Penal Substitutionary Atonement: An Internal Dialogue

Below is an internal dialogue in my own head over the theory of Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA). For what its worth I think the view can be partially valid, but only to the degree that God is not the Punisher. I wrote a book on the atonement in 2019 and have had a fair amount of positive feedback. I presented a new model that finds the middle ground between Penal Substitution and Christus Victor. I call it Perfectus Liberatio (Perfect Liberation). If you shoot me a message, I will be happy to send you a link where you can get it for only $1. I am now re-editing that book to expand my view into a full-fledged theory. I want to share my own internal debate that made me eventually realize (especially as a missionary) that the view cannot provide clear answers to the most basic questions I have heard on the mission field. Feel free to share how you see things. Shalom, Matt.


NON-PSA ME: What is the essence of the Penal Substitionary Model?

AFFIRMING PSA: The essence of the Penal Substitutionary Atonement model is that God is pouring out His wrath on Jesus, to punish Jesus to death for our sins, and this allows God’s justice to be satisfied or sufficiently re-paid for grace to be extended without God’s justice being compromised.

NON-PSA ME: I agree that Christ suffers the consequential penalty of sin our place—death—and I even believe that can be interpreted as “punishment.” But why assume God is the PUNISHER extracting payment for sins out of Christ’s suffering? I see verses that say God “surrendered Jesus up” to death, or “gave Jesus over” to death.

AFFIRMING PSA: God has to be the Punisher, because God is pouring out all His hatred, indignation and punishing wrath on Jesus as our sin-bearer to pay back His offended justice. Jesus must absorb God’s wrath so we can avert it.

NON-PSA ME: Ok, let’s start there. I’m already lost. What exactly is God doing to Christ in pouring out His punishing wrath? What is Christ absorbing?

AFFIRMING PSA: What is God doing that Christ is absorbing?

NON-PSA ME: Yes, please tell me. Is God inflicting punishment by afflicting Christ with whips and thorns and nails?

AFFIRMING PSA: No, that is the Romans and wicked men.

NON-PSA: Is God pulling out the beard of Jesus? Is God hitting or beating Jesus?

AFFIRMING PSA: Don’t be silly. We know that was also the Romans guards.

NON-PSA ME: So, I ask you again, what exactly is God doing to Jesus?

AFFIRMING PSA: I already told you. God is punishing Jesus for our sins.


AFFIRMING PSA: Well… he is pouring out his wrath on Jesus.

NON-PSA ME: What does that mean?

AFFIRMING PSA: It means divine punishment.

NON-PSA ME: See–we are going in circles. Please unpack what God is doing to Jesus that can be described as God punishing Jesus via divine wrath.

AFFIRMING PSA: Well, Jesus is being crucified.

NON-PSA ME: We are back where we started. Is God’s wrath inflicting Jesus with whips, thorns and nails? Does Jesus need to reach a threshold of pain to make the atonement work?

AFFIRMING PSA: Not exactly. I wouldn’t want to say it like that.

NON-PSA ME: So, exactly, what is it?

AFFIRMING PSA: I already said it is God punishing sin. He can’t let sin go unpunished.

NON-PSA ME: Ok, so again, what is God doing to Jesus so that sin does not go unpunished?

AFFIRMING PSA: He is putting Jesus to death on the cross–which is our deserved death.

NON-PSA ME: Is God directly putting Jesus to death? Is God directly executing or killing Jesus?

AFFIRMING PSA: Well, not directly, but indirectly through others.

NON-PSA ME: So, Jesus is indirectly absorbing God’s wrath through others killing him?


NON-PSA ME: And this indirect absorption satisfies and pacifies God’s wrath?


NON-PSA ME: What about the two thieves on either side of Jesus who are also being crucified? Are they satisfying and pacifying God’s wrath for their sins since they are getting what they deserve?

AFFIRMING PSA: No, I wouldn’t want to say that.

NON-PSA ME: Why not?

AFFIRMING PSA: Because it is impossible for them to pay back their sin-debt by being crucified for their sins.

NON-PSA ME: But if Jesus is being indirectly crucified by God as punishment for sins, and they are also being crucified, why aren’t they also pacifying God’s wrath in virtue of being crucified like Jesus.

AFIRMING PSA: The difference is they deserved to die. They are truly guilty.

NON-PSA ME: I understand that. But if Jesus is absorbing God’s wrath so that we don’t get what we deserve, but they are actually getting what they deserve, then why doesn’t their deserved crucifixion pacify God’s wrath against them?

AFFIRMING PSA: Because being punished by God’s wrath is more than crucifixion?

NON-PSA ME: We are back where we started. What exactly is the nature of God’s wrath that is being poured out on Jesus? Unpack it.

AFFIRMING PSA: We deserve hell. So, God is pouring hell out on Jesus. Jesus is suffering an eternity of hell in 3 hours on the cross. God is inflicting Jesus with an infinite amount of punishment in hell in 3 hours.

NON-PSA ME: Where does the Bible say anything like you just said?

AFFIRMING PSA: Well—it doesn’t, not exactly or specifically.

NON-PSA ME: Well, I want to stick with exact statements in the Bible so we can unpack them—especially if you say the core of the gospel is God’s wrath punishing Jesus in my place. I want to know what that means—exactly.

AFFIRMING PSA: Well, the Bible explicitly records that Jesus wondered why God forsook him. Sin separates us from God. Jesus was experiencing separation from God as punishment for sins.

NON-PSA ME: But if Jesus is experiencing separation from God, then how is God pouring out His wrath on Jesus. Wouldn’t that require proximity, not separation?

AFFIRMING PSA: It is a mystery.

NON-PSA ME: Is it mystery because the Bible says it is, or because you can’t find clear evidence for it?

AFFIRMING PSA: Jesus is definitely absorbing God’s wrath because the Bible says Jesus is our propitiation, which means “place of averting wrath.”

NON-PSA ME: Even if the English word “propitiation” is a proper translation of the Greek word “hilasterion” which is translated as mercy seat 28 times in the Greek Septuagint, it would still only mean Jesus’s death for sin averts God’s wrath from us. It would say nothing about Jesus absorbing God’s wrath. What is the biblical evidence to say: “Jesus’s death AVERTS God’s wrath from us because Jesus ABSORBED God’s wrath for us?”

AFFIRMING PSA: The Bible says the wages of sin is death. We have to have Jesus being punished by God’s wrath for our sins because Jesus takes the penalty—our wages—which is death.

NON-PSA ME: I agree that Jesus takes the consequential penalty of our sins, which is death, but that is the farthest we can take the idea of punishment. None of that requires the extra addition that God is the Punisher! The Bible says God “handed Jesus” over to death and “delivered Jesus up” to death. We also know his death was determined by God and not accident. Yet it says nothing about personally punishing Jesus in wrath to extract payment for sins. That has to be assumed. To the degree PSA includes this assumption is to the degree we should not consider it explicitly taught in the Bible.

AFFIRMING PSA: But our sins offended God’s justice and put us in debt to His justice. For God to be just, He needed His justice to be satisfied through re-payment of sins before He could extend us forgiveness. By punishing Jesus for our sins, God justice is paid in full.

NON-PSA ME: So, are you suggesting that God’s grace is reimbursement and God’s forgiveness comes through re-payment?

AFFIRMING PSA: What do you mean?

NON-PSA ME: It sounds like your argument has four connecting points: 1) Our sins put us in debt to God’s justice. 2) God had to first get the judicial “capital” to “fund” a judicial offer of grace to us. 3) God funded that just offer through His justice getting reimbursed, and 4) that reimbursement was acquired by extracting payment for sins out of Jesus’s suffering death.

AFFIRMING PSA: Well, the way you put it makes it sound like a transaction settlement, and not grace.

NON-PSA ME: Where have I gone wrong or misunderstood you?

AFFIRMING PSA: I don’t know if you have, it’s just that it sounds better when I hear it from my R.C. Sproul or John MacArthur.

NON-PSA ME: One last question. If God was extracting satisfaction or re-payment out of Jesus’s sufferings on the cross, were the crucified thieves in any way also paying God back for their own sins?

And around and around we go. These are the questions you get on the mission field (I’ve bee in S.E. Asia for 15 years) from probing minds who are not impressed by fancy, theological words that they can’t even understand anyway. When you have to break it down into simple language, it makes Penal Substitution into Payment Substitution–and that is hard to square with the Bible.

Posted in Apologetics and Athiesm, Church and Culture, Critiquing Calvinism | 17 Comments

What is and what is NOT Christian Nationalism

Time to ruffle some feathers 😬. I’ve been working on a comprehensive book that deals with spiritual warfare, and recent events have brought back to mind part of chapter I wrote last year about the “leaven of the Pharisees and Herod.” I will save those remarks for the end.

I am increasingly concerned about seeing sincere followers of Jesus becoming sucked into what can only be called the poison of “Christian Nationalism.” What is it? For starters, what is it not? It is NOT everything the media says it is. It is NOT about enthusiastically voting for your candidate of choice (like Trump), or about being involved in the political sphere and attending political marches on the left or right. It is NOT about wanting to see a nation, like America, draw closer to Judeo-Christian values that reflect/return to the principles of our founding fathers. It is NOT the belief that America has had a unique, Christian heritage and been a force for good at times. It is NOT being anti-vaxx (which many secularists are too). Nor is it the belief that a conspiracy of collusion defrauded your candidate of an election (as many democrats insisted for 4 years when Hillary lost, and now many republicans are insisting to explain Trump’s loss). All of that is understandable passion merging with grief that may or may not have a provable, evidential basis. But it is not the point of this post to explore that.

That being said, we are in new territory–unproductive territory. All fair-minded people should have a legitimate concern that Trump’s divisive rhetoric emboldened fanatical, zealots on the right to storm the Capital to overthrow a congressional vote (the soil of revolution), and that media/tech companies are now over-reaching in their suppressive response and emboldening fanatical zealots on the left to tolerate ONLY what they deem tolerable and intimidate all outliers (the soil of totalitarianism).

All of these issues are worthy of consideration, but they are outside the scope of “Christian Nationalism.” Before defining it, one more distinction needs to be made. I am not talking about national pride per se. Patriotic nationalism, in and of itself, is not necessarily wrong. In point of fact, in WW2 it was “British nationalism” that enabled the patriotic Brits to stand strong and weather the unrelenting blitz of nightly bombing raids from Nazi Germany–without surrendering.

So finally, what is the poison of Christian Nationalism? In short it confuses the kingdom of God with nation-states. It is the unbiblical idea that God wants us to “christianize” nations (like America) through political revolution and power, instead of expanding the kingdom through heart repentance and revival. Even worse it is the idea that the 2nd Ammendment of the US constitution overrides the New Testament and gives you the right to ignore Christ’s command to “love and do good and pray for those that persecute you because of Me.” To be sure, if you think biblical admonitions like “fight the good fight of faith” and “faith without works is dead” have anything to do with a “Christian militia” preserving your religious liberty, or violently bringing about political change in America, you have fallen prey to Christian Nationalism. It is as Satanic a lie as anything! Resist it. Flee from it! EVERY time the Church jumps into bed with a political marriage partner to establish a theocratic trajectory for a nation, we ALWAYS lose the kingdom of God as Jesus preached it and lived it. There are ZERO exceptions in history.

Jesus spoke directly to the poison of merging His kingdom with political power. He once gave a warning to his disciples that many have failed to consider: “Watch out; beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod” (Mark 8:15).

The leaven of the Pharisees is RELIGIOUS HYPOCRISY. The leaven of Herod is using religion for POLITICAL POWER. To avoid both is wise. To merge both is utterly destructive. Church history is stained with irredeemable events when professing Christians ignored Christ’s warning and reached for such toxic leaven—“baking” it into what they thought was God’s kingdom.

To the degree the Church biblically pursues the kingdom of God first, is to the degree the Church will always glorify Christ in the earth. Sadly—criminally even—Church history is chock full of examples where professing followers of Christ departed from seeking first the kingdom of God and sought to build national kingdoms to their liking— earthly kingdoms that PREYED on enemies instead of a Christlike posture that PRAYED for enemies.

The name of our Lord and Savior has been so thoroughly maligned and trampled underfoot by a callous indifference to the kingdom of God as Jesus preached it and lived it, that only a radical reorientation and re-commitment to deny our self-centered idols and pick up our cross for the sake of Christ can restore what we have lost. We are living in an age where the greatest threat to the kingdom of God advancing in the earth is not coming from OUTSIDE the Church but WITHIN its walls—from the left and the right.

Overly right-wing Christians live out their faith before an unbelieving world AS IF their first loyalty and allegiance is to their own national flag and political self-preservation. Overly left-wing Christians live out their faith as if biblical morality is obsolete and optional and therefore needs to be updated in accordance with their natural desires and self-interest. Both have fallen into unbiblical compromise with the world.

As Christians we may well face persecution in a future American society that restricts a free expression of Christianity that offends the totalitarian sensibilities of others. Jesus did not say to resist it, but to EXPECT it. He said, “If they hate and persecute the Master they will also hate and persecute his servants” (John 15:20).

The point is, those that seek to follow the Son of God, who said, “My kingdom is NOT of this world, for if it was, my servants would fight” (John 18:36), will never be justified in fighting to “christianize” America through political power.

Posted in Church and Culture | Tagged , , | 7 Comments

Disavowing media bias while not avowing Trump: Part 2

*I wrote this for my facebook a couple days ago. At the date of this posting, some press outlets are starting to pick up on the NY Post story—but mostly to dismiss it out of hand. This is Part 2 that concludes my thoughts from my earlier post. It will be more strongly worded 😅🤝

A press that doesn’t trust you with the facts is the first step towards a future government that wont trust you with a vote.

The reason this has been on my mind more than any other time has been the difficulty in finding fair, centrist reporting all last week and this week on e-mail exchanges found on Hunter Biden’s laptop that PURPORT to show that his father, a man currently running for President, may not have been truthful in saying he never involved himself with, or met with board members of the Ukrainian company his son sat on—and was paid rediculous amounts of money for despite having no discernable role. The Biden campaign’s rebuttal is now a subtle backtracking of what Biden said earlier. They are no longer unequivically saying he never met with them, but that “no record of a meeting appears in the vice-president’s official schedule”—which some are saying is coded language for, “may have met unofficially outside the Whitehouse.”

Even worse is the recent New York Post article alleging that the laptop contains information that purports to show there may have been a quid-pro-quo to sell access to his father. NOTICE I said, “purports to show” not “reports to show.” There is a distinction to be made and the role of the press is to investigate the facts and report on it its merits—not bury or suppress the story. So far they are content to say, “Nothing to see here, it’s just Russian disinformation.” But when the Director of National Intelligence rebuts that claim and says there is no evidence that the CONTENTS are due to Russian disinformation, and the FBI says they have nothing to add to rebut the Director’s conclusion, then you would expect them to at least give a fair amount of reporting on that! But even that gets buried.

It MAY be nothing. But for almost 4 years mainstream news outlets 24 hours-a-day chased after every anonymous tip, stretched every assertion, reported every possible speculation—all in an effort to prove that Trump was involved in either criminality or impeachable collusion to win the 2016 election. Those investigations turned up nothing indictable, but they did allow us to see the thin veneer of Trump slough off to reveal a narcissistic juvenile whose verbal tirades and pride became self-inflected injuries to his own Presidency—far worse than any the media could inflict. He is by far his own self-made enemy. But the press couldn’t get enough of it. They gorged themselves on his emotional tantrums like a tabloid and gave little time and space to report on anything else going on in the world— thus compromising their integrity further.

Even more damning has been their obvious desire to quickly bury anything of possible merit that came out of Trump’s administration, like: 1) prevailing over ISIS strongholds while keeping the US out of expanded wars that defense contractors would have loved, 2) enacting prison reform that freed many black Americans from the Clinton crime bill of the 90’s, 3) successfully mediating the first viable peace treaty to occur in the middle east in the past 25 years, 4) aggressively going after opioid distributors and traffickers, 5) pushing for the approval of generic, prescription drugs that has slashed prices and finally broken the lobbying stranglehold of US pharmaceutical companies, 6) creating a task force and legislation that cracks down on human trafficking and commits the US to being the largest donor to the Global Fund to End Modern Slavery, 7) brought unemployment of blacks and hispanic Americans to historic, all-time lows.

Had the party on the other side of the isle done any of this during their 4 years, the press would be fawning all over it and endlessly reporting on its positive trajectory. The point is: All of the above is GOOD stuff—as in “common good” that all political parties can celebrate. Thus to honestly report on it is to give Americans “common ground” to agree on the “common good” at a time when we are so divided. They are opportunities to pull toward the center. But the press can’t bring themselves to do it. Why? Because they think THEY are running for re-election.

For example, just last month, Trump announced plans to release billions of dollars to black American entrepreneurs to reclaim their inner cities and reignite the economy—instead of dolling out more welfare dependency programs that rob future generations of dignity. It’s a great plan! It will also designate the racist KKK as a domestic terrorist organization for the first time ever. But have you heard anything about it? Probably not—because the press can’t highlight billions of dollars that Trump wants to give black, small businesses to ignite black communities AFTER they’ve incessantly declared him to be an irredeemable racist that hates blacks!

The only thing CNN can bring themselves to do is publish two hit pieces on the black rapper Ice Cube for daring to work with Trump on the plan—essentially trying to castigate Ice Cube as a traitor to his own race.

But racial minorities are waking up—they know they’ve been played for decades. Their districts have only crumbled under 50 years of democrat-led leadership from school boards to mayors to governors. Though not intentional, their policies have decimated the black family, incentivized single-mother households and driven out tax-paying businesses. The largest income drivers of abortion are placed in black inner cities. A generational genocide has robbed black Americans of their current voting power—19 million black lives have been aborted so far. 19 million!! The number is staggering. You may not want to say “abortion is murder” but you can’t deny “abortion is death.” IF Trump wins the next election it may only be because he received an increase of 15% of the black vote and 30% of the hispanic vote.

I am convinced the main driver of division today is the press getting their talking notes from corporate ownership of media empires that want to create the narrative—not report on it.

HOWEVER is there also lots of BAD Trump stuff to report on? Absolutely! Trump is pathological and self-obsessed. Some of the things he says and does are morally indefensible. But we know all that “stuff” because it is the only thing the mainstream press wants to divert your attention to and report on. They can’t allow you to become too conscious of anything positive to unite around—if it can be traced back to his administration.

In conclusion, all I want to see is at least a small measure of the media’s “investigative journalism” prove their neutrality by surrendering up a headline or two that at least informs readers of an FBI investigation that may or may not prove damaging to Biden. They certainly didn’t lack that kind of “headline enthusiasm” in regards to Trump. Let’s not kid ourselves. The left-leaning press was never willing to concede THEY and Clinton lost the election in 2016. And that is the point. The press thought THEY were running for election! And the same thing is playing out again. In the end, it may serve their purposes—or it may backfire BIG again.

Either way, my desire is to mourn with those who mourn and rejoice with those who rejoice. Recognizing the legitimate concerns and hopes of both sides, by avoiding both candidates, is my preferred way.

Posted in Thought of the day | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Disavowing media bias while not avowing Trump: Part 1

Time to get slightly political—because that’s always FUN, right? 😅 As someone who voted 3rd party write-in during the 2016 election and will attempt to do so again with an absentee ballot, I’d like to take a middle-of-the-road approach in regards to the current state of US politics and the press. You can decide which following description fits which candidate best, but the mere fact that the US is faced with a choice between personified (A): Diarrhea of the mouth, and (B): Diarrhea of the brain, tells us we are in desperate need for a counter-balancing third party. But I’ll save that for another time.

My real concern is the utter collapse of the press to remember what their sacred duty is: To report the news without bias. This commitment must come before the ambitious, egotistical pursuit of opinion columns/segments.

Of course the news industry is itself a collection of flawed human beings trying to navigate the terrain between their personal preferences and the journalistic career they have chosen. But we should expect them to know the difference. No matter the internalized pressure to take sides and shield their candidate of choice, we should fully expect them to withstand the pressure and hold the high ground of independence. This ground is shrinking with each election. In 2016 Hillary Clinton received a whopping 200 endorsements from newspapers across the US one month before the election. In comparison Trump received six. The ridiculous trend of newspaper, editorial boards collectively endorsing candidates is only getting worse.

In point of fact, the news publication USA TODAY use to pride itself on being a centered publication that refused to endorse political candidates in order to remain neutral and independent. But for the first time ever, they have publicly announced their support of a presidential candidate. You can guess which one. We expect such compromise from the New York Times, but when formerly centrist news outlets follow suit, this is a sign of truly bad things to come.

What we are seeing today is the complete capitulation of the press to give up their essential role of objectivity and independence. The failure of the press to remain centrist in their reporting is why so many news outlets have recently popped up along a left and right spectrum to solely cater to the needs of their entrenched readers. I’m not a journalist. I have not chosen a career where I have copious amounts of time to devote towards finding out the truth on political matters for the benefit of others to make informed decisions. I definitely lean politically conservative in most of my observations of the cultural-political landscape. So I rely on centrist reporting that just gives me the facts and allows me a perspective that lies outside my natural bias.

This is almost becoming impossible to find today. The fact-checkers need to be fact-checked and so on and so forth. In a world of ideological bias, objectivity is about as rare as finding a snow leopard… in the Sahara. Yet it still remains a worthy pursuit—for the press most of all. One cannot truly comprehend how sacred their role is until you live in certain un-named countries outside the US where the press is either an extension of government propaganda or is bankrolled by outsiders to oust a government. Information is indeed power. It can bring down governments or shield them from opposition. Yet the role of the democratic free press is not to decide WHICH outcome THEY want.

To the contrary. They are the carriers and couriers of information and must always remain distinct from it. The minute they merge their own identity into the content of the information they are carrying, they have lost their “calling.” Under the heat of their own bias seeking expression, they become like a bucket that molds itself into whatever “form” of information they selectively choose to carry. From that point on, they find it nearly impossible to re-shape themselves in order to carry information that comes in a different form—a form that runs contrary to the political affiliation they merged with earlier. If the American press cannot congregate enough reputable personal to hold the middle ground and just report the facts—no matter the source—then we can fully expect to see an increasing political divide reflect that failure by splitting the US into two national identities. Those national identities may one day manifest into another civil war—led by civilian militias on the right against militias on the left.

There is still time to avoid this, but given the fact that much of the press has completely given up even the pretense of trying to look unbiased, a great vacuum is now occurring—sucking remnants of the center into the left and right. This isn’t about Trump or Biden. This is about the US descending into a state of increased division and distrust because the press refuses to hold the middle ground of neutrality where the common good can be found in common facts. This negligence is only going to cause cringeworthy, fringe news sources to multiply 3-fold in the next four years—no matter who wins the election.

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Born again prior to faith? John Piper says “Yes.” Scripture says, “No.”

Are sinners “born again” as regenerated people before they believe in Christ or even have a single, God-fearing thought? What about Cornelius, the God-fearing Gentile in Acts 10 who had developed a long-standing reputation for being a devout man who feared God? Are we to assume he was born again years before hearing the gospel?

John Piper’s beliefs on being born again prior to faith leave him no “wiggle room” on the issue. For example he writes, “If you have one whisper of genuine desire for God in your heart, it is the work of God and the triumph of grace.” [1]

What sort of grace is Piper talking about? He answers that a few sentences later. “The centrality of God in saving grace is seen in God’s sovereign act of begetting his own children. We did not choose to be begotten any more than we chose to be raised from the dead or called or created. We were born “not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12–13).” [2]

Piper’s questionable avoidance of quoting John 1:12

The careful reader will note how Piper attempts to quote John 1:13 to smuggle in the idea that one must first become a “begotten” child of God before one can even believe in God, much less “have one whisper of genuine desire for God in your heart.” However the idea that people become “born again” (i.e. begotten) children of God before they believe in Christ, can only be held at the expense of ignoring the preceding verse in John 1:12. Suspiciously this is exactly what Piper does.

When verse 13 is read in the context of verse 12 it becomes clear being “begotten” or (regenerated, born again) as a child of God is in response to people’s prior receiving and believing in the Son. We read, “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.”[3]

Lets be clear about what John is saying. God did not give people “the right to become children of God” so that they can receive and believe. God gives them that right because they receive and believe. Becoming a regenerated child of God does not create faith so that we can believe—it is God’s sovereign response to faith because we believe. In no way does this mean we cause ourselves to be “born again.” For example the choice to believe in the Son is an act of the human will in response to God’s preceding, drawing grace.

However God’s choice to honor our belief by regenerating us anew in Christ is solely an act of his will. So while our belief in the Son results in our being born anew of God’s will—or “born again”— our belief is not the regenerating power/cause of new creation. By faith we are indeed placed in Christ, but becoming a new, regenerated creation in Christ requires a miracle of God’s power—hence we are “born of God.” Calvinists often err in confusing: (A) the condition of faith to become reborn in Christ with (B) God’s miracle of rebirth in Christ.

This error pervades Calvinism and betrays a category mistake. They confuse the divine means of new birth (a miracle) with the terms of new birth (faith).

Just as we should not confuse the flipping of a switch that turns on a light with the electricity that powers that light, so also faith may bring us into union with God, but the new creation that is birthed out of that union is “powered” by God alone.

Contrary to Piper, the light of God’s grace in Christ can be rejected

Piper attempts another approach to secure his view that sinners “dead in sin” must first be “born again” (regenerated) as a sovereign act of new creation and saving grace before they can believe in Christ. In the same sermon teaching he states, “The centrality of God in saving grace is seen in the sovereign act of new creation. A new creation happens when God says to a soul blinded by the god of this world, ‘Let there be light . . . and [creates in the darkened soul] the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ’” (2 Corinthians 4:6).”

Piper assumes that if we people are saved by grace, but not all are saved, then God’s saving grace (i.e. being understood as the light of the gospel in the face of Christ) must be a selective impartation of light that is sovereignly irresistible. However both the selective and irresistible nature of God’s light in the face of Christ is again undermined in the gospel of John—particularly 1:9-11. In particular, notice the unrestricted nature of Christ’s light and the possibility for it to be rejected.

“The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him” (John 1:9-11).

Contrary to Piper’s claims, the light of God’s grace in the face of Christ can be rejected. Therefore it does not act upon sinners as an irresistible force or “sovereign act of new creation” that causes faith. Not even the context of Piper’s specific appeal to 2 Corinthians 4:6 aids his argument. As with John 1:9-11 the context is again unbelieving Jews whose stubborn resistance to the light of Christ is rendering them spiritually hardened and veiled behind the former glory of an old covenant passing away. In returning to 2 Corinthians, Paul states both the problem and the solution back to back.

The veil on the heart is taken away AFTER one turns to the Lord

“Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts. But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed” (2 Cor. 3:15-16).

The “when” and “how” of this passage reveals both human and divine agency. When is the veil removed? Only “when one turns to the Lord.” How is “the veil removed”? By a sovereign work of God. This is worth exploring more. The veil is not first taken away so that unbelievers can turn to Christ. It is removed as a result of turning to Christ. Whether we take it in a temporal or causative sense, the veil is taken away only in response to turning to Christ. This “turning to” is biblically understood as repentance—a word that literally means to “turn away from” and turn towards a new direction.

Herein we find the true balance of scripture between the God-intended, free will of human imagers of God and the sovereign will of God. As the light of the gospel goes forth the choice to repent and turn to the Lord is an act of the human will in response to that light. The veil over the heart is then removed as a sovereign act of God. The order is not to be missed. Turning to the Lord as an act of repentance precedes the sovereign work of God removing the blindness of the veil.

And we don’t need to waste time wondering if God has granted all Gentiles and Jews as a collective whole the opportunity of repentance to life. [4] The early church was hesitant to affirm this equal standing before God until the episode with Cornelius burst the old wineskin of their restrictive thinking.

Afterwards they declare, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18).

One cannot minimize the declaration of Acts 11:18 as meaning God only grants a selective repentance to some Gentiles, but not all. The entire teaching point of Cornelius to the early church was that Gentiles as a collective whole are no longer unclean. Hence they recognized God was granting repentance and the unfettered gospel to all Gentiles—not just some. To insist God selectively grants repentance only to some because God does not seek the salvation of all, completely overthrows Peter’s later declaration that God is “not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Pt. 3:9). [5]

The order of unveiling and beholding God’s glory in the face of Christ

With this in place lets return to Piper’s earlier appeal to 2 Corinthians 4:6 to justify irresistible, saving grace that brings about new creation prior to faith in Christ. Remember Piper holds that unless sinners, blinded by Satan, are first regenerated as a “sovereign act of new creation” they can neither “have a whisper of desire for God”, nor believe in God. For this reason Piper claims, “A new creation happens when God says to a soul blinded by the god of this world, ‘Let there be light . . . and [creates in the darkened soul] the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ’ (2 Corinthians 4:6).”

It is true the light of God’s glory in Christ has been shown in the hearts of believers, but the basis of beholding that glory was given earlier by Paul in the preceding chapter, “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed in the same image…”

Paul says we behold the glory of the Lord, not with a veiled face, but an unveiled face. How and when does a sinner become unveiled? Paul already told us that too when he said the veil is removed “when one turns to the Lord” (3:16).

The order Paul presents to us is as follows: Turning to the Lord results in a sovereign unveiling > The removal of the veil allows us to behold the glory of God > Beholding the glory of God leads to transformation (i.e. regeneration).

If any Bible teacher, no matter how honored and esteemed, tries to teach sinners must be regenerated and “born again” as a sovereign act of new creation before they can turn to Christ in faith, they have a defective, theological view.

Cornelius: A conundrum for Piper’s “whisper of desire”

With all this said how should we understand being “born again” as God’s sovereign act of regeneration in Christ? In short it is true that being “born again” is God’s miracle of new creation that causes us to pass from death to life in a moment in time. But that is the very definition of salvation! And the scriptures are clear that salvation under the New Covenant does not precede faith—it is the result of faith.

Seeing it this way helps us understand Cornelius’s God-fearing faith and worship prior to knowing the gospel, and yet later being saved under God’s New Covenant terms of faith through the gospel.

This is where Piper’s view enters murky waters. For he wants to insist that one can’t even have a “whisper of desire” towards God unless they are first born again. And yet the Scriptures make it clear that before Cornelius had even heard about the gospel, he had been demonstrating for years far more than just a “whisper of genuine desire” towards God! Therefore the logic of Piper’s position requires him to assume Cornelius was already a “born again” child of God under the Old Covenant—long before he heard the gospel and was saved in the New Covenant.

Such is the conundrum when one places regeneration as a child of God before salvation by faith.

As is now obvious, Piper unwittingly does exactly this. He places salvation (i.e. becoming a child of God) prior to anyone even having even a “whisper of genuine desire for God in your heart.” He goes on to call this a “triumph of grace.” Yes—in Calvinism everything retracts back to a grace you can’t resist or reject. This is thoroughly misguided and unbiblical—but it is the greasy oil that keeps the machinery of Calvinism running without locking up. Sadly it simultaneously locks out multitudes of people from God’s redeeming love (Jn. 3:16) and desire that “all people be saved and come to a knowledge of him…” (1 Tm. 2:4).

And lest we think God’s desire that all be saved is vacuous and lacking purposeful intentionality, Paul backs it up by highlighting God’s purposeful, grace-filled action to see it fulfilled through his mediator “Christ Jesus… [who] gave himself as a ransom for all” (vs. 6).

[1] John Piper at:

[2] John Piper at:

[3] Those that resisted God’s preceding, drawing grace is revealed in passages like Luke 7:30 “But the Pharisees and lawyers rejected the will of God for themselves” and Acts 7:51 “You always resist the Holy Spirit!”

[4] Being granted something is distinct from being forced into something. God’s “granting of repentance” should be seen as an opportunity for repentance in much the same way Paul sees persecution as an opportunity to suffer for Christ’s sake, telling Timothy “it has been granted to you… [to] suffer for Christ’s sake.” (Ph. 1:29). Paul did not mean by this that Timothy was being forced to suffer, only that Timothy should view his hardships as opportunities from God to identify with the sufferings of Christ and likewise suffer for his sake.

[5] The context is Peter’s comparison of the present world with the former world that was judged at the time of the flood. God was patient towards that former generation too, but God’s patient long-suffering has a limit. And when that former generation did not repent, the opportunity for further repentance closed and the time of judgment commenced. So too God is long-suffering with our present world, but his patience will not be infinite. Therefore Peter says God desires that “all people…should reach repentance”—i.e. while they still can. For this world is being stored up for judgment and when the time of judgement comes, the time of repentance is over.

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Was Paul unconditionally called? Paul did not think so and here is why.

Recently I saw something I never noticed before about Paul’s calling. Many Calvinists say Paul is an example of God’s unconditional salvation because he was a persecuting murdering. Moreover they say Paul’s call into ministry was likewise unconditonal and could never have been connected to anything God saw within Paul because, after all, he was a hostile persecutor.

However this cannot be squared with how Paul looks back upon his life in 1 Timothy 1:12-13. What is most striking about Paul’s statement in 1 Tim. 1:13 is its connection to the preceding one he makes in verse 12, saying, “I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he JUDGED ME FAITHFUL, appointing me to his service…”

It is then that Paul goes on to say “I received mercy BECAUSE I had acted ignorantly in unbelief…” In saying that God “judged [him] faithful”, or “considered [him] trustworthy” (NIV), Paul is not talking about his later years in ministry. He is talking about his initial call to ministry—specifically getting knocked off his horse and appointed by God as an apostle and witness of the risen Lord.

Yes, Paul was formerly a persecutor of the church and a violent one at that. But God also saw something within Paul—a zealous faithfulness to commit himself to what he thought was true—which at the time was Paul being “convinced that I ought to do many things in opposing the name of Jesus” (Acts 26:9).

Yet it was this very quality of conviction and faithfulness that God was looking for and found within Paul. It is with this background context in mind that Paul says, “I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer… But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief…”(vs. 11-12).

Paul is not boasting. He is overwhelmed with thanksgiving and gratitude that God “judged him faithful” despite zealously persecuting the church “ignorantly in unbelief.” Above all Paul sees his appointment to the ministry as God’s enablement (i.e. “I thank him who has given me strength”) and not as something he earned in any way.

Acts 26:19 ties everything together. Looking back upon his conversion and the ministry that was birthed out of it, Paul declared, “I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision.” This of course implies Paul could have been disobedient, had he so chosen. Paul never took God’s grace for granted, thinking the nature of divine grace made disobedience or rebellion impossible in his life. He was always conscious of the fact that divine grace was operating through him, and such grace would only continue to operate through him to the degree he obeyed God as act of his surrendered will.

No doubt most Calvinists would concede in principle to that last sentence. The problem is they equally hold to the principle that God also determined every instance wherein we do disobey his will— going so far as to insist (as John Piper does) that “God predetermined every tiny detail in the universe, such as dust particles in the air and all our besetting sins.” [1] This is widely known as theological determinism.

It may be suggested by some that Galatians 1:15 contradicts the points above. But that is not the case at all. There is no reason to assume that Paul being “set apart from birth” is a reference to Paul being unconditionally elected to salvation. Paul is talking about being set apart for apostleship—his election to Kingdom service. That is why in the next verse he ties in his being “set apart and called” with God’s purpose that he be sent to the Gentiles, saying “so that I could preach him among the Gentiles” (vs. 16).

For this view to be sound, we only need to assume that God had foreknowledge of Paul’s obedient response to the heavenly vision. In other words, God foreknew he was going to give Paul a vision and that Paul would “not be disobedience to the vision” he was given. In this sense, Paul was “set apart from birth” for a particular ministry, though that foreknown ministry was itself conditioned on God’s foreknowledge that Paul would become saved.

I believe all Christians have a specific call, an election to Kingdom service. I also believe that God’s foreknowledge of our repentance and faith can be the basis for that call. For example I have been serving as a missionary in S.E. 13 years. I have no problem believing God’s call that I depart the US and serve overseas was upon my life even before I was born. For if God’s foreknowledge of my life is largely informed by my free choices (and does not exhaustively determine all my choices as the Calvinist view demands), then there is no contradiction in saying my call to missions was conditioned upon my being saved, but occurred prior to my being saved (or even my existence).

In the same way, I believe Paul to be saying that he was set apart from birth to be an apostle. And if Paul was pressed on the matter, he would say his call to be an apostle was itself conditioned on his obedience to a divine vision—a vision and response foreknown by God.

An example from the Arminian scholar, Brian Abasciano may prove helpful. He once shared the following illustration with me. If God knows someone is going to be saved, he can then plan for the person’s service as a believer. It is like if a manager knows that John Doe is going to be transferred to his department (say his boss informed him), he can then choose the guy for some particular function in his department because of his foreknowledge.

Lastly, we have good reason to assume Paul’s perspective on being “set apart” for apostleship was being carried over from how he understood God to call other prophets/messengers before him—not to salvation per se, but to the nations. For example we read in Jeremiah 1:4-5 “Now the word of the LORD came to me saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I have appointed you a prophet to the nations.”

No doubt Paul saw himself as a continuation of this prophetic line for the nations/gentiles. Yet even here, Paul does not think that all his actions as a prophet are determinately controlled by God. Rather he always takes the biblical route that views our persistent obedience, or lack thereof, as being a reflection of our free response to partner with God’s grace or resist it. The former leads to God’s grace being formed within us, like fuel for a driver’s continuing journey. The latter leads to God’s grace being received in vain. The following verses reveal this biblical tension beautifully.

1 Corinthians 15:10: “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain; but I labored even more than all of them, yet not I [i.e. yet I am not the sole/sum product of my laboring], but the grace of God with me.”

2 Corinthians 6:1: “And working together with Him, we also urge you not to receive the grace of God in vain.”

Paul’s urging that we work “together with” God’s grace and “not… receive the grace of God in vain” is clear evidence that Paul held to a robust theology of free will, not theological determinism. For it is absurd to think God’s grace acts upon us deterministically, such that it determines that we receive its deterministic nature in vain.


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Romans 9-11 Part 3: The hardening and blinding of national Israel

Romans 9–11 Part 3:

The Hardening and Blinding of National Israel

By StriderMTB

God and Adam


How should we understand the hardening and blinding of Romans 11:7-8?

Romans 9-11 Part 1 can be found here. Romans 9-11 Part 2 can be found here. One last section of Romans 9-11 needs to be dealt with before we close out this 3 part series. Why in Romans 11:8 does Paul quote Isaiah in saying God gave Israel a “spirit of stupor, eyes that should not see and ears that should not hear”? The answer does not exist in a vacuum. Key questions need to be asked. What was the historical setting in Isaiah’s day? Was divine judgment in view? And if so, does Paul see Israel’s former situation overlapping with her present situation?

There is no doubt the general disposition and consciousness of the Jewish people in Paul’s day was similar to Isaiah’s day. In both settings we find plenty of evidence Israel’s people are entrenched in stubborn unbelief— defiantly disregarding God’s righteousness and His sovereign terms for continued covenantal blessings. No stranger to Israel’s history, Paul rightly understood Israel’s defiance is coming under divine judgment in the form of judicial blinding/hardening. Therefore the critical question that presents itself is, did God extend Israel unwarranted grace and patience prior to His judicial blinding of her?

Well if we want to take Scripture seriously—yes He did. As Paul makes clear by quoting Isaiah,

“But to Israel he says: All day long I have spread out My hands to a disobedient and defiant people (Rom. 10:21, Is. 65:2).”

As such we must categorically reject any theology that would suggest God determined Israel’s disobedience or blinded Israel prior to his judicial blinding of her.

Yet Calvinism posits just this scenario given its commitment to theological determinism that every choice, for or against God, was determined by God via divine decree. Consequently a Calvinist must concede God determined that Israel disobey and defy Him, so that He in turn could determine to harden Israel as a consequence of assuming the very posture of disobedience He sovereignly determined for her.

Make sense? No? Good—it shouldn’t.

That God would act this way towards His covenant people should strike our hearts and ears as absurd, if not diabolical. Calvinist logic ultimately makes any need to explain Israel’s history meaningless and irrelevant— for God determined her times of obedience just as equally as He determined her times of disobedience. In virtue of Romans being an epistle of deep and thorough explanatory scope and intention, we can confidently state Paul’s starting place was not one of theological determinism.

Rescuing the moral character of God from John Piper’s “Two Wills of God” view

At this juncture it is necessary to forever divide Paul from Calvinism. We are going to identify present-day Calvinism with its most popular defender—John Piper. For clarity and easier reading we all quotes of Piper will be in the color red. Piper like all true Calvinists, believes in exhaustive, theological determinism. That is to say Piper believes God has unconditionally and irresistibly predetermined every human choice—including all our besetting sins that impede our spiritual growth in God! In his online teaching, John Piper rhetorically asks,

“Has God predetermined every tiny detail in the universe, such as dust particles in the air and all of our besetting sins? Yes.”[1]

Piper then attempts to justify this belief on two premises related to the cross of Christ:

  • Crucifying Jesus was a sinful act
  • The crucifixion of Jesus was predetermined by God

In other words if God predestined the cross, and it was evil, what is the problem in saying God predetermined every evil? Piper assumes there is no problem! Piper insists God’s ordaining of the cross gives us the necessary moral grounding to answer, “yes” to the question “Has God predetermined… all our besetting sins?” Just listen to his words:

“So the crucifixion of his Son was, quoting Isaiah 53:10, the bruising by the Father of the Son. 

Therefore the worst sin that was ever committed was ordained by God. And the answer is yes. He controls everything, and he does it for his glory and our good.”[2]

John Piper is no doubt a wonderful and kind pastoral theologian who tries his best to make sense of the scriptures on behalf of others, but his unflinching, dogmatic insistence that God predetermined all our sinful struggles, reveals the very real danger of making an idol out of one’s theological system.

Unless one is already doing theology within a self-enclosed echo chamber, where meticulous, exhaustive determinism is the only voice that can be heard, it is morally incoherent to think one can point to Christ’s death for sin and assume they have good grounds to hold that God must have also determinatively predestined every sinful act of child-sex trafficking, murder, rape and spousal abuse— the very evils Christ sought to atone for and overcome in death. 

Piper’s view is so grotesque, un-glorifying and God-dishonoring, one struggles to comprehend the moral absurdity of believing it. The very fact that Piper points to the atoning death of Christ for sin as evidence God determined all sin should be our first red flag that something is amiss within Piper’s theological system, and thus everything that follows is likewise going to be skewed out of alignment with the breadth of scripture.

To attempt to highlight the crucifixion of our Lord as a hermeneutical perch to sit upon whereby we can cast God’s determinative ordination net into the world and “catch” every sin and every sordid evil event of world history is an insult to the cross and wide of the mark. Put simply to view the one act that removed the sin of the world as the hermeneutical key to justify how God could have ordained all the sordid sin of that world, is an exegetical leap that is unwarranted and misconceived. Without question it is morally absurd to think the one act of God to redeem the world from sin is a most compelling example”[3] of evidence that God determined and decreed all the sin of that world![4]

How does this relate to Piper’s interpretation of Romans? It is quite simple. Obviously if God predetermined all sin and evil, it must also mean God predetermined Israel’s sin of rebellion and unbelief. Piper is keen enough to recognize his Calvinist view can be discredited in the face of numerous commands found in Scripture to repent of sins, obey God and believe. Therefore Piper has developed a special way to interpret God’s commands to obey and believe without undermining his Calvinist view that God sovereignly wills every act of human disobedience and rebellion against His own commands. He calls it his “Two-Wills of God” view.[5]

Piper argues strenuously that God possesses two wills in regards to sin and evil. On the one hand, God hates sin and never desires that it occur. But on the hand, all the sin that God hates and does not desire to occur, does indeed occur because God intended and decreed that it ought to occur and therefore must occur. Piper attempts to split the difference by consigning one aspect of God’s will as God’s “will of command” and the other aspect of God’s will as His “will of decree.” 

With that said the following is how Piper seeks to uphold his “Two Wills View” based on Romans 11:7-9. He states,

The hardening work of God… plays a central role in the life of Israel in this period of history. In Romans 11:7-9 Paul speaks of Israel’s failure to obtain the righteousness and salvation it desired: “Israel failed to obtain what it sought. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened, as it is written, “God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that should not see and ears that should not hear, down to this very day.” Even though it is the command of God that his people see and hear and respond in faith (Isaiah 42:18), nevertheless God also has his reasons for sending a spirit of stupor at times so that some will not obey his command.

Yes, God does “have his reasons…at times” to judicially harden/blind people— and chief among them is God’s divine judgment against those who repeatedly spurned his grace, light and purpose. Though Piper ignores this critical, antecedent context, the Bible does not.

This is why the scriptures speak of key, Jewish leaders of Christ’s day as being those who “always resist the Holy Spirit”(Acts 7:51) and who “rejected God’s purpose for themselves (Lk 7:30).” In Matthew 23:37 we clearly hear the heart of God’s desire to incorporate Israel’s people into the redemptive purposes of their own Messiah, but we also hear of the unwillingness of Israel to be found in God’s will.

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem! She who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her. How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, yet you were not willing!”

As a result God’s patient long-suffering has reached an end. To the degree Israel’s people continue to reject their Messiah and pursue righteousness on their own terms under a former covenant passing away, they will find themselves to be judiciously hardened and blinded. Yet through it all God remains sovereign as one who will exploit their unbelief and use it as a means to fulfill His long desired purpose and plan to bring light and salvation to the Gentiles. He will use their disobedience (in His consequent will. See Rom. 11:11-12) to bring about what He had originally intended their obedience would achieve (in His perfect will. See Gen. 22:18). In a sense there are two wills of God, but they are not in contradiction to each other as in Piper’s view—despite his protestations to the contrary. We will explore this next.

The complementary nature of God’s “perfect will” and “consequent will” vs. the contradictory nature of Piper’s “will of command” and “will of decree”

The biblical contrast to Piper’s Two-Wills view can best be summarized as: 1) God’s morally perfect will, and 2) God’s consequent will. God’s morally perfect will is what God desires as a perfect ideal without sin’s corruption. God’s consequent will is what God wills in light of human freedom, rebellion and sin.

We see this distinction all over scripture! For example God’s perfect will is that husbands and wives not be divorced. God’s perfect will is that none perish, but all be saved. But given human sin and rebellion God’s perfect will cannot always be achieved. Thus God accommodates Himself to our fallen state and consequently wills to allow divorce despite the fact that in His perfect will He would desire there be no divorce. Similarly God, in light of human rebellion, wills to save only those who repent and believe in the truth, despite His perfect will of desire that all people come to a knowledge of the truth and be saved. One of the clearest scriptural affirmations of God’s perfect will is found in Romans 12:2. There Paul says,

“Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God.

This passage is remarkable in that it makes our discernment and obedience to God’s perfect will contingent on our choice to reject conformity to this age. We can say it is God’s perfect will that we reject conformity to the world and be renewed in our minds, “so that” we can live in a right knowledge of God’s perfect will. However not all Christians remain in God’s perfect will to reject conformity to the world. But that is not an evidence of Piper’s alleged “will of decree” that assumes God predetermined that such Christians remain conformed to this world bogged down in all their “predetermined… besetting sins.” Rather it is an evidence of God’s consequent will to allow human beings the free exercise of their will against His perfect will—even if it is to their own detriment.

Understanding God’s two wills in this way provides a complementary approach whereas Piper’s view collapses into undeniable conflict and contrariety. For in Piper’s view God actively works against the fulfillment of His own perfect will— such as His desire that all be saved or that followers of Christ not be conformed to this age. The only way Piper can avoid the charge of conflict and contrariety is to concede that God’s “will of command” is disingenuous, artificial posturing on the part of God. God never really intends for people to obey His commands. If God did, He would not actively seek to undermine His own intentions by sovereignly and irresistibly decreeing each and every violation against His own divine commands!

In contrast to the Calvinist position, the biblically based Arminian position does not twist God’s moral character into such a grotesque distortion. Scripture reveals God’s desires are indeed genuine, but God has sovereignly ordained that a realization and fulfillment of some of His desires would be contingent upon the free, moral agency of those made in His image. This preserves the interlocking, complementary tension of scripture between God’s overall sovereignty and His sovereign intention that His imagers possess a free, moral agency.

For example we are told “God desires that no man perish” (2 Peter 3:9) and God’s will is for “all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4). Yet we are also told God conditions salvation on responding rightly to God’s grace through faith.

However God can no more be said to have two different wills (as Piper distinguishes them) concerning salvation than an earthly kingdom father can be said to have two different wills when he tells his family that he genuinely desires to give dessert to all his children, but adds the complementary condition that he wills to give dessert to only those who eat all their vegetables. Obviously the father’s desire is that all his children eat their vegetables so that his underlying will to give dessert to all his children can be realized. If some of the children refuse to obey their father’s complementary condition that vegetables be eaten first, it is incorrect to therefore assume their father later denied them ice-cream because he did not will to give it to them from the beginning.

Does God seek to undergird or sovereignly undermine His desires?

Just as there is no conflict in saying a father genuinely wills to give dessert to all his children, but qualifies the actual giving of dessert on the condition of finishing one’s vegetables, so also there is no conflict in saying God genuinely wills (in His perfect will) that all respond to His work of grace and be saved, and also saying that God wills (in His consequent will) to save only those who meet His condition and respond to His work of drawing grace and believe. This is the Arminian position and there is much to commend it.

The Arminian position is that God is just and gracious, and therefore He can neither dismiss sin, nor force His sovereign desire that all be saved upon all people. So in that sense the fact that God’s sovereign desire for all to be saved goes on unrealized is due to God’s accommodating, consequent will (not conflicting will) that takes into account human freedom. Hence God conditions salvation only upon those who freely respond to His preceding, graceful initiatives and believe. For as the scriptures say, “God is the savior of all men– especially of those who believe” (1 Tim. 4:10).

Whereas in the Arminian view God’s power seeks to undergird His divine will that “all people be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4), the Calvinist view finds God intentionally undermining that divine will.

Scripture always links divine hardening/blinding with perpetual, prior resistance towards God’s will

How does all this relate to Romans 11:7-9? We can say God’s perfect will was that Israel not disregard God’s righteousness, not try to establish her own righteousness apart from belief, and thus not come under divine, judicial hardening/blinding. But given Israel’s rejection of God’s outstretched hand and persistent unbelief, God consequently wills that Israel be judged. We will deal more specifically with the text of Romans 11:7-9 at the end of this article. Right now we are simply highlighting the fact that scripture always connects God’s acts of judicial blinding/hardening with perpetual, prior disregard of God’s ways.

Not too surprisingly Piper appears to strategically downplay and tactically overlook the contextualized backstory of Israel’s self-chosen, prior disregard of God’s outstretched hand of grace. This is quite unfortunate if not troubling. For it is only when we realize God’s judicial actions of hardening, blinding and delivering people up to their own sins occur within the larger context of prior human rebellion—wherein people have already spurned God’s earlier extensions of grace—that we can confidently rest in the truth that God is not acting unconditionally, capriciously or arbitrarily with people.

Piper can’t say any of this. For remember how he qualifies God’s two wills: (1) What God wants to have happen (God’s will of command), and (2) What God unconditionally determines should and must happen (God’s will of decree). But since God’s “will of decree” has sovereignly willed every act of sin and violation against God’s “will of command”, it means God’s second will renders God’s first will unfulfilled at every turn.

Indeed in Piper’s “Two Wills View” God’s alleged “will of command” is nothing more than a schizophrenic figment of God’s confused imagination that God secretly ensures will never see the light of day.

Piper’s unwillingness to recognize two, distinct listeners in Mark’s gospel— those who still had “ears to hear” and those who did not

Piper appeals to Jesus in an attempt to undergird his view that in all matters of sin and unbelief, God’s will of decree acts in a way to thwart people from obeying His will of command. He writes,

“[Jesus] explained that one of the purposes of speaking in parables to the Jews of his day was to bring about this judicial blinding or stupor. In Mark 4:11-12 he said to his disciples,

“To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables; so that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand; lest they should turn again, and be forgiven.”

Here again God wills that a condition prevail which he regards as blameworthy. His will is that they turn and be forgiven (Mark 1:15), but he acts in a way to restrict the fulfillment of that will.”

True enough Jesus spoke in parables to the crowds, but this itself was act of judgment in order to divide between two, distinct groups:

1) Those in Israel who still “had ears to hear”[6]

2) Those who were to be judicially confirmed in their self-imposed hardness of heart and deafness.

Rather than assume His Father already unconditionally selected who would belong to which group, Jesus places the responsibility on the crowds to determine to which group they will belong. That is why a few passages later in Mark 4:23-24 Jesus says,

“If anyone has ears to hear, he should listen!… Pay attention to what you hear. By the measure you use, it will be measured and added to you. For to the one who has, it will be given, and from the one who does not have, even what he has will be taken away.”

These passages are quite remarkable. Jesus is saying people will be judged on how they respond to the measure of light and revelation they are given. To the one who responds rightly, a greater measure of light will be given. To the one who hides, ignores or rejects the light given to them, their ultimate end is to lose and forfeit whatever measure of light they formerly had. This interpretation is further strengthened within the context of the rhetorical question Jesus just finished asking, “Is a lamp brought in to be put under a basket or under a bed?” (4:21).

The upshot of all this is not complicated. In Mark 4:11-12 Christ makes the point that the hidden meaning of the parables was meant to be revealed and not remain permanently hidden! That is why He says you don’t hide a lamp under a bushel or a bed. Christ is saying His parables are a true light and one’s response to them will determine whether such light will be hidden or bring further revelation and light. Those who respond with ears to hear will be granted more light for understanding.

With this in mind Christ’s quote of Isaiah is entirely appropriate, for in Isaiah’s day it was not God, but the Israelites who had put themselves outside a place of having ears to hear for responsive understanding. Similarly Jesus said they don’t understand because they are “outside.” The question is then, outside what? Given the context it is obvious Jesus is talking about those outside the kingdom of God. And what is the kingdom of God? It is nothing less than the rule and will of God being established.

However the underlying point seeded throughout the gospels is that the Jews have rejected God’s will and rule (Lk. 7:30). Hence they were consequently “outside” the kingdom. Being outside the kingdom means they cannot understand, but that is why Christ repeatedly invited people to understand by entering into the kingdom. It begins with the acknowledgement that you don’t understand, but need to understand.

And Jesus never hid the meaning of his parables to those who acknowledged their need to understand more by asking questions. Jesus had an “open door policy” concerning being asked questions related to his parables and this fact is revealed in verse 10 when we read “those around him with the twelve” came and “asked him” for further meaning and understanding.

Who are the “those around him?” Clearly it is not his disciples for it says they were “with” his disciples. As such it must be those within the crowd who hungered for me and took Christ’s words seriously when he said they should have “ears to hear” and “should listen” and “pay attention to what you hear (4:23-24).

Jesus’s statement in Mark 4:11 about speaking in parables and his quoting of Isaiah “so that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand…is balanced out later in the same chapter. Once again Jesus is speaking to the crowds and we read,

“He would speak the word to them with many parables like these, as they were able to understand” (Mark 4:33 HCSB).

Clearly some within the crowd were able to understand! These are the seekers of verse 10 who hungered to know more. The fact that Jesus privately expounded more on His parables to “those around him with his disciples” who “asked him” (vs. 10) reveals that Jesus expected some within the crowds to have ears to hear and listen and understand. Biblically speaking “to understand” = “having ears to hear.” If and when they had ears to hear, to listen and understand, Jesus would teach them more. Hence we read, “He would speak the word… as they were able to understand.” Jesus kept pace with their level of understanding.

In Mark 7:14-16 we find Jesus repeating the need to “have ears to hear” in order to understand His teaching. There we read,

“Summoning the crowd again, He told them, Listen to Me, all of you, and understand…If anyone has ears to hear, he should listen!

Notice the key conditional of “if”and the imperative of “should” Jesus sets forth. The fact that Jesus conditions understanding on those still have “ears to hear” and says they “should listen” implies they could!

All this being said, Piper stretches his theology very thin when he implies Jesus purposed to speak in parables in order to cause or “bring about judicial blinding or stupor.” Even if this were the case it would simply mean the parables were God’s means to judicially blind those who had repeatedly rejected God’s many gracious attempts to enlighten their darkness.

Piper can’t really say this because he rejects the view people can resist God’s drawing light and grace. Even so, is it accurate to say Jesus purposed to speak in parables in order to bring about judicial blinding or stupor? Though this is possible, it is much more likely Jesus’s choice to speak in parables and His quoting of Isaiah to that effect refers to the just consequence of the Israelites’ entrenched unwillingness to hear (Mt. 23:37), rather than the cause of such unwillingness. N.T. Greek scholars have made note of how the Greek “hina”, translated “so that”, often speaks of consequential “result” as opposed to purposeful “cause”. For instance:

“(Gk hina) can indicate purpose or result. Thus Jesus’ quotation of Is 6:9-10 either offers the reason for His teaching in parables or describes the result. Matthew 13:13 reads ‘because’ (Gk hoti), and thus states the result of the hearers’ unwillingness, not its cause…Jesus’ parables had two distinct purposes: (1) to reveal truth to those who were willing to hear and believe, and (2) to conceal truth from those who willingly rejected truth because of their calloused hearts (v. 15). The hiddenness component of Jesus’ teaching may seem harsh, but since greater exposure to truth increases one’s accountability to God in judgment (11:20-24), the concealment may represent God’s graciousness toward those whom He knew would be unresponsive.”[7]

Little caveats like that above may seem insignificant but they are “game changers” in assessing the merits of Piper’s theological determinism. Far from being evidence that God possesses two conflicting wills wherein He intentionally seeks to thwart (or as Piper says, “restrict the fulfillment”) of His moral will of command by “sovereignly” decreeing every violation against it, the above passages demonstrate that God has a perfect will and a consequent will that accommodates itself to an un-decreed reality of human freedom and stubborn rebellion.

The moral ruin of Calvinist theology: God hardens and blinds people in response to His prior hardening and blinding of them

If it isn’t clear already, the case being made is that if judicial blinding and hardening are to mean anything, it must mean people are blinded and hardened as a just consequence for freely rejecting God’s previous offerings of grace, light and truth. Otherwise it would not be judicial, but arbitrary hardening. Piper cannot deny the charge of arbitrary hardening without the logic of his own position boomeranging back upon him and invalidating his reasoning as nonsense.

For in order to remain consistent with the very nature of exhaustive determinism and maintain internal, theological cohesion, Piper is forced to believe God hardens persons— not in response to them freely hardening their own hearts— but in response to His own determination that they harden their hearts.

Yes—it is that crude.

God hardens them in response to hardening them. He judges people for doing the very thing he determined they do. In Piper’s theology no one is truly in control of what they do because even their strongest desires have been determined (rendering a retreat into compatibilism equally incoherent). The morally inane logic of exhaustive theological determinism plagues Calvinism on many fronts. The inescapable conclusion is that Piper’s judicial hardening turns into determinative hardening and judicial judgment gets traded in for arbitrary judgment. This should never be believed.

As already noted, Israel was being judicially blinded as an act of judgment due to having hearts that were callous and unwilling to draw close to God despite His past graceful initiatives. It is not that God removed His heart from Israel, but Israel removed her heart from God. For this reason she will be justly confirmed in her self-imposed hard-heartedness and blindness. As it was in Isaiah’s day so also was it in Christ’s day. The nation is full of hypocrisy— having an outward form of religion without inward confession. Note how Jesus brings God’s judgment of hypocrisy during Isaiah’s day into His present day, saying,

“Isaiah prophesied correctly about you hypocrites, as it is written: These people honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me” (Mk. 6:6).

It is once again imperative we interpret difficult scriptures concerning judicial blinding in the light of proper, historical setting. Only in doing can we rightly discern why such divine action was taken. Repeatedly the scriptures make the case that God’s blinding and hardening is a consequence of not seeing, not hearing and not responding to God’s previous revelations of grace. It’s an action that justly confirms people in their unwillingness to not see, not hear and not believe– it is not a cause of such unwillingness. 

Piper’s severe mishandling of Romans 11:31-32

In his zeal to press his argument further Piper goes on to make another critical exegetical error that I can only assume is a result of reading Scripture with a rigid presupposition that tends to see Calvinism hiding behind every passage. Piper attempts to argue that God purposed and determined to make Israel disobedient “in order that” he could have mercy on Gentiles. He severely manhandles Romans 11:31-32 in order to make his case, stating,

“This is the point of Romans 11:31-32. Paul speaks to his Gentile readers again about the disobedience of Israel in rejecting their Messiah: “So they [Israel] have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you [Gentiles] they also may receive mercy.” 

When Paul says that Israel was disobedient “in order that” Gentiles might get the benefits of the gospel, whose purpose does he have in mind? It can only be God’s.” For Israel did not conceive of their own disobedience as a way of blessing the Gentiles or winning mercy for themselves in such a round about fashion. The point of Romans 11:31 therefore is that God’s hardening of Israel is not an end in itself, but is part of a saving purpose that will embrace all the nations. But in the short run we have to say that he wills a condition (hardness of heart) which he commands people to strive against (“Do not harden your heart” (Hebrews 3:8, 15; 4:7).

Did you catch Piper’s mistake? Piper thinks Paul’s connecting phrase “in order that” principally links God’s declaration of Israel’s disobedience with God’s purpose to have mercy on Gentiles. But this is to overlook Paul’s point. He has Jews principally in view! It is true that through Israel’s disobedience God’s mercy came to Gentiles, but that is a demonstration of God’s sovereign ability to bring good out of evil, and not a marker of some indomitable, secondary will that unconditionally predestined all things. In other words God’s mercy being extended to Gentiles is a resultant factor of Israel’s disobedience, not a purpose for Israel’s disobedience.

Piper mistakenly thinks Paul is stating God purposed Israel to be disobedient “in order that” Gentiles can become beneficiaries of God’s mercy. However Paul is arguing that God has judiciously declared Israel to be in disobedience so that he may have mercy on them—Israel! Paul bears this out in the next verse. The qualifier “in order that” in vs 31 refers to the object of Israel receiving the benefit of mercy through being consigned in disobedience and witnessing the breadth of God’s mercy shown to Gentiles.

Paul is not saying, “God sovereignly willed or made Israel disobedient in order that you Gentiles may receive mercy” as Piper must wrongly assume to make his point stick. Both “they’s” in vs. 31 refer to Jews! He is saying in essence, “So they [Israel] have been declared to be disobedient so that they [Israel] also may receive mercy.”

Paul’s principle aim is to lead us to the understanding that God has consigned or imprisoned all in disobedience— Jew and Gentile alike— so that one’s only escape into freedom and a right standing before God (i.e. salvation) is found in God’s gift of mercy through the Messiah. Paul unequivocally makes this point immediately after in vs 32, “For God has imprisoned all in disobedience, so that He may have mercy on all.”

Piper appears to catch himself at the end and realize Paul does have Jews in mind too, but it is too little too late. He is simply incorrect to assume God secretly decreed or intentionally purposed Israel to be disobedient via a second, divine will “in order that” mercy can principally come to the Gentiles. Neither did God purpose or will Israel’s disobedience so that he could harden her.

It cannot be stated enough: Divine mercy being extended to Gentiles has always been the plan of God ever since his covenant with Abraham and promise to use Israel as a “light unto the Gentiles.” But where national Israel failed, the faithful Israelite and Messiah— Jesus— succeeded. Through the Messiah God has ushered in a new covenant and brought to fulfillment His plan for the world. As such God’s purpose to use Israel’s disobedience and hardening (as a means to accomplish what He first envisioned her obedience would accomplish) is a resultant factor of Israel’s disobedience, not a decreed purpose for Israel’s disobedience!

God’s sovereignty: A responsive sovereignty

Scripture often reveals God can and often does repurpose His sovereign purposes in response to human freedom. God’s sovereignty can be determinative when God sees fit, but we must also take seriously scripture’s revelation that God’s sovereignty is also exercised in many instances as a responsive sovereignty to human self-determination. This too is His sovereign will. That is to say it is God’s sovereign will that His sovereignty be a responsive sovereignty, as clearly demonstrated in the potter and clay metaphor of Jeremiah 18:1-12.

As we noted in Romans 9-11 Part 2 Paul utilizes the potter and clay metaphor of Jeremiah to make his case that God is acting fully within His sovereign jurisdiction to judge Israel in response to Israel’s prior, self-chosen rebellion against God. She becomes a vessel of wrath fit for destruction due to recalcitrant resistance to God’s plan to shape her as a vessel of mercy.

Thus God’s judgment of hardening/blinding and being cut off the metaphorical olive tree of covenant union, is not in response to His own secret “will of decree” that Israel be stubborn and disobedient, but in in response to Israel’s self-determined stubbornness and disobedience. Israel’s freedom is genuine, but that freedom does not equal autonomy from God or full independence from God. Her self-determination only goes as far. Indeed she has freedom of choice, such as to obey or disobey God, but she is not so free as to chart her course against God and escape His sovereign reach. In short Israel’s freedom is not a freedom to disobey God and get away with it. In that sense she is ultimately under God’s total, sovereign control. But here we must be clear. To say Israel is under God’s sovereign control is to not to say God secretly determined all her disobedience and sovereignly decreed all her sins. That is the error of Piper’s Calvinism due to an extreme misunderstanding of divine sovereignty.

Instead Israel is under God’s total, sovereign control in the sense that God is free to nullify and revoke Israel’s freedom through divine judgment if and when Israel’s use of freedom causes her to become entrenched in self-sustained resistance. God is the master and Israel the servant, and Israel is not free to reverse this relationship. Thus God, as a potter, has the sovereign freedom and right to reshape Israel, as clay, in response to how Israel responds to Him. It is abundantly helpful to hear the esteemed O.T. scholar Walter Brueggemann on Jeremiah 18:1-12.

God’s responsive sovereignty in light of Jeremiah 18:1-12

In part 2 we explored some of Brueggemann’s helpful comments, but I want to highlight them more because they serve as an excellent anchor point in understanding our main contention. God’s divine judgments—like hardening and blinding— are acts of God’s responsive sovereignty after people have forfeited opportunities to repent through sustained resistance to God’s light and grace. Brueggemann writes,

Jeremiah observes that the potter completely controls the clay, can reshape it, and is not committed to any particular form for the clay (v.4). The potter will completely reshape the clay until the potter has it the way he wants it. The interpretation of this observation is rooted in the parallel drawn in v. 6. God can do to Israel whatever Yahweh chooses, just as the potter can the clay (cf. Isa. 45:9-11). Israel is not autonomous or independent, but is completely in the control of Yahweh. The oracle asserts Yahweh’s complete sovereignty and Israel’s complete subservience. That is the nature of the relationship, which finally cannot be avoided or denied. The metaphor of the potter and clay leads us to expect an unambiguous assertion of Yahweh’s sovereignty. The argument that follows, however, is much more subtle. Jeremiah 18:7-10 are organized organized according to a double sequence of “if… if… then.”

  1. If… I declare… that I will pluck up… (v. 7),
  2. if that nation… turns from its evil (v. 8)
  3. (then) I will repent of the evil that I intended to do to it (v. 8)


  1. If… I declare…. That I will build and plant it (v. 9),
  2. if it does evil in my sight… (v. 10),
  3. then I will repent of the good which I had intended to do to it (v. 10).


The first “if” (A.1, B.1) concerns God’s decree. The second “if” (A.2, B.2) refers to a fresh decision on Israel’s part. The “then” (A.3, B.3) expresses Yahweh’s readiness to act in new ways in response to Israel’s new behavior. In both sequences the first “if” is God’s initial decision either to plant or to pluck up. The second “if” celebrates Israel’s freedom. Israel is not fated but can act in new ways.

This mode of argument affirms, first, that God is free and can respond and, second, that Judah’s obedience is of decisive importance. In light of both these affirmations, Judah is exhorted to choose carefully how it will act, for its future depends on its action. Yahweh’s responsive sovereignty and Judah’s determinative obedience are both constitutive of Judah’s life.

In v. 11 an appeal is made that Israel should decide afresh. God has made a decree (the first “if,” in v. 7), but that decree can be changed by Judah’s action (the second “if,” in v. 8). The argument asserts Yahweh’s full sovereignty, consistent with the ability of the potter to control the clay. But the second theme, that Israel can take an initiative, violates the metaphor, for Israel has freedom that the clay does not have. The clay cannot challenge the potter, but Israel can act so that Yahweh will change. The narrative both uses the metaphor (to assert sovereignty) and violates the metaphor (to assert Judah’s zone of freedom).

In v. 12, however, the prophet dismisses all of the freedom Israel seemed to have in vv. 8-11. Now Israel’s chance to change is nullified. The clay now can take no action free of the potter. There is no more time for turning. Judah has waited too long. Judah of course had had freedom of choice. But that freedom has now been forfeited through sustained resistance and stubbornness. The text is not interested in a theoretical question of free will. Rather, it addresses the pastoral reality that resistance to God practiced so long eventually nullifies the capacity to choose life. Israel’s long-term resistance left it no longer able to choose life. Jerusalem’s judgment is sealed because Judah has been too stubborn. Judah rejects God’s plan which is for covenant obedience and chooses its own alternative plan that opts for autonomy and disobedience. Judah resolves to act autonomously, without reference to Yahweh. Judah’s plan is a plan of stubbornness which refuses the reality of God’s sovereignty. Such a refusal ends in death… the potter is not endlessly committed to working with this clay, if the clay is finally recalcitrant. The potter will finally quit, which means that the clay has no future.

Bruggemann’s exegesis of the potter-clay metaphor of Jeremiah 18:1-12, picked up later by Paul in Romans 9:20-24, seriously undermines the foundational basis for Piper’s Two-Wills View— that being his commitment to exhaustive, theological determinism. But again, it gets even worse for him.[8]

Piper’s grievous conflation of two distinct categories of “hardening”

Overly zealous to make his points stick to something, Piper wrongly assumes God’s judicial hardening is synonymous with the same “hardness of heart” that comes from persistent, willful disobedience mentioned in Hebrews 3:8 and 4:7. In those passages God warns, “Today if you hear His voice do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.”

It is quite astonishing that Piper, a pastoral theologian, conflates (1) self-chosen hardness of heart due to unrepentant disobedience with (2) judicial hardening for unrepentant disobedience, saying,

“But in the short run we have to say that he wills a condition (hardness of heart) which he commands people to strive against (“Do not harden your heart” (Hebrews 3:8, 15; 4:7).”

It is vitally important that we note there exists two distinct categories of “hardening” in the scriptures, and each is brought about by two separate causes for two very different reasons. The first category is a self-chosen hardness of heart due to a willful refusal to listen to the Spirit of God. As Zachariah 7:12 sets forth, “They made their hearts as hard as flint and did not listen…to the words that the Lord Almighty sent by his Spirit through the earlier prophets.”

So as to be doubly clear, self-chosen hardness of heart stems from repeated disobedience and an unwillingness to hear God’s voice and prior overtures of truth and grace. To “hear” God’s voice is to heed or obey God’s voice. And heeding God’s voice is largely a matter of choice. That is why there exists the conditional “if you will hear” in Hebrews 3:8 and 4:7.

Moreover the writer of Hebrews is quoting from Psalm 95:7-8 wherein the Psalmist ties in hearing God’s voice with our will to heed God’s voice, saying, “Today, if you will hear His voice: ‘Do not harden your hearts…’” The Scriptures are clear that repeatedly resisting the truth will eventually “seer the conscience” (1 Tim. 2:4) and render the heart callous and “past feeling” (Eph. 4:19).

The second category of hardening is God’s just prerogative to judicially harden persons within the first category (those unrelenting in their self-chosen disobedience and self-chosen hard-heartedness). In other words persons in the second category are those judicially confirmed by God in their self-chosen hardness of heart as an act of divine judgment. In Romans 10:21 Paul makes it clear God extended His hands “all day long to a rebellious people” but Israel repeatedly disregarded God. Consequently Israel forfeited God’s perfect will (remember Jeremiah 10:1-12) and will move from the first category of self-hardening to the second category of judicial hardening.

Since Piper’s theology assumes all human choices were previously determined via God’s will of decree, there is no place to speak of God having a consequent will when people exercise their free will and reject His perfect will. Thus it is no surprise to see Piper completely avoid the journey Israel has taken from the first category of self-hardening to the consequential second category of judicial hardening.

In his zeal to press his view, Piper completely skips over scripture’s affirmation of Israel’s freedom to resist God’s perfect will through rebellion as the cause of her self-induced hardness of heart— a hardness that in turn brings about God’s judicial hardening. He erroneously subsumes both categories of rebellious self-hardening and judicial hardening together, saying, “God holds out his hands to a rebellious people (Romans 10:21), but ordains a hardening that consigns them for a time to disobedience.”

Piper believes the rebellious heart of Israel that resisted God’s hand was brought about by God’s alleged will of decree that she have a hardened heart of rebellion. No! That completely reverses and overturns one of Paul’s main points to justify God’s righteous judgement in regards to Israel being judicially cut off the olive tree of covenant blessing. God judicially hardens Israel in response to Israel’s prior, self-hardening caused by her repeated rejection of God’s outstretched hand. Piper’s mistaken conflation of two, distinct categories of hardening is made all the worse in light of his underlying belief that God determinatively decreed all Israel’s sins that led to her being a “rebellious people.” Such a view is so morally malevolent and confused, it ought to be rebuked and renounced with the greatest swiftness.

If Piper’s theological analysis did not exist in a reverberating, self-enclosed echo chamber much of his interpretive confusion would disappear, and he would better understand how scriptural examples of judicial hardening are not a record God’s unconditional, decretive will being brought to fruition, but are rather a record of God’s accommodating, consequent will coming into play when his ideal, morally perfect will is repeatedly spurned.

Six reasons Piper’s Calvinism is overturned in Romans 11:7-8

Let’s return again to Piper’s earlier contention that Romans 11:7 supports his particular Two-Wills view. What does Paul mean when he distinguishes between “Israel not finding what it was looking for… [and being] hardened” and “the elect [who] did find it”? Does it mean God never truly desired or intended certain Jews to obtain salvation? Does it mean God pre-programed Israel’s sins? Does it mean God was behind the scenes; actively engineering a plot to ensure the nation of Israel disobeyed him and failed in her call to be a light to the nations? If not why does Paul quote O.T. passages in Romans 11:8 that speak of God giving people a “spirit of stupor, eyes that should not see and ears that should not hear”? Moreover to quote the main thrust of Piper’s contention in the form of a question, why does God do this “even though it is the command of God that his people see and hear and respond in faith (Isaiah 42:18)?” Is it, as Piper assumes, evidence that God wills one thing and then “acts in a way to restrict the fulfillment of that will.”

We have been over much of this material already, but because Piper continues to repeat the same charges in various, nuanced forms it is necessary to deal with them thoroughly.

Six quick points are in order:

(1) Firstly, the mere fact that Paul is quoting the O.T. in this way tells us Paul understood Israel to be under God’s judgment just like she was at earlier times when she spurned God’s patience and rejected God’s outstretched arms (Is. 65:2). For after quoting the Isaiah passage, he quotes David’s request that God’s enemies—his own enemies— be trapped and ensnared in their indulgence and feasting in Psalm 69:22-23. The common thread that unites all these O.T. quotes is judgment and retribution, in the form of judicial blinding, on those who have rejected God’s earlier revelations of Himself and His faithfulness. Paul imports this theme into Romans 11 because he rightly recognizes God is again judicially blinding Israel as a consequence for her own self-chosen blindness and intransigent un-teachableness. However God can still call out for repentance and for ears to hear just like Jesus will later do in the N.T.


Because Jesus knows not all Jews have succumbed to the spirit of implacable unbelief that defines their age. Some will respond— in fact many did (Mark 1:5). But generally speaking the time for extended patience and mercy on the nation has ended. The time for corporate judgment on the nation has come. A similar passage in Isaiah almost perfectly parallels the dire, spiritual condition of Israel in at the dawn of the N.T. era. In fact Jesus even quotes from it in Mark 7:7-8 to describe the general heart condition of the nation that required God’s judicial blinding as a response (not a cause) to Israel’s self-imposed unwillingness to see or hear. Jesus’s quote of Isaiah reveals that He understood judicial blinding to be the withdraw of God’s presence and light from Israel—presence and light Israel needed for continued covenant communion and understanding. For when we read the relevant passages in their entire context in Isaiah we can easily see Isaiah identifies God’s judgment of sleepiness and blindness with God’s withdraw of light and revelation from Israel’s prophets and seers.

“For the Lord has poured out on you

an overwhelming urge to sleep; [i.e. spirit of stupor]

He has shut your eyes — the prophets,

and covered your heads — the seers…

Because these people approach Me with their mouths

to honor Me with lip- service —

yet their hearts are far from Me,

and their worship consists of man- made rules

learned by rote —

therefore I will again confound these people…

and the understanding of the perceptive will be hidden” (Isaiah 29:10-14).


(2) Secondly, self-righteousness and confidence in outward law keeping has always been the root cause of Israel’s outward religiosity at the cost of inward confession. According to Paul the “attempt to establish their own righteousness” is the principle reason Israel “disregarded God’s righteousness” (Rom 10:3), failed to obtain “the righteousness that comes by faith” (Rom. 10:6) and was judicially judged as a result. We should never call into question the sincerity of God’s desire to mercifully seek and save the lost, the blind and the sick. But when blind sinners consider themselves already seeing, already holy, already righteous, there is little they can receive from God except discipline. The historical record on Israel is generally uniform on this point as it spans the two testament ages. Note the full context of Paul’s quoting of Isaiah in Romans 10:21,

“I spread out my hand all day to a rebellious people…

These people continually provoke Me

to My face…They say, Keep to yourself,

don’t come near me, for I am too holy for you!

I will not keep silent, but I will repay…” (Isaiah 65:3-6)

It is astonishing that people could ever think they were “too holy” for God, but Jesus charges Israel with the same self-righteous attitude, saying,

“I came into this world for judgment, in order that those who do not see will see and those who do see will become blind. Some of the Pharisees who were with Him heard these things and asked Him, “We aren’t blind too, are we?” If you were blind, Jesus told them, you wouldn’t have sin. But now that you say, “We see” — your sin remains.” (John 9:39-41).

Jesus was both the light of the world and the rock of stumbling for those who reject that light to see. The Romans were blind. The Greeks were blind. The Pharisees were blind. Jesus knew they were all blind, for that is why He came. As John declared, “The true light, who gives light to everyone, was coming into the world” (Jn 1:9). Christ confirmed, “I have come as a light into the world, so that everyone who believes in Me would not remain in darkness” (Jn. 12:46). But Jesus also confirmed that His arrival on earth signaled judgment on the spiritually prideful, “I came into this world for judgment…that those who do see will become blind” (Jn. 9:39).

It is not that God predetermined through a divine decree that they be blind. Rather God is judging their arrogance by judicially delivering them over to their own spiritual pride. It is no wonder that Jesus began His “Sermon on the Mount” saying, “Blessed are those who are poor in spirit, for theirs in the kingdom of heaven.” To be “poor in spirit” is to know your spiritual need of God. Given that the religious classes rejected their need of light, pridefully professing their sight and righteousness according to the Law, they forfeited the only true light to see their true need. Since Christ fulfilled the Law any attempt to continue to pursue righteousness according to the Law will inevitably cause them to increase in blindness and stumble over Christ, the “end of the Law for righteousness,” according to Paul (Rom. 10:4).

When Jesus told the Pharisees “your sin remains” because they arrogantly claimed, “We see” we are hearing Jesus affirm contingency not determinism. In other words we are greatly mistaken if we think it had to be this way—that it was divinely predestined. Jesus made it clear He came to seek and save the lost, bind up the broken hearted, set the oppressed free and restore sight to the blind. But like slaves refusing freedom because they proudly think they are masters, and terminally ill patients refusing treatment because they confidently think they are in perfect health, Jesus had no recourse except to judicially confirm the religious class in their own blindness and seek out others more responsive, teachable and humble.

(3) Thirdly, concerning Paul’s distinguishing of Israel and the elect, it is to our advantage to keep in mind that often (but not always) in Paul’s perspective “Israel” = God’s chosen people by Hebraic ancestry and outward law keeping, and the “Elect” = God’s chosen people by faith and internal confession. Paul is not alone in his assessment of two, distinct corporate groups. It shows up repeatedly in the words of Christ. The former group is awash in self-righteousness and pride and can receive nothing from the Lord. The other group is marked by humility and will therefore be saved by grace as promised: “God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble” (Jm 4:6; Mt. 23:12; Pr. 3:34). We see these two categories best pitted against each other in Christ’s parable of the Pharisee who went to the temple to testify of his outward works of the Law and the sinful publican who went to the temple to confess his inward poverty and need of divine mercy. We will recall only one went home justified (Lk. 18:9-14).

(4) Fourthly, to a large extent the nation of Israel forfeited divine mercy that came by way of her Messiah, and consequently, as a nation became judaically blinded and hardened because she belonged to the aforementioned former group. But as stated before, not all did. Not all had unbelieving hearts, calloused over by years of outward piety at the cost of inward confession and faith. Some truly did hear and heed the words of God under the old covenant and were therefore already God’s sheep at the time of the new covenant arrival in Christ. They recognized the voice of God—their Good Shepherd—in the voice of Jesus in the new covenant and were thus drawn to Christ as naturally as sheep being drawn to the voice of their true shepherd. As Jesus declares, “Everyone who has listened to and learned from the Father comes to Me… But you don’t believe because you are not My sheep. My sheep hear My voice, I know them, and they follow Me” (Jn 6:45; 10:26-27). Those who were already in a right relationship with the Father followed the Son because they recognized that the Son and the Father spoke in one voice. Such persons are saved by grace through faith and called the “elect,” and exist in contrast to the general term “Israel” in Romans 11:7. That is why Paul can say “Israel did not obtain” what it was searching for (i.e. righteousness) but the “elect did obtain it.”

(5) Fifthly, as already noted, Piper reveals a (ironic) blinding bias and in his treatment of these verses. He assumes that if God wills to call people to repentance on the one hand, but is then seen to blind, harden and cut off people on the other hand, what other explanation could there be except to declare God intentionally “acts in a way to restrict the fulfillment of that will”—i.e. wills to decree that Israel disobey His will of command to repent.

However Piper is presenting the fallacy of a non-sequitur. It does not follow that God determinatively decreed for Israel to disregard His “will of command” simply because God is seen to later judicially blind Israel for unrepentant disregard of His light and truth. For God can both call out for repentance to some and judicially blind others because there are two principal groups of people God has in view:

Group 1: Those who missed the day of God’s visitation due to a prior, obstinate unwillingness to “submit themselves to God’s righteousness” (Rom 10:3) and will be judicially confirmed in their obstinacy as a consequence.

Group 2: Those who have not yet succumbed to the obstinate spirit of their age and still have “ears to hear.”

Recognizing that both groups are in play in the N.T. can help us see why Jesus can declare on the one hand that the consequence of disbelief is further disbelief, further lack of understanding and further slumbering, and then on the other hand emphatically call out for belief and understanding. Jesus was always searching out hearts still willing to hear and listen. Such people are always in view in the common phrase “he who has ears to hear let him hear.” As we read in Mark 7:14-16, “Summoning the crowd again, He told them, Listen to Me, all of you, and understand…If anyone [still] has ears to hear, he should listen!”

Moreover Jesus told his disciples that the same religious class of Jews who persecuted Him will likewise persecute them because they “don’t know the One who sent Me” (John 15:21). That is to say they never knew God, never knew his Father— ever! Yet they arrogantly thought they did. Time and again Jesus warned the Pharisees He came to give light to those in darkness, but if they arrogantly say they see, but walk as if they are blind, their sin, which is the ultimate cause of their blindness, remains. However if one does not resist God’s outstretched hand of grace (Rom. 10:21), but humbly confesses their blindness and “turns to the Lord the veil is removed” as stated by Paul concerning the Jews in 2 Corinthians 3:16. Note the order. Paul does not say the veil is removed so that Jews can turn to Christ; it is removed when Jews turn to Christ.

(6) Sixth—and perhaps most important of all— we ought to interpret passages concerning God’s hardening/blinding and cutting off of Israel corporately. God’s judicial act of judgment against the nation of Israel was to deliver the nation up to its own self-imposed blindness and hard-heartedness due to their rejection of the only One who could take away the veil. But we certainly shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking God’s acts of judicial blinding, hardening and being cut off from the olive tree of covenant union are irrevocable acts that keep all Jews bound in repentance and unbelief. For Paul himself rhetorically asks, “If they repent will God not graft them in again?” (Rom. 11:23)

This tells us that Israel’s judicial hardening and blinding ought to be seen as primarily corporate in nature and only secondarily applying to individual Jews who insisted on remaining under a former covenant God no longer inhabited with His divine presence. Thus for any Jew to remain entrenched in seeking justification through the Law will in turn keep that Jew blinded in the very spirit of unbelief that brought about God’s corporate hardening upon Israel.

As we explained in Part 2, just like Israel’s prior election under the old covenant was primarily corporate in its effect and only secondarily pertained to the Jew who appropriately identified themselves with the corporate election of Israel, so also God’s judicial hardening and blinding of Israel was primarily corporate in effect and only secondarily pertained to individual Jews who stubbornly rejected God’s new covenant in Christ and sought recognition and justification under a former covenant and law no longer in effect.

In other words “corporate hardening and blinding” is the flip side of “corporate election.” As an act of judgment Paul believed Israel as a nation was being corporately hardened and confirmed in her stubborn disregard of God’s prior grace and righteousness. As long as any Jew insisted on approaching God through the Law—especially in regard to ritual sacrifices for sin—they would find themselves to be under God’s corporate hardening.

In Romans 11:7 Paul says, “Israel did not find what it was looking for, but the elect did find it. The rest were hardened…” What was Israel looking for? Paul already told us that in 9:31, “But Israel, pursuing the law for righteousness, has not achieved the righteousness of the law… because they did not pursue it by faith.”

Paul contrasts corporate “Israel” with the corporate “elect” by saying the “elect did find it.” What did they find? Paul already told us that too. They found the righteousness of covenant union that came through faith. Thus the elect are God’s corporate people united to Him by faith. Then Paul says “the rest were hardened.”

Who are “the rest”? Are they some mysterious, unknown group individually and unconditionally selected by God to not be saved before they were born? One can only arrive at this conclusion by importing a 16th century debate about the nature of predestination upon the text. Such a debate is centuries removed from anything Paul is trying to say in Romans 9-11. Paul understands “the rest” to be those among corporate Israel that “did not find what it was looking for” but nonetheless stubbornly insist on remaining within the works of the Law as a means of justification. Thus they are hardened and blinded.

But they are not hardened or blinded against Christ. They hardened within the context of rejecting Christ and remaining in the stiff and brittle, old wineskin of the former covenant passing away. To the extent they remain entrenched in unbelief in the old covenant is to the extent they are hardened and blinded within that covenant. It cannot be repeated enough. God’s hardening was not divine resistance against believing the gospel! To the contrary. Believing in the gospel was the antidote—the means by which one escaped the severity of God’s hardening and entered God’s kindness (Rom. 11:20-23).

That is the reason Paul is adamant in saying it is through belief in the gospel that a Jew can be grafted in after being cut off. And it is certainly why Paul said of his Jewish brethren, “Even to this day, whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their hearts, but whenever a person turns to the Lord, the veil is removed” (2 Cor. 3:15-16). If Calvinism were an accurate theology we would expect Paul to say, “the veil over their hearts is removed so that they can turn to the Lord.” But that is not what Paul says. As already mentioned, Paul conditions the removal of the veil on turning to the Lord.

Summary conclusion

We can summarize the conclusion of all six points as follows: The corporate nature of Israel’s “hardening” must be seen within the context of God no longer honoring the old covenant, since to do so would be to undermine the new covenant. The Jew cannot follow the Law at the expense of not following her Messiah. The Jew cannot affirm God while denying God’s Son. Thus to the degree Israel continues to try and establish her own “election” and “recognition” before God through the Law, while simultaneously disregarding her own Messiah, is to the degree she will remain in unbelief and therefore under God’s severity—His corporate hardening/blinding (Rom. 11:20-23).

Application for today

We do well to remember Brueggemann’s summary concerning Judah/Israel sealing herself in God’s judgment through her recalcitrant stubbornness, which in turn caused her to forfeit the freedom and opportunity to repent and prolong God’s patience and mercy. It does not mean every Israelite/Jew within the nation lost the chance the opportunity to repent. Such a conclusion can only be reached by interpreting the Bible through the lens of the “Enlightenment” that assigns identity on an individual basis. We must cease doing that. The Bible consigns identity within the corporate group to which one belongs—i.e. the nation states of Judah/Israel. No doubt some inhabitants of Judah did heed Jeremiah’s warnings and personally repented. But as it concerned the nation of Judah as a whole, her time of exploiting the riches of God’s patience had passed. Judgment on the nation had been decreed and this time it would not be rescinded as in times past. As Bruggemann writes,

“There is no more time for turning. Judah has waited too long. Judah of course had had freedom of choice. But that freedom has now been forfeited through sustained resistance and stubbornness… it addresses the pastoral reality that resistance to God practiced so long eventually nullifies the capacity to choose life. Israel’s long-term resistance left it no longer able to choose life.” [9]

There is an implicit warning in all of this. If we persist in rebellion and hard heartedness there comes a point where we are judiciously given over to our rebellion wherein God has no recourse except to withdraw His light and mercy. Consequently we fall into condemnation. We find this theme throughout scripture and it ought to serve as a somber warning to us all. God is not to be mocked. What we sow we will reap and if we persist in sin and un-repentance God will give us up to experience the full measure of our self-chosen sin. We become the salt that loses its flavor and is good for nothing except to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men. We become the branches that didn’t bear fruit, whither away and are subsequently cut off and thrown into the fire.

In C.S. Lewis’s parable story, The Great Divorce, one of the characters offers an analogy that is helpful. “If there’s one wee spark under all those ashes, we’ll blow it till the whole pile is red and clear. But if there’s nothing but ashes we’ll not go on blowing them in our eyes forever. They must be swept up.”






A helpful analogy in understanding God’s judicial blinding


We can summarize Part 3 with the following analogy:

Suppose I see a blind man walking towards a small cliff. It is not so high as to kill him but he can hurt himself—perhaps even break his leg. I run over to him and try to redirect him with my hands, but he consistently kicks me away, refusing to acknowledge he is blind. However in mercy I wrestle him up into my arms and carry him away, all the while absorbing the pain of his kicks and punches. After I place him down a safe distance from the cliff, he immediately seeks out his former direction, stubbornly insisting he is on his way home and he knows how to get there on his own. Suppose this goes on for hours, even days. I repeatedly pull him back from the precipice only to see him retrace his steps in the same direction. I dare not sleep lest he make it to the cliff before I can intervene again. I finally reach a place where I realize my attempts to keep him safe are only postponing the inevitable. For he is committed to stubbornly asserting his own “rightness” and walking in the direction of his own choosing. Despite all my warnings he will never acknowledge his blindness, ignorance or peril. Hence my attempts to save him have only created an unhealthy co-dependency that affords him temporary safety at the expense of right learning and long-term safety. For long-term safety and living is a result of right learning. As harsh as it may seem, giving him up to his own stubbornness, and allowing him to suffer the consequences of his own recalcitrant disregard of my attempts to redirect him, is the only recourse I have left. My allowing him to go his own way is in essence confirming him in his own choice to blindly injure himself. However it is not my plan to leave him lying in a heap at the bottom of the ditch, exposed to the harsh elements until he dies. Instead my plan is to cradle him in my arms, mend his wounds and hopefully set him on a course of safety.

When it comes to Israel, we are not talking about a matter of hours or days. We are talking tens of centuries! God defined His relationship with Israel for over two millennia as follows, “All day long I have spread out my hands to a disobedient and defiant people” (Rom. 10:21). Statements about God giving “Israel a spirit of stupor” need to be seen in light of Israel’s prior rejection of God’s outstretched hand of salvation. Israel already had a “spirit of stupor”—a lethargic, apathetic disregard for God. Thus God is not “giving” Israel something that wasn’t already there. God is not filling in some missing gap. The statement about God “giving” Israel a “spirit of stupor” is best understood as God withdrawing His presence, light and truth from the corrupted prophets and seers of Israel. In fact that is exactly how God qualifies His giving of Israel a “spirit of stupor” in Isaiah 29:10-11, saying,

“For the Lord has poured out on you

an overwhelming urge to sleep; [i.e. spirit of stupor]

He has shut your eyes — the prophets,

and covered your heads — the seers…”

Israel, especially during Isaiah and Jeremiah’s time, had many self-proclaimed prophets who tickled the ears of the people, giving them only false assurances of God’s protection and favor, despite Israel’s stubbornness and sin. Consequently God decides to withdraw revelation from Israel’s corrupt prophets and seers so as to judicially give Israel up to her own defiance and disobedience. In this way God judicially confirms Israel in her own, self-chosen apathy and insensitivity to His correction—i.e. her “stupor.” But that is not God’s end game. God’s end game is renewal and restoration through repentance. For God’s judgments and acts of discipline towards Israel always had a redemptive element— her correction and restoration to covenant blessing.

Paul is fully aware of this repeated theme of divine judgment and divine renewal and restoration. That is why he is keen to end his remarks on Israel’s judgement (i.e. her judicial hardening and blinding) with Israel’s eventual salvation, renewal and fullness in chapter 11.






[1] John Piper at:


[2] John Piper at:


[3] That John Piper believes in limited atonement does not change this fact, for it would still mean God decreed all sin—including the sins of the elect for whom Christ died. See at:

[5] Much of the material above and below is adapted from my earlier critique of John Piper’s view found at All the quotes from John Piper are taken from his online article “Are There Two Wills in God?” See


[6] We first come across this phase in Deut. 29:4 where Moses voices his great frustration at Israel as follows: “You saw with your own eyes the great trials and those great signs and wonders. Yet to this day the Lord has not given you a mind to understand, eyes to see, or ears to hear.” From the beginning of their exodus God’s plan was that Israel would be given further light and revelation for the journey, but Israel must first respond in appropriate faith to the measure of revelation that had already received. When the first generation refused to trust God they were sovereignly barred from entering the land God promised them. God so desired genuine trust and belief, in response to His past faithfulness to Israel, that He refused to believe for them. Moses implies they are responsible to have a mind of understanding, eyes to see and ears to hear as an appropriate faith response to His great faithfulness to them—seen in His “great signs and wonders.” God will not do it for them by giving them a divine impartation of understanding, sight and hearing that otherwise would be absent. Indeed God gave them many opportunities to understand, see and hear through many great signs and wonders, but the understanding of faith, the sight of faith, and the hearing of faith must come from them. The HCSB commentary on Deut 29:4 agrees, saying, “Despite Israel’s seeing everything the Lord did in Egypt and in the wilderness (vv. 2-3), He had not given them a mind to understand. He had not forced them to believe against their will, but He had given them every opportunity and inducement to believe. It is at this point that divine sovereignty and human choices intersect. God makes His truth available to all people, but they can choose to harden themselves against it and thus deny themselves its blessings (Is. 6:9-10; Rm 11:8).

[7] See HSBC Study Bible Notes on Mark 4:11-12 and Matthew 13:10-13


[8] Brueggemann, Walter. A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI, 1998, p. 167-169

[9] Brueggemann, p. 169

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Romans 9-11 Part 2: The Thriving of Arminianism

Romans 9-11 Part 2: The Thriving of Arminianism and Declining of Calvinism

By StriderMTB


  1. Introduction: Why is the gospel “first to the Jew” if (according to Calvinism) God hardened Jews so that they would not believe the gospel?

At the close of “Romans 9-11 Part 1: Paul’s Battering Ram Against Limiting Salvation” I made the claim Arminian Theology not only survives Romans 9, it thrives in it! In Part 2 I will now back up that claim— thoroughly examining the flow of Paul’s argument and continuity in light of chapters 10 and 11 as well as key statements in earlier chapters. The Calvinist interpretation of Romans 9 can be summarized as follows: God unconditionally decided in advance who He will love enough to save (like Jacob) and who He will hate enough to damn (like Esau). In Romans 9 one of Paul’s key objectives is to advance this claim by arguing God unconditionally decreed that Israel would reject the gospel. God’s unconditional decree is further enforced by God’s decision to harden the heart of Jews to the gospel so that they will not believe.

If the Calvinist conclusion is accurate, and Paul really thought Jews were being sovereignly prohibited by God to not believe the gospel, we can only wonder why Paul opens his epistle to the Romans with the incredible declaration that the gospel is “God’s power for salvation to everyone who believes, first to the Jew, and also to the Greek” (1:16). Paul wasn’t one to spout off empty platitudes. The N.T. reveals he was determined to preach “first to the Jew” wherever he went (Acts 13:5,14; 14:1; 16:13; 17:1, 10, 17; 18:4, 19). Even when Jews rejected the preaching of the gospel, Paul seems distinctly unaware of the Calvinist claim that God sovereignly predetermined it be so, going so far as to say their disbelief disqualified them of salvation. “But since you reject it and consider yourselves unworthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles!” (Acts 13:46). That seems to be odd statement coming from Paul. If salvation is by grace alone through faith, aren’t we all by definition “unworthy of eternal life?” True enough no one is “worthy” of eternal life on the basis of merit, yet that doesn’t take away from the fact that Paul regarded faith to be of such import and value, he believed it made one worthy of God’s eternal life.

This only makes sense when we recognize God holds His human imagers personally responsible and accountable to respond appropriately with a measure of faith that corresponds to the measure of light, truth and grace they have received. Lastly if Paul truly thought Jews were being divinely prohibited from having faith in the gospel, he would not have declared to his own Jewish brethren, “It is for the hope of Israel that I’m wearing this chain” (Acts 28:20). That national Israel was judicially hardened by God, in response to her stubborn disregard of His outstretched hand of grace, is indeed true. But what does that mean? Was Israel’s judicial hardening primarily a corporate hardening that only secondarily (and conditionally) pertained to the individual Jew— similar in some respects to national Israel’s corporate election? We will explore these questions and many others throughout Part 2.

  1. If God unconditionally determined Israel’s plight, why does Paul begin by saying the Holy Spirit within him was grieved over Israel’s plight?

Paul ends chapter 8 talking about the incredible wonder of God’s love in Christ. It is Paul’s awareness of God’s incredible love in Christ that makes Paul’s anguish over his lost Jewish brethren all the more intense—for they are have rejected their Messiah on a national level and been cut off from all His benefits. Paul opens up chapter 9 revealing the depth of his heart for his Jewish brethren who have rejected their Messiah. But notice Paul is not alone in his sorrow for His Jewish brethren. He says the Holy Spirit within him testifies of the same anguish and sorrow! Listen to his words:

I speak the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience is testifying to me with the Holy Spirit—that I have intense sorrow and continual anguish in my heart. For could almost wish to be cursed and cut off from the Messiah for the benefit of my brothers, my own flesh and blood (Roman 9:1-3).
The mere fact that Paul begins his defense of God by giving voice to his grief and the Holy Spirit’s grief over national Israel’s judgment is enough to tell us the Calvinist interpretation is amiss from the very start. Does it make sense to suggest the Holy Spirit within Paul could be grieved over Israel’s rejection of her Messiah if the Holy Spirit unconditionally determined that Israel reject her Messiah? To suggest such is the case is to introduce an absurd contradiction within the nature of God. The Calvinist doctrine of double predestination—otherwise known as unconditional election by Calvinists like John Piper— is grounded in the belief that God individually and unconditionally predestines people to hell out of the pleasure of His own will.[1]Therefore for Paul to suggest God could be filled with sorrow and grief over the fulfillment of His own pleasure is not only absurd, it makes God out to be a cosmic fraud. To entertain a theology wherein God genuinely purposes to establish people on a trajectory that will lead them to life and blessing and then goes behind the scenes to lay waste to His own stated plan and purpose for those people is morally indefensible.[2] That God can genuinely desire and purpose for people to come to a knowledge of truth, but in the end judge them when they reject His grace and extended hand of fellowship, is a different matter entirely. And it is exactly this difference that we will explore in this article.

After testifying of both his and the Spirit’s grief within him, Paul begins to unpack why the grief is appropriate. He implies the Jews as a whole ought to benefit from their Messiah because all that God has done up to that point was through them—including the physical descent of their Messiah (Rom. 9:4-5). So what happened?  What went wrong? Paul takes blame of God off the table, saying, “But it is not as though the word of God has failed”(vs 6).

Such a claim needed to be proven, because to the minds of many it looked like God’s word had indeed failed to bring forth what God had promised to those formerly in His covenant family. Paul takes up the challenge to vindicate God in regards to His trustworthiness and faithfulness to His promises and dealings with national Israel.

  1. Israel’s national election: Not an end to itself but God’s means to bring salvation to the ends of the earth

As we delve into chapter 9 we need to be aware that Paul’s manner of talking may sound confusing at times. That is because Paul will shift around what it means to be part of God’s promise and therefore part of God’s election. It cannot be overstated that, for Paul, God’s acts of “election” covered a wide range of purposes in the O.T. But foremost among them was God’s purpose to bring forth an elect nation out of the earth—not as end in and of itself—but as God’s sovereign means to bring salvation to the ends of the earth.
Paul begins his defense of God’s global vision to include non-Law-keeping, Gentiles into His elect, covenant family by tracing back Israel’s election to the loins of Abraham—who existed before the Law was given.

For from the beginning when God first called Abraham, and all the way up to Paul’s day, God’s divine purpose was to re-inherit the lost nations and enter into covenant union with Gentiles through the light of Israel’s own Messiah. We see numerous references of God’s messianic servant coming through Israel and being God’s elect, “chosen One” to fulfill God’s global vision for light, justice and blessing to embrace all Gentile nations (Isaiah 42:1-6, 49:6). As we saw in Part 1, Paul will call this purpose the “mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed” in Christ (Col. 1:26). In Romans 20:25 Paul will call this “the revelation of the mystery kept secret since the world began but now made manifest… to all nations… for obedience to the faith.” Key to God’s divine purpose to re-claim the lost nations was God’s various uses of divine election in the O.T.

  1. Israelite election: Being united to Israel’s corporate election always had to transcend being a mere child of Abraham

In Romans 9:6-13 Paul zeroes in on one facet of God’s election—those whom God has chosen to be the crucial roots to give growth to the eventual, elect family tree of Israel. Isaac and Jacob are chosen to continue the Abrahamic line of descent, whereas Ishmael and Esau are not. Does that mean Ishmael and Esau were predestined to hell? Absolutely not! We shall see shortly why that Calvinist assumption is both unfounded and manifestly unbiblical.

As of verse 8, Paul’s goal is singular. He wants to lay down a foundation to defend God’s dealings with national Israel by reminding His readership of the sovereign origins of her national election. His argument is simple but effective. Even though God’s election of Israel was intimately intertwined with Abraham’s physical descendants, it also transcended physical descent. Paul wants to remind his readers that one’s individual status as an “elect” Israelite was never a given birthright. Being united to Israel’s election as a true child of God always had to transcend being a physical child of Abraham. The O.T. bears this out in obvious ways. There is no reason for Paul to go into an entire litany of past events wherein multitudes of Israelites—Abraham’s own progeny— were divinely killed like in Korah’s rebellion or cut off from covenantal blessings like in the Babylonian exile. At no time was it “enough” to simply be a physical descendant of Abraham. Paul declares,

But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. Neither are they all children because they are Abraham’s descendants. On the contrary, your offspring will be traced through Isaac.That is, it is not the children by physical descent who are God’s children, but the children of the promise are considered to be the offspring (Rom. 9:6-8).

  1. The way the promise began—the way of faith—is the way it will continue. Children of the promise are men and women who are justified through faith like Abraham

In denying the sufficiency Abrahamic descent, Paul is saying election as a true Israelite—a child of God—coursed its way through Israel’s history by means of the “children of promise.” And who are the children of promise? Though Paul doesn’t explicitly say it, he expects the reader to understand “children of the promise” are men and women of faith. They are inheritors of God’s purpose in electing a community of faithful believers that trust in His promises. For God’s initial promise to Abraham was to grant him a nation of descendants as many as the stars. That promise required great faith on Abraham’s part, given he was already old and childless (Gen. 15:2-6). Paul already told his readers, “Abram believed the LORD, and He credited it to him as righteousness” (Rom. 4:3) In that sense the way the promise began—the way of faith—is the way in which the elect community of faith will continue to grow and flourish like a tree.

Before launching out to exonerate God’s sovereign decision to judge disbelieving Israel and graft in believing Gentiles into the elect community of faith, Paul wants his readership to remember Israel’s history is deeply rooted in faith; specifically God’s past faithfulness to keep His promise to Abraham—the forerunner of true faith. Building on what it means to be a child of promise, he goes on to say,

9 For this is the statement of the promise: At this time I will come, and Sarah will have a son.   10 And not only that, but also Rebekah received a promise when she became pregnant by one man, our ancestor Isaac. 11 For though her sons had not been born yet or done anything good or bad, so that God’s purpose according to election might stand—  12 not from works but from the One who calls—she was told: The older will serve the younger.   13 As it is written: I have loved Jacob, but I have hated Esau (Rom. 9:9-13).

  1. Were individuals like Lot, Hagar, Ishmael predestined for damnation because the line of promise did not go through them? Were Rachel and Joseph predestined for damnation because God elected Leah and Judah for the messianic line of descent?

In saying the line of promise came through God’s choice of Isaac through Sarah, Paul is implying God rejected Ishmael through Hagar. But we should not think Paul has salvation in view—at least not yet.[3] At this point Paul is only talking about God’s chosen or elect line of descendants concerning Israel’s forefathers. Sarah was promised a child and Isaac was that promised child. The O.T. gives us no reason to think Hagar or Ishmael were condemned as objects of wrath. Quite the contrary. She and Ishmael were both sovereignly cared for by God in the wilderness, and of Ishmael we are told “God was with the boy” (see Gen. 21:16-21). Likewise Paul’s statement about the line of “promise” going through Rebekah’s election doesn’t mean Isaac’s second wife, Bethuel, or the daughters born to her through Isaac, were consequently predestined for eternal damnation.

Had he wanted to Paul could have expounded further on God’s right of election by referencing a sub-category of Israel’s election—the chosen line of Messianic descent from Abraham to the virgin Mary. That is to say he could have delved into the past and specifically highlighted God’s sovereign choice of Abraham over Lot, but that certainly doesn’t mean Lot was “un-elect” in regards to salvation and predestined to hell. For in 2 Peter 2:7 we read that God “rescued righteous Lot.” Paul could have also extended his reasoning into the future and talked about God’s election of Leah and her rebel son Judah over and against the more appealing choice of Rachel and her highly regarded son Joseph. Obviously that doesn’t mean God unconditionally predestined Rachel and Joseph to suffer destruction as objects of wrath! Yet if the Calvinist perspective is accurate it is hard to see why such would not be the case. Thankfully it is not accurate so we can move on.

7. What did God mean in saying He “hated” Esau but “loved” Jacob?

What about Esau? After all Paul said he was “hated” by God. Surely he was a vessel of wrath unconditionally predestined for eternal damnation to the glory of God! Fortunately, for the sake of every parent who has chosen to bring children into the world, not to mention the sake of God’s own character, the answer is a resounding no. For starters Paul is quoting from the prophet Malachi (Mal. 1:1-5) and Malachi’s referencing of Jacob and Esau refers to the different nations that descended from them—Israel and Edom. God chose to reject the line of descent from Esau (Edom), and elected to go with Jacob’s line of descent (Israel).

Note in verse 10 Paul said, “…but Rebekah also received a promise.” The “also” is referring back to God’s promise to Sarah that she will conceive Isaac. So what was God’s promise to Rebekah? Paul goes on to explain, “… she was told: The older will serve the younger.” That two nations are principally in view, not merely two brothers, is further enhanced when we realize at no time in their respective lives did Esau ever serve Jacob. What all this means is quite simple: God’s promise to Rebekah wasn’t Esau’s damnation! Rather it was that Esau’s descendants (Edom) would not get the upper-hand over Jacob’s descendants (Israel). This story comes from Genesis 25:21-23. Notice the plurality of “two nations,” and “people” residing in Rebekah’s womb.

21 Isaac prayed to the Lord on behalf of his wife because she was childless.  The Lord heard his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived.  22 But the children inside her struggled with each other, and she said, “Why is this happening to me?”  So she went to inquire of the Lord.  23 And the Lord said to her:

Two nations are in your womb;

two people will come from you and be separated.

One people will be stronger than the other,

and the older will serve the younger.

Understandably many are initially “put off” by Paul’s quoting of the phrase “I have loved Jacob, but I have hated Esau.” However as already highlighted, Paul could just as equally have said God “loved” Sarah and “hated” Hagar, or “loved” Isaac but “hated” Ishmael. Furthermore the very phrase in Malachi, “I have loved Jacob, but hated Esau” is a comparative, Hebrew phrase of “dramatic contrast” denoting preference of one over another.[4] Likewise when Jesus speaks of “hating mother and father…even his own life” (Lk. 14:26) he does not mean believers ought to wish harm, death and eternal damnation upon themselves or their parents. Rather Jesus is saying one must be willing to count the cost of following Him upfront and be ready to give total preference to God over parents if there is ever a conflict between the will of God and the will of parents—or any competing will for that matter.

  1. Esau—the face of God’s forgiveness: If God literally “hated” Esau why did God bless him?

When one adds to this the fact that the Scriptures give us ample reason to believe Esau—the individual—entered eternity in good standing with God, the Calvinist perspective completely implodes. Interestingly Jesus’s description of the forgiving father running to meet, hug and kiss his prodigal son, who squandered his inheritance, seems to be lifted right out of the text of Esau’s unexpected forgiveness of Jacob who stole his inheritance. “But Esau ran to meet him, hugged, threw his arm around him, and kissed him” (Genesis 33:4). What was Jacob’s response to Esau’s unexpected grace and forgiveness? “I have seen your face and it is like seeing God’s face, since you have accepted me” (vs. 10). Equating Esau’s gracious forgiveness to the likeness of God runs counter to the view Esau was a predestined object of God’s wrath.

Deut. 2:4-8 is another interesting section of Scripture about Esau being divinely blessed by God. In this portion of text we discover that God had given a great deal of territory to Esau—the land of Seir. Centuries later God gives permission to Moses and the Israelites to conquer a portion of land in Canaan and claim it as their own. However, when the Israelites come near the land divinely granted to Esau, God commands them, “Don’t fight with them, for I will not give you any of their land, not even an inch of it, because I have given Esau the hill country of Seir as his possession.” (Deut. 2:5). Apparently God blessed Esau with a generous land grant and honored his memory centuries later.

In the ANE culture for a sovereign king to bestow land upon another was a clear sign to everyone that the beneficiary was in good standing with the sovereign. That is quite odd for a man whom God says, “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated.” More than one Calvinist friend has admitted, “If I bumped into Esau in heaven, I wouldn’t know what to do—he was definitely predestined not to be there!” However if Calvinists are wrong and Paul isn’t trying to provide a theological hermeneutic to explain why God unconditionally elects some individuals for heaven, out of love, and others for hell, out of hatred, then we can embrace the breadth of scripture without contradiction.

  1. Is election sourced solely in God? Yes. Does election always refer to eternal destiny? No!

That God divinely blessed and honored Esau is a fact of scripture. Consequently we must avoid the mistaken assumption that everything Paul says about election in Romans 9 is about salvation and eternal destiny. God’s choice of Jacob over Esau is referred to as “God’s purpose according to election.” Paul is keen to note God’s choice of Jacob had nothing to do with “works” for if it did, Jacob, who often lived up to his name meaning “deceiver,” would have been written off from the start. Paul says God’s act of electing Jacob in the womb was a divine call—not to heaven over hell—but to a specific purpose or mission.[5] As already stated, Esau and Jacob are corporate figureheads for Israel and Edom.[6] God chose Jacob—Israel, not Esau—Edom to continue his nation building and fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise. Yet if Israel’s national election started with Abraham, a man approved to God by faith, and continued on through Jacob’s election, a man not approved by “works,” we should see a three-fold theme emerging:

1) Election is sourced solely in God.

2) At no time was election conferred on people through works.

3) Abraham is the forerunner of God’s desire to approve people by faith.
What is Paul’s emphasis up to this point (vs. 13)? As should be clear by now, it has nothing to do with limiting salvation to some unconditionally chosen elect, as if Esau represents all those God wants to damn and Jacob represents all those God wants to save. To the contrary. It is God’s global plan—his mystery hidden for ages—to reclaim the lost nations and bless them through Israel’s election. This line of election will ultimately culminate in the elect Messiah.

But something went wrong—very wrong. National Israel has rejected her own Messiah and Gentiles appear to be taking her place. This is a problem that needs explaining. Paul is about to jump to another category of election—that of covenant union and identification—and do so rather suddenly without much warning. Paul will soon explain in very specific terms why Gentiles are being grafted in to God’s covenant election and Jews are being broken off. However Paul first wants to bring finality to what he has argued up to this point (vs. 13). He wants to make clear the origin of divine election is always God’s free choice, for God’s free choice is a feature of His sovereignty that does not answer to any claims of justice outside Himself.  With this in view, Paul rhetorically asks,

“What should we say then? Is there injustice with God?” (vs. 14)

In other words is it just and fair for God to elect Sarah, Isaac, and Jacob and not elect Hagar, Ishmael and Esau in regards to fulfilling His promise to Abraham to raise up his descendants as a light to the Gentiles? Since he has just laid down a foundation that divine election—no matter its purpose—is sourced solely in God, Paul’s answer is swift and to the point,

“Absolutely not! 15 For He tells Moses:

I will show mercy
to whom I will show mercy,
and I will have compassion
on whom I will have compassion.

16 So then it does not depend on human will or effort but on God who shows mercy.

 17 For the Scripture tells Pharaoh:

I raised you up for this reason
so that I may display My power in you
and that My name may be proclaimed in all the earth.

18 So then, He shows mercy to those He wants to, and He hardens those He wants to harden.

  1. If the source and origin of election is God, then no one can thrust election on God through human efforts.Paul gets right to the point. No one can charge God with injustice in regard to any of His choices in election because no one has sovereign rights to God’s mercy and compassion—not even the Jew. God alone has sovereign rights to his own mercy!

He doesn’t owe anyone anything!

The key passage in this section is verse 16. Paul says, “So then it does not depend on human will or effort, but on God who shows mercy.” The critical question is what is the “it” of verse 16? What is it that does not depend on human will or effort? Is Paul talking about faith in Jesus Christ?  Is he saying faith has nothing to do with human will or human choice? No—that is not what Paul has in view. He doesn’t start talking about God’s condition of faith to join the covenant family until vs 30. Neither is Paul seeking to downplay the critical role of human choice in regards to obeying God, as in “choose this day whom you will serve” (Joshua 24:15). As stated in Part 1, Paul’s thought process has nothing to do with clunky, 16th century, theological debates about predestination vs free-will in regards to faith in God.

Instead Paul at this point is simply talking about election in general. The “it” is the origin of divine election. Though Paul’s strategy of argumentation may sound complicated, his point is not complicated in the least. The origin of election is never found in man’s will, ability or ingenuity. Men do not and cannot elect themselves. The origin of election—indeed its very conception— is found in God’s will to extend mercy and does not depend on conditions imposed upon God from man. Does that mean God has not or cannot impose His own conditions for election on man—such as faith and belief? That is equally untrue as we shall soon see. First Paul wants to dispel all ideas that election can be thrust upon God on the basis of sheer human will, determination or human effort—even if all those efforts are directed towards a vigorous keeping of the laws of Torah (i.e. “works”). This will be seen later in verse 32.

Even though Paul is still thinking of election in a general sense, he has a more specific goal he is driving towards. His ultimate goal is to help his readers understand why God’s word has not failed despite national Israel being broken off the elect, covenant tree and Gentiles being grafted in. We begin to see hints in verses 14-18 that Paul is about to move away from talking about election in general and narrow his focus to specifically examine covenant election—specifically who are and who are not God’s people, and the conditional terms God has set forth for one to be grafted into or cut off from His elect, corporate family.

By the end of verse 16 Paul’s evolution of thought should be prompting further curiosity in the reader. For if God alone decides who He elects, and if God’s election is always accomplished according to His mercy and compassion, the natural question that arises next is, whom has God sovereignly chosen to have mercy on and elect?

Paul isn’t ready to answer that question just yet, but he soon will.

  1. Why does Paul identify Israel’s present condition with Pharaoh’s former hardening?

We need to pause at this point and ask ourselves why Paul has decided to bring up Pharaoh in a context of election? Is Paul trying to say, as many Calvinists suggest, that every individual who rejects God has undergone divine hardening like the Pharaoh of old? More specifically is Paul claiming that all individuals who reject faith in God were divinely hardened to do so in order to guarantee some prior decree of God to predestine them for hell’s destruction? Not at all. Paul would no doubt be shocked that his argument could be construed that way. Paul’s reason to bring up Pharaoh is to set forth an example of God’s judicial hardening and highlight the danger of prolonged disobedience and resistance to God’s will and God’s subsequent severity on such people. Note Paul’s later exposition and the key condition he sets forth as to who receives divine mercy and who experiences divine severity:

“Therefore, consider God’s kindness and severity: severity toward those who have fallen but God’s kindness toward you–if you remain in His kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off” (Rom. 11:22).

Paul’s reference to God’s “severity” and being “cut off” is a reference to being cut out or broken off from God’s elect, covenant family “tree. Paul identifies this act on the part of God is in response to those who have “fallen.” No doubt this term “fallen” would have brought the reader back to Paul’s earlier explanation that Jews have “stumbled over the stumbling stone” of Jesus through unbelief (Rom. 9:32-33). We will look further at the nature of this Jewish “stumbling” shortly. For now simply note that as it concerns God’s reactions of severity and kindness, Paul could just have easily swapped out “God’s kindness” with his earlier reference to God’s mercy and “God’s severity” with God’s judicial hardening (9:18). The key condition not to be missed is found in Paul’s statement, “God’s kindness towards you—if you remain in His kindness.” The question then is, how do people remain in God’s kindness and mercy? Paul answers that critical question in both the preceding and subsequent verses:

“They [national Israel] were broken off by unbelief, but you [Gentiles] stand [i.e. remain] by faith… And even they [national Israel], if they do not remain in unbelief, will be grafted in, because God has the power to graft them in again” (Rom. 11:20-23 brackets inserted)

Clearly Paul equates our remaining in God’s sovereign mercy and kindness with our remaining in faith. Conversely remaining in unbelief is equated with remaining outside God’s covenant election—yet this can be overturned through belief. The relevant point to grasp at this juncture is Paul did not see acceptance into the covenant or removal from the covenant as irreversible or irrevocable (i.e. unconditional) acts of God. That is to say if remaining in covenantal election is identified with remaining in faith, and re-entering covenant election after being broken off is also identified with faith, it means coming into God’s kindness through faith is not an unconditional act of election on the part of God. Calvinists ignore all this and insist salvation’s election is an unconditional selection. But to assert this is to make meaningless Paul’s warning to Gentile believers to remain in God’s kindness through faith, “otherwise you too will be cut off” (11:22). Obviously if Paul thought God unconditionally selects who has faith and who does not have faith, he wouldn’t bother putting the onus on people to remain in the kindness of God’s covenant election through faith!

We will deal more with chapter 11 later in this article. As is becoming more and more obvious, Romans 9 cannot be rightly interpreted as a stand alone chapter. It is appropriate we consistently remind ourselves Paul did not write in “chapters.” Chapter divisions and verse numbers would put into the text by later editors. We need to read all of Romans as one, large letter. I am convinced there would be far less confusion over Romans 9 if the chapter divisions between 9, 10 and 11 disappeared and all three chapters were identified as Romans 9.

  1. Judicial hardening: “Blow drying” the “wet cement” of a hardened character that has already been “mixed” by the individual

Lets return briefly to the biblical concept of judicial hardening and Pharaoh. Judicial hardening is always in response to prior, human rebellion and never the cause that initiates that rebellion. Divine hardening does not initiate a disobedient posture or stubborn character that would otherwise be absent. In other words God’s judicial hardening doesn’t bring into being something otherwise absent. Rather it hardens the obstinate, hard-hearted character that is already there. For as the story of Pharaoh reveals— he was judicially hardened only after repeatedly hardening his own heart towards God’s commands.

That God knew Pharaoh would harden his heart, and even foretold Moses of His plan to further harden him in response, is no evidence of an unconditional decree. Instead it is a signature of God’s sovereign freedom and ability to exploit foreknown human rebellion to serve His own foreknown purposes. Whether it be Pharaoh or Eli’s wicked sons, God’s response to continual rebellion, resistance and callous indifference is to divinely harden or confirm an individual in their own self-chosen, obstinate stubbornness and recalcitrant hard-hardheartedness. Like blow drying wet cement, it solidifies the nature that has already been “mixed” by the individual’s prior choices and conduct.

We shouldn’t miss the magnitude of Paul’s choice to employ Pharaoh in the build up his case to vindicate God’s sovereign decision to elect in or graft in believing Gentiles while simultaneously cutting off unbelieving, Jewish branches. Pharaoh has long been the ancient villain of all Jewish lore—the nemesis of old. Therefore it would be like a punch in the gut—and hopefully a wakeup call— for a Jew to hear that national Israel was now in the same position and condition as their former nemesis Pharaoh![7] Astonishingly as Pharaoh once was so also the nation of Israel had become—stubborn, obstinate and judicially hardened. How could such a thing occur? On what basis could such an unthinkable even happen? Paul will soon provide very clear answers, but he first needs to answer the accusation that God’s mercy to believing Gentiles and His judicial hardening of Israel is unfair, unjust or arbitrary. In other Paul wants to make clear national Israel’s judicial hardening is not unconditional! Neither are Gentiles being grafted into election unconditionally. Whereas the former group has rejected God’s covenant terms, the latter group has not.

  1. The Potter analogy rightly interpreted: God’s judgments are conditional not unconditional

Key to Paul’s argument is his employment of the well-known potter and clay analogy often seen in the O.T., such as in Jeremiah 18:1-12 and Isaiah 29:13-16; 45:9; 64:5-9.  What do all the O.T. potter—clay analogies have in common? They all reveal God’s judgment is not unconditional, but in response to people rejecting Him and committing themselves to their own determinations. Paul opts to use the familiar analogy of a potter and clay, specifically clay becoming “flawed in the hands of the potter” (Jer. 18:4), in order to strengthen his case that judicial hardening is always in response to prior, self-hardening against God. Consequently one is delivered over to God’s judgment like clay in the Potter’s hands to be re-worked for a different use.

Before we engage Paul’s re-tooling of the O.T. potter analogies, we need to be thoroughly aware of how and why God used the analogy of clay in the hands of a potter to describe His sovereign relationship to Israel in terms of judgment, judicial blinding and exile. If we don’t we will mistakenly think God is acting arbitrarily or unconditionally in Roman 9:20-24 in regards to His judgment of Israel. However as the O.T. contexts show, the nature of the unconditional is not in view. Conditional judgment pervades Israel’s history. God is responding to people who have rejected Him and whose hearts are far from him—foolishly thinking they can challenge God by hiding their evil plans from His sight without divine consequence. Both Jeremiah and Isaiah quote God setting the record straight. For anyone to challenge or argue with God concerning any of His commands, judgments or plans is as foolish as a clay pots assuming they can tell their potter how to treat them. When people reject God they have no basis to complain when God judges them. Neither can they question God’s plan to later save them through a pagan king like Cyrus (Isaiah 45:9).

The context of the potter analogy in Isaiah 64:4-9 is particularly damaging to the Calvinist narrative. Far from suggesting God’s acts as a “potter” over the “clay” of Israel are unconditional, Isaiah declares the exact opposite, saying,

“Since ancient times… no eye has seen any God except You, who acts on behalf of the one who waits for Him. You welcome the one who joyfully does what is right; they remember You in Your ways. Butwe have sinned, and You were angry. How can we be saved ifwe remain in our sins? All of us have become like something unclean… For You have hidden Your face from us and made us melt because of our iniquity. Yet Lord, You are our Father; we are the clay, and You are our potter; we are the work of Your hands.”

Note Isaiah’s following condition: “How can we be saved if we remain in our sins” (vs. 5). Isaiah rightly understood God’s acts of judgment (as a sovereign potter over human clay) are never arbitrary, unconditional decrees. They are due to unrepentant sin. Like clay being melted in a furnace, so also Israel will “melt” under God’s judgment. And Isaiah leaves us with no mystery as to why, saying, “You have hidden your from us and made us melt because of our iniquity” (vs. 8). Clearly Isaiah didn’t believe God’s sovereign dealings with human clay were all unconditional.

The only way out for the Calvinist is to concede God’s acts of judgment are conditioned on human sin, but to then qualify that concession in the worst way possible—God sovereignly willed all their sins! That is to say the theological determinism of Calvinism is so morally grotesque, that even if the Calvinist concedes God’s judgments against Israel were conditioned on human iniquity, their commitment to exhaustive determinism compels them to follow up that concession by insisting God previously and unconditionally decreed all the acts of iniquity for which Israel is judged. The Calvinist system gives no allowance for a human act to be committed that was not first sovereignly decreed by God to occur. Such is the alleged “glory and supremacy of God” that Calvinists often gloat about, but never fully explain to the “young, restless and reformed”—or should I say “uninformed.”

14. The Potter’s TRUE Freedom: Jeremiah 18:1-20 and the Potter’s freedom to be flexible in response to how His human imagers respond to Him

In terms of undermining the Calvinist insistence that God’s sovereign actions as a potter are unconditional, Jeremiah 18:1-20 is the most damaging O.T. usage of the potter analogy. For within that original analogy we read of God’s sovereign right to reshape His vessels in response to how they respond to Him. Without doubt the passages in Jeremiah 18:1-20 are the key texts Paul has in view in Romans 9:20-24. Both texts speak of God’s sovereign right as a potter. And both speak of two different destinies—divine judgment or divine blessing— that await human clay vessels. Yet as we shall see, to suggest God unconditionally determines what destiny human vessels will experience, is to completely disregard what God tells Jeremiah!

Since Paul’s analogy of the potter is taken directly from Jeremiah 18:1-20, it would be foolish and theologically suspect to divorce Romans 9 from the manner in which God reveals to Jeremiah His sovereign, flexible freedom as the Potter.[8] That Calvinists often do this should be no surprise given that the passages in Jeremiah 18 run completely counter to Calvinist beliefs that not only human destinies, but all human decisions and acts—including the most vile acts of human rebellion—are unconditionally decreed by God. Since nothing Paul has ever said could ever be identified with such a morally bankrupt theology, lets dig deeper into the potter analogy of Jeremiah 18 to better understand why Paul would seek to re-introduce the potter analogy in His epistle to the Romans.

Once again we need to remember Paul’s aim has nothing do with laying down a theological foundation to explain why some people are unconditionally pre-selected by God to go to heaven and others are not. Rather Paul’s aim is justify why God is within His sovereign rights to mercifully graft in Gentiles who responded to God’s elect Son with faith, while simultaneously cutting off from the elect community national Israel that repeatedly spurned and rejected the way of faith. In Jeremiah 18:1-4 we read of God sending Jeremiah to a potter’s house where Jeremiah witnesses a potter exercise his authority over a lump of clay by revising his plan and reshaping a clay vessel for a different use (i.e. “dishonorable use” Rom. 9:21) in response to the clay vessel becoming “flawed” and not turning out the way the potter originally intended. We read, “But the jar that he was making from the clay became flawed in the potter’s hand, so he made it into another jar, as it seemed right for him to do.” (vs. 4). To be made into different jar for a different use implies their was a previous intention that has been shelved by the Potter. But why?

Jeremiah 18:5-11 is the decisive forewarning and explanation that cannot be missed. God begins by rhetorically asking, “House of Israel, can I not treat you as this potter treats his clay?” (18:5). It is not as though the potter was flawed! It is not as if the potter didn’t know what he was doing or couldn’t make up his mind. Quite the opposite. Just as Jesus conditioned a fruitful response to the gospel seed on the condition of the “soil” not the sower, so also the condition of the clay “becoming flawed in the potter’s hand” determined how the potter would choose to exercise his rights over the clay. God then proceeds to explain to Jeremiah that all His pottery adjustments in regards to the nations of the earth are in response to how the people of those nations corporately respond to whatever degree of warning He gives them. God says if He plans judgment on a nation, but they repent and turn away from their evil, “I will relent concerning the disasters I planned to do to it” (18:8). Similarly God says if he plans to bless a nation’s people with good, but they choose to “do evil by not listening to My voice, I will relent concerning the good I said I would do to it” (18:10).

Evidently God is revealing to Jeremiah His sovereign choice to condition His own sovereign actions of judgment and blessing, (hardening and mercy) on human free will responses. But how can this be squared with Roman 9:19? If Paul thinks God has chosen to condition His sovereign judgments (in certain instances) in response to what humans freely do, why does he say,

“You will say to me, therefore, ‘Why then does He still find fault? For who can resist His will?” (Rom. 9:19).

  1. Is God’s hardening arbitrary and unjust? Dealing with the skeptic of Romans 9:19 and Romans 3:5-8

It is imperative we recognize Paul is not voicing his own conclusions in verse 19. Rather Paul is giving voice to what he knows is the skeptical rebuttal upon hearing that God has a sovereign right to extend mercy and extend hardening to whomever and whenever He decides. Contrary to what some Calvinists think, Paul’s intention to give voice to the arrogant, skeptic’s charge in Romans 9:19 is not because Paul wants to smuggle in some deterministic argument that God decisively foreordained the sins of certain people, yet faults them anyway.

Obviously God’s words in Jeremiah 18 are rendered absurd and unintelligible if Paul thought God unconditionally predetermined people to be rebellious and then punished them for doing and being what He determined them to do and be. However this is exactly what Calvinists assume is a key objective of Paul in Romans 9! To tell people God is just to fault them for their sins even though He decisively and ultimately governed their will to commit sin.

For example in John Piper’s teaching lab outline on Romans 9:19 he re-writes Paul’s question to fit his Calvinist assumptions, saying, “Paul’s question: If God decisively and ultimately governs our will, and we sin, why does he still judge/condemn us?”[10]Piper believes his interpretation is on the right track because Paul retorts back,

“But who are you—anyone who talks back to God? Will what is formed say to the one who formed it, “Why did you make me like this?” (vs. 20)

We will deal with Paul’s answer to the skeptic shortly. But lets first apply Piper’s interpretative logic on a couple, possible scenarios to get the full stench of its moral repugnance in our nostrils.

1) Person A: “God why do you find find fault with me for kidnapping and raping little boys and girls if you sovereignly and irresistibly willed to fashion me as a kidnapping, serial rapist of children?

2) Person B: “God why do you find fault with me for repeatedly committing adultery and abusing my wife if you sovereignly and irresistibly willed to fashion me as a wife-beating adulterer?

We can go all the way to the “Person Z” and back again, taking the most vile, sordid evils from real, newspaper headlines, putting them into Piper’s horrid, theological hermeneutic and be left with the same question: “How can anyone resist God in doing everything they do–which God decisively determined they do?”

But is such a twisted relationship between God’s sovereignty and our condemnation the underlying point Paul is trying to articulate? Is he trying to say, as Piper asserts, “God decisively and ultimately governs our will” in all matters of sin, yet how dare we ask God why He irresistibly willed us to be adulterers, murderers, false teachers and child abusers.

Glory to God— John Piper is wrong!

The issue at hand was not: “If God decreed all my sin, why does He still find me guilty?” The relevant issue was: “If God extends mercy and hardening based on His will, can God’s will be trusted as just in how it treats me?” Lets explore this further.

Paul is progressively laying down a case for God’s sovereign freedom to extend the kindness of His mercy and the severity of His hardening according to the discretion of His own will. In so far as the discretion and distinctions of God’s will belong to Him, they are not dependent upon or caused by “human will or effort” (vs. 16).
This pronouncement would be unsettling to the Jew who put a lot of stock in his personal striving after the Law, and thought God did too. Hence in verse 19 Paul parrots the skeptic’s charge that God is unjust— a criticism he no doubt repeatedly heard from many Jews as a rebuttal to his views. Paul’s decision to include the skeptic’s faulty reasoning about God’s justice in 9:19 is very similar to his decision to give voice to similar charges in Romans 3:5-8

“But if our unrighteousness highlights God’s righteousness, what are we to say? I use a human argument: Is God unrighteous to inflict wrath? Absolutely not!… But if by my lie God’s truth is amplified to His glory, why am I also still judged as a sinner? And why not say, just as some people slanderously claim we say, ‘Let us do evil so that good may come?’ Their condemnation is deserved!”

Paul’s aim is to showcase God’s glory in exploitingand overcoming Jewish unbelief and rebellion to His own sovereign ends—namely gospel evangelism to the Gentile world. But that doesn’t commit one to the incoherent, morally bankrupt view of Calvinism that insists God’s good nature decisively decreed all sin and rebellion against His good nature—for His glory! Unless we want to strip the Scriptures of moral integrity, need to step back and divest ourselves of such twisted, preconceived assumptions. Contrary to the repeated claims of John Piper, the supremacy of God’s goodness and glory is His ability to overrule evil for good, not His unilaterally determination of it in the first place.[11]In both Romans 3:5-8 and Romans 9:19, Paul is dealing with potential pushback in regards to God’s choice to honor Gentile faith over Jewish efforts to pursue the Law. In Romans 3:5-8 the specific pushback is God’s decision to equate faith with righteousness, and God’s decision to equate unbelief with unrighteousness— regardless of ancestry or works of the Law. The skeptic questions God’s justice in condemning Jewish unbelief if God’s truth is amplified to His glory (to Gentiles) through their disbelief of God’s truth.

In Romans 9:19 the push-back is God’s decision to judicially harden Israel as a just consequence for rejecting God’s Messiah. For as God used Pharaoh to amplify and display His glory, so also God will display His glory by judicially hardening Israel. But is God right to do this? Are God’s acts of mercy and judicial hardening ultimately just? Yes they are! For Pharaoh hardened his own heart many times before God judicially hardened him. What about Israel’s hardening? Is it just? Yes again. For Israel repeatedly rejected God’s righteousness through faith—a summary conclusion Paul will arrive at in verses 30-32.

As already advised it is crucial we understand Paul is not seeking to offer credence or approval of the skepticism he voices in either passage. The skeptic thinks God is exercising His will in an arbitrary and therefore unjust manner. To truly understand how and why this conclusion could be reached we need to put ourselves back into the mind of the 1st century Jewish listener of Paul. Jews had nothing but celebratory praise over God’s decision to judicial harden Pharaoh, since in the mind of every Jew, Pharaoh was so obviously evil and deserving. But if Jews are now being equated with Pharaoh, despite their having both Abrahamic ancestry and works of the Law in their favor, on what basis could God’s hardening be just?

This is the background context of verse 19. The skeptic assumes God has no basis: “Why then does He still find fault. For who resists His will?” (vs 19). In other words the skeptic can reach only one conclusion: God is wrong to fault the Jew. God is unjust. To find fault with Pharaoh and judicially harden him is one thing. To find fault with the Jew, who observed the Law, and harden him is quite another. Because the skeptic thinks he is deserving of God’s favor in election, He concludes God’s will to harden him must be arbitrary and thus unjust.

Yet Paul intends the exact opposite conclusion be reached! God’s judicially hardening is not arbitrary. Indeed Paul’s disdain for the skeptic’s conclusion is so great he doesn’t even bother answering it. Instead he attacks the root of human arrogance that would even dare level a human inspired prosecution against God’s justice. “But who are you, a mere man, to talk back to God?” Paul will shoot back (vs. 20).

One of Paul’s central aims throughout his epistle, particularly in chapter 9, is to help his readership understand that any attempt to comprehend God’s wisdom in justifying sinners apart from the Law only makes sense if we see things from God’s perspective—which is the perspective of faith. The stand-alone-human-perspective will always leave us with skepticism and distort God’s truth by framing God’s judgment in a manner that may seem unjust— but is not.

In both Romans 3:5-8 and Romans 9:19 the skeptical, human point of view—particularly the traditional, Jewish point of view— has concluded God is somehow unfair if His mercy and judgement does not take into consideration Hebrew ancestry and human striving after the Law. In both examples Paul condemns this human point of view as a proper starting place to judge God’s dealings with Jews and Gentiles. In Romans 3 Paul shuts down the faulty conclusion of divine injustice by declaring that Jews are not “any better” than Gentiles because “both Jews and Gentiles are all under sin” (Rom. 3:9). Since that is the case no one can make claims upon God’s mercy. He alone sets forth the terms.

Similarly in Romans 9 Paul aims to shut down the faulty conclusion of injustice by declaring no Jew can place demands on God’s covenantal election or mercy on the basis of ancestry or the Law. This is especially true if no one—Jew or Gentile—is righteous on their own merits (Rom. 9:31). If every human, clay vessel is at the mercy of God for their very existence, then no one has any basis to “talk back to God” (9:20) over anything God chooses to do.

But what has God chosen to do? That is Paul’s larger point! Did God choose to decree everyone’s sins so that He can fault them afterwards? Did God create certain Israelites for the purpose of unconditionally ordaining them to hell? Did God have no desire and make no attempt to save His people before judging them? Paul would be shocked that his words could be twisted in such a manner. No doubt he would cry out: “Didn’t you hear of God’s patient endurance and intention to save His people before He judged them?”

“All day long I have spread out My hands to a disobedient and defiant people?” (10:21).

For Calvinists to look to Paul’s response to the skeptic in 9:21-24 as a theological basis to conclude God unconditionally created some people for heaven and others for hell, decreeing even their sins, is to turn Roman 10:21 on its head! Rather Paul expects his audience to be familiar with the central thrust of the pottery analogy of Jeremiah 18 he is about to employ—which is two fold:

1) Firstly God has both the sovereign freedom and the right to make anyone into a vessel of His own choice. No one can demand anything from God or of God. “But who are you, a mere man, to talk back to God? Will what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make like this?’” (Rom. 9:20)

2) Secondly, and this is critical to note, even though God has every sovereign right to fashion anyone into a vessel of His own choice, for either honor or dishonor, God has chosen to be flexible in that regard and condition His sovereign acts of mercy and hardening, honor and dishonor within a context of indeterminacy and human responsibility. And for Paul the principle context and condition of responsibility God has set forth, which national Israel rejected, but Gentiles have received—is faith.

  1. The most misunderstood verses: Rightly interpreting Romans 9:20-24 in concert with Romans 2:4-11

Recognizing that God’s will to fashion anyone according to His own purpose is the same divine will that adapts to our willingness to yield to God’s purpose, is paramount to see. As clearly revealed in Jeremiah 18:1-11 when people—human lumps of clay—become “flawed in God’s hand” (i.e. resist and rebel) God has every right as the supreme “Potter” to refashion them for the judgment of destruction.[12] That God often did this to national Israel in the past when she rejected God’s outstretched hand of grace is evidence enough that Paul isn’t pulling theology out of thin air. Paul is intentionally using O.T. texts as reference points to reveal that God has never been, nor ever will be, unfair or unjust in His treatment of national Israel.

Since Paul fully expects his readers to either be already familiar or at least become familiar with the O.T. contexts he is borrowing and repurposing, we are remiss in not interpreting Romans 9 in light of these texts.[13] With that said we now have a more robust perspective to properly interpret Paul’s use of the potter analogy—by far the most confusing and misunderstood passages of Romans 9.

20 But who are you—anyone who talks back to God? Will what is formed say to the one who formed it, “Why did you make me like this?” 21 Or has the potter no right over the clay, to make from the same lump one piece of pottery for honor and another for dishonor? 22 And what if God, desiring to display His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience objects of wrath ready for destruction? 23 And what if He did this to make known the riches of His glory on objects of mercy that He prepared beforehand for glory— 24 on us, the ones He also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles? (Rom. 9:20-24)

If one were to read Romans all the way through in one sitting, hearing Paul distinguish between people of honor and dishonor within a context of divine patience, riches, glory and wrath, would sound awfully familiar. That is because Paul has already used that language! Just listen to how Paul sets up Romans 9:21-24 with his earlier remarks in Romans 2:4-11. In particular note how Paul says absolutelynothing in support of the Calvinist insistence that God unconditionally preselected and predetermined who will and who will not be people of honor and glory. Instead note how Paul conditions honor and glory on rightly availing oneself of God’s patience, and conditions wrath and judgment on despising the riches of God’s patience and disobeying the truth (i.e. unbelief).

4 Or do you despise the riches of His kindness, restraint, and patience, not recognizing  that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance? 5 But because of your hardness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment is revealed. 6 He will repay each one according to his works: 7 eternal life to those who by persistence in doing good  seek glory, honor,  and immortality;  8 butwrath and indignation to those who are self-seeking and disobey the truth… first to the Jew, and also to the Greek; 10 but glory, honor, and peace for everyone who does what is good, first to the Jew, and also to the Greek. 11 There is no favoritism with God (Rom. 2:4-11).

Paul doesn’t mince words. He asserts God’s divine patience and the riches of His kindness (grace) has divine intent. God’s intention is to lead people to repentance manifested in right living. But when we reject God’s kindness and do not avail ourselves of His patience, we lose out on the glory and honor that could have been ours, and instead experience God’s wrath. Paul rules out that either outcome could be due to some prior, unconditional selection on the part of God, for he says, “there is no favoritism with God” (vs. 11). Paul conditions glory and honor on not despising the riches of God’s kindness (vs. 4) and not disobeying the truth (vs. 8).

Paul is not alone in this assessment. Peter specifically connects becoming a vessel of honor with belief, and connects dishonor (shame) with unbelief, saying,

“Look I lay a stone in Zion… the one who believes in Him will never be put to shame! So the honor is for you who believe…” (1 Peter 2:6-7).

With that said, lets now return to Paul’s reassertion of the same content in Romans 9:21-24. The first thought we are compelled to toss out is any idea that would suggest Paul is overturning what he said in chapter 2 and is now saying God unconditionally preselected and determined certain people to be vessels of “dishonor” and “objects of wrath ready for destruction.” The reason is obvious. Paul says God “endures with much patience” such objects. If God unconditionally willed for certain people to be vessels of “dishonor” and “objects of wrath” why would Paul say God endures their existence with “much patience?”

  1. Does God need to patiently endure the pleasure of His own will? The incoherence of the Calvinist perspective in light of Romans 10:21

Why would God need to endure anything with patience if His unconditional willing is the determinate cause of that very thing?[14] Does God need to endure with patience His own activity sourced in His own will? To even ask the question is to reveal the absurdity of the Calvinist position concerning God’s meticulous determination of every human choice. Paul is under no such delusion, which is why he can go on to fault Israel for their “disregard of God’s righteousness” and refusal to be “submitted to God’s righteousness” (Rom. 10:3), despite God’s repeated attempts to graciously reach out to them. As we have repeatedly pointed out, Paul didn’t write in chapters and Romans 9 cannot be properly interpreted as a stand alone chapter. That is why in chapter 10 Paul is careful to put the Romans 9 material about the judgments of the Potter into the larger context of God’s patient endurance to “spread out [His] hands” being spurned and rejected by “a disobedient and defiant people” (10:21),

This needs to be explored more. For it is exactly because Paul expects a lot of pushback that he is adamant to frame God’s covenant election—not on God’s arbitrary will—but on God’s sovereign freedom to establish His own terms and conditions. As such if God has sovereignly conditioned covenant salvation (i.e election) on the basis of faith in Christ, apart from the Law, who is Israel to talk back to God and say it should be otherwise? To even challenge God on this matter is to assume as possible what Pauls knows is impossible—that we have a legal say in how God dispenses with His own mercy. We do not!

But does all this mean that God originallyintended to judicially harden Israel? Does it mean God unconditionally ordained that Israel disregard God’s righteousness through faith? Does it mean God never extended saving grace to Israel and never intended Israel to respond with faith? To all of these questions the logic of Calvinism’s exhaustive, theological determinism would say, “Yes.”

But Paul says, “No!” For right after declaring that “faith comes from what is heard,” and making it clear Israel did in fact “hear” the gospel of faith, but “did not obey the gospel”(Rom. 10:16-18), we find the pivotal context of God’s patient endurance in the face of Israel’s rejection of divine grace:

None of this makes any moral or logical sense if Paul thought God unconditionally determined for Israel to >> reject His outstretched hand >> become disobedient as an object of wrath >> so that He could  patiently endure her disobedience >> even though He sovereignly determined every act of Israel’s disobedience.[15]If Calvinism were true we are left hopelessly mired in a cosmic charade of God pretending to care about national Israel and pretending to reach out to Israel with grace prior to judging her. Fortunately the God of Calvinism is not the God of the Bible. Our God does not pretend. He is not a house divided against Himself. Nor does He need to patiently endure Himself. He doesn’t need to patiently endure His own will anymore than He needs to give permission to Himself to will His own will.

  1. Peter and Paul agree: God’s patient endurance is directed towards the ungodly— but it has a limit

As is becoming more clear, the Calvinist interpretation of God’s divine patience is incoherent. Nevertheless God is indeed patient, and Paul and Peter reveal the same object of God’s patient long-suffering: the perishing (i.e. those ready for destruction). For as Peter declares, God “is patient” towards those who are perishing “not wanting any to perish but all to come to repentance (1 Pet. 1:9).” Moreover we are told to “regard the patience of our Lord as an opportunity for repentance” (1 Pet. 1:15). What Paul calls “objects of wrath ready for destruction” Peter will call “the destruction of ungodly men” (1 Pet. 1:7) doomed to perish. Yet God is patient towards them, intending that such patience be an opportunity for repentance.[16]However both Paul and Peter would say God’s patience is not infinite. His long-suffering endurance does have an end point. If people remain obstinate and hardhearted, God, as Sovereign Lord, can exploit their obstinacy for His purposes. This again returns us to the case of Pharaoh. Since Pharaoh had already hardened his own heart against God, having ruthlessly enslaved God’s people without mercy, God wills to judicially harden his obstinate character further. God does this, not as an end in and of itself, but as a means to display His glory and power over the false gods of Egypt. As noted earlier Paul is setting his audience up for his biggest shock: What God has done to Pharaoh, Israel’s ancient foe, He has sovereign rights to also do to Israel. God will exploit Israel’s self chosen, stiff-necked obstinacy and hardness of heart for His own purpose. He will judicially harden her for repeatedly stiff-arming His initiatives of grace, and accomplish through her disobedience what her obedience was always meant to accomplish—light and salvation being displayed before all the Gentiles.

In so doing God will further reveal His sovereign power to exploit, use and overrule every act of human rebellion, such that human rebellion ultimately serves to manifest and display some feature of His glory, power and goodness. But what good could possibly come out of human rebellion and divine judgment? Easy answer: God will use their rebellion and judgment as a backdrop to display His righteousness and glory upon His elect family—those who trusted in God’s righteousness through faith. That is what Paul means when he says,

“And what if God, desiring to display His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience objects of wrath ready for destruction? And what if He did this to make known the riches of His glory on objects of mercy that He also prepared beforehand for glory” (Rom. 9:22-23).

  1. The truth that God can “squeeze” good out of evil, doesn’t require the false Calvinist premise that God had to determine the evil from which that good was extracted.

Calvinists don’t necessarily disagree that God can exploit evil for good. They affirm Paul’s view of the riches of God’s glory towards the saved being displayed against the backdrop of God’s wrath towards the damned. The crucial mistake they make is also assuming God unilaterally decreed the evils of both the saved and the damned.[17] That God can overrule the evil of X for the good of Y and display His glory in the process, doesn’t therefore justify the absurd Calvinist insistence that such divine exploitation means God had to have also determined the evil of X in order to overrule it for the good of Y. God can purpose to use some aspect of evil for good without needing to have purposed the evil from which that good is extracted.

Herein lies the tragedy of the Calvinist perspective. Because they insist God unconditionally elected who He will save and who He will damn—and sovereignly decreed all their sins— they have removed the very foundation of biblical justice which they adamantly defend as a basis for their views. For example, being eager to squelch any thought that God is acting unjustly in the matter “unconditional election” the Calvinist is quick to insist that God’s predestination of the damned is based on justice. It is said we all deserve God’s damnation and therefore if God chooses to rescue some out of their sin and decree the rest to reap the consequences of their sin, then no injustice can be leveled at God for such favoritism. Yet the Calvinist defense that God is just in predetermining that a wide breadth of humanity perish in hell doesn’t hold up under the scrutiny of scripture. For inherent within the Calvinist construct of the predestination of souls is a severe, moral deficiency that strikes a fatal blow to every conceivable concept of biblical justice

Jonathan Groover perceptively exposes how Calvinism ironically and unwittingly undermines God’s justice in its attempt to establish election based on God’s justice. Groover begins his insightful disclosure by dissecting Calvinism’s TULIP acronym and showing how given Calvinism’s own presuppositions the doctrinal order of TULIP is untenable. Though it is a lengthy excerpt it is pivotal to intersect with his thoughts on the matter because it strikes a fatal blow to the underpinning support structure used by Calvinism to anchor their doctrine of an individual, selective election. He explains,

According to the Westminster Confession God’s sovereign decree could be summarized like this:  God determined all things before the foundation of the world (“whatsoever comes to pass”) including the salvation and damnation of mankind.  This decree was not based on any foreknowledge (“[He] hath not decreed any thing because he foresaw it as future”) but simply based on his choice. Therefore works have nothing to do with salvation or damnation.

So here’s the deal. While Calvinism seeks to defend the notion that salvation is given by God’s grace and that people cannot earn their salvation based on good works (which is something I agree with), based on God’s unconditional election, no works good or bad (i.e., sin) has anything to do with whom God saves or damns.  People are chosen to damnation before they ever committed a sin!  One could argue that God foreknew that mankind would sin, but that is contrary to Calvinism’s own profession that God’s election has nothing to do with foreknowledge.

It is for this reason that I argue that the correct acronym for Calvinism is not TULIP but ULTIP.  Calvinism begins with God’s eternal decree of unconditional election, then applies Christ’s atonement (ahead of time) to those who become totally depraved, etc.  Man’s total depravity and rebellion is a formality in this system; it’s really inconsequential.[18]But do you not see the problem here?  If sin has nothing to do with salvation or damnation, then justice has nothing to do with it either.  People’s sin is not what damns them, but God’s eternal decree (sequentially).  God does not consider justice when he’s electing some to heaven and others to hell, because he elected them before anyone ever committed any act—good or bad.[19]  And so, Calvinism’s understanding of unconditional election ultimately undermines God’s justice, because salvation and damnation are not a result of God judging humanity for rebellion, but were decided before there was ever even a rebellion to begin with.[20]

I applaud the attempt of Reformed theology to emphasize God’s grace to fallen creation and to resist the tempting idea that our “good” works can merit us salvation.  However, in attempting to establish grace, Calvinism has undermined justice in the process and should therefore be rejected as incompatible with the righteousness and goodness of God.[21]

20. If God’s double predestination is unconditional, why did Jesus speak of faith or its lack as a key condition? 

We can add to Groover’s insight above by highlighting a couple additional points. Firstly, Calvinism’s interpretation of unconditional election would prohibit any thought that the basis of people’s condemnation and damnation can be their disbelief in the gospel. Within Calvinism the eternal decree of God to elect believers and damn unbelievers occurs logically prior to any foreknowledge or appraisal of their response to the gospel—not to mention their sin and rebellion. Yet this is in direct contradiction to numerous passages such as John 3:17-18,

For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son” (See also 1 Jn 5:9-11).

  1. An internal Calvinist division: Given Unconditional Atonement and Unconditional Election how can it be said God sincerely calls all to repentance and sincerely offers all salvation?

Since John 3:17-18 declares God’s saving intention is universal (“to save the world”) and belief vs disbelief is the basis for divine judgment, rather than some notion of an unconditional selection, the Calvinist is forced to choose between a God who seeks to undermine the sincerity of own saving intentions, or a God who feigns genuine sincerity. The well-known Calvinist theologian Herman Hoaksema chose the second option. He chided many of his fellow Calvinists for entertaining what he believed to be an irrational, farcical paradox. Specifically that God’s offer of salvation to everyone is genuine and sincere. Not so—says Hoeksema. His logic was simple yet brutally honest in holding Calvinism’s core doctrines consistently. He believed if Calvinism is true, than the internal logic of unlimited atonement and unconditional election must also be true. This in turn tells us that God has no sincere love or genuine care and concern for the damned he has destined for hell. Therefore preaching of the gospel and the offer of salvation is no “well-meant offer” to the multitude of persons God has predestined from eternity for damnation. Hoeksema rightly wondered how any confessing Calvinist could argue against such an obvious conclusion. For how can God’s call to repentance and His offer of salvation to all people be a “well meant offer” if he already unconditionally selected many of them for damnation?

Hoeksema never denied that the Bible calls for universal preaching of the gospel. Rather he simply believed all Calvinists ought to own up to the fact that their core doctrines simply disallow any sentimentality that God sincerely loves, sincerely desires and “sincerely seeks the salvation of those whom He has from eternity determined not to save.”[22]

Unlike many shrewd-talking, contemporary Calvinists like Tim Keller, John Piper and D.A. Carson, Hoeksema was at least willing to not speak out of both sides of his mouth. He was fully willing to pay the high price to be a consistent Calvinist and not hide from public view the “dirty underwear” of Calvinism. And make no mistake–the price is high and the stain is smelly! Any Calvinist who values internal consistency over sermon sophistry must concede God is the greatest of all pretenders in matters of the greatest consequence.

So what is the Calvinist to do? If a Calvinist rejects the internal logic of Hoeksema’s reasoning (labeling him a hyper-Calvinist), what are they to think? If they concede the scriptures (see 1 Tim. 2:3-14; 2 Pet. 3:9) do speak of God extending to all people a genuine, well-meant offer of salvation, undergirded by an equally genuine desire for their salvation, how does this not collapse into an absurd contradiction when placed next to the unyielding dogma of unlimited atonement and unconditional election? How can God sincerely command men and women to respond to and receive what they were never truly given? How can God demand they believe in a Son he is intentionally withholding from them?

No matter how you splice it the fallout from Calvinist theology is one of two choices:

1) God actively works against the redemptive fulfillment of his own genuine desires.

2) God is a cosmic charlatan who feigns redemptive sincerity and mercy.

  1. Death Row and an insincere Presidential pardon: A descriptive analogy of the Calvinist portrait of God

The Arminian does not approach the issue of salvation as one of merit. We all agree that humanity as a whole has fallen short of God’s law and deserves damnation—not God’s forgiveness. No one has rights to God’s grace and love—of this we agree. We are all justly awaiting condemnation on God’s death row. But the picture scripture paints for us is that God has so loved this world on death row that he “sent his Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (Jn. 3:17).

In contrast Calvinism paints a picture of a God who is like the President of the United States walking into death row declaring the just condemnation of all, but then expressing his genuine love and desire to pardon all who will receive his pardon. Then he slips out the back door, secretly signs the pardons of only a few—and then returns to death row to scold the rest for still sitting in their cells! He summarily condemns them all to the gallows for rejecting his offer to pardon them—a pardon that he never gave! This analogy fits the Calvinist scheme quite accurately.

Lastly even if Calvinists were to reformulate their theology by stressing total depravity and man’s foreseen sinfulness as the basis for man’s decreed damnation (rather than unconditional election), we are still left with the outrageously absurd conclusion that it was none other than God who determined man to fall into sin `and be totally depraved in the first place—not to mention every vile sin that each person on earth commits from birth to death![23]That God could be seen as the logical origin and preordaining force behind every foul act of wickedness from the Fall to the present moment is certainly too high a price to be paid in order to defend a view of God’s sovereignty that finds him preordaining persons for damnation through a selective decree that overrules biblical justice. Roger Olsen aptly writes that the God of Calvinism is “at best morally ambiguous and at worst a moral monster hardly distinguishable from the devil.”[24]

24. Why did Peter say some are destined “to stumble” when they disobey God’s message? Why did Paul say some are destined to be fitted as “objects of wrath” if they persist in rebellion?

With that said we now return to Romans 9:22-23. Since Calvinists mistakenly assume God unconditionally selected who to save and who to damn, and did so within a context of also decreeing both the sins of the saved and the sins of the damned (before they were born!), they completely miss out on the essence of Paul’s purpose in defending God’s justice in His treatment of Israel.

For it is not God, but rather God’s human vessels—Jew and Gentile alike—who determine whether they will put themselves in the hand of the Potter as “objects of mercy” to be prepared for predestined glory, or be fitted for destruction as “objects of wrath.” The final ends of glory and destruction have been predestined, but we decide what predestined end we will experience. We must always keep in mind that O.T. covenant election was a corporate category and individuals were elect only insofar as they were properly united to the corporate, elect body through submission and covenantal obedience. That is why an unbelieving, rebellious Israelite could be cut off from God’s elect, covenant people, while foreign outsiders, like Moses’s Midianite wife, Rahab the Canaanite, and Ruth the Moabite could become elect in virtue of properly uniting themselves to God and her people.[25] Paul, knowing this, is defending God’s treatment of Israel by reminding his readership that God alone establishes the terms to enter into covenant election. In regards to Paul’s day national Israel missed it because she refused to come in by faith, and in so doing stumbled over Christ with no escape around Him through the Law.

If people choose to act like national Israel and remain “disobedient and defiant” and resist the God of grace who says “all day long I have out My hands,” (Rom. 10:21) then such persons are also destined to stumble over the stumbling stone of Christ. Paul and Peter are virtually synonymous on this point. Lets start with Peter. In regards to Jews who rejected God’s message, Peter quotes Isaiah who prophesied God’s plan to qualify and honor believers over unbelievers by judging people on the basis of how they respond to “a stone that causes men to stumble, and a rock that trips the up” (1 Pet. 2:8; Is. 8:14). Isaiah never said a thing that could support the Calvinist doctrine that God unconditionally determined all of Israel’s acts of disobedience, but Isaiah did have a great deal to say about God’s repeated commands that Israel obey Him or be tripped up and shamed by Him. That national Israel rejected God’s extended hand in the past and was judged for it, is why Peter could go on to say of unbelieving Jews,

“They stumble by disobeying the message; they were destined for this” (1 Pet. 2:8).

Why is it that Peter says people are destined to stumble if they disobey God’s message?” We can ask the same question of Paul in Romans 9:22-23. Why is it that people are destined to be fitted as objects of wrath ready for destruction if they persist in disobedience and unbelief?

The answer is not complicated. It is a foregone conclusion that disobeying and defying the Father’s previous offerings of light and grace will cause you to trip over Christ who is the only access to the Father. Contrary to Calvinist logic God did not unconditionally predestine people to disobey His message and then judge them for doing what He irresistibly predestined them to do. God is not so morally ambiguous, conflicted or disingenuous. Rather all who disregard God’s extended hand and disobey God’s message are destined by consequence to be tripped up with no way around Christ—the cornerstone of God’s salvation.

  1. Twisting the Law’s purpose of self-examination into self-exaltation: The Jewish refusal to trade in the “support stone” of the Law for the “cornerstone” of faith

Indeed Christ is the cornerstone of God’s global vision for world evangelism and renewal. But what can be a cornerstone for one person can also be a stumbling block for another if one mistakenly insists they already have a cornerstone in place. For Jews their cornerstone was their own efforts to pursue the Law for righteousness apart from faith (Rom. 9:32). True faith always brought an awareness of one’s sinful state before the Law, and dependence on God’s grace and mercy. Yet Jews had turned the Law into a twisted means to justify themselves before God and others, even so far as withholding grace and mercy from others.

In light of this, we do well to remember Jesus’s parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector standing before the presence of God in the temple. The Pharisee was obsessed by his own virtue and self-righteousness through the Law. He looked down at the tax-collector with scorn and condemnation. This self-exaltation is contrasted with the tax-collector who, realizing his sinfulness before both God and the Law, did nothing more than beat his chest and cry out to God for mercy. Jesus said only one went home justified before God—and it wasn’t the Pharisee (Lk. 18:9-14).

Since the Law was meant to reveal one’s unrighteousness and dependence on God’s grace and kindness, it was a mark of utter foolishness and pride to twist it into a tool of self-exaltation. It would be like taking great pride in an MRI scan revealing one’s tumors, yet never understanding that meant you needed to go to the surgeon to remove them.

Like Peter, Paul also looked to the Old Testament record, particularly Isaiah, to explain what went wrong with Israel’s response to God and how her disregard of God’s righteousness (through faith) was the cause of her stumbling. At the tail end of Romand 9:32 he states that Israel “stumbled over the stumbling stone.” He then goes on to explain the nature of this “stumbling stone” and God’s prophecy through Isaiah that a key purpose of the “stumbling stone” would be to qualify who is and who is not pursing God’s righteousness by faith.  Quoting Isaiah he says,

“As it is written: Look! I am putting a stone in Zion to stumble over, and a rock to trip over, yet the one believes on Him will not be put to shame” (Rom. 9:33).

A very shallow and cursory reading of verse 33 would seem to suggest God is wanting people to stumble and fall flat on their face in shame. But that is not at all God’s intention. Rather God wants to qualify belief and believers as beneficiaries of divine mercy and covenant election. God doesn’t want people “put to shame” anymore than a husband or wife wants to shame their spouse when they qualify the benefits of marriage on the condition of marital faithfulness. In other words what God wants is to qualify the proper place of trust and faith for covenant election and disqualify all other means for people to come into the righteousness of covenant election, such as ancestry or works of the Law.

Given that the “stumbling stone” is Jesus Christ, Paul is saying it is on the basis of how one responds to Jesus Christ that determines whether or not one stumbles and is put to shame. Moreover Paul implies the shame of stumbling doesn’t need to happen to anyone, for “the one who believes on Him will not be put to shame” (vs. 33).
As such the only way to avoid stumbling over Christ is to yield to the Father’s outstretched, drawing hand of grace, listen and learn from the Father, and stop persisting in disobedience and unbelief. For Christ declared, “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent me draws him… everyone who has listened to and learned from the Father comes to Me” (Jn. 6:44-45).

  1. Covenant Transfer: Paul didn’t say anything in Romans 9-11 that Jesus didn’t already say in John 5-6.

It is imperative we recognize Paul’s reasoning is intimately connected with Christ’s reasoning as to why many Jews were stumbling over Him as their new, elect covenantal head. In John 5 we find Jesus in a debate with Jewish leaders who claim to have special knowledge and standing with God. Their charge seeks to disassociate Jesus with God, denying the former while affirming the latter. They are attempting to demonstrate that they know God but Jesus is foreign to them; that they can have covenant with God all the while rejecting Jesus.[26] Jesus counters them by asserting that they never knew God in the first place. 

“You have never heard his voice nor seen his form, nor does his word dwell in you.” (Jn. 5:37-38).

They had already rejected testimony of John the Baptist as well as Moses:

“If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. But since you do not believe what he wrote, how are you going to believe what I say?” (Jn. 5:46).

The point of the narrative which is thematic throughout John’s gospel is this: Jews who were presently rejecting Jesus could not come to him because of their track record of rejecting His Fathers’ previous offerings of light—particularly the law and prophets.

You search the Scriptures diligently…these testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” (Jn. 5:39-40).

Jesus does not say, “My Father is prohibiting you to come,” but “you refuse to come to me.” He ultimately puts the responsibility squarely upon them, for they had denied God, shut up their ears and spurned the truth of His prophets.

“…But since you do not believe what he (Moses) wrote, how are you going to believe what I say?”(Jn. 5:46).

In the latter part of John 6 Jesus again encounters a similar cohort of religiously pious leaders in the synagogue of Capernaum. It is crucial to see the continuity of John gospel in regard to Jesus’s engagement with His Jewish brethren who had wrongly assumed election with God was secured by checking off all the “boxes” within the Law of Moses. Jesus overturns this assumption. He reveals that even under the Law of Moses faith was central and not marginal. Jesus rebukes their unbelief of Moses, saying,

“For if you believed Moses you would believe me… but… you do not believe what he wrote…” (Jn. 5:46).

Contrary to Calvinist assumptions, Jesus is not trying to explain why certain Jews were divinely prohibited from believing in the Father (i.e. they were predestined not to believe). Jesus is explaining why their disbelief in the Father’s words is the cause for their disbelief in Him. They aren’t believing in the Son because they already rejected the Father who sent Him!

You do not have His words abiding in you, for you do not believe Him whom He sent (Jn. 5:38).

Jesus ultimately saw Israel’s disbelief in Him rooted in Israel’s prior rejection of the truth—a truth given to them by the law and prophets by the Father (Jn. 5:37-38, 46). Had they fully listened to and accepted his Father’s instruction in the old covenant they would have been taught by the Father and belonged to the Father and He would have led them to Christ in the New Covenant emerging. It is with this in mind that Jesus states,

No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him…Everyone who has listened to and learned from the Father comes to me”(Jn. 6:44-45).

Since they did not listen to God in the past, they did belong to God in the present; and on that basis they would not be part of the covenantal transfer (i.e “giving”) from the Father to the Son. For we read,

Everyone the Father gives to me will come to Me.” (Jn. 6:37).

It must be repeated—had they abandoned their false presuppositions, cast aside their resistance and surrendered to the Father’s teaching prior to Christ’s advent, they would have been taught by the Father, recognized the voice of the Good Shepherd in Jesus and ultimately been led to Jesus—the new covenant shepherd of their souls (Jn. 6:45). In essence they would have had “ears to hear.” Jesus’s remarks in John 6 have Jews of his current day chiefly in view. His emphasis is to underscore that not one of them can come to Him unless they first have a relationship of faith with the Father born out of the old covenant. For at the inauguration of the new covenant in Christ, those who responded to the graceful initiatives of God in the old covenant will be drawn by the Father to their new covenant Shepherd. That is to say if one wants to come to the Son they must humble themselves before the Father’s drawing and instruction (a matter of faith not works). Again that is why Jesus stated,

Everyone who has listened to and learned from the Father comes to Me” (Jn. 6:45).

Jesus’ thrust in pointing out the drawing, giving and enabling of the Father as a criteria to come to Him is to establish that true faith and true religion flow out from a relationship with the Father. Thus those who are in communion with the Father will likewise be channeled into communion with the Son. Jesus’s statement in John 6:65, “No one can come to Me unless it is granted to him by the Father” should not be read as saying, “You can’t come to me because my Father is prohibiting you.” Rather Jesus is saying, “You can’t come to Me because you don’t know my Father—you have not submitted to Him!”

Even in this Jesus is offering them hope and a way out of their unbelief. For if they return to the Father, surrender to Him and learn from Him, the Father would reveal the Son to them as the shepherd of their souls in the new covenant being inaugurated. In point of fact Jesus highlights the unrestrictive nature of His new covenant by couching it in universal terms: “I am the bread of life…which anyone may eat and not die…whoever eats this bread will live forever…given for the life of the world.” (Jn. 6:48-51). That is why John could later quote Jesus’s saving intention as universal in scope,

If I am lifted up from the earth I will draw all people to Myself” (Jn. 12:32).

Understanding the narrative theme and focus of John’s gospel is so crucial when we come to the specific passages of John 6:36-59. Proper interpretation is never derived on the spot or in a vacuum separated from the larger context and discussion. In chapter 5 Jesus is dealing with “religious leaders.” Then in chapter 6 Jesus is dealing with “the Jews” in the synagogue of Capernaum. In both chapters Jesus is dealing specifically with an established religious leadership that already thought they were right with God. But they weren’t. They thought they had secured God’s favor solely. through ancestral birth and law-keeping. But they hadn’t. Their disregard of faith under the Law of Moses had caught up to them. Their unbelief under the old covenant was now the cause of their further disbelief in the new covenant. That is the basis for Jesus’s later rebuke of them in John 8:47

The one who is from God listens to God’s words. This is why you don’t listen, because you are not from God.”

However this charge of unbelief should not be read as a rebuke against only the religious leaders (no doubt Pharisees), but also the Jewish community at large—such as the crowd milling about in chapter 6 whose sole pursuit of Jesus was to have their fleshly cravings fed with signs and wonders.

Throughout John’s gospel we find the Jewish community at large, from northern Galilee to southern Judea, without true faith in God. They are rejecting their own Messiah prophesied in their own scriptures. They resisted the light of Moses, the light of the prophets, the light of His Word and the light of John the Baptist (Jn. 5:33-38), and because of their previous hardening to all these overtures and advances on the part of the Father, their just consequence was to be hardened and blinded. God generously offers light and correction to his creation, but also pulls himself back from those who continually and stubbornly spurn his light, his correction and his grace. In the end God gives them up to what they want and the consequence is a hard heart.

Paul is building on what the gospels already give us. “Coming to Christ” in the new covenant is a result of having rightly “listened to the Father” in the previous covenant. Conversely those who have, as Paul records, resisted the One who “all day long…spread out [His] hands” (Rom. 10:21) in the old covenant cannot participate in new covenant election, since Christ is the elect, representative head of the new covenant.  Even worse they are given over to judgment. When one willfully rejects God’s grace and truth there is no neutral, safe ground. Hence Paul’s language about vessels “ready for destruction.”

Paul understands that if one continues to persist in disobedience, defying the Father’s kind intentions and the riches of His patience, they are choosing to put themselves in the hands of the “Potter” to be refashioned for ultimate destruction. But since that does not reflect God’s original intention for them, we are told God endures their obstinacy with much patience, while in the process revealing the “riches of His glory upon objects of mercy.” All of this is according to the predestinating purpose and desire of God to exploit (not decree) human rebellion, such that He might do two things:

  • “Display His wrath and make His power known” (Rom. 9:22) against whoever defiantly disregards His outstretched hand of divine grace.
  • “Make known the riches of His glory”(Rom. 9:23) on whoever yields to the outstretched hand of divine grace and believes.

27. Putting a text back into its con-text: “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy.”

Most completely miss why Paul ties in God’s glory with God’s mercy. This is unfortunate since they experienced the climax of their literary merging in the life of Moses. If we want to be good exegetes we simply cannot avoid the historical context of the phrase: “I will show mercy to whom I will show mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion” (Rom. 9:15). This divine declaration did not occur in some sequestered realm of foreordination before the world began. Paul is quoting directly from God’s “glory encounter” with Moses after the Israelites disobeyed God by worshipping a golden calf. The whole context is important. What does God say in response to Israel’s disbelief and rebellion? He tells Moses in Exodus 32:9-10,

“I have seen this people, and they are indeed a stiff-necked people. Now leave Me alone, so that My anger can burn against them and I can destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.”

God then decides to destroy them and start over with Moses. However Moses intercedes for the people, reminding God of His promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. In response to Moses’s intercession we are told,

“So the Lord relented concerning the disaster He said He would bring on His people” (Exodus 32:14)

That sounds a lot like God telling Jeremiah if a nation repents, “I will relent concerning the disasters I planned to do to it” (18:8). In the case of Israel in Exodus 33 it is Moses’s response of intercessory repentance on behalf of the people that moves the heart of God to extend further mercy on Israel. Such is not always the case. During the day of Jeremiah God declared judgment and wrath upon the nation for her detestable sins, but then says,

“I looked for someone among them who would build up the wall and stand before me in the gap on behalf of the land so I would not have to destroy it, but I found no one” (Jer. 22:30).

The Bible is seeded with examples of God’s sovereign mercy and wrath being affected by how His imagers freely respond to Him in repentance, faith or intercession. Does this detract at all from the majestic sovereignty of God? Not at all! Not if God has sovereignly ordained that human free will is to have a significant place in His divine interaction with us. This includes whether or not we position ourselves rightly before God to receive His favor. That Israel did not, but Moses did, and received God’s gracious compassion as a result is clear. For Moses asks,

“Now if I have indeed found favor in Your sight, please teach me Your ways…please, let me see Your glory” (Ex. 33:17-19).

In reply we read,

“The Lord answered Moses, “I will do this very thing you have asked, for you have found favor in My sight, and I know you by name…I will cause all My goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim the name Yahweh before you. I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion” (Ex. 33:17-19).

It is within the context of Israel’s blatant disobedience and Moses’s faithful obedience that we read of God’s sovereign ownership and dispensing of mercy and compassion. Paul is intending to borrow, not only the text, but the con-text to defend God’s justice in judging disobedient Israel and extending covenant election to believing Gentiles. To the chagrin of many a Calvinist, when Paul quotes this Exodus passage in Roman 9, he is not seeking to narrow the scope of salvation, but justify God’s purpose in broadening it.

28.  Yes—God is free to do what He wants. But what does God want? The importance of filtering Paul’s words through Romans 9:30-32

It cannot be overstated the issue Paul is wrestling with throughout Romans is not some pre-Reformation debate about the nature of free-will vs. God’s predestination. The matter at hand was the scandal of the gospel and New Testament evangelism! God was entering into covenant with uncircumcised Gentiles at the expense of circumcised Jews! Paul’s answer in Romans 9 cannot be divorced from this emotionally charged issue. What is the gist of Paul’s answer? Paul declares that God has sovereign rights over His own mercy, and if He has chosen to save unclean Gentiles who haven’t kept a single mosaic law, but only have faith in His Son, then that is His sovereign prerogative. Since God is under no obligation to save anyone, or even extend the life of anyone, He can have mercy on whomever He wants to have mercy on— even so far as to exclude law-keeping Jews and shed mercy on insufferable Gentiles. That’s the main thrust of Romans, especially chapter 9.

Indeed God is sovereign, but that doesn’t mean God’s dispensing of mercy and judgment is capricious or done willy-nilly. Yes—it is according to His sovereign will and pleasure, but we should distance ourselves from the thought that God’s sovereign will and pleasure is adrift in a sea of arbitrarily choosing “who’s in and who’s out.” God’s sovereign will as to who receives mercy and His sovereign pleasure as to who is declared righteous is clearly marked out for us at the end of Romans 9 as a conclusion to his thoughts.

For notice that after saying God has sovereign rights to do whatever He wants in verse 18 (“He shows mercy on those He wants to and hardens those He wants to”), Paul then proceeds to explain what God wants in verses 31 and 32! God wants faith and belief!

It crucial to notice how Paul answers his own rhetorical question earlier in verse 14 (“What should we say then? Is there injustice with God?”). Given that the issue of concern was God’s judicial removal of national Israel from her former elect status, Paul points out that God’s actions are not arbitrary, nor occurring in a vacuum. For it was national Israel that rejected her Messiah and refused to strive for covenant righteousness through faith. Everything about Romans 9 has to be filtered through verses 30-32 because it is Paul’s summary analysis wherein he pulls all the confusing threads together. He declares:

“What should we say then, Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have obtained righteousness—namely the righteousness that comes from faith. But Israel, pursuing righteousness through the law has not achieved the law. Why is that? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone” (Romans 9:30-32)

Here we arrive at the great misunderstanding that pervades Calvinism. God’s covenant election is both unconditional and conditional. That is to say God has unconditionally chosen/elected to rescue, save and redeem a lost world held captive to the powers of darkness and sin. No one forced God’s hand in that regard. Neither did God consult outside counsel or ask for a vote. In that sense God’s decision to be a savior and redeemer and establish a covenant of grace was an unconditional and unilateral decision on the part of God. Yet that is not to say there are no conditions or terms God has sovereignly decreed for men and women to rightly respond to His grace and enter into His covenant election.

Over and over Paul returns to the condition of faith through which we are approved unto God (i.e. elect) and become vessels of mercy destined for glory. Yes, God is sovereign over the dispensing over His mercy, but that doesn’t mean God has left us in the dark as to who He has sovereignly chosen to have mercy on—people of faith! Once we understand Paul’s summary conclusion in verses 30-32, we can import it back into verse 18. The “those He wants to show mercy to” refers to “those” who respond in faith to the riches of God’s patience, kindness and grace. The converse is equally true. “Those He wants to harden” refers to “those” who defiantly stiffened their own hearts against the riches of God’s patience, kindness and grace.

29. How did Jews view the Law of Moses and their pursuit of righteousness through works?

Any attempt to derive theology out of Romans 9 must be filtered through verses 30-32, because Paul’s aim is to tie all the dangling threads together into the knot of faith. In verse 30 Paul’s starting place for what we “should say” in response to everything he has said up to that point is: “Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained righteousness.”

But wait! Aren’t we called to pursue righteousness? Aren’t we called to “hunger and thirst for righteousness?” What exactly does Paul mean? It would indeed be odd for Paul to mean, “Apathetic, disinterested Gentiles who couldn’t care less about righteousness have obtained righteousness.” On the contrary. When Paul speaks of Gentiles who “did not pursue” righteousness, he is returning to his earlier contention that election does not “depend on human will or effort” (vs. 16) In the Greek the word translated “effort” comes from the Greek word, “trecho”  and literally means “to pursue after with haste, to exert one’s self.” Now in verse 30 he says Gentiles did not seek righteousness through their own “pursuit.” The Greek word is “dioko” and means to “run after to catch.” The words mean more or less the same in regards to the point Paul is seeking to make. Gentiles were not looking to their own human striving to “run after and catch” a righteousness merited from the works of the Law. Rather they sought after God’s “righteousness that comes by faith.” Israel on the other hand tried to pursue—to run after and catch—righteousness through the Law (vs. 31). But all their pursuits failed to obtain righteousness because they “did not pursue it (i.e. the righteousness of God) by faith, but as if it were by works…” (vs. 32).

Since 1st century Jews did not believe salvation was accomplished by having their good deeds outweigh their bad deeds, when Paul mentions “works” he is not primarily thinking of “good works” as we tend to think of “good works” today— like giving to the poor and helping little old ladies cross the street. Rather Paul is thinking more specifically of the works of the Law. A 1st century Jew thought of God’s acceptance according to works of the Law like a modern day boy-scout thinks of becoming an eagle scout. If one manages to “tick off” all the qualifying boxes and requirements, those accomplishments are in turn symbolized with qualifying merit badges to adorn their chest. Similarly a 1st century Jew thought if they could just collect enough “merit badges” from the Law and rightly display them before both God and men, God “owed” them special recognition as members of the elect community.[27]Paul corrects all this. God doesn’t “owe” anyone anything. Keep in mind Paul has already stated Israelite heritage alone does not automatically qualify one as elect—i.e. having membership in God’s covenant family (Rom. 9:6-7). Paul then disqualified human will and effort as being the origin point for covenant election (Rom. 9:16). No one elects themselves. No one is the source of their own election. In that sense God’s election does not depend on, or owe its existence to humanity. Rather election is on the basis of God’s mercy alone. He is the sole source of covenant election, and He alone sets forth the terms for one to come into the elect family of God. Paul’s aim is showcase God’s sovereign freedom over His own election, such that not even Israelite heritage coupled with strict observance of the works of the Law can obligate God in regards to election (Rom. 9:31-32). These correctives by Paul would be unsettling for the 1st century, religiously observant Jew who thought very highly of both his national heritage and all the “merit, membership badges” pinned to his chest from the Law (circumcision, food laws, Sabbath keeping) to remind him of his assumed, elect membership in God’s covenant family.

30. Remnant theology: “Chosen by grace” does not mean “regardless of faith” because faith is not a “work”

All of this relates to Paul’s “remnant theology”— specifically what it means to part of God’s faithful, chosen “remnant.” When Paul argues God’s remnant is “chosen by grace” (Rom. 10:6), he is not trying to say God unconditionally picked winners and losers in salvation. Instead he is making the central point that God’s remnant, “chosen by grace”, is by definition not chosen by works of the Law. That is why Paul goes on to say, “if it is by grace, then it is not by works; otherwise grace ceases to be grace” (11:6). However that does not mean God has no conditions for one to benefit from God’s grace and be united to the remnant (i.e. corporate election). Loyal believing and faithfulness is always God’s condition to be identified with the chosen remnant. Since faith is never contrasted with grace, we must never make the mistake of lumping in God’s condition of faith with works—as if faith is a work.

That is why Paul goes on to qualify the nature and quality of the chosen remnant saying, “What then? Israel did not find what it was she was looking for, but the elect did find it. The rest were hardened” (11:7). What was it that Israel was pursuing but could not find on her own through the Law? Paul answered that in chapter 9, saying, “…righteousness…comes by faith. But Israel, pursuing the law for righteousness, has not achieved the law. Why is that? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were by works” (9:31).

The fact that God qualifies His chosen remnant (elect community) based on conditions He sets forth, not man, is a major concern of Paul that runs like an underground current beneath all his statements—statements which at first glance can seem awkward and disjointed. After Paul establishes God’s sovereign freedom in this matter, he concludes divine election—becoming a member of the covenant community of grace— is not without conditions. However these conditions are not placed on God, but man. God wants faith. In fact He demands it! Faith is the condition! In short God has elected to have a corporate people who trust in His righteousness through faith, not in a righteousness through works of the Law or any other human means.

The fact that God would sovereignly choose to condition the benefits of election on the basis of faith should not be a surprise to us, since the O.T. is rife with examples of Israelites being cut off from enjoying the benefits of election due to stubborn disbelief manifested time and again through idolatry. The commitment to pursue God over all other competing idols, no matter what form those idols take, (i.e. traditions, ritual law-keeping, self-works) is faith. God qualifies such people in turn as being his elect people chosen by grace. To make this point stick Paul reminds us of a time in Israel’s history when even Elisha thought all Israel was lost and would have to be judged because of faithlessness. But such was not the case as Paul explains,

“But what was Gods reply to him? I have left 7,000 men for Myself who have not bowed down to Baal. In the same way, then, there is also at the present time a remnant chosen by grace. Now if by grace, then it is not by works; otherwise grace ceases to be grace. What then? Israel did not find what it was looking for, but the elect did find it. The rest were hardened” (Rom 11:4-7).

It is interesting and helpful to see Paul tie in God’s grace and election with the faithfulness of people, and judicial hardening with those who are found to be faithless. Many Calvinist commentators will argue Paul is asserting God used his sovereign grace to preemptively and irresistibly prohibit 7000 people from bowing down to Baal. But that is not Paul’s point at all! Rather Paul is declaring that God graciously kept alive 7000 people and spared them from judgment because of their faithful refusal to bow the knee to Baal. They were people of true faith because they rejected idolatry. Thus their “chosen-ness” by grace was a result of their true faith—not a cause of it.

Put simply it is not that God sovereignly intervened and stopped them from bowing down to Baal. It is that God kept them alive out of His grace because they did not worship Baal. It is helpful to read the original account in 1 Kings 19:17-18,

“Then Jehu will put to death whoever escapes the sword of Hazael, and Elisha will put to death whoever escapes the sword of Jehu. But I will leave 7,000 in Israel — every knee that has not bowed to Baal and every mouth that has not kissed him.”

We can affirm God sovereignly preserved a remnant of Israel for Himself according to the good pleasure of His will, without assuming the pleasure of God’s will is arbitrary or some roll of divine dice in relation to humanity. That God willed to preserve, by grace, a remnant of 7000 is indeed true. Yet that very remnant comprised individuals who were qualified to be among the remnant in virtue of their humble obedience to God and faithfulness to him. We see this theme repeated throughout scripture. For example Joshua and Caleb were the only ones from an older generation who qualified themselves to be among those privileged by grace to enter the Promised Land. No Israelite deserved to enter the Promised Land, any more than we deserve salvation. Thus it is all a matter of grace. But that doesn’t mean God can’t enact sovereign terms that His human imagers must fulfill in order to benefit from His grace

31Paul’s hope for Israel and stern warning to Gentiles: Being grafted in and broken off the olive tree of the elect household of God is a matter of faith not foreordination

The story the Bible tells is not a about a God who manufactures human choices, ordaining everything people do through exhaustive, determinative decrees we are powerless to choose against. Rather we read a story about a sovereign God who has sovereignly chosen to treat people like the morally responsible human imagers He created us to be—and part of our responsibility as human imagers is to respond freely and rightly to God’s grace-filled initiatives. For both Paul and God this crucial response is a response of “faith.”

That national Israel consistently and stubbornly refused to rightly respond to God’s grace-filled initiatives and refused to become rightly aligned to God through belief is the reason why she was judicially hardened according to Paul. As already stated, Paul’s use of Jeremiah’s potter analogy is to explain that Israel’s hardening is neither unjust, nor an arbitrary act of God just so he can fault them. Rather Israel’s failure is her own fault and God’s decision to treat her severely is His just response to her stubborn, self-chosen unbelief (not God-chosen, predetermined unbelief).

But even here Paul has both hope for national Israel while simultaneously offering a stern warning to Gentiles. This is why Romans 9 must be seen in the light of Romans 11. Paul declares,

“True enough; they were broken off by unbelief, but you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but be afraid. 21 For if God did not spare the natural branches, He will not spare you either22 Therefore, consider God’s kindness and severity: severity toward those who have fallen but God’s kindness toward you—if you remain in His kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off. 23 And even they, if they do not remain in unbelief, will be grafted in, because God has the power to graft them in again” (Romans 11:20-23).

Because Paul is intimately familiar with the underlying truth of the potter analogy in Jeremiah 10 he knows he has good grounds to declare Israel’s national hardening is not irrevocable, but neither is God’s mercy to Gentiles irreversible or without condition. God told Jeremiah that even though He may announce judgment upon a nation, if that nation repents He will relent and extend mercy to her. Paul recognizes that includes national Israelites! Furthermore if God plans to bless a nation, but then that nation’s people begin to turn away from the right path, God will relent from doing the good He planned, and instead of extending mercy, He will judge that nation’s people. That includes Gentiles being grafted in! Paul rightly understands these duel acts of divine reversal are because God—the Potter—has sovereignly chosen to always remain flexible rather than irrevocable in response to how His human, “clay” imagers respond to the level of light and grace they have received.

The fact that Paul warns Gentiles they too can be broken off through unbelief, just like the natural branches, only goes to show Paul’s theology is not one of theological determinism—wherein God has meticulously determined who believes and who does not. This is made all the more apparent when Paul says the natural branches (Israelites) that became broken off (un-elected) through persistent unbelief can be grafted back in (elected) “if they do not remain in unbelief”(vs. 23). It is not that God cant make up His sovereign mind. Rather it is that God is responding to human imagers endowed with a genuine free will!

Far from teaching God unconditionally picks salvation winners and losers, and there is nothing you can do to resist God’s selection one way or another, Paul admonishes his readers to pursue election by faith and remain in it by faith (11:20-23). This is also why Peter says,

Make every effort to supplement your faith with goodness… knowledge self-control… endurance… godliness… make every effort to confirm your calling and election, because if you do these things you will never stumble” (2 Peter 1:5-10).

It is not that Peter is contradicting Paul when he says, “make every effort.” Rather both Paul and Peter understood what the Calvinist is unwilling to concede. Election is first and foremost a corporate entity and God has sovereignly chosen for faith to be the condition by which both Jews and Gentiles become united to God’s elect, corporate family. But biblical faith is not mere agreement. Biblical faith is loyal believing manifested through loyal living to God and for God. When faith ceases to be loyal to God, it ceases to be faith—for as we know, “faith without works is dead” (James 2:14).

32.  The scandal of the Gospel: Romans 10:3-13 as Paul’s expansion of Romans 9:30-32

As is now apparent Romans 9 functions as Paul’s battering ram against a limited, walled-off salvation that Gentiles could not climb over. Paul declares God has sovereignly chosen to extend mercy to the whole world! And this in spite of the fact that it is filled with unclean Gentiles whom Jews long thought should have no inheritance in God’s, elect covenant family apart from the Law. Paul’s retort is to remind the Jew that God is under no obligation to save anyone. For it is God—and God alone— who sovereignly decides who He will save. But that leads to the whole point of Romans 9-11. Who has God sovereignly chosen to save? Paul’s answer is: all those who believe and respond in faith to the righteousness of God!

Just in case we miss the scandal of Paul’s declaration in Romans 9:30-32, he repeats it in Romans 10:3-13, further expounding on God’s sovereignly chosen means to dispense His mercy and salvation.

Because they disregarded the righteousness from God  and attempted to establish their own righteousness, they have not submitted themselves to God’s righteousness. 4 For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness  to everyone who believes…  6 But the righteousness that comes from faith  speaks like this… 8 The message is near you, in your mouth and in your heart.   This is the message of faith that we proclaim: 9 If you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,”  and believe in your heart  that God raised Him from the dead,  you will be saved. 10 One believes with the heart, resulting in righteousness, and one confesses with the mouth, resulting in salvation. 11 Now the Scripture says, Everyone who believes on Him will not be put to shame,   12 for there is no distinction between Jew and Greek,  since the same Lord of all  is rich to all who call on Him. 13 For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. 

Paul’s words in Romans 9-11 are a complete unraveling of much of what Jews had previously assumed. In the minds of 1st century Jews it seemed as if the tables had been turned on them:

  • No distinction between Jew and Gentile because God is now rich towards both.
  • Pursuing the law cannot lead to righteousness in and of itself.
  • Christ is the end of the Law for righteousness
  • Law-keeping Jews can be excluded while unclean Gentiles included.
  • Faith in Jesus is God’s declared condition and means to extend the mercy of salvation.
  • Therefore on the basis of faith alone everyone can call on the name of the Lord and be saved.

Calvinism cannot really make sense of Paul’s habit of identifying the freedom of human agents to receive or reject the intentions of God in salvation. Rather than emphasizing some unconditional, select election on the part of God, Paul emphasizes the exact opposite. “They disregarded…they have not submitted…But…if you confess…if you believe…the Lord is rich to all who call on Him. For everyone who calls…will be saved.” Paul is far removed from the theological determinism of Calvinism. At no time does Paul even remotely suggest it was God’s sovereign will to unconditionally determine anyone to disregard the righteousness from God “that comes from faith.”

33. As with corporate election, Israel’s hardening was also primarily corporate and secondarily individualistic—thus individual Jews can be grafted back in through belief

Although we would wish for more, Paul does not bother to explain the finer details or particulars of what he calls the “mystery” of Israel’s hardening in Romans 11:25. That be said, what we absolutely cannot say is Israel’s judicial hardening meant God was going to render it impossible for individual Jews of all generations to believe the gospel, or that they would be divinely prohibited from being grafted back into God’s covenant community through belief in the gospel.

How do we know this?

Because in Romans 11:23 Paul specifically declared, “And even they, if they do not remain in unbelief, will be grafted in…” And in Romans 10:13 Paul says, “there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, since the same Lord of all is rich to all who call on Him.” It would indeed be an outright lie, and thus quite un-Pauline, for Paul to declare on the one hand that Jews can be grafted back into the household of faith if they believe, while on the other hand secretly surmising God was going to render it impossible for them to do what he just told them they can and ought to do.

Neither is Paul so mealymouthed as to say on the one hand there is “no distinction between Jew and Greek” and “God is rich” to both Jews and Greeks, and then on the other hand presume God is going to discriminate against individual Jews and Greeks by not being rich in mercy to the Jew who calls on Him. Paul would not say in Roman 1:16, “the gospel… is God’s power for salvation…first for the Jew, and also to the Greek” if he thought individual Jews were selectively hardened by God against the gospel!
Paul said in Romans 11:7

“Israel did not find what it was looking for, but the elect did find it. The rest were hardened…”

True enough, but hardened why? Hardened so that Jews won’t believe? Not at all! That undermines the entire chapter. They are hardened because they did not believe! The message came first, the rejection came second, the hardening came third.

So what does all this mean? In what way should we understand God’s “partial hardening” of Israel? I think it best if we understand God’s unique hardening of Israel to be corporate in its effect, just like Israel’s prior election was also primarily corporate in its effect and only secondarily pertained to the individual who appropriately identified themselves with the corporate elect of Israel.

In other words “corporate hardening” is the flip side of “corporate election.” As an act of judgment Paul believed Israel as a nation was being corporately hardened and confirmed in her stubborn disregard of God’s grace and righteousness. We err in assuming that meant each and every individual Jew was selectively hardened by God. Not so. Rather the individual Jew could come under corporate “hardening” if they chose to identify themselves with corporate Israel that disregarded God’s righteousness through her Messiah.

Specifically speaking God’s hardening of Israel was His decision to judicially cut Israel off from any special status or blessing she once enjoyed under the old covenant system. Thus there was no longer any benefit for a Jew to remain under the old covenant. For to do so would be to “remain in unbelief” and come under hardening. All of this meant Jews would now be on equal footing with Gentiles. If an individual Jew wanted to be grafted into God’s new covenant, elect community they were free to do so, but they would have to come by way of faith—just like the Gentile. For as Paul makes clear, “Now… there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile… the same Lord of all is rich to all who call on Him.”

As difficult as Romans is to understand at times, Romans 9-11 is unambiguous in one area. As long as any Jew insisted on approaching God through the Law—especially in regard to ritual sacrifices for sin—they would find themselves to be under God’s corporate hardening. But God’s hardening was not divine resistance against the gospel! To the contrary. Believing in the gospel was the antidote—the means by which one escaped the severity of God’s hardening and entered God’s kindness (Rom. 11:20-23).

That is the reason Paul is adamant in saying it is through belief in the gospel that a Jew can be grafted in after being cut off. And it is certainly why Paul said of his Jewish brethren, “Even to this day, whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their hearts, but whenever a person turns  to the Lord, the veil is removed” (2 Cor. 3:15-16). Note the order given. When one turns to Christ only then is the veil removed. If Calvinism were accurate Paul would have said, “…but when the veil is removed by God, then they can turn to the Lord.”

We can summarize as follows. The “hardening” of Israel must be seen within the context of God no longer honoring the old covenant, since to do so would be to undermine the new covenant. The Jew cannot follow the Law at the expense of not following her Messiah. The Jew cannot affirm God while denying God’s Son. Thus if the nation as a whole continued to try and establish their own “election” and “recognition” before God through the Law, while simultaneously disregarding her own Messiah, she would remain under God’s severity—His hardening.

However what Paul describes as Israel’s “partial hardening” was not at all a divine prohibition from believing in Jesus. As already noted that conjecture contradicts Paul’s words elsewhere. Rather as long as Jews insisted on approaching God on their terms (works of the Law) instead of His (faith in His Son), they would: 1) remain in a state of unbelief and thus 2) remain outside of God’s kindness, 3) cut off from the elect community of faith, and 4) under the severity of God’s hardening. No longer having any benefit under the former covenant, the only recourse for the individual Jew was to recognize “if they do not remain in unbelief, [they] will be grafted in, because God has the power to graft them in again” (Rom. 11:23).

34. Israel’s judicial hardening: A mysterious hardening for her ultimate benefit?

Since God’s salvation comes through faith—in both the old and new covenant—but Israel has chosen to reject God’s way of faith, she cannot partake in the righteousness of God and covenant election that comes through faith. As already noted above her consequence is to be judicially hardened. However at the end of chapter 11 Paul will seek to testify that God is not finished with Israel—nor has He totally rejected her despite being judicially hardening. In fact Paul suggests her “partial hardening” due to disobedience is a “mystery” that will be used by God for a period of time to accomplish what her obedience was supposed to produce—light and revelation being spread to sufficiently graft in Gentiles.

Yet within the context of her own partial hardening, Paul strangely implies Israel will come through it saved on the other side. In warning the Gentiles not to consider themselves superior to Israel, Paul says,

25 So that you will not be conceited, brothers, I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery: A partial hardening has come to Israel until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. 26 And in this way all Israel will be saved… 28 Regarding the gospel, they are enemies for your advantage, but regarding election, they are loved because of the patriarchs, 29 since God’s gracious gifts and calling are irrevocable (Rom. 11:25-29).

Given everything Paul has said prior, Romans 11:25-29 may be the most confusing passages in all the New Testament. At minimum it reveals Israel’s hardening is indeed unique. In fact we don’t find any other example in the Bible of God’s judicial hardening being spoken of as something that will ultimately result in salvation for the object under hardening. Paul seems particularly interested in stressing that Israel, despite her disobedience and hardening, is still loved by God in regard to election “because of the patriarchs.” This statement itself seems a bit out of place given how vigorously Paul, in chapter 9, challenged the Jewish notion that election was a birthright of ancestry.

It is important we recognize Paul not seeking to undermine what he said earlier. True—national Israel cannot place demands on God’s covenant election on the basis of ancestral heritage, but that doesn’t mean God is not free to continue to love them, or in someway honor His covenant election with them “because of the patriarchs” (vs. 28). For it was to Israel’s patriarchs that God promised He would never forsake Israel, even though He often had to judge her. Yet through it all a central calling upon Israel was that she would never cease to be a chosen nation before Him (Jer. 31:36-37).

For centuries scholars have been divided over what Paul was intending to say concerning Israel’s partial hardening being simultaneously identified as the “way” she will be saved (i.e. “And in this way all Israel will be saved” vs. 25). That Paul even admits he is speaking a mystery is very telling. We just cant be certain of the particulars and we cannot press anything too far. Paul would not have voiced sorry and anguish over the plight of Israel’s rejection of the Messiah, if he thought the consequences of that rejection were ultimately inconsequential. That being said, what does seem clear is the idea that Israel’s judicial hardening will ultimately be used for good—not only for Gentiles, but in some way for Israel herself. Paul will capitalize on that point more fully by offering his readership another critical, summary conclusion.

30 As you [Gentiles] once disobeyed God, but now have received mercy through their [Israel’s] disobedience, 31 so they [Israel] too have now disobeyed, resulting in mercy to you [Gentiles], so that they [Israel] also now may receive mercy. 32 For God has imprisoned all in disobedience, so that He can have mercy on all (Rom. 11:30-32).

I have inserted clarifying brackets next to the pronouns so as to make it easier to see the flow of Paul’s thought, and his conclusion that Israel’s disobedience has placed her before God on equal footing with everyone else—i.e she stands condemned like one imprisoned. Yet all is not lost, for that is where grace and mercy operate. Earlier Paul warned Gentiles not to become prideful and conceited lest they be judged. That is what national Israel did in response to being given the Law and being told they were God’s chosen people. In much the same way Jesus said God can’t give sight to a blind man who already thinks he sees (John 9:39-41), so also Paul would say God can’t set a captive free who already thinks they are free. Israel’s disobedience in disregarding God’s righteousness through faith, though not causally determined by God, will be exploited by God for the purposes of grace. For God, in His grace, gives mercy to all who are imprisoned in disobedience. This is the good news we are called to preach to everyone. Indeed all are guilty. All fall short. All are imprisoned in disobedience. Yet through Christ God has extended mercy to all. The right response to God’s merciful grace is faith, but it is no less grace that we are called to a response of faith.

Though the content of Paul’s letters can admittedly be hard to understand, particularly Paul’s manner of speaking in Romans 9, the sum take away of Romans 9-11 is the exact opposite of the Calvinist interpretation. God does not: (1) unconditionally select individuals for heaven or hell, (2) then causally determine them to be either objects of wrath or objects of mercy. To even assume this might be Paul’s argument is to outright ignore all of Paul’s conditional statements and his repeated attempts to warn his listeners to remain in faith!

Conclusion to Romans 9-11 Part 2

As summarized at the end of Part 1, Calvinist interpretations of Romans 9 are insufficient and have led to many problems that run contrary to Scripture because they fail to wrestle with Romans 9 in its full context. They divorce it from the rest of Romans and mistakenly read it in a vacuum. Romans 9 does not exist as a theological island unto itself, but is intimately intertwined with Paul’s slow march towards justifying why non-law keeping Gentiles can become part of God’s chosen, corporate people—otherwise known as the elect of God. In saying God has sovereignly chosen to condition covenant salvation (i.e. election) on faith in Christ, Paul shatters any claim that would suggest believing Gentiles have only come half-way and must also keep the Law to enter into covenant election.

Moreover Paul defends God against claims His word and promises have failed simply because Israel has failed to embrace her Messiah on a national level. Since God previously conditioned the fulfillment of certain aspects of His word and promises to Israel on Israel’s faithfulness and obedience to God’s gracious initiatives, and Israel proved to be unfaithful, God cannot be faulted in going around Israel to fulfill His larger purpose to bless the Gentile nations. Yet even in this “round-about-way” of reaching the Gentiles through Israel’s disobedience, God has not forgotten or abandoned Israel’s collective people. “For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that He can have mercy on all” (Rom. 11:32). For this reason He put Israel’s people on the same level playing field as Gentiles. They cannot call upon works of the Law or ancestry to get ahead, but will need to come into covenant union/election through faith–just like Gentiles. The justification for God acting in this way is quite simple: God is free and sovereign to do whatever He wants. Yet Paul doesn’t want to leave his readers ignorant as to what God wants when they are most in need of understanding it. Hence Romans 9-11 is Paul’s attempt to reveal what God wants–and wanted all along– a people who rightly respond to His love, grace, judgment and renewal with faith and faithfulness.

In Part 3 we will end this series by engaging Romans 11:7-8 wherein Paul looks back at Isaiah’s proclamation of judgment and brings it into the foreground, saying “God gave them a spirit of insensitivity, eyes that cannot see and ears that cannot hear, to this day.” Does this mean God was behind the scenes, like a cosmic wizard of Oz, pulling strings to deterministically engineer a divine plot for Israel to reject her Messiah? Not at all—and we shall see why in Part 3.

[1] John Piper states, “Double predestination, is simply the flip side of unconditional election. Just as God chooses whom He will save without regard to any distinctives in the person…so also he decides whom He will not save without regard to any distinctives in the individual.” See: By “distinctives” Piper means God does not condition election on any foreknowledge of a person freely responding in faith to the grace of God. Piper thinks individuals believe in Christ only because they are already elect in Christ. But to be elect in Christ is to be saved! Piper’s view presents insurmountable problems. It would mean an individual is already “in Christ” before they respond in faith to God’s grace. Yet as we noted in Part 1 of this 3 part series, if someone is already “in Christ” prior to believing in Christ, it would mean they are already saved before they believe, rendering faith nothing more than an empty formality to “rubber stamp” the salvation they already have. This we cannot say. If the N.T. is clear about anything, it is that persons are saved by faith (Eph. 2:8; Gal. 3:24-26). Moreover individuals are not placed in Christ in order to have faith, rather they are placed in Christ through faith. Calvinist logic inverts this biblical order. At the end of this article more detail will be given to this critique.
[2] Calvinists attempt to downplay this contrariety as being a distinction between the “revealed will of God” vs the “secret will of God.” However wasn’t it Jesus who taught us a house divided against itself can’t stand? For a thorough debunking of Calvinism’s “Two-Wills View” see
[3] God can and often did sovereignly choose individuals for a particular call or vocation, such as Abraham, Moses, David and Paul. But that doesn’t mean God’s choice to maintain their call doesn’t take into account their level of obedience. For Saul was also chosen by God, but later disqualified himself through disobedience. Similarly Jehu was chosen by God to a reformer, but later in life he did not heed God and God withdrew His divine blessings. The very nation of Israel was unconditionally chosen by God for divine blessings, but repeatedly disqualified herself from inheriting those blessings. The take away is our choices matter, and even though God may choose us for a particular purpose, our response of obedience is equally crucial. Paul knew he was “set apart” for the proclamation of the gospel, but he also understood his response of obedience was not irrelevant, which is why he states, “I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision”—implying that he could have been had he so chosen (Acts 26:19).
[4] N.T. scholar Ben Witherington writes that the esteemed Jewish scholar David Flusser, who taught at Hebrew University, explains that when Jesus said, “hate one’s parents” it would have been understood as preference (as opposed to wishing harm). This also sheds light on the Jacob and Esau passage in both the Old and New Testament. Witherington states, “He [Flusser] adds that Jesus’ saying about hating one’s parents (Lk. 14.26) in fact in the Hebrew original simply refers to preference, as does the ‘Jacob I loved but Esau I hated’ saying. It were better translated I preferred Jacob to Esau. Comparison was conveyed by the language of dramatic contrast in Hebrew.” See
[5] This is not to say God could not have foreknown that Jacob’s line of descent (Israelites) would be more preferable than Esau’s line of descent (Edomites).
[6] Abasciano, Brian. “Clearing Up Misconceptions about Corporate Election”, PDF version available at See the Ashland Theological Journal 41 (2009) 67-102 for the original published version.
[7] I agree with Greg Boyd who stated, “In other words, the point of the potter-clay analogy is not God’s unilateral control, but God’s willingness and right to change his plans in response to changing hearts. The passage fits perfectly with the point Paul is making in Romans 9. While some individual Jews had accepted Jesus as the Messiah, the nation as a whole had rejected Jesus, and thus rejected God’s purpose for themselves (cf. Lk 7:30). Hence, though God had previously blessed Israel, he was now changing his mind about them and was hardening them. Ironically, and shockingly, the Jews were finding themselves in the same position as their old nemesis Pharaoh. He had hardened his heart toward God, so God responded by hardening him further in order to raise him up to further his own sovereign purposes (Rom 9: 17). So too, Paul was arguing, God was now hardening the Jews in their self-chosen unbelief to further his sovereign purposes. He was going to use their rebellion to do what he had always hoped their obedience would do: namely, bring the non-Jewish world into a relationship with him (Rom 11:11-12).” See
[8] Thanks to Greg Boyd for this insight in his excellent summary analysis of Romans 9. See:
[9] John Piper believes Paul is trying to assert that God unconditionally decreed the very acts of rebellion God later faults people for committing. He mistakenly assumes this is what it means for God to be “absolutely sovereign”. He writes, “If he hardens whomever he wills, if God has the right to decree who will become rebellious then: Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will? Paul has portrayed God as absolutely sovereign. He decides who will believe and undeservingly be saved and who will rebel and deservingly perish… God is right to unconditionally choose whom to love and whom to hate, whom to show mercy and whom to harden, whom to make a vessel for honor and whom to make a vessel for dishonor.” See:
In Part 1 we reviewed some of John Calvin’s statements concerning God’s alleged decree of all human sin. For more Calvinist quotes revealing the utterly dark secret of Calvinism’s insistence that God sovereignly determined every insidious act of human wickedness, see:
[10] John Piper at As we noted at the end of Part 1 the Calvinist belief that God sovereignly predetermined all the sins of all people for all time is the litmus test of true Calvinism—starting with John Calvin.
[11] John Piper declared, “Everything that exists—including evil—is ordained by an infinitely holy and all-wise God to make the glory of Christ shine more brightly.” Piper tries to deny this makes God the author of sin. Yet Piper shamelessly re-works the definition of author to fit his theology. He argues God is not the author of sin because He is not the “efficient or proximate cause” of sin. This is a fancy way of saying “God is not the doer of the sin He decrees others to do.” However that is like saying the husband is not the author of his wife’s murder if he hired a hitman as the efficient cause to pull the trigger. Piper is hiding behind obfuscating verbiage. He refuses to acknowledge the common understanding of author as meaning “one who first conceives of an idea as the originator and planner for something to occur.” See
[12] In referencing possible interpretations for Romans 9:22 Calvinist theologian and apologist, James White, astonishingly leaves out a genuine 4th option and erects a straw-man in its place. He writes, “Why are there vessels prepared for destruction?  Because God is free.  Think about it: there are only three logical possibilities here. Either 1) all “vessels are prepared for glory (universalism); 2) all “vessels” are prepared for destruction; or 3) some vessels are prepared for glory and some are prepared for destruction and it is the Potter who decides which are which.  Why is there no fourth option, one in which the pots prepare themselves based upon their own choices? Because pots don’t have such a capacity! Pots are pots!” [See White, James, The Potter’s Freedom: A Defense of the Reformation and a Rebuttal of Norman Geisler’s “Chosen But Free”, Calvary Press Publishing, Amityville, NY, 2000, p. 214.] White’s argumentation is baseless. He is literally comparing human beings to actual pots! It could just as easily be argued literal “pots” can’t sin or commit evil anymore than they can “prepare themselves based on their own choices.” White fails to give voice to the true 4th possibility. That is human vessels are prepared for destruction when they disregard God’s sovereign terms to be vessels of mercy. White has simply not done his due diligence in approaching Romans 9:22 with a fully informed hermeneutic. He completely ignores the greater context of Jeremiah 18 and God’s freedom to judge or not judge in response to human repentance or rebellion.
[13] This is most readily seen in Paul’s referencing of the 7000 faithful Israelites whom God did not kill, but rather graciously kept alive because they did not (not in order that they not) jettison their faith by bowing down to Baal (Rom. 9:11:4, 1 Kg. 19:18) These passages will be explored later in the article.
[14] Many have pointed out that the verb tense changes between verse 21 and verses 23 and 24. In the later verses the verbs are active, implying God is the active agent who has prepared glory vessels of mercy. But in verse 21 the verb is passive, implying unconditional, double predestination is not in view. Rather it is the sin of the sinner, or the quality of what makes a person an obstinate, unrepentant sinner, that has prepared them for judgment and destruction. That is why God endures them, for it makes no sense to suggest God is enduring His own activity. Oddly enough the well-known Calvinist, John Macarthur, largely agrees with this latter point, saying, “There’s an interesting use of the verb here.  ‘He endured with much patience vessels of wrath.’ Passive verb, passive verb.  Endured those prepared for destruction.  God is not the active agent.  The verb is passive.  This is not double predestination.  They are prepared for destruction by their sin.  The agent is not named in the process of the destruction.  There is not a subject for the passive verb, but obviously the agent is the person, the agent is the sin that indwells the person.  Whereas in verse 23 and 24 the verbs are active, and God is the one doing it.  He is the One who has prepared beforehand glory for those whom He called from the Jews and from the Gentiles.” See:
[15] A central theme of the O.T. is God rewards obedience and judges disobedience. To suggest God sovereignly determines who obeys and who disobeys is to turn the Bible on its head. God does not determinatively engineer our obedience or disobedience. Neither does God unconditionally determine who has faith and who does not. If He did, why would Jesus put the onus on us, declaring, “When the Son of Man comes will He find faith on the earth?” (Lk. 18:8)
[16] No doubt Peter is thinking of Paul’s epistle to the Romans when he writes his own epistle. For immediately after concluding God’s patience is directed towards the ungodly perishing, he speaks of Paul’s agreement, saying, “just as our dear brother Paul has written to you according to the wisdom given to him.  He speaks about these things in all his letters in which there are some matters that are hard to understand…” (2 Pet. 3:15-16). Undoubtedly many would agree with Peter.
[17] Most Calvinist initiates in the “young, restless and reformed” category are completely oblivious to the fact that historical Calvinism has always taught all human acts of good and evil were unconditionally predetermined by God—not by foresight and permission, but divine decree! See:
[18] This is true whether one takes the supralapsarian view or the infralapsarian view within Calvinism. For even within infralapsarian the Calvinist God elects unconditionally—that is to say without regard to any foreknowledge of man’s actions whether it be repentance and faith, or sin and rebellion. John Piper says more or less the same when he writes, “Double predestination, is simply the flip side of unconditional election. Just as God chooses whom He will save without regard to any distinctives in the person…so also he decides whom He will not save without regard to any distinctives in the individual.” [] It has been argued by many supralapsarian Calvinists that supralapsarianism is the only logically consistent viewpoint within Calvinist theology—for even infralapsarian Calvinists must inform their deterministic reading of Romans 9 based on a supralapsarian interpretation of God hating Esau and creating persons for destruction for the ultimate purpose of displaying his wrath upon them.
[19] Calvinist theologian Arthur W. Pink distinctly summarizes the Calvinist position by saying, “God foreknows what will be because He has decreed what shall be.” See W. Arthur Pink, The Doctrine of Election and Justification (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1974), 172
[20] Calvin clearly sets this saying, “First, the eternal predestination of God, by which before the fall of Adam He decreed what should take place concerning the whole human race and every individual, was fixed and determined.” See John Calvin, Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God, 121.
[21] See’s-justice-part-ii/
[22] In a telling exchange with fellow Calvinists, whom Hoeksema derided as irrational, he writes that it is a “direct contradiction” to suggest that “God sincerely seeks the salvation of those whom He has from eternity determined not to save. Or: God would have that sinner live whom He does not quicken. Or: God would have the sinner, whom he does not give the faith, to accept the gospel…this is irrational. But they [sentimental Calvinists] do not want to be rational on this point.” See The Standard Bearer, June 1, 1945, 384-386
[23] Is the Calvinist ready to say that all events are unilaterally and unconditionally predestined by God’s sovereignty except the one event that radically altered His relationship with the world—the fall of man? If so it is hard to see how Calvinism’s definition of sovereignty can exist in this context. What are we to think? That God’s determinative sovereignty as defined by Calvinism didn’t start until after man fell? To even ask the question is to reveal its folly.
[24] E. Olson Roger, Against Calvinism, (Zondervan, 2011), p. 84
[25] See Brian Abasciano’s outstanding treatment of corporate election in, “Clearing Up Misconceptions about Corporate Election”, PDF version available at For the original published version see Ashland Theological Journal 41 (2009) p. 67-102
[26] This insight was first shared by a commenter on a theological blog, the name of which has been forgotten. More than happy to add such details upon new information.
[27] Viewing certain requirements of the Mosaic Law as “merit badges” is an illustration I first heard N.T. Wright use.
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Romans 9-11 Part 1: Paul’s Battering Ram Against Limiting Salvation

Romans 9 Part 1: Paul’s Battering Ram Against Limiting Salvation

By StriderMTB

battering ram 2


Lets begin with a multiple choice question. Is Romans 9 a theological explanation about:

  • (A) God’s sovereign choice to limit salvation by unconditionally choosing to love some people enough for heaven, like Jacob, and damn other people out of hatred, like Esau.
  • (B) God’s sovereign choice to limit salvation by unconditionally hardening Jews to the gospel because God doesn’t want them to believe in Jesus and go to heaven.
  • (C) God’s sovereign choice to limit salvation by unconditionally creating some people for hell’s destruction as objects of wrath.
  • (D) God’s continued trustworthiness to fulfill his promises to Israel—His chosen elect— in the Messiah despite national Israel’s failure to receive her Messiah; the same Messiah given to the world according to God’s sovereign choice to universally broaden salvation by extending covenant mercy, union and elect status to both Gentiles and Jews on the condition they trust in God’s righteousness by faith in God’s Messiah.

Ask the average Calvinist and they will assume the answer is A, B, or C and maybe all three. I know because this view of Romans 9 was “beaten” into my head until I felt forced to acquiesce to the unassailable logic of Calvinism. My short foray into Calvinism was filled with misery as God’s nature took on a tortured face of malevolency. It was my joyous discovery that Calvinists are wrong about Romans 9 that reignited my faith and passion for missions and evangelism.

To begin, Paul isn’t even thinking along the lines of A, B, or C. Calvinists err in approaching the text through 16th century, theological lenses, assuming the pressing question of Paul’s day was: “What role does free will play if God unconditionally predestined some to be saved and others to be damned?” That question isn’t even on Paul’s “radar.” The critical question of Paul’s day was: “How is it fair for God to invite pig-eating, unclean Gentiles into covenant election, while simultaneously cutting off Abraham’s own children—national Israel—from inheriting the long-awaited promises of God that have finally arrived in the coming of her very own Messiah?”

Answer D is entirely upon Paul’s mind.

There are two primary places where Paul expounds on election and predestination. One is in Romans 8-11 and the other is in Ephesians 1. In both portions of scripture Paul speaks of the “mystery” that has been hidden for ages but which has now been revealed (Rom. 11:25, Eph. 1:8-10). Moreover in both contextual sections of scripture Paul unveils what that mystery is—it is nothing less than God’s astonishing plan to include Gentiles into the covenantal household of God (Rom. 9:30, Eph. 2:19).

Predestination: Paul’s “battering ram” doctrine against constricting salvation

In Paul’s ministry-long battle with Judaizers he was constantly dispelling the notion that Gentile converts had only come half-way and needed to be circumcised and observe Torah in order to be in full covenant with God. Paul’s answer was to always proclaim that (1) salvation had come to the Gentiles, and (2) God’s acceptance of them into covenant election through faith was an evidence of this mystery now revealed.

To be sure, the saving purpose of covenantal election and predestination overlaps the ultimate salvation of the soul, but the saving purpose is not the principle reason Paul brings up the issue of election in Romans 9. This is where Calvinists err. Paul has in mind an evangelistic purpose! He sees election and predestination as justifying the fact that God’s mercy had been showered upon Gentiles. Through faith, they too could now be part of the chosen household of God! To the common Jew this was absurd. But to Paul it was “God’s multifaceted wisdom…according to the purpose of the ages” (Eph. 3:10-11), and the “sacred secret kept silent for long ages…to advance the obedience of faith among all nations” (Rom. 16:25-26). In bringing up election and predestination Paul is not seeking to narrow the scope of salvation but enlarge it! As one writer aptly puts it:

Predestination was one of Paul’s key arguments for the inclusion of Gentiles into God’s family. Put in the vernacular, predestination was Paul’s “battering ram” doctrine against Jewish-Christians who wanted to restrict the salvation message to God’s Old Testament chosen people. In simple terms, Paul was saying that God will have compassion on whom He will have compassion and nobody can argue with God… The problem arises with predestination when people turn its purpose on its head. To Paul predestination meant that God has sovereignly thrown open the gates of heaven to all of humanity and wants His (as Jesus said in Luke 14:23) “house full.” Paul gloried in predestination because it validated extreme evangelism. A proper understanding of predestination puts it in its biblical context as connected to the mystery of Jew and Gentile being saved. It is a generous and wonderfully outrageous doctrine of God’s love for all of humanity. All humans are now invited to come to God’s salvation banquet through faith–the blind, the lame, the rich and poor, all are welcome.[1]

Romans 9 has nothing to do with God limiting the extent or reach of his redemptive intention to save souls. To the contrary, Romans 9 is Paul’s “battering ram” against any attempt to sequester God’s salvation from pig-eating Gentiles and “wall” them off from God’s covenant mercy. Romans 9 is largely misinterpreted by Calvinists because they insist on reading it through the lens of faulty presupposition, which is that God has constrained and limited the scope of his saving intention to only those whom he loved enough to preselect unconditionally (i.e. unconditional election).

As we will soon see this conclusion is not only misguided, it is flat out wrong. Paul’s underlying endeavor throughout Romans is to set out on a course which broadens the scope and availability of God’s mercy and salvation through faith— not constrain and constrict it! Jesus fired the first shot when he chose to make available the good news of the Kingdom to prostitutes and tax-collectors at the expense of offending the pious sensibilities of the priestly elite who felt Jesus should limit his “evangelism” to the spiritual norms and theological restrictions of His day.

Taking his cue from Jesus, Paul continued God’s expansion work by refusing to be strong-armed by the theological constraints of the Judaizers who felt God’s redemptive love needed to be straight-jacketed with the Law before enveloping the entire world. “God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he might have mercy on all” Paul would answer back (Rom. 11:32).

That God even chooses to extend mercy and save sinners through faith is a signature of His sovereign grace. Salvation belongs to God. Election belongs to God. Salvation so totally belongs to God, its very offer is a gift of God. But like all gifts they must be received. In Paul’s theological worldview, faith was not a divine mark of pre-selection based on ancestry or a badge of belonging based on the Law. Faith was an act of surrendered worship to God’s outstretched hand of grace and the means by which one received God’s gracious gift of salvation. It was a posture of humility (as to our need of God) merging with a pledge of allegiance (as to who God is for us).

Such an understanding puts the Law in its proper context. The Law was meant to reveal one’s need of God (“poor in spirit”) and was never meant to become the object of one’s devotion, dependence or confidence. That salvation was by grace through faith, and not by works of the Law, was a central message of the gospel Paul never wavered from telling. The fact that religious elites during Christ’s day were more than willing to “wall off” divine grace from Romans, prostitutes, tax-collectors and the disabled (thinking the latter were being punished by God), is clear evidence the religious establishment had hardened their hearts against divine grace and were ensnared in a boastful assumption that salvation was in some sense owed to them through ancestral birth and works of the Law.

Does faith “rubber stamp” an elect union with Christ already possessed at birth?

Oddly enough Calvinists have embraced a “Christianized” reworking of a similar deception Jews were ensnared by in Paul’s day. Jews assumed they were guaranteed covenant election on the basis of being born a child of Abraham and keeping the Law. Calvinists assume they are guaranteed covenant election on the basis of being born elect. In both cases faith is not a necessary prerequisite or condition for covenant election.[2] It makes no difference for the Calvinist to argue faith is the means by which their election is manifested or evidenced. The point is faith is simply an empty formality that only reveals or “rubber stamps” the covenant election they already possess at birth. It does not actually unite them to election.

Yet, Paul says prior to our coming into Christ through faith we were “ children under wrath” and “excluded from the citizenship of Israel” (Eph. 2:3,12). That is to say, prior to being placed in Christ through faith, we were un-elect, “with no hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12). That is why Paul could also say, “if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him” (Rom. 8:9).

Calvinists wrongly assume individuals are born either unconditionally elect or un-elect, and if one is born elect they are therefore predestined to believe in Christ. But that inverts the theology of Paul. We are predestined in Christ through belief in the truth. We are not predestined to believe. Election then is best understood as God’s choice of those who do believe rather than God’s choice of who will believe.

Covenant Election: Unconditional in God’s giving, conditional in our receiving

True enough, God has unconditionally chosen to save sinners. In that sense He is the undisputed, unconditional source of all salvation. No one needed to convince God of humanity’s sinfulness and need of redemption. And given humanity’s universal sinfulness, no one can obligate God to save them based on their ancestry or human attempts to justify themselves. No one approaches God on their own terms. But that is not to say God has not sovereignly laid down His own terms for people to be united to His acts of redemption and reconciliation. Indeed, that God has decreed faith to be His condition for joining the elect community is undeniable and unites both Testaments.

This entire discussion goes to the core of one of Calvinism’s key tenants of belief called Unconditional Election. It forms the spearhead for its interpretive approach in understanding the nature of election and predestination, and it is the initial point where Calvinism errs in letting its theological system inform Scripture rather than the other way around. In affirming a biblically centered approach to the nature of God’s election and predestination, it must be understood that the unconditional nature of election from God’s vantage point is not being challenged. There is an agreement with the Calvinist that God is under no compulsion and under no demands to save anyone. But the question is not whether election is unconditional from the vantage point of the Giver, but whether there are any conditions for the receiver. Concerning this, Norman Geisler explains,

The question is not whether there are any conditions for God giving salvation; the question is whether there are any conditions for man receiving salvation. And here the Bible seems to be very emphatic that faith is the condition for receiving God’s gift of salvation. We are “justified by faith” (Rom. 5:1). We must “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ” in order to be saved (Acts 16:31). “Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him (Heb. 11:6).[3]

Similarly man’s free agency to reject the truth of God made known to him is the basis of his condemnation.[4] Paul writes, “They perish because they did not accept the love of the truth in order to be saved.” (2 Thess. 2:10). Peter likewise had sober words for those that rejected God, saying, “You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit!”(Acts 7:51) John similarly declares, “But the Pharisees and lawyers rejected the will of God for themselves…”(Lk. 7:30).

Paul will argue the same. He knows Israel’s national judgment is not occurring in a vacuum. Nor is it because God unconditionally chose for Israel to reject Him. In Romans 10:21 he quotes God’s plea to Israel, “But to Israel he says, ‘All day long I have spread out My hands to a disobedient and defiant people.” Given that national Israel, and her religious class, resisted the Holy Spirt and rejected God’s will for themselves, she will not be found among the righteous remnant of believers who pursued and found the righteousness of God through faith.

As a result of rejecting the outstretched hand of God’s grace and rejecting God’s way of faith she will come under judicial hardening and be cut off from the elect community of faith. This should be no surprise. It is the way it has always been. For when disobedience and faithlessness abounded in the O.T., the elect community of faith often shrank to a remnant.

Covenantal Election: Primarily Corporate, Secondarily Individual

Paul rightly understood biblical election is first and foremost a corporate community and God alone sets the terms to be united to His elect community. It is our modern, enlightenment thinking that tends to see ourselves in an “individualistic” manner but much of biblical identity was rooted in your corporate identification.[5] Israel was called God’s elect nation, but that election was primarily corporate and secondarily individualistic. That is why God often “broke off” many individual Israelites for rejecting the terms of covenant election and identification, such as at Korah’s rebellion.

In the N.T. election is Christocentric, but continues to be primarily a corporate entity. God has elected a body, a church, bride—a corporate people for Himself—and individuals become part of that elect people destined for glory/salvation insofar as they choose to respond in faith to God’s drawing grace (not invincible or irresistible grace) and become united with Christ. All those who become one with the elect Son become elect in virtue of their identification with the elect Son.

That is why Paul emphasizes in Ephesians 1:4,7 that people are chosen/elect/redeemed “in Christ.” And for Paul being “in Christ” only happens in response to faith—not prior to it.

Keeping this in mind aids us when we read particular passages much touted by Calvinists, such as 2 Thessalonians 2:13 which states, “From the beginning God has chosen you for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and through belief in the truth.” We err if we seek to divorce the “you” from the common, 1st century custom of assigning identity through being a member of a corporate group. Hence it is better understand as saying, “From the beginning God has chosen you—the church of Thessalonica— for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and through belief in the truth.” This is further enhanced when we take note of Paul’s plural usage of “you” in his opening remarks in the epistle. He states, “To the church of the Thessalonians…in Christ. Grace to you.”

Keep in mind Thessalonica was predominantly a Gentile church! Paul is saying it has always been God’s plan—from the beginning— to incorporate Gentiles into His covenant community through faith.[6] That is to say Gentile inclusion was never on the margins of God’s agenda or an afterthought. Indeed it was the mystery long hidden, but now revealed through faith in God’s Messiah. Thus the “chosen-ness” or election of the corporate body in Thessalonica was predicated on her having a right response of faith. Paul specifically identifies “belief” as the key condition for God’s choosing, not the other way around. “God has chosen you for salvation…through belief in the truth.”

Moreover God’s salvation comes “through the sanctification by the Spirit.” Yet, sanctification by the Holy Spirit is itself a post-conversion, faith induced experience. For the scriptures know nothing of a sanctified—unbeliever. Try as they may, Calvinists cannot import their theology onto 2 Thessalonians 2:13 and insist God’s election refers to God’s choice of who will believe. No—the passage reveals God’s choice occurs in conjunction with belief (i.e. “though belief in the truth”), not in isolation from it. Once again we see that God’s election to salvation is conditional rather than unconditional.

The Church should always be viewed first and foremost as a corporate entity (body and bride of Christ) belonging to God’s elect Son and secondarily as a collection of individuals who, through faith, identify and associate themselves with that covenantal, corporate body and bride destined for glory.

In short the corporate view of election differs from the Calvinist, individualistic view of election in the following way. God’s primary intention through election was not to unconditionally choose individuals for salvation, but rather to choose to elect the believing Church to salvation by virtue of its identification with Christ as its elect, corporate head. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of hearing Arminian theologian Brian Abasciano on this matter. He explains,

Most simply, corporate election refers to the choice of a group, which entails the choice of its individual members by virtue of their membership in the group. Thus, individuals are not elected as individuals directly, but secondarily as members of the elect group. Nevertheless, corporate election necessarily entails a type of individual election because of the inextricable connection between any group and the individuals who belong to it. Individuals are elect as a consequence of their membership in the group… But the Bible’s doctrine of corporate election unto salvation is even more nuanced than simply saying that the group is elected primarily and the individual secondarily. More precisely, it refers to the election of a group as a consequence of the choice of an individual who represents the group, the corporate head and representative. That is, the group is elected as a consequence of its identification with this corporate representative.

The same may be said of individuals. They are chosen as a consequence of their identification with the people, and more fundamentally, with the individual corporate head [i.e Christ]… In the New Covenant, God’s people are chosen corporately as a consequence of their union with Christ, which is effected by faith… Most directly, such election is conditioned on being in Christ. But then being in Christ is itself conditioned on faith, meaning that the divine election of God’s people and the election of individuals for salvation is ultimately conditional on faith in Christ.[7]

Numerous scriptures can be offered to demonstrate the corporate emphasis of election in regards to the Church being incorporated into the prior election of God’s elect Son.[8] For example in 1 Thess. 5:9 Paul declares, “For God has not destined us for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul is not saying God preselected some for wrath and some to save, because Paul is writing to believers who already trusted in Christ and thus had already escaped God’s wrath. Instead Paul wants to emphasize the future destiny that awaits the corporate Church at large. Collectively all who are in Christ are destined to obtain the full measure of their salvation— which can best be defined as all that God has predestined to do in, through and by Christ.

Similarly we read, “The Father… has blessed us in Christ… For He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless…” (Eph. 1:3-4). Paul is careful to place God’s choice “in Christ.” In other words God ordained that all who are “in Christ” through faith would be His chosen people and share in Christlikeness (holy and blameless). We are thus chosen in virtue of being in Christ through faith. Calvinists think individuals believe in Christ only because they are already elect in Christ. But to be elect in Christ is to be saved!

The Calvinist view presents insurmountable problems. It would mean an individual is already “in Christ” before they respond in faith to God’s grace. Yet if someone is already “in Christ” prior to believing in Christ, it would mean they are already saved before they believe, rendering faith inconsequential and irrelevant to the salvation they already have. This we cannot say. As noted above, if the N.T. is clear about anything, it is that persons are saved by faith (Eph. 2:8; Gal. 3:24-26). Moreover individuals are not placed in Christ in order to have faith, rather they are placed in Christ through faith. Calvinist logic inverts this biblical order. Part 3 will deal with this fact in greater detail.

It should be no surprise that the New Testament writers intended us to see corporate election through an elect head (Christ) as being the principal lens through which to view election. Indeed it is the only form of election the people of God have ever experienced! In other words election as witnessed in the New Testament is rooted in the Old Testament’s portrayal of election as being chiefly a corporate election of a group that is further identified with a representative head.

Abasciano again explains:

God chose the people of Israel in Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob/Israel (Deut 4:37; 7:6-8). That is, by choosing Jacob, the corporate/covenant representative, God also chose his descendants as his covenant people. It is a matter of Old Testament covenant theology. The covenant representative on the one hand and the people/nation of Israel on the other hand are the focus of the divine covenantal election, and individuals are elect only as members of the elect people. Moreover, in principle, foreign individuals who were not originally members of the elect people could join the chosen people and become part of the elect, demonstrating again that the locus of election was the covenant community and that individuals found their election through membership in the elect people.

This notion of election is rooted in the Old Testament concept of corporate solidarity or representation… We have already noted that God’s Old Covenant people were chosen in Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. More specifically, God chose Abraham and his descendants, but limited his election of Abraham’s descendants to only some of them by his choice of Isaac as the head of the covenant through whom Abraham’s covenant descendants were to be reckoned. He then limited his election of the covenant descendants even further by his choice of Jacob as the head of the covenant.

At the same time, and as already pointed out above, people not naturally related to Jacob and so not part of the elect people could join the chosen people, becoming part of the elect. On the other hand, individual members of the elect people could be cut off from the covenant people due to violation of the covenant, rendering them non-elect.[9]

By the time we arrive at the New Covenant, as a fulfillment of the Old Covenant, God limits his election even further to Christ as its covenantal, representative head. And in so doing God ironically widens the scope of election by declaring its universal availability to all Gentiles who identify themselves with Christ by faith. Once more, Abasciano elaborates,

Paradoxically, this [Christ’s election as corporate head] also widened the election of God’s people because all who are in Christ by faith are chosen by virtue of their identification with Christ the corporate covenantal head, opening covenant membership to Gentiles as Gentiles. Just as God’s Old Covenant people were chosen in Jacob/Israel, the Church was chosen in Christ (as Eph. 1:4 puts it). And as Ephesians 2 makes clear, Gentiles who believe in Christ are in him made to be part of the commonwealth of Israel, fellow citizens with the saints, members of God’s household, and possessors of the covenants of promise (2:11-22; note especially vv. 12, 19). Indeed, any Jews who did not believe in Jesus were cut off from the elect people, and any believing Gentiles who stop believing will likewise be cut off, while anyone who comes to faith, whether Jew or Gentile, will be incorporated into God’s people (Rom. 11:17-24).[10]

The “elect” passenger train: A helpful analogy

The central point not to be missed is biblical election is primarily corporate and secondarily individualistic. An individual is elect, not in virtue of direct selection, but group identification. Individuals are elect in so far at they belong to and become identified with the elect community of faith, which is itself elect in virtue of belonging to the elect Son. Though illustrative analogies can never fully grasp the nature of biblical reality, they can be helpful in framing theological concepts more clearly and making certain theological points more accessible to the heart’s understanding. With that in mind I offer the following analogy to help the reader grasp how an individual can be predestined to a particular outcome, yet not be individually selected or directly elected in advance for that predestined outcome. It will show how a person’s individual election can be secondarily conferred upon them in virtue of submitting to certain conditions set forth to become members of some primary, elect whole that is predestined to enjoy some benefit. In particular the analogy will attempt to highlight the stumbling arrogance of Israel’s attempts to run after and lay claim to their election through trusting in their own efforts instead of trusting in the righteousness of God through faith.

Think of the corporate nature of the elect community as a passenger train on the way to a preordained destination called “Covenant City.” The train whistle signaling departure is heard by all on the platform. As an added assurance the call to departure is run through a loud speaker that magnifies the call, such that it wakes the slumbering, cuts right through the noise of headphones and pierces even earplugs. The tickets are handed out freely. In fact the conductor announces through the same magnifying, loud speaker he has purchased all the tickets ahead of time—for the cost is beyond the ability of anyone to pay. To board the train and arrive at the final destination one only needs to agree to certain conditions the conductor has decreed, such as: 1) Freely receiving the conductor’s ticket as an act of his generosity; 2) not attempting to dig into one’s dirty pockets for their own soiled money; 3) submitting one’s baggage for inspection; 4) being willing to surrender over any banned possessions; and 5) remaining seated inside the train for the duration of the trip.

The last condition is critically important. For trains have engines and they move under their own power. Therefore if it is by the engine that one is propelled along the tracks, then it cannot be by one’s own strength. No matter how confident one is in their own ability to run alongside the train and keep up, they will be greatly disappointed. For whoever thinks they can keep up with the train “under their own steam” is going to be left behind; not because of any personal animus the conductor has towards them, but because by nature train travel is a collective of passengers who have submitted to the conditions of the conductor and trust in the ability of his train to get them to their final destination. Therefore it is foolishness for passengers to think they can assist in pushing the train, or worse, pridefully think they know better than the conductor and don’t need his train at all to arrive at Covenant City.

The train will journey through various landscapes—both dry, barren deserts and fruitful, fertile valleys. Sometimes the train ride will be winding and bumpy and sometimes it will be smooth and peaceful. Sometimes it may seem as if it is hurtling at great speed and sometimes it may seem to be barely crawling along the tracks, truly testing the obedience of the passengers to remain submitted to the conductor’s wisdom in staying seated on the train, despite the seeming appearance that their own feet can propel them further and faster along the track. Though no one is under compulsion to remain on the train, and passengers are free to depart the train whenever they choose, there is no promise the train will wait indefinitely for them. However all the passengers that remain loyal to the conductor’s wishes are guaranteed to arrive at the predestined destination— Covenant City.

It is not as though the conductor specifically selected or individually predestined which passengers will arrive at Covenant City and which passengers will not. Rather all those who chose to become passengers and abide by the conditions the conductor set forth are by consequence “chosen” by the conductor to arrive at the preordained destination— Covenant City. For what has been predestined for the passenger collective becomes predestined for each individual in virtue of each person’s decision to remain with the passenger collective in the train predestined for Covenant City. It matters not at what stage you got on the train, or whether one sits in the caboose or up front in the viewing area. The important thing is to obey the conductor, trust in his ability to get you safely to your destination and have faith in his train’s engine, which requires no self-propulsion from you. Trust and faith is therefore identified with what it means to “obey and remain in the train” predestined for Covenant City.

Does God not have the right to institute sovereign conditions for “elect” status?

In light of this analogy, Paul would no doubt say national Israel chose not to obey the conductor and chose not to have faith in his train’s engine. Instead she chose to depart the train’s passenger collective and foolishly and pridefully trust in her own resources and strength to arrive at Covenant City. Biblically speaking to trust in one’s own “resources and strength” means one is trusting in their own self-achieved righteousness. For in Romans 10 Paul gives added context to his material in Romans 9 by putting it within the larger frame of Israel’s stubborn disregard of God’s conditions for election, saying “they disregarded the righteousness from God and attempted to establish their own righteousness” (Rom. 10:3).

In Romans 9 Paul is under no illusions as to why Israel’s disregard of God’s righteousness through faith, coupled with her self-inflated righteousness, brought about judicial severing from the metaphorical “olive tree” of election. In Romans 9 Paul skillfully links into God’s varied O.T. purposes in regards to election and uses that established link as a springboard to explain why God is not at all unfair or unjust to disqualify unbelieving Jews and qualify believing Gentiles into His elect, covenant “olive tree.” Paul rightly recognizes all God’s acts of election in the O.T., regardless of purpose, have one thing in common—they are all according to God’s sovereign will and therefore no one can obligate or compel God one way or another in regards to any of God’s sovereign decisions.

Does this mean God has not, or worse—cannot— institute His own sovereign conditions by which individuals can enter into “elect” status? That would be equally absurd. Obligating God’s sovereign election is one thing. Responding to God’s sovereign terms for election is another thing entirely.[11]

Indeed sometimes God’s election of people is unconditional, such as God’s choice of Jacob over Esau as a corporate figurehead for Israel’s nationalized identity. And sometimes God’s election is a conditional, corporate status of belonging conferred on individuals who meets God’s prescribed, sovereign condition of faith and belief.

Given that national Israel and her leaders rejected God’s sovereign terms of belief by resisting the Holy Spirit and rejecting God’s will for themselves (Acts 7:51, Lk 7:30), she consequently forfeited God’s will. God’s will was that she be part of His chosen remnant, His own special people set aside for Him to love and protect as a hen cares for her chicks. But she resisted. As Christ lamented, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem! She who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her. How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, yet you were not willing” (Mt. 23:37).

Since God sovereignly wills to not force His will (to love and care) on the unwilling, Israel will not experience covenantal protection but rather national judgment. That God often chose to judge unfaithful Israelites in the O.T. time shows us that God would rather have a remnant of faithful believers than an entire nation of disbelieving rebels. Paul is no stranger to this story. Later we will specifically look at Paul’s O.T. examples in Romans 11 and note how views the “chosenness” or election of the “remnant” in relation to prior faithfulness to God, and the hardening of “the rest” in relation to prior unfaithfulness.

Paul’s summary analysis and theological tsunami: Romans 9:30-32

Suffice it to say Paul believes he is living in another age where God is again judging the house of Israel for their disbelief and disregard of God’s righteousness. But all is not lost because what God intended for the world, when he first called Abraham’s descendants to be a light and blessing to all nations, has been fulfilled through the faithfulness of Israel’s Messiah—the true Israelite of all Israelites. As a result Paul has personally witnessed countless Gentiles place their faith in Israel’s Messiah—God’s elect Son. Just as Abraham long ago was approved righteous through faith, prior to the Law, Gentiles are now also being approved righteous through faith—apart from the Law. Paul pulls all the threads together in his summary analysis at the end of Romans 9, declaring,

What should we say then? Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained righteousness—namely the righteousness that comes from faith. But Israel, pursuing the law for righteousness, has not achieved the righteousness of the law. Why is that? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were by works (Rom. 9:30–32).

We will look at this profound verse more thoroughly in Part 2. But we ought to pause here and absorb the enormity of what Paul just said. For in the day of Paul the proclamation that any uncircumcised Gentile could become one of God’s chosen people, simply on the basis of faith in Christ, was a mind-blowing paradigm change that was synonymous with a theological tsunami! Are not Jews alone the chosen of God? And are not Jews the elect of God simply by virtue of their heritage and works as Torah-observing, children of Abraham? And if Gentiles are to have a “saving chance” should it not be according to terms set forth by God’s religious gate-keepers—the Jews? And should not the terms be circumcision and observance of all the laws in the Torah?

These questions were the flash points of debate in the early church and were issues that Paul was unceasingly addressing in his epistles—most notably in Romans and Galatians. Jews of Paul’s day had grown up under the legendary traditions of Jewish lore that they alone were God’s covenant people by birth—and it would always be that way. Paul’s first assault on the evolution of this legendary tradition is found early in Romans:

“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…No human being will be justified in God’s sight by works of the law…we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is He not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one” (Romans 2:29-30, 3:29-30).

That many religious Jews were surprised to hear that God—through Israel’s own Messiah— was throwing open wide the door of covenant union to Gentiles would be an understatement. Not only this, but Paul is saying Gentiles need not conform themselves to rigorous law-keeping to join God’s elect community. Rather faith in Jesus alone was God’s sovereignly declared means to become a true son of Abraham, and hence a child of God. It cannot be stressed enough that for early Jewish Christians this was a major upheaval of all they had assumed. Calvinists are often remiss and inattentive to the historical, cultural and emotional context that surrounds passages like Romans 9.

Calvinism’s dark secret: God’s moral nature willed all evil against His moral nature

Why this critique? For one simple reason. Nothing less than the moral goodness of God is at stake. Calvinists have long considered Romans 9 to be the bastion of support for their views concerning double predestination and God’s determination of all moral evil. Many are unaware Calvinism’s extreme view of divine sovereignty also teaches that every human thought, choice and event throughout human history–including one’s personal sins—have been causally determined by God. A few quotes by John Calvin will bear this out:

Hence we maintain that, by his providence, not heaven and earth and inanimate creatures only, but also the counsels and wills of men are so governed as to move exactly in the course which he has destined.[12]

Men do nothing save at the secret instigation of God, and do not discuss and deliberate on anything but what he has previously decreed with himself, and brings to pass by his secret direction.[13]

The hand of God rules the interior affections no less than it superintends external actions; nor would God have effected by the hand of man what he decreed, unless he worked in their hearts to make them will before they acted.[14]

The will of God is the chief and principal cause of all things.[15]

But where it is a matter of men’s counsels, wills, endeavors, and exertions, there is greater difficulty in seeing how the providence of God rules here too, so that nothing happens but by His assent and that men can deliberately do nothing unless He inspire it.[16]

That last quote is especially chilling. If “nothing happens” that God has not sovereignly “inspired” it means God inspires every act of child pedophilia, every lie, every religious cult, every false doctrine, every abortion, every act of adultery and every suicide. The list is as endless as the world is evil.

It is one thing to suggest God allows evil and another thing entirely to suggest God decrees and inspires evil. They are not morally equivalent. God allows evil insofar as He created us as His divine imagers with the capacity of genuine choice. For in creating us in His image God was in pursuit of a morally meaningful world. And in His sovereign wisdom God knew the most meaningful acts of love, worship and obedience could not occur unless the free choice to not love, to not worship and to not obey was genuinely available to His divine imagers. Indeed if true love, worship and obedience was to mean anything it meant such choices could not be extracted from us coercively or irresistibly. In that sense God chooses to allow evil rather than abort evil by aborting us! For the only way God could abort all evil would be to abort His sovereign plan that we be created in His image.

That moral evil exists is evidence God chose not to abort His sovereign will to create us as free, moral agents. It is not at all an evidence God sovereignly willed all moral evil. Calvinism takes God’s moral nature and will to such an unbiblical extreme it becomes grotesque. In Calvinism God does not simply allow men to abuse their freedom to do evil, He in fact inspires them to commit evil acts. In Calvin’s estimation this is the only way God can guarantee they commit the evils He unconditionally decreed they must commit. Unconditional because Calvinists deny God conditioned any of His acts on foreknowledge of human free will. Free will is an illusion in Calvinism since God’s foreknowledge of what people do is informed solely by His knowledge of what He already foreordained they must do. That is to say in Calvinism people only desire to do what God ultimately decreed they will desire to do. And they are not free to choose contrary to God’s decree. Thus we are like a glove that fits over God’s hand. The glove moves but ultimately only in response to the movement of the hand. Our wills are thus God’s instruments to affect His decrees—and nothing more.[17]

The moral “fall out” of such theology contaminates everything—including God’s nature. Truth be told in Calvinism God’s holy mind becomes the logical origin of conception for every un-holy, wicked event in human history. Stated more specifically, God’s moral nature becomes the ultimate author, conceiver and determiner of everything that allegedly opposes God’s moral nature.[18] Is that a contradiction the Scriptures embrace? I don’t think so. Yet how else to explain Calvin’s teaching that all sinful decisions and deliberations are “decreed” and initiated by the “secret instigation of God” that he infallibly “brings to pass by his secret direction.” How else to explain Calvin’s insistence that “the hand of God rules the interior affections” of all people, having “worked in their hearts to make them will before they acted” because “men can deliberately do nothing unless He inspire it.”

Calvin is savvy enough to recognize God’s moral nature must be given an escape hatch if God is to elude the entrapment of being held morally responsible for the very immoral acts He decreed men must commit according to “the course which He has destined.” For Calvin, and all Calvinists since then, that escape hatch is to appeal to inconceivable mystery. We again take Calvin in his own words,

I have already shown clearly enough that God is the author of all those things which, according to these objectors [non-Calvinists] happen only by his inactive permission… No, when we cannot comprehend how God can will that to be done which he forbids us to do, let us call to mind our imbecility…”[19]

If God controls the purposes of men, and turns their thoughts and exertions to whatever purpose he pleases, men do not therefore cease to form plans and to engage in this or the other undertaking. We must not suppose that there is a violent compulsion, as if God dragged them against their will; but in a wonderful and inconceivable manner he regulates all the movements of men, so that they still have the exercise of their will.[20]

On the one hand Calvin wants to say that God’s will of decree regulates, turns and infallibly controls the thoughts and actions of every person. But on the other hand Calvin wants to preserve human accountability in making choices, so he asserts that God does not violently force his will of decree on anyone. How does God accomplish this? Calvin never tells us. Instead he appeals to unexplainable mystery seen in his cloaked phrase “wonderful and inconceivable manner he regulates all the movements of men…” This is theological gobbledegook in its highest form and it ought to be cast out of our minds as a nefarious deception.

There is nothing particularly wrong in appealing to mystery to understand the delicate question as to why a good God would allow the evils we see in the world. But Calvinism puts the “mystery” in the wrong place. Rather than evil’s occurrence itself being a “mystery” in light of God’s goodness and power, Calvinist theology makes the goodness of God’s nature the mystery. For how can God’s moral nature be truly good if that same morally good nature decreed every act of sin and evil allegedly opposed to God’s good nature?

Calvinism: A bankrupt theology with no moral currency

The result of Calvinism’s extreme view of sovereignty is frankly appalling. The logical implications of Calvinism are simply too enormous to justify.[21] In Calvinism God tells us to put to death the deeds of our flesh and to walk in holiness, yet every time we give in to the flesh God’s meticulous pre-determinism ultimately lies behind it all—such that we could not have chosen against God’s decree. On the one hand Christ told us to pray that God delivers us from temptation and evil, yet on the other hand God has determined all the tempting evil that ensnares us. Trying to rescue God’s marred, moral nature from under the rubble of Calvinism is simply too high a price to pay. We can embrace a biblically endorsed portrait of God’s sovereignty without the heavy weight of Calvinist theology weighing down our hearts.

Arminian theology has long opposed Calvinist views, not only on the grounds of biblical interpretation, but on the grounds that Calvinism surrenders up God’s moral character on the alter of a misconceived understanding of God’s sovereignty. Arminians consider their beliefs to be the true doctrines of grace and hold God is sovereign only to the extent God is good. This returns us to Romans 9. Since Calvinists consider some of Paul’s statements in Romans 9 to be the citadel of defense against all of their theological opponents it is necessary we thoroughly deal with it. Moreover if Arminian theology accurately reflects biblical theology, then a non-Calvinist interpretation should not only be able to survive Romans 9, it should thrive in it. And this it does exceedingly well! With that said, let us thoroughly unpack Romans 9-11, keeping in mind Paul did not write in chapter divisions. On to Part 2!

[1] Jonathan Deundian (Thomistguy) in the comment section at
[2] Thanks to a fellow member of the Society of Evangelical Arminians for this insight.
[3] Geisler, Norman. Chosen but Free: A Balanced View of God’s Sovereignty and Free Will. Bethany House, 2010, p. 66
[4] Arminians hold no one comes to God’s truth apart from God’s God’s calling grace, otherwise known as drawing grace or preceding grace. Natural man is hostile to God in his will, but God’s grace enables a response of confession and faith by rendering man’s will sufficiently “freed” and therefore capable of a free response. Yet God’s grace is ultimately resistible and people resist God’s grace to their peril. God’s grace is not irresistible pre-conversion anymore than it is irresistible post-conversion, which is why the Scriptures warn us not to “fall from grace” (Gal. 5:4).
[5] See Brian Abasciano’s article “Corporate Election in Romans 9: A Reply to Thomas Schreiner” p. 353
[6] It now widely recognized that the phrase “from the beginning” may not be the best translation. For the earliest Greek manuscripts know nothing of this phrase and instead read “God chose you as a first fruit.” This translation is borne out in more recent translations such as the ESV and TNIV Bibles. Though both textual translations are possible, neither one requires us to think that God chose certain individuals unconditionally for salvation and denied others before the foundation of the world. In taking the second translation it is quite reasonable to suggest Paul is asserting that the corporate body in Thessalonica, in virtue of their response of faith, were a chosen, first fruit harvest of believers in that area.
[7] Brian Abasciano, “Clearing Up Misconceptions about Corporate Election”, PDF version, p. 7-8,10. See the Ashland Theological Journal 41 (2009) 67-102 for the original published version. The page citations in this paper follow the PDF article available at
[8] See
[9] Abasciano, Brian. “Clearing Up Misconceptions about Corporate Election”, PDF version, p. 8-9. See the Ashland Theological Journal 41 (2009) 67-102 for the original published version. The page citations in this paper follow the PDF article available at
[10] Abasciano, Brian. “Clearing Up Misconceptions about Corporate Election”, PDF version, p. 9. See the Ashland Theological Journal 41 (2009) 67-102 for the original published version. The page citations in this paper follow the PDF article available at
[11] This critical distinction is lost on the Calvinist since everything—including our responses—have already been sovereignly predetermined by God. In Calvinism we merely have the illusion we are freely responding, choosing and deliberating, because from our point of view what has been determined is not yet known—until it occurs. From God’s vantage point the choice is both known and determined. That is to say it is known to God only because God determined it. In light of this arrangement, any sense of free will we possess is only because we are ignorant of what God determined until we choose A over B and bring to light what God determined. For example I may have the feeling that I am exercising a free will when I deliberate over a menu, but that is only because I do not yet know the choice God determined for me to make—until I make it. Since Calvinism insists our choices are not free from God’s causal constraints, the entire biblical portrait of human accountability is rendered meaningless. Consider Paul’s counsel in Galatians 5:13, “For you were called to be free brothers, only don’t use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh…” If Calvinism were true it would mean both the opportunity for fleshly indulgence and the choice to indulge the flesh are equally determined by God.
[12] John Calvin, Inst. I.xvi.8. 1539 edition. Quoted in A.N.S. Lane, “Did Calvin Believe in Freewill?” Vox Evangelica 12 (1981): 73
[13] John Calvin, Inst. I.xviii.l. 1559 edition. See A.N.S. Lane, “Did Calvin Believe in Freewill?” Vox Evangelica 12 (1981): 73
[14] John Calvin, Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God (tr. J. K. S. Reid) (London, 1961)175f. (OC 8.358) See A.N.S. Lane, “Did Calvin Believe in Freewill?” Vox Evangelica 12 (1981): 73
[15] John Calvin, Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God 177 (OC 8.360). Cf. Inst. I.xviii.2 (1559). See A.N.S. Lane, “Did Calvin Believe in Freewill?” Vox Evangelica 12 (1981): 73
[16] John Calvin, Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God, pp.171-172
[17] Calvinist theologian John Frame agrees, saying, “The Reformed [Calvinists] agree that God knows what would happen under all conditions, but they reject the notion that this knowledge is ever ultimately based on man’s autonomous decisions. Human decisions, they argue, are themselves the effects of God’s eternal decrees.” John Frame, “Scientia Media,” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd ed., Walter A. Elwell. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 1075.
[18] There exists an unresolved conundrum within Calvinism. For if evil is best defined as “that which is contrary to God’s moral nature”, yet all evil is decreed by God’s moral nature, how then can we say anything is contrary to God’s moral nature and thus truly evil?
[19] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2008), 1.18.1 and 3:136, 138-39
[20] John Calvin, Commentary on Is. 10:15. See A.N.S. Lane, “Did Calvin Believe in Freewill?” Vox Evangelica 12 (1981): 73
[21] For a more comprehensive list of Calvinist theologians attributing evil’s occurrence to God’s will of decree, see
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An Arminian Analysis of Acts 13:48 as Covenant Transfer

acts 2Acts 13:48 is considered by many to be one of the strongest verses in defense of Calvinism’s view of individual election. We read, “And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed.

At first glance it does appear to present quite the challenge to the widely held and thoroughly biblical corporate view of divine election. However a few considerations pulled from both context and grammar will demonstrate how this passage poses no serious threat to the corporate view of election, and in fact dovetails nicely with classical Arminian teaching that no sinner comes to faith independent of the gracious work of God. For Arminian theology is founded on the unalterable conviction that the Spirit of God continuously seeks to break down walls of resistance, open hearts and draw sinners unto divine love.

To commence lets first take note of the fact that the Greek word translated “appointed” comes from the Greek root of the verb tasso. Some Arminian scholars point out that tasso can be interpreted both in the passive voice or the middle voice. If interpreted in the passive voice the subject would be seen as entering a state in response to being acted upon. Yet this alone does not warrant the Calvinist insistance that God must be the actor. New Testament scholar Brian Abasceno rightly notes “the passive alone does not indicate who the agent of the action is, and does allow for the subject himself/herself to be the agent.” If interpreted in the middle voice the subject would most defintely be entering a state or condition in response to one’s own disposition, inclination or preparedness.

Concerning Acts 13:48 both interpretations of tasso are grammatically possible. To be fair Luke uses tasso in a few other instances in his epistle and in each case the middle voice is not the best interpretation (e.g. Acts 15:2, 22:10, 28:23). However this fact alone does not rule out the possibility of the middle voice in Acts 13:48. Moreover it must be understood that Luke’s usage of tasso elsewhere in his epistle has absolutely no connotation whatsoever of being a timeless decree or an act of eternal foreordination on the part of God before the creation of the world (as John Wesley rightly pointed out years ago). We will explore this key point more below since it is the unfounded presupposition Calvinists force upon the text.

In addition not a single usage of tasso in Acts identifies God as being the agent performing the action. In fact of all the instances where tasso is seen throughout the entire N.T. only one explicitly identifies God as being the actor of tasso (e.g. Rom. 13:1), and even in that case the verse is completely unrelated to salvation and simply deals with God setting or establishing authorities in place.

The verb tasso can have various nuances depending on the context surrounding its use. A perusal through numerous Greek lexicons will generally show it means, “to arrange or set in an orderly manner,” “to assign, to ordain, to appoint or dispose to a certain place or position.” Tasso is used 8 times in the New Testament and is translated with the basic meaning of “to appoint,” “to designate a place,” “to appoint or designate that something be done,” “to appoint a day for something to be done,” or “to appoint or set in order the powers that rule the world.” By far the majority of tasso passages are in the passive voice, but not all. In 1 Corinthians 16:15 we find the household of Stephanus “appointing their services” or “setting themselves” in service to saints in the church and the verb tasso is translated in the middle voice as meaning “devoted themselves.” In that sense upon seeing the needs of the saints the household of Stephanus positioned or arranged themselves accordingly to serve the interests of the saints rather than themselves.

Calvinists opt to argue that Luke’s usage of tasso should be interpreted in the passive voice thereby retaining the idea of an external cause acting on the subject to bring about a result—in this case belief. Therefore the passage should be read as “all those who were appointed to eternal life believed.” To be sure most translations bear out the passive voice and render tasso as “appointed” or “ordained.” However, not satisfied with this, Calvinists then go outside the text to gather up assumptions not explicit in the passage and then return to the text “arms laden” with presuppositions that lead them to argue that the passive voice of tasso must mean that God eternally elected or predestined before the creation of the world certain individuals to eternal life and the result of that predestination or foreordination is that those individuals believed.

We will address this shortly but suffice it to say at this juncture that some Arminians object to this interpretation and suggest that another possible interpretation can be drawn out by translating tasso in the middle voice. In this sense the passage would imply “all those who set their lives in accordance to the gospel of eternal life believed” or “all those who were devoted to eternal life believed.”

The difference in meaning is quite obvious. If interpreted in the middle voice the implication is that the hearers of Paul’s message set in order their own hearts in response to the message preached. Yet even in this sense no faithful Arminian worth his salt would ever suggest the heart of sinner can be set in order or be internally disposed and devoted to eternal life independent of the gracious Spirit of God convicting and drawing that heart out of darkness and to the light of life.

While the argument of some Arminians scholars for the middle voice is worthy of great consideration, it is difficult—if not impossible— to make a case that can completely silence the considerations of those who view the passive voice to be the most reasonable and plausible interpretation. Therefore it should be asked, is there a third alternative solution that retains the traditional translation of tasso in the passive voice and yet avoids the interpretive conclusion that Calvinists seek to argue for—that being that the passage teaches an eternal, timeless decree of election that is the direct cause for the belief of individuals?

I believe there is such an alternative—in fact there are two!

The rationale for interpreting tasso in the passive voice is to retain the idea that Paul’s hearers are entering a state in response to some external initiative or cause. Calvinists seek to qualify that external cause to be a divine appointment on the part of God. The text does not explicitly state this and so it is pure speculation on the Calvinist to insist upon it. However we will soon see that even a divine appointment to eternal life can be affirmed without consenting to the further conjecture that such a divine setting or appointment is rooted in a timeless, hidden decree of God before the foundation of the world.

But first let’s deal with how tasso can be interpreted in the passive voice without having to speculate on whether or not God is the external cause of tasso. It is perfectly reasonable to conclude that the external cause of tasso upon the hearers is the message of the gospel itself! Jesus often prefaced his deeper messages with the remark, “He who has ears let him hear” (Mt. 11:15). We are told in Romans 10:17 that “faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God” so it should be no surprise to discover that the gospel message preached can be said to set lives in order (tasso) which were previously in disorder and in disarray. Understood in this light, the passage can be interpreted as follows: “And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many of those who heard and were set in order by the things they heard concerning eternal life believed.”

Yet perhaps the Calvinist is not content with only interpreting tasso in the passive voice, but also sees an inference to a divine appointing or divine setting to eternal life concerning Paul’s hearers. This leads us to our second, possible interpretation.

Much of the heat of argument generated over Acts 13:48 dissipates when we realize that tasso can: (1) be interpreted in the passive voice as being a divine setting or appointment to eternal life, (2) while at the same time compliment the Arminian views on God’s grace in salvation and retaining corporate election!

For starters it is imperative to point out that Calvinists substantially err in seeking to argue that tasso’s passive voice translation of “appointed, ordained or destined” must refer to God’s eternal decree of individual election before time began. By itself tasso has nothing whatsoever to do with a timeless foreordination or pre-temporal determinism. Not a single scriptural usage of tasso can be explicitly called in support of viewing tasso in this way—not one! The reason is simple. If the N.T. authors and particularly Luke in Acts 13:48 had meant to denote an eternal decree of foreordination, election or of a choice before time they could have easily said so with a number of words at their disposal to mean exactly that. In fact Luke previously enlisted two words, orizo and proorizo, in Acts to clearly speak of something that is predestined or foreordained in its appointment—namely the redemptive work of the Son (Acts 2:22-23, 4:27-28).

If orizo and proorizo are Luke’s common and preferred words to denote eternal predestination or foreordination, why would he then turn around and use tasso in Acts 13:48—a word which is never used in scripture to denote a timeless decree of foreordination? Apparently Luke does not want us to infer a divine, eternal decree of election—yet this is exactly what Calvinists unfortunately do!

Therefore, to be sure, even by retaining the passive voice of tasso as referring to those appointed to eternal life by God, there is no reason we should then infer that such an appointment is a pre-temporal, predestinating or foreordained decree of election on the part of God. Rather the sense of tasso is always suggestive of a temporal arrangement, or a time-bound, worldly ordering or appointment of events and actions which were, at that particular time, under consideration.

Most translations opt for translating tasso simply as “appointed” but some opt for “ordain.” Yet it bears repeating even in this sense translating tasso as “ordained” need not mean “fore-ordained in eternity past” any more than “appointed” means “pre-appointed before the world began.” Once again if Luke had wanted to signify a pre-deterministic foreordination as his intended meaning he easily could have done so by choosing a verb form that meant exactly that.

What we can infer from the passage is that their setting or appointment to eternal life, which did in fact lead to their subsequent belief, was itself a work of divine grace leading and establishing their hearts in faith. Truth be told such an understanding of the role of grace in salvation is a core feature of the Arminian perspective! This may come as a surprise to some given that there are so many misinformed assessments and misrepresentations of Arminianism that run amuck in Calvinist circles. This ignorance is a direct result of both popular and scholarly level Calvinists refusing to engage genuine, Arminian scholars on their own turf and in their words. Arminians have no bones to pick with Calvinists over the need for divine grace to initiate saving faith and ultimately open a sinner’s heart to the gospel. Where we disagree is the Calvinist insistence that divine grace cannot be resisted or rejected. Arminians believe such a grace would be coercive in nature and thus no grace at all.

Greg Boyd, though he ascribes to an open view of the future, is thoroughly Arminian in his soteriology and offers a helpful summary on the role of grace in Acts 13:48 and rightly notes the Calvinist error in imposing on the text an outside, preconceived assumption of election:

Note that the text simply says that “as many as were destined [Boyd undoubtedly opts to say “destined” to give the Calvinist the full weight of the argument before demonstrating how the Arminian view remains sound] for eternal life became believers.” Other than suggesting it was prior to their believing, the verse does not tell us when these people were destined. Nor does it suggest that they were destined simply because God unconditionally chose them. Calvinists assume that this destiny was given to the elect before the world began by sheer divine fiat, but the text simply does not say this. To be sure, there are several other texts which do say that we were predestined before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4–5; 2 Tim. 1:9) but the “we” of these verses is a corporate “we.” These verses do not support individual election to salvation.

The text only requires us to believe that the Spirit of God had been at work preparing the hearts of all who did not resist him to accept the Gospel when they heard it. God knows our heart before we express it through our words or through our decisions (Ps. 139:2–4). On this basis the Lord could assure Paul before his missionary endeavor at Corinth that “there are many in this city who are my people” (viz. whose hearts have been opened and who will therefore believe your message) (Acts 18:10).

So too, Lydia listened intently to Paul’s Gospel because the Lord had already “opened her heart” (Acts 16:14). Those Gentiles who did not resist the Spirit’s work in their life were “ripe” for the message of Paul and Barnabas.”[1]

It should be no wonder to discover that our heavenly Father “looks to and fro throughout the whole earth to give strong support to those whose hearts are blameless toward Him” (2 Chron. 16:9) so that he might appoint them to eternal life by opening their heart, as with Lydia, to receive the Good News. Apparently some of the “God fearing Gentiles” (Acts 17:17) in Corinth had not resisted the Spirit’s prior visitations upon their lives and thus were already appointed to eternal life by the time Paul and Barnabas preached to them the Good News which they no doubt received with joyful hearts.

Again Boyd astutely writes,

Scripture teaches us that prior to a person’s conscious decision to put their faith in Jesus Christ, the Father is “drawing” them and the Holy Spirit is working on them to break down walls of resistance and make the soil of their soul fertile (John 6:44, 65; 1 Cor. 12:3). This is why the Lord could tell Paul, “there are many in this city (Corinth) who are my people” (Acts 18:10), though Paul had not yet preached there and there were as yet no believers… Now, scripture makes it clear that this sovereign work of God can be resisted, for we are free agents even when the God of the universe is knocking on our hearts (Isa. 63:10; Acts 7:51; Heb. 3:8, 15; 4:7, cf. Eph. 4:30). When we persist in our rebellion, our eyes remain blind and our hearts remain dark (2 Cor. 4:4–6). We will not accept the truth of the Gospel. But when our resistance is broken down, our destiny to become believers is settled…

In my opinion, this is also how we ought to interpret Jesus’ words when he tells certain Jews, “you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice…and they follow me” (John 10:26–27). Jesus isn’t implying that God unilaterally decides who will and will not be sheep, as Calvinists teach. And he certainly isn’t suggesting that this matter was decided before any of these people were born. Jesus’ words only imply that at the time of his speaking some people were sheep and therefore believed while others were not and therefore did not believe. We create impossible problems for ourselves—such as how God can love all and want all to be saved while predestining many to hell—when we go beyond what Scripture teaches…

In sum, we see that this verse teaches that God’s move toward us always precedes our move toward him, as in Corinth, and as with Lydia. God had ahead of time prepared the hearts of a number of Gentiles in Antioch to receive the Gospel when Paul and Barnabas preached it. But this verse does not suggest that God eternally predestines… who will and will not believe in him.”[2]

There is an additional contextual feature to be found in the text that compliments Boyd’s highlighting of the fact that before Paul and Barnabas even preached the gospel, the Lord had individuals in view whose hearts were open and ready to receive the gospel in faith. We find this contextual clue a few verses earlier in vs. 43. We read, “When the congregation was dismissed, many of the Jews and devout converts to Judaism followed Paul and Barnabas, who talked with them and urged them to continue in the grace of God.”

These “devout converts to Judaism” were of course Gentiles and the fact that they are spoken of as being “devout” signifies that a genuine conversion to the Abrahamic faith had taken place prior to Paul and Barnabas’s arrival! For this reason Paul encourages them to “continue in the grace of God” (vs. 43).

In other words these devout, Gentile converts to the faith of Abraham were already in a sense “on their way” or appointed and/or ordained to the eternal truth of God by virtue of their prior orientation to the grace of God under an O.T. covenantal relationship with God. They started with grace in the old covenant and Paul wants to see them continue in grace in the new covenant! The passage says that immediately the next day the whole city turned out to hear the preaching of Paul and Barnabas. The Gentile “devout converts” of vs. 43 are undoubtedly the same Gentiles in vs. 48 who are said to be those who were appointed to eternal life and thus believed.

That changes everything!

It is no stretch to say that the Spirit of the Lord’s grace had been preparing the soil of their heart through their devout hunger to know God in an O.T. covenantal paradigm. In this sense their being “appointed to eternal life” should not be viewed as some theological aside related to a timeless, unconditional, selective decree of election. Rather, it is only through engaging the passage in the context of the overall narrative that Luke is telling that we come to understand something of great import. That is, their appointment to eternal life is the natural extension of a spiritual awakening that grace had already performed for them through their covenantal status as a spiritual descendent of Abraham in view of their commitment to the true faith of Abraham!

Understanding Acts 13:48 in this way allows us to retain the passive translation of tasso without going further than what the text says by assuming some sort of timeless foreordination of election. It also avoids the misgivings some have in opting for the middle voice and assuming that the hearers of Paul’s message set themselves or were devoted and disposed to eternal life within themselves. Most importantly it retains the idea that their appointment to eternal life was due to an external cause—namely the grace of God that established them formerly in the Old Covenant and was now carrying them through to its fulfillment in Christ in the New Covenant.

It is no overreaching assertion to state that at the time of Christ’s advent all those who were in true, faith-binding covenant with the God of Abraham were set, appointed, destined for eternal life. The Gentiles “who rejoiced” (vs. 48) that the door of salvation was open to them were already in a Judaic covenant of faith with the God of Abraham, and that served as the basis for their subsequent appointment leading to a full faith in the God of Abraham. They were converts to the God of Abraham before they even heard Paul preach, and yet Paul sought to urge them to lay hold of grace and go one step further into full conversion. This is beyond doubt what Paul hoped for when he “urged them to continue in the grace of God” the very day prior to their final conversion to Christ.

Lastly, there is no sound reason to assume that Paul thinks that grace is compulsory, irresistible and “always gets its man.” Otherwise he would not have urged them to do their part in partnering with God by “continuing in the grace of God (vs. 43).” Likewise we should not read into the text some preconceived notion that God did not genuinely desire others to come to life. Rather than describing a God who unconditionally predestines individuals to be excluded from eternal life, Luke says quite the opposite. He places the responsibility square at the feet of those who rejected the word of God for themselves. Couched between Acts 13:43 and 47 we find these telling passages:

“On the next Sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord. When the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and talked abusively against what Paul was saying. Then Paul and Barnabas answered them boldly: “We had to speak the word of God to you first. Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles.”

Far from teaching an individual, eternal decree of election, that arbitrarily selects some for eternal life while banishing others, Acts 13:43-48 is revealing the beauty and faithfulness of God’s covenant transfer. Those who had rightly responded in faith and trust to God’s grace in the old covenant, and were thereby appointed to eternal life on that basis, would not be forgotten or left behind. Just as they heard and recognized the voice of their Good Shepherd in the old covenant they would recognize that same voice coming through the message of the new coveant and thus be graciously shephered into God’s new covenant through their continued belief. Moreover Acts 13:43-48 teaches that grace always reaches out through the word of God to order our lives and establish us on a path leading to eternal life. But when the word of God is rejected and his grace spurned such individuals consequently judge themselves as “unworthy of eternal life” (Acts 13:46).




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