Romans 9: An Arminian Interpretation

By James M. Rochford

Unless otherwise noted, all citations are generously taken from the New American Standard Bible (NASB).

Romans 9 stands as the watershed passage used to support Calvinism. How do those from a Calvinistic view understand this passage? Likewise, how do non-Calvinists understand this chapter of Scripture? We hold to a moderately Arminian view, and will consider this passage verse by verse below. (For more on this subject, see our earlier article “Calvinism versus Arminianism”).

Paul’s hypothetical objector

To understand Paul’s argument in Romans 9, we need to understand what (or who) he is writing against. Throughout this chapter, we see a hypothetical objector. Who is Paul’s hypothetical objector in Romans 9, and what is this objector driving at?

We have a number of reasons to think that Paul’s hypothetical objector throughout the book of Romans is a hypothetical, non-believing Jewish person. First, the context leading up to this point demonstrates a Jewish interlocutor (Rom. 3:1, 3, 5, 8, 31; 4:1-25; 6:1, etc.). Second, the context of Romans 9 deals with Israel—both at the beginning of the chapter (vv.1-5) and at the end (vv.24-33). Third, Paul repeatedly cites OT Scripture to make his argument in Romans 9, which would fit with a Jewish objector.

If we do not understand this crucial point, Romans 9 will not make sense to us. We need to realize what Paul is arguing against, in order to see what he is arguing for.

(9:1-2) I am telling the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience testifies with me in the Holy Spirit, 2 that I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart.

Paul had been through tremendous suffering, but this suffering sounds worse than them all! What is causing Paul’s such nearly inconsolable suffering? Verse 3 tells us that he is grieved at his Jewish brothers who reject the glorious gospel of chapters 1-8.

After meditating on the love of God through Christ, Paul starts to think about his Jewish friends and family who have rejected this incredible gift. His meditation on the work of Christ made him want to be like Christ: sacrificing himself for the good of others…

(9:3) For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh,

(9:3) Does Paul really want to go to hell, so that his Jewish friends could go to heaven?

From a 5-point Calvinistic perspective, Jesus (God) does not desire all of the Jews to be saved. Does this mean that Paul actually desires to do something that God himself does not desire to do? Leighton Flowers writes, “One has to assume that those interpreters believe Paul was more merciful and self-sacrificial than the Savior who inspired these very words. It is inexplicable, given Paul’s Spirit-led appeal of self-sacrificial love, to promote a doctrine that teaches Jesus did not intend to sacrifice Himself for these hardened Jews.”[1]

Paul affirms that he is “telling the truth in Christ” and his words are “in the Holy Spirit.” Of course, all Scripture is God-breathed (2 Tim. 3:16), but Paul goes out of his way to state that this desire to die for his Jewish brothers is “truth.” Reformed theologian John Stott comments, “He knows that the human conscience is fallible and culturally conditioned, but he claims that his is illumined by the Spirit of truth himself.”[2] Therefore, we cannot write off this passage as referring to Paul’s personal wish—contrary to God’s desire. Both God and Paul desire all people to be saved.

(9:4-5) who are Israelites, to whom belongs the adoption as sons, and the glory and the covenants and the giving of the Law and the temple service and the promises, 5 whose are the fathers, and from whom is the Christ according to the flesh, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.

Paul outlines all of the blessings which belong to the Jewish people: adoption,[3] glory, covenants, the Law, the Temple, the promises, the fathers, and even the Messiah. God has given all of these things to the Jewish people—yet they are actively rejecting their Messiah.

Paul already taught that the Jewish people had been “entrusted with the oracles [word] of God” (Rom. 3:2). They had been given these benefits, but because of unbelief and a system of works-based righteousness, they failed to come to faith in Jesus.

“Amen…” The context is not shifting in verse 6. Rather, verse 6 is a continuation of Paul’s thought in verses 1-5. Leighton Flowers writes, “Paul continues in the same line of reasoning despite the paragraph break and new title heading added by many modern translations. In fact, the conjunction de (‘but’ or ‘moreover’) which begins this sentence [verse 6] clearly confirms Paul’s thought has not been broken from the previous verses.”[4]

(9:5) Does this passage support the deity of Christ?

(9:6) But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel;

“It is not as though the word of God has failed…” The Jews were entrusted with the word of God (Rom. 3:2), and they were God’s original “chosen people.” Had their “unbelief” thwarted this promise? (Rom. 3:3)

Paul’s audience must have wondered about this very problem: The Scriptures were Jewish, Jesus was Jewish, and the apostles were Jewish. The Jewish people were given all of the blessings of verses 4-5. Why then were most people in the church Gentiles—if Jesus was the Jewish Messiah? A Jewish reader would wonder if God’s promise to the Jewish people had failed (“Did God fail the Jewish people? Are they no longer the “chosen people” of God?).

The Jewish people thought they were God’s people because they were ethnically Jewish (cf. Rom. 2:17-3:9) and because they did good works. But, as Paul has already argued at length (Romans 1-4), ethnicity and works-based righteousness wasn’t the way to God—even in the OT.[5] Paul teaches that ancestry doesn’t make you one of God’s people (“they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel”).

The Jews of Paul’s day thought that they were (1) saved by God and were (2) servants of God to spread his truth to others, because of their race and their righteousness. Paul is addressing both of these presuppositions in Romans 9—not just one or the other. Leighton Flowers writes,

Despite what some suggest, Paul does not appear to be answering the question, ‘Since most Jews remain in unbelief, has the word of God failed in effectually saving the Jews?’ Instead, he is more likely asking, ‘Has God’s Word failed since those chosen to carry it are standing in opposition to it?’[6]

The question Paul is asking is this: If God has entrusted His Word to the Israelites (vv. 4–5) and the Israelites are standing in opposition to His Word (vv. 2–3), then has God’s promise to deliver His Word through Israel failed (vs. 6)? Paul’s answer is two-fold. Not every descendant of Israel is entrusted with the words of God, nor is everyone who is a child of God made a child on the basis that he or she is a natural descendent of Abraham.[7]

“They are not all Israel who are descended from Israel…” This passage does not teach that the Church is the new Israel. Paul is separating ethnic Jews from spiritual Jews—not ethnic Jews from all other Christians.

Clearly, Paul is focusing on the nation of Israel in this chapter. Romans 9-11 always refers to “Israel” as a nation. While elsewhere in Romans, Paul always refers to these group as the “Jews.” Paul’s focus in Romans 9 is on the Jewish race. In fact, Paul doesn’t mention “Gentiles” until verse 24.

As we stated above, the Jews of Paul’s day thought that they were (1) saved by God and were (2) servants of God, because of their (1) race and their (2) righteousness. How does Paul support his case that God doesn’t always choose to work through race or righteousness to save or serve the world? Since he is addressing a Jewish mindset, he appeals to the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament) to argue his case…

Argument #1. Isaac and Ishmael

(9:7-8) Nor are they all children because they are Abraham’s descendants, but: “through Isaac your descendants will be named.” 8 That is, it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are regarded as descendants.

“Nor are they all children because they are Abraham’s descendants…” Paul’s Jewish readers would think that they had a right to be children of God, because of their ethnicity. Note the plural used here (“they” “descendants,” literally “seed”). Paul is thinking of the nation of Israel—not individuals.

“Through Isaac your descendants will be named…” Paul cites Genesis 21:12 to show that God’s blessing didn’t come through ethnicity. In addition to Isaac, Abraham also had another son, Ishmael. But God didn’t choose to work through Ishmael. Ishmael could claim that he was Abraham’s son, but God did not choose to work through him. While Paul’s Jewish objector would argue that ethnicity was the basis for God’s blessing, Paul demonstrates that God sovereignly chose Isaac—not Ishmael—to inherit his promise. Paul’s Jewish objector would have to concede this point: ancestry doesn’t guarantee being a child of God. Leighton Flowers writes, “God never promised to save anyone on the basis of his or her nationality, so how could that promise have failed?”[8]

Surely, Paul cannot being saying Ishmael went to hell. God did not “hate” Ishmael before the foundation of the world, but continued to bless him (Gen. 17:15-23). Furthermore, Abraham went on to have six more sons after Sarai died. Were all of these sons sent to hell? The text doesn’t say, and this isn’t Paul’s point. Instead, his point is that Abraham’s other sons were not a part of the promise to bring God’s blessing to the world. Take Lot—Abraham’s nephew—as an example. Lot was “righteous” (2 Pet. 2:7), even though he wasn’t chosen to take the promise out to others.

“It is not the children of the flesh who are children of God…” The promise didn’t come through Abraham’s works, but through Abraham’s faith in God’s promise (cf. Gal. 4:21ff). Paul gives a commentary on this OT story in Galatians 4 which argues exactly this: faith is the key to inheriting God’s promises—not ethnic, Jewish ancestry.[9]

Calvinistic interpretations

John Calvin: “Now this testimony is taken from Genesis 17:20, where the Lord gives an answer to Abraham, that he had heard his prayer for Ishmael, but that there would be another on whom the promised blessing would rest. It hence follows, that some men are by special privilege elected out of the chosen people, in whom the common adoption becomes efficacious and valid.”

(9:9) For this is the word of promise: “At this time I will come, and Sarah shall have a son.”

God promised to work through Sarah—not Hagar (citing Gen. 18:10). Ishmael could rant and rave all he wanted about being Abraham’s ethnic descendant, but God had no obligation to work through Ishmael, because he “promised” to work through Sarah’s offspring. God’s word hadn’t failed to Israel (v.6), because God never promised to work through Ishmael. Again, Paul’s Jewish objector would have to grant this point: God was under no obligation to use Ishmael, because his promise was not based on ethnic ancestry. Leighton Flowers comments, “Esau was the more likely choice of the two brothers given his natural qualities as a hunter and his being the first-born. Jacob was the weaker, or lesser, of the two brothers and certainly not more deserving to carry out this noble purpose. The point is that God did not choose to save one of them and condemn the other prior to their birth, as some attempt to read into this text. Instead, He chose to make His power known through the weaker, less likely candidate (just like He did with young David, 1 Sam. 16:7). We must understand that this gracious Potter most often chooses spoiled clay to fulfill His promises.”[10] Again, this reading fits with the view that neither race nor righteousness were God’s plan for choosing people to be either saved or servants.

Argument #2. Jacob and Esau

(9:10) And not only this, but there was Rebekah also, when she had conceived twins by one man, our father Isaac;

Paul’s Jewish objector could probably understand why God wouldn’t choose Ishmael. After all, he was born by a concubine, and God specifically said that “Sarah will have a son.” But here, Paul intensifies his argument to show that God could have a purpose for one son and not another—even if they were twins in the same womb.

(9:11-13) For though the twins were not yet born and had not done anything good or bad, so that God’s purpose according to His choice would stand, not because of works but because of Him who calls, 12 it was said to her, “The older will serve the younger.” 13 Just as it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”

Calvinistic interpreters understand this to refer to unconditional election (“God’s purpose according to His choice… because of Him who calls). They argue that God chose Jacob for heaven before he was even born. Others go even further deriving the idea of double predestination from this passage, because one unborn baby is “love” while the other is “hated.” But several problems confront the interpretation that this refers to salvific unconditional election for Jacob:

First, this interpretation ignores the context of these OT citations. Paul cites Genesis 25:23, which refers to nations—not individuals: “Two nations are in your womb; and two peoples will be separated from your body; and one people shall be stronger than the other; and the older shall serve the younger.” In its original context, this passage refers to the offspring of Jacob and Esau—not the individuals themselves.[11]

Later in verse 13, Paul cites Malachi 1:2-3, which also refers to nations—not individuals: “I have loved Jacob; but I have hated Esau, and I have made his mountains a desolation and appointed his inheritance for the jackals of the wilderness.” This passage from Malachi occurs ~1,500 years after the birth of Jacob and Esau, and it clearly refers to the nations of Israel and Edom. Thus, the prediction (Gen. 25:23) and the fulfillment (Mal. 1:2-3) both refer to nations. Even Reformed theologian F.F. Bruce sees this clearly, when he writes, “The prophecy relates not to the individuals Esau and Jacob (for Esau never rendered service to Jacob) but to their descendants; it relates to the long periods during which the Edomites were in servitude to Israel or Judah.”[12]

Second, Esau (the individual) never served Jacob in his earthly life. If this OT citation is supposed to refer to individuals, then it was never fulfilled in the lives of Jacob or Esau.

Third, this passage refers to service—not salvation. Reformed interpreters focus on God’s “purpose,” “choice,” and “call.” They understand this to refer to God’s unconditional election for effectual salvation. Yet, the passage states that this refers to service—not salvation (“the older will serve the younger”).

Fourth, unconditional election for these unborn boys does not fit within a Calvinistic view. Calvinists agree that babies are born under the wrath of God (Eph. 2:1-3). How then could God love Jacob, while he was unborn? Even though Jacob came to faith later in life, this still wouldn’t explain why God loved him in the womb, because God’s love isn’t issued on a person until conversion.

Fifth, this passage further stresses the point that Paul’s Jewish objector could not base his salvation or service on his ancestry. Paul’s Jewish objector is arguing that Israel deserves to be God’s “chosen people,” because of their race and righteousness. However, Esau (and the Edomites) could offer the same argument, because they were ethnic descendants of Isaac. But again, Paul is showing that ancestry is no guarantee. Even though Esau was the “first born,” he wasn’t chosen. This interpretation fits with the original quandary of verses 4-5. The ethnically Jewish people thought that they had divine rights because of their ancestry, but God chose not to work through them.

While the Jewish people felt that they deserved to be the “chosen people” of God, God can choose to the least likely and the least deserving to be saved or to be his servants—not based on race or righteousness. Paul’s Jewish objector would agree that God had the right to choose Jacob’s descendants (Israel) over Esau’s descendants (Edom). But what if God now wanted to choose the Gentiles over the Jews because of his sovereign choice? Paul’s argument perfectly speaks to his Jewish objector’s faulty claim.

Sixth, even if salvation is in view, it still wouldn’t demonstration unconditional election. Paul’s Jewish objector would think that “works” would give him the right to be saved, but as Paul has already argued at length, “works” cannot earn salvation (Rom. 2:17-29). Paul’s argument is sound for his Jewish objector: Jacob didn’t receive God’s blessing from works-based righteousness… because he wasn’t even born! Walls and Dongell write, “Paul is not sweeping every human response or choice or act of faith off the table as irrelevant in the matter of salvation. He is sweeping away the kind of narrow dedication to doing the law that Paul himself reported as part of his own pre-Christian past… God chose one lad over the other before either had a chance to engage the works of the law, making it clear that by such works, righteousness will not be attained.”[13] Under this view, Paul is using this example “as a representation of God’s choice to save those under the covenant of faith rather than the covenant of law.”[14]

Regarding the language of how “hated” Esau (or the Edomites), see (Rom. 9:13) Does God “hate” unborn babies?

Calvinistic interpretations

John Calvin: “As the blessing of the covenant separates the Israelitic nation from all other people, so the election of God makes a distinction between men in that nation, while he predestinates some to salvation, and others to eternal condemnation.”

John Stott: “If we were responsible for our own salvation, either in whole or even in part, we would be justified in singing our own praises and blowing our own trumpet in heaven. But such a thing is inconceivable.”[15]

(9:14) What shall we say then? There is no injustice with God, is there? May it never be!

Was God unjust to choose the Jewish people (i.e. Jacob), rather than the Edomites (i.e. Esau)? Paul’s Jewish objector would have to agree with Paul’s argument. If God was “just” to choose the Israelites (rather than the Edomites), then he is also just in choosing the Gentiles (rather than the Israelites). If a Jewish person considered this to be “injustice,” then they would be saying that God needed to apologize to the Edomites (!). Flowers writes, “Paul used their own Scripture to prove that a descendent of Abraham, or even Isaac: (1) might not be chosen for the noble purpose of bringing the Word of God, and (2) might be cursed if he stands in opposition to those who had been chosen to carry His Word.”[16] Walls and Dongell write, “To identify God’s accusers in Romans 9:14 as Paul’s Jewish opponents, then, makes all the difference in interpreting the rest of this passage. The justice Jews were demanding from God was not equal treatment of all human beings (in the spirit of modern liberals or humanists who demand “fairness” from God on their own terms); rather, they were demanding the guarantee of salvation to every individual Israelite.”[17]

Calvinistic interpretations

John Stott: “To choose some for salvation and pass by others looks like a breach of elementary justice. Is it? What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Paul’s immediate retort is Not at all![18]

Argument #3. Moses

(9:15) For He says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”

Paul cites Exodus 33:19 to show that God is free to give grace however he sees fit. The context for Exodus 33 is God revealing himself (and his glory) to Moses. Why does Paul cite this passage?

(1) Both phrases speak of God’s love—not his justice. Witherington observes that “both phrases speak of mercy,”[19] not judgment. God is free to show mercy on whomever he wants.

(2) This does not refer to salvation for Moses. Exodus 33 is not about Moses going to heaven or hell. It is about Moses seeing the glory of God (Ex. 33:18).

(3) God gave these words to Moses in the midst of the Jewish people’s idolatry. Israel’s unfaithfulness with the Golden Calf (Ex. 32) did not stop God from bringing about his promise. Flowers writes, “God can choose to show mercy even to idol worshippers if He wishes. When it comes to fulfilling His promises to bring the provision of salvation to the world, He does what is necessary through chosen Israelites, whether by hardening some or ‘mercying’ others. Therefore, fulfillment of the Potter’s promise to Israel does not rest on the effort or desires of unfaithful Israelite vessels (Rom. 3:1-8).”[20]

This further drives Paul’s point that the righteousness of a nation is not the basis of God’s election for salvation or service. The Gentiles were far less righteous than the Jews, but God was able to show “mercy” on the Gentiles in the present—just as he had shown “mercy” to the Jewish people at the Golden Calf incident. It’s as if Paul is saying, “Don’t look down on the Gentiles for being idol worshippers… Your own people were idol worshippers too!”

Calvinistic interpretations

John Calvin: “Thus he assigns the highest reason for imparting grace, even his own voluntary purpose, and also intimates that he has designed his mercy peculiarly for some; for it is a way of speaking which excludes all outward causes, as when we claim to ourselves the free power of acting, we say, ‘I will do what I mean to do.’ The relative pronoun also expressly intimates, that mercy is not to all indiscriminately. His freedom is taken away from God, when his election is bound to external causes.”

(9:16) So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy.

What does the “it” refer to? Calvinistic interpreters understand the “it” to refer to God’s unconditional election. In our understanding, the “it” refers to God’s choice to give salvation by grace—apart from a works-based righteousness or ethnic race (“wills… runs”). In context, Paul has been citing one OT passage after another to show that the people of God were unfaithful, but God still brought about his promise. The “it” refers back to “‘God’s purpose of election,’ (vs. 11) which is to fulfill the promise of God (vs. 6) in bringing about the redemptive plan through an unconditionally chosen nation of woefully unfaithful individuals.”[21]

Calvinistic interpretations

John Stott: “Salvation does not… depend on man’s desire or effort, that is, on anything we want or strive for, but on God’s mercy.”[22]

John Calvin: “The salvation of those whom God is pleased to save, is thus ascribed to his mercy, that nothing may remain to the contrivance of man.”

Argument #4. Pharaoh

(9:17-18) For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I raised you up, to demonstrate My power in you, and that My name might be proclaimed throughout the whole earth.” 18 So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires.

Pharaoh had seen innumerable miracles, and he had spoken directly to God’s greatest prophet Moses. And yet, he still remained an unrepentant, infanticidal, slave owning dictator. Citing Exodus 9:16, Paul is asking, “Was it wrong of God to harden Pharaoh?”

Paul’s Jewish objector would surely answer, “No way! God righteously hardened Pharaoh! Pharaoh had incredible revelation from God, and he was totally and completely evil anyhow. Moreover, God used the hardening of Pharaoh to rescue the Jewish people and to spread his name to all Gentiles on Earth.”

Paul is lining up for the shot he is going to take later: If God was righteous in hardening Pharaoh to reach the Israelites, then why can’t God harden the Israelites to reach the Gentiles? If God was righteous to judge Pharaoh for rejecting his miraculous revelations through Moses, then why can’t God harden the Israelites for rejecting the miraculous ministry of Jesus? Reformed interpreters focus on the fact that God hardened Pharaoh (an individual), but miss the fact that Paul is focusing on the consequence of that hardening: the salvation of the nation of Israel (a group).

Paul’s Jewish objector would have had no problem with God having mercy on the Jewish people, while hardening Pharaoh in the process. But like Pharaoh, the Jewish people had hardened themselves to the gospel. As a result, God hardened them further for a redemptive purpose—namely, reaching innumerable Gentiles.

For a more robust treatment on the subject of “hardening,” see comments on Romans 9:17-19.

Calvinistic interpretations

Leon Morris: “Neither here nor anywhere else is God said to harden anyone who had not first hardened himself.”[23]

John Stott: “That Pharaoh hardened his heart against God and refused to humble himself is made plain in the story. So God’s hardening of him was a judicial act, abandoning him to his own stubbornness, much as God’s wrath against the ungodly is expressed by ‘giving them over’ to their own depravity (1:24, 26, 28).”[24]

John Stott: “The wonder is not that some are saved and others not, but that anybody is saved at all. For we deserve nothing at God’s hand but judgment. If we receive what we deserve (which is judgment), or if we receive what we do not deserve (which is mercy), in neither case is God unjust. If therefore anybody is lost, the blame is theirs, but if anybody is saved, the credit is God’s.”[25]

John Stott: “This antinomy contains a mystery which our present knowledge cannot solve; but it is consistent with Scripture, history and experience.”[26]

John Calvin: “It seems good to God to illuminate some that they may be saved, and to blind others that they may perish: for we ought particularly to notice these words, to whom he wills, and, whom he wills: beyond this he allows us not to proceed.”

John Calvin: “Paul teaches us, that the ruin of the wicked is not only foreseen by the Lord, but also ordained by his counsel and his will; and Solomon teaches as the same thing,—that not only the destruction of the wicked is foreknown, but that the wicked themselves have been created for this very end—that they may perish. (Proverbs 16:4.).”

Argument #5. God’s Plan for the Nations

(9:19) You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?”

Calvinists often claim that the objector is similar to an Arminian interpreter, who is asking how God can hold us responsible if we cannot resist his will. But Paul has already told us who the objector is: a hardened, unregenerate Jewish person. Remember, in Romans 3, Paul’s interlocutor is a Jewish person objecting to Paul’s message of grace: “But if our unrighteousness demonstrates the righteousness of God, what shall we say? The God who inflicts wrath is not unrighteous, is He? (I am speaking in human terms.) May it never be! For otherwise, how will God judge the world?” (Rom. 3:5-6). Paul’s Jewish objector is like Pharaoh—calloused and hardened. He has already hardened himself to a great degree by rejecting God’s miraculous working through Christ and the drawing of the Holy Spirit. Here, he tries to blame God for his hardened state, when in reality, he is the one responsible.

Calvinistic interpretations

John Calvin: “Thus then speak the ungodly in this passage, ‘What cause has he to be angry with us? Since he has formed us such as we are, since he leads us at his will where he pleases, what else does he in destroying us but punish his own work in us? For it is not in our power to contend with him; how much soever we may resist, he will yet have the upper hand. Then unjust will be his judgment, if he condemns us; and unrestrainable is the power which he now employs towards us.’”

(9:20) On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, “Why did you make me like this,” will it?

The clay and the potter illustration comes from the OT, which refers to God’s sovereignty over the nations. Jeremiah writes, “Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in My hand, O house of Israel.  7At one moment I might speak concerning a nation or concerning a kingdom to uproot, to pull down, or to destroy it… or at another moment I might speak concerning a nation or concerning a kingdom to build up or to plant it” (Jer. 18:6-7, 9). Here, God tells the Jews not to be surprised if he decides to use one nation or another, because he is the Maker and they are the clay. Isaiah writes, “Woe to the one who quarrels with his Maker—An earthenware vessel among the vessels of earth! Will the clay say to the potter, ‘What are you doing?’ Or the thing you are making say, ‘He has no hands’?” (Isa. 45:9) In this section of Isaiah, the Jews were surprised to hear God call the Persian King Cyrus his “anointed one” (Isa. 44:28-45:1)! God tells Israel that he can choose to work through whomever he wants—even a Gentile. Paul’s reference to these OT passages continues to support the idea that God can save Gentiles to be his servants—regardless of their race or their righteousness.

Calvinistic interpretations

John Stott (citing Hodge): “It is nowhere suggested that God has the right to ‘create sinful beings in order to punish them’, but rather that he has the right to ‘deal with sinful beings according to his good pleasure’, either to pardon or to punish them.”[27]

F.F. Bruce: “God is not answerable to us for what he does. Yet he can be relied on to act in consistency with his character, which has been disclosed supremely in Christ. With such a God to trust, why should any of his people question his ways?”[28]

John Calvin: “The ungodly object and say, that men are exempted from blame, if the will of God holds the first place in their salvation, or in their perdition. Does Paul deny this? Nay, by his answer he confirms it, that is, that God determines concerning men, as it seems good to him, and that, men in vain and madly rise up to contend with God; for he assigns, by his own right, whatever lot he pleases to what he forms.”

John Calvin: “By his silence he reminds us, that a mystery which our minds cannot comprehend ought to be reverently adored, and that he thus checks the wantonness of human curiosity. Let us then know, that God does for no other reason refrain from speaking, but that he sees that we cannot contain his immense wisdom in our small measure; and thus regarding our weakness, he leads us to moderation and sobriety.”

Calvin appeals to a “mystery” for why God is loving, but creates people for damnation. But why wouldn’t we rather appeal to a mystery regarding God’s foreknowledge and human freedom?

(9:21) Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for common use?

Is this illustration referring to humanity’s total inability from birth to respond in faith to the gospel? Not at all. In its OT context, the lump of clay was Israel as a nation. This is the consistent reading throughout Romans 9, and nothing has changed here. Walls and Dongell write, “Paul’s reference to two different vessels being crafted from the ‘same lump’ (Rom 9:19-24) correspond to the two different subgroups making up the one nation of Israel: believing Jews and unbelieving Jews.”[29]

Paul uses this illustration to refer to service—not salvation. Note too that the point is for “honorable use” or for “common use.”

Paul’s use of this illustration in 2 Timothy shows that we are not divinely determined to be one type of clay or the other. Elsewhere, Paul writes, “In a large house there are not only gold and silver vessels, but also vessels of wood and of earthenware, and some to honor and some to dishonor. Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from these things, he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified, useful to the Master, prepared for every good work” (2 Tim. 2:20-21). Note that the individual believer can choose to change whether or not he will be an honorable or dishonorable servant (“if anyone cleanses himself… he will be a vessel for honor”). Even Reformed authors see a parallel between these illustrations.[30]

Calvinists often object to critics claiming that their worldview makes humans like “puppets” or “robots” in God’s universe. However, they also appeal to Paul’s analogy of a lump of clay to support their rejection of libertarian free will. But what is the qualitative difference between a “puppet,” a “robot,” or a lump of “clay”? Flowers writes, “Some Calvinists want to have their cake and eat it too on this point. If they are going to interpret these biblical analogies in such a way that removes mankind’s responsibility in the process, then they cannot object to another analogy which draws the exact same conclusion. After all, what more or less responsibility does a puppet have in relation to the puppet master than a lump of clay has in relation to the Potter on Calvinism’s interpretation? If one wishes to interpret Paul’s analogy of the Potter and the clay literally to mean that man has no say in how he believes and responds, then own it. Do not object to other analogies that draw the exact same implications unless you are not willing to live with those implications.”[31]

The Purpose of God’s Hardening

(9:22-23) What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction? 23 And He did so to make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory.

(9:22-23) Does God create people only to damn them?

Calvinistic interpretations

F.F. Bruce: “As has been pointed out earlier (2:4), the mercy and forbearance of God are intended to afford people time for repentance; if, instead, they harden their hearts yet more, as Pharaoh did after repeated respites, they are simply storing up an increasing weight of retribution for themselves against the day of requital.”[32]

John Calvin: “He does not indeed give a reason for divine election, so as to assign a cause why this man is chosen and that man rejected; for it was not meet that the things contained in the secret counsel of God should be subjected to the judgment of men; and, besides, this mystery is inexplicable. He therefore keeps us from curiously examining those things which exceed human comprehension. He yet shows, that as far as God’s predestination manifests itself, it appears perfectly just.”

John Calvin: “They are also vessels of wrath, that is, made and formed for this end, that they may be examples of God’s vengeance and displeasure… But that he is silent as to the reason, why they are vessels appointed to destruction, is no matter of wonder. He indeed takes it as granted, according to what has been already said, that the reason is hid in the secret and inexplorable counsel of God; whose justice it behoves us rather to adore than to scrutinize.”

Again, Calvin appeals to a “mystery” here.

Argument #6. The prophets

Paul doesn’t offer much commentary on these citations from the prophets. He must think that the passages speak for themselves. It’s clear that the issue on Paul’s mind is the fact that God is saving Gentiles to be his servants—not based on their race or their righteousness. He cites multiple OT passages to confirm this.

 (9:24) even us, whom He also called, not from among Jews only, but also from among Gentiles.

God can allow certain groups to be hardened for the benefit of his plan in history. It’s clear he has been thinking in terms of Jews and Gentiles throughout this entire chapter—not just believers and unbelievers. In fact, this is the first time in this chapter that Paul refers to the “Gentiles.” Up until this point, he has been interacting with the unbelief of his Jewish brothers.

Calvinistic interpretations

Tim Keller holds that Paul digressed from his original question of Jewish election until verse 24.[33] In our view, Paul has been answering that question this entire time: God can decide to work through the Jewish or the Gentile race.

(9:25) As He says also in Hosea, “I will call those who were not My people, ‘My people,’ and her who was not beloved, ‘beloved.’”

Citation of Hosea 2:23. This wasn’t a permanent cutting off.

(9:26) “And it shall be that in the place where it was said to them, ‘you are not My people,’ there they shall be called sons of the living God.”

Citation of Hosea 1:10.

(9:27-28) Isaiah cries out concerning Israel, “Though the number of the sons of Israel be like the sand of the sea, it is the remnant that will be saved; for the Lord will execute His word on the earth, thoroughly and quickly.”

Citation of Isaiah 10:22-23. This relates back to verse 6 (i.e. God’s word being fulfilled). Paul cites this passage to show that God could still “execute his word… thoroughly and quickly,” even though many of the Jewish people were hardened to the truth.

(9:29) And just as Isaiah foretold, “Unless the Lord of Sabaoth had left to us a posterity, we would have become like Sodom, and would have resembled Gomorrah.”

Citation of Isaiah 1:9.

Conclusion: Paul’s commentary on Romans 9

Remarkably, very few interpreters read Paul’s own commentary on what he wrote. In verses 30 and following, Paul tells us why the nation of Israel largely forfeited salvation: they refused to believe.

 (9:30) What shall we say then? That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, attained righteousness, even the righteousness which is by faith;

Gentiles chose to believe in Jesus. We cannot be saved by attaining righteousness through works of the law (Rom. 3:10-20). But Paul writes that we can attain it by faith. Flowers writes, “Once again, this addresses the common misconception that being a child of Abraham guaranteed salvation (Rom. 9:7), or being outside natural Israel excluded one from salvation (Rom. 9:24).”[34]

“Attained righteousness…” This term (katalambano) means “to make something one’s own, win, attain” or “to gain control of someone through pursuit, catch up with, seize” (BDAG).

Calvinistic interpretations

John Calvin: “If any one imagines that they were justified, because they had by faith obtained the Spirit of regeneration, he departs far from the meaning of Paul; it would not indeed have been true, that they had attained what they sought not, except God had freely embraced them while they were straying and wandering, and had offered them righteousness, for which, being unknown, they could have had no desire. It must also be observed, that the Gentiles could not have obtained righteousness by faith, except God had anticipated their faith by his grace; for they followed it when they first by faith aspired to righteousness; and so faith itself is a portion of his favor.”

(9:31) but Israel, pursuing a law of righteousness, did not arrive at that law.

Why were so many Jewish people not elected? They chose not to believe.

(9:32) Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as though it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone,

Again, many Jewish people refused to believe, and they preferred to approach God by works.

Calvinistic interpretations

John Stott: “The acceptance of the Gentiles is attributed to the sovereign mercy of God, and the rejection of Israel to their own rebellion.”[35]

John Stott: “Antinomy is the right word to use, not contradiction.”[36] In Stott’s view, verses 6-29 show how people are saved, and verses 30-33 show how people are lost.

Thomas Schreiner: “Romans 9 teaches that God does elect individuals and groups unto salvation, and he determines who will exercise faith. Nevertheless, Rom 9:30-10:21 teaches us that those who do not exercise faith are responsible and should have done so. How can both of these be logically true? We cannot fully grasp the answer to this question, for as with other mysteries in Scripture we affirm that our human minds cannot adequately grasp the full import of divine revelation.”[37]

John Calvin: “You farther see how faith and the merits of works are contrasted, as things altogether contrary to each other. As then trust in works is the chief hinderance, by which our way to obtain righteousness is closed up, it is necessary that we should wholly renounce it in order that we may depend on God’s goodness alone. This example of the Jews ought indeed justly to terrify all those who strive to obtain the kingdom of God by works. Nor does he understand by the works of the law, ceremonial observances, as it has been before shown, but the merits of those works to which faith is opposed, which looks, as I may say, with both eyes on the mercy of God alone, without casting one glance on any worthiness of its own.”

(9:33) just as it is written, “Behold, I lay in Zion a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense, and he who believes in Him will not be disappointed.”

Citation of Isaiah 28:16. You can either stumble over this rock or build your life upon it.[38]

Questions for a Calvinist Reading of Romans 9

Who is Paul’s hypothetical objector in Romans 9, and what is this objector driving at? We have a number of reasons to think that Paul’s hypothetical objector throughout the book of Romans is a non-believing Jewish person. First, the context leading up to this point demonstrates a Jewish interlocutor (Rom. 3:1, 3, 5, 8, 31; 4:1-25; 6:1, etc.). Second, the context of Romans 9 deals with Israel—both at the beginning of the chapter (vv.1-5) and at the end (vv.24-33). Third, Paul repeatedly cites OT Scripture to make his argument in Romans 9, which would fit with a Jewish objector.

Why does Paul want to be “accursed” (v.3) for the non-believing Jews, if Jesus himself didn’t choose to save them? Was Paul outside of God’s will when he wrote this? Is Paul loving people whom God “hates”?

Why does God “harden” a person who is spiritually dead from birth? Wouldn’t this be like putting a blindfold on a dead person?

Why does Paul consistently cite OT passages that refer to nations, rather than individuals? Does Paul consistently misquote the OT to make his argument for individual, unconditional election?

In Romans 10:21, what does Paul mean when he writes, “as for Israel He says, “All the day long I have stretched out My hands to a disobedient and obstinate people”? Does God want these people to be saved or not?

Why does Paul interpret and summarize his own discussion of Romans 9 by emphasizing a person’s personal responsibility for choosing to have faith? (vv.30-33)

Further Resources

Cranfield, C.E.B. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans: Volume 2: Commentary on Romans 9-26 and Essays. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark Ltd, 1979.

Flowers, Leighton. The Potter’s Promise: A Biblical Defense of Traditional Soteriology. Trinity Academic Press, 2017.

Forster, Roger T., and V. Paul Marston. God’s Strategy in Human History. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Bethany House Publishers, 1974.

Picirilli, Robert. Grace, Faith, Free Will: Contrasting Views of Salvation: Calvinism and Arminianism. Nashville, TN: Randall House Publications, 2002.

[1] Leighton Flowers, The Potter’s Promise: A Biblical Defense of Traditional Soteriology (Trinity Academic Press, 2017), 99.

[2] Stott, J. R. W. (2001). The message of Romans: God’s good news for the world (p. 264). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

[3] Of course, the national Jewish adoption (Ex. 4:22) is different than Christian adoption (Rom. 8:15, 23). Adoption is mentioned throughout the OT to refer to the nation of Israel as a whole (Ex. 4:22; Deut. 14:1-2; Isa. 63:16; 64:8; Jer. 31:9-20; Hos. 11:1; Mal. 2:10).

[4] Leighton Flowers, The Potter’s Promise: A Biblical Defense of Traditional Soteriology (Trinity Academic Press, 2017), 102.

[5] Osborne, G. R. (2004). Romans (p. 242). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

[6] Leighton Flowers, The Potter’s Promise: A Biblical Defense of Traditional Soteriology (Trinity Academic Press, 2017), 105.

[7] Leighton Flowers, The Potter’s Promise: A Biblical Defense of Traditional Soteriology (Trinity Academic Press, 2017), 109.

[8] Leighton Flowers, The Potter’s Promise: A Biblical Defense of Traditional Soteriology (Trinity Academic Press, 2017), 99.

[9] Reformed commentator F.F. Bruce makes this connection between Paul’s statement about Ishmael and Isaac here, as well as in Galatians 4. He writes, “The ‘children of the promise’ in Paul’s exegesis are those who, like Abraham, believe the promise of God and are therefore Abraham’s spiritual offspring. Compare 4:11–18, and also the ‘allegory’ which Paul draws out of the Isaac-Ishmael narrative in Galatians 4:22–31.” Bruce, F. F. (1985). Romans: an introduction and commentary (Vol. 6, p. 192). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

[10] Leighton Flowers, The Potter’s Promise: A Biblical Defense of Traditional Soteriology (Trinity Academic Press, 2017), 115.

[11] Leighton Flowers, The Potter’s Promise: A Biblical Defense of Traditional Soteriology (Trinity Academic Press, 2017), 118.

[12] Bruce, F. F. (1985). Romans: an introduction and commentary (Vol. 6, p. 192). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

[13] Jerry Walls and Joseph Dongell, Why I Am not a Calvinist (Downers Grove, IL, InterVarsity, 2004), 93, 94.

[14] Emphasis mine. Leighton Flowers, The Potter’s Promise: A Biblical Defense of Traditional Soteriology (Trinity Academic Press, 2017), 116-117.

[15] Stott, J. R. W. (2001). The message of Romans: God’s good news for the world (p. 268). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

[16] Leighton Flowers, The Potter’s Promise: A Biblical Defense of Traditional Soteriology (Trinity Academic Press, 2017), 124-125.

[17] Jerry Walls and Joseph Dongell, Why I Am not a Calvinist (Downers Grove, IL, InterVarsity, 2004), 91.

[18] Stott, J. R. W. (2001). The message of Romans: God’s good news for the world (p. 268). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

[19] Ben Witherington III, Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004), 255.

[20] Leighton Flowers, The Potter’s Promise: A Biblical Defense of Traditional Soteriology (Trinity Academic Press, 2017), 127-128.

[21] Leighton Flowers, The Potter’s Promise: A Biblical Defense of Traditional Soteriology (Trinity Academic Press, 2017), 128.

[22] Stott, J. R. W. (2001). The message of Romans: God’s good news for the world (p. 269). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

[23] Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans (Eerdmans and Inter-Varsity Press, 1988), 361.

[24] Stott, J. R. W. (2001). The message of Romans: God’s good news for the world (p. 269). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

[25] Stott, J. R. W. (2001). The message of Romans: God’s good news for the world (pp. 269–270). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

[26] Stott, J. R. W. (2001). The message of Romans: God’s good news for the world (p. 270). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

[27] Stott, J. R. W. (2001). The message of Romans: God’s good news for the world (p. 272). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

[28] Bruce, F. F. (1985). Romans: an introduction and commentary (Vol. 6, p. 194). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

[29] Jerry Walls and Joseph Dongell, Why I Am not a Calvinist (Downers Grove, IL, InterVarsity, 2004), 92.

[30] Citing 2 Timothy 2:20, Bruce writes, “the vessels are made of various materials, and those which are for ‘ignoble’ use are designed for less ornamental (but not necessarily less serviceable) purposes than those which are ‘for noble use.’” Bruce, F. F. (1985). Romans: an introduction and commentary (Vol. 6, p. 194). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

[31] Leighton Flowers, The Potter’s Promise: A Biblical Defense of Traditional Soteriology (Trinity Academic Press, 2017), 133-134.

[32] Bruce, F. F. (1985). Romans: an introduction and commentary (Vol. 6, p. 190). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

[33] Timothy Keller, Romans 8-16 For You (The Good Book Co., 2015), 69.

[34] Leighton Flowers, The Potter’s Promise: A Biblical Defense of Traditional Soteriology (Trinity Academic Press, 2017), 146.

[35] Stott, J. R. W. (2001). The message of Romans: God’s good news for the world (p. 264). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

[36] Stott, J. R. W. (2001). The message of Romans: God’s good news for the world (p. 278). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

[37] Thomas Schreiner, “Does Romans 9 Teach Individual Salvation Unto Election?” The Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 36/1 (March, 1993), 39-40.

[38] Timothy Keller, Romans 8-16 For You (The Good Book Co., 2015), 73.