Navigating Romans 9 Exegetically and Theologically: Part 2

In part one, I laid out my methodology and analyzed the argument that 9:30-33 is discontinuous with the first 29 verses of chapter 9.  I looked at the usages of the phrase “What shall we say then” and concluded that it does not in fact signal a major shift in perspective but rather a smooth transition that readily connects with what comes before.  I think this preliminary analysis tips the scales towards a non-Calvinistic interpretation of Romans 9 because 9:30-33 clearly emphasizes faith, so Calvinists like Thomas Schreiner are not justified in trying to make a big point that Paul neglects to mention faith before this.

We now get to the meat of chapter 9.  Again, to prevent this from being even longer than it is, I will not address every single issue in absolute detail, but I do hope to give a textually-driven interpretation of this chapter that shows that a non-Calvinistic view is not only plausible and responsible, such that Christians who hold to some similar interpretation are not obviously flouting good interpretive principles, but may also be superior to the Reformed case.  This is also a good time to reiterate that I respect my Calvinist brothers and have read several of their commentaries and listened to a few of their sermons on this (I’ll repeat that Schreiner’s work is especially very good).  This is just disagreement within the body of Christ.

Romans 9:6b-13

Recall that 9:1-6a introduces this section and the main issue: Did the word of God to Israel fail?  Paul’s obvious answer to this is, “No.”  He begins his response by noting that not everyone who physically descended from Israel is in fact  “true” Israel (6b).  This is a strong statement to Jews, so Paul is going to unpack what he means by starting with Abraham.

Paul states that not everyone who is a physical descendant of Abraham is Abraham’s true heirs.  Paul quotes Gen. 21:12 to show that it is through Isaac that Abraham’s descendants will be counted (7).  Thus, it is not merely children of the flesh who are the children of God (contextually, it is better to take this as referring to Israel) but rather the children of the promise (8).  What is the promise? Specifically, it is the promise that Abraham and Sarah will have a son (9), though this promise is a vehicle for the original covenant with Abraham.  Abraham’s true descendants are counted through Isaac and not Ishmael, though Ishmael is a natural son of Abraham as well.

This is not the only narrowing that occurs.  Isaac and Rebekah had twins, Esau and Jacob, but the covenant was inherited by the descendants of Jacob (obviously, as Jacob’s other name, Israel, became the name of the nation).  Verses 11-13 deserve some focus.  What does the phrase “purpose of God according to election” mean?  Why did God “hate” Esau?

It will be helpful to start with the latter question.  Paul quotes Malachi 1:2-3, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated,” and it sounds harsh on face value.  However, it should be noted that this use of “loved” and “hated” can be a Semitic idiom to simply convey a choice of one over the other; it need not mean that God simply despised Esau the individual arbitrarily.  In fact, not only does the idiom not lead to this conclusion and that this would create some serious theological issues regarding God’s goodness, the original context of Malachi does not support it.  Malachi is written long after Jacob and Esau are dead, and it is clearly talking about the judgment of Edom, the nation that descended from Esau.  God answers the question from Israel, “How have you loved us?” by pointing to their status as the covenant people over Edom.  Esau, then, is representative of a nation, so these names should be viewed as representatives or heads of corporate wholes.  This makes sense because, after all, Paul’s whole point is to address what happened to the nation of Israel.

Furthermore, while Esau is frequently talked about negatively in Jewish literature, there is no hint that God simply hated his guts in the OT.  Esau and Jacob reconcile, and God even gave the Edomites Mt. Seir (Deut. 2:4), commanded the Israelites not to detest them (Deut. 23:7), and even gives hope for their restoration in the midst of judgment (Jer 49:7-11).  Focusing on Esau and Jacob as individuals is wrongheaded and leads to unjustified conclusions; for example, Schreiner concludes that Esau is reprobate, but there is absolutely no OT text that supports this.  Also, Esau never served Jacob in his life unless you count the giving up of his birthright, as quoted by Paul in 9:12, but the Edomites did later serve under David (1 Sam. 8:14).

So what does this all mean?  God chose Jacob over Esau in terms of the promise; in other words, God chose Jacob’s descendants as inheritors of the Abrahamic covenant and not Esau’s.  This corporate understanding helps make more sense of verse 11: Before the twins did anything good or bad, God chose Jacob as the carrier of the promise and from him came the elect nation, Israel.  This is so that God’s “purpose according to election” may stand.  Contrary to what many may think, the key word here is “purpose” that the prepositional phrase modifies, not “election.”  The phrase is probably best viewed as “God’s purpose which is fulfilled by means of election.”  What is God’s purpose?  There is no need to speculate on hidden wills or pre-creation covenants; we need only look at the promise that has already been alluded to, which is the Abrahamic covenant.  Remember, God promised that Abraham would become a great nation through which the nations of the world would be blessed, and it is for this purpose that God is electing.  The election is again not speculative and individualistic but has already been shown: God chooses whose descendants will inherit the promise, and this is not based on works but on his sovereign calling.  I think it is best to view “calling” as a sort of “naming” here, meaning that God has always had the prerogative to name which descendants will inherit the covenant promises.

Let’s summarize.  God’s word to Israel did not fail because it was never strictly bound to physical descent.  Any Jew would readily see and even celebrate how God chose Isaac as the inheritor of the promise and then Jacob because from them sprang the nation of Israel, which is why I think Paul simply stops there.  God has always had the right to name his people.  I think the implication is clear: If this is true, then God is clearly not acting arbitrarily, dishonestly, or unfairly because he has already shown that he can narrow down which descendants will carry on his promise to Abraham.  This comes down to the the last representative person, as hinted at in verse 5, Jesus Christ, the ultimate inheritor of the promise who is from the line of Judah.  It is through Christ that the nations are blessed and the Abrahamic covenant is fulfilled, as Paul will affirm in Romans 15.  The focus here is not individual salvation, though it has implications for it (namely, that one needs to have faith in Christ).  Thus, God did not go back on his promises but has been acting consistently with how he has always fulfilled those promises.

Romans 9:14-18

Based on this, Paul addresses an additional objection: Is God unrighteous by hardening Israel?  To answer this, Paul gives two OT references.  The first is Exodus 33:19: “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”  This, together with verse 16 (“So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy”) has led Calvinists to conclude that God unilaterally has mercy on some while damning others.

However, this misunderstands the context of the quotation.  In Exodus, God states this after the golden calf incident and after Moses interceded on behalf of Israel.  Moses again intercedes for Israel for God’s continued presence and leading, which God grants, and then Moses asks God to if he can see God’s glory.  God partially grants this request and then says the above quote.  Contextually, there is no hint of support for the idea that God gives or withholds compassion and mercy for inscrutable reasons; instead, it means that it is God’s free choice to forgive and give favor in response to Moses’ intercession and faith.  It is important to note that just because someone repents or has faith, it does not mean that God is obligated to respond.  It is still God’s gracious choice to show compassion.  Thus, it is not dependent on willing or running (basically, striving) but on God’s choice, so Israel is no position to complain when the nation as a whole refused to believe in Christ.

The second reference is from Exodus 9:16, where God tells Pharaoh that he is raising him up to demonstrate his power so that his name will be proclaimed in all the earth.  In verse 18, Paul concludes that God has mercy on whom he wants and hardens whom he wants.  Again, ignoring the narrative of Exodus may lead to a Calvinistic conclusion, but on closer inspection, one can see that while God says he will harden Pharaoh’s heart in Exodus 7:3, the next six times it states that Pharaoh’s heart is hardened, he does it to himself.  Only after these six times does it say that God hardens Pharaoh’s heart in Ex. 9:12.  Thus, God’s hardening is a judicial response to sin, not the origin of sin.

In addition, the quote from Exodus shows God allowing Pharaoh to remain in his stubbornness in order to show his power and proclaim God’s name, and yet God still expresses displeasure that Pharaoh still refuses to let his people go.  I think an implicit parallel is being drawn with Israel: Just like Pharaoh, one of their archetypal enemies, Israel has been stubborn, and through their stubbornness, God’s name is proclaimed to the world as Paul talks about in Romans 11:11-16.  If God was justified in doing that to obstinate Pharaoh, as any Jew would believe, then God is justified in doing it to stubborn Israel.  He can harden whom he wishes; Israel has no special status that makes her immune when she is steadfastly stubborn.

It is important to note that Israel’s hardening is not permanent or irreversible.  Paul makes that clear in chapter 11, which casts further doubt on an individualistic, double-predestinarian reading of this section.

Romans 9:19-29

Paul’s interlocutor may then object that if God can harden like this, how can God find fault?  Paul again alludes to the OT in order to answer this.  The wording in v. 20 is closest to Isaiah 29:16 and 45:9, and the analogy of the potter has led many Calvinists to see God unilaterally making people into saved vessels or damned vessels.  This again ignores the Old Testament usage of this image.

While the wording in v. 20 comes from the passages in Isaiah, the theme of two different vessels is actually much closer to Jeremiah 18.  In that passage, the potter finds the clay spoiled, so he fashions it into a different vessel than what he intended.  God compares himself to that potter: He holds Israel in his hand, and he can choose to have mercy on or destroy a nation based upon its turn to evil or repentance.  Thus, Paul’s point is not individual salvation; he is arguing that God is not unjust for temporarily rejecting Israel because God is the potter who can punish an obstinate nation.  God is responding to faith and repentance, not unilaterally determining the fate of individuals.

This helps us understand v. 22-24 better.  Paul makes the point that God, although willing (which I take as a concessive participle) to demonstrate his wrath, endured with great patience vessels of wrath which are prepared for destruction.  One may wonder why God needs to have patience if he were the one unilaterally determining these vessels to be this way.  In any case, God did this to make known the riches of his glory upon vessels of mercy, which are the kind that are prepared for glory.  This includes Paul and his audience, whom God called, from both the Jews and the Gentiles.  The inclusion of Paul and Jewish believers, along with the hope of Israel’s eventual salvation in Romans 11 and with Jeremiah 18, shows that someone is not simply determined to be a vessel of wrath or mercy.  Instead, all are initially vessels of wrath destined for destruction (as evidenced in Pauline passages such as Ephesians 2), and while God is willing to demonstrate his wrath and power, he bore with them with great patience in order to mold some of them like a potter into vessels of mercy if they repent.  This echoes Rom. 3:25, and it demonstrates God’s mercy and patience.

The inclusion of the Gentiles as well as a remnant of Jews is consistent with the sayings from Hosea in 9:25-26.  In Hosea, God essentially calls Israel “not my people,” but promises that he will restore them as “my people.”  Such quotes apply to a remnant of Jews who are restored from sinful Israel as well as Gentiles who never were named God’s people.  Furthermore, the passages from Isaiah in 9:27-29 shows God promising swift judgment but also a remnant that will carry on.  Again, vessels of mercy can emerge from vessels of wrath, and this shows that it was always a remnant that carried on the covenant.

Therefore, Paul’s answer as to why God finds fault is that he has every right to respond to Israel’s unbelief with judgment like a potter can mold clay.  It is not arbitrary, nor is it the case that God has displayed no patience.  It is worth asking if a satisfactory answer from Paul would be a dismissal of the question by telling his interlocutor that he has no business questioning God.  While it is true that men should not question God, such a retort does little to actually answer the objection by itself.  However, when the OT is allowed to inform how we read the potter analogy, the answer becomes clear: God is not unrighteous or capricious in placing blame because Israel’s predicament is her own fault.  This neatly leads to the conclusion about Israel’s unbelief, as discussed in the previous post.


The outline for Romans 9 can be organized like this:

  • Introduction (1-6a)
    • Paul laments the unbelief and judgment of Israel (1-5).
    • The main issue: The word of God did not fail Israel (6a).
  • Body (6b-29)
    • God’s word to Israel did not fail because it was never based on mere physical descent from Abraham but on God’s choice of which subset of descendants would carry the promise (6b-13).
    • God is not unjust to Israel because he can justifiably harden disobedient Israel and have mercy on whom he chooses (14-18).
    • God as the potter is free to make Israel into a vessel of wrath due to their stubbornness while making Gentiles and a remnant into vessels of mercy from vessels of wrath (19-29).
  • Conclusion (30-33)
    • The Gentiles obtained righteousness by faith, but Israel did not because they pursued it by works.

Main Idea: God’s word did not fail Israel because he is consistent in judging the nation due to its unbelief in Christ while giving righteousness to Gentiles through their faith in Christ.

And then from there, Paul elaborates on Israel’s obstinate unbelief in chapter 10 and then their eventual re-grafting in chapter 11.  In fact, the very ones being hardened (“the rest”) in chapter 11 are the ones that Paul hopes will be restored, a bizarre thing for Paul to say if he means what Calvinists say he does.

So did the word of God fail?  No; God has always had the right to name which descendants will be the carrier of his promise, and this has been demonstrated several times in the Old Testament, from Abraham to Isaac, from Isaac to Jacob, and from Jacob to a remnant of Judah as seen in Isaiah.  It has always been about faith, as Paul emphasizes by referencing Abraham in chapter 4, and Christ is revealed as both the stumbling block as well as the one upon whom everyone should believe (9:33).  God can choose to have a people by faith, and if Israel largely refuses to have faith, then God has every right to harden them, which also achieves his purposes in reaching the Gentiles whom he grafts in by faith.

The chapter is about the predicament of the nation of Israel, the election for God’s salvific purposes (Abrahamic covenant that is fulfilled in Christ), and ultimately faith.  Extracting double-predestination, unconditional individual election unto salvation, compatibilistic free will, or other distinctive Calvinist doctrines is not supported by a careful reading of the text.


4 thoughts on “Navigating Romans 9 Exegetically and Theologically: Part 2

  1. Pingback: Navigating Romans 9 Exegetically and Theologically: Part 1 | leesomniac

  2. Pingback: A Primer on Calvinism | leesomniac

  3. Leesomniac,

    I’ve noticed a running theme in many of your blogs that I hope to clarify or, at least, suggest a different perspective on. You seem to be under the impression that Reformed theology holds to determinism. That is, that God predetermines every human choice. I noted it in your Romans 9 analysis, your Primer on Calvinism and your Primer on Open Theism. Would that be an accurate assessment of your belief? You used the term determinism several times so I want to make sure I’m understanding you correctly.

    • Hi Mhbox81:

      What you’re saying is accurate, though in my primer on Calvinism, I do note that I’m talking about what can be called “classical” Calvinism. I am aware that there are other types of Calvinism that are not completely deterministic (there are philosophers who call themselves libertarian Calvinists) and I know that not everyone equates “Reformed” theology with Calvinism (after all, Arminianism comes from the Reformed tradition). Still, I have chosen to use “Calvinism” and “Reformed” theology in broadly understood ways, and it is far more common for Calvinists to be determinists and compatibilists about free will than otherwise. I hope that helps.

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