Part III: The Defense of the Gospel
In the letter so far, Paul has described the human condition in general. We all – both Gentile and Jew – are under the sin and guilt of Adam; we all – both Gentile and Jew – have sinned ourselves. As a result, all have fallen short of the image of God for which we were created (3:22b-23), so we all are under God’s condemnation. Paul has also presented God’s solution to the sin problem. We are all justified by God’s grace through our faith in his Son (3:24). Jesus has taken our sin and guilt upon himself and paid the price we deserve on the cross. As well he has also given us his righteousness so we can stand without condemnation before God (8:1). This Great Exchange is true, in the same way, for both Jew and Gentile. Now “in Christ,” we are a new creation able to glorify him (2 Corinthians 5:17).
Paul presented this good news of the Gospel as consistent and continuous with the teaching in the Old Testament. As Jesus himself said, “was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory? And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:26-27). However, it does not take much reading in the Old Testament to see many promises of a future restoration of Israel. Therefore, there can be no good news if there is no continuity with what God has been doing with and through Israel. God has made many promises to both Gentiles and Jews in the New Testament, but he has also made many promises to Israel in the Old Testament. If his promises to Israel are abandoned, how can he be trusted for his promises in the New Testament to Gentiles? And, as important, since salvation is the same for Gentiles and Jews, how are the promises to Israel fulfilled in Christ, Israel’s Messiah?
This question would not be so critical if the Jews of Paul’s day had fully embraced the gospel. However, they had not. Instead, they mainly rejected their Messiah and his gospel. Paul’s evangelism resulted in the majority of the early church being Gentile. So the question of all the Old Testament promises to ethnic Israel – why they had rejected their Messiah and how this relates to the predominately Gentile early Christian church – had to be addressed. The heart of this issue is: Can God be trusted? Therefore, chapters 9 through 11 are not just a side question concerning a future political and military restoration of the nation of Israel. Instead, these three chapters address the fundamental issue supporting all that Paul has said in his letter to this point concerning the salvation of Israel and the Gentiles as a single people of God. As such, the unity between Gentile and Jewish Christians is an ongoing concern for Paul (see particularly 11:13-25). The faithfulness, trustworthiness, and righteousness of God were at stake for both the Gentiles and Jews.
As we will see, Paul answers the question of God’s faithfulness through his divine sovereign choice of mercy and compassion. God’s mercy concerns the salvation of individual Israelites and not just Israel as a nation. Salvation from the final judgment of God is not based on ethnic origin.
That Paul is addressing the salvation of Israel seems clear from 9:1-3. Paul’s “great sorrow and unceasing anguish” is not that Israel was unable to obtain political power. Instead, Paul’s anguish is that too few of his fellow Jews had accepted Christ as their Lord and Saviour and were still under eternal condemnation. Paul makes this clear when he says he could be “accursed and cut off from Christ” (9:3) if it would result in their salvation. He reiterates this when he says his “heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved” (10:1).
Returning to the primary concern of chapters 9 through 11, Paul addresses two questions: first, has God broken his promises to Israel, and second, if not, how are they fulfilled? The way God works this out brings honour and glory to his name (11:33-36). We can outline these chapters as follows:
9:1-5 Paul’s lament over Israel
9:6-10:3 God chooses a faithful remnant despite Israel’s rejection
10:4-21 Israel’s responsibility to accept Christ as their Messiah
11:1-32 God will save all Israel despite Israel’s rejection
11:33-36 Paul’s praise of God
After the emotional and spiritual joy of chapter 8, it is a shock to read of Paul’s sorrow and grief. Paul’s despair is for his own people, Israel, because when their Messiah finally came, they rejected him. Their rejection was because he did not fit their understanding of God’s promises to Israel. Despite this, Paul is adamant that God is faithful (v. 6a). The summary title or thesis for chapters 9 through 11 can be taken from verse 6a, “it is not as though the word of God has failed.” From 9:6b to 9:29, Paul explains why God’s promises to Israel have not failed despite Israel’s rejection. In verses 6b to 13, Paul states why they have not failed and how they have not failed. Paul clarifies that the promises never applied to all descendants of Abraham, that is, to all ethnic Israel (v. 6; chapter 4; Galatians 3:29). He then states the promises only applied to those whom God specifically chose in his mercy (vv. 7-14).
Paul anticipates an objection to this argument (vv. 14-18). If God chooses some descendants but not others, cannot God be accused of being unjust? Paul rejects such a conclusion and again points to the absolute sovereignty of God. The fulfilment of the promises depends on God’s mercy. God is righteous and just in showing mercy on whomever he wishes (v. 15). Since all people are sinners, and under God’s condemnation, he is merciful and compassionate when he is merciful to some. God’s choice does not depend on human effort or will (v. 16).
Once again, Paul anticipates an objection. If it is the case that no human effort can change God’s purposes, then how can God blame human beings (v. 19). Paul answers this objection by again pointing to the absolute sovereignty of God over all things. If such questions reflect a rebellion against God’s justice and mercy, then Paul states we do not have the right to ask such questions (v. 20). That God’s wrath is shown to some highlights the glory of the mercy he shows to others (vv. 22-23) because all people deserve his wrath.
Paul returns to the central theme in this section's final verses (vv. 24-29). God, in his mercy, has called a remnant from the Jews and many from the Gentiles. This relates to what Paul had already said in chapter 4. Faithful Israel consists of those who put their hope and trust in Christ – both Jews and Gentiles (see also Ephesians 4:1-16; Galatians 3:7-29). What underlines this whole argument is the presupposition of the absolute sovereignty of God to do what he wills, and his will alone–not a human sense of justice or logic–determines what is right and just. This understanding of God’s absolute sovereignty challenges the human heart to its core. It is not surprising that this chapter has challenged many Christians, not in understanding but in accepting God’s relationship to us and us to him. The section is outlined as follows:
9:1-5 Paul’s lament over Israel’s rejection
9:6a Thesis statement: God’s word has not failed Israel
9:6b-7a Reason: Not all descendants of national Israel belong to true Israel
9:7b-13 Proof: God, not birth, determines who is true Israel
9:14 Objection 1: In that case, God is unjust
9:15-18 Response: No, it is God’s choice on whom he has mercy
9:19 Objection 2: How, then, can I be held responsible?
9:20-23 Response: No, if our question is rebellion against God
9:24-32 Result: God’s calling has resulted in a new people of God, true Israel, including both Jews and Gentiles who are faithful to Christ
10:1-3 Paul’s lament and prayer is for Israel to would turn to Christ and be saved
As we have already pointed out, Paul has been preaching the gospel for many years and has heard every argument against it. An argument he had heard, no doubt, many times went something like this: “Paul, you claim Jesus is Israel’s Messiah and the fulfilment of Hebrew Scripture, but most Jews do not believe this. Surely, they know better, for they know their Bible very well. You are just a renegade preacher making up a new religion!” Paul now addresses this issue by agreeing with the first part of this attack. First, in verses 1 through 3, Paul makes it clear he is in great distress over ethnic Israel’s unbelief. This was not an academic issue for Paul. These Jews were people he cared deeply for. Many were his friends and some, no doubt, were his relatives. But they rejected what he had to say when he spoke to them about the Jesus he loved.
In verses 4 and 5, he lists Israel’s privileges and promises given by God, which makes their rejection so surprising. However, Paul’s anguish over his fellow Jews’ rejection of Christ is not only personal sorrow. Rather, it highlights the fundamental question concerning God’s faithfulness and ability to keep his promises to Israel.
We should always keep in mind throughout this passage that although Paul teaches the absolute sovereignty of God in salvation, he worked very hard as a missionary for the conversion of his people, the Jews. As we see in the book of Acts, he first goes to the synagogues to present the gospel. It was always to the Jew first.
Paul describes his lament in three doublets. In the first, he is emphasizing his own trustworthiness by saying, “I am speaking the truth” and “I am not lying,” which is a phrase he often uses when dealing with opponents (2 Corinthians 11:31; Galatians 1:20; 1 Timothy 2:7). It may well be that the Jews were accusing Paul of abandoning his Jewish heritage, possibly even becoming anti-Semitic. So Paul gives the strongest affirmation to the truth he is about to state by adding the phrase “in Christ” and “the witness in the Holy Spirit,” meaning he is speaking in the Spirit’s and Christ’s agreement. In the second doublet, he is testifying, he has “great sorrow and unceasing anguish” in his heart. But, why exactly is he so sorrowful? It is most likely “Paul expresses such grief because the honor and faithfulness of God are inextricably intertwined with the fate of Israel.” Paul seems to reflect the deepest emotion of the Old Testament prophets such as Moses, who also reminded God his honour was threatened (Exodus 32-33). In the third doublet, Paul, reflecting on Israel’s rejection of their Messiah, goes so far as stating he would be “accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers.” Again, this is similar to Moses’ willingness to be blotted “out of your book that you have written” (Exodus 32:33). Of course, in Moses’ case, as well as Paul’s, the request was not granted because Israel’s salvation depended solely on the covenant promises of God.
When Paul says “my brothers,” he is explicitly referring to his non-believing Jewish brothers and sisters, not Gentile Christians; that is, to ethnic Israel. Paul clarifies this by adding the phrase, “my kinsmen according to the flesh.” What troubled Paul was the salvation of his non-believing Jewish brothers and sisters (10:1). As we will see in chapter 11, what gives Paul hope is, finally, God “will banish ungodliness from Jacob” and so “all Israel will be saved.” There seems little reason to think Paul was concerned about restoring Israel as a political or military force, dominating the nations, as so many of his fellow kinsmen desired. Paul’s concern was, first and foremost, for their salvation.
Paul now explains why it is so uniquely crucial for Israel to believe in Jesus. What is agonizing for Paul is that Israel was God’s elect people of all nations. It is worth noting he does not use the term “Jew” (3:1) but refers to the covenant name “Israelites.” Paul then lists six more of God’s blessings; each one highlighting salvation. First, “adoption” refers to God making Israel his son (Exodus 4:22). This reference to adoption is different from what Paul had stated for Christians (8:15). Here, it refers to the rights and privileges of the nation as a whole and highlights the continuing relationship between God and Israel. In parallel with adoption is “the giving of the law,” which occurred at the time of the exodus when God first called Israel his son (Exodus 4:22). Paul’s references to “glory” and “worship” is an allusion to the Shekinah glory that entered the tabernacle (Exodus 29:42-43) and temple (2 Chronicles 5:13-14). In the New Testament, this glory and worship are found only in Christ (Colossians 2:9). Finally, the terms “covenants” and “promises” refers to the covenant promises to Abraham (4:13-14, 20; 9:8-9; 15:8). But given that “covenants” is plural it likely refers to all the Old Testament covenants including the new covenant (Jeremiah 31:31).
We can conclude from these blessings that God uniquely loved Israel in the past, and they can expect to receive saving blessings in the future. When writing the letter to the Romans, these future blessings had yet to be realized. As we will see, a small remnant of Jews did believe, including Paul himself (11:1). This remnant, however, did not exhaust the promises made to Israel since the vast majority of Israelites had rejected Jesus as the fulfilment of these prophecies.
In this verse, Paul adds two more blessings. When Paul mentions, “to them belong the patriarchs,” he refers to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. These patriarchs was given the unconditional covenant promises of blessings to Israel and all other nations (Genesis 12:1-3). Perhaps the best commentary on this phrase is in 11:28, “as regards election, they [Israelites] are beloved for the sake of their forefathers.” Because God freely chose the patriarchs to love, “all Israel” (11:26) will someday receive salvation.
The last statement of verse 5 highlights the reason for Paul’s agony. Jesus Christ, the Messiah of Israel, came from the line of beloved patriarchs. When Paul uses the phrase “from whom according to the flesh,” he indicates Jesus descended from Israel in terms of lineage and ethnicity. However, to show Jesus is not limited to Israel, Paul states, “who is God over all.” The two natures of Christ, both human and divine, are emphasized (cf. 1:3-4). Although there is a question about where to put the punctuation, there is little doubt Paul is referring to Jesus as God (see 1:1-4).
In this passage, Paul describes the reasons God’s word has not failed and cannot fail. The reason is, the promises are based on God’s free sovereign choice and not on any effort or requirement of man. Since the promises are based solely on God, they are guaranteed to be fulfilled. Paul then addresses two significant objections to this reason. Both objections are based on a faulty view of who God is and his relationship with humankind. They are still objections occurring today based on our understanding of God.
Paul is primarily addressing Jews and Jewish Christians in this passage. Jews believed God had chosen them at birth as a special nation and for salvation. If the Old Testament taught that belonging to ethnic Israel implied salvation, then the gospel Paul preached would be false. Paul had taught that only those who believed in Jesus Christ could be saved (10:5-13). Therefore, Paul has to demonstrate that the true people of God have always been based on God’s mercy alone. This is why Paul emphasizes election in this passage, making it clear that salvation is not a matter of birth but determined by God’s call on the individual; only those whom God calls are the “children of promise.”
Paul’s argument that God’s word has not failed is based on God's sovereignty choice of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as the patriarchs of Israel. These men were not chosen by their human will or determination but entirely by God’s free choice. Although not explicit, this divine choosing continued even within ethnic Israel so a true faithful remnant always existed within unfaithful national Israel.
Paul begins this verse by stating the overall theme for all of chapters 9 through 12. “It is not as though the word of God has failed.” If God has promised, then it will surely come to pass.
As Isaiah states (see also Matthew 24:25; 1 Peter 1:25):
The grass withers, the flower fades,
but the word of our God will stand forever. (Isaiah 40:8)
It may be Paul had intentionally used the phrase “word of God” since he later quotes Isaiah again (Isaiah 59:20-21, 27:9), “The Deliverer will come from Zion, he will banish ungodliness from Jacob”; “and this will be my covenant with them when I take away their sins” (11:26-27). The “word of God,” therefore, means salvation for Israel.
However, Paul wants to clarify that God’s promise to Israel does not mean every Israelite will be saved. The reason is, “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel.” In this statement, Paul distinguishes between two Israels: an ethnic Israel as a nation is the first “Israel,” and the faithful remnant within Israel is the second “Israel.” Unlike orthodox Jewish teaching, Paul states, God’s word applies only to the faithful remnant within Israel (11:5). Of course, Paul does not deny ethnic Israel is, in some way, God’s people (9:4-5; 11:1-2, 28). However, he does deny that the election of Israel as a nation implies salvation for every individual Israelite. The election of the nation of Israel was for a different purpose. Paul has already insisted salvation was never based on ethnic birth (2:28-29; 4:1-16).
Paul now demonstrates from the Old Testament story of the patriarchs that there is a true faithful Israel within ethnic Israel. He gives two explanations proving God alone determines which descendants of Abraham would receive his blessing. That is, it is God’s sovereign choice to choose the remnant. This may be surprising to us. We might have expected Paul to say, the reason not all Israel is Israel is because they pursued righteousness through works rather than by faith. And, at the end of the chapter (9:32), he says precisely that. But here, in verses 7 through 13, he does not. Instead, he goes directly to the sovereignty of God in the salvation of a remnant within Israel. A saved remnant exists within ethnic Israel because of God’s choice.
Although Abraham is not mentioned explicitly as an example, he is included, since Abraham was chosen from all the pagan worshippers to be the elect father of Israel.
Verses 7 and 8 underline that not all physical Israel is faithful Israel; that is, not all Abraham’s children are children of God. When Paul quotes Genesis 21:12, “through Isaac shall your offspring be named” the word he uses for “named” can also be translated “called.” In these verses, calling is what God promises and what he promises he brings into being (8:28-29; 9:24-26)., The context of Genesis 21:12 is God’s rejection of Ishmael even though he was Abraham’s son. Instead, God reaffirms it is Abraham’s “offspring” Isaac, and not Ishmael, through whom the message would go out to the nations.
But to be a child of Abraham physically did not mean one was also a child spiritually; that is, salvation was not a birthright. Paul interprets the story of Ishmael and Isaac to mean that the true people of God are not just those who are physical descendants from Abraham. Paul contrasts “children of the flesh” with “children of God” and “children of the promise.” As Paul states, “this means” that “the children of the flesh”, that is, direct physical descendants from Abraham, are not necessarily “children of God” but only those who are “children of the promise.” The phrase “children of the promise” applied to those Israelites who were saved. Therefore, God’s promises remain true; “the word of God” has not failed. God had not rejected Israel, for he is saving a remnant throughout time to be included in the people of God, “God’s elect” (8:33). That not all Israelites are “children of the promise” was evident to Paul since most Jews rejected Jesus as their Messiah.
It is worth noting that the “children of the promise” are “counted” by God to be His offspring. The word “counted” refers to chapter 4, where Abraham was “counted” righteous through his faith in God’s promise. And so, in Paul’s day, those who have not placed their faith in Christ are not counted as God’s offspring. That is, it is not physical birth that counts for salvation.
This verse is proof of the statement in verses 7 and 8. The promise is that “Sarah shall have a son.” The guarantee of this promise is God who is sovereign in all things. Isaac was the particular child of that promise to Sarah (Genesis 17:15-16; 18:10, 14). Paul’s emphasis is on God’s supernatural work in creating a covenant people rather than the natural work of humans. Here, as in Galatians, Isaac is a type for believers, while Ishmael, although not explicitly mentioned, is a type of unbelievers (Galatians 4:21-31). Although God cared for both Isaac and Ishmael (Genesis 16:7-14; 21:15-21), Paul understands God’s work in their lives in terms of salvation; that is, he understands the story typologically. God’s children are, therefore, children of the promise and not children of physical descent.
Some opponents to Paul might have argued that Ishmael’s mother was Egyptian and so should not be included as part of God’s electing choice. To counter this, Paul continues with the story stating, “not only so but also Rebekah”.
In Rebekah’s case,, both Jacob and Esau had the same father and mother. They were, in fact, twins, so no one could point to parentage from the outside. God’s free and sovereign choice on whom to continue the covenant promises he made to Abraham was exclusive to Jacob. Moreover, God made his choice before their birth. Paul could have simply stated that Jacob was his choice. Still, Paul wanted to make it absolutely clear to his readers that the promise to bless Jacob was not based on any good work that Jacob did or, for that matter, evil decisions Esau would eventually make. The choice of Jacob was based entirely on God’s free will and not upon the future actions of Jacob or Esau. Paul states the reason that the choice was God’s, “in order that God’s purpose of election might continue.” That is, God’s electing choice is the reason that Jacob was chosen.
The choice of Jacob had nothing to do with anything Jacob did. To clarify further, Paul writes, “not because of works but because of him [God] who calls.” The contrast is between “works” and “him who calls.” Paul underscored this by emphasizing God’s election before they were born (v. 11a). The connection between God’s effective call is, therefore, the same as his free choice. We have already seen this in 8:30, “those whom he predestined he called, and those whom he called he also justified.” Finally, Paul once again underscores God’s choice in verse 12 when he reminds his readers what God himself said, “the older will serve the younger” (Genesis 25:23). Paul’s emphasis, again, is that God grants his covenant blessing based on his divine grace and not on human works and actions; as N. T. Wright succinctly writes, “what counts is grace, not race.”
Paul begins his quote of Malachi 1:2-3, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” At any level, this is a shocking statement. And so, there have been many attempts to soften it. One way is to explain the contrast between “love” and “hate” is based on the Hebrew thought of “to love” and “to love less.” This argument may have merit, but it does not reduce the problem since God’s love, or lack of love is directed to Jacob and Esau before they were born. A more promising explanation is to understand God’s choice not in terms of salvation but for a unique role in salvation history. The word “hate” then refers to God rejecting Esau as the means by which he will establish his covenant. The contrasting words “love” and “hate” mean the choice of Jacob also implied the rejection of Esau. God alone has absolute freedom of choice to work salvation through Jacob and not through Esau, even though humanly speaking Esau was the firstborn. Our human conventions do not bind God. The choice of Jacob was an undeserving gift of grace. So Paul began his argument that “God’s word” has not failed by showing that his word applies to the “children of promise;” children who are determined by God’s free electing choice. What is surprising in Paul’s argument is most of ethnic Israel is identified with Esau and not Isaac because they rejected Jesus.
However, as can be imagined, Paul anticipates two objections he has heard many times to his teaching on election. And so, he immediately addresses them. The first objection is: That this appears to make God unjust. The second objection is: Why am I blamed for my sinful actions if God chooses everything? Paul responds to the first objection with Scripture and commentary and the second with a series of rhetorical questions. Neither of these responses is what we would expect.
Paul’s explanation that God’s word has not failed and so God is trustworthy is based on distinguishing between ethnic Israel and true believing Israel. True Israel is itself based on God’s freedom of choice. At the beginning of Israel, God chose Abraham from a pagan nation and then chose Isaac and Jacob based entirely on God’s sovereign call (election) and not their deeds. However, this pattern of divine election continued even within ethnic national Israel, resulting in a true faithful Israel within the nation of Israel. This election is for salvation.
Paul also contrasts “works” with “calling” rather than “faith,” as he did earlier. In doing so, he rejects salvation by birth in the same way he rejected salvation by works. This election language is both corporate and individual. That is, the people of God are chosen by choosing individuals. God never promised to save all ethnic Israel, so the rejection of their Messiah by most Jews does not undermine God’s word.
Again, we must remember that this is not an abstract theological argument for Paul. He is deeply involved in his love for his people, wanting to present the whole gospel to them. But his commitment to the truth of God’s word does not permit him to shrink from difficult teaching.
v. 14 An accusation and the answer
Paul has established that God’s promises are guaranteed because their assurance depends solely on God’s sovereign choice and not human will. This implies God determines those who receive the promises before birth (cf. Ephesians 1:4). However, this calls into question God’s justice. Is God unjust to his covenant with Abraham by only electing a remnant for salvation within ethnic Israel?
Paul returns to the question-and-answer (diatribe) method of teaching. He asks the question on behalf of the objector: “Is there injustice on God’s part?” (See also 3:5 where Paul raised a similar question earlier in the letter.) This objection has been raised ever since and remains a major point of disagreement today. It is likely you have heard the expression or said it yourself: “That is just not fair!” To this question, Paul, not surprisingly, responds, “By no means!” God’s electing love is fair!
v. 15 The first defense: God is merciful since all deserve condemnation
However, surprisingly, Paul emphatically defends God’s justice by emphasizing God’s mercy and compassion. This is not the expected answer. But then this is because the question raised is based on a misunderstanding. The question assumes that God saves sinners on the basis of justice. However, this is not the case. If God dealt with sinners based on justice, everyone would be condemned. Instead, God deals with sinners with mercy and compassion. Paul quotes God’s own response to Moses. “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So, God’s election and preservation of even a remnant of Israel is based on his mercy and compassion, not on Israel’s goodness.
v. 16 Conclusion to the first defense: Salvation depends solely on God’s mercy
This response highlights once again, salvation “depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who has mercy.” Paul has made this point repeatedly in the previous eight chapters. In this case, Moses was interceding for Israel. However, Moses wanted to be sure God was with them, so he asked to be shown God’s glory (Exodus 33:18-19). God responded in mercy and revealed his character to him (Exodus 33:19b). Once again, we are reminded that God’s election aims to create a people of God who will bring him glory and glorify his name. We need to be reminded that if we insist on God being fair from our perspective, then all humans would be condemned, for we have all sinned and fallen short of his glory. We all deserve eternal death. Yet, because of God’s mercy, love, and compassion, he found a way to meet the just requirements of our sin and bring us into a saving relationship with him. The cost of God’s mercy is beyond all our understanding, for it costs not only the death of his Son but also the imputing of all our sin and condemnation upon him. The suffering described in Isaiah 53 should have been our suffering. Instead, the Father’s own Son suffered for us (“He was crushed for our iniquities” Isaiah53:5). This is mercy so broad and vast, no words can embrace it. This is why, although the question is raised about justice, Paul does not talk about justice. Instead, he talks about mercy. This is the only adequate answer to the just requirement of our condemnation.
v. 17 The second defence: God is just in his condemnation of Pharaoh
But what about Pharaoh? Towards him, God displayed his justice and judgment, a judgment each of us deserves. This is why Paul now mentions the salvation of Israel from the slavery of Pharaoh in Egypt. Pharaoh believed he was a god. This is important because Pharaoh and the Egyptians believed he was both divine and sinless during his lifetime. At his death, he became the god Osiris, presiding over judgment. God’s defeat and humiliation of Pharaoh foreshadowed Christ’s defeat of evil and Satan.
When Moses demanded that Pharaoh let God’s people go, he refused. Once again, Paul quotes God in the Exodus account (Exodus 9:16). God provides “the very purpose” Pharaoh was “raised” or permitted to stand. It was God who made Pharaoh king of Egypt and kept him in power despite his sinfulness. This was to show God’s power and the glory of his name (Exodus 15:14; Joshua 2:10; 9:9; 1 Samuel 4:7-9). So, the same power that freed Israel is the same power that judged Pharaoh. God’s glory in saving Israel was revealed in his justice (judgment over evil) and his mercy (rescue of his people).
This is the answer concerning God’s righteousness; it is the revelation of his mercy and compassion to Israel and his judgment against Pharaoh. God’s glory is revealed in his judgments (righteousness) and salvation (grace and mercy). This revelation is given so God’s “name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” “God’s righteousness, then, is vindicated in his freedom primarily in showing mercy and inflicting judgment.”
Much has been written concerning whether God hardened Pharaoh’s heart first or whether God hardened his heart in response to Pharaoh first hardening his own heart. We need to remember, Pharaoh commanded the Israelite midwives to murder newborn Hebrew boys. And when that failed, he ordered these babies to be thrown into the river to drown (Exodus 1:1-22). Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, had a serpent on his crown identifying with the “seed” of the serpent in the Garden (Genesis 3:15), his father, the Devil. And so, as Jesus said, he was a murderer from the beginning (John 8:44). It is also essential to keep in mind why God is sending the plaques. It is to make Pharaoh and all of Egypt know his awesome power and that there is no one else like God (Exodus 9:14-16; 7:4-5). In other words, God intends to be known so that he will be glorified in the salvation of Israel through the judgment of Pharaoh.
In the Exodus story (Exodus 4 through 14), the term “harden” is used fourteen times. Many of these references state that Pharaoh hardened his own heart, and in others, God hardened his heart. However, God first speaks of this hardening when he says to Moses, “I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go” (Exodus 4:21; also 7:3). The term itself means to become insensitive to God and his word. So God hardening Pharaoh’s heart is the same as iniquity, which Paul spoke about in chapter 1 when God “gave them up” to the sin the unrighteous and ungodly had already chosen (1:24, 26, 28).
God does not cause spiritual insensitivity but hardens the hearts of those who have hardened their own hearts against God, those who “set the mind on the flesh” (8:6). The result for those who hardened their own hearts is that God turns them over to a “debased mind” (1:28). Such people, including Pharaoh, no longer have the desire or ability to repent. This is the meaning of iniquity; it is guilt worthy of its own punishment. However, hardening does not imply that the heart can never be revived. Amazingly, God’s compassion and mercy can turn a hardened heart to love him. As Micah, speaking the very words of God concerning the remnant of Israel, prophecies, “Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance? He does not retain his anger forever because he delights in steadfast love” (Micah 7:18). This love of God is fully manifest in the incarnation, life, death, resurrection and reigning of his only Son, who “loves me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).
However, Pharaoh was an unrepentant sinner who failed to acknowledge the Lord God, even making himself a god and violently persecuting and enslaving Israel. All this occurred long before Moses came to demand the release of the Israelites. Pharaoh was therefore accountable for his actions. Pharaoh is judged for not repenting of this evil and not accepting the sovereignty of God. God hardened (strengthened) Pharaoh’s evil heart to ensure his name would be “proclaimed in all the earth” in freeing Israel and judging Pharaoh. So, God's mercy to Israel and even the just punishment of Pharaoh are used to glorify and honour God’s name.
v. 18 Conclusion to the second defence: Salvation depends solely on God’s mercy
Paul concludes his argument for the justice and righteousness of God by restating God’s words concerning mercy. In this verse, he generalizes “mercy” and “hardening” to “whomever he [God] wills.” Paul is unapologetic about God's absolute freedom in showing mercy to some and judgment to others. And it is clear Paul is relating God’s mercy to the salvation of individuals since Paul often uses the word “mercy” to refer to personal salvation (11:30-32; 15:9; Ephesians 2:4; 1 Timothy 1:13, 16; 2 Timothy 1:16, 18; Titus 3:5). Paul often uses the term “harden” to refer to the rejection of the gospel (2:5; 11:7,25; 2 Corinthians 3:14; Ephesians 4:18).
Is Paul’s response satisfying to the question of God’s justice? For many, it is not. Some commentators even find Paul’s argument so abhorrent that they either condemn Paul for being illogical or, worse, they attribute verses 14-19 to Paul’s opponent, whom Paul is merely quoting. However, these ‘solutions’ are entirely inadequate. It is difficult for us to accept that all people are born into a state of condemnation and undeserving compassion. Deep within us, we believe in our own goodness and that although we all sin, we all do good and deserve mercy. And does not God’s love for the world put him under an obligation of love to save the world?
These verses force us to evaluate whom we understand God to be, who we are, and our relationship with him. Our question should not be: why does God punish the innocent, but why does a righteous God not punish all sinners? Our answer, like Paul’s, should be: because of God’s mercy and compassion. God’s election aims to display his glory in judgment to those (all of us) who deserve it and show underserved mercy to his elect.
The way that Paul defended God’s justice in verses 14 through 18 results in an even more significant problem (note the “then” at the beginning of the verse). If God has mercy only on those he chooses, then it seems my choices do not matter. Paul, once again, anticipates this objection. If God is solely responsible for softening hearts and hardening hearts for salvation, how can anyone be blamed for what they do? No one can resist God’s will to harden or soften a heart. It is agreed that no one can take pride in their faith when God softens their heart, but similarly, no one should be blamed if God hardens their heart. At stake, again, is the justice of God. Paul presents this objection as two questions; he responds with three counter-questions.
v. 19 The objection stated in two parts
Paul states the first part of the objection, “Why does he still find fault?” And then, second, “who can resist his will?” The objector complains, “Paul, you have just told me that God determines everything, then God himself must be held responsible for my actions, and not me.” It is clear from this question that the objector interprets Paul’s previous statements as we often do.
v. 20a Paul’s response to the first question: Human wisdom versus divine wisdom
The first part of the objection is: “Why does he still find fault?” How can God condemn anyone if no one can resist his will? The objector certainly knows that God is holding him responsible for his actions. Paul’s response is, “who are you, O man, to answer back to God?” God is not on trial; we are. Humans cannot put God in the dock. So Paul does not answer the objector’s question directly because at the heart of the question is a fundamental misunderstanding of people’s relationship to God as well as an inability to recognize one’s own sinfulness and God’s holiness. Paul is not trying to avoid a sincere question, but he is also not interested in arguing with someone who wants to pick a quarrel with God. The objector’s argument is not with Paul but with the Bible, which teaches God’s sovereignty. And if it is with the Bible, then ultimately, the objector’s argument is with God, who inspired the words of Scripture.
Paul is not trying to avoid an embarrassing question or stifle the discussion. He is, however, reminding us of two crucial points. First, we are finite creatures with limited understanding. Humans are frail, weak and finite; God is sovereign and infinite in all things. Paul is amazed the objector thinks he knows better than God. So, we should not be quick to assume we understand an infinitely holy God. We cannot fully comprehend him (11:33-36; 1 Corinthians 13:12). God is reduced to speaking in human terms to communicate with us. This is why Paul concludes this entire section with, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “ (11:33).
Second, Paul says we have no right to call God’s mercy into question. The Father, who in his infinite mercy sacrificed his own Son, is not subject to our human judgment. We might question our own mercy towards others, but we have no right to question the heart of God. Have we loved to the point of laying down our lives for others? God has. Once again, his mercy is not on trial nor his justice.
vv. 20b-21 Paul’s response to the second question: The divine-human relationship
The second part of the objection is: if God is sovereign, “who can resist his will?” Paul responds to the objector by stating the relationship between humans and God. Paul’s illustration of the potter’s right to make what he wants out of his clay highlights the discrepancy between humans and God. The illustration of God as the potter is used many times in the Old Testament (Psalm 2:9; Isaiah 29:16; 41:25; 45:9; Jeremiah 18:1-6). Through strength, design, and purpose, the potter is able to create a vessel highlighting his skill and ability. The purpose of the vessel is to display the glory of the potter. In the same way, humans' purpose is to display God's glory; that is, we are created in “the image of God” (Genesis 1:26-27) to reflect his holiness.
This is the point of the metaphor and, like all metaphors, should not be taken in every respect. Paul illustrates the disparity between God and us by pointing out humans' limited ability to understand God's infinite wisdom. To judge God’s action implies humans are more just, righteous and even wiser than God. This comparison is similar to how God responds to Job’s unhappiness with how God manages the world. In the story of Job, God does not explain why and how he does things. Instead, God tells Job, “who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” (Job 38:2). Again, “And the Lord said to Job: ‘Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? He who argues with God, let him answer it.’” (Job 40:1-2) And again, “Will you even put me in the wrong? Will you condemn me that you may be in the right?” (Job 40:8). God points out to Job his lack of wisdom and discernment compared to God's infinite wisdom.
However, we must also point out Paul is not saying we are pieces of inanimate clay. He only points out in his illustration the ludicrousness of a piece of pottery, an ordinary vase, for example, to argue with the potter who made it. Paul is not saying God is treating us this way. The point of the metaphor is to acknowledge God’s right to judge sinful human beings, and his judgments are always just. (11:33-38).
The great struggle is the conflict between God’s sovereignty over our salvation and our human responsibility and accountability. This was the struggle for the objector and many of us today. On the one hand, Scripture teaches, we all deserve condemnation but God chooses (elects) some for salvation by his mercy and grace. On the other hand, Scripture also teaches us that we are responsible for responding to God’s offer of salvation. We can only be held accountable if we have that responsibility. These seem to be two incompatible positions. Our human tendency is to believe one or the other, but not both simultaneously. Yet Scripture teaches both without compromise. In fact, starting in 9:32 and including all of chapter 10, Paul speaks directly about human responsibility. Many worthwhile efforts have been made to resolve this tension without diminishing one or the other. J.I. Packer, in his chapter on “Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility,” states that this is an antinomy. He defines antinomy as “cogent reasons for believing each of them; each rest on clear and solid evidence; but it is a mystery to you how they can be squared with each other. You see that each must be true on its own, but you do not see how they can both be true together.” He states that we should accept these positions equally and not downgrade one over the other. But we should refuse to regard this tension as a real inconsistency. They only appear to us as a contradiction because of our limited human understanding. Since both God’s sovereignty and our responsibility are taught in Scripture, we must proclaim both equally. We can do so because we believe God is, faithful, loving, and merciful. We know this because his sacrifice on the cross proves his justice and mercy.
Paul begins verse 22 with “But” or “now”. This suggests Paul is introducing a new thought. What Paul is asking his readers is a way of understanding God’s purpose in dealing with “vessels of wrath” and “vessels of mercy.” In order to understand God’s purpose, we need to understand what Paul means by the words and phrases he uses.
First, Paul states that God “desires” to “show his wrath.” The word “desires” means will or act (cf. nasb, and kjv). So we understand Paul saying that God caused his wrath to be made known rather than simply wishing to show his wrath but not actually doing so. And the phrase “show his wrath” and “his power” most likely refers to the revelation of God’s end-time power in judging evil, which is rebellion of the creature against the Creator. Recipients of God’s wrath, the “vessels of wrath” deserve immediate judgment, but God had restrained this judgment with patience. Why has he? It is to “make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy.” Indeed, this was the case when God intervened with Pharaoh to free Israel from bondage (Exodus 14:4, 17-18). Pharaoh is a good example. God did not destroy him immediately as he could have. Instead, he was patient so that his name was magnified, and the greatness of his salvation in freeing Israel and his wrath in destroying the first-born and Pharaoh’s army. Paul is not stating that God has the desire to create sinful humans in order to destroy them. Instead, God’s sovereignty is highlighted as moral, just, and righteous.
Similarly, God delays his immediate judgment against those who continually resist his gracious offer of forgiveness. On the last day, his wrath and their destruction will display his glorious justice. God does make vessels (human beings) who rebel against him. And despite his patience towards them, they reject his mercy. However, God does not make anyone “prepared for destruction.” Their destruction is the result of their own iniquity. Such human beings (and nations) he will later destroy (punish) to display most fully both his power and his wrath.
Another example of this is given by the prophet Habakkuk. At that time God said, “I am raising up the Chaldeans [Babylonians], that bitter and hasty nation” (Habakkuk 1:6). Both God’s saving mercy and his justice display the glory of his righteousness.
We often forget God’s punishment of wickedness also displays his glory. The greatest of these acts was the crucifixion. Jesus knew when he chose Judas to be his disciple that Judas would betray him. Yet, through the three years of teaching and healing, Judas was part of his inner circle. Shockingly, Jesus even washes Judas’ feet before the Passover. Jesus held out the possibility even then for Judas to repent. Earlier in the letter, Paul had asked, “do you presume on his riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” (2:4). Despite this, he knew Judas would not repent. He also knew that the Jewish leaders would demand his death and he knew the Romans would agree and carry out his crucifixion. Yet, the cross is the greatest display of God’s mercy and compassion as a result of unimaginable evil.
In a more contemporary setting, we could ask, what if God permitted a totalitarian atheistic government to take over a country? The leaders of this government would shut down all the churches, put their pastors in prison and burn the Bibles. They could even pass laws prohibiting speaking about God. In fact, this did happen when Mao’s Red Army took over China. Thousands of Christians were martyred, and many churches were destroyed. Christians and churches had to go underground even to this day. But today, the Christian church in China is growing steadily. China is expected to have more Christians than the USA by 2030. Did God have the right to raise up Mao’s army? Did he have the right to allow Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini to rise in power causing the deaths of millions? Yes, God does have this right. He is the God of all history. This is the point Paul is making.
So to this point in Paul’s argument, the “vessels of wrath” are Esau (Edom) and Pharaoh (Egypt) and the “vessels of mercy” are Jacob (ethnic Israel) and, implicitly, Moses. But now, in verse 24, Paul makes a startling change in his argument. The “vessels of mercy” are redefined as “us”; that is, Christians. Christians whom God “called not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles.” These new elect people of God are “called,” which has been Paul’s emphasis on God’s sovereignty in salvation. And they are composed of Jews first but also Gentiles, which has been a significant emphasis of Paul throughout the letter (1:16; 2:9, 10; 3:9, 29; 4:12, 16).
Paul not only redefines the “vessels of mercy” but implicitly also “vessels of wrath” who are now those who have rejected Jesus as their Saviour, both unbelieving Jews and Gentiles. This radical change in definition does not exclude Jews. God is now merciful calling a people from both the Jew and the Gentile. God calls both to be his elect in the same way. We can now reflect again on Paul’s astonishing earlier statements that “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel” but only those who are “children of the promise.” These are the elect of God, true spiritual Israel, whom God has called to place their hope and trust in his Son, Jesus Christ.
However, such a radical change in definition requires Scriptural proof. This has been Paul’s method throughout his argument in Chapter 9. This time Paul turns to the prophets to demonstrate that his understanding was prophesied from the beginning.
Many commentators have recognized the ring structure (chiasm) in these verses from vv. 24-29:
A. God calls the Jews (v. 24a)
B. God calls the Gentiles (v. 24b)
B’ Biblical proof God calls the Gentiles (vv. 25-26)
A’ Biblical proof God calls the Jews (vv. 27-29)
v. 25-26 Biblical support God calls the Gentiles
Paul finds support for the inclusion of Gentiles in Hosea, the prophet. He reapplies Hosea 2:23 in verse 25 and then Hosea 1:10b in verse 26. In verse 25, Paul changes the prophecy from “I will say” to “I will call” to highlight his emphasis on God’s sovereign choice. Paul points out that the Gentiles were at one time “not my people,” but now God calls them “my people.” And again, in verse 25, quoting Hosea 1:10a, he says, where God called them “not my people,” they “will be called ‘sons of the living God.“ God had instructed Hosea to give his children symbolic names: one son, Lo-Ammi, means “not my people,” and the daughter, Lo-Ruhamah, means “not beloved.” As Toews points out, “Gentiles, who were not the people of God, are now the people of God, not because of their ethnic or moral claims, but because of the call of God.” In fact, they are sons of the “living God” – a phrase which contrasts the God of Israel with the dead pagan gods of the Gentiles (Joshua 3:10; 1 Samuel 17:26, 36; Jeremiah 10:10; and many others).
In applying these prophecies to the Gentiles, Paul is reinterpreting the original application of Hosea. Hosea predicted God would again be merciful to the ten northern tribes of Israel who had become apostates under Jeroboam. Paul is justified in doing so because he is reinterpreting Hosea’s prophecy in light of God’s final revelation in Christ. The coming of the Son of God as the Messiah of Israel is the key to understanding the Old Testament.
This method of interpreting Old Testament prophecies to Christ and the church is called typology. Osborne describes it as follows: “Paul is using typology here, in which an Old Testament principle is applied and reenacted in a New Testament situation. He sees the promise to the northern kingdom of Israel as fulfilled in the new Israel that includes the Gentiles. The two major typological exegesis we see in the New Testament are applying passages to Christ and the church. Paul applies the Hosea passage to both here but especially the church. Salvation for the Gentiles is the proper next stage of salvation history and also a fulfillment of Hosea’s prophecy. Those who for generations were the enemies of God’s people will now be “my people” and “my loved one.” .”
vv. 27-29 Biblical support that God call a remnant of Jews
Paul now turns his attention to the faithful Jews who have accepted Christ as their Messiah. Paul first combines quotes from Hosea 1:10 and Isaiah 10:22-23 in verses 27 and 28 and then quotes Isaiah 1:9 in verse 29. Isaiah describes a remnant (“not left us offspring”) of Israel that is saved. Because even a remnant was saved, God is merciful and just in dealing with Israel.
This concludes Paul’s argument in chapter 9 that God’s word has not failed (9:6). In summary, God never intended to save Israel apart from the Gentiles. And second, Gentiles and Jews are included in God’s elect in the same way based on God’s call. God is just towards ethnic Israel because their unbelief deserved judgement; that he saved a remnant is an act of mercy.
Still, Paul’s lament remains. Although there have been a small number of Jews, a remnant of which Paul includes himself (11:1), most Jews had rejected their Messiah. As we will see in chapter 11, Paul looks forward to a time when this will be reversed, and the majority of Israelites will repent and believe in the gospel (11:26; Mark 1:15).
Paul began his lament with the irony of Israel’s spiritual privilege and rejection of God’s plan of salvation for them. The question, then, was how can Israel’s unbelief be explained? Is it because God’s word to them failed, or is there another reason?
1. It is not because God is unfaithful since his promises were to a true faithful Israel (Abraham and the remnant of faith like his) within ethnic Israel (9:6-13).
2. It is not because God is unjust in his choices since his mercy and his hardening are compatible with his justice (9:14-18)
3. It is not because God is unfair since he acts according to his own righteous character and prophecy (9:19-29).
Therefore, it is important to remember that throughout all chapter 9, Paul’s primary point is to demonstrate God’s word has not failed even though the majority of Jews had not accepted Christ as their Messiah.
1. [9:1] How does Paul prove his sincerity (cf. 10:1; 11:1)? How does this relate to any misunderstanding some Jews and Gentiles might have of Paul?
1. [9:2-3] Chapter 8 is full of hope and joy. What then is the reason for Paul’s great sorrow and unceasing anguish?
2. [9:3] What is the reason Paul is so concerned for the Jews? That is, what is the meaning of “accursed” (cf. Galatians 1:8-9; Joshua 6:17)?
3. [9:4-5] What is the heritage of the Israelites (cf. Exodus 4:22; 19:16-21:1; 40:34-38)?
4. [9:5] What is Jesus’ relationship to Israel and humans in general?
5. [9:6-8] Who are the true descendants of Abraham (4:18-24; cf. Galatians 3:29)? Who are the “children of the promise”?
6. [9:9-13] What principle is Paul teaching by referring to Jacob and Esau?
7. [9:] How does God maintain both his justice and mercy in dealing with people?
8. [9:14,19] Why do people have no grounds for complaint against God’s judgments?
9. [9:15] What is the basis given for salvation?
10. [9:25-26] How does Paul use Hosea’s prophecy to the Gentiles?
1. Do you experience the hope and joy of your salvation but also the sorrow and anguish of loved ones who have (so far) rejected Christ? Do you relate to Paul saying he wished to be “accursed” if that would cause their salvation?
2. How is God’s hate different from people’s hate? How does this help you in relating to the evil within your world?
3. For whose purpose does God exist? How does this affect your understanding of who God is? How might this affect your prayer life?
4. How significant is it that you cannot make God merciful to you by your actions?
5. What reaction did you have to reading about God’s sovereignty?
6. What is the relationship between God’s sovereignty and your responsibility to him?
Douglas Moo writes, “Mainstream Jewish teaching held that all Jews were elected to salvation by virtue of their inclusion in that people with whom God had entered into a covenant relationship. Only by apostatizing did the Jew forfeit that salvation” (Moo, Romans, footnote, 589). Therefore, in opposition to Jewish teaching, Paul was teaching what Jesus himself taught (Matthew 8:11-12; John 8:34-58) as well as John the Baptist (Matthew 3:9-10). Paul’s teaching against guaranteed salvation was radical teaching for the Jews. It is not surprising, then, Jews would have thought Paul’s teaching meant that God had abandoned Israel.
Some commentators interpret the second “Israel” as true spiritual Israel; that is, the New Testament Church, including both Jews and Gentiles. Paul does state that the true family of Abraham includes Gentiles (4:9-25). Later, in this chapter, he will include Gentiles into Israel by quoting Hosea’s prophecy (9:24-26). And in 11:17-24, Gentiles are grafted into the olive tree of Israel. However, the context of this statement does not support such an understanding. It is best to view both references to “Israel” to refer to ethnic Israel. And so, to understand that the second “Israel” refers to the remnant of Israelites before Christ who were faithful to the Lord, as well as those Jews who believed in Jesus as their Messiah. Finally, it will include “all Israel” (see notes on 11:25-29). Throughout chapters 9 to 11, “Israel” always refers to one of these two and not the Church.
The primary reason God chose Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was to establish a chosen people from which would ultimately come Jesus Christ, the son of David and the Son of God (Genesis 12:1-3). Another reason was that they would teach other nations about God. Israel was to be a missionary nation to the whole world, a purpose they never fulfilled until the time of King Jesus.
In Jesus’ parable he states that “many are called but few are chosen” (Matthew 22:14). However, in this context, “called” means invited. Simply hearing the gospel and understanding its meaning is not sufficient; one must also respond in faith to the gospel.
Although Paul is speaking about the salvation of Isaac, and Jacob and not Ishmael and Esau, many commentators believe Paul is speaking of groups. That is, he is speaking about the saved remnant within ethnic Israel. Although true, for God to choose a remnant from Israel also means that he chooses individuals to make the remnant. Individual election is, therefore, still implied. Also, in chapter 10, believing in Jesus refers to individuals not to groups. Therefore, chapters 9 through 11 is concerned with both corporate election and individual election within the corporate entity. (See Schreiner, Romans, 486-87).
Possibly, the best attempt at understanding this tension is Jonathan Edwards’ thesis on “Freedom of the Will.” Even today, many theologians view this book as one of the greatest contributions to the evangelical faith. Based on the phrase “it is not him that willeth” (9.16), Edwards demonstrates that Scripture teaches salvation is entirely a work of God and not a choice of man. In so doing, he also proves man remains accountable to God for his rejection of Christ.