Then I read in Paul's epistle to Rome, "So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, Who has mercy." (Rom 9:16) Not your choice (will). Not your effort (exertion). God. As if to drive this point home again, with gusto, Paul writes, "So then He has mercy on whomever He wills, and He hardens whomever He wills." (Rom 9:18) Even worse. You see, in this case God wills mercy on some ("Good!") and hardens others ("Wait ... what?!").
It doesn't take long for the prevalent crowd to find my error. "Oh, see? Here's where you missed it. Paul here isn't talking about individuals. He's talking about groups." Very, very common perspective. You see, when Paul says, "As it is written, 'Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.'" (Rom 9:13), he is actually quoting not from the Genesis account, but from Malachi (Mal 1:2-3). There, you see? God, talking to Malachi, was not talking about Jacob and Esau, the individuals. He was talking about Jacob (Israel) and Esau (Edom), groups. He was talking about people groups. So it wasn't Esau He hated, but the people of the Edomites who opposed Israel. See? Groups, not individuals. So in this scenario, God's plan was to save a body of people, a "church" (ecclesia, the called out ones), a group. God's plan did not include the individuals in that group; that was up to the choice of the individuals.
I have a problem here. If I were to reword Paul's content to more clearly represent what is suggested here as his intent, it would look something like this (my alterations in bold).
It is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but "Through Isaac shall your offspring be named." This means that it is not the group we'll call the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the group we'll call the children of the promise are counted as offspring. For this is what the promise said: "About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son." And not only so, but also when Rebekah 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 of an undesignated group of people might continue, not because of works but because of Him who calls--she was told, "The older group will serve the younger group." As it is written, "Jacob (that is, the people of Israel) I loved, but Esau (or, rather, the people of Edom) I hated." What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God's part? By no means! For He says to Moses (representing a group), "I will have mercy on [an indeterminate group of people] for whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on [an indeterminate group of people] for whom I have compassion." So then [whether this group of people are saved] depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, Who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh (representing those who are not saved), "For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show My power in you, and that My name might be proclaimed in all the earth." So then He has mercy on [whatever group] He wills, and He hardens [whatever group] He wills. You will say to me then, "Why does He still find fault? For [what group] can resist His will?" But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded (referring to a group, not an individual) say to its molder, "Why have you made me like this?" Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel (say, the Church) for honorable use and another (people who don't end up saved, for instance) for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show His wrath and to make known His power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction (which would be the category of people classified as "unsaved"), in order to make known the riches of His glory for vessels of mercy (which would be the category of people classified as "saved") , which He has prepared beforehand for glory--even us (the Body of Christ, not individuals) whom He has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles? (Rom 9:6-24)I'm not trying to be flippant here. Nor am I trying to suggest that Paul was wrong. I'm just trying to word it so we can see the concept of "groups rather than individuals." Does this clarify my problem? You see, almost every reference in the text is not to groups, but to individuals. There is a list of specific names: Abraham, Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob, Esau, Moses, and Pharaoh. There are references to individuals -- "conceived children by one man", "the older will serve the younger", "it depends not on human will or human exertion", that sort of thing. Not much in the way of groups in the references to people in the text.
Beyond that, Paul addresses a couple of expected objections to the principle he's trying to expound. He says that God's statement that "The older will serve the younger" was before either did anything "in order that God's purpose of election might continue ... because of Him who calls" (Rom 9:10-13). That's the principle. The first objection is "Is there injustice on God's part?" (Rom 9:14) What is this objection? If God chooses a particular group for salvation, can that be considered unjust if the individuals involved choose whether or not they are part? Perhaps, but it seems unlikely to me. But the second objection is stronger. "So then He has mercy on whomever He wills, and He hardens whomever He wills." (Rom 9:18) The likely objection follows: "You will say to me then, 'Why does He still find fault? For who can resist His will?'" (Rom 9:19) Now, if "whomever" in the principle in verse 18 refers to "whatever group He chooses" (rather than individuals), where is the objection? We choose whether or not we'll be in that group. God doesn't. He simply designates that such a group ("vessels of mercy") will exist. The "vessels" themselves determine for themselves which group they'll be in. How is "Who can resist His will?" a reasonable objection?
Now, to be sure, there are more people today that understand this text to refer to groups than those who see it as a reference to individuals. To me it makes no sense. If "it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who has mercy", what depends on that? Not whether you are in that group or not. That is determined by your will, right? If it is groups in mind, in what sense does God show mercy to some and harden others? Some what? Groups? None of this makes sense to me if it is talking about groups. On the other hand, if there are individuals whom God chooses to save (Rom 9:11) and on whom He chooses to show mercy (Rom 9:16, 18), vessels of wrath prepared for destruction that God sovereignly decides to make into vessels of mercy for His glory, this all makes sense to me. It makes me a child of promise (Rom 9:8), saved by God's express choice for His express purposes (Rom 9:11) without the help of my will or my efforts (Rom 9:16). Now that makes sense to me. I'm just not getting the other approach.