Scripture quotations are from the English Majority Text Version (EMTV) unless noted otherwise.
Romans 9 is a very controversial chapter, but it shouldn’t be. All through the Word of God we learn about all the wonderful and glorious attributes of God. We learn that He is a God of love….that He is love. We learn that He is a just and holy God, that He is righteous and good, that He is compassionate and merciful and kind. We learn that He is a God of grace, and a God who forgives. We learn that God is impartial in His dealings with mankind. We learn that He is a God of light, without any darkness at all.
We know all these things about God to be true, but it seems like for many people, all of that goes out the window when they come to Romans 9. We cannot make the mistake of allowing one chapter to change everything we know about God. God is consistent and unchangeable, so we must be very careful how we view this chapter.
I cannot emphasize this enough: When we read Romans 9, it must be read in light of what we already know to be true about God. Also, while it must be read within context, we cannot make the mistake of reading it in isolation of the rest of Scripture. We must allow God’s Word to interpret itself. We must compare scripture with scripture until there is harmony between the statements made in this chapter and what the rest of the Bible teaches, especially as it relates to God’s attributes.
Again, I cannot overstate the importance of having a correct view of God and His character (along with the meaning of the names that represent Him) before one attempts to understand this chapter. And that goes for this whole subject of election. Trying to understand the doctrine of election and how God deals with mankind without a clear awareness of who God is, is to invite doctrinal error. Furthermore, without this understanding about God, you could well end up misrepresenting God and attributing things to Him that are total lies. That is a very dangerous place to be in.
It would be very helpful for you to first read my article about the attributes and names of God. I believe a correct understanding of God serves as the foundation for understanding the doctrine of election and how He deals with mankind.
Here’s the link:
Romans, chapters 9, 10, and 11 should be read as a single unit, as a single chapter. Chapter 10 is a continuation of chapter 9, and chapter 11 is a continuation of chapter 10. Therefore, I would recommend that you read these three chapters straight through a few times to try to get the gist of what Paul is talking about in these chapters.
As we go through this chapter, there are several things we need to keep our eyes on if we’re going to walk away with a correct understanding:
1. God’s character
2. Context….which begins with the opening verses of this chapter, and ends with chapter 11.
3. How Paul describes and pictures election for us.
4. The pathway of God’s plan of election.
5. The distinction between ethnic (national) and spiritual (true) Israel.
6. The relationship between Israel and the Gentiles (throughout 9-11).
These are the keys for correctly interpreting Romans 9.
Note: I would advise against simply going to the verses you’re most interested in, as Paul lays the groundwork in the beginning for what follows throughout the chapter. Everything has to be interpreted within the context and flow of Paul’s discussion.
Paul’s Burden for His People
9:1 I am speaking the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience witnessing with me in the Holy Spirit,
9:2 that I have great sorrow and unceasing pain in my heart.
9:3 For I could wish that I myself to be accursed from Christ on behalf of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh,
9:4 who are Israelites, of whom are the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the law-giving, and the worship, and the promises;
9:5 of whom are the fathers and from whom Christ [came], according to the flesh, He who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.
What Paul was about to say, was the “truth in Christ.” Apparently Paul thought that what he was about to say would seem so astonishing to others, that he felt it necessary to preface what he was about to say with those words. He wanted his readers to understand that he really meant what he was about to say, and that the Holy Spirit was his witness: That he had such a love and concern for Israel, that he was willing to give up his own salvation if it meant the salvation of Israel….if that were possible.
“The proper grammatical construction of the word used here is not I did wish, but I could desire; that is, if the thing were possible. It is not I do wish, or did wish, but I could desire, (\~hucomhn\~) implying that he was willing now to endure it; that his present love for them was so strong, that he would, if practicable, save them from the threatened ruin and apostasy.”
Paul was the Apostle to the Gentiles, and as such, he was accused by the Jews of teaching things that were contrary to their religion – thus putting himself at odds with the Jewish religion. They were incorrect, of course, but that is how he was perceived by them. So here, he makes it clear that he was no enemy of Israel, but in fact had a sincere love and concern for them. So much so, that he had “great sorrow and unceasing pain in his heart.”
So, throughout the next three chapters he makes his appeal to Israel (though he is addressing Gentile believers in this letter, Ro 1:13), and explains their situation, and why. But in doing so, he also is addressing the Gentiles, and how they relate to Israel. He wants Israel to see the truth that is in Christ, and he wants the Gentiles to understand the grace and mercy and kindness that God has shown them.
The Israelites were God’s chosen people (Ro 11:1). It was through them that He revealed Himself to the world. It was to them and through them that the Word of God came. It was through the Jewish prophets that God spoke and taught and warned and encouraged. It was to them and through them that He performed miracles and displayed His glory. It was through Israel that the Savior of the world came:
9:5 of whom are the fathers and from whom Christ [came], according to the flesh, He who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.
God made a covenant with Abraham, that in him “all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen 12:3; Gen 18:18; Gen 22:18), and that he would “become the father of many nations” (Gen 17:5; Rom 4:17,18). This was in reference to Christ. It was through Abraham’s line that Christ, the Savior of the world, would come.
It’s at this point that we begin to get a clue to where Paul is going with this. The nation of Israel was God’s chosen people. They were God’s elect. However, they didn’t understand that this election continued on through Christ and to the Church, which began with Abraham. Election does not have individuals in view, it has a people group in view, as verses 5 through 13 strongly indicate, as he here reveals who true Israel is. Israel is a group of people, just as the Church is a group of people.
Verses 5 through 13 form a unit. It provides the foundation for understanding the rest of the chapter, and on through chapter 11.
Israel’s Failure, Not God’s
9:6 But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all those of Israel [are of] Israel,
9:7 nor [are they] all children because they are the seed of Abraham; but, “In Isaac your descendants shall be called.”
9:8 That is, those who are the children of the flesh are not the children of God; but [it is] the children of the promise that are regarded as descendants.
William MacDonald, Believer’s Bible Commentary:
“The apostle now faces up to a serious theological problem. If God made promises to Israel as His Chosen earthly people, how can this be squared with Israel’s present rejection and with the Gentiles being brought into the place of blessing? Paul insists that this does not indicate any breach of promise on God’s part. He goes on to show that God has always had a sovereign election process based upon promise and not just on lineal descent. Just because a person is born into the nation of Israel does not mean that he is an heir to the promises. Within the nation of Israel, God has a true believing remnant.”
“He who is God over all” (vs 5)
Israel needed to understand that the One they were rejecting, was in truth, their God: Yahweh. People today of other religions need to understand the same thing, that in their rejection of Christ, they reject the very God they seek to worship.
The promises to Israel as the people of God have not failed, but are fulfilled in Christ. The failure is on the part of Israel for not seeing and understanding. When God made a covenant with Abraham and his offspring (Gen 17:4-9), it was with Christ in view as the total fulfillment of that covenant.
Not every Jew is a child of Abraham, or a child of God. The true children of Abraham are not those who are of physical descent (“children of the flesh”), but who are of the “faith of Abraham,” (“children of the promise”). Paul deals with this in detail in Gal 3:6-9, and in Gal 3:16-29.
Please take time to read those passages. In fact, Galatians 2:15 through to the end of chapter 4 provide greater detail of what Paul describes here in this passage, and throughout chapters 9-11. Paul’s discussion in Galatians serves as a great introduction to what he talks about in these chapters.
True Israel is not the nation of Israel, but those who are of the same faith of Abraham. This is what Israel as a nation failed to understand. It’s those who place their faith in Christ that are the “children of promise” and the “children of Abraham.” It’s not those who are of physical descent, but those who are of spiritual descent who are children of Abraham and children of God. It’s not that God has forsaken Israel. On the contrary, His promises to them as His people have been fulfilled in Christ, their Messiah. While the nation of Israel was God’s elect people, this process of election continues on through Christ and the Church.
Paul, in Galatians:
“Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, ‘And to offfsprings,’ referring to many, but referring to one. ‘And to your offspring,’ who is Christ.” (Gal 3:16) ESV
“for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.” (Gal 3:26-29) ESV
Also Romans 10:11-12
“For the Scripture says, “Whoever believes on Him shall not be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, for the same Lord of all is rich to all who call on Him.”
The Form of Election Identified
The Spiritual Counterpart of National Israel
It was never God’s will or intention that salvation be restricted to just the Jews, or to provide salvation to the Jews just because they were the physical “offspring” of Abraham.
The primary reference to “offspring” (Gal 3:16) that God talked about with Abraham, was Christ. The secondary reference to “offspring” (Gal 3:29) is everyone who belongs to Christ through faith. We become offspring of Abraham through our relationship with Christ. In other words, through Christ, we are his spiritual offspring of Abraham. Our election is in Christ, and we as the Church, are the elect people of God, just as the nation of Israel was the elect people of God. The election of Israel was the choosing of a people group, not individuals. This same election of a people group continues in Christ, which is now the Church.
When God chose Israel, it was a people of faith in Christ – the faith of Abraham – that God had in view. True Israel consists not only of Jews of faith, but also of Gentiles of faith. The wall between us has been broken down, and we have become one together through our common faith in Christ, as Paul explains in Eph 2:13-22.
God’s choosing of national Israel serves as the basis for understanding that the doctrine of election is the choosing of a people group, for spiritual Israel is (what should be obvious) the counterpart of national Israel. Furthermore, just as God chose Abraham, and is the corporate head of national Israel, so is Christ the Corporate Head of spiritual Israel. Abraham serves as a type of Christ in this matter of election. I will discuss this subject further shortly.
That election is the election of a people group, and not individuals, is very clear in my view. Did God not choose a people group, the nation of Israel? And does this people group (true/spiritual Israel) not continue today through Christ? What sense does it make to begin the process of election with a people group, but then continue it and end it with individuals? Election is corporate. I believe that is precisely how Jews would have understood election in Paul’s day. Because of their culture and religious background and who they were, I don’t believe they would not have understood election any other way. That Paul views election as corporate seems clear in his description here.
I think one reason that we as Christians in the United States have a tendency to view election as the election of individuals, is because of our American way of thinking. We are individualistic in our thinking. We need to reorient our way of thinking whenever we study the Bible, and try to place ourselves into the culture of their day.
Explanation of Corporate Election
I want to take some time to go into greater detail about corporate election.
At some point in eternity, God chose to save mankind from their sins. He chose one plan to do that, and that plan was Christ. He is the “Chosen” of God (Luke 9:35). God chose to save mankind through His Son. He chose to save anyone who came to Him through faith in His Son. Those who do, become members of the “elect” people of God. Together we are the “chosen.” He did not choose to save anyone through any other way, or through any other religion. Those who try to come to God through any other way, He rejects. They are the “non-chosen” or the “non-elect.”
We as a corporate people are the “elect’ or the “chosen.” We are the “elect” in the sense that God chose to set apart one people from among all the people of the world. He chose us corporately as a people to represent Him in this world. All other people and people groups in the world are the “non-elect” because God chose to designate only one people to carry out His will in this world, and that people is the Church, made up of individual Christians who chose to follow God’s one “chosen” plan.
As it relates to our salvation, God only chose one individual, and that individual is Christ. He is the “Chosen” of God. Jesus is the Corporate Head of God’s people. Our election is in Him. When someone comes to God through faith in His Son, they become a part of His corporate people, His corporate “elect.”
As I noted earlier, Abraham serves as a type of Christ, as he was the corporate head of national Israel. It should also be noted, that Jacob, whom God renamed Israel, is also, and more directly, the corporate head of national Israel. I suppose we can consider Abraham and Jacob to be co-heads. Since Isaac is normally named with the other two, we can include him. God’s choosing of these men as the corporate head of Israel, serves to identify election as being the election of a people group, and Christ as being the Corporate Head of true/spiritual Israel, who is the Church – made up of both believing Jews and Gentiles.
The teaching of individualistic election has caused a lot of unnecessary confusion in the Church. Even more serious, are the implications that it has regarding the character of God. Once we realize that election is corporate, so much of Scripture falls into place. It makes so much more sense, and it answers so many questions.
Clear Picture of Election
Paul gives us a clear picture of corporate election in Romans 11:11-24. That is a picture of a people group, not of individuals. Obviously, as with all other types of groups, the corporate people of God is made up of individuals, but it’s the “cultivated olive tree” as a group that is the primary focus. In Paul’s description of this tree, he makes it clear that we are “elect” (verses 5-7) only as we are in this tree. If we are “broken off,” we are not a part of this elect tree. If we are “grafted back in,” we again become a part of this elect tree. Election is the corporate people of God, described as a “cultivated olive tree,” consisting of both Jews and Gentiles, the people of the faith of Abraham.
We are not saved because we are the “elect.” We are the “elect” because we are “in Christ.”
Here’s an excerpt from one of my articles, Abraham, A Key to Understanding Election:
A Key To Understanding Election
Please read these passages in its entirety:
What we have here is a picture of corporate election. The tree described here as a “cultivated olive tree,” is a tree of life or a tree of salvation, which has its roots in Abraham. We can call this Abraham’s family tree. This tree is True Israel, the people of faith, of whom Abraham is the father.
The natural branches are individual Jews who were broken off because of unbelief. The “wild olive shoot” that was “cut off from what is by nature a wild olive tree,” are Gentiles who are grafted into this tree through faith in Christ.
Since both believing Jews and believing Gentiles embody this tree, the cultivated olive tree must be identified as the Church. However, we must not lose sight of the fact that this is a tree that has Abrahamic roots, for it is through Abraham that the world is blessed.
It’s important to see that both Jew and Gentile are among the elect of God only as they remain in this tree of faith, and that’s just the way corporate election works. It’s not the purpose of this study to make a case for conditional eternal security, but we can’t escape the fact that individuals will be cut off if they do not “continue in His kindness,” because they “stand by faith.” It’s also important to see that individuals who have fallen, can be grafted back “in again,” “if they do not continue in their unbelief.” This “cut off and being grafted back in again,” is part of the corporate picture that we need to see. We are elect only as we remain in union with Christ, through an abiding faith.
As with everything else, God always has a purpose for doing what He does. In Rom 11:5-8, Paul refers to election. A few verses later, he gives us a picture of our election in Christ. We might ask, why a tree?
A tree has a body, and roots, and branches. The tree body represents the whole, the branches are all individual, but can be broken off and grafted in, and the roots are what gives the tree life and stability. So what is Paul trying to teach us here?
I believe the roots refer to Abraham (ultimately Christ), through whom all the families of the earth are blessed. It’s through the line of Abraham that Christ came, providing life for all. He is our root of stability.
The body refers to the elect body of Christ, the called out corporate people of God. This is true Israel, which is the Church. All believers, both Jew and Gentile, are the offspring of Abraham (Gal 3:26-29).
The branches refer to individual believers within the elect body. As with a real tree, branches can be broken off, and they can be grafted in. Our salvation depends on remaining firm in our faith, or like branches, we will be cut off from the body of Christ.
I believe that Abraham, and God’s choosing of a tree – with all its implications – is a significant key to understanding the doctrine of election. From my point of view, corporate election is what’s presented in the Word of God. From the view point of Christian Jews of Paul’s day, I don’t believe individual election is how they would have seen it.
The Pathway of God’s Plan of Election
9:9 For this is the word of promise: “At this time I will come and Sarah shall have a son.”
9:10 And not only this, but also Rebecca, having conceived from the one man, our father Isaac;
9:11 (for [the children] not yet being born, nor having done anything good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works but of Him who calls),
9:12 it was said to her, “The older shall serve the younger.”
9:13 As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”
In verses 7 and 8, where Paul explains that the true children of Abraham, and of of God, are not of physical descent, but “of promise,” it’s important to point out that while faith is involved and implied in that promise, he doesn’t mention faith by name. In fact, while Paul obviously has faith in view, he doesn’t mention it at all until he gets to verse 30.
I believe that’s significant. Everything Paul says is by design, as he’s being led along by the Holy Spirit. The absence of the word “faith” in this discussion suggests that we look for the reason why. I believe the reason why, is because his primary focus here is not on personal salvation, but on the plan of salvation itself, rather, God’s plan of election. He’s not talking about the specifics of how one comes to salvation; he doesn’t get into that till verse 30, and continues that focus into chapter 10 where he gets very specific about it. But for now, Paul’s focus in this passage is on the plan of election itself and the pathway that it takes.
I believe this awareness is key – even vital – to understanding the very controversial verses of 11-24. We must be aware of the flow of Paul’s discussion, or we will end up interpreting things out of context, and inserting our own preconceived ideas into the text.
Where Paul says in verse 11, “that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works but of Him who calls,” he is referring directly to God’s choosing of Jacob over Esau as the context of verses 10-13 make it clear. God didn’t choose Jacob on the basis of works, “but of Him who calls.” Furthermore, in the bigger picture, Paul is referring to God’s plan of election with the world in view – which He would carry out through Jacob. The plan of election – the means of calling out a people for Himself – is not by our works or according to our own will; it’s all God. It’s His plan alone.
Note: Where it says “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated,” it does not mean that God literally hated Esau in the same sense that we understand that word today. It’s simply a matter of comparison. God is a God of love, for He is love (1 John 4:8). For God to hate would be contrary to who He is in His attributes. Also, I don’t believe God is referring to how He feels about Esau. I believe it simply relates to his dealing with Him, for we too are instructed to “love in deed and in truth” (1 Jn 3:18). Nowhere are we commanded to have feelings of love for someone.
Therefore, I believe this is simply a reference to the special favor He chose to bestow upon Jacob, but not to Esau. To attribute hatred to God is to ignore everything else that is written about His love and character. We need to keep everything in proper balance, or we will find ourselves in error, and attributing things to God that aren’t true.
Whom Does God Have Mercy On?
9:14 What shall we say then? [Is] there unrighteousness with God? By no means!
Within the context of this verse, Paul is referring directly to God’s choosing of Jacob over Esau. God’s purpose and plan of election would be fulfilled in Christ through Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. (Gen 21:12; Gen 26:2-4; Gen 28:12-14,). God chose to fulfill His promise to Abraham through Jacob instead of Esau. That was God’s plan. Simple as that. Is there any injustice or “unrighteousness” in that? Of course not. God has a different plan and purpose for every one of us. This was His plan for Jacob, “that the purpose of God according to election might stand.” (ESV: “that God’s purpose of election might continue.”).
Throughout this passage, the discussion has been about the plan of election and of salvation through Abraham’s line, through whom Christ came. This is all about the election of a people set apart by God, which began with Abraham, and “continued” on through Isaac and Jacob, and onward to Christ and the Church. In context, the focus is on God’s choosing of Jacob over Esau. In order for God’s “purpose of election,” to continue, He chose to do so through Jacob. It was Jacob, that He “called,” not Esau.
9:15 For He says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whomever I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whomever I will have compassion.”
9:16 So then it is not of him that wills, nor of him that runs, but of God who shows mercy.
While Paul’s question of verse 14 refers directly to Jacob and Esau, indirectly, it refers to God’s plan overall, as Jacob is representative of that plan here. God chose His plan of election and plan of salvation for the world according to His own will (not man’s), and out of “mercy” and “compassion” for the people of the world. His plan is a plan of redemption, a plan that saves man from the consequences of sin, and one that brings them into a right relationship with Him, to live eternally with Him.
Those whom God chooses to have mercy and compassion on, are those who come to Him according to His plan, those who come to Him through faith in His Son. His plan doesn’t include having mercy on those who try coming to Him any other way. “Is there unrighteousness with God? By no means!” Paul’s answer is emphatic. Salvation is on God’s terms, and people must be willing to come to Him according to those terms. The way has been provided, and people must turn away from themselves in humility, and respond to the truth that He provides. All other so-called plans of redemption are false plans that God does not honor (show mercy).
Therefore, God’s plan of election and salvation has nothing to do with the election of individuals….only in the sense that He has chosen to save individuals who come to Him through faith in His Son. Those are the one’s He has mercy on.
God’s choosing of Jacob and His not choosing Esau, had nothing to do with whether they were “good” or “bad.” Nor was it because of their “works” or because of the works of Isaac or of Abraham; it wasn’t because they “willed” it to be; it was totally of God and His “mercy.” It was because of His mercy on Jacob (and Abraham), and on the people of this world, that He chose Jacob to be the one through whom Christ and salvation would come to this world. That’s the subject that Paul is talking about. It’s not the details and how’s of the plan of salvation (election), it’s the plan itself that is under discussion.
9:17 For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I may show My power in you, and that My name may be proclaimed in all the earth.”
9:18 So then He has mercy on whom He wills, and whom He wills He hardens.
In order to interpret what Paul says in these verses, we must keep the subject of his discussion in mind, and that is the PLAN and the PATHWAY that God has chosen for that plan. It’s all about the continuation of God’s plan to call a people out of this world for Himself, that began with Abraham. This was His plan and the pathway He chose.
While God shows mercy to individuals who come to Him via faith in His Son, in the context of these two verses, I believe it’s the continuation or the fulfillment of God’s plan that is in view here. In order for God’s plan for an elected people to continue, He does whatever He needs to do to ensure its fulfillment.
That awareness allows us to understand why Paul brings Pharaoh into the discussion. God had to deliver Israel, His people, in order for His plan to continue. God “raised up” Pharaoh not only to demonstrate His power in him, but also because delivering His people from bondage was something He needed to do: “that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” How is God’s name proclaimed throughout the whole earth? Is it not through the gospel of Jesus Christ? I believe that is exactly what is in view here.
After Paul talks about Pharaoh, he says “So then, He has mercy on whom He wills, and whom He wills He hardens.” Again, I believe Paul is making the point that God does whatever He needs to do in order to carry out His plan of election to completion. In Pharaoh’s case, God had to harden him in order to have mercy on Israel (and on the rest of the world).
I believe the mention of Pharaoh was almost just in passing. The hardening of Pharaoh was not Paul’s focus, nor was it meant to apply to the hardening of the “non-elect,” as Calvinists believe. It was not his intention to provide a basis for some grand theological position. I believe Paul brings up Pharaoh simply as an example of what God did to ensure the fulfillment of His plan, which of course, has already been fulfilled in Christ. I think Paul could have talked about the events that led up to the cross, and that too would have revealed the details of God’s involvement in the fulfillment of His plan.
Calvinists have turned this whole chapter into something that it’s not. Because of a faulty approach to this chapter, one that doesn’t follow the flow of Paul’s discussion, it practically forms the very foundation for what they believe about the doctrine of election. They have taken this verse about hardening and mercy out of context, and have made the assumption that it applies to one’s personal salvation – that God chooses to have mercy on the “elect” while hardening the “non-elect.” But that idea is nowhere to be found in Paul’s words here. That idea has to be forced into the text.
Furthermore, Calvinists understanding of God’s character is flawed. Pride and humility are key to understanding who God gives grace, mercy, and compassion to. God hates pride. Pride, unbelief, love for sin, and a lack of the fear of God is what causes Him to withhold.
On the other hand, God loves humility and always responds to humility in a favorable manner. This idea that God grants mercy to “elect” individuals while hardening “non-elect” individuals, simply isn’t according to truth. God is consistent with Himself.
While Paul’s discussion is about the plan, I want to speak briefly to the Calvinist position that teaches this passage is about personal election to salvation:
As a God of love, He always seeks the best for every individual. Jesus died for all, and is continuously drawing all individuals of the world to Himself. But many people simply aren’t open to His love. Those who are not open to His love, and rebel against the truth, will bring God’s judgment upon themselves, instead of His mercy and grace.
Read through the Bible from cover to cover, and you will see that God moves against individuals and cities and kingdoms not in an arbitrary manner, but because of their sin, pride, and unbelief. But any individual or city or kingdom that turns from their sins in humility before God, He responds in mercy and grace. “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” (1 Pet 5:5)
Therefore, when God says, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion,” in regard to salvation, it’s His will to extend mercy to the humble, it’s His will to extend compassion to those who respond to His love, and to the truth and light that He provides.
Commentary on Romans 9 (Part One)