When I was a younger Christian, I listened infrequently to James White, and while I found some of the content good, I always had some issues with some of his doctrinal stances. As I realized how repulsed I was by Calvinist doctrine, the issues grew, and I have a hard time listening very long these days. Despite that, I encountered some of his work recently on – surprise surprise – his doctrine of God’s exhaustive divine determinism. This seems to be the central doctrine for him.

James White is not unique in appealing to the words of Paul in Romans 9 where Paul quotes Genesis: “Jacob I loved; Esau I hated”. White claims that we should not be surprised that God says He hated Esau, but that He loved Jacob, because we are sinners and we deserve God’s hatred. God can choose who He’d like to choose to bestow His grace, and that’s it. Who are we to question it?

His handling of this text is absolutely terrible, but this is the standard Calvinist reading I’ve encountered. Let us consider the problems with this view.

Hating Our Brothers

If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.

Luke 14:26

Does Jesus want us to hate our own fathers, mothers, wives, children, brothers, and sisters? I don’t think anyone, even James White, would think so. And yet Jesus uses the word “hate” here, and aren’t we supposed to interpret all of the words literally? Isn’t that exactly why “Jacob I loved; Esau I hated” means God really hated Esau?

If we can understand Jesus’ words as a figure of speech indicating how much more we ought to love Christ than anyone else, why can’t we see the statement about Esau and Jacob that way, too? Why must we assume it means literal hatred? If we must do so to affirm a particular doctrine, that’s not good enough.

Paul Loves More than God?

Romans 9 begins with Paul pleading for Israel’s salvation:

I am speaking the truth in Christ, I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit, that 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 brethren, my kinsmen by race. They are Israelites, and to them belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ.

Romans 9:1-5, RSV

If the Calvinist understanding of Romans 9 is correct, God hates the reprobate, determining from the foundation of the world to elect him for damnation as a vessel of wrath.

Here, however, we have Paul saying he would wish himself to receive that damnation on himself if he could to save his brethren. (An interesting note to make, not often made these days, is that Paul had unique love for his own people. Certain groups in the degenerate West aren’t allowed to have that sort of unique affection for their own people. It’s Capital B Bad)

Do we really want to suggest that Paul loves his people more than God?

Salvation or Covenant?

Just what is being spoken of in the passage in Romans 9 anyway? Is Paul talking about Esau’s salvation here? If the Calvinist understanding of this passage is correct, he must be talking about salvation. Yet the whole passage leading up to Romans 9:13 is about God’s choosing of people not to be elect in Christ, but to be reckoned descendants of Abraham in the covenant:

But it is not as though the word of God had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his descendants; but “Through Isaac shall your descendants be named.” This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are reckoned as descendants. For this is what the promise said, “About this time I will return and Sarah shall have a son.” And not only so, but also when Rebecca had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, 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 his call, she was told, “The elder will serve the younger.” As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”

Romans 9:6-13, RSV

In Isaac, we learn it is not all of Abraham’s children who receive the inheritance, but only in Isaac. Does God hate his half-siblings? There’s no indication of any hatred in the text, let alone condemnation to hell, which is what this word is taken to mean.

We also don’t see any indication that God damns Esau to hell in Genesis. He chooses Jacob to inherit, rather than the first-born. His descendants, the Edomites, eventually became absorbed into Israel, and it would be completely unwarranted to claim these descendants were barred from salvation in Christ. And yet, since God was establishing a national covenant through Jacob and not Esau, that’s exactly what would follow if Romans 9 were read in a Calvinist sense.

The Point of Romans 9

Taken in isolation, each individual part of Romans 9 could be read to reinforce exhaustive divine determinism. However, if we read the chapter as part of a complete argument, it goes something like this:

  1. Paul agonizes over the fact his people have the law, the promises of God, and even brought the world salvation through Christ, yet reject Christ. Paul is going to be talking about the promise to Israel.
    • Paul loves his people so much he’d trade his own salvation for them if he could.
  2. Belonging to Israel, then, is not enough.
    • It wasn’t all of Abraham’s children who were called to be God’s people, but Isaac.
    • It wasn’t Isaac’s first-born who would inherit the promise, but Jacob.
  3. It’s not unjust for God to choose some for the promise and not others.
  4. Just as God’s promise to Abraham didn’t get passed on to every one of his descendants, nor is it limited to Israel. It goes out to the gentiles, too.
  5. Only a remnant of Israel will be saved.
  6. The gentiles pursue righteousness through faith and receive it. Israel pursued righteousness through the law and failed.
  7. Israel clings to works, not faith.

The Calvinist reading of Romans 9 as a treatise on how God determines some to be saved and some to be damned for His own pleasure misses the entire point, which is that this passage is about Israel. The choice of God to choose some and not others is about how God’s promise to Israel is not broken because Israel failed on their end or because the gentiles are grafted in. This passage is not about salvation, let alone exhaustive divine determinism. It’s about how it is faith in Christ, not being a descendant of Israel, that makes you righteous before God.

The Calvinist, ironically, gets this passage perfectly backwards. For guys like James White, this passage is about how their place in the Kingdom of God is part of an inheritance they received, just as Israelites who argued with Paul would have seen their own inheritance as the guarantor of their salvation. Yet, as it turns out, it’s not about being a part of the right club at all, whether a body we call “the chosen” or “the elect”, or Israel (which itself was “chosen/elect”).

It’s about faith.