The doctrine of predestination has fallen on hard times. Not that it was ever very popular. Given today’s theological climate, most Christians probably think that predestination – to the extent that they think about it at all – is an abstract, philosophical notion invented by a few cranks in the past.1 In reality, though, most of the famous adherents of the biblical doctrine of predestination, besides not being cranks, held to this belief because they were convinced that the Bible clearly teaches it.2
And though there are many places where predestination is explicitly or implicitly taught, it is most clearly and definitively taught in chapter nine of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. There are other places we could examine in the New Testament where human actions related to redemptive events were predestined by God in such a marvelous way that human responsible liberty was preserved (Acts 2:23, 4:28; and 1 Cor. 2:7).3 We should note, however, that these are events, not people. Paul repeatedly says that believers themselves are such only because they were predestined to this grace as God’s gift (Rom. 8:29-30; Eph. 1:5, 11). This only follows since we are expressly taught that both faith and repentance originate from God, not from ourselves (Eph. 2:8-9; Phil. 1:29; 2 Thess. 2:11; 2 Tim. 2:25; cf. Heb. 12:17).4
But Romans 9 has brought more than one reader to his knees before our awesome God who ‘does as he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth’ (Dan. 4:35). This passage teaches divine election and predestination of individuals to salvation, and the hardening of whom God wills, as candidly as anything is ever taught in the Bible, despite the resolute and persistent efforts of many to obviate it.5
Happily, though, persistent readings of this lofty section of Scripture have brought many people to finally accept its teaching. Let one striking example illustrate. After quoting Romans 9:11-13, one prominent theological writer wrote this early in his career:
This moves some people to think that the apostle Paul had done away with the freedom of the will, by which we earn the esteem of God by the good of piety, or offend him by the evil of impiety. For, these people say, God loved the one and hated the other before either was even born and could have done either good or evil. But we answer that God did this by his foreknowledge, by which he knows the character even of the unborn… Therefore God did not elect anyone’s works (which God himself will grant) by foreknowledge, but rather by foreknowledge he chose faith, so that he chooses precisely him whom he foreknew would believe in him; and to him he gives the Holy Spirit, so that by doing good works he will as well attain eternal life.6
This position is the same as that of Pelagius, the great opponent of predestination.7 And yet, the same author just quoted reexamined Romans a few years later at the request of a friend and totally reversed himself to embrace Paul’s teaching on predestination. He even argues against his earlier position, when he says:
If election is by foreknowledge, and God foreknew Jacob’s faith, how do you prove that he did not elect him for his works? Neither Jacob nor Esau had believed, because they were not yet born and had as yet done neither good nor evil. But God foresaw that Jacob would believe? He could equally well have foreseen that he would do good works. So just as one says he was elected because God foreknew that he was going to believe, another might say that it was rather because of the good works he was to perform, since God foreknew them equally well… If the reason for its not being of works was that they were not yet born, that applies also to faith; for before they were born they had neither faith nor works. The apostle, therefore, did not want us to understand that it was because of God’s foreknowledge that the younger was elected to be served by the elder.8
Subsequently, this author held firmly to predestination for the rest of his long and distinguished career. In fact, many people regard him as one of the greatest theologians in Christianity’s history: Augustine of Hippo.
This brief digression into the history of interpretation illustrates just one point. I will ask you, the reader, to reconsider Romans 9, as did Augustine – no matter how you have understood it in the past – and to carefully follow the Apostle Paul’s train of thought. You will find it one of the more awesome chapters in Scripture. We will look specifically at Rom. 9:1-29 in this brief survey and refer to this section simply as ‘Romans 9.’9
Chapters 9-11 are normally seen as a distinct unit in Romans. Some people think of this section as a disconnected appendage to the rest of the book. But careful reflection shows that Romans 9-11 answers some key questions which Paul had raised earlier, especially in Romans 3 about God’s faithfulness to his promises to the Jews.10 This comes into view when we notice that Rom. 9:6 is really the key question and answer Paul develops throughout Romans 9-11: ‘It is not as though God’s word had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel’ (NIV).
The implicit question in Romans 9:6a is: ‘Has God broken his promise to Israel?’ Paul’s argument in Romans up to chapter 9 may seem to have led to this conclusion. Israel was the seed of Abraham and heirs of God’s oath-bound covenant of grace (Gen. 15; Ex. 2:23-25; Psalm 105:8-10; Luke 1:72-73; etc.). Yet the Israelites are under judgment, and their circumcision and possession of the Law is of no profit whatsoever if they are found to be transgressors (Rom. 2:17-29); and all universally, both Jew and Gentile, are under the cruel and relentless dominion of sin (Rom. 3:9-18; Rom. 5:18-20). Has God then thoroughly annulled his covenantal commitment to Israel? Will he now eradicate them (Rom. 11:1)? Paul’s answers to these urgent questions are what Romans 9-11 explains. And his answers take us deep into the divine purpose.
The structure of Romans 9:1-29 is fairly straightforward. The main sections are: 1) Paul’s grief for national Israel (v. 1-5); 2) Thesis and main issue: saving grace depends upon predestination (v. 6-13); 3) Answer to objection that predestination makes God unjust (v. 14-18); and 4) Answer to objection that predestination removes responsibility (v. 19-29). This outline accounts for the main contours of the passage, but its glory lay in the details.
Paul begins in Romans 9:1-3 by heading off a possible misperception of his rigorous defense of the inclusion of the Gentiles into full covenantal citizenship by faith alone (cf. Eph. 2:12). Specifically, he vehemently denies that his theology is driven by hatred of his countrymen (even though he expected immanent grief from them [Rom. 15:31]). Paul denies any anti-Semitism on his part by affirming most vigorously his own grief for them (9:2), his testimony on their behalf for religious zeal (10:2), and his warning that the Gentile must not despise the stock to which he has been ingrafted (11:18, 20). To these things, the apostle gives the most solemn testimony, sealed on his own eternal destiny (9:1, 3). We must gather from this grave affirmation that the issues in Romans 9 are weighty.
Paul does not acknowledge the value of Israelite citizenship out of mere sentiment. He is avowing Israel’s privileged status in God’s redemptive program: ‘Salvation is of the Jews’ (John 4:22). Israel was entrusted with God’s oracles; to her belongs the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the Law, the priestly service, and the promises (3:2, 9:4). Israel not only has the patriarchs, but in an act of unspeakable condescension, the incarnate Son of God himself deigned to be born as a son of Abraham (9:5), not as the son of any other tribe. Thus through the vast stretches of eternity Abraham will be known as the father of all the sons and daughters of God (Rom. 4:11; Gal. 3:29). Jesus by his incarnation as the great Seed of Abraham and as the Root and Branch of Jesse has sanctified that holy Israelite rootstock (Rom. 11:16, 15:12; cf. Gal. 3:16; Rev. 5:5; Heb. 10:29).
National Versus Eternal Benefits
When Paul accepts the privileged status of Israel as a national, covenantal entity, he is accepting the primary tenet of his theological antagonists. But they mistakenly equated membership in national Israel with inheritance of the eternal benefits of the covenant.11 For Paul, Israelite privileged status is a biblical teaching which must be qualified by other truths. Specifically, Paul sees that membership in theocratic Israel with its national benefits does not guarantee membership in elect Israel whose benefits are righteousness, salvation, and eternal life.12 This is the point of his thematic statement in Romans 9:6: ‘They are not all Israel who are of Israel’; i.e., elect Israel and national Israel are not coextensive. Put another way, sonship in the Abrahamic line does not guarantee that one is a child of God (9:8).
This is not merely a squabble about national privilege. Paul argues at the profoundest theological level that his opponents’ position is a refusal to accept God’s terms for righteousness. It rejects Jesus Christ, whom God has put forward as our great substitute and Covenant Head (Rom. 5:12-21), our very righteousness (Rom. 10:4; 1 Cor. 1:30; 2 Cor. 5:21; Phil. 3:9; Titus 3:4-7). Their refusal to submit to God’s righteousness (Rom. 10:3) brings personal obligation to fulfill all the terms of the Law (Gal. 5:3), and a personal liability with disastrous results: guilt and the just wrath of God (Rom. 3:9-20, 23). God’s strict fairness is the basis for his thorough judgment of all hidden matters (Rom. 2:11, 16). So Israel has stumbled over the Rock of offense (Rom. 9:31-33).
The Answer of Romans 9
This leads us into the great issue of Romans 9. If privileged Israel has betrayed the true import of her inheritance through unbelief and disobedience, has God’s whole redemptive program failed? Has his promise to make Israel the light to the Gentiles and the channel for the Abrahamic blessing failed? (Rom. 9:6a).
Paul’s answer to buttress his thesis statement in Rom. 9:6b (‘They are not all Israel who are of Israel’) is as direct as it is profound: God has not betrayed his redemptive program, because membership in elect Israel has always depended solely upon God’s personal selection of individuals. He has not rejected the Jews en masse, as evidenced by Paul’s own election and by God’s remnant strategy in the Old Testament (Rom. 11:1-10). The eternal benefits of God’s covenant of grace have always been guaranteed only to those upon whom God has from eternity chosen to show mercy (9:15). Jacob, not Esau, was the heir of the promise. And this promise cannot be broken, because all of God’s promises are fulfilled in Christ Jesus in whom all elect Israelites, whether Jew or Gentile, become children of promise (Rom. 9:8; Gal. 3:29; 2 Cor. 1:20).
Paul does not merely assert the spiritual character of belonging to Israel with personal faith as its requirement in Romans 9. If that were the case, Paul would have launched into a quite different direction here. He would have said, for instance, that circumcision is a matter of the heart, not of the flesh, a thread of biblical teaching stretching far back into the Old Testament and one he had already stated in Romans (Rom. 2:28-29; Deut. 10:16, 30:6; Jer. 4:4, 9:26). Instead, Paul is addressing a more fundamental issue: why don’t all ethnic Israelites believe and thereby partake in the eternal inheritance?
Paul’s answer to this deeper question pours out in a staccato stream in Romans 9:10-13. One believes only because God so chooses. The root of all God’s benefits is his own predestinating free will. It is eminently true that God foreknows the faith and the works of all people from before the world’s foundation, but that does not enter at all into God’s consideration for election (see Augustine’s insights above). Salvation does not ultimately depend on any human factor, whether good or bad deeds (v. 11), the human will or course of life (‘running’) (v. 16), but only upon the God who shows mercy (v. 16). This ‘in order that God’s purpose according to election might prevail’ (v. 11).
The rest of Paul’s statements in Romans 9, particularly his interpretation of the Old Testament material, buttress this idea of predestination. The choice of Isaac over Ishmael (9:7-9), the choice of Jacob over Esau before either had done anything good or evil (9:10-13), the hardening of Pharaoh (9:17-18), all serve to confirm the basic, underlying point: God has mercy on whom he wishes and rejects whom he wishes because he so wills (9:15, 18).
But, you may say, ‘This is unfair!’ Paul anticipates that objection by denying even the possibility of that scruple and by reasserting God’s essential and necessary justice even to the extent of saying that God hardens whom he wishes (9:14-18). ‘Shall not the Judge of all the earth execute justice?’ (Gen. 18:25; cf. Rom. 3:5-6).
But you may then respond, this doctrine of predestination takes away human responsibility! Paul also anticipates this objection with the only possible answer there is: God does not answer to us or to any other human standard of justice for his actions (Rom. 9:19-29). Just who are you, O man, who speaks thus with God (v. 20)! Does he not hold the rights to us as our sovereign Creator? But Paul does not stop there, for he reveals that God’s predestination of ‘vessels of wrath’ and of ‘vessels of mercy’ serves to magnify his grace upon the vessels ‘which he has prepared beforehand for mercy’ (9:23-24). This shows that God’s choice is not absolutely arbitrary. Yet this predestinating choice is based upon his own reasons, and he takes no creature into his fathomless and inscrutable counsel at this point (Rom. 11:33-36).
Assuredly, not everyone reads Romans 9 in this way. However, the other views cannot endure more than casual scrutiny. Two popular anti-predestinarian interpretations are:
- Paul is simply addressing the historical destiny of Israel in its redemptive role in Romans 9, not the eternal destinies of individuals; and
- Paul is pointing to corporate election of the Church, not to God’s choice of individuals.
The remarkable thing about both these positions is their similarity with notions that Paul here refutes. While he acknowledges the privileges of corporate election, Paul says that this election and its benefits (Rom. 3:2, 9:4-5) do not guarantee citizenship in Israel, i.e., elect Israel who holds inheritance to the eternal promises (Rom. 9:6-9). And both Israel and Jacob are individuals illustrating individual election, not corporate. Paul drives at this deeper level throughout Romans 9-11, and refuses to stop at the level of the corporate or of the redemptive role. And, again, for Paul to put his eternal destiny on the line for the redemptive role of a group as he does in 9:1-3 trivializes the great issues at stake in his Gospel.13
Another attempt to modify Paul’s teaching on predestination in Romans 9 is a little more subtle. In a handbook on principles of biblical interpretation (of all places!) while discussing the potential value of rhetorical criticism, Grant Osborne rather cautiously advances this line of interpretation:
[If] the predestinarian passages of Romans 9 are part of a diatribe against Jewish-Christian misunderstandings regarding the nature of God (due to the divine judgment against Israel), this may mean that the statements regarding divine election there do not comprise dogmatic assertions regarding the process by which God saves people (the traditional Calvinist interpretation) but may instead comprise metaphors describing one aspect of the process (that is, God’s sovereign choice [the emphasis in Romans 9] working with the individual’s decision [the emphasis elsewhere]). Paul would be stressing one aspect of a larger whole to make his point.14
It may not be quite clear from this quote, but the position is pretty well known from other places. Paul is thought to be using the ancient rhetorical mode known as a ‘diatribe’ to advance his case in Romans 9 (and throughout Romans and other of his works). This method is known particularly by its use of an opponent (called an ‘interlocutor’) in a sort of dialogue to head off potential objections to one’s position.15 What is curious about Osborne’s argument is that he says, in effect, Paul’s use of the diatribe style forces him to present his position in an unbalanced fashion. Paul emphasizes God’s sovereign choice at the expense of absolute human freedom – ‘the emphasis elsewhere’ according to Osborne, though he does not say where.16
Osborne’s argument is curious because he evaluates the effect of the diatribe style in just the opposite direction of how it should logically be understood. Osborne thinks that Paul’s use of this form boxes him into a theological corner and thereby skews his teaching a little. However, just the opposite is true. By using this imaginary interlocutor to address potential objections (such as the anti-predestinarian notion of ‘free will’ – see Rom. 9:19 again!), Paul produces a balanced view of his position, which takes into consideration potential objections. Rather than narrowing Paul’s position, his ‘diatribe’ guarantees he has considered and addressed the key qualifications for his detailed teaching on predestination.
Romans 9 (and Romans 10-11) does teach quite clearly and in fair detail the biblical doctrine of predestination defended so ably by Augustine and many of his theological successors. Calvin properly warns us against approaching this awesome element of biblical teaching with undue curiosity to answer questions God does not answer, but he also warns against failing to accept teaching about the marvelous character of God’s inscrutable wisdom and sovereignty. This is certainly how Paul ends this section, as he wonders: ‘Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!’ (Rom. 11:33; NIV).
1. Some New Testament scholars are content to charge predestination with being ‘abstract’ or ‘philosophical,’ as though this disqualifies it from being true. For example, Johannes Munck, writes: ‘It is clear that this passage [Romans 9:22-24] does not put forward a philosophical doctrine of predestination. As elsewhere in the New Testament, God is portrayed too ‘anthropomorphically’ to make possible a view of predestination with an abstract concept of the deity as its subject.’ Christ & Israel: An Interpretation of Romans 9-11 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967), 70; emphasis added. Likewise N. T. Wright says: ‘In some older treatments, it [Romans 9-11] was regarded as a doctrinal section dealing with the abstract doctrine of predestination; but this would find few advocates today.’ The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 232; emphasis added.
2. See, for example, John Calvin, Institutes, 3.21.1-4.
3. In the Old Testament we read: ‘The mind of man plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps’ (Prov. 16:9; cf. 16:1, 19:21, 20:24; Gen. 45:5, 7, 50:20).
4. Ephesians 2:8-9 is particularly clear (in Greek if not in translation) that grace, faith, and salvation all originate as a gift from God. See also the remarkable statement in the Old Testament that the sons of Eli did not heed their father’s rebuke and repent of their sins, ‘because it was the Lord’s pleasure to put them to death’ (1 Sam. 2:25; cf. Josh. 11:20).
5. One author says that the history of interpretation of Romans 9 is nothing but ‘the history of attempts to escape this clear observation [of double predestination].’ G. Maier quoted by John Piper, The Justification of God: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Romans 9:1-23 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983), 39.
6. Augustine of Hippo, translated and edited by Paula Fredriksen Landes, Augustine on Romans (Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1982), 30-33.
7. For instance, see Pelagius’ comments on Romans 9:12: ”Not because of works, but because of the one who calls, was it said, ‘The elder shall serve the younger.’ God’s foreknowledge does [not] prejudge the sinner, if he is willing to repent’ (Translated by Theodore de Bruyn, Pelagius’s Commentary on St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993], 117).
8. Augustine, ad Simplicianum 2.5; J. H. S. Burleigh, translation, Augustine: Earlier Writings (LCC; Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1953), 389-90. Emphasis added.
9. This is frequently done in our literature, since Rom. 9:30-33 belongs more with the material in Romans 10.
10. See, for instance, N. T. Wright, Climax of the Covenant, (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992) 234-35.
11. The theology of Paul’s opponents is a vexing question in New Testament scholarship. However, that Jews sometimes presumed on their connection with Abraham is evident from Matt. 3:9 (parallel Luke 3:8), John 8:33-40, and Rom. 2:17-24. Compare Luke 13:16, 19:9; Rom. 4:1, 12; and Gal. 3:7.
12. It is fair to say ‘salvation,’ as this is the great theme of Romans 9-11. The words that refer to salvation or deliverance occur more often in chapters 9-11 than elsewhere in Romans. Specifically, these words are the noun, soteria (‘salvation’), and verbs, sozo (‘I save’) and rhuomai (‘I deliver’); the places are: Rom. 9:27, 10:1, 9, 10, 13, 11:11, 14, and 26 (twice). The other places where these words occur in Romans are 1:16, 5:9, 10, 7:24, 8:24, 13:11, and 15:31.
13. See the recent critique of these two interpretations of Romans 9 by Thomas R. Schreiner, ‘Does Romans 9 Teach Individual Election unto Salvation,’ in The Grace of God, The Bondage of the Will: Biblical and Practical Perspectives on Calvinism, Vol. 1 (T. Schreiner and B. Ware, eds. [Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1995], 89-106).
14. Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1991), 125.
15. Eduard Norden in his classic work on ancient Greek and Latin prose literature says, ‘The diatribe is none other than a converted [Platonic] dialogue in the form of a [school] declamation.’ E. Norden, Die Antike Kunstprosa, 2d ed., vol. 1 (Leipzig and Berlin: B. G. Teubner, 1909), 129.
16. Calvinism does not deny human ‘natural liberty’; however this is not a factor at the ultimate level of God’s free choice. No passage of Scripture either explicitly or implicitly teaches that the human will exists with the ability to withstand God’s own purposes or to direct his actions. I invite you to search for yourself. Instead, you find just the opposite as in our passage: ‘You will say to me, then, why does [God] still find fault? Who can resist his will?’ (Rom. 9:19). The word translated ‘resist’ in Rom. 9:19 is the opposite of ‘submit’ (so James 4:7) and synonymous with ‘oppose’ or ‘contradict’ (Luke 21:15; cf. Rom. 10:21).
Dr. Steven M. Baugh (Ph.D., University of California, Irvine) is associate professor of New Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary in California, and the author of A New Testament Greek Primer (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1995).
©1998 Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals