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 . 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.

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Does Romans 9 Teach Calvinist Predestination? — 10 Comments

  1. Election is Corporate AND Individual

    The third and final key to understanding Romans 9 is that election is both corporate and individual.

    There is a long-standing debate about election, regarding whether Paul is talking about corporate election or individual election. That is, when Paul writes about the election of Israel, or God’s choice of Jacob over Esau, is Paul talking about the individuals within Israel, and the individual destinies of Jacob and Esau, or is Paul referring instead to the national and corporate destinies of Israel (which came from Jacob) and Edom (which came from Esau)?

    Usually, the battle lines over this debate are determined by whether a person is a Calvinist or not. As Calvinists believe and teach the individual election of certain people to eternal life, they are more likely to understand and explain Romans 9 in this light. Those who do not hold to Calvinism tend to interpret Romans 9 as teaching corporate election. Henry Halley, author of Halley’s Bible Handbook, is one such writer:

    Paul is not discussing the predestination of individuals to salvation or condemnation, but is asserting God’s absolute sovereignty in the choice and management of nations for world functions (Halley’s Bible Handbook, 527).

    So which is it? Is Paul talking about individual election or corporate election?

    I believe that in Romans 9 Paul is teaching both corporate and individual election.
    Since it is the purposes of God that determine who gets elected and to what form of service they are elected, then it is God who decides when He needs to call individuals and when He needs to call nations or groups of people to perform certain tasks.

    Of course, even when election is corporate, it is true that God’s purpose for that group of people is carried out by individuals within the group, and so in this sense, we can say that even corporate election has an individual aspect.

    On the other hand, the benefit to corporate election is that even if some individuals within the corporate identity do not contribute to fulfill the purpose of the corporate entity, there will be some within the group that will fulfill their purpose, thus accomplishing God’s purpose in election.

  2. What it’s your Christian background? Are you referring to unconditional election to unlimited atonement? Or referring to unconditional election to service which has nothing to do with salvation?

    • Question #1: very anti-Calvinist. Question #2: is not clear. Question #3: in Romans 9 the unconditional election applies mainly to the NATION of Israel (not to individuals as such) and it is unconditional election to a role of SERVICE, not to salvation.

  3. This post is pure greatness; thank you, Dr Cottrell.

    One might add: a related problem with how Calvinists read Romans 9 is that they disregard how that chapter’s teaching is refocused & reshaped in Romans 10-11. Reading the whole unit (9-11) instead of one part in isolation makes it clear that Paul has corporate election in mind, NOT individual election.

    • I appreciate this comment. I have to note, however, that while Paul’s point includes corporate election (of Israel), it is not limited to such, as indicated in the references to Isaac, Jacob, and Pharaoh. But since the point is about election to service (i.e., to serving in God’s redemptive plan), the issue of corporate vs. individual election is irrelevant in Romans 9. I might add that even in the case of election to salvation, the fact that such election is grounded in God’s foreknowledge (Rom. 8:29) means that it is individual election and not corporate election.

  4. Hello Mr. Cottrell. The article is well written, but I don’t think it holds up under examination. Let me offer what I think is the most obvious example.

    The text says, “The older will serve the younger.” If it is election to service as your article indicates then who is the one serving in this text? Is it not Esau?

    So then if it is election to service that is in view here and Esau is the one that is serving then it stands to reason that from your hermeneutic that Esau and the Edomites must be the ones who are elect since it is he who is the one serving according to the text.

    However, we both know that is contrary with the entire teaching of Scripture. Not only the entirety of Scripture but here in this text as well. The one serving is the one God hates and the one being served is the one God loves. So how is it an election to service? Is it an election to God’s hatred? Should it instead be understood as an election to being served? If that is the case then how are we to understand Jesus and the Apostle’s teaching on serving and not being served?

    If I am understanding your article correctly it seems your view would throw the entire context upside down and would create further difficulties in other parts of Scripture if it is applied to it as you have presented it. I know that is not your intention but it seems to be the logical consequence when considered contextually.

    • Mel, I’m sorry that I do not have an opinion on this. I am too “old school,” stuck in the era of paper. I actually have Logos Bible Software’s level 5 collection online, but I never refer to it. I’m sure others can give better advice than I.

    • Caison, It appears that your reasoning is a bit backwards. Jacob is the one chosen to bear the promises of God (for service). An intertextual exegetical study will demonstrate that two nations were in their mother’s womb, and the person Esau never served the individual Jacob in his lifetime. Hence, Paul’s statement was being comprehended on a corporate level. Notwithstanding, the declaration of God’s love and hatred to the twins did not come forth until 500 years after their existence through Malachi’s prophecy.

      Overall, the idea that Paul could wish that he were accursed from Christ for his brethren (9:3), and His heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved (10:1), only validates that he did not believe that some were predestined to eternal reprobation, else he would be demonstrating a greater love than God, and would be praying outside of His divine will. Hence, contextually speaking, it is hard pressed to draw a doctrine of specific individual election from the passage in question.

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