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An Analysis of Romans 9:1-24


The scope of Gospel Deficiency is to examine the relationship between the gospel of Jesus Christ and Calvinism, and expose the gospel deficiency of the latter. Contrary to Calvinistic thinking, the text of Romans 9-11 does NOT directly impact the gospel message. There is NOTHING in the ninety verses of these three chapters that alters one iota the good news that (1) Jesus died for ALL men, dealing with their sins in a propitious manner, and (2) men can find forgiveness of sin and eternal life through faith in him. Many Calvinists claim they became Calvinists as a result of reading sections of Romans 9-11 and appeal to these passages as proof of Unconditional Election, upon which the doctrine of Particular Redemption hinges. It is therefore needful to consider these select verses in their context, rightly divide the Word of God and dispel a few Calvinistic myths in the process.

Romans 9:1-16

Paul begins by expressing his genuine concern for Israel's salvation (9:1-3). He said he was willing to trade his salvation for theirs. In order to assure readers his claim is not rooted in cheap sensationalism, he affirms the Holy Ghost himself will attest to his claim. He describes this burden for his kinsmen as “great heaviness and continual sorrow.” His heaviness of heart was exacerbated by an awareness that a people so privileged by God could become so estranged from him. Notwithstanding God's adoption of the nation, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the service of God, the promises of God and being the national line through which Christ came, they rejected him (9:4-5). 

As dismal as things had become for the nation, all was not lost. The word of God to Israel HAD taken effect in some. There was a genuine spiritual Israel that existed within the physical Israel (9:6-8). The “seed” that God would call from Isaac was Christ (9:7; Galatians 3:16). God made the promise to both Sarah (where Isaac was concerned) and Rebecca (where Jacob was concerned). Christ, Isaac and Jacob were all ELECTED. The “purpose of God according to election” was to bring Christ into the world via Isaac, Jacob and their descendants (9:11). This elective plan would stand as unalterable! Both Isaac and Jacob were second-born sons. By his sovereign prerogative, God rejected the first-born sons and chose the second-born sons to fulfill his elective purpose. It was not based on works that either Esau or Jacob would perform in life. 

Rebecca was told: “The elder shall serve the younger” (9:12). In the Old Testament record of these two brothers, Esau NEVER served Jacob. The reference MUST therefore have been to the two peoples that came from their loins, NOT to the brothers themselves. In subsequent history, the descendants of Jacob would indeed subjugate the Edomites and fulfill God's promise. God's love of Jacob and hatred of Esau are tied to the context of God's elective purpose (9:13). The proper understanding of God's hatred of Esau in the context is that of rejection. That is, God rejected any claim first-born Esau might have had where the lineage of Christ was concerned. God rejected first-born Esau for this role and favored the second-born Jacob in accordance with his elective purpose. God's hatred (rejection) of Esau was not a personal matter affecting his salvation. There was NO unrighteousness with God in doing so (9:14). We are fourteen verses into these chapters and Paul has said NOTHING regarding the gospel and personal salvation. The promise and purpose of God have to do with Christ and God's elective plan to bring him into the world through the lines of Isaac and Jacob, not Ishmael and Esau. 

While the words 'sovereign' and 'sovereignty' are never used in scripture, the concepts certainly are. In the flow of the text, Paul cites an OT example involving Moses and his remarkable act of intercession on Israel's behalf (9:15-16). The Lord threatened to destroy the entire nation of Israel for their idolatry at the foot of Sinai, and raise up a new people from Moses. Moses dissuaded the Lord from this drastic act by appealing to his reputation with the Egyptians. The Lord relented, but later reminded Moses that he would shew mercy to whom he would shew mercy (Exodus 33:19). The outworking of God's mercy would express itself in sparing the lives of “little ones” under age twenty and allowing those age twenty and over to die through natural attrition during forty years of wilderness wanderings. So we see that the sovereignty of God regarding Moses and Israel had nothing to do with personal salvation, but physical life and eventual entrance into the Promised Land. The Lord shewed compassion to the entire nation in feeding them and suspending clothing and shoe wear over those forty years. There is even a possibility that thousands of stiffnecked Israelites repented during the wilderness wanderings and found personal salvation. But by God's sovereign will, none of those who might have repented were allowed entry into Land of Promise. God eventually denied Moses, his beloved friend, the mercy of Promised Land entry because of an act of anger in striking the rock at Horeb instead of speaking to it as God directed. While the Calvinist is insistent about God's sovereignty, and rightly so, personal salvation is not in view.

Interpretive Background

Before we move on to Pharaoh, it will prove useful to lay some groundwork with regard to God and the salvation of lost men. First, God always has and always will desire that all men come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9). No passage better illustrates this truth than God's reasoned dialogue with Cain, the first man to come into the world through the womb, before he murdered Abel. From the very beginning, the Lord made clear his love for all men and his desire to accept them if they did right. Ezekiel further validates this truth when speaking for the Lord: “For I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth (Ezekiel 18:32), and “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked” (33:11). In both passages, the Lord follows with this appeal: “Turn and live.”

Secondly, in Romans 10:21, Paul quotes Isaiah: “All day long I have stretched forth my hands unto a disobedient and gainsaying people.” Sounds like a call to me. The reality of God's perennially outstretched hands is a truth we must balance with any talk of sovereignty. Jesus told Israel how often HE WOULD have gathered them to himself as a hen gathers her brood but THEY WOULD NOT be gathered unto him (Matthew 23:27; Luke 13:34). 

Thirdly, John said that Jesus “lighteth EVERY man that cometh into the world” (John 1:9). In John 12:35-36, Jesus urged followers to believe in his light and walk in his light so long as the light was with them, LEST darkness come upon them. The sovereign God of scripture is as every bit as merciful as he is sovereign. He NEVER creates a man without a light source to which that man can respond or reject, even if that source is conscience. God DOES indeed give sinners over to reprobate minds, but not until they reject light for darkness, and choose not “to retain God in their knowledge” (Romans 1:24,26,28). We can say assuredly that God gives over to darkness those who first give themselves over to evil. In one text, men being “past feeling” gave themselves over to lasciviousness (Ephesians 4:19). In another, residents of Sodom, Gomorrha and surrounding cities gave themselves over to fornication (Jude 1:7). 

Fourthly, Romans 1:18-20 says: (1) lost men “hold the truth in unrighteousness,” (2) “that which may be known of God is manifest in them, for God hath shewed it unto them,” and (3) they are “without excuse.” This eternal truth applies to Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar, Judas, Pilate and all the “vessels of wrath” God raises up to accomplish his sovereign purposes, make known his power and declare his name throughout all the earth. 

Lastly, in Romans 11:32, Paul confirmed: “For God hath concluded them all [Jew-Gentile] in unbelief, that he might have mercy upon all.” While it's true that God shews mercy to whom he will shew mercy (9:19), it is also true that God wills to shew mercy to them who respond to light. God works within the realm of his righteousness when he hardens those who reject the truth and hold to unrighteousness. The apostle Paul sets forth Pharaoh as an example (9:17). 

Romans 9:17-24 

Paul anticipates that such sovereign behavior by God is bound to raise objections from the natural man (9:19-20). God raised up an incalcitrant Pharaoh by his sovereign will. Yet God was perfectly righteous in holding Pharaoh responsible for his actions. There is no fault to be found with righteous God for his finding of fault with Pharaoh. Paul's argument: “When God does what he wills with a man who rejects his truth and light, he does so righteously.” 

We're obligated to handle Paul's potter metaphor in a manner consistent with his aforementioned desire to have mercy upon all men (9:21). Else we have a God who creates robots destined for perdition, men void of will, who lack the ability to react to truth and light, a notion Paul refuted in Romans 1. Jeremiah also employed the potter metaphor (Jeremiah 18:4-6). The elect nation of Israel, a vessel of clay marred in the potter's hand, can be made again into another vessel “as it seemed good to the potter.” The Bible interpreter, in comparing scripture with scripture, will always balance the sovereignty of the potter with his mercy. Clay that is marred in the potter's hand is due to defects in the clay, not a design decision by the potter. By removing defects from the old lump, it becomes a new lump with which the potter works to make another vessel. This fact is often omitted or blurred by Calvinism. 

Romans 9:22 sets forth sobering truth. With a proper biblical background established, the verse can be understood in context. “What if God, willing to shew..” is a conditional statement. The indicative mode requires that we understand “if” as “since”, a fulfilled condition. The verb “willing” is thelo (to desire or intend) as a present active participle. Literal translation: “Since the God, the one who is continually desirous...” God, according to Paul, is one always willing to put on display his wrath (indignation) and to make known his power. Is anyone surprised to learn a holy God would so react to ungodly men who reject him? God “fitted” them with a view to destruction. Fitted is katartizo (kata = down, aritzo = to render fit, complete) as a perfect passive participle modifying “vessels” (instruments). These vessels of wrath (indignation) are ones having been permanently and completely fitted to destruction. 

The question is: When did the fitting out of these vessels take place? Was it before they drew their first breath? Could one walk into a maternity ward and find babies God has already permanently consigned to the Lake of Fire? Scripture demands we understand the irreversible fitting of these vessels of wrath for destruction taking place at some point AFTER they expel the knowledge of God from their thinking AND God gives (abandons) them over to their vices. Contrary to what Calvinism may derive from this text, it does NOT teach the unconditional election of some vessels to be saved and the rest passed over. Paul says God “endured” (carried) these vessels “with much longsuffering.” The word 'longsuffering' is makrothumia (makros = long, thumia = tempered). The vessels of wrath are the objects of God's long-temperedness, his long-to-the-boiling-point nature. Although perdition is certain to come, it is slow in coming.

To the degree God is continually desirous to show his wrath and make his power known, to the same extent he desires to make known the riches of his glory upon “the vessels of mercy, which he had afore prepared unto glory” (9:23). The verb “afore prepared” is proetoimazo (pro = before, etoimazo = to prepare or make ready). It is a basic aorist (past) tense. The doctrine that corresponds to God preparing vessels of mercy beforehand unto glory is predestination, a truth that applies to believers only as they are in Christ. The Bible knows nothing of unbelievers being predestined. According to scripture, the unbeliever, as long as he is entrenched in unbelief, is (1) already condemned, (2) under the wrath of God, and (3) one who shall never see life (John 3:18,36). There is no way an intellectually honest Bible interpreter can harmonize “prior preparation to glory” with the hopeless state of an unbeliever. It's when an unbeliever  becomes a believer in Jesus that prior preparation for glory takes place as a result of predestination. In Ephesians 2:10, the verb translated “afore prepared” in Romans 9:23 is translated “before ordained” in reference to good works. God creates the believer in Christ Jesus to walk in the good works he before ordained. The vessels of mercy that God afore prepared unto glory were so prepared at the time God created them anew in Christ Jesus. There is nothing in Romans 9 that teaches unconditional election to salvation.

Romans 9:24: “Even us, whom he hath called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles.” We are presented here with an interpretive challenge. First, Paul identifies with Roman believers by using the pronoun “us.” Secondly, can we assume that EVERY lost individual called by the gospel becomes a believer? The Calvinist has in his quiver of arguments the 'Effectual Call' versus the 'General Call'. He understands the verb “called” to refer to an effectual call. The Biblicist agrees it is effectual. But the big question is: 'What' makes the gospel call effectual?  

The Calvinist doctrine of Total Depravity (i.e., Total Inability) requires that God regenerate the lost elect man, dead in trespasses and sins, so that he, now being made spiritually alive, can exercise faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. The Calvinist thus interprets the phrase “whom he hath called” to mean “whom he hath effectually called because he first regenerated them so they could believe.” It is the Irresistible Grace tenet of Calvinism.

The problem with this doctrine is Jesus taught Nicodemus that it is a LOOK of faith that leads to LIFE for sin-bitten humanity (John 3:14-15). In Calvinism, it's LIFE that results in the LOOK of faith. Jesus taught that a LOOK to him in faith produces the new birth. In reverse fashion, Calvinism teaches that the born-again experience enables the look of faith. The late Harold Camping, an ardent Calvinist, made this argument to his Open Forum radio program listeners. He claimed God regenerated him before he believed, but could NOT explain when or how it happened. He simply argued that regeneration MUST have taken place else he couldn't have believed. This argument fits perfectly the rationalistic theory of Calvinism, but contradicts the teaching of Christ. The apostle John wrote: “He that believeth not shall not see life” (John 3:36). If Calvinism is correct in its Effectual Call, Irresistible Grace doctrine, then both Jesus and John got it wrong!

What then makes the gospel call effectual? The answer lies in Hebrews 4:2: “For unto us [believers] was the gospel preached as well as unto them [unbelievers]: but the word preached did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in them that heard it.” An effectual gospel call is one that is MIXED WITH FAITH in the hearer! It is the absence of faith that renders the gospel call ineffectual, not an arbitrary choice on God's part NOT to regenerate the lost, leaving them incapable of believing on Christ. 

The phrase “whom he hath called” presupposes a faith response in the called. This is entirely consistent with Peter's admonition to make our “calling and election sure” (2 Peter 1:10). If Calvinism is correct, the lost elect man has NO ability whatsoever to make his calling and election sure. That's the sole business of a sovereign God. Calling and election are virtual synonyms in the NT. Both apply to believers, not unbelievers. Christ was both called (Romans 9:7) and elected (1 Peter 2:4). The student of scripture who begins his study of calling and election with Christ, who was both called and elected, will likely arrive at sound doctrinal conclusions. Calling and election both have to do with the service to which God calls a believer and the privileges God bestows upon a believer. A doctrinal system that places calling and election before faith distorts biblical truth. But that's exactly what Calvinism does with its life-before-look doctrine. In biblical terms, before men are called and elected, they must first experience sanctification of the Spirit and belief of gospel truth (2 Thessalonians 2;13; 1 Peter 1:22). 


We have traversed the first twenty-four verses of Romans 9, comparing scripture with scripture, and have found NO biblical basis whatsoever for the doctrines of Unconditional Election or Irresistible Grace. Finding these doctrines in Romans 9 is the fruit of 'private interpretation', a practice the scripture itself disallows (2 Peter 1:20). The text of Romans 9:1-24 is not a standalone, isolated text. Its proper interpretation hinges upon bringing the whole counsel of God to bear, not imposing a Calvinistic template.


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