Those who have engaged in such discussions with Protestants are aware that their chief (and favorite) text is Romans 9:16-21, focusing particularly on the phrase "God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden." The Protestants contend that this is crystal clear proof that God saves and damns according to his pleasure, apart from considering the lifestyle of the individual. To suggest otherwise, they say, is to twist Paul's message and argue in favor of the Judaizers, who taught man could save himself by his own works. Sadly, this kind of argumentation is not only wholly false, it has scandalized many Christians and continues to deceive many Protestants.
As we proceed to analyze the context it will be shown that not only does the Protestant interpretation become weak, it actually is causing Paul to say the opposite of what he's really saying!
When considering the context of Romans 9, it is clear that it is to be read along with chapters 10 and 11, as one continuous thought. Romans 9 begins with Paul lamenting the fact his brethren according to the flesh, the Jews, have been granted so many blessings in God's plan of Salvation History but they have not appreciated the blessings, particularly in their rejection of Jesus. Romans 10 continues the thesis, lamenting Israel's loss by being zealous for the wrong things. Finally, Romans 11 concludes the thesis by showing God didn't reject His people, but all along intended Jews and Gentiles to be part of the same family. If one does not keep this 'three-chapter' context in mind when reading Romans 9, they will undoubtedly go astray and not be able to make sense of Paul's comments.
The next key to keep in mind when reading Romans is that the Jewish 'entitlement' heresy was the theme of the Book - and that this heresy was not about "working one's way into Heaven through their own efforts," popularly (but incorrectly) termed Pelagianism. Rather, the 'entitlement' heresy was a Jew-versus-Gentile problem, with the Jews seeing themselves as superior by birth to the 'ignoble' Gentile savages. Consider: Romans 2:17-24, culminating in Romans 2:27, deals with Jews snubbing their noses at the Gentiles for lacking the Mosaic Law and Circumcision yet being hypocrites in their rush to condemn. This continues up through Romans 3:27-30, where the "works of the Law" are not what save, leading Paul to ask the rhetorial question, "or is God the God of the Jews only?" indicating the problem at hand was the Jews claiming a monopoly on God's love and favor. Paul reiterates his "apart from works of the Law" thesis in Romans 4, by pointing out Abraham was justified prior to him being circumcised, and that this was to show the uncircumcised (i.e. Gentiles) also could be acceptable in God's sight (Rom. 4:9-13). In Romans 5:12-14 we see the Mosaic Law came in after the bigger issue, sin and death, had been introduced, indicating the problem and solution was to restore what was prior to the existence of the Mosaic Covenant. Romans 6-8 is spent discussing the Christian's new life in Christ, now that the Law's purpose has reached fulfillment and now set aside (Rom. 7:6).
But with all this 'negative' talk about the Law, why did God make all those promises to the Jews throughout the Old Testament, particularly giving them His glorious Torah (the Mosaic Law), only to now apparently disregard that gift? The whole point of the Torah was so that those living within it's rules would identify who "God's People" were - Leviticus 26:3-13 - so what happened? Did God go back on his promise? This is what Romans 9 to 11 is set to answer, and the answer is simply this: the Jews had a history of taking advantage of God's mercy to the point they attained a false sense of security, and when Christ arrived they were so unprepared that they collectively cursed Him rather than embraced Him. At the Advent of Christ, St John the Baptist chastised the Pharisees for living hypocritical lives, warning them: "do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father,' for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham" (Mat 3:7-10). Notice that these Jews thought that God's promises to Abraham were unconditional and thus regardless of how they behaved God would not go back on his promises to bless Abraham's offspring. In other words, the Jews saw themselves as unconditionally elected by God to be born Jews rather than be born Gentiles, and in virtue of this birth were entitled to God's blessings and protection. This sentiment was not fully gone when certain Jews converted to Christianity (a.k.a the Judaizer heresy).
The final point to keep in mind is the Old Testament context of the quotations Paul is presenting - for within those Old Testament contexts the brief quote Paul produces is given it's true and fullest meaning. Paul was not ripping random verses out of the Old Testament and scattering them throughout his lesson as an afterthought, but rather focusing on concepts which were encompassed in a given passage. When a well-trained Jewish ear heard a brief quote, his mind would immediately jump back and know the very context of that verse. It is worth noting that Romans 9, 10, and 11 have more OT quotes than anywhere else in the New Testament, and this is significant because to misunderstand these OT quotes is to botch Paul's lesson.
Now we can proceed to analyze Paul's lesson in each step of his argument (with all OT quotes in Green):
1 I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit— 2that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. 3For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh. 4They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. 5To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.Paul opens by saying he is speaking about the Jews (not the Christians) and all the blessings and promises they were given by God. So the question is, why did the Jews as a whole fail to accept Jesus? Such is a serious question that we Gentiles today cannot imagine. We tend to forget the preciousness of the Jews in God's sight, since through them would come the Savior of the World. Some of them would argue that God didn't keep His promises to the Jews, so Paul responds:
6But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, 7and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but "Through Isaac shall your offspring be named." 8This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring. 9For this is what the promise said: "About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son." 10And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, 11though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls— 12she was told, "The older will serve the younger." 13As it is written, "Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated."Many people gloss over this section without giving it second thought or even understanding what Paul is saying, but this is at the heart of his lesson. Paul's argument is that not everyone born from Abraham's biological lineage is entitled to the promises God gave Abraham.
Consider the first OT quote Paul appeals to, "Through Isaac shall your offspring be named" recalls the event of Genesis 21:8-14 where Abraham's first biological son Ishmael and his mother Hagar are told by God that it is through Abraham's second born biological son Isaac is to be the linage from which would reap the great promises (such as the Messiah). Now ancient custom taught that the first-born was entitled to the greater portion of the inheritance of the father, but this command by God reverses that. (Note that despite Ishmael being sent away and becoming "second class," God said to Abraham in Gen 21:13: "I will make a nation of the son of the slave woman also, because he is your offspring".) Our modern day ears cannot appreciate the significance of this argument. And note how this in itself had nothing to do with predestining to Heaven or Hell, simply the temporal (earthly) blessings God freely gives.
To buttress this point, Paul quotes another passage,"About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son" taken from Genesis 18:10-14 where God appears to Abraham and confirms Sarah will have a son despite being barren and way beyond childbearing age. So what's the big deal? In prior chapters of Genesis, God promised Abraham that his lineage would be greatly blessed, but Abraham and his wife Sarah couldn't have children! For God to make such a promise and yet not provide a means is akin to Jesus promising to never abandon us but yet not send the Holy Spirit after He Ascended! After time Abraham and his wife became frustrated and decided it was up to them to get a lineage going, so they decided Abraham should sleep with the slave-maid Hagar, who produced Ishmael (Genesis 16). But God had other plans and in the next chapter affirms Sarah will one day have a son, Isaac. Now that's a miracle baby (pun intended).
But that's not all, Paul then proceeds to bring up another example, this time it's Abraham's son Isaac and his wife Rebekah, who became pregnant with twins. So now the situation is more 'complicated' than the first, with the two sons of the same womb (originally barren, needing another miracle), born within seconds of each other. Despite Esau being born first, with Jacob (lit: "he who grabs the heel") coming out right after, God declares "The older will serve the younger" in Genesis 25:21-23, which says:
"Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the older shall serve the younger."This is why Paul immediately adds, "As it is written, 'Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated'," quoting not Genesis, but rather Malachi 1,
2 "I have loved you [Jacob]," says the LORD. But you [Jacob] say, "How have you loved us?" "Is not Esau Jacob’s brother?" declares the LORD. "Yet I have loved Jacob 3but Esau I have hated. I have laid waste his hill country and left his heritage to jackals of the desert." 4 If Edom says, "We are shattered but we will rebuild the ruins," the LORD of hosts says, "They may build, but I will tear down, and they will be called 'the wicked country,' and 'the people with whom the LORD is angry forever.'" 5 Your own eyes shall see this, and you shall say, “Great is the Lord beyond the border of Israel!”As with Ishmael and Isaac earlier, so also the context here isn't really focused upon individuals, but rather nations. (The name "Edom" is the nation of Esau's lineage.) Thus, there is yet another distinction among Abraham's lineage, first Isaac over Ismael, and now Jacob (renamed "Israel") being chosen over Esau. Of the nations that would emerge, one would be blessed, while the other would be cursed (by living in sin and not having any promises granted to that lineage). But even here Paul isn't speaking about predestination to hell or even salvation, rather remaining on the realm of temporal blessings.
With that in mind, verse 11 - though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad, in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls - is to be taken to mean God freely chooses which means He will bring about His promises, in this case choosing the weaker son, Jacob. This totally refutes the idea God's plans or favor is tied to biology or any superior biological qualities (e.g. good looks, strength, brains). Note that merits nor demerits (i.e. good works or sins) are the condition here, when such things certainly are the condition on whether one is saved or not. But the natural objection is raised:
14What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! 15For he says to Moses, "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion." 16So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. 17For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, "For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth." 18So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.As was mentioned earlier, this is the chief proof-text the Protestant appeals to, seemingly iron-clad in it's argument: God decides to have mercy or harden - save or damn - based on His sole pleasure, for His sole glory. But if one has been following Paul up till now and understands these two OT texts, they will see that is not what Paul is getting at. As noted throughout, Paul is ultimately framing this in terms of one nation versus another, essentially Jews versus Gentiles. In this case the nation of Israel versus the nation of Egypt, with Moses and Pharaoh signifying the headship of each.
First consider what God says to Moses, "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion," which comes from one of the most intimate passages in the Bible, when God reveals his Glory to Moses (Ex. 33:12-23). But the alert reader will recognize this comes at the conclusion of one of Israel's most infamous sins, the golden calf (Ex. 32)! In this passage God says Moses has found favor in His sight precisely because Moses stepped in and interceded for the Israelite nation who sinned with the calf and were going to be wiped out and rejected by God. So contrary to a surface level reading, God shows mercy on folks at the intercession of others, who find favor in God's sight, and is thus not "unconditionally" saving or damning. (This of course prefigures Jesus.)
Next consider what God says to Pharaoh, "For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth," during the 7th Plague on Egypt (of 10 total) in Exodus 9:13-17. On the surface, this sounds as if God desires to see Pharaoh die and keeps Pharaoh from choosing any different. But again this is a serious misunderstanding. Again, consider that this quote is taken from the 7th Plague, meaning Pharaoh has disobeyed repeatedly leading up to this:
When Pharaoh saw that the rain and the hail and the thunder had ceased, he sinned yet again and hardened his heart, he and his servants. 35So the heart of Pharaoh was hardened, and he did not let the people of Israel go, just as the LORD had spoken through Moses. (Ex 9:34-35)Here the text explicitly states Pharaoh hardened his own heart, sinning "yet again," just as the Lord foretold. With this it is clear that when it is said God is the one hardening the heart, this in no way indicates God is predestining sin, since Pharaoh sinned by hardening, but rather God 'solidifies' that sinner's decision. While Exodus does mention God "hardening" Pharaoh at times (e.g. Ex 7:3; 9:12; 10:1), there is also mention of Pharaoh doing the "hardening" of his heart, specifically after he repents and lets the Israeltes go but then takes back his promise (Ex 8:15; 8:32; 9:34). Interestingly enough, the Hebrew terms for "harden" are different, depending on if God is doing it or if Pharaoh is doing it. Jewish commentary states the Hebrew term used when God "hardens" Pharaoh is more accurately translated "to strengthen," meaning God strengthened Pharaoh's heart from succumbing to the 'fear of God' in the Plagues. So to read this just on the surface and come away with "unconditional damnation" and such is to grossly misunderstand the OT contexts. Instead, God did this "that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth," meaning God is making the mighty nation of Egypt an object lesson when messing with "God's People". It was the ultimate showdown between the mighty "firstborn" from natural means (i.e. Egypt) and God's enslaved "firstborn" of supernatural selection (Exodus 4:22-23)!
But if this is so, some will object by bringing up the next few verses:
As with the prior passage, a surface level reading of this, not grounded in context, will (ironically) end up saying the exact opposite of what Paul really means! Many think Paul is raising the objection, "but how can God damn me for sinning if there was no way for me to avoid the sin in the first place?". That's not at all what Paul is saying! Paul is recalling what he said earlier in Romans, notably the start of Romans 3,19You will say to me then, "Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?" 20But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, "Why have you made me like this?" 21 Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?
Most people have never even thought twice about this, because they don't realize what is being said. Paul has been teaching the "righteousness" of God is revealed through the Gospel, particularly through the Jewish rejection and crucifixion of Jesus! This claim should horrify anyone reading this: God's righteousness came through the repeated sins of the Jews, most especially in their crucifying of their Messiah? God forbid! But yes, it's true! God worked through Israel's unfaithfulness, their sins, to actually accomplish His will the whole time! Satan and the world kept trying to foil God's plans (e.g. thinking if Israel became unfaithful then this would prevent the Messiah from coming), but God was smarter and used these very sins to accomplish Salvation! So the Jew is thinking, "our sins bring about God's righteousness, thus if we sin we should actually be getting blessed!" Remember what was said at the start of this article: the Jews actually were taking advantage of God's mercy, and had fallen into the abominable mindset that St John the Baptist confronted:1 Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? 2 Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God. 3 What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? 4 By no means! Let God be true though every one were a liar, as it is written, “That you may be justified in your words, and prevail when you are judged.” 5 But if our unrighteousness serves to show the righteousness of God, what shall we say? That God is unrighteous to inflict wrath on us? ( I speak in a human way.) 6 By no means! For then how could God judge the world? 7 But if through my lie God's truth abounds to his glory, why am I still being condemned as a sinner? 8 And why not do evil that good may come?—as some people slanderously charge us with saying. Their condemnation is just.
7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. 10 Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. (Matthew 3)The Jews thought that they simply being "unconditionally" born as children of Abraham that they were "unconditionally" entitled special protection and salvation and blessings from God! But John says, "No!" As does Paul. The Jews thought they could go around not being faithful and not suffer the consequences, but that's downright dangerous thinking! Thus, what Paul is really saying in "why does God find fault?" is that just because God uses your sin to advance His plan does not mean you wont suffer consequences for your sins!
This is why Paul brings up the "Potter" and "Clay" analogy, not to show God is out to prove He's sovereign by "unconditionally" damning one clay pot over another. Paul is yet again drawing directly from the OT! Paul is alluding to at least three OT references to God being the Potter, with Israel specifically (not just anybody!) being the clay in his hands, which would be a huge wake-up call to any Jew listening:
Isaiah 29 13 And the Lord said: “Because this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men, 14 therefore, behold, I will again do wonderful things with this people... 15 Ah, you who hide deep from the Lord your counsel, whose deeds are in the dark, and who say, “Who sees us? Who knows us?” 16 You turn things upside down! Shall the potter be regarded as the clay, that the thing made should say of its maker, “He did not make me”; or the thing formed say of him who formed it, “He has no understanding”?Now we see a lot more clearly what Paul was getting at this whole time. This has nothing to do with the Potter building a pot just to destroy it, but rather Israel acting ungratefully and mocking God, as if God was creature and Israel was the Creator! In other words, we're dealing with "God's People" here, not some rubbish, who none the less are going to have to be taught a lesson the hard way.
Isaiah 45 9“Woe to him who strives with him who formed him, a pot among earthen pots! Does the clay say to him who forms it, ‘What are you making?’
or ‘Your work has no handles’?
Jeremiah 18 6 “O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter has done? declares the Lord. Behold, like the clay in the potter's hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. 7 If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, 8 and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it. 9 And if at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, 10 and if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will relent of the good that I had intended to do to it. 11 Now, therefore, say to the men of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: ‘Thus says the Lord, Behold, I am shaping disaster against you and devising a plan against you. Return, every one from his evil way, and amend your ways and your deeds.’
But that's not all, when Paul speaks of using one vessel for "honorable use" and other vessels for "dishonorable" use, this does not mean God makes one person on a one-way trip for Heaven and another person on a one-way trip set for Hell - as too many folks unfortunately adulterate Paul's teaching. Consider the fact Paul uses identical languages of "vessels for honor and dishonor" in his letter to Timothy:
20 Now in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for honorable use, some for dishonorable. 21 Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, he will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work. 22 So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart. (2 Timothy 2)The lesson here is pretty straightforward: God uses people - we'd call those people the great Saints of Catholicism - to carry out special tasks in Salvation History. Those people who cleans themselves rise from the status of non-honorable (i.e. daily use) to that of honorable (i.e. banquet use). The Jews are clearly undergoing God's judgment because they were selected to be honorable and turned out to be not worthy due to sin. So what now? Paul has the answer:
22What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, 23in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— 24even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles? 25As indeed he says in Hosea, "Those who were not my people I will call 'my people,' and her who was not beloved I will call 'beloved.'" 26 "And in the very place where it was said to them, 'You are not my people,' there they will be called 'sons of the living God.'"Here we see the Jew vs Gentile dichotomy made clear again, though this was to be understood the whole time. Notice how Paul culminates all that he said prior with "as indeed God says in Hosea," meaning the answer to this was hidden in the OT until now! What has God been "enduring with much patience"? Paul mentions this earlier in Romans 2,
27And Isaiah cries out concerning Israel: "Though the number of the sons of Israel be as the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will be saved...
3 Do you suppose, O man—you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself—that you will escape the judgment of God? 4 Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God's kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? 5 But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God's righteous judgment will be revealed.Paul is speaking to those Jews who were utter hypocrites, condemning the Gentiles as second class citizens, worthless by nature. Yet Paul says God has endured with much "patience" with this Jewish nation of hypocrites, giving them time to repent, and yet they prefer to remain in sin.
Simple question: who are God's people? Obviously, the Jews. So who are "not God's people"? Obviously, the Gentiles. But notice the 'horrifying' prophecy of Hosea: those who formerly were "not my people" are now going to be called "my people"! Those who don't know the OT cannot understand the force of this prophecy. The chosen people, the Jews, had lost their "first born" status (Exodus 4:22-23). Which leads right to Romans 9:27, where as the Gentiles became God's new chosen People, Isaiah predicted "concerning Israel" only a remnant, the first Christians, would be saved. This is why Paul says that Israel as a nation, though still special to God, was (temporarily) "hardened" (Rom 11:25) and made effectively second class behind the Gentiles.
This leads Paul to transition to the crux (pun not intended) of the whole sad situation:
30What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, a righteousness that is by faith; 31but that Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law. 32Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone, 33as it is written, "Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame."Again, the context is that of Jews versus Gentiles. The Jews (for the most part) failed to recognize the "Stone" of Zion, Jesus, and when they took Jesus on head to head, they tripped and fell. On the other hand, the 'godless' pagan Gentiles, in ever increasing numbers, continued to recognized Jesus as Savior and believed in him, until they became the super majority in the Church.
Though we have reached the end of Romans 9, Paul is not finished driving home his point in chapters 10 and 11. To ignore these would be folly, but for the sake of space I will only quote very briefly from each:
Romans 10 1Brothers, my heart's desire and prayer to God for them [the Jews] is that they may be saved. ... 19 [But] Moses says [to Israel], “I will make you jealous of those who are not a nation; with a foolish nation I will make you angry.” ... 21 But of Israel [God] says, “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people.”Paul's thesis becomes more and more explicit in Chapter 10. The Jews have lost their status and are rightly upset, but God's patience had worn out. But all hope is not lost, for Paul shows God's ultimate plan in the next chapter:
Romans 11 13 Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry 14 in order somehow to make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them. 15 For if their rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead? ...
28 As regards the gospel, they [Israel] are enemies for your sake. But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. 29 For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. 30 For just as you were at one time disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their disobedience, 31 so they too have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you they also may now receive mercy. 32 For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all.
So in a masterful, yet still deeply mysterious plan, God will one day bring the Jews out of their hardened state to join with their Gentile brothers, that all may be one in Christ, as Paul says it best elsewhere:
28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise. (Galatians 3)While I didn't intend for this article to be this long (about 9 pages in Word), I trust you have learned an important lesson. For too long Romans 9 has been abused and butchered, especially by Calvinists in their blind zeal (Romans 10:2), and unnecessarily harmed the welfare of Catholics and other non-Calvinists Protestants.