, ,

The Most Misunderstood Chapter in Scripture: Romans 9

I’m listening today to Wayne Grudem’s systematic theology podcast, which is pretty good for a summary of biblical theology. I appreciate Grudem’s even-keeled temperament and clear exposition. I also like that he marries serious intellectualism with charismatic practice, which is a wonderful trend to see in the Church.

I just listened to his section on election though, and it’s so frustrating to hear this brilliant man run right into the plain-as-day logical incompatibility of Calvinism, over and over again, like a gif of the titanic hitting an iceberg on endless repeat. God pre-ordains man to sin; God punishes man for sinning. God saves some for no meritorious reason so he gets all the credit; this, of course, is not a random selection. Our evangelism or prayer cannot actually affect the identity or number of anyone being saved; we are still told its vitally important for us to do them. and so on and so on. Of course, Romans 9 is the cornerstone for Grudem’s (and every other major Calvinist’s) argument for why, even though it seems criminally unfair, we must bow before the “clear teaching of Scripture” that God is both just and loving to predetermine men’s sinfulness and then condemn them to eternal torture for their sin. God is the potter, and who are we mere men to question his choice to make vessels for destruction? What other explanation could there be?

How about one that actually makes sense in the context of the passage! In fact, the Calvinistic interpretation of Romans 9 makes almost no sense if you actually understand the sweep of Paul’s argument in that chapter.

Look at the chapter’s bookends! Paul introduces the topic in verses 1-5, “I have great sorrow… for the sake of my people…Israel.” Then, at the end, he summarizes his thoughts in vs. 30-31, “What shall we say then? (What does all this mean?) That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; 31 but the people of Israel, who pursued the law as the way of righteousness, have not attained their goal.” The chapter is not about individual people; it’s about Israel!

Let me give an overview of Romans 9.

v1-5. Paul is sad about Israel’s rejection of Jesus, and will now explain why it is happening even though God promised them a glorious future as his chosen people.

v6-13. He starts off by explaining that Israel was chosen by grace, not by its own merit. Jacob’s descendents (Israel) were chosen over Esau’s, as the prophecy Paul references was “Two nations are in your womb…and the older will serve the younger.”

“Is that unjust?” Paul asks (v14). No! Because He “will have mercy on whom [he] has mercy.” Why does Paul bring this up? Because this is what the Lord tells Moses right after the golden calf incident, when he chooses to have mercy on Israel because of Moses’ intercession and not wipe out the nation. God’s purposes, therefore, do not depend of human effort, but on God’s mercy. Israel failed its holy calling about 5 minutes after it was commissioned at Sinai, and yet the Lord gave mercy for the sake of his purposes.

Then Paul brings up Pharoah, whom God hardened as a judgment for his decision to refuse to obey God’s commands. Why? Because God used Pharoah’s disobedience to glorify himself through a miraculous exodus. God used a sinful man to accomplish his good plans to bless Israel, whom He had chosen.

The flow of his argument here is really important to understand. You see, God has mercy on who he will, but also hardens whom he wants to harden. Why is this relevant? Because now, in Paul’s time, God is hardening Israel in exactly the same way he hardened Pharaoh, to accomplish his purposes for those whom he has chosen among the Gentiles.

v19-21. Then why does God still blame us (Jews)?” This is where Paul brings up the Potter, which is directly from Jeremiah 18. There, God tells Jeremiah that Israel is like a lump of clay that resists the will of the potter, so the potter has the right to refashion the lump for an appropriate use in his plans. He also says, though, that if that nation repents he will relent from his planned disaster. (Let me be clear here: God’s sovereign choice is in hardening Israel! The lump of clay that is used for “common use” is Israel!)

v22-25. The objects of his wrath, born with great patience, are Jews, who are judged harshly by the Lord in AD 70 and scattered among the nations, but preserved for a great purpose in the future, as Paul will explain in Romans 11. Gods scattering of Israel fulfilled God’s purposes as a righteous judgment against Israel and a blessing to the nations as the believing Jews brought with them the gospel of their messiah Jesus.

Paul finishes the chapter by referencing numerous OT prophecies about the Gentiles coming to faith and summarizes by saying: “What shall we say then? (What does all this mean?) That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; 31 but the people of Israel, who pursued the law as the way of righteousness, have not attained their goal.” This conclusion makes perfect sense if the topic of the chapter is the election of Israel. 

This overview of Romans 9 makes perfect sense in the flow of Paul’s argument until chapter 11, and I lovingly challenge any Calvinist to seriously consider this interpretation. I understand that rethinking a Calvinist interpretation of Romans 9 is not easy at all for those who have long held to such a view, but I contend that Calvinism seriously distorts Paul’s intended message here, and forces the adherent to adopt a picture of God’s sovereignty that is both logically incompatible and deeply unloving according to the testimony of the rest of Scripture. It makes a mockery of Christ’s true offer of salvation for all and his deep longing that all men be saved.

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *