I am a firm believer that the clear texts explain the less clear. I have listed a sample of texts showing that Christ's salvation is available to all and (in that sense) universal in the Appendix 1 below. This is NOT to suggest that all will be saved; far from it. Many will choose to reject that salvation.
The question really should be asked, if God's salvation is available to all, why do some Bible passages appear to have God arbitrarily select who is to be saved? The most conspicuous is Rom 9 as per the OP's question.
The doctrine of divine election came to a head during the famous synod in 1618 and 1619, and had far-reaching results. Not only did the Dutch church feel its effects, but the German, Swiss, Scottish, English, and French sections of the Christian church all participated in, or were divided by, this controversy.
If God's election is supreme as Calvinists suggest, then nothing we do can change what God has selected and humanity is stripped of all free will. Appendix 2 below shows that such a position is incompatible with Bible evidence.
Despite all the above, some still insist that Rom 9 teaches limited atonement (or predestination). For example, some will specifically quote v13: “Jacob I loved and Esau I hated”; and v14, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion”. V19-23 appears to be the “magna carter” of limited atonement. Therefore, is Rom 9 really discussing limited atonement, despite all the many Bible references listed below? How should we understand this passage?
We should observe the following facts:
- The chosen nation status of Israel was about their vocation as evangelists to teach the world, not their status as saved. This is confirmed by the analogy of the potter in v21.
- Romans 9 is NOT discussing individuals. God chose the nation that came from Jacob to do the job of providing the spiritual enlightenment to the world and being the progenitors of Christ. See v 3-5.
- If Paul is teaching limited atonement in Rom 9 then he is very confused because v6 and v7 teaches the opposite. “… not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children.” That is, being “chosen” (or “elect”) descendant of Abraham does not make a person a member of spiritual Israel; rather it was whether that person becomes a person of the promise, that chooses to accept God’s grace.
- Paul’s summary and conclusion to his long (and admittedly difficult) argument in Rom 9:30-32 is equally clear – being a physical member of literal Israel does not make a person a real spiritual Israelite. The real question is whether a person becomes a person “of the promise”, that is, decides to accept Jesus. (See also v24 where Paul again confirms that the chosen are called from both Jews and Gentiles.)
- Loved vs hated (v13): This is a piece of classic Hebrew idiom that employs rhetorical hyperbole. It is obvious that God loves all people and hates no one because “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16). A simple comparison with Mal 1:2, 3 (that v13 quotes), Luke 14:26, 27 and Gen 29:31-33 (where the word “hated” is used) shows this Hebrew idiom well.
- Background: Passages like Jer 7:4 clearly show that the Jews regarded their position as the chosen people of God as the source of their spiritual pride. That is, because of all that God had bestowed on them, they believed they must be saved and were guaranteed God’s favour and eternal life. Thus, the doctrine of free grace came as a very big shock. Paul is at pains to point out that not all who are (physical or genetic) Israelites are (spiritual) Israelites. Gentiles could become spiritual Israelites by “the promise”. God was now selecting gentiles to be His representatives without excluding the Jews. Even in ancient literal Israel, membership of Israel was entirely voluntary not genetic.
APPENDIX 1 - Salvation for all
Note the following which explicitly speak of universal salvation, for ALL.
- John 1:29, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”
- John 3:16, “God so loved the world that He gave …”
- John 12:32, “I [Jesus] … will draw all people to myself.”
- John 12;47, “… for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world.”
- Acts 17:30, “God … commands all people everywhere to repent.”
- Rom 3:23, 24, “… for all have sinned … and all are freely forgiven...”
- Rom 5:8, 10, “… while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. … if, while were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him by the death of His Son, …”
- Rom 5:15, “But the free gift is not like the offense. For if by the one man’s [Adam’s] offense many died, much more the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abounded to the many.” [Note the same word, “many” applies to all people.]
- Rom 5:18, “Therefore, as through one man’s offense judgment came to all people, resulting in condemnation, even so through one Man’s righteous act the free gift came to all people, resulting in justification of life.”
- Rom 11:32, “For God has imprisoned everyone in disobedience so that He may show mercy to all.”
- 2 Cor 5:14, “…we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died.”
- 2 Cor 5:18, 19, “…God was reconciling the world to Himself in Christ …”
- 1 Tim 2:3, 4, “For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”
- 1 Tim 2:6, “[Jesus Christ] gave Himself as a ransom for all people.”
- Titus 2:11, “For the grace of God appeared bringing salvation to all people.”
- Heb 2:9, “But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honour because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.”
- 2 Peter 3:9, “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”
- 1 John 2:2, “He Himself [Jesus] is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours [Christians to whom John writes] only but also for the whole world.”
- Isa 53:6, “We all like sheep have gone astray … and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
The Bible frequently makes this same point of wanting to save all people by emphasising that God does not show favouritism but treats all people impartially (Duet 10:17-19, 2 Chron 19:7, Ezek 18:25, Mk 12:14, Acts 10:34 Rom 2:10-11; Eph 6:9, 1 Pet 1:17).
APPENDIX 2 - Can we reject salvation once we have it.
Here I list some examples of the exercise of free will to show that those once saved can still be lost.
- The “wilderness generation” of Israelites that God called out of Egypt perished in the desert because, despite being called, turned their backs on God and refused to trust in God by believing the majority spy report.
- At the end of the wilderness wandering, Joshua begged the people to choose to serve God, Josh 24:15, 22. See also Deut 30:19, Judg 5:8, Job 34:4, 33, 21, Ps 119:173, Prov 1:29, 3:31, Isa 7:15, 16, 56:4, 65:12, 66:3, Jer 8:3.
- King Saul who was a statesman and prophet called by God (1 Sam 10:11, 12, 19:24), yet was ultimately lost when he consulted demons for advice and then committed suicide.
- Ps 69:28 contains a plea for David’s enemies to be blotted out of the book of life!
- Eze 18:21-28 also teaches that the wicked can reform and be saved, and the righteous can apostatise and be lost. Both situations are incompatible with Calvinism’s view of salvation and humanity.
- Rom 11:17-21 discusses the warning that people who had been grafted into the “olive tree” of the Christian community could be broken off if they were unfaithful.
- 1 Cor 9:27 Paul says he disciplines his body to keep it under control so that after preaching to others he does not become a castaway/disqualified. That is, Paul believed that it was possible that he could lose his way and become lost.
- 1 Cor 10:12 also contains a stern warning from Paul, “If you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall.”
- 1 Tim 6:10, For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.
- Heb 2:1-3, We must pay closer attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. For if the message spoken by angels was binding, and every transgression and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?
- Similarly, Heb 6:4-6 also teaches that some “who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit…” can fall away.
- Heb 10:19-35 contains an extended passage on enduring. It contains some real gems about the possibility of losing one’s faith and confidence such as:
- V26: If we(!) deliberately keep on sinning after receiving the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left
- V29: How much more severely do you think someone deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified them and who has insulted the Spirit of grace. This verse clearly shows that it is possible to be sanctified and subsequently lost.
- V35: Therefore, do not throw away your confidence which has a great reward.
- V36: You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God you will receive what he has promised.
- Heb 13:9, “Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings, for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace …”
- 2 Peter 1:10, “make your calling and election sure”. This clearly allows for the possibility of losing one’s election.
- 2 Peter 2:21, “It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than to have known it and then to turn their backs on the sacred command that was passed on to them.”
- 2 Peter 3:17 contains a very stern and sobering warning to be on guard that we do not fall from our secure position. Verse 14 contains a similar warning.
- Gal 6:9 says, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”
- Jesus’ parable of the 10 virgins contains two classes of people called “wise” and “foolish”. All were invited to the wedding; All were virgins symbolising purity, see Rev 14:5; All had lamps, ie, lights symbolising Christ as the light of the world, John 1:4, 9, 8:12, 9:5, Matt 5:14-16; All, at least initially had oil - but this is the crux of the parable - five virgins had enough oil and five did not have enough because they complained that their lamps were going out. In the NT oil represents the gift of the Holy Spirit (Luke 4:18, Acts 10:38, 2 Cor 1:21, 22, 1 John 2:20). Thus, Jesus teaches that some who are called and have been given the Holy Spirit (see also Heb 6:4-6) can still be excluded from the Kingdom of God.
- Jesus’ parable of the vine (John 15:1-8) says two interesting things: (a) that branches (connected to the vine of Jesus) that do not bear fruit are cut off (v2); and (b) the bearing of fruit is to prove that we are Jesus’ disciples.
- Jesus’ parable of the sower, or perhaps the parable of the soils (Matt 13:1-23, Mark 4:1-20, Luke 8:4-15) contains several classes of people (soils) who start out well in the Christian life but lose their way. The conclusion is also significant: “by their constancy bear fruit”. (Luke 8:15)
- Jesus’ parable of the banquet (Luke 14:16-24) contains a very good example of people rejecting the call (or “election”) of God as well as God having to ask some people more than once and begging them to the wedding banquet. Jesus’ conclusion is, again, significant, “not one of those men who have been invited shall taste of my banquet.” In the parallel passage of Matt 22:1-14, Jesus concludes by saying, “For many are called, but few are chosen.”