An Understanding of Romans 9
(By Anonymous Author)
In this paper, I would like to examine Romans 9 in light of its immediate context and other Scriptures. This is necessary because this chapter is a favorite of Calvinists, who use it to “prove” that God arbitrarily chooses and forces some men to be redeemed and others to be destroyed, purposely withholding saving grace from some, despite all the Scriptures that assert His desire for all men to be saved.
Although Calvinists claim that Romans 9 eliminates all possibility of “free will,” this cannot be so, because free will can be plainly seen in the rest of Scripture as something God has sovereignty given to man. Although God is sovereign, He has given the choice between life and death to men, and urged them to choose life.
I contend that the Calvinist reads into Romans 9 what he already believes is true, because his first loyalty is to the teaching of John Calvin and his followers.
Please read each section of Romans 9 carefully, along with the commentary I have provided. While my commentary is not inspired (I deny that!), I do believe it is more faithful to both the immediate text and the whole counsel of God, than the assertions and assumptions of Calvinism. May God bless you with understanding as you read.
Paul Sets Up His Topic
I tell the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and continual grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my countrymen according to the flesh, who are Israelites, to whom pertain the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the service of God, and the promises; of whom are the fathers and from whom, according to the flesh, Christ came, who is over all, the eternally blessed God. Amen.
But it is not that the word of God has taken no effect. For they are not all Israel who are of Israel, nor are they all children because they are the seed of Abraham; but, “In Isaac your seed shall be called.” That is, those who are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God; but the children of the promise are counted as the seed. For this is the word of promise: “At this time I will come and Sarah shall have a son.”
Here the apostle Paul sets up his topic of discussion: his countrymen according to the flesh–national Israelites. This is very important to remember–Paul is speaking of the state of a nation, not individuals.
Paul explains that although most national Israelites are causing him “continual grief” due to their rejection of the gospel, it isn’t that the Word of God has not accomplished what it set out to do. It isn’t that the promise to Abraham has failed to come true. For “they are not all Israel who are of Israel.” Not all the physical Israelites belong to the “Israel of God” (Gal. 6:16)–that is, the Commonwealth of Israel and Household of God to which both Jews and Gentiles belong by faith (Eph. 2:11-22) . Paul is saying that it is not all physical Jews (children of the flesh) who will be saved, but those who are “children of the promise”–that is, all those who have faith like Abraham (Rom. 4:12, 16; Gal. 3:7-14). We must keep this theme in mind when reading the rest of Romans 9.
And not only this, but when Rebecca also had conceived by one man, even by our father Isaac (for the children not yet being born, nor having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works but of Him who calls), it was said to her, “The older shall serve the younger.” As it is written, “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated.”
Here the word “election” is introduced with the story of Rebecca’s two sons, Jacob and Esau. Paul took care to say that both sons were born of “one man…our father Isaac.” This means that both Jacob and Esau were physical descendants of Abraham. Esau was the eldest; nevertheless God elected Jacob as the one through whom would come the Savior. Please note that the election did not elect Jacob the man to salvation, but it did elect the nation of Jacob to bring the promised Seed–Jesus Christ. Therefore, this passage does not say that the man Jacob was eternally saved, or that the man Esau was eternally damned. Neither does it say that every descendant of Jacob would be saved, or every descendant of Esau would be damned. It simply tells us that God elected that Jesus would be born through Jacob’s descendants rather than Esau’s, proving that God can choose whomever He wants through whom to do His will. God proved that He was not bound by the traditions of men to choose the eldest son (and Isaac’s favorite son), but He has authority to choose whomever He wishes according to His own will.
Remembering what Paul taught in the previous section, the right application of the example of the election of Jacob is this: Being physically descended from Abraham does not automatically entitle one to God’s favor. This was a vain hope that many Jews in Paul’s day were holding onto. They believed that being a physical “son of Abraham” made them automatically right with God. This is why John the Baptist said to the unrepentant Jews:
Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not think to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. (Matt. 3:8-10)
God has indeed raised up children to Abraham from the living stones who are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone. (Eph. 2:19-20)
Just as God–choosing not to be bound by the traditions of men–chose Jacob over Esau through whom to bring the Savior, He was choosing to accept Gentiles as children of Abraham. It was not “the works of the law” done by the cultural Jew that would save, but God had chosen to save all who met His conditions of repentance and faith (Acts 20:21).
Jacob Have I Loved, But Esau Have I Hated
We have come now to the oft quoted phrase, “Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated.” This sentence deserves extra attention, lest one mistakenly see in it a great injustice on God’s part. Paul was quoting Old Testament Scriptures, and we must visit those verses if we want to understand the context.
“I have loved you,” says the LORD. “Yet you say, ‘In what way have You loved us?’
Was not Esau Jacob’s brother?” Says the LORD. “ Yet Jacob I have loved; But Esau I have hated, and laid waste his mountains and his heritage for the jackals of the wilderness.” Even though Edom has said, “ We have been impoverished, but we will return and build the desolate places,” Thus says the LORD of hosts:“ They may build, but I will throw down; they shall be called the Territory of Wickedness, and the people against whom th e LORD will have indignation forever.” (Mal. 1:2-4)
First, it should be clear that the Lord was speaking of 2 nations — Israel and Edom (Esau’s descendants). God was not speaking of the two men Jacob and Esau; both men were long dead. Nor is God saying He chose one race for salvation and another race for damnation. However, God DID choose (elect) one nation through whom to bring the Savior into the world (this had nothing to do with personal salvation.) In this Malachi passage, God is reminding backslidden Israel how much He has loved them and favored them as a nation. He sovereignly chose this nation to be used by Him to bless the whole world, and yet the nation (as a whole) had turned against Him!
When God says He hated Esau (the nation), we ought to keep in mind that Jesus also taught this:
If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple. (Luke 14:26)
Did Jesus mean that we should literally walk in hatred toward our earthly family members?–No. For we are called to love both our brethren in Christ and our enemies, doing good to all. Obviously Jesus meant that we must esteem (and fear) other people so much less than we esteem Him; we are to love Him with ALL our heart, soul, mind and strength. We cannot be the servants of God while we are trying to please men. In this case, “hate” can mean “to love less by comparison.” In the same way, God did not bless the nation of Esau in the same way He blessed the nation of Israel. In the Malachi passage, God was calling the nation of Israel to account–for to whom much is given, much is required. He had blessed them exceedingly, and they had repaid Him evil for His good.
It is quite true that God had punished the nation of Esau (Edom) by laying waste his mountains. Did God do this for no reason?
The history of the nation of Edom is important to study. Esau himself, though he despised his birthright and thus became an example of one who gives up the spiritual blessings of God for carnal indulgence, did not necessarily die an ungodly man (as many assume). Though he was angry with Jacob and wanted to kill him at one time, when Jacob came seeking forgiveness of Esau, Esau readily forgave him. There is no indication that Esau or his immediate descendants caused any trouble for Jacob’s family (the nation of Israel) for some time. In fact, the house of Esau was under God’s protection at one time:
And God command the people, saying, “You are about to pass through the territory of your brethren, the descendants of Esau, who live in Seir; and they will be afraid of you. Therefore watch yourselves carefully. Do not meddle with them, for I will not give you any of their land, no, not so much as one footstep, because I have given Mount Seir to Esau as a possession. (Deut 2:4-5)
Furthermore, it is written that God did for national Esau just exactly what He also did for national Israel–that is, He uprooted and destroyed a wicked nation before him and enabled him to take possession of the land.
But the LORD destroyed them before them, and they dispossessed them and dwelt in their place, just as He had done for the descendants of Esau, who dwelt in Seir, when He destroyed the Horites from before them. They dispossessed them and dwelt in their place, even to this day. (Deut. 2:21-22)
The Israelites were specifically commanded not to despise the Edomites (house of Esau).
You shall not abhor an Edomite, for he is your brother. (Deut. 23:7)
It appears that just as Israel apostasized from following the Lord, the house of Esau did the same. At one time, they apparently had wisdom and counsel:
Against Edom. Thus says the LORD of hosts: “Is wisdom no more in Teman? Has counsel perished from the prudent? Has their wisdom vanished?” (Jer. 49:7)
God tells us exactly why Edom was judged and destroyed. It was not an arbitrary act on God’s part. Edom reaped what Edom sowed:
The pride of your heart has deceived you…For violence against your brother Jacob, shame shall cover you, and you shall be cut off forever. In the day that you stood on the other side—in the day that strangers carried captive his forces, when foreigners entered his gates and cast lots for Jerusalem—even you were as one of them. But you should not have gazed on the day of your brother in the day of his captivity; nor should you have rejoiced over the children of Judah in the day of their destruction; nor should you have spoken proudly in the day of distress. You should not have entered the gate of My people in the day of their calamity. Indeed, you should not have gazed on their affliction in the day of their calamity, nor laid hands on their substance in the day of their calamity. You should not have stood at the crossroads to cut off those among them who escaped; nor should you have delivered up those among them who remained in the day of distress. For the day of the LORD upon all the nations is near; as you have done, it shall be done to you; your reprisal shall return upon your own head. (Obadiah 3, 10-15)
Edom [shall be] a desolate wilderness, because of violence against the people of Judah, for they have shed innocent blood in their land. (Joel 3:19)
For three transgressions of Edom, and for four, I will not turn away its punishment, Because he pursued his brother with the sword, And cast off all pity; His anger tore perpetually, and he kept his wrath forever. (Amos 1:11)
So we see that the nation of Edom/Esau was destroyed by God for SIN. Esau was not “hated” by God–either as a man or a nation–due to some unchangeable “election to damnation” before time began.
Remember: while God elected Israel as the nation through which Messiah Jesus would come, He is no respecter of persons–but in every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him (Acts 10:35). When Israel was punished by Babylon and Assyria, this did not mean every Israelite lost salvation. There were those in Israel who were faithful to God. Likewise, any persons who lived in the nation of Edom–that feared Him and worked righteousness–were also accepted by Him.
God’s Right to Save Whom He Wills, Independent of Man’s Tradition
What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? Certainly not! For He says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whomever I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whomever I will have compassion.” So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy.
Luk 13:24 Strive to enter in at the strait gate: for many, I say unto you, will seek to enter in, and shall not be able. Many Jews to this day remain in the same unbelief Paul dealt with: they embrace the additions and subtracts of the Word taught in the Talmud, and seek to be justified before God by man made tradition, which makes the Word of God of none effect.
Here Paul maintains that even though some Jews would be lost, there is no unrighteousness with God. He is certainly allowed to have mercy on whomever HE WILLS. He does not have to conform to Jewish traditional thought, and save all those–and only those–who circumcise their children. God’s Word tells us plainly the man upon whom GOD WILLS to have mercy:
He who covers his sins will not prosper, But whoever confesses and forsakes them will have mercy. (Prov. 28:13)
For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments. (Ex. 20:5-6)
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. (Matt. 5:7)
Likewise, Scripture tells us who will NOT have mercy:
Those who regard worthless idols forsake their own mercy. (Jonah 2:8)
For judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy. (James 2:13)
God has never been under any obligation to be merciful to the majority of the Jews, who were refusing to repent and rejecting Jesus Christ, clinging to the (racist) idol of Jewish nationalism as a means of salvation.
Remember, Paul’s topic is about how most of the physical descendants of Abraham were rejecting the gospel, and not all the physical seed of Abraham are the children of God (vs. 7). Just as God sovereignly chose Jacob (the nation) to bring Jesus to the world–even though tradition would have chosen Esau–God has the right to sovereignly choose whom to save based on His own will. Just because the Jews WILLED to be saved based on race or tradition, and just because they called Abraham their father–this did not make them saved. They would have to meet God’s conditions by which He chooses to save men. To learn those conditions, you have to look elsewhere in the Scriptures. God chooses to save all those who have the FAITH of Abraham–not the blood of Abraham (study Galatians 3 and Romans 4.) This promise is open to all, both Jews and Gentiles. Neither the will of man nor the traditions of man will ever change that.
The Example of Pharaoh
For the Scripture says to the Pharaoh, “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.” Therefore He has mercy on whom He wills, and whom He wills He hardens.
Here, Paul mentions Pharaoh, whom God hardened. Why did God choose to harden him? What Paul did not mention here is that Pharaoh also hardened HIMSELF repeatedly against the Lord. God–the Potter–absolutely has the right to harden a man in his chosen rebellion! He will not strive with man forever. This is why we are warned not to reject truth, or God shall send us a strong delusion (2 Thess. 2:9-11)! And this is why we are told to walk in the light while the light is with us, lest darkness overtake us (John 12:35).
Though the Calvinist reads into this passage that God arbitrarily hardened Pharaoh–not desiring or allowing him space to repent–this cannot be true. For Scripture says, “the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men” (Titus 2:11) and that God is “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9) Thus, grace appeared to Pharaoh, for God was not willing that Pharaoh should perish. But Pharaoh resisted grace (as some of the Jews resisted the Holy Spirit–Acts 7:51) until God became his enemy and fought against him. For he that being often reproved hardeneth his neck, shall suddenly be destroyed, and that without remedy (Prov. 29:1). Nehemiah 9:10 explains why God used Pharaoh in the way that He did:
You showed signs and wonders against Pharaoh, against all his servants, and against all the people of his land. For You knew that they acted proudly against them. So You made a name for Yourself, as it is this day.
It was because of Pharaoh’s pride and persecution of the Israelites, coupled with Pharaoh’s hardening of his own heart against God’s command, that led to God’s fighting against him for his own destruction. God had the right to use even Pharaoh’s rebellion in order to show His own power and make His name great in all the earth.
Once again, remember that Paul’s theme in Rom. 9 is his countrymen after the flesh–the Israelites who do not believe on Christ, and in fact persecuted the followers of Christ. If these Jews reject the truth, does not God have the right to harden them in their chosen rebellion, and use even their rebellion to make His name great in all the earth, meanwhile saving the Gentiles who repent and believe? Indeed, He does. As Paul and Barnabas testified so boldly before some of the Jews who rejected the gospel:
It was necessary that the word of God should first have been spoken to you: but seeing ye put it from you, and judge yourselves unworthy of everlasting life, lo, we turn to the Gentiles. (Acts 13:46)
The Potter and the Clay
You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For who has resisted His will?” But indeed, O man, who are you to reply against God? Will the thing formed say to him who formed it, “Why have you made me like this?” Does not the potter have power over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel for honor and another for dishonor? What if God, wanting to show His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, and that He might make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy, which He had prepared beforehand for glory.
“Does not the potter have power over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel for honor and another for dishonor?” The Calvinist stresses that God makes the clay into whatever He wishes, some vessels of honor and some of dishonor. While this is true, their error is in assuming that the clay has no choice as to which he will be.
If we look up the Potter and the clay in the Old Testament to see what passage Paul is referring to, we wind up in Jeremiah 18, where God tells Jeremiah to watch and learn from the potter at the wheel. There we see that when the clay becomes “marred” in God’s hand, He reserves the right to start over so that He can still bring glory to Himself despite the rebellion of the clay. In other words, He has every right to be glorified by our lives, and will be glorified by our lives, whether by our obedience or by our rebellion. He also declares that if a nation or kingdom (the clay) repents, then He also will repent of the evil He is planning to bring on that nation or kingdom. God clearly teaches through Jeremiah 18 that the “clay” has a choice! (Don’t take my word for it; read it for yourself!)
Further, there is another passage of Scripture that affirms that we have a choice in whether we will be a vessel of honor or dishonor in the Lord’s hand:
But in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and of silver, but also of wood and of earth; and some to honour, and some to dishonour. If a man therefore purge himself from these, he shall be a vessel unto honour, sanctified, and meet for the master’s use, and prepared unto every good work. (2 Tim. 2:20-21)
If a man “purge himself from these, he shall be a vessel unto honor”! He has a choice! If he does not purge himself from the deeds of dishonor, God will use him as a vessel of dishonor, just as He used Pharaoh’s rebellion to make a name for Himself in the earth.
Now, we must relate the Potter and the clay back to Paul’s original topic.– If the physical nation of Israel had become “marred” in God’s hands though unbelief and disobedience, did not the Potter have the right to pour out on them a spirit of deep sleep (Isa. 29:10), and use even their unbelief for His glory? As it is written in Rom. 11:11, “through their fall, to provoke them to jealousy, salvation has come to the Gentiles.” Does this mean that ALL national Israelites are automatically elected to damnation? Paul answers, “Certainly not! For I also am an Israelite, of the seed of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin.” (Rom. 11:1) Paul goes on to say that he hopes to “save some of them [his Jewish countrymen]” (Rom. 11:14), and that they can still be saved “if they do not continue in unbelief ” (Rom. 11:23).
Much is often made of the phrase “vessels of wrath prepared for destruction” in vs. 22. Again, the Calvinist wrongly assumes that vessels of wrath have no choice in how they are being prepared. If a man submits to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, he will receive mercy. If he “purges himself from these,” he too can be “prepared unto every good work,” according to the promise in 2 Tim. 2:20-21. If he does not, he is being prepared for destruction even now–
He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him. (John 3:36)
even us whom He called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles? As He says also in Hosea: “I will call them My people, who were not My people, and her beloved, who was not beloved.” “And it shall come to pass in the place where it was said to them,‘ You are not My people,’ there they shall be called sons of the living God.” Isaiah also cries out concerning Israel: “Though the number of the children of Israel be as the sand of the sea, the remnant will be saved. For He will finish the work and cut it short in righteousness, because the LORD will make a short work upon the earth.” And as Isaiah said before: “Unless the LORD of Sabaoth had left us a seed, we would have become like Sodom, and we would have been made like Gomorrah.” What shall we say then? That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have attained to righteousness, even the righteousness of faith; but Israel, pursuing the law of righteousness, has not attained to the law of righteousness. Why? Because they did not seek it by faith, but as it were, by the works of the law. For they stumbled at that stumbling stone. As it is written:
“Behold, I lay in Zion a stumbling stone and rock of offense, and whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame.”
Paul here concludes, drawing from many Old Testament Scriptures for proof (shown in italics), that it was always God’s plan to save the Gentiles who believe, and it was never His plan to save men from only one race! From the beginning, Abraham was told he would be father to many physical nations, not to one nation only. Paul explains why some of his Israelite countrymen were currently being excluded from salvation. Was it because God desired from the beginning to put them in hell? No–but they were seeking to be saved based on the laws of the Jews (Talmud), rather than by faith as God requires (vss. 30-32). In Rom. 11, Paul will go on to explain that even these unbelievers can still be saved if they do not continue in their present unbelief.
Paul’s main topic in Romans 9 was the NATION of Israel, the majority of which had rebelled against God. God was under no obligation to “save all the Jews” simply because they were physical descendants of Abraham. God will save whom He wants to save. And He has elsewhere declared that salvation is open to all who repent and believe. This was a sore point with some Jews who wanted salvation to be based on race, but God is the Potter and we are the clay. He had every right to defy the traditions of men by electing Jacob’s descendants to bring Jesus into the world, and He has every right to defy Jewish traditions by saving Gentiles, and by using Israel’s current unbelief for the good of the Gentiles. He is not a respecter of persons, but “in every nation whoever fears him and works righteousness is accepted by him.” (Acts 10:3 5)