Short answer? No.
If you want to find out the long answer, keep reading. (And I do mean long answer, but I hope it is worth the read.)
Romans 9:1-5 sets the stage for what is coming in this chapter. Paul has great sorrow for his fleshly brethren, his fellows Jews who are not in Christ. His great sadness is how the very gifts they had received from God were wasted on them. To these Israelites belonged the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. But they were lost. There was nothing sadder to Paul than that.
As you can imagine, Jews would not like to hear this and would mount all kinds of objections to it. So, in Romans 9:6, the string of four anticipated objections begin. Note how Paul deals with them through Romans 9:29.
Objection #1: If any Jews are lost, God’s Word has failed
Paul’s first anticipated objection is that God’s Word has failed. Jews, believing themselves to automatically be part of the chosen few by the mere fact that they were Abraham’s offspring would claim Paul must not be teaching the truth. If any Jew is lost, then God’s Word has failed.
Paul responds that the Jews should be well aware that the issue of election has never been for children of the flesh, but for children of the promise. Since Paul is now addressing his Jewish brethren, he relies on their well-known Scripture to make his point.
He asks them to consider two cases of election: Isaac and Jacob.
1) Ishmael is a child of Abraham’s flesh, as are Zimram, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak, and Shuah. But none of them are children of the promise. 2) Esau is a child of Abraham and Isaac’s flesh, but he is not a child of the promise. Therefore, none of these people are elect. The Jews all recognize this. Ishmaelites and Edomites are not part of the chosen people even though they are children of Abraham’s flesh. What do even Jews know? The promise is through Isaac and then Jacob.
Of course, in our modern debates, we have to ask a question about this. Has Paul been talking about election to salvation in this whole section? No. He has been using election to service as a parallel illustration for election to salvation.
Allow me to explain why I am certain of this.
In Romans 9:11-12, Paul is not talking about the individuals, Jacob and Esau, but the nations. Notice the promise, “The older will serve the younger” from Genesis 25:24. That is not about the individuals. Esau never served Jacob. In fact, you can read the meeting between Jacob and Esau in Genesis 32-33 and what you will find is that Jacob repeatedly calls himself Esau’s servant. This prophecy upon which Paul is making his point about election refers to the nations. Edom does serve Israel under David. Further, Paul’s reference to Malachi 1:2-3 is also a reference to the nations and not the individuals.
Please note this very carefully. Paul is talking about the nations Edom and Israel, not the individuals Esau and Jacob. If he was using the election to salvation as his illustration, then he is teaching that all Edomites are condemned and all Israelites are saved. But we know that this discussion in Romans 9 is taking place because not all Israelites are saved. The conclusion then is that Paul is using the election to service (that service of being God’s chosen people who would foster the Messiah) to make his point about the election to salvation. When God elects it is according to promise, not according to flesh.
God’s Word has not failed because no form of election has ever been about being a child of the flesh, but being a child of the promise. Some Israelites are children of the promise and some aren’t. In like manner, some Gentiles are children of the promise and some aren’t.
Interestingly, in Galatians 3:23-29, Paul explains how we become children of the promise: “But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith” (ESV). But when does that happen? “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (ESV). We have put on Christ by faith in baptism and what does that make us? “And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (ESV).
Objection #2: If any Jew is lost, God is unjust.
Having pointed out that the issue is about God’s promise and not fleshly descent, Paul recognizes another objection that will come up from the Jews who want to base their salvation on their Israelite descent. If God doesn’t save every Jew (perhaps everyone), He is unjust. After all, everyone is guilty of sin. How can it be just to save anyone while leaving anyone unsaved?
Paul’s response is pretty simple. He again turns to Hebrew Scripture, quoting Exodus 33:19. When Moses asked God to let him see His glory, God agrees, explaining His reason as “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy” (ESV). The first thing to note is that the grace Paul is using as his illustration is not saving grace. Paul’s illustration is the grace God gave Moses in allowing him, like no one else, to see His glory.
The second point to note is Paul really does say God is God and gets to make his own choices regarding to whom He will show mercy. But this also calls to mind what God said as He bestowed grace and mercy on Moses: “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation” (Exodus 34:6-7, ESV). This in turn calls to mind the parallel statement made in the 10 Commandments: “For I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Exodus 20:5-6, ESV). I’ll break in here to point out that doesn’t sound like unconditional election to me.
Regrettably, the Calvinist believes the next sentence in Romans is a softball lobbed to his willing bat. However, I assert the Calvinist completely misunderstands Paul’s point. Paul says in Romans 9:16: “So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (ESV). “See,” says the Calvinist, “election has nothing to do with the exertion of the elect, but strictly on God’s mercy.” But is that really Paul’s point? Is Paul talking about the exertion of the elect? No. He goes on to explain his point by referring to Pharaoh. “For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth’” (Romans 9:17, ESV). Whose exertion is Paul referring to? The exertion of Moses, the elect one who receives mercy? No. Paul is commenting on the exertion of Pharaoh. Pharaoh willed and exerted effort to stop the mercy of God on Moses and the Israelites. Pharaoh tried with all his might but was unable to stop God from granting His mercy on whomever He wanted. If God wants to have mercy on someone, no one can stop Him no matter how hard they try. These objecting Jews can try to stop God’s mercy from being poured out on Gentiles, but they cannot stop God from being merciful to Gentiles who surrender in faith to Jesus Christ.
Then Paul wraps up by referring to the hardening Pharaoh experienced by saying, “So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills” (Romans 9:18, ESV). Paul’s conclusion is we cannot accuse God of injustice because He is God of all the earth and is allowed to decide upon whom He will have mercy and upon whom He will not.
Now here is the main point we need to see. Paul does not explain God’s basis for His choice. God is free to choose whomever He wills. He is free to make the choice on whatever basis He wants. But the basis is not explained in this passage. The Calvinist has to read that into the passage. And that is exactly what he does, seeing the declaration that God gets to make His choice, and then asserting this passage as a proof of Calvin’s estimation on how God makes His choice. Granted, so do I. However, I believe I have good basis in the rest of Romans to suggest that the “obedience of faith” is the basis of God’s choice (cf. Romans 1:5; 16:26), which, by the way, includes faith and confession (Romans 10:9-10) and baptism (Romans 6:1-4). I also think I have good basis in the rest of Romans to suggest that loving God is the basis of God’s choice (cf. Romans 8:28; Exodus 20:5-6).
Objection #3: It’s not fair, why would God find fault with us when we aren’t resisting Him?
Paul brings up the third and final anticipated objection in Romans 9:19. Regrettably, this is the most misunderstood of the section. The misunderstanding even has made its way into the differing translations. Notice the difference between how the King James, New King James, American Standard, New American Standard translate this verse and how the New Living Translation, the New International Version, the Revised Standard, the English Standard Version translate it. The latter all ask “Who can resist His will?” The former all ask, “Who has resisted His will?” Notice Young’s Literal Translation: “Why yet doth He find fault? For His counsel who hath resisted?”
Sadly, several of the translators and commentators view this verse in terms of the modern debates on this chapter that have stemmed from Calvinism. Let’s face it, when we non-Calvinists argue with our Calvinistic friends, we often say, “Well this isn’t fair. If we disobey, we are just doing what God has willed. And if you obey it is only because God willed it.” After 400 years of arguing with this error, it is no surprise we naturally read this same objection into Romans 9:19. That, however, is not the objection the first century Jews were making.
Again, allow me to explain.
In the first century, these Jews who knew nothing of our modern debates on Reformed Theology, were not asking why God would judge them even though their disobedience was God’s will. They were asserting that as followers of the Old Law they were not resisting the will of God. Why would God find fault with people who were submitting to the Law of Moses that came from God. If they weren’t resisting God’s will, why would He find fault? That is the objection Paul is answering, not our modern objection to Calvinists.
When Paul says, “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God?” he is not accusing them of merely being disrespectful, he is accusing them of contradicting God. If God says they are resisting His will, they are resisting His will. Their objection asserts that they aren’t resisting God’s will, but that contradicts what God says of them.
Paul goes on to respond: “Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?” (Romans 9:21, ESV). Sadly, Calvinists and non-Calvinists alike allow the modern debate over Reformed Theology to determine their understanding of this verse rather than allowing God’s Scripture to define this verse.
As Paul has been doing all along in this chapter, he is using Hebrew Scripture to answer Hebrew objections. The illustration of the potter and the clay are not dreamed up by Paul out of a vacuum. It is God’s own illustration found in Jeremiah 18:1-11. I’ll include the passage here:
“The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: ‘Arise, and go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.’ So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. And the vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as it seemed good to the potter to do.
“Then the word of the LORD came to me: ‘O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter has done? declares the LORD. Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it. And if at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, and if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will relent of the good that I had intended to do to it. Now, therefore, say to the men of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: “Thus says the LORD, Behold, I am shaping disaster against you and devising a plan against you. Return, every one from his evil way, and amend your ways and your deeds.”’”
When we see Paul’s Romans 9 teaching built on the foundation of Jeremiah 18, we see a completely different teaching than Calvin’s. The honorable use is not a reference to “obedience,” nor the dishonorable to “disobedience.” The honorable use refers to being built up and planted, the dishonorable to being plucked up and broken down. The molding is not referring to the character of the people. God is not molding people to have a certain character or response to Him. Rather, He is molding destruction or glory for them based on their character and their response to Him.
Thus, if God prepares someone to be a vessel of wrath prepared for destruction, He has the right to do that. If He wants to mold someone to be a vessel of mercy prepared for glory, He can do that. But notice the Jeremiah background for how God makes His choice. It is not arbitrary. In fact, it is made based on how the one being molded responds to the molder. If God says He is going to make someone into a vessel of wrath and destroy them, if they repent and turn to His will, God will relent and mold them for glory and honor. If God says He is going to make someone into a vessel of mercy and build them up, if they turn to sin, God will relent and fashion them into a vessel of wrath prepared for destruction. That is the heart of the potter illustration of the clay spoiling in the potter’s hand. The potter intends to mold a certain kind of vessel, but the clay spoils. That is, the clay doesn’t measure up to that intention. So the potter, because He is allowed to do so, molds the vessel for a different purpose because it spoiled in His hands.
What is Paul’s point to the Jews? Don’t spoil in God’s hand. He wants to mold you for honor, but if you will not surrender to Jesus, He will mold you for destruction. By the way, I think there are definite overtones preparing for the destruction of Jerusalem and the judgment on the nation of the Jews that was coming in A.D. 70.
Objection #4: If God was going to destroy us, why hasn’t He already done so?
There is another anticipated objection hidden in this discourse in Romans 9:22. It is not explicitly stated like the others, but implicitly makes its way into the discussion. That objection is if God were going to destroy us, why hasn’t he already done it? Paul’s answer is God is allowed to endure vessels of wrath for His reasons as long as He wants. God had endured these vessels of wrath without bringing upon them the molded and prepared destruction because by this He is able to make known His mercy to the vessels of mercy.
And then He brings this whole discussion home to the theme of the book: the gospel is for Jews and Gentiles (cf. Romans 1:16). In Romans 9:24, Paul demonstrates that the reason God had not brought destruction on Israel or on Israelites who were not really children of promise is because He was bringing people into the fold not only from among the Jews but also from among the Gentiles.
He wraps up with three passages from Hebrew scripture to verify his entire point about some Israelites not being saved while some Gentiles will be.
Paul refers to the prophecy of Hosea combining sentiments of Hosea 1:10 and Hosea 2:23 demonstrating that once again the Jews should have grasped this all along. God had long ago said He was going to call those who were not His people, His people. Then He refers to Isaiah 10:22-23 explaining that not all Israel is saved. Only the remnant will be. But God put up with the ungodly part of Israel who refused to become children of the promise through the obedience of faith in order to make known His riches of mercy through Jesus Christ on all who will become children of promise. And Paul affirms this by referring to Isaiah 1:9. If God had not allowed the vessels of wrath to continue, then everyone would have been destroyed. Of course, this is true for us because if God had not put up with Israelites who were not children of promise and had destroyed Israel completely when they deserved it, there would have been no Messiah. All men would be destroyed.
It seems to me there is not a lick of Calvinism or Reformed Theology in this chapter. In fact, it seems the exact opposite. What is Paul’s teaching? It is not that there is some mystical elect that God has chosen in some unrevealed manner that will obey. Rather, his teaching is that God brings judgment on those who ignore His will and He builds up those who submit in obedient faith. It doesn’t matter how hard we may try to fight against God’s plan, He will do it the way He wants. We can’t stop Him or change Him from having mercy on those who repent of their evil deeds and amend their evil deeds and ways (cf. Jeremiah 19:11) any more than Pharaoh could stop God from having mercy on Israel and Moses.
In the original context of Romans 9, this meant that many Jews will be lost and many Gentiles will be saved. These facts do not mean that God’s Word has failed. Neither do they mean God is unjust. Those whom God judges who want to claim they have not resisted God’s will are deceivers. They have deceived themselves as well as others. If God judges, it is because they have resisted God’s will just as these Jews who tried to keep the Old Law but rejected Jesus Christ had done.
So, does Romans 9 teach Calvin’s unconditional election? Long answer? No.
I am happy to entertain objections to this explanation. Feel free to respond in the comments section.