Romans is one of the most clearly organized books in the New Testament. The opening sentences give the theme, which is, “The gospel of God” (Romans 1:1), and the first chapters go into detail explaining the implications of the Gospel. Chapters 1 through 5 show how the message of the Gospel provides salvation from the penalty of sin. Chapters 6 and 7, along with a good part of chapter eight, show how the Gospel of our Lord’s death and resurrection provides salvation from the power of sin. Then the rest of chapter 8 shows how the Gospel promises salvation eventually from the very presence of sin when believers are “glorified.” The progression and logic of Romans 1 through 8 are both amazing and powerful.
Then the reader comes to chapter 9, which is obviously connected and continued in thought through chapter 11. The Calvinists have imagined that these three chapters prove their views on the doctrine of election. Because of what they have had to say about certain passages in this section of the book, many non-Calvinists have been perplexed about the meaning of those passages. The difficulties are caused by a failure to recognize what this part of Romans is about. Although the subject is clearly stated at the beginning of chapter nine, readers tend to forget the introduction and then read Calvinism into some of the rest.
Romans 9, 10, and 11 make up an important division of the epistle and of Paul’s explanation of the Gospel. Chapter 12 begins a division about the implications of the Gospel for Christian living that continues to the end of the book. The portion between chapter 8 and chapter 12 presents a truth that is needed right after the exposition of salvation by God’s grace, and just before the explanation of how a recipient of saving grace ought to live. This truth is what Romans 9 through 11 is about.
Throughout the first eight chapters of Romans, Paul referenced the fact that most of his fellow-Jews rejected the Gospel. In many ways, the Jews were and are God’s chosen people, but most of them have not accepted the Messiah. Many in Paul’s day had made themselves “enemies” of the Gospel (Romans 11:28). So the question arises, “If men are saved through faith in Christ, regardless of whether they are Jew or Gentile, what happened to all the promises and commitments God made specifically to Israel?”
This is the question that must be addressed in Romans 9. If Christians, both Jew and Gentile, are the people of God, what happened to God’s relation to Israel?
God Can Do What He Wants
First, the book of Romans answers the question by affirming that God is the sovereign Ruler of the universe, and can justly do whatever He wants to do! Romans 9:6 says that the Word of God (with its promises to Israel) has not been negated by the Gospel of God’s grace. We are reminded that not every descendent of the man named Israel (Jacob) is counted by God as belonging to spiritual Israel. Remember that the Lord promised Abraham not only that his seed would multiply as the dust of the earth (Genesis 13:16), but also that they would be in number as the stars of the sky (Genesis 15:5-6).
Israel is not only an earthly people. There is an Israel that is a heavenly people. Romans 4:11 says that, in a spiritual sense, Abraham is the, “… father of all them that believe, though they be not circumcised [Jewish].” The connection between God and His heavenly people (believers in Christ) is different from His connection with His earthly people (the human family of Jacob). And as Ruler of the Universe, He has the right to do whatever He decides to do with either.
As an illustration of this truth, Romans 9 reminds the reader of God’s choices in regard to the forefathers of the nation Israel. We call them the Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob).
In each generation of this important family, God made a choice that was not according to what would seem to be the natural or logical choice. He chose Isaac over Ishmael to receive the blessing of Abraham, and thus be a forefather of the chosen nation that would bring Christ into the world. He chose Jacob over Esau to continue the family line that would develop into the nation Israel through whom the Saviour would come. In both of these cases, God chose the second-born over the first-born, and His choice was not based upon any merit in the lives of those chosen (Romans 9:6-16).
Because He is God, He is allowed to do what He pleases. Notice that the passage is not talking about Jacob’s eternal salvation, or about Esau’s salvation or damnation. It is about God’s choice in the make-up of the Messianic and Israelite lines. “Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated,” (Romans 9:13b) is a quotation from the first chapter of Malachi, written many years after both men had died, and is clearly about the nations that descended from them. It is not about the predestination or reprobation of either of the sons of Isaac based on an eternal decree by God.
Just as God may choose certain believers for particular blessings, He may also choose certain unbelievers for special demonstrations of His wrath. This fact is illustrated in reference to the Pharaoh of Egypt in the story of Moses. Anyone familiar with the story remembers the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. We are told that God hardened his heart, that his heart was hardened, and that he hardened his own heart (see Exodus 4:21, Exodus 7:3, Exodus 7:22, and Exodus 8:15 for instances of these expressions).
Certainly this record bears witness to the mystery of God’s dealing with the human heart. However we must not miss the fact that the Pharaoh/Moses story is not about the king’s eternal salvation or damnation. It is about his refusal to let Israel go free at the command of the Lord! It was about this issue that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.
Romans 9 uses Pharaoh to show that God may choose to exalt a wicked man in order to show His power in the judgment of that man. God hardened the king of Egypt into stubbornness in regard to the emancipation of Israel because he was already willfully sinful and fit to be a vessel of God’s wrath. God is not said to have made Pharaoh sinful, but to have helped him to be stubborn. He was not predestined to be wicked, but rather chosen to demonstrate the power of God by bearing the consequences of resisting God in the contest with Moses. And God can legitimately choose a sinner for such use.
Paul comes to the crux of the issue of God’s choices in regard to Israel: the fact that His primary commitment and main promises are to the believing “remnant” of the nation (Romans 9:25-33).
“Though the number of the children of Israel be as the sand of the sea, a remnant shall be saved.” Romans 9:27b
Romans 9 ends with the conclusion that the remnant of Israel, who are the spiritual seed of Abraham and will be saved, are such because they believe. They will be saved by faith in Christ, just as saved Gentiles will. The difference between those who will be saved and those who will not be saved comes, not because of the divine election of certain individuals to salvation, but rather because of their personal choice either to believe in Christ or not.
“Gentiles, which followed not after righteousness, have attained to righteousness, even the righteousness which is of faith. But Israel, which followed after the law of righteousness, hath not attained to the law of righteousness. Wherefore? Because they sought it not by faith…” Romans 9:30-32
Some Jews did not like the way God saves sinners. They wanted this matter to be settled in favor of Israel on the basis of their keeping of God’s law. The idea that God will save anyone, Jew or Gentile, who will believe on His Son was repugnant to them. However the “bottom line” is that God can do what He wants. He says, “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion” (Romans 9:15b).
They Have a Chance
Romans 10 reaffirms that all of Israel has a chance to believe and be saved. It begins with the apostle’s testimony that he prays for Israel and wants them to be to be saved (verse 1). He says that their problem is that, “… being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, [they] have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God… [which is provided in Christ] to every one that believeth” (verses 3–4).
There is nothing in this chapter to back the Calvinists’ doctrine that people believe because they are chosen, and do not believe because God did not choose them. It would be wrong for Paul to pray for people to be saved that God doesn’t even want to save. But God does want them saved, and is calling them to Himself!
The unsaved Israelites are neither unloved nor unwanted by God. They are unwilling to come to Him on His terms. The truth is that God wants all men to be saved (see Romans 5:18 and 1 Timothy 2:3-4).
One Day Israel Will Be Saved
The rest of the story is in Romans 11. One day, “… all Israel shall be saved…” (verse 26). At the coming again of Christ, the earthly seed of Abraham will become his heavenly seed. They will all believe in Christ. The apostle shows that this was promised in Old Testament prophecy (verses 26 and 27). The issue then and now is and will be faith. Unbelievers are lost and believers in Christ are saved. It is not divine election that determines eternal salvation for individuals; it is personal faith. See this reiterated in verses 13 through 23. God’s sovereign choices determine many other outcomes, but not the salvation of individual souls. The “election” mentioned in Romans 11:5 and 7 is that election defined in Romans 8.
“For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified. What shall we say to these things? If God be for us, who can be against us?...Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth. Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us.” Romans 8:29–34
This particular choice of God is one big reason that believers in Christ are eternally secure. God foreknew from eternity past (because He is God) who would be in Christ. These He predestinated (predetermined by His will) to be some wonderful day conformed to the image of Christ (to be just like Him—1 John 3:2). Those who experience this glorification at His return will look back and see that they were called by the Gospel (although many are called, but few are chosen—Matthew 20:16) and justified by faith in Christ. These foreknown, predestinated, called, justified, and glorified saints are named “God’s elect.” In this way, they are chosen. It is not an arbitrary decision by God to save certain ones and leave the rest to be damned (as the Calvinists claim). The chosen ones are foreknown (see also 1 Peter 1:2), and then predestined to be like Jesus. They are not just chosen, but chosen in Christ (see Ephesians 1:3-6), and chosen to adoption or glorification.
God always knew us, and has forever determined that we would be glorified. But He left the decision to believe in Christ up to us. This truth is hard for us to grasp because none of us know what it is like to be God! But it is wonderfully true! And the election of Romans 11 is the one explained in Romans 8, based on foreknowledge.
God’s Ways Are past Finding Out
The conclusion of this wonderful section of Romans is that God’s ways and wisdom are beyond human comprehension. This is especially seen in His working of Jewish unbelief into the plan for Gentile evangelization, and His connecting of Gentile conversion to the eventual salvation of Israel. He does all of this while leaving the decision of faith up to the individual sinner. It is amazing, and nobody really can explain it. Much of the trouble in the Calvinist-Arminian debate is caused by the insistence of some people that they can understand and explain God’s will and God’s ways. They can’t do it. But we can rejoice in the justice and mercy of the God that rules all things, as well as His perfect wisdom and eternal knowledge.
The Bible doctrines of the sovereignty of God and election are both important and encouraging truths. However, the Calvinists explain them wrong. They jump to recruit these chapters in Romans to bolster their views of depravity, election, and grace. However, in this effort they have perverted the meanings of such verses as Romans 9:16 and 18. They do speak of God’s sovereignty, but they are not referring to the individual’s eternal salvation. In the context of the book of Romans, they and all of chapters 9 through 11 are about justifying God’s ways with Israel. So many passages of Scripture directly contradict the teachings of Calvinism, that we do not expect this part of Romans to prove them. And they don’t.
J. Sidlow Baxter said it right when he wrote: “As to the scope of the passage [Romans 9 through 11], it will become obvious that it is all about God’s dealing with men and nations historically and dispensationally, and is not about individual salvation and destiny beyond the grave. Now that is the absolutely vital fact to remember in reading the problem verses of these chapters. John Calvin is wrong when he reads into these verses election either to salvation or damnation in the eternal sense. That is not their scope. They belong only to a divine economy of history…” (Volume VI of Explore the Book).