Romans 9 and Reformed Theology
Helen and Barry Setterfield, June 2016
Much of Reformed theology’s apologetics appear to be buttressed by Romans 9. So we’ll take a look. First, however, it is important to know that the original King James translation was done by those who held to Calvinism, or Reformed Theology. In the process, there were some word ‘exchanges’ that were used by them to fit their ideas. The other translations of the New Testament which we have today in general follow the ‘traditional’ King James translation, and so it will be important to go back to the Greek in some cases, and, in others, simply deal with the material in context – which is something that should always be done.
The first five verses are quite interesting:
If ever any people were called, we can read from Paul’s words here that it was the Jews. Everything was theirs, including the heritage of the Messiah. But they refused Him. According to Reformed theology, no one who is called can refuse. But look at what Jesus Himself said:
BUT YOU WERE NOT WILLING. They had a choice; they chose “no” despite our Lord God’s earnest desire and will to gather them to Himself.
Peter also faced this, in Acts, as he shared the gospel with the Jews, first in Jerusalem and then in Judea and Galilee. The first time was in Acts 4: 1-22, when the priest and Sadducees were “greatly disturbed” and the Apostles were taken into custody. In Acts 5: 12-40, the High Priest and Sadducees were “filled with indignation” and “furious and took council to kill them.” The third time was the stoning of Stephen in Acts 7. It was these people, Paul writes in the opening of Romans 9, who has “the glory, and the covenants and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises” as well as the adoption. According to Reformed theology it was impossible for them to refuse God’s call.
But they did.
Romans 9 continues in verse 6:
In other words, they had God’s word and there were those in Israel who refused it. Paul goes on to explain what he means, but the important point here is that God’s Word had gone out to them, just as it had in the Exodus, and just as they had in the wilderness, they rebelled against it. Were they predestined to rebel against it? Not according to John 1:11 – He came unto his own, and his own received him not.
How could they be His own, and not be called? And if called, according to Reformed theology, how could they have then refused Him?
Reformed theology takes the “not all who are descended from Israel are Israel” and cross references it to Galatians 6:16, which says, “And as many as walk according to this rule, peace be on them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God.” They say the Israel of God IS the church, but the word “and” is there, indicating two separate groups of people. One must read in context. The church has not replaced Israel.
Read this from Isaiah 49:14-23
If you continue on through Isaiah, you will see God’s promise to Israel repeated again and again. No one and nothing will ever take the place of Israel where God is concerned.
And yet they continue to refuse Him. It will not always be that way, but it was that way before Christ, during His time here, and up to now. There are those Jews who are “completed Jews” who have come to the knowledge of the Lord and submitted fully to Him and have been born again. But Israel herself remains estranged.
But again, the Lord has said it will not always be so. Nevertheless, what about all those in Israel who have refused Him through the ages? Paul states simply that they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel. Then he goes on to explain.
Abraham had a number of children; only Isaac was the child of the promise. First of all, there is a further explanation in Galatians 4:22-23 – “For it is written, that Abraham had two sons, the one by a bondmaid, the other by a free woman. But he who was of the bondwoman was born after the flesh; but he of the free woman was by the promise.”
Isaac was the child of the promise, but there were two promises involved. In Genesis 15, Abraham is told he will have an heir, which indicates a son. God tells Abraham to recount the stars, if he can, in verse 5. There are many who think this is a promise of tons of descendants, but he has already been given the promise that his descendants will be as the dust of the earth. Paul explains in Galatians 3:16 that what God was referring to was that Abraham’s seed would be the Messiah, the Christ. Evidence that this is what Abraham believed that was credited to him as righteousness is in the obedience when he is told to sacrifice Isaac. When he and Isaac and the servants travel to the base of the mountain, Abraham tells the servants to wait there “while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.” Abraham indicated WE both times, knowing he was about to kill his son and thus also believing in the promise of a resurrection. We know the story, how God stops Abraham and tells him that He, God, will provide the Lamb. The first promise involved in Isaac’s birth, is then the promise that the Messianic line with be from Isaac. It is the second promise, the one that Sarah, at 90 years old, would conceive and bear a son, which people pay attention to. And that was a promise of a miracle. Isaac was the result of two promises, not one. Paul indicates this when he mentions in the above verse that the children of the flesh, or of physical descent, are not considered Abraham’s true descendants. In a sense, the passage indicates two groups: the Jews, through whom the Messiah would come, and then all believers regardless of physical heritage.
So who are the children of the promise? Those who believe. It does not depend on physical descent, as Paul so clearly states. And the Promise? That which was to the whole world, for a Messiah, that “whoever believes” in Him “shall not perish but have eternal life.” In John 17:3 Jesus defined “eternal life” as knowing the Father and the Son. That term ‘knowing’ means a deeply personal relationship, not an intellectual “how do you do.”
Paul continues in Romans 9:10-13
This passage was covered extensively in one of our earlier articles.
A couple of extra points: first, the ‘elect’ are not folk who have been chosen beforehand to believe, but a reference to the royal line of Christ. A check of the word “elect” and the way it is used biblically indicates it is a reference to the Jewish people. In addition, the word translated ‘calleth’ or ‘calls’ is the Greek word kaleo. It does NOT mean something like a royal summons, but it does mean to call as an invitation.
The fact that a choice is involved regarding that call is found in the Concordant Literal New Testament (referred to as "Greek" in the rest of this article when quoted), were Romans 9:11 reads, “For, not as yet being born, nor putting into practice anything good or bad, but the purpose of God may be remaining as a choice, not out of acts, but of him who is calling,…”
The following was received in an email from a researcher who is a friend:
Here is the same choice of words by the translators in 2 Peter 1:10. What we generally read is, “Therefore, brethren, be even more diligent to make your calling and election sure…” If, indeed the call and election were irrevocable, this instruction is nonsense. However, that word “election” is again ekloge, whose primary meaning is ‘choice.’ So the way this verse reads in the actual Greek is, “Wherefore, rather, brethren, endeavor through ideal acts to confirm your calling and choice.”
Let us continue through Romans 9. Verses 14-16 are next:
It is extremely important, then, to understand that God has given all men a sense of justice. One of the first concepts a young child learns is “fair.” “Mommy, that’s not FAIR!” They understand what that means, in general, from a very early age. Thus Paul declares that there is no way God is unjust, assuming we will understand exactly what he is saying. In Proverbs 1, Solomon opens by saying, “The proverbs of Solomon, son of David, ing of Israel: for attaining wisdom and discipline; for understanding words of insight; for acquiring a disciplined and prudent life, doing what is right and just and fair.” It is assumed that the concept of just, or justice, is understood. It is in Strongs 6664, tsedeq, meaning “right, morally or legally, equity.” To declare a man guilty of breaking a law he does not know about and punishing him for it is recognized as unjust. In the same way, to punish a child for being a child is unjust. If Calvinism were correct, it would be completely unjust for God to punish those who had no choice regarding their salvation but whom He somehow had previously determined would spend eternity in hell. In the same way, it is unjust to reward someone for doing something he could not help but doing. We do not reward people for breathing. To put it more simply, to say God has predestined people to heaven or hell without any say on their parts, and to then punish or reward them accordingly is a slander on God’s character. For, as Peter says, “God is not willing that one should perish.” And, again, the famous John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whomever believes on Him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Belief and trust are choices. They are not programmed into a person. If they were programmed in, then to tell a person, “Trust me,” is meaningless, for he either would or would not, by nature. We know this is not so. We presume a person has a choice to “trust me” or not.
What about the part in that passage which states God will have mercy on whom He will have mercy, and compassion/pity on whom He will. Paul has just stated emphatically that God is not unjust. Therefore the implication is that we do not understand some of God’s choices, not that they are unjust. A famous example is a man who steals food from a store to feed his hungry family when he has no job and no money. Legally, he is guilty of theft. There is no doubt about that. But both the store owner and the judge have a choice: charges can be pressed and punishment meted out or the act forgiven and the man helped. Jesus tells us God judges the heart. So we know that those on whom God has mercy have thrown themselves on the mercy of the Court, or what they did wrong they did not know was wrong. Only God knows these things, and that is why we are forbidden by our Lord Jesus to judge a man’s heart. We KNOW certain actions, like stealing are wrong in and of themselves, but what is done about them is very, very important and involves motives, circumstances, and the like.
That is why, after a man sins, his desire to be free of that sin, or his own efforts to erase it, are futile. Everything depends on God’s mercy. John tells us that if we confess our sins, God is faithful to forgive. Suppose, however, that our sinning was programmed into us in such a way that we had no choice but to sin, and keep on sinning? What good would confession be? And could a man repent of what he could not help? And why should God forgive what the man was incapable of not doing by God’s own design? In short, the Bible’s message makes no sense at all if Calvinism is correct.
Paul goes on to mention the Pharaoh who was ruling at the time of Moses.
Is this indicating arbitrariness on God’s part? Not at all. Let’s look at the story of the Ten Plagues in Exodus. The first plague, of blood, was evidently imitated by the Pharaoh’s magicians/sorcerers. As a result, the Bible tells us in Exodus 7:23, that Pharaoh paid no attention to that plague as a sign from God and simply went into his palace. His heart was hardened, not by God’s choice, but by his. The second plague, of frogs, caused Pharaoh to plead with Moses to get rid of them. Moses not only did, through prayer, but did so at the exact time the Pharaoh chose. Nevertheless, we read in Exodus 8:15, “But when Pharaoh saw that there was relief, he hardened his heart and would not listen to Moses and Aaron, just as the Lord had said.” The Pharaoh hardened his own heart, although God knew he would do that.
The next plague, of gnats, records the Pharaoh as not listening even when his magicians told him “This is the finger of God!” Again he hardened his heart. His choice.
Then the plague of flies. This time Moses warns Pharaoh, “Only be sure that Pharaoh does not act deceitfully again by not letting the people go to offer sacrifices to the LORD.” In other words, the Pharaoh had been willfully deceiving Moses regarding his promise to let the Israelites go. In Exodus 8:32, we read, “But this time also Pharaoh hardened his heart and would not let the people go.”
That is four times the Pharaoh had hardened his own heart. After the plague on livestock, number five, we read in Exodus 9:7, “Yet his heart was unyielding and he would not let the people go.”
It is not until the sixth plague, the plague of boils, that we read, “But the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart….”
Then there is the plague of hail, the seventh plague. Here the LORD allowed Pharaoh to do whatever he would, and we read in Exodus 9:34, “When Pharaoh saw that the rain and hail and thunder had stopped, he sinned again: He and his officials hardened their hearts.”
Then it is all over for Pharaoh – we read after the last plagues that the LORD, indeed, was responsible for hardening Pharaoh’s heart.
Did the Lord God actually predestine Pharaoh to behave this way? Let’s look at something Paul wrote to the Romans in his first chapter: “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.” The word for word translation from the Greek reads, “For God’s indignation is being revealed from heaven on all the irreverence and injustice of men who are retaining the truth in injustice, because that which is known of God is apparent among them, for God manifests it to them.”
The NIV uses ‘suppress,’ which means you can see something and you are pushing it down. The Greek says the truth is retained, but retained in injustice – the man who stole from the grocery store is being prosecuted and punished for the theft. Or even that someone else was the thief and the poor man was accused, prosecuted, and punished due to false witness. Regardless of the translation you choose, the people knew the truth and acted against it and against what God would will. This is not Calvinism – this is freedom of will exercising itself and God reacting to that. As with Pharaoh, God again and again offers the truth – the way out – and again and again some choose other – the lie. And, finally, as with Pharaoh, it is as if God is saying, “You don’t want my will to be done. OK. YOUR will be done! Out with you!”
But in Romans 9, Paul tells us God raised up Pharaoh for the purpose of glorifying God. So did Pharaoh have a choice? Can you imagine the magnificence of Pharaoh had he NOT hardened his heart? God still would have been totally glorified and the Israelites freed. Either way, God’s will was done. But Pharaoh had his own choices to make. God certainly raised Pharaoh up for God’s glory, but how that would be accomplished depended on Pharaoh. Did God know ahead of time? Yes – and He told Moses what would happen. Did God program or otherwise force Pharaoh’s choices? No. Like each one of us, Pharaoh had his own choices to make and take responsibility for.
Romans 9:19-21 is often used as a support for Reformed theology. Here it is:
This passage has nothing to do with a man’s ability to choose or not choose. It has to do with who he is. The word translated ‘dishonor’ in both the Authorized and Greek is ‘atimia.’ It comes from ‘atimos,’ which means ‘unhonored or without honor, or less honorable.’ Atimia can mean any of those as well as shameful, disgusting, dishonor, etc. So, again, it is the translator’s choice. In this case, the most accurate meaning may actually be conveyed by the NIV, that some are for special purposes and some for common use.
Paul has just finished talking about Pharaoh and how God raised him up to glorify God (regardless of what choice he made). We are not all leaders. We are not all famous and highly influential, made for ‘special purposes’ or special honor in this world. But please note that each is made for God’s use. God’s use will overarch our wills and choices just as it did with Pharaoh. God is big enough for that.
The quote about the potter that Paul uses is from Isaiah 29:15-16:
Again the meaning, in Isaiah and Romans 9, has to do with who a person is, not what he chooses to do. Both the rich royalty and the impoverished worker can make good or poor choices, but one person does not become the other. Each is as God chose to make him or her in that station in life with those particular abilities and talents. That is God’s choice and is not to be questioned. What we do with what He has made us and given us – these things are our choices, and that very much includes what we choose to do about Jesus Christ.
Romans 9:22 is considered a clincher for Calvinism. This is how we read it:
The following quote is from chapter 6 of Daniel Gracely’s Calvinism: A Closer Look (2009, Grandma’s Attic Press):
The Greek word-for-word translation used ‘adapted’ – also in the middle voice. But there is another point to this choice of word: if something is adapted, it did not start out that way originally. This also brings to attention the fact that no one is born destined or predestined for hell and damnation.
Gracely also mentions the conundrum of why on earth (or anywhere else) God would have to ENDURE what He Himself created? However it is conceivable that God would choose to endure choices that men have made which fitted themselves for eternal damnation. Paul explains why God would do this in the next verses. But it is important to note at this point that Romans 9:22 presents two problems in the translations we have today: a mistranslated verb and some very questionable logic which results.
Why God would endure those who called damnation upon themselves is something Paul first dealt with in Romans 2:4: “Or are you despising the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, being ignorant that the kindness of God is leading you to repentance?” Paul continues to deal with this in Roman 9:23 to the end of the chapter. A little at a time…
Here, again, the KJV and other translators had a choice – to alter the wording to support Calvinism or to stick to the precise Greek. And again, it is the verb which is the problem. The versions we have can very possibly indicate that we were prepared before birth for glory, supporting Calvinism. But the Greek – the original language – does not support that. The verb is one of continuing action. We are being made ready for glory.
One of Paul’s major themes is also present here: Gentiles as well as Jews are called, or invited, by God to repentance and salvation through Christ. Verses 25-26 continue this subject with a quote from Hosea:
These two verses from Hosea, when looked at in context, in Hosea itself, are referring to two different groups of people. The first, referring to ‘my people who are not my people,’ is from Hosea 2. It is clearly referring to Gentiles. However the second part of the quote, in verse 26, is from Hosea 1, and is directly talking to Israel – the Jews. Paul is making the point that both people will be His people. John 1 states, very simply, how this will be accomplished – “Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name [character], he gave the right to become children of God.”
There is something important in these verses, however. If predestination were correct, how could a people who are not His people become His people? This is God changing His mind? If, however, all people, as the Bible indicates, are loved by God from the beginning, then the indication in Paul’s quotes from Hosea is that there would be people from all over the earth, from all different nations and groups, who would call upon the Lord in repentance and acceptance of Jesus Christ.
The Jewish people understood at the time of Hosea that they were unique in their relationship with God. To have Hosea, as well as other prophets, indicate that God was reaching out to the entire world through them (as well as in other ways – see Gospel in the Stars), was somewhat upsetting and often misunderstood. This is why Paul referred to God’s love of the Gentiles as the mystery.
Paul then goes on to quote Isaiah, offering a solemn warning to the Jewish people:
Israel had refused Jesus Christ, and thus refused God’s provision for them. They were His people, the people He said He claimed for His inheritance. Nation after nation, since that time, has attempted to wipe out the Jewish people. But always there is a remnant that remains. The worst is yet to come, but still there will be a remnant saved. Sodom and Gomorrah were totally wiped out, but Israel will not be.
Paul is again emphasizing that righteousness is through faith, not through works, for all righteousness comes from God Himself. God had given Israel the law and Israel – at least the leaders – attempted to achieve God’s righteousness through obedience to the law. Obeying the law can prevent sinning, but that is not the same as achieving righteousness.
Paul then quotes Isaiah 8, regarding the stone that makes Israel stumble. In Isaiah it is clear that the stone is God Himself. Paul now relates that to Jesus, as Lord and God. Jesus Himself is the goal and finality of the law. The law only pointed the way. You can’t call a signpost the same as a destination; one must follow the sign to get to the destination.
Although this is the end of Romans 9, the chapter and verse divisions are man-made, not God-made. For that reason, the first four verses of chapter 10 are very important for this discussion:
If Reformed theology/Calvinism were true, why would Paul petition God for the salvation of his people? It would have already been decided, person by person and nothing Paul could have said or done would have changed that. What is interesting is that Calvinism in its most strict form says God ordains every action and thought of men – so why would God ordain Paul to pray for the salvation of a people God had already condemned? There is no logic in that at all.
Instead, Paul makes a point of saying that the righteousness of God is available only through faith – for “everyone who is believing.” And believing is a choice.