I would like to spend the next number of blogs ‘preaching’ from Romans 9. I had planned to preach through the entire book of Romans in my former church, but since I am no longer there, all of you will have to endure my reflections on just a small portion of that great book. My reflections will progress in the following way for most of the posts – exegesis of the verses in question, sometimes in great detail so stay with me, followed by an application to conclude each post. [Note: Just so we don’t get confused, I will be using the ESV for all of my biblical quotations. You can find a free online version here.]
Before we begin, I want you to know, ever so briefly, why I chose this chapter to engage with:
- the personal reasons:
- it greatly exalts the glory of God in salvation
- it humbles me as I ponder the sovereignty of God in salvation
- it comforts me as I reflect on the wonder of divine grace and election
- it reminds me of how limited my vison of things really is and that God’s sovereignty is ever present even when I can’t see what is going on
- it grows hope within me as I am reminded that God is ALWAYS accomplishing his purposes
- it creates within me awe and worship of our covenant-making and covenant-keeping God
- the ministry reason:
- it is fantastically misinterpreted to the detriment of all of the above (particularly by a certain large church in my area that has butchered this text in the past and is currently preaching through Romans)
In this blog I want to set the context of this great chapter. Since there are 8 chapters previous to this one we need to set our feet before we move into our exegesis and application.
Unlike a number of Paul’s epistles, Romans was not written to deal with a specific issue(s) (cf. Galatians, 1 Timothy, 1 & 2 Corinthians). It was, instead, written as more of a theological monologue by Paul. It is not a complete work of Pauline theology, as he leaves many important topics out (ecclesiology, the Lord’s supper, etc.), nor is it to be thought of as a systematic theology such as we have today. Paul does, however, outline many theological themes (Storms):
- the relationship of Jews and Gentiles in the redemptive purpose of God,
- the role of the law,
- the nature of justification by faith,
- the struggle of the Christian life,
- the believer’s responsibility to the state,
- the nature and limits of personal freedom,
- and more.
Yet none of these can be viewed as the main theme of the book. In fact, it is tough to determine a main theme in this book since its argument and topics are built on one another and layered so expertly.
As you read Romans and get to chapter 9, you quickly realize that you have entered into a difficult section of the book with themes and ideas that are unfamiliar to our modern ears. N.T. Wright, writes about these chapters, “Romans 9-11, is as full of problems as a hedgehog is full of prickles. Many have given it up as a bad job, leaving Romans as a book with eight chapters of gospel at the beginning, four of application at the end, and three of puzzle in the middle.” (The Climax of the Covenants) Obviously I believe, as Wright does, that we can do better than simply view Romans 9-11 as a puzzle. In fact, if we pay attention to the 8 chapters leading up to these chapters we easily see how intimately and organically tied to Paul’s discussion they really are.
In fact we don’t even really need to go very far back into Romans in order to understand what we are getting ourselves into in Romans 9. As Thomas Schreiner observes, “The issue that concerns Paul in Romans 9-11 is the salvation of Israel, or more precisely, the fact that most Israelites in his day were unsaved. It is clear from Romans 8 that the promises originally given to Israel belonged to believers in Jesus Christ…” the majority of whom, in Rome, were Gentiles. The terminology that Paul uses to refer to Gentile believers in Romans 8 are identical to the terms that God has used in the past regarding his own people, Israel. In chapter 8 Paul uses these previously exclusive words and phrases to refer to Gentile believers:
- “sons of God” (8:14, 19),
- God’s “children” (8:16, 17, 21),
- “adoption” (8:15, 23), “elect” (Rom 8:33),
- “heirs” (8:17),
- assured of future glory (8:17, 18, 21),
- as well as being part of the golden chain of salvation – foreknown, predestined, called, justified, and glorified (8:29-30).
This creates a massive issue for Paul, an Israelite himself – “Have God’s promises been exhausted in the Church of Jesus Christ, composed mainly of Gentiles? What happened to the promises that Israel would be God’s elect son, the children of the Lord, his adopted one, and the heirs of the promise with the assurance of future glory?” (Schreiner)
So the point at issue in Romans 9-11 is the salvation of Israel which God has promised to his people. Though some may dispute this clear reality, the argument throughout Romans 9 relates to salvation, for Paul contrasts “vessels of wrath-prepared for destruction” with “vessels of mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory” (Rom 9:22-23) among other things. Thus these chapters are all about salvation. But this focus creates a problem for Paul; a problem that hits him very close to home. It is the reality that the Gentiles are receiving the promises of salvation while Israel is not. For Paul this thrusts God’s word, his promises, his covenant into question.
- Does God’s word not stand?
- Is God not faithful to his word?
- Can God be trusted regarding the promise of salvation?
Therefore, it is actually the fidelity of God to his word, promises and covenant in salvation that is the baseline issue which Paul addresses. As John Piper notes,
The hope of the Christian, with which Rom. 1-8 came to a climax, is wholly dependent on God’s faithfulness to his word, his call (8:28,30). But, as Gutbrod asks, ‘Can the new community trust God’s Word when it seems to have failed the Jews?’ The unbelief of Israel, the chosen people, and their consequent separation from Christ (Rom. 9:3) seem to call God’s word into question and thus to jeopardize not only the privileged place of Israel, but also the Christian hope as well. (The Justification of God, p. 4).
We need to see 9:6, then, as the focal point of chapters 9-11 – “But it is not as though the word of God has failed.” In light of this verse, Sam Storms summarizes these chapters eloquently, “Therefore, whereas the destiny of Israel is important in Romans 9-11, it is secondary to the more immediate and ultimate question of the faithfulness of God’s word, i.e., His trustworthiness. Simply put, Paul is seeking to answer the question: “Can God’s word of promise to us be trusted if the majority of Jews are forever lost?” (emphasis his) Paul’s reflection on this question is what consumes Romans 9.
I trust that as we walk through Romans 9 together, we will be led to the same place that it led Paul – worship of our sovereign Lord.
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. (Romans 11:33-36)
Soli Deo Gloria
*Remember, if you have any questions or comments please leave them below. If they are applicable and contribute to the discussion, I will post them and reply.