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.
Having had an overview of what Paul is saying in Romans 9:6-13, we will now look in more detail at the “not based on ethnicity” part – verses 6b to 9. As explained before, in these verses Paul is demonstrating that physical descent from Abraham is no guarantee of receiving God’s blessing:
“ But it is not as though the word of God has failed. 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 called.”  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.””
Paul’s main point is clear. The fact that a person is ethnically a descendant of Abraham (even if also a descendant of Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, also known as Israel) does not guarantee that the person is in a right-standing with God. The statement that ‘not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel’ reminds us of Romans 2:28-29: ‘no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter.’ Those who ‘belong to Israel’, in Paul’s terminology, are those who have circumcised hearts, i.e. those who are trusting in God.
The statement in verse 7a that ‘not all of Abraham’s children are his seed’ is often translated as ‘not all are children of Abraham because they are his seed’. The difference is whether “children” or “seed” is the broad term, with the other being the narrower term (i.e. the term that does not apply to all ethnic Israelites). The translation I have used may be preferred because it has “seed” as the narrower term, which is consistent with the use of the word “seed” later in verse 7 and in verse 8. A corresponding translation is used in the NRSV and the CEB. Whichever translation is used, the point Paul is making is the same: not all who are physical descendants of Abraham are true, spiritual, descendants of Abraham.
As explained in the previous post, Paul states his main point in verse 8 and surrounds it with an example in verse 7b and verse 9. Although Paul’s main point is to demonstrate that God does not choose based on ethnicity, Paul does make a brief statement regarding who it is that God does regard as his children: ‘the children of the promise are counted as seed’ (verse 8). Paul does not need to explain again who the ‘children of the promise’ are, as he has done this already in Romans 4:16:
“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] seed — not only to those who are of the law but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all.”
Paul has already explained the link between the promise to Abraham and faith, so we know that the ‘children of the promise’ are those who share in the faith of Abraham. In verse 8, the ‘children of the promise’ are contrasted with the ‘children of the flesh’ (i.e. the ethnic Israelites). The ‘children of the promise’ are said to be ‘the children of God’ and ‘counted as seed’. Paul is again stating that ethnic descent does not determine whether a person is in a right-standing with God – what matters is whether the person shares in the faith of Abraham. Therefore, not all of the ‘children of the flesh’ (i.e. the ethnic Israelites) are ‘children of the promise’.
Although God has the freedom and right to choose people however he wants to, some methods of choosing reflect his character better than others. It is therefore not surprising to those who know God’s character that he did not choose for salvation to be dependent on ethnicity, such that all people of one particular ethnicity will be saved and all people of other ethnicities will not be saved.
To illustrate his point, Paul gives an example. The example relates to Isaac and his brother, Ishmael (who is not mentioned by name in the passage). We will see that the specific choice being made by God in the example was not a choice of who would be saved and who would not be saved, but it was a choice relating to which of Abraham’s two sons would inherit the blessing of being an ancestor of Christ, Abraham’s promised ‘seed’ (i.e. offspring). The ‘seed’ promised to Abraham is Christ, as Paul explains in Galatians 3:16. God was explaining to Abraham that Christ would come through Isaac’s family line, and not through Ishmael’s. The blessing of being an ancestor of Christ is one of the blessings of the covenant that God made with Abraham (Acts 3:25-26). God chose for this covenant to be passed through Isaac and not through Ishmael (Genesis 17:18-21).
Paul and his ethnic Israelite audience would have been well aware that this choice by God of Isaac over Ishmael did not dictate their eternal salvation, and Paul does not claim in the passage that this was the case. Instead, Paul is using the example to illustrate his main point – that being an ethnic descendant of Abraham does not guarantee inclusion in God’s blessing.
The example is being used by Paul as an example of God making a choice not based on ethnicity. As both Ishmael and Isaac were ethnic descendants of Abraham, God’s decision to bring forth Christ through Isaac and not through Ishmael cannot have been a decision based on ethnicity. It is not Paul’s main purpose to explain what this decision was based on, but the example is used as a demonstration of God making a choice not based on ethnicity.
The example is of particular relevance to Paul’s ethnic Israelite audience. The fact that Ishmael was excluded from the blessing of being an ancestor of Christ, even though he was a descendant of Abraham, shows that descendants of Abraham should not consider their physical descent from Abraham as a guarantee of receiving God’s blessing. The situation is analogous to the unbelieving ethnic Israelites of Paul’s day, who were finding themselves outside of God’s blessing despite being ethnic descendants of Abraham.
The example shows that God had the right to decide which of Abraham’s sons would be the ancestor of Christ, and that it was up to God how he would make this decision. It is clear that the decision was not based on ethnicity, as both Ishmael and Isaac are physical descendants of Abraham. In any event, Ishmael did not have a right to complain about missing out on the blessing of being an ancestor of Christ. Neither he nor Isaac deserved this blessing, and it was up to God to decide who would receive it. Ishmael could not point to his physical descent from Abraham as evidence that he deserved this blessing.
In a similar manner, the ethnic Israelites of Paul’s day could not point to their physical descent from Abraham as evidence that they deserved to be considered as children of God. Nobody deserves to be called a child of God, and it is up to God to decide who will receive this blessing. Those not currently in possession of this blessing do not have the right to demand that God should give it to them because of their ethnicity.
The example is used by Paul to show that, as God did not choose based on ethnicity regarding which of Abraham’s two sons would become an ancestor of Christ, so God does not choose based on ethnicity regarding who will be saved.
Looking at the example in more detail, the first quote, ‘through Isaac shall your seed be called’ is from Genesis 21:12. This is God’s message to Abraham after Abraham expressed his concern about Ishmael and Hagar (Ishmael’s mother) being sent away. God confirms to Abraham that the promised seed will come through Isaac, but also reassures Abraham regarding Ishmael: ‘I will make a nation of the son of the slave woman also, because he is your seed’ (Genesis 21:13). After Ishmael and his mother are sent away, ‘God heard the voice of the boy [Ishmael], and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven’ (Genesis 21:17). God promises to Hagar that he will ‘make him [Ishmael] into a great nation’ (21:18), and after this we are told that ‘God was with the boy, and he grew up’ (21:20). God’s actions in hearing the voice of Ishmael and being with him as he grew up do not fit well with the view some people have that God had made a prior decision to damn Ishmael and save Isaac. It is clear that God cares for both Isaac and Ishmael, and that his decision did not relate to their salvation.
The second quote of the example is found in verse 9: ‘For this is what the promise said: “About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son.”’ This is from the earlier passage of Genesis 18:10, and was God’s word to Abraham a year before Isaac was born. Isaac’s birth was miraculous, as Sarah was too old to conceive naturally (Genesis 18:11). This quote demonstrates that it was entirely of God for Isaac to be born. It was God who made the decision for Isaac to be born and it was God who miraculously made it happen. While Abraham and Sarah’s flesh was old and unable to produce a child, God was able to produce a child through them. This was in contrast to the older son, Ishmael, who was produced in the normal manner according to the flesh. God’s decision of Isaac over Ishmael was therefore another indication that he does not choose based on matters of the flesh – it seems God avoided choosing the “made by the flesh” child (Ishmael) to avoid any misunderstanding that one’s flesh can determine one’s favour with God. Paul is therefore drawing an analogy between Isaac and Ishmael, and ‘the children of the promise’ and ‘the children of the flesh’ from verse 8. As with the first quote, God is the one speaking – he alone has the authority and ability to set the terms of the situation.
In the next post, we will look at the “not based on works” part – verses 10 to 13.
This was first published at the Predestination Station, where comments can be made.