When I was a Calvinist and used Romans 9 as a proof-text to support my beliefs, but there was something that always didn't seem quite right. Romans 9 as I understood it at the time seemed out of place in the middle of a book that invited all people to make a real choice to trust God. As I said before, life experiences broke my theology and I walked away from Romans 9, and the rest of Scripture made more sense. To be honest I stayed away from this passage for about 2 years, and when I finally was able to read this passage without bringing my preconceptions to it, I was blown away by what I found.
Because of our western mind, and evangelical preconceptions we can sometimes read a text too myopically or even inverted. First is the fact that Paul in Romans 9-11 is talking about the nation of Israel, not about individuals.
For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, the people of Israel. Theirs is the adoption as sons; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises.
In the modern west, we tend to be very individually focused and always default to this way of thinking. But Paul is not talking about individuals, rather he is talking about the nation of Israel -- the political/religious system and it's rules and regulations that served as a buffer between God and his people. Ironically, in Romans 9 Paul is addressing the objection that God is being unfair by being more inclusive than under the old covenant, not less so. And Paul is basically saying that God's promise did not fail, in reality he was fulfilling his plan and that he has to right to bring and end to the old covenant and be more inclusive, him being God and all.
Quickly, I also want to point out that calling/election (vocation) is not necessarily synonymous with salvation. Israel was called to be a light to the nations, and according to Paul Israel was called to be a bearer, more on that in a moment.
What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory— even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles?
Sounds pretty harsh doesn't it? But don't be too quick to make assumptions about who or what he is talking about. The traditional view basically translates 'objects of his wrath' as the world, and 'objects of his mercy' as the privileged few. But once you say it out loud that way it doesn't take long for you to realize that this interpretation contradicts the rest of scripture. In fact we must stick with Paul's subject at hand - Israel. Only then can we begin to make sense of what he is talking about. And when you do that, it turns everything I previously understood on it's head. In it's proper context, it becomes clear that the objects of God's wrath is Israel; the old covenant system and it's regulations, not the people. And the objects of God's mercy is the world. I also want to define God's wrath in this way -- his fierce determination to destroy sin because of the destruction is causes to his creation. I'll address this more in depth in my second post. So the thing that God bore with great patience was Israel, that old covenant religious system. During the time of the old covenant, God was patiently waiting for the day when he could finally be united with his people. And when it was finally brought to an end, God tore the veil in the Temple in half as if to say, "I'm outta here! No longer will there be a barrier between me any my beloved."
If you aren't convinced that the object of God's wrath was Israel, then read Paul's own words in Chapter 11.
Again I ask: Did they (Israel) stumble so as to fall beyond recovery? Not at all! Rather, because of their transgression, salvation has come to the Gentiles to make Israel envious. But if their transgression means riches for the world, and their loss means riches for the Gentiles, how much greater riches will their fullness bring!
For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?
As I final thought. I want to point out that while 'destruction' is the final state of the old covenant system, Paul makes it perfectly clear that this isn't necessarily the eternal state of the people that were under that system. They too are invited to be included -- to make a real choice.
I haven't begun to do justice to this passage, but for further reading check out:
N.T. Wright - Romans and the Theology of Paul
Baxter Kruger - Why I left Calvinism