This is part of a series of posts on Romans. The main focus of this series will be chapters 9-11 of the letter. These chapters, particularly chapter 9, have been interpreted in various different ways. My aim is to demonstrate what I consider to be the correct interpretation. I will do this by considering the structure and context of the letter and then focusing in on these chapters, showing how the proposed interpretation fits with the context and structure of the letter, as well as being internally consistent within chapters 9-11. Click here for the contents page.
Now we have appreciated the great news of Romans 9-11, we are at last ready to look at Romans 9:6-29 (the second section of Romans 9-11), about which there has been much debate. We will see that this section actually fits comfortably with the rest of Romans 9-11. The context and clarity of the rest of Romans 9-11 will help us to check that we are staying on the right track as we go through this section. Romans 11:1-32, which is the matching section to this section in the structure of Romans 9-11 and discusses many of the same concepts, will be particularly useful in helping us to understand this section. Romans 3:1-4:25, which is the matching section to Romans 9-11 in the structure of the whole letter, will also aid our understanding of this section.
The first two sections of Romans 9-11 (Romans 9:1-5 and Romans 9:6-29) are developing a discussion on ethnic Israelites that Paul has begun already in Romans 3:1-8, which is the beginning of Romans 3:1-4:25 – the parallel section to Romans 9-11. Romans 3:1-8 starts with this:
“ Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision?  Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God.  What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God?  By no means!”
In chapter 3, Paul briefly introduces one advantage that ethnic Israelites have: ‘to begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God’, but doesn’t discuss this any further. He has been holding back until chapter 9 to consider this in more detail. In Romans 9:1-5, Paul develops this point by listing various other advantages that the ethnic Israelites have (see 9:4-5).
Similarly, Paul’s question and answer from 3:3-4: ‘does their [i.e. the ethnic Israelites’] faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? By no means!’ corresponds to the beginning of Romans 9:6-29:
“ But it is not as though the word of God has failed.”
This is what Paul will go on to demonstrate in Romans 9:6-29 – that the faithlessness of so many of Paul’s fellow ethnic Israelites (i.e. the situation that so many of them are not trusting in Christ) does not mean that God has been unfaithful to his word. (The reference in Romans 9:6 to the ‘word’ of God corresponds to the references to the ‘oracles’ and ‘words’ of God in Romans 3:2 and 3:4 – all these words have the same Greek root.)
Throughout Romans 9:6-29, Paul makes his point by answering objections from a hypothetical questioner (see verses 14 and 19). There is also an implicit question at the beginning of this section, which corresponds to the question from 3:3 – “has the word of God failed?” (i.e. “has God been unfaithful to ethnic Israel?”). It makes sense for the objecting questioner to be an ethnic Israelite because, as well as fitting the context, Paul is specifically addressing the ethnic Israelites of the church in Rome in this part of the letter.
The objection is that, if most of the ethnic Israelites are not in proper relationship with God, then the word of God must have failed because (the objecting questioner believes) God is under some kind of obligation to save all ethnic Israelites. In particular, God gave the ethnic Israelites his word in the form of the law. These ethnic Israelites believed that they were following the law and that the works they were doing made them righteous (see 9:31-32), so the situation that this was not resulting in them being in proper relationship with God would lead them to conclude that God’s word to them had failed. The two issues that would be of most importance to people with this belief regarding the question of who is saved would therefore be ethnicity and works.
Paul’s answer to the objection that the word of God has failed is straightforward. The word of God has not failed because God never promised to save people based on their ethnicity, nor is salvation based on works. This situation might anger the objecting questioner, who thinks that God ought to save based on ethnicity and/or works, but God has the right to save whomever he wants to save, and it is up to him to decide how he will go about doing this.
An important distinction needs to be made at this point, to avoid the risk of things being read into the text that are not actually present. The statement that it is God’s right to decide who will be saved does not itself explain anything about how God uses his right – i.e. how he actually decides who will be saved. God could use his right in different ways – he could pick individual people at random, or he could decide that no one will be saved, for example. It is God’s right to choose how to use his right to choose.
By this point in Romans, Paul has already explained very clearly how God decides who will be saved. In particular, in chapters 3-4 (which is the parallel part of Romans to chapters 9-11), it is stated that:
- The righteousness of God is ‘through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe’ (Romans 3:22).
- God’s people are ‘justified by his [God’s] grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith’ (Romans 3:24-25).
- God is ‘the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus’ (Romans 3:26).
- God’s people are ‘justified by faith apart from works of the law’ (Romans 3:28).
- – God ‘will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith’ (Romans 3:30).
- ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness’ (Romans 4:3).
- ‘To the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness’ (Romans 4:5).
- Abraham ‘received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised’ (Romans 4:11).
- Abraham is ‘the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well’ (Romans 4:11).
- Abraham is also ‘the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised’ (Romans 4:12).
- ‘The promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith’ (Romans 4:13).
- ‘That is why it [the promise] depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his [Abraham’s] offspring’ (Romans 4:16).
- Righteousness will be counted to ‘us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord’ (Romans 4:24).
Romans 1:16 also states that the gospel is ‘the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes’.
In summary, God has decided to use his right to choose whom to save in this way: he has decided to save everyone who has faith in Christ. He does this by justifying people by his grace as a gift, which is received by faith (Romans 3:24-25).
Does Paul go off-message in Romans 9-11 and put forward a different view of how God decides who will be saved? By no means! As we have already seen from within Romans 9-11:
- ‘Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have obtained 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’ (Romans 9:30-32).
- ‘Christ is the culmination of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes’ (Romans 10:4).
- ‘“The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”’ (Romans 10:8-13).
- In Paul’s “olive tree” metaphor for the church, ‘they [unbelieving ethnic Israelites] were broken off because of their unbelief, but you [believing Gentiles] stand fast through faith’ (Romans 11:20).
- The unbelieving ethnic Israelites, ‘if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again’ (Romans 11:23).
Paul’s teaching on this could not be clearer.
Paul anticipates an objection that some ethnic Israelites would make in response to his clear teaching in 3:1-4:25, and he addresses this objection in the parallel section of chapters 9-11. If salvation is given to all who trust in Christ, and most ethnic Israelites are not trusting in Christ, does this mean that God has failed them? The objection is from someone who does not like Paul’s teaching that salvation depends on faith. The quotes above from chapters 9-11 show that Paul does not answer this objection by abandoning his teaching from 3:1-4:25 and instead teaching something else about salvation. Rather, Paul is acting to defend and uphold this teaching.
In the next post, we will begin to see how Paul does this in 9:6-29.
This was first published at the Predestination Station, where comments can be made.