twins

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.

Related Reading

Reversing Babel

Several generations after the flood, we read in Gen 11 how humans were still living in one locale and had one common language and culture. Then someone came up with the brilliant idea that they should construct an enormous tower that would reach “to the heavens” in order to make a name for themselves and…

Spiritual Warfare: What is it?

The Kingdom is “not of this world,” and neither is its warfare. Jews had always believed that God confronted spiritual opposition in carrying out his will on earth. In the Old Testament, these evil forces were usually depicted as cosmic monsters and hostile waters that threatened the earth. For a variety of reasons this belief…

A Cross-Like Church

When God’s church loves like God loves—which means valuing the other at cost to self—it will puzzle those outside the church. While such love might cause the religious to rail with outrage, it will cause the searching and the hungry to ask, “how can people love like this?” In God’s plan, this puzzle is what…

The Longing of Advent

The Advent season is a time of anticipating the coming of God, in Christ, a time of turning our imagination toward the revelation of God’s love for us. This after all is the deepest longing of our heart, and our natural longings always point us to something real. We grow hungry only because there’s such…

The Image of Cross-Like Love: God’s Self-Portrait, Part 6

In the previous blog I argued that God is cross-like love. In this blog I’d like to take this a step further by demonstrating why the cross alone could function as the definitive revelation of God’s true character and by showing how this revelation weaves together everything Jesus was about. If you want to know…

The Root of Broken Relationships

God’s goal for creation is for us to receive his perfect love in such a way that we all become prisms that reflect this love. However, you don’t have to look very far to notice that creation falls far short of this goal. Although you might be tempted to look around for someone to blame,…