Romans 9:14-16 and Unconditional Election
Any car you buy comes with a recommended size of tires it should use. If you use the wrong size of tires, you will experience unwanted and possibly dangerous conditions when you drive. One of these unwanted and possibly dangerous conditions is that your speedometer will be thrown off. If your tires are too small, your speedometer will mark a higher speed than your car is actually going; and if your tires are too big, your speedometer will mark a slower speed than your car is actually going.
When Calvinists read verses 14 to 16 in Romans 9, they think the passage is teaching unconditional election. While it is true that the passage is talking about God’s sovereignty, a closer look at the passage will reveal that unconditional election is most likely the wrong fit for this car (God’s sovereignty).
God Is Sovereign
In his epistle to the Romans, the Apostle Paul writes “For he [God] saith to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion” (Romans 9:15, KJV).
Starting on verse 6 of Romans 9, Paul argues that God has not broken His promises to Israel (particularly, the Abrahamic Covenant) by asking Jews to believe the gospel of Jesus Christ for salvation (you can read more about this on my previous article). The reason God is not breaking His promises to Israel by asking Jews to believe the gospel is that not all Israelites are God’s Israel, or Abraham’s seed (Romans 9:7-8).
Paul first reminds us that the promises of the Abrahamic Covenant were not for Abraham’s descendants through his two sons, Ishmael and Isaac, but only for his descendants through his son Isaac (verses 7 to 9). Paul also reminds us that the promises were not even for Isaac’s descendants through his two sons, Esau and Jacob, but only for his descendants through his son Jacob (verses 10 to 13).
On verse 14, Paul asks, "What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? God forbid" (Romans 9:14, KJV). Paul proceeds to explain why God is not unfair (or unrighteous) in excluding many of Abraham’s descendants from the promises of the Abrahamic Covenant. Paul’s explanation is that God had already revealed to Moses that He will only show mercy and compassion on whom He chooses to show mercy and compassion.
Paul’s answer then is that God is sovereign, and therefore He is right in excluding many of Abraham’s descendants from the promises of the Abrahamic Covenant.
God's Sovereignty at Work
Nevertheless, as Paul attempts to demonstrate that God is not unrighteous in excluding many of Abraham’s descendants from the promises of the Abrahamic Covenant, God’s sovereignty is not the only point that one derives from the text (although that is Paul’s main point).
Paul also describes a process by which God progressively revealed who is Abraham’s seed. God first revealed to Abraham that the promises were for Abraham’s descendants through Isaac and not Ishmael; then God revealed to Isaac that the promises were for his descendants through Jacob and not Esau; now God was revealing to Moses that the promises were not for all Israel (that is, not for all of Jacob’s descendants), but only for those on whom He would show mercy and grace.
Afterwards, God revealed through the prophets (Isaiah and Hosea in particular) that only a small portion of Israel would receive the promises, and finally God revealed through the Apostles that Abraham’s seed would be composed of both Jews and Gentiles.
Thus, Paul demonstrates that God progressively revealed the identity of the seed from the times of the Patriarchs (Romans 9:7-13), to the times of Moses (Romans 9:15-17), to the times of the prophets Hosea and Isaiah (Romans 9:25-29), and to the times of the Apostles (Romans 9:22-24, 30).
This progressive revelation of Abraham’s seed is important because it shows how God has employed His sovereignty to call Abraham’s seed from among Abraham’s descendants.
Not for Everyone
But what does Exodus 33:19, God’s words to Moses (which words Paul quotes in Romans 9:15), mean in its original context?
In Exodus 33:12-23, Moses intercedes for Israel before God, and he asks God to show him His way (v.13), to recognize Israel as God’s people (v.13), to be present with him and Israel (v.16), and to show him His glory (v.18).
God answers that His presence will go with Moses, that God will give Moses rest (vv. 14-15); that Moses has found favor in God’s sight (v.17), that God knows Moses by name (v.17), and that He will make all His goodness pass before Moses (v.19). Nevertheless, God does not promise the same things for Israel.
In reference to Israel, God says “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will show mercy on whom I will show mercy” (v.19). In other words, God will not bestow His grace and mercy on all Israel as Moses requested, but only on some of Israel, those whom He chooses. Why? Because God’s grace and mercy are not offered through the Abrahamic Covenant, nor the Mosaic Covenant. The Abrahamic Covenant offers blessings for those who are Abrahams seed, those who receive God’s grace and mercy; and the Mosaic Covenant offers blessings for those who keep God’s Law (and curses for those who break God’s Law).
What Romans Does Not Say
In Exodus 33:19, God declares to Moses that He will bestow His mercy and grace only on Israelites on whom He wants to bestow mercy and grace. This demonstrates that God is sovereign, and that God’s covenant with Abraham and with Moses did not assure all Israelites of God’s mercy and grace. Despite God’s declaration to Moses, Exodus 33:19 and Exodus 33:12-23 (the context) do not define a process of unconditional election (that God from before the foundation of the world chose only certain specific individuals to receive irresistible grace despite their own resistance to obey His call to the gospel).
In Romans 9:15, Paul quotes God’s declaration to Moses (Exodus 33:19). Paul uses it to prove that not all Jews will inherit the promises of the Abrahamic Covenant. Paul also quotes the verse to demonstrate that God is sovereign, and therefore He is justified in not bestowing His mercy and grace (salvation) on everyone. Nevertheless, Romans 9:14 to 16 does not define a process of unconditional election (that God from before the foundation of the world chose only certain specific individuals to receive irresistible grace despite their own resistance to obey His call to the gospel).
What Exodus 33:19 in Romans 9:15 does is describe a stage through which God progressively revealed that not all Jews are Abraham’s seed. This progressive revelation is described in Romans 9: Paul discusses how Isaac was chosen over Ishmael, how Jacob was chosen over Esau, how God declared through Moses that not all of Jacob’s descendants would receive grace and mercy, how God declared through Hosea and Isaiah that not all Jews would be saved, and how God revealed through Christ and the Apostles that only Jews (and gentiles) who believe in Jesus would be saved.
In order to teach unconditional election from Romans 9:14-16, a teacher must make theological assumptions or base his theological perspective on other Scriptures. Usually, the teacher would look at the election of Jacob over Esau, but in other articles I have already discussed that Jacob’s election is not a case of unconditional election unto salvation, and that Esau’s rejection is not a case of unconditional election unto damnation. You are invited to read those articles too!
R. C. Sproul on Unconditional Election
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