Interview with

Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

Audio Transcript

In listener emails, Romans 9 has been mentioned almost 300 times. We have lots of questions about that chapter. Today we have a question about why Calvinists so often speak of the election of believers as unconditional, but the reprobation of the non-elect as conditional? It’s a question today from Henry.

“Dear Pastor John, in Romans 9:10–13 Paul says God loved Jacob and hated Esau before either had done anything good or bad. I’ve heard many Calvinists say election has nothing to do with works done, good or bad, present or foreseen. That’s true and glorious. However, many of those same Calvinists say that when God predestines people to hell, he ensures that they are deserving of judgment, due to their sins. This sounds contradictory to me. If election is unconditional, why is perdition here so often presented as a conditional response?”

True Israel

Let’s put the key text in front of us and make sure we understand the question in context. Here’s what Paul wrote in Romans 9:11–13:

“Though they were not yet born [Jacob and Esau] and had done nothing either good or bad” — It’s really important, really important, to see that they had done nothing good or bad. Paul is explaining why he chooses the way he does. — “in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of” — and you might expect him to say because of faith, but he doesn’t say that — “works but because of him who calls — she was told, ‘The older will serve the younger.’ As it is written, ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.’” (Romans 9:11–13)

What Paul had said in verse 6 was that the promises of God to Israel have not failed, even though many Jewish people are perishing. According to verse three, they were being accursed and cut off from Christ.

“The saving promises of God do not guarantee the salvation of every single ethnic Israelite, but only the true Israel.”

The reason the promises of God to Israel have not failed, even though some are perishing, is that “not all Israel is Israel.” That is, the saving promises of God do not guarantee the salvation of every single ethnic Israelite, but only the true Israel. That’s the point of verse 6–8. Not all the descendants of Abraham are the children of God.

Finding the Root

Then Paul shows the deepest root of what makes a person part of the true Israel, the saved Israel. The deepest root is God’s unconditional election. Meaning, God’s choice of one person and not others, not based on any good deeds or any bad deeds.

What choice are you talking about? Well, what Paul is dealing with in verse 3 is how can so many individual Israelites be lost, be cursed, and be cut off from Christ? The issue is eternal salvation.

Paul is burdened by his “kinsmen according to the flesh” who are lost, who are eternally cursed. So election here means election of who will be the true Israelits, the true children of God, and who will not be (Romans 9:6–8).

Framing the Question

Now, what Henry is pointing out is that the Scriptures, not just Calvinist — the Scriptures teach that everyone who is sentenced to eternal condemnation, hell, deserves to be there. That’s biblical teaching.

Nobody is in hell because they don’t deserve to be there. They will be there because of their unbelief and their sin.

Henry is saying this sounds contradictory. Unconditional election, on the one hand, conditional damnation, on the other hand. When God decided not to choose a person, he did not base his decision on foreseeing unbelief and sin. But when he condemns a person, in the end it is based on unbelief and sin. And Henry wonders if that’s a contradiction.

Just in Condemnation

My answer is no. It is not.

“Everyone who is sentenced to eternal condemnation, hell, deserves to be there.”

There are good reasons for why God elects in the beginning in the way he does. And there are good reasons for why God judges in the end the way he does. And these acts of election and condemnation and these reasons are not contradictory.

He condemns in the end on the basis of unbelief and sin, because he’s just. And the principle of justice in the Bible is:

  • “Do not kill the innocent and righteous.” (Exodus 23:7)
  • “He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to the Lord.” (Proverbs 17:15)
  • “For those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury.” (Romans 2:8)

That’s the biblical principle of justice, and God is just.

God’s final decision to assign someone to hell will be because they deserve it. There will be no injustice. No one will be in hell who does not deserve to be there. No degree of punishment in hell will be out of proportion to the greatness of the guilt of the sinner (Luke 12:47).

God condemns on the basis of unbelief and sin because he’s just.

Unconditional

But God elects before the foundation of the world, not based on unbelief and sin because he’s free and independent of all external constraints in forming his own plan. Let me say it again. Here’s the way Paul puts it. He seems to be laboring to make this clear:

“Though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad — in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him” — his purpose, his will, his counsel alone, his freedom — “him who calls — she was told, ‘The older will serve the younger.’ As it is written, ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.’” (Romans 9:11–13)

Still a Mystery

Here’s why I think Henry says this sounds contradictory. God condemns on the basis of unbelief and sin, but he elects before the foundation of the world, not based on unbelief and sin. I think Henry says that sounds contradictory because we don’t know how God sees to it that all those who are not elect do in fact become guilty of condemnation.

“No degree of punishment in hell will be out of proportion to the greatness of the guilt of the sinner.”

Let me say that again. We don’t know how God renders it certain, or sees to it, that all those who are not elect do, in fact, become guilty of condemnation. How does real guilt become a certainty for all the non-elect?

This is another way of asking how does a sovereign God govern the heart choices of all human beings, and yet those human beings be accountable for their heart choices?

I am happy to let that be one of the hidden things that belongs to the Lord (Deuteronomy 29:29). What we do know is this: both are taught in the Bible. God governs the choices of all people, and all people are accountable for their choices. That’s not a contradiction. It is a mystery, or it may be a mystery. Some think they might have figured it out; I haven’t.

It may be a mystery, that is, we don’t know how. That’s the keyword. We don’t know how God does it. But we do know that he does it.

“The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will” (Proverbs 21:1). And that king is accountable before God.