Concerning Romans 9

            Both camps agree that a proper interpretation to Romans 9 is central to the debate. Walls and Dongell maintain that Romans 9 is undoubtedly “the most contested territory of the Calvinist-Arminian dispute.”[1] Edwin Palmer also affirms the relevance of the chapter by saying that if anyone doubts “that our salvation is entirely in God’s hands…then let him read and reread again and again Romans 9:16.”[2] So, if one can pick only a single passage to exegete for this dispute, it is Romans 9 that merits the attention.

Romans 9 begins “a single cohesive argument” with the nation of Israel at the center of Paul’s attention.[3] Its focus is not how individuals are to be saved (Romans 3-6 address that topic), “but rather what Christians should say about Israel in light of its current rejection of the gospel,” and “if we fail to see that Paul from the start identifies Israel’s unbelief as the cause of his anguish and the issue he wishes to pursue, we will likely misread many statements throughout these chapters and mistakenly build a theology on a single verse.”[4] Wesley says that the primary purpose of Romans 9 is not to discuss “personal election or reprobation,” but “to answer the grand objection of his countrymen; namely, that the rejection of the Jews and reception of the gentiles was contrary to the word of God.”[5] Paul is dealing with the Jewish belief that (1) genetic lineage is sufficient to inherit eternal life and (2) that God’s refusal to extend salvation to the Jews based on their rejection of Jesus is a violation of God’s promise. Verses 6-13 counter the previous, for “God chose Jacob over Esau, though they were both sons of Isaac. God’s distinction between children within the genetic lineage of Abraham proves God’s freedom to operate along lines other than genetic ties.”[6] Verse 14 refutes the second belief. Is it unjust for God to give salvation to the believing Gentiles and not to the Jews who reject His Son? By no means! God, in His sovereignty, “has a right to fix the terms on which he will show mercy.”[7] As verse 15 says, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” Also, He has the right to use those who are not willing to receive His blessings for His purposes. The reference to Pharaoh reinforces this (verse 17). In the same way obstinate Pharaoh was used to proclaim God’s power, so were the stubborn Jews indirectly used to propagate the gospel. Walls and Dongell assert that it was “the Jews’ hostile reaction to Christian preaching” that “actually propelled the gospel to ever-wider Gentile audiences.”[8] The hardening mentioned in verse 18 is not God determining Pharaoh’s disobedience, but rather God “strengthened Pharaoh’s heart in the perverse direction Pharaoh himself had already resolutely chosen.”[9] It was Pharaoh, not God who first did the hardening (Ex 7:13; 8:15, etc.). Only later did God encourage Pharaoh’s obstinacy (Ex 9:12; 10:1, 20, 27). As it was with Pharaoh, so it was with the Jews (Matt 13:13-15).

Though determinists are quick to cite the potter illustration, it does not mesh with their system. Geisler reminds the reader of verse 19 that “the phrase ‘who resists his will?’ is not an affirmation by the biblical author but a question posed in the mouth of an objector.”[10] He refers to Romans 3:8 where an absurd objection is made (=“Why not say-‘let us do evil that good may result”). It is possible that “the idea that one cannot resist God’s will may be no more part of Paul’s teaching than the view that we should do evil so good may come.”[11] This possibility becomes a probability when one reads Romans 9:20: “But who are you, O man, to answer back [i.e., resist] to God?” Geisler argues that Paul’s answer “implies that the objector can and is resisting God by raising this very question.”[12] Furthermore, for a Jewish mind Romans 9:19-24 is not deterministic or fatalistic, because in Jeremiah 18 the same illustration is used and there the clay is clearly not passive (18:7-10). Similarly, Paul in 2 Timothy 2:20-21again uses a vessel illustration where being honorable or dishonorable is conditional, based on whether one keeps himself spiritually clean or not. Having these verses in mind, we must remember Scripture interprets Scripture. Lastly, the Greek syntax of Romans 9:22-23 makes a distinction between “prepared” in verse 22 (regarding the vessels of wrath) and the one in verse 23 (regarding the vessels of glory): “the first literally means “prepared themselves,” while the second is “which He prepared.”[13] Therefore, the potter has the right to set the terms of salvation and the clay has the ability to conform or not to this standard thereby choosing how it is molded. In conclusion, Romans 9 “tells the story of God’s determination to extend his mercy beyond the confines of Abraham’s genetic lineage…God, in his sovereign freedom, does extend mercy even to Gentiles while hardening some disobedient Jews, though this may offend Jewish sensitivities.”[14]

[1] Walls and Dongell, Why I am not a Calvinist, 84.

[2] Palmer, The Five Points of Calvinism, 34.

[3] Walls and Dongell, Why I am not a Calvinist, 85.

[4] Ibid.

[5] John Wesley, “Explanatory Notes on the Entire Bible,” (accessed October 11, 2010).

[6] Walls and Dongell, Why I am not a Calvinist, 90.

[7] Wesley, “Explanatory Notes on the entire Bible,” (accessed October 11, 2010).

[8] Walls and Dongell, Why I am not a Calvinist, 89-90.

[9] Walls and Dongell, Why I am not a Calvinist, 89.

[10] Geisler, Chosen But Free, 89.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Nelson’s NKJV Study Bible (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1997), 1896.

[14] Walls and Dongell, Why I am not a Calvinist, 94.

Author: James Buddy Smith
Ark of Hope
Jasper, Georgia