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Does Romans 9 teach that God predestines people to go to hell?

I've noticed a trend among Calvinists in which they appealed to Romans chapter 9 as their foundational reason for accepting Calvinism, I also noticed that they interpreted all of the "problem texts" for Calvinism in light of their misinterpretation of Romans 9. My question would be, "is it possible that this so-called proof text (Romans 9) for Calvinism is being misinterpreted by Calvinists and therefore causing them to err in their overall interpretation of God and His Word?" I think the answer to this question is yes and I intend on showing why in this post. Let's begin with the first 5 verses:

I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit— 2 that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. 3 For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh. 4 They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. 5 To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen (Romans 9:1-5).

So in this first section we find Paul expressing his great distress over the fact that Israel (according to the flesh, with the exception of a remnant) has been cut off from Christ due to their rebellion against God and rejecting the Messiah. Those who were his kinsmen were supposed to fulfill the role of being God's people but because they pursued it by works they grew calloused and rejected the Gospel in their pride. Let's continue...

“But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, 7 and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” 8 This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring. (Romans 9:6-8)”

This section is the MOST critical element of the entire chapter. By understanding what Paul is saying in this part you will then be able to rightly interpret the rest of the passage. Notice the phrase, "Not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel." Here Paul is responding to an assertion that because Israel (according to the flesh) has been cut off from God's revelation (with the exception of a remnant), that God's plan to gather unto Himself a holy people has failed. Not at all. He explains that God's plan doesn't becomes fully realized in the historic nation of Israel but in the future nation of Israel after Jesus returns and resurrects the dead. For the sake of simplicity I will call this Israel "Eternal Israel." 

"Eternal Israel" will be the historical culmination of those who reign with Christ in the age to come and will be compose up of both Jews and Gentiles (Ephesians 2:15) who have placed their faith in Jesus Christ for salvation. Paul writes, “those who have faith are children of Abraham (Galatians 3:7)". This is not to say that God has permanently cut off the nation of Israel and replaced it with the church (as the false teaching of replacement theology asserts). Rather, God has always purposed to have both Jews and Gentiles among the "permanent Israel" that He will rule with at the resurrection, and He was only cutting off historic Israel for a temporary period of time because of their unbelief as explained in Romans 11. Romans 2:28-29 says:

"A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a person’s praise is not from other people, but from God."

This theme of God fulfilling His covenant to Abraham through an Eternal Israel that includes both Jews and Gentiles (Ephesians 2:15) is what sets the stage for the rest of this chapter in which Paul answers objections from Jews who are under the assumption that God was never planning to do such a thing, they believed that the promises were only for "historic Israel" for all time. In reality the promises were originally for historic Israel but God told Abraham that this would not be the final outcome saying "and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed (Genesis 22:18)."

I want to take a moment and clarify further what I mean by the term "Eternal Israel." The historic nation of Israel is a group of Abrahamic descendants whom God chose to bring forth the Messiah through. Because of this He gave them "first option (birthright)" to receive the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This Nation (except for a remnant) rejected the Gospel, which caused God to allow the Gospel to go to every other nation. Those who accept the Gospel among every other nation are adopted into the "Eternal Israel" which is the nation of people that Christ will reign with at the resurrection, this people with include both Jews and Gentiles (Ephesians 2:15). This group fulfills God's original intent in Creation, to have a holy people for Him to love and be in relationship with forever. This transition of God allowing the Gentiles to come into the promises He gave to historic Israel by no means "replaces" the nation of Israel, rather it is meant to provoke them to envy so that they may repent of their "dead works" and come to their God through faith. As it is written, "The just shall live by faith (Habakkuk 2:4)." Let's continue reading....

"9 For this is what the promise said: “About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son.” 10 And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, 11 though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God's purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls— 12 she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” 13 As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated. (Romans 9:9-13).”

Here Paul begins by qualifying that Isaac was the "child of promise" by quoting the direct promise from the Old Testament in verse 9. He draws a direct connection between believers (Eternal Israel) and Isaac as the "children of promise." He then goes on to draw a direct connection between God's promise to Sarah and God's promise to Rebekah concerning Jacob and Esau. Why does he do this? Because there is a direct connection between what Paul is explaining about Jews and Gentiles and how God dealt with Rebekah's children Jacob and Esau in the Old Testament.

Notice the very particular language Paul uses here, “not because of works but because of him who calls— 12 she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” 13 As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” Later on in this chapter Paul explains the reason why God rejected Israel and accepted the Gentiles saying, “What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, a righteousness that is by faith; 31 but that Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law. 32 Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works." So who do Jacob and Esau represent in this passage of scripture? Jacob represents the Gentiles (including the remnant of Jewish believers) and Esau represents historic Israel (those who "sold their birthright" by rejecting the Messiah, see Genesis 25:29-34). So Paul is using God's choosing to bless Jacob to illustrate God's choosing to include the Gentiles into his group of holy people. But did God do this unconditionally without a known reason as Calvinists would assert? Not at all, as we just read He chose to include the Gentiles because they pursued Him by faith (which means it was conditional election), and He chose to harden Israel because the pursued Him by works (another conditional choice), thus the phrase "not because of works but because of Him who calls."

Now, Paul doesn't give a particular reason why God chose Jacob over Esau here in this passage, he simply clarifies that it was "not by works." So God did not choose Jacob because Jacob was a "good man" but rather because He was a man through whom God's purpose in election would stand. Paul's intent was not to do a deep theological teaching on Jacob and Esau but rather to use it as a way of illustrating what God has done in the current situation between Jews and Gentiles. One can only speculate why God did not choose Esau in the Old Testament. One scripture that gives a possible indicator is Hebrews 12:16 which deems Esau as "godless" because he sold his birthright for a bowl of soup. What was this godlessness? Esau did not value the gracious gift of carrying on God's elective purpose through his birthright. Therefore, even though Jacob swindled it out of him, God allowed Jacob to keep it. In context to this passage though, Paul graciously reveals why God "disapproved" of the nation of Israel (excluding the remnant), because they didn't come to Him by faith. They had a "birthright" to the Messiah, but they did not value the gift God desired them to have. But the Gentiles did, and expressed their value of the Messiah by believing His message. Adrian Rogers expounds upon this reality that Paul was not dealing with personal salvation but rather with nations in this part of Romans 9 by saying:

“Let’s see Isaac and Jacob and Esau. Let’s begin in verse 10: “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.’ As it is written, ‘Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated.’” Now someone will say, “There it is, folks.” Election…right there in the womb. Neither one has done a thing. God says He’s going to save Jacob and He’s going to damn Esau. I didn’t read that there. It didn’t say anything at all about salvation. It says that the elder shall serve the younger. How do you spell salvation? S-E-R-V-E? It doesn’t mention 2 salvation there at all. If you will read this passage of Scripture, God is talking about his dealing with the nation of Israel. This is national, not personal. He’s not talking about personal salvation here and I defy you to show me where it mentions personal salvation, heaven or hell…it does not! It mentions exactly as it happened that the birthright came to the younger. Esau, the mountains of Edom and so forth became subservient to Israel. Well, you say, “What about that part where it says ‘as it is written, Jacob have I loved and Esau have I hated?’” When did He say that? He didn’t say that before the twins were born. He said that 1300 years later. That’s a quote from the Book of Malachi. That shows where God laid waste the mountains of Edom because of the sin of these people and when the Bible says that God hated, even there it doesn’t mean that God hates as we use the word hates…when we say, “I hate you.” Jesus said, “If any man come after Me and hate not father and mother and houses and lands and all that he has, he cannot be My disciple.” It means to prefer one against the other. And God deals with the nations of the world! The Jews are God’s chosen people!” Cit. Adrian Rogers, Essay on Reformed Theology

So if we are going to remain faithful to the text in this part of Romans 9, we cannot accept the Calvinist assumption that somehow this all relates to personal salvation and election. The election of Jacob over Esau resulted in Esau's descendants being Israel's servants, it was not an election to damnation as Calvinists teach. Let’s continue…

14 What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God's part? By no means! 15 For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” 16 So then it depends not on human will or exertion,(the Jews pursued by works) but on God, who has mercy (the Gentiles pursued by faith). 17 For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” 18 So then he has mercy on whomever he wills (the Gentiles), and he hardens whomever he wills (the Jews). (Romans 9:14-18- my comments added in parenthesis)

Now that we have clarified that the context is that of Israel being cut off and the Gentiles being grafted into God's family we can easily see that the objector in verse 14 is a Jew objecting to God offering the promise of redemption to every nation, and hardening the nation of Israel (except for a remnant) because of their rejection. The Jew is basically saying "God is unjust because He has cut us off and drawn near to the pagans!" The Jews of that day felt a sense of entitlement to God's promises, even though they disqualified themselves by pursuing them by works and not by faith. And Paul responds by saying who are you to question God's wisdom in the matter? He quotes, "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion."

Many Calvinists use this to assert that this means unconditional election is true, (for info on this click here: Divine Election for Dummies) but in context Paul is simply saying "God can have mercy on the Gentiles if He wants to, He doesn't have to save you just because you are the physical offspring of Abraham, you wouldn't come to Him by faith!" He goes on to use the hardening of Pharaoh as a parallel to Israel's hardening. Notice how both were hardened: God gave the Pharaoh numerous chances to repent but in his pride he was hardened by God's invitation (for more on Pharaoh's hardening CLICK HERE). In the same way God gave Israel numerous chances to repent by sending Christ to do continuous miracles & ministry for 3 years, but in their pride they were hardened by God's invitation! In both cases God invited them to repent but they rejected, yet He still used their hardening for redemptive purposes! This passage has nothing to do with the Calvinists doctrine of double, it has everything to do with people accepting or rejecting God who invites all to repent. OK back to the text now...

19 You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” 20 But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” (the Jew saying, why have you allowed me to harden?) 21 Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? 22 What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, 23 in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— 24 even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles? 25 As indeed he says in Hosea, “Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved.’” 26 “And in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ there they will be called ‘sons of the living God.’”<<referring to the Gentiles inclusion (Romans 9:19-26- my comments in parenthesis)

Here we find Paul building upon this idea of God using the willful rejection and subsequent hardening of a person/people for His ultimate redemptive purposes. We must keep in mind that Paul never leaves the context of this dilemma between historic and eternal Israel. The clay represents historic Israel in the situation at hand in which the they had rejected the Gospel and God choosing to allow the Gentiles to be grafted into the promises He gave to them. This situation is unique in that His people Israel had rejected the very Messiah they had been waiting for many years and thus incurred upon themselves a spiritual hardening to the things of God. The molding of the molder is God working out the situation into redemptive purposes. Instead of destroying Israel for their willful rejection of Him, God decides to "endure with much patience the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction." Israel had come to the point in which God could show them all of the signs and wonders in the world (as He did through Jesus) and yet they still would not repent, therefore as a consequence they were handed over to God's wrath. The word "prepared" found in the phrase "prepared for destruction" is the Greek word "kat─ôrtismena" which means to be "fitted or adjusted." This term has no implications that point to God predestining them to hell, but rather that through their own willful rebellion they had postured themselves to be deserving of punishment.

But why did God endure patience with them, why didn't He destroy them since they has postured themselves to be deserving of punishment? Firstly it would accomplish the crucifixion of Christ, secondly it would cause the Gospel to go to the whole world creating one new man (the body of Christ) containing both Jew and Gentile (Ephesians 2:15)! God did not want to destroy Israel because he knew that through saving the Gentiles it would provoke them to envy that they may be saved (Romans 11:11). Thus Paul says, "endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction (obstinate Israel), 23 in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy (the Gentiles & Eternal Israel), which he has prepared beforehand for glory— 24 even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles.” What are the riches of His mercy that God wants to make known? The Gospel! Who are the vessels of mercy? Those who would accept the Gospel among Jews AND Gentiles! Therefore this section of chapter 9 has nothing to do with God predestining some for hell with no opportunity for salvation and some for heaven by irresistible grace as Calvinists often assert. Rather it is addressing the willful rejection of the Messiah by Israel, and God's redeeming of the situation (the clay) through showing them patience anyways (not destroying Israel for their rebellion) in order that the Gospel be preached in the whole world (the vessels of mercy)!

One might also say, "In verse 23 it says that God 'prepared beforehand' the vessels of mercy for glory, this means He preselected some before Creation to be saved and preselected others to be damned with no ability to choose otherwise." But this is not what the context of the passage indicates nor does the whole of scripture. What Paul is referring to is the same thing we find in other passages that address predestination. That is, before Creation God prepared a plan in which a people who would come to Him by faith would be made holy and conformed into the image of His Son. So the Greek translates literally "He before prepared for glory" meaning that God predetermined for those whom He knew would freely choose Him to be destined for "glory." Romans 8:29-30 says, "For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified." So the order is clear: God foreknows those who would be included among the church through freely receiving the Gospel, and He "prepares them beforehand for glory (predestines them to be conformed to the image of His Son)." God doesn't predestine the unbeliever to be saved (He invites them all to be saved by freely accepting the Gospel), He predestines the saved to be conformed. Salvation comes by a free response to believe the Gospel by grace through faith. And although God foreknows who will be "in Christ," the decision to choose or reject is left for the person to decide. This ability to choose or reject comes from God's grace, nobody can claim that they became saved in their own strength! OK let's continue with the last few verses....

“27 And Isaiah cries out concerning Israel: “Though the number of the sons of Israel be as the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will be saved,28 for the Lord will carry out his sentence upon the earth fully and without delay.” 29 And as Isaiah predicted,

“If the Lord of hosts had not left us offspring,

we would have been like Sodom

and become like Gomorrah.”

30 What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, a righteousness that is by faith; 31 but that Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law. 32 Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone, 33 as it is written,

“Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense;

and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame. (Romans 9:27-33)”

In the first part of this final section Paul quotes Isaiah regarding the remnant of Israel that will respond to the Messiah despite the general culture of stubbornness. Then he quotes a verse that is quite peculiar if you don't take time to put the pieces together, he says, "If the Lord of hosts had not left us offspring, we would have been like Sodom and become like Gomorrah.” Who are the "offspring" mentioned in this passage? If you go back to verse 7 you will find that the offspring are the "children of the promise, or Eternal Israel" So basically Isaiah is saying that had this instance of Gentile inclusion not happened (forming Eternal Israel) Israel would've been destroyed, as I mentioned earlier. But because God continued His work though the church (in order to provoke the Jews to envy, that they may be saved), God's promise to save Israel will by no means be thwarted (we see in Romans chapter 11 that historic Israel can/will STILL be saved).

The final part reveals the biggest problem for Calvinistic theology because Paul admits that God responded to a condition in His choosing of including the Gentiles (Jacob). That is, Paul sums up all of the talk about Jacob and Esau, Pharaoh and Moses, vessels of wrath and vessels of mercy with an explanation of why God chose the Gentiles (Jacob) over Israel (Esau) for a time. And guess what? It wasn't because He predestined Israel to go to hell with no hope of salvation; it was "because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works." Its the same story with Cain and Abel. In Genesis 4:6- " Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? 7 If you do what is right, will you not be accepted?" So God explicitly tells Cain if he would've done it the right way (by faith) He would have accepted his sacrifice:
Hebrews 11:4-"By faith Abel brought God a better offering than Cain did." God wanted Cain to do what was right, and Cain could have, but he chose not to out of his own free will. The reality that God truly wanted Israel to repent is firmly depicted in Matthew 23:37 where Jesus says,

"O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones God's messengers! How often I have wanted to gather your children together as a hen protects her chicks beneath her wings, but you wouldn't let me."

Notice why Jesus didn't save Israel, because "they wouldn't let Him (they did not pursue Him by faith)" not because He predestined for them to go to hell. God wants a people who freely chooses to love Him, therefore He will not save people who stubbornly refuse Him.

So there you have it. A proper exegete of Romans chapter 9 which has clearly shown some major misinterpretations made by Calvinists. I hope and pray that this article will help those who are seeking God's truth to see the beauty of what Paul was truly writing in Romans 9. God bless!

Written by: Kyle Bailey, M.Th.

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