How Romans 9 Anticipates Objections to Unconditional Election

Martyn Lloyd-Jones once said if no one ever accuses you of preaching antinomianism, then you probably aren’t preaching justification the way Paul did. Why not? Because Paul anticipates this very objection in Romans 6:1: What shall we say thenshall we continue in sin that grace may abound? So if people make the same accusation against our preaching, its a good indication were preaching the gospel like Paul did.

The same could be said of the doctrine of election in Romans 9. Twice in this chapter, Paul raises what appear to be natural objections against his teaching on election (Rom. 9:14, 19). I say natural because these are the same objections people still make when election is taught a certain way. You can read them in books and hear them in sermons. In fact, before Romans 8 helped make me a Calvinist, I leveled these same two objections against the doctrine of unconditional election.

Twice in [Romans 9], Paul raises what appears to be natural objections against his teaching on election.

So heres my claim: in Romans 9, Paul teaches the (Calvinist) doctrine of unconditional electionthe teaching that God chooses to save some and not others, not based on anything in them (whether faith or fruit, present or foreseen), but based solely on his sovereign will and purpose. Evidence for this view comes in two steps: first, Paul addresses two of the same objections still raised against Calvinistic doctrine; and second, he doesnt answer the objections the way an Arminian would.

So what are the objections?

1. Unconditional Election Makes God Unjust

We see this objection in verse 14. Paul has just been discussing two Old Testament case studies in election. First, God chose Isaac over Ishmael (Rom. 9:69); second, he chose Jacob over Esau (vv. 1013). Paul stresses that Jacob was chosen and loved over Esau unconditionallythough they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad, in order that Gods purpose of election might continue (v. 11).

To which the natural human response is, But thats not fair! To claim God chooses and rejects people without any regard to their character, whether good or bad, would make God unjust!

Which is exactly why Paul raises that objection in verse 14: What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? As with Lloyd-Jones’s quip about antinomianism, the mere fact that Paul predicts this objection indicates that hes teaching unconditional election. After all, how often does the Arminian teaching of conditional election based on foreseen faith provoke such a response?

The mere fact that Paul predicts this objection indicates that hes teaching unconditional election.

But though this argument favors unconditional election, it doesnt settle the matter. After all, Arminians also deny God is unjust in election. So we need to listen to Pauls explanation for why this charge is by no means true before we declare victory for either side. Perhaps the objector has misunderstood Paul. If so, we should expect some clarification.

So, how does Paul respond to the objection? Does he say, By no means! For though God may have chosen Jacob before they were born, that doesnt mean he didnt foresee that Jacob would be a believing man and Esau a profane man? Does he say, And just to be clear, Im not talking about the elections of individuals to salvation, but only of nations to special service?

Answer: no, he doesnt.

Instead of responding like an Arminian, he doubles down on Gods sovereign right to show mercy and compassion to whomever he wills (Rom. 9:15). Its true that Scripture presents Esau as wicked and Jacob as believing. And its certainly true God foresaw all this (since he foresees everything). But this cant be the basis of Gods choice, since it would defeat the whole purpose of announcing the choice when they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad.

Instead of responding like an Arminian, Paul doubles down on Gods sovereign right to show mercy and compassion to whomever he wills (Rom. 9:15).

Of course, there are verses that say With the merciful you show yourself merciful (2 Sam. 22:26; cf. Matt. 5:7). But thats not what Romans 9:15 is addressing. Romans 9:15 is addressing the deeper reality of why some people are merciful to begin with. Romans 9:15 (God has mercy on whom he wills) is pointing to a more profound reality than 2 Samuel 22:26 (God has mercy on those who show mercy). To say Gods mercy ultimately originates as a response to foreseen faith or mercy is to affirm election does depend on human will and exertion, rather than on God (contrary to v. 16).

In short, God chose Jacob not because Jacob was any better than Esau, and God rejected Esau not because Esau was any worse than Jacob. Gods choice had nothing to do with anything in them, foreseen or otherwise. This teaching provokes the objection in verse 14 and the explanation in verses 1516.

Which bleeds over into the second objection.

2. Unconditional Election Destroys Human Responsibility

We see this objection in verse 19. As an additional example of Gods sovereignty, Paul cites Exodus 9:16 and claims that God raised up Pharaoh for the purpose of showing off his power and making a name for himself in all the earth (v. 17). From which Paul draws the inference: So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills (v. 18).

This language of hardening, though not present in Exodus 9:16, comes from the broader Exodus narrative in which God commands Pharaoh to let Israel go while simultaneously hardening Pharaohs heart to keep him from letting them go. Gods purpose in this repeated hardening was to drag out the process so as to allow him to get glory over Pharaoh in a way that would spread his fame abroad (Ex. 14:4; Josh. 2:811).

The idea of God sovereignly hardening Pharaoh in accord with his own purpose, rather than as a response to Pharaohs (evil) willing and running, provokes the objection in verse 19 and still provokes it today: You will say then, Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will? (Rom. 9:19). How can God blame Pharaoh for refusing to let his people go (and he does, Ex. 9:34) if Pharaoh is simply fulfilling Gods purposes? If the idea of unconditional election is offensive (he has mercy on whomever he wills), then the idea of unconditional hardening is doubly offensive (and he hardens whomever he wills).

The idea of God sovereignly hardening Pharaoh in accord with his own purpose . . . provokes the objection in verse 19, and still provokes it today.

Again, the fact that this objection is even raised suggests our interpretation is on the right track. But as before, this doesnt settle the matter. We must first listen to Pauls response to see if the objector has misunderstood him.

And once again, Pauls response is telling. Does he respond by arguing, But remember, God only hardened Pharaohs heart after Pharaoh had hardened his own heart?

Answer: no, he doesnt. Instead, he questions the critics right to even lodge the objection (Rom. 9:20). He then doubles down on Gods sovereign right, as the potter, to make vessels for whatever uses he sees fit (vv. 2021)whether for dishonor, wrath, and destruction (vv. 2122) or for honor, mercy, and glory (v. 23).

Its not that God fashions vessels arbitrarily. Its simply that his choice isnt based on anything in the vessels themselves. Moses and Pharaoh were from the same lump (Rom. 9:21), just as Jacob and Esau were from the same man (v. 10) and had lived in the same womb at the same time. The type of vessels they became was rooted not in their will or exertion, but in Gods purpose to show his wrath and make known his power. And what’s his ultimate goal? To make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy (v. 23)vessels who wouldnt fully appreciate the glory of that mercy unless seen against the backdrop of his wrath (vv. 2223).

Preaching Election Like Paul

John Piper acknowledges,

[Given that the] theological issue at stake [in Romans 9] reaches to the heart of our understanding of God . . .there is great value in being willing, if the grammatical and historical evidence demands it, to let Paul say something different from what we would initially prefer (172).

As you read Romans 9, do your thoughts on election sound more like Pauls, or like those of his objector?

As you read Romans 9, do your thoughts on election sound more like Pauls, or like those of his objector? Romans 9 offers a rare opportunity for Christians to test their theological positions. Its not often that common objections to biblical doctrine get explicitly raised in Scripture, much less answered. Given how difficult the doctrine of unconditional election is for fallen humans to submit to, this probably isn’t an accident.

So dont let such a rare gift go to waste. Test yourself. Because if you’ve never been accused of making God unjust and man a puppet, then you’re probably not preaching election the way Paul did.

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