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How should I interpret Romans 9?

Yesterday I received an email from a prospective NOBTS student asking for guidance on interpreting Romans 9 in light of biblical statements that God desires the salvation of all people. Because questions about how to interpret this chapter are perennial for those of us who teach theology, I decided to post my reply:

Dear ____________,

Thanks for your note. I pray God will give you wisdom as you think and pray through the important decision of where to attend seminary. Have you discussed Romans 9 and your sense of calling to attend seminary with your pastor? If so, what are his thoughts?

Romans 9, as you have discovered, is a difficult passage to interpret. Most readers hold one of three theological presuppositions through which they interpret texts, whether Romans 9 or John 3, Karl Barth or Carl Henry. Presuppositions are derived from reading the Scripture and theological works. Also, presuppositions inform one’s reading of Scripture and theological works. All grammatical, historical, biblical, and cultural analyses are filtered through one of these sieves to account for the biblical and theological data.

Presupposition 1: God loves every person salvifically and desires the salvation of every person. Election is God’s choice of people, but should not be confused with salvation. God elected a man (Jesus), a people (the church), and a plan for salvation (the cross). The elect are composed of all who believe in Jesus. Herschel Hobbs (1907-95) is a Southern Baptist statesman who held this view.


Presupposition 2: God loves sinners and desires the salvation of His people. Election is God’s choice from eternity to save some people, namely those God selected by His grace. Only those people who are effectually called by God’s Spirit will repent and believe in Jesus. James P. Boyce (1827-88) is a Southern Baptist statesman who held this view.


Presupposition 3: God loves and desires to save every person. Any person who hears the gospel and freely repents and believes in Jesus will be saved. At the same time, God has elected those individuals from eternity to be saved. These two positions are simultaneously true, although difficult to reconcile. Richard Fuller (1804-76) is a Southern Baptist statesman who held this view.

These three views affirm different interpretations of Romans 9, as well as other key texts for the doctrine of election, such as Ephesians 1. Although there is value in pursuing these doctrinal questions, followers of Christ should pursue this investigation only while they are faithfully sharing the gospel with the lost (Matt 28:18-20; Acts 1:8).

I hope I have adequately answered your question.

In Him,

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