An Arminian Wrestling with Romans 9:1-18: Part 2 – Exegesis Matters

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series An Arminian Wrestling with Romans 9:1-18


In the first part of this essay, we talked about how the change in covenant from either being a Jew (or adopting Jewish God-ordained customs – circumcision, the Law) to the covenant of all-nation inclusion based solely on grace though faith in Christ was the context of Paul’s writing of Romans. We also looked at what Paul wrote in Romans 1-8. These facts are essential to understanding the interpretation of Romans 9.

But that leads us to Romans 9, where Paul comes back to the question, “What about the Jews in regards to their salvation?” If they are God’s chosen people with all of the covenantal promises as found in our Old Testament, could it mean that those of them who rely on the law and circumcision (i.e., their Jewishness) and not faith in Jesus are outside of covenant relationship with God? I think the first three verses make it clear that Paul experiences sorrow over many of these beloved people because they are cut off from Christ. In a deeply emotional and sacrificial statement, he echoes Moses in Exodus 32 by offering to be cut off from Christ in their stead. He would not say this unless they were outside of the New Covenant. Even though they had the adoption as sons, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the temple service and the promises (9:4), there was something about both the Old and New Covenants that they were missing.


And that something is offered by Paul here with all the subtly of a lightening bolt in 9:6: “Israel”–even in the Old Testament–was never considered God’s people based just on ethnicity. He elaborates in 9:7-9: Isaac was the son of ‘the promise’ (the Abrahamic Covenant as given in Genesis 12:1-3 and repeated several times throughout the Old Testament) and not merely of physical descent of Abraham, as was Ishmael. The promise of the Abrahamic covenant is what makes God’s people his people rather than just their physical heritage. Abasciano says, “The Old Testament background of Romans 9:7-9 identified the divine purpose of Abraham’s election to be the blessing of all the nations of the world in Abraham and/or his seed. This is consistently affirmed in the patriarchal narratives of Genesis (12:3; 18:18; 22:18; 26:4; 28:14) to which Paul repeatedly alludes in Romans 9:6-13. Most significantly, Genesis 18:18-19–a passage directly connected to Genesis 18:10 and 14–does so as well. And Gen. 18:10 and 14 is cited in Rom. 9:9.”1

I think it totally reasonable to conclude from both the Old Testament and the New that God’s promises were for people like Ruth, a non-Jew (a Moabitess) but a person of faith, and not for someone like Micah in Judges 17, who was a Jew but also an idolater. The promise of Abraham and then to Isaac and then Jacob was a promise based on being declared righteous by faith (Genesis 15:6; Romans 4:16), not being of the right physical lineage.

God’s promises were for people like Ruth, a non-Jew but a person of faith, and not for someone like Micah, who was a Jew but also an idolater.


In Romans 9:10-13, Paul makes the point using Esau (and his descendants, the Edomites) as the example. Esau was a physical descendant of Abraham, yet God rejected him from covenant. Quoting Malachi 1:2, he clearly says, “I have loved Jacob, but I have hated Esau.”2 And in 9:12 he reminds us that in the case of Isaac and Jacob who were both younger brothers, the two received the covenant blessing instead of the older. His point here is that God’s sovereignty over covenant trumps not just physical ancestry, but cultural things like primogeniture. It is the same point, just from a different angle. Works, ethnicity, customs etc., are not the basis of covenant. Instead, it is God’s character as revealed in his promises. He sovereignly chose faith as the reason to bless people, not their good deeds or biological lineage. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are all mentioned in Hebrews 11 as doing what they did “by faith” (note Rahab, a non-Jew, mentioned in Hebrews 11 as well). That is why they were chosen. God’s choosing of them was not based on works, but neither was it without condition. Some may argue that Paul does not say that explicitly here. My response is that he does not need to. By alluding to Genesis and Malachi, he gives context of covenant by faith. By already stating this plainly in this letter in Romans 4 and even in 1-3,  he gives the context of covenant by faith.  By stating it plainly just a few verses down in this very letter (Romans 9:30-33, see below) he teaches us that we can see God’s plan to create a covenant people based on their faith, not their cultural heritage or good works.


This leads us to the most difficult portion of the chapter for me personally, as quoted in my second paragraph of part one, Romans 9:14-18. With the covenant shift and Romans 9:1-13 as given so far in these essays, we are now ready to understand what Paul meant by these verses.

First, we see that he appeals to a potential (perhaps theoretical) objection involving injustice on God’s behalf. Again, from the previous verses, the rest of Romans and the mood of the covenant change at the time, we can conclude that some Jews may have been ready to cry out that God was not being fair. They were his chosen people, receivers of the previous covenant. They could deal with Ishmael and Esau being rejected, but Paul had also just stated that many of Jacob’s modern descendants were also cut off. So how is this fair? Directly relating to his previous argument concerning our sovereign God’s entry into covenant relationship with a person, he quotes Exodus 33:19 in 9:15, “I will show mercy to whom I will show mercy and I will show compassion to whom I show compassion.” He then explains that as a result it is not up to man who wills or runs but on God entirely. He uses Pharaoh as an example of someone God hardened and then combines part of Exodus 19:33 and part of Exodus 9:16 in conclusion.


To recap: Paul has just explained ethnicity is not the basis for a covenant relationship. In addition, he anticipated an objection to this.  It is not unlikely, therefore, that he veered off the main topic for a few verses to say that Jews needed to accept that how a person enters into covenant with God is dependent on God’s will and not man’s. Some Jews wanted it to be their way: they should be accepted because we were born a Jew, were circumcised and followed the Law. But this was not God’s way in the New Covenant. So Paul, speaking on God’s behalf and by God’s inspiration, sets the record straight. Dr. Robert Picirilli says it this way:

The purpose of verses 14-24 is to argue that the sovereign God is the one who determines who will be saved. Since this follows hard on the heels of the point of verses 6-13, the point is that the Jewish notion of universal corporate salvation for all Jews is unjustified. God still saves whom he wills and damns who he wills, Jews or otherwise. Indeed the use of Exodus 33:19 specifically supports the point that not all Israelites were destined to be saved; it was spoken to Moses of all people…In other words, then, the Jew cannot raise his voice to Heaven and say, ‘I am a Jew; you have promised to save all Jews. You must save me therefore. Paul’s doctrine of salvation by faith in Jesus is therefore wrong.’

Robert Picirilli, Grace, Faith, Free Will, 72-73


A huge part of the concern for me in this four-verse section is that Paul says it does not depend on human will or running (or “effort”) in 9:16. As I have said, on the surface that sounds like people do not choose God in covenant but rather God chooses them, which contradicts the very foundation of Arminianism. Apart from the context making it clear to me that what he means is that men do not choose how God bestows mercy in covenant relationship (instead of choosing who individually receives mercy and who doesn’t, i.e., ‘unconditional election’), I also want to mention that words for “will” and “effort” here fit extremely well as an explanation of Paul’s building argument previously in Romans. Abasciano, citing Dunn, explains: “Paul’s use of θἐλω (‘will’) earlier in the epistle (7.15-21) specifically refers to keeping the Law of God. Indeed, as Dunn observes, the ‘willing’ and ‘running’ of 9.16 is the equivalent of the ‘willing’ and ‘doing’ of 7.15-21. In 7.15-21, Paul speaks of ‘willing’ in the sense of human resolve to do the law and speaks of ‘doing’ in the sense of human performance of the Law.”3

This fits because that has been Paul’s point from nearly the beginning of Romans–The Law, neither in resolve or practice, is not what puts you in covenant with God. It is only faith in Christ. Until a person can let go of the cultural requirements of the first covenant as the source of their relationship to God, Jesus cannot be of value to them. Jesus–by grace through faith in him–is God’s choice for bestowing covenantal mercy.


A detailed word could be said about the use of Pharaoh as an example in 9:17. If you want a deeper explanation of this verse, I recommend any of the works I have cited. But I will give a brief word. Much has been made of how God “hardened” Pharaoh’s heart several times in Exodus (4:21, 10:1, 11:10), and even though that word is not used in Romans 9:17, it is in the verse that follows. So we must take note of it along with the whole of Pharaoh’s story arc. And at least one thing is clear to me about the entire narrative in how it portrays Pharaoh–he was a sinner and was not in covenant with God at all. And his hardening of heart was considered sin (Exodus 9:34). So using him instead of an Israelite still fits; God hardened him because he was not a man of covenant faith. And I imagine he is using him as an example of how He raised him up to show the world that nobody can thwart the power of God, not even the most powerful human authority. God’s sovereign will trumps everything and everybody. It is a continuation of Paul’s detour here from his main point that “Jews come to God the same way Gentiles do” to exalt God’s sovereignty over covenant relationship and everything else.


Though not part of my verse parameters in the title of this essay, I conclude with the end of the chapter 9. All of what Paul has taught so far in Romans 1-8 and the first half of Romans 9 comes to a head in the last four verses of this chapter. It is part of my hermeneutical training to let plain passages help interpret more confusing ones. And while I believe that Romans 9:1-18 is not as confusing with context as I used to think, Paul hammers the truth of election by faith in Christ instead of works and ethnicity home as clearly as possible in vs. 30-32:

What should we say then? Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained righteousness—namely the righteousness that comes by faith. But Israel, pursuing the law for righteousness, had not achieved the righteousness of the law. Why is that? Because they did not pursue it by faith, as if it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone [meaning Jesus, the only source of covenantal mercy]

Romans 9:30-32

And then he quotes Isaiah in vs. 33.

I do not think his point could be any clearer, especially with Romans 9:1-18 preceding it. This is all part of the same letter, the same attempt to convince and encourage, the same argument. Israelite heritage as in the law and circumcision do not lead to righteousness, i.e, right standing (covenant relationship) with God. Only faith in Christ does. Abraham’s example from the beginning of the Israelite nation was that he believed and was declared righteous.

Paul hammers the truth of election by faith in Christ instead of works and ethnicity home as clearly as possible.

My passion for preaching and teaching begs me to not just give an interpretation of Scripture without giving some way to apply it. God does not want just head knowledge from his followers. He wants to change how we think and how we live. So I finish with two points of how Romans 9 should change us:

  1. God is sovereign over his relationship with me. He is God; I am not. The way we think about God’s sovereignty over us will affect how we pray, how we worship, and how we interact with other people.
  2. God includes all people groups into his kingdom with following Jesus by grace through faith as the only qualifier. This should affect how I try to reach the people around me. It is not by accident that Romans 10 follows on the heels of this passage, where we are asked ‘How can they hear unless someone is preaching to them?”

Perhaps in the future I will deal with Romans 9:19-29 because in my opinion these verses are nearly as daunting a view of God’s election to covenant as the previous section of Romans. I also would love to deal with chapters 10 and 11 in the near future. Until then please let me know if you have any questions or comments or counter-arguments.

  1. Abasciano, 50
  2. “Hate” as used here in both the Hebrew of Malachi and the Greek of Romans would indicate more of a rejecting of relationship, more similar to the idea of ‘divorcing’ than anything involving passion or emotion (although they may be involved). Remember, this passage is about God relating to people through covenantal relationship, which is what marriage is as well.  Like its opposite, love, it is more an act of volition than a feeling. Understanding the way God “hates” is essential to understanding his character in covenant, since the word carries a heavy connotation in American English.
  3. Abasciano, 188, citing Romans by James G.D. Dunn, pages 552-53.
Series Navigation<< An Arminian Wrestling with Romans 9:1-18: Part 1 – Context Matters

Gowdy Cannon

I am currently the pastor of Bear Point FWB Church in Sesser, IL. I previously served for 17 years as the associate bilingual pastor at Northwest Community Church in Chicago. My wife, Kayla, and I have been married nearly seven years and have a 3-year-old son, Liam Erasmus. I have been a student at Welch College in Nashville and at Moody Theological Seminary in Chicago. I love The USC (the real one in SC, not the other one in CA), Seinfeld, John 3:30, Chic-Fil-A, Dumb and Dumber, the book of Job, preaching and teaching, and arguing about sports.

6 thoughts on “An Arminian Wrestling with Romans 9:1-18: Part 2 – Exegesis Matters

  • January 11, 2016 at 11:40 am

    Gowdy, this two part series is fantastic! Great research, study and application.

  • January 12, 2016 at 3:38 pm

    You did a great job on this series. I still struggle in my understanding of the relationship between free will and sovereignty. One of the biggest issues I have with the Calvinist view is the painting of Arminians with to broad a brush. The inference is that an Arminian does not believe in the sovereignty of God. They tend to view most Arminians as Pelagian in their theology. In many ways I am still wrestling with some passages, but I think you did a good job in your analysis of this one.

  • January 13, 2016 at 8:34 am

    Thank you, gentlemen. I should be more transparent in my writing that I wrestle as well with a lot of the Bible, both inside this election debate and out. I suppose I believe in conditional by faith election because to believe it unconditional I would wrestle to the point of madness.

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  • May 3, 2020 at 12:42 am

    Excellent article Gowdy. Calvinists seem to believe that faith as a condition of salvation takes away from God; they miss that if salvation is conditioned on faith, it is God in His sovereignty who made it that way! Picirilli’s Romans commentary is great.

    • May 5, 2020 at 11:15 am

      Yes, I obviously agree. And also yes, without Dr. Picirilli I don’t know where’d I be on this topic.


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