In our daily Bible reading, Susan and I  have reached Romans 9. Those who believe in individual predestination (i.e., unconditional election) as taught by John Calvin appeal to Romans 9:10-26 as proof. I thought it may be useful to post my comments on this section of Paul’s letter. These comments are from my book Living by Faith: A Verse by Verse Study of Romans. You can find out how to purchase a copy by clicking on “How to Buy Books I Have Written” in the menu bar of this website.

Here is my take on Romans 9:10-26:

(9:10-12) And not only this; but when Rebecca also had conceived by one, even by our father Isaac; (For the children being not yet born, neither having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works, but of him that calleth;) It was said unto her, The elder shall serve the younger.

Verses 10-12. The route of the promised seed became even more specific with each generation. Isaac, the promised seed of Abraham, fathered twins by his wife Rebecca. Through which would the promised seed come? Both? Further illustrating his point that ethnic Jewishness alone does not identify a person as a genuine Israelite (see comments on v. 6), Paul points out that even before Esau and Jacob were born, before either of them had done good or evil, God said to Rebecca, “The older shall serve the younger.” (See Genesis 25:23.) The promised seed came through one of the twins, the younger one, Jacob. It is possible, therefore, for a person to be the offspring of Abraham and even of Isaac, and still to not be an Israelite.

God’s choice of Jacob over Esau was made so “that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works but of Him who calls.” This does not mean that God predestined Esau to forfeit his birthright or to be excluded from national Israel. It does mean that God, in His foreknowledge (see comments on 8:29), knew the choices Esau would make. God’s statement that “the older shall serve the younger” was not a sentence of judgment passed on Esau even before he was born, but a simple statement of fact: Because of the choices Esau would make, he would forfeit his privileges as the firstborn son. The statement concerning “the purpose of God according to election” must be understood to refer contextually to “the election of grace” (Romans 11:5). In His sovereign will, God has determined to count as elect those who respond to His grace. It is the grace of God that works to give right desires and right abilities. (See John 15:5; I Corinthians 15:10; Philippians 2:13.) God extended His grace to Esau, but he chose an immoral and profane lifestyle and disregarded his birthright. (See Hebrews 12:15-17.) God, knowing Esau would do this, declared to Rebecca, “The older shall serve the younger.” This does not mean election is according to works; those things done by the influence and enablement of the grace of God are not “works” in which any man can boast. (See Ephesians 2:8-10.) The works which Paul disallows as a cause for election are the works done by the power of the flesh in an effort to gain favor with God. (See 3:27; 4:2-5.) He does not disagree with James that genuine faith will produce tangible results. (See James 2:21-26.)

If Esau and Jacob had been capable of doing good or evil in their mother’s womb, and if on that basis God had made His decision as to which He would elect, the election would have been of works. Both of the boys had the same father and the same mother. They were twins, thus they shared equally in the genetic influence of both parents. Theoretically, therefore, either could have been the one chosen by God to advance the Abrahamic lineage. God extended His grace to both; both were sinners. But Esau rejected the grace of God and Jacob received it. (See Hebrews 11:21.)

The inability of Esau and Jacob to do good or evil in the womb demonstrates that unborn children are not sinners. They do possess the fallen Adamic nature, the sin principle (see comments on 5:12), and they will sin, but at birth they are innocent. (See comments on 7:9.)

(9:13) As it is written, Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated.

Verse 13. Paul quotes from Malachi 1:2-3 to further demonstrate that the promised seed came through Jacob, not Esau, and to further illustrate that not all of Isaac’s descendants can be counted in national Israel. It must be noted that Malachi’s statement was not made at the same time as God’s statement to Rebecca that “the older shall serve the younger.” In other words, God did not say He loved Jacob and hated Esau even before they were born. In the context of Malachi, Jacob represents national Israel, and Esau represents national Edom. It must also be noted that the words “love” and “hate” must be understood according to their use in the Hebrew language and not the English. The Hebrew language has no equivalent to the many English words expressing lesser degrees of love, like fondness, affection, tenderness, or liking. In the Hebrew language, a person is either loved or hated. There is no middle ground. This does not mean the Hebrews knew nothing equivalent to affection or fondness or tenderness which was not as intense as love. The Hebrews experienced the same range of emotions as any other people. But as far as the Hebrew language is concerned, there was no way to express varying degrees of love. There was no equivalent to the Greek agape, phileo and eros. As with many other words, only the context can define the meaning of love and hatred in the Hebrew Scriptures. That God’s “hatred” of Esau was not the extreme hatred the English word evokes is clear from the fact that even with Esau’s failure, he and his descendants were promised special blessings. (See Genesis 27:38-40.)

(9:14) What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? God forbid.

Verse 14. Paul anticipates his readers will question the righteousness (right actions) of God in view of His rejection of Esau and acceptance of Jacob. Since Esau and Jacob were both innocent in their mother’s womb, was it wrong for God to say, “The older shall serve the younger”? Paul again uses the strong me genoito to deny the possibility that God’s decision was unjust. The only way God could have been accused of unrighteousness would be if the tables had been turned, and Esau had responded to the grace of God rather than Jacob, and still God had rejected Esau.

(9:15) For he saith to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.

Verse 15. Paul quotes from God’s statement to Moses following Israel’s idolatry while Moses was first on Mount Sinai receiving the tables of stone. (See Exodus 33:19.) The context in Exodus indicates that God does not arbitrarily extend His mercy and compassion to some—without regard to their faith or their desire to know Him—and withhold it from others on the same basis. God had showed His mercy and compassion for Israel in delivering them from Egyptian captivity, and He continued to demonstrate it even after their idolatry by inviting Moses back up on Sinai to receive another set of the stone tables. So the point is not that God is erratic in sometimes showing mercy on people of faith and sometimes withholding it, or sometimes extending mercy to disobedient people and sometimes withholding it. God is consistently merciful; He extends mercy even to the disobedient. The significance of Paul’s quote is that, from a human standpoint, it seems God would not have continued to show mercy to Israel after their idolatry. But God alone will decide how long to continue to extend mercy.

(9:16) So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy.

Verse 16. Favor with God is not achieved by human effort; it is a result of God’s merciful nature. This is reminiscent of John’s statement, “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12-13, NKJV). Men do not become the children of God by human effort, but this does not mean they are predestined to be saved before they are born. To become the children of God, men must believe in His name. This is not a work, because it is God who gives all men the ability to believe in His name. (See II Peter 3:9; John 3:16.) Neither does Paul mean that, since salvation arises from “God who shows mercy,” men are responsible to do nothing. He means instead that no man can ever say he is saved because of his own effort; salvation is a direct result of the mercy of God. If an Esau rejects the mercy of God and thus loses his privileges, he cannot fault God for not showing mercy. If a Jacob receives the mercy of God and thus gains privileges, he cannot boast that he has been rewarded for his works; he is simply the recipient of God’s mercy.

(9:17) For the scripture saith unto Pharaoh, Even for this same purpose have I raised thee up, that I might shew my power in thee, and that my name might be declared throughout all the earth.

Verse 17. To further illustrate his point about God’s sovereignty in showing mercy and compassion, Paul quotes Exodus 9:16, where Moses declares the words of God to Pharaoh: “But indeed for this purpose I have raised you up, that I may show My power in you, and that My name may be declared in all the earth” (NKJV). We must not too readily jump to the conclusion that this means that God raised up Pharaoh purposefully to hold him up to ridicule before all the earth through the ten plagues and the destruction of the Egyptian army in the Red Sea. God could have showed His power and declared His name by Pharaoh’s willing release of the Israelites at Moses’ first request. The first request Moses and Aaron made to Pharaoh to let the people of Israel go was a sincere request. Pharaoh had the freedom to respond positively to that request. Even when he rejected the first request, Moses and Aaron again pleaded with him to allow the Israelites to go three days’ journey into the desert. (See Exodus 5:1-3.) Pharaoh was not predestined by God to refuse the request, or the request itself would have been meaningless. The point Paul is making with this historical account is that God showed mercy even to Pharaoh; it was God Himself who raised Pharaoh up, and His intention was to demonstrate His power and to declare His name through Pharaoh. When Pharaoh rejected the request of Moses and Aaron, God’s intention to show His power and to declare His name didn’t change, but the way He accomplished these purposes did change.

(9:18) Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth.

Verse 18. The situation with Pharaoh demonstrates that God is sovereign in showing mercy on some and in hardening others. This does not mean that God refuses to show any mercy at all on some, but that He alone determines when to stop showing mercy and when to act in such a way as to harden the hearts of those who reject His mercy. It is true that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart (See Exodus 9:12; 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10; 14:8.) It is also true that God told Moses and Aaron that He would harden Pharaoh’s heart (Exodus 7:3). But before God is ever recorded as actually hardening Pharaoh’s heart, it is recorded that Pharaoh hardened his own heart. (See Exodus 8:15, 32.) Twice before it is said that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart the simple statement of fact is made that Pharaoh’s heart was hardened. (See Exodus 7:14; 9:11.) Although the KJV translates Exodus 7:13, “And he hardened Pharaoh’s heart,” the NKJV translates it, “And Pharaoh’s heart grew hard ….” When the entire context is examined, it seems that Pharaoh first hardened his heart against God and that God subsequently further hardened Pharaoh’s heart. I Samuel 6:6 records that both the Egyptians and Pharaoh hardened their own hearts. Though God at first extended mercy to Pharaoh by inviting him to release the people of Israel upon the basis of a request alone, Pharaoh rejected the appeal and hardened his heart. Shortly, God determined the time for mercy was past and He further hardened Pharaoh’s heart.

(9:19) Thou wilt say then unto me, Why doth he yet find fault? For who hath resisted his will?

Verse 19. Paul anticipated that his readers would ask, “Why does He still find fault? For who has resisted His will?” This is a similar question to that of 3:5. It is the result of human reasoning. If God knows in advance what decision a human being will make, and if He makes pronouncements in advance of those human decisions as to what the decisions will be—as He did with both Esau and Pharaoh, and if He even goes so far as to say what He will do as a result of human decisions, and if He does not continue to show mercy on some as long as on others, doesn’t this indicate that men are merely puppets or robots who can’t help what they do? How can God find fault with men and hold them personally responsible under such circumstances?

If the doctrine of unconditional election were true, this would be a valid objection. All men would do exactly what they were predestined to do, and it would be valid to ask how God could find fault with anyone. But those among Paul’s readers who would ask this question misunderstood the difference between foreknowledge and predestination. (See comments on 8:29.) This must be the contextual background of Paul’s present discussion, and Paul’s detailed explanation of foreknowledge, predestination, calling, justification and glorification must have been intended by him to address a specific deficiency in the understanding of the Roman believers. Indeed, his discussion here in chapter 9 is designed by him to restore to the Roman believers the hope for which he could not commend them. (See comments on 1:8.) It is difficult to see how the doctrine of unconditional election (predestination) could restore hope; it contributes to a sense of hopelessness, for there is always the possibility that any individual is not included in the elect.

(9:20-21) Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus? Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour?

Verses 20-21. Paul rebukes his readers for questioning the sovereignty and mercy of God. Human beings should no more question the work God is doing in their lives than the clay should question the potter. A potter can use a lump of clay to make either an exquisite vessel designed for honored use, or he can use it to make a plain utilitarian vessel. The clay is not consulted about the type of vessel it wants to be, but we should be careful to note that in both cases, the potter is making a useful vessel. The question here is not whether the potter makes anything of the clay; the question is what type of vessel does he make.

(9:22-23) What if God, willing to shew his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction: And that he might make known the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy, which he had afore prepared unto glory,

Verse 22-23. Now Paul, based upon the analogy of the clay and the potter, points out that God in some cases may wish to show His wrath and make His power known. Even then, however, He endures “with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction.” The idea in verse 22 is not that God shows no mercy on some people, like Pharaoh, in order to demonstrate His wrath. The idea is that, after God has endured the hardness of people with “much longsuffering,” He can—if He wishes—show His wrath and His power in any way He pleases. These “vessels of wrath” are “prepared for destruction,” not by being predestined to destruction, but by their own rejection of the mercies of God.

In form, the word translated “fitted to destruction” (Greek, katertismena) is a perfect passive or middle participle. The form is the same for both; translation is determined by context. Strauss has pointed out that there is “no justification for translating the word [katertismena] as passive, i.e., the subject is acted upon; rather, the translation should be ‘fitted themselves’ for wrath.” (See James D. Strauss in Clark H. Pinnock, Grace Unlimited [Minneapolis, MN: Bethany Fellowship, Inc., 1975], 200.)

On the other hand, God makes known the riches of His glory “on the vessels of mercy, which He had prepared beforehand for glory.” This does not mean that God predestined some for mercy and ultimately for glory (see comments on 8:18, 21), but that He showers His riches on those who respond to His grace. That these vessels of mercy are “prepared beforehand for glory” does not mean they were predestined for glory, but that God in His foreknowledge knew what their response to His grace would be, so He determined in advance, based on His foreknowledge, that they would be glorified. This is the exact parallel of 8:29-30.

(9:24) Even us, whom he hath called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles?

Verse 24. The “vessels of mercy” were those “whom He called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles” (NKJV). The reference to being “called” may be understood in one of two ways. First, it may simply be a reference to the fact that God calls both Jews and Gentiles to salvation, without suggesting that He calls only select ones and fails to call others. Obviously, all who came to Christ in Paul’s audience had been called, but this does not mean that there were none called except those who came. Second, it may be a reference to the calling of 8:28-29, which is a calling given to those who are already saved to be conformed to the image of God’s Son. (See comments on 8:28-29.)

Paul’s reference here to the Gentiles as well as to the Jews underscores his statements elsewhere to both concerning the error of feelings of ethnic superiority. (See comments on 2:1, 17-20; 11:17-24.)

(9:25-26) As he saith also in Osee, I will call them my people, which were not my people; and her beloved, which was not beloved. And it shall come to pass, that in the place where it was said unto them, Ye are not my people; there shall they be called the children of the living God.

Verses 25-26. Paul quotes Hosea 2:23 and 1:10. This is an interesting example of the use of the Old Testament in the New Testament. In their context in the Hebrew scriptures, these verses refer not to Gentiles but to unbelieving Israel who was not—at the time—living as the people of God. But Paul is inspired of the Holy Spirit to use these words in a new context to mean that the Gentiles would be called the people of God. This illustrates again the fact that God takes the initiative in showing mercy. If the idea of unconditional election were true, it would seem God would be obliged to call all Gentiles His people, because all of them were included in the number who were not His people. In other words, if God determined to call as His people those who were not His people, this would include all Gentiles of the world. But, just as “they are not all Israel, which are of Israel” (v. 6), so the only Gentiles who will be called the people of God are those who respond in faith to His mercy.