A Non-Calvinist Interpretation of Romans 9

Megan Phelps-Roper is the estranged daughter of the founding family of Westboro Baptist Church, which is famous for incendiary protest posters proclaiming that “God hates” this and that. Phelps-Roper was drawn out of the church due to an interaction with someone on Twitter. She gained some prominence as a result of being a former member of such a widely despised group and became a guest on several talk shows, including the Joe Rogan Experience. Phelps-Roper said on the Joe Rogan Experience that she wasn’t a Christian anymore partly because of Romans 9 and its Calvinist implications. If you’re familiar at all with the Calvinism-Arminianism debate, you will know that Romans 9 is probably the arch-prooftext for Double Predestination in Calvinism. Double Predestination is the idea that God wills that people are saved and damned irrespective of anything they do. This is sometimes called “unconditional election” in that the election of people is not conditional on anything apart from God’s mysterious decision to save certain people and not others before they were born.

It makes sense that Phelps-Roper cannot conceive of a different interpretation given that her own church and family were apparently extremely Calvinist in their theology. Calvinist theology is a basis for saying that God hates certain people, because God, in a fundamental and a priori sense, wants some people to be damned if Double Predestination is true. Westboro Baptist Church says this on their website: “In the matter of eternal salvation, the love of God is reserved exclusively for His elect, and the hatred of God is reserved for the reprobate.” Like other Calvinists, Westboro denies the traditional Christian belief in Universal Atonement (that Jesus died for everyone), but insists that he only died for the elect. In other words, the idea of unconditional reprobation is the reason Westboro Baptist Church members can say that God hates so-and-so and not flinch, while this should seem incongruous to other Christians. This is the same reason you will periodically find other Calvinists saying similar things although in less incendiary ways. At The Gospel Coalition, D.A. Carson disputed the popular phrase that God “loves the sinner, but hates the sin” by pointing to passages in the Psalms which say that God hates the wicked. At Desiring God, John Piper concurs, saying that “God does hate sinners”. Google “God hates the sin but loves the sinner” and you will find that the articles by Christians that come up that dispute it, and say that God does hate sinners, are almost always written by Calvinists. Even though this idea stands in contrast to the way Christians have always understood the central New Testament message, Calvinists believe that the New Testament does not teach that God loves all people and wants all to be saved. However, we are told explicitly that God wants all people to be saved in 1 Timothy 2:4 and 2 Peter 3:9. Every time the New Testament speaks of the Atonement or of God’s mercy of the New Covenant, it uses some universal qualifier like “the world” or “all” or “whoever” or “anyone” (John 1:29, John 3:14-18, John 3:16, John 12:32, Romans 3:23-24, Romans 5:18, 2 Corinthians 5:14-15, 2 Corinthians 5:19, 1 Timothy 4:10, 2 Peter 2:1, Titus 2:11, Hebrews 2:9, 2 Peter 3:9). The verses used to support Limited Atonement never say that God dies only for the elect, but merely that God died for the elect, which does not contradict Universal Atonement. If God died for everyone, then he died for the elect. It is natural to talk about God dying for the elect or for the church when you are talking to Christians ( as the apostles do in their letters). You need the “only” because that is the central claim of Limited Atonement. To say simply that Jesus dies for the elect does not give evidence for Limited Atonement, because there is no controversy that Jesus died for the elect. And significantly, Jesus died for all and showed them this love while they were still sinners ( Romans 5:6-8). If Jesus died for all people, then God’s love extends to all people in an overriding and fundamental way.

It is also worth noting that usage of “hatred” is often idiomatic in Hebrew to mean “love less” or “reject.” For example, in Genesis 29:31, we read “When the LORD saw that Leah was hated, he opened her womb, but Rachel was barren.” But Leah was not hated in our sense. She was simply not Jacob’s favourite. But Jacob bore no ill will toward her and Rachel didn’t either, at least as far as the text shows. Also, Jesus says in Luke 14:26:

If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters–yes, even their own life–such a person cannot be my disciple.

This means that you are to love your family and your own life less than Jesus, not that you should hate them ( in our sense of that term). People often quote Jesus’s teaching to love your enemies, but what is not often quoted is the rationale that Jesus gives for this teaching. He says that we must love our enemies so “… that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:44) We are to love our enemies because God loves his enemies. Psalm 145:9 says:

The LORD is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made.

A sentiment similar to Phelps-Roper’s is expressed by Roger Olsen, the Arminian theologian. Olsen says that he “couldn’t” believe in Calvinism, presumably implying that if he thought Calvinism was the only position consistent with the Bible, then he wouldn’t be a Christian. I don’t think this is the right approach to take and we should allow that if God has decided to do things as Calvinism implies then we should say as the priest Eli does in the book of Samuel: “He is the LORD; let him do what is good in his eyes.” ( 1 Samuel 3:18). If something seems wrong from our perspective, that is not to say that it is wrong from God’s, who has information we don’t have, is more intelligent than we are, and has a better grasp of the Good than we do. But does the Bible teach Calvinism?

Back to the Basics

The entire Biblical witness seems to say that election is conditional, not unconditional. Throughout the Bible, there is always a condition in the actions and beliefs of people that determines how God acts toward them: whether they are saved or condemned. This is true in the very beginning in the Garden of Eden, it is true after the Fall, and it is true once again after the Atonement. In the Old Testament, Adam and Eve are promised judgment if they eat from the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (Genesis 2:17).  In this case, their continued stay in Eden was conditional on them keeping this command. In the rest of Genesis, it is also true that God’s judgment or blessing is always contingent upon the actions of people. When people are judged before the Flood, they are judged because “all the people on earth had corrupted their ways” (Genesis 6:12).

When the law is given by Moses, this is made even more explicit and we are told repeatedly that Israel’s election is conditional, that the benefits of the covenant will only accrue to them if they obey God’s commands. And if they do not obey God’s commands, they will be cut off (Deuteronomy 30:15, Deuteronomy 6:18, Exodus 20:1-17, Exodus 32:7-10, etc.). Both reprobation and election are conditional on the actions of the people of Israel. In the prophets, the blessing or judgment of God is conditional on the people repenting and turning from their sins or, alternatively, they will be condemned as a result of doing wrong ( not unconditionally). Let’s just take one example from each prophetic book ( though there are many more): Isaiah 55:6-7, Jeremiah 18:8, Ezekiel 18:31-32, Daniel 4:27, Hosea 6:1-10, Joel 2:12-14, Obadiah 1, Amos 5:4-6, Jonah 3:6-10, Micah 7:16-20, Habakkuk 2:6-20, Zephaniah 2:1-3, Haggai 1:5-11, Zechariah 1:1-4, Malachi 3:6-8). So the conditionality of God’s action is made clear in the prophets in two ways. They have failed to obey God’s commands and have done evil, so they will be punished. Most of the time, if they repent, they will be saved. This describes basically the rationale for all the prophetic books: you have failed to obey my commands, therefore I will punish you. Repent and you will live. Because you have done this, I will do this. If you do this, I will do something else. In none of these cases is God’s action toward people presented as unconditional, as something that has been decided beforehand and that does not depend on obedience or disobedience or repentance or a refusal to repent, not before the Fall and not after it.

In the New Testament, election and reprobation are again constantly presented as conditional. In the gospels, in the epistles, and in the book of Acts, the requirement is expressed that you have to “repent and believe.” ( Acts 3:19, Luke 13:5, Matthew 3:8, Luke 3:8, Acts 5:31, Romans 2:4, 2 Timothy 2:25, 2 Peter 3:9, Romans 10:9-10, Mark 1:15, Mark 9:23, Mark 16:14, Mark 16:16, Luke 1:20, Luke 8:12, John 1:7, John 1:12, John 3:15, John 3:18, John 3:36, John 5:24, John 5:38, John 6:35, John 6:40, John 8:24, John 11:25-26, John 11:40, John 12:36, John 12:46, John 14:11, Acts 10:43, Acts 11:17, Acts 13:39, Romans 1:16, Romans 3:22, Romans 4:5, Romans 4:24, Romans 9:33, Romans 10:4, Romans 10:10, Romans 13:11, 1 Corinthians 1:21, Galatians 2:16, Galatians 3:6, Galatians 3:22, Ephesians 1:13, Ephesians 1:19, 1 Thessalonians 2:13, 2 Thessalonians 2:12, Hebrews 4:3, Hebrews 11:6, 1 Peter 2:6-7, 1 John 3:23, 1 John 5:1, 1 John 5:5, 1 John 5:10, Jude 1:5) . You have to repent of your sins and believe in Jesus and you will be saved. Your salvation is conditional on you doing those things. You will not be saved without doing those things. This is consistently how the gospel is proclaimed in the New Testament, at least the vast majority of the time. If you take those verses at face value, then election and reprobation are clearly conditional. And other books of the New Testament, such as Hebrews, warn about the possibility of apostasy based on unrepentant immorality. So in every single instance where God interacts with people, he sets up some condition that they must satisfy by their own actions that will determine how God acts toward them. To say instead that God’s action toward people is unconditional and not determined by what they do in life directly contradicts almost the entire Bible. It is also irrational to think that God sets this condition and says that his own action is dependent upon you responding in the correct way, but meanwhile he has actually already decided what to do not based on your response to that condition at all. This makes God into a liar. Calvinists may contend that these passages about the necessity of belief are compatible with unconditional election, but all of these passages say that God’s action is conditional on faith in Jesus, which means that unconditional election directly contradicts with them. If it is God’s decision to save you irrespective of anything you have done or believed that determines that you will be saved, then it is no longer your faith or your belief in Jesus that is the decisive factor in determining your salvation. In the New Testament, the way you become one of the people of God is by repentance and faith in Jesus, not by an ineffable decision before you were born.

So to dismiss or de-emphasize this entire history of salvation that we are given because of a single or even a handful of passages within Paul’s epistles is the height of hermeneutical folly. It is also irrational to then read everything else in the Bible in light of those few passages in Paul’s epistles. In addition to this, God expresses grief that the damned refuse to obey him and longs for them to repent and obey him (Isaiah 48:18, Matthew 23:7). This is not what you would expect if God did not want them to be saved, because this would require that God grieves for people’s lack of salvation when he does not want to save them, which is incoherent. That would require that God wants and simultaneously does not want to save certain people. This is just to give you some backdrop for the debate and to show just how weak the Calvinist’s position is exegetically, and how radical a departure it is from what the Bible teaches, before we consider maybe the only passage ( or at least one of very few passages) in the entire Bible which seems to teach Double Predestination.

The Arch-Prooftext

Without further ado, let’s address the passage itself. My goal here is not to say that my own reading is superior to the Double Predestination reading, but merely to say that it is compatible with what is being said. That is to say, it is at least as plausible as the Double Predestination interpretation. It isn’t necessary to disprove Double Predestination in Romans 9 itself. The rest of the Bible does that quite comfortably. It isn’t necessary to prove a particular non-Calvinist reading within Romans 9 or to say that Romans 9 itself gives evidence for the non-Calvinist reading that I will say it is compatible with. In other words, there is a difference between saying that my interpretation is compatible with what is being said in Romans 9 and saying that Romans 9 gives evidence for my interpretation. It is not necessary to do the latter, only the former, in order to show that Romans 9 does not necessarily imply Double Predestination.

Romans 9 (in full):

I speak the truth in Christ—I am not lying, my conscience confirms it through the Holy Spirit— I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race,the people of Israel. Theirs is the adoption to sonship; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of the Messiah, who is God over all, forever praised![a] Amen.

God’s Sovereign Choice

It is not as though God’s word had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children. On the contrary, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.”[b] In other words, it is not the children by physical descent who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring. For this was how the promise was stated: “At the appointed time I will return, and Sarah will have a son.”[c]

10 Not only that, but Rebekah’s children were conceived at the same time by our father Isaac.11 Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad—in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: 12 not by works but by him who calls—she was told, “The older will serve the younger.”[d] 13 Just as it is written: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”[e]

14 What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! 15 For he says to Moses,

“I will have mercy on whom I have mercy,
and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”[f]

16 It does not, therefore, depend on human desire or effort, but on God’s mercy. 17 For Scripture says 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.”[g] 18 Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.

19 One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who is able to resist his will?” 20 But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’”[h] 21 Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use?

22 What if God, although choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction? 23 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— 24 even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles? 25 As he says in Hosea:

“I will call them ‘my people’ who are not my people;
and I will call her ‘my loved one’ who is not my loved one,”[i]

26 and,

“In the very place where it was said to them,
‘You are not my people,’
there they will be called ‘children of the living God.’”[j]

27 Isaiah cries out concerning Israel:

“Though the number of the Israelites be like the sand by the sea,
only the remnant will be saved.
28 For the Lord will carry out
his sentence on earth with speed and finality.”[k]

29 It is just as Isaiah said previously:

“Unless the Lord Almighty
had left us descendants,
we would have become like Sodom,
we would have been like Gomorrah.”[l]

Israel’s Unbelief

30 What then shall we say? 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. 32 Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone. 33 As it is written:

“See, I lay in Zion a stone that causes people to stumble and a rock that makes them fall, and the one who believes in him will never be put to shame.”

The argument begins by saying it is “not as though the word of God has failed” (God’s covenant with Israel). Paul is starting with the conclusion of his argument that follows. He begins by contending that not all who are physically descended from Israel are the same as the elect of Israel, because Isaac was chosen rather than Ishmael, and Jacob was chosen rather than Esau. The elect were children of the promise: the promise God made to Abraham about his descendants and that Sarah will bear Abraham’s heir. The condition that determined election is the promise God makes to Abraham and later to Rebekah. These are analogies so we need to be careful about what implications we draw from these two examples. Even though it seems clear Romans 9 on the whole is talking about election to salvation, there is controversy about whether the examples themselves are talking about election to salvation or election to service, or a corporate election of descendants. The issue of election in those passages may not be with the individual himself, but with whose descendants will enter into a priestly covenant with God and carry the law. This does not necessarily mean that those who do not enter into that covenant are unsaved. God continues to care for Esau after he sells his birthright and gives land to his descendants (Deuteronomy 2:5). God also promises Abraham that he will care for Ishmael and his descendants (Genesis 17:20). But the wider passage in Romans does concern salvation, because Paul is trying to explain why so many Jews are unsaved. So why does Paul highlight these election passages when they are not entirely congruous with election to salvation? In what way is he saying they are analogous to unbelieving Jews and believing Gentiles?

What is the Promise in the New Covenant?

Another important aspect of the examples that is disanalogous to salvation in the New Covenant is this notion of the promise. Paul says that it is not physical descent but the promise that determines who are elect. But, obviously, as Christians we don’t have a promise like that of Abraham that we will have children and that God will bless them in a particular way. The promise is an identifiable condition of God’s blessing in these examples. Election does not happen ineffably and unconditionally as in Calvinism, but according to the promise. The promise corresponds to a condition in the New Covenant that determines who are elect and who are not. So what is it? Paul has not explicitly identified the promise with anything in the New Covenant yet, with either faith in Jesus or unconditional election at this point ( up to verse 9). But given what he has been saying in the last few chapters in Romans, it makes sense to assume at this point that it is faith in Jesus. That is the condition that determines who are elect and Paul says this explicitly when he concludes the chapter (Romans 9:30). That is the argument that Paul has been making throughout Romans and he now wants to explain how it looks in light of the Old Covenant. That is the interpretation I’m going to defend when the verses that appear to teach Calvinism start to appear. It may be that Paul is again calling to mind his argument in Romans 4:3, that Abraham believed in God’s promise, which is credited to him as righteousness. In other words, the new condition is that you must believe the promise in Jesus and it will be credited to you as righteousness.

Before they were born or had done anything good or bad

Up to verse 9, there is nothing that is very controversial as far as the Calvinism-Arminianism debate is concerned. It is in verse 10 that the fun begins; where Paul describes the promise that was given to Rebekah. Calvinists attach a lot of significance to how it is described. This is how Paul puts it: “Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad—in order that God’s purpose in election might stand:  not by works but by him who calls—she was told, “The older will serve the younger.”” This is compatible with the reading I have proposed. This is compatible with Paul’s message that it is by faith in Jesus and not by works that we are saved.  How so? Firstly, Paul does not consider faith in Jesus as a work, or as something meritorious, as he constantly shows throughout his letters. Let’s look at one specific example from Romans 4:1

What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, discovered in this matter? If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about—but not before God. What does Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”

So it is clear here that Paul does not conceive of Abraham believing God as a meritorious work. Paul says that because he believed he had nothing to boast about. And again in Romans 3:27:

Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. Because of what law? The law that requires works? No, because of the law that requires faith. For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.

Choosing to believe in Jesus is not something that Paul believes is a “work”, because he always juxtaposes faith in Jesus with works, but it is also clear that he believes that faith in Jesus is the condition on election in the New Covenant (Romans 1:16, Romans 3:22, Romans 4:5, Romans 4:24).

The Calvinist may respond here that it happened before they were born so it cannot be faith, because an unborn baby cannot believe in Jesus. An unborn baby can also not hear or respond to God’s call, so Paul is clearly not taking that aspect of the analogy literally (“not by works but by him who calls“). See this depends on how far Paul is applying the Jacob-Esau analogy to the New Covenant. In fact, Paul is explicitly interpreting his own analogy. He is directly saying why he is pointing out that their election occurred before they were born or had done anything good or bad, namely, that salvation is “not by works but by him who calls.” So there’s the part of the analogy that he focuses on (before they were born or done anything good or bad) and then the interpretation he gives of that aspect of the analogy directly afterward (the purpose of election is not by works but by him who calls). So you cannot then draw implications from the analogy that Paul does not himself draw by focusing on aspects of it that he does not focus on, or taking literally aspects of it that he does not take literally. Paul does not attach significance to the fact that the election happened before they were born but to the fact that their unborn state implied that they couldn’t have merited election ( “before they were born or had done anything good or bad” i.e “ they weren’t born so they couldn’t have done anything good to earn their election.”) The fact that they weren’t born is incidental to the point they couldn’t have done anything to merit their election.

Put differently, the focus is not the state itself but the fact that it renders them incapable of meriting salvation and since belief in Jesus is not thought of by Paul as meritorious, that reading fits perfectly with what is being said. Paul is making a familiar point, not a new one; a point he makes all over his epistles: that salvation is not by works and that God’s calling is not based on whether we are good or bad. And we know that because of the interpretation he himself gives of them being unborn in verse 12 ( not by works but by him who calls). So his own interpretation of that aspect of the analogy does not focus on the fact that their election was before they were born but on the fact that their election was not by works. This means that the Calvinist is taking literally an element of the analogy that Paul did not (explicitly) draw into the corresponding reality of the New Covenant, namely that election happens before you are born. There is something else here that also shows that he is not attaching significance to the unborn state itself, which I hinted at earlier. That is the phrase “by him who calls.” Can an unborn baby hear the call of God? No, that always happens after you’ve been born. So this is an additional point that gives evidence for the idea that Paul is drawing attention to the fact that they didn’t merit salvation, not that they were unborn. The fact that they are unborn is only mentioned to give evidence for the idea that they didn’t merit election. If their unborn state were truly his focus then it wouldn’t make sense to interpret his own analogy as being not by works but by him who calls, because an unborn baby cannot hear or respond to God’s call.

Moreover, even the Calvinist cannot believe that we are saved before we are born, because even they believe that we don’t get saved before they live, but if you take the analogy literally here, that is what it would mean. So if you believe that people are saved even before they are born then this is a denial of the doctrine of Justification by Faith. In fact, arguably unconditional election does deny the doctrine of Justification by Faith (at least any such doctrine that can claim a foundation in the New Testament)  because the decisive factor in your salvation is God’s decision to save you, not faith, and that it is not based on anything you’ve done or believed. A biblical doctrine of Justification by Faith says that it is faith that is the crucial factor in salvation, and that it determines God’s decree of justification.

This interpretation that I’ve proposed also makes sense in terms of the wider context of Romans 9. In verse 7 he says, “not all who are descended from Israel are Israel.” He uses the example of Abraham and promise over Isaac rather than Ishmael to prove this. So with this example, Paul refutes the idea that Jewish nationality determines election. With the promise to Rebekah, he refutes the idea that obedience to the law determines election. So Paul is refuting the two things which Jews would have believed determined their election: nationality and obedience to the law. So the purpose of citing the promise to Rebekah is specifically to address the idea that works of the law determines election. So what is the election of Isaac and Jacob based on? That’s irrelevant here, which is shown by the fact that Paul only draws implications from these examples about what election is not based on, namely, not on physical Jewish descent, and not on works and Paul goes on to defend God’s right to elect not based on these things.

By Him who Calls

In Romans 9:12, Paul describes the case of Esau and Jacob and then draws the lesson he wants to draw from it, that salvation doesn’t come from “works but by him who calls.” It is interesting that Paul uses the word “calling” to describe God’s action here and elsewhere in Romans 9 (Romans 9:24). This is significant because someone who is talking in this chapter about God predestining people in an utterly coercive way would not choose the word “calling” to describe that action. In the rest of the Bible, it is understood that calling is something very non-coercive and that it can be resisted. Jesus tells us explicitly that “many are called but few are chosen” (Matthew 14:22). Calvinists may point to Romans 8 as implying that everybody who are called will also be justified. But that interpretation of Romans 8 is explicitly contradicted by Jesus. But let’s look at the passage (Romans 8:30):

And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.

Calling is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for salvation. Those who are justified will always be those who are called, but not necessarily that everyone who is called will be justified. Does Paul mean here by saying “those” who are called he also justified that everyone who are called are then justified, or does he mean simply to describe the process of God’s foreknowing through to sanctification. This passage seems to show God’s action or involvement in the process of glorification, but this does not imply that human will plays no part in it. It could be that Paul is thinking in terms of a delimited class: the believers he is speaking to. For believers, or within the class of believers, it is true that all who are called are justified, because they responded rightly to the call. This makes a lot of sense within the greater context of Romans 8. Paul begins the chapter by saying that “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” and ends with the famous passage that there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God. (Romans 8:38) This whole chapter is dealing with the attitude, the confidence, and the perspective we have as believers who are in Christ. And the passage immediately preceding Romans 8:30, from Romans 8:28, goes like this:

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. 29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. 30 And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.

Thus, what it means is that not all who are called are justified, but all of us who are now believers were justified after we are called and we can expect, based on God’s promise to those who are in Christ, that we will be sanctified and glorified. That also makes sense as to why the passage is written in past tense. As William Barclay affirms in his commentary on Romans, it is written from the perspective of a believer looking back at the grace of God on his life. Take a look also at one of the reasons for this confidence in the process of God’s grace: we know that all things work together for the good of those who love him...” In other words, the chapter is talking specifically about those who love God and those who love God can expect what he says here.

I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy

Paul then gives voice to an objection, that God is being unjust, based on his point that God chooses Jacob over Esau and that this election is not based on works. The passage in Exodus 33:19 ( “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy”) is quoted as part of Paul’s response to this objection. But we must look at how Paul draws this into his case ( in verse 16). We cannot make our own assumptions about what it means in the context of Romans 9. The Calvinist may say that this objection doesn’t make sense given the reading I’ve proposed. They would think that the hypothetical objection is based on the idea that God is choosing one over the other, but is that what is being referenced? Remember that the lesson Paul draws from the promise to Rebekah is that election is “not by works but by him who calls.” If God’s mercy or favour is not based on good works, if he sometimes shows mercy or favour to immoral people, then God would be considered unjust by someone who believes our standing before God is determined by our good works and how well we obey the law (not on faith). This makes sense in how Paul justifies the point as well. Paul is supposing God to be saying: “I will show mercy to whoever I want to whether they obey the law or not, or whether they are good or bad.” Paul seems to be addressing here the same attitude that Jesus was addressing in two of his parables (and elsewhere): the Parable of the Lost Son and the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard. In both of these parables there are characters who are angry at God for giving people favour that they have not deserved. In the Parable of the Lost Son, the elder brother is angry that his younger brother is given such a lavish welcome, because the younger brother had done almost nothing right, while he had done everything right and has lived in obedience to the Father. In the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, the workers who had worked an entire day are angry at God for giving the people who had worked much less than them the same reward. In fact, the response of the Landowner (representing God) in Matthew 20:15 is very similar to the response Paul gives to the charge that God is being unjust both in this verse (verse 14) and later when he is talking about the Potter (verse 19 -21):

Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?

That Paul’s focus is primarily on the fact that God’s action is not based on works is vindicated again by how he concludes this section about God having mercy on whom he wants. Paul concludes: “it does not, therefore, depend on human desire or effort but on God’s mercy” (emphasis added). Take a look at the “therefore” in this verse. Once again, if the focus of Paul’s argument was on the fact that some are chosen and some are not, then he would have concluded differently here, that God chooses some people and not others. But that is not his conclusion. His conclusion is that God’s mercy is not earned by human desire and effort. This is again a matter of bringing aspects of Paul’s examples into the fray which he is not focussed on. But you may say that the next two verses (verse 17 and 18) appeal to Pharaoh and the idea of hardening and he says in verse 18: “Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy and he hardens whom he wants to harden.” Surely that shows that he is focussing here on God’s choice between different people. But he starts verse 17 by saying “For Scripture says to Pharaoh…” In other words, whatever follows ( in verse 17 and 18) is supposed to prove what has just been concluded in verse 16, which is: “it does not, therefore, depend on human desire or effort, but on God who has mercy.” This means that having mercy and hardening is supposed to give evidence for this idea that God doesn’t act toward people based on works. (Also, it is worth pointing out that the actual text of Exodus doesn’t present God as hardening pharaoh unconditionally, but only after he has hardened his own heart.)

Every time Paul interprets his own examples in Romans 9, he brings it back to this point that God is not acting in mercy or in condemnation based on works. But then based on what? Now this is crucial. Paul hasn’t yet told us. Even though he has been making the argument throughout Romans that salvation is by faith apart from works, he hasn’t yet explicitly referenced faith in Romans 9 ( even though given the the rest of the book, it is pretty obvious by now what he is leading up to). So the Calvinist can say that Paul doesn’t say explicitly yet it is based on faith or lack of it that the mercy or hardening occurs. But the exact same response is available to the non-Calvinist. Paul also doesn’t say explicitly it is based on an ineffable decision by God. Paul’s message up to now has been entirely negative. He hasn’t said what it is based on but only what it is not based on ( namely, not on works). You cannot make assumptions at this point about what God’s choosing is based on. Merely because it is not by works doesn’t mean it is unconditional.

Does “human desire or effort” include any prerogative that we as human beings have to believe? Would Paul include here the idea that believing in Jesus as something which is by human desire and effort, so that salvation cannot be conditional on belief in Jesus because that would require it being conditional on something that is by human desire and effort? As we already covered, Paul does not conceive of faith as being a work. It is not meritorious. After all, what is the alternative? Are you then saying that salvation is not by faith in Jesus? So we see that even though faith in Jesus is not explicitly mentioned in these verses (yet), the reading that God’s mercy is conditional on faith in Jesus is compatible with what is being said and is suggested by the preceding chapters of Romans.

The Potter

After this in verse 19, Paul addresses an objection that God is being unjust in doing this and uses the famous Potter analogy from the prophet Isaiah to respond to this objection. I think the objection that Paul is imagining to the preceding can come from one of three points of origin. The one is the point of origin expected by the Calvinist: How can God find fault with my sin since he is determining me to be damned? The second interpretation is the one I’ve already proposed. Paul is addressing the same objection he already addressed in verse 14. This makes sense given that the next objection (“Then why does God still blame us? For who is able to resist his will?”) can be seen as another implication of what Paul has already argued in verse 12 and verse 16 ( that God’s election is not based on works). This may make God’s electing will seem arbitrary. First, he elects the nation of Israel based on nationality and obedience to the law, and now he elects based on faith in Jesus. In this reading, the injustice on God’s part is specifically about the idea of showing favour to people who have not merited it, who have not obeyed the law or done good works, or who are not physically descended from Jews. As I said, this makes perfect sense in terms of the conclusions Paul draws from his examples, which, in both verse 12 and verse 16, is that God’s election is not by works.  The third interpretation of this objection is similar to the first but is compatible with the reading I’ve given of the passage so far. This reading of the objection goes like this. Paul is specifically responding to the idea of divine hardening rather than it’s conditionality or unconditionality. That is to say, if you are persistently disobedient and unrepentant, there comes a time when God stops offering you mercy and starts hardening you or starts preparing you for destruction. Someone in that situation can say to God: Why then does he find fault with me now in this situation, for who can resist his will? So this is just to point out that this objection makes sense whether the hardening is conditional or unconditional, which means that it doesn’t imply unconditional reprobation. There is a common Arminian idea that, to quote C.S. Lewis, “the door to hell is locked from the inside.” This notion is often used in apologetics to explain the problem of hell. The idea is that people walk into hell of their own accord because they have rejected God and his goodness and there is now nowhere else to go. There is truth to this but it is incomplete. You cannot escape the reality that it is still God who is always portrayed in the Bible as sentencing the damned to hell. It is true that the door to hell is locked from the inside, but there does come a time when the door will be locked from the outside as well. But this sentence is not declared unconditionally but is based on a life lived in unrepentant unbelief.

Paul answers this objection based on the Potter analogy. Surely the Potter analogy implies an absolute determinism in salvation or damnation? A potter is supposed to have an absolute control over the clay and can make it into whatever he wants. So the clay is made for a particular purpose. It is first important to recognize that this is again an analogy. There will always be parts of an analogy which do not correspond with the reality it is being compared to. If it did correspond in every way, it would no longer be an analogy but would be identical to the reality it is being compared to. So the focus should not be on every aspect of the analogy itself but the aspects of it that Paul highlights and what aspects of it he emphasizes as corresponding to the reality of salvation in the New Covenant. So what aspect of the analogy is Paul highlighting here? We know that he is bringing up this analogy to respond to an objection that God is being unjust in hardening people, or is being unjust to elect not based on works. So that means that the part of the analogy that Paul is focusing on is the craftsman’s right to do what he wants with his creations, not other parts of the analogy that Calvinists might want to bring to bear on the issue. This means that the fact that a potter creates an inanimate object with no input from the object itself is not relevant. The fact that the potter determines absolutely everything about the object is not in focus either. Is the craftsman’s right to do what he wants with the clay compatible with conditional hardening? Yes it is.

Vessels of Wrath and Vessels of Mercy

Paul goes on:

What if God, although choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction? 23 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— 24 even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles?

So, this may be the highlight of the chapter for the Calvinist wanting to prove Double Predestination. However, there is no indication that this “preparation” happens unconditionally. There are two clues that both the process of preparation for glory and for destruction are conditional. First of all, it is interesting that Paul says that God “bore with great patience” the objects of his wrath. That’s odd. To have patience with something is by definition to bear with something or to tolerate something that is contrary to your own will or preference. So it doesn’t make sense to say that God is patient with a state of affairs that he is himself determining to occur. Trying to reconcile Calvinist theology with the Bible, you always end up with God being at odds with himself, having contradictory wills and being of two minds about everything important. And to quote Jesus, “A kingdom divided against itself cannot stand.” Another translation renders this as longsuffering. Both patience and longsuffering are words Paul uses to describe the fruits of the Spirit in the life of believers. Patience is normally a state of goodwill in Paul’s writing. In other words, if God is truly being patient with these vessels of destruction, this is not because he wills them to be damned. To put it another way, if you are enduring someone’s wrongdoing by looking forward to their punishment, “patience” and “longsuffering” are not the words to describe that. You are not being patient with someone if you will ill for them or if you are indifferent about their fate. When God’s patience is described in the rest of the Bible (such as in Romans 2:4) , it is always because God is continuing to give these people time and opportunity to repent (and therefore still willing that they be saved). In Romans 2:4, Paul says that God’s patience is intended to lead people to repentance.

The clue that the vessels of mercy are conditionally prepared is again the word “call.” Paul says that he makes the “riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory – even us, whom he also called…” As I pointed out earlier, this is not the language you would use to describe God’s election if you believed it were a coercive or irresistible process. And as was already pointed out, God’s call is something that is resistible.

What shall we then say?

In verse 30 then, Paul concludes Romans 9 in exactly the way you would expect him to conclude it if he were talking about a conditional election based on faith in Jesus:

What then shall we say? 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. 32 Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works.

This brings to a point the conclusions that Paul makes in verse 12 and verse 16, both of which focus on God’s favour not being based on works. He is now telling us what it is based on ( namely, faith). If you interpret the rest of the chapter as being about Double Predestination, then this conclusion doesn’t make sense. The whole point of the preceding verses would then have been to say that election is not conditional on belief in Jesus but based on God’s sovereign choice before they had been born or done anything good or bad ( including believing in Jesus, as Calvinists interpret that aspect of the analogy).

The Wider Context

I have emphasized throughout that the Double Predestination reading is mostly compatible with what is being said in Romans 9, and the conditional reading is at least as plausible a reading of the chapter. But that is only if you consider those few verses in isolation. If you include in your consideration the rest of the book of Romans as well as the rest of the epistles of Paul, the Double Predestination interpretation becomes very implausible. Paul is explaining in this chapter the character of the New Covenant in light of the Old Covenant with Israel. This means there shouldn’t be a new theology of salvation here. This should not change the way we conceive of salvation in the New Covenant. Unless Paul is changing his theology of the New Covenant that he has just spent the last few chapters in Romans developing, membership of which is conditional on faith in Jesus (Romans 1:16, Romans 3:22, Romans 4:5, Romans 4:24) then Romans 9 should contain the same theology of salvation. If Paul has just spent several chapters arguing that election ( being chosen) comes through faith in Jesus, why would he then say that it is not really dependent on believing in Jesus but on a decision by God before you were born? And that is what Romans 9 implies if it is interpreted in the Calvinist way. Otherwise, Paul is saying something significantly different from the rest of Romans and from the rest of his epistles (except, I’ll admit for the sake of argument, Ephesians). If this way of thinking of the gospel is important for Christianity as Calvinists suppose, then why is it only clearly expressed in one chapter of a single epistle, while the idea that election is conditional upon faith in Jesus is found in every single epistle multiple times?

In fact, shortly after Romans 9, Paul is again talking about salvation of the Jews and the Gentiles in very conditional terms in Romans 11:

What then? What the people of Israel sought so earnestly they did not obtain. The elect among them did, but the others were hardened, as it is written:

“God gave them a spirit of stupor,
eyes that could not see
and ears that could not hear,
to this very day.”[c]

And David says:

“May their table become a snare and a trap,
a stumbling block and a retribution for them.
10 May their eyes be darkened so they cannot see,
and their backs be bent forever.”[d]

Ingrafted Branches

11 Again I ask: Did they stumble so as to fall beyond recovery? Not at all! Rather, because of their transgression, salvation has come to the Gentiles to make Israel envious. 12 But if their transgression means riches for the world, and their loss means riches for the Gentiles, how much greater riches will their full inclusion bring!

13 I am talking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch as I am the apostle to the Gentiles, I take pride in my ministry 14 in the hope that I may somehow arouse my own people to envy and save some of them. 15 For if their rejection brought reconciliation to the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead? 16 If the part of the dough offered as firstfruits is holy, then the whole batch is holy; if the root is holy, so are the branches.

17 If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root,18 do not consider yourself to be superior to those other branches. If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you. 19 You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in.” 20 Granted. But they were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but tremble. 21 For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either.

22 Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in his kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off. 23 And if they do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again.

Paul is specifically talking about the hardened Jews as those who have not fallen beyond recovery and that God is able to graft them in again. He also warns the Gentiles not to get a big head, because the people of Israel ” were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but tremble. For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either.” So this explicitly affirms the conditionality of both reprobation and election. It affirms that the unbelieving Jews were hardened because of unbelief (verse 20), not unconditionally, and that they can become the elect again if they do not continue in their unbelief (verse 11 and verse 23). And it affirms that the Gentile Christians “stand by faith” where the unbelieving Jews were broken off because of unbelief, and if they do not continue in God’s kindness, then they will also be broken off. If the unconditional election reading is correct then Paul seems to be explicitly contradicting in Romans 11 almost everything he has just said in Romans 9, while speaking of the same subject ( namely, the salvation of Israel). Romans 11 is consistent with how Paul concludes Romans 9, that the Gentiles who had faith became righteous, but Israel didn’t attain it because they did it through works.

Conditionality vs. Stinginess

In this post, I have repeatedly emphasized how God demands a certain behaviour without which we will not be saved. But in emphasizing the conditionality of salvation, there is the danger of starting to think of God as being miserly and unmerciful in the way he applies the condition or to think of him in this way merely because he demands a condition. This can feel transactional and impersonal. But the way that God applies the conditionality throughout the Bible shows how generous and patient and merciful he is. We are told repeatedly in the Old Testament that God is “slow to anger and great in loving kindness” (Psalm 145:8, Exodus 34:6, Numbers 14:18, Psalm 86:15, Psalm 103:8) , that God “delights to show mercy” (Micah 7:18) and that God  does not derive satisfaction from causing pain even though it is just punishment (Lamentations 3:33), and does not take pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 18:23). Even when people fail to meet a condition, God is not quick to punish them and he usually gives them plenty of time and opportunities to repent. And even after there has been punishment, there is still opportunity to turn back to God. In the New Testament, God shows his mercy and generosity especially in the condition he places: repent and believe. All you have to do is admit you’re wrong and believe and Jesus and God will be on your side. This is not a difficult condition to satisfy which is why it is not seen as something meritorious. It is not something you can boast about. So with that we’ll conclude:

Repent and believe in Jesus Christ of Nazareth and you will be saved! No matter who you are and what you’ve done, you can be saved. God loves you and your sins have already been paid for.

3 thoughts

  1. My problem is this then. If Christ died for all men, and not all men come to him, has he failed as a saviour? Do he need our help? Is he incapable of saving all men? Then he is not a complete Saviour. Christ’s death was definitely sufficient for the whole world, but only efficient for the elect. We are dead in sin. We all fell into sin through Adam. God predestined His people before the word was. He knows all things, or else He is not an all powerful God. Yes we have responsibility 100%. But it is at the same time 100% grace. We give God all thanks and praise that He in His grace made us alive!! This is not of ourselves, it is a gift of God. God is sovereign and fully in control.


    1. Thank you for the comment. The relevant question is what the Bible says, not whether we think it makes Jesus a lesser saviour. Why does the fact that God commands us to respond to his grace mean that he needs our help? He could force us if he wanted to, so he doesn’t need anything. He has chosen for it to work that way, so it doesn’t imply any need or dependency in Him. You have not responded to the many biblical passages that shows God will only save those who repent and believe, showing clearly that there is a part to play for the human being. To say that it is 100% God’s responsibility and a 100% ours is a contradiction and unbiblical. You have also not shown why Jesus dying for people who would not be saved shows that he failed as a saviour. To say that someone failed in their goal, you must know what their goal is. If it is God’s goal to save everyone whom he dies for, then he does fail by that goal. But that goal presupposes limited atonement, because it is only if you assume limited atonement that God saves people at the event of the atonement and not after they repent and believe. It is most biblical to believe that it is God’s goal to save everyone whom Jesus dies for and who repent and believe. Is Jesus an incomplete saviour then based on this goal? No he isn’t.

      Why would Jesus die for people who reject his gift of salvation? There are many possible reasons for that, but the Bible doesn’t give an answer. I’ve heard a Calvinist say that it diminishes God’s glory. But that is just speculation as they have no scripture to back up such a claim. It is strange to me that they would think the rejection of something good is a blight on the giver rather than the one who rejects it. On the contrary, I would say, God offering something exceedingly good to the exceedingly bad is something that increases his glory by showing the depth of his love and forgiveness, that he would die even for those who would then reject him! It also solidifies the guilt of the damned, showing that they have no excuse, as they were offered salvation in the same way as everyone else. If people reject even the precious blood of Christ already shed for them, then that shows both the love of God in dying for the hardened and makes manifest the evil of those who reject it.

      What is the biblical basis for thinking that human rejection of God’s goodness shows that God is not omnipotent or not sovereign? God created them with the will to be able to do that and permits them to do so, even though he could force them if he wanted to. So why does that mean that he is not omnipotent or sovereign? And if God wishes only to save those who freely choose him, why does that make him less of a saviour? If he dies even for the sins of those who he knew would reject his atonement, my own thought would be that this glorifies his name all the more because he shows love even for the worst of the worst. You must again presuppose a particular definition of sovereignty in order to say that a non-Calvinist view like that expressed above implies a lack of divine sovereignty.


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