PAUL & UNCONDITIONAL ELECTION
by Jeff Hagan
I have been accused of antinomianism a handful of times throughout my years in ministry. I'm not, but that doesn't stop the allegations. I have often given the advice to others that if they have not been accused of antinomianism at some point, then they probably don't have a proper understanding of God's grace or at the very least they don't preach it or teach it enough.
I thought I was being original with my comment, however, I should have known that I'm not clever enough to have been the first one to make a statement such as this. Martyn Lloyd-Jones once said, “if no one ever accuses you of preaching antinomianism, then you probably aren't preaching justification the way Paul did.”(2)
Why do both of us, and I'm sure many others, hold to this sentiment? Because Paul “anticipates this very objection in”(3) Romans 6:1, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?”(ESV) In my humble opinion, if people accuse you of preaching and teaching antinomianism, it's a good sign your sharing the gospel in the same manner as Paul.
What I am proposing at this point is that in Romans 9 Paul teaches the doctrine of unconditional election as formulated in the doctrines of grace. Just in case you aren't quite sure of the meaning of unconditional election let's provide a brief definition of the doctrine at this point, “God chooses to save some and not others, not based on anything in them (whether faith or fruit, present or foreseen), but based solely on his sovereign will and purpose.”(4) And to continue to quote the primary source I used while preparing this brief article, “Evidence for this view comes in two steps: first, Paul addresses two of the same objections still raised against Calvinist doctrine; and second, he doesn't answer the objections the way an Arminian would.”(5)
An Unjust God
This objection pops up in verse 14 of chapter 9. Paul was just talking about two examples from the Old Testament in regards to election. In verses 6 through 9 we see God choosing Isaac over Ishmael and verses 10 through 13 we see God choosing Jacob over Esau. The unconditional element is specifically seen in verse 11, “though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad – in order that God's purpose of election might continue...”(ESV).
When this is pointed out to people the response is almost always predictable. But in strictly human terms, the objection seems to make sense. The problem is, God is not human. The response is usually along these lines, “How can that be? There's nothing fair about that! That would be unfair. You're saying God just picks people out of the blue? He doesn't consider if they are good or bad? That would make God an unjust God.”
This is precisely why Paul anticipates this problem and rhetorically asks in verse 14, “What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God's part?” As can be seen in the comments I made above in regards to antinomianism, the simple truth that Paul anticipates this objection shows he's teaching unconditional election. To quote my source article again, “After all, how often does the Arminian teaching of conditional election based on foreseen faith provoke such a response?”(6)
This, in itself, is of course not enough we need to continue. Paul answers his own rhetorical question in verse 14 directly after the portion quoted above. He firmly states, “By no means!”(ESV) From here we need to look at both how Paul does and does not respond to the objection. He does not reply in typical Arminian fashion by explaining how God looked down the corridor of time by way of His foreknowledge and saw who would become upright and who would become corrupt. He does not expand on the issue by claiming he is speaking of nations and not individuals.
What he does do is emphasize God's indisputable right as sovereign ruler and creator of the world to show mercy and compassion on whoever He chooses (9:15). The fact that Scripture tells us Jacob does wind up being upright and Esau winds up being corrupt in no way displays this as the reason for God's choice. If that were the case, then the whole reason for declaring “though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad” would make absolutely no sense.
So, God didn't choose Jacob because of anything inherent in him, anything he did or didn't do, or because he was better than Esau. And God didn't reject Esau due to anything he did or didn't do or because he was worse than Jacob. “This teaching provokes the objection in verse 14 and the explanation in verses 15-16. Which bleeds over into the second objection.”(7)
No Human Responsibility
People who make this claim do so by using Paul's quotation of Exodus 9:16. Paul claims God raised up Pharaoh in order to display his power and make a name for himself throughout the earth (v.17). Paul then makes the observation, “So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills” (v.18).
The thought of God hardening Pharaoh's heart for His own purposes, instead of as a consequence for his wickedness, spurs the discontent found in verse 19 and it brings about the very same objection in our time: “You will say to me then, 'Why does he still find fault? For who can resist is will?'(v.19). How can God make it Pharaoh's responsibility for not letting His people go if he was merely accomplishing God's purpose? So then, those who find the doctrine of unconditional election troublesome (God shows mercy to whomever He desires), then the idea of “unconditional hardening”(8) would be even more troublesome (God hardens whomever He desires).
“Again, the fact that this objection is even raised suggests our interpretation is on the right track. But as before, this doesn’t settle the matter. We must first listen to Paul’s response to see if the objector has misunderstood him.”(9)
Just like above, Paul's response is telling. Did Paul reply by arguing in the way we so often hear, “But Pharaoh hardened his own heart before God hardened Pharaoh's heart”? No, that's not what Paul said.
What Paul does do is is address whether or not the objector even has the right to level such a claim. He asks rhetorically, “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder 'Why have you made me like this?'” (Romans 9:20, ESV). Then he takes it a step further regarding God's sovereignty to do as he wishes, “Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?” (verse 21, ESV). And verse 22, “What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction.”
God doesn't just create his vessels haphazardly, the fact is what he does has nothing to do with what is in the vessel itself. “Moses and Pharaoh were of the 'from the same lump.' …, just as Jacob and Esau were from the same man (v.10) and has lived in the same womb at the same time. The type of vessels they became was not rooted in their will or exertion, but in God's purpose to 'show his wrath and make known his power.'”(10) So what is God's goal in these types of situations? We see the answer to this question in verse 23 of Romans 9, “...to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared BEFOREHAND...” (ESV, emphasis mine). And these “vessels of glory” wouldn't be fully appreciative or understanding of his grace and mercy without being viewed against the contrast of his wrath.
Human Rationale or Scriptural Truth?
As human beings trying to make sense of things this can be a hard a truth, but the truth is what we are to proclaim. John Piper once wrote, “Given that the theological issue at stake in Romans 9 reaches to the heart of our understanding of God... there is great value in being willing, if the grammatical and historical evidence demands it, to let Paul say something different from what we initially prefer”(11).
It's important while reading through Romans 11 to ask yourself if your view on election aligns more with what Paul is saying or with the person objecting to what Paul is saying?
I completely understand the doctrine of unconditional election being a hard pill to swallow from a merely human standpoint. It's hard to wrap our heads around it let alone surrender to it. Perhaps that's why this passage containing both the direct teaching, and the natural objection to it, is presented the way that it is. As should be clear, the source of Scripture is divine, not merely coincidental.
Let me close with the same words my original resource closed with, “...don’t let such a rare gift go to waste. Test yourself. Because if you’ve never been accused of making God unjust and man a puppet, then you’re probably not preaching election the way Paul did.”(12)
(1) This work is adapted from, and relies heavily upon, an article by Justin Dillehay called “How Romans 9 Anticipates Objections to Unconditional Election” found on The Gospel Coalition Website.
(10) As quoted in Ibid.