Romans 9: Understanding Objections to Election and Making Sense of Paul’s Teaching
Romans chapter 9 is one of the most difficult passages in the Bible concerning election, salvation, and God’s purpose in it all. In this chapter we have a very difficult verse: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated” (v. 13). Making sense out of this verse is very difficult. How do we properly reconcile the God that loves all with a verse in the Bible that says God hated someone?
When taken as a stand-alone verse it doesn’t make much sense. That is proven by some of the terrible interpretations of the verse. Interpretations such as, “God loves the Jews but hates the Arabs.” Or, “God loved all the descendants of Jacob but hates all the descendants of Esau.” Or even, “God will bless the line of Jacob but will not bless the line of Esau.” All of these interpretations are wrong and do terrible violence to the text and its proper understanding.
When this verse is understood in proper context of the larger passage discussing God’s will, election, and salvation, it makes sense.
The first thing we need to understand is that God chose Jacob over Esau. Before they were born, before they did anything good or bad, God made a sovereign choice for no other reason than “God’s purpose of election might continue” (v. 11). And what is God’s purpose in election?
According to the following verses in Romans 9, God’s purpose is nothing less than having “mercy on whomever he wills,” and to “harden whomever he wills.” In other words, Gods purpose in salvation(election) is entirely His own. We have nothing to do with it. It has nothing to do with man because “it depends not on human will or exertion” (v. 16). And the reality is that God has created some “vessels of wrath prepared for destruction” (v. 22). And God has also created some “vessels of mercy…prepared beforehand for glory” (v. 23).
To our human mind, this is not fair. Am I really suggesting that God has determined, before the foundation of the world, that some will be saved and some will not be saved? Is this really the message of Romans chapter 9? Let’s look more closely at this verse with the help of a well-written article by Mike Riccardi at The Cripplegate.
As we have noted, Paul explains that salvation is based on God’s choice, His purpose in election and not on man or anything man can do. The reason for this is simply “so that [His] purpose according to His choice would stand…because of Him who calls” (v.11). Paul then supports this by reminding us that it was God that hardened Pharaoh’s heart. Not only did God harden Pharaoh’s heart, but He did so in order to demonstrate His power (v.17).
The bottom line then, as I stated earlier, is that God has mercy on whom He decides to have mercy, and he hardens whomever He decides to harden (v. 18).
But Paul anticipates our human objection. Paul asks the question, “You will say to me, then, ‘Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?’” (v.19).
In other words, Paul is raising the objection that if it is God’s will that determines salvation, and since no one can resist God’s will, how is it fair that He still finds fault? Or, how is it fair that God will punish people for not being saved? Riccardi makes the following statement that is helpful at this point:
“And the fact is: the only way that this objection makes any sense at all is if three things are true: (1) Man ought to repent and be saved as commanded by God, (2) Man lacks the moral ability to repent and be saved, and (3) God still holds man accountable to repent and be saved, and will punish them for their failure to do so. In philosophical terms, this objection only makes sense if ‘ought’ doesn’t imply ‘can’—that is, if commanding something of someone does not necessarily mean that they are able to do what you command. In theological terms, this objection only makes sense if the doctrines of total depravity, unconditional election, and irresistible grace are true.”
This is, to many, a reprehensible theology. The idea that God would create man lacking the moral ability to repent and be saved, but would still hold man accountable for his sins (of which he cannot repent) is offensive to a lot of people. In order to make this passage and the clear theology more palatable, several alternative theological interpretations were developed. Two of the most prominent in evangelical circles are:
“Conditional Election Based on Foreseen Faith: to deny that God’s election is unconditional, and rather to assert that it is conditioned upon faith which God foresaw in a particular person. Said another way: He chose them because He knew they would choose Him. Since our natural minds find it unfair to hold people accountable for something they are unable to do, this theological position maintains that we actually were able to do something—namely, believe—that would result in God granting us mercy.”
“Libertarian Free Will: akin to the previous, is to claim that God is indeed sovereign, but God has sovereignly chosen to grant a sort-of-sovereignty to humanity in the form of libertarian free will. God commands repentance and faith, and He will find fault in those who fail to repent and believe. But according to this view, those who fail to repent and believe do so because they have the free will to accept or reject God. God did His best, and He would save everybody if He could, but He left the final decision for salvation up to man. In other words, they can ‘resist His will.’”
These two theories might make us feel better, but they do no understand the Romans 9 passage properly, or even completely.
The objection is why does God still find fault? If we assume Conditional Election Based on Foreseen Faith to be correct, there is no need for this objection. The answer to the objection is God “finds fault” because these people simply did not have the faith needed to be saved (or, elect). Also problematic in this understanding is the objector’s remark “For who resists His will?” The objector is asking this rhetorically because he knows that no on can resist the will of God. So what do we do with this statement? If the Conditional Election Based on Foreseen Faith theory is true then either God’s will is not sovereign or man’s will can overcome God’s will. In either case there is great harm done to the doctrine of God’s sovereignty.
If we assume the Libertarian Free Will theory is correct, we also have some problems. The first problem we face is that it becomes possible for people to resist God’s will. This makes man’s will greater than God and makes God subservient to man. Think of it in these terms: if I am determined to drive my car off a cliff but it is not God’s will for me to do so, whose will will determine the outcome? Will my will trump God’s will? Or will God’s will change my will? But this theory also reduces God’s omnipotence and His power to save. This theory leaves God as a God who “could” save everyone, but doesn’t because man’s will to reject God is greater than God’s will to save.
Where does this leave us if these two popular evangelical doctrines are false? How is it fair for God to require of people what they are unable to do? I think Riccardi summarizes the discussion well:
“And so, if we are to make any sense of the objection Paul raises in Romans 9:19, we cannot explain God’s sovereignty and man’s inability by appealing to conditional election or libertarian free will. This objection only makes sense if the Calvinistic doctrines of total depravity, unconditional election, and irresistible grace are true”…and…”I believe there is a clear answer. And that is: God grants to His people what He requires of them. This is the genius of grace. By commanding something of everyone that is impossible for them to do, God magnifies mankind’s true helplessness and inability related to our spiritual condition. And because He commands only what is possible for God Himself to accomplish, He magnifies His own sufficiency and fullness of glory. As Paul goes onto explain, He does this ‘to make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy’ (Rom 9:23). By granting what He requires, God displays Himself as all in all. He places humanity in our proper position, as needy beggars eager to receive from His hand. Then, as our benefactor, He grants what He requires and thus captures our affections, so that we see Him as altogether lovely, altogether worthy, and altogether wonderful.”
This is a tough issue to wrestle with. But that means we need to spend time wresting with it in order to properly understand it. We don’t do anyone any favors by refusing to tackle this issue head on and submit ourselves and our wills to God’s truth as revealed in Scripture. I continue to wrestle with these deep doctrines in order to gain a better understanding so that I can help others to understand them. I hope this has been profitable for you.