Romans 9 Part 1: Paul’s Battering Ram Against Limiting Salvation
Lets begin with a multiple choice question. Is Romans 9 a theological explanation about:
- (A) God’s sovereign choice to limit salvation by unconditionally choosing to love some people enough for heaven, like Jacob, and damn other people out of hatred, like Esau.
- (B) God’s sovereign choice to limit salvation by unconditionally hardening Jews to the gospel because God doesn’t want them to believe in Jesus and go to heaven.
- (C) God’s sovereign choice to limit salvation by unconditionally creating some people for hell’s destruction as objects of wrath.
- (D) God’s continued trustworthiness to fulfill his promises to Israel—His chosen elect— in the Messiah despite national Israel’s failure to receive her Messiah; the same Messiah given to the world according to God’s sovereign choice to universally broaden salvation by extending covenant mercy, union and elect status to both Gentiles and Jews on the condition they trust in God’s righteousness by faith in God’s Messiah.
Ask the average Calvinist and they will assume the answer is A, B, or C and maybe all three. I know because this view of Romans 9 was “beaten” into my head until I felt forced to acquiesce to the unassailable logic of Calvinism. My short foray into Calvinism was filled with misery as God’s nature took on a tortured face of malevolency. It was my joyous discovery that Calvinists are wrong about Romans 9 that reignited my faith and passion for missions and evangelism.
To begin, Paul isn’t even thinking along the lines of A, B, or C. Calvinists err in approaching the text through 16th century, theological lenses, assuming the pressing question of Paul’s day was: “What role does free will play if God unconditionally predestined some to be saved and others to be damned?” That question isn’t even on Paul’s “radar.” The critical question of Paul’s day was: “How is it fair for God to invite pig-eating, unclean Gentiles into covenant election, while simultaneously cutting off Abraham’s own children—national Israel—from inheriting the long-awaited promises of God that have finally arrived in the coming of her very own Messiah?”
Answer D is entirely upon Paul’s mind.
There are two primary places where Paul expounds on election and predestination. One is in Romans 8-11 and the other is in Ephesians 1. In both portions of scripture Paul speaks of the “mystery” that has been hidden for ages but which has now been revealed (Rom. 11:25, Eph. 1:8-10). Moreover in both contextual sections of scripture Paul unveils what that mystery is—it is nothing less than God’s astonishing plan to include Gentiles into the covenantal household of God (Rom. 9:30, Eph. 2:19).
Predestination: Paul’s “battering ram” doctrine against constricting salvation
In Paul’s ministry-long battle with Judaizers he was constantly dispelling the notion that Gentile converts had only come half-way and needed to be circumcised and observe Torah in order to be in full covenant with God. Paul’s answer was to always proclaim that (1) salvation had come to the Gentiles, and (2) God’s acceptance of them into covenant election through faith was an evidence of this mystery now revealed.
To be sure, the saving purpose of covenantal election and predestination overlaps the ultimate salvation of the soul, but the saving purpose is not the principle reason Paul brings up the issue of election in Romans 9. This is where Calvinists err. Paul has in mind an evangelistic purpose! He sees election and predestination as justifying the fact that God’s mercy had been showered upon Gentiles. Through faith, they too could now be part of the chosen household of God! To the common Jew this was absurd. But to Paul it was “God’s multifaceted wisdom…according to the purpose of the ages” (Eph. 3:10-11), and the “sacred secret kept silent for long ages…to advance the obedience of faith among all nations” (Rom. 16:25-26). In bringing up election and predestination Paul is not seeking to narrow the scope of salvation but enlarge it! As one writer aptly puts it:
Predestination was one of Paul’s key arguments for the inclusion of Gentiles into God’s family. Put in the vernacular, predestination was Paul’s “battering ram” doctrine against Jewish-Christians who wanted to restrict the salvation message to God’s Old Testament chosen people. In simple terms, Paul was saying that God will have compassion on whom He will have compassion and nobody can argue with God… The problem arises with predestination when people turn its purpose on its head. To Paul predestination meant that God has sovereignly thrown open the gates of heaven to all of humanity and wants His (as Jesus said in Luke 14:23) “house full.” Paul gloried in predestination because it validated extreme evangelism. A proper understanding of predestination puts it in its biblical context as connected to the mystery of Jew and Gentile being saved. It is a generous and wonderfully outrageous doctrine of God’s love for all of humanity. All humans are now invited to come to God’s salvation banquet through faith–the blind, the lame, the rich and poor, all are welcome.
Romans 9 has nothing to do with God limiting the extent or reach of his redemptive intention to save souls. To the contrary, Romans 9 is Paul’s “battering ram” against any attempt to sequester God’s salvation from pig-eating Gentiles and “wall” them off from God’s covenant mercy. Romans 9 is largely misinterpreted by Calvinists because they insist on reading it through the lens of faulty presupposition, which is that God has constrained and limited the scope of his saving intention to only those whom he loved enough to preselect unconditionally (i.e. unconditional election).
As we will soon see this conclusion is not only misguided, it is flat out wrong. Paul’s underlying endeavor throughout Romans is to set out on a course which broadens the scope and availability of God’s mercy and salvation through faith— not constrain and constrict it! Jesus fired the first shot when he chose to make available the good news of the Kingdom to prostitutes and tax-collectors at the expense of offending the pious sensibilities of the priestly elite who felt Jesus should limit his “evangelism” to the spiritual norms and theological restrictions of His day.
Taking his cue from Jesus, Paul continued God’s expansion work by refusing to be strong-armed by the theological constraints of the Judaizers who felt God’s redemptive love needed to be straight-jacketed with the Law before enveloping the entire world. “God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he might have mercy on all” Paul would answer back (Rom. 11:32).
That God even chooses to extend mercy and save sinners through faith is a signature of His sovereign grace. Salvation belongs to God. Election belongs to God. Salvation so totally belongs to God, its very offer is a gift of God. But like all gifts they must be received. In Paul’s theological worldview, faith was not a divine mark of pre-selection based on ancestry or a badge of belonging based on the Law. Faith was an act of surrendered worship to God’s outstretched hand of grace and the means by which one received God’s gracious gift of salvation. It was a posture of humility (as to our need of God) merging with a pledge of allegiance (as to who God is for us).
Such an understanding puts the Law in its proper context. The Law was meant to reveal one’s need of God (“poor in spirit”) and was never meant to become the object of one’s devotion, dependence or confidence. That salvation was by grace through faith, and not by works of the Law, was a central message of the gospel Paul never wavered from telling. The fact that religious elites during Christ’s day were more than willing to “wall off” divine grace from Romans, prostitutes, tax-collectors and the disabled (thinking the latter were being punished by God), is clear evidence the religious establishment had hardened their hearts against divine grace and were ensnared in a boastful assumption that salvation was in some sense owed to them through ancestral birth and works of the Law.
Does faith “rubber stamp” an elect union with Christ already possessed at birth?
Oddly enough Calvinists have embraced a “Christianized” reworking of a similar deception Jews were ensnared by in Paul’s day. Jews assumed they were guaranteed covenant election on the basis of being born a child of Abraham and keeping the Law. Calvinists assume they are guaranteed covenant election on the basis of being born elect. In both cases faith is not a necessary prerequisite or condition for covenant election. It makes no difference for the Calvinist to argue faith is the means by which their election is manifested or evidenced. The point is faith is simply an empty formality that only reveals or “rubber stamps” the covenant election they already possess at birth. It does not actually unite them to election.
Yet, Paul says prior to our coming into Christ through faith we were “ children under wrath” and “excluded from the citizenship of Israel” (Eph. 2:3,12). That is to say, prior to being placed in Christ through faith, we were un-elect, “with no hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12). That is why Paul could also say, “if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him” (Rom. 8:9).
Calvinists wrongly assume individuals are born either unconditionally elect or un-elect, and if one is born elect they are therefore predestined to believe in Christ. But that inverts the theology of Paul. We are predestined in Christ through belief in the truth. We are not predestined to believe. Election then is best understood as God’s choice of those who do believe rather than God’s choice of who will believe.
Covenant Election: Unconditional in God’s giving, conditional in our receiving
True enough, God has unconditionally chosen to save sinners. In that sense He is the undisputed, unconditional source of all salvation. No one needed to convince God of humanity’s sinfulness and need of redemption. And given humanity’s universal sinfulness, no one can obligate God to save them based on their ancestry or human attempts to justify themselves. No one approaches God on their own terms. But that is not to say God has not sovereignly laid down His own terms for people to be united to His acts of redemption and reconciliation. Indeed, that God has decreed faith to be His condition for joining the elect community is undeniable and unites both Testaments.
This entire discussion goes to the core of one of Calvinism’s key tenants of belief called Unconditional Election. It forms the spearhead for its interpretive approach in understanding the nature of election and predestination, and it is the initial point where Calvinism errs in letting its theological system inform Scripture rather than the other way around. In affirming a biblically centered approach to the nature of God’s election and predestination, it must be understood that the unconditional nature of election from God’s vantage point is not being challenged. There is an agreement with the Calvinist that God is under no compulsion and under no demands to save anyone. But the question is not whether election is unconditional from the vantage point of the Giver, but whether there are any conditions for the receiver. Concerning this, Norman Geisler explains,
The question is not whether there are any conditions for God giving salvation; the question is whether there are any conditions for man receiving salvation. And here the Bible seems to be very emphatic that faith is the condition for receiving God’s gift of salvation. We are “justified by faith” (Rom. 5:1). We must “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ” in order to be saved (Acts 16:31). “Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him (Heb. 11:6).
Similarly man’s free agency to reject the truth of God made known to him is the basis of his condemnation. Paul writes, “They perish because they did not accept the love of the truth in order to be saved.” (2 Thess. 2:10). Peter likewise had sober words for those that rejected God, saying, “You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit!”(Acts 7:51) John similarly declares, “But the Pharisees and lawyers rejected the will of God for themselves…”(Lk. 7:30).
Paul will argue the same. He knows Israel’s national judgment is not occurring in a vacuum. Nor is it because God unconditionally chose for Israel to reject Him. In Romans 10:21 he quotes God’s plea to Israel, “But to Israel he says, ‘All day long I have spread out My hands to a disobedient and defiant people.” Given that national Israel, and her religious class, resisted the Holy Spirt and rejected God’s will for themselves, she will not be found among the righteous remnant of believers who pursued and found the righteousness of God through faith.
As a result of rejecting the outstretched hand of God’s grace and rejecting God’s way of faith she will come under judicial hardening and be cut off from the elect community of faith. This should be no surprise. It is the way it has always been. For when disobedience and faithlessness abounded in the O.T., the elect community of faith often shrank to a remnant.
Covenantal Election: Primarily Corporate, Secondarily Individual
Paul rightly understood biblical election is first and foremost a corporate community and God alone sets the terms to be united to His elect community. It is our modern, enlightenment thinking that tends to see ourselves in an “individualistic” manner but much of biblical identity was rooted in your corporate identification. Israel was called God’s elect nation, but that election was primarily corporate and secondarily individualistic. That is why God often “broke off” many individual Israelites for rejecting the terms of covenant election and identification, such as at Korah’s rebellion.
In the N.T. election is Christocentric, but continues to be primarily a corporate entity. God has elected a body, a church, bride—a corporate people for Himself—and individuals become part of that elect people destined for glory/salvation insofar as they choose to respond in faith to God’s drawing grace (not invincible or irresistible grace) and become united with Christ. All those who become one with the elect Son become elect in virtue of their identification with the elect Son.
That is why Paul emphasizes in Ephesians 1:4,7 that people are chosen/elect/redeemed “in Christ.” And for Paul being “in Christ” only happens in response to faith—not prior to it.
Keeping this in mind aids us when we read particular passages much touted by Calvinists, such as 2 Thessalonians 2:13 which states, “From the beginning God has chosen you for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and through belief in the truth.” We err if we seek to divorce the “you” from the common, 1st century custom of assigning identity through being a member of a corporate group. Hence it is better understand as saying, “From the beginning God has chosen you—the church of Thessalonica— for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and through belief in the truth.” This is further enhanced when we take note of Paul’s plural usage of “you” in his opening remarks in the epistle. He states, “To the church of the Thessalonians…in Christ. Grace to you.”
Keep in mind Thessalonica was predominantly a Gentile church! Paul is saying it has always been God’s plan—from the beginning— to incorporate Gentiles into His covenant community through faith. That is to say Gentile inclusion was never on the margins of God’s agenda or an afterthought. Indeed it was the mystery long hidden, but now revealed through faith in God’s Messiah. Thus the “chosen-ness” or election of the corporate body in Thessalonica was predicated on her having a right response of faith. Paul specifically identifies “belief” as the key condition for God’s choosing, not the other way around. “God has chosen you for salvation…through belief in the truth.”
Moreover God’s salvation comes “through the sanctification by the Spirit.” Yet, sanctification by the Holy Spirit is itself a post-conversion, faith induced experience. For the scriptures know nothing of a sanctified—unbeliever. Try as they may, Calvinists cannot import their theology onto 2 Thessalonians 2:13 and insist God’s election refers to God’s choice of who will believe. No—the passage reveals God’s choice occurs in conjunction with belief (i.e. “though belief in the truth”), not in isolation from it. Once again we see that God’s election to salvation is conditional rather than unconditional.
The Church should always be viewed first and foremost as a corporate entity (body and bride of Christ) belonging to God’s elect Son and secondarily as a collection of individuals who, through faith, identify and associate themselves with that covenantal, corporate body and bride destined for glory.
In short the corporate view of election differs from the Calvinist, individualistic view of election in the following way. God’s primary intention through election was not to unconditionally choose individuals for salvation, but rather to choose to elect the believing Church to salvation by virtue of its identification with Christ as its elect, corporate head. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of hearing Arminian theologian Brian Abasciano on this matter. He explains,
Most simply, corporate election refers to the choice of a group, which entails the choice of its individual members by virtue of their membership in the group. Thus, individuals are not elected as individuals directly, but secondarily as members of the elect group. Nevertheless, corporate election necessarily entails a type of individual election because of the inextricable connection between any group and the individuals who belong to it. Individuals are elect as a consequence of their membership in the group… But the Bible’s doctrine of corporate election unto salvation is even more nuanced than simply saying that the group is elected primarily and the individual secondarily. More precisely, it refers to the election of a group as a consequence of the choice of an individual who represents the group, the corporate head and representative. That is, the group is elected as a consequence of its identification with this corporate representative.
The same may be said of individuals. They are chosen as a consequence of their identification with the people, and more fundamentally, with the individual corporate head [i.e Christ]… In the New Covenant, God’s people are chosen corporately as a consequence of their union with Christ, which is effected by faith… Most directly, such election is conditioned on being in Christ. But then being in Christ is itself conditioned on faith, meaning that the divine election of God’s people and the election of individuals for salvation is ultimately conditional on faith in Christ.
Numerous scriptures can be offered to demonstrate the corporate emphasis of election in regards to the Church being incorporated into the prior election of God’s elect Son. For example in 1 Thess. 5:9 Paul declares, “For God has not destined us for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul is not saying God preselected some for wrath and some to save, because Paul is writing to believers who already trusted in Christ and thus had already escaped God’s wrath. Instead Paul wants to emphasize the future destiny that awaits the corporate Church at large. Collectively all who are in Christ are destined to obtain the full measure of their salvation— which can best be defined as all that God has predestined to do in, through and by Christ.
Similarly we read, “The Father… has blessed us in Christ… For He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless…” (Eph. 1:3-4). Paul is careful to place God’s choice “in Christ.” In other words God ordained that all who are “in Christ” through faith would be His chosen people and share in Christlikeness (holy and blameless). We are thus chosen in virtue of being in Christ through faith. Calvinists think individuals believe in Christ only because they are already elect in Christ. But to be elect in Christ is to be saved!
The Calvinist view presents insurmountable problems. It would mean an individual is already “in Christ” before they respond in faith to God’s grace. Yet if someone is already “in Christ” prior to believing in Christ, it would mean they are already saved before they believe, rendering faith inconsequential and irrelevant to the salvation they already have. This we cannot say. As noted above, if the N.T. is clear about anything, it is that persons are saved by faith (Eph. 2:8; Gal. 3:24-26). Moreover individuals are not placed in Christ in order to have faith, rather they are placed in Christ through faith. Calvinist logic inverts this biblical order. Part 3 will deal with this fact in greater detail.
It should be no surprise that the New Testament writers intended us to see corporate election through an elect head (Christ) as being the principal lens through which to view election. Indeed it is the only form of election the people of God have ever experienced! In other words election as witnessed in the New Testament is rooted in the Old Testament’s portrayal of election as being chiefly a corporate election of a group that is further identified with a representative head.
Abasciano again explains:
God chose the people of Israel in Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob/Israel (Deut 4:37; 7:6-8). That is, by choosing Jacob, the corporate/covenant representative, God also chose his descendants as his covenant people. It is a matter of Old Testament covenant theology. The covenant representative on the one hand and the people/nation of Israel on the other hand are the focus of the divine covenantal election, and individuals are elect only as members of the elect people. Moreover, in principle, foreign individuals who were not originally members of the elect people could join the chosen people and become part of the elect, demonstrating again that the locus of election was the covenant community and that individuals found their election through membership in the elect people.
This notion of election is rooted in the Old Testament concept of corporate solidarity or representation… We have already noted that God’s Old Covenant people were chosen in Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. More specifically, God chose Abraham and his descendants, but limited his election of Abraham’s descendants to only some of them by his choice of Isaac as the head of the covenant through whom Abraham’s covenant descendants were to be reckoned. He then limited his election of the covenant descendants even further by his choice of Jacob as the head of the covenant.
At the same time, and as already pointed out above, people not naturally related to Jacob and so not part of the elect people could join the chosen people, becoming part of the elect. On the other hand, individual members of the elect people could be cut off from the covenant people due to violation of the covenant, rendering them non-elect.
By the time we arrive at the New Covenant, as a fulfillment of the Old Covenant, God limits his election even further to Christ as its covenantal, representative head. And in so doing God ironically widens the scope of election by declaring its universal availability to all Gentiles who identify themselves with Christ by faith. Once more, Abasciano elaborates,
Paradoxically, this [Christ’s election as corporate head] also widened the election of God’s people because all who are in Christ by faith are chosen by virtue of their identification with Christ the corporate covenantal head, opening covenant membership to Gentiles as Gentiles. Just as God’s Old Covenant people were chosen in Jacob/Israel, the Church was chosen in Christ (as Eph. 1:4 puts it). And as Ephesians 2 makes clear, Gentiles who believe in Christ are in him made to be part of the commonwealth of Israel, fellow citizens with the saints, members of God’s household, and possessors of the covenants of promise (2:11-22; note especially vv. 12, 19). Indeed, any Jews who did not believe in Jesus were cut off from the elect people, and any believing Gentiles who stop believing will likewise be cut off, while anyone who comes to faith, whether Jew or Gentile, will be incorporated into God’s people (Rom. 11:17-24).
The “elect” passenger train: A helpful analogy
The central point not to be missed is biblical election is primarily corporate and secondarily individualistic. An individual is elect, not in virtue of direct selection, but group identification. Individuals are elect in so far at they belong to and become identified with the elect community of faith, which is itself elect in virtue of belonging to the elect Son. Though illustrative analogies can never fully grasp the nature of biblical reality, they can be helpful in framing theological concepts more clearly and making certain theological points more accessible to the heart’s understanding. With that in mind I offer the following analogy to help the reader grasp how an individual can be predestined to a particular outcome, yet not be individually selected or directly elected in advance for that predestined outcome. It will show how a person’s individual election can be secondarily conferred upon them in virtue of submitting to certain conditions set forth to become members of some primary, elect whole that is predestined to enjoy some benefit. In particular the analogy will attempt to highlight the stumbling arrogance of Israel’s attempts to run after and lay claim to their election through trusting in their own efforts instead of trusting in the righteousness of God through faith.
Think of the corporate nature of the elect community as a passenger train on the way to a preordained destination called “Covenant City.” The train whistle signaling departure is heard by all on the platform. As an added assurance the call to departure is run through a loud speaker that magnifies the call, such that it wakes the slumbering, cuts right through the noise of headphones and pierces even earplugs. The tickets are handed out freely. In fact the conductor announces through the same magnifying, loud speaker he has purchased all the tickets ahead of time—for the cost is beyond the ability of anyone to pay. To board the train and arrive at the final destination one only needs to agree to certain conditions the conductor has decreed, such as: 1) Freely receiving the conductor’s ticket as an act of his generosity; 2) not attempting to dig into one’s dirty pockets for their own soiled money; 3) submitting one’s baggage for inspection; 4) being willing to surrender over any banned possessions; and 5) remaining seated inside the train for the duration of the trip.
The last condition is critically important. For trains have engines and they move under their own power. Therefore if it is by the engine that one is propelled along the tracks, then it cannot be by one’s own strength. No matter how confident one is in their own ability to run alongside the train and keep up, they will be greatly disappointed. For whoever thinks they can keep up with the train “under their own steam” is going to be left behind; not because of any personal animus the conductor has towards them, but because by nature train travel is a collective of passengers who have submitted to the conditions of the conductor and trust in the ability of his train to get them to their final destination. Therefore it is foolishness for passengers to think they can assist in pushing the train, or worse, pridefully think they know better than the conductor and don’t need his train at all to arrive at Covenant City.
The train will journey through various landscapes—both dry, barren deserts and fruitful, fertile valleys. Sometimes the train ride will be winding and bumpy and sometimes it will be smooth and peaceful. Sometimes it may seem as if it is hurtling at great speed and sometimes it may seem to be barely crawling along the tracks, truly testing the obedience of the passengers to remain submitted to the conductor’s wisdom in staying seated on the train, despite the seeming appearance that their own feet can propel them further and faster along the track. Though no one is under compulsion to remain on the train, and passengers are free to depart the train whenever they choose, there is no promise the train will wait indefinitely for them. However all the passengers that remain loyal to the conductor’s wishes are guaranteed to arrive at the predestined destination— Covenant City.
It is not as though the conductor specifically selected or individually predestined which passengers will arrive at Covenant City and which passengers will not. Rather all those who chose to become passengers and abide by the conditions the conductor set forth are by consequence “chosen” by the conductor to arrive at the preordained destination— Covenant City. For what has been predestined for the passenger collective becomes predestined for each individual in virtue of each person’s decision to remain with the passenger collective in the train predestined for Covenant City. It matters not at what stage you got on the train, or whether one sits in the caboose or up front in the viewing area. The important thing is to obey the conductor, trust in his ability to get you safely to your destination and have faith in his train’s engine, which requires no self-propulsion from you. Trust and faith is therefore identified with what it means to “obey and remain in the train” predestined for Covenant City.
Does God not have the right to institute sovereign conditions for “elect” status?
In light of this analogy, Paul would no doubt say national Israel chose not to obey the conductor and chose not to have faith in his train’s engine. Instead she chose to depart the train’s passenger collective and foolishly and pridefully trust in her own resources and strength to arrive at Covenant City. Biblically speaking to trust in one’s own “resources and strength” means one is trusting in their own self-achieved righteousness. For in Romans 10 Paul gives added context to his material in Romans 9 by putting it within the larger frame of Israel’s stubborn disregard of God’s conditions for election, saying “they disregarded the righteousness from God and attempted to establish their own righteousness” (Rom. 10:3).
In Romans 9 Paul is under no illusions as to why Israel’s disregard of God’s righteousness through faith, coupled with her self-inflated righteousness, brought about judicial severing from the metaphorical “olive tree” of election. In Romans 9 Paul skillfully links into God’s varied O.T. purposes in regards to election and uses that established link as a springboard to explain why God is not at all unfair or unjust to disqualify unbelieving Jews and qualify believing Gentiles into His elect, covenant “olive tree.” Paul rightly recognizes all God’s acts of election in the O.T., regardless of purpose, have one thing in common—they are all according to God’s sovereign will and therefore no one can obligate or compel God one way or another in regards to any of God’s sovereign decisions.
Does this mean God has not, or worse—cannot— institute His own sovereign conditions by which individuals can enter into “elect” status? That would be equally absurd. Obligating God’s sovereign election is one thing. Responding to God’s sovereign terms for election is another thing entirely.
Indeed sometimes God’s election of people is unconditional, such as God’s choice of Jacob over Esau as a corporate figurehead for Israel’s nationalized identity. And sometimes God’s election is a conditional, corporate status of belonging conferred on individuals who meets God’s prescribed, sovereign condition of faith and belief.
Given that national Israel and her leaders rejected God’s sovereign terms of belief by resisting the Holy Spirit and rejecting God’s will for themselves (Acts 7:51, Lk 7:30), she consequently forfeited God’s will. God’s will was that she be part of His chosen remnant, His own special people set aside for Him to love and protect as a hen cares for her chicks. But she resisted. As Christ lamented, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem! She who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her. How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, yet you were not willing” (Mt. 23:37).
Since God sovereignly wills to not force His will (to love and care) on the unwilling, Israel will not experience covenantal protection but rather national judgment. That God often chose to judge unfaithful Israelites in the O.T. time shows us that God would rather have a remnant of faithful believers than an entire nation of disbelieving rebels. Paul is no stranger to this story. Later we will specifically look at Paul’s O.T. examples in Romans 11 and note how views the “chosenness” or election of the “remnant” in relation to prior faithfulness to God, and the hardening of “the rest” in relation to prior unfaithfulness.
Paul’s summary analysis and theological tsunami: Romans 9:30-32
Suffice it to say Paul believes he is living in another age where God is again judging the house of Israel for their disbelief and disregard of God’s righteousness. But all is not lost because what God intended for the world, when he first called Abraham’s descendants to be a light and blessing to all nations, has been fulfilled through the faithfulness of Israel’s Messiah—the true Israelite of all Israelites. As a result Paul has personally witnessed countless Gentiles place their faith in Israel’s Messiah—God’s elect Son. Just as Abraham long ago was approved righteous through faith, prior to the Law, Gentiles are now also being approved righteous through faith—apart from the Law. Paul pulls all the threads together in his summary analysis at the end of Romans 9, declaring,
What should we say then? Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained righteousness—namely the righteousness that comes from faith. But Israel, pursuing the law for righteousness, has not achieved the righteousness of the law. Why is that? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were by works (Rom. 9:30–32).
We will look at this profound verse more thoroughly in Part 2. But we ought to pause here and absorb the enormity of what Paul just said. For in the day of Paul the proclamation that any uncircumcised Gentile could become one of God’s chosen people, simply on the basis of faith in Christ, was a mind-blowing paradigm change that was synonymous with a theological tsunami! Are not Jews alone the chosen of God? And are not Jews the elect of God simply by virtue of their heritage and works as Torah-observing, children of Abraham? And if Gentiles are to have a “saving chance” should it not be according to terms set forth by God’s religious gate-keepers—the Jews? And should not the terms be circumcision and observance of all the laws in the Torah?
These questions were the flash points of debate in the early church and were issues that Paul was unceasingly addressing in his epistles—most notably in Romans and Galatians. Jews of Paul’s day had grown up under the legendary traditions of Jewish lore that they alone were God’s covenant people by birth—and it would always be that way. Paul’s first assault on the evolution of this legendary tradition is found early in Romans:
“He is not a real Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. He is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is of the heart, spiritual and not literal…No human being will be justified in God’s sight by works of the law…we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is He not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one” (Romans 2:29-30, 3:29-30).
That many religious Jews were surprised to hear that God—through Israel’s own Messiah— was throwing open wide the door of covenant union to Gentiles would be an understatement. Not only this, but Paul is saying Gentiles need not conform themselves to rigorous law-keeping to join God’s elect community. Rather faith in Jesus alone was God’s sovereignly declared means to become a true son of Abraham, and hence a child of God. It cannot be stressed enough that for early Jewish Christians this was a major upheaval of all they had assumed. Calvinists are often remiss and inattentive to the historical, cultural and emotional context that surrounds passages like Romans 9.
Calvinism’s dark secret: God’s moral nature willed all evil against His moral nature
Why this critique? For one simple reason. Nothing less than the moral goodness of God is at stake. Calvinists have long considered Romans 9 to be the bastion of support for their views concerning double predestination and God’s determination of all moral evil. Many are unaware Calvinism’s extreme view of divine sovereignty also teaches that every human thought, choice and event throughout human history–including one’s personal sins—have been causally determined by God. A few quotes by John Calvin will bear this out:
Hence we maintain that, by his providence, not heaven and earth and inanimate creatures only, but also the counsels and wills of men are so governed as to move exactly in the course which he has destined.
Men do nothing save at the secret instigation of God, and do not discuss and deliberate on anything but what he has previously decreed with himself, and brings to pass by his secret direction.
The hand of God rules the interior affections no less than it superintends external actions; nor would God have effected by the hand of man what he decreed, unless he worked in their hearts to make them will before they acted.
The will of God is the chief and principal cause of all things.
But where it is a matter of men’s counsels, wills, endeavors, and exertions, there is greater difficulty in seeing how the providence of God rules here too, so that nothing happens but by His assent and that men can deliberately do nothing unless He inspire it.
That last quote is especially chilling. If “nothing happens” that God has not sovereignly “inspired” it means God inspires every act of child pedophilia, every lie, every religious cult, every false doctrine, every abortion, every act of adultery and every suicide. The list is as endless as the world is evil.
It is one thing to suggest God allows evil and another thing entirely to suggest God decrees and inspires evil. They are not morally equivalent. God allows evil insofar as He created us as His divine imagers with the capacity of genuine choice. For in creating us in His image God was in pursuit of a morally meaningful world. And in His sovereign wisdom God knew the most meaningful acts of love, worship and obedience could not occur unless the free choice to not love, to not worship and to not obey was genuinely available to His divine imagers. Indeed if true love, worship and obedience was to mean anything it meant such choices could not be extracted from us coercively or irresistibly. In that sense God chooses to allow evil rather than abort evil by aborting us! For the only way God could abort all evil would be to abort His sovereign plan that we be created in His image.
That moral evil exists is evidence God chose not to abort His sovereign will to create us as free, moral agents. It is not at all an evidence God sovereignly willed all moral evil. Calvinism takes God’s moral nature and will to such an unbiblical extreme it becomes grotesque. In Calvinism God does not simply allow men to abuse their freedom to do evil, He in fact inspires them to commit evil acts. In Calvin’s estimation this is the only way God can guarantee they commit the evils He unconditionally decreed they must commit. Unconditional because Calvinists deny God conditioned any of His acts on foreknowledge of human free will. Free will is an illusion in Calvinism since God’s foreknowledge of what people do is informed solely by His knowledge of what He already foreordained they must do. That is to say in Calvinism people only desire to do what God ultimately decreed they will desire to do. And they are not free to choose contrary to God’s decree. Thus we are like a glove that fits over God’s hand. The glove moves but ultimately only in response to the movement of the hand. Our wills are thus God’s instruments to affect His decrees—and nothing more.
The moral “fall out” of such theology contaminates everything—including God’s nature. Truth be told in Calvinism God’s holy mind becomes the logical origin of conception for every un-holy, wicked event in human history. Stated more specifically, God’s moral nature becomes the ultimate author, conceiver and determiner of everything that allegedly opposes God’s moral nature. Is that a contradiction the Scriptures embrace? I don’t think so. Yet how else to explain Calvin’s teaching that all sinful decisions and deliberations are “decreed” and initiated by the “secret instigation of God” that he infallibly “brings to pass by his secret direction.” How else to explain Calvin’s insistence that “the hand of God rules the interior affections” of all people, having “worked in their hearts to make them will before they acted” because “men can deliberately do nothing unless He inspire it.”
Calvin is savvy enough to recognize God’s moral nature must be given an escape hatch if God is to elude the entrapment of being held morally responsible for the very immoral acts He decreed men must commit according to “the course which He has destined.” For Calvin, and all Calvinists since then, that escape hatch is to appeal to inconceivable mystery. We again take Calvin in his own words,
I have already shown clearly enough that God is the author of all those things which, according to these objectors [non-Calvinists] happen only by his inactive permission… No, when we cannot comprehend how God can will that to be done which he forbids us to do, let us call to mind our imbecility…”
If God controls the purposes of men, and turns their thoughts and exertions to whatever purpose he pleases, men do not therefore cease to form plans and to engage in this or the other undertaking. We must not suppose that there is a violent compulsion, as if God dragged them against their will; but in a wonderful and inconceivable manner he regulates all the movements of men, so that they still have the exercise of their will.
On the one hand Calvin wants to say that God’s will of decree regulates, turns and infallibly controls the thoughts and actions of every person. But on the other hand Calvin wants to preserve human accountability in making choices, so he asserts that God does not violently force his will of decree on anyone. How does God accomplish this? Calvin never tells us. Instead he appeals to unexplainable mystery seen in his cloaked phrase “wonderful and inconceivable manner he regulates all the movements of men…” This is theological gobbledegook in its highest form and it ought to be cast out of our minds as a nefarious deception.
There is nothing particularly wrong in appealing to mystery to understand the delicate question as to why a good God would allow the evils we see in the world. But Calvinism puts the “mystery” in the wrong place. Rather than evil’s occurrence itself being a “mystery” in light of God’s goodness and power, Calvinist theology makes the goodness of God’s nature the mystery. For how can God’s moral nature be truly good if that same morally good nature decreed every act of sin and evil allegedly opposed to God’s good nature?
Calvinism: A bankrupt theology with no moral currency
The result of Calvinism’s extreme view of sovereignty is frankly appalling. The logical implications of Calvinism are simply too enormous to justify. In Calvinism God tells us to put to death the deeds of our flesh and to walk in holiness, yet every time we give in to the flesh God’s meticulous pre-determinism ultimately lies behind it all—such that we could not have chosen against God’s decree. On the one hand Christ told us to pray that God delivers us from temptation and evil, yet on the other hand God has determined all the tempting evil that ensnares us. Trying to rescue God’s marred, moral nature from under the rubble of Calvinism is simply too high a price to pay. We can embrace a biblically endorsed portrait of God’s sovereignty without the heavy weight of Calvinist theology weighing down our hearts.
Arminian theology has long opposed Calvinist views, not only on the grounds of biblical interpretation, but on the grounds that Calvinism surrenders up God’s moral character on the alter of a misconceived understanding of God’s sovereignty. Arminians consider their beliefs to be the true doctrines of grace and hold God is sovereign only to the extent God is good. This returns us to Romans 9. Since Calvinists consider some of Paul’s statements in Romans 9 to be the citadel of defense against all of their theological opponents it is necessary we thoroughly deal with it. Moreover if Arminian theology accurately reflects biblical theology, then a non-Calvinist interpretation should not only be able to survive Romans 9, it should thrive in it. And this it does exceedingly well! With that said, let us thoroughly unpack Romans 9-11, keeping in mind Paul did not write in chapter divisions. On to Part 2!