A main theme of the book of Romans is an appeal to reach the unconverted Jew for Christ, evidenced by the many Jewish illustrations present. Chapter 9 specifically addresses the Jewish objections for conversion to Christianity, by specifically refuting the notion of (1) ancestral salvation and (2) salvation though the Law. Additionally, this chapter addresses (a) an anticipated Jewish reaction to both God’s forewarned hardening of the Jews (compare with Jeremiah 18:1-13 and Isaiah 6:9-10) and (b) explains that God’s method of salvation has always been through faith, and extends to anyone else who should adopt the faith of Abraham. Like John 6, this chapter has absolutely nothing to do with Calvinism.
Here is a link to an article which provides an excellent review of Romans 9.
Question: What is the objective of the “Book of Romans”?
Answer: “But if you bear the name ‘Jew’ and rely upon the Law and boast in God, and know His will and approve the things that are essential, being instructed out of the Law, and are confident that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of the immature, having in the Law the embodiment of knowledge and of the truth, you, therefore, who teach another, do you not teach yourself? You who preach that one shall not steal, do you steal?” (Romans 2:17-21) Skip forward to Romans 9:19-20: “You will say to me then, ‘Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?‘’ On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, ‘Why did you make me like this,’ will it?”
The “you” is the unbelieving Jew that Paul is trying to reach. Romans chapter 9 begins with a profession of Paul’s love for...the Jew. The whole Book of Romans is a tract on how to reach the Jews for Christ, evidenced by its many Jewish themes, and Paul identifies with the Jew by first citing the Law, and then by pointing out that the Law doesn’t save, and yet some Jews were saved, such as Abraham and others. So what did they do? Paul lays out the Gospel of faith, in which Christ is the ultimate object of faith. Paul elaborates upon everything stored up in Christ, until we get to Romans 9, which deals with the pending question of, Okay, then why don’t God’s people accept this Messiah, Jesus? For this, Paul points out a little history. The Potter example is straight from Jeremiah chapter 18, which Calvinists will only comment on if you drag them to it. Indeed, there is a hardening, and it’s of the Jews, though both temporary and partial. (Romans 11:25) This is the essential context that Calvinists miss.
From the start, Paul identifies with the Jew by pointing out the depraved state of the Gentiles, and their condemnation under the Law. But then Paul challenges the Jew with a charge of hypocrisy, when they do some of the very same things as the Gentiles. Paul then points out the hopelessness of achieving righteousness through the Law, while simultaneously pointing out that not all was lost, since there were well known historical Jews such as Abraham, Moses and David who did, in fact, achieve a state of righteousness with God, and this is where Paul points out that it was not through the Law after all, but by faith. This becomes the perfect segue into Christ being the ultimate end of faith. Paul extols the riches of Christ and all that God has eternally stored up for those who believe in Him. That’s when we reach Romans 9. The standing question is that if Christ is the Messiah of the Jews, then why don’t the Jews believe in Him? There’s actually a long history there. God reached out to the Jews with many offers of grace, until God finally had enough, which resulted in their hardening, as recorded at Isaiah 6:9-10, in which God states that He will harden Israel so that they could not receive His Son, or at least, they would not receive His Son without first reconciliation with God. God was not going to have people reject Him, while instead embracing a conquering Messiah to deliver Israel from the Romans. So God sent Christ in the same image of the prophets whom the Jews persecuted before Him. Now Paul’s objective at this stage of Romans 9 was to develop the backdrop for the illustration of the Olive Tree described at Romans 11, in terms of the natural and wild branches, in which the natural branches were being cut off, for a time, so that the wild branches could be grafted in. What Paul was doing in Romans 9 was expressing his sincere passion for the Jew, which was also God’s passion, while highlighting the fact that God was now, as a result of Jewish unbelief, turning to the Gentiles in order to graft them in. Jesus warned the Jews with illustrations that this was going to happen. (Matthew 21:33-45) So Paul sets up God’s sovereign right to first choose the Jewish nation (by using examples like with Isaac, the one chosen to receive the inheritance, including his son Jacob), as the basis to suggest that God also has the right to choose the Gentiles, which validates Paul’s ministry of the gospel to the Gentiles. In other words, if God has the sovereign right to choose the Jews, then it stands to reason that He has the same right to graft in the Gentiles. Additionally, He has the same right to harden the Jews, which is what He warned at Jeremiah 18:1-13 and what He did at Isaiah 6:9-10, and ultimately quoted as its fulfillment at John 12:36-43. When Paul asks the question of what right does the pot have in responding back to the Potter, this is a question aimed at the unbelieving Jews (or at least, unbelieving in the Messiah, Christ), in anticipation of their protest against God’s hardening, in terms of the Jews, the natural branches, having been removed from the Olive Tree. But even despite the hardening, Paul points out that it is a “partial hardening” until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled. So this is what I see going on in the book of Romans, and it has nothing to do with either Calvinism or Arminianism.
Calvinist, Charles Spurgeon: “It would also be unnecessary to repeat the whole of the 9th chapter of Romans. As long as that remains in the Bible, no man shall be able to prove Arminianism; so long as that is written there, not the most violent contortions of the passage will ever be able to exterminate the doctrine of election from the Scriptures.” (Election, emphasis mine)
Calvinists believe that Romans 9 affirms Predestination and Unconditional Election. The reality, however, is that this was what Paul was refuting, since the Jews believed in an erroneous form of Predestination and Unconditional Election, namely that as Jews, being physical descendents of Abraham, were unconditionally predestined to God’s blessings as His covenant people. Paul then provides a tree illustration of grafting.
Daniel Whedon: “The early Christian fathers, like Paul, encountered the same doctrine of unconditional election of all Jews.” (Commentary on the New Testament, Vol.III: Acts-Romans, p.350, emphasis mine)
Daniel Whedon: “With this proud expectation of salvation by blood and circumcision--by birth and works--Paul’s Christianity, salvation by faith in Christ, came into deadly issue.” (Commentary on the New Testament, Vol.III: Acts-Romans, p.350, emphasis mine)
Daniel Whedon: “After expressing profound grief at unbelieving Israel’s downfall (1-5), Paul maintains that from the patriarchs downward it was the spiritual Israel by faith that was accepted, and the false Israel by unfaith that was rejected (6-13) that this accords with Old Testament history (14-18), with the true principles of free-agency and probation (19-24), with ancient prediction (25-29), all presupposing that the law of acceptance by faith and rejection by unfaith underlies the whole history (30-33).” (Commentary on the New Testament, Vol.III: Acts-Romans, pp.350-351, emphasis mine)
In Romans 9, “profound grief” meets “proud expectation.”
One member of The Society of Evangelical Arminians: “I see Romans 9 as a lesson that God is sovereign and can do as He pleases and so save whomever He wants to save (it is not dealing primarily with the issue of salvation but of sovereignty, especially in the history of Israel). The chapter begins with a history lesson of how God was sovereign in the history of Israel. Romans 10 is then on the issue of salvation through faith. Romans 11 then puts it all together in relation to both Jews and Gentiles. Calvinists run to Romans 9 to ‘prove’ their view. Romans 9 proves that God is sovereign. But it is an unjustified jump from the fact that God is sovereign and so does as He pleases, to the conclusion that He has preselected who would be saved and damned before they ever existed. If you treat Romans 9-11 as the unit that it is, and as a progressive argument, it argues clearly against the Calvinist view and for the Noncalvinist view.” (SEA)
Arminian, Robert Shank: “...Romans 9 must be understood in light of Romans 9:30-11:36, in which Paul affirms that, instead of acting arbitrarily toward men (as He has a right to do as sovereign Creator), God is governed in His actions by His purpose of grace toward all men (Romans 11:32, Titus 2:11, ect.).” (Elect in the Son, p.174)
Michael Brown: “In Romans, the ninth chapter, you know where Paul makes it clear that God hardens who He wants and has mercy on who He wants, he comes to the conclusion of it all, which is that God wants to have mercy on all. So does it just mean Jew and Gentile generically? Isn’t the whole purpose of the passage, the mystery of Israel, and where this fits in with the salvation of the Gentiles?, and tells us at the conclusion that God wants to have mercy on all?” (Why I Am Not a Calvinist)
Paul stated at Acts 13:45-47: “But when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and began contradicting the things spoken by Paul, and were blaspheming. Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly and said, ‘It was necessary that the word of God be spoken to you first; since you repudiate it and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles. For so the Lord has commanded us, “I have placed you as a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the end of the earth.”’”
Yes, the Jews rejected the Gospel, but they are the “chosen people.” How does their rejection of the Gospel justify Paul turning to the Gentiles and preaching the Gospel to them? First, God appointed him to it. Second, God will accept the Gentiles on the same grounds that He accepted their fore-father, Abraham, through faith. Therefore, here it is at Romans 9-11 that Paul deals with the controversy between Jew and Gentile, defending the Gospel, in terms of both God’s sovereign right to save who He will and how He will.
First, Paul didn’t turn to the Gentiles because he stopped loving the Jews. Far from it! Paul stated that he wished that all of the Jews could be saved, and was willing to go to Hell, if that’s what it would take for them to be saved: “In the presence of Christ, I speak with utter truthfulness—I do not lie—and my conscience and the Holy Spirit confirm that what I am saying is true. My heart is filled with bitter sorrow and unending grief for my people, my Jewish brothers and sisters. I would be willing to be forever cursed—cut off from Christ!—if that would save them.” (Romans 9:1-3, NLT)
Paul validates the Gospel two-fold:
1) God has the divine right to show mercy upon whom He will and to harden whom He will: “So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires.” (Romans 9:18) To whom does God wish to show mercy? The Gentiles. These are the “other sheep” that Jesus mentioned (John 10:16), in which Paul was a “minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles.” (Romans 15:16)
2) God is now accepting the Gentiles on the same exact basis upon which He accepted their fore-father, Abraham, and that if they would return to the roots of their religion, that is, by faith, they would recognize the rightful basis for his Gentile ministry, and that God has reached out to the Gentiles, in part, to spur the Jews to jealousy: “If somehow I might move to jealousy my fellow countrymen and save some of them.” (Romans 11:14)
That’s why I do not feel that Romans 9:19 has anything to do with God decreeing sin, and then trying to claim innocence from it. The thrust of Romans chapters 9-11 is Paul’s message to the Jew in terms of why he is reaching out to the Gentiles, and why the Jewish nation has become alienated from God, and what it would take to be restored.