why are they descended from Abraham, yet not of the seed of promise? Paul concludes:

30 What shall we say then? That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have attained to righteousness, even the righteousness of faith;
31 but Israel, pursuing the law of righteousness, has not attained to the law of righteousness.[j]
32 Why? Because they did not seek it by faith, but as it were, by the works of the law.[k] For they stumbled at that stumbling stone.
33 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.” [quoting Isaiah 8:14 and 28:16]

The conclusion to the chapter, besides smoothly transitioning into Paul’s discussion on the Jews in chapters 10 and 11, is key to understanding Romans 9. Faith in Christ is in fact what differentiates the children of promise from the natural children of bondage. This was brought out in chapter 4 of Romans when Paul explained who the true children of Abraham are:

“And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which [he had yet] being uncircumcised: that he might be the father of all them that believe, though they be not circumcised; that righteousness might be imputed unto them also: And the father of circumcision to them who are not of the circumcision only, but who also walk in the steps of that faith of our father Abraham, which he had being yet uncircumcised.” (Romans 4:11-12)

This idea was also conveyed throughout the third chapter of Galatians when addressing the issue of faith versus the works of the law,

“Therefore know that only those who are of faith are sons of Abraham. … For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. … And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:7, 26, 29)

In summary, the tribes of Israel are the descendants of Abraham, and ostensibly the heirs to the promise with him. Yet despite their bloodline and keeping of the law, many of them are not truly Israel. God has instead made many Gentiles heirs of the promise with the Jewish remnant, who constitute the true Israel. God has chosen to show mercy to those who are children of promise through faith, and blinded many in the nation of Israel who have largely rejected His mercy through unbelief and trying to establish their own righteousness through the law. In this upset, God displays both His mercy and His wrath, taking the promise from the natural heirs and giving it to foreign people, just as He took the promise from the patriarchs’ elder sons and gave it to their younger, and in His wisdom confounded the wise so that many who weren’t born the seed of Abraham according to the flesh have nonetheless become his children and attained to his blessing: the righteousness which is by faith in Christ Jesus. It’s not unfair for God to do so, because who He shows the mercy of His covenant to isn’t man’s to decide. It is God’s promise, God’s grace, God’s prerogative, according to God’s purpose and on His terms, and therefore God’s choice. As it is also written,

“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, And bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.” Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe.” (1 Corinthians 1:18-21)

Amen.

Footnotes:

[a] This even went against Abraham’s own request: “And Abraham said to God, “Oh, that Ishmael might live before You!” Then God said: “No, Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac; I will establish My covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his descendants after him. “And as for Ishmael, I have heard you. Behold, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly. He shall beget twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation. “But My covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this set time next year.” (Genesis 17:18-21)

[b] See Romans 3:20-21, 28, 4:13, 7:6, 8:3.

[c] Romans 3:23. That both Jew and Gentile have fallen in sin is a major theme through many of Paul’s writings, expressed perhaps the most poignantly in Romans.

[d] That they being in those positions and having the power they did was to suit the purpose of God is evident from Christ’s words to Pilate in John 19:11: “You could have no power at all against Me unless it had been given you from above. Therefore the one who delivered Me to you has the greater sin.”

[e] Though typically referred to as ‘divine hardening,’ there is scriptural evidence to suggest that God hardens men through secondary agents, e.g. by turning them over to Satan’s influence. See 2 Corinthians 4:4, Matthew 13:19. Interestingly, Isaiah 6:9-10 seems to suggest that the word of God being spoken to undiscerning people can harden them, possibly lending some credence to the analogy of the wax & clay being respectively softened and hardened under the same sun.

[f] In contrast to the many learned, but stubborn men of Israel, the scriptures strongly emphasize being humble and child-like to the word of God. “Assuredly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it.” (Mark 10:15) See also James 4:6 and 1 Peter 5:5.

[g] The quote about God’s gifts and calling being irrevocable is very often misapplied. Its context is in relation to the Jews who have stumbled at the word, but are able to obtain mercy. “And they also, if they do not continue in unbelief, will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. … Concerning the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but concerning the election they are beloved for the sake of the fathers. For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. For as you were once disobedient to God, yet have now obtained mercy through their disobedience, even so these also have now been disobedient, that through the mercy shown you they also may obtain mercy.” (Romans 11:23, 28-31)

[h] 9:28 NU-Text: “For the Lord will finish the work and cut it short upon the earth.”

[i] This passage is also extremely strong evidence against those who heretically claim that the majority of unbelieving Jews are saved through keeping the old covenant.

[j] 9:31 – NU-Text omits of righteousness.

[k] 9:32 – NU-Text “of works,” though the qualification “of the law” is hardly necessary to infer that the law is being spoken of, since, 1.) the Jewish reliance upon the law and the superiority of faith in Christ is a one of the major themes repeatedly addressed throughout the epistle, cf 2:17, 3:20, 28, 4:14, 8:2-3, 10:5; 2.) the immediate context of the preceding verse makes this abundantly clear.

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