The sovereignty of God is not disputed and is readily acknowledged and accepted on both sides of the debate.1 Nonetheless, Romans 9 is about the overall “purpose of God” (v. 11) in implementing his redemptive scheme through Christ (v. 5) but is not addressing the Calvinistic notion of specific persons whom the Lord has allegedly elected to save or not save.2 Contextually Paul is confronting the wayward attitudes and misconceptions of ethnocentric Jews who were discounting Gentiles from the Lord’s circle of acceptance (vv. 6-8, 24 ff.; cf. 2:1–15:33). Romans 9, a portion of this discussion, serves to vindicate God’s judgment against the obsolete system of exclusive Judaism.
After expressing his remorse over the spiritual condition of fleshly Israel alienated from Christ, Paul acknowledges that Abraham’s biological descendants (through Isaac and Jacob) were selected by God to be instrumental in bringing the Messiah into the world (Rom. 9:1-5). But the divine purpose goes far beyond the physical.3 In fact, merely having a hereditary link with Abraham is not sufficient for being right with God, therefore Israel’s current spiritual condition cannot legitimately be blamed on God as though he were unjust (v. 14).
Certain individuals (e.g. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Pharaoh) were divinely chosen – while others (e.g. Ishmael, Esau) were not – to play an important role in God’s plan based on his sovereign will. Calvinists claim that the focus of this chapter is on individual salvation and individual condemnation, but note that the passages quoted in vv. 12-13 (Gen. 25:23b; Mal. 1:2-3) are not about Jacob and Esau as individuals but are corporate views of their respective descendants: “Two nations … two peoples” (Gen. 25:23a); “Israel … Edom” (Mal. 1:1-4).4
In stark contrast to human reasoning and preferences and innovations, the Lord’s purpose is rooted in his omniscience, foreknowledge, and infinite wisdom. In Rom. 9:15 Paul quotes the LORD’s statement in Exodus 33:19, in sparing a sinful nation (note chap. 32!): “I will have mercy on whomever I will have mercy …” Yet the extending of divine mercy is not indiscriminate or arbitrary. Allowing the Bible to interpret itself, we read in Isaiah 55:7, “Let the wicked forsake his way, And the unrighteous man his thoughts; Let him return to the LORD, and He will have mercy on him; and to our God, For He will abundantly pardon.” Proverbs 28:13 says, “He who covers his sins will not prosper, But whoever confesses and forsakes them will have mercy” (see also Exodus 20:6; Psalm 119:132; Luke 1:50).
Then in Rom. 9:16 Paul observes, “So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy.” This has nothing to do with someone who might desire to be saved but is disallowed, or one who is incapable of seeking salvation; it is all about the unfolding of God’s purpose (v. 11). Irrespective of Sarah’s ploy involving Hagar (Gen. 16:2), and Abraham’s initial choice of Ishmael (Gen. 17:18), and Isaac’s preference for Esau (Gen. 25:28), human ingenuity and fallibility neither determine nor improve nor thwart the divine scheme.
Accordingly, in Rom. 9:17 Paul quotes words spoken to Pharaoh in Exodus 9:16, “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.” What’s the point? “Therefore He has mercy on whom He wills, and whom He wills He hardens” (Rom. 9:18). God has chosen to have mercy on those who humbly submit to his will (like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob) and hardens those who defiantly reject his will (like Pharaoh). God hardened Pharaoh’s heart (Exodus 4:21; 7:3; 9:12; 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10; 14:4, 8, 17), not by subverting Pharaoh’s free will, but by simply making demands that Pharaoh did not like. At the same time Pharaoh hardened his own heart (Exodus 8:15, 19, 32; 9:34-35; 10:3; 13:15) because of his own stubborn pride and rebellion. God’s actions and demands in Egypt softened the hearts of many (Exodus 4:30-31; 9:20; 10:7) but hardened the heart of Pharaoh because of the brazen opposition of Pharaoh’s obstinate will.5
In Rom. 9:21 we read, “Does not the potter have power over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel for honor and another for dishonor?” (cp. Isa. 29:16; Jer. 18:6). This statement responds to someone who might be spiritually short-sighted and oblivious [i.e. the misguided Jew], having the audacity to question the Creator’s sovereign purpose and work (vv. 19-20). God’s thoughts and ways are much higher than ours (Isa. 55:8-9). The Lord could have created each person as a pre-programed robot, unconditionally predestined for either honor or dishonor (the Calvinistic reading of the text). Or God could have designed each person as a free moral agent and predetermined that the submissive and obedient ones are destined for honor and the rebellious and disobedient ones are destined for dishonor (same “lump,” different results). The fact that God “endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath” (v. 22) indicates that sinful persons are afforded sufficient opportunity to repent and alter their destructive course [cf. 2:3-4; 2 Pet. 3:9]. God “prepared beforehand” condemnation for the defiant and glory for the compliant,6 regardless of Jew/Gentile ethnicity (vv. 22-33; cf. 2:1–15:33; Acts 10:34-35).
--Kevin L. Moore
1 See 1 Chron. 29:11-12; 2 Chron. 20:6; Isa. 46:9-10; Dan. 4:35; Psa. 115:3; 1 Tim. 6:15; etc. All scripture quotations are from the NKJV.
2 John Calvin’s interpretation of Romans 9 can be briefly summarized as follows: “… that though the counsel of God is in fact incomprehensible, yet his unblamable justice shines forth no less in the perdition of the reprobate than in the salvation of the elect. He does not indeed give a reason for divine election, so as to assign a cause why this man is chosen and that man rejected; for it was not meet that the things contained in the secret counsel of God should be subjected to the judgment of men; and, besides, this mystery is inexplicable. He therefore keeps us from curiously examining those things which exceed human comprehension. He yet shows, that as far as God’s predestination manifests itself, it appears perfectly just” (Commentary on Romans 307, <Link>). In response, we maintain that from the foundation of the world God has chosen (elected) and predestined (predetermined) to save all who are in Christ (Eph. 1:1-14; cf. Rom. 8:29-30; 1 Pet. 1:2). Note the key phrase "in Christ" (and comparable expressions) in Eph. 1:1, 3, 4, 6, 7, 10, 11, 12, 15, 20. It is not a matter of the Lord having preselected particular individuals to be saved and everyone else to be condemned. Rather, all who are "in Christ" have been predestined and chosen; every person must therefore decide whether or not to respond to the universal gospel call with obedient faith in order to enter Christ and be counted among the called/chosen/elect (Mark 16:15-16; Gal. 3:22-28; etc.).
3 Abraham had many more biological descendants than just those through Isaac and Jacob (Gen. 25:1-6; 36:1-9; 1 Chron. 1:32-33). Up to this point in Romans Paul has been using the national/political designation “Jews” (1:16; 2:9, 10, 17, 28; 3:1, 9, 29), but here he switches to the theological term “Israelites” (9:4, 6, 31).
4 In v. 13 Paul quotes Mal. 1:2-3, “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated.” Perhaps the English term “hate” seems a bit harsh, but the Greek miseō magnifies the sense of “esteem less” with respect to the absolute importance of one’s priorities (cf. Luke 14:26). Moreover, “love” and “hate” are not emotional expressions (as per modern westernized concepts) but are demonstrated actions (cf. Dan. 9:4; John 14:15; Rom. 5:8; etc.). In the 5th-century BC context of Malachi, “Jacob” represents the descendants of Jacob/Israel (1:1, 5) and “Esau” stands for Esau’s descendants, the people of Edom (1:4). The Israelites were being reminded of their special role in God’s scheme (“Jacob I have loved”), despite the persistent abuse of their privileged status, while the defiant Edomites were destined for destruction (“Esau I have hated”).
6 E. F. Harrison points out the ambiguity of the expression “prepared for destruction” (v. 22), which does not necessarily implicate God in the action (in contrast to v. 23). He comments: “The preparation for destruction is the work of man, who allows himself to deteriorate in spite of knowledge and conscience” (“Romans,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary [Ed. F. E. Gaebelein] 10:107).