How Should We Interpret Romans Chapter 9?

“Calvinism” series: (post #7)

As it is written, “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated.” (Romans 9:13, N.K.J.V.)

I had originally planned to end the series on Calvinism with the previous post. However, I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t address the issue of Romans chapter 9. That chapter, after all, is the hightower of Calvinists, the one they cite the most in defense of their faulty system of theology. So before we put a final period on this series, let’s deal with that chapter.

First, I’ll list the parts of the chapter that might be used to support Calvinism. Here goes (all from the N.K.J.V.):

  1. (in regards to the twins Jacob and Esau): (for the children not yet being born, nor having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works but of Him who calls), it was said to her (their mother Rebekah), “The older shall serve the younger.” As it is written, “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated.” (verses 11-13)
  2. For He says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whomever I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whomever I will have compassion.” So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy. (verses 15-16)
  3. Therefore He has mercy on whom He will, and whom He wills He hardens. You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For who has resisted His will?” (verses 18-19)
  4. But indeed, O man, who are you to reply against God? Will the thing formed say to him who formed it, “Why have you made me like this?” Does not the potter have power over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel for honor and another for dishonor? (verses 20-21)
  5. What if God, wanting to show His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, and that He might make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy, which He had prepared beforehand for glory, even us who He called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles? (verses 22-24)

Well, you can see how these passages could get a Calvinist’s motor revving, can’t you? I mean, the passages, at first blush, certainly do seem to be fertile ground for Calvinism, particularly for Calvinism’s doctrinal points of “Unconditional Election” and “Irresistible Grace” (with its inner, irresistible call to salvation). In light of these two doctrinal points, consider the phrases used:

  • “the children not yet being born, nor having done any good or evil” (unconditional election)
  • “that the purpose of God according to election might stand” (unconditional election)
  • “not of works but of Him who calls” (irresistible grace)
  • “Jacob have I loved, but Esau I have hated” (unconditional election)
  • “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy” (unconditional election)
  • “I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion” (unconditional election)
  • “it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy” (unconditional election)
  • “He has mercy on whom He will, and whom He will He hardens” (unconditional election)
  • “one vessel for honor and another for dishonor” (unconditional election)
  • “vessels of wrath prepared for destruction” (unconditional election)
  • “vessels of mercy, which He had prepared beforehand for glory” (unconditional election)
  • “even us who He called” (irresistible grace)

But now let me shock you: This entire chapter has nothing to do with salvation! You can read through the whole chapter and you won’t find even one use of words such as “saved,” “salvation,” “damnation,” “heaven,” or “hell.” And now let me shock you again: The primary focus of the chapter isn’t even upon individuals! While it’s true that certain individuals are named (Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob, Esau, Moses, Pharaoh, Hosea, and Isaiah), the main teaching of the chapter has to do with nations: the Israelites, the Edomites, and the Gentile nations of the world.

First and foremost, what Paul is doing in the chapter is explaining what has happened with Israel. Israel had long been God’s chosen nation. God had entered Himself into covenant with Israel. Israel had God’s law. Israel had God’s mark of circumcision. Israel had God’s temple. Israel had God’s priests. Israel had God’s sacrificial system. Israel had God’s prophets. Israel had God’s kings. Israel had God’s promises. But as Paul is writing Romans chapter 9, Israel is no longer front and center in God getting His work done upon the earth. The Gentiles are now at the front of that line. Why? What has happened? How can God justify such a reversal of roles? As Warren Wiersbe writes in his commentary on the chapter:

Paul had argued in Romans 8 that the believer is secure in Jesus Christ and that God’s election would stand (Romans 8:28-30). But someone might ask, “What about the Jews?” They were chosen by God, and yet now you tell us they are set aside and God is building His church. Did God fail to keep His promises to Israel?” In other words, the very character of God was at stake. If God was not faithful to the Jews, how do we know He will be faithful to the church?

Paul, who was a Jew himself, begins by saying that his heart is broken over what has happened to Israel (verses 1-5). Then he points out that there is a difference between what we might call “national” Israel (my term) and what we might call “spiritual” Israel (my term). As he puts it, “For they are not all Israel who are of Israel” (verse 6).

A “national” Jew is a Jew by birth, but a “spiritual” Jew is one who has Abraham’s faith in Abraham’s God (verses 8-9) (also read John 8:31-47). Unfortunately for the Jews, “national” Israel rejected Jesus as their Messiah and worked through the Romans to get Him crucified. This was the historic event that began the role reversals for the Jews and the Gentiles in terms of God getting His work done upon the earth. As Paul says in the last verse (verse 33) of the chapter, Jesus became a stumbling stone and a rock of offense for Israel.

Just prior to saying that, Paul also explains that what “national” Israel tripped over was the false idea that righteousness could be attained by adhering to that body of law that God had given them (verses 30-33). Because of this false idea, they didn’t see their need for the righteousness offered by faith in Jesus. The Gentiles, on the other hand, were much more open to the idea of being made righteous in God’s eyes by placing faith in Jesus. So, God sovereignly chose to raise up the Gentiles to be a “vessel for honor” even as He demoted Israel to be a “vessel of dishonor.”

Paul illustrates these two distinct categories by way of Old Testament storylines, with specific sons playing the roles of the representative heads of the nations that descended from them. Abraham’s seed is represented by his son, Isaac, who stands in contrast to Abraham’s other son, Ishmael. In that instance, God chose/elected Isaac’s descendants (the Israelites) over Ishmael’s (the Ishmaelites) in regards to which group would carry His plan of salvation forward. Later, He chose/elected Jacob’s descendants (the Israelites) over Esau’s (the Edomites) to carry the plan forward. In both cases, God chose the younger son as the figurative  “vessel of honor” and the older son as the figurative “vessel of dishonor.”

And why did God choose/elect the Israelites over the Ishmaelites and the Edomites? Was it because of Israel’s good behavior as opposed to the other races’ bad behavior? No. In the case of Jacob and Esau, Paul says the selecting was done before the two representative heads were even born (verses 11-12). But again I reiterate: We aren’t talking about salvation or individuals here; we are talking about the roles of nations (races of people) in God’s grand plan for the ages. To force the subject of any individual’s personal salvation down upon this chapter is to completely miss the point of the chapter.

As further proof of this, let me offer Genesis 25:23. Rebekah was pregnant with Esau and Jacob, but she was having a difficult time with the pregnancy. So she asked God about the situation. And what did God say to her? We find the answer in Genesis 25:23, which says:

And the Lord said to her: “Two nations are in your womb, Two peoples shall be separated from your body; One people shall be stronger than the other, And the older shall serve the younger.” (N.K.J.V.)

There we have it. Even from the time that Esau (the father of the Edomites) and Jacob (the father of the Israelites) were in their mother’s womb, God considered them to be not just two individuals but two nations (peoples). In this way, Genesis 25:23 serves as the key to unlock Romans chapter 9. It’s been said that the best commentary on the Bible is the Bible, and here we have a perfect example of that. And so it wasn’t that God chose/elected Jacob for salvation and Esau for damnation. No! He chose/elected Israel to be the vessel through which Jesus would come, an honor He didn’t grant to the Edomites. Tragically, however, once Jesus did come, national Israel rejected Him and in so doing became one of God’s vessels of dishonor rather than a vessel of honor.

By the way, it is worth mentioning that Esau never served Jacob. As a matter of fact, during the lifetimes of Esau and Jacob the Edomites were a stronger nation than the Israelites. This fact alone shows us that God’s prophecy about the older serving the younger (verse 12) isn’t referring to the two individual brothers. However, the Edomites did eventually serve the Israelites. The proof texts are 1 Samuel 14:47; 2 Samuel 8:14; 1 Kings 11:15-16; 1 Kings 22:47; and 2 Kings 14:7. This is even more evidence that Romans chapter 9 deals with Jacob and Esau in terms of their respective races rather than as individuals and has nothing to do with afterlife salvation or damnation.

Someone says, “But why does God say, ‘Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated'”? Well, here again the Bible becomes the best commentary on itself. Notice how Jesus uses the word “hate” in Luke 14:26:

“If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple.” (N.K.J.V.)

Now, obviously, Jesus doesn’t want anybody to hate their father, mother, wife, or children. What He is saying is that our love for Him should be so great as to make any other love look like hatred by comparison. We see this same usage of “love” and “hate” on display in Matthew 6:24, where He says:

“No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to one and despise the other….” (N.K.J.V.)

And so it wasn’t that God hated Esau in the sense that He created him to live, die, and be punished eternally. Again, the passage has nothing to do with such matters. Instead, God’s “love” of Jacob and “hatred” of Esau meant that Jacob’s twelve sons — and not any of Esau’s sons — would produce the twelve tribes of Israel, the nation through whom God would bring Jesus into the world.

But then someone else asks, “But what about Pharaoh? Why did God say of him, ‘For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I may show My power in you, and that My name may be declared in all the earth’ (verse 17)? To find this answer we must consult Exodus chapters 5 through 14. There we read about the battle of wills that took place between God and Pharaoh.

God wanted Pharaoh to release the Israelites from their enslavement to the Egyptians so that Moses could lead them out of Egypt and into the promised land of Canaan. But God told Moses right from the start that Pharaoh wasn’t going to go along with that plan. You see, God already knew what kind of man Pharaoh was. Rather than being submitted to God, Pharaoh thought of himself as divine. So, God said to Moses even before Moses went to Egypt to begin the assignment, “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, so that he will not let the people go” (Exodus 4:21).

What? That makes no sense. Did God want Pharaoh to release the Israelites or not? If He did, then what’s this business about Him hardening Pharaoh’s heart so that he wouldn’t let them go? Here is where we get into the realm of the two different ways in which God receives glory.

Know this: God doesn’t waste anything or anybody in regards to usefulness. In other words, He has ways of using everything and everybody to get His plans accomplished. But He doesn’t employ a one-size-fits-all approach. Sometimes He uses individuals and nations as vessels for honor. Other times He uses them as vessels for dishonor. Either way, though, He gets some type of glory. As Proverbs 16:4 says:

The Lord has made all for Himself, Yes, even the wicked for the day of doom. (N.K.J.V.)

In the case of the Israelites, God would glean glory from them by using them as vessels for honor. In the case of the Egyptians, He would glean glory from them by using them as vessels for dishonor. His glory would be displayed concerning the Israelites by way of Him accomplishing their deliverance via ten plagues that He would inflict upon Egypt. His glory would be displayed concerning the Egyptians by way of Him bringing that mighty nation to its knees. This, accordingly, is why God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. God wanted to make the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt far more devastating for Egypt than it would have been if Pharaoh had let them go the first time Moses made the request.

Furthermore, while it’s true that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, it’s also true that Pharaoh hardened his own heart. As we study the entirety of the story (using the N.K.J.V.), we find eight occasions where we’re told that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart (Exodus 4:21, which is predictive; 7:3, which is also predictive; 9:12; 10:1; 10:20; 10:27; 11:10; and 14:4/8). But we also find three occasions where we’re specifically told that Pharaoh hardened his own heart (8:15; 8:32; and 9:34). And then there are five instances where we’re succinctly told that Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, with not specificity regarding who did the hardening (Exodus 7:13-14; 7:22; 8:19; 9:7; and 9:35). I find it interesting that if we slide those unspecified verses over into the category of Pharaoh doing the hardening — an interpretation I favor — we come up with eight instances in each category.

What this shows us is that God isn’t some demented, ogre-like, overlord who takes nations that are ripe for obeying Him and twist them to make them something they are not just so that He can make them a vessel of wrath (Romans 9:22). Likewise, He doesn’t take a nation who has nothing in it but rebellion and enmity toward Him and force it to become a vessel of mercy (Romans 9:23). As we learn from the heart of Pharaoh, He doesn’t harden a heart that doesn’t already have a sizable amount of hardening in it.

Yes, God has mercy on whom He wills and hardens whom He wills (Romans 9:18), but He always wills to play fair. Yes, He shows His wrath and makes His power known through the vessels of wrath He prepares for destruction (such as Egypt), but He endures those vessels of wrath with much longsuffering (Romans 9:22), gives them plenty of chances to repent (2 Peter 3:9), wants them all to get saved (1 Timothy 2:3-4), and takes no pleasure in their demise (Ezekiel 18:23; 33:11). Yes, He is the potter who has power over the clay (Romans 9:21), but He doesn’t abuse the power.

Let me point out something from Romans 9:17 (which quotes Exodus 9:16). God says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I may show my power in you, and that My name may be declared in all the earth.” Notice that God didn’t say, “For this very purpose I have created you.” You see, there’s a big difference between God creating a man for the sole purpose of showing His power in him by breaking him and God merely raising up the man to a position of earthly power. Creating and raising up to earthly power are two separate things. Here again we are dealing with national matters, not individual ones. Here again we are dealing with vessels of honor and vessels of dishonor, not an individual’s eternal salvation or damnation.

Of course, the Calvinist will say, “But Romans 9:21 doesn’t mention any difference in the clay, with some of the clay being good and some of it being bad. To the contrary, the verse says the clay God uses is the same lump, and from that lump He molds one vessel for honor and another for dishonor.” The answer to that is that the clay being one big lump of sameness is simply a reference to the fact that every single nation on earth consists of nothing but members of Adam’s fallen race. In this way, they are all the same big lump of clay to God.

To illustrate this, let’s go back to the story of Jacob and Esau. Was Jacob a sinner? You’d better know it! When God looked at Jacob in the womb He saw a schemer, a conniver, a thief, and a moral weakling. Okay, so what about Esau? Oh, he was a sinner too! When God looked at him in the womb He saw a worldly, brutish, life-for-the-moment type who had no appreciation whatsoever for spiritual matters. So, in their differing ways, the two nations that were represented in the twins were the same lump of clay.

Now put yourself in God’s place. In this one lump of clay you see two nations. You will mold one part of the clay into a vessel for honor through which you will bring Jesus into the world. This means that, by default, you will mold the other part of the clay into a vessel for dishonor that must pale in comparison to the other vessel. Tell us, God, which section will you mold into the vessel for honor?

As we know, God chose Israel over Edom as the vessel for honor. In His divine wisdom, though, the decision was perfectly fair and just. Remember that the Edomites are represented in the older twin, Esau, and he showcased their national unconcern for spiritual matters by selling His spiritual birthright (and all the patriarchal promises that came with it) for the paltry sum of a bowl of stew and some bread (Genesis 25:29-34). Later on he showcased it again by marrying two different women at the same time, both of which were idol-worshiping foreigners (Genesis 26:34-35). Jacob, with the Israelites being represented in him, at least showcased the national priority that Israel would place on spiritual birthrights and spiritual blessings. That was enough to put him ahead of Esau in regards to spiritual matters.

Now, as I head for home with this post and this series, I want to offer a couple of quotes from missionary/Bible teacher, David W. Cloud. First, in his book, The Calvinism Debate, Cloud says the following regarding his conclusion that Calvinism is a false system of theology:

The Calvinist will doubtless argue that I simply don’t understand Calvinism properly, and to this I reply that if Calvinism is that complicated it can’t be the truth. If a reasonably intelligent preacher who has studied and taught the Bible diligently for 32 years and has published a Bible encyclopedia and many other Bible study books can study Calvinism with a desire to understand it properly and still not understand it, then it is far too complicated to be the truth! The apostle Paul warned that it is the devil that makes theology that complicated. “But I fear, lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtilty, so your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ” (2 Cor. 11:3). Of course, Calvinism is not simple by any means and this is one reason why it produces an elitist mentality.

Second, a bit later in that same book, Cloud might as well have been reading my mind and writing my thoughts when he continued his assessment of Calvinism. As I read these words, all I can do is say, “Amen.” That’s why I’m offering them as the close to this post and this series. Here goes:

The fact is that every time I have studied Calvinism I have come away convinced that it simply contradicts too many Scriptures, that it is built more upon human logic and philosophy than upon the plain teaching of God’s Word. Whatever divine election means, and it is certainly an important and oft-taught doctrine of the Word of God, it cannot mean what Calvinism concludes, because to accept that position requires one to strain at gnats and swallow camels. The gnats are Calvinist extra-scriptural arguments and reasoning and the camels are Scriptures understood plainly by their context.

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