Romans 9-11 Part 2: The Thriving of Arminianism and Declining of Calvinism
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.
- 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.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. 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.
- 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.
- 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,
6 But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. 7 Neither are they all children because they are Abraham’s descendants. On the contrary, your offspring will be traced through Isaac. 8 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).
- 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).
- 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. 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. 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.
- 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.
- 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. As already stated, Esau and Jacob are corporate figureheads for Israel and Edom. 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.
- 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.
- Why does Paul identify Israel’s present condition with Pharoah’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 byunbelief, 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 acceptanceinto the covenant or removalfrom 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.
- 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! 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.
- 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. 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).
- 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?”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.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.
- 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. 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. 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?”
- 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? 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.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.
- 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.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).
- 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. 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.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. 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.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. If God’s double predestination is unconditional, why did Jesus speak of faith or its lack as a condition: “Whoever does not believe stands condemned… because he has not believed…” (Jn. 3:18)
We can add to Groover’s insight above by highlighting three 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. 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).
- 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?
Secondly, can God’s call to repentance and His offer of salvation to all people be genuine if he already unconditionally chose to damn a great number of them to hell? The well-known Calvinist theologian Herman Hoaksema 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 does not deny that the Bible calls for universal preaching of the gospel. However he believes all Calvinists need 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.What is the Calvinist to do? If he opts for Hoeksema’s reasoning he must either disavow or muddle up clear statements in the scripture that speak of God’s genuine desire for all to repent and to come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Tim. 2:3-4; 2 Peter 3:9). But if he concedes that the scriptures do speak of God extending to all people a genuine offer of salvation, undergirded by a sincere desire for their salvation, how does this not collapse into an absurd inconsistency and outlandish contradiction given the rest of Calvinism’s core features—namely unlimited atonement and unconditional election. No matter how you splice it the fallout from Calvinist theology presents a picture of a God who actively works against the fulfillment of his own desires, or is a cosmic charlatan who feigns sincerity and mercy.
For how can God sincerely command for fallen men and woman to receive what they were never given? How can he demand they receive by faith something he is intentionally withholding from them?
- 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!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.” 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. 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.
- 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).
- 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. 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 whoeverdefiantlydisregards His outstretched hand of divine grace.
- “Make known the riches of His glory”(Rom. 9:23) on whoeveryields 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 He want? Why everything Paul says must be filtered 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.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 graciouslykept 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
31. Paul’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 foreordinationThe 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 either. 22 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 andremain 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.
3 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.
Pauls 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 though 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 “becauseofthe 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 and then 2) causally determine them to be either objects of wrath or objects of mercy. To even assume this might be Paul’s argument is to 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.