Does Romans 9 teach predestination? (part 1)

This is rather a long Bible study, so I am presenting it in two parts.

Chapter nine of the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Church in Rome is often interpreted to affirm the theory that God has eternally decreed who will be saved and who will be damned. This is the fatalistic doctrine known as ‘predestination’ and is commonly associated with Calvinism. A couple of verses from this chapter are often used by proponents of this doctrine as a way of silencing anyone who questions their claim, by asserting the immense gulf between the position of God and man: “No but, O man, who are you that reply against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why have you made me thus? Has not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel to honor, and another to dishonor?” (Verses 20-21, AKJV).

It has been my experience that anyone who dares to question how God can be just – never mind merciful – if He brings people into existence for absolutely no other reason than to cast them into the fires of everlasting hell, is rather condescendingly told that he has no right to question the wisdom of Almighty God. End of argument (if indeed this can rightly be called an ‘argument’!). The supreme irony, of course, is that such a put down can be used by anyone asserting any theory, including the rebuttal of Calvinist claims!

A close examination of this chapter in Romans, however, reveals that the text supports no such interpretation. In fact, an accurate and logical reading of the passage – taken in context and read with the rest of the testimony of the Bible in mind – reveals a truth which is completely at variance with the Calvinist idea.

Let us start at the beginning of the chapter. Verses 1-5 read as follows:

I say the truth in Christ, I lie not, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Ghost, that I have great heaviness and continual sorrow in my heart. For I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh: who are Israelites; to whom pertains the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises; whose are the fathers, and of whom as concerning the flesh Christ came, who is over all, God blessed for ever. Amen. (Emphasis mine).

This is a passage specifically about Israel: the “flesh and blood” Jews, of which race Paul was a member, and, as he mentions, so was Jesus Himself. The highlighted phrases make clear that Paul is not referring to “spiritual Jews” (as he does earlier in Romans in chapter 2, verses 28-29), but to the physical race of Israelites. This point is very important, to set the context for what follows. God gave this race of people a unique spiritual status and certain blessings, which Paul lists: the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises…

Now because Paul has made clear that he is referring specifically to the physical nation of Israel (with reference to another associated nation – Edom, as I will explain), then it is, at best, poor exegesis, and, at worst, dishonest to assume that what follows is a revelation concerning God’s dealings with mankind as a whole. This will become obvious as we investigate the text.

Paul acknowledges the unique spiritual status of Israel, but in verse 1 we have read that he is in a state of continual sorrow over the spiritual state of his nation. Now why is this? Paul then goes on to explain why: not all Israelites are actually the “children of promise”. Verses 6 to 8 read as follows:

Not as though the word of God has taken none effect. For they are not all Israel, which are of Israel: neither, because they are the seed of Abraham, are they all children: but, In Isaac shall your seed be called. That is, they which are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God: but the children of the promise are counted for the seed. (Emphasis mine).

I will repeat one phrase from the above text: they which are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God. There is a unity to Paul’s argument in Romans, and I have already referred back to Romans 2:28-29. These verses state that “…he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: but he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.”

Even though the physical Israel is very important (as Paul also emphasises in the verses that follow in Romans 2), it is clear that a child of God is not someone who just happens to be a member of the “chosen race”, but rather is one who is in a right relationship with God spiritually, and whose heart, rather than whose flesh, has been circumcised – ‘circumcision’ here being used to denote a spiritually transformed life.

During His ministry on earth, Jesus told some of the Jews that they were of “their father the devil”, despite the fact that they saw their spiritual security in their descent from Abraham (see John 8:33-44). “If you were Abraham’s children, you would do the works of Abraham” (v. 39).

John the Baptist also warned his hearers not to put their trust in their lineage from Abraham: But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism, he said to them, O generation of vipers, who has warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance: and think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham as our father: for I say to you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children to Abraham. (Matthew 3:7-9).

The message is clear. The Israelites were not acceptable to God simply because they were “children of Abraham”, that is, merely members of a certain race, but they were acceptable to God on the basis of their spiritual condition. If their spiritual condition was right before God, then they were not only “children of Abraham”, but also, and more importantly, “children of the promise” (See Romans 9:8).

Paul explains that the promise relates to “the seed of Isaac”. Isaac was the promised child, borne by Sarah in her old age, and redeemed by the ram (symbolising Christ) when God commanded Abraham to go to Mount Moriah to offer him up as a sacrifice (Genesis 22). Isaac was therefore representative of those who are redeemed by God, being the product of a miracle, and having been atoned for (symbolically) by the ram. Those who are the true children of God are therefore children of Isaac, hence the saying to Abraham “In Isaac shall your seed be called” (quoted by Paul here in Romans 9, verse 7, and originally from Genesis 21:12).

Paul then elaborates on this by explaining the significance of the children of Isaac:

For this is the word of promise, At this time will I come, and Sarah shall have a son. 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 calls); it was said to her, The elder shall serve the younger. As it is written, Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated. (Romans 9:9-14, emphasis mine)

Now I suspect that many people will recoil in horror at this passage of Scripture. How can the God of all righteousness, justice and mercy just decide to love one person and hate the other, purely on the basis of His incomprehensible will? Does not the Scripture state clearly that “God is not a respecter of persons” (Acts 10:34), which, of course, simply means that God does not show favouritism? Is this not therefore a glaring contradiction in the Bible?

The Calvinist would say that we just have to humbly accept it, and if it appears unfair or the Bible appears to contradict itself, then we have to submit to the inscrutable will of the sovereign God. Not only does that response contravene Proverbs 4:7, in which we are commanded by the sovereign God to “get understanding” (as well as Isaiah 5:3-4, in which God specifically challenges us to understand the logic of his justice), but it is also a device which the opponents of Calvinism can use. If it is impious and impudent to question Calvinistic doctrine by refusing to submit to the sovereignty of God, then it could equally be argued that their attempt to explain away God’s desire for all people to be saved (1 Timothy 2:4) is also impudent and impious and a refusal to submit to the will of God. If God has said clearly that He desires all people to be saved, then who are we to question Him? Yet Calvinists do that very thing! How very insolent!! It works both ways.

But I am not going to resort to such a devise, because I do not need to. The Bible clearly indicates that we are not to apply the idea of “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated” to the entire human race. In fact, it doesn’t even apply to Jacob and Esau as far as salvation is concerned, but the meaning is entirely limited to the granting of the blessing, which is normally given under the right of primogeniture, hence the fact that Jacob had to cheat his way into receiving the blessing reserved for Esau (see Genesis chapter 27).

A wonderful act of reconciliation
In Genesis chapter 33 we can read the account of how Jacob and Esau were reconciled. It really is a stretch to imagine that God was not working in the life of Esau to bring about this reconciliation with his younger brother, who had cheated him out of his blessing. When Jacob went out to meet Esau he was frightened that his brother would take revenge on him. But in verse 4 of this passage we read: “And he (Jacob) passed over before them, and bowed himself to the ground seven times, until he came near to his brother. And Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him: and they wept.” And what did Jacob say of his brother (to his face)? Did he say: “You are a totally depraved unregenerate worm predestined by God to burn in hell forever”? No. Did he say: “I am so sorry that God has passed you by and refuses to offer you salvation, because he hates you. But you just have to accept it, because God is sovereign”? No. No, he did not do anything or say anything to indicate that he was in the presence of a thoroughly evil and depraved person.

What Jacob actually said to his brother was this:

“No, I pray you, if now I have found grace in your sight, then receive my present at my hand: for therefore I have seen your face, AS THOUGH I HAD SEEN THE FACE OF GOD, and you were pleased with me.” (Genesis 33:10 – emphasis mine).

The highlighted phrase completely demolishes the Calvinistic theory. There is simply no way, in the light of this indisputable biblical evidence, that Esau could be regarded as reprobate, that is, predestined to damnation. The ‘elect’ Jacob recognised the presence of God in and through Esau. Are we seriously to believe that this level of personal forgiveness is not evidence of the presence of God in someone’s life? Are we seriously to believe that the manifestation of this kind of love, through which former enemies are reconciled, is not the work of the Almighty? If the Calvinists are to be believed, then we have to wonder quite what God actually does in someone’s life, if this is not evidence of His presence and activity? And are we to believe that the elect – represented by Jacob, who had truly experienced the presence of God (see Genesis 28:10-17) – are so utterly lacking in discernment that they see what they think is the presence of God where, in fact, only the devil is present? How absurd.

Clearly it is a gross perversion of the Word of God to interpret “Esau I hated” as referring to his own personal standing with God. It is not referring to the idea of reprobation, because the evidence from Scripture is indisputable: Esau manifested the redeeming work of God in his life.

The moral status of foetuses
Furthermore, if we come back to the passage above from Romans 9, it states clearly that God chose Jacob over Esau while they were both in the womb, and before they had done any good or evil (see verse 11). So let’s get this straight. The Calvinists believe that Esau was reprobate, that is, damned by God by decree, or “predestined to damnation”. But this divine decision would have been made before Esau committed any moral act, whether good or evil. If that is the case, then we have the scenario of God condemning someone at a time when he had never sinned. This is a totally blasphemous suggestion, because it makes a complete mockery of the justice of God. James 1:15 tells us in the clearest possible terms that sin, when it is full grown, brings forth death. This completely contradicts the Calvinist idea that spiritual death is imputed before any sin has ever been committed! Again, this is more biblical evidence to show that the “hating of Esau” has nothing to do with his personal salvation. The Calvinist may then counter with a reference to God’s foreknowledge of Esau’s future sins, but this does violence to the text of Romans 9, which clearly states that God made his decision at a particular point in time, because that decision did not relate to the works of Jacob and Esau. To argue that this was really a provisional decision that only really “kicked in” when Esau committed his first sin, contradicts the phrase “not of works”.

Edom my brother
“Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated” is actually a quotation from Malachi 1:2 and refers to God’s judgment on the Edomites, who were the descendants of Esau. If God had decreed that Esau should be reprobate and this was applied to his descendants, then why did the Lord issue the following command in Deuteronomy 23:7 – “You shall not abhor an Edomite; for he is your brother”? Are we seriously to believe that God is commanding His people to accept the Edomites, affirm them as brothers, even though He has decreed that they are everlastingly reprobate? Is there really a form of righteousness commanded by God, but which does not reflect His righteousness? Of course not! And what a far cry the Calvinist idea is from the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, who when commanding us to “love our enemies”, explained that this action reflected the perfection of God (see Matthew 5:48 and the preceding verses). God’s desire was for Israel to love (or, at least, not abhor) the Edomites, because He did not abhor them. The commandment of God reflected the will of God. His ‘hatred’ of the Edomites, as expressed in the prophecy of Malachi, therefore specifically related to His judgment on a wilfully evil nation, and not because they were under some eternal decree of reprobation.

So to sum up the evidence relating to God’s ‘hatred’ of Esau we have:

1. The evidence that God had clearly been working in Esau’s life to effect reconciliation with Jacob, and the latter, being someone who had previously powerfully experienced the presence of God at Bethel, recognised God’s presence in his brother.

2. God’s ‘hatred’ of Esau was unrelated to Esau’s moral state, being still in the womb and not having done anything good or evil, and yet the Bible makes clear that spiritual death and damnation is the result of sin, not of non-sin.

3. We have the evidence that the descendants of Esau – the Edomites – were not reprobate, because God expressed His will through His law to Israel, commanding them not to abhor an Edomite “because he is your brother”. God’s law reflects His will. How can any Christian dispute this?

Against this wealth of biblical evidence all the Calvinist has to offer is his insistence that the saying in Romans 9:13 refers to eternal salvation and damnation and should apply to the whole human race and every individual within it. No supporting evidence given for this daring extrapolation.

So what does this saying mean?

Overturning primogeniture
Esau was the firstborn son of Isaac, and for that reason he had the right to inherit a special blessing from his father. This is the right of primogeniture. It is a natural inheritance of blessing and rights by the firstborn. God, however, came and overturned the natural right of primogeniture by deciding that “the elder shall serve the younger”. Jacob and Esau were the sons of Isaac, the “son of promise”, miraculously given to Abraham and Sarah. The message is clear: the election of Israel was not based on human factors, but had its roots in a miracle (the conception and birth of Isaac to an elderly woman), in an act of atonement (Isaac being redeemed by the ram on Mount Moriah) and in the overturning of natural rights, in this case, the right of primogeniture (God’s choice of Jacob over Esau). Thus Israel’s status as the ‘chosen people’ is not based on the rights of natural descent, but solely on the work of God.

For all nations
Now a Calvinist would agree with this. Election is God’s choice. However, election cannot be understood to mean that God chooses some people for salvation in preference to others, who are then predestined to damnation. Election does not imply reprobation. In Genesis 12:3, God told Abraham that “in you shall all families of the earth be blessed”, and this promise is reiterated to Jacob at Bethel: “in you and in your seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed” (Genesis 28:14). God’s intention was that Israel should be a blessing to all nations. Israel was not chosen in order that other nations should be cursed, but rather Israel’s election was the means by which other nations should be blessed. It’s a kind of win-win situation. This is further confirmed by the prayer in Psalm 67:1-2 – “God be merciful to us, and bless us; and cause his face to shine on us; Selah. That your way may be known on earth, your saving health among all nations.” (emphasis mine).

God’s ‘hatred’ of Esau was nothing more than a symbolic way of emphasising that God does not work His purposes out through the application of natural rights, but through the application of His grace, a grace that chooses some people as a means to bring blessing to all people.

Paul then anticipates certain objections….

To be continued…

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