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Romans 9

In assessing the importance of theological doctrines, I like the method of drawing three concentric circles. The inner circle is doctrines that I would die for. The middle circle is convictions, and the outer circle is opinions. For me, the doctrine or doctrines that go by the name of Calvinism are in the “opinion” category. Unfortunately for me, for many Christians, Calvinism is in the to-die-for category, and I often happen to disagree with those people. This can make theological discussions less fun than they should be.

I come from a non-Calvinist Christian tradition, however, for most of my adult life, I have been in Calvinist churches. As such, for most of my young adult life, I felt like I was caught in the middle of the Calvinism debate. At this time, I am emotionally okay with either Calvinism or non-Calvinism, however, it is still an interesting topic.

One of the key texts in Calvinism is Romans 9. An interesting phenomenon is when I am talking to a Calvinist, and then the Calvinist whips Romans 9 out of his back pocket, slaps me in the face with it, and says, “See! This proves that I am right and you are wrong.” This has happened to me on a number of occasions, and I keep wanting to say, “You keep using that prooftext. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

My position is that Romans 9 is not a prooftext for the TULIP acronym. Predestination is not the overall point of the passage, and it is not talking about election of individual Christians for salvation. Romans 9 must be seen as a part of the whole passage of chapters 9-11. Chapter 9 is mostly a retelling of the history of redemption. It repeats the themes of chapters 1-4, with the same interlocutors in mind as in chapters 1-4. It teaches corporate election, but not individual election, of Christians. Most importantly, Paul did not write Romans 9 in order to refute Jacob Arminius and his followers. He wrote it to refute hardened Jews in the first century who believed that they were God’s chosen people because of their national identity and because they were the ones who were entrusted with the law. In Romans 9, Paul is reiterating the point that he made in chapters 1-4, that in Christ, God’s chosen people is no longer national Israel, but rather God’s chosen people are Christians of all nations, both Jews and Gentiles.

There are a few sentences in Romans 9 that sound like prooftexts for the TULIP acronym. That is why the passage is so confusing. Those sentences are as follows.

“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—” (Romans 9:11)

“‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’ So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy… So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.” (Romans 9:15-18)

“You will say to me then, ‘Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?’ 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?’” (Romans 9:19-20)

When we take these passages in isolation, and we have at the forefront of our minds the debate between Calvinists and Arminians, it is easy to see these passages as prooftexts for unconditional election and irresistible grace, as applied to individual Christians. If those are the questions we are asking the text, then those are the answers that pop out at us. But are those the questions that the text is addressing?

The problem I have always had with this approach is that, if I begin reading Romans 9 from the beginning of the chapter, it seems to be talking about a different topic. I read the passage, and I am following along, and I think, “Okay, the passage is talking about a certain topic.” And then I reach the passages cited above, and my Calvinist conditioning kicks in, and I think, “Oh, that’s a prooftext for the TULIP acronym!” But the problem is that, in being a prooftext for the TULIP acronym, that sentence also changes the subject of what the passage was talking about. Then, after that sentence, the passage goes back to talking about the same subject it was talking about before that prooftext popped up. Then I come to the next passage listed above, and the same thing happens. “Oh, a prooftext for the TULIP acronym!” And then it goes back to the previous subject. It’s almost as if Paul wrote a passage on a different subject, and randomly inserted prooftexts for the TULIP acronym into that passage. The problem is that, when I read those passages as prooftexts for the TULIP acronym, the passage as a whole does not have any coherent internal logic.

Or, and hear me out here, maybe those passages were not intended by Paul to be prooftexts for the TULIP acronym after all. Maybe Paul did not have 17th-century Protestant debates in mind when he wrote the passage. Maybe he had something else in mind altogether.

I would like to zoom out from Romans 9 for the moment. Romans 9 is an integral part of Romans 9-11. I find it very interesting that Calvinists focus on Romans 9 for their doctrine of soteriology. If I were to look for a passage in Romans 9-11 that focuses clearly on soteriology, I would look at Romans 10:5-17. Some of the key passages are as follows.

“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 ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’” (Romans 10:9-13)

“How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent?… So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” (Romans 10:14-17)

You may wonder why I am bringing these verses up. My point is that, if I were to look for verses in Romans 9-11 that talk about salvation, these would be the verses I would look at. Growing up in a non-Calvinist church, these verses were quoted all the time as a theology of salvation and missions. It just made a lot of sense. Then, as an adult, I started spending time with Calvinists, and they were obsessed with Romans 9, and I couldn’t figure out why. It was odd.

So, to return to chapter 9, what is it saying? What is the point? I believe the most natural way of reading Romans 9 is as a history of redemption. Specifically, it shows, on a historical basis, who are the chosen people of God, and how the identity of the chosen people of God progresses over time.

Following the paragraph divisions in the ESV, the first paragraph, vs. 1-5, serves as a frame to establish the context, namely that Paul is concerned with Israel and the role that Israel plays in redemption. “To [the Israelites] 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” (vs. 4-5). This hints that what follows is an account of how the law and covenants are given to Israel, and how the Christ (and his people) proceed from and are a continuation of Israel.

The next paragraph, vs. 6-13, follows the progression of the genealogy of the chosen people of God from Abraham to Jacob. This paragraph represents God’s setting aside a people for himself in the period of the patriarchs, or in the time of the Abrahamic covenant.

The next paragraph, vs. 14-18, shows the election of God’s people in the time of the Mosaic covenant. This time, God’s chosen people are the nation of Israel. The context of the Old Testament passage quoted in this paragraph is the deliverance of Israel from Egypt and the setting apart of Israel as God’s chosen nation.

The focus of the next section, vs. 19-29, is the change in which God’s chosen people are no longer the nation of Israel. Rather, Christians, including both Jews and Gentiles, are now God’s chosen people. Verse 22 reads, “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…” The “vessels of wrath” are hardened Jews who think that they are God’s chosen people because they are descendants of Abraham by the flesh (cf. v. 8) and because they have the law (cf. v. 4). Verse 23 reads, “… in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory…” The “vessels of mercy” are Christians who have been saved by grace through faith, including both Jews and Gentiles. Christians are the new chosen people of God, as we read in verse 24: “… even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles”. The message of this paragraph is that the identity of God’s chosen people has changed. Now Christians, not national Israel, are God’s chosen people.

I will come back to the quotes from Hosea and Isaiah, in Romans 9:25-29, later. Right now, however, let’s start looking at Romans 9 in the context of the whole book of Romans, and move over to chapters 1-4, specifically chapters 3-4. This is important, because chapter 9 deals with some of the same themes as chapters 3-4.

The message of Romans 3-4 is that the Jews were God’s original chosen people (3:1-2), but that the Jews failed to uphold their end of the conditional old covenant (3:5-20), so now there is a new covenant in which our part is not adherence to the law but rather faith (3:21-31). This justification by faith rather than works was really inherent in the covenant with Abraham, which is more fundamental than the Israelite covenant (4:1-15), so that one does not need to be a Jew, or an Israelite, to be a member of the covenant people of God (4:16-25).

The interlocutor in Romans 3-4 is a hardened Jew who believes that he is saved because he is a keeper of the law. He is a descendant of Abraham; he is circumcised; he is justified by his works of the law. He believes he is one of God’s chosen people because of all these things. But Paul blows up this hardened Jew’s assurance of salvation. “Oh, you think you are a child of Abraham? The real children of Abraham are children according to faith, by the Spirit, not according to the flesh.” “Oh, you are circumcised? Circumcision and uncircumcision are nothing. Real circumcision is circumcision of the heart. By the way, Father Abraham was already a child of God before he was circumcised.” “Oh, you have works? Father Abraham wasn’t even saved by works. He was saved by faith, and so is everyone else who is saved.” Piece by piece, Paul dismantles the hardened Jew’s religious identity and assurance that he is one of God’s chosen people. The real people of God are those who share the faith of Abraham, not those who share the bloodline of Abraham.

Romans 9 continues, or returns to, this question of, “Who are the chosen people of God?” It makes the same point that the chosen people of God are not those who are Israelites by birth, but rather those who are children of Abraham by faith. The difference is that, this time, Paul makes the point with a historical account of the evolution of the identity of the chosen people of God. First, the Patriarchs were the chosen people of God (vs. 6-13). Then, national Israel were the chosen people of God (vs. 14-18). Now, Christians who are saved by grace through faith in Christ, both Jews and Gentiles, are the chosen people of God (vs. 19-29). Paul is making the same point to the same interlocutor as in chapters 3-4.

So, what do I have to say about the three excerpts I quoted that are often used as prooftexts for the TULIP acronym? To answer this question, we need to look at the Old Testament. Each of these excerpts is a reference to an Old Testament passage, and we can understand their import and meaning in Romans 9 only if we understand how they are used in the Old Testament, as well as how they are used in Romans 9.

First let’s look at Romans 9:11, the first Calvinistic prooftext that I quoted: “… 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—”. What or whom is this verse talking about? More specifically, whom or what is being elected? The contexts of the quotations from the Old Testament make it clear.

Romans 9:6-13 tells us of the election of Isaac and his son, Jacob, as the patriarchs through which the spiritual line of Abraham will pass. These are obviously cases of election as the heads of the corporate people of God. The nation of Israel is God’s chosen people under the old covenant, and under the new covenant God will elect a remnant of this people. As I read some Calvinist commentary in preparing this essay, I realized that Calvinists actually claim that Romans 9:6-13 teaches that God predestined Jacob, as an individual person, for “salvation”, and that he predestined Esau, as an individual person, for non-salvation. That is a very strange way of reading this passage. One only needs to read the Old Testament passages that are quoted in Romans 9:6-13 to see that that is not at all what this paragraph is talking about.

The first of these quotations is from Genesis 21. This passage comes in the midst of the establishment of God’s covenant with Abraham. God had promised Abraham,

“I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen. 12:2-3).

Later on, Abraham is worried that the fulfillment of God’s promise is impossible, because he is old and has no son. God reassures him that he will have a son, and that through that son, his descendants will become as many as the stars (Gen.15:3-6). However, God had not specifically stated that Abraham’s son would be borne by his wife, Sarai, who was well past child bearing years. So Abraham and Sarai agreed that Abraham would have a son through their slave woman, Hagar, so that Abraham could have an heir and Sarai could have a (surrogate) son (Gen. 16:1-3).

Abraham and Hagar had a son, Ishmael, and, not surprisingly, this dysfunctional situation caused a lot of grief and conflict between Sarai and Hagar (Gen. 16:4-6). Thirteen years later, God came to Abraham and told him that, despite his attempts to secure an heir through means of questionable legitimacy, God would provide him a fully legitimate heir through his wife, Sarai (now known as Sarah) (Gen. 17:15-21). Not long after Sarah’s son, Isaac, was born, Sarah’s conflict with Hagar was rekindled, because she wanted her son to be Abraham’s sole heir. She did not want her legitimate son to share Abraham’s legacy with the son of the slave woman (Gen. 21:10).

Sarah drags Abraham into this conflict, and he does not know what to do. “But God said to Abraham, ‘Be not displeased because of the boy and because of your slave woman. Whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for through Isaac shall your offspring be named. And I will make a nation of the son of the slave woman also, because he is your offspring.’” (Genesis 21:12-13, italics added; cf. Romans 9:7). God assures Abraham that God is in control. Both Ishmael and Isaac will become the heads of nations, however, Isaac and his descendants will be Abraham’s heirs. Ishmael and his descendants will not be heirs of Abraham, even though they are his physical descendants.

Here we see the beginning of the principle of the distinction between being Abraham’s physical descendants and being the descendants of promise and faith. That is the entire point of both Romans 3 – 4 and Romans 9. It is not about individual salvation. It is about genealogy and inheritance. This point is underscored in the very next verse in Romans: “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” (Romans 9:8). In the context of Romans 9:7 and Genesis 21, to which Romans 9:7 refers, the “children of the flesh” are the nation(s) that descend from Ishmael. The “children of the promise” are the nation(s) that descend from Isaac.

The next verse in Romans 9 reiterates the emphasis on Isaac’s status as the son of the promise: “For this is what the promise said: ‘About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son’” (Romans 9:9, cf. Gen. 17:21; 18:10,14). This is a reference to the story of God’s promise to Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 17:1-18:21. God promises Abraham, “Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations” (Gen. 17:4). God promises to be the God of Abraham’s offspring and to give them land as an inheritance (Gen. 17:7-8). Then, two times in the rest of chapters 17 and 18, God promises that Sarah, now 90 years old, will have a son, Isaac. Isaac, not Ishmael, will be the son of promise, through whom God fulfills the promise given in the first half of chapter 17. The Abrahamic covenant continues through the line of Isaac, not Ishmael. That is the covenant truth to which Paul is referring in Romans 9:9 when he alludes to the promise from Genesis 17-18 that “About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son.”

The reason I have taken time to retell this familiar story from Genesis is because Romans 9:6-9 is retelling this exact same story. It is the story of how God came to Father Abraham and gave him a promise that was to be a blessing for his descendants. But the promise was not for all his descendants. Romans 9 serves to tell which of Abraham’s descendants this promise applies to. Verses 6-9 tell the story of the first genealogical step, namely the distinction between Abraham’s two sons, Isaac and Ishmael. In the first generation of Abraham’s descendants, Isaac is the son of promise, and Ishmael is not.

Romans 9:10-13 then proceeds to tell the story of the selection of the line through which the promise will continue in the next generation. Isaac and his wife, Rebekah, have twin sons, Jacob and Esau. Esau is born first, but Jacob, who is a deceiver, swindles his brother out of his birthright and steals his brother’s blessing (Gen. 25:19-34; 27:1-46). Despite his character flaws, God chooses Jacob to be the father of the nation that will carry on the Abrahamic promise. God chooses Jacob and his descendants, not because of anything Jacob did, but simply because God is good. Jacob did not deserve God’s blessing. He was not a good man. But God chose him anyway, simply by God’s good pleasure, “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—” (Romans 9:11).

But is Romans 9:11 referring to individual election for salvation? Of course not. Just read the Old Testament passages quoted in Romans 9:12,13. 

“And the Lord said to [Rebekah]:
‘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.’” (Genesis 25:23, italics added; cf. Romans 9:12)

“‘I have loved you,’ says the Lord. But you say, ‘How have you loved us?’ ‘Is not Esau Jacob’s brother?’ declares the Lord. ‘Yet I have loved Jacob but Esau I have hated. I have laid waste his hill country and left his heritage to jackals of the desert.’ 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,”’ Your own eyes shall see this, and you shall say, ‘Great is the Lord beyond the border of Israel!’” (Malachi 1:2-5, italics added; cf. Romans 9:13)

Both of these Old Testament passages clearly and explicitly refer to election of one nation over another. The passages speak for themselves. The “unconditional election” expressed in Romans 9:11 refers to the election of the nation of Israel, as opposed to the nation of Edom, as God’s chosen people. Jacob is the son of Isaac, the son of Abraham, through whom the promises of the Abrahamic covenant will be realized. Even though Esau was the firstborn according to the flesh, Jacob was the heir according to the promise. Again, the theme of Romans is illustrated in the Abrahamic genealogy. Paul is making a distinction between the children of Abraham according to the flesh (i.e. the nation of Edom, headed by Esau) and the children of Abraham according to the promise (i.e. the nation of Israel, headed by Jacob).

So Romans 9:6-13 shows how God’s promise to Abraham is inherited by Abraham’s descendants in the first two generations. We can call this the time of the patriarchs, or the establishment of the Abrahamic covenant. As we have seen, the election of Isaac as opposed to Ishmael and the election of Jacob as opposed to Esau were cases of election of the nations of which those men were the heads. The identity of the chosen people of God is evolving as the children of Abraham according to the promise are identified in each succeeding generation. In the next paragraph, Romans 9:14-18, we see God’s purpose of election at work as God is setting apart the nation of Israel as his chosen people, in the time of the establishment of the Mosaic covenant.

The first Old Testament quote in Romans 9:14-18 comes from Exodus 33. God has delivered the Israelites from slavery in Egypt (Exodus 5-13). He has led them through the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea (Exodus 14-15). God has provided for the Israelites’ physical needs in the wilderness by providing bread (manna) from heaven (Exodus 16), water from a rock (Exodus 17:1-7), and military defense from an attack by Amalek (Exodus 17:8-16). Through Moses’ father-in-law Jethro, God has provided Moses with wisdom in how to lead and judge the people (Exodus 18). Then, in the climax of the book of Exodus, and perhaps the climax of the whole Pentateuch, Moses has gone up Mount Sinai, where the Lord has given him the law. God has given Moses the Ten Commandments, followed by a body of case law that serves as examples of how to apply the law (Exodus 19-24). In Exodus 25-31, we see instructions for constructing the Tabernacle and the other sacred implements to be used in the ritual ceremonies of the old covenant. So the first 31 chapters of Exodus tell how God has delivered his people from bondage and established his rule over them, as their sovereign Lord, by giving them his law and establishing the form of the rituals that the Israelites are to use in their worship.

In Exodus 35-40, the plans for the Tabernacle are implemented. The Tabernacle and all its ceremonial contents are constructed according to the plans given earlier in Exodus, so that by the end of Exodus, we are ready to move on to Leviticus, wherein God gives the details of the system of sacrifices and rituals that the priests are to perform. However, there is an interlude, in Exodus 32-34, in which some very important events occur.

Exodus 32-34 is a story of betrayal, rebellion, punishment, alienation, and reconciliation. Moses had been away from the people of Israel, meeting with God on Mount Sinai, for forty days (Exodus 24:18). The people were getting impatient (Exodus 32:1). With Aaron as their leader, they made a gold idol in the shape of a calf. It is not clear whether this calf was supposed to be a representation of YHWH or a different god altogether. Either way, the people apparently felt that Moses had abandoned them and maybe that YHWH had abandoned them, so they decided to take their religion into their own hands (Exodus 32:1-6). God, who is a jealous God, became angry that the Israelites had cheated on him, and he wanted to destroy the Israelites and start over with Moses as a patriarch of a whole new nation (Exodus 32:7-10). Moses talked him down, however, and convinced him not to destroy the Israelites, by appealing to God’s promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Exodus 32:11-14). Moses punished the Israelites’ rebellion by making them drink water containing the gold dust of which the calf had been fashioned (Exodus 32:20), and by having the Levites kill about 3,000 of the Israelites (Exodus 32:25-29). Finally, the Lord himself punished the people by sending a plague on them (Exodus 32:35).

In the chaos that ensued when Moses came down from the mountain and saw the people worshiping the golden calf, Moses had broken the stone tablets on which the Lord had written the law (Exodus 32:19). This was representative of the breaking of the covenant between God and Israel. When Israel had worshiped the golden calf, instead of worshiping God in accordance with the covenant, Israel had broken the covenant. In response, God told Moses that he would remove his presence from the people. He would lead them into the land of Canaan, but his presence would not be with them (Exodus 33:1-6). Moses was still in favor with God (Exodus 33:7-11), but the Israelites had fallen out of favor with God.

Moses intercedes with God on behalf of the Israelites, and God agrees to continue to be in the presence of the people, for the sake of Moses, who has been faithful to God (Exodus 33:12-17). A very intimate and holy episode then follows, in which God and Moses reconcile their relationship, so to speak. Moses asks to see God’s glory (v. 18), “and [God] said, ‘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. But,’ he said, ‘you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live’” (Exodus 33:19-20, italics added; cf. Romans 9:15). God then instructs Moses to go up onto Mount Sinai, where God puts Moses in a cleft of a rock and passes before him, proclaiming, “‘The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation’” (Exodus 34:6-7). This seals the reconciliation between God and Moses, as the covenant head of the Israelite people. In the rest of Exodus 34, God reiterates some of the laws of the covenant, and he rewrites the stone tablets of the law. Moses returns to the Israelite people and gives them the law, and the covenant is renewed.

Thus the famous quote from Romans 9 occurs in an episode in which God is renewing his covenant with Israel. Importantly, that quote occurs in the midst of perhaps the most intimate encounter between God and any mortal in the whole Old Testament. Yes, God is renewing his covenant with Israel, but he is doing so in the context of an intimate encounter with one man, Moses. God is reaffirming Moses as the covenant head of the Israelite people. He is saying he is choosing to be gracious and merciful to the Israelite people, but he is also saying he is choosing to be gracious and merciful to Moses. We might also say God is being gracious and merciful to the Israelite people for Moses’ sake, and for the sake of Moses’ faithfulness. Moses is the covenant mediator, in a way that foreshadows Christ as the covenant mediator. Moses is the covenant head of the people of God, in a way similar to the way in which Christ will later be the covenant head of the people of God.

So, in Romans 9:6-13, God chooses Isaac and Jacob as the covenant heads of the nations that will be the genealogical pathways through which God will fulfill his covenant with Abraham. God’s chosen people are the nations that will come from Isaac and Jacob. The first Old Testament quote in Romans 9:14-18 shows how God has an intimate and holy encounter with Moses, and in so doing renews his covenant with the nation of Israel. Paul is showing us how God chose the nation of Israel, with Moses as its covenant head and mediator, similarly to how God chose Isaac and Jacob as the heads of the nations that would carry his covenant promises forward in history. In all of these instances, the basis of God’s choice of his covenant people is based only on God’s grace and mercy.

At this point, Greek and Hebrew scholars like to point out that Romans 9 uses the singular form of certain words where we would expect to see the plural form of those words if Romans 9 taught corporate election and not individual election. Other scholars then explain that these words are using the “collective singular” form. I do not know Greek and Hebrew, and I do not want to know Greek and Hebrew, so for the most part, I can only step aside and allow the experts to debate this point. However, given what I have explained above, I think we can begin to make sense of what might be meant by a “collective singular”.

Moses is the covenant head of the people of Israel. Moses is a single person. The nation of Israel is a corporate body. In Exodus 33, God renews his covenant with the corporate nation of Israel, but he does so through his relationship with the single person Moses. Moses, as the covenant head of the nation, represents the nation before God and represents God to the nation. So God’s covenant is both a covenant with a corporate body, i.e. Israel, and a covenant with a single person, i.e. Moses. In other words, it is a covenant with a corporate body through the headship of a single person. When God is gracious to whom he will be gracious, and shows mercy to whom he will show mercy, he is gracious and merciful to a corporate body that has a single person as its head. God’s choice to be gracious and merciful applies both to the corporate body and to its covenant head. Thus the object of God’s covenant grace and mercy is both singular, referring to the covenant head, and collective, referring to the covenant corporate body. I am not a Greek or Hebrew scholar, but to me, that seems like a good way to make sense of singularity and collectivity with regard to the language of election in Romans 9.

After his reference to the renewal of the Mosaic covenant in Exodus 33, Paul backtracks a bit and includes a quote from a confrontation between the Lord and Pharaoh in Exodus 9. God has promised to deliver the Israelites from slavery so that he can lead them into the land that he has promised to their ancestor, Abraham (Exodus 3:7-10, 16-17; 6:6-8). God sends Moses and Aaron to Pharaoh to negotiate for their release from slavery. Pharaoh refuses, and a battle ensues between the God of Israel and the gods of Egypt. Each of the ten plagues that YHWH brings upon Egypt is an affront to one of the Egyptian gods. As the plagues increase in severity, Moses repeatedly confronts Pharaoh to demand that he let the Israelites go, and Pharaoh repeatedly refuses. Finally, after the killing of the firstborn son of every Egyptian, Pharaoh relents and drives the Israelites out of Egypt. Once the Israelites are gone, however, Pharaoh has a change of heart and pursues the Israelites into the wilderness, where he and his army are drowned in the Red Sea. Thus the hardness of Pharaoh’s heart leads to the destruction of Egypt, as YHWH displays his supremacy over Egypt and its gods (Exodus 3-15).

Paul alludes to this story in Romans 9:17: “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’” (cf. Exodus 9:16). Pharaoh is the human head of the nation of Egypt, just as Moses is the human head of the nation of Israel. Just as God set apart the descendants of Isaac and the descendants of Jacob as his people in Genesis, here, in the first section of Exodus, he is setting apart the nation of Israel as his people. In setting them apart, he not only sets them apart to himself, he sets them apart from the Egyptians. The Egyptians and their national head, Pharaoh, are the foil against which God shows his power in liberating his people, Israel, so that he can lead them to the promised land and through them fulfill his promise to Abraham. As God deals with Moses as the covenant national head of Israel in Exodus 33, in Exodus 9 he deals with Pharaoh as the national head of Egypt, the nation that was oppressing Israel.

If we can say that Romans 9:6-13 tells of the selection of God’s chosen people in the time that the Abrahamic covenant was being established, then Romans 9:14-18 tells of the selection of God’s chosen people in the time when the Israelite covenant, or Mosaic covenant, was being established. God selected the nation of Israel, to show them his love, to give them his law, and to be a beacon of light to the nations of the world. He chose them, not because of anything they had done, but because he loved them. Why did he love them? Was it because they deserved to be loved? No. It was because he, in his divine wisdom, chose to love them. Romans 9:14-18 tells how God chose to love the nation of Israel rather than the nation of Egypt, just as Romans 9:6-13 tells how God chose to love the Israelites rather than the Ishmaelites and Edomites.

This has been a long, discursive essay, and I still have not covered Romans 9:19-29 in depth. Because the essay is already 11 pages long and I have been working on it for about a year, I think it would be best to write a separate essay in which I perform an exegesis on the whole section of Romans 9-11, with some more moderate coverage of the Old Testament references in that section, including the references to Hosea and Isaiah in 9:25-29. I think my interpretation of 9:19-29 would be more defensible within the overall context of chapters 9-11.

The main burden of this essay has been to say what Romans 9 does not say. Namely, Romans 9 is not a prooftext for the TULIP acronym. I have not been very precise about what it does say. I have explained the prooftexts for the TULIP acronym in Romans 9:11 and 9:15-18. Unfortunately, I have not tied together Romans 9:19-29 enough to explain the prooftext in 9:19-20. To do that, I will need to write a second essay covering all of chapters 9-11.

The follow-up essay should tie things together in a neater fashion, but hopefully this essay has laid the groundwork. I have been making a case for historical election and the evolution of the identity of the chosen people of God over the course of redemption history. Like Romans 3-4, chapters 9-11 set up a contrast between hardened Jews who were relying on the law, and people, both Jews and Gentiles, who rely on faith in Christ. As we shall see, Romans 9 is the beginning of that larger argument.

There are different layers of election that Romans 9 may or may not teach. Those layers are:

  1. Historical election of groups of people;
  2. Election for salvation of groups of people;
  3. Conditional election for salvation of individuals;
  4. Unconditional election for salvation of individuals.

Calvinists are all-in on number 4. Other exegetes, like Leighton Flowers, make a case for number 3. Brian Abasciano makes a case for numbers 2 and 3. My essay here has focused on number 1: historical election of groups of people. I expect my follow-up essay, on Romans 9-11, will include number 2: election for salvation of groups of people. My claim is not necessarily that number 4, unconditional election for salvation of individuals, is not taught anywhere in the Bible. My claim is that it is not taught in Romans 9.

If I am right, and we will have to wait for my follow-up essay on Romans 9-11 to find out if I am right, then it should affect the way we teach predestination. We should not use Romans 9 as a prooftext for the TULIP acronym. The way I am reading the passage may be more complex, and require a more thoughtful exploration of the background, than simply pulling a few sentences out of the passage to use as support for a systematic doctrine, but I believe the way I am reading the passage is truer to the actual meaning of Romans 9-11.

I am not so naive as to think that Calvinists will stop using Romans 9 as support for their version of the doctrine of predestination. However, I hope my way of reading the passage can contribute something valuable to the conversation.

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