Romans 8 is one of the most beloved chapters in all of Scripture. It surveys the towering heights of God’s grace toward His people in Christ. Christians everywhere rejoice that “all things work together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose” (v. 28). What could be greater than to know that “neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, 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” (vv. 38-39)?
But the book of Romans does not stop at chapter eight. It continues into chapter nine, a chapter significantly less loved and less popular. If Romans 8 surveys the towering heights of God’s grace, then Romans 9 surely dives into the depths of God’s revelation to consider the foundation of that grace: His absolute freedom to be merciful to whom He wills and to harden whom He wills (cf. Romans 9:18). And to be honest, this concept of God’s complete sovereignty over human salvation is not a popular teaching at all in contemporary evangelicalism. Perhaps this is why Romans 9 is so unpopular. So what I want to do here is provide a brief summary of this most unpopular of biblical passages. What does Romans 9 really teach?
1. The Point of Romans 9
The main point of Romans 9 is verse 6: “But it is not as though the word of God has failed.” Romans 8 ends with this proclamation: “for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. 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” (vv. 28-29).
In Romans 9 Paul anticipates an objection: “Paul, if what you’re saying is true, then why aren’t God’s chosen people, Israel, turning to Jesus, their messiah, to be saved? Surely the word of God has failed, right?” Paul retorts: “It is not as though the word of God has failed.”
In order to understand Romans 9, we must understand this problem. In Romans 8, Paul argues that God’s purpose in salvation is invincible, unstoppable. He summarizes: “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? Who shall bring a charge against God’s elect?” (vv. 31-33, emphasis added). The answer: no one. “It is God who justifies” (v. 33). God counts His people righteous on the basis of the imputed righteousness of Christ alone, and therefore nothing “shall separate us from the love of Christ” (v. 35).
But Israel, God’s chosen people, by and large reject their own messiah. They are not saved, evidenced by Paul’s “great sorrow and unceasing anguish” (9:2) for them. And that is the problem! If it is true that the word of God has not failed, why do the majority of Jews reject the messiah?
2. Nations or Individuals?
Paul’s answer is the word of God has not failed, but hear how he explains it: “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'” (v. 6). The word of God has not failed, even if the vast majority of Jews reject Christ, because the promises of God never pertained to all of Abraham’s physical offspring. “It is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise who are counted as offspring” (v. 8). The promises of God for salvation apply only to the elect, the true Israel within the visible covenant community.
A major objection by some at this point is that Romans 9 deals with corporate election for historical service, not individual election for salvation. Perhaps what this text teaches is not that God freely and graciously chooses some for eternal salvation and not others, but that God chose specific people groups to bring the message of salvation to the world. This might sound plausible at first glance, but there are at least three reasons this cannot be the case:
First, both Romans 8 and Romans 10-11 deal with issues relating to individual salvation. It would be strange to insert a discourse on corporate election for historical service in Romans 9, only to resume a discussion of individual salvation in Romans 10-11.
Second, Paul wishes that he “were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of [his] brothers” (v. 3). Why would Paul wish to be cut off from Christ over a group of people who simply were not chosen to bring the gospel message to the world? That interpretation makes no sense. On the contrary, Paul’s argument is that some of his kinsmen are not chosen for salvation, thus leading to his sorrow and anguish.
Third, Paul uses individuals to demonstrate the force of his argument, which is that God elects certain individuals and passes over others. He distinguishes between Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, but he also makes use of Pharaoh. Any interpretation of this text which posits a corporate view of election must say that Pharaoh is also a reference to nations, but Pharaoh is not referred to in this way in this context.
The cumulative force of these arguments shows that in Romans 9 Paul is talking about individuals and election for salvation.
3. God’s Purpose: Election
This point is established further by verse 11, which speaks of “God’s purpose of election.” While this is dangerous and emotional territory, for the Bible-believing Christian there is no escape from its reality. The Bible obviously refers to election, so we must “do” something with it. Instead of saying that it can’t mean ‘x’ ‘y’ or ‘z’ for whatever reason, let’s allow Paul tell us exactly what he means.
In reference to Jacob and Esau, Paul says, “ 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” (v. 11). This is not the end of Paul’s argument, but notice that election is not based upon anything in the creature, be it good works or even faith; election is based solely on “Him who calls.” The point is that God is free to elect whomever He wills.
Continuing, Paul says, “[Rebekah] was told, ‘The older will serve the younger.’ As it is written, Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated” (vv. 12-13). This is not a reference to historical election or nations. God’s election here deals with historical individuals and their salvation. This is true because in the next verse Paul brings up an objection that he has heard before: “What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part?” (v. 14).
Paul has been to synagogues, preaching the doctrine of election, and he has heard the objections: “That’s not fair! If you’re saying that God is free to elect whomever He wills then God is unjust! I could never believe in a God like that.”
Maybe you’ve heard these objections. Maybe you are the one objecting. But understand that hearing or having these objections demonstrates that we understand Paul correctly.
4. “I Will Have Mercy on Whom I Have Mercy”
Why is God not unjust to elect some and not others? Paul answers: “For He says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion” (v. 15). But hang on a minute: That is only a restatement of the problem! The objector thinks God is unfair because He is free to do whatever He wills, and Paul’s answer is, “God is not unjust and this is not unfair; God is free to do whatever He wills.”
How is this an answer? Mercy, like grace, is not something that can be demanded. In the words of R.C. Sproul, “As soon as we think God’s grace or mercy can be demanded, we are no longer thinking of God’s grace or mercy.” What it means for God to be God is that He is free to be gracious to whom He will, and to harden whom He will (v. 18).
“So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (v. 16). Mercy, compassion, and grace do not depend on the creature in any sense whatsoever. God, the sovereign King of the universe, has the right to be merciful to some and to harden others. To object to this is to fall under Paul’s condemnation: “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?'” (v. 20). No. The Potter has absolute rights over the clay to “make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use” (v. 21).
5. God’s Purpose: Making His Name Known
Why does God do this? Why does all of this talk of election and of God’s freedom even matter? Can’t we all be satisfied with “just” having a relationship with Jesus? We don’t need the doctrine of election for that, right? Besides, all this talk of predestination only serves to divide people. Why should we try to get to the bottom of an issue when that issue has caused Christians to argue and to have to “agree-to-disagree” for so long?
These questions, well-meaning as they are, presuppose a dangerous reality: that we are the center of the universe. But God will not have this. Notice why God works this way, why He takes away every ground of boasting in ourselves, our works, or our will. He 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” (v. 17).
God freely bestows mercy upon some and hardens others in order to make His name known throughout creation. Our salvation is not about us in the slightest degree; it is all about God. The purpose of the universe generally and of salvation specifically is the praise of God’s glorious grace (cf. Ephesians 1:6, 12, 14).
Perhaps the reason so many Christians bristle at the truth of God’s freedom in election and salvation is because it takes away from us what we so desperately want: to be the point. We want so badly for everything to revolve around us, to be meaningful in the world so that we get all the praise. But this is not how God operates. God is at the center; He is the source of all, including our salvation, to the praise of His glorious grace.
Thanks for reading. Have any additional thoughts? Leave a comment below if you feel so inclined.