Jacob Arminius on Romans 9

Dutch Reformed pastor and theologian Jacob Arminius (1559-1609) wrote a letter to an ex-priest named Gellius Snecanus regarding the latter's publication of several commentaries on the subject of unconditional election and Romans 9. Snecanus was a Zwinglian theologian, according to De Vries, "highly appreciated in Friesland," and according to Gerard Brandt, "an elderly, learned and pious church minister."

However, according to Calvin's successor Theodore Beza, he was impertinent and absurd (Carl Bangs, Arminius: A Study in the Dutch Reformation, 193). Arminius notes, in his letter to Snecanus, what "intense joy I felt on reading and seriously considering your Commentary on the Ninth Chapter of the Epistle to the Romans." (Arminius, Works, 3:485) He continues: "For, when I saw that you had remarked, in the Apostle's scope and treatment of the principal arguments, just what, not so very long before, I had set forth publicly to the people committed to my care, in explaining the same chapter, I was greatly strengthened in that view. ..." (3:485)

One must not view Arminius' sublapsarianism (i.e. Arminianism) as being a departure from the Reformed tradition merely because of his rejection of Beza's high Calvinism (supralapsarianism), or even due to his rejection of Junius' low Calvinism (infralapsarianism). Roger Olson rightly comments: "Arminianism is a correction of Reformed theology rather than a departure from it." (Roger Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, 49)

Being Reformed is not synonymous with advocating TULIP theology: it never has been, and it never will be. "Arminius stands firmly in the tradition of Reformed theology," adds Olson, "in insisting that salvation is by grace alone and that human ability or merit must be excluded as a cause of salvation. It is faith in Christ alone that places a sinner in the company of the elect." (49) God saves and regenerates believers (Titus 3:5): the response of faith does not cause regeneration. Hence the Arminian in no wise saves him- or herself. Such caricatures of classical Arminian theology are completely unwarranted.

ROMANS 9:1-7

Arminius begins his Analysis of Romans 9 by noting that "the Gospel, not the law, is the power of God to salvation [Rom. 1:16], not to him that worketh, but to him that believeth [Rom. 4:4-5]; because in the Gospel is made manifest the righteousness of God [Rom. 1:17], by which salvation is obtained through faith exercised on Christ [Rom. 5:1]." (Works, 3:486) The apostle Paul writes:
I am speaking the truth in Christ -- I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit -- I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen. (Romans 9:1-5 NRSV)
Paul laid the foundation in Romans 9:1-5: the context refers to the Jewish people and not to all people in general. To the Jewish people belongs (present tense) all that God has bestowed upon them, including the promises, through Abraham (the one whose faith was in God's future Christ). But if this is true, so some Jews were thinking, then faith in Christ (and being united in the Christian faith) is gratuitous and irrelevant. In truth, they stumbled over the Rock of offense, which is Jesus Christ (Rom. 9:32-33). For the Jew who relied upon the law, the word and promises of God had failed if salvation depends upon faith in Christ. Paul writes: "It is not as though the word of God had failed. For not all Israelites truly belong to Israel" (Rom. 9:6). This is where Arminius begins his Analysis, because it will "give great value to the whole discussion." (3:487)

Paul begins his letter to the Romans with a confession: "For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek" (Rom. 1:16). He calls all to this gospel, both Jew and Gentile. Why? Because in the gospel "the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, 'The one who is righteous will live by faith'" (Rom. 1:17). This truth, notes Arminius, is confirmed in Romans 9 "in a peculiar way." He writes:
For it defends that against the objections of the Jews, who were endeavouring with all their might to overthrow it, as hurtful and damaging to themselves: and it so defends it against their attacks as to establish it more and more, and to add, by the refutation of objections, strength and firmness to the foundations already laid, from the Divine word and purpose itself, which the Jews forcibly wrested in their own favour to demolish the Pauline dogma. (3:486)
That this is the case, explains Arminius, is "proved by the [connection] itself; the method of which must be sought, partly from this antecedent proposition, that 'most of the Jews were rejected,' which was included in this proposition of the proem [preliminary comment], 'I could wish to be anathema [accursed and separated] from Christ for my brethren' [Rom. 9:3]." (3:486) But the connection is also "partly from the denial of the consequent, 'But it follows not thence that the word of God has failed.'" (3:486)

Regarding the supposed failure of the word of God, this would also implicate a failure of all the promises of God as well, for the Greek word is λόγος and refers to a saying or teaching of God, as well as to a decree or promise. God is a covenant-keeping God (Deut. 7:9), One who always keeps His promise or word (Titus 1:2). God has "by no means" rejected to save His Jewish people (Rom. 11:1). However, He saves no one unconditionally. An individual is only saved from the wrath of God by trusting (or having faith in) Jesus Christ: "Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys [or will not trust in] the Son will not see life, but must endure [remain under] God's wrath" (John 3:36).

Are there some Jews who have been rejected? Yes, the Jews who reject Christ are rejected by God. However, God also adds: "And even those of Israel, if they do not persist in unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again" (Rom. 11:23). God does not want the Jewish people (or any people) to persist in their unbelief. If they will trust in Christ, then He will welcome them back in. The condition for salvation, and thus election, is conditional. Making salvation and election unconditional is to misinterpret God's clear and pure word.

The apostle Paul recognized the trap which the Jews were setting for him. This is why he affirmed that even though some Jews have been rejected due to unbelief, the word or promises of God have not failed. Arminius comments:
Whence it appears as clear as day that the affirmation opposed to that denial was objected to Paul by the Jews, in order that they might convict a falseness that dogma of his, from which so absurd a consequence would follow, by the interposition of that antecedent (which followed immediately from that dogma of Paul's), and so might refute it as absurd, in this way: "If most of the Jews have been rejected, then the word of God has failed: But it cannot be that the word of God should fail: Therefore most of the Jews have not been rejected." (3:486)
The unbelieving Jews were trying to win the argument, but Paul refutes them by stating, "For not all Israelites truly belong to Israel, and not all of Abraham's children are his true descendants; but 'It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you'" (Rom. 9:6-7). Compare this statement of Paul's to what he wrote prior: "For a person is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. Rather, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart -- it is spiritual and not literal" (Rom. 2:28-29). Arminius states: "He had propounded a dogma which necessarily inferred the rejection of a great part of the Jews; namely, about justice and salvation being obtainable by faith in Christ, not from the works of the law." (3:486) The Jews concluded that the Christian faith excluded them. However, the gospel is the power of God unto salvation to the Jew first, and also to the Gentile (Rom. 1:16). Jews are not excluded from salvation through faith in Christ Jesus, the Jewish Messiah.

Arminius notes the Jewish objection: "But it is false that most of the Jews have been rejected by God; for so the word of God would have failed: Therefore the Apostle Paul's dogma, from which that consequent is drawn, is absurd." (3:487) So Arminius responds: "The Apostle thought that he must refute this objection, which threatened downfall and destruction to his dogma; by showing that that undoubted principle, which the Jews laid down as a fulcrum [support] for their objection, not only did not prejudice his case, but even supported it excellently." (3:487) But Arminius recognizes that the issue at hand is not merely whether "most of the Jews were rejected," or whether "the word of God can fail," but whether "the word of God will have failed if most of the Jews have been rejected." (3:487) 

ROMANS 9:7-8

Arminius recognized the unbelieving Jewish opposition to Paul's assertion that God's word or promises to the Jewish people have not failed merely because most of the Jews have been rejected by God for rejecting the Jewish Messiah, Jesus. Paul insists that if the Jewish people do not persist in their unbelief, God will welcome them with open arms (Rom. 11:1, 23). But Arminius recognizes another argument which Paul faced from his unbelieving Jewish opponents. He asks, "will not this question still remain, 'Whether the word of God does not fail, if those Jews are rejected who with the highest zeal strive after righteousness from the law?'" (3:487)

That the Jewish people had a zeal for the law is undoubted: "I can testify," admits the apostle Paul, "that they have a zeal for God, but it is not enlightened. For, being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking to establish their own, they have not submitted to God's righteousness" (Rom. 10:2-3). Those who seek justification based upon observance of the law alone are rejected by God, for salvation is by faith in Christ Jesus -- the One who alone observed God's law perfectly. Jesus is our righteousness (2 Cor. 5:21). Arminius comments:
Let special attention, then, be paid to this point in the question: "Whether the word of the covenant entered into with the Jews is not become void, if the Apostle's dogma of obtaining righteousness and salvation from faith alone in Christ, not from the law or the works of the law, is to find acceptance, and to be held as the foundation of salvation." But how much difference there is between these two ways of stating that question, and of what weight that difference is, you can easily perceive. (3:488)
Arminius answers that God invites all Jews into participation in the New Covenant (Jer. 31:31-34; Rom. 1:16; 11:1-2). Jesus Himself admitted how often He had desired to gather them together, "as a hen gathers her brood under her wings," but they were not willing (Luke 13:34). Such can hardly be attributed to God's alleged rejection of most of the Jewish people merely by decree. But Arminius denies that by God's eternal decree and purpose "He has determined to [unconditionally] make only some from among the Jews actually partakers thereof, the rest being passed by and left in their former state." (3:488) Why? Carl Bangs answers: "His opponents, he says, misunderstand the chapter because they look in it for an answer to a question with which it is not dealing." (Arminius, 195) This statement holds true to this very day. If a person misunderstands and misinterprets Romans 9, then his or her theology will be one of inevitable error.

Arminius' conclusion on the matter is that God, "by that very word of His and expression of promise, signified that He would reckon as His sons those only of the Jews who should strive to obtain righteousness and salvation from faith; but that He would hold as strangers those who should seek after the same from the law." (Works, 3:488) This truth is undisputed, and attested to throughout Paul's letter to the Romans (cf. Rom. 1:16-17; 3:21-26; 4:4-5, 13-16, 22-25; 5:1-2, 9, 20-21). The Jews have not been rejected (Rom. 11:1) on the ground of an eternal decree but on the ground of their rejection of Christ Jesus. If they do not persist in their unbelief then they will find acceptance through Him with God (Rom. 11:23). Because most Jews have been rejected due to their rejection of Christ Jesus, God's word or promises to them have not failed, for they may still obtain those promises by union with and faith in Christ (Rom. 11:23). 

But there is a distinction made between two "kinds" of Jews (Rom. 2:28-29): "the twofold kind of them, with regard to this expression and the Divine purpose; or from the twofold seed of Abraham, of which only one is included in that expression and purpose." (3:489) The apostle Paul writes: "and not all of Abraham's children are his true descendants; but 'It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you.' This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as descendants" (Rom. 9:7-8).

Arminius concludes that if the word of God "does not comprehend all the Israelites together, it does not fail, even though some of their number be rejected; and much less, if those are rejected who, it is evident, were never comprehended in the word itself." (3:489) The strangers to God's covenant are named "children of the flesh," while true Jews are "children of the promise." Arminius concludes with the following "refutation of the Jewish objection":
If the word of God comprehends only the children of the promise, the children of the flesh being excluded, then it follows that the word of God does not fail, even though the children of the flesh be rejected; nay, that it would fail if they were admitted, who are excluded by the very description of the condition of the covenant: But the word of God comprehends only the children of the promise, to the exclusion of the children of the flesh: Therefore the word does not fail, even though the children of the flesh are rejected, &c. (3:489)
Therefore God's word or promises have not failed, considering that "most of the Jews have been rejected, provided those very persons are comprehended in the number of the children of the flesh." (3:490) The children of the flesh are rejected from the New Covenant, while the children of the promise are included, and enjoy all of its benefits. Who are the children of the flesh? They are "those who 'seek righteousness and salvation by the works of the law.'" (3:490) Thus the children of the promise are "those who seek righteousness and salvation by faith in Christ." (3:490) The children of the flesh are represented as types by Ishmael and Esau, while the children of the promise are represented as types by Isaac and Jacob.

ROMANS 9:9-12

Arminius notes that the children of the flesh are "those who 'seek righteousness and salvation by the works of the law.'" (3:490) Thus the children of the promise are "those who seek righteousness and salvation by faith in Christ." (3:490) The children of the flesh are represented in Romans 9 as types by Ishmael and Esau, while the children of the promise are represented as types by Isaac and Jacob. The apostle Paul begins the following discourse with God's promise of Isaac to Sarah and Abraham: "For this is what the promise said, 'About this time I will return and Sarah shall have a son'" (Rom. 9:9).

Isaac was the child promised to the couple, and through Isaac, Abraham's "descendants shall be named" (Rom. 9:7). Arminius comments: "The Apostle therefore proves that the word of promise and of covenant embraces only the children of the promise, to the exclusion of the children of the flesh; and that by a twofold type -- the one taken from the house of Abraham, the other from the family of Isaac." (3:490) Abraham and Sarah, impatient in waiting for God's promise, sought to fulfill the promise through the flesh -- a sort of "willing" and "running" (cf. Rom. 9:16), i.e. trying to accomplish something spiritual through one's own results -- which result was Ishmael.

Paul continues, using another analogy: "Nor is that all; something similar happened to Rebecca when she had conceived children by one husband, our ancestor Isaac. Even before they had been born or had done anything good or bad (so that God's purpose of election might continue, not by works but by his call) she was told, 'The elder shall serve the younger'" (Rom. 9:10-12). God was not about to allow anyone to regard Esau, being an immoral person (cf. Heb. 12:16), or Jacob, being a good person, by human standards (for Jacob was not always good by definition), as having anything to do with His election of Jacob in receiving the right of the firstborn.

But if one interprets this election as an unconditional election unto salvation, he or she has already trespassed what Scripture actually warrants as a proper interpretation; each has stretched the Text farther than what can be allowed; each has interpolated something into the Text which is not inherently present. Salvation is, indeed, in view in Romans 9. Unconditional election unto salvation is not in view, nor can it be substantiated within the context of chapters nine, ten, or eleven. Paul's intention here has nothing to do with individual, unconditional election unto salvation. Arminius comments:
But two things must be presupposed to each of these proofs -- both resting on the apostolical authority, which to us ought to be sacred. The one, that Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob, are to be considered not in themselves, but as types, in those passages which he cites. The other, that they are to be considered as types of "the children of the flesh" and "of the promise." For the Apostle proves neither, but assumes both; and not without reason. (3:490)
Though God, for example, had not elected Esau as recipient of the rights of the firstborn, neither had He decreed or cursed him with eternal reprobation, for those two issues are separate. Esau sacrificed his birthright, and later regretted that action (and sought for it with tears, cf. Heb. 12:17).

However, in view here is not the unconditional election unto eternal salvation or damnation of either Ishmael, Esau, Isaac or Jacob, considered as persons in and of themselves, and to assume so is entirely baseless. Where in Romans 9:1-12 thus far has Paul been arguing for unconditional election unto salvation? Thus Arminius rightly considers: "Isaac is reckoned in the seed: Isaac is the type of all the children of the promise: Therefore all the children of the promise are reckoned in the seed." (3:491) Also, whatever can be said of Isaac tends to the exclusion of Ishmael, as well as Jacob to Esau. (3:491) Therefore, "Ishmael is not reckoned in the seed: Ishmael is the type of all the children of the flesh: Therefore none of the children of the flesh are reckoned in the seed." (3:491)

God unconditionally chose (elected, i.e. "the purpose of election," Rom. 9:11) Isaac over Ishmael and Jacob over Esau. But to what purpose? Before they had done anything good or bad, God's choice or election of Jacob over Esau meant to signify nothing else than that He had from eternity determined with Himself His purpose respecting the communication of righteousness and salvation; not that it should embrace all the posterity of Adam universally, but that it should be "according to election," by which He would discern between these and those, considered not simply in their own nature, sound or corrupt, but in respect of the condition by which righteousness and salvation were to be applied: as the Apostle shows in the words which follow: "That that purpose according to election might stand, not of works, but of Him that calleth." (3:493)

What is meant by the purpose of the election of Isaac and Jacob is defined "by the Apostle according to their own speciality -- that the former [the children of the flesh] are 'of works,' but the latter [the children of the promise] of the faith by which obedience is rendered to the call of God." (3:493-94) Arminius concludes that Paul insists "that 'the purpose of God' which is 'according to election' is respecting the salvation of those who should have faith in God calling them, and should believe in Christ; not respecting those who should seek salvation 'by the works of the law.'" (3:494)

Still, even those Jewish persons who should seek salvation by the works of the law have not caused God's word of promise to be of no effect: "nay rather, if that purpose which is according to election were now said to embrace all without election, it would become of no effect: But this word and purpose is according to election: Therefore, although some of the Jews have been repudiated, yet that word and purpose does not therefore fail, nay rather, is thereby established, because its nature is to exclude some, as being according to election, whereby one is rejected and another is taken." (3:494)

Again, Arminius denies the opinion that certain persons are excluded from God's purpose of election regarding justification by faith in Jesus Christ, only that "those who are of the works of the law are not included in that purpose [according to election], but only those who are of faith of Jesus Christ." (3:494) To the point, Arminius writes that God "loves those who seek righteousness and salvation by faith in Christ [cf. Rom. 11:23]; but hates those who seek for the same from the works of the law [Rom. 11:6, 20, 22, 28]. Whence it follows that they are not included in that purpose [of election] who are 'of the works of the law'. . . ." (3:495) The conclusion of the matter is that "those who seek righteousness by faith, according to the grace of calling, obtain dominion, and are beloved by God." (3:496) Without speculation, this is the only viable conclusion that an objective reading of Paul will permit in Romans 9 thus far.

An opponent may argue that no one in and of him- or herself seeks righteousness by faith. This is correct. That is why Arminius (and all classical or historic Arminians) add that seeking righteousness by faith in Christ Jesus is "according to the grace of calling." Hence if God does not graciously call the sinner, enabling the sinner by His grace and power unto faith in Christ (Rom. 1:16; John 6:44, 65; Phil. 1:29), then no one could be saved. But the apostle is not teaching a supposed doctrine of God's eternal, unconditional decree, whereby He unconditionally saves some and damns others. Arminius argues:
Hence it is apparent that the question was not only about some being rejected, and some accepted, but about the rejected and the accepted being of such a kind, that is, distinguished by certain qualities. And therefore the Apostle here treats not of the Divine decree or purpose by which the one are elected, and the other reprobated, considered simply in their own nature, whether pure or corrupt; but of such a purpose as includes that description of the elect which is here openly remarked by the Apostle in the purpose itself. (3:496)
One is not granted the luxury of asking, assuming, or inserting a concept into this chapter which the apostle Paul does not address. Arminius openly admits that Beza (his mentor and Calvin's successor) and Beza's followers defend the contrary error, who "inculcate a purpose of salvation of this kind, in which are contained those qualities of them who are to be saved and them who are to be damned." (3:496) Arminius correctly notes that Calvinists (obsessively) deem it necessary to "ascend higher, and to inquire why the one is the child of the flesh, the other of the promise; why the one believes in Christ, the other not, but seeks salvation from the works of the law." (3:496) 

ROMANS 9:13-16

Calvinists such as Theodore Beza maintain that God from eternity past decreed who should comprise the children of the flesh and the children of promise (Rom. 9:8). In other words, God, from eternity past, decreed to unconditionally elect one person unto faith and salvation, and others to condemnation and hell. This error they deduce from Romans 9. Arminius' complaint regarding a Calvinistic interpretation of Romans 9 was due to their looking "in it for an answer to a question with which it is not dealing." (Bangs, Arminius, 195) With certain presuppositions set in place already, the Calvinist finds in Romans 9 verses to support their error, much in the same way that Jehovah's Witnesses, with their presupposition that Jesus is inferior to God the Father already in hand, finds support for their error when reading Jesus stating that "the Father is greater than I" (John 14:28). Thus they conclude that Jesus is not equal in divinity with the Father.

The typical Calvinist holds that if God does not first regenerate an individual, then he or she would never believe, and no one could ever be saved. With this presupposition in hand, they read Paul's words -- "Even before they had been born or had done anything good or bad (so that God's purpose of election might continue, not by works but by his call) she was told, 'The elder shall serve the younger' . . . So it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy" (Rom. 9:11-12, 16) -- concluding that regeneration precedes faith, and unconditional election and reprobation is taught in Scripture. When Calvinists are shown their error, they ask, If God does not determine who comprise the children of the flesh and the children of the promise, then who does?

This question regarding unconditional election and reprobation is predicated upon another presupposition of theirs: the absolute, meticulous, exhaustive sovereignty of God, wherein God either directly or indirectly controls all events (which have been strictly decreed), including thoughts and ideas, words, choices, decisions, etc. Calvinists are very zealous in asking, in light of Romans 9, why "the one believes in Christ, the other not, but seeks salvation from the works of the law." (Works, 3:496) Arminius answers that
it cannot be proved from this passage that those who bear the types belong to the antitypes themselves; and if perchance Ishmael and Esau belong to "the children of the flesh," so described, yet it is not taught in this passage that they so belong according to any Divine purpose. For by this "purpose" something is determined concerning the children of the flesh and of the promise; but by that which they mean it is determined concerning men that these shall be the children of the flesh, those of the promise: which therefore cannot be one and the same with the other; since the subject of the one is changed into the attribute of the other; respecting the adequate subject of which, the Coryphaei [leader or spokesperson] of that doctrine have not as yet agreed among themselves. 
And because the question, why some believe and others do not, undergoes the same change of subject and attribute, I maintain that it is not handled by the Apostle here, and has nothing whatever to do with his scope.
Let them, therefore, consult other places of Scripture, and see whether they can therefrom establish that decree of theirs. It suffices for us that here is described the "purpose" whereby our righteousness and salvation "of grace" are consistent with themselves, and whereby we can be assured of them in ourselves. (3:497)
The LORD told Rebecca that "the elder [Esau] shall serve the younger [Jacob]" (Rom. 9:12). But Esau never served Jacob, strictly taken. Allegorically, however, Esau, representing works of the law, and Jacob, representing the promise of God received by faith in Christ, gives place to the law serving faith. Paul explicitly states that if the inheritance of eternal salvation "comes from the [works of the] law, it no longer comes from the promise; but God granted it to Abraham through the promise" (Gal. 3:18).

What was the purpose of the law, then? Paul answers: "It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring would come to whom the promise had been made" (Gal. 3:19). The law, then, served as "our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith" (Gal. 3:24). Ishmael and Esau represent those who seek righteousness and salvation by the works of the flesh or law, while Isaac and Jacob represent those who seek righteousness and salvation solely by faith in Christ and the promise of God: "As it is written, 'I have loved Jacob, but I have hated Esau'" (Rom. 9:13). Arminius states:
On this purpose it is that the security of our salvation depends, and at the same time its certainty within ourselves. For from this enthymeme [syllogism] we form that conclusion: "I am a believer," or, "I believe in Christ:" "Therefore I am saved," or, "Therefore I am elect." The confirmation of which lies in this proposition: "As many as believe in Christ, them has God determined from eternity immutably to save [1 Cor. 1:21]:" in which words the sum of that "purpose" is contained. (3:497)
To suggest that God decreed from eternity to unconditionally fashion Ishmael or Esau to be reprobate (children of the flesh), but unconditionally fashion Isaac or Jacob to be saved (children of the promise) is to admit more than what Paul actually describes in this chapter. Regarding Ishmael and Esau, Isaac and Jacob, these are types and anti-types. God was demonstrating that "he who was born of the bondmaid [cf. Gal. 4:23-26] and by carnal power should be the type of the children of the flesh; but he who was born of the free woman [cf. Gal. 4:23-26] and by force of the promise ... should be the type of the children of the promise." (3:498)

God loves those who seek righteousness and salvation by faith in Christ ("I have loved Jacob," Rom. 9:13; Mal. 1:2). These are the children of the promise. But God hates and has an aversion to those who seek righteousness and salvation by the works of the flesh or law ("but I have hated Esau," Rom. 9:13; Mal. 1:3). These are the children of the flesh. "But in this," writes Arminius, "consists the full liberty of God, circumscribed by no necessity of the Divine properties or of the revealed will." (3:498)

Paul foresees an objection from his unbelieving Jewish opponents: "What are we to say? Is there injustice on God's part? By no means!" (Rom. 9:14) Since to the Jewish people belong "the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises" (Rom. 9:4), is God being unjust in electing to save and accepting as children of the promise (even from among the Gentiles) those who seek righteousness and salvation by faith in Christ? "By no means!" is Paul's answer. Arminius notes: "This, indeed, seemed a sufficient ground for accusing God of injustice on account of that purpose -- because He had determined on a decree of this kind from the mere good pleasure of His will, without any regard to merit." (3:499)

Paul continues his objection to his opponents: "For he says to Moses, 'I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion'" (Rom. 9:15). There is a twofold denial which Paul advances against his opponents: "one is taken from the freedom of the Divine mercy; the other, from the just illustration of the Divine power and glory." (3:499) The one taken from God's freedom of the Divine mercy is proven in the following: "For he says to Moses, 'I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion'" (Rom. 9:15). Arminius comments:
This charge of injustice is removed from God merely by the word "mercy" here employed; which, since it presupposes misery, and therefore sin, by that very thing indicates that the change of purpose was not made by any fault of God, but because its condition had been violated by transgression of the law, and may by this had brought on himself inability to fulfill the law [Rom. 8:7-8]. (3:500)
The conclusion of the matter is that the covenant into which God entered with Adam was "rendered void by the fault of man himself, and that God, being thereby freed from obligation, could either have punished man according to his deserts, or have entered upon another 'purpose' in His own mind." (3:500) But God, from the freedom of the Divine mercy, intended good, i.e. mercy, to His creatures. Therefore, "it was necessary for mercy to intervene, which should remit sin, and should moreover require such a condition as man could fulfill through the beneficent help of mercy itself." (3:500)

Hence God cannot be charged with injustice for decreeing, according to the purpose in election, to adopt the children of the promise (those who seek righteousness and salvation by faith in Jesus Christ), and exclude the children of the flesh (those who seek righteousness and salvation by the works of the flesh). (3:500) God has the right to have mercy upon the former and not upon the latter. This is Paul's conclusion as well: "So it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy" (Rom. 9:16). The apostle John concurs, that "to all who received Him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God" (John 1:12-13).

What warrants an individual to become a child of God? The only viable answer is faith in Jesus Christ alone. Performing works of the law (which are tantamount to "human will or exertion") does not depend on God's mercy: "For, when man's will and running are opposed to God's mercy," explains Arminius, "it is certain that he [Paul] means that endeavour and running by which man hopes that he will obtain righteousness and salvation without the mercy of God." (3:501) Only by the grace of God alone, by faith alone, in Christ Jesus alone is one dependent upon the mercy and grace of God for righteousness and salvation.

Absent in Paul's message is any notion that God has already unconditionally predetermined, merely by decree, whom He shall make into children of the flesh, and whom He shall make into children of the promise, though Calvinists are erroneously convinced of the contrary. God, however, does display His mercy and His wrath, displaying mercy to some and hardening the hearts of others.

ROMANS 9:17-23

Arminius acknowledges that receiving God's righteousness and salvation is "not of the one who wills, nor of the one who runs, but of God who shows mercy" (Rom. 9:16). "Willing" and "running" are opposed to God's mercy. It is certain that Paul "means that endeavour and running by which man hopes that he will obtain righteousness and salvation without the mercy of God." (3:501)

Another example regarding God's sovereignty in displaying mercy on those who seek righteousness and salvation not from works of the law (which provokes God's anger in hardening an individual) but from faith in Christ Jesus comes from the life of Pharaoh. Paul writes: "For the scripture says to Pharaoh, 'I have raised you up for the very purpose of showing my power in you, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth'" (Rom. 9:17).  Pharaoh was not a neutral individual. He was a committed pagan -- one who had no genuine interest in seeking the one true God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God justly displayed His anger and power against Pharaoh. God was not being unjust with Pharaoh. In fact, God cannot be unjust in any way imaginable. Arminius writes:
From which passage [Rom. 9:17] the Apostle thus replies to that part of the objection whereby God was charged with injustice, because of His rejecting "the children of the flesh" from His "purpose according to election," and holding them in hatred: "If it is allowable for God [Arminius interprets Paul's argument], in order to the just declaration of His power and the illustration of His name, to excite, harden, punish Pharaoh, then injustice cannot be attributed to Him because He chooses to illustrate His power and glory in the just hardening and punishment of the children of the flesh: But that is allowable for God, as appears from that passage: Therefore, and lastly, He cannot on that account be accused of injustice." (3:501-02)
Either God is free to display His anger against sin and rebellion, and to "illustrate His power and the glory of His name in the just punishment of any one, or it will be free for Him to decree by some purpose, in whose just condemnation He will declare His power and the glory of His name." (3:502) In this manner God acted with justice on Pharaoh's account. No one receives injustice.

Each person receives either justice (by seeking righteousness and salvation through works of the flesh and law) or mercy (through seeking, by grace, righteousness and salvation through faith in Christ Jesus and the promise of God). The apostle concludes: "So then he has mercy on whomsoever he chooses, and he hardens the heart of whomsoever he chooses" (Rom. 9:18). In this conclusion, Paul refutes the Jewish objection solidly: Since God is free to have mercy on one person and harden another, He is free to "make a purpose according to election, by which He may ordain to have mercy on the children of the promise, but to harden and punish the children of the flesh." (3:502)

But Arminius recognizes that the apostle Paul faced another objection from the unbelieving Jews, which attributes an arbitrary nature at God's choosing to falsely yet unconditionally save one person and to harden or reprobate another. This attitude is easy to spot in first-century Judaism, since most Jews considered themselves God's elect people, granted the favor of God unconditionally. They neglected to understand that God has instantiated a New Covenant through His Son Jesus Christ. Paul, anticipating an objection, writes: "You will say to me then, 'Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?'" (Rom. 9:19). Arminius responds:
Which points, propounded in the form of interrogation, will be thus solved: "Therefore He cannot with good reason find fault, because no one can resist His will." The objection will be completed by the addition of the antecedent from which that consequent is deduced: "God hardens whom He will: Therefore He cannot with good reason find fault with those who are hardened." The ratio of connection is this: "Because no one can resist His will." Hence a connect of this sort exists: "If no one can resist God's will, then He cannot rightfully find fault with those whom He hardens by that will." (3:503)
Yet, God does not harden anyone merely by His arbitrary decree. The unbelieving Jewish objection is both erroneous of and implicates God's character, and is blasphemous. Arminius first asks, "what is the proper cause of the Divine anger"? (3:504) God is not angry with anyone without due cause. Thus Arminius answers: "But the proper cause of the Divine anger, and that for which God can rightfully be angry with anyone, is sin." (3:504) After all, sin is the transgression of a just law. A just law is enacted by a just person. Thus there cannot be any impediment by an intervening decree from a person performing that law. (3:504) This impediment would be unjust: "Whence it appears that sin is a voluntary transgression of the law, which the sinner has committed by his own fault, because he could have avoided it." (3:504) He continues:
I say this for the sake of those who suppose that God can with good reason be angry with transgressors of the law, even though they could not have obeyed it by the act itself, on account of the decree intervening: but they are much mistaken. For an action of this sort, which is unavoidable on account of the determination of some decree, does not deserve the name of "sin." (3:504)
To suggest that God would decree a person unto disobedience, and then punish him or her when the person disobeys, is libelous to the holy and just character of God. Some endeavor to explain how God could decree a person's disobedience and also hold that person responsible by philosophizing that there are two wills in God, one secret will and one revealed will.  Arminius denies such a speculative and erroneous theory, noting that "it would not be wonderful [prudent] that the law is not performed by many, when this will armed with omnipotence [deterministic will] hinders the other from being done." (3:505) By this, he means that God would not reveal His will to humanity, commanding all to obey this will, while He secretly willed some to disobey His commands. To suggest such a duplicity in the holy character of God is, again, libelous.

Arminius continues his critique of such a speculative and erroneous theory: "And it is wonderful [to be ghastly wondered at] in what labyrinths they involve themselves, blinded either by unskillfulness or by prejudice, or rather by both. But to those who rightly consider the matter it will be evident that the will of God is one and the same in itself, distinct only in its objects." (3:505) Arminius challenges Calvinists, since the burden of proof weighs heavily upon them, to show "what it is that is 'hidden' here" (3:506) in Romans 9 -- demonstrate where Paul explicitly teaches that God has a secret will and a revealed will from Romans 9. Understanding that the Calvinist is unable to prove from Romans 9 wherein the two-wills theory is taught, we continue to insist that the Calvinist looks in Romans 9 for an answer to a question which Paul does not address, and therefore they cannot be delivered from their error.

When God displays His anger at an individual, He does so justly, out of anger toward sin. Moreover, when God hardens the heart of an individual -- an individual who is obnoxious to and spurns the grace of God -- so that the person can only follow the dictates of one's depravity (cf. Rom. 1:28), He also does this justly. Therefore Paul responds: "But who indeed are you, a human being, to argue with God? Will what is molded say to the one who molds it, 'Why have you made me like this?'" (Rom. 9:20) Arminius notes that questioning God is unbecoming to a mere mortal. To question God in this fashion is "to calumniate that glorious doctrine as to fasten the unjust fury of wrath upon God -- man being thereby exempted from all blame -- was nothing else than to resist God as if to His face, and to oppose Him to His very presence." (3:507)

Therefore Paul rebuked the opponent sharply for suggesting such an error. He also asks his opponent, "Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one object for special use and another for ordinary use?" (Rom. 9:21) God's "right" and "power" over the clay, writes Arminius, contributes "to prove the unworthiness of that objection, and so to refute it." (3:508) But the question and doctrine of God's right and power over His creatures is, unfortunately, abused by some scholars, and their error stems from misunderstanding Paul's statement, "What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience the objects of wrath that are made for destruction" (Rom. 9:22).

Both supra- and infralapsarianism was refuted by Arminius, but especially supralapsarianism: "For what has the power of making for dishonour or honour in common with the power of making a changeable being? But it has much in common with this power of making a being that shall be hardened or be followed up with mercy." (3:509) In other words, God does not have to make a sinner into a vessel of wrath (Rom. 9:22) by an irresistible decree, for "those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God" (John 3:18). What God does in hardening an already hardened and obstinate heart is fix or establish that individual's free  decision to resist His grace. God does so in His own time, pleasure and will.

Out of a mass or lump of humanity, some people degenerate into a vessel of wrath by their own obstinacy to the grace of God. Otherwise, admits Arminius, "the Apostle would have said that some vessels were left in [by an eternal decree] that dishonour, others transferred from it to honour" (3:510) (emphases added). Note as well that Paul confesses vessels of dishonor to be "prepared," καταρτίζω, for destruction, but that vessels of honor were "prepared beforehand," προετοιμάζω, for glory (Rom. 9:22-23). Clearly, the supralapsarian scheme is not found here, for the vessels of dishonor were not "prepared beforehand" for destruction. Therefore, Arminius concludes, "this Chapter, on which they affirm that their doctrine rests as on a foundation, does not favour them." (3:510)

Moreover, "an instrument exists for the sake of some end," explains Arminius. "This end is said in Scripture to be the glory of God. God, therefore, made man for His own glory; that is, not in order that He might receive glory from man, but that He might illustrate His glory by man much more brilliantly than by the rest of the creatures." (3:511) Human beings were created to be a "vessel of glory illustrated." (3:511)

Humans were initially created as "vessels for illustrating His righteous goodness and anger, that is, fit instruments for that purpose." (3:512) The vessel of wrath makes him- or herself into that position of dishonor by voluntary sinfulness, not by an eternal decree (Rom. 9:22), which Arminius calls "the greatest injustice to God," a contradiction of clear Scripture, absurd, and a "sinister interpretation" (3:514), for no one deserves wrath until he or she has committed sin against God. Over what could God be angry with someone who has not yet transgressed His holy commandment?

Note also that the hardening which is received by a vessel of wrath comes to him or her progressively, for God displays much patience with them. But God's goodness, which Arminius calls "the womb of mercy" (3:512),  is illustrated in the child of the promise, the vessel of honor, by faith in Jesus Christ, who is "full of grace and truth" (John 1:14). Arminius offers the following poem in his conclusion:
If any man will show to me / That I with Paul do not agree / With readiness I will abstain / From my own sense, and his retain / But if, still further, one will show / That I've dealt faith a deadly blow / With deepest grief my fault I'll own / And try my error to atone. (3:519)

We greatly appreciate Arminius' humility in his interpretation of Romans 9, to say nothing of the rest of Scripture. His exegesis ends here. I pray that  his exposition was edifying to the body of Christ, and cleared up the misconceptions, exposed the misunderstandings, and corrected the theological errors offered by Calvinists.


Arminius, Jacob. "Appendix to the Preceding Book: Containing a Small Treatise of Cognate Matter; to Wit, A Brief Analysis of the Ninth Chapter of St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans," in The Works of Arminius, the London edition, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996.

Bangs, Carl. Arminius: A Study in the Dutch Reformation. Eugene: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1985.

Olson, Roger E. Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2006. 


My photo

My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.