Recently, a young Orthodox friend of mine found herself in a debate with a Calvinist. She enlisted my help in responding to a passage of Scripture to which those of the Reformed persuasion commonly turn to defend the doctrine of unconditional election, that is, that God sovereignly decides before He creates the world which human beings he will save and which he will not. The passage is Romans 9:14-21.
What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? Certainly not. For he says to Moses, I will have mercy on whomever I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whomever I will have compassion. So then, it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy. For the Scripture says to the Pharaoh, for this very 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. Therefore, he has mercy on whom he wills and whom he wills, he hardens. You will say to me then, why does he still find fault, for who has resisted his will? But indeed, oh man, who are you to reply against God? Will the thing formed say to him who formed it, why have you made me like this? Does not the potter have power over the clay from the same lump to make one vessel for honor and another for dishonor?
For many folks, those words undeniably prove that God predestines that some receive saving grace and the rest reap retribution. He even, in fact - some poor souls like Pharaoh with a particularly vehement and stubborn hatred toward him so that he might drown them in his wrath and thereby manifest his complete domination over all flesh. For what God ultimately wants from us human beings is that we acknowledge with utter resignation that his power over our destinies is absolute.
On the face of it, one might construe these verses to imply such notions. It makes a good proof text if one assumes that what the apostle is presenting here is a teaching on unconditional election, but “there’s the rub”, as Shakespeare would say. To assert these verses as a proof for predestination commits two cardinal sins of biblical interpretation: taking a passage out of context and failing to understand the verses in the comprehensive light of the Scriptures.
I’d like to spend the next couple of podcasts looking at these verses within the content and framework of the whole chapter and within the overall teaching of the epistle to the Romans. When we do that, we see that St. Paul’s words here do not serve as evidence for a doctrine of unconditional election. To establish the context of the passage in question, let’s look at the first verses of chapter 9.
I tell the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and continual grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my countrymen according to the flesh, who are Israelites, to whom pertain the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the service of God, and the promises; of whom are the fathers and from whom, according to the flesh, Christ came, who is over all, the eternally blessed God. Amen.
That’s Romans 9:1-5. What is on St. Paul’s mind as he pens this chapter? To accurately follow the apostle’s train of thought, we must discern that, and clearly, his concern is the spiritual state of his countrymen according to the flesh: the nation of Israel. Israel was the chosen people of God. They had been adopted by God, crowned with his glory, honored and blessed by his covenants. Now, they had rejected the Christ whose coming into the world was the reason for their existence. The question St. Paul is pondering here is: how could those whom God had prepared to receive his Son fail to embrace him? Did that failure make Israel’s unique calling, its election, if you will, meaningless, purposeless, and empty? The apostle’s answer is no. He continues:
But it is not that the word of God has taken no effect. For they are not all Israel who are of Israel, nor are they all children because they are the seed of Abraham; but, “In Isaac your seed shall be called.” That is, those who are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God; but the children of the promise are counted as the seed. For this is the word of promise: “At this time I will come and Sarah shall have a son.” (Romans 9:6-9)
St. Paul concludes that Israel’s failure as a people to accept the Christ did not imply that God had made a mistake in choosing them nor did it mean that God’s gifts to them were a sham. His singular blessings to Israel had not been devalued by its inability as a nation to prove worthy of them. Why? Because St. Paul says “they are not all Israel who are Israel.” Or perhaps, it would be better to say that there are really two Israels. On the one hand, there is the Israel of the flesh, those who are merely the physical progeny of Abraham, Israelites in a purely ethnic sense, but according to St. Paul, these are not these chosen nation of God. Only those who are children of the promise can claim to be the true Israel. What is the promise of which the apostle speaks? It is the assurance of reconciliation with God. It is the promise of oneness with the divine, of direct participation in the life of God. This is the joy Abraham sought. It was the living hope of Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, and the prophets. Through the legacy of Israel that hope came to life in the incarnate son, the Lord Jesus Christ.
But how is the promise fulfilled? How do we receive the gift? St. Paul’s point here in the beginning of the chapter is that the promise has nothing to do with one’s genetic identity. Ethnic heritage is not, and never was, the basis for God’s gift of redemption, not even in the case of the chosen people of Israel. So, what made some of the Hebrews “Israel of the flesh” and others “Israel of the promise”? Was it some arbitrary pre-eternal, predestining choice of God? We’ve begun to establish the context of this passage, but to answer this question, we now must apply ourselves to the second rule I mentioned. Rather than interpret this text in a vacuum or through the eyes of doctrinal presuppositions, we must let the rest of the Scriptures illuminate.
As the word of the invariable God, the Bible is an invariable, unified whole. One cannot embrace the texts that say what one wishes them to say and ignore the ones that contradict one’s favorite interpretation. There is only one truth in the Scriptures, and it cannot be understood by pitting texts against each other. They must be allowed to speak together. So, when it comes to how one becomes a child of the promise, what does the Bible say? John 1:11-12 tell us that Christ “came to His own, and His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name.” In Ephesians 1:13, the Apostle Paul declares “In Him you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation; in whom also, having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise.”
Listen to the verbs in those two short passages. In both cases, what God does is conditional upon what we do. To those who make the decision to receive him, St. John says, Christ consequently gives the right to become children of God. St. Paul tells us that those who believe and trust are consequently sealed with the Spirit. Here’s the problem. If salvation and damnation are predestined by God, then what both of those passages say must be false. To put it in logical terms, both the apostles have their antecedents and consequence mixed up. To be logically consistent with the doctrine of predestination, these passages would have to be restated. St. John would have to say “those to whom Christ gave the right to become children of God were consequently able to receive him.” St. Paul would have to assert that “those who were sealed with the Spirit, consequently, trusted and believed in Christ.” In fact, if salvation is predestined then concepts like receive, trust, and believe lose all import. For all the weight that St. John and St. Paul put on them in the texts we just read, these acts on our part actually play no role in procuring our salvation. At best, they describe illusions within the human mind. Why would the apostles foster such fictions? Why wouldn’t they say what they mean?
Now, one who holds to predestination may argue that what God predestines is the granting of the grace to believe, receive, and trust. Before the foundation of the world, he sovereignly determines the ones he will provide with the power to choose him. The rest of humanity will not be granted the capacity to exercise that choice. But if this is the case, then the passage we just read from St. John’s gospel makes no sense. The apostle says that Christ came to his own, meaning the people of Israel. As a people, they were the elect of God. Just as St. Paul told us, the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, and the service of God belonged to every Israelite. So did God’s promises of salvation. And yet, St. John tells us the experience of that salvation was achieved only by those who decided to believe in Christ and receive him. Try to follow this carefully you see. When taken together with what St. Paul tells us about the election of the Israelites in Romans 9, St. John’s words here suggest something very disconcerting about God if we take the doctrine of predestination to be true. For St. Paul says that God’s promise of salvation belonged to all of Israel, including the ones who had become accursed, as he puts it, for their rejection of Christ (Romans 9:3-5).
Now, consider. If the promise of salvation belonged to all the Israelites, including those who rejected Christ, and if those who chose to receive him, or at least imagined they were choosing to receive him, were only able to do so because God had foreordained it, then we must conclude that God never intended to keep the promises he made to all the rest of the Israelites, that is those who didn’t receive Christ. Is our God one who makes promises he has no intention of keeping? Is his character such that he would make a pledge to someone even as he works within that individual to ensure that he or she will never be able to reap the rewards of that pledge? That doesn’t sound like unconditional, other-directed love, and it certainly doesn’t sound like mercy. But then, from the perspective of predestination, God’s need to manifest his sovereignty is more fundamental to his nature than either other-directed love or mercy.
Let’s sum up where we’ve come so far in Romans 9. We’ve been trying to view St. Paul’s teachings here in context and in the light of other passages of Scripture. So far, this has yielded two observations. One, that neither ethnic heritage nor the possession of God’s special favor is enough to ensure one’s salvation, and two, that salvation comes to us by right of a choice we make, the choice to believe in Christ, trust him, and receive his gift of redemption. For when we consider the teaching of Scripture as a whole, the proposal that our salvation or damnation is predetermined by God cannot be consistently upheld. Of course, we have not yet come to the most potent verses of Romans 9 when it comes to supporting unconditional election. There is the matter of God hardening Pharaoh’s heart. There’s also God’s declaration that “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated.” How can we read these verses without admitting some sort of divine predestination? Next time, we’ll examine these difficult verses in context and in the comprehensive light of Scripture.