Something surprised me as I have been preaching through Romans 9 and 10 lately – not that the Calvinist understanding of election is so clearly taught there, but that objections to the Calvinist understanding of election are so clearly answered there.
By “Calvinist understanding of election,” I mean the idea that God elects people to salvation not based on anything He foresees in those people, but only based on his sovereign and gracious purpose. The opposing view (Arminianism) holds that God looks into the future and elects to salvation those people whom he foresees will believe in Jesus — if God sees that a person will not choose Jesus, then God won’t choose him. The Calvinist view is different. It states that God’s choice is not contingent upon or motivated by anything we do (see Westminster Confession of Faith 3.5).
It is clear that Paul has this idea in mind in Rom. 9:11, when he says that God’s election (or choice) of Jacob and not Esau occurred before they were born, and therefore before they had done anything good or bad — “in order that God’s purpose in election might continue.”
This immediately sets off alarm bells in people’s minds, which leads to a flurry of questions and objections. But it’s almost like Paul knew we were going to have these questions, so he put the answers right there in Romans 9 for our exegetical convenience (with some help from Romans 10). I no longer see Romans 9 as a “problem chapter;” instead, it’s the chapter that resolves the problems that arise with the doctrine of election.
Here are some common objections to the doctrine of election, and the answers that Paul gives:
1. Objection: Election is unfair. Notice that Paul anticipates that his readers will have this objection. In Rom. 9:14, Paul says, “What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part?” The fact that Paul even asks this question tells us that he expects that we will find his teaching to seem unjust or unfair. If Paul was intending to communicate the Arminian understanding of election, he wouldn’t expect us to find his teaching unfair. Or, he could have easily said: “Don’t misunderstand me! God chooses people for salvation based on what he foresees they will do, so there is no injustice in this.”
But that’s not what he says. He simply quotes a passage from Ex. 33:19, in which God said, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” Paul doesn’t resort to Arminian logic to resolve the problem. Instead, he says election is not unfair because nobody deserves the mercy of God in the first place; therefore, God can extend mercy to whomever he wants, and he can withhold it from whomever he wants. We might not like this answer, but it is clearly the defense Paul is offering in Rom. 9:14-18.
2. Objection: Election means we don’t have to evangelize. If God has already chosen who will be saved and who will not, why should we share the Gospel? The results have already been decided, so what difference does it make? Once again, the answer is right there in the text.
Notice how Paul begins Rom. 9:2-3: “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh.” Did Paul believe in election? Yes. Did Paul also have a passionate heart for evangelism? Yes — so much so that he would be willing to lose his own salvation (if that were possible) so the Jews could gain it.
It’s interesting how often we modern readers of the Bible get stumped over problems that didn’t seem to bother the ancient writers of the Bible. Paul’s belief in election didn’t mitigate his evangelistic fervor, so why should that be the case for us?
3. Objection: Election means we don’t have to pray. This objection is very similar to #2 — if God has already chosen those who will be saved and those who will not, why should we pray for anyone to be saved? The results have already been decided, so what difference does it make if we pray? Again, the answer is in the text. In Rom. 10:1, referring to the Israelites again, Paul says, “Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved.”
Paul believed in election, but he also believed in prayer. Paul knew that God had already chosen whom he would save and whom he would not save, but nonetheless, Paul pleaded with God that he might save the Israelites. God’s responsibility is to elect; our responsibility is to pray. No conflict existed in Paul’s mind about this, so neither should there be conflict in ours.
4. Objection: Election means people are not responsible for rejecting the Gospel.How can God hold an unbeliever responsible if God never planned to save that person to begin with? Or, with regard to the context of Romans 9, how can God hold the Jews responsible for rejecting Christ if God didn’t choose them to accept Christ?
The answer is simply that Israel was a rebellious people who didn’t deserve anything from God. Paul compares Israel’s moral condition to Sodom and Gomorrah in Rom. 9:29. And in Rom. 10:21, Paul gives us a picture of a gracious and patient God, holding out his hands to Israel, inviting them to be saved, imploring them to come to him. But because they were a “disobedient and contrary people,” they freely and openly rejected Jesus. Their rejection of the Gospel can not be blamed on God, but only on their callous and prideful hearts.
I respect my Arminian brothers and sisters in Christ, and I fully acknowledge that there are texts that present challenges to the Calvinist view of election, but it is hard for me to understand how anyone can read Romans 9 and maintain the Arminian position. In God’s gracious wisdom, he not only provides clear teaching on the subject, but gives answers to our objections as well.