In Romans 9:1-5 we saw Paul express his personal anguish over the state of his people, Israel. He is exceedingly bothered by their lack of response to the gospel of Christ. Let me allow Sam Storms to set the context of this passage for us:
“The question or problem Paul is faced with is this: If Israel is God’s covenant people, to whom so many glorious privileges have been given (vv. 4-5), why are so few Israelites saved? Why are so many of them “accursed, separated from Christ?” Has God’s word failed? Has God’s covenant promise and eternal purpose come to nothing? Has the rejection of Jesus Christ by the majority of Israelites thwarted God’s purpose? Have the trustworthiness and finality of God’s word been undermined by the unbelief of so many Jews?
His response to the question is a resounding No!
Why is this the case? In typical Pauline fashion his explanation is deliberate and logical. It is also incredibly important for us to understand.
v. 6a – The proposition
God’s word has not failed. As Piper explains, “the remaining (or ‘standing’) of God’s electing purpose (in v. 11c) is the opposite of the falling (or ‘failing’) of God’s word (in v. 6a)”
v. 6b – The theological truth
The proposition is simple and it takes a negative form in this verse. God’s word has not failed, because,
“not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel”.
I put this verse in bold because it is THE key to making sense of the rest of this chapter (note Paul has already made this distinction earlier in his letter 2:28-29). This important theological truth is what frames the rest of Paul’s thought. Here is his thinking – if all of ethnic Israel was elected by God, then they would all receive the blessings of that election. But since not all of ethnic Israel is elect of God, then not all of ethnic Israel will receive the blessings of election. So there is then a difference between ethnic and spiritual Israel. As John Murray articulates:
The purpose of this distinction is to show that the covenantal promise of God did not have respect to Israel after the flesh [ethnic Israel] but to this true Israel and that, therefore, the unbelief and rejection of ethnic Israel as a whole in no way interfered with the fulfillment of God’s covenant purpose and promise. The word of God, therefore, has not been violated.
In essence,”The assumption is: there is a true Israel; God’s saving promises are made to them; and these promises have never failed.” (Piper) Or to put it another way, “Paul denies that God ever intended to save all ethnic Israelites. His purpose has always been to save a remnant within, but not the entirety of, ethnic Israel.” (Storms)
vv. 7-13 – The theological proof
In these verses Paul outlines his proof and it has to do with two pretty important Old Testament stories regarding two pretty important children – Isaac and Jacob. In outlining things this way, Paul is telling us to pay close attention to what is going on in the stories. We have to make sure that we are understanding God’s promises as he has given them.
In the first of the stories, Paul talks about “children” and “descendants”. (v. 7) There are those who may be “descendants” of Abraham, ethnic Israel, who are not necessarily “children” of Abraham, spiritual Israel. Paul defends this perspective from Scripture using Genesis 21:12. The line of the covenant proceeds through Isaac, the covenant child, not Ishmael, even though the latter is as much a physical descendant of Abraham as the former. Simply put, “salvation is not a Jewish birthright” (Moo; cf. Storms)
Paul’s argument continues to build. In vv. 8-9 he speaks again about children but from a different perspective. Paul says, “it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring. ” I will let Piper summarize, once again,
This, he says again, is why the word of God has not failed –why the promises of God have not failed – even though many of Israelites according to the flesh are accursed and cut off from Christ. It’s because the promises are for the children of promise – the children of God – and not every child of Israelite flesh is a child of promise.
Jacob and Esau are further proof of this reality (vv. 10-13). Jacob and Esau are both children of the same father and mother, yet “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 – she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.””
In these verses Paul tackles the very thorny question – Why do some of Abraham’s descendants love God and are true Israel, and others do not? (cf. Keller) Paul identifies a few things that are not hard to understand but are exceedingly difficult to accept: (cf. Keller)
- God’s choice was made BEFORE the birth of Jacob and Esau
- God’s choice was NOT made on the basis of his foreknowledge of the boys and their future decisions
- The ONLY difference between Jacob and Esau was “God’s purpose in election.” (v. 11)
Put simply, the destinies of these two men were pre-determined; they were pre-destined, independently of anything they had done, “good or bad”. (Storms) Paul confirms this in v. 11c by saying that God’s choice of Jacob instead of Esau was not “of works” but of God “who calls”. For good measure Paul pulls out the words of Malachi in 1:2-3 as further proof, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” In short, we could say, the “only reason Jacob received the promise was because of God’s gracious choice.” (Keller)
Douglas Moo points to three factors that prove that covenant participation (salvation) comes ONLY as the result of God’s election and subsequent effective call:
- Jacob and Esau shared the same father and mother. This silences the objector who might argue that Isaac was preferred over Ishmael simply because they had different mothers.
- God promised that Jacob would be preeminent before the twins were born, implying . . . that it was God’s will alone, and not natural capacity, religious devotion, or even faith that determined their respective destinies.
- Jacob’s being the younger of the two makes it even more clear that normal human preferences had nothing to do with God’s choice.
This is why we must speak of, and believe in, the biblical doctrine of unconditional election. (cf. Piper)
But why would God save in this way? Paul is clear. It is,
“in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls”
Salvation is always and only about God’s glory. In fact the point of everything in this world is always about God’s glory – “The creation of the universe, the history of the world, the plan of salvation, the coming of Jesus Christ, his death and resurrection for sinners, and the gift of your own faith – are all for the glory of God.” (Piper)
John Stott reminds us of two important implications of these verses and of the inescapable teaching of God’s unconditional election unto salvation.
- Election is not just a Pauline idea, Jesus spoke of it repeatedly and explained that it was, in fact, the foundation for his coming to earth (John 13:18; 15:16; 17:6)
- Election is the indispensable foundation for our worship at present and in eternity. Psalm 115:1 says, “Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory, for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness!” As Stott says, “If we were responsible for our own salvation, either in whole or in part, we would be justified in singing our own praises and blowing our own trumpet in heaven.” But we will not. We will spend eternity praising and glorifying God. Why? “Because our salvation is due entirely to his grace, will, initiative, wisdom and power.”
Allow me to add a third implication
Don’t ever think that just because you go to church, are obedient to Scripture, grew up in a Christian family or are somehow connected to God’s people that you are saved. There is only one way to be saved – you must have faith in Christ and his work. As Paul will say later, “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
Paul has now demonstrated that God’s word has not failed. God’s promises still stand but are not automatic for all those who are ethnic Israel. For one to be a part of spiritual Israel one must be chosen by God of his free grace and come to Jesus in faith. “Those who freely come to God are those whom God has freely chosen” yet to be saved we must have believed. (Keller)
The opposition to this teaching floods the mind, and it is as old as the teaching itself:
- What about free choice?
- Does this not make God unloving?
- Is God’s choice of who he will save arbitrary?
- It doesn’t sound fair?
Paul will deal with these objections in the verses to come.
Soli Deo Gloria