What this text is NOT about…
Tragically, for many of us when we hear the term “election” our minds turn to John Calvin and his doctrine of Unconditional Election. As we will see, Calvin’s doctrine is NOT what Paul was teaching, but given the prevalence of this false teaching and their reliance on this passage we need to briefly discuss the matter. Space will not allow for a thorough examination of Calvin’s theology, but a short primer at this point will suffice. All of Calvin’s theological teachings were based on two erroneous precepts:
- Skewed notion of God’s sovereignty. While the Scriptures certainly maintain that God is absolutely sovereign, Calvin took it a step further. In Calvin’s mind for God to be sovereign He must be responsible for all things, both good and evil. As one Calvinist says, “Nothing in this world happens by chance. God is in back of everything. He decides and causes all things to happen that do happen. He is not sitting on the sidelines wondering and perhaps fearing what is going to happen next. No, He has foreordained everything ‘after the counsel of his will’ (Eph. 1.11): the moving of a finger, the beating of a heart, the laughter of a girl, the mistake of a typist – even sin.” (Palmer, Edwin H. The Five Points of Calvinism. P. 25)
- The total depravity of man. “Total depravity means that natural man is never able to do any good that is fundamentally pleasing to God, and, in fact, does evil all the time.” (Palmer 13). Our minds might go to Paul’s words in Romans 7.21-24, but Calvin would take this a step further saying that man could not even believe on his own, thus the necessity of “Irresistible Grace” and a direct operation of the Holy Spirit on a person so that he might believe.
These two preconceptions are the basis for Calvinism, including the doctrine of Unconditional Election. After all, if God is sovereign then He MUST choose who will be saved and who will be lost, and if man is totally depraved he cannot do anything to be saved. Everything must be done by God, man is totally depraved.
Chapter 9 is one of the main texts Calvinists use to prove their doctrine of Unconditional Election. They would say the following:
- God chose Isaac instead of Ishmael, and Jacob instead of Esau. (vss. 6-13) This proves that God elects some to salvation and others to condemnation. After all, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”
- God has mercy on whom He desires, and hardens whom He desires (vss. 14-18). Moses serves as an example of one who received God’s mercy, Pharaoh as one who was hardened by God.
- Man has no right to question God (vss. 19-22). He is sovereign, He is the potter. We are but the clay and have no right to question God’s fairness in electing some to be vessels of mercy and som as vessels of wrath.
Before we move on to what Paul actually says in Romans 9, let’s briefly show why Calvin’s concept of election is rubbish.
- It completely ignores the Jew/Gentile context of Romans. (vss. 23-24) Paul was not addressing how specific individuals were elected to salvation, but of how GROUPS were chosen to salvation. This discussion was necessary because so many of Paul’s Jewish kinsmen (God’s chosen people) had rejected Christ while the Gentiles were obeying the gospel.
- It ignores the condition that is clearly laid out in the text: faith. The Gentiles were being accepted because they pursued the righteousness that is by faith, while the Jews did not pursue righteousness by faith, but by works of the Law (vss. 30-33)
Election is an important concept, but unfortunately false teaching has corrupted the thinking of many. God elected that those who put their faith in Christ would be saved; they would comprise the spiritual Israel (vs. 6). But what did this mean for national Israel? That’s the issue Paul addresses in this section.
What this text is about…
Paul’s sorrow for his kinsmen outside of Christ (Romans 9.1-5)
Chapter 8 speaks of triumph! In Christ there is no condemnation (Romans 8.1) and present sufferings are nothing when compared to the glory that awaits (Romans 8.18). But Paul knew that most his kinsmen did not share in this hope because they had rejected Christ. Paul did not glory in this, even though his countrymen persecuted throughout his work (see Acts 14.5,19; 17.5-9,13; etc.). Rather, he had great sorrow for his “kinsmen according to the flesh” (Romans 9.1-5). They were God’s chosen people, the people who had been adopted by Him, received His covenant, etc. Yet, they had rejected Christ.
- When Paul says “I could wish” (vs. 3), this word is frequently translated as “pray” (see Acts 27.29; 2Cor. 13.7; James 5.16; 3John 2.) This was more than a wish, but a sincere desire from Paul to his God. It was similar to Moses’ request in Exodus 32:32-33. Yet, only the Christ could stand in the place of others (see Galatians 3.13).
- Of particular importance is the final blessing of Israel: “from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever.” (vs. 5) This was the purpose for which Israel was chosen, even as God had told Abraham that “in you all families of the earth will be blessed,” (Gen. 12.3).
- I believe the ESV reading is correct, “Christ, who is God over all…”. Significantly, it was Jesus’ claim to equality with God which resulted in the Jews rejecting Him (see John 5.17-18; 8.58).
- The Jews viewed themselves as God’s chosen people, and with reason (see Exodus 19.4-6). However, they had missed the point of His election, that it was through them the Christ would come. So, in rejecting Christ the chosen people had become lost.
- This opening paragraph is of the utmost importance, because everything that Paul said afterwards is his answering Jewish objections to how God’s chosen people could find themselves in an unsaved condition.
Israel’s rejection of Christ did not mean God had failed (Romans 9.6-13)
Although most of physical Israel had rejected Christ, God had not failed because the true, spiritual Israel was not comprised of only physical Israelites (Romans 9.6-13). Recall that the true Jew was defined in Romans 2.28-29. Paul’s point in this passage was that simply being of physical descent from Israel, from Abraham, did not qualify one to be part of the Spiritual Israel. Not all from physical Israel were part of spiritual Israel. To bolster his point Paul appealed to the history of the Jewish nation. Ishmael was Abraham’s first son, but his heir was Isaac, the son of Promise (Romans 9.7-9). Likewise, Rebekah gave birth to two sons, but God chose Jacob instead of Esau (Romans 9.10-13). Paul’s point was that just as God had the right to choose who would comprise the promised nation, He now has the right to chose who is a part of the spiritual nation.
A note about vs. 13. The quotation is from Malachi 1.2-3 and was spoken ~1500 years after Jacob and Esau were alive. The quotation referenced the two nations that descended from Jacob and Esau: Israel and Edom. God’s “hatred” of Edom was due to their actions, as was evident throughout the prophets (see Jeremiah 49.7-22; Ezekiel 35.1-15; Obadiah; etc.). God’s “love” of Israel was due to their standing as His chosen nation, the nation from whom the Messiah would come. This passage is NOT referencing God choosing Jacob (the man) to salvation and Esau (the man) to condemnation, as a Calvinist would assert. Rather, Paul was reminding his kinsmen that God choosing Israel as His special people was based on His grace, not Israel’s merit.
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