An Arminian Wrestling with Romans 9:1-18: Part 1 – Context Matters


Like any good student, my views on the Arminian-Calvinist debate are not based on what I feel or what sounds right logically or how I was raised but rather on what the Bible says. Appeals to feelings and even human logic can fail when dealing with the Almighty Creator of the universe, who has nothing binding him to make him have to make sense to us in everything he does or is. And make no mistake; I am Arminian because of my interpretation of the Bible. I wrestled with it for years in young adulthood, challenging my biases and reading as much as I could from many perspectives. This is where I landed. And while I am profoundly indebted to names like Erasmus, Abasciano, Picirilli and even Arminius himself, this view is my own in the sense that while it was taught to me, it is not blindly regurgitated from others.


I’ve often said to be Calvinist there are about 50 passages in the Bible that would be extremely hard to accept based on how I understand them at this point in my life, like why God was sorry and grieved in His heart in Genesis 6 when the people were wicked and why Jesus said in Matthew 23:37 that he wanted to gather the children of Israel under His wings but they were unwilling, to all the verses that seem to teach plainly or implicitly free will and choice in following God. But there is one major section of verses in the Bible that with just a straightforward reading  makes it very difficult for me as an Arminian –  Romans 9. Verses 14-18 are the verses that give me the most trouble:

14 What shall we say then? There is no injustice with God, is there? May it never be! 15 For He says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” 16 So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy. 17 For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I raised you up, to demonstrate My power in you, and that My name might be proclaimed throughout the whole earth.” 18 So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires.

Romans 9:14-18

In looking at these verses, you should be able to see how they can pose problems for an Arminian as on the surface it seems to say that God has mercy on some people and hardens others and human free will is not considered in relationship to Him.  It is a Calvinist sounding passage to be sure. All the others that are commonly referenced to reinforce Calvinist teachings (John 10:29, Romans 8:28-30, Ephesians 1:3-14 etc.) have simple enough Arminian explanations to me. This one does not. It has taken deep study for me to work out its meaning. And to begin trying to explain it I will begin in the most reasonable place, by placing these verses in the context in which the author (Paul) was writing.  Context – its surrounding verses, the cultural trends of the time, the genre of the writing, the entire Bible itself – has to be considered to understand any Bible verse or passage.


Since this is a relatively brief two-part essay and not a commentary, I won’t go into too much detail about the audience of the book itself except to say it was written to a church in Rome which was mostly Gentile but had a Jewish presence and it is likely Paul intended other Christians in other churches to read it. The bigger issue for context to me is why Paul wrote this letter and Part One of this essay will deal with that. Part Two will deal with the exegesis of Romans 9:1-18 itself. Tons has been written about what a deep, rich book Romans is on Christian soteriology and practical living, and how systematic it appears in teaching us about how we come to God and live in relationship to him.  But one thing that often gets underemphasized in resources I study that makes a crucial difference in understanding  9:1-18 (and 9-11 as a whole) is that Paul makes a foundational and emphatic argument throughout the few chapters of the letter that the covenant of circumcision and the law is now gone and Jews and Gentiles have a new covenant of equality that unites them, found in faith in Christ.

But as we will see later, it was never God’s intention to exclude anyone from covenant relationship with him, no matter a person’s ethnicity


Considering the theological context of the time, with there being a wall of hostility between Jews and Gentiles (Ephesians 2:11-22), this is a huge deal and most certainly why Paul and others in the New Testament deal with it so frequently. The Jews were given covenant promises through their ancestors like Abraham, Moses and David and were special in God’s eyes, even “God’s chosen people” (Deuteronomy 7:6). But as we will see later, it was never God’s intention to exclude anyone from covenant relationship with him, no matter a person’s ethnicity; therefore much of the New Testament is spent trying teach a new covenant of cultural inclusion, to tear down a wall that never should have existed the way that it did,[1].


Jesus dealt with this and taught and acted in a way to bring about change in how Jews viewed Gentiles in relation to their place in his kingdom, to prepare them for the radical covenant change. In Luke 4:16-30, he brought up two examples in the Old Testament of God favoring Gentiles (making some Jews so mad they wanted to kill him). He taught that the Samaritan was the one to be emulated as a good neighbor over two Jewish leaders (Luke 10:25-37). He broke social and religious protocol by talking to a Samaritan woman in public in John 4. This was seen as an outrage because Jews did not associate with the half-breed Samaritans (John 4:9). The only time it is recorded that Jesus was amazed by a show of faith was by a Roman centurion (Matthew 8:5-12). On top of all this, we see him championing Gentile worship in Mark 11:17 by showing anger and violence in driving out money changers from the place where Gentiles were welcome. It should be noted that his death was what obliterated the aforementioned wall between Jew and Gentile (Ephesians 2:14). As a result of his death, the law and circumcision (which were of the Jews) ceased to be a part of God’s covenant with his people. The ‘New’ Covenant relied on Christ alone, which made it less obstructive for Gentiles unfamiliar with Jewish life.

The ‘New’ Covenant relied on Christ alone, which made it less obstructive for Gentiles unfamiliar with Jewish life.


Even with Jesus’ teachings and examples, the early church struggled with Jew-Gentile unification. Change in general is hard for people, but when you are talking about a fundamental change in covenants –Old to New–you are talking about as significant a change possible. Covenant is how God relates to us. Letting go of the requirements of law-keeping, circumcision, etc. was extremely difficult for many Jews who lived during the transition. Acts 15:1-35 has one of the most important debates and conflict resolutions of the early church. It centered around this covenantal paradigm shift–whether or not a person had to ‘become Jewish’ through circumcision and keeping the law. This was a reasonable confusion, as that was what was required of foreigners before Christ (see note 1 below). The early church leadership settled the confusion emphatically. They cited Amos 9:11-12 as their biblical defense of Gentile inclusion after Christ without the requirement of circumcision and only specifically mentioning adhering to four of their 613 laws.


Paul was the strongest proponent among the biblical authors of Gentile inclusion (based solely on faith in Christ and not on ‘becoming a Jew’) in this debate. You can see clearly in his writings that the time of Law had ended (Galatians 3:23-25) and that the two groups are now one in Christ (1 Corinthians 12:13, Galatians 3:28). Romans builds this message as well as any of Paul’s letters. In the opening, Paul ends a very long sentence with: “…Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for His name’s sake, among whom you also are the called of Jesus Christ…” In 2:9-11 he says, “There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For God does not show favoritism.” And 3:27-30, “For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too, since there is only one God, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith.”

Paul was the strongest proponent among the biblical authors of Gentile inclusion.

 As has been pointed out numerous times, Paul builds the case that all people are sinners (Romans 1-3). But it is important to note that he is specifically making a case for how both Jews and Gentiles are sinners before God. Jews had the law; Gentiles have creation (1:18-20) and human conscience (2:14-15), so both groups are equally guilty now. Yet both groups can be equally included in God’s new covenant based on grace though faith in Christ. He hammers the issue of faith, and not works, as the condition for salvation in the next chapter. In Romans 4:16-17 he says, Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring—not only to those who are of the law but also to those who have the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all. As it is written: “I have made you a father of many nations.” “Nations” is another way of communicating Gentile inclusion. And “those under the law” is very much a way of saying “the Jews” since the law was theirs. Brian Abasciano explains: “Paul’s ‘of the Law’ terminology in Romans 3-4 connotes ethnicity as well as Law-keeping. Those who keep the whole Jewish Law, including its prime boundary markers of circumcision, food laws and the Sabbath, are either ethnic Jews or proselytes to Judaism. The two concepts of total Law-keeping and Jewishness are virtually inseparable.” [2]

So make no mistake about what Paul is saying here: All men come to God by their faith, not their Jewishness or lack thereof. Again, during the transition of Abrahamic and Mosiac Covenants to Christ, this was a great deal for a Jew to accept. If I could sum up what Paul tried to communicate in Romans 1-4, I would at minimum say this: The covenant has changed. There is no Jewish way to be in relationship with God. There is no Gentile way. They are both equally guilty before God. And they both come the same way – by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, not by works or ethnic heritage. The advantage of being a Jew is having access to Old Testament scriptures (Romans 3:1) but does not make any Jew less needy for Jesus Christ.

All men come to God by their faith, not their Jewishness or lack thereof.


The next section of his letter (Romans 5-8) does not deal with Jew-Gentile issues so much as it makes clear the importance of Jesus Christ: he died for us when we were his enemies, his death undoes what Adam’s sin did, he gives us a resurrected life over sin, he alone sets us free from this sinful body, sets us free from condemnation and nothing can separate us from God’s love because of Jesus, etc. This is unequivocally important on the heels of his previous argument because the new covenant is Jesus alone, not Abraham (circumcision) or Moses (the Law). Christ is supreme. He alone is our hope, our righteousness, our Savior and our comfort. Our relationship to God is found entirely on faith in him, not in our cultural rituals and law keeping. And to be honest, only the outward things changed; covenant with God was about grace through faith before Jesus.

With this as a background, my next article will look at the actual exegesis of Romans 9:1-18. Read Part Two here.

[1] There was a distinction between “Israel” and the “foreigner” (Gentile) in the Old Testament, which Paul claims in Ephesians 2:19 no longer exists, but even with the distinction the foreigner could be a part of God’s assembly and covenant people if they were circumcised and adopted the Jewish law (Exodus 12:48-49). Also, Israelites were commanded to make God’s name known among the nations (1 Kings 8:41-43; Psalm 117:1), so in large part it was on Isreal to bring the Gentile into covenant relationship with their God. For further reading on this topic, I strongly recommend Mission in the Old Testament by Walter C. Kaiser, Jr.

[2] Brian Abasciano, Paul’s Use of the Old Testament in Romans 9:10-18, 53

Gowdy Cannon
Series NavigationAn Arminian Wrestling with Romans 9:1-18: Part 2 – Exegesis Matters >>

Gowdy Cannon

I am currently the pastor of Bear Point FWB Church in Sesser, IL. I previously served for 17 years as the associate bilingual pastor at Northwest Community Church in Chicago. My wife, Kayla, and I have been married over 8 years and have a 4-year-old son, Liam Erasmus, and a baby, Bo Tyndale. I have been a student at Welch College in Nashville and at Moody Theological Seminary in Chicago. I love The USC (the real one in SC, not the other one in CA), Seinfeld, John 3:30, Chick-fil-A, Dumb and Dumber, the book of Job, preaching and teaching, and arguing about sports.

4 thoughts on “An Arminian Wrestling with Romans 9:1-18: Part 1 – Context Matters

  • January 11, 2016 at 8:20 pm

    Great read!!! Thanks.

  • January 15, 2016 at 8:33 am

    You are right. Context matters and I would like to address one of your 50 difficult passages for Calvinists in context. You stated “why Jesus said in Matthew 23:37 that he wanted to gather the children of Israel under His wings but they were unwilling.” This is a common misinterpretation of the passage. Verse 37 comes after a long list of “woes” pronounced against the scribes and pharisees. When Jesus says “Jerusalem, Jerusalem” he is still speaking to them. Jesus did NOT say the children of Israel weren’t willing to come to him. He said Jerusalem wasn’t willing for her children to come to him. The scribes and pharisees weren’t willing to allow those whom they were supposed to be shepherding to come to Jesus. They opposed him at every opportunity and even threatened to remove people from the synagogue for following him.

  • January 15, 2016 at 8:51 am

    That would not change the point I was making at all about how if I believed in irresistible grace and conditional election, this verse (and its context) would pose problems. It definitely sounds like the will of Christ is being refused, implying choice. Forgive for not stating the verse as it reads, but the point remains the same. Even if didn’t, the overall point would not change because there would still be about 50 verses and passages that cause problems. (In reality, 50 is an estimation…I have never actually counted, but I’m sure it’s at least that many and perhaps more).


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