Is Predestination in Romans 9 in Reference to Individuals or Nations

Yes, Romans 9 is always a discussion piece, but I had to throw my two cents in 🙂

(An excerpt taken from my book, The Fallenness of Man and the Graciousness of God, pp. 36-43)

The main objection from non-Calvinists is that when Paul writes of election in Romans 9:1-13, they believe that “the passage is not speaking about electing of individuals but nations.”[2] The Reformed position sees that the Scriptures speak of election primarily as an individual election unto salvation, with the election of nations in God’s purpose in history to be secondary. So then, the question is, “Is predestination in reference to individuals or nations?” Let’s work through the passage. However, before beginning our examination of Romans 9, it is important that we briefly backtrack through Romans 8, and the rest of the letter, to set our context for Romans 9.

In Romans 8, Paul expresses to us that our guarantee of deliverance is assured in the love of God through Christ Jesus. Nothing can separate us from him. His purpose in this chapter is to demonstrate to all Christians that there is no longer eternal condemnation for those who are in Christ (8:1). Those who are in Christ have been made alive by the Spirit to walk in a way that is now pleasing to God (8:1-8). How is that? Because God sent his Son to die in the flesh, condemning the sin of the flesh, “in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (8:4). Those who are in Christ now have the Spirit of Christ dwelling in them giving life to those who were once dead (8:9-10). Through this indwelling of the Spirit, we have now been adopted in the family of God, for we are now “sons of God” (8:14). And, this is important for the next chapter, the Spirit is our witness, our guarantee, that we are children of God and fellow heirs with Christ and will be glorified with him (8:16-17). So, Paul is affirming for us that those who are in Christ, the elect, are now part of the covenant. And they were predestined to be part of it (8:28-30). This language of election was originally specific to the people of Israel in the Old Testament. Israel was God’s chosen people who were the heirs of blessing to receive the promises God had purposed for them. In Deuteronomy 7, Moses tells us that Israel was chosen to be a “people holy to the LORD” (7:6a). Israel was chosen as his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth . . . because . . . the LORD set his love on you (7:6b-7). Israel shall be “blessed above all peoples” (7:14).

From this, we see that Israel was supposed to be blessed above all, for it was the chosen people, the descendants of Abraham, that were to become a great nation and receive all the blessings that come with the covenant God made with them (Genesis 15; 17). Those who were circumcised and received the Law from God were the elect of God. From our understanding of what the OT says regarding Israel, we can see how those who are Jews might object to what Paul is saying in this chapter. However, we need to be reminded of what Paul has already clearly expressed in the previous sections of this letter.

In Romans 1, Paul made it clear that the entire race of mankind is guilty of sin in its rejection of God. In Romans 2, Paul makes sure to explain to the Jews that this guilt and judgment for that guilt of transgression is not only a Gentile problem but a Jewish one as well. In Romans 3, Paul silences any objection to this universal indictment by making the charge that “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one” (3:10-12). He then goes on to say that though all Jews and Gentiles “fall short of the glory of God” (3:23), God has manifested his righteousness through Christ, by putting him forward as a propitiation for sin to be received by faith, as a gift, which redeems and justifies the guilty (3:24-25).

Paul grounds this radical shift in understanding the purposes of God from a Jewish perspective in chapter 4, in which he goes back to the covenant of promise made with Abraham demonstrating that he was made righteous by faith not works (4:1-12). And that the promise is fully dependent on faith, which is only guaranteed to those who share in the faith of Abraham (4:16), that is, those “who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord” (4:24). In chapter 5, Paul gives us a picture of what this means for one who is a Christian. Chapters 6 and 7 are a deeper treatment of what it means to be in Christ. Paul demonstrates the significance of baptism, Christ’s death and resurrection, which is our death and resurrection to life in him, leaving the old man behind on the cross, and being released from the law of death to serve the law of God.

Now that we have the context, Paul’s explanation regarding the reception of Gentiles into the family of God through faith, seems to pose a foreseen issue on Paul’s end to an objection regarding the promises that Israel is supposed to receive. That is what chapter 9 seeks to answer. After Paul closes chapter 8 with the glorious assurance of God’s love for the elect, Paul begins his explanation of the foreseen objection: “What about Israel?” What is to come for those who are his kinsmen by birth, descendants of the patriarchs? In Romans 9:1-13, he writes,

I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit— that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For 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. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen. But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” This 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. For this is what the promise said: “About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son.” 10 And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, 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— 12 she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” 13 As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”

Paul recognizes that there is a distinction between the offspring according to the flesh and the Spirit. That is why we see Paul’s anguish in this chapter. He is so distraught by this issue that he wishes that he was “accursed and cut off from Christ” (9:3). His brothers, kinsmen according to the flesh, to them belong this blessing, the promises, and the inheritance from God. Seeing that they will not receive this, Paul goes into the justification of God, explaining that God’s word has not failed. His word is intended for the offspring of Abraham; however, it is for those who are offspring by promise (by faith), not by the flesh. And to buttress this truth, Paul demonstrates God’s sovereign choice in election in the account of Jacob and Esau in Genesis 18:10, 14; 25:23 (cf. Mal. 1:2,3).

Paul makes it clear that though they were from the flesh of their forefather Isaac, and had not done anything good or bad, God’s purpose of election would continue in Jacob. Esau would serve him. This choice was based on God’s will alone, according to his predetermined plan, having nothing to do with any foreseen choice by the two children—“Not because of works but because of him who calls” (9:11). Paul establishes the correlation between the accursed (those who are of the flesh; Esau) and the elect by promise (by the sovereign election of God; Jacob). God’s word has not failed; however, “not all who have descended from Israel belong to Israel” (9:6b). If all of Israel were to be the “beneficiaries of the Messianic salvation . . . then the word of God has fallen, since many Israelites are accursed and cut off from the Messiah.”[3]

In his treatment of Romans 9:1-23, John Piper (addressing the objection of election to nations and not individuals) writes,

Paul’s main goal in Romans 9:6b-13 was not to prove that God freely elected the nation of Israel, but rather his goal was to establish a principle by which he could explain how individual Israelites were accursed and yet the word of God had not fallen. What Romans 9:6b proves is that in Paul’s mind the election of Isaac over Ishmael and Jacob over Esau established an ongoing principle whereby God elects unconditionally the beneficiaries of his blessing not only in the establishment of the nation from Israel by Jacob and his sons, but also within that very nation so that “all those from Israel, these are not Israel.”[4]

For the sake of our argument, and to continue with Paul’s argument defending the justification of God, we cannot leave Romans 9:1-13 to stand alone. In Romans 9:14-23, Paul strengthens his position by answering an objection to God’s election premised by unfairness on God’s part. He writes,

14 What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! 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.” 16 So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. 17 For 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.” 18 So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.

19 You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” 20 But 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? 22 What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, 23 in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory—

In these verses, Paul explains that there is no injustice in God’s sovereign choice and takes us back to two OT verses which allude to God’s demonstration of his sovereignty over creation and in his ultimate plan of redemption (Exodus 33:19; 9:16). In 9:15, Paul inserts Exodus 33:19 as his grounding for his answer to the objection. In this passage, Moses asked the LORD, “please show me your glory” (Exodus 33:18). God responds favorably to him and says, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The LORD.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy” (33:19). Revealing his glory is a demonstration of this grace, and the purpose of this revealing is one of mercy and favor. Those whom God reveals himself to, favorably, have received this not on what they have done but because of God’s choice to do so.

Furthermore, Paul’s use of this verse (Exodus 33:19) and Exodus 9:16 regarding Pharaoh was to demonstrate that his choice has nothing to do with man’s will or desire to submit to the LORD. Again, the Reformed position, as affirmed in Scripture, clearly teaches us that man is fallen and cannot please God (Romans 7:18; 8:7-8). Pharaoh was a pagan idolater, under the wrath of God, “whose breath and heartbeat was his only as God extended it to him. . . . Pharaoh could not and would not desire to resist.”[5] Not only do we see in the Exodus account that Pharaoh hardens his own heart (7:13, 14, 22; 8:15, 32; 9:34), we also see that God hardens it as well (4:21; 7:3; 9:12; 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10) by not extending mercy and grace to change his will; rather, he pulls back giving Pharaoh over (Romans 1) to his sin-filled, blackened heart. And this is the point Paul is making in Romans 9:15-18. Because of Pharaoh’s hardness, he continued to push back against the omnipotent will of God, only to be broken by it, but also, and most importantly, that the LORD would display his glory to Pharaoh and the Egyptians in destruction and judgment and to Israel in God’s rescue and deliverance of them. This is the demonstration of his power in Pharaoh; it was the reason he raised him up (Romans 9:17). So, we see that whomever he has mercy on, their hearts and desires are then channeled toward the LORD, and whomever he does not show mercy to, he hardens, giving them over to their own sin and destructive desires.

In Romans 9:19, Paul addresses another foreseen objection to God’s will in election. In an elaborated paraphrase, the objection is, “If that is the case with Pharaoh, then how can God find fault? Who then can resist God’s will if it is him alone who gives mercy to whom he wills and hardens whom he wills?” What does Paul say? Using the words of Job when facing the same issue, Paul says, “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God?” (9:20). God does not have to give us an answer. Why? Because he is the potter and we are the clay, and he has the right to do whatever he wants with the lump, making “one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use” (9:20-21). Paul concludes, “What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory” (emphasis added, 9:22-23). There is a parallel here between vessels of wrath and vessels of glory. Both are from the same lump; however, each are formed for different purposes according to God’s plan. “A vessel of wrath is one prepared for destruction that will experience God’s wrath; a vessel of mercy is one prepared for glory.”[6]

Conclusion

So, what we see in this section of Romans, what Paul is asserting, is that God’s purpose in election “is free from human influence not only in historical roles [nations] but also in the determination of who within Israel [individuals] are saved and who are not.”[7] Therefore, if God elects individuals within a nation, this proves beyond attestation that God can and does elect individuals to salvation. He does not merely elect nations as corporate entities in a non-salvific manner, but in addition to that, he elects individuals for salvation in eternity past (Rom 8:29).

Grace and peace

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[2] Norman L. Geisler, Systematic Theology: In One Volume (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 2011), 824. I quote him here because he is a leading voice from an Arminian perspective, though not representative of all, his objection is shared by many who are non-Calvinists.

[3] John Piper, The Justification of God: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Romans 9:1-23, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1993), 66.

[4] Ibid.

[5] James R. White, The Potter’s Freedom: A Defense of the Reformation and the Rebuttal of Norman Geisler’s Choosen But Free (Minneapolis, MN: Calvary Press, 2007), 220.

[6] Ibid., 226.

[7] Piper, The Justification of God, 66–67.

One thought on “Is Predestination in Romans 9 in Reference to Individuals or Nations

  1. Great read! Very well organized resource. I was just talking to someone about Romans 9 and now can forward this. Thank you! I am always anxious to read when I get a “Ranting Reformer” email.

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