DOES ROMANS 9 TEACH CALVINIST PREDESTINATION?
Jack Cottrell – February 2015
QUESTION: I have a friend who argues that the story of Jacob and Esau supports the Calvinist doctrine of predestination. But Genesis 25:27-34 says that Esau forfeited his birthright by selling it to Jacob. Thus it seems plain that it was not by God’s election but by Esau’s choice. How is this text so misinterpreted by those who teach this view of predestination?
ANSWER: The use of Jacob and Esau to support the Calvinist view of election (or predestination) is based not on the Genesis account, but on a false interpretation of Romans 9:10-14, which says: “And not only this, but there was Rebekah also, when she had conceived twins by one man, our father Isaac; for though the twins were not yet born and had not done anything good or bad, so that God’s purpose according to His choice would stand, not because of works but because of Him who calls, it was said to her, ‘THE OLDER WILL SERVE THE YOUNGER.’ Just as it is written, ‘JACOB I LOVED, BUT ESAU I HATED’” (NASB).
Calvinists think this whole chapter teaches the doctrine of unconditional election to salvation. Just as God chose Abraham, so he chose Abraham’s son Isaac, rather than Ishmael—for salvation (9:7-9). Likewise God chose Jacob rather than Esau—for salvation (9:10-14). In the same way God chose to have mercy on Moses but to harden Pharaoh (9:15-18).
Interpreted this way, the ninth chapter of Romans becomes one of Calvinism’s main proof-texts for their doctrine of unconditional predestination. The problem, however, is that this is a complete misunderstanding and misinterpretation of the entire chapter, and of the whole section of Romans 9-11.
It is a fact that in Romans 9 Paul is affirming unconditional election. I.e., God has indeed unconditionally chosen Abraham and no other as the founding father of Israel. He has indeed unconditionally chosen Isaac rather than Ishmael, and Jacob rather than Esau. Moses and Pharaoh are a further illustration of God’s sovereignty in choosing whomever he wills.
The problem with the Calvinist view, though, is this: Romans 9 is NOT talking about election to salvation, but election to service. The issue is not personal salvation, but roles of service in carrying out God’s plan for bringing about redemption for this sinful world. The bottom line is that God has the right to choose and use whomever he desires in order to carry out his purposes. This is meant to apply specifically to the nation of Israel.
Why does Paul (under the Spirit’s influence) see fit to discuss this issue at this point in the letter to the Romans? He has just explained, in chapters 1-8, that God’s way of salvation is by grace through faith, and not by works of law (3:28), i.e., not by how well one keeps his or her law code. This is just as true of Jews as it is of Gentiles. Regarding the way of salvation, God makes no distinction between Jews and Gentiles (see especially chapters 2 and 3).
The content of Romans up through chapter 8 is a direct challenge to the belief commonly held by the Jews of Paul’s day, that they had a special inside track to salvation After all, were they not God’s chosen people? If so, does that not mean that somehow, every circumcised Jew who holds high the Law of Moses will be saved (2:17-29)?
This assumption, says Paul, is absolutely false. The problem is that the Jews were confusing election to service with election to salvation. They assumed that because God chose them as the means by which “all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Gen. 12:3), he also chose them, simply as Jews, for salvation. But now they hear Paul saying, “No! Jews do not have a unique path to heaven; on Judgment Day they will be treated like everyone else.” So now they are thinking, “That’s not fair! God has just been leading us on, giving us promises he never meant to keep. He is going back on his word! Where is the justice?”
So in Romans 9 Paul is defending God’s righteousness in his dealings with the Jews. The Word of God has not failed (9:6a). When God says that only those Jews will be saved who trust God’s promises, like their father Abraham did, he is not going back on his original promises to Israel. His choice of the nation as a whole was not a guarantee of any individual Jew’s salvation. God was simply choosing the nation as such to be the means for bringing the Savior into the world (9:5). And God certainly has the sovereign right to use any individual or group that he chooses for such a purpose, without any promise of personal salvation being attached.
This is the point of the crucial passage, 9:14-18: “What shall we say then? There is no injustice with God, is there? May it never be! For He says to Moses, ‘I WILL HAVE MERCY ON WHOM I HAVE MERCY, AND I WILL HAVE COMPASSION ON WHOM I HAVE COMPASSION.’ So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘FOR THIS VERY PURPOSE I RAISED YOU UP, TO DEMONSTRATE MY POWER IN YOU, AND THAT MY NAME MIGHT BE PROCLAIMED THROUGHOUT THE WHOLE EARTH.’ So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires.”
The language of mercy and compassion that is used here is never limited in the Bible to saving mercy. It is often used to refer to the temporal blessings and privileges which God bestows upon individuals. (E.g., Paul says God has shown mercy on him by choosing him to be an apostle: 1 Cor. 7:25; 2 Cor. 4:1.) Here in Romans 9, the prime example Paul uses of God’s choosing someone for service without also choosing him for salvation is none other than Pharaoh (9:17). God both “had mercy” on him by choosing him for a crucial role in birthing the nation of Israel, and also “hardened” him in order to accomplish the same purpose.
For the exegetical evidence establishing the above view, see my commentary on Romans as published by College Press; and see also my essay, “Pharaoh as a Paradigm for Israel in Romans 9:18,” found online in several places including http://evangelicalarminians.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/Cottrell.-Romans-9.18.pdf . I especially urge you to read the latter.
Just as many Israelites were guilty of misinterpreting God’s purpose for unconditionally calling their nation to be his special people, so are Calvinists guilty of misinterpreting God’s Word here in Romans 9. There is absolutely no support in this chapter for the false doctrine of unconditional predestination to salvation.