Arminian Today

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Romans 9: The Debate Begins

Romans 9 has been a tipping point for many Calvinists.  I know of two Calvinists who both were once Arminians.  In fact, one was an Arminian evangelist who preached against Calvinism for many years.  Both, however, are now converted Calvinists.  Both speak of becoming a Calvinist as if they are just now born again.  Both speak of God opening their eyes to the doctrines of grace.  One of these men says that he was converted because of the doctrine of total depravity for if mankind is indeed sinful then only God can rescue us in our sins and deadness.  The other was converted after reading and then re-reading Romans 9.  He said that he could not escape from the issue of God’s absolute sovereignty in salvation and election in Romans 9.  Like R.C. Sproul before him, he surrendered his head but not his heart but today he too is a full-blown five point Calvinist.  Both men now claim to be Reformed Baptists (and both are charismatics).

Romans 9 is a bed rock chapter for Calvinism.  As I have written before, I know of some Calvinists who read Romans 9 on a regular basis because it gives them strength to see Calvinism in the Bible.  To Calvinists, Romans 9 is a powerful chapter that demonstrates Calvinism.  Yes they will argue that from Genesis to Revelation, election is seen in the Bible but if you ask for specific verses about election, Romans 9 is one of the hallmark texts.

Arminians must answer this challenge.  It is, of course, foolish to suppose that Arminians do not have an exegetical reason for rejecting Calvinism.  I reject Calvinism not because I “hate the sovereignty of God” nor “to exalt free will as my idol” but rather I reject Calvinism because I see it rejected in Scripture.

John Piper sees Romans 9 as teaching God’s unconditional election.  He penned a book entitled, The Justification of God, in which Piper argues that the point of Romans 9:1-23 (he shouldn’t have stopped with verse 23 because his book might not have been penned) is that God is just in His divine choosing in election.  Piper argues that unconditional election of people to salvation is clearly the theme of Romans 9:1-23.  Had Piper completed his exegesis down to Romans 9:30-33 he would have to admit that the point is clearly God’s choosing of national Israel and a remnant of grace that has accepted His gospel by grace.

Ironically, Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote,

“for anyone to exalt predestination as the main theme in this section is almost to be guilty of blasphemy.”

Dr. Jack Cottrell, in his excellent book on Romans, states that Romans 9-11 has seven major themes attached to it.  This is what makes our job difficult with regard to an exegesis of Romans 9.  These seven themes, according to Cottrell, are:

a) The Nation of Israel. From beginning to end this section is dominated by references to ethnic or physical Israel, the Jews as a nation, those whom Paul calls “my brothers, those of my own race, the people of Israel” (9:3-4). Paul makes several points about their role in God’s plan (9:4-5,22-23; 11:11-15,25-32), their historical destiny (11:1,11-15,25-32), and their salvation (9:30–10:3; 10:16-21; 11:7-32).

b) God’s Faithfulness. Another subject introduced near the beginning of this section is the faithfulness of God, specifically, whether God has been faithful to his word concerning his people Israel (9:6a). Has he kept his promises to them? Has he been and is he being fair in his dealings with them? “Is God unjust?” (9:14). See also 9:19; 11:29.

c) The Remnant. Another key subject is the distinction between Israel as a whole and remnant Israel: “For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel” (9:6b). Membership in the former is determined by physical birth, but the latter is defined in spiritual terms as determined by God. See 9:23-29; 11:2-7. A key idea is stated in 9:27: “Though the number of the Israelites be like the sand by the sea, only the remnant will be saved.” This is the “remnant chosen by grace” (11:5).

d) God’s Sovereignty in Election. “God’s purpose in election” is another important theme (9:11), especially his sovereignty in making the choices that he does. “For who resists his will?” (9:19). He has the same sort of sovereign authority that a potter has over his clay (9:21). See also 9:15-23; 11:5-10,28-29.

e) The Gentiles. Paul also raises the question of the relation between the Jews and the Gentiles. God’s elect, he says, are drawn “not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles” (9:24). See 9:24-31. How the two are related dominates chapter 11 (vv. 11-32).

f) Law and Grace. We are not surprised that the main subject in chs. 1–8, law and grace, comes to the surface again in 9:30-31 as the key to the question of why God saves some and rejects others. A major part of ch. 10 (vv. 3-17) is the point that salvation is by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, not by law or works of law. See also 11:6,20,23.

g) The Church. A final theme, discussed in 11:17-24, is the church. Though the word “church” itself is not used, this is clearly the point. The specific issue in this section is the relation between the church and Israel.

Romans 9 is not to be lifted up out of the context of the book of Romans.  The key verse for Romans is found in 1:16-17 where Paul writes,

16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”

The righteous shall live by faith.  Paul defends this view throughout the book of Romans by showing that our salvation is by grace through faith.  Paul contrasts salvation by works with salvation by faith in Romans 4.  He shows us that we are justified before God by faith (Romans 5:1).  This salvation produces sanctification by the indwelling Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5; 8:1-4).  As we live by the Spirit, the Spirit helps us toward glorification (Romans 8:29-30).  As we abide in Christ through faith, we have the assurance of our salvation and our entire sanctification (Romans 8:37-39).  Paul now turns to the issue of the Jews since he knows that the Jews will argue that they are saved by being a Jew.  This had been an issue even with John the Baptist (Matthew 3:7-10) and with the Lord Jesus (John 8:31-47).  The Jews believed themselves to be the special people of God which they were as Paul the Apostle shows in Romans 9:1-5 (though Piper struggles to show that salvation is included in these promises and blessings).  The Jews were indeed the chosen people of God (Genesis 25:22-23; Deuteronomy 7:6) but this does not mean that all the Jews were saved by virtue of being Jewish.  Paul is going to show that God has the right to choose to save the Gentiles just as He saves the believing Jews based on faith (Romans 3:25-31).  Paul will even prove that God has always had a remnant even among the disobedient Jews (Romans 11:1-5).  Paul will argue that it is indeed God’s sovereignty that allows Him to do this but it is not based on the hidden mystery of Calvinistic election but upon the grace of God in salvation that is free to all, both Jews and Gentiles.

Cottrell then makes an excellent case in his commentary on Romans that the main purpose of Romans 9 is the faithfulness of God.  This will be the theme I will take up next, to show that God is faithful to His promises despite the unbelief of many of the Jews.


8 Responses

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  1. Great start. Not to get too far off track but I am wondering if ‘hyper Calvinism’ and ‘hyper’ grace’ suffer from the same root issues. Hyper grace ala Joseph Prince.

    Mike Bayer

    11/05/2013 at 2:05 PM

    • I think so. Any theological movement can become unbalanced by focusing on a few texts instead of many texts together. I perhaps could be guilty of this at times. We must balance the Word of God. Find the center of biblical tension.

  2. Interesting, I see here that Dr. Jack Cottrell identifies a chiastic structure of Romans 9, with God’s Sovereignty in election being the central theme, very cool! Yet somehow you’ve made point b – God’s Faithfulness, the central theme? Interesting!

    Anthony Vigar

    11/05/2013 at 4:40 PM

    • Actually I am borrowing from him. 🙂 Dr. Cottrell makes that the main point. I believe Dr. Reasoner, an Arminian, makes justification by faith the main issue at stake. I will have more to say on this later.

      • Ah, thanks for that correction, yes, you are following Dr. Cottrell’s approach, makes sense… and God’s faithfulness is a great theme to expound upon!

        Anthony Vigar

        11/06/2013 at 7:54 PM

      • Thank you brother.

  3. “Had Piper completed his exegesis down to Romans 9:30-33 he would have to admit that the point is clearly God’s choosing of national Israel and a remnant of grace that has accepted His gospel by grace.”

    And that illustrates the major error and weakness of Calvinism: it’s continued avoidance of context.

    Any doctrine can be “proven” from scripture through the selection of isolated passages removed from their clear context.


    11/05/2013 at 4:47 PM

  4. […] In my previous post on Romans 9, I noted that Dr. Jack Cottrell believes the primary emphasis is upon the faithfulness of God.  Is God faithful to His promises to Israel?  Did God fail to bring about His promises to Israel?  Paul’s answer in Romans 9-11 is  a clear no!  God is faithful! […]

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