"As long as we believe that God exercises ANY control over history or the lives of His people, then we must come to terms with Election one way or another. It is inescapable.
When Jesus called His first disciples, He called twelve and not more. Others might very well have profited from having spent the following three years in close association with Jesus, but Jesus only chose twelve for this privilege. Moreover, when He sent His disciples into the world to tell others about Him, by necessity these early preachers went in one direction rather than another. Philip went to Samaria; Barnabas went to Antioch. Later, Paul and Barnabas went north to Asia Minor. Still later, Paul and other companions went to Greece, then Italy, and eventually further west. In each case, a choice was involved---north rather than south; west rather than east. If God was directing the movement of these servants of His at all, He was choosing that some should hear the gospel rather than others. This is a form of election.
The same is true in our experience: if you believe that God is leading you to speak to someone about the gospel, it is an inescapable fact that you are speaking to that person rather than another. Even if a Christian friend should join you and speak to that other person when you cannot, there are still millions of others who are inevitably passed by. Election is an inescapable fact of human history.
Paul shows that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the three fathers of the nation of Israel, became what they were by election and that others were not granted this privilege. Election is obvious in the case of Abraham, which is one reason why Paul does not discuss his case in detail. Abraham had a pagan ancestry, having been born in the ancient city of Ur in Mesopotamia. He had no knowledge of the true God, because no one in Ur had knowledge of the true God. Abraham did not know God, nor did he seek God. No one seeks Him (Romans 3:11). Rather, God sought Abraham. Since the call of Abraham is recorded in Genesis 12, every Jew would have to confess that Jewish history began with that election. This is what led to the Jews becoming God's "Chosen People."
But the real issue, then, would be whether all the descendants of Abraham (i.e., all Jews), were thereby saved, or whether the principle of choice and rejection also applies after the initial choice of Abraham. In other words, does God continue to choose some, but not all---i.e, some Jews and some Gentiles, but not all? Paul begins to address this issue in Romans 9:7-9: "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. For this was how the promise was stated: "At the appointed time I will return, and Sarah will have a son."
The point is that Abraham had another son. He had begotten Ishmael of Hagar thirteen years before Isaac was born, yet Ishmael was not chosen. He was Abraham's descendant, but he was not a child of promise as Isaac was (contrary to what Muslims believe).
Notice the contrast in the phrases "natural children" and "children of the promise" in verse 8: "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." The contrast shows that the difference between Isaac and Ishmael was not merely that God elected Isaac and passed over the other son, but also that the choice of God involved a supernatural intervention in the case of Isaac's conception. Ishmael was born of Abraham's natural powers, but Isaac was born when Abraham was past the age of getting a woman pregnant, and when Sarah was past the age of conceiving and giving birth.
In the same way, our spiritual conception and birth, which result from God's electing choice, are supernatural. We cannot birth spiritual life in ourselves since, according to Ephesians 2:1, we are spiritually dead. In order for us to become spiritually alive, God must do a miracle.
"Not only that, but Rebekah's children had one and the same father, our father Isaac. 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." (Romans 9:10-12)
The choice of Jacob rather than Esau went against the normal standard of culture, where the elder should have received the greater blessing. True, the boys were twins, but Esau actually emerged from Rebekah's womb first, though Jacob was chosen. There is nothing to explain this except God's sovereign right to dispose of the destinies of human beings as He pleases, entirely apart from any rights thought to belong to use due to our age or other factors.
Notice that the choice of Jacob instead of Esau was made before either child had opportunity to do either good or evil. It was made while the children were still in the womb. This means---and this is important---that election is not on the basis of anything done by the chosen individual.
Moreover, the choice was made to teach the doctrine of election, for that is what Romans 9, verses 11 and 12 say: "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..."
This means that God made His choice before the birth of Rebekah's sons to show that His choices are unrelated to anything a human being might or might not do. It is a case, as Paul will say just a few verses further on, that "God has mercy on whom He wants to have mercy" (verse 18).
How could it be otherwise, if the condition of fallen humanity is as bad as the Bible declares it to be? Romans 3 says, "there is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God (verses 10-11). This means that sin pervades all our actions and darkens all our natural understanding, with the result that, rather than fleeing TO God, Who is our only reasonable object of worship, and our only hope of blessing, we flee FROM Him.
How could a creature as depraved as that, possibly come to God unless God should first set His saving choice upon him and then call him to faith? How could a sinner like that believe the gospel unless God should first enable her to him to believe? But of course, that is exactly what God does.
In Romans 9, Paul is teaching Election. The chapter heading in my NIV Bible says, "God's Sovereign Choice." So, even the NIV Bible is saying that Paul is teaching Election in Romans 9.
First, let's talk about Romans 9:14-18. Paul had argued that while his own Jewish countrymen were unsaved, they had themselves to blame for being against God's provision of the Messiah. Nevertheless, this fact had not changed the status of the nation before God, for to them belonged the adoption, the glory, the covenants, and the promises of God (Romans 9:1-4). But that is precisely where the whole problem became intense. Had Paul been willing to have said that because of Israel's disobedience, she had forfeited her favored position, and therefore all the promises had been transferred to the Church, no long discussion would have been needed on this topic.
Paul refused to cut the knot in this manner. He was too careful a student of the Old Testament to come to that conclusion. On the contrary, he is certain that "God's gifts and his call are irrevocable" (Romans 11:29). God would not rescind His ancient promise just because various individuals, generations, or leaders of the nation had failed to participate in the blessing of the promises of God through unbelief. God's sovereign election of the nation would remain in force despite the persistent disobedience of that nation.
Since Paul's Jewish objectors were reduced to the fact of sovereign election, there were only two choices left: either charge God with unrighteousness for showing partiality or plead that persons are not responsible for their evil deeds. Paul answers the first choice in verses 14-18 and the second in verses 19-29.
To the first objection, Paul strongly declares that it is impossible that any injustice or unrighteousness should be attributed to God. The whole idea is abhorrent (Romans 9:14). To prove that point, Paul quotes God's word to Moses, "I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion: (Romans 9:15; from Exodus 33:19). At first, these words seem to support the contention of the objector, but the circumstances under which they were uttered show that first impression to be incorrect. While Moses had been on the mount, Israel had gone headlong into the worship of the golden calf. All were guilty, even the High Priest. Had strict justice been served, all would have perished on the spot. But God showed mercy to those who did not deserve it.
The point is clear. If the mercy of God that is sovereignly given is now going to be declared as unfairness in God, then the objector is going to have to say that God was unfair in sparing the nation in the incident of the golden calf! But if God was righteous in choosing to have mercy on a portion of Israel then, even though three thousand died in one day, He certainly could be viewed as being righteous in showing mercy to a portion of Israel in the days of Paul and the Church.
The two cases were not dissimilar. In any case, it was not that people were saved, then or now, because they willed to be saved. On the contrary, in Moses' day they had set their wills against God (Exodus 32:9-10), but God still had mercy (Romans 9:16). The election of God does not fall on those who "run" and "will," or else there would be no elect, for "no one...seeks God" (Romans 3:11).
What has been said of the mercy of God must also be said of the judgment of God. To prove this point, Paul will use Pharaoh as his example. Over and over again during the first five plagues, the Scriptures note that "Pharaoh hardened his heart" (ten times in Exodus 7:13,14,22; 8:15,19,32; 9:7,34,35; 13:15). Finally, during the last five plagues, after enduring with much patience the hardness of this man's heart, God "hardened Pharaoh's heart" (Exodus 9:12; 10:1,2,27; 11:10; 14:4,8,17).
[And, by the way, many unbelievers have used this to claim that the Bible contradicts itself. They say that the Bible says that Pharaoh hardened his heart, but then turns around and says that God hardened Pharaoh's heart, which is a contradiction...or so they claim.]
The so-called "theological problem" against which many moderns have thundered is no more difficult to understand than the ordinary psychological phenomenon so common to everyday life. Fail to respond to the ringing of the alarm clock several mornings in a row and this hardening will soon make you impervious to any subsequent ringing of the alarm in days to come!
In verse 19, the apostle takes up the second objection that could be brought against divine sovereignty. The unbelieving Jew might still debate the issue by contending that if the sovereignty of God is absolute, why, then, does God still find fault with me and hold me individually responsible? Can anyone, continues the plea, withstand God? If He does not approve of my conduct and actions, then way did He make me this way? On those grounds, I am no longer responsible.
Paul will not debate the subtle moral lie that is contained in this complaint against God. Instead, he will give the objector the rebuke he deserves: "But who are you, O man, to talk back to God?" (Romans 9:20). Disrespect is disrespect. That calls for the more immediate attention than any other consideration at this point.
Almost every well-informed Jew would know where this figure of the "potter" came from---the prophet Isaiah:
"All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. No one calls on Your Name or strives to lay hold of You; for You have hidden Your face from us and made us waste away because of our sins. Yet, O Lord, you are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand." (Isaiah 64:6-8)
God is not pictured by Paul as a Creator creating man, but as a "potter" working with "clay." The "clay" here depicts persons as sinners. God does not make persons sinners; He takes the "clay" as He finds it. He found it in the state of sinful "clay," even as Isaiah had taught in the passage that Paul undoubtedly had reference to in this text.
The mercy of the potter is now shown by the fact that God endured with much patience individuals that were responsible for their own problems. The apostle is careful to make sure that God is not charged with any responsibility for the sin of individuals.
The critical verse is verse 22. "What if God, choosing to show His wrath and make His power known, bore with great patience the objects of His wrath---prepared for destruction?" Since the Greek word "prepared" may be either passive or middle voice, the deciding factor must be doctrinal. According to the Bible, people fit themselves for destruction. God is not responsible.
Over against these who fitted themselves for destruction, Romans 9:23 declares that God Himself prepared "the objects of His mercy" long ago in advance for His glory! What a contrast! Accordingly, the whole responsibility for the present state of affairs with regard to objects prepared for wrath rests where it should---on the shoulders of unbelievers! If credit is given for anyone who is saved, it belongs to God. Therefore, if some are saved, to God belongs the glory! If others are lost, they alone are responsible.
But here is the most mind-stretching question of all: Why doesn't God show mercy to everyone? This question might be raised by a person who understands the difference between justice and mercy but who still wonders why God is selective. This is a proper question to ask because it is asking for understanding rather than demanding that God conform to our standards of right and wrong. It is faith in search of enlightenment.
Verse 15 (of Romans 9) seems to say merely that this is the way God operates: "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion." This is a perfectly legitimate answer to our question, namely, that the "why" of it is God's business, not ours. God does not owe us an answer. What is more, there are undoubtedly parts of the answer that are not revealed. God has reasons that may forever be unknown.
Still there is one answer in this chapter. It is that God's ultimate objective in electing some to salvation and passing by others is not to do good. Neither is it to do good to those persons primarily. Rather His ultimate objective is to make His glory known. In other words, God's ultimate concern in everything He does is not so much for us as for Himself. In saving some He makes known His mercy and compassion. In passing by others He makes known His power and wrath.
Paul's quotation of Exodus 9:16 in verse 17 makes this point: "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.'" This identifies at least one purpose of God in passing by some, namely, to display His power. Then a few verses further on Paul explains that God's "wrath," "power," "patience," "glory," and "mercy" are displayed in election, on the one hand, and in passing by some people, on the other. "What if God, choosing to show His wrath and make His power known, bore with great patience the objects of His wrath---prepared for destruction? what if He did this to make the riches of His glory known to the objects of His mercy, whom He prepared in advance for glory---even us, whom He also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles?" (verses 22-24).
What this means is that God considers the display of His attributes to be worth the whole historical drama---worth Creation, worth the Fall, worth redemption, worth election, worth passing over, and everything else. From God's point of view the revelation of His glory is the great and unshakable priority.
This explanation will not satisfy all people. It may not satisfy you, and if it does not, you are probably asking at this point, "But why should it be necessary for God to be glorified?" There is only one possible answer, and it is this: Because it is right that God be glorified. God is glorious, glorious in all His many attributes. He should be glorified; and because this is a universe planned by God, created by God, and run by God, and not by us, that which is right will in the end be done. God will be honored, and all will bow before Him.
But do you see how this is going? We began with the theodicy question: Is God right to act as he does? We were asking it because it did not seem right to us for God to select some for salvation and to pass by and judge others for their sin. But when we examine the question, as we have, we find that the matter is exactly the opposite of what we first imagined it to be. We have found that God acts as He does precisely because He is just. He glorifies His name in displaying wrath towards sinners and the riches of His glory toward those who are being saved because this is the only right thing for God to do. It is His very justice, not His injustice, that cause His to operate in the fashion.
The real wonder, of course, is that God displays His mercy, for by its very nature mercy is undeserved and unrequired. Yet God has done so. He has done so in saving sinners like ourselves.
The last verse of the chapter show that not all who are of Israel are the true Israel, and second, they demonstrate the truth of election and passing over by four Old Testament citations. It is the way Paul customarily writes---first the argument and then the proof of it from the Old Testament. Here he shows that God's purposes toward the Jews have not failed (verse 6) because God had previously revealed that not all Jews would be saved and that Gentiles would be. Two of these citations are from the minor prophet Hosea (Hosea 2:23 and 1:10), and two are from the major prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 10:22-23 and 1:9). The verses from Hosea show that God has always intended to include Gentiles in His plan of salvation. The verses from Isaiah show that His electing call has never included every single Jew.
Whenever we think of election we tend to focus on the negative, wondering why some are passed over. But the Bible focuses on the positive, calling this the day of God's grace. The demonstration of God's justice in judging sinners is an important part of what God is doing in human history, but it is not the whole thing. God is also making known the riches of His glory in saving some."
(from BSF Notes, 1998)