If any passage of the Bible clearly teaches Calvinism, it would be Romans chapter 9. Calvin himself referred to Romans
9:6-24 as "that memorable passage from Paul which alone ought easily to compose all controversy [concerning election] among sober and compliant children of God". I must confess I have at times been disturbed by what seemed to be the implications of Romans chapter 9, and also parts of Romans chapter 11, concerning the love, justice and goodness of God.
Its possible on a quick reading of Romans 9 to pick up the following ideas:
1. God deliberately hardens people in unbelief so that he can pour out his wrath on them.
2. God deals with humanity as clay in a potter's hands, where the clay just gets worked on and has no influence on its own destiny. Some clay (most clay) is worked by God into vessels of destruction, and a tiny remnant is worked on by God to enjoy eternal salvation. In both cases what happens is totally the work of God.
3. Salvation has nothing to do with us, everything to do with God's Sovereign choice.
4. Anyone who would question this is told by God to just Shut Up, because you are vastly inferior and have no right to ask such questions.
To me these ideas are emotionally unsatisfying. That doesn't mean they are not TRUE, however. I'm committed to the Scriptures and what they teach, even when what they teach doesn't make me rejoice. One example of this is – I believe there is a literal, burning eternal hell. I don't wish this to be so, but I believe it, because I believe that this is what the Bible teaches.
Having said all that, I'm very happy now, however, that I have found some keys to unlocking the true meaning of this passage. The interpretive keys to this passage lie in the context of the whole book of Romans, but especially the first few verses of Chapter 9, as well as Romans 3:1-3.
For full arguments on the subject I refer people to Robert Hamilton's essay on the subject referenced below, but for now, I will give a basic outline of what I see as the solution to these issues.
1. In Romans 9-11 Paul's basic concern is with God's plan for the Jewish people and how to make sense of the fact that so many of them rejected the gospel in view of the fact that they are the chosen people.
a. Paul is often talking in a corporate sense here, about groups of people, or nations, rather than individuals. God's election certainly is often talked about in corporate, not individual terms.
b. Paul is addressing a concern raised in Romans 3:1-3 – a possible objection to his gospel presentation that could easily be raised, concerning the apparent failure of God's promise to Abraham, which Paul goes on to show is not actually a failure at all – but God is still working on it.
2. There are different types of GRACE referred to in the Bible, that have different effects or different ends. Paul is not always talking about "Saving Grace" when he speaks of grace, or Salvation when he speaks of Election. There are different kinds of election referred to in the Bible and even in this passage.
3. The "vessels of wrath prepared for destruction" mentioned in Romans 9:22 are most likely the UNBELIEVING HARDENED JEWS who have been opposing the ministry of the gospel. God is sovereignly using THESE VERY PEOPLE to cause the gospel to go out to the GENTILES – the non-Jews by stirring up persecution for Jewish believers.
4. This passage (Romans 9: 3-16) refers to a PARTICULAR KIND OF PREVENIENT GRACE given to the people of Israel. This was the grace to have the written oracles of God and more immediate access to spiritual truth. God is under NO OBLIGATION to extend this kind of favor to anyone, nor is He unjust if He extends it to the physical descendents of Jacob and not to others, for example. In THIS RESPECT, God acts unilaterally, without respect to human responses or heart qualities. Again and again in the Old Testamant God informs the Israelites that He did not choose them because they were a great, or a holy people in and of themselves. God said, "For you are a stiff-necked people".
5. Seen this way, there is nothing in this passage which nullifies the idea that SAVING GRACE is given conditionally upon FAITH. In fact, Romans 11:19-23 teaches it explicitly.
Rom 11:19 You will say then, "Branches were broken off that I might be grafted in."
Rom 11:20 Well said. Because of unbelief they were broken off, and you stand by faith. Do not be haughty, but fear.
Rom 11:21 For if God did not spare the natural branches, He may not spare you either.
Rom 11:22 Therefore consider the goodness and severity of God: on those who fell, severity; but toward you, goodness, if you continue in His goodness. Otherwise you also will be cut off.
Rom 11:23 And they also, if they do not continue in unbelief, will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again.
One of the main lessons we can get out of Romans chapter 9 is that there are certain kinds of favor which God bestows SOVEREIGNLY just because He wants to, and can. God picked the Israelites, sometimes He picks certain people's to hear the gospel first, some people receive special favor BEFORE they get saved. God is free to give these favors to some groups and peoples, and not others, and to remain free from the charge of dealing UNJUSTLY with humanity.
As far as salvation goes, God never has limited salvation only to the descendents of Jacob. Salvation has ALWAYS been through faith. The stories of Ruth, Rahab and others in the Bible confirm this.
It is true that some people get a much better opportunity to respond to God positively than others. It can be shown, however, from the Scriptures that in fact ALL do get a sufficient opportunity to respond in faith, so that men are "without excuse" if they disbelieve. (Romans 1:20). But the point is, God is not unrighteous if He gives some better opportunities or greater "prevenient" grace to some rather than others. No one who violates God's law with a morally awakened conscience DESERVES anything of God's mercy. It is up to God if He wants to specifically favor one person or group of people with more opportunities than another person or group of people. We have no right to complain about that.
1. (Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God, Translated by J. K. S. Reid. London: James Clarke & Co., Ltd., 1961. 5:3) as quoted in Robert Hamilton's essay on the subject.