Romans 9 and Unconditional Election

David Bovenmyer’s seminar notes, GCC Pastor’s Conference—June 19, 2012

In the time I have allotted, I won’t be able to go through the chapter verse by verse, but must confine myself to giving three overall assumptions and then some observations on the passage. So I’ll dive right in.

Assumption #1: Paul’s purpose in this passage was not to address the questions and issues that surfaced in the church during the middle ages.

This may seem too obvious to mention, but, frankly, it’s all too easy for us to have our minds filled with the issues of our day or to have our thinking colored by our theological tradition or by the debates throughout the history of the church, and never really discern the issues and questions that the writers of scripture were addressing. We must diligently strive to look at Romans 9-11 not through our own lenses, or the lenses of our tradition, or the lenses of the reformation, but through Paul and his reader’s lenses. Now, that doesn’t mean that these chapters have nothing to say about the issues of today or those debated throughout church history. Of course they do.  But we must realize that any contribution to those later questions is subordinate to a different purpose—Paul’s purpose of answering the issues and questions of his day.

Assumption # 2: Paul is a great and careful theologian who is not simply proof-texting.

Careful study of Paul’s use of the Old Testament will show that he has more regard for the Old Testament author’s original intent than might be apparent at first glance. What do you think? Is it more likely that Paul was sloppy in his use of the Old Testament, pulling verses out of their original context to prove his point, or is it more likely that Paul was a learned and brilliant theologian, drawing on themes and concepts present in these verses and their contexts? Certainly it must be the latter for the man that had spent his entire upbringing and indeed his entire life absorbed in the Old Testament. This was the man whom Festus chided “Paul, your great learning has driven you mad” when he spoke of the resurrection. So, we must respect Paul as a theologian and look back to the original passages and see what themes and theological concepts Paul is drawing upon.

Assumption # 3: The Jews of Paul’s day held two convictions that had to be countered before they would believe in Christ.

The first is that since they were God’s chosen people, the seed of Abraham, and the inheritors of the promises, they would automatically inherit the kingdom of God and eternal life—simply because of God’s gracious choice of their nation (Matthew 3:9, Luke 3:8; John 8:33, 39, Galatians 3:16, Romans 3:5-8; 9:7).

Their second conviction was that they, as God’s chosen nation, achieved acceptance and righteousness before God through keeping the Law of Moses, the Torah—which they also viewed as God’s gracious gift to their nation. But this second conviction also included a lens—one provided by the traditions of the elders and the writings of the Rabbis. This lens caused them to approach the Torah in a defective way and to attempt to achieve righteousness through their own good works, rather than by faith in God’s grace and mercy.

Now, since Israel as a whole had rejected Jesus as the Messiah, these two Jewish convictions presented Paul with a significant challenge. If they were true, then either Jesus was, indeed, the Messiah and God’s promises to Israel had failed (since they had not believed in Him and were thereby rejected). Or if God’s election of Israel held, then Jesus was an imposter. So, Israel’s rejection of Jesus presented a serious theological quandary that must be addressed—one that, if not addressed, would either falsify the gospel or undermine the faithfulness of God.  Either way, all was lost. This leads to my first observation:

Overall observation # 1: In Verse 6 Paul states his overall purpose for chapters 9-11.

“But it is not as though the Word of God has failed…” Paul’s purpose throughout these chapters is to solve the dilemma we have seen, defending God’s faithfulness to Israel and to His promises. This he does brilliantly, proving that God’s rejection of the majority of Israelites was totally consistent with God’s promises and in line with Israel’s history and that the present state of affairs was specifically foretold by God.

Overall observation # 2 “Mercy” is a keyword in the chapters.

The Greek word translated “mercy” is used eleven times in the book of Romans and nine of them are in chapters 9-11. Paul’s treatise begins with a declaration that God is free to be merciful to whomever He desires and ends with the statement that God has consigned all men over to disobedience so that He might have mercy on all. Mercy seems to be a key word and a focus of the passage.

Overall observation # 3: All three chapters form a tight theological argument and must be taken together

If we miss the scriptural and theological concepts that Paul weaves throughout the three chapters as a whole, we are bound to misinterpret key portions. So let’s step back and look at an overview:

Chapter 9:1-29 —In rejecting the nation of Israel as a whole, God has not been unfaithful or unrighteous, because acceptance as a child of God does not depend upon physical descent from Abraham or depend on zeal for God or good works, but upon God’s free mercy alone.

Chapter 9:30-10:13 —God has rejected Israel as a whole because they trusted in their chosen status, trusted in their ability to keep the Torah, and rejected the Messiah and God’s righteousness through faith in the Messiah. But salvation is through faith in the Messiah for Jews and Gentiles, as the Torah itself shows.

Chapter 10:14-21 — Israel has no excuse since they heard and understood the gospel and because God’s rejection of Israel in favor of the Gentiles was clearly foretold. Rather than God’s Word failing, God’s warnings to Israel and promises to the Gentiles have been and are being fulfilled.

Chapter 11:1-32 — God’s rejection of Israel is only partial and temporary, and it has and will result in the salvation of the world and, in the consummation, of the nation of Israel as a whole.  God’s purposes for and promises to Israel have not failed now and will be fully fulfilled in the future.

Observations on verses 9:6-13.

“But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but ‘Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.’ ”

Paul here begins his attack on the first of the Jew’s false convictions.  He argues that not every physical descendant of Israel is individually a child of Abraham and partaker of the promise. He does this by showing that Israel’s national election was not based on physical descent. He points out that Ishmael and his descendants were “children of the flesh” (physical descendants) but not “children of the promise.” He does the same with Jacob and Esau, twins of the same father and mother—yet God said that the older, the culturally pre-eminent one, would be subservient to the younger, proving this by quoting from Malachi 1:2-3, “Jacob I loved and Esau I hated.”

Now, it is apparent that up to this point, Paul has been addressing Israel’s election as a nation, not the individual election to salvation or damnation of the people of whom he speaks. The scripture is clear that God had mercy on Ishmael as an individual and blessed him even though he and his descendants were not part of the covenant promise (Genesis 17:20-21). And concerning Esau as an individual, it was never true that he, the older, ever served Jacob, the younger. Finally the quote from Malachi looks back from 1,200 years after the individuals had died, reflecting on God’s special love for Israel as a nation and relative hatred of the descendants of Esau, the Edomites.

But it is also apparent that Paul’s purpose in discussing Israel’s national election is to prove that God’s election is not based on physical descent. Since this is so, he argues that Jews cannot individually consider themselves to be “children of Abraham” and “children of God” simply because they are descendants of Jacob. He says that not all Israel—the elect nation—are Israel. They will not automatically inherit the kingdom of God and eternal life just because they are physical descendants of Israel. In a brilliant reversal, Paul uses Israel’s own special election as a nation to prove that they cannot trust that they are individually elected by God because of physical descendant.

But notice also verse 11: “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.” In this statement, Paul begins whacking away at his countrymen’s second false conception—that acceptance by God was though their own self-righteousness in keeping the Torah. He points out that Jacob’s election and Esau’s rejection were not based on their works, but solely on God’s electing purpose. So, in a devastating argument, Paul shows that Israel’s own national election proves that they, as individuals, cannot stand on their physical descent or their self-righteousness.

Observations on verses 14-23

This leads to the question, “Is there injustice on God’s part? What injustice is Paul referring to? Injustice toward Esau? Yes, but Jews wouldn’t have been bothered by that choice. If we keep in mind the overall context, the ultimate question is whether God has been unjust to Israel.

In answer, Paul presents two parallel statements of God, proving that neither Esau’s rejection in the past nor Israel’s in the present was unjust. The first of God’s statements is to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” Mercy, by its very nature is not earned or deserved, but is freely granted by the giver of mercy. So God is absolutely free in regard to whom He shows mercy. There is no unrighteousness in withholding mercy.

Where did God speak this word to Moses? It was in the wilderness, where God had pledged His love to Israel and where you would think that all Israelites were entitled to God’s favor (Exodus 33:19). Yet, not so. God reserves the right to have mercy as He chooses. Again, their membership in the elect nation did not guarantee God’s mercy.

Now, I think we should notice that God is speaking about the freedom of His mercy, not of an unqualified will behind His mercy. These words do not suggest that God’s freedom to show mercy is an absolute freedom within God to be merciful or to be uncaring. God’s mercy is free in regard to anything in man, yet His choices are not free in regard to His own benevolent, merciful nature. So these words give no encouragement to the notion that there is behind God’s mercy a will of God that is different from His merciful will.

What is Paul’s conclusion from God’s words to Moses? “So, then it does not depend on him who runs or on him who wills, but on God who has mercy.” Again, no one can earn or deserve mercy, no matter how zealous they are for God or how many good works they do.

The second of God’s statements is 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.” Now, God did not say, “For this reason I created you.” “Raised you up” might mean that God raised him up as the ruler of Egypt.” In its context in Exodus 9, the phrase seems to mean “for this reason I have let you remain”; for just before this, God had said that by this time He could easily have wiped Pharaoh from the face of the earth.

But He let him remain; for what reason? To show God’s power and that God’s name would be proclaimed in all the earth. And indeed this happened, resulting in many people coming to God. We read about the “mixed multitude” (Exodus 12:38) that went up with the Israelites from Egypt. They were perhaps Egyptians who were persuaded to fear the Lord (Exodus 9:20-21). Or perhaps they were other oppressed peoples within Egypt. Whoever they were, there was a multitude of them in Israel’s midst. Rahab the Harlot (Joshua 2:9-11) was one who believed in God partly because she heard of what God had done in Egypt, and she reported that the entire land knew of these things, including the Gibeonites (Joshua 9:24), who were also spared. Even centuries later, in Samuel’s day, the Philistines were aware of what God did in Egypt (1 Samuel 4:8).

What is Paul’s conclusion in regard to God’s word to Pharaoh? “God has mercy on whomever He wills and hardens whomever He wills.” Now, it’s important to remember what happened with Pharaoh.  Before anything happened, God knew Pharaoh’s heart and told Moses that Pharaoh would not let the Israelites go unless compelled by a mighty hand (Exodus 3:19).  Secondly, Pharaoh hardened his own heart several times before God hardened it (Exodus 7:13; 7:22; 8:15, 19, 32; 9:7).

Now, the scripture here and in other places speaks of God hardening people’s hearts. Such hardening is judicial—a sort of pre-judgment-day judgment. If God has the right on the judgment day to say, “It’s time. You didn’t love or serve Me and now it’s time for judgment,” then He also has the right to make that judgment prior to the judgment day: “You have rebelled against Me and not responded to My love and mercy. It’s time, I’m going to harden your heart.”

So, God uses and further hardens a cruel, oppressive, and evil man to reveal Himself to the world, resulting in many people coming to Him. Both the one who humbly and faithfully serves God (Moses) and the one who cruelly and stubbornly opposes Him (Pharaoh) end up serving God’s purpose of proclaiming His name to the world.

Next, Paul brings up another objection “Why does He still find fault, for who resists His will?  It’s obvious that when God chooses to have mercy or to harden, no one has the power to resist it.

But what “will” is Paul referring to? Is it every aspect of God’s will? Is Paul presenting a doctrine of total theological determinism, saying that no one is ever able to do anything contrary to God’s will?  Of course, this cannot be, for the scripture everywhere indicates that men do resist His will, successfully rebelling and sinning against Him all the time. No, the will that Paul has in mind is the “will” in the previous verse—God’s choice concerning how He dispenses His mercy. That will is, indeed, totally free, independent of any human choice and can never be resisted by anyone. The following verses confirm this more limited view of God’s will, speaking of how God “endures” with “patience” people who are obviously rebelling against His will. So, Paul is not arguing, here, that all human decisions, both good and evil, are caused and determined by God. Rather, He is arguing the God’s decisions concerning His mercy are totally free and not determined by good works or by physical descent.

Moving on to verse 20 we see that Paul says, “Who are you, O man, to answer back to God?” Paul asserts that we, as creatures, don’t have a right to argue with our Creator.  The Creator, like the potter, has the right to make from the same lump of clay one vessel for honorable use and one for common use.

Now, as with any analogy, we need to be careful not to think that the analogy fits reality in every single detail. Paul is not saying that men are like senseless clay and have no ability to reason or choose or resist God’s will. Neither does Paul say that God creates some people with the purpose of making them evil, nor does He say that God turns some men toward evil because of some secret, unexplained, and mysterious will opposite of His revealed will. Again, we must remember the context. Paul is using this analogy in relation to God’s freedom to show mercy—to have mercy on one (like Moses) and harden another (like Pharaoh).

The next two verses further explain this. “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, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory.

The first thing to note is that Paul’s first use of “prepared” is different from the second. The vessels of wrath are prepared, but Paul doesn’t indicate when or by whom. Perhaps they are even partly shaped and molded for destruction by themselves. The second use of “prepared” is different. The vessels of mercy are prepared by God, in advance, for glory.

Second, having read the rest of Romans and especially Romans 2:4, we would assume that when God endures men with patience, He does so in connection with His kindness and intention to lead those that He so endures to repentance.

Third, although these are called “children of wrath,” so are believers prior to their conversion in Ephesians 2:3. Nothing in this verse shows that they must remain children of wrath.

Fourth, although they are prepared or fitted for destruction, it does not say whether or not these vessels will actually be destroyed. Although fit for destruction, some may repent and be saved, as was Paul’s hope and prayer (in 10:1) for his countrymen (to whom his vessel analogy certainly alludes) and his goal in 11:13-14 when he hoped to make some of them jealous and save some.

Finally, let’s look more closely at the structure of this sentence. The main verb is “endured” and is surrounded by three statements of purpose that show why God endures these vessels of wrath: 1) He desired to show His wrath, 2) He desired to make His power known, and 3) He endured them “in order to make known the riches of His glory for vessels of mercy.” It seems clear that the third purpose is primary because of its place in the sentence and because it is proceeded by the words “in order to.”

But notice how closely this parallels what God said to Pharaoh: “That I might show my power and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” God patiently endured Pharaoh and refrained from destroying him in order to proclaim His name to the whole world so as to have mercy on thousands of others. Is this so horrible that God would use a cruel, hardened tyrant to reveal Himself to the world with the goal of having mercy on thousands? In what way is that unjust? God doesn’t owe mercy to any. Perhaps He even knows that some vessels of wrath would not repent no matter how much patience, grace, mercy, and knowledge He might give them.

Paul does not tell us, here, the reasons why God has mercy on some and not others. But He does tell us that His overall goal in putting up with and even hardening some is to have mercy on others. Then he breaks out in exclamation in verse 24: “even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles.

Observations on verses 24-29

Paul goes on to quote a verse from Hosea, proving that Gentiles were to be included in God’s people, and he then quotes several portions of Isaiah, showing that God’s rejection of Israel should not surprise us, since it was predicted that “only a remnant of them will be saved.” Indeed things would get so bad in Israel that if God had not graciously left a few offspring, Israel would have been utterly annihilated like Sodom and Gomorrah.

So, Paul returns to His first assertion, showing not only that individual Israelites were not automatically elect, but that God had predicted there would be a time when the vast majority of Israelites would be rejected.

Observations on verses 30-ff

The words “What shall we say” introduce a conclusion, summarizing the outcome of what Paul has been saying so far. “That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, a righteousness that is by faith; but that Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone, (Romans 9:30–32, ESV)

Here Paul declares the reason that Israel was rejected. In their national pride, they thought they could achieve righteousness by their good works, works of the Torah, and saw no need for a suffering Messiah to die for their sins. Here we have Paul’s answer to the apparent injustice of God, who elected and had mercy on Gentiles—wicked, godless, immoral, heathen, idolaters—and rejected and even hardened His own chosen people whom Paul testifies were pursuing righteousness and were zealous for God (10:2).  Many had the Torah memorized. Their deeds of devotion to God were meticulous and even legendary, tithing garden herbs and straining out every little gnat they could find in their behavior. Yet God rejected them and chose godless idolaters.

Was this unjust of God? No, because God’s election is not based on physical descent. No, because election does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs. No, because God is absolutely free to choose on whom He will have mercy. No, because God has the right even to further harden wicked rebels and use them to display His glory so that the whole world, not just Israel, could receive His mercy.

Overall observation #4: Romans 9 lays the theological groundwork for chapters 10-11

Looking at the entirety of Romans 9-11, we see that in chapter 9 Paul lays the theological foundation for the rest of his defense and particularly for his final conclusions in chapter 11. There he argues that God has not utterly rejected His people.  As was true at times in Israel’s past, there remains a remnant who are faithful. Paul himself is an Israelite. Any Israelite can believe in the Messiah, be accepted, and be grafted into the root of the true Israel (11:23).

Yet the bulk of Israel rejected the Messiah. They had become the vessels of wrath, fit for destruction. And indeed they were—crucifying their Messiah, doing all that they could to oppose the gospel and the kingdom of God, trying to kill Paul, some even to the point of binding themselves with a solemn oath not to eat or drink until they had done so (Acts 23: 21). They had become like Pharaoh. God had hardened most of them as Paul says in 11:25: “…a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.

Yet just as God hardened Pharaoh and endured vessels of wrath in order to proclaim His name and extend His mercy to others, so God is putting up with and using these stubborn, proud, unbelieving Israelites to bring His mercy upon the Gentiles. In Romans 11:11 Paul says: …through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles…. And in Romans 11:15: “…their rejection means the reconciliation of the world….

Now, Paul does not explain how their rejection meant reconciliation to the world. Perhaps because of Israel’s unbelief, God opened the door of salvation to the Gentiles when he otherwise would not have (see Luke 14:15-24). Or even more powerfully, perhaps he is thinking of how the Jews rejected Jesus and put Him to death—thus opening up salvation to all, both Jew and Gentile.

So in chapter 9, Paul establishes the theological justification for God’s treatment of His people. In chapter 10, He shows why they were rejected. And in chapter 11:20-32, He talks of his great hope. Now that they have been humbled and have become vessels of wrath fit for destruction and no longer able to boast in their own goodness—now that their pride and stubbornness have been fully exposed, Paul hoped that God’s acceptance of the Gentiles would move some of them to jealousy and save some. He also makes it clear that at the end of the age, after the fullness of the Gentiles has come in, all Israel as a nation will be saved and God’s promises to national Israel fully fulfilled.

Then he concludes with a final, summarizing statement in 11:32: “For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all.” God has worked in such a way that absolutely no one will ever become right with Him through their own goodness and good works—but only through His mercy. He even consigns or “shuts up” whole groups of men (like the Jews in their prideful stubbornness) to make their rebellion more obvious, with the goal that they will see their sinfulness and their lack of relationship with Him, humble themselves,  and turn to Him for mercy.

Overall observation # 5: Thoughts on how do these chapters relate to later issues in church history

Now that we’ve looked at the passage, trying to emphasize the issues and concerns of Paul and his readers, I would like to ask: “What does this passage have to say about some of the issues that arose in the later history of the church?”  I only have time for a few brief comments.

First, these chapters strongly defend God’s freedom to show mercy on whomever He has mercy—even rejecting zealous, God-seeking, law-keeping Jews and electing godless, lawbreaking, heathen Gentiles.  Yet nothing in them points to an unqualified will of God behind God’s mercy or devoid of His mercy. Nor do the chapters mention anything concerning a sovereign election of individuals by God before the foundation of the world, some to be saved and some to be damned.

Second, Paul makes it clear in these chapters, as he has already done previously in Romans, that those who believe in Jesus as the Christ, whether Jew or Gentile, are justified and the true descendants of Abraham and inheritors of the promises. Most Jews were rejected because, in their self-righteous pride, they rejected Jesus as the Savior/Messiah (Romans 9:30-10:4 & 11:20). Christian Gentiles were accepted because they believed in Jesus (Romans 11:20). So, the reason for God’s rejection of the Jews and acceptance of believing Gentiles is not hidden in some mysterious, seemingly arbitrary, pre-creation decree of God, but is clearly communicated to us by Paul.

Third, other than a pre-judgment-day judicial hardening of some people, nothing in these chapters contradicts what Paul states elsewhere that God “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). In other words, nothing in the passage says that God doesn’t do everything that He can in His love, wisdom, holiness, and justice to save as many of His lost creatures as possible. And even His hardening of some who simply will not believe is with the goal of having mercy on others who will.

Finally, although it may be suggested, nothing in these chapters conclusively proves that individual election is entirely unconditional. Certainly Paul declares that God’s election and mercy are unmerited, unearned, and undeserved, and that no one—zealous, pursuing descendant of Abraham or indifferent, godless Gentile—has any claim on the mercy of God.  Yet it falls short of proving that God’s election of individuals is entirely unconditional and leaves the possibility that just as salvation and justification are conditioned on humility, repentance, and faith, so God’s election of individuals might be conditioned in a similar way—perhaps upon some measure of a person’s willingness to respond to the drawing and working of God. After all, Paul unabashedly states that this is why so many Gentiles were accepted and so many Jews rejected—the Gentiles acknowledged their sinfulness, humbled themselves and believed in Jesus, the suffering, reconciling Messiah, while the Jews remained proud, trusted in their national election and good works, and rejected Him.


So, we see that Romans 9-11 was not written to address the debate between Augustine and Pelagius or between Arminius and Calvin’s followers. The great task before Paul was to defend God’s faithfulness to His promises to Israel, and to defend His righteousness in rejecting his own, chosen, zealous, righteousness-seeking people while choosing and accepting godless, indifferent, idolatrous heathen. As the potter, God has every right to choose to have mercy on whomever He desires on whatever basis He desires.  And He has chosen to have mercy on those who will humble themselves, forsake their hopes in their own self-righteousness, and trust in His mercy as they believe in His Son, Jesus.

Response to the other views:

I greatly appreciated each of the other presentations and found myself agreeing with large portions of each.  It seemed to me that our goals with the seminar were not identical; Jonathan and I concentrated more on the specifics of Romans 9 and Kurt and John concentrated a bit more on the broader issues of the Calvinist/Arminian debate.  At some point I would enjoy presenting some of my ideas on these broader issues as well, if the Lord should so lead.  Some of my views, including whether freely-chosen faith is a work, can be found at

I appreciated Kurt’s desire to balance truth and grace and share his ambition to come forth with both. I share John’s passion to hold to the normal interpretation of all of scripture, even when this appears to present a contradiction between such things as God’s sovereignty and love or between His sovereignty and human choice. And I appreciated Jonathan’s tenacious approach to viewing scripture through the lens of its authors and original readers, and not through the lens of later theological questions and debates in the history of the church—an approach that I wholeheartedly embrace.

I pray that God will use this seminar to challenge our thinking, point us more fervently to His word, and bring greater love, respect, and unity to the Great Commission movement.


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