There are two major topics we need to cover in Romans 9: Predestination and Israel—two topics which have often been a point of debate between Adventists and other Christians. I will begin with predestination.
I have spent many years debating the issue of predestination with Calvinists. Those debates often revolve around “predestination” passages, such as the ones in Romans 9. With time, I have come to understand that there are many other factors, in addition to biblical passages, which influence an individual’s views of predestination. But first, it is important to understand that Christians who believe in predestination are actually a minority within Christianity, even though they often portray themselves as holding the majority view.
After the early church came into existence in the first century, several centuries passed before Augustine emerged and made predestination an integral part of Christian theology. Even in spite of Augustine’s tremendous influence over the Western Church, subsequent theologians did not fully buy into his views on predestination—to the extent that, to this day, the Catholic Church supports free will.
Luther, as an Augustinian monk, leaned heavily on Augustine after his conversion; however, it was Calvin who is most responsible for the doctrine of predestination surviving to our day. Calvin was the first reformer to write a systematic theology, and thus he exerted a major influence over the reformation.
One of the first critics of Calvinism was Arminius, who’s followers—known as Arminians—reinstated the idea of free will in Protestantism. However, they also split between those who believe there is only free will to accept salvation (OSAS) and those who believe we have free will to turn away from God as well, after we accept Christ. Basically, as explained in previous lessons [link], Protestantism is divided fairly equally into Calvinists, Arminians, and OSAS Arminians. Most of the non-Protestants, of course, accept free will; thus, Calvinists really are a minority.
That said, there are several reasons why Calvinists believe in predestination:
1) Classical Theism – Christian theology generally flows like a river from a spring. It begins with the scholars and theologians who work within certain traditions. The scholars train the pastors, who then teach the members. In most cases, the members (and even most pastors) don’t know exactly why the theologians hold certain views, but simply consider them part of their denominational tradition. The theologians, however, build their views on top of certain philosophical presuppositions that can be traced back to the time of the Greeks. Classical Theism makes the assumption that God and reality are timeless, and that God is immutable, impassible, simple, etc.
To test whether a Calvinist is personally influenced by Classical Theism, I ask them if they believe God could have created free-willed beings if He had wanted to. Free will is generally not compatible with timelessness, because under this view, all reality (past, present, and future) was created simultaneously.
2) Tradition – Of course, even if a Calvinist is not personally impacted by Greek philosophy, they are still affected by it through their denominational tradition. People have a lot of faith that their spiritual forefathers, in this case the reformers, were very diligent in their Bible study. The reformers themselves also had a great deal of faith that early church fathers, such as Augustine, were faithful in their Bible study. In reality, Augustine was heavily influenced by Neo-Platonism, and this affected his understanding of Scripture.
3) Theological Method – Calvinists don’t do canonical theology, as described in a previous lesson, but rather place higher emphasis on the New Testament—especially certain sections of Paul’s writings. Essentially, they consider the parts of the Bible that agree with their views to be more authoritative than the others—an obviously circular logic.
4) Gospel-Centered Lenses – Calvinists believe that if mankind has any part to play in salvation—even if this means only accepting the gift of God—that this constitutes a type of works, and thus salvation is no longer by grace through faith. This “logic” would, of course, fall flat if applied to any other setting.
5) The Scriptural Passages – Yes, there are a few sections of Scripture, such as parts of Romans 9, that appear to support predestination.
Talking to Calvinists can be uncomfortable at times, because it often feels like, in arguing against predestination, we are contradicting a plain “thus says the Lord.” Doing canonical theology, however, relieves that tension. Firstly, we don’t approach Scripture having first adopted the philosophical presuppositions of the ancient Greeks. We don’t first adopt the theological tradition of Protestantism, Catholicism, or the early church fathers. We don’t focus our attention directly on a few select passages in the New testament.
Instead, we start with the Bible from the beginning, and let it inform our view of reality and of God. The God of the Bible is very active in time, and definitely capable of creating free-willed beings. The entirety of Scripture is written with an assumption of human free will. The New Testament authors, including Paul, continue in that tradition. Thus, when we approach the predestination passages, we interpret them in a free-will context, rather than vice versa.
At times, the word predestination is used regarding issues that don’t involve personal salvation. Other times, it refers to what God has set in store, either for people who have already chosen Christ, or for people who God foreknows will eventually choose Christ. Even if there are passages for which we don’t have a simple explanation, they are not sufficient to overturn the theology of the entire Scripture.
It is also important to note that most of the accusations brought against the Adventist doctrine of the Investigative Judgment are based either in a Calvinist or OSAS theology. Regular Arminians tend to believe in a form of investigative judgment, even if they don’t use that terminology.
Let’s now briefly turn to the question of Israel. Today, it is typically dispensationalists who argue that the nation of Israel is still God’s chosen nation, and must be treated accordingly. This view is actually contradicted by the very passages used to support it (such as Romans 9). However, this theology has somehow managed to spread to the point that it influences global politics. America will, at times, treat Israel better than it would treat its other allies in a similar situation. This behavior infuriates the Palestinians, causing political unrest—all a result of poor theology.
The argument used to support this view of Israel is partly built on a faulty view of the covenants, but also rests on the idea that God cannot break His promises. Unfortunately, there are many instances in Scripture where God breaks a promise because it was made on condition (e.g. Jonah). Romans 9 clearly explains that Israel is a spiritual entity, not a physical one. The promise was made, not to all of Abraham’s children, but to Isaac. Moreover, only one of Isaac’s children was chosen. In addition, the people of Israel always consisted of Jews and Gentiles. In the Old Testament, the Jews were a majority, while in the New Testament, the Gentiles are a majority. In both cases, the makeup is the same.
John the Baptist mentioned that God can make children of Abraham out of stones (Luke 3:8), so clearly the genetic connection is far less important than the spiritual one. Additionally, all who are in Christ are heirs of the promise through Christ, who is “The Seed” (Galatians 3:16).
As mentioned, there are much deeper theological problems with the dispensational view of Israel, ranging from a misunderstanding of the covenants to a misunderstanding of prophecy; however, that goes outside the scope of this commentary. Overall, in Romans 9 we see Paul’s love for his countrymen, as well as his conviction that God holds all things in His hands, and will work out all things for the good of His people.