Romans 9: An Arminian/New Perspective Reading

, posted by SEA

Introduction

Romans 9 is often cited as one of the clearest examples in Scripture of the Reformed doctrine of individual election: It discusses God’s sovereign choice of Isaac in preference to Ishmael and Jacob rather than Esau, without regard to any merit of the chosen or demerit of those who were not chosen. It counters what would later be the Arminian objection that unconditional election appears unjust to our human sense of justice, and uses Pharaoh as an example of someone whom God ‘raised up’ for the express purpose of becoming a demonstration of God’s power. God bears with great patience these ‘objects of wrath,’ in order to glorify himself before the ‘objects of his mercy,’ that is, the elect (see Augustine, “To Prosper and Hilary” 14; Calvin, Institutes 3.22.4-6).

I would contend that this interpretation ignores the larger context of Romans 9-11, whose main theme is struggling with the implications of the Gospel for the nation of Israel. It also ignores the Old Testament contexts of Paul’s quotations, which when viewed in proper perspective shed a distinctly different light on Paul’s argument. Paul is struggling with the fact that God had made certain promises in the scriptures concerning Israel, many of which he sees as fulfilled in and through Christ. Yet Israel as a whole has not come to Christ. What does this mean for Israel, for the veracity of the Scriptures, and for Paul’s gospel? These questions dominate Paul’s mind in Romans 9-11, and his statements about election in Romans 9 must be evaluated in terms of them.

Romans 9:1 makes a clear break with what has gone on before, and yet the chapters that follow are intimately related to those that precede. Paul has demonstrated in Romans 1-8 the fallenness of all humanity (both Jew and Gentile), justification not by the “works of the law” (ergon nomou, 3:20) but rather by “faith in Jesus Christ” (pisteos Iesou Christou, 3:22), Abraham as an example of justification by faith, and the practical implications of justification by faith. Paul’s theoretical argument is rather nicely wrapped up at the end of chapter 8, except for establishing the relationship between his doctrine of justification by faith in Christ and the historic relationship God has had with ethnic Israel. Even though Paul represents justification by faith not as a novelty but as something that began with Abraham, that does not answer the question of why God had related to His people Israel primarily on the basis of their descent from Abraham and on their keeping of the Law. Scripture makes clear that the Israelites viewed themselves as relating to God on the basis of those two things (descent from Abraham: Gen. 26:24; Dt. 4:37; Matt. 3:9; Lk. 1:72-74; keeping the Law: Ex. 20:6; Lev. 26:3ff; 1 Kings 9:4-5; Neh. 1:9; Dn. 9:4; Mt. 19:17; Ac. 15:5). The Jewish people, who had not been coming in great numbers to Christ, may well argue that if Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith were true, then God would have essentially broken His promises to Israel. If Israel sees inclusion in the covenant as based on descent from Abraham and keeping the Law, then how can God turn around and say, “No, inclusion in the covenant is not based on descent from Abraham or keeping the Law, but rather on faith in Christ”? It would seem to them that God’s word had failed (v. 6), which is what Paul is at pains to dispute in Romans 9-11.

In a nutshell, Paul’s argument begins by assaulting the two assumptions that had been made concerning God’s relationship to His people. Paul’s line of argumentation in Romans 9-11 is intended to answer the specific charge that if Paul’s gospel were true, God’s word would have failed regarding Israel. Much of the traditional interpretation of this passage seems to keep this emphasis in mind only for a few verses, but in fact this charge is the primary position against which Paul is writing throughout the three chapters. It is the essential position of the “hypothetical questioner” whom Paul invokes in 9:19-20, and is implied in a number of other verses (e.g., 9:6, 16, 32). In chapter 3, Paul has already demolished the possible contention that Jews can rely on keeping the Law; however, Jews may still rely on their descent from Abraham as indicating their inclusion in the covenant community. After all, the Old Testament promises regarding the restoration of Israel are not contingent upon perfect obedience to the Law; in some ways, it appears that adherence to the Law is actually one of the promises to be fulfilled (e.g., Jer. 31:33). So if Paul says that justification is by faith in Christ, and if this standard ends up excluding the majority of Jews, who have not come to faith in Christ, then he seems to void God’s promises to Israel.

Paul’s response is simply to demonstrate that God never chose descendants of Abraham, merely as descendants of Abraham, for inclusion in the covenant community. This is clear because not all the descendants of Abraham were included, but only the descendants of Isaac, and then of Jacob. In other words, the “attrition” (if we may be permitted to call it that) that occurs with the generations of Isaac and Jacob does not stop there, but progresses throughout the descendants of Israel. It is in this sense that “not all who are descended from Israel are Israel” (9:6).

Isaac and Jacob

In verse 7 of Romans 9, Paul quotes Genesis 21:12 to explain that, even before Isaac was born, God had determined that Abraham’s offspring would be “reckoned” through Isaac—in other words, that the covenant people would pass through the line of Isaac rather than that of Ishmael. The original context of this passage, incidentally, makes it clear not only that Isaac is to be chosen, but that Ishmael is to be rejected in favor of Isaac. Yet God makes it clear that Ishmael is to be rejected by Abraham, so that the covenant line is clearly through Isaac; nevertheless, He reassures Abraham in the very next verse (Gen. 21:13) that “I will make the son of the maidservant into a nation also, because he is your offspring.” In the following verses we read that “God heard the boy [Ishmael] crying …. ‘I will make him into a great nation’ …. God was with the boy as he grew up” (Gen. 21:17-18, 20). In other words, God has a positive plan for Ishmael and his descendants as well as for Isaac and his descendants; it is only as a member of the covenant nation that Ishmael is rejected.

Paul, significantly, interprets the quotation by stating that “it is not the natural children who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring” (v. 8). He is subtly doing here what he does clearly in Galatians 4:21-31: he identifies ethnic Israel with the children of Hagar, as opposed to those of Sarah. Since ethnic Israel is depending on natural descent from Abraham, they are analogous to Ishmael, who was Abraham’s descendant (not to mention the firstborn) by purely natural means. The Christians, trusting that “those who believe are children of Abraham” (Gal. 3:7), are analogous to Isaac, the child of promise. In Romans 9:8, Paul quotes Genesis 18:10, 14 to establish that the promise had indeed occurred before Isaac’s conception.

Paul’s use of Isaac and Ishmael, then, is primarily intended neither to be a statement of their individual eternal election, nor to be typical of the elect and reprobate. It rather establishes that the Jewish people have no reason to trust in their descent from Abraham to guarantee their inclusion in the covenant. If they could, the descendants of Ishmael would have just as much right to claim God’s promises as could the descendants of Isaac.

Jacob and Esau

Lest the Jewish questioner argue that Isaac was the legitimate son, as opposed to the illegitimate, Paul moves down to the next generation to find an even more compelling example, that of Jacob and Esau (9:10-13). These have the same set of parents, and were even born together as twins. The only natural primacy that one would have over the other would have been the birthright, which would have gone to Esau. And yet, before they were born, Rebekah was told that “the older will serve the younger” (9:12, quoting Gen. 25:23). Paul even states that the reason God told Rebekah this was “in order that God’s purpose in election might stand” (v. 11). Surely here is clear reference to unconditional individual election.

Many Arminians have chosen at this point to insert God’s foreknowledge as the key to understanding the passage; i.e., even though this was “before the twins… had done anything good or bad” (v. 11), God still judged them on the basis of what He knew that they would later do. This clearly runs counter to the intent of the passage. Paul obviously means to exclude personal merit from consideration of Jacob and Esau’s election. Such election is “not by works, but by him who calls.” God was perfectly free to choose either Jacob or Esau, and freely chose Jacob.

However, again, the choice involves not individual election to personal salvation or damnation, but rather the line through which the covenant people will come. Genesis 25:23, from which Paul quotes, clearly refers to nations, not individuals:

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.

Individuals or Nations?

And what is to be done with “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated” (Rom. 9:13, quoting Mal. 1:2-3)? Again, a look at the source of the quote clearly reveals that the nations are being referenced, rather than the individuals Jacob and Esau. The point of comparison lies in the nature of the land that was given to the two nations. God had given preference to Jacob in the land that He gave to Israel. Malachi goes on to discuss the fact that Edom had come under such judgment that it would never be able to rebuild its land; but was this a foregone conclusion from before Jacob and Esau were born? It seems not to be. Deuteronomy 2:4-6 suggests quite the opposite. God did not allow the Israelites to attack Edom or to take any portion of their land, stating that “I have given Esau the hill country of Seir as his own. You are to pay them in silver for the food you eat and the water you drink.” This hardly seems consistent with a people whom God “hated.”

It seems more likely that “loved” and “hated” in Malachi 1 and Romans 9 are to be understood merely in terms of preference, as in Jesus’ statement in Luke 14:26, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple.” No one could imagine that Jesus is actually calling upon his disciples to hate their families in absolute terms, but merely to choose Him in preference to their families. God had simply given preference to Jacob over Esau, in terms of the land received by their respective descendants, and in terms of whose line would comprise the covenant nation.

If one wishes to argue that “Jacob I loved but Esau I hated” must refer to election to salvation, one must grapple with the fact that this statement first appears, not in Genesis, but in Malachi. God’s point cannot be that all of Israel in Malachi’s time are saved! In fact, God indicts Israel throughout the rest of Malachi specifically because they have been unfaithful to the covenant and have broken faith with God in many ways. Rather than being a pleasant assurance of God’s favor, the statement, “Jacob I loved but Esau I hated,” forms part of God’s indictment—that even though God had favored Israel, nevertheless Israel had been unfaithful, and was therefore under judgment.

Paul uses these quotations in Romans 9 once again to oppose those Jews who would say that, if Paul’s gospel were correct, then “God’s word had failed” (9:6). His response to them is that God had never made the unconditional promises, based either on “works” or ethnicity, that they were claiming. God sovereignly chose Isaac over Ishmael; He sovereignly chose Jacob over Esau; and by implication, He can sovereignly choose on the basis of faith in Christ, as opposed to works of the law or ethnicity.

To the hypothetical Jewish questioner, of course, God’s apparent change (from law and ethnicity to faith as the criterion of election) would appear to be unjust (v. 14). Note, by the way, that the present interpretation of Paul’s argument makes perfect sense of the questioner’s sense of injustice. No Jew would see injustice in God’s gratuitous election of Isaac over Ishmael or Jacob over Esau as individuals. The only thing about the argument that would have caused them to view God as unjust is the implication that “not all who are descended from Israel are Israel” (9:6), and for Paul, of course, to be a true descendant of Abraham was to follow him in faith (4:11-12, Gal. 3:7-8).

Pharaoh

Paul buttresses his contention that his doctrine does not in fact imply injustice with God by citing Exodus 33:19, where in reference to Moses, God states

I will have mercy on whom I have mercy,

and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion (Rom. 9:18).

Because in Romans Paul moves on to discuss the Pharaoh of the Exodus, this quote is ordinarily understood primarily to imply its negation—that God also has the right to refuse mercy and compassion on whom He wills. However, in its original context in Exodus, God does not make this statement to justify His refusal of mercy to anyone, but rather to justify his granting of Moses’ request to show him His glory (Ex. 33:18). This comes in the larger context of the episode of the golden calf and of Moses’ destruction of the first two tablets of the Testimony (chs. 32-33). Moses’ conversation with God (33:12-20) seems to reveal genuine concern that God will abandon His people and that Moses will be left to lead them on his own. The fact that Moses had to chisel out the second set of stone tablets himself has led some interpreters to suggest that Moses wasn’t entirely guiltless in his response to the Israelites. A subsequent outburst of anger would prevent Moses from entering the Promised Land. Nonetheless, God chooses to have mercy on Moses and to allow him to see His glory. Therefore, as Paul notes in 9:16, God’s favor does not “depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy.” Even Moses didn’t receive blessings as a result of descent from Abraham or lawkeeping. He was a recipient of God’s mercy. Those who expected God’s blessings based on ethnicity or following God’s commandments couldn’t very well exalt themselves above even Moses in that regard!

Paul then turns to Pharaoh: “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth” (9:17). This is typically taken to mean that Pharaoh was raised up to a position of power specifically to be destroyed by the plagues on Egypt, and thus to mean that God can justly create people for the purpose of condemning them and thus glorify Himself. Again, an examination of the quote in its original context provides a different view:

For by now I could have stretched out my hand and struck you and your people with a plague that would have wiped you off the earth. But I have raised you up [or have spared you, NIV mg.] for this very purpose, that I might show you my power and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth (Exodus 9:15-16).

In other words, the Lord’s point to Pharaoh was not that He was destroying Pharaoh to show His power, but that He had not yet destroyed Pharaoh, in order further to demonstrate His power. The NIV margin captures the sense perfectly—God’s power had been demonstrated precisely by sparing Pharaoh and not by destroying Egypt more quickly.[1] The larger context (vv. 13-17) places this statement in one of a number of appeals to Pharaoh to let Israel go, or else another plague would come, and specifically indicts Pharaoh on his own stubbornness in refusing to let the people go.

Therefore, when Paul in Romans 9 draws the conclusion that “God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden” (v. 18), it is typically understood that Pharaoh is Paul’s example of hardening. In fact, as the quote above demonstrates, Pharaoh is an example both of God’s mercy and of His hardening. God is merciful to Pharaoh up to a point, in that He doesn’t wipe Egypt out immediately but rather warns Pharaoh through the plagues. He also, as we know, hardens Pharaoh as well, although Pharaoh is also said to have hardened himself.

But what are we to make of God’s hardening of Pharaoh? Paul neither quotes any passage referring directly to Pharaoh’s hardening, nor gives any explanation of the hardening, although he clearly refers to it. In Exodus, the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is expressed in four ways: the Lord prophesies ahead of time that he will harden Pharaoh’s heart (4:21, 7:3, 14:4); the hardening is expressed passively, without an expressed subject (i.e., “Pharaoh’s heart was hardened”: 7:13, 22, 8:19, 9:35); Pharaoh is said to have hardened his own heart (8:15, 32, 9:34); and the Lord hardens Pharaoh’s heart (9:12, 10:1, 20, 27, 11:10, 14:8). In general, it appears that the hardening is either expressed passively or attributed to Pharaoh early on in the plagues, and attributed more frequently to the direct action of the Lord in the later plagues. One way of looking at the hardening, therefore, is that Pharaoh incurs judgment upon himself by hardening his own heart early on, and was thereafter hardened by the Lord, in order to demonstrate the Lord’s power better. The Lord, of course, knew that this would happen, and foretold to Moses that fact.

Another way of looking at the hardening is to recognize various types of causation. What the Lord actually does is confront Pharaoh through Moses and send the plagues. What Pharaoh does is respond by refusing Moses’ demand; in other words, by hardening his heart. Pharaoh therefore hardens his own heart, in the sense that he chooses that response; the Lord hardens Pharaoh’s heart, in the sense that He provides the impetus for Pharaoh to respond as he does. In the same way, we all may say that a person angered us, but in fact that person merely provided the impetus for us to become angry; we were the ones who responded in anger.

At any rate, no one imagines that God forced Pharaoh to harden his heart despite himself; in other words, that God made Pharaoh harden his heart when he otherwise would not have done so. Everyone agrees that Pharaoh was himself culpable for the hardening, regardless of whether it was predestined or not. The fact that God “hardens whom he wills” does not obviate the fact that those whom He hardens, also harden themselves. In other words, we are told that God “hardens whom he wills,” but not told on what basis he chooses to harden some and not others.

This discussion of Pharaoh’s hardening becomes relevant in the interpretation of Romans 9 when we examine the following verse: “One of you will say to me, ‘Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?” (v. 19). Typically, the understanding of this verse is to see Pharaoh, as typical of the non-elect, having been hardened by the Lord, nonetheless blamed by God, and to see the hypothetical questioner questioning the justice of this situation. “How can God blame Pharaoh,” the questioner asks, “or by extension, any of the non-elect, when He Himself has predestined their response?” Thus, the typical interpretation views the questioner as mirroring precisely the Arminian position. (e.g., Calvin, Institutes 3.22.8)

This interpretation, however, makes the hypothetical questioner identify too strongly with Pharaoh. (NIV recognizes this problem by making the object of the Lord’s blame “us,” although the Greek provides no such referent.) The questioner has no interest in whether God has dealt justly with Pharaoh! He sees, rather, the point that Paul is making with regard to ethnic Israel. God is not unjust (v. 14) in choosing Gentiles who have faith, as opposed to Jews who try to keep the Law, because God “has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and hardens whom he wants to harden” (v. 18). If God wants to have mercy on those who come to Him in faith, and harden those who do not, regardless of their ethnicity or relative adherence to the Law, that is His business. Paul’s point regarding Pharaoh is not that God had mercy on Moses and reprobated Pharaoh, which would easily fall in line with the Jewish self-understanding; his point is that God has the right sovereignly to set the criteria on which he will have mercy or harden.

The Potter and the Clay

So, the questioner asks, “Why does God still blame us?” It has always been the contention of Reformed interpreters that if Arminians were right, the obvious response to the questioner should be that the questioner should use his free will to come to God in faith; if he does so, he will not be condemned. However, this misunderstands the question. The questioner is not asking why Pharaoh or the Jews cannot come to God in faith; the questioner is asking why faith in Christ should be necessary. That is, how can God blame the Jew for expecting to be among the chosen people because he’s a Jew—in other words, because he’s descended from Abraham and because he’s kept (in a relative sense) the Law? How can God blame the Jews for failing to come to faith in Christ, since faith was not what the Jews were led to expect to be the criterion of election?

It may be responded that neither the Jew/Gentile question nor faith are in the immediate context. One must remember that justification by faith forms a major crux of Paul’s argument throughout Romans 1-8, and that Romans 9-11 forms an extended answer to the question of what this doctrine means for ethnic Jews. Paul is defending his thesis that God’s word had not failed, in that not everyone descended from Israel constitutes the Israel of God (9:6). Paul explicitly draws this conclusion from his argument in 9:30-32. It is only by divorcing vv. 10-24 from the surrounding context that this passage has been interpreted primarily in terms of unconditional individual election.

Paul therefore responds to his questioner, “Who are you, O man, to talk back to God?” (9:20). If the question in v. 19 means, “Why are the reprobate judged for not having come to faith?” the answer continues to seem unsatisfying. But if the question means, “Why should God’s chosen people—Israel—have to come to faith in Christ?” then the answer makes quite a bit of sense. It is not up to us to determine God’s criteria of inclusion in the covenant community.

Paul then paraphrases a portion of Isaiah 29:16 in support of his rebuff of the questioner. “Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’” (9:20). The section from Isaiah from which it is taken is worthy of quoting:

The Lord says:

“These people come near to me with their mouth

and honor me with their lips,

but their hearts are far from me.

Their worship of me

is made up only of rules taught by men.

Therefore once more I will astound these people

with wonder upon wonder;

The wisdom of the wise will perish,

the intelligence of the intelligent will vanish.”

Woe to those who go to great depths

to hide their plans from the LORD,

Who do their work in darkness and think,

“Who sees us? Who will know?”

You turn things upside down,

as if the potter were thought to be like the clay!

Shall what is formed say to him who formed it,

“He did not make me”?

Can the pot say of the potter,

“He knows nothing”? (Is. 29:13-16).

This clearly refers to people whose worship of God is mere pretense, and who think that they can plan and do evil without the Lord’s knowledge or interference. Not only this passage, which is directly quoted (in part), but in fact the OT passages in which this type of potter-clay illustration is used (Isa. 45:1-13; 64:4-8; Jer. 18:1-10) all refer to people who are under judgment for their own false worship and disregard of God and His Law, and either imply or specifically offer restoration to those who repent (e.g., Isa. 29:17-19; 45:14, 22; 64:9-12). Jeremiah 18:6-10 clearly indicates that the “clay” is not merely passive:

O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter does?” declares the Lord. “Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, O house of 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.

God has sovereignly chosen what he will do regarding the clay, in that he has chosen to respond to the clay according to its repentance or lack of repentance. By quoting the potter/clay metaphor in Romans 9:20, Paul essentially tells the Jews that God will deal with them based on their repentance—as he has always said he would deal with them. The “clay” in this quotation is not the non-elect; it is Israel, which does not feel it needs to come to Christ. The questioner who believes that Israel should be saved because of its ethnic descent is reminded that repentance has always been required for God’s salvation—even of the Jew. The image is that of the clay blaming its position on the potter, rather than humbly asking to be made anew.

Paul goes on to ask, “Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?” The offense here is precisely that Israel, which would have thought of itself as the “pottery for noble purposes” in comparison with the gentiles, is being placed in the position of being the pottery “for common use.” Significantly, in 2 Timothy 2:20-21, Paul indicates that a person’s choices determine to what kind of uses he will be put:In a large house there are articles not only of gold and silver, but also of wood and clay; some are for noble purposes and some for ignoble. If a man cleanses himself from the latter, he will be an instrument for noble purposes, made holy, useful to the Master and prepared to do any good work.

Objects of Wrath and Mercy

To suggest that the purpose of the pottery is determined and unalterable from God’s point of view flies in the face of the way this imagery is used in the rest of scripture.“What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction?” (Rom. 9:22). Again, it is usually assumed here that the “objects of his wrath” are the non-elect, as represented by Pharaoh, Ishmael, and Esau. But in the larger context of chapters 9 through 11, Paul’s main concern is the Jews who have not come to Christ. The “objects of his wrath,” then, are the majority of the Israelite nation. The patience with which God has borne them reflects his desire for their repentance (2:4). Nonetheless, as long as they remain objects of his wrath through their refusal to repent, they are prepared for destruction. “Prepared for destruction” echoes Proverbs 16:4, “The Lord works out everything for his own ends—even the wicked for a day of disaster.” But “the wicked” are not necessarily a static category: God’s desire for them is that they “turn and live” (Ezek. 18:23, 30-32).

“What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory” (Rom. 9:23). One of the reasons that God bears with the wicked—even those whom he knows beforehand will not repent—is to make “the riches of his glory known.” It may reasonably be asked how God’s forbearance actually accomplishes this. One can easily understand how God’s judgment would accomplish this, by demonstrating to the “objects of his mercy” the righteous judgment from which they have been rescued. But this does not explain how God’s forbearance from immediate judgment accomplishes this. Perhaps it simply exalts God’s sovereign majesty—he does not need to panic and “do something” about the wicked: their end is assured. But it seems more reasonable to recognize that the “objects of his mercy” were at one point “objects of his wrath” (cf. Eph. 2:3) but escaped that wrath through repentance and faith. For them, certainly, God’s “riches of his glory” are truly revealed, because they recognize that only through God’s forbearance during their former life of rebellion did they receive any hope of salvation. Thus, the categories, “objects of his mercy” and “objects of his wrath,” are dynamic categories, not static. The inclusion of an individual in either is based on that individual’s own response to the offer of grace.[2]

In the next verse, Paul becomes more explicit in his identification of the “objects of his mercy.” They are “us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles” (9:24). Here Paul explicitly comes back to his original theme (vv. 1-6), lending support to the idea that he has never really departed from it. The offense to the Jews is that God is now openly calling people from among the Gentiles, as well as those from among the Jews who have accepted Christ in faith. Paul buttresses his comments from more Old Testament quotations. He cites Hosea 2:23 and 1:10 to the effect that those who were previously not included in the covenant nation will be included among those whom he calls “my people.” Moreover, he cites Isaiah 10:22-23 and 1:9 to the effect that those who are saved among Israel will be merely a “remnant.”

In other words, to those Jews who counted on ethnicity and adherence to the Law for their inclusion among God’s people, Paul demonstrates from the Hebrew scriptures themselves that they had no reason to count on that. Therefore he sums up his own argument in vv. 30-32. “The Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it.” In what way? “By faith.” Paul makes clear that this is the criterion, this is the issue: Gentiles are coming to righteousness by faith. Israel, meanwhile, “pursued a law of righteousness…. not by faith, but as if it were by works.” The issue is not that God has sovereignly elected only a few Jews but many Gentiles; the issue is that Israel rejects faith as the defining characteristic of the covenant people, in favor of continuing to trust in Law. Thus, God’s gracious gift of salvation through faith in Christ is a stumbling stone to those who will not believe, but “one who trusts in him will not be ashamed” (v. 33; cf. Isa. 8:14, 28:16).

Conclusion

So, to sum up, according to the Augustinian/Calvinist interpretation, which assumes faith in Christ for salvation and arises in opposition to Pelagianism and later the medieval Catholic church:

  • Paul begins by agonizing over the failure of Israel to come to salvation through faith in Christ (9:1-5).
  • Paul’s solution is that not all of Israel is Israel; i.e., not all of Israel is elect (v. 6).
  • Paul demonstrates God’s prerogative to elect whomever he wills by having elected Isaac over Ishmael and Jacob over Esau (vv. 7-13).
  • God has mercy only on those whom he chooses to have mercy, and hardens the rest, as exemplified by Pharaoh (vv. 14-18).
  • At this point, Paul hypothesizes a questioner who articulates the Arminian contention: if God has chosen to harden someone like Pharaoh, how can God then judge him for what he was predestined to do (v. 19)? Paul rebukes the questioner for impiety, and uses the potter-clay illustration to reiterate that God has the right to elect some and reprobate some as he deems fit (vv. 20-21).
  • Paul then adds, as a supporting argument, the fact that when God chooses to reprobate someone like Pharaoh, he has to bear patiently their sin and arrogance, but does so, in order to demonstrate his glory to his elect, which turn out to be among the Gentiles as well as among the Jews (vv. 22-24).
  • He thus brings the discussion back to the issue of Jewish unbelief in Christ, from which his discussion of election has been an excursus.

From that point, the rest of the chapter is interpreted with regard to the Jew-Gentile question and salvation by faith, as opposed to works, without explicit reference to election (vv. 25-33).

The present interpretation that I have given recognizes the significant paradigm shift that takes place in the first century with regard to the identity of the people of God. It contrasts with the traditional one chiefly in terms of keeping the dominant issues of the Jews and of salvation by faith in mind throughout.

  • It begins, as before, with Paul agonizing over the failure of Israel to come to faith in Christ (vv. 1-5).
  • He has to confront the Jewish objection that, if his gospel were correct, it would mean that God’s promises to the Jews had failed. His response is that God’s promises have not failed, but others are inheriting the promises, because not all of Israel is Israel: i.e., not all of Israel has followed Abraham in faith (v. 6).
  • Ethnic descent from Abraham is not enough to be considered “Abraham’s children,” as the examples of Ishmael and Esau demonstrate; Israel has already been granted unmerited blessings as compared with other descendants of Abraham (vv. 7-13).
  • Therefore God is not unjust if he now excludes those descendants of Jacob who do not come to faith, because anyone he blesses, even Moses, is a recipient of his mercy (vv. 14-16). God may choose to spare for a time even someone like Pharaoh, whom God has chosen to harden—knowing that he will harden himself in response to God’s challenge—in order for God to glorify himself through that person, who can be viewed as both an example of God’s mercy and hardening (vv. 17-18).
  • The implication is therefore that the Jews have been given mercy in the past but are not guaranteed mercy in the future if they do not come to faith in Christ. The hypothetical questioner asks why God still blames the Jews, if He has hardened them (v. 19), refusing to recognize that the Jews are hardened just as Pharaoh was hardened, by their own stubborn refusal to repent. Paul therefore rebukes them, and uses the potter-clay illustration to point out that God has always dealt with Israel on the basis of its repentance, and it is only those who refuse to repent who argue back to God that he made them as they are (vv. 20-21).
  • Paul then points out that God has to bear patiently the “objects of his wrath”—the unbelieving—in order to make his glory known to the “objects of his mercy”—those who come to faith, which he specifically identifies as having come not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles (vv. 22-24). The supporting quotations from Hosea and Isaiah make clear the point: that many of those whom the Jews had considered excluded from the covenant (the Gentiles) would in the end be included, while many whom the Jews had considered included in the covenant (themselves) would be excluded (vv. 25-29).
  • The basis upon which Gentiles have been included and Jews excluded is made explicit in vv. 30-33: it is that the Gentiles are obtaining righteousness through faith, while the Jews have pursued it by works.

Pros and Cons

It may be argued against this interpretation that the traditional one reads more simply from the text in Romans, and that it does not interject issues of ethnic Judaism or justification by faith, neither of which are clearly referenced in the central passage (vv. 14-23). To this, it may be responded that the traditional interpretation may read more simply by virtue of one’s familiarity with it, and because it assumes certain interpretations of the OT quotations which are simple but are demonstrably false, once the contexts are understood. The issue of ethnic Judaism dominates chs. 9-11, and thus can safely be assumed in a short passage that doesn’t reference it explicitly; while justification by faith is the dominant theme of the book of Romans as a whole, and it is the Israelite rejection of justification by faith that provokes the present discussion. On the other hand, the traditional interpretation reads into the text the assumption of unconditional individual election, which is a debatable doctrine, certainly not a major theme of Romans 1-8, and not followed up as a theme in Romans 9:25ff.

In essence, Paul is telling ethnic Israel something very close to what Reformed interpreters see. He is telling them that God has the right to choose whomever he wills to be among his covenant people. But he is not telling them this because God has chosen not to elect most of them. He’s telling them this because the paradigm for inclusion in the covenant people has shifted, from national Israel following the Law to anyone who comes to faith in Christ. Israel feels betrayed by this paradigm shift, so Paul explains that God has no obligation to the physical descendents of Abraham; rather, Paul demonstrates from the Old Testament that his relationship to Israel has always depended upon repentance.


[1] Supported by LXX dietarathaskept or preserved. Paul’s translation in Rom. 9:17 uses exegeiro, to raise up, but in the sense of arousal from sleep or being stirred up or incited. It does not mean “raised into a position of power.” The only other occurrence of this word in the NT is 1 Cor. 6:14, in which it refers to the resurrection of the believer.

[2] Of course, all this begs the question of whether and how the reprobate are enabled to come to faith in Christ. If they are not, apart from the application of irresistible grace to the elect alone, then the Calvinist position holds, even with the interpretation here presented for Romans 9. A detailed discussion of the relevant passage from Ephesians 2 is outside the purview of this study; however, it is arguable that the first two chapters of Ephesians also deal with the relationship between Jews and Gentiles, as is made clear in the rest of that book, and that Paul’s point in Ephesians 2 is to identify Jewish believers (“we also,” Eph. 2:1) with Gentile believers (those being addressed) in their common experience of being “dead in trespasses and sins” before conversion, without specific reference to how their conversion was enabled.