Now, the first side could go on and on about how "'Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated' (Rom 9:13) is a quote from Malachi 1:2-3 where God is clearly speaking about Israel and Edom, not two brothers, Jacob and Esau, so clearly the text is about groups, not individuals." The other side is going to say things like, "But all of the references are to individuals, so it is clearly about individuals, not groups." I'm going to ask a different question.
Paul takes an interesting literary approach to this subject. He has an imaginary conversation with his readers. First, he makes a claim. "It is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring." (Rom 9:8) He explains this by way of Sarah and Rebekah who had "children of promise". Of Isaac and Rebekah's sons he says, "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 who calls -- she was told, 'The older will serve the younger.'" (Rom 9:11-12) That is, Jacob was chosen over Esau not because of works, but "because of Him who calls." Then Paul takes on the expected objection. "Hey, God is not fair!" (Rom 9:14)
We've arrived at my question, then. The very common view is that this passage is about corporate election, not individuals. The position taken is simple. "God made it such that each person's election (or non-election) depends upon how that person reacts to divinely revealed truth." Most of you will likely nod your head (you know ... after you've examined it carefully). That is the prevalent view. God chooses those who choose Him. Those who argue that this passage is about groups, not individuals, would say that the way any of us gets into this "group" we'll call "the elect" is to choose Christ, to respond positively to Christ. God chose Jacob because He foreknew that Jacob would choose Him and did not choose Esau because He foreknew Esau would not. Simple.
So, if this is the case, what is Paul answering? I don't know of anyone at all who would object to the notion that God chooses to save those who want to be saved. That seems abundantly fair in the eyes of most people. Who would object? That is, "Your Honor, I have no objection." Yet Paul answers the objection he expects: "What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God's part? By no means!" (Rom 9:14) Who would say that being chosen because you chose Him was unjust?
Paul's answer muddies the water. "So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy." (Rom 9:16) Paul calls on God as Sovereign. "So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires." (Rom 9:18) And his hard answer spawns a second objection to be answered.
You will say to me then, "Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?" On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, "Why did you make me like this," will it? Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for common use? (Rom 9:19-21)And we're left with the same question. If "He has mercy on whom He desires and He hardens whom He desires" and it's only talking about groups, where you simply get into the "mercy" group by responding positively to the gospel, what is this objection? We respond positively. We decide if God will choose us or not. We determine if we get into the group. How could anyone object? Who resists His will? Well, everyone who does not decide to respond positively. End of objection.
I cannot see this passage as groups. Trust me; I've tried. If groups are in view here, "It depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy" doesn't make sense. If it is corporate election in view, no one would question God's fairness because we're getting what we choose. If Paul is saying that God will certainly save all those who wish to be saved, no one would complain about resisting God because they regularly do. You might see it that way, but it makes no sense to me. Even after the pastor at my last church sat down and explained it to me. I suppose it's just the curse of being dense.