by Matthew W. Bassford
If there is any passage in the Bible that Calvinists love, it is Romans 9:6-24. Upon a casual reading, it seems to confirm the Calvinist doctrine of predestination. It talks at great length about God’s mercy and God’s choice being the deciding factors in human existence, and in the context, Paul cites a number of Old Testament figures to prove his point. When first I began to study the Bible on my own, this context intimidated me.
However, as is often the case, when we consider this text in a wider context, it takes on a different meaning. Paul’s goal in Romans 9-11 is not to explain the salvation or damnation of individuals; it is to explain why the physical nation of Israel, despite having received God’s promises, largely has rejected Jesus and His salvation. Romans 10:6 implies the question Paul is answering: has the word of God failed?
In response, Paul argues that the promises to the patriarchs are not fulfilled through their fleshly descendants (physical Israel) but through the children of the promise (Christians). It always has been this way; according to the flesh, Ishmael and Esau should have been the heirs of the promise, but God chose Isaac and Jacob as heirs.
In this, Paul continues, God is not being unjust. If He wants to show mercy to Christians instead of Israelites, He has the right to do that, and if He wants to use Israel as a tool to make known His glorified people from all races, He can do that too.
None of this has anything to do with the predestination or salvation of individuals. Ishmael was not automatically lost because he was not the heir of the promise; in fact, we know nothing about his salvation or condemnation. The same is true of Esau. In many ways, he looks like a more righteous man than his younger brother [even though he is later condemned as an immoral man in Hebrews 12:15-17].
The issue of Pharaoh is trickier. As Paul’s quotation from Exodus 9:16 shows, God did indeed raise Pharaoh up so that He would be glorified through him. However, at least for a time, Pharaoh had a choice about how God would be glorified. Cyrus-like (compare Isaiah 45:1-6), Pharaoh could have let God’s people go immediately, which would have made the book of Exodus much shorter and less interesting.
However, that’s not the choice that Pharaoh made. Though God did harden Pharaoh’s heart later (in much the same way that I might harden my wife’s heart by doing something that I know drives her buggo), the first time that Pharaoh’s hard heart is attributed to anybody, it’s attributed to Pharaoh, in Exodus 8:15. Now, God only could be glorified through Pharaoh’s humbling and destruction.
All of these Old-Testament characters are introduced, though, only to prove Paul’s main point. God can do whatever He wants with the physical nation of Israel, and He can do whatever He wants with the spiritual nation of Christians. Only the second nation will be saved, but as Paul’s own example proves, there was nothing hindering Jews from joining spiritual Israel except for their own hardheartedness.
The same holds true for us today. We know which group will be saved. Whether we belong to that group is up to us.