Romans 9-11, Part 2

Romans 9:6-13

Delimiting the Text

6 But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel,

7 and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.”

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.

9 For this is what the promise said: “About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son.”

10 And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac,

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—

12 she was told, “The older will serve the younger.”

13 As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”


Here is Paul’s question: Israel is supposed to be the heir of God’s promises, yet most of the Israelites are accursed and cut off from Christ. Why will many not be saved? Is God’s word reliable?

Paul asserts that God has not gone back on His word, and that He remains faithful to Israel. But he tacks on the perplexing statement “For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel”. In reading the OT and the consecration of Abraham’s descendants, Paul understands that there has always been a differentiation between Israel and the true Israel. When God proclaimed to Abraham “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named”, it was not about physical descendants (Israel) that God spoke, but about the children of the promise (true Israel).

This is not a new differentiation that Paul has conjured out of thin air for the purposes of soothing over wrinkles in his theology. It is a differentiation that has its roots back in Romans 4, in a separate argument regarding Abraham’s justification by faith. Abraham and his descendants did not receive the promises because of their adherence to the law, but because of their faith. Romans 4 makes it evident that God does not save on the basis of externalities, and here again in Romans 9, it is clear that the promises of God are made without externalities in mind.

Paul is not reinventing God, he is showing that this is how God has always worked. He returns to the example of Isaac and Ishmael, and points out that in Genesis 21, God chooses Isaac over Ishmael to be the recipient of the promises. But God points out that Ishmael will also be made a nation “because he is your offspring” (Genesis 21:13). The deciding factor in the choice of Isaac over Ishmael is not a matter of their parental lineage, but rather in the fact that Isaac was the child of God’s promise. Piper: “By this election of Isaac instead of Ishmael God shows that physical descent from Abraham does not guarantee that one will be a beneficiary of the covenant made with Abraham and his seed. Something more must be true about a physical descendant if he is to be an heir of the covenant.” That child must be a child of the promise (9:8,9).

This example is not quite airtight. For someone could say that Ishmael and Isaac had different mothers, and the choice could be based on that. Ishmael was the son of a slave woman, Isaac the son of Abraham’s wife. God’s choice in selecting a recipient of the promise could have been based on the externality of maternal lineage. Anticipating this, Paul moves one generation down in the patriarchs and gives the example of Jacob and Esau. Here, there can be no charge of external factors influencing God’s decision to choose Jacob over Esau. They were conceived at the same time, of the same father and the same mother, occupied the same womb at the same time, yet were appointed to separate destinies before they were born. God had decided that He would love Jacob and hate Esau before they had done anything good or bad.

Furthermore, Ishmael is not actively consigned to disobedience.

In Malachi 1:2-3 (“Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated”, quoted in Romans 9:13), Jacob/Esau are synonymous with the nations of Israel/Edom. The flow of the argument is the same here in Malachi as it is in Romans. God asks “Is not Esau Jacob’s brother?” in order to make the point that His love for Israel over Edom is not grounded in externalities, but in His sovereign choice.

“I have loved you,” says the LORD. But you say, “How have you loved us?” “Is not Esau Jacob’s brother?” declares the LORD. “Yet I have loved Jacob but Esau I have hated. I have laid waste his hill country and left his heritage to jackals of the desert.” (Mal 1:2-3)

In context, these are merely historical examples of election, where God has selected the head of the people groups who will be the beneficiaries of the promises. The OT context does not imply that God will elect in the same way for individuals and eternal salvation.

We must keep in mind, however, the argument that Paul is making and the questions he is answering. Paul does not wish himself accursed simply because Israel has lost the historical privileges of 9:4-5, but because the privileges all point to the guarantee of Israel’s salvation. Since many Israelites are not being saved (Romans 11:5), the answer that Paul provides in 9:6-13 must appeal to the problem of salvation and election at the individual level. John Murray argues:  

“The thesis that Paul is dealing merely with the election of Israel collectively and applying the clause in question [“the elder shall serve the younger”] only to this feature of redemptive history would not meet the precise situation. The question posed for the apostle is: how can the covenant promise of God be regarded as inviolate when the mass of those who belong to Israel, who are comprised in the elect nation in terms of the Old Testament passages cited above… have remained in unbelief and come short of the covenant promises? His answer would fail if it were simply an appeal to the collective, inclusive theocratic election of Israel. Such a reply would be no more than an appeal to the fact that his kinsmen were Israelites and thus no more than a statement of the fact which, in view of their unbelief, created the problem. Paul’s answer is not the collective election of Israel but rather “they are not all Israel, who are of Israel.” And this means, in terms of the stage of discussion at which we have now arrived, “they are not all elect, who are of elect Israel.”” (Romans, II, 18)

Fred Sanders: “The exegetical key to the Calvinist view is that the overall drift of Paul’s argument demands that the theological points involved should be transposed into a higher order.” Through the historical examples of Isaac/Ishmael and Jacob/Esau, Paul is establishing a principle that God does not choose beneficiaries of his promises based on birth or works, but only by his will. God has not selected arbitrarily; he has made these decisions in order that his own “purpose of election might continue”. God cannot be subject to the externalities of men, for to do so would be to give up his sovereignty.

Murray: “In verses 6-13, Paul’s argument is that God’s faithfulness to his covenant is not to be judged by the extent to which those physically descended from Abraham are partakers of salvation.”

Romans 9:14-23

Delimiting the Text

14 What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means!

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.”

16 So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.

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.”

18 So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.


The controversy arises in this section arises from verse 11 – “though they were not yet born and had done nothing good or bad – in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works, but because of him who calls”. Here, we can imagine an unspoken objection being made, that runs something like this: If God elects beneficiaries of his mercy not based on human externalities (If Paul is right) then he is unrighteous. The assumption with the objection is that God must elect by human distinctives in order to be righteous (as in morally upright, Jews). There are two points that Paul must answer, because in electing God chooses some for promises, but consigns others for disobedience. He has both loved Jacob and hated Esau.

This brings us to verse 14, where Paul starts by asking us if there is any injustice (or equivalently, any unrighteousness). Specifically, is there any injustice with the fact that God has chosen some and not others to show mercy and compassion (not on the basis of works)? He denies it with a strong denial. The more traditional translations have rendered it as “God forbid!” (KJV, ASV). It is unacceptable to think that God could be unrighteous. Paul has already made his point about election, but now he must make the case that God is righteous (and just) in doing so.

A critical question that arises here is “What does it mean for God to be just?”. The older English translations have rendered the word “injustice” as “unrighteous”. When we speak of us possessing righteousness, we see it as us acting in conformity with the moral standard of God. The opposite is obviously not true – God is not righteous because he acts in conformity with human standards. While Paul does not explain how he understands the righteousness of God, he obliquely answers in the following OT quotations.

Paul defends the righteousness and justice of God by quoting from Exodus 33:19:

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. (Exod 33:19)

Exodus 32-34 is about Israel’s sin regarding the golden calf, Moses’ intercession, and God’s subsequent forgiveness and restoration of Israel. So without quoting all of Exodus 32-34, let’s trace a few select developments in the story.

  1. God is furious with the Israelites for their sin in worshiping the golden calf. He threatens to kill all of them and make a nation of Moses. He relents.
  2. 32:34 – He will allow the nation of Israel to go into the promised land, but only with an angel. The nation of Israel mourns that God will not go with them (33:4).
  3. 33:16 – Moses entreats God for his full favor and distinguishment. God agrees.
  4. 33:18 – Moses is still not satisfied, asks to see God’s glory as a confirmation. (“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.” (Exod 33:18-19))

We see that God responds with three things to Moses’ request to see God’s glory: The passing of all his goodness, his name, and a statement about his dispensing of mercy and compassion. Looking forward a little bit, all this is condensed into one verse, Exodus 34:6: “The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness…” Essentially, God dispenses mercy and compassion by his will. It is a part of God’s character and glory to do so.

Paul appropriates this Old Testament understanding of the character of God in order to demonstrate that God is consistent in dispensing mercy by his will and counsel alone. In verse 16, he reflects that the mercy of God is not dispensed based on human “willing or running”, but rather is a result of his sovereign choice. He draws on the principle established in verse 11-12 to show that God’s choice was made without the influence of human effort.

But what about hardening? In using the example of Jacob and Esau, he has piled on a new claim that God also hardens whom he wills. Paul again quotes from the Old Testament, this time from Exodus 9:16, to prove that God does act for his own glory in hardening Pharaoh. Paul modifies the quotation from Exodus 9:16 so that it reads “for this very purpose…” – there is one explicit purpose that God has in hardening Pharaoh, and it is so that he may be glorified. 

It seems interesting that Paul has selected this quotation in particular, and not many of the other references to Pharaoh’s heart being hardened (Exodus 7:3, 7:13, 7:22, 8:15, 8:19, 8:32, 9:7, 9:12, 9:34-3510:12, 10:34-35, 11:20, 11:27, etc.) Among these quotations there are also many references to Pharaoh hardening his own heart, which is apparently resolved by Paul in selecting this one particular reference. Paul is making the point that the sovereignty of God in hardening is perfectly compatible with Pharaoh’s own will. But the most probable reason Exodus 9:16 was selected was for the purpose clause: “so that [God’s] name may be proclaimed in all the earth.”[1]

At this point, Paul has shown that God is consistent with himself and his own actions by choosing on whom he will have mercy and who he will harden. It is also a part of his name and his glory to show mercy as he wills, and it is for his glory’s sake that he will harden as he wills. But how does Paul construe God’s freedom in election as the answer to the charge of unrighteousness? As Piper observes, God’s righteousness is upheld because God’s righteousness consists in his acting for his own glory and name.

[1] Among the references to Pharaoh’s hardening, it’s impossible to miss that in many cases, it is written that Pharaoh hardened his own heart. There is always a temptation to resolve the conflict by saying that God’s hardening of Pharaoh presupposes that Pharaoh will harden his own heart. The determination of who saves will fall on God, but the determination of who damns will not fall on God. But that misses the point of Paul’s argument altogether – the premise of the objection is that God’s exercise of mercy and hardening proceeds from his sovereign will. The same predilection that caused Pharaoh to harden his own heart is the same predilection that befalls everyone before God exercises his mercy. The differentiation between the recipients of mercy and the recipients of hardening is not a pre-exercise of an individual’s fear of God, but of God’s sovereign will.

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