That the Bible teaches the doctrine of election/predestination (henceforth, election) is not at issue for the Christian. All Christians believe in election. After all, it is in the Bible! The question is not, Does the Bible teach election? but, What does election mean?
There are two primary positions with regard to the doctrine of election:
Conditional Election: God’s election is based on the foreseen faith of the individual. God “elects” people because they first choose him. (There are other variations, but the essence is the same.)
Unconditional Election: God’s election is not based on anything in the individual, but on God’s mysterious sovereign choice. This choice is not without reason but is unconditioned with regard to any foreseen goodness in the elect.
Although I understand the sting that unconditional election brings, I am a very strong advocate of unconditional election. This is not necessarily because I believe it is the understanding that I am most comfortable with or because I think it creates that least amount of problems, but because I believe it is what the Scripture teaches. I try to follow my own dictum, the palatability of a doctrine does not determine its veracity.
Of all the passages that teach unconditional election, there are a few that take priority. And there is one that stands out more than any. While I can see and understand how people might interpret other “election” passages differently, this one is one that I simply cannot explain outside of a Calvinist worldview–Romans 9. I believe that the plain reading of this passage tells us that Paul believed in what is to most a radical doctrine that seems both bizarre and unfair.
Here is the passage:
Romans 9:6-24: It is not as though God’s word had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. 7 Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children. On the contrary, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” 8 In other words, it is not the natural children who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring. 9 For this was how the promise was stated: “At the appointed time I will return, and Sarah will have a son.”10 Not only that, but Rebekah’s children had one and the same father, our father Isaac. 11 Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad—in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: 12 not by works but by him who calls—she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” 13 Just as it is written: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”
14 What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! 15 For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” 16 It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy. 17 For the Scripture says to Pharaoh: “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” 18 Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.
19 One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?” 20 But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’ ” 21 Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?
22 What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction? 23 What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory— 24 even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles?
We must understand some contextual background here. In Romans 9, Paul is defending the security of a believer in God’s love that was put forth in Romans 8. Remember, he ended that chapter by saying that there was nothing that could separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
Romans 8:38-39: For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
That is an incredible statement that Paul seeks to defend. Most certainly he had been in this situation before. Try to imagine. In Ephesus, teaching on the security of the believer, Paul makes the same proposition: “Nothing can separate you from God’s electing love in Christ Jesus.” Someone in the audience raises their hand and says, “Paul, this is great and all, but I have a problem.” “What is it?” Paul responds. “Well you say that the elect are secure in God, right?” “That is right” Paul says. “Well, what about Israel? Weren’t they God’s elect? Weren’t they promised security as well? What happened to them? They don’t seem to be following God right now? If their election is the same as my election, my election does not seem too secure.”
It was a good objection and needed to be responded to. Paul does so in Romans 9-11. This is what this section is all about: defending the righteousness and integrity of God. Notice, Paul begins 9 by saying, “But it is not as though the word of God has failed” (Rom. 9:6). Why would he need to say this unless there are those who might be tempted to question the integrity of God’s word? He wants to show that the word of God has not failed with Israel and it will not fail with the Church. Notice as well that Paul ends this section by reinforcing the security claims of Romans 8, “For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Rom. 11:29). So the entire section is about security. It is in defense of God. It is in defense of His claim that we cannot be separated from His love in the face of what seems to be evidence to the contrary—the current state of the nation of Israel.
Paul’s Defense of God’s Integrity with Regard to Israel
Paul’s explanation for the apparent failure of God’s electing love with Israel is right to the point. He explains that God’s election of Israel, with regards to ultimate salvation as he has been explaining it, was not of the entire nation without exception. In fact, it was always only a select few—a remnant—that were the true elect of God. It was an elect within an elect that were really elect. He illustrates this historically by referring to Jacob and Esau (Rom. 9:10-13). Even though they were both from Israel, only one was chosen. Therefore, not all of Israel is elect. He later illustrates this by referring to the elect within Israel at the time of Elijah (Rom. 11:2-4). The argument again is the same. Not all of Israel could be considered among the true Israel. He also illustrates this in a contemporary way by saying that he himself is an Israelite and he has not been abandoned (Rom. 11:1, 5). This is enough to show that the security of God’s love and saving purpose is for those that are truly elect. Key point: God has not broken His word in the past with Israel, and will not do so in the future with the church. The gifts and calling of God are irrevocable.
Some Further Objections
Once again, this brings up another objection that Paul has most certainly heard through the years of teaching. Imagine this Ephesian once again hesitantly raising his hand saying, “Okay Paul. Forgive me, but now I have another question. If this is true, that God elects some individuals and not others as was the case with Jacob and Esau, this seems very unfair. Why does God still find fault? Who resists His will?”
Now at this point we must realize the significance of this question with regards to the Calvinism/Arminianism (unconditional election/conditional election) debate. Remember, this is the same question that we have when we first read this. When Paul says, “So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires” (Rom. 9:18), we are taken aback. We think to ourselves the same as Paul’s imaginary objector. How can God hold someone accountable for making this choice when it is only God’s election that can cause them to do otherwise? It is a good question. One that I often ask myself. But we must realize this: the question itself helps us to understand that we are following Paul correctly. If you don’t empathize with the objection, then you have misunderstood Paul. But if we do understand how such a question could arise out of Paul’s seemingly radical comments, it means that we are interpreting Paul correctly.
Now, when the objector says, “How can God still find fault, for who resists His will?”, if the Arminian position of conditional election were correct (that God simply looks ahead into the future and has decided to elect all who trust in Christ), there is really no problem at all. Paul just needs to calm the objector down by explaining how he has misunderstood the argument. If the Arminian position were correct, this is how we would expect the diatribe to proceed:
Objector: “If this is true, why does God still find fault in people. Who can resist His will?”
Paul: “Oh, you have misunderstood me. You think that I am saying that God’s will is the ultimate cause of our salvation, not ours. Let me clarify. God’s election is not based upon His sovereign unconditional decree, but upon your will to choose Him. Therefore, He finds fault in people who do not choose Him by their own natural freedom. Doesn’t this make perfect sense?”
Objector: “Oh, yes, it does. I feel much better. But you need to teach more clearly in the future. I thought you were saying something radically different.”
But of course this is not the direction the conversation goes. In fact, it gets stronger and more shocking. Notice, Paul did not have a definite answer to the objector’s question. He confirms that the question assumes the right presupposition (unconditional election) by His response. “On the contrary, who are you to answer back to God oh man. Will the thing molded say to the molder why have you made me in such a way? . . . ” There is no need for such a response if conditional election is in view! It is only under the supposition of unconditional election that this makes sense. I could see the objector cowering in the fierceness of the response. He is simply doing the same thing that I would do and have done upon reading this passage. The response let’s us know that while we don’t have the answer we were looking for, the presupposition, unconditional election, is indeed what Paul is teaching. There is no other way to take it in my opinion.
What a fearful thing. What an awesome thing. What a confusing thing. What a terrible thing. What a wonderful thing.
In sum, I believe that Romans is inspired. I believe that Romans should be included in the canon. I cannot approach this passage from any other hermeneutic than an authorial intent. It seems to be the case that the intent of Paul was to say that God unconditionally elects some people to salvation and not others. This is the Calvinist’s doctrine of Predestination.
As difficult as this doctrine may be for some, we simply don’t have the option of flying in the face of the argument simply because we don’t like it. I, personally, have come to a place where I understand and respect this doctrine. I do have a lot of questions for God (like why didn’t you elect everyone?), but I recognize that if God did not elect anyone, no one would ever come to him. I also recognize the many questions that arise from this such as If unconditional election is true, why evangelize? But the mere presence of questions or difficulties does not alleviate the truth from its burden to be. Our best posture before God upon learning of such truths is to stand with our hand over our mouth and the gavel at a distance.
While there are others whom I respect very much who do not follow me in a belief in unconditional election (such as fellow blogger Paul Copan), I have never been able to see much validity in any other interpretation of this passage. It is, to me, too clear.