Friday, November 6, 2015

Questions to ask as you approach Romans 9 (with a little help from recording artist Flame) - Answering Calvinist Proof-texts, Part 3

*All scripture quotations are from NASB, unless otherwise noted.

In his song “Context”, Calvinist recording artist Flame says:

“exegesis is the careful systematic
study of scripture for the Christian this should be a habit
but to discover the original intended meaning
of the author to his audience is exegeting”
“a text can never mean what it never meant before
to its original reader or author
so if you run into a difficult passage
and you know the Bible never contradicts itself
then turn the pages to a parallel passage
and just let the scriptures interpret itself”

I’ve used these quotes a number of times in Bible studies I’ve led, both as a Calvinist and later, to help new Christians understand what our first objective is as we come to a text.

As I've said before, Romans 9 was the passage that really led me into Calvinism, and later, the passage that held me there.

In this post I want to look at the two questions which challenged that understanding, and then at a third question which confirmed my new view:

(1) What was Paul's point?

(2) What did Paul’s 1st century audience think he meant?

(3) Are there parallel passages which could bolster our conclusion?

(1) What was Paul's point?

“but to discover the original intended meaning
of the author to his audience is exegeting”

The key which allowed me begin considering other interpretations was when I finally "arced" Romans 9 from beginning to end, rather than stopping around verse 23.

I wasn't alone in skipping over the last few verses of this chapter; in fact it seems to be a common problem among Calvinists. After considering verse 23 in his commentary on Romans, FF Bruce (who considered himself “an impenitent Augustinian and Calvinist” [1]) wrote:
It is a pity that in some schools of theological thought the doctrine of election has been formulated to an excessive degree on the basis of this preliminary state in Paul's present argument, without adequate account being taken of his further exposition of God's purpose in election at the conclusion of the argument (xi. 25-32). [2]

What immediately became clear to me as I arced was the relation of verses 30-33 to the preceding context. Verse 30 began as an inference (“what shall we say, then”) from Paul's thought throughout the rest of the chapter. 

Imagine you are reading an academic article, and you're really having trouble following the author.  You find yourself thinking, "What's your point?"  In this situation, you might well turn to the author's conclusion and find, "Ah ha, so that's what he's been getting at! That's what his argument has been moving towards".

If the author's conclusion contradicted what you had read in his preceding argument, you may rightly conclude that you had misunderstood what he had been saying, and you would re-read the preceding arguments to find out how they fit and build towards that conclusion. [3]

In Romans 9, Paul's conclusion is clear:

What shall we say then? That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, attained righteousness, even the righteousness which is by faith; but Israel, pursuing a law of righteousness, did not arrive at that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as though it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone, just as it is written,

Behold, I lay in Zion a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense,
And he who believes in Him will not be disappointed.” (30-33)
Paul is very clear regarding why some are saved while others are “separated from Christ” (v 3).  Those who are saved, “attained righteousness […] by faith” (v 31); those who are separated from Christ are separated because they pursued righteousness (or we might say, “pursued a right standing with God”) “as though it were by works” (v 32).

If instead Paul's argument had been, as the Calvinists claim, that "His promise gave expression to an 'electing purpose' (9:11) by which God aims to preserve his complete freedom in determining who will be the beneficiaries of his saving promises, who will be the 'Israel' within Israel (9:6b). His purpose is thus maintained by means of the predestination of individuals to their respective eternal destinies. [...] Within the context of Romans 9, this means that God maintains his sovereign 'purpose of election' by determining, before they are born, who will belong to the 'saved' among Israel",[4] Paul would have concluded and summarized his argument very differently. As another blogger noted, a Calvinist conclusion should read something like:

What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, a righteousness that is by faith unconditional election of individuals (with faith merely being evidence of an individual’s prior election); 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 had not been unconditionally and individually elected for salvation. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone, as it is written, “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense; and whoever is irresistibly caused to believes in him will not be put to shame.” Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved have always been vessels of mercy, otherwise there is no hope for them. [5]

In particular, we would be left wondering why Paul brought up faith at all, if, as John Piper suggests, “Neither the bad willing/running of ‘works’ nor the good willing/running of faith had any influence at all on God’s decision to show mercy”[6] and “‘willing and running’ cannot legitimately be limited in such a way that some willing, like that act of trusting Christ, does ultimately determine God’s bestowal of mercy, namely, the mercy of salvation”[7] (I would point out however, that to trust/have faith in/rely on/believe is not always a type or subset of “willing”; compare, for example, John 1 where “believe” (v12) can be contrasted with both “the will of flesh” and “the will of man” (v 13).  Likewise, on the broader phrase "willing and running", we know from the testimony of the Lord Jesus himself that "to believe in Him whom [God] has sent" is the one "work" that God does require (John 6:28-29).)

The burden of proof, then, is on the Calvinist to explain how Paul's argument fits with his conclusion (and not to stop the exegesis at verse 23, mid-sentence!).

(2) What did Paul’s 1st century audience think he meant?

“a text can never mean what it never meant before
to its original reader or author”

After I saw the conclusion in verses 30-33, I knew I had to re-examine the argument that had led Paul there.  As I considered, it struck me to wonder, “How would the Roman Christians have understood the phrase in verse 11, 'God’s purpose according to His choice' (or “God's purpose of election” ESVUK)?” Would they have understood Paul to mean some pre-temporal decree of certain individuals to salvation?

In the context, Paul seems to be talking about God's purpose in choosing Isaac and Abraham, and choosing Jacob to continue that purpose. So what was his purpose in choosing Abraham?

We find a hint back in chapter 4, where Paul also talks about Abraham and God's purpose; there with regard to circumcision.  He says:

The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised." (v 11-12)

This led me to look into the Old Testament, to find out if there are any explicit statements there about God's purpose in choosing Abraham.  In fact, we have a very clear statement, and one which fits very nicely with both Romans 4 and Romans 9, in Genesis 18:17-19 (note also, that Paul actually quotes from this very same chapter in Romans 9:9!) bold mine:

The Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do,  since Abraham will surely become a great and mighty nation, and in him all the nations of the earth will be blessed? For I have chosen him, so that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice, so that the Lord may bring upon Abraham what He has spoken about him.

And in fact, we can see the fulfilment of this–that through Jesus all nations are blessed–stated in Romans 9:4, “and from whom is the Christ according to the flesh, who is over all, God blessed forever.” And in verses 24-26:

even us, whom He also called, not from among Jews only, but also from among Gentiles. As He says also in Hosea, “I will call those who were not My people, ‘My people,’ And her who was not beloved, ‘beloved.’”

And it shall be that in the place where it was said to them, ‘you are not My people,’ There they shall be called sons of the living God.”

I had to conclude, then, that the Roman Christians, fluent in the Old Testament, would have understood the choice/election of Abraham in verse 11 to be a reference to God continuing through Jacob and not Esau, his purpose to bless all nations through the Messiah.  This choice of Jacob was not based on anything Jacob had done, but was purely of God’s sovereign choice.  It had nothing to do with Jacob’s own eternal state, which would still be determined by his faith in God to bring about what He had promised, just as it was for Abraham (Rom 4:21).
As NT Wright put it:

This was never an abstract ‘doctrine of predestination’, attempting to plumb the mysteries of why some people (in general, without reference to Israel) hear and believe the gospel and others do not. Paul never encourages speculation of that sort. Rather, it was a way of saying, very specifically, that the fact of Israel’s election (starting with the choice and call of Abraham) had always been there to deal with the sin of the world; that Israel’s election had always involved Israel being narrowed down, not just to Isaac and then to Jacob, but to a hypoleimma, a ‘remnant’, a ‘seed’; and that this ‘remnant’ itself would be narrowed down to a single point, to the Messiah himself, who would himself be ‘cast away’ so that the world might be redeemed. [8]

(3) Are there parallel passages which could bolster these conclusions?

“so if you run into a difficult passage
and you know the Bible never contradicts itself
then turn the pages to a parallel passage
and just let the scriptures interpret itself”

I’ve mentioned a few parallels already, so here I will dig into verses 19-23:

You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?” On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, “Why did you make me like this,” will it? Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for common use? What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction? And He did so to make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory

When I first turned from Calvinism and began to email back and forth with one of my more studied Calvinist friends, I offered my alternative interpretation of these verses, to which he responded, “we need to walk through this. I cannot understand this text in any other way than to understand that God has indeed predestined before the foundations of the world that there would be vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, for His own glory.

First, I had to point out to him the leaps my friend had made:
(1) There is no mention of "before the foundations of the world" anywhere in the passage; and
(2) He had moved from “God… endured with much patience” to “God … predestined … vessels of wrath … for destruction, for His own glory.

Next, I questioned how he understood a few other New Testament texts which seemed to me to carry the same idea: Ephesians 2, Romans 2:4-5, 2 Peter 3:9 and 2 Tim 2:20-21.

In Ephesians 2:3-5 we see that we “were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. But God, being rich in mercy […] made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)” – in other words, we were vessels of wrath but became vessels of mercy.

In Romans 2:4-5, we see that God’s patience is meant to turn vessels of wrath into vessels of mercy; those who refuse to repent are preparing themselves for destruction:

Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance? But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God

Likewise in 2 Peter 3:9, “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.”

And 2 Tim 2:20-21, perhaps the clearest of all, says:

Now in a large house there are not only gold and silver vessels, but also vessels of wood and of earthenware, and some to honor and some to dishonor. Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from these things, he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified, useful to the Master, prepared for every good work.

As Calvinist Bill MacDonald wrote, against the common Calvinist view, "God does not prepare vessels of wrath for destruction, but he does prepare vessels of mercy for glory".[9]

FF Bruce takes much the same approach:

While Paul will allow no questioning of God's right to do what He will with His own, he lets his emphasis fall, not on God's wrath towards the reprobate, but rather the postponement of His wrath against men who have long since become ripe for destruction.  As has been pointed out earlier (2:4), the mercy and forbearance of God are intended  to afford men time for repentance; if, instead, they harden their hearts yet more, as Pharaoh did after repeated respites, they are simply storing up an increasing weight of retribution for themselves against the day of requital. [10]

Jeremiah 18, where Paul's illustration seems to have originated, also confirms this.  There, the Prophet Jeremiah watches a potter as "the vessel that he was making of clay was spoiled in the hand of the potter; so he remade it into another vessel, as it pleased the potter to make" (v 4).  The Lord tells the Prophet:
“Can I not, O house of Israel, deal with you as this potter does?” declares the Lord. “Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in My hand, O house of Israel. At one moment I might speak concerning a nation or concerning a kingdom to uproot, to pull down, or to destroy it; if that nation against which I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent concerning the calamity I planned to bring on it. Or at another moment I might speak concerning a nation or concerning a kingdom to build up or to plant it;  if it does evil in My sight by not obeying My voice, then I will think better of the good with which I had promised to bless it. So now then, speak to the men of Judah and against the inhabitants of Jerusalem saying, ‘Thus says the Lord, “Behold, I am fashioning calamity against you and devising a plan against you. Oh turn back, each of you from his evil way, and reform your ways and your deeds.”’ But they will say, ‘It’s hopeless! For we are going to follow our own plans, and each of us will act according to the stubbornness of his evil heart.’ (v 6-12)
If a vessel of wrath, prepared for destruction, "turns from its evil" it becomes a vessel of mercy.  And like in 2 Peter 3, God longs for it to be so: “Behold, I am fashioning calamity against you and devising a plan against you. Oh turn back, each of you from his evil way, and reform your ways and your deeds.” (v 11, and cf Romans 11:20 & 23)
[1] FF Bruce, "Original Forward and Comments", in Paul Marston & Roger Forster, God's Strategy in Human History. (you can see his comments Google Preview here).
[2] FF Bruce, The Epistle of Paul to the Romans, p 190 [Bruce].  In John Piper's book, The Justification of God, which is generally considered the leading Calvinist exposition of Romans 9, he too stops his examination at verse 23.
[3] Dr Greg Boyd, in his excellent sermon on Romans 9, similarly argues that Paul's conclusion does not fit the Calvinist interpretation.
[4] John Piper, The Justification of God at 218 [Piper].
[5] Kingswood Hart, “New Calvinist Bible – Romans 8-11” (March 27, 2014), link.
[6] Piper supra note 3 at 153.  
[7] Ibid at 157.  However, in the next sentence, Piper correctly points out, “Faith is indeed a sine qua non of Salvation; Rom 9:16, therefore, necessarily implies that the act of faith is ultimately owing to the prevenient grace of God.” But then gets around this by stating, “But this is a theological inference, however true, beyond Paul’s explicit concern here. There is no reference at all to faith in Rom 9 until verse 30.”
[8] NT Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God. As quoted by Michael F Bird, “N.T. Wright on Election in PFG” (October 18, 2013), link.
[9] William MacDonald, Believer’s Bible Commentary, p 1719.
[10] Bruce supra note 2.


  1. I was wondering if I could save this article to my hard drive?

    1. No worries, you can save it if you'd like.


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