Understanding Romans 9
By John Ambrose
For many, Romans 9 is one of the most difficult texts in the Bible to understand. Here the apostle Paul touches upon the age old question of God's sovereignty versus man's free will. It is a question that no one this side of heaven will ever fully understand.
It comes about as Paul commiserates over his fellow Israelites and the plight of their unbelief which he summarizes at the end of the chapter...
"What then shall we say? That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, 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." (verses: 30-32)
Before the coming of Christ the Jews were properly focused on the Works of the Law - The Law of Moses. It was part of their tradition and national pride and they followed it with pride as their tradition dictated. But often their hearts were far from God and God was not pleased with them.
"If you had known what these words mean, 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice', you would not have condemned the innocent." (Matt 12:7) And "To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices."(Mark 12:33)
Being true to their tradition, the Jews who came to know Christ, persistently demanded that the gentiles be required to follow the Law of Moses and especially circumcision. This brought them into constant conflict with Paul. Amongst the newly formed congregations of believers they became known as the Judaizers.
So Paul, in many of his letters stressed that salvation is through faith - it is the disposition of the heart - not the following of the written code.
The Jews argued they were all Abraham's seed and therefore beneficiaries of the promise. But Paul countered it is not the natural heirs but the children of the promise - those that were divinely elected by God to receive the promise.
In Romans 8:29 Paul states... "For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters."
We know from this that the election referred to in Romans 9 is really based on the foreknowledge of God. For example before Jacob and Esau were born God already knew what type of men they would be - he saw them in their future. So based on his foreknowledge He states "Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated."
He continues in Romans 9:14-1...
What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! For he says to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion. It does not, therefore, depend on human desire or effort (the works of the Law), but on God's mercy. For Scripture says to Pharaoh: "I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth." Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden." (He also foresaw what kind of man Pharoah would be so hardening his heart made no difference in his eternal destiny - he was already irredeemably headed for hell)
He continues in verse 19... "One of you will say to me: "Then why does God still blame us? For who is able to resist his will?"
A valid question that even Paul is not able to answer for he says... "But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? "Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, 'Why did you make me like this?' Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use?"
Not able to answer the question definitively Paul speculates... "What if God, although choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath - prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory." (verses 22, 23)
"What if" is used twice in this text which shows clearly that Paul is speculating over God's possible motives and actions. He is not saying this is what God did, but offering it as a possibility - Paul simply does not known nor does anyone else. Therefore we should avoid conjecture over the meaning of this text and presume to know what God's motives and actions are and how he deals with all of mankind.
Unfortunately the conjecture of many derived from Romans 9 has brought about a major division in Christianity today for it has become a key text used by John Calvin to spin off a whole new theology called the "Reformed Gospel". What he has done is to create a gospel that tickles the ear - a message that states you are divinely chosen by God to be part of His kingdom quite apart from your will (unconditional election); and that once a person is saved he can never lose his salvation (irresistible grace and perseverance of the Saints).
Yes, quite satisfying to the masses - once you are in, you are in, and can never be put out, forget about personal responsibility, it is irrelevant. It is no wonder there are so many congregations that adhere to the "Reformed" gospel.
Opposing this is the Arminian position which holds that salvation comes through the free will choice of man to put his faith in Jesus and turn from his sins. It is a response to the inner voice of the Holy Spirit moving upon a person to come. Through the conviction of the Holy Spirit one turns their heart to Jesus asking, Lord forgive me for I have sinned; fix me for I am broken; save me for I am lost; please make me a part of your kingdom. Not everyone will respond this way as the parable of the sower tells us. But it is the free will choice of man - whosoever will may come - and God wants all to come and none to perish. (2 Pet 3:9) Also, if one does not guard his walk he may lose salvation - James 1:15... "after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death."
The Catholics speak of the Reformation as "The Great Schism"; and in today's non-Catholic world I would characterize "The Reformed Gospel" as "The Great Heresy".
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