Certain passages in the Bible are what I like to call "naughty verses." They are verses that we find difficult to fit into our general understanding, verses that at least seem to say things that go contrary to what we expect the Bible to say. Romans 9 is one such "naughty passage" for me. In Romans 9:22, for example, Paul speaks of certain humans that God has "prepared for destruction." 9:18 also gives a picture that, if we take it as it is, seems to say that God "hardens" certain people so that they will not do the sorts of things that lead to his mercy.
In other words, some of the verses in Romans 9 seem to say that God makes some people for skeet shooting. He makes them bad so that he can show his glory when he blows them to bits. Some Christians today and in the past for some reason love this image of God. A teacher like John Piper has made Romans 9 the ground zero of his thinking about God. He teaches something called "double predestination," the idea that God not only predetermines who will come to him and be saved, but also who will not come and be damned.
Suffice it to say, this view of God is difficult to reconcile with any meaningful sense of the idea that God is love. It says that God is nice to a certain select few that he has chosen according to his fancy, and he is mean to everyone else. Some who take this view might say that God only chooses who will be saved, that we were all damned anyway. In their view, God does not choose for anyone to be damned because we are all damned already. He only shows his mercy by choosing to save some who are already condemned. Adam had the freedom not to sin and he messed up. Now we cannot help but sin and so are all damned by default.
I appreciate this latter kind of "predestinarian" or "Calvinist," this doctrine taking its name from John Calvin. This last kind of Calvinist at least recognizes the difficulty of reconciling any normal definition of love with this view of God. But I'll at least hand it to the double predestinarian that Paul at least seems to go all the way in Romans 9. Paul pictures the damned complaining to God--why are you complaining about me, God? You made me this way (9:19-21)! So I at least have to hand it to the John Pipers of the world for taking Paul literally.
But the key to understanding Romans 9-11 is threefold. First, we need to understand the role these verses play in the overall thought of Romans. In particular, Paul is not really discussing our individual fates. He is trying to answer the question why so many Gentiles have believed in Jesus and most Jews have not. Second, we need to realize that fatalism and determinism were key features of the world in which Paul lived. In that sense, there is a cultural dimension to his arguments here. Finally, I would argue that the "language game" of predestination does not function primarily on a literal level. It serves two basic purposes: first, to affirm that God is in control and second, to assure the "elect" of their "destiny."