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Insight #351 – Calvinism Examined #3 – God’s Will – Romans 9

Does Romans 9 teach unconditional election to salvation? We need to understand the context first. Keep in mind that this letter was not written to a modern Gentile-only church. A major portion of the book of Romans addressed the Jewish mindset which rejected Gentiles being saved through Christ. They believed that only descendants of Abraham were God’s people.  

I. God Chooses Whom He Wants

After expressing his great love for his physical kinsmen (Rom. 9:1-5), in verses 6-13 Paul reminded them that not all of Abraham’s offspring were God’s people. Ishmael (implied) and Esau were not chosen. Isaac and Jacob (Israel) were chosen. These examples showed that “it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise.” No Jew could deny that.

The election of Jacob over Esau when “being not yet born… the purpose of God according to election… [etc.]” is not talking about personal eternal salvation. God had told Rebekah that “two nations are in your womb…” (Gen. 25:23). Nations! In Romans 9:13, Paul quoted part of Malachi 1:1-4, a text clearly about the nations of Esau (Edom) and Jacob (Israel). In short, in Romans 9:6-13 Paul reminded his fellow Jews that their nation had been God’s chosen (elect) people because God wanted them to be.

II. God Does What He Wants

To further emphasize God’s will, in Romans 9:14-21 Paul used the examples of Pharaoh and a potter to drive home the point that God “has mercy on whom he desires, and he hardens whom he desires.” God used Pharaoh to bring glory to Himself. Any Jew also knew that Pharaoh was obstinate from the beginning, and behind it all was God’s will and desire to free Israel from slavery.

Paul then turns to a potter – a strong case of God doing whatever He wants. “Hasn’t the potter a right over the clay, from the same lump to make one part a vessel for honor, and another for dishonor?” (9:21). Notice that the text does not say that God’s (the potter’s) will is unconditional, as in “unconditional election.” God is sovereign, he can elect unconditionally or with conditions. In the potter analogy as seen in Jeremiah 18:1-10, it is clear that how God treats the clay is based conditionally on the behavior of the nation: “If that nation… turns from their evil…” Yes, God elects whom He wants to elect – but He often elects to impose conditions and, in His sovereignty, decides to allow man to choose.

III. What Does God Want Today?

Romans 9:6-21 is not about personal eternal salvation. But verses 22-32 are! We need to consider the first part of Romans 9 together with the last part, or we will miss the whole point. In Romans 9:6-21, Paul used earthly-national-temporal examples (which Jews knew well) to press home the truth that God can do whatever He wants to do. Then in verses 22-32, Paul applied that truth to the issue of individual-eternal salvation. The whole point of Romans 9 is that Jewish ethnicity no longer makes a person chosen by God. Now that Jesus has come into the world (through the Jews), it is God’s will to save both Jews and Gentiles – if they put their faith in Jesus Christ.

In Romans 9:24-32, Paul emphasized the point that God has “called, not from the Jews only, but also from the Gentiles… that the Gentiles… attained to righteousness… but Israel… didn’t… Why? Because they didn’t seek it by faith.” Far from being about unconditional election, Romans 9 teaches the opposite: that today the condition of salvation is faith in Jesus Christ. All of Romans 9 is an extended defense (addressed to Jews) of Paul’s basic proposition in the beginning of the letter: “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ, because it is the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first, and also for the Greek” (1:16).

Romans 9 in a Nutshell

To paraphrase Romans 9: “Listen, brother Jew, whom I love deeply. Centuries ago, God by His will chose you as His elect people. But now that Christ has come into the world through you, God chooses, elects, and has mercy on those who believe in Christ, whether Jew or Gentile. Who are you to argue with God?”
NOTE: The purpose of this series is to biblically examine various aspects of the Calvinistic acrostic TULIP: Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, and Perseverance of the saints.