What Does Paul Really Teach in Romans 9:22-32? (Series Part 13, Finale)

Romans 9:22 is a reference to Pharaoh: “What if God, although choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction?” When one reads the account in Exodus, one sees that Pharaoh had several opportunities to release God’s people. Repeatedly, Pharaoh hardens his heart. God slowly increased the punishment on Egypt, bringing on ten plagues on the land (and against specific Egyptian gods) and each time warning Pharaoh beforehand of the consequences of his arrogance. Eventually, having gone past the point of return, God hardens Pharaoh’s heart to prepare for destruction. We stress that Pharaoh had opportunities to change his mind, and had he done so, the outcome would be different for him. Paul, nevertheless, seems to have dulled the distinction in the original narrative as he stresses the outcome of a hardened heart. It is tempting to read “prepared for destruction” and “prepared for glory” fatalistically.

I do not think there is sufficient warrant to do so. The most we can make of these labels is that, definitely, objects of God’s wrath are prepared for destruction while objects of mercy are prepared for glory. As we have already seen, however, people can change status from being objects of wrath to objects of mercy; God desires and wills that they should do so. Interestingly, Matthew 25:40-41 records Jesus teaching on a related subject:

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. (Emphasis added)

This suggests that hell, the abode of God’s objects of wrath, was not originally meant for humans. Unfortunately, many will earn their ways into it. This passage is consistent with the spirit of the gospel, which does not want anyone to perish but to have eternal life by believing in Jesus (John 3:16-18).

Romans 9:30-32—The Precis

Perhaps aware of how difficult reading through this passage might be, Paul now gives us a summary of what he has been talking about. What is immediately clear from this summary is the conspicuous absence of any deterministic thought. Paul writes:

What then shall we say? That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; but the people of Israel, who pursued the law as the way of righteousness, have not attained their goal. Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone.

Paul asks why the people of Israel have not attained their goal of achieving righteousness. This would be a remarkably superb place for him to say something like “because God determined or fated them not to achieve it.” Instead, he puts the responsibility of failure on the people of Israel. They failed to achieve it because they went about it wrongly. In “How Do You Respond to Romans 9?” on the website Reknew.org, the author has the following to say on how Paul concludes this chapter:

Paul explains everything he’s been talking about throughout Romans 9 by appealing to the morally responsible choices of the Israelites and Gentiles. The one thing God has always looked for in people is faith. The Jews did not “strive” by faith, though they should have (cf. 10:3). They rather chose to trust in their own works. The Gentiles, however, simply believed that God would justify them by faith. This theme recurs throughout chapters 9 through 11. As a nation, Paul says, the Jews “were broken off because of their unbelief…” (11:20, emphasis added). This is why they have been hardened (Rom. 11:7, 25) while the Gentiles, who sought God by faith, have been “grafted in” (11:23).

Determinism and the Gospel

In Christ Jesus, a mystery about the depth of God’s love is manifestly revealed. This love has captured imaginations and saved lives over the centuries. My greatest distaste for determinism stems from my conviction that it diminishes the love of God that is revealed in the gospel by ultimately teaching that God eternally loves some people, but not all. I am convinced that all theology ought to end in the person of Jesus Christ who is revealed in the gospel to humanity. The Reknew article quoted in the paragraph above also comment on how determinism does a disservice to the revelation of God in Christ:

The deterministic interpretation of Romans 9, I believe, is in tension with the God we find revealed in Jesus Christ. Jesus dying on the cross for his enemies reveals the essence of what God is like — God is love. In contrast to this, the deterministic reading of Romans 9 forces us to conclude that this is only partly true of God, for it only applies to some people (viz. God’s “elect”). Behind the beautiful portrait of God in Christ, we find a deity who is unilaterally determining some to be saved and some to be damned, all for “his glory.” This means the revelation of God in Christ is pen-ultimate. It doesn’t really reveal the heart of God. Calvary conceals God as much as it reveals God.

Final Thoughts

I do not suppose at all that the debates will go away with this essay; they have been raging for centuries and will continue. The human heart is deep. Perhaps, determinism somehow really helps some people understand the gospel and appreciate the majesty of God. I, however, am not convinced that the doctrine is compatible with Scripture. I believe that the doctrine diminishes the God of the Bible and his view of humans. It is hard to imagine that Jesus went around preaching to people, knowing that some of them are determined by the Godhead not to do anything about his preaching. In Matthew 11, for instance, it is hard to miss the disappointment that Jesus felt when his own people of Capernaum would not respond to his teaching and preaching. But why be disappointed if he, the Spirit, and his Daddy have determined beforehand that they would damn these people?

Besides, as stated earlier in this series, my primary audience is West Africa, especially Nigeria. I am convinced that those who subscribe to determinism do so usually apart from Europe’s history and contribution on the matter. Instead, they do so because the native worldviews are typically fatalistic. The Bible is merely conveniently used to seal off what they already believed or inclined to believe.

Works Cited

Craig, William Lane. The Only Wise God: The Compatibility of Divine Foreknowledge and Human Freedom. Wipf and Stock, 1999.

Geisler, Norman. Chosen But Free: A Balanced View of Divine Election. Second Edition. Bethany House, 2001.

Lennox, John C. Determined to Believe?: The Sovereignty of God, Freedom, Faith, and Human Responsibility. Zondervan, 2017.

 “Paul’s Summary and Free Will.” “How Do You Respond to Romans 9?” Reknew, https://reknew.org/2008/01/how-do-you-respond-to-romans-9/. Accessed 09 Sept. 2018.

Virkler, Henry A. Hermeneutics: Principles and Processes of Biblical Interpretation. Baker, 2004.

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