In yesterday’s post, I summarized the deterministic interpretation of Romans 9 and offered the first argument against it. In this post I offer the second and third of six arguments that reveal that there is something else going on in Romans 9.
Argument #2: Has God Broken Covenant?
The deterministic interpretation of Romans 9 assumes that Paul is concerned with individual salvation. But this is not the issue Paul is addressing. The expressed issue Paul is addressing is whether or not “the word of God had failed” (Rom 9:6). That is, had God’s promise to be the God of the Jews and to have them as his covenant people been rescinded?
The question was a burning one for Paul, for to many Jews this shocking conclusion seemed to follow from what Paul was preaching. Most Jews of the day understood God’s covenantal faithfulness toward them to depend on two things: their nationality and their obedience to the law. If what Paul was preaching was true, however – that is, if salvation was available to anyone, including Gentiles, simply on the basis of their faith — then neither a person’s Jewish nationality nor their obedience to the law counted for anything (cf. Gal 5:12). It seemed that the uniqueness of the Jewish identity and calling had been undermined.
Even worse, it now seemed to be working against them. Because they strove for righteousness based on the external observation of the law (works) instead of faith, they were now being hardened – as evidenced by the fact that so few believed in Jesus (Rom 9:31-32). This meant that, if Paul’s Gospel was true, the very ones whom God made covenant promises to were now being hardened! Hence it looked like “the word of God had failed.”
This is the question Paul is addressing in Romans 9 (as well as in chapters 10 and 11). It’s a question of God’s fidelity to Israel as a nation and the basis by which God makes anyone a covenant partner. It has nothing whatsoever to do with how God elects individuals to salvation. We are misguided if we try to use this passage to answer this question.
Argument #3: Election to Vocation, Not Salvation
The way Paul answered this objection also shows that his concern was with God’s relationship to a nation, not with individual salvation. Paul refuted the idea that God’s covenant promises had failed by showing that God’s covenant promises were never based on a nationality or external obedience to the law. Rather, Paul argued, God had always exercised his sovereign right to choose whomever he wanted to choose.
Paul illustrated his point by referring to God’s choice of Isaac over Ishmael and Jacob over Esau, made without any consideration for their attributes or merits (9:8-13). Both examples underscore God’s right to choose whomever he wishes, for both choices were made ahead of time and both were wholly unexpected. Moreover, both choices reversed the role of primogenitor, both concerned individuals who were not exemplar in their character, and most surprisingly – and telling — Isaac was supernaturally conceived.
In offering these examples, Paul was defending God’s right to choose whomever he wants and to do so by any means he chooses. Hence, Paul is arguing, it shouldn’t be shocking to Jews if God now chooses to enter into a covenant with Gentiles simply on the basis of their faith. He’s always been a God who could do whatever he wanted. At the same time, it is important to remember that in using Isaac and Jacob to illustrate God’s prerogative to choose whomever he pleases, Paul was not concerning himself with the eternal destinies of people. His concern was solely to show God’s sovereignty in electing people to a historical vocation.
To underscore God’s sovereign prerogative, Paul emphasized the arbitrary way God brought about a chosen people, through Isaac and Jacob, whose mission was to serve God and the world by being a nation of priests (Isa 61:6) and a “light to all the nations” (Isa 42:6; 49:6; 60:3). They were to be the means by which all the nations of the world would be blessed by hearing about the one true God (e.g. Gen 12:2-3; 18:18; 22:18; Ps 67:1-2; Isa 2:2-4; 55:5; 61:9-11; 66:19-20; Jer 3:17; Rom 4:12-18). Their election as a nation was always primarily about service, not individual salvation.
Paul emphasized the arbitrariness of God’s choice of the Jews to unsettle those who thought God’s word had failed because he had rendered their nationality and external observation to the law obsolete in Christ. Throughout Romans 9 through 11 Paul was at pains to show that God’s goal all along had been to reach out beyond the borders of Israel and win the whole world (Rom 9:25-26, 33; 10:10-21; 11:11-12). Indeed, Paul insisted God was yet going to attain his goal. But since Israel as a nation had rejected the Messiah, Paul argued, God was now going to use their blindness rather than their obedience to achieve it (Rom. 11:11-32).
In any event, we are reading far too much into Romans 9 if we think that Paul was suggesting that Ishmael or Esau—or anyone else not chosen in the selection process by which God formed the Jewish nation (e.g. all of Joseph’s brothers?) — were individually damned. Paul is simply not concerned in this chapter with individual destinies. Indeed, he uses the examples he does precisely because they represent more than individuals: they represent nations. In choosing Isaac over Ishmael and Jacob over Esau, in other words, God was illustrating his choice of Israel (the descendants of Isaac and Jacob) over the Moabites (the descendants of Ishmael) and the Edomites (the descendants of Esau). Again, this didn’t mean that all Moabites or Edomites were eternally lost. It just means that these nations were not chosen for the priestly role in history for which God chose the Israelites.
This national focus is emphasized in the fact that the Old Testament passage Paul cites to make his point about Esau (Malachi 1:2-3, “I have loved Jacob, but I have hated Esau” [Rom 9:13]) is explicitly about the country of Edom. Some might suppose that God’s pronouncement that he “loved” Jacob and “hated” Esau shows that he is speaking about their individual eternal destinies, but this is mistaken. In Hebraic thought, when “love” and “hate” are contrasted they usually are meant hyperbolically. The expression simply means to strongly prefer one person or thing over another. The meaning of Malachi’s phrase, then, is simply that God preferred Israel over Edom to be the people he wanted to work with to reach out to the world.
Hence, there is no justification for interpreting Romans 9 as though it were trying to teach us anything about how God saves or damns individuals.