Does Romans 9 Teach the Doctrine of Unconditional Predestination of Persons to Either Eternal Life, or Eternal Damnation?
Benjamin Henshaw
THE ARMINIAN MAGAZINE. Issue 1. Spring 2011. Volume 29.
Posted Aug., 2001

John Calvin believed that Rom. 9 contained the definitive passages which taught the doctrines of election and predestination as he understood them. Calvin, beginning with his understanding of Rom. 9, proceeded to interpret all that the Bible says concerning personal salvation on the basis of what he believed Paul was teaching in Rom. 9; namely, God's secret eternal decree to unconditionally predestine some (the elect) to eternal life, and others (the reprobate) to eternal damnation.

If John Calvin was mistaken with regard to his understanding of Rom. 9, then his entire soteriological system collapses.

The purpose of this essay is to demonstrate that Romans 9, when read in its proper context, cannot possibly have reference to an eternal secret decree by which God determined to unconditionally predestine some men to life, and others to eternal ruin.

No passage of scripture should be divorced from its context, and the same is true of Rom. 9. If we are to properly understand the arguments presented by Paul in this chapter, we must recognize the overriding theme of his entire epistle. We must also take chapters 10 and 11 into account as they represent a continuation of the argument begun in chapter 9, and are intended, by Paul, to bring greater clarity to his argument. Divorcing Rom. 9 from such context is irresponsible, and has led to much confusion and strange theology, of which Paul never intended.

The theme of the entire epistle to the Romans is justification by faith in Jesus Christ. Paul has thoroughly established in the first eight chapters of Romans that the "righteous will live by faith", and God graciously bestows his gift of salvation to all believers (Rom. 1:16, 17; 3:21-5:2, 10:1-13, etc.) It has also been made clear that those who refuse to believe, and continue in their unbelief, will suffer God's wrath. It is especially relevant to the subject matter of Rom. 9 that God does not discriminate between Jew and Gentile, for he freely offers his salvation to all that believe (1:16; 10:11-13), and will likewise pour out his wrath on anyone, Jew and Gentile, that refuses to live by faith (2:4-11), "for there is no partiality with God" (2:11). Faith, as opposed to unbelief and the works of law, and not unconditional predestination, is the theme of the entire epistle. Consider Rom. 4:13-18, which is especially relevant to Paul's discussion in Rom. 9,

It was not through law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith. For if those who live by the law are heirs, faith has no value and the promise is worthless, because law brings wrath… Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham's offspring- not only to those who are under the law but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all. As it is written: "I have made you a father of many nations." He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed…Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, "So shall your offspring be." (emphasis added)

Since "the promise comes by faith", all who believe (without respect to natural descent) are "children of the promise", and spiritual descendents of Abraham. Since Abraham was justified by faith, "So shall [his] offspring be" justified by faith. Here Paul lays the groundwork for his argument against the objections of the natural descendents (Jews "according to the flesh"), in Rom. 9. With this in mind we will proceed to carefully examine the content of Rom. 9.

Paul understands the distress that many of his countrymen are feeling concerning the fact that the larger part of Israel has rejected their Messiah, are trying, rather, to be justified by the works of law, and are therefore presently under God's wrath and judgment. Paul anticipates the questions, "How is it that God can reject Israel of whom he has made so many promises?", and "How can God be fair in showing favor to the Gentiles while denying the Jews what has been promised them?" (Rom. 9:4)

Paul begins by stating that he is in no way pleased that the Jews are being rejected. He has such sorrow for the unbelieving Jews that he would wish himself accursed, if it would help to redeem the Jews that are currently under God's wrath (verses 1-3). Paul refers to them as "my kinsmen according to the flesh" (9:3- NAS), that is, those who are Jews according to heritage. Paul here is beginning to make the distinction that will become more prominent as his argument progresses. There are Jews "according to the flesh", who are under God's wrath due to unbelief, and there are Jews (and Gentiles-verse 24) "according to the promise" who are enjoying the favor, mercy, and kindness of God through faith in Jesus Christ (verses 22-33 and 4:13-18 above). This is the true Israel of God (all true believers) among whom are a Jewish "remnant" (Rom. 10:27-29; 11:1-6), or the "Israel" within national Israel (Rom. 9:6).

Paul is addressing these Jews who are attributing unfairness to God in his present rejection of his chosen people (Jews "according to the flesh"), by bestowing his favor, mercy, and grace, instead on the believing Gentiles. Paul is quick to point out: "But it is not as though the word of God has failed, for they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel; nor are they all children because they are Abraham's descendents, but: ‘through Isaac your descendents will be named. '" (verses 6, 7).

Here Paul begins to demonstrate that God has not abandoned his chosen people, for it is not the children "according to the flesh" that inherit the blessings, but rather it is the "children of the promise", the true Israel, that inherit God's special favor and blessings. Paul begins by demonstrating that not all the descendents of Abraham were to receive God's special blessings and favor, but only those descended from Isaac. Claiming Abraham as their natural father will not help them, for Ishmael (who was his direct descendent and first born) was rejected. This was according to God's sovereign choice to fulfill his promises through the children of Isaac (verses 6-9). Therefore, the protesting Jews have no claim on God's promises based solely on their heritage. Claiming Abraham as their father does not guarantee for them God's favor, anymore than Ishmael, being Abraham's son, was guaranteed the promises given to Abraham (see also: Matt. 3:7-10). In fact, it was only through Isaac that the blessings and promises would come.

Paul now brings up another example. Just as the promise came through Isaac, and not through Ishmael, so Jacob was chosen and Esau rejected (verses 10-13). Calvin and his theological followers see here a reference to God's unconditional predestination: Jacob elected to eternal life, and Esau predestined to eternal damnation. This interpretation, however, is untenable for the following reasons: 1) Paul is not dealing here with the subject of individual salvation, but that of the proper identity of God's chosen people- the true Israel ("children of the promise") within national Israel ("children of the flesh", verses 3-8). 2) This is clear also from the OT reference, "The older will serve the younger", and "Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated". The first reference obviously has nothing to do with election and reprobation, as Esau serving Jacob cannot possibly mean that Esau is predestined to damnation. 3) It is also clear that both references comprehend Jacob and Esau as representative of peoples or nations, of which God chose only Jacob, through whom his promises to Abraham would come, for "The Lord said to her, 'Two nations are in your womb; and two peoples will be separated from your body; and one people shall be stronger than the other; and the older shall serve the younger.'" (Gen. 25:23-emphasis added). This is clear because while Edom was at times subject to Israel, Esau never personally served Jacob in his lifetime. In fact, the opposite is true- Jacob submitted to Esau in reverent fear and called him "lord" (Gen. 32:11-33:17). 4) The second reference, "Jacob I loved but Esau I hated", is also a reference to national Israel as opposed to the descendents of Esau (the Edomites). One needs only to examine the context of the prophetic utterance to see this:

"I have loved you", says the Lord. "But you ask, 'how have you loved us?' "Was not Esau Jacob's brother?" the Lord says. "Yet I have loved Jacob, but Esau I have hated, and I have turned his mountains into a wasteland and left his inheritance to the desert jackals." Edom may say, "Though we have been crushed, we will rebuild the ruins." But this is what the Almighty says: "They may build, but I will demolish. They will be called the Wicked land, a people always under the wrath of the Lord. You see it with your own eyes and say, ‘Great is the Lord- even beyond the borders of Israel!' (Mal. 1:1-5)

Having now established that God can bestow his promises on whomever he wishes, without regard to personal merit (works), he anticipates the objection, "What then shall we say? Is God unjust?", to which Paul emphatically replies, "Not at all!"

Paul anticipated that the Jew might think God unjust by bestowing his promises based not on heritage, birthright, or works, but rather according to his own purposes. Paul now moves on to further demonstrate God's divine prerogative to show mercy on whom he pleases, and deny those same mercies to others according to his sovereign choice.

"For he says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.'" (vs. 15) God has now determined to "have mercy" upon the Gentiles based on faith alone (9:30). God determines the conditions, and the Jews have no right to object. Since it is clear that the "children of the promise" upon whom God has purposed to have mercy, become so through faith, it is also true that those who reject the Messiah and desire rather to be justified through law, will be hardened through unbelief (9:31-33; 10:3).

God is, therefore, under no obligation to save the Jew simply because he is a Jew (according to the flesh), rather God has decreed to save believers (Jew and Gentile- Rom. 1:16, 17; 5:1, 2; 10:11, 12) without regard to works, physical heritage, or birthright. It is believers that are the "children according to the promise" and the spiritual descendents of Abraham (Rom. 4:13-16).

"It does not therefore depend on man's desire or effort, but on God's mercy." (vs. 16) Abraham desired God to fulfill his promises through Ishmael (Gen. 17:18), and Isaac desired God's promise to be fulfilled through Esau, whom he favored over Jacob, and made the effort to do so despite God's decree to favor Jacob (Gen. 27:2, 4). But it was according to God's sovereign purpose to demonstrate his mercy, and fulfill his promises, through Isaac and Jacob. Moses also desired that God spare the rebellious Israelites, while it was God's purpose to destroy them (Ex. 32:7-14; Heb 3:7-19- while God did relent in destroying them all at once, he still destroyed them through their desert wanderings so that none of those that rebelled against him entered his promised land, and by so doing he accomplished his purpose of raising up a new and faithful generation that would enter his rest). Now the Jew can lay no claim to God's promise due to heritage, birthright, or works of law, unless he accepts the promise through faith. It does not follow that God is unfair, for he has the sovereign right, as declared to Moses, to have mercy and compassion on whomever he chooses. What then of the example of Pharaoh?

"For the scripture says to Pharaoh: ‘I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.' Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden." (verses 17, 18)

Surely this has reference to unconditional and individual reprobation. Again, such an interpretation is impossible given Paul's purpose and related comments in chapters ten and eleven.

While Paul now shifts his attention to an individual, he still has the nation of Israel in view, for just as Pharaoh was hardened through unbelief, so has the greater part of Israel, "the children according to the flesh", been hardened through unbelief (Rom. 11:7-9, 25). This hardening, however, is not without purpose, just as Pharaoh's hardening was not without purpose, for "I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth." In the same way, Israel's present hardening accomplishes God's purpose by opening the door for God's mercy to be extended to all the earth (Rom. 11:11-12). It is not until the next two chapters that Paul more fully explains what the example of Pharaoh's hardening has to do with Israel's present condition. Consider the parallels:

1) – Pharaoh is hardened through unbelief (Rom. 9:18). He rejected God (Deut. 5:2) and God's miracles only served to harden him further in his unbelief (Deut. 7:3, 13, 14; 8:15, 32).

- Israel is hardened through unbelief (Rom. 10:21; 11:7-10, 25). They rejected their Messiah, and Christ's miracles only served to harden them further in unbelief (John 10:22-39; 11:47-48; 12:18-19, 37-41).

2) – The hardening of Pharaoh served God's purpose, "that [God's] name would be proclaimed in all the earth." (Rom. 9:17)

- The hardening of Israel served God's purpose, that God's mercy and salvation would extend to all the earth (Rom. 11:30, 32), and that Israel would become envious of God's favor towards the Gentiles, and yet be restored through faith in Jesus Christ (Rom. 11:11-27).

It is believers (Jew and Gentile) on whom God chooses to have mercy and compassion (Rom. 9:30-33; 10:1-4; 3:28-31), while the rest are hardened through unbelief (Rom. 11:7-9). Those who are hardened are not, therefore, unconditionally predestined to damnation, for it is God's desire for the unbelieving Jews to yet be restored to faith and obedience (11:25-27). They have fallen and become "objects of wrath", but have not fallen beyond recovery (11:11), for they may yet be grafted into the olive tree (the true Israel- the church of Christ), if they persist not in their unbelief (11:23, 24). They are "prepared" or "fitted" for destruction, only for as long as they remain in an attitude of rebellion towards God (9:22). They may yet receive mercy, for "God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on all." (Rom. 11:32). If their final state were irrevocably determined, then Paul would be out of line to petition God for the souls of those he has unconditionally predestined to destruction (Rom. 10:1).

Paul again anticipates the objection, "then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?" (vs. 17) The Jews may yet try to elude responsibility in their rejection of God's plan (Rom. 10:3), seeing that their rejection ultimately furthers God's purpose. Paul dealt with a very similar plea in Rom. 3:7, "if my falsehood enhances God's truthfulness and so increases his glory, why am I still condemned as a sinner?" While the condition is not clearly stated here, as in Rom. 3:7, it is certainly implied.

"But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? 'Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why have you made me like this?'" Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some for noble purposes and some for common use?" What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath- prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory- even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles? (verses 20-24)

In their attempt to turn the tables on God in order to maintain their innocence, the objectors are like the ones of whom Isaiah prophesied, "You turn things upside down, as if the potter were thought to be like the clay! Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, 'he did not make me?" Can the pot say of the potter, "he knows nothing?" (Isaiah 29:16) It is to God that they must answer for their rejection, and not God that must answer to them! Again he says, "Woe to him who quarrels with his Maker, to him who is but a potsherd among the potsherds on the ground." (Isaiah 45:9) It is for this reason that Paul's rebuke is so severe, "who are you, O man, to talk back to God?" (vs.20)

Though God intended Israel for noble purposes, they have been marred in his hand (Jeremiah 18:1-10), and have been remade without anything to distinguish them from the common "potsherds" among them. Worse yet, they have now become objects of God's wrath, while the believing Gentiles, and the remnant of Israel have become the objects of God's mercy (Rom. 9:22-29). God "bore with great patience the objects of his wrath", while simultaneously "making the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy"- wrath to Pharaoh and the Egyptians, while showing mercy to the Israelites; wrath to the unfaithful Jews in the desert, while showing mercy to the faithful generation (Heb. 3:7-19), and now wrath to national Israel, while showing mercy to all who seek justification through faith in Christ. Israel has fallen from her privileged (noble) position, and can only be restored through faith. While God now bears them (the objects of his wrath) with great patience (9:22), they "show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God's kindness leads [them] toward repentance", and "because of [their] stubbornness, and [their] unrepentant heart, [they] are storing up wrath against [themselves] for the day of God's wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed." (Rom. 2:4, 5) It is now God, therefore, who has "turned things upside down" on the rebellious Jews.

We should also carefully note Paul's use of the words "prepared", or "fitted" for destruction. This language has confused many to believe that God's purpose was from all eternity to destroy them. They were therefore created only to be destroyed. This paints a strange picture of the God whose very nature is love (1 John 4:8). Why would a God, who is in very essence love, create a people not to love, but rather for the sole purpose of damning for all eternity? One might object that God's purpose is not only to destroy, but also to use them for the purpose of demonstrating his mercy to others, and to make his wrath known (verses 22, 23). Clearly the passage tells us that God accomplishes both of these things through the objects of wrath. But the question remains, were they created only for destruction and forcefully hardened by God to accomplish his purpose, or does God rather make use of those that have become, by their own unbelief and rebellion, hardened objects of wrath? If we look at the words Paul uses we can better understand his intentions.

The NIV's "prepared" can be confusing, and in this instance the KJV's "fitted" better conveys Paul's intention. The word "fitted" could also be rendered "adjusted", or "make fit" and is not a reference to God's irresistible influence, but rather to the object's personal refusal to conform to the ultimate purpose for which God made them (to be loved and shown mercy). They have "adjusted", or "fitted" themselves instead for destruction. While God wants all to be shown mercy, he will not show mercy to those who stubbornly refuse him (as in the example of Pharaoh). Yet even in man's willful rebellion, the purposes of God cannot be thwarted. God can use wicked men like Pharaoh to both demonstrate his just wrath, and simultaneously fulfill his purpose of demonstrating mercy to those who accept him by faith. Consider the following excerpt from Vine's Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, page 436,

3. KATARTIZO: to make fit, to equip, prepare (kata, down, artos, a joint), is rendered "fitted" in Rom. 9:22, of vessels of wrath; here the Middle Voice signifies that those referred to fitted themselves for destruction (as illustrated in the case of Pharaoh, the self-hardening of whose heart is accurately presented in the R.V. in the first part of the series of incidents in the Exodus narrative, which records Pharaoh's doings; only after repeated and persistent obstinacy on his part is it recorded that God hardened his heart.) - Emphasis mine.

Those who wish to interpret these passages as unconditional election and reprobation may object to my constant references to faith and unbelief as the conditions here implied as the grounds for God's acceptance or rejection. As it was stated earlier, such is the scope and purpose of the entire epistle, and to ignore such conditions in these passages because they are not expressly stated would be unwise (the same could be said for Rom. 8:28-30 and context). Perhaps we should let Paul himself disclose what he intended by his discourse in Rom. 9:1-29. Is God's rejection due to an unconditional and secret decree to predestine some to life and others to damnation, or has God rather predetermined to fulfill his promises and pour out his mercy on believers, while leaving under wrath those that choose to remain in unbelief (Jn. 3:16-18, 36)? Paul concludes:

"What then shall we say? That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have attained it, a righteousness that is by faith; but Israel, who pursued a law of righteousness, has not attained it. Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as it were by works. They stumbled over the 'stumbling stone.' As it is written: 'See, I lay in Zion a stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.'" (Rom. 9:30-33- emphasis added)

And so we conclude, with Paul, that Romans chapter nine is not dealing with a secret decree by which God unconditionally predestines some to salvation, and others to damnation. Rather, Paul is addressing the present state of Israel in God's plan of salvation. National Israel has experienced a hardening, and the unbelieving Jews have become objects of God's wrath. This hardening is not unconditional, but rather the result of unbelief and an effort to be justified by works, as opposed to faith (Rom. 9:31-33; 10:3, 4; 11:7, 19-22). Nor is Israel's present state irrevocable, for they may yet be restored, "if they do not persist in unbelief…for God is able to graft them in again" (Rom. 11:23). Paul is also expressing how God's sovereign purpose is accomplished despite Israel's rejection, for by their rejection salvation has come to the Gentiles who have received Christ by faith (Rom.11:11, 25, 30-32). God yet has a remnant, the Jews who have attained the promise through faith, of whom Paul is an example (Rom. 9:27-29; 11:1-6). God's promises, therefore, have not failed for there is an Israel within Israel, and there will yet come a day when all of Israel will embrace her Messiah through faith (Rom. 11:13-16, 25-32). The advocates of unconditional personal election and reprobation will have to look elsewhere to establish their doctrine.