Vicar Matt Doebler
Matins Devotional: January 20, 2023
Reformed (Calvinist) theologians often use Romans 9 as one of their key proof texts for the doctrine known as “double” predestination. In a nutshell, this teaching claims that, from eternity past, God decreed (predestined) who would be saved and who would be damned. Reformed theologians will often cite Paul’s words here as proof:
So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. (9:18)
In other words, God bears the ultimate responsibility for and gets glory from both outcomes.
Our Lutheran confessions reject this teaching. While the Scriptures do clearly teach that God acts unilaterally to save all who he has determined to save, nowhere does Scripture teach the opposite. To claim that Paul is teaching that doctrine here in Romans 9 is a complete misreading of his argument.
To see this, we have to look at the overall context. Remember that chapters 9-11 are this big sweeping argument that Paul is making to address the overall question: “Since the Jewish people have rejected their Messiah, does this mean that the original promise of God [to Abraham] has failed?” (9:1-5)
Paul’s answer is clear: “Not at all!” (9:6) The misunderstanding, he says, lies in the fact that some see the inclusion of the Gentiles in God’s Kingdom as Plan B—as if God had planted the tree of salvation (with its root in Abraham), watched it die, and then decided to plant another tree of salvation made from the Gentiles. Rather, Paul is making the case that the original tree, rooted in the original promise is still alive! It’s not a tree that you belong to by blood relation, but by faith in the promise of Christ! And while the tree first sprung up among the Jewish nation (ethnic Israel), all those who did not truly belong to the tree (by faith) have been broken off and now even Gentiles have been grafted in (by faith) so that they too are rightly called the children of promise.
So, in Romans 9, the context makes it clear that Paul is telling the story of salvation from the perspective of how God has worked amongst the nations to bring about his promises. Paul is not describing how God grants salvation to individuals. And what is his point? That neither Jew nor Gentile have the right to object to God’s plan or accuse him of injustice. Neither the Jews nor the Gentiles have a rightful claim to God’s mercy. Salvation come to both Jew and Gentile solely on the basis of God’s unmerited favor—his grace.
We hear this clearly in vss. 25-26:
As indeed he says in Hosea, “Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’ and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved.’ ” “And in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ there they will be called ‘sons of the living God.’ ”
This passage from Hosea is a reminder to both Jew and Gentile that God’s mercy in Christ is the only thing that saves either. God doesn’t deal with us on the basis of who we are, but on the basis of who He is: a merciful Father. The main idea that Paul is developing here is not the notion that God gets glory and delight from punishing sinners, but that even God’s wrath and judgment—when it does come—is always in service of His great mercy. God judged Egypt in order to deliver his people from their bondage. Ultimately, we even see God pour out all of his wrath and fury and judgement for sin on the head of his only Son, so that both Jew and Gentile might taste the freedom of salvation from sin, death, and the devil.
The plan of salvation is a mystery beyond our comprehension. That’s why, at the end of his argument, Paul will declare:
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! (11:33)
But while God’s unfolding plan of salvation may be a mystery—God’s intentions toward each of us are crystal clear—his desire is that all men would be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth. (1 Tim. 2:4) God’s desire is that we, who were not beloved, would become His beloved in Christ—that we, who were not a people, would become his true and dear children.