Romans 9. If not Predestination, what then?

Romans 9 has intimidated more believers regarding predestination than probably any other passage in Scripture. We’ve already looked at the overall context of the letter to the Romans—that the Gentiles are also included in the new deal, and they don’t need to follow Moses to get it. Now, let’s look more closely at the context of Paul’s argument.

Romans 9:18-21 Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden. One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who is able to resist his will?” But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’” Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use. (NIV)

Romans chapter 9 is aimed at those whose self-righteousness rested in their ethnic identity—Jews who had pride in their heritage, to whom “belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the temple service, and the promises” (Rom. 9:4, NIV). Paul's argument is crafted to say, No! You Jews have nothing to be proud of! Nothing to stand on to claim that your ancestors earned your position.

He briefly reviews Israel's history: Sarah's womb was barren and the child she bore (Isaac) was miraculous; Rebekah's womb was also barren and when she finally bore twins the birthright ought to have gone to Esau; and, Rachel's womb—you guessed it—was also barren, and it was her child Joseph who saved Israel from famine. Therefore, Paul concludes, the Jew has nothing to boast about, for if things had gone naturally,

  1. Sarah would have never given birth;

  2. Esau—not Jacob—would have received the blessing; and

  3. Israel and his sons would have died along with most Egyptians from the famine that struck the region.

All of these together mean that at worst there would have been no Israel at all, at best, they would have become an unknown mountain hill tribe like the Edomites. “So then, it doesn’t depend on a person’s desire or effort. It depends entirely on God, who shows mercy” (Rom. 9:16). God showed mercy to Sarah and Rachel and molded them into vessels of deliverance; He hardened Esau and Pharaoh in his kiln to speed the conditions for his deliverance.

We can't earn our position, gain the promises, or receive righteousness through our works. Abraham couldn't work to produce Isaac. Jacob didn’t choose to become Israel. And Israel can’t achieve righteousness through self-effort. Paul is trying to help the Jews see that all of these things come by way of God’s promising, not through striving. Isn’t this a metaphor, then, for salvation? No, it is not. Let’s keep reading.

Paul even recognizes some of the questions the reader might have regarding God's will. If Israel had nothing to do with their existence and standing, what about Esau and Pharaoh? Is it unfair what happened to them? From the Esau story, we know it was his own foolish disregard for legacy, inheritance, and honor that led him to barter it for a bowl of soup. And we know from the exodus story that Pharaoh had his own political and economic motives for not freeing Egypt’s slaves. Esau gave into his hunger. Pharaoh gave into greed.

Could they have gone the other way? Suffice it to say, there is a two-way street going on here, just like between a potter and his clay. The potter has plans and intentions; the clay moves and responds to God’s fingers. It takes a master potter to know exactly where to press, ever so slightly, to get it to bend and curve and take shape. He knew what each man would do under certain circumstances. He didn’t stack the deck to box them in; He set them up and gave them a role to play, albeit an inglorious one. They played the part, not as puppets, but because it was in keeping with their quality. The potter-clay metaphor is not intended to say that God pre-scripted and determined everything they would ever do. Esau and Pharaoh are still responsible for their actions and decisions.

Above all, we must remember that Paul, like every writer, can use one metaphor in several different ways that are not always compatible with each other, nor is one particular metaphorical application meant to be the ultimate truth over the others. For example, when I say, "my family tree has many branches, some are scratchier than others, while others hide many secrets with their foliage," you know I’m using the tree metaphor in a few different ways. When Paul uses the potter-and-clay metaphor, he can use it to describe God’s role, different vessels and their purposes, and the clay’s quality and responsiveness. It isn’t meant to be singular, unified, perfect metaphor. Paul is communicating with illustrations. And nowhere in Romans 9 is Paul communicating that Esau and Pharaoh were sent to hell. This passage was never about heaven and hell. Paul is trying to deconstruct the Jew’s sense of chosenness and convince them that neither resting in their ethnicity nor striving for righteousness will get them there. They must grasp the Kingdom the same way the Gentiles have: by faith.

“But Israel, pursuing the law for righteousness, has not achieved the law. Why is that? Because they did not pursue it by faith...” (vs. 31, 32).

If Paul was preaching predestination as Calvinism argues, then in the above verse he should have said, “because God did not choose them to achieve righteousness.” But that isn’t what he is saying. Paul concludes that they did not trust in God. That is why they didn’t attain righteousness. Because they turned righteousness into an outside measure whereby they could judge themselves and others. Righteousness, according to Paul, means: “right standing with God based on trust.”

Righteousness was always mean to be relational. It requires a relationship with God. Righteousness is impossible to grasp without it. As long as we pursue it by effort, it remains a mirage. Righteousness is like God’s shadow. And the only way to grasp it is to turn to him—to take hold of the real person behind the shadow. 

So, what did God do? He put a stumbling stone in their way. To make it even harder? No. To miss the way? No. The way they were going was the wrong way. The stumbling stone was not on their way toward truth so as to prevent them from getting it. Rather, it was a stumbling stone on their own self-made path—an act of grace to get them back to the true way. The very next statement says, “...yet the one who believes on Him will not be put to shame.” There was always an open way to God—to true righteousness.

"We are the ones God has called. We don’t come only from the Jews but we also come from the Gentiles.” Romans 9:24

Let’s review. We must keep the big picture in mind: Paul was making the point that God intended to save people from all nations—not just Israel—and that they would turn to God and “be called sons of the living God.” (vs. 26). At the end of Romans 9, Paul quotes a prophesy from Hosea, saying, “I will call Not-My-People, My-People, and she who is unloved, beloved.” God's purposes through Abraham, Isaac, Israel, Esau, Joseph's brothers, Pharaoh, etc. was to show us (Abraham's seed, people of faith, not only Jews) that identity, favor, righteousness, and salvation come through his promise. And his ultimate promise was fulfilled for all of us in the real, physical manifestation of God as Jesus. 

A practical, relational point: No one can win themselves into our good graces by their efforts to look cool or win sympathy. People who are raw, broken, without guile or pretense easily draw on our mercy and compassion. We are drawn to them and desire to know them. If we do not act relationally (with mercy and compassion), we act against our conscience. The opposite is just as true. Pretentious people, even if they try to win our favor or friendship, could never draw out of us the same compassion. Once you forget about how other people think about you, that is when you start being yourself and winning real relationships. Why would it be different between God and us. God, who shows mercy, will be gracious to all who come to him as their genuine self. We must remember that God is highly relational—a personal being with emotion, and attraction just like the rest of us. And even more.

[taken from my book Catharsis]