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.
In the previous post, we saw that the question, “has the word of God failed?” – i.e. “has God been unfaithful to ethnic Israel?”, is being asked in response to Paul’s clear teaching that God has decided to save all who have faith in Christ. Paul anticipates that this teaching will prompt an objection from some ethnic Israelites who consider that God ought to save ethnic Israelites due to their physical descent from Abraham and/or their obedience to the law (as they understand it).
In Romans 9:6-29, Paul is therefore addressing an objection from people who do not like the situation that God has decided to save all who have faith in Christ. These people have heard Paul’s teaching on how God has decided who will be saved, and they think that God should do things in a different way. It is to these people that Paul responds in this section. Their suggestion that God ought to apply salvation in a different way from how Paul has explained it prompts Paul to remind them that God has the right to decide who will be saved, and it is entirely up to God how he will do this. It is not our place as mere human beings to criticise God’s plan for salvation. Paul is particularly concerned to express this fact, as the way in which God has decided to bring about his salvation plan – that everyone who trusts in Christ will be saved – is the great news of the gospel (which is what Paul gets so excited about in the central section of Romans 10:4-13). No one is automatically rejected or without hope in this situation. In contrast, if God were to save people based on ethnicity, for example, then the gospel would not be good news for those who fail to meet the criterion. They would be ruled out with no way of switching in to the group of people who will be saved.
Romans 9:6-29 is therefore more concerned with explaining that God has the right to decide who will be saved, and has less of an emphasis on how God uses this right. The reason for this is that it is Paul’s prior explanation of how God has decided who will be saved that has prompted the objection at the beginning of this section. In any event, we will find that this part of Romans 9 is entirely consistent with what we have read throughout the rest of Romans – that God has decided to save all who have faith in Christ.
In verses 6-13, Paul sets up the accusation that he will be addressing and then answers it by making two points. As explained previously, the accusation set out in verse 6 is that, by making salvation dependent upon faith, God’s word to the ethnic Israelites has failed. This accusation is based on the understanding (held by some ethnic Israelites) that God ought to save ethnic Israelites purely due to their ethnicity and/or their works. The first thing Paul does is to reiterate that this is a false understanding. He does this by making two points. The first point can be summarised as “not based on ethnicity” and the second point can be summarised as “not based on works”.
Before we look into the text in detail, we can see these two points being made. The first point, “not based on ethnicity”, is made in verses 6b-9, as the underlined wording below demonstrates:
“[6b] For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel,  and not all of Abraham’s children are his seed, but “Through Isaac shall your seed be named.”  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 seed.  For this is what the promise said: “About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son.””
The second point, “not based on works”, is made in verses 10-13, as the underlined wording below demonstrates:
“ And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac,  though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad, in order that God’s purpose of election might stand — not because of works but because of him who calls —  she was told, “The older will serve the younger.”  As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.””
At a high level, we can see that Paul’s argument in verses 6-13 is that God’s word has not failed, because “not based on ethnicity” and “not based on works”. God has not chosen for salvation to be based on ethnicity or works, so the objection that God’s word has failed is based on a false assumption that God had said he would save people based on ethnicity and/or works.
In each of the two sections quoted above, Paul surrounds the main teaching of the section (‘not the children of the flesh’ and ‘not because of works’) with an example. In the first section, the example relates to Abraham’s children, Isaac and Ishmael. In the second section, the example relates to Isaac’s children, Jacob and Esau. The main teaching of the section is presented in the middle of the example. What Paul is doing in these verses is similar to what he does in Galatians 4:22-30, where he uses the example of Hagar and Sarah to illustrate the main point he is making. The main point is expressed in verse 28, with the example surrounding it on both sides in verses 22-27 and 29-30.
In Paul’s day, the way to highlight something in writing was to place it in the centre of a section of writing. We have seen this occur throughout Romans in the way the letter is structured (see the Contents page for posts about the structure of the letter). The wording in the centre of each example is therefore the key to understanding the point Paul is making. The first example (involving Isaac and Ishmael) is intended to illustrate the main point of ‘not the children of the flesh’, and the second example (involving Jacob and Esau) is intended to illustrate the main point of ‘not because of works’.
In modern times, we are not used to the main point of a section of text being placed in the middle. Some English Bible translations have even put the key central wording in parentheses, as if this wording were simply an aside. Without an appreciation of the importance of the central wording in each example, people have reached various different conclusions about what Paul is intending to teach by these examples. Some people have built their entire understanding of how salvation operates on these examples, without appreciating that Paul was only using these examples to illustrate the main points of “not based on ethnicity” and “not based on works”. An appreciation of this will help us to avoid deriving things from details of the examples that Paul was not intending to teach.
There is a particular risk of misunderstanding in the examples that Paul uses. As we have seen, the overall context of this section is the question of the salvation of the ethnic Israelites. Paul has taught that salvation is based on faith, rather than ethnicity and/or works. Paul has anticipated an objection to this, and is reiterating in these verses that salvation is not based on ethnicity or works, by making his main points of “not based on ethnicity” and “not based on works”. However, as we will see from a detailed study of the examples surrounding each of the main points, the examples themselves do not relate directly to salvation. The examples relate to God’s choice of one brother over another brother, but it is clear from the examples that this choice is not a choice of which brother to save and which not to save.
The reason Paul includes these examples is because of the way God makes the choice in the example, rather than because of what the choice is about. Although the choice God makes in each of the examples is not about salvation, the choice God makes in the first example is a choice that he makes “not based on ethnicity”. The choice God makes in the second example is a choice that he makes “not based on works”. These examples therefore help to illustrate the main points that Paul is making, even though the examples do not directly relate to salvation themselves. They show that, even since the time of Abraham, God has been making choices that are not based on ethnicity or works.
A failure to appreciate this can result in one of two errors. As salvation is the main issue being addressed, the examples can be read as if they relate directly to salvation in every detail, which can lead to an understanding about salvation that conflicts with what Paul has taught clearly throughout the rest of Romans. Alternatively, the realisation that the examples do not relate directly to salvation can lead to a view that Paul is not speaking about salvation at all in Romans 9:6-29. This view detaches this section from the rest of Romans 9-11, which clearly has the salvation of ethnic Israelites as its main issue. Both of these views results in an incorrect interpretation of what Paul is teaching, with potentially dangerous results.
The examples Paul chooses have extra relevance because they relate to God’s choices involved in establishing who would be part of the ethnic nation of Israel. It is ironic that the people objecting to Paul’s teaching (that salvation is based on faith rather than ethnicity and/or works) are doing so as members of an ethnic nation that was itself set up in a way that demonstrated that God chooses “not based on ethnicity” and “not based on works”. Ishmael was excluded from being part of this ethnic nation despite being an ethnic descendant of Abraham. Correspondingly, Esau was excluded from being part of this ethnic nation despite him not having done anything before God made this decision, showing that God’s choice could not have been based on Esau’s works. The examples will have a strong effect on Paul’s audience, as each example shows a decision by God not to give a blessing to someone who might have been considered to be entitled to receive the blessing. This will challenge Paul’s audience not to rely on their ethnicity and/or works for their salvation, but instead to trust in God for their salvation.
Next, we will look at the two parts of this section of Romans 9 in detail, starting with verses 6 to 9.
This was first published at the Predestination Station, where comments can be made.