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Rethinking Election: Romans 9, Part 1

Many people believe that Romans 9 demonstrates that God has the right and power to save whichever individuals he wants to save and damn whichever individuals he wants to damn. I’ll call this the “deterministic” reading of Romans 9, for it holds that God determines who will be saved and who will be lost.

On first glance, it may seem that the deterministic interpretation of Romans 9 has a strong case. For in this passage Paul explicitly says that God “has mercy on whomever he chooses and he hardens whomever he chooses” (vs. 18). He then illustrates God’s sovereign election by referring to God’s choice of Isaac over Ishmael (9:7-8) and of Jacob over Esau (9:10-13). Regarding this latter choice Paul writes:

Even before [Jacob and Esau] had been born or had done anything good or bad (so that God’s purpose of election might continue, not by works but by his call) [Rebecca] was told, “The elder shall serve the younger.”

“As it is written,

‘I have loved Jacob,

but I have hated Esau” (Rom. 9:11-13).

Without regard to anything Jacob or Esau did, God chose to “love” Jacob and “hate” Esau. Hence, Paul concludes, God’s choice of people “depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy” (Rom. 9:16).

The support for the deterministic interpretation seems to grow even stronger as Paul goes on to depict God’s relationship to humans as a relationship between a potter and his clay. God has the right to fashions us, his clay, however he sees fit. And this is precisely what he does, according to Paul.

“Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one object for special use and another for ordinary use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience the objects of wrath that are made for destruction; and what if he has done so in order to make known the riches of his glory for the objects of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory” (Rom 9:21-23).

According to the deterministic interpretation, Paul is teaching that God simply fashions some vessels for destruction in order to display his wrath and power and other vessels for mercy in order to display his mercy. He hardens the former and has mercy on the latter. And this hardening and granting mercy is not based on anything God finds in the vessel. It is simply based on God’s free decision. If this seems unfair, as it undoubtedly does, Paul’s response is simply to invalidate the sentiment: “[W]ho indeed are you, a human being, to argue with God? Will what is molded say to the one who molds it, ‘Why have you made me like this?’” (Rom 9:20).

So, the case for the deterministic interpretation initially looks strong. Nevertheless, I think it is mistaken. In this series of posts, I propose that a central point of Romans 9 is to argue the exact opposite of the conclusions drawn from the deterministic interpretation. For, in contrast to the deterministic interpretation, God is not an arbitrary, deterministic deity. He rather is wisely flexible in his dealings with humans.

I will offer six arguments in response to the deterministic interpretation. Let’s look at the first today:

Argument #1: The Absoluteness of Christ 

First, as with all theological issues, we must begin and end all our reflections on the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the one and only Word of God (Jn 1:1), the image of God (Col 1:15) and the perfect expression of God’s essence (Heb 1:3). He supersedes all previous revelations and can be superseded by none. He is the definitive revelation of God.

The deterministic interpretation of Romans 9, I believe, is in tension with the God we find revealed in Jesus Christ. Jesus dying on the cross for his enemies reveals the essence of what God is like — God is love. In contrast to this, the deterministic reading of Romans 9 forces us to conclude that this is only partly true of God, for it only applies to some people (viz. God’s “elect”). Behind the beautiful portrait of God in Christ, we find a deity who is unilaterally determining some to be saved and some to be damned, all for “his glory.” This means the revelation of God in Christ is penultimate. It doesn’t really reveal the heart of God. Calvary conceals God as much as it reveals God.

If we rather resolve that Jesus is our definitive picture of God, and that this picture cannot be placed alongside of or qualified by any other, then we must conclude that there is something amiss with the deterministic interpretation of Romans 9. For Christ reveals, and the biblical witness confirms, that God’s love is universal, his love is impartial, his love is kind, and his love desires all to be saved (e.g. I Jn 4:8; Duet 10:17-19; 2 Chron 19:7; Ezek 18:25; Mk 12:14; Jn 3:16; Acts 10:34; Rom. 2:10-11; Eph 6:9; I Tim 2:4; I Pet 1:17; 2 Pet. 3:9).

Tomorrow we will look at the next two arguments for reading Romans 9 in a different way than that offered by the deterministic interpretation.

Image by be creator via Flickr.

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