Romans 9, Election, and Calvinism
Updated: May 1
I find Scripture keeps getting in the way of being a Calvinist, and Rom 9 is one area. If we were supposed to be Calvinists, the Bible would just make us one. We wouldn’t have to force it. But Rom 9 runs away from Calvinism, contradicts it, even though Calvinists use it to support their error. If we can't be a Calvinist as a direct consequence of Bible teaching, then we shouldn't be one. Calvinists have their pet verses and Romans 9 ranks high on that ladder. They use it to force their belief on unconditional election for salvation. Is that what Romans 9 is teaching?
At the end of Rom 8 (vv. 35-39), Paul promises that nothing will separate saved, justified people from the love of God. He anticipated some argument with that point, that if God elected Israel and Israel was not saved, how could anyone be assured of God's election. Rom 9–11 defends God's actions with Israel to buttress the truth that nothing can separate true believers from the love of God. I digress momentarily.
Israel in these passages is Israel, and Esau is Esau. Israel does not represent Esau or Esau, Israel. We, saved or unsaved Gentiles, do not represent Jacob or Esau . We are not Jacob or Esau. Jacob does not represent saints, he represents Israel, the national election of Israel. Thats it. Esau and Jacob do NOT represent “born of the flesh” and “born of the Spirit” in Jn 3:3-7. Esau is not our flesh, which is born into bondage. We’re not Israel today, not spiritual or physical Israel, a teaching represents the seriously heretical Replacement Theology. This type of spiritualizing of scripture was heard quite commonly at Victory Faith Church pastored by Tim Krahn but it brings serious confusion and contradictions to Scripture, and it is certainly not how the Spirit of God teaches. Scripture must always be interpreted literally, unless the text or context clearly says otherwise. Tied to this, and dishonouring to God, is the false interpretation method of eisegesis, which is putting in the meaning, reading into scripture what you want it to say (as noted by Calvinists concerning Romans 9), in contrast to how the Holy Spirit teaches, by exegesis, which is pulling out the meaning, by careful interpretation based on grammar, context, syntax, and right division. Scripture harmonizes. To spiritualize this Scripture, or any others, is unscriptural, and corrupts and destroys the meaning. The teaching of God’s Word is then thrown into complete and utter confusion. The teacher then becomes the authority, not the Triune God and His Word. Spiritualizing scripture is also called allegoricalism. It was invented by false teachers connected to Roman Catholicism. It is typically the manner of unsaved people attempting to interpret the Bible, since they are unable to without the Spirit (like majority of Mennonites unfortunately, who interpret allegorically, whereby they can make the scriptures mean whatever they want it to mean). The literal sense of Scripture must always rule. This is the basic rule for understanding any literature. Even among the secular, no sensible person would interpret literature by spiritualizing. If the Bible doesn’t mean exactly what it says, there is no way to discern exactly what it does mean.
Returning to Rom 9, I certainly believe in election—the election taught in God’s Word. God elected Israel (Jacob), "being not yet born" (Rom 9:11), “Jacob” was “his chosen” (Ps 105:6). His choice, election, was based upon His own terms, mercy and foreknowledge most importantly. Nothing occurs by chance with God, nothing catches Him by surprise. Nor is His choice random. The election occurred between Jacob and Esau, when “the children being not yet born, neither having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works, but of him that calleth.” (Rom 9:11). This proves foreknowledge. God choose Jacob because He knew the future and which one would be converted and the history of each lineage. It is also of no coincidence that election enters at this point, and not before with Abraham, or Isaac. Rebekah was giving birth to twin boys, both equally capable of being the recipients of God’s covenants with Abraham--according to the mind of man that is--who has no foreknowledge, yet it could only go to one and it obviously had to go to him who would repent, for there are no unsaved people in the lineage of the seed, the Messiah, which is the genealogy from Abraham down to Joseph (Gen 3:15; 2 Sam 7:12-13; Rom 1:3; Gal 3:6, 19; 2 Tim 2:8; Heb 2:16). God didn’t blindly or randomly choose Jacob over Esau, before birth, like picking a name out of a hat. “For the Lord hath chosen Jacob unto himself, and Israel for his peculiar treasure.” (Ps 135:4). There was a reason and that reason was based upon His foreknowledge, not predetermination.
Part of being elect meant Israel had tremendous advantage (Rom 9:4-5) that one would think would lend toward the nations salvation. God bestowed on Israel unique evidence that her God truly was the very God so they would believe on Him, including the gift of Christ, "who is over all, God blessed forever" (Rom 9:5). Jesus even added to those benefits by preaching His kingdom all over Israel. Yet they would not come. This is noted in Jesus’s final cry to His people, before turning to the Gentiles: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, which killest the prophets, and stonest them that are sent unto thee; how often would I have gathered thy children together, as a hen doth gather her brood under her wings, and ye would not!” (Lk 13:34).
In Rom 9:1-4a, Paul “could wish that [he] were accursed" for the salvation of Israel. So right there at the very start of Rom 9 is where we begin seeing the contradiction to Calvinism. Why would Paul be willing to be "accursed from Christ" (Rom 9:3) for those God chose before the foundations of the world to damn forever? Paul surely wasn't more loving or more righteous than God. Would he not be out of bounds in expressing such sympathy for those for whom Christ Himself did not die, if limited atonement were true? Only if God Himself were unwilling for the Israelites, His chosen people, to perish and if Christ Himself had died for them does Rom 9:1-5 make any sense (read also Matt 1:21 and Jn 1:11).
And that’s just the start here in Rom 9. If you are a Calvinist and you‘re reading here, before you start bulking against the grain and gnashing with your teeth, please read this to the end, because Rom 9:1-5 is really a hint of things to come. This text fits with the rest of the chapter, but they‘re not all there is. Calvinists point to 9:11 as evidence of election, and that is true, but it’s not outside of the sphere of Gods foreknowledge, for election is always “according to the foreknowledge of God the Father,” (1 Pet 1:2), according to His mercy (Rom 9:16). God loved Jacob (Israel) because he knew the future, His foreknowledge is perfect, He knew of Jacobs eventual desire to repent and obey Him.
And one day God will save all Israel (Rom 11:26; Lk 13:35), when they turn to they Messiah, so national Israel is chosen as His people in this world unconditionally as His servants to show forth His glory, but that on its own didn’t guarantee their personal salvation, just much greater advantage and opportune for it (Rom 3:1-3; 9:4-5). Who are the Israelites whom God will save? They are those whom He elects on the condition of personal repentant faith in Him. Paul distinguishes between personal and national election in Rom 9, and he makes this crystal clear. So God continued faithful and loving to Israel, and His Word, especially as found in the Abrahamic, Mosaic, and Davidic covenants, did not fail.
Paul begins Rom 9:6 by saying that God's Word was still in effect for Israel, the Israel that God would save, which was not all of Israel (Rom 9:6b). True Israel, spiritual Israel, would receive the promises God made to the nation (Rom 9:7-8). Rom 2:28-29 speaks to this, distinguishing between the Jew who won’t receive God’s promises, which is merely “one outwardly,” and the one who would, the true Jew “inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.” These are “the children of God” which are “the children of the promise,” and “are counted for the seed,” not simply “the children of the flesh” (Rom 9:8) from the loins “of Abraham” (Rom 9:7).
Paul illustrates the point of vv. 6-7 in vv. 8-13. He appeals to Gen 21:12-13. Ishmael came from Abraham physically, but Isaac alone would receive the blessings of God's covenant with Abraham. “For in Isaac shall thy seed be called.” (Gen 21:12b). Isaac received blessings never given to Ishmael. A Jew is unconditionally a Jew, and as a Jew, based on no merit of his own, he has been given incredible advantages (hence the harshness and severity of God’s judgment on Israel when they rejected the Messiah of their own seed, God blinding them to this day and scattering them throughout the world, bringing great persecution upon them, all foretold in the OT).
Gen 21 makes national promises, but physical descent alone didn’t guarantee the Jew would receive the blessings of those promises. The nation will unconditionally, but the individual persons will not. God will save those Israelites who do not reject the advantages God gave (Rom 9:4-5) and repent (De 10:12-16; Is 55:1-7). Jews who thought they would receive the blessings of the covenants just because they were Jews were sorely deceived (Matt 3:9-12; Jn 8:31-59; Rev 20:11-15). Isaac and Ishmael were both sons of Abraham, but both didn’t receive the covenant. Only Isaac did and he’s a picture of the true child of God — of which all receive the spiritual blessings of God's covenant with Abraham (Gal 3:7-9, 29).
This illustrated to Israel that it wasn't physical descent that made one a child of promise. God didn't have to save every descendant of Abraham. Rom 9:9 quotes Gen 18:10,14 for this illustration. The point is that like Sarah and Isaac were chosen over Hagar and Ishmael (Rom 9:7-9), spiritual Israel is chosen over physical Israel. Heb 11:11 elucidates further on what occurred: "Through faith also Sara herself received strength to conceive seed, and was delivered of a child when she was past age, because she judged him faithful who had promised." God does make His choices on His own terms which are always based upon His foreknowledge — He's done it in the past and He does it again today.
"And not only this" at the beginning of Rom 9:10 tells us that Paul has more explanation about the same point, except he uses a different example, that of two sons of the same mother and father, that of twins, Jacob and Esau. Again, not all the physical descendants inherit the promises, even as Esau, who was a physical descendant of Isaac, did not. The election is unconditional and national but not soteriological. How do we know it is national? Verse 12 quotes Gen 25:23, “And the LORD said unto her, Two nations are in thy womb, and two manner of people shall be separated from thy bowels; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger.”
We can see from the OT passage itself that the election is national. First, it says "two nations," but, second, if it is personal, then every person in the one "nation" of "people" was saved, which was not the case. We know that based upon how history unfolded, which reveals just the opposite, the vast majority in Israel have never been saved. The very point Paul is making is that every person in the nation was not saved, and so wasn’t true Israel (Rom 9:6). When we take Gen 25 and Paul's quotation of it literally, we are dealing with "two nations" and "two manner of people.” The election here relates to Israel's rule, glory, covenants, servantship, etc. The rest of the OT will show that this election continued to be fulfilled.
Rom 9:13 quotes Mal 1:2-3, which was written long after the end of Jacob and Esau's lives. And the Malachi text plainly refers to the nations of Israel and Edom, not individuals. Everything in that text says Malachi is referring to nations. When he says, "I have loved you," "you" is in the plural. God's indignation is against "the people” of “Edom . . . for ever” (v. 4) because He “hated” them (v. 3). Important to the understanding of a NT text is looking at the context of the OT quotations. Those OT passages will shed light on the NT usage. This is a major part of deriving the correct interpretation, rightly dividing God's word, which is crucial.
God's love can be trusted (Rom 9:14). He is righteous to elect on His own terms. God is righteous not to elect Ishmael or Esau for the Rom 9:1-5 blessings, to not choose them as His people, as His servants. No one can sit in judgment upon Him. He is righteous and just, and we know His decisions are based upon His mercy and perfect foreknowledge. And history does show us how perfect His foreknowledge really is. In support of the truth of v. 14, Paul quotes Ex 33:19 in v. 15. The Exodus text refers to God's merciful choice of the nation Israel over the other nations of the earth. God could have destroyed the nation after she built the golden calf, but instead He lead them and protected them into the promised land as promised to Abraham, the nation, not the individuals, because the individuals were mostly not saved spiritually, vast majority of them were lost (cf. Heb 3–4; Ju 1:5), which has been its tragic history from Egypt till this day (e.g. 1 Sam 8:7-8; 2 Ki 17:7-20; 18:11-12; 21:10-15; 2 Ch 30:1-9; 36:11-20; Ps 78:6-12; Jer 1:7-19; 4:3-4; 6:10-19; 9:1-9; Ezk 12:2; Ac 7:51-53; Rom 10:16-21; 2 Cor 3:12-16). He did that because of His mercy and compassion (Rom 9:15). Often the word "mercy" in the OT doesn’t refer to the individual mercy of personal salvation, but to the covenant mercy to the nation as a whole. God's choice of Israel was based upon His mercy (v. 16) and foreknowledge (Rom 11:2). The example of God giving Israel mercy indicates that mercy comes out of the will of God. This does apply to personal salvation, but in the context it relates to the whole nation.
Paul deals with the argument that God has been unrighteous to the entire nation because He hasn’t saved every individual and now turned to the Gentiles (Rom 9:24-33). He rebuts this from the OT. In the next chapter, he also explains why the individual Jew won’t get saved (Rom 10:1-4), quoting Moses who dealt with the same issue (Rom 10:5-11; cf. De 30:1-20). Rom 9:17 furthers the proposition of v. 16, using the example of Pharoah. God raised up Pharoah to his position. It isn't that God "created" Pharoah for this position, but that God worked to the end that Pharoah would arrive at this exalted position over Egypt. The point of "raised up" is not that Pharoah was foreordained or predestined to Hell, but that God brought him, an already evil and unrepentant man, to his reign over Egypt as the leader of that nation, so that his personal wickedness could reveal itself more plainly in order then to display the glory of God (Ex 4:21). By hardening Pharoah's heart, God provided the blessing for His elect nation that He might be glorified (Ex 7:3). The hardening of his heart related to his not letting the people go (Ex 7:14), not so that he would be eternally damned. As much as God hardened his heart, Exodus also reveals that Pharoah hardened his own heart (Ex 8:15, 32; 9:7, 34), and God only hardened his heart further after Pharoah hardened it himself. Pharoah chose to harden his heart, so God helped him along, so His purposes and glory would be manifest. As much as hardness of heart can lead to the eternal damnation of the soul, in the context of Pharoah's heart-hardening God was delivering His elect nation by means of the hardening, illustrating the truth of Pr 21:1, "the king's heart is in the hand of the LORD." The deliverance was not spiritual salvation, but a physical deliverance that proved God was both powerful, faithful and covenant keeping. God was not glorified in some predestined rebellion of Pharoah, but in the victory of His elect, servant nation over a humanly powerful Egypt. God brought Pharoah to power for those purposes.
Another argument is introduced in Rom 9:19, which is essentially why does God find fault in anyone if He has mercy on those whom He’ll have mercy and hardens whomever He will harden? This poses the question: "Is God fair?" And it is related to the next point, that is, who would be able to resist God anyhow? The problem isn't the answer to the question, but the question itself. Paul makes that known in v. 20, “Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God?” Because of their inferiority, men don't have the perspective to challenge God with such questions.
Paul pictures man's predicament with the potter-clay imagery, which comes from Jer. 18-19. In the OT passage, God is the Potter and the entire nation Israel is the clay (Jer. 18:6). Jer 18:4 is a key interpretational verse, “And the vessel that he made of clay was marred in the hand of the potter: so he made it again another vessel, as seemed good to the potter to make it.” A contrast exists between "he made" and "was marred." The former is active and the latter passive. "Was marred,” speaks of the vessel, the men, marring or corrupting itself. You would see the same verb construction in Gen 6:11-12, where the earth corrupted itself, not God. Since Israel had marred herself, God as the Potter could see fit not to use her. God had condemned and had the authority to condemn a marred pot.
This was the message the Jews arguing with Paul needed to hear. God would get glory through obedient Israel or disobedient Israel (Rom 3:1-4). Israel marred herself, so God would get glory through her captivity. God could and would also be glorified by the destruction of Israelites. Although her election never changes, God's purpose for Israel changed based on the condition of her behaviour. Rom 9 would’ve been nothing new for a Jew who knew Jer 18-19. As clay, Israel shouldn’t have been demanding anything of her Potter. Jer 18:10 especially enlightens regarding Rom 9, “If it do evil in my sight, that it obey not my voice, then I will repent of the good, wherewith I said I would benefit them.”
God, the Potter, will treat the clay (Israel), different, conditional upon her actions. Israel sounds like Calvinists in Jer 18, accusing God of not giving them suitable opportunity, when God had done so, and judged based upon their obedience. In light of Jer 18-19, we understand the questions of v. 20. A fully made clay, now pot, questions the Potter, not some uncreated, formless clay. The answer is that Israel had marred herself. The formation of the clay changed, conditioned upon its behaviour. The sovereignty of God expressed in v. 21 is not some predetermined sovereignty, but one that chooses in accord with the condition of the clay. That's how Jer. 18-19 reads and every other clay-potter text.
It is ironic, Calvinists claim to exalt God’s sovereignty, when in fact they manipulate it. God is sovereign but Calvinists argue and write as though they are sovereign over His sovereignty. We can't let God be sovereign. He just is. But in beliefs, we should also allow Him to be sovereign. Since He is sovereign, we should let what He says about His own sovereignty actually be His sovereignty, not fiddle with it. As sovereign as God is, which also involves His wisdom, power, and love, He can preserve His Word and He can preserve my soul. Many Calvinists today see God has sovereignty over their souls, but not over His Word. They are eclectic textual critics, hoping to still find God's Words. They're the ones who choose. Of course, He chooses them before the foundation of the world, unconditionally and they can't resist receiving Him, but many of them believe and teach that God couldn't or just didn't fulfill what He said He would do with His Words. That unwillingness to believe what God said He would do and then on top of that believing things that Scripture doesn't say, based on their own logic, is where God isn't God any more to the Calvinist. They've claimed sovereignty not only over His election but also over the doctrine of preservation of Scripture. That also is heresy.
Concluding now, the election of Jacob is national election. It contradicts a belief in personal, unconditional election unto eternal life or eternal damnation. Calvinism in its interpretation of Rom 9 miserably fails in a proper consideration of the OT texts to which Paul refers in the chapter, in properly understanding God’s foreknowledge. Noted in the same text of scripture of De 10:12-16, is both national unconditional election of Israel (vv. 14-15) and conditional personal election of the Jew, and everyone else for that matter (vv. 12-13 and 16). The elect concerning salvation are those whom God “hath chosen . . . in [Christ] before the foundation of the world” (Eph 1:4; 2 Tim 1:9). That choice is based upon foreknowledge and foreknowledge is based upon knowing man's response.
Election guarantees glorification (Rom 8:30) and promises no condemnation (Rom 8:31-34; 1 Pet 1:2-5; Jn 3:18) and security for the believer (Rom 8:28-39). Sinners however are not chosen unconditionally, like national election of Israel, but through their wilful saving response to the Spirits conviction of sin, by repenting and believing (Is 55:1-7; Ac 20:21; 2 Th 2:10-13). Personal election does not destroy human responsibility, for man has a free will and God saves no man against his own will (2 Th 2:10-13; compare Ac 13:46 and 48).
Since the Bible is the only authority; we should get our doctrine from the Bible. Left with only the Bible, you wouldn't come up with Calvinism. The only way you become Calvinist is by reading Calvinists.
Romans 9 does not teach Calvinism's unconditional election to salvation.