Romans 9 is often cited as one of the clearest examples in Scripture of the Reformed doctrine of individual election: It discusses God’s sovereign choice of Isaac in preference to Ishmael and Jacob rather than Esau, without regard to any merit of the chosen or demerit of those who were not chosen. It counters what would later be the Arminian objection that unconditional election appears unjust to our human sense of justice, and uses Pharaoh as an example of someone whom God ‘raised up’ for the express purpose of becoming a demonstration of God’s power. God bears with great patience these ‘objects of wrath,’ in order to glorify himself before the ‘objects of his mercy,’ that is, the elect (see Augustine, “To Prosper and Hilary” 14; Calvin, Institutes 3.22.4-6).
I would contend that this interpretation ignores the larger context of Romans 9-11, whose main theme is struggling with the implications of the Gospel for the nation of Israel. It also ignores the Old Testament contexts of Paul’s quotations, which when viewed in proper perspective shed a distinctly different light on Paul’s argument. Paul is struggling with the fact that God had made certain promises in the scriptures concerning Israel, many of which he sees as fulfilled in and through Christ. Yet Israel as a whole has not come to Christ. What does this mean for Israel, for the veracity of the Scriptures, and for Paul’s gospel? These questions dominate Paul’s mind in Romans 9-11, and his statements about election in Romans 9 must be evaluated in terms of them.
Romans 9:1 makes a clear break with what has gone on before, and yet the chapters that follow are intimately related to those that precede. Paul has demonstrated in Romans 1-8 the fallenness of all humanity (both Jew and Gentile), justification not by the “works of the law” (ergon nomou, 3:20) but rather by “faith in Jesus Christ” (pisteos Iesou Christou, 3:22), Abraham as an example of justification by faith, and the practical implications of justification by faith. Paul’s theoretical argument is rather nicely wrapped up at the end of chapter 8, except for establishing the relationship between his doctrine of justification by faith in Christ and the historic relationship God has had with ethnic Israel. Even though Paul represents justification by faith not as a novelty but as something that began with Abraham, that does not answer the question of why God had related to His people Israel primarily on the basis of their descent from Abraham and on their keeping of the Law. Scripture makes clear that the Israelites viewed themselves as relating to God on the basis of those two things (descent from Abraham: Gen. 26:24; Dt. 4:37; Matt. 3:9; Lk. 1:72-74; keeping the Law: Ex. 20:6; Lev. 26:3ff; 1 Kings 9:4-5; Neh. 1:9; Dn. 9:4; Mt. 19:17; Ac. 15:5). The Jewish people, who had not been coming in great numbers to Christ, may well argue that if Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith were true, then God would have essentially broken His promises to Israel. If Israel sees inclusion in the covenant as based on descent from Abraham and keeping the Law, then how can God turn around and say, “No, inclusion in the covenant is not based on descent from Abraham or keeping the Law, but rather on faith in Christ”? It would seem to them that God’s word had failed (v. 6), which is what Paul is at pains to dispute in Romans 9-11.
In a nutshell, Paul’s argument begins by assaulting the two assumptions that had been made concerning God’s relationship to His people. Paul’s line of argumentation in Romans 9-11 is intended to answer the specific charge that if Paul’s gospel were true, God’s word would have failed regarding Israel. Much of the traditional interpretation of this passage seems to keep this emphasis in mind only for a few verses, but in fact this charge is the primary position against which Paul is writing throughout the three chapters. It is the essential position of the “hypothetical questioner” whom Paul invokes in 9:19-20, and is implied in a number of other verses (e.g., 9:6, 16, 32). In chapter 3, Paul has already demolished the possible contention that Jews can rely on keeping the Law; however, Jews may still rely on their descent from Abraham as indicating their inclusion in the covenant community. After all, the Old Testament promises regarding the restoration of Israel are not contingent upon perfect obedience to the Law; in some ways, it appears that adherence to the Law is actually one of the promises to be fulfilled (e.g., Jer. 31:33). So if Paul says that justification is by faith in Christ, and if this standard ends up excluding the majority of Jews, who have not come to faith in Christ, then he seems to void God’s promises to Israel.
Paul’s response is simply to demonstrate that God never chose descendants of Abraham, merely as descendants of Abraham, for inclusion in the covenant community. This is clear because not all the descendants of Abraham were included, but only the descendants of Isaac, and then of Jacob. In other words, the “attrition” (if we may be permitted to call it that) that occurs with the generations of Isaac and Jacob does not stop there, but progresses throughout the descendants of Israel. It is in this sense that “not all who are descended from Israel are Israel” (9:6).
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