Romans 9:1–29 (ESV)✞: God’s Sovereign Choice
As I was going through the first eight chapters of Romans I was thinking of it in terms of two big sections: chapters 1–8 covering “theology,” and chapters 9–16 covering “practical matters” – i.e., how to live out the theology from chapters 1–8. My whole point was to say that that’s not correct (there are a bunch of “practical matters” woven into chapters 1–8 and a bunch of “theology” throughout the rest of the book), but I also oversimplified the oversimplification, because I’d forgotten about this section right in the middle, where Paul talks about Judaism: if God’s mercy is now open to anyone, yet He’d promised the Jews to always be their God (and they His people), then what does that mean? Are the Jewish people still God’s special people? Has He rejected them? In chapters 9–11 (give or take), Paul tackles these questions.
I’m guessing it’s a passage of the Bible that many Christians have used to get really, really racist against the Jews, so I’ll need to be extra careful as I blog through it not to sound like I’m falling into that same racism! Given the amount of pain and literal bloodshed Europeans have caused in the name of “Christianity” against the Jews, I don’t think anyone needs to come into this blog giving me the benefit of the doubt…
Back in chapter 8, Paul had made a couple of important points about salvation: in verses 1–11 he talked about “life in the Spirit,” comparing the Law to the “law of the Spirit,” and in verses 12–17 he talked about the fact that we are heirs of God, alongside Christ. Both of these points have direct bearing on the Law, and on the Jews as God’s people: if we become “heirs” of God through faith in Him—not by following the Law—then what does that say about God’s chosen people, who are still trying to get to Him through the Law?
In the remainder of chapter 8 Paul let these theological points bring him onto “tangents”—because if all of this is true then it means our present sufferings are nothing compared to our future glory, and the love of God, who did all this for us, is amazing to behold—but here in chapter 9 he comes back to the topic of God’s people, the Jews.
And he starts by saying, to his anguish, that not all Jews are saved:
1 I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit— 2 that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. 3 For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh. 4 They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. 5 To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.
I remember, as a teenager, reading verse 3 and thinking that I could never be that selfless. If I had a chance to bring salvation to people by giving it up myself, and going to Hell, would I take it? I highly doubt it.
Obviously Paul is not offering this up as a viable option, it goes against all of Christianity and the theology he’s so rigorously outlined in the previous eight chapters, he’s just pointing out how much anguish he feels that his fellow Jews don’t all have the same salvation he does. As verses 4–5 point out, so much of what we believe as Christians came through their relationship with God in the Old Testament. Not just the specific Law, but the view of God we get from reading His Law – from reading all of the Old Testament Scriptures.
So that raises the obvious question: did God “fail” with the Jews, and have to start over with the Christians? No. In fact, he points out, God has always had people He chose and people He didn’t:
6 But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, 7 and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” 8 This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring. 9 For this is what the promise said: “About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son.” 10 And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, 11 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— 12 she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” 13 As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”
Paul gives two examples here: the choosing of Isaac over Ishmael, and then the choosing of Jacob over Esau. A very quick recap of these events:
In Genesis 15–21 (ESV)✞ we have a promise from God to Abraham and Sarah that He’ll give them a son, but that promise takes so long to be fulfilled that they eventually decide to circumvent God’s will by having Abraham father a child through Sarah’s servant, Hagar. This results in a boy named Ishmael. Only much later on does Sarah conceive, and give birth to Isaac. However, despite the fact that Ishmael is Abraham’s oldest son, God says no, Ishmael isn’t the one who’ll carry on Abraham’s line, Isaac is. He’s not the oldest—he’s not the one that, by all the rules and customs of the time, should be the one to carry on the family name—but he’s the one God has chosen.
Then, in Genesis 25:19–28 (ESV)✞ we have the birth of twins, Jacob (also called Israel) and Esau. Once again we have God deciding not to choose the eldest—Esau is born first, but before the two are even born God pre-declares that He’s going to choose the younger—and it’s even more startling in this case because everything we read about he life of Jacob/Israel for the rest of his story shows us that he wasn’t chosen because he deserved it. God chose a lying, scheming manipulator, and said, “He’s the one who’ll carry on My name!”
“So then,” we might respond, “if God is choosing people, doesn’t that make Him unjust? How can we blame someone if they just didn’t happen to be chosen?” But in asking that question, we have things backwards:
14 What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! 15 For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” 16 So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. 17 For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “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.” 18 So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.
The key word in that passage is mercy. We think of it such that Esau deserved to be chosen just as much as Jacob did, so it’s unfair that he wasn’t. The truth is the opposite: Jacob didn’t deserve to be chosen—Isaac didn’t deserve to be chosen—any more than their siblings were, but God had mercy on them.
To make this more personal, I deserve punishment just as much as anyone I know, but I won’t be punished because God had mercy on me. We could say that they deserve mercy as much as I do, which would be true, but would also mean not at all! I don’t “deserve” God’s mercy; if I did it wouldn’t be called mercy it would be called justice. No, God being merciful to me was just that: mercy.
I often think of it as if this is unjust, just in the opposite way we think: it’s not unjust when God doesn’t show mercy, but it is unjust for Him to show mercy to me. However, Paul has demonstrated that that’s not “unjust” either, God is holy and righteous, He took the punishment that I deserved, so justice is still served, just, in His mercy, not on me.
He would be completely just in never showing mercy to any of us, and letting us take the punishment we deserve, but it is out of mercy that He does save some of us.
But that last quotation ended in verse 18 with Paul saying that God “hardens whomever he wills.” Wait… He hardens people? Which leads us to an obvious question:
You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?”
Paul starts his answer to this question with a level-setting non-answer:
20 But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” 21 Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?
I call this a non-answer because he’s not actually addressing the question (yet), but I think this level-setting is important. When Paul asks, “Who are you, O man, to answer back to God?” he’s not trying to stifle conversation or honest questions; the Bible, especially the Old Testament, has lots of examples of people questioning God.
But Paul wants to make sure our questions are coming from an honest place: do you really want an answer from God on this point, are you really seeking the truth, or are you engaging in a bad faith argument because you don’t like your perceived treatment from God? We can—and should—engage God in tough questions, wrestling with Him in prayer and gleaning what we can from the Scriptures, but we should also keep in mind that He is God and we are not.
With that in mind, God could have chosen to do anything with me that He wanted; He’s the creator, I’m only the creation. That’s true of me, and it’s true of everyone I know, and everyone who has ever lived.
I think this level setting is important because, even though Paul is going to address the question, I think he himself sees that it’s impossible to answer it fully. There’s no amount of ink he could have spilled to fully and properly convey God’s purposes to us, so that we’d read the book of Romans and say, “Oh, now I get it! I fully understand the mind of God now – it makes perfect sense!” Paul doesn’t feel he knows the mind of God, nor that he could articulate it even if he could.
I’m reminded, as I so often am, of the book of Job: Job has lost his family, his wealth, and even his health—not to mention the respect of his friends—and after all of that has to endure his friends accusing him of sin. “If you hadn’t sinned,” they say, “God never would have punished you like this – and it must have been some pretty big sins, because the punishment is awful!” “But I didn’t sin,” he responds, “at least no more than any man, and definitely not to deserve all of this – so why is He doing it? Why can’t I stand before Him and ask him that?” And then, to everyone’s surprise, God actually shows up to discuss it with Job – except He never once addresses any of Job’s questions. God gives a long speech, dripping with sarcasm, in which He essentially asks Job how he could possibly expect to understand God’s purposes. (I’m oversimplifying what is probably one of my favourite books in the Bible. Oh well.) Interestingly, this lack of an explanation is enough for Job! “You’re right!” he says. “I couldn’t understand any of this! You’re God, and I’m just a man.”
Again, I’m not saying—and neither is Paul—that we shouldn’t ask God tough questions. After all, He was human Himself – He gets it! And sometimes our questions actually pay off; sometimes we come away with a better understanding of the topic we were trying to explore. We do, after all, have the Holy Spirit! But we overstep our bounds when we start to think that God has made a mistake, or that He’s missed something, or, frankly, that we’re equal with Him, instead of creations of the creator.
A mistake we sometimes make is to look at the tragedies that occur in life—none of which am I attempting to minimise—and say there’s no reason a good God would let this happen, therefore there either isn’t a God, or, if there is a God, He must not be good. But when we do that, what we’re really saying is that “if I can’t think of a reason for this to happen, there can’t be one.” Paul wants us to leave the thought in the back of our minds that God is actually bigger than us, so even if we don’t understand His ways, it doesn’t mean He is making a mistake, that He isn’t God, that He isn’t loving or merciful or gracious, it just means that we don’t understand. We still need to have faith that He is who He says He is, and that He is in control, even as we wrestle with tough subjects.
But with that in mind, however, Paul does, to a certain extent, explore the question. (I say “to a certain extent” because I’m thinking of everything I wrote before, that none of us are God.)
22 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, 23 in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— 24 even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?
There’s so much in these few verses!
Firstly, there is the notion of “vessels of wrath prepared for destruction.” Because, as we’ve already said, God hasn’t shown mercy to everyone equally – there are those who aren’t saved. And so, if there are “vessels” to which He has not extended His mercy, why might not He, as the “potter,” use those vessels for His purposes, just as He uses me for His purposes?
When we think of God “hardening whomever he wills” (v. 18✞), my mind immediately goes to the Pharaoh who refused to let the Israelite slaves leave Egypt. What he was doing was evil; the result of that evil was a miraculous display of God’s power – to His people as well as to all of the surrounding nations, and, furthermore, a lesson of His power that was meaningful to His people for centuries and millennia later.
But it extends even beyond that: the evil that has always been done by humans, and continues to be done, is endured by God, “with much patience,” in order that the “vessels of mercy”—that is, the vessels into which His mercy has been poured—would better understand the riches of His glory.
And, to get back to the topic at hand, these “vessels of mercy” include not only the Jews, but also the Gentiles – that is, the non-Jews! God had formerly worked through one specific people group—the people who had descended from Jacob/Israel—as His chosen people, but, as hinted above, the promises of God have now extended beyond that family tree to include others as well.
He closes off this section by pointing out that this was always the plan; God had always promised that His mercy would extend to others beyond the family of Jacob/Israel.
Paul starts by quoting Hosea:
25 As indeed he says in Hosea,
“Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’
and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved.’”
26 “And in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’
there they will be called ‘sons of the living God.’”
This is actually a merging together of sections from a couple of places in the first two chapters of Hosea. The context is that the nations of Israel and Judah have been “whoring” after other gods, being unfaithful to the LORD, and, not to put to fine a point on it, He’s tired of it! God even goes so far as to say (through an object lesson of having Hosea give his children explicit names) that, though the people might still claim to be God’s people, they are “Not My People.” However, He continues, He will have mercy, and those who had formerly been called “Not My People” will be called “my people” – will, in fact, be called “beloved!”
What’s interesting about this is that Paul is extending this passage, written to the descendents of Jacob/Israel, to include the Gentiles. There are other places in the Old Testament where God is more straightforward about this, saying He will extend his mercy to all nations, but this isn’t one of them – Paul is making it such a passage. “Just like God extended His mercy to Jews who didn’t deserve it,” he’s saying, “He is now extending that mercy even to Gentiles who don’t deserve it!”
But, we might think, even aside from the fact that Gentiles are now being added to the people of God, doesn’t He need to save all of the Jews, to fulfil His promises? No, Paul says, and He has been pointing that out throughout all the Scriptures.
27 And Isaiah cries out concerning Israel: “Though the number of the sons of Israel be as the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will be saved, 28 for the Lord will carry out his sentence upon the earth fully and without delay.” 29 And as Isaiah predicted,
“If the Lord of hosts had not left us offspring,
we would have been like Sodom
and become like Gomorrah.”
God promised to save His children, however, in this passage Paul points out a couple of important truths:
- Throughout the Scriptures, God has always made choices about who He showed mercy to, and it often happened in nonstandard ways; e.g. choosing the younger brother Isaac when the older brother Ishmael should have been chosen, or choosing a brother who was “wrong” for the job (Jacob) over the firstborn and, arguably, better candidate (Esau).
- Throughout Scriptures God has also made it clear that, even among the descendents Jacob/Israel, there would only be a remnant that is saved. It is only through mercy that He saves anyone, Jew or Gentile.
This is just the beginning of Paul delving into this topic, as we’ll see in subsequent passages.