What Is Romans 9 Really About?


This is a blog post with two authors: Evan Minton and Colin Burgess. We worked on this blog post together in Google Docs prior to uploading it to Cerebral Faith. 

Romans 9, a passage I once avoided reading as a young Christian.  I circled around it thinking to myself, “Things were going so well in the Bible, up until this passage! Why did Paul have to throw this wrench into the gears?” It is much like those awkward verses of the sword in the Old Testament which atheists like to use to make Christians squirm, but that is another debate. 

What does Paul say here? What Paul seems to be proposing is that the scope of election is narrow and that God has, by some unknown measure, decided to shut some up in ignorance and unbelief, while allowing others to somehow believe, and “who are you, oh man, to answer back?” Has God determined that some are meant to be the proverbial fuel for the fire, this is just their eternal lot and they are the thing made and just have to suck it up? Read in this context, it seems Paul is rebuking those who seem to be asking God hard questions, which does not seem to square with a God presented in Isaiah 1:19 who invites us to come reason with Him. Why does God now silence sincere questioning of His plan to damn some, when His prior offer to reason with Him was once on the table? 

What Evan does in the following post is he demonstrates that Romans 9, if read in a wider context, is not intended to narrow the scope of salvation based on arbitrary selection, but is meant to break down the racial barriers which were put up due to ethnic pride and to make the call of the gospel one for all, irrespective of lineage or pedigree. If you take pride in what God made you, as though your genetics serve as some sort of qualification, you have the same problem as those John The Baptist rebukes in Matthew 3:9 who thought their relationship to Abraham gave them an in with God. 

If Evan is correct in his arguments, the passage in Romans needn’t be skirted around as a disheartening passage, but should be one that encourages Christians to evangelize to all who are lost.

What Romans 9 Is Really All About

In the early parts of Romans, Paul touches upon the subject as to whether there is benefit in being Jewish if you fail to strictly adhere to God's law (2:17-3, 21). He mentions that there are some advantages of being Jewish of course (such as being the very people to whom God's inspired revelation is directly given, for example), nevertheless, one’s lineage doesn’t grant one God’s automatic favor. What Paul says instead is: No, being ethnically Jewish doesn't automatically mean you're saved and are in right standing before God. Rather, "He is not a real Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. He is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is of the heart, spiritual and not literal" (2:28-29).

The apostle wrote that "no human being will be justified in God's sight by works of the law" (3:20); rather "we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law" (3:29). That includes Gentiles as well as Jews. "Or is God the God of Jews only? Is He not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one" (3:29-30).

To Paul's Jewish audience, this would have been an outrageous thing to say! To say that Gentiles, who were considered unclean by the Jews of that day, could be more Jewish than ethnic Jews, and be allowed into Heaven while they are condemned to the fires of Hell, would probably have gotten Paul stoned if he had said these things to their faces! Contrast why Paul’s ministry eclipsed that of Peter’s. Peter put so much emphasis on his Jewishness after the vision at Joppa, and Paul even rebuked Peter for putting so much importance on circumcision. This was the thrust of Paul’s ministry, one of inclusion of the Gentiles, not exclusion, which is what Romans 9 drives at. Paul appeals to Abraham for support of what he's saying. Paul tells us that Abraham was pronounced righteous in God's sight even before he was circumcised. He writes. "The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised and who thus have righteousness reckoned to them and likewise the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but also follow the example of faith which our father Abraham had before he was circumcised" (4:11-12).

The majority of Jewish people at the time believed that God's faithfulness towards them depended on two things: Their Jewish ethnicity and their strict adherence to the Mosaic Law. If you had that mindset and you read Paul's epistle, you would probably think to yourself "If Paul's message is true (i.e anyone can be saved, Jew or Gentile, simply on the basis of faith), then what is the point of being a Jew and adhering so tightly to the law?" (cf. Galatians 5:12). Paul's message seemed to undermine the uniqueness of the Jewish identity and calling.

But even worse is that those two things that the Jews put so much stock in (their ethnicity and adherence to the law of Moses) seemed to be the very thing working against their salvation. Because they strove for righteousness based on obeying the Old Testament law rather than having faith in the Lord, their hearts were hardened as evidence by the faith that so few Jewish dudes became Christians (Romans 9:31-32). From the perspective of the Jewish audience, Paul's gospel seemed to entail that the very people God made covenant promises to were now being rejected by God! Ergo, it looked like "the word of God had failed"

Paul denies that God's Word had failed. It is the case that "not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his descendants" (9:6-7). Paul's point is that being a racial Jew is not a sufficient condition for salvation (it’s not a necessary condition either, but you get the point). Instead, you gotta be "a child of the promise”. This reminds me of Matthew 3:9, where John The Baptist says God can raise up descendants of Abraham from stones. Genetic pedigree is insufficient for being a child of the promise. 

The theological conundrum that Paul is attempting to tackle isn't how God could be justified in light of the Calvinistic doctrine of unconditional election. Rather, the issue Paul is tackling is how God's chosen people (i.e the Jews) could fail to obtain salvation while Gentiles succeeded!1 After all, gentiles were considered by Jewish people as unclean! How could these unclean Gentiles obtain salvation from their sins, but not the Jews? Is God being unfair? Is he being unjust? Is He saying "Y'all used to be my people and pleased me by obeying all my laws, but now I reject you because of your strict adherence to the law? I'm going to save these Gentile folks over here simply because they asked me to." 

Paul responds to any charges of injustice on God's part by appealing to 2 different things: God's sovereignty and the teachings of The Old Testament. First, Paul says that God is sovereign and as such has the freedom to save whoever He wants to save, and one cannot dispute with The Lord Almighty. Yahweh can forgive the unclean Gentiles if He wants to, and He had the right to choose the criteria for salvation. If God wants to save Gentile Bob because he had faith and reject Jewish Zack because he's trying to work his way to salvation, who are you to condemn Him? He's sovereign! If God says "You must be saved by faith, not by trying to observe the law of Moses", you can't indict The Lord of being unfair. God is sovereign. He has the right to save whoever He wants to save by whatever means He wants to save them ((9:14-15, and 9:20). After appealing to the sovereignty of God, Paul made his counter-argument stronger by appealing to God's choice of Isaac over Ismael and Jacob over Esau (9:10-13), and by quoting Hosea 2:23 which says “I will call them ‘my people’ who are not my people, and I will call her ‘my loved one’ who is not my loved one,”

And lest you think Paul was referring to the persons Jacob and Esau, allow me to point out that Romans 9 is not talking about Jacob and Esau, the individuals. It's talking about the nations that descended from them. Esau never served Jacob the individual, but the Edomites did serve the Israelites.  Genesis 25:13 says "Two nations are fighting within you." Thinking the passage is referring to the unconditional election of these two individuals is wrong-headed. God chose Israel over Edom to be His "chosen people", the people whom the Messiah would come into the world and through whom salvation would come to the entire world (e.g. Genesis 12:2-3; 18:18; 22:18; Psalm 67:1-2; Isaiah 2:2-4; 55:5; 61:9-11; 66:19-20; Jeremiah 3:17; Romans 4:12-18).

In offering the examples of (1) Isaac over Ishmael, (2) Jacob over Esau, and appealing to Hosea 2:23, Paul was defending God’s prerogative to choose whomever he wants, by whatever means He wants. Paul was telling his Jewish readers that none of what he's saying should come as a surprise to them. It shouldn't be surprising that God wants to make a faith-based covenant with the Gentiles. Paul appeals to various Old Testament passages to make the case that this had always been God's goal.

Those who place their faith in Jesus are the homo sapiens God decides to save. One’s ethnicity doesn’t matter one iota. God has decreed that all who trust in Yeshua Messiah for salvation will be saved.

This is exactly why Paul goes on to say, "There is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and bestows his riches upon all who call upon him. For 'everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved'" (Romans 10:12-13)2

What Paul has a burden to do in Romans 9 isn't to restrict the scope of God's election to a few lucky chosen individual throughout human history, instead, Paul's burden is to widen the scope of God's election, which was previously thought to only include ethnic Jews. But as we've seen, throughout Romans, Paul argues that ethnicity doesn't mean diddly squat in the eyes of Lord Yahweh. What matters to Lord Yahweh is faith in Him and obedience to Him. The election is primarily corporate: God has chosen a people for Himself, a corporate entity. But, it is up to us by our response of faith whether or not we choose to be members of that corporate group destined to salvation.

Additional Considerations

Moreover, here are some additional considerations: later in Paul’s epistle, Paul writes"Again I ask: Did they stumble so as to fall beyond recovery? Not at all! Rather, because of their transgression, salvation has come to the Gentiles to make Israel envious. But if their transgression means riches for the world, and their loss means riches for the Gentiles, how much greater riches will their full inclusion bring!" (Romans 11:11-12). Paul doesn’t seem to think that the Jews he has in mind are irrevocably lost. They are lost, but Paul says (under the inspiration of The Holy Spirit) that some of them will come to faith later on. He asks rhetorically if they stumbled beyond recovery, and he says “Not at all!” Now, in the Calvinist’s view, this is unintelligible. If Romans 9 is saying that these Jews were determined by God to be unelected, to not believe, then why does Paul say that they are not beyond recovery? If The Calvinist’s view were correct, they would absolutely be beyond recovery. God didn’t choose them, God won’t zap them with the irresistible grace they need to repent, and therefore, per John 6:44, they can’t repent. And if they can’t repent, they can’t be saved. Ask any Calvinist and they will tell you that those whom God has not chosen have no chance. The elect are the elect and the reprobate are the reprobate. God made the choice of who would be elect and who would be reprobate from eternity past and nothing can or will change that. However, this statement by Paul in chapter 11 is problematic for the Calvinist's view of Romans 9 that God has eternally reprobated the Jews.

Additionally, in Romans 11:32, Paul writes "For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all." In the context of this verse, Paul mentions that the reason God orchestrated the world in such a way so that the Jews would initially reject Christ (whether that's a middle-knowledge style orchestration or a deterministic one is not germane to the point here), is because He knew that if the Jews rejected Christ, salvation would go to the Gentiles. But, Paul says in 11:32, everyone has been bound to disobedience so that God could have mercy on all people. In other words, God's ultimate goal in this is to save the whole human race. He bound everyone to have mercy on everyone. As I said above, "What mah boi Paul has a burden to do in Romans 9 isn't to restrict the scope of God's election to a few lucky chosen individual throughout human history, instead, Paul's burden is to widen the scope of God's election,". 

Romans 11 tells us that God initially wanted the Jews to reject Him (though He didn't want them to reject Him forever, c.f 2 Peter 3:9, 1 Timothy 2:4) because He wanted gentiles to have salvation as well. "Because of their transgression, salvation has come to the Gentiles to make Israel envious." (Romans 11:11). This is also why Paul goes on to give the illustration of an Olive Tree with natural branches (ethnic unbelieving Jews) being broken off so that unnatural branches (believing Gentiles) could be grafted in (Romans 11:13-24). God's goal is to save as many people as He can. This is because He desires "all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth" (1 Timothy 2:4). This is why, according to Paul, an initial, non-final rejection of Christ by the Jews is something that fits within the plan of God. Because the salvation has come to us Gentiles because of it. 

Now, why did Paul think that Jews had to initially reject Christ in order for salvation to come to Gentiles? This is just speculation on my part, but Paul might have said that because, he was thinking back to that incident in Acts 18, where Paul had preached to Jews and they rejected his message, and Paul said "Your blood be on your own heads! I am innocent of it. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.". (Acts 18:6). Paul might have been thinking in the back of his mind "If they hadn't rejected the gospel, I might not have made the decision to make my ministry primarily targeted towards Gentiles".

What If The Calvinist Interpretation Were Correct?

Let's say a Calvinist blogger writes up a solid refutation of this blog post and shows that this passage is teaching unconditional election after all. What would follow from that? Would it follow that we'd all have to become Calvinists? Luis De Molina didn't think so. Molina, the founder of the theological system known as Molinism, agreed with Calvin's exegesis of Romans 9, but because he found solid biblical evidence that God desires all people to be saved, that Jesus died on the cross for every human being, and that human beings have libertarian free will, he couldn't see it in exactly the same way Calvin did. Molina affirmed Unconditional Election, but reconciled it with the aforementioned Arminian teachings by appealing to God's middle knowledge.

Molina taught that God predestines individuals to salvation via His middle knowledge. In between His knowledge of what every creature could do (natural knowledge) and what every creautre will do (free knowledge), Molina taught that logically prior to the divine creative decree, God knew what any free creature would freely do in any given circumstance they found themselves in. For Molina, God's creative decree is the foundation of His free knowledge, but His free knowledge was founded on which of the feasible worlds God knew about in His middle knowledge. In this way, Molina found a way to reconcile libertarian freedom with meticulous providence and predestination, for we choose what we would freely choose in any given circumstance, and based on that, God chooses what we will freely do. If God knows "If Bob were in circumstance X, he would freely choose A instead of B", (let A stand for "coming to Christ" in this instance) then if God wants Bob to choose X, He can just actualize a world in which Bob finds himself in X and ergo chooses A. God brings about a world in which Bob chooses A, but Bob's libertarian free will is intact. Since God chose which possible world to actualize before that world actually came to be, it can be said that God predestined Bob's choosing of A. 

Although God desires all to be saved and made salvation available for all to receive, a possible world in which everyone freely responds to God's grace was an infeasible world for Him to actualize. In any world God could actualize, some would freely respond to His grace and others would reject Him. Therefore, God decided to actualize a world where certain people accept Him and others reject Him. 

On the Molinist view, God chooses to actualize a world in which some individuals are saved, and some are lost. God does not want anyone lost (see 2 Peter 3:9, 1 Timothy 2:4, Ezekiel 18:23), but according to the Molinist, it’s very likely that a world in which universal salvation takes place is infeasible. A world with universal salvation may be an infeasible world for God to create (given the factor of free will). If God could have His way, He would predestine everyone to salvation via His middle knowledge.

For more information on Luis De Molina's soteriology, see Kirk MacGregor's book "Luis De Molina: The Life and Theology Of The Founder Of Middle Knowledge". 

My point here is this: Although I think Calvin and Molina are both wrong in interpreting Romans 9 as teaching unconditional election, my soteriology doesn't lose anything by conceding the point. At this point, Calvinist's might get upset at me. They may say I'm proposing a "Heads, I win. Tails, you lose" scenario, and they may also object that Molina's non-deterministic view of unconditional election is pure philosophy driven rather than exegetically driven. To this potential objection, let me say this: Molina's non-deterministic view of unconditional election is preferable over Calvin's if it can be established that The Bible teaches (1) God loves all people, (2) God wants all people saved, (3) Jesus died on the cross for all people, (4) God sends grace to all people, (5) That grace is resistible, and (6) Men have libertarian free will. If these 6 things are firmly established in scripture, then we must accept Molina's proposal or else we're forced to concede that The Bible contradicts itself. Any systematic theology must be able to explain all of scripture. It is beyond the scope of this blog post to defend these 6 things, so I exhort the reader to look at other blog posts on this site (go here).

Summary and Conclusion

My conclusion, therefore, is that Calvinists do not correctly interpret Romans 9. They think it teaches that God has this eeny-meeny-miny-moe approach in saving people; that is, he picks and chooses who to save and who to burn. But that isn’t what Paul is saying. Paul is saying that faith in Christ, and not Jewish ethnicity, is what will determine whether you are of God’s people or not. Verses 14-20 isn’t saying that God picks and chooses who to save and who to burn and tells his audience not to object to such a doctrine (i.e “Who are you O man to question God?”). Paul is saying not to judge God on the basis that he chose to damn some Jews and save some Gentiles because God picked a certain criterion for salvation (i.e faith in Christ) and the Jews didn’t meet that criterion. The Jews can’t indict God of injustice simply because he damns them for not having faith. They can't indict God of injustice simply because He doesn’t take their ethnicity into account. Paul appeals to the Old Testament to show that it was always God's intention to save the Gentiles and that it faith in Him was always the criterion for being in His favor. 

At first glance, Calvinism seems very tempting given these verses, but if one looks at surrounding passages, they reveal a more benevolent God rather than one who is arbitrary and capricious—the one revealed in The Ontological Argument, a Maximally Great One. 

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NOTES

1: Calvinists use this passage to say there isn’t enough to go around, just like the Jews who objected to the Gentiles being incorporated into the community of faith, while those of the Molinist/Arminian class say “there is enough for all!”

2: Back to the inclusive nature of Paul’s ministry.

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