Having already covered how both John 6 and 1 Corinthians 1 clearly and compellingly teach what might be called Calvinism, we now turn our attention to the two chapters that are often considered to be at the very center of the controversy, Romans 8-9.
Perhaps more than any other book in the Bible, the book of Romans is something of a continuous exposition of the gospel. I’ve covered this in great detail in a previous post, but it’s useful here to give a brief recap to orient ourselves in the book of Romans.
Romans is the book about the gospel. The whole book hangs off of the word “gospel” in verse 15 of the first chapter:
So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.
That verse is the last verse of his introduction and transitions seamlessly into the thesis statement in the next two verses:
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”
Notice how the thesis of the book begins with the word “for,” which refers back to “the gospel” in verse 15. Notice also that the thesis of the book talks about what the gospel is (the power of God to save those who believe) and about what it does (reveal the righteousness of God).
Every new paragraph from this point on begins with something like “for…” “therefore…” “so then…” “what shall we say then…” and various other phrases that indicate a continuous stream of though from the books thesis all the way to then end of chapter eight.
As we will see later, chapters 9-11 are a self-contained unit that come from a hypothetical objection to the conclusion of chapter eight.
Then chapter 12, which transitions into the moral teachings of the book, begins this way:
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice…
Notice it says”I appeal to you therefore.” What is that “therefore” there for? It means “In light of what has been said so far…” So for Paul, the whole book, everything from the theological teaching to the moral instruction, is an exposition of the “gospel” that he says wants to preach to church at Rome in 1:15.
This teaching reaches it’s first peak in the doctrine of justification in chapter three, but the ultimate climax comes in chapter eight, the Mount Everest of chapters from which the whole glory and beauty of the gospel can be seen.
The Two Humanities in Chapter Eight
In the book of Romans in general, there are two groups of humanity in view: those who are lost in Adam and those who have been saved by Jesus. This is especially clear in the beginning of chapter eight where two groups are contrasted, those that walk
“according to the flesh” and those that walk “according to the Spirit” (8:4).
Things become interesting, however, when we read about the abilities of those that walk according to the flesh:
For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God
Notice what was just said, not only don’t the unsaved submit to God’s law, they cannot. They are unable, not only to submit to God’s law, but according to the next verse they are unable to please God at all.
This seems problematic, how are those in the flesh able to respond to the gospel offer of forgiveness in Christ if they can’t submit to God’s law or do anything that pleases God?
The answer if found in the following verses:
You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.
The key is Christ dwelling within you, giving you new spiritual life. Those who are “in the Spirit” are those who have the Spirit of God dwelling in them enabling them to act in a way that is pleasing to God.
The key point for us to notice however, is that those without the Spirit are said to be unable to respond to the general call of the gospel. They cannot submit to the law of God. They cannot please God.
This is why the doctrine of Total Depravity (which is being taught in this passage) is sometimes called the doctrine of “Total Inability.” Those who are dead in sin are unable to respond to God until they are raised to new spiritual life, and unlike the doctrine of prevenient grace where all are given this ability, the Bible teaches that only those who have the Spirit of God inside them have this ability.
The Golden Chain of Redemption
As we get towards the end of this chapter, we get the most amazing promise in the whole Bible:
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.
If you’ve been following this series (and if you haven’t be sure to subscribe below), you probably instantly noticed the word “called” in this verse, a concept we looked at closely in the last post.
God has called a group of people to himself, and for this group, all things will work together for good.
That’s almost too much to even comprehend given some of the devastating tragedies that are experienced in this life.
How does Paul back it up? With and appeal to the sovereignty of God over the whole process of salvation:
For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.
This verses have often been called the “Golden Chain of Redemption” because each step is connected in an unbroken link. No one drops out.
One key thing to notice here is that God is the one doing everything. God foreknows, God predestines, God calls, God justifies, God glorifies.
Our part is not mentioned, just implied. We know from the rest of the book of Romans that justification is by grace (3:24) through faith (3:28) so obviously all those who get glorified in verse 30 at some point put their faith in Jesus for their justification. Even so, here it is clear that God is sovereign over the process from foreknowing a people to glorifying them.
It’s significant here that the word “glorified” is in the past tense when for those he was writing to, their glorification was a future event. This seems to be Paul’s way of indicating that their eventual glorification is wrapped up in God’s sovereign plan in saving them and was just as certain to happen as if it already had happened.
Those Whom He Foreknew
I remember coming across this passage when I was a college student and I was first interacting with the idea of Calvinism. At the time I hated Calvinism and thought it was an embarrassment to Christianity that there were people who believed it.
I had just gotten done reading the Bible all the way through for the first time and I remember feeling uneasy about the fact that there were a couple of passages that I had seemed to teach “predestination” (most notably Ephesians 1).
I decided I was going to tackle the issue head on and interact with the verses that troubled me. I did a search on Bible Gateway to try to locate everywhere the Bible mentioned the word “predestine” so that I could look for clues in the context to prove that the Bible didn’t teach predestination.
I immediately found the Golden Chain of Redemption and was giddy: the word “predestine” was indeed there but it was preceded by the word “foreknew.”
I had cracked the case.
God does predestine people from eternity past, but it’s only because he has exhaustive foreknowledge of the future and knows who will put their faith in Jesus and who will die in their sin. Case closed.
As you might have guessed, the case wasn’t closed.
The first problem that should be immediately obvious is the fact that the text never mentions faith being the basis of foreknowledge; that was just something I inserted because it was convenient.
The second major problem that is immediately obvious is that the word “foreknew” in verse 29 is a verb, not a noun. The verse isn’t talking about God’s foreknowledge of future events, in fact the text is talking about God foreknowing a group of people, not facts about the future.
You also have the fact that in the New Testament God’s foreknowledge is not the the passive result of knowing the future, but the active result of directing the future. Take a look at this line from the sermon that Peter gives in Acts chapter two:
this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men
Notice that when Peter says Jesus was delivered up in terms of the foreknowledge of God, he means for the word “foreknowledge” to be synonymous with “definite plan.” So God’s foreknowledge comes from the fact that the future will unfold because of his definite plan. God knows the future because he is creating it.
Consider also this passage a mere two chapters later describing the same event, the crucifixion:
for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place
Again, this verse is describing crucifixion, the same event mentioned in Acts 2:23, and both of the passages even describe it has being part of the “plan” of God, but this one says it was an event that God had “predestined.” So in Acts 2:23 the crucifixion is part of the plan and foreknowledge of God, and in 4:28 it is part of the plan and predestining work of God.
It seems pretty clear that in the New Testament the word “foreknowledge” is able to represent the predestining work of God.
So what does the word “foreknew” mean in Romans 8:29 if it isn’t referring to God’s exhaustive foreknowledge of future events?
Good question. If we look carefully at the Old Testament and some of Paul’s other writings the meaning he has in mind here starts to become clear.
The Hebrew word that is most commonly translated “know” is the word yâda. Many instances of this word are exactly what you would expect, they indicate that someone holds a certain piece of knowledge, but the meaning seems to be much broader than that.
For instance, we read in Genesis 4:1 that when Adam “knew” Eve, she conceived and bore a son! In fact, the word yâda is often used as a euphemism for sexual relations (e.g. Genesis 4:17, 19:5, 19:8, 24:16, etc) because it seems to imply a certain level of intimacy.
Particularly relevant for our purposes is the usage of the word as a synonym for the word “choose.” Consider this passage from the book of Genesis:
For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice, so that the Lord may bring to Abraham what he has promised him.
Here we don’t even see the word “knew” or “know” appear, instead the Hebrew word yâda gets translated “chosen.” Contextually, this is the only translation that makes sense in English. Consider the next part of the verse where God gives his reason for “knowing” Abraham, He has a purpose for which Abraham was appointed. God didn’t merely know facts about Abraham so that he would accomplish a specific purpose, God chose Abraham so that he would accomplish a specific purpose.
Consider also the phrase used concerning Israel in Amos 3:2 where God says “you only have I known of all the families of the earth.” That word “known” is our same word yâda, but the intended meaning here doesn’t seem to be that God has a passive knowledge of who they are. Doesn’t God know who everyone is?
The NASB actually translates the word yâda as “chosen” in this verse just as it does in Genesis 18:19. Clearly there is a more intimate sort of “knowing” referred to here than merely knowing facts about Israel.
Linguistically, you might say that the closest thing that we have in English that combines the root “to know” with the intimate connotation of the Hebrew word yâda is the word “acknowledge.” God “knew” all the nations of the world in the sense that he knew about them, but his knowledge of Israel was special and intimate, Israel alone did he acknowledge.
This meaning can also be found in the New Testament. Think about what Jesus means in Matthew 7:23 when he says that on the day of judgement he will say “I never knew you” to those who practiced lawlessness? Does he mean that those who practiced lawlessness flew under his radar and he knew nothing about them? Of course not, it means that he never acknowledged them as being part of his people.
This is also how Paul uses the word in 1 Corinthians 8:
But if anyone loves God, he is known by God.
1 Corinthians 8:3
Again, it should be obvious that this doesn’t mean that God knows more facts about those that love him than those that don’t. This verse is indicating that those who love God are those who were chosen or acknowledged by God in a special way. This is the same sense as in Galatians 4:9 where it is said that we have come to be “known by God.”
This is extremely similar to what we read in Ephesians 1:
…even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will…
Notice here that believers are said to be chosen before the foundation of the world and are then said to have predestined for adoption. The word “chosen” is the same word that appears in 1 Corinthians 1:27-28 and as we have seen it’s closely related to the concept of being “known.” In fact, the phrase “chosen before the foundation of the world” seems like it lines up closely with the intended meaning of “foreknew” in Romans 8:29. Both carry the related terms of “known” and “chosen,” both carry the idea of “before,” and both are followed by being predestined by God for a specific purpose.
Given the connection between “knowing” and “choosing/acknowledging” not only in the words of Jesus, but also in both the Old Testament which Paul drew from and Paul’s own writings as well as the fact that the word “foreknew” here is a verb not a noun, the fact that the word “foreknowledge” in the Bible is a synonym for “predestination” even when it does appear as a noun, and the fact that there is a parallel text from the same author on the same subject, it seems clear that the closest meaning of “foreknew” here is “elected” or “chose before the foundation of the world.”
In fact, this translation is confirmed just a few verses later when the group that in verse 29 was called “those whom he foreknew” is referred to by Paul as “God’s elect” (Romans 8:33).
Immediately following the Golden Chain of Redemption is a declaration of limited atonement that happens so swiftly that I probably missed it the first 10 times I read through this chapter. It’s so subtle that you might miss it even as you read the verses looking for it:
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?
So how does that support the idea of limited atonement? Let’s try to think very carefully about what Paul is arguing here. On the basis of the Golden Chain of Redemption, the fact that God foreknew, predestined, called, justified, and glorified us, Paul is working toward the conclusion that our final salvation is certain.
Part of that is the famous statement “If God is for us, who can be against us?” There used to be a popular analogy used in evangelism that God has cast a vote for you, the devil against you, and it’s up to you to cast the final vote. This was a cute saying, but runs completely contrary to Paul’s logic. Paul’s point is that if God votes for you, it doesn’t matter what you and the Devil do, it’s not a democracy. God is king. If God is for you, that settles it.
In support of this idea that a believer’s final salvation is secure, Paul points us to the atonement, the fact that Jesus died in our place for our sins. His logic is that if God the father gave up his son for you, he is totally for you and will not hesitate to give you all things. In other words, if God is willing to give up his son for us there is absolutely nothing he wouldn’t do for us.
Now think about that for a second, we know for sure that people will perish (chapter nine makes that fact abundantly clear), so how can this verse possibly be true? If Jesus died for those that perished then verse 32 is false, God will not surely give all things to someone Jesus died for. The only way that verse 32 can be true is if the son was given up only for those whom God intended to save.
The logic is clear: if God gave up his son for you he will certainly give you all things with him. This means both that God must have not given up his son in the same way for everyone and that those whom he did give up his life for are guaranteed to receive final salvation.
Perseverance of the Saints
Paul really take the time in this passage to drive home the point that a Christian can never perish. Even after the Golden Chain of Redemption where we see that there is no room for anyone to drop out and the argument that the atonement renders our final salvation certain, Paul continues to press his point:
Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.
Notice here how these verses build off the preceding statement “if God is for us, who can be against us?” Here that idea is applied to the image of the court room; in order for you to perish on the last day, someone would have to rightly be able to bring a charge against you. However, this can’t happen because God has justified us, or declared us righteous.
In order for you to eventually perish, someone would have to rightly bring a charge against you. No one from the outside can successfully do that because Jesus already died for your sins and you have been declared righteous. Jesus won’t bring a charge against you, he died for you. God the Father won’t bring a charge against you, he’s the one who declared you righteous.
If no one can bring a charge against you, there is no way that you can ultimately perish.
This ultimately leads to Paul concluding that nothing can separate us from the love of God:
For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord
This extensive list is meant to communicate the fact that nothing that you dream up could separate us from the love of God.
Where Romans 9 Fits
Sometimes it is rightly noted that chapters 9-11 can form something of stand-alone unit. While it’s true that they can stand alone, they clearly weren’t meant to stand alone. There at least three solid reasons for noting that the contents of chapters 9-11 in general and of chapter nine in particular represent a continuation of the argument of the book as a whole:
- The chapter is best understood as answering a hypothetical objection that springs from what Paul just said in chapter eight.
- The language and themes of chapter nine are interconnected with those of chapter eight.
- The language and themes of chapter nine are interconnected with those of the book as a whole as introduced in chapter one.
We’ll take a closer look at that first point in the section below. In support of the last two assertions, here is a look at the way that Romans 9 is connected to both Romans 1 and Romans 8 in terms of the words and phrases that are used:
Adoption: 9:4, 8:15
The Law: 9:4, 9:31, 8:3
According to the Flesh: 9:3, 9:5, 1:3, 8:5
Children of God: 9:8, 8:16
God’s Purpose: 9:11, 8:28
Election/Elect: 9:11, 8:33
Calls/Called: 9:11, 9:24, 8:28, 8:30, 1:1, 1:7
God’s Power: 9:17, 9:22, 1:16, 1:20
God’s Wrath: 9:22, 1:18
Prepared Beforehand for Glory/Glorified: 9:23, 8:30
Jews/Gentiles: 9:24, 1:16
Righteousness/Righteousness by Faith: 9:30, 9:31, 1:17
Now admittedly, some of these might not be extremely significant. For example the reference to the law in chapters eight and nine. However some of these are clearly very important, the righteousness by faith that appears in chapter nine and is also central to the book’s thesis in chapter one for example. Or the usage of the words “called” and “elect” in both chapters eight and nine.
It is pretty clear that whatever Paul is doing in chapter nine, it relates closely with his intention for the book as a whole, and seems to be an extension of Romans chapter eight in particular.
Cut Off From Christ
I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit— that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen. But it is not as though the word of God has failed…
In the first several verses of chapter nine we begin to see what kind of objection Paul is anticipating. After closing chapter eight with the triumphant declaration that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ, he transitions to saying if he could he would be cut off from Christ for the sake of his Jewish kinsmen. As Paul is writing, his Jewish brethren who have not become Christians stand condemned in their sins having rejected their messiah.
This is problematic because back in the Golden Chain of Redemption he said that all the called get justified. Are not the people of Israel the chosen people of God? If they are, but the stand condemned for having rejected Jesus as their savior, then God’s saving promises to Israel have failed. We have no confidence to trust the majestic promises of Romans chapter eight because if the word of God failed for the Jews it could fail for the Gentiles as well.
Romans 9-11 exists for Paul to make the argument stated in verse six: “it is not as though the word of God has failed…” For Paul, the accusation that God’s word might have failed is a serious one and it merits taking a quarter of his letter to refute.
Not All Who Are Descended from Israel Belong to Israel
But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” 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.
Here is Paul’s basic answer: just because you are physically descended from Jacob (Israel), or Abraham, doesn’t mean you are actually part of the true Israel.
He says it three different times in three slightly different ways in verses 6-8: “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel” (verse 6), “not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring” (verse7), and “it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring” (verse 8).
That last verse is especially significant because it reinforces the fact that we are talking about who are the “children of God.” That phrase is the same one that is used in Romans 8:16 talking about how we have received the spirit of adoption into God’s family. The phrase “counted” here is also an interesting one, it is used repeatedly in Romans 4 to describe how we are “counted” righteous by faith and not by works.
This section is not talking about nations and national privileges, it’s talking about who are the true children of God.
Isaac and Ishmael
For this is what the promise said: “About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son.”
To support his position that not all of the descendants of Israel are the chosen people of God, Paul reaches back to the Old Testament to draw out a couple of representative examples where the promises that were to extend to the offspring of Abraham went to certain offspring and not others.
The first example given (which was first referenced back in verse seven) is that of Isaac being chosen over Ishmael. Abraham and his wife Sarah were barren when God promised that their descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky. Ismael actually ended up being Abraham’s first child after he impregnated his servant Hagar at his wife’s suggestion (see Genesis 16).
In essence, Abraham didn’t believe that he and his wife (who was barren) would be able to have a child together, so instead of trusting God they took matters into their own hands.
Then, in Genesis 18 verses 10 and 14 (and quoted here in verse nine), you get God’s promise that Sarah, even though she is barren, will have a child. Moreover God tells Abraham in Genesis 21:12 (quoted here in Romans 9:7) that it is through Isaac that his descendants will be named.
So going back to verse eight where we saw the contrast between the children of the flesh and the children of God, Ishmael was the child of the flesh and Isaac was the child of God. So not only does the phrase “Child of God” refer back to chapter eight indicating a true believer, it also indicates a sort of supernatural birth that comes about apart from human effort. Ishmael was the result of human effort, of Abraham and Sarah striving themselves to carry out what God had promised the. Isaac was the “child of God:” that is, the child born by supernatural means that only God could bring about.
In other words for Paul, the situation with Abraham and his sons is a precursor of sorts, a bit of foreshadowing to the New Testament concept of being “born of God” (see for example, John 1:12) with Isaac representing the supernatural nature of the new birth.
Jacob and Esau
And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, 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.”
After giving the example of Ishmael and Isaac he adds the supporting example of Jacob and Esau.
There are at least two crucial ways in which this example is stronger than the one that had come before.
The first is the fact that it was “Rebekah” who conceived the twins “by one man, our forefather Isaac.” When it comes to Ishmael and Isaac, there was one obvious difference between the two of them: they had different mothers. Ishmael’s mother was an Egyptian slave, so someone could make the argument that God didn’t pick him because he wasn’t Jewish enough.
No such case can be made for Esau. His father was Isaac, the son through which Abraham’s offspring were to be counted as we just read. His mother was Rebekah, Abraham’s great niece. Those were the same parents of Jacob.
The second improvement over the Ishmael/Isaac example is that Jacob and Esau were twins; that they “were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad.” In the previous example, Ishmael was eight years old before Isaac was born. Theoretically God could have weighed Ishmael and found him wanting. With Jacob and Esau that can’t be so. Paul is trying as hard as he can to demonstrate that there was nothing within Jacob and Esau themselves that forced God’s hand, God acted freely.
This is a similar idea to what will be stated a few verses later, namely “it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (Romans 9:16).
One of the crucial things that is said in this section is the second half of verse eleven: “in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls.” This statement has three key words that refer back to Romans 8: “purpose” (8:28), “election” (8:33), and “calls” (8:28, 8:30). All three are clustered right around the Golden Chain of Redemption and are used to describe the saving activity of God. In fact, the phrases “election” and “calls” were the same terms that we looked at in 1 Corinthians chapter one.
This statement is also interesting because the normal Pauline formula we would expect would be “not because of works but because of faith…” instead we get “not because of works but because of him who calls.”
It seems that when the question of how we receive salvation is in view, the formula is not works, but faith. However, when election, God’s sovereign choice, is in view, the opposite of works is no longer faith but either God’s grace or God himself.
We see this also a couple chapters later:
So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.
That word “chosen” is the same Greek word as “election” in 9:11. Here again, when God’s election is involved, the opposite of “works” is God’s grace, not our faith.
There are some who think that the two verses cited here about Jacob and Esau here “the older will serve the younger” (from Genesis 25:23) and “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated” (a citation of Malachi 1:3) refer to nations and not individuals in their original context and so should be understood that way here.
I don’t find this to be a good argument for two primary reasons:
- In the context of Romans 9 Paul is undeniably referring to individuals not nations
- In the original context, both of those verses are most naturally understood as having application to both individuals and nations.
He Mercies Whom He Mercies
What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.
Now, I will admit, the relationship of Paul’s assertion that there is no injustice (or it could be translated “unrighteousness”) on God’s part to the verses where he supports that assertion is one of the most difficult things to untangle in this passage.
After we get done reading about Jacob and Esau our natural human inclination thinks that there must have been some critical difference between Jacob and Esau that prompted God to choose one rather than the other, otherwise it wasn’t fair.
Paul seems to anticipate this objection and is quick to deny it’s validity, but his reasons for doing so leave us if anything more perplexed than before.
He backs up his assertion by quoting a phrase from this Old Testament interaction between Moses and God:
Moses said, “Please show me your glory.” And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The Lord.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.
Moses asks to see God’s glory an God agrees to make all his goodness pass before Moses and to “proclaim…his name.” In English his “name” gets translated as “The Lord,” but in Hebrew it is the word “Yahweh” that appears there, which is the name God gave for himself when he spoke to Moses through the burning bush in Exodus 3. That name, of course, is derived from the Hebrew phrase “I am.” God’s following statement seems to be an extension of that idea that he is who he is: “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I show mercy.”
How does that relate to Paul’s assertion that there is no injustice on God’s part? The objection that we had was that God chose Jacob over Esau without regard for any distinguishing feature between them, in quoting the Old Testament where God says he will have mercy on whom he will have mercy, Paul is seems like Paul is not offering a solution, he’s just restating the problem.
There are many people who think that Paul doesn’t in fact offer any sort of a real justification of God here.
So how are we to understand this passage? This is one area where my best attempt comes not from my own study of the passage, but from the work of John Piper as found in his classic The Justification of God.
It goes something like this. In the conversation between God and Moses in Exodus 33, by Moses asking to see God’s glory and God answering that he will proclaim his name to Moses, God is essentially saying that he will reveal to Moses in an intimate way the essence of who he is. That essence is mostly that he is free, self-reliant, and not dependent on anyone or anything. He’s not even dependent on human cooperation in the giving of mercy. Part of what it means for God to be God is that he is free.
So Paul’s point seems to be that God would be unrighteous if he responded the opposite way, if he gave up his freedom for the sake of human freedom and self-determination. God is righteous if he acts in accord with his own nature, which is to be free.
This thought is backed up in the next line where we read that “it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.” What Paul is trying to get across is that there is nothing that humans can do to earn salvation, not only can they not earn mercy by themselves, they can’t even receive it by themselves. The determining factor in Salvation is not our will (e.g. faith) or our exertion (e.g. works) but is God having mercy.
The Hardening of Pharaoh
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.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills
Paul gives another Old Testament example, that of Pharaoh. Pharaoh becomes the frightening contrast to election. In the example of Jacob and Esau, you could possibly argue that God simply passed over Esau to choose Jacob. In this passage Paul pulls an example where instead of showing mercy, God hardens an individual.
Now it is important to remember here that Pharaoh didn’t deserve mercy just like we don’t deserve mercy, so God’s decision to harden pharaoh is not in any way unfair or unjustified.
Paul’s interpretation of the example of Pharaoh is that not only does God have mercy on whomever he wills, but also he hardens whomever he wills.
Why Does He Still Find Fault?
You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” 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?” 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?
One of the things that’s worth pointing out is that Paul is anticipating certain objections to what he just said. If your interpretation of this passage up to this point doesn’t evoke those same objections in people, you know you have the wrong interpretation.
There are so many interpretations that I’ve seen that while they don’t accurately handle the text, they provide a more palatable teaching. One of the ways that we know that these interpretations are false is that they don’t produce the angry reaction that Paul is expecting.
In this section Paul doubles down on his assertion that it is God’s freedom and self-determination, and not our own that must be preserved by using the analogy of the potter and the clay to illustrate the Creator/creation distinction.
This distinction is pivotal as Paul begins to establish universal human guilt and accountability to God in Romans 1, saying that fallen humanity “worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever” (Romans 1:25).
The Creator/creation distinction is an uncrossable chasm of critical importance.
God is free in dealing with his creation as he sees fit because it is his creation and he is its creator.
Vessels of Wrath and Vessels of Glory
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, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?
These verses are critical.
They are, I think, one of the closest answers that we get in the Bible as to why God did things the way that he did.
The first thing that we learn is that God desires to make the full range of his attributes known. He wants to “show his wrath and make known his power.” This goes back to Romans 1:18 where we read that his wrath “is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men” (Romans 1:18). That passage made it clear that God is wrathful against sin, but not why does he allow sin in the first place. This passage makes it clear, he wants to display his wrath against sin and punish evildoers.
You’ve probably heard this syllogism from atheists before:
- Premise 1: God is good
- Premise 2: God is all powerful
- Premise 3: Evil exists
- Conclusion: one of the first two premises must be incorrect
The usual rebuttal to this is that God has given us free will and that is where evil comes from. To a certain extent this is true, but the deeper, more Biblical answer of how a good God could allow evil is because he wanted an occasion to make known his wrath.
(Another thing that should be mentioned is that the premise 3, “evil exists” is only true if God exists, but that is a matter for another post).
But, it goes deeper than that: the demonstration of his wrath is just a backdrop against with the riches of his glory can be fully seen.
To some extent God wants to show his wrath to give a context for how amazing his mercy is.
So, God in some sense both “wants” to show his wrath and “wants” to show his mercy, but the two desire’s aren’t the same. The demonstration of his mercy, the display of the riches of his glory, is the ultimate end game.
Lastly and crucially, Paul identifies the “vessels of glory,” it is “us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles.”
Two phrases here stick out like sore thumbs: “called,” and “Jews/Gentiles.”
These two phrases were also used in connection with one another in the passage we analyzed in the last post, 1 Corinthians 1:
For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
1 Corinthians 1:22-24
Remember, in these verses from 1 Corinthians Paul was talking about the wrongful reactions to the cross that lead to destruction. The cross is a “stumbling block to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles.” Jews and Gentiles alike have a wrong reaction to the gospel and are perishing. But then we get the amazing statement that those who are “called” have a right reaction to the gospel, “both Jews and Greeks (i.e. Gentiles).”
In other words, although Jews and Gentiles are perishing, there’s a subgroup from within both groups who aren’t: the “called.”
They are the ones “called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:9).
You’ll recall also that this word “called” has already appeared in Romans to describe Paul (1:1). as well as those he was writing to (1:7). It also appeared in chapter eight in connection with the Golden Chain of Redemption (8:28, 8:30) and has even appeared already in chapter nine where we have read “not because of works but because of him who calls” (Romans 9:11).
Everyone deserves condemnation, but God chose to call some to salvation.
One thing that needs to be mentioned is the fact that in verses 22-24 there is zero doubt that we are talking about the salvation of individuals. The end of chapter eight was about the salvation of individuals, the beginning of chapter 9 was about the salvation of individuals (more specifically, the fact that certain Israelites were not saved), and verses 22-24 are talking about individual salvation.
With all that in mind, you have to seriously wonder why some people think all that comes between (9:6-9:21), which utilized the language of the passages that talk about individual salvation, is talking about nations and national privileges, and not individuals and individual salvation.
The reality is that the only way to follow Paul’s train of thought from beginning to end you have to acknowledge that Romans 9 is talking about individuals and individual salvation. Otherwise you would have to cut the text into pieces and not let one part inform the other part. That doesn’t sound like a wise thing to do with a book that is a continuous train of thought from beginning to end.
The Gentiles and the Remnant of Israel
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.’”
“And in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’
there they will be called ‘sons of the living God.’”
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, for the Lord will carry out his sentence upon the earth fully and without delay.” And as Isaiah predicted,
“If the Lord of hosts had not left us offspring,
we would have been like Sodom
and become like Gomorrah.”
Paul next turns to a couple of Old Testament examples to illustrate what he has just said. The passage from Hosea shows that Gentiles (those “who were not my people”) will eventually be called as well.
The passages from Isaiah are meant to address the main problem of the chapter as a whole, the fact that some Israelites are cut off from the Messiah. The point of quoting the texts from Isaiah is to show that there has always been a pattern of God preserving a small remnant within the larger body of the Jewish people.
The Righteousness That is by Faith
What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, a righteousness that is by faith; but that Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone, 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.”
The chapter concludes with Paul noting the irony of the fact that the Jews were the ones who were given the law of God that pointed the way to righteousness, but many did not attain righteousness. Meanwhile, the Gentiles did not have the law and were not trying to please God, but have been declared righteous through the gospel.
Paul brings back up the point that he had developed in chapters three and four of justification being received by faith and not works. Those Israelites who were not believers might be trying to observe the law, but they are not pursuing it by faith.
This also indicates that for Paul, those saints in the Old Testament were not reckoned righteous by observing the law, but by their faith.
This concluding section re-emphasizes the fact that there is no salvation apart from Christ, and the only way for the Jews who are still lost to be saved is to be united to Jesus by faith. This is a point he will further drive home in chapter 10.
Chosen By Grace
The majority of what we needed to look at from chapters 9-11 was in chapter nine, but there is one more passage that is worth noting:
I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! For I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. Do you not know what the Scripture says of Elijah, how he appeals to God against Israel? “Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life.” But what is God’s reply to him? “I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace
This passage is of interest for several reasons. First of all, we have the appearance of the word “foreknew” just like we did in Romans 8:29. Like Romans 8:29, it’s not a noun describing God’s knowledge of the future, it’s a verb describing God’s relationship with them: “God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew.”
Paul likens the current situation where only some of the Jews are among the true people of God to an event recorded in 1 Kings 19 where Elijah appeals to God concerning unfaithful Israel and God’s response is there is a faithful remnant that he has reserved for himself.
This leads Paul to conclude: “So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace.” That phrase is fascinating. As we have already noted, that word “chosen” is the word “elected.” It’s the same word that we saw in 1 Corinthians 1 and will see again later in Ephesians 1. As we have noted before, when election is the topic, the antithesis of works is not faith as we are used to, in this case it is God’s grace (in 9:11 it was God himself: “him who calls”). The implication here is that in order for grace to truly be grace, it must not come about by any human involvement whatsoever, hence the remnant is “chosen by grace.”
There is no room for the ultimate self-determination of human beings in these verses.
We spent a lot of time on this one both because of how deep this passage is and how important it is to the debate.
I tried as hard as I could to follow the logic of the text and I hope whether or not you agree with what I have written, you can see how closely I tried to follow what Paul was doing in the passage.
Next week will be Ephesians 1. Be sure to enter your email below to subscribe to the series and be notified when that post comes out:
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