The central question (in classical theology) in Rom 9 is the matter of atonement - is it "limited" or "unlimited". Let me explain these technical terms:
Limited atonement is the "L" in the acronym "TULIP" which means essentially two things:
- God chose, before time began, who would saved and who would be lost and thus, in His sovereign choice, who needed atonement.
- Christ died only for those whom God had already determined would be saved. Put another way, Christ did NOT die (pay the atonement for) those whom He determined would be lost.
Hence the term, "Limited Atonement", meaning Christ's atonement for sin was limited only to this whom He had decided would be saved.
In his 1537 Instruction in Faith, John Calvin says:
“For, the seed of the word of God takes root and brings forth fruit
only in those whom the Lord, by his eternal election, has predestined
to be children and heirs of the heavenly kingdom. To all the others
(who by the same counsel of God are rejected before the foundation of
the world) the clear and evident preaching of truth can be nothing but
an odour of death unto death.”
The Arminian doctrine of "Unlimited atonement" is the oppose of Limited atonement because it asserts that Christs atonement was for ALL sinners, whether they would be finally saved or not.
See the appendix below for the actual Bible evidence which strongly favor unlimited atonement. However, Romans 9 is often touted as a "slam-dunk" for predestination and limited atonement. Let us examine this chapter carefully.
For example, some will specifically quote v13: “Jacob I loved and Esau I hated”; and v14, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion”. V19-23 appears to be the “magna carter” of limited atonement. Therefore, is Rom 9 really discussing limited atonement, despite all the many Bible references listed in the appendix? How should we understand this passage?
We should observe the following facts:
- The chosen nation status of Israel was about their vocation as evangelists to teach the world, not their status as saved. This is confirmed by the analogy of the potter in v21.
- Romans 9 is NOT discussing individuals. God chose the nation that came from Jacob to do the job of providing the spiritual enlightenment to the world and being the progenitors of Christ. See v 3-5.
- If Paul is teaching limited atonement in Rom 9 then he is very confused because v6 and v7 teaches the opposite. “… not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children.” That is, being a “chosen” (or “elect”) descendant of Abraham does not make a person a member of spiritual Israel; rather it was whether that person becomes a person of the promise, that chooses to accept God’s grace.
- Paul’s summary and conclusion to his long (and admittedly difficult) argument in Rom 9:30-32 is equally clear – being a physical member of literal Israel does not make a person a real spiritual Israelite. The real question is whether a person becomes a person “of the promise”, that is, decides to accept Jesus. (See also v24 where Paul again confirms that the chosen are called from both Jews and Gentiles.)
- "Loved vs hated" (v13): This is a piece of classic Hebrew idiom that employs rhetorical hyperbole. It is obvious that God loves all people and hates no one because “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16). A simple comparison with Mal 1:2, 3 (that v13 quotes), Luke 14:26, 27 and Gen 29:31-33 (where the word “hated” is used) shows this Hebrew idiom well.
- Background: Passages like Jer 7:4 clearly show that the Jews regarded their position as the chosen people of God as the source of their spiritual pride. That is, because of all that God had bestowed on them, they believed they must be saved and were guaranteed God’s favor and eternal life. Thus, the doctrine of free grace came as a very big shock. Paul is at pains to point out that not all who are (physical or genetic) Israelites are (spiritual) Israelites. Gentiles could become spiritual Israelites by “the promise”. God was now selecting gentiles to be His representatives without excluding the Jews. Even in ancient literal Israel, membership of Israel was entirely voluntary not genetic.
APPENDIX - Bible Teaching on Atonement is Unlimited
- John 1:29, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”
- John 3:16, “God so loved the world that He gave …”
- John 12:32, “I [Jesus] … will draw all people to myself.”
- John 12:47, “… for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world.”
- Acts 17:30, “God … commands all people everywhere to repent.”
- Rom 3:23, 24, “… for all have sinned … and all are freely forgiven...”
- Rom 5:8, 10, “… while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. … if, while were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him by the death of His Son, …”
- Rom 5:15, “But the free gift is not like the offense. For if by the one man’s [Adam’s] offense many died, much more the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abounded to the many.” [Note the same word, “many” applies to all people.]
- Rom 5:18, “Therefore, as through one man’s offense judgment came to all people, resulting in condemnation, even so through one Man’s righteous act the free gift came to all people, resulting in justification of life.”
- Rom 11:32, “For God has imprisoned everyone in disobedience so that He may show mercy to all.”
- 2 Cor 5:14, “…we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died.”
- 2 Cor 5:18, 19, “…God was reconciling the world to Himself in Christ …”
- 1 Tim 2:3, 4, “For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”
- 1 Tim 2:6, “[Jesus Christ] gave Himself as a ransom for all people.”
- Titus 2:11, “For the grace of God appeared bringing salvation to all people.”
- Heb 2:9, “But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honour because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.”
- 2 Peter 3:9, “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”
- 1 John 2:2, “He Himself [Jesus] is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours [Christians to whom John writes] only but also for the whole world.”
- Isa 53:6, “We all like sheep have gone astray … and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”