Romans 9 is often the “go to” text for Calvinists. They hold that it is about individual election to salvation — that God unconditionally chooses to save certain individuals, and that he unconditionally rejects and hardens others. John Piper writes that the Calvinist interpretation of Romans 9:11-12 was the watershed event that caused him to become a Calvinist.1
Arminians come to a different conclusion about Romans 9. We hold that it’s about the election of the nation Israel to serve God’s greater purposes. Specifically, it’s about how God is just in how he has treated Israel; and it’s about how he has kept his word in the way that he has treated them. It is not about Calvinistic individual election. Paul is asking if the nation of Israel can be saved, and if God is fair in the way he goes about treating them as a group. Are Jews saved by their genealogy? Or must Jews believe in Jesus in order to be saved? Paul argues that even though Jews are descendants of Jacob and Abraham, they don’t get a free ticket because of their ancestry (Romans 9:8). Israel has been blessed as a people group, because salvation comes from the Jews. However, individual Jews are saved the same way that Gentiles are — by having faith in Jesus (Romans 9:31, Romans 10:11-13).
1) To understand Romans 9, read all of Romans 9, along with Romans 10 and 11. Better yet, read the the entire book. The larger context is key to understanding the passage. Calvinists prefer to quote only Romans 9:10-24, because that’s the portion that seems most Calvinistic when read by itself. But Romans 9:10-24 shouldn’t be read without an understanding of the surrounding context and the question that Paul is addressing.
Here’s the background: Israel was depending on their ethnicity as descendants of Abraham. They thought that being physical children of Abraham saved them by default. Paul uses Jacob (Israel) and Esau (Edom) to show how ethnicity is not a guarantee of a blessing. Paul illustrates that both Issac and Jacob were chosen to be blessed over Ishmael and Esau, even though all were sons of Abraham, and this, even though Ishmael and Esau were the oldest sons. Despite the blessing of being descendants of Jacob, individual Jews are saved the same way Gentiles are — by faith in Jesus. Even though Jews are physical descendants of Abraham (as were Ishmael and Esau), they still must believe in Jesus in order to be saved (Romans 10:11-13). This is Paul’s argument.
Paul states that he is speaking about the nation of Israel in the opening of Chapter 9 (bold mine):
Romans 9:1-5: I speak the truth in Christ—I am not lying, my conscience confirms it through the Holy Spirit— I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race, the people of Israel. Theirs is the adoption to sonship; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of the Messiah, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen.
Paul reminds us again that he is writing about the nation of Israel at the close of Chapter 9 (bold mine):
Romans 9:30-32 What then shall we say? That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; but the people of Israel, who pursued the law as the way of righteousness, have not attained their goal. Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works.
The nation of Israel is always in scope in Romans 9, 10, and 11. It’s never about Calvinistic individual election. That’s why it’s so important to read all of Romans.
2) When reading the portion of Romans 9 that sounds Calvinistic, refer to the Old Testament passages that Paul uses for his argumentation. They show that Paul is still on the topic of the nation of Israel, and he’s addressing God’s right to use Israel as he prefers. The verses seem to refer to individuals with a casual reading (Jacob and Esau and Pharaoh). However, the Old Testament references show that the individuals are actually corporate heads of their nations.
For example (bold mine):
Genesis 25:23: The Lord said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger.” (quoted in Romans 9:11-12)
Malachi 1:1-5: A prophecy: The word of the Lord to Israel through Malachi. “I have loved you,” says the Lord. “But you ask, ‘How have you loved us?’ “Was not Esau Jacob’s brother?” declares the Lord. “Yet I have loved Jacob, but Esau I have hated, and I have turned his hill country into a wasteland and left his inheritance to the desert jackals.” Edom may say, “Though we have been crushed, we will rebuild the ruins.” But this is what the Lord Almighty says: “They may build, but I will demolish. They will be called the Wicked Land, a people always under the wrath of the Lord. You will see it with your own eyes and say, ‘Great is the Lord—even beyond the borders of Israel!’ “(quoted in Romans 9:13)
Jeremiah 18:1-10: This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Go down to the potter’s house, and there I will give you my message.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and I saw him working at the wheel. But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him. Then the word of the Lord came to me. He said, “Can I not do with you, Israel, as this potter does?” declares the Lord. “Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, Israel. If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned. And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it. (referenced in Romans 9:21)
Especially of note in the Jeremiah passage is that God (the Potter) does not decree what the nation does, but rather he first sees what the nation does, and then forms something out that nation afterwards as a result of their corporate behavior. This is the opposite of “unconditional individual election.” God changes his mind on how to treat a nation based on whether or not the nation follows him. This is particularly relevant to Paul’s argument in Romans 9. Israel was not following God as revealed in Christ, and as a result, God (the Potter) is going to treat them accordingly.
One more thing to be aware of is the Hebraic idiom of “hate” (as used in Romans 9:13 and Malachi 1:3 — “I love Jacob, but I hate Esau…”). This idiom means to love someone less in comparison to someone else. Just as we have idioms (for example: “It’s raining cats and dogs”), so did the Hebrews. This idiom doesn’t mean that God unconditionally despised and damned Esau and all of his descendants. It meant that he preferred Jacob’s nation over Esau’s nation, and chose Jacob’s children for the special honor of being the line in which the Messiah came.
Jesus uses this very same idiom when he says, “Anyone who follows me must hate his Father and Mother” (Luke 14:26). He’s not saying you should actually despise your parents: that would be breaking a commandment! He’s saying that in comparison to our love for God, our love for our parents ought to be much less. The same thing is going on with Jacob and Esau. God loved both of them and their descendants. However, he had a special affection for Jacob and his descendants, and chose Jacob’s descendants over Esau’s for the purpose of saving the world.
In the case of Pharaoh, Paul uses him as an analogy as to how God can fairly treat the nation of Israel, even if he has to “harden” them in the process. Just as God hardened Pharaoh for his purposes (after a great deal of evil behavior by Pharaoh), he has the right to harden the nation of Israel for his purposes; and we see from the Jeremiah passage that this hardening comes about as God’s response; it’s not God’s first preference. Significantly, it wasn’t God’s first preference to eternally damn Pharaoh. God treated Pharaoh fairly, and wanted him to be saved. (For more on that topic, see this post: “The Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart.”)
3) Whatever Romans 9 means, it can’t mean that God is a liar, and it can’t contradict the plain meaning of other scripture passages. If God is love (1 John 4:8 ), then we can’t use Romans 9 to prove that God is hate. This was a point made by John Wesley. Of course, Calvinists don’t claim that God hates or lies, but their line of reasoning in our view leads to this conclusion.
Typically when you question a Calvinist about the goodness of God in Romans 9, they either equivocate, or they equate a rejection of their interpretation of Romans 9 as “talking back to God” (Romans 9:20). Here’s what Wesley wrote on this matter:
This is the blasphemy clearly contained in the horrible decree of predestination! And here I fix my foot. On this I join issue with every assertor of it. You represent God as worse than the devil; more false, more cruel, more unjust. But you say you will prove it by scripture. Hold! What will you prove by Scripture, that God is worse than the devil? It cannot be. Whatever that Scripture proves, it never can prove this; whatever its true meaning be. This cannot be its true meaning. Do you ask, “What is its true meaning then?” If I say, ” I know not,” you have gained nothing; for there are many scriptures the true sense whereof neither you nor I shall know till death is swallowed up in victory. But this I know, better it were to say it had no sense, than to say it had such a sense as this. It cannot mean, whatever it mean besides, that the God of truth is a liar. Let it mean what it will. It cannot mean that the Judge of all the world is unjust. No scripture can mean that God is not love, or that his mercy is not over all his works; that is, whatever it prove beside, no scripture can prove [unconditional] predestination.2
Wesley is right. Whatever Romans 9 states, it can’t state that the God of truth is a liar.
1 John Piper, “The Absolute Sovereignty of God, What is Romans 9 about?” Side rant here: this is why I can’t stomach John Piper. Just from the title, you can see he’s implying that to disagree with him is to say that God is not sovereign. But of course Arminians agree that God is sovereign. Okay, rant done.