Romans 9 has caused a lot of confusion for many Christians. It is definitely a crucial verse for anyone who reads it. Instead of naming every interpretive possibility, let’s just go through it verse-by-verse.
VERSE 1: I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit—
VERSE 2: that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart.
VERSE 3: For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers,
VERSE 4: They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises.
VERSE 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.
In Romans 9, Paul begins by expressesing an “unceasing anguish” he has for his people, the Israelites. He just went through Romans 8, where he spoke of the amazing promise of the Holy Spirit [Romans 8:4-17], and the incredible truth of the permanence of our salvation [Romans 8:1-4]. That those in Christ have been foreknown and predestined by God before the foundations of the world [Romans 8:29-10], and nothing can separate them from the love of God which is in Jesus Christ [Romans 8:38-39]. Although this is awesome news, for Paul this also brings great sorrow as he witnesses his people. He would even renounce Christ if it meant that they all might be saved. His love for them was great. Many of the believers at that time were Jewish believers, but there were many Jews who hated the good news of Jesus Christ.
The Jews were the first persecutors of Christianity. Aside from putting Christ to death through the Roman government, they killed Stephen [Acts 6-7] the first Christian martyr. And even before his conversion, Paul was imprisoning and threatening to kill Christians [Acts 9:1]. He knew very well what the attitude of many Jews was toward Christianity. It was blindness – and as such, could only be lifted by God just as the scales fell from the eyes of Paul. Jesus Christ was a stumbling block for them, as Paul will later explain at the conclusion of this chapter.
In these first verses, he reminds his audience of the history of the Israelites. The adoption as sons into the family of God belongs to them. Yes, although Jesus came for the ‘other sheep’ [John 10:16], He first came for the lost sheep of the house of Israel [Matthew 15:24]. As Paul had stated in Romans 1:16,
“I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God unto salvation for all who believe. To the Jew first and also to the Greek.”
The glory of God was something they beheld in the desert after leaving Egypt in Moses’ day. They also beheld it year after year as God would descend to the tabernacle in the wilderness, then the temple, and finally the Christ Himself. The Abrahamic covenant was given through the Israelites (as we will also see in greater detail), the law through Moses, temple worship, the promises, the patriarchs, and finally the Messiah. It was through the nation of Israel that God had chosen to make Himself known. He didn’t choose to pass these things down through China, Australia, Brazil, or any other nation but Israel. Israel truly had an awesome history.
VERSE 6: But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel,
Despite such an incredible history, there are still many Israelites who reject Christ. Consequently, they reject the history as well, since it all pointed to Christ [Colossians 2:17]. Paul assures that it isn’t a result of deficiency on God’s part. On the contrary, there is a purpose behind all of this. Paul says that not all of Israel are truly Israel. This is explained further:
VERSE 7: and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.”
VERSE 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.
He begins to give a short history lesson by mentioning Abraham. He reminds his readers of the promise that God made to Abraham and his seed [Genesis 15-17]. It was through his descendents that the Jews would come. And through them came all of the things mentioned in Romans 9:4-5, specifically Jesus Christ. But not everyone who descended from Abraham received this promise.
This promise was made through his son Isaac. This is important to note, because Abraham actually had a son before Isaac named Ishmael after God had made the promise to him. When Sarah realized she hadn’t had any children, she decided to have her Egyptian maid, Hagar, bear Abraham’s child. They named the boy Ishmael. Sarah later became upset and despised Hagar. So Hagar and Ishmael fled. Abraham and Sarah later had a son named Isaac. So what is the point? The point is that not all of Abraham’s children are the true descendents. Just because Ishmael was his son does not mean that he was part of the promise God gave to Abraham. Why? Because God decided that the true descendents would come through Isaac. Many might accuse God of acting arbitrarily, but this isn’t the case. God has a purpose and will that is being unfolded throughout time as we will see later.
VERSE 9: For this is what the promise said: “About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son.”
VERSE 10: And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac,
VERSE 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—
VERSE 12: she was told, “The older will serve the younger.”
VERSE 13: As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”
Paul then continues the story, and tells of Isaac’s children. Isaac also had two sons. Their names were Esau and Jacob. But even though they were the descendants of Abraham’s chosen son, they weren’t BOTH included in the promise first given to Abraham.
Verse 11 shows that before they were born and had done anything good or bad God made a decision. Why? Was THIS arbitrary? NO. It was so God’s PURPOSE in ELECTION might STAND. There are very many Christians who believe that God has foreseen our actions, and has made decisions accordingly – as though God simply reacts to the choices of men. But here we read that His decision was not based on their works. This creates an ironic dilemma for such people. Why? Well, although the Bible is clear that all men deserve death and hell – humanly speaking, Esau was a much nicer fellow. Jacob’s own name means “supplanter,” and even upon his birth, he was holding the ankle of his brother. Jacob later went on to bribe Esau with food in exchange for his birthright. Jacob later lied to his blind father and received the blessing from him that should have fallen to Esau. But even really entertaining the idea that God should’ve chosen Esau, the “victim”, is to forget the plain teaching in verse 11:
“even before they were born or had done anything good or bad (so that Gods’ purpose in election would stand, not by works but by His calling)”
Grace and mercy was extended to Jacob, and not Esau – we read “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” This is certainly strong language, and some have even said that this really means, “Jacob I loved, and Esau I loved less.” It is a way to soothe in their minds and do away with the idea that God could actually hate, because that would be a sin, right? No. Not for God who knows what sin is truly like. He knows how offensive and grotesque it really is. The outrage some may have toward God “hating” Esau shows exactly what they think of humanity. They might view mankind as deserving of grace. But as it has been correctly noted in the past, that what should shock those who proclaim to be Christian is, “Jacob I loved.”
God showed him grace – unmerited favor. Jacob was a lying thief (for starters) and birthed a nation of filthy, dirty thieves who were also given grace. Jacob’s name was later changed to Israel, and his twelve sons and their descendents became known as the “children of Israel” and their descendants became the Israelites.
And even when God had narrowed it as He had from Abraham to Jacob, He went even further in Jesus Christ. Jesus was ultimately the “seed” of Abraham to whom the promise was made so that all those who trust the gospel would be declared justified before God and the “true Israel” of God. [Galatians 3:16]
VERSE 14: What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means!
VERSE 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.”
VERSE 16: So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.
VERSE 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.”
VERSE 18: So then He has mercy on whomever He wills, and He hardens whomever He wills.
Obviously, many find the idea that God did not equally extend grace and mercy to every individual to be an offensive idea. But Paul says otherwise. As I have even heard many times, and perhaps you have too, “God would not be ‘just’ unless He extends mercy to everyone equally.” This is certainly not true. We can’t take a definition of justice that we hammered together within the sinful recesses of our minds and expect God to fit into it. HE ALONE is the definition of justice. He sets the laws and rules. To support this, Paul brings up the instance when God sent Moses to Pharaoh. He told Moses to continuously ask for the release of the Jews in light of the judgments God was pouring out on Egypt. He then told Moses that He would harden Pharaoh’s heart.
Another objection usually brought up here is that the Pharaoh hardened his own heart and God only “affirmed” him in it. But this is another attempt to get around the idea that God would actually do this to someone. Why? The assumption here is that for this to be true, it would mean that God corrupted Pharaoh. But this isn’t the case. Pharaoh was born like everyone else: wretched and sinful. The argument isn’t meaningful because Scripture tells us that his heart is already hardened. God not only didn’t extend grace to him, He ensured that he continuously rejected Moses’ words and then judged him for it – including the death of Pharaoh’s own son. As a result, Pharaoh also pursued the Israelites into the wilderness, only to die there.
“Thou shalt speak all that I command thee: and Aaron thy brother shall speak unto Pharaoh, that he send the children of Israel out of his land. And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and multiply my signs and my wonders in the land of Egypt. But Pharaoh shall not hearken unto you, that I may lay my hand upon Egypt, and bring forth mine armies, and my people the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt by great judgments. And the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD, when I stretch forth mine hand upon Egypt, and bring out the children of Israel from among them. [Exodus 7:2-5]
It’s pretty clear that God says He would make sure that Pharaoh would not give in to the demands of Moses and Aaron SO “that I may lay my hand upon Egypt, and bring forth mine armies, and my people the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt by great judgments. And the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD.”
VERSE 19: You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?”
Ironically, whenever this particular teaching is mentioned, the MOST COMMON objection that arises is the SAME EXACT ONE that Paul brings up in verse 19. Sometimes, it is masqueraded to sound much like the following:
- “Well, if it is ‘all up to God’ then what’s the point of doing anything?”
- “Well, then anyone who is sinning is only doing God’s will.”
- “Well it doesn’t matter what anyone does, because God already decided for us.”
And how does Paul respond to this?
VERSE 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?”
VERSE 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?
Paul gives a pretty harsh reply:
“Who in the world do you think you are? I’ll tell you who you are. You are a human. Translation: conceived and born and living in SIN. You deserve nothing but just wrath poured all over your wicked flesh. God created you and can do WHATEVER He wants. He can create people so that they only die in their sins and go to hell, and create people to whom He will extend grace.”
He then appeals to an image of God as the potter, used throughout the Old Testament [ie. Psalms, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations]. He asserts that God can make any type of vessel He wants. One for “special” use and one for “ordinary’ use. Imagine filling a cabinet full of cups, bowls, plates, spoons, forks, and knives – having personally made each from clay. Imagine opening the cabinet one morning to grab a bowl for cereal. NOW imagine that this bowl begins to scream at you, “Hey! Why didn’t you make me a knife!” You may reply to this speaking bowl (bear with me here), “I have knives. I made them to be knives. But I also wanted bowls, and made you for that purpose.” The argument is the same. You certainly have the right to make the bowl a bowl if you want. What right does the bowl have?
This is a poor example because we aren’t an infinitely perfect, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent being like God. God has the right to do what He wants. Plain and simple. Anyone who would argue that is only exposing the sin that so easily spills out of their heart. Just as Adam and Eve sought to be like God, so does the rest of humanity.
VERSE 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,
VERSE 23: in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory—
Here is the purpose of God behind all of this. Why would God create vessels of wrath PREPARED for destruction – people who will ultimately die in their sin and go to hell? So that He can make known the riches of His glory to the vessels of mercy PREPARED BEFOREHAND FOR GLORY. One chapter earlier, Paul says in Romans 8:28,
“And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to His purpose.”
ALL THINGS work together for the good of those called by God. All good works together for our good, as well as all evil.
The ultimate end is the glory of God being displayed. This may seem like the most hateful or megalomaniacal thing that God could do. You may not even want to worship a God like this, because the God you see in the Bible is “love.” But, again, just as some force God to fit their idea of justice, so too do they try to fit God into an idea of love that isn’t Biblical. The Bible tells us how God had displayed His love… it was in the death of Christ, propitiating God’s wrath against His people. God has other attributes that are equally as important as His attribute of love. He is also holy, wrathful and hateful against evil. This attributes can’t be lessened by an over emphasis of love. And none of these attributes could be displayed apart from sin. How could the depth of God’s love even be displayed if sin wasn’t in the world?
VERSE 24: even us whom He has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?
VERSE 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.’”
VERSE 26: “And in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not My people,’ there they will be called ‘sons of God.’”
So far we have seen a natural election within the Jews through the choosing of Isaac over Ishmael and Jacob over Esau. But we have also been told that just because you are an Israelite (descendent of Jacob) doesn’t mean you are a true Israelite. Pharaoh was used as an illustration for how God has created two types of vessels (people). Vessels prepared for destruction, and vessels prepared for mercy. In verses 24-26 the apostle Paul quotes Hosea to show how salvation has now opened to the Gentiles. As mentioned before, those who place faith in Jesus Christ (regardless of their nationality), are the “true” descendents of Abraham. Salvation is now open for every tribe, tongue, peoples, etc.
VERSE 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,
VERSE 28: for the Lord will carry out his sentence upon the earth fully and without delay.”
VERSE 29: And as Isaiah predicted, “If the Lord of hosts had not left us offspring, we would have been like Sodomand become like Gomorrah.”
Even Isaiah had spoken of the fact that not all of the physical descendents of Israel are the “true descendents.” It is the remnant within national Israel that was saved. They are those “descendents” that God placed within Israel. Otherwise, it would’ve been completely overrun with wickedness like Sodom and Gomorrah, for the Lord couldn’t even find ten righteous people within Sodom and Gomorrah.
VERSE 30: What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, a righteousness that is by faith;
VERSE 31: but that Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law.
VERSE 32: Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone,
VERSE 33: as it is written, “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”
We are told further why so many of the Israelites rejected Christ. Because that was part of Christ’s purpose. Here, He is referred to as a STUMBLING BLOCK and an OFFENSIVE ROCK.
For those who so easily trust in themselves, who trust in their righteousness, Christ is a stumbling block. Why? Their sinful nature makes them incline to work for acceptance, it makes them incline to satisfy their consciences with good works. Christ destroys that notion. He came to die to satisfy God’s wrath. That’s how seriously you are in sin.
Paul doesn’t leave us with, “God chooses so just sit around and do nothing.”
He ends with reminding us of the GOSPEL, and that those who trust in CHRIST alone to save them will be saved. That although he is in anguish, he is reminded that God’s will is being accomplished – just as Christ reminded us to pray, “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” This isn’t a request on our behalf. It is a reminder of God’s sovereign purposes standing throughout all time.
Praise be to our great sovereign God, our wonderful King of Kings Jesus Christ.