Thoughts on Romans 9

Romans 9  •  12 min. read  •  grade level: 8
WE now approach another subject. In Rom. 9-11 Paul is reconciling the special promises given to Abraham with the leveling which the gospel makes of Jew and Gentile, by placing them on equal conditions, whether before judgment or before grace.
Chap. ix. They are not all Israel who are of Israel. There is an election which admits Gentiles among the children of promises. The apostle reasons in this way: You, Jews, allow that it is from Abraham you hold the promises. Well, if simple descent from Abraham conferred a right to the promises, you must take in along with you Ishmael and Esau, with their races; for they also were descended from Abraham. Notwithstanding, they do not belong to the congregation of the Lord. And wherefore? Because God chose Isaac and Jacob, and did not take up Ishmael and Esau. There is then an election which distinguishes between the children of the promise and the children of the flesh. You must needs again allow the sovereignty of God, for without it all is over with you since Sinai, where you broke the covenant of the Lord. If you have subsisted since that time, if till this day there yet remains a resource for you, it is in virtue of the sovereign grace God exercises as and where He pleases. Thus, then, there is no unrighteousness with God. You have no room to complain, if He acts toward the Gentiles in the same sovereign mercy which He has shown to you.
Ver. 1—3. Paul begins by protesting solemnly his affection for Israel, and deep concern for their blessing. Their state was to him a source of great grief and continual pain. Far from despising his nation or returning their dislike and rancor against him he loved them as much as Moses ever did. If Moses had pleaded in his anguish, “Yet now, if thou wilt forgive their sin; and if not, blot me, I pray thee, out of thy book which thou hast written,” Paul was not at all behind in his love. “I could wish (or I did wish) that myself were accursed from Christ, for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh.” Of course, it is not a calm settled desire, but the impassioned feeling of his heart, expressing in all its strength his intense interest in Israel. There is no difficulty in Paul's words if we compare them with the similar outburst of Moses' heart.
Ver. 4, 5. Hence, too, he hastens to recognize the privileges of Israel, before striking what he knew would be a great blow. “Who are Israelites, whose is the sonship, and the glory, and the covenants, and the law-giving and the service, and the promises; whose are the fathers, and of whom, as to flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.” His controversy, therefore, was not with their privileges, but rather with Israel, because they were not rated highly enough. He owns those privileges as theirs, and appreciates them far more than the Jews did.
Ver. 6-13. Next he denies that the word of God has failed, and pronounces the declaration in their face that not at all Israel are Israel; God in His sovereignty decides, by election, who are to inherit the promise. Nor was there any need of going beyond the family of the fathers to demonstrate this truth; for undeniably not all the seed of Abraham himself were called, but “in Isaac shall a seed be called to thee.” In vain, then, did the Jews found their exclusive rights upon their descent from him to whom the promises were made. Ishmael was Abraham's seed no less than Isaac, and yet undeniably God chose Isaac, not Ishmael, for the line of special favor. Thus, it is not the children of the flesh that are the children of God, but the children of the promise are reckoned as seed. “For this word is [a matter] of promise. At this appointed time will I come, and Sarah shall have a son.” This was confirmed in the next generation; for though the children sprang from the same father and mother,—yea, before they were born, or had done anything, good or evil, (that God's purpose according to election might abide) it was said to Rebecca, The greater [elder] shall serve the less [younger]. And so ran the prophetic testimony of Malachi at the close, I loved Jacob and hated Esau. What could be more conclusive than this reasoning? For of all the Gentiles, none were more odious in the eyes of Jews than these very races, the Arabs and the Edomites. Yet clearly, if mere descent were to decide, they sprang from Abraham and Isaac as certainly as Israel. They must fall back, therefore, on the principle of God's sovereign choice.
Ver. 14-18. Man, stumbled by the doctrine of election, objects and says that it involves unrighteousness with God. Far be the thought, says the apostle; for if God deals in the way of righteousness, man, being sinful, falls under judgment, and all are lost. But it is not so. God acts as He will; He shows mercy or judgment, as it pleases Him; and so it should be and is best, for His will is the highest wisdom and goodness. Nor has a single soul right to complain, for those on whom this sovereign will is exercised are all covered with sin. Two examples are therein given in illustration; one of mercy towards the people when guilty and deserving death, the other of judgment on their enemy.
Now the circumstances in which God announced His sovereignty add amazing force to all this. For when was it that He said to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion?” It was when, on grounds of bare righteousness, Israel ought to have been cut off. God then withdrew, as it were, within His sovereignty, in order to spare Israel, whom righteousness must have condemned around their golden idol. How blessed then for Israel that it is not of him that wills, nor of him that runs; but of God that shows mercy! Verse 16 is an abstract enunciation of this principle, that the question is not of man's desires or efforts, but of God's will. Besides, when we come to the facts of the case, we find that man neither wishes nor seeks for mercy. It is too late, then, for man to talk of rights. The truth is that he himself is all wrong, and that the foundation of righteousness is that God should have His rights. As we have seen, and we may bless Him for it; He uses His rights in maintaining His prerogative of mercy in behalf of the people who had utterly destroyed themselves! (Comp. Ex. 33:1919And he said, I will make all my goodness pass before thee, and I will proclaim the name of the Lord before thee; and will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. (Exodus 33:19) with the preceding history.)
Thus, too, we find it in the history of every day. When men are self-righteous, they are ready to dispute at every step with God's sovereignty: when really broken down under a sense of sin, they are right glad to hear that God's mercy is sovereign enough to show them mercy: when saved and at peace themselves, they can rejoice at that mercy flowing out towards any.
On the side of judgment, the apostle cites the instance of Pharaoh. For the scripture says to Pharaoh, For this very thing have I raised thee up, that I might show in thee my power, and that my name might be declared in all the earth. Nor, in fact, could any dealing be more just; for Pharaoh had derided and denied the right of God over His own people. He was a proud and rebellious man against God, who righteously made an example of him. Hardening came on him judicially, and in the end utter ruin. Therefore has He mercy on whom He will, and whom He will He hardens. On a large scale, it was so with Israel, (Isa. 6) and it will be so with Christendom. (2 Thess. 2) Man is wicked and rejects God, who thereon -according to His sovereign wisdom-can and does give men up to hardness. Though election belongs to the eternal will of God, it is occupied with man under sin, since it settles for him the question of mercy or judgment. It is not the less sovereign for that. If God were to show His glory in the place where we are, for instance, and were suddenly to take to Him one or two persons, that act would be as sovereign as if He had decreed it thousands of years before. Observe, too, that while God hardens whom He will, He does not render wicked; but He may take a wicked man to make an example of His justice in his case. Had God created man evil, there would not have been room for a fall, and in that case man might have fairly complained.
Ver. 19-29. But man does complain, and a second objection is: Since the sovereign God decides everything, why does He any longer find fault? For who has resisted His purpose? And what I am, I am: I can only be what He pleases. Nay, but thou, man, says the apostle, who art thou that answerest again to God? Does the creature of the dust dare to judge the Creator God does what He will, and renders account of His acts to none. Thus man complains of God's righteousness when it touches himself, as he dislikes the grace which justifies others freely and absolutely. And to this indeed the question will be found to come: Is God to judge man? or is man to judge God? In the entire answer there are three propositions. First, as we have seen, the apostle maintains, in all its strength, the right of the sovereign God-the authority that He has to do just as He will with His creatures. Has not the potter power over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honor and another for dishonor? Next, he comes to the facts, and sets before us, that God, even when minded to show his wrath and make His power known, endured with much long-suffering vessels of wrath fitted for destruction-vessels which He did not fit, but had long endured. Thirdly, there is the revelation that He had afore prepared for glory vessels of mercy. The vessels of wrath were fitted by themselves-by their sins-for wrath; but the vessels of mercy were prepared of God, for in truth no man is prepared of himself for glory: grace alone effects His work in favor of the elect. The passage is written, if we may so say, carefully, by the Spirit, that we should not impute the fitting of the wicked to God. His title to act sovereignly is asserted as a general and abstract truth in verse 21. But when we come to the facts as they are, Paul declares that it is not by God's act that they are fitted to destruction. On the other hand, it is expressly said that God endured vessels of wrath, (ver. 22) and that he prepared vessels of mercy. Such are the cases supposed. Who or what, then, prepared those vessels of wrath? Sin, without doubt. Nevertheless, the word on this point preserves silence. What profound revelations result from the existence of sin-from God's way for us and for His own glory in respect of it! God alone suffices to Himself; and His power is necessary to the maintenance of everything, as it was needed to create all. The creature can only fall, if it be not sustained. The moment is seeks an independent existence it is fallen, and that even before committing a positive act of sin.
It is God's sovereignty, then, which is here established, and this necessarily dissipates the exclusive claim of the Jews to the promises. The call of God was established in Isaac, else they must share all with their most detested neighbors and enemies! The pure compassion of God was proved to be the only hope of Israel, for they had set up the golden calf! Thus, all pretense for taking the promises as a right in virtue of descent from Abraham or of obeying the law was clean gone. The sovereignty of God was the sole resource that remained. But if God was sovereign, a Jew had no more right than a Gentile: it was a question henceforth of God's will and God's word. Accordingly He calls not only from amongst Jews but from amongst Gentiles, as is shown in Hos. 1; 21 Nay, more: Esaias, (ver. 27-29,) far from strengthening the Jews pretension, declares too plainly that, numerous as the sons of Israel might be, the remnant should be saved-not the mass; even as the same prophet had said before, that had not the Lord left them a seed, they had been as Sodom and Gomorrah. In a word, judgment on Israel was the burden of the testimony in their own prophets, as well as the disclosures of mercy to the Gentiles.
Thus Paul puts the Gentiles under the benefit of the principle of sovereign election-the very same principle which opened the door for Israel's blessing, as their past history showed. Thus had God spared the Jew; thus He was now calling the Gentile. It is well to remark that this election is not a national election, as men often say; for, on the contrary, God uses His sovereignty to draw individuals out from the nation,- “us whom he has also called, not only from among Jews, but also from among Gentiles.” Indeed, the greater part of the reasoning of the chapter is precisely against the national pretension of the Jews.
Ver. 30-33. These last citations from Isaiah pave the way for the grand subject in chap. xi.—for the temporary setting aside of Israel. They have shown that if all the people were not cut off, what remained of them was to be but a little remnant. In the closing verses we have the principle under which Israel are seen cut off, and Gentiles let in. “What then shall we say'? that Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness, have attained righteousness, righteousness which is by [or from] faith. But Israel, pursuing a law of righteousness, has not attained to a law of righteousness. Wherefore? Because [it was] not from faith but from works of law. For they stumbled at the stumbling-stone,” &c. Thus their cutting off is not-a fact which merely flows from the scripture, but which results from the conduct of Israel, and that not only from their failure in accomplishing the law, which they undertook to do under the fearful sanctions of Sinai, but far more because they rejected their own Messiah, forfeiting thus their title to the promises. They stumbled at the stumbling-stone.