by Matt Perman
Are you unsure about what to believe about predestination? Do you believe in predestination, but are looking for a greater defense of your beliefs? Or do you think that predestination is unbiblical? If one of these questions describes your thinking, I have written this article for you. To be more accurate, I have written this article to glorify God by helping all Christians to confidently acknowledge the reality of His sovereign grace. Romans 9 is a gold mine on this very important truth. And this truth is important. Jesus said that we are to live by every word that God speaks (Matthew 4:4). Paul said that all Scripture is profitable for teaching (2 Timothy 3:16). And the fact that God has devoted a whole chapter to the truth of predestination (in addition to many other passages) seems to indicate that He thinks it is especially important. As we study this chapter, we will see that it very clearly teaches that God determines who is saved (predestination, often called "unconditional election"), and that God determines who isn't saved. Please read this article with an open Bible and an open mind. It is in-depth at places and might take some time to read and ponder, so it might be very profitable to use for one of your devotional times. That should give you the freedom and time to think deeply through this article and the biblical text, in prayer before God.
An attempt to escape the clear teaching of Romans 9
Someone once described the history of the interpretation of Romans 9 as an attempt to escape its clear teaching of unconditional election. A popular view today is that Paul is not talking about God's absolute sovereignty over the eternal destinies of individuals in this chapter, but simply dealing with God's sovereignty over the election of nations to earthy, historical roles. Thus, this view argues that Paul is not teaching in this chapter that God is the one who determines who will be saved and who won't be saved. The main piece of evidence for this view is that the Old Testament texts that Paul quotes in verses 7, 9, and 12 do not seem to apply to salvation in their OT context. Further, they argue, verse 13 doesn't seem to apply to individuals in its OT context.
However, we need to look not only at the context of Paul's OT quotes, but also at the whole context of Romans 9 and its surrounding chapters. The OT rarely discusses the topic of individual election, so Paul's choice of verses reflects more the limited scope of his source, not an attempt to guard against any idea of individual election. Whether or not the passages refer to predestination of individuals to salvation in their OT context, we will see that Paul uses these passages to apply this principle to his argument in Romans 9. As we will see from Paul's flow of argument, the corporate interpretation does not deal adequately with the context of Romans 9. It argues against the context of Romans 9.
The overall context of Romans 9:1-24ff.
If we understand the connection between verses 1-5 and the way it relates to the context of the whole chapter, it will be very evident that throughout this chapter Paul is teaching individual, unconditional election to eternal destinies by God, not corporate election to historical roles.
In verses 1-5 Paul (the author) raises a problem that calls the reliability of God's word into question. The Jews are God's chosen people, having been blessed greatly and given many promises by God (vv. 4-5). As John Piper words it, Israel is the heir of promises from God which "appear to guarantee the salvation of Israel." Yet, many individual Jews are facing eternal condemnation (vv. 1-3). Paul is so distressed that most of his people are accursed that he says "For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh..."(v. 3). So God has given great promises and privileges to the Jews that seem to guarantee their salvation, yet only some of them are being saved. Therefore, it seems as if God's promises to Israel have failed. This is not just a silent inference that we are drawing from the text. In the beginning of verse 6, Paul explicitly acknowledges that the problem of verses 1-5 makes it appear as if God's word has failed: "But it is not as though the word of God has failed." (v. 6).
In verses 6-13, Paul begins explaining and supporting the solution to this problem. He says "it is not as though the word of God has failed" and endeavors to explain why. This solution raises some difficulties of its own, which he addresses in verses 14-18. This turns out to raise even more difficulties, which Paul then addresses in verses 19-24.
The important thing to recognize at this point is that the whole chapter focuses upon addressing the problem raised in verses 1-5. Verses 6-13 give a direct answer to the problem, verses 14-18 give an answer to difficulties raised by that solution, and verses 19-24 give an answer to further questions raised by that solution. So in one way or another, the whole chapter is centered around defending Paul's solution to the problem of verses 1-5.
Therefore, we may conclude that the whole chapter is dealing with the eternal destinies of individuals. Why? For this reason: since the problem raised by verses 1-5 concerns the eternal destinies of individuals, the solution to this problem which Paul defends in the rest of Romans 9 must also deal with the eternal destinies of individuals. Let me repeat this: since the problem of verses 1-5 concerns the eternal destinies of individuals, the solution to the problem that Paul explains (vv.7-14) and defends against objections (vv. 14-29) therefore concerns the eternal destinies of individuals. The "corporate election to historical roles" view cannot successfully explain Paul's thread of argument: How is the problem of eternally condemned, individual Israelites in vv. 1-5 resolved if vv. 6-24ff. only refer to historical roles and not individual salvation? If verses 6-13 (and 14-29) only refer to historical roles of nations, then Paul is not at all addressing why "God's word has not failed" (v. 6), but only restating the fact that created the problem in the first place. "Those interpreters who assert that Paul is referring merely to the historical destiny of Israel and not to salvation do not account plausibly for relationship of verse 1-5 to the rest of the chapter."
Understanding verses 6-13.
Now that we have a general understanding of the context of Romans 9 (and its place in the whole book of Romans if you read footnote 2) let's begin our in-depth exploration of the chapter by looking at vv. 6-13. The first thing Paul wants us to know is that God's word remains firm and successful: "But [that is, in spite of what appears from vv. 1-5] it is not as though God's word has failed." In other words, it may look as if God has failed, but He really hasn't--there is another solution to the problem. Paul then begins to give the true solution to the problem--that is, he begins telling us why God's word hasn't failed: "For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel..." We know that this is the beginning of a solution to the problem because Paul begins this sentence with "for," which indicates that he is connecting it to what has gone before. In other words, the structure of verse 6 clearly indicates that Paul is not just going to state the problem and leave it at that, but rather he is beginning to give a solution to the problem: "But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel..."
So how exactly does Paul solve the problem of vv. 1-5? He responds that the reason "it is not as though the word of God has fallen" is because it never was God's promise to save every individual who is physically descended from the nation of Israel. Instead, God's promise was only to save the elect among the physical Israel: "For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel" he says (v. 6). God's saving promises are to the elect whom He has chosen within Israel (the "true Israel"), and not every physical member of the nation. Since, as we will see, all of the elect do get saved, God's word has not failed.
Paul then supports his point in verses 7-13. He points to God's choice of Isaac over Ishmael (vv. 7-9) and God's election of Jacob over Esau (vv. 10-13) in order to demonstrate an ongoing principle by which God not only established the physical nation of Israel by His electing choice, but also elects within that physical nation the individuals who are part of the "true" Israel--the recipients of eternal life. Isaac and Jacob are used as types (representatives) to apply the principle of unconditional election to all the saved. Thus, we see why "not all from Israel [that is, physical Israel] are really Israel [that is, spiritual Israel]" (v. 6) and therefore understand why God's word has not failed.
The elect, who are members of the true Israel, are "the children of promise" (v. 8). The fact that Isaac and Jacob are used here to represent all saved people--in order to illustrate that God chooses who is saved (i.e., that just as God chose Isaac and Jacob, so also he chooses everyone who is saved)--is brought out in verse 7 when he writes: "...neither [this indicates he is giving support to what he said before, in verse 6] are they all children because they are Abraham's descendants, but: `through Isaac your descendants will be named.'" Paul is saying that the case of Isaac is an illustration of the fact that physical descent isn't enough to make one a child of God, a true descendant of Abraham.
That Paul, in verse 7, is intending to establish an ongoing principle is clear by verse 8: "That is, it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are regarded as descendants." In other words, Paul's point is: "Isaac shows that being a physical descendant of Israel is not enough for salvation. One must be a child of promise. Therefore, `they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel.'" But what is a child of promise? Could it be just someone who chooses to believe--without anything to do with predestination? The things we see Paul saying throughout the whole chapter militate against this view. Further, an examination of why Isaac was a child of promise will also show that the principle that Paul is establishing through Isaac is unconditional election--not free-will. Then, when we examine the case of Jacob, we will see just how clear it is that Paul is teaching unconditional election.
But before demonstrating that a "child of promise" is one whom God chooses to believe, not merely one who believes, it is important to recognize that Paul's use of the phrases "children of promise" and "children of God" in verse 8 make it absolutely clear that he has salvation in view--not just historical roles. "Children of God" (v. 8) in Paul's writings is always used in regards to salvation (see Romans 8:16, 17, 21; Eph. 5:1; Phil. 2:15). Further, the only other place where Paul uses the phrase "children of promise" (also in v. 8) is in Galatians 4:28, where he clearly uses it salvifically. In fact, Isaac is used as an example of all saved people in this text: "And you brethren, like Isaac, are children of promise." Furthermore, in the Galatians text (4:21-31) Paul also applies an OT story to the topic of individual salvation, even though in their OT context the passages do not specifically deal with salvation. So Romans 9 is not the only instance where Paul uses OT texts salvifically, even if in their OT context they do not directly deal with salvation.
So it is clear that "child of promise" has something to do with salvation. But what exactly does it mean to be a child of promise? Are the children of promise those whom God chooses? Paul says that a person is designated a child of promise through God's word of promise: "...but the children of the promise are regarded as descendants. For this is a word of promise: `At this time I will come, and Sarah shall have a son'" (v. 9). The "word of promise" shows that the "children of promise" are those whom God unconditionally elects. Why? First, because you don't become a child of promise by believing, according to this verse. You do not become a child of promise by an act of the human will. Instead, you are a child of promise by an act of God--God's act to give you the word of promise. Second, we know that the word of promise in this verse indicates unconditional election because God was not declaring in this promise that He would simply observe the fact that Isaac would happen to be born through human choice. He was declaring that He would choose to intervene to cause Isaac to be born: "at this time I will come." Thus, the "word of promise" refers to God's sovereign choice to save, not a "free choice" of the human will to believe. Since Isaac here represents all Christians, all true believers are "children of the promise" and thus were chosen by God.
Notice also how this establishes that God's promises haven't failed. The promises of salvation do not belong to the physical nation of Israel, but they belong to those to whom God specifically speaks the "word of promise"--like He did to Isaac. You become a "child of promise" not through physical descent from Israel, but through God's unconditional choice to give you the "word of promise." Since God's promises of salvation are to the elect, the "children of promise," and they are all saved, God's word (promises) have not failed--just as verse 6 said.
In verses 10-13 Paul continues defending and explaining his solution to the problem raised in verses 1-5 by pointing to Jacob as another example of how God chooses who will be the recipients of His saving promises. "And not only this, but there was Rebekah also, when she had conceived of twins by one man, our father Isaac..." (v. 10). Paul is saying "Isaac isn't the only example of this. Jacob was also chosen." In verse 11 Paul makes it even clearer than he did in the case of Isaac that God's choice is unconditional: "for though the twins were not yet born, and had not done anything good or bad, in order that God's purpose according to His choice might stand, not because of works, but because of Him who calls, it was said to her, `The older will serve the younger.' Just as it is written, `Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.'" Paul explicitly says that God's choice of whom to save is made before we are born, that it is not based upon anything good or bad that we do, that it is made based upon God's will alone, and that God makes His choice for the purpose of keeping His word from failing. Wow! And notice that this doesn't just apply to God's choice of whom He will save (Jacob), but it also applies to God's choice of whom He will not save (Esau).
The OT text Paul quotes in verse 12, "The older will serve the younger" must refer in this context to the predestination of Jacob to salvation, not just historical privilege, because Paul says it was God's means of continuing His electing purpose. In the context of Paul's argument, we have seen that salvation is the electing purpose that God maintains through election--He maintains it (vv. 9, 11) in order to keep His word from falling (v. 6). Therefore God's word has not failed because God maintains His purpose through unconditional election, and unconditional election cannot fail because it depends on God, not the will of sinful man. Further, the way Paul comments on "the older will serve the younger" (v. 12) indicates that he was using it salvifically: "...just as it is written, Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated'" (v. 13). Verse 13 begins with the words "just as it is written," thus indicating that Paul is giving further support and explanation for what he has just said in verse 12. Since the terms "loved" and "hated" in verse 13 that Paul uses to explain verse 12 are salvific, therefore verse 12 must be salvific.
Notice in verse 11 how Paul says that God's choice was "not because of works, but because of Him who calls." "Not by works" is a typical way of salvific speaking in Paul (see Romans 9:32; Eph. 2:8-9 among many others), indicating that he still has salvation in view. Comparing verse 11 with 2 Timothy 1:9 -- a great parallel where the call is clearly a saving, unconditional one -- gives further reason to believe salvation is in view.
Verse 11 is clear that God's choice of who will be saved is unconditional. It is not based upon anything in us, such as any foreknowledge of who would believe. Paul does not say that God's choice was "not because of works, but because of faith," but instead says that God's choice was "not because of works, but because of God who calls." In saying that God made His choice before the twins had done anything good or bad, He also seems to be highlighting God's unconditional choice. Paul clearly grounds God's choice of whom to save upon God, not man.
In sum, Paul has answered the problem of verses 1-5 by saying that God's word has not and cannot fail because it is not based upon the will of sinful man. It is based upon God (v. 9, 11, see also 16). Unconditional election is the means by which God maintains His purpose in Israel (v. 11), which the examples of Isaac and then Jacob illustrate. God's word has not failed because God's purpose has never been to save every individual Israelite, but only those whom He has chosen. Since the salvation of the chosen is dependent upon God, it cannot fail that they will all come to faith.
Understanding verses 14-18.
But Paul is not out of the woods yet. The teaching of unconditional election which Paul gave to solve the problem in verses 6-13 leads him open to the objection that God is unjust: "What shall we say then? There is no injustice with God, is there? May it never be!" In verses 15-18 Paul then explains why God is not unjust (notice that verse 15 begins with "for," indicating that Paul is giving reasons for his statement that God is not unjust). Because of this connection between verses 6-13 and 14-18, we must conclude that since verses 6-13 teach individual election to salvation, verses 14-18 also concern individual election to salvation. In other words, verses 6-13 gave the solution to a problem that involved the eternal destinies of individuals. Therefore, verses 6-13 involved the eternal destinies of individuals. Since verses 14-18 are written to answer objections to this teaching of vv. 6-13, then verses 14-18 must also be teaching individual election to eternal destinies. It would be totally opposed to Paul's flow of thought to deny this. Therefore, as we examine verses 14-18, keep in mind that they are dealing with individuals and their eternal destinies.
Before looking at how Paul answers the objection of verse 14, notice that no one ever gives this particular objection of the Arminian (those who think that election is based upon human decision). No one ever objects "If God ultimately leaves it up to humans to decide if they will be saved, then He might be unjust." So the fact that Paul anticipates the objection that God is unjust indicates that Paul is not an Arminian and we have rightly understood verses 6-13 as teaching unconditional election.
In verse 15, Paul answers why God is not unjust. He quotes Exodus 33:19 where God is in the midst of proclaiming His name to Moses: "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion." To the Hebrews, one's name revealed his very self, his nature. This is therefore a declaration of God's nature. But what is this saying about His nature? It is saying that it is God's nature to decide whom He will give mercy to without considering any condition found outside of Himself. In other words, God gives mercy to whoever He wants to, He consults nobody but Himself in His decision, and therefore His decision is not based upon anything that the individual does. Don't misunderstand and think that this means somebody can come to Christ for salvation and be turned away because they weren't chosen. God saves everybody who believes in Christ (John 6:37-40). But unconditional election means that God is the one who determines which people will believe and therefore God determines which people will be saved.
The truth of unconditional election is not only self-evident from the meaning of the phrase "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy." It is also demonstrated by the fact that this is a special kind of Hebrew phrase called idem per idem. "Other examples of [this formula] are Ex 4:13 ("I pray, Lord, send now by the hand you will send"); Ex 16:23 ("Bake what you will bake, boil what you will boil"); ...2 Kgs 8:1 ("Sojourn where you sojourn"). By leaving the action unspecified the force of this idiom is to preserve the freedom of the subject to perform the action in whatever way he pleases....Therefore ...[God is]...stressing that there are no stipulations outside his own counsel or will which determine the disposal of his mercy and grace." 
Furthermore, notice the parallel between Romans 9:15 ("I will have mercy on whom I have mercy") and Exodus 3:14, "I am who I am." The parallel indicates that just as God's being is unconditioned by anything outside of Himself ("I am who I am"), so also His dispensing of mercy is unconditioned by anything outside of Himself ("I will have mercy on whom I have mercy"). So Romans 9:15 is a very clear statement that God chooses who is saved, apart from any condition found outside of Himself. God doesn't choose someone because they first believed in Him. Rather, people believe in Christ because God has first chosen them.
But how does the fact that it is God's nature to be utterly free in determining who will receive mercy answer the question of why God is not unjust in unconditional election? The answer is that Paul must be understanding God's righteousness (or justice) to be His "unswerving commitment always to preserve the honor of his name and display his glory." Unrighteousness would therefore be for God to act in a way that doesn't glorify Himself. So in other words, for God to be righteous He must always act in a way that displays His glory (God's "glory" is the same as God's nature--it is who God is). As we saw earlier, God's glory (who He is) consists largely in the fact that "He will have mercy on whom He will have mercy." Therefore, in v. 15 Paul is responding that God is not unjust in unconditional election because God is acting for the sake of His glory. In other words, since it is the nature of God to be sovereignly free in deciding whom to save, God is not unrighteous in unconditional election because in doing so He is simply acting in accordance with who He is and thus displaying His glory.
Another good argument that Paul is teaching individual election to salvation is that since this verse is a declaration of the nature of God, it must be referring to a general principle that extends to every act of God's grace (for God always acts in accordance with His nature)--which would include salvation.
In verse 16 Paul draws a general principle from verse 15, the same one that we have found: "So then, it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy." Further evidence that this verse teaches individual election is that Paul's use of the singular in this verse (and also v. 18) would not make sense if he was not dealing with individuals.
So verses 15-16 have shown (once again) that God does choose who is saved. They also show why He is not unjust to do this. In verses 17-18, Paul shows that God also chooses who is not saved. Verse 17 says, "For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, `For this very purpose I raised you up, to demonstrate my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed throughout the whole earth.'" God raised up the wicked Pharaoh and (remember the story of the Exodus?) God hardened Pharaoh's heart so that He could display His power in judging Egypt with the ten plagues, and thereby make known His greatness throughout the whole earth.
Are we correct in using the example of Pharaoh to prove that God chooses who is not saved? Yes, for this is what Paul concludes in verse 18: "So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires." Paul is very clear: God decides who will believe and who won't believe. His choice is unconditional because He chooses and rejects "whom He desires."
Understanding verses 19-24.
Paul has now shown in verses 14-18 why God is just in unconditional election, and also given further evidence for unconditional election. But this, in turn, raises even further objection: "You will say to me then, Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?'" (v. 19). Once again, this is an objection that is never made against Arminianism. But isn't this one of the most common objections made against the teaching of unconditional election? Since Paul anticipates this objection to his own teaching, he must be teaching unconditional election.
As should be clear, the context requires us to interpret verses 19-24 as referring to individuals and their eternal destinies--for this section was written to deal with objections raised against the teaching of unconditional election in verse 14-18. Since that section dealt with individual, eternal destinies, the section that deals with its objections must also deal with individual, eternal destinies.
How does Paul answer the objection of verse 19? First, he says that we have no right to make this objection against God: "On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, `Why did you make me like this,' will it?" Paul isn't saying it is wrong to make a humble inquiry into the ways of God and ask why we are still responsible for our actions when God controls everything. He is rebuking the prideful attitude that says God shouldn't do this and the careless attitude that uses this objection to conclude that God doesn't do this.
Paul continues answering the objection in verse 21 by saying that if God is God, He has the right and ability to choose who will believe, who won't believe, and also hold people accountable for not believing: "Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another vessel for common use?" Notice the further teaching of unconditional election in that the saved (vessels for honorable use) and unsaved (vessels for common use) are from the same lump. Christians didn't set themselves apart by believing, and then God responded by choosing us for salvation. Instead, everybody is by nature in the same lump of sin, and God must sovereignly choose to take some out of that lump, give them faith, and save them--while He also leaves others in that lump, choosing not to save them.
But why doesn't God save everybody? Clearly if unconditional election is true He could have. So why didn't he? In verses 22-23 Paul goes right to the bottom of things and tells us why. He says that God, in order to "demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction. And He did so in order that He might make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory."
First, notice how once again in this chapter Paul is teaching that God determines who will be saved. He says that God prepares "vessels of wrath for destruction." God also prepares "vessels of mercy" for glory. And Paul is clearly referring to the eternal destinies of individuals here, since that is the whole context and flow of his argument (as we have seen). Further, the words Paul uses here add more support to the fact that he is teaching about eternal destinies. His use of the word for "destruction" in regard to the vessels of destruction in v. 22 is often used to denote eternal destruction (Phil. 1:28; 3:19; 1 Tim. 6:9). His word for "glory" in regard to the vessels of mercy who were "prepared beforehand for glory" in v. 23 is also sometimes used to denote eternal life (Rom. 2:10; 8:18; 1 Thess. 2:12; 2 Tim. 2:10).
Second, notice that Paul actually tells us why God does this. God prepares the non-elect for destruction in order to demonstrate His wrath and make His power known in destroying them. If God did not prepare vessels of wrath, God could not fully display His wrath. But if God did not fully display His wrath, then the vessels of mercy--those who are saved--would not fully appreciate, see, or understand the riches of God's glory. It seems that in order for the elect to fully appreciate the greatness of God's mercy, they need to see and understand the wrath that God's mercy had saved them from. Therefore God prepares vessels of wrath to endure His wrath in order to highlight to the elect the riches of His mercy that couldn't otherwise be highlighted. As a result of there being "vessels of wrath fitted for destruction," Christians will have a greater appreciation of God's mercy, thank Him more deeply for their salvation, and have a wonderful and more complete delight in the riches of His glory forever.
Verse 24 identifies these vessels of glory as all Christians. The vessels of glory are those who were "called, not from among Jews only, but also among Gentiles." So Paul is clear in this verse that God's unconditional election is not simply confined to the nation of physical Israel, but is the way God works with all people -- both Jews and Gentiles. It is good news that a person doesn't need to be a member of physical Israel in order to be a member of the true Israel. Finally, notice how this verse also gives the strong impression of God selecting out certain individuals to be saved: "whom He also called, not from among the Jews only, but also from among the Gentiles."
Let us sum up the main evidence that Paul is teaching individual election to salvation throughout this whole chapter. In verses 1-5, Paul raised a problem that makes it look as if God's word has failed. But God's word has not failed, and Paul writes the rest of the chapter (vv. 6-24ff.) to explain why. Since the problem Paul is addressing concerns the eternal destinies of individuals, the solution Paul gives must also involve the eternal destinies of individuals. Therefore, we are justified in interpreting all of the references to predestination in this chapter as applying to individuals and their eternal destinies.
The specific flow of Paul's argument is this. In verses 1-5, he raises a problem. God has made promises to Israel that appear to guarantee its salvation. But the reality is that many individual Jews are not saved. Therefore it appears as if God's word has failed. In verses 6-13, we find the solution to this problem: not everybody who is a physical Jew is a true Jew. The true Jews are the "children of promise"--those whom God chooses to save. The examples of Isaac and Jacob are used by Paul to establish this the ongoing principle by which God chooses who will be a member of the true Israel. It is to the true Jews that the guarantee of salvation belongs, not physical Jews, and God makes sure that they (the true Israel) all get saved. Therefore God's word has not failed.
But this raised the objection of verse 14, which Paul answered in verses 15-18. In the course of answering this objection, Paul taught unconditional election even more clearly. But in doing so, Paul anticipates yet another objection (v. 19) which he answers in verses 20-24. Paul's flow of argument is woven very tightly, and it cannot be denied that individual election to salvation is the main theme running throughout the whole passage. One of the many reasons for this is that verses 6-24ff. are all centered around addressing, in one way or another, the problem from verses 1-5 of individual Jews being eternally lost. Therefore corporate election to historical role interpretation argues against the context of Romans 9:1-29ff.
With such clear evidence that this chapter is dealing with the eternal destinies of individuals, let us quickly review the many places in this passage where Paul teaches unconditional election--that is, predestination. First, Isaac was chosen unconditionally by God. All Christians are children of promise like him, and therefore all Christians are chosen unconditionally (vv. 7-9). Second, the case of Jacob and Esau illustrates that God chooses who is saved before they are born, before they have done anything good or bad, that His decision is not based upon any foreknowledge of their faith or works, and that God's choice cannot fail because it is dependant upon His own will, not our will (vv. 10-13). Third, God "will have mercy on whom He will have mercy" (v. 15). Fourth, election does not depend upon human will or effort, but God (v. 16). Fifth, the example of Pharaoh illustrates that God chooses who will not be saved (v. 17). Sixth, this means that "God has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires" (v. 18). Because of this, God's will is always done (v. 19). Seventh, God exercises His sovereign rights as creator to make vessels of honorable use and vessels of common use (v. 21). Eight, these vessels are chosen out of the same lump, and therefore had not distinguished themselves on their own (such as by believing) (v. 21). Ninth, verse 22 again reiterates the point that God prepares vessels of wrath, and (tenth) verse 23 reiterates the point that God prepares vessels of mercy. Eleventh, God selects these vessels of mercy by His own will out of Jews and Gentiles (v. 24). And because of Paul's flow of argument, there is no denying that this all applies to individual election to salvation. Verses 25-29 also teach predestination in several ways, but we have ended our study here.
The applications of the teaching in Romans 9 are huge. I will leave it to the reader to work them out in his or her mind. But in closing I wish to give one of these many wonderful applications: God's promises are certain to be fulfilled because they depend ultimately upon God's action. God takes action in human history to make sure His promises will be fulfilled. This doesn't mean that we don't need to meet the conditions of His promises to benefit from them, and it doesn't mean that the lost don't need to believe in order to be saved. It means that behind these acts of faith is the sovereign hand of God, causing His children to continue trusting Him more and more deeply, and causing unbelievers to respond to the gospel and be saved. As Christians, this should give us great hope in evangelism, trust in God for our futures, and security of our salvation.
Romans 9 is a gold mine. I encourage you to pray for God's guidance and continue studying it deeply.
An excellent and extensive source for this paper has been John Piper's book, The Justification of God: An Exegetical & Theological Study of Romans 9:1-23 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker books, 1993).
1. For other examples of NT writers figuratively applying OT texts to salvation when the passages do not seem to deal with salvation in their OT context, see Galations 4:21-31 and Hebrews 12:16. Galatians 4:21-31 is a particularly pertinent example, for it is written by Paul and involves Isaac, who is also used in Romans 9. Paul clearly did not shrink from using Old Testament historical events and applying to them eternal, spiritual significance.
2. Piper, p. 46. See chapter one of Piper's book for a well-argued case that the privileges to Israel listed in verses 4-5 pertain to salvation. One example is that Paul lists "sonship" as belonging to Israel, and Paul always uses this term with the fullest saving significance. Also, the connection between Romans 8:28-39 and Romans 9:1-11:36 indicates that the promises to Israel described in vv. 4-5 pertain to salvation, and that in the rest of Romans 9 (and 10-11 as well) Paul is explaining why God's word has not failed in light of Israel's unbelief: "In 8:28-39 Paul asserts that those who have been predestined to salvation will be glorified, ...that no charge will stand against them in court, and that nothing will separate them from the love of Christ. But how can believers count on these great saving promises in 8:28-39 if God's promises to Israel have not been fulfilled? If the saving promises made to Israel came to nought, then the saving promises to the church may as well. By affirming that God will fulfill his promises to Israel, Paul also assures the church that the promises made in 8:28-39 will come to fruition" (Schreiner, pp. 93-94).
3. Thomas Schreiner, "Does Romans 9 Teach Individual Election to Salvation?" in The Grace of God, the Bondage of the Will (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1995), ed. Thomas Schreiner and Bruce Ware, p. 91.
4. Piper, p. 82.
5. Piper, p. 219.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1975, 1977, by the Lockman Foundation.