Romans Chapter 9 is a much discussed part of the Bible because it is often referenced in debates over predestination versus free will. As a result, some commentators think of Romans 9 as “the predestination chapter,” while others build a counterposition from the chapter to teach free will. But what I came to realize earlier this year is that, there are a lot of insights that can be gained from analyzing how Romans 9 relates to the rest of the epistle. Instead of viewing Romans 9 as a stand-alone exposition, I have come to look at it as part of a message that begins all the way back in Chapter 1.
Here is how I understand the theme of Romans spanning Chapters 1 through 8:
The epistle begins by describing the default fate for everybody. That is, each individual’s life would be judged based on works, and the outcome of that judgment results in either reward or punishment in the coming ages. But, what about the undisciplined folks out there who just can’t get their life in order and would be hopeless if judged on works? Well, in Chapters 3-5, Paul reveals a solution to this problem, namely, justification by faith. But then the question becomes, faith in what? The answer to that comes in Chapters 6-8 where Paul describes how we are justified by Christ’s death and resurrection, and that by believing this to be true of our own lives, we are led by the Spirit into a new way of life.
Well, that sounds nice, but it raises yet another set of questions, such as “Where does this faith come from?” “What does it mean to be led by the Spirit, and what role do we play in that? “What if we’re not believing the right things?” “What if we have doubts? Is the Spirit still working in us?”
So, to answer the question, “What is Romans 9 really talking about?” we should consider how a proposed interpretation answers the questions raised by the preceding chapters.
Paul opens Romans 9 by talking about Israelites who do not believe the Gospel. Paul, coming from a Jewish background himself, was very concerned about this, which sets the framework for the chapter. In particular, Paul sets out to address the question of what Israel’s unbelief means for the promises that God made to the nation.
Paul reasons that “not all Israelites truly belong to Israel, and not all of Abraham’s children are his true descendants; but ‘It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you.’ 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 descendants” (Romans 9:6-8).
I think that this concept of “children of the flesh” versus “children of the promise” is a subtle analogy for the theme of “living by the flesh” versus “living by the Spirit” in the preceding chapters. Although Isaac was not Abraham’s only child, Isaac was the only child for whom faith and a special work of God were required for the reproductive process to work. Hold that thought for now, we’ll come back to it a bit later.
Paul proceeds to give another analogy. This time it involves the children of Isaac and Rebecca.
Romans 9:11-13 – “Even before they had been born or had done anything good or bad (so that God’s purpose of election might continue, not by works but by his call) she was told, ‘The elder shall serve the younger.’ As it is written, ‘I have loved Jacob, but I have hated Esau.’”
God does not hate anybody in the absolute sense. In this passage, love versus hate are relative terms to indicate contrasting relationships. That aside, the idea which “pops out” at me from the passage above is that, the fulfillment of God’s ultimate plans for individuals is attributed to God Himself. Now, granted, sometimes the meaning which immediately pops out at you is not the right meaning. There are times when the broader context conditions what something is supposed to say. Thus, can we trust the “pop out” meaning of the passage above? Or do we need to seek a different interpretation?
Well, the obvious objection to the face value meaning is that it seems unfair. Now, if the face value meaning really was unfair, it seems that Paul would clarify the issue by saying something to the tune of, “Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t saying . . .” However, Paul seems to do the opposite; he responds to the statement by essentially restating his previous point:
Romans 9:14-15: “What then are we to say? 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.’”
And in case his point wasn’t clear enough yet from the analogies, Paul continued, “So it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy” (verse 16).
Paul seemed to think readers would be unconvinced by that conclusion, so he gives yet another analogy that, once again, pretty much restates his previous point.
Romans 9:17-18 –“For the scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘I have raised you up for the very purpose of showing my power in you, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth.’ So then he has mercy on whomever he chooses, and he hardens the heart of whomever he chooses.”
Now, once again, Paul sees what the objection is going to be. He knows that people will think this is unfair. However, he once again declines the opportunity to say, “Well, don’t get me wrong, I didn’t mean . . . “ Instead, he simply restates his previous point again.
Romans 9:19-20, “You will say to me then, ‘Why then does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?’ But who indeed are you, a human being, to argue with God? Will what is molded say to the one who molds it, ‘Why have you made me like this?’”
I have heard many commentaries which try to explain Romans 9 such that nobody would ask these questions that the Objector is asking. However, I feel like that approach is contrary to Paul’s own handling of the subject matter, and perhaps indicates that the proposed interpretation does not jive with Paul’s message.
Paul wraps up Romans 9, and opens Romans 10, by describing the problem of Israelites trying to become righteous through Law instead of through faith in Christ.
So, looking back over Romans 9, why did Paul get into the theme of God choosing people, when the overarching message of Romans is salvation through faith? Well, I believe that the theme of Romans 9 was meant to correct a possible misunderstanding of salvation through faith. The misunderstanding is that we “manufacture” faith in order to engineer our salvation. In and of ourselves, we do not have the wisdom, or the prudence, or the discipline, to make ourselves believers. The whole process of believing, and exercising our faith, is a process attributed to God. Earlier I mentioned that Paul subtly alluded to the theme of “living according to the flesh” vs “living according to the Spirit” with his analogy of Abraham’s children. Seeing the subsequent writing in Romans 9, it appears that a Spirit-filled life is a work of God as opposed to something we engineer by some means. Now, the mechanism by which God works this process is mysterious, and there are no concrete answers in Scripture. There are reasonable (albeit speculative) answers that I will discuss in the next post, but in this life we’ll never know all the details for sure.
Furthermore, Romans 9 should not be used to make sweeping conclusions about “predestination” of various events. Although there are speculative extrapolations of chapter’s theme which may be drawn at one’s discretion, such extrapolations should not be confused with the core message which is that we are not the engineers of our salvation.
So, the last question I want to address is, “if we do not engineer our salvation, how do we know whether the process of salvation is true of our own lives?” Well, I believe the answer to that comes in Chapter 10, verse 9-13:
“If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The scripture says, ‘No one who believes in him will be put to shame.’ For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’”
If you are someone who calls upon the Lord confessing and believing these things, then your life is on a path of salvation, and you have the Spirit of God working in you. That’s the proof.
The principles I describe in this article are the only doctrines that I conclusively draw from Romans 9. There are other speculations that are worth talking about, and I will address those in the next post. However, I think it is important to separate those speculations from what I perceive to be the core message which I just described.