Category Archives: Romans 9

Arminian Principles for Interpreting Romans 9.

Romans 9 is often the “go to” text for Calvinists. They hold that it is about individual election to salvation – that God unconditionally chooses to save certain individuals, and that he unconditionally rejects and hardens others. John Piper writes that the Calvinist interpretation of Romans 9:11-12 was the watershed event that caused him to become a Calvinist.(1)

Arminians come to a different conclusion about Romans 9. We hold that it’s about the election of the nation Israel to serve God’s greater purposes.  Specifically, it’s about how God is just in how he has treated Israel.  And it’s about how he has kept his word in the way that he has treated them.  It is not about Calvinistic individual election. Paul is asking if the nation of Israel can be saved, and if God is fair in the way he goes about treating them as a group.  Are Jews saved by their genealogy? Or must Jews believe in Jesus in order to be saved? Paul argues that even though Jews are descendants of Jacob and Abraham, they don’t get a free ticket because of their ancestry (Romans 9:8). Israel has been blessed as a people group, because salvation comes from the Jews. However, individual Jews are saved the same way that Gentiles are – by having faith in Jesus (Romans 9:31, Romans 10:11-13).

Now on to the Arminian principals for interpreting Romans 9.

1) To understand Romans 9, read all of Romans 9 along with Romans 10 and 11. Better yet, read the the entire book. The larger context is key to understanding the passage. Calvinists prefer to quote only Romans 9:10-24, because that’s the portion that seems most Calvinistic when read by itself. But Romans 9:10-24 shouldn’t be read without an understanding of the surrounding context and the question that Paul is addressing. Here’s the background: Israel was depending on their ethnicity as descendants of Abraham. They thought that being physical children of Abraham saved them by default. Paul uses Jacob (Israel) and Esau (Edom) to show how ethnicity is not a guarantee of  a blessing. Paul illustrates that both Issac and Jacob were chosen to be blessed over Ishmael and Esau, even though all were sons of Abraham and this even though Ishmael and Esau were the oldest sons. Despite the blessing of being descendants of Jacob, individual Jews are saved the same way Gentiles are – by faith in Jesus. Even though Jews are physical descendants of Abraham (as were Ishmael and Esau), they still must believe in Jesus in order to be saved (Romans 10:11-13). This is Paul’s argument.

Paul states that he is speaking about the nation of Israel in the opening of Chapter 9 (bold mine):

Romans 9:1-5: I speak the truth in Christ—I am not lying, my conscience confirms it through the Holy Spirit— I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race, the people of Israel. Theirs is the adoption to sonship; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of the Messiah, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen.

Paul reminds us again that he is writing about the nation of Israel in the close of Chapter 9 (bold mine):

Romans 9:30-32 What then shall we say? That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; but the people of Israel, who pursued the law as the way of righteousness, have not attained their goal. Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works.

The nation of Israel is always in scope in Romans 9, 10, and 11. It’s never about Calvinistic individual election. That’s why it’s so important to read all of Romans.

2) When reading the portion of Romans 9 that sounds Calvinistic, refer to the Old Testament passages that Paul uses for his argumentation. They show that Paul is still on the topic of the nation of Israel, and he’s addressing God’s right to use Israel as he prefers. The verses seem to refer to individuals with a casual reading (Jacob and Esau and Pharaoh).  However, the Old Testament references show that the individuals are actually corporate heads of their nations.

For example (bold mine):

Genesis 25:23: The Lord said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other,and the older will serve the younger.” (quoted in Romans 9:11-12)

Malachi 1:1-5: A prophecy: The word of the Lord to Israel through Malachi.I have loved you,” says the Lord.“But you ask, ‘How have you loved us?’ “Was not Esau Jacob’s brother?” declares the Lord. “Yet I have loved Jacob, but Esau I have hated, and I have turned his hill country into a wasteland and left his inheritance to the desert jackals.” Edom may say, “Though we have been crushed, we will rebuild the ruins.” But this is what the Lord Almighty says: “They may build, but I will demolish. They will be called the Wicked Land, a people always under the wrath of the Lord. You will see it with your own eyes and say, ‘Great is the Lord—even beyond the borders of Israel!’ (quoted in Romans 9:13)

Jeremiah 18:1-10This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Go down to the potter’s house, and there I will give you my message.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and I saw him working at the wheel. But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him.  Then the word of the Lord came to me. He said, “Can I not do with you, Israel, as this potter does?” declares the Lord. “Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, Israel. If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned.  And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted,  and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it. (referenced in Romans 9:21)

Especially of note in the Jeremiah passage is that God (the Potter) does not decree what the nation does, but rather he first sees what the nation does, and then forms something out that nation afterwards as a result of their corporate behavior.  This is the opposite of “unconditional individual election”.  God changes his mind on how to treat a nation based on whether or not the nation follows him.  This is particularly relevant to Paul’s argument in Romans 9.  Israel was not following God as revealed in Christ, and as a result, God (the Potter) is going to treat them accordingly.

One more thing to be aware is the Hebraic idiom of “hate” (as used in Romans 9:13 and Malachi 1:3 – “I love Jacob, but I hate Esau…”)  This idiom means to love someone less in comparison to someone else. Just as we have idioms (For example: “It’s raining cats and dogs.”), so did the Hebrews. This idiom doesn’t mean that God unconditionally despised and damned Esau and all of his descendants. It meant that he preferred Jacob’s nation over Esau’s nation, and chose Jacob’s children for the special honor of being the line in which the Messiah came. Jesus uses this very same idiom when he says “Anyone who follows me must hate his Father and Mother (Luke 14:26).” He’s not saying you should actually despise your parents, that would be breaking a commandment! He’s saying that in comparison to our love for God, our love for our parents ought to be much less. The same thing is going on with Jacob and Esau. God loved both of them and their descendants. However, he had a special affection for Jacob and his descendants, and chose Jacob’s descendants over Esau’s for the purpose of saving the world.

In the case of Pharaoh, Paul uses him as an analogy as to how God can fairly treat the nation of Israel, even if he has to “harden” them in the process.  Just as God hardened Pharaoh for his purposes (after a great deal of evil behavior by Pharaoh), he has the right harden the nation of Israel for his purposes.   And we see from the Jeremiah passage that this hardening comes about as God’s response, it’s not God’s first preference.  Importantly, it wasn’t God’s first preference to eternally damn Pharaoh.  God treated Pharaoh fairly, and wanted him to be saved.  For more on that topic, see this post: The Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart.

3) Whatever Romans 9 means, it can’t mean that God is a liar, and it can’t contradict the plain meaning of other scripture passages.  If God is love (1 John 4:8 ), we can’t use Romans 9 to prove that God is hate.  This was a point made by John Wesley. Of course, Calvinists don’t claim that God hates or lies, but their line of reasoning in our view leads to this. Typically when you question a Calvinist about the goodness of God in Romans 9, they either equivocate or they equate a rejection of their interpretation of Romans 9 as “talking back to God” (Romans 9:20).  Here’s what Wesley wrote on this:

This is the blasphemy clearly contained in the horrible decree of predestination! And here I fix my foot. On this I join issue with every assertor of it. You represent God as worse than the devil; more false, more cruel, more unjust. But you say you will prove it by scripture. Hold! What will you prove by Scripture, that God is worse than the devil? It cannot be. Whatever that Scripture proves, it never can prove this; whatever its true meaning be. This cannot be its true meaning. Do you ask, “What is its true meaning then” If I say, ” I know not,” you have gained nothing; for there are many scriptures the true sense whereof neither you nor I shall know till death is swallowed up in victory. But this I know, better it were to say it had no sense, than to say it had such a sense as this. It cannot mean, whatever it mean besides, that the God of truth is a liar. Let it mean what it will. It cannot mean that the Judge of all the world is unjust. No scripture can mean that God is not love, or that his mercy is not over all his works; that is, whatever it prove beside, no scripture can prove predestination.(2)

Wesley is right.  Whatever Romans 9 states, it can’t state that the God of truth is a liar.

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1) John Piper, The Absolute Sovereignty of God, What is Romans 9 about?  Side rant here, this is why I can’t stomach John Piper.  Just from the title, you can see he’s implying that to disagree with him is to say that God is not sovereign.  But of course Arminians agree that God is sovereign.  Okay, rant done.

2) John Wesley, Sermon 128, Free Grace

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Greg Boyd – Sermon on Romans 9

Greg Boyd recently did a sermon on Romans 9.  It’s entitled “Twisted Scripture: Romans 9”.  It’s well worth listening to.  You can find the whole sermon here, or a short clip of it here.

HT: Dale Wayman

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Calvinism and the Bible Part 2 – Jerry Walls

Jerry Walls and Paul Sloan continue their series with an in depth look at  Romans 9.  If you haven’t seen part 1, watch it first.

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Audio Series on Romans 9-11

HT:Onesimus

Here is a good audio series on Romans 9, 10, and 11 by historian / preacher David Pawson. Pawson argues that Paul wrote the epistle to the Romans in order to address the problem of antisemitism among the Gentile Christians in Rome.

The Roman Church was initially exclusively Jewish, then over time Gentile converts were added. At some point Emperor Claudius ordered all Jews to leave Rome (likely because they were bickering over whether or not Jesus was the Christ). After the death of Claudius, Nero permitted the Jews to again return to Rome.

These edicts impacted the demographics of the Roman church. The church was first Jewish, then because a mixture of Jewish and Gentile, then became exclusively Gentile, then finally was again a mixture of Jews and Gentiles. When the Jewish Christians returned they were not welcomed by the Gentile Christians. The Gentiles were arguing that the Jews were now rejected by God. Pawson argues that the purpose of Paul’s letter was to address the exclusion of the Jews, and that Romans 9-11 in particular addresses this issue.

Romans 9
Romans 10
Romans 11

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Pursuing Righteousness by Faith

What is pursuing righteousness by faith? In Romans 9, Paul speaks of pursuing righteousness by faith rather than works:

What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, a righteousness that is by faith; but that Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone. –Romans 9:30-32 ESV

First, it is helpful to be familiar with the Biblical definition of righteousness. In English we often define righteousness as being moral and upright. This is something that a person must do himself. However, Paul had a different understanding than the English context. Biblically speaking, righteousness means to have a right standing before God. While righteousness also carries a sense of being moral, it is secondary and based not on ourselves, but our standing with God. Understanding this context helps to explain the problem that Israel had. Israel was trying to earn the right to stand before God by working for it with their self righteousness. In this they failed. It is impossible to earn a right standing before God by one’s self righteousness.

One might reasonably ask, how then can righteousness (right relationship) be pursued at all, given that we cannot work towards it? It is possible through faith in Jesus. Paul goes on to explain:

Romans 10:8-13: The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

We learn in this passage that a right standing before God is possible. Not by works, but by faith in Jesus Christ. The Lord saves those who call on his name. The faith described here is ongoing. It is available to everyone who believes and confesses Jesus Christ. Faith is possible for all! Not because of our goodness, but because God desires to be in right relationship with us, and is already at work in us. His word is near to us and in us.

Pursing righteousness by faith is to pursue Jesus Christ himself. We are promised that everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.

Faith is not something that a person intellectually assents to once and is then is finished with. Rather, faith is an ongoing dependence on the Lord Jesus Christ. What distinguishes faith from works? It is trust in Jesus instead of ourselves. Faith by definition is Christ centered. We trust in Jesus to keep us in right standing with the Father. We trust in Jesus to conform us to his own image.

Moses under the inspiration of the Spirit wrote about this kind of faith in Deuteronomy 30. Paul had this passage in mind and quoted parts of it in Romans 10. In Deut 30 we learn that:

  • Faith is not too difficult or beyond our reach
  • It is very near to us, in our mouth and heart so that we may obey.
  • It is set before us.
  • It is God (Christ) centered. We are to love God, walk in his ways, and to keep his decrees.
  • It is something that we can forfeit, by turning our dependence away from God or allowing ourselves to be drawn from him.
  • It is a choice. We are admonished to chose life, for the LORD is our life.

What is striking about Romans 10 and Deut 30 is that the faith described in these chapters is precisely the Arminian definition of faith. Faith is not given to a few and hidden from most. Instead, faith is possible for all, because God wants to be in a right relationship with all of his creation. Faith in Jesus is not beyond our reach because God has made it possible through his work in us. It is genuinely available to all.

Pursuing righteousness by faith is a choice to trust Jesus Christ instead of ourselves. Not because of who we are, but because of what Jesus Christ has done. He will never fail us.

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Audio link: William Lane Craig Discussing Calvinist and Arminian Theology

Theologian William Lane Craig is currently doing a series on the differences between Calvinist and Arminian Theology. The series can be found on his website here: Defender’s Podcast.

Craig is a gentleman. He presents both Calvinism and Arminianism in a way that their adherents will appreciate. He addresses the differences in interpretation of the key Calvinist passages (Romans 9, Ephesians 1, etc). He also has a knack for getting to the heart of what’s important for each system – avoiding the myths.

As of the date of this post, they are adding new podcasts every week. The Arminian and Calvinist related discussion starts on the podcast entitled “The Doctrine of Man – Part 12 (dated 5/4/09), and continues through to the present series entitled “The Doctrine of Salvation”.

The series has also apparently drawn the attention of James White.

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Audio Link: Dennis McCallum on Romans 9

Here is a link to a good mp3 presentation on Romans 9, by Dennis McCallum: Romans 9 – God’s Soveriegnty. There is also a You-Tube video of the same presentation which can be found here.

HT: Brennon Hartshorn

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