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PREDESTINATION OR FREEWILL: PART TWO

 

(ROMANS CHAPTER NINE)

       Romans, chapter nine, has been singled out by some as a stand-alone dissertation by Paul on how God predestinates all human behavior in order to carry out His will.  Paul's discussion of predestination in Romans nine is seen by some as a universal template for how God deals with mankind.  In Romans nine, Paul shows God predestinating  certain events to happen in a certain way.  Some see such predestination as the method by which God selects some to be saved and others to be condemned. This is the Calvinist approach as discussed in Chapter one of this series.  Others see God not only predestinating who is saved and not saved but predestinating all human activity.  Some teach that all human behavior is predetermined by God to happen in the way it happens.  Therefore, we humans don’t really have freewill.  Freewill is illusory. Does Paul’s discussion in Romans nine justify such conclusions about predestination? 

        In Romans chapter 9, Apostle Paul discusses God’s choice of Isaac in preference to Ishmael (Genesis 17:15-21) and Jacob in preference to Esau (Genesis 25:23).  These choices are shown to be made without regard to any good or bad behavior on their part.  Paul also relates how God chose Pharaoh for the express purpose of demonstrating God’s power.  Paul speaks of God bearing with great patience the objects of his wrath in order to glorify himself before the objects of his mercy (Romans 9:22-23).

       Some interpret this to mean God predestines some to be objects of His wrath and others to be objects of His mercy. This is tantamount to saying God predestines some to be evil so He can display wrath against them and predestines others to be righteous so He can display mercy upon them.  However, Paul says God bore with great patience the objects of his wrath.  You don't exercise patience with an evil person if it is you who made that person to be evil.  You exercise patience with an evil person in hopes they will turn from their evil. This is the message of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation. The objects of God's wrath that Paul speaks of are those who have chosen to resist his will and therefore have become objects of His wrath and not that God made them to be objects of His wrath.

       Paul uses the potter and clay metaphor to show God can make some individuals for noble purposes and others for ennoble purposes.  Paul shows God can do what he wants to do with us humans and we have no right to question why He does what He does.  Are we to conclude from this that God predestines some to be evil and others to be good or is Paul saying what he is saying within a particular context of behavior he was dealing with at the time?

       As stated above, some believe Romans nine teaches that God predestines some to be saved and others not to be saved.  This is the doctrine of predestination commonly taught by Reformed/Calvinist theologians.  This perspective on predestination teaches God elects certain individuals for salvation and others for damnation.  Therefore, human choice has no bearing on our ultimate destiny.  As already mentioned, some believe all human activity is predetermined by God and human freewill doesn’t exist.  Some argue that for God to be sovereign, all activity must be predetermined by Him.  

       Is God’s choice of Isaac over Ishmael and Jacob over Esau a template for how God relates to the entire human race?   Did Pharaoh have no choice as to how he behaved toward Israel?   I believe when Romans 9 is viewed within the greater context of Paul’s entire letter to the Romans and especially Romans 9 through 11, a different picture emerges than that generally painted by Reformed/Calvinist theologians.  A careful examination of Romans 9-11 reveals a struggle that was going on relative to the implications of the Gospel for the nation of Israel.  Paul uses a number of OT passages in his discussion of these implications.  I believe a careful examination of Paul’s Old Testament quotes in Romans 9-11 sheds a distinctly different light on Paul’s discussion of predestination from what is commonly believed.  

       I submit that Paul’s discussion of predestination in Romans has nothing to do with who is ultimately saved or lost. It has nothing to do with negating human freewill.  Paul’s discussion has to do with the dynamics associated with justification before God and how such justification comes about.  Paul’s whole focus in His letter to the Romans is to demonstrate that justification before God is based on faith and not on works.  Paul reveals how God has manipulated certain events in the historical past to bring about His purpose to provide His human creation with salvation. Paul is not revealing a universal template for how God deals with all human behavior.

       In Romans 1-8, Paul discusses the sinful state of humanity and how deliverance from the penalty for sin cannot be achieved by the works of the law but by faith in Christ Jesus.  In chapter 4, Paul uses Abraham as an example of justification by faith.  Abraham believed God’s promise that he and Sarah would procreate a son in their old age.  Abraham and Sarah were well past the age for child bearing but because of faith in God’s promise they were able to engage in sexual activity and produced a son.  The birth of Isaac was not based on normal physical ability to have a son but on God’s facilitation of such ability.  Thus Isaac is seen as a son of promise.  Paul recites this event as an example of faith producing a given result as opposed to the works of the flesh producing such results.  Abraham is considered righteous because he believed God would produce a miracle in facilitating the birth of Isaac.  The righteousness of Abraham resulted from his reliance on God to facilitate the seemingly impossible.   Paul uses this event to demonstrate that righteousness comes by faith in the promise of God and not by our works. 

       Romans 9:8: it is not the natural children who are God's children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham's offspring.

       Israel believed they were the children of promise.  After all, they were descendants of Jacob who was a son of Isaac who was the child of promise birthed by Abraham and Sarah.  Ethnic Israel sees their descent from Abraham as their ticket to acceptance before God.  However, we see in Galatians 4:21-31 that Paul identifies ethnic Israel with Hagar, as opposed to Sarah. 

       Galatians 4:22-31:  For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman.  His son by the slave woman was born in the ordinary way; but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a promise.  These things may be taken figuratively, for the women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar.  Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother.  For it is written: "Be glad, O barren woman, who bears no children; break forth and cry aloud, you who have no labor pains; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband."   Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise.  At that time the son born in the ordinary way persecuted the son born by the power of the Spirit. It is the same now.   But what does the Scripture say? "Get rid of the slave woman and her son, for the slave woman's son will never share in the inheritance with the free woman's son."  Therefore, brothers, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman.

       Paul analogized Israel’s ethnic decent to Ishmael, who was Abraham’s descendant by purely natural means.  In contrast, both Jews and Gentiles are said to be children of Abraham based on their faith in Christ. Therefore, it is those who profess faith in Christ who are considered the true descendants of Abraham because they are children of promise.

       Galatians 3:6-11: Consider Abraham: "He believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness." Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham. The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: "All nations will be blessed through you." So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith. All who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written: "Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law." Clearly no one is justified before God by the law, because, "The righteous will live by faith."

       Paul is telling first century Israel that ethnic decent from Abraham and keeping the law is not what makes one a child of Abraham.  It is the placing of faith in the Christ event that enables such a relationship.  It is in this context that Paul says the following:

       Romans 9:6b-8: For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham's children. On the contrary, "It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned." In other words, it is not the natural children who are God's children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham's offspring.

       It is through Isaac Abraham’s offspring is reckoned.  Isaac is the child of promise and as such represents the work of God and not of man.  It is through the work of God that salvation is facilitated and not the work of man.  This is the message Paul is trying to get across.  The real Israel of God is not the physical descendants of Abraham but all those who express faith in Christ, both Jew and Gentile. 

       Galatians 6:15-16: Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is a new creation. Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule, even to the Israel of God. 

       Under the Old Covenant, God related to Israel on the basis of ethnicity and strict obedience to the covenant He made with them at Sinai.  God rewarded Israel for obedience and punished them for disobedience.  However, God’s ultimate purpose was to have an indwelling spiritual relationship with man facilitated by the death and resurrection of the promised savior Christ Jesus.  Much of first century Israel could not grasp the covenantal change that was taking place and could not accept Paul’s teaching that a relationship with God was no longer based on physical decent from Abraham and obedience to law.  Many Jews were particularity incensed over Gentiles being accepted short of their being circumcised and keeping the Mosaic regulations.

       Paul’s use of Isaac and Ishmael (Ishmael's name is not mentioned but implied) in the way that he does in Galatians and Romans appears intended to establish that the Israelites have no reason to trust in their descent from Abraham as the pathway to a relationship with God.  Their physical descent from Abraham is not what matters.  If physical descent was the criteria to have a relationship with God, then Ishmael and his descendants would have just as much right to claim God’s promises as could the descendants of Isaac.

       Israel believed one was justified before God on the basis of descent from Abraham and keeping of the Law.  While a number of first century Israelites came to accept the teaching that faith in Christ was the pathway to justification before God, the vast majority believed this to be nonsense.  They looked at what Paul was saying and virtually concluded that if Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith in Christ were true, then God would have essentially broken His promises to Israel.  The people of Israel saw justification before God as based on descent from Abraham and keeping the Law.  How then could God now be saying that justification is not based on descent from Abraham or keeping the Law, but rather on faith in Christ?  It is this thinking on the part of first century Israel that Paul is dealing with in Romans, Galatians and other of his letters. Predestination must be understood in the context of God requiring that a relationship with Him is based on faith and not on works. It is this that God has predestined.

       Predestination in Scripture has nothing to do with predetermining in advance who is saved and who is not saved.  It has nothing to do with God predetermining all human activity and events that occur.  Predestination has to do with specific events associated with God establishing the pathway for human salvation.

       God’s preference of Isaac over Ishmael and Jacob over Esau was for the express purpose of establishing a line of decent to fulfill His promise to bring a savior into the world to provide salvation to mankind.  This salvation was to be a miraculous work of God with human works being irrelevant.  To demonstrate the supernatural nature of God’s promise to provide a savior, the miraculously born Isaac is chosen over the naturally born Ishmael.  God supernaturally intervenes to have the elder Esau serve the younger Jacob through whose son Judah the Christ would come.  God is showing by all this that the entire process of facilitating salvation for humanity is based not on normal events and activities but on supernatural involvement that insures that human salvation is freely given and not something we can earn.  

       Romans 9:11-12: Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad--in order that God's purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls--she was told, "The older will serve the younger."

       The indication is that God choose Jacob over Esau so that God’s purpose in election would stand.  It is the election of Jacob over Esau that is being discussed.  Paul is not here revealing a universal election were people in general are either chosen to be saved or lost. Paul is not addressing the issue of being saved or lost at all.  Paul is addressing the matter of how the availability of salvation came about. Paul quotes Malachi 1:2-3 where God says he loved Jacob and hated Esau (Romans 9:13).  . 

       Romans 9:13-18: Just as it is written: "Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated." What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all!  For he says to Moses, "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion."  It does not, therefore, depend on man's desire or effort, but on God's mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh: "I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth." Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.

       Paul asks if loving Jacob and hating Esau is unjust on the part of God.  He answers by quoting what God said to Moses. "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion."  The implication is that God is sovereign and can choose how certain individuals will be used to fulfill his purpose irrespective of their own desires.  There is no reason to believe, however, that Paul is revealing that God predetermines all things and thus prevents the expression of freewill.  Paul is dealing with a specific event and not expounding some universal principle relative to how God relates to man in all circumstances.

       In reference to God saying He loved Jacob and hated Esau, it should be noted that all indications are that God expressed a preference for Jacob over Esau and not that He literally hated Esau in some adversarial sense.  In Genesis 33 is the account of Jacob meeting Esau and providing Esau with many gifts.  Esau initially turns down the gifts saying he already had plenty.  Esau is not seen as having been cursed by God.  Deuteronomy 2:4-6, shows that God did not allow the Israelites to attack Edom (descendants of Esau) or to take any portion of the land God had given them.  He instructed Israel to pay them in silver for the food they eat and the water they drink. This is not a picture of a God who hates someone in a condemnational manner.  It is reasonable to believe God hated Esau in the same sense Christ instructed that we hate our parents in contrast to loving Christ.  Jesus wasn’t teaching we are to literally hate our parents but that we preferentially put Christ ahead of our parents.     

       God predetermined that Jacob would be chosen over Esau as the one through whom the nation of Israel would be assembled and through whom Christ would trace His genealogy.  The whole process of providing salvation for mankind is seen to be supernaturally orchestrated and based on faith as opposed to the progression of natural events.  It is in this context we must read Romans, chapter nine.  Paul goes on to reference God raising Pharaoh up for the very purpose of displaying God’s power in him.  Paul follows this up by saying, “Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.”  The implication is that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.

       How did God harden Pharaoh’s heart?  Did God predestinate that Pharaoh would refuse to let Israel go which means Pharaoh could not choose to do otherwise?  Was Pharaoh simply a pawn in God’s hand and had to behave the way he did because God foreordained Pharaoh behave that way?   Pharaoh was asked a number of times to let Israel go.  Were such requests a mere charade if indeed God pre-programmed Pharaoh to not let Israel go?  Did God make Pharaoh unable to behave differently from the manner in which he behaved?

       What are we to make of God’s hardening of Pharaoh?  In Exodus, the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is expressed in four ways: the Lord prophesies ahead of time that he will harden Pharaoh’s heart (4:21, 7:3 14:4).  The hardening is expressed passively where it is simply recorded that Pharaoh’s heart was hardened (7:13, 22, 8:19, 9:35).  It is stated that Pharaoh hardened his own heart (8:15, 32, 9:34).  It’s also stated that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart (9:12, 10:1, 29, 27, 11:10, 14:8). 

       How can we best coordinate the various ways the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is described?  God is seen as asking Pharaoh through Moses to let Israel go to worship God in the desert.  Pharaoh refuses to do this which is to say he hardened his heart or his heart became hardened.  Pharaoh takes a hard position in response to Moses requests to let Israel go.  He hardens his own heart in that he takes a firm position to not let Israel go.

       It must be remembered that Pharaoh was a powerful ruler with a lot of pride. Egyptian Pharaohs were virtually looked upon as Gods.  The Pharaoh of the Exodus and the Egyptian people were enjoying the benefit of Israel’s slave labor.  Pharaoh didn’t know the God of Israel and therefore had no reason to respect this God.  Why would He not respond in the manner he did?   When Pharaoh’s magicians were able to duplicate some of the plagues, this served to strengthen his resistance to the demands of Moses.

       Paul indicates God brought about the placement of Pharaoh as ruler of Egypt for the express purpose of displaying His power through him.  God knew the makeup of Pharaoh's heart and knew he would refuse to let Israel go.  Does this mean God manipulated Pharaoh’s heart in some way to make it hard and Pharaoh had no ability to let Israel go?  Was Pharaoh denied any opportunity to repent of his resistance to God's will and let Israel go before the killing of the first born?

       I submit that Scriptures shows Pharaoh had opportunity to change like we all do and God did not program Pharaoh to be unable to let Israel go sooner than what he did.  It was the plagues that made Pharaoh harden his heart.  As the plagues continued, Pharaoh became more and more defiant.  The plagues provided the impetus for Pharaoh to respond as he did.  When we become angry at someone we say that person made me angry.  In reality, however, such person only provided the impetus for us to become angry.  It was our choice to become angry.  It was the actions of God in bringing the plagues upon Egypt that hardened Pharaoh’s heart.  God knew the mental makeup of Pharaoh and the various dynamics of an Egyptian society based on slave labor.  God knew how Pharaoh would react and how he reacted was to harden his heart and not allow Israel to leave Egypt.

       We see this made evident in 1 Samuel, chapter six.  Here we see God bringing judgement upon the Philistines for having taken possession of the Ark of the Lord and not giving it back to Israel.  Because of this God was bringing judgement upon them and they are asked why they were hardening their hearts as did Pharaoh and the Egyptians.

       1 Samuel 6:6: Why do you harden your hearts as the Egyptians and Pharaoh did? When he treated them harshly, did they not send the Israelites out so they could go on their way?

      Looking at the hardening of Pharaoh from this perspective provides for a logical coordination of the various Scriptures that speak of God hardening Pharaoh and Pharaoh hardening himself.  It also allows for Moses requesting Pharaoh to let Israel go provide an actual opportunity for Pharaoh to let Israel go and not have such requests be a meaningless charade if in fact God had programmed Pharaoh to be unable to let them go. 

       On the heels of God’s reference to Pharaoh, Paul says, “One of you will say to me: "Then why does God still blame us?  For who resists his will?"   Wasn’t Pharaoh simply doing God’s will in refusing to let Israel go?  Can Pharaoh be blamed for that? 

       What was God’s will?  God’s will was that Pharaoh let Israel go.  Was it also God’s will that Pharaoh not cooperate and refuse to let Israel go?  Was God working at cross purposes here?  Was God manipulating Pharaoh’s heart in some manner to make it hard?   Was God forcing Pharaoh to resist His will to let Israel go?   Where the many requests to let Israel go a charade?

       Exodus 9:13-15: Then the LORD said to Moses, "Get up early in the morning, confront Pharaoh and say to him, `This is what the LORD, the God of the Hebrews, says: Let my people go, so that they may worship me, or this time I will send the full force of my plagues against you and against your officials and your people, so you may know that there is no one like me in all the earth. For by now I could have stretched out my hand and struck you and your people with a plague that would have wiped you off the earth.

       God, through Moses, tells Pharaoh to let Israel go and if he doesn’t He will really let Pharaoh and the Egyptian’s have it.  The very wording of this passage presupposes Pharaoh’s ability to relent and let Israel go and avoid further destruction of Egypt.  God is seen as actually having mercy upon Pharaoh in so much that he didn’t wipe Egypt off the face of the earth but gives them ample opportunity to let Israel go. 

       It is instructive that when Moses informed Pharaoh about the killing of the firstborn males, it is recorded that Moses was furious with Pharaoh (Exodus 11:8).  Why was Moses so angry with Pharaoh? The implication is that Moses had become very frustrated at Pharaoh's unwillingness to let Israel go.  This presupposes Pharaoh having the freedom to let Israel go if he chose to do so.  God was not preventing Pharaoh from letting Israel go.  Pharaoh was preventing Pharaoh from letting Israel go.  Pharaoh was his own worst enemy.  God simply allowed Pharaoh to carry out his rebellion all the way through to the killing of the firstborn. 

      God will always ensure His will is carried out.  But He doesn’t force us to do his will.  If we don’t do it voluntarily God will create conditions that will bring us around to doing His will or He will accomplish His will in some other way.  This is essentially what happened with Pharaoh.  God created the conditions that eventually brought Pharaoh to his knees.  God did not harden Pharaoh’s heart by taking away his freedom of choice and make it impossible for him to let Israel go.  Pharaoh could have made the decision to let Israel go at any time.

       We will continue this discussion of Romans nine in Part Three of this series.

PART THREE: ROMANS, CHAPTER NINE CONTINUED