Romans 9 is one of the most controversial and often-misinterpreted passages of scripture among evangelicals. Controversy, however, should not make us timid when it comes to the things of God. This inspired chapter is valuable for teaching doctrine, and should not be ignored or glossed over. At the same time, it should not be treated as a comprehensive statement of Christian soteriology by itself, for the chapter is not written in isolation, but is strongly rooted in the context of both Testaments, touching on concepts present in the other Pauline epistles and the gospels, and quoting from the Old Testament frequently. The goal of this writing is a sound, objective exegesis of Romans 9 to explain the principles therein, expound upon its themes, and to show where and how its teachings fit into the contexts of the rest of the book of Romans, and scripture as a whole. All quotes are from the NKJV unless otherwise specified.
1 I tell the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit,
2 that I have great sorrow and continual grief in my heart.
3 For I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my countrymen [or kinsmen] according to the flesh,
In the opening of the chapter, Paul displays the strongest of sympathy for his fellow Jews, his apparent inference being that he so greatly wishes their reconciliation in Christ, that he would forfeit his own salvation if that could bring about their being saved.
4 who are Israelites, to whom pertain the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the service of God, and the promises;
5 of whom are the fathers and from whom, according to the flesh, Christ came, who is over all, the eternally blessed God. Amen.
The tragedy of the majority of Jews rejecting Christ as their Messiah is only heightened when the covenant relationship between God and the children of Israel is considered. It was for Israel that He worked wonders as He did no other nation (Exodus 34:10), and as far as things in this world that pertain to God are concerned, there is much profit to being a Jew (Romans 3:2). Further, the patriarchs such as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, the prophets, apostles, as well as Jesus Christ Himself all came from this chosen people of God.
Since they are the people to whom the promises were given and to whom pertain all these blessings, this raises obvious questions: Why are so many Jews unsaved after the word of God has been preached to them? If God made the covenant with Abraham and his children, then why are so many of his descendants altogether excluded from it (Matthew 8:11-12)? Explanation of this apparent discrepancy in light of God’s righteousness is the primary focus of Romans 9.
6 But it is not that the word of God has taken no effect. For they are not all Israel who are of Israel,
Paul’s explanation begins with continuation of a subject brought up back in chapter 3:
“For what if some did not believe? Will their unbelief make the faithfulness of God without effect?” (Romans 3:3)
He immediately begins to answer the underlying questions with the distinction between national Israel and the true Israel of God, a principle that he put forth in chapter 2.
“For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh; but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God.” (Romans 2:28-29)
It’s on this basis that Paul denies the idea that God’s word has taken no effect: it has, just not within those that men would naturally expect.
7 nor are they all children because they are the seed of Abraham; but, “In Isaac your seed shall be called.” [quoting Genesis 21:12]
The point is made that just because one is technically one of Abraham’s physical offspring, this does not guarantee that he will be reckoned as such when it comes to whether he is blessed with faithful Abraham. This is well-illustrated with Abraham’s own sons, his eldest Ishmael, rather than receiving the inheritance of their tribe, was sent away in favor of the younger child of promise, Isaac. So one should not assume that merely being a child of Abraham entitles him or her to the same blessings as he. This line of thought echoes what Christ stated to His fellow Jews,
“Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones.” (Luke 3:18)
8 That is, those who are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God; but the children of the promise are counted as the seed.
9 For this is the word of promise: “At this time I will come and Sarah shall have a son.” [quoting Genesis 18:14]
The distinction between the children according to the flesh and the children of promise is further drawn and clarified here as analogy to the respective states of the natural Jews and believers in Christ. Ishamel was a child of Abraham according to the flesh (his eldest, no less), yet was not the son of promise, and thus not reckoned as his seed. He was blessed, but it was with Isaac that the covenant was established.[a]
Likewise, natural-born Jews are the descendants of Abraham according to the flesh, but if they’re not the children of promise, then with regards to the covenant of grace, they’re no more counted as Abraham’s seed than Ishmael was. Who are these children of promise then? How is one accounted as Abraham’s seed? The answer, as will be demonstrated, is revealed in the conclusion of the chapter, and treated more thoroughly in the epistle of Romans and Paul’s other letters. Interestingly, this isn’t the only time that Paul has used this analogy. It also appears in Galatians chapter 4.
“Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not hear the law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons: the one by a bondwoman, the other by a freewoman. But he who was of the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and he of the freewoman through promise, which things are symbolic. For these are the two covenants: the one from Mount Sinai which gives birth to bondage, which is Hagar—for this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and corresponds to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children— but the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all. For it is written: “Rejoice, O barren, You who do not bear! Break forth and shout, You who are not in labor! For the desolate has many more children Than she who has a husband.” Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are children of promise. But, as he who was born according to the flesh then persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, even so it is now. Nevertheless what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the bondwoman and her son, for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman.” So then, brethren, we are not children of the bondwoman but of the free.” (Galatians 4:21-31)
Hagar, in Paul’s analogy, represents the old covenant of works. Her offspring, the children of her bondage, are the natural Jews who are under the law. In verses 10-13, the analogy of the natural children versus the children of promise (represented by Isaac’s twin sons) is extended to show that the works of the law which the Jews perform are irrelevant to whether they will inherit the promises.
10 And not only this, but when Rebecca also had conceived by one man, even by our father Isaac
11 (for the children not yet being born, nor having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works but of Him who calls),
12 it was said to her, “The older shall serve the younger.” [quoting Genesis 25:23]
13 As it is written, “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated.” [quoting Malachai 1:2-3]
Just as in the example of Isaac and Ishmael, the example of Jacob and Esau again displays the purpose of God overriding man’s expectations and going against all outward appearances. Yet again the elder and favored heir apparent is rejected by God in favor of a younger supplanter. Paul likewise employs the imagery of Esau as representing the children of the fleshly ordinances in opposition to the children of promise. Just as he lost his birthright and failed to inherit his father’s blessing, so the nation of the Jews that received the covenant at Sinai largely finds itself (for now) shut out of the kingdom, while lowly Gentiles press in and inherit the promises.
The wording “not of works, but of Him who calls” is pertinent to the example. Those who are natural Jews only, the children of bondage who rest in the law (cf Romans 2:17) are confident that they are partakers in the blessings of Abraham because of their obedience to the old covenant. Paul’s contradiction of these notions of self-righteousness is a consistent theme throughout Romans, expressed in his declaration that only faith in Christ can save from sin, and that salvation is impossible through the works of the law.[b] Here, Paul highlights the irrelevance of such works by way of his analogy: one of the twins was chosen before either of them had done anything good or evil, so that God’s purpose according to His choosing would prevail. The one who received the blessing didn’t lay claim to it by either birthright or his works, but was graciously chosen for it by God, as is His prerogative. So in the same way, the point being made is that the works of the law are not a factor in whether one obtains God’s favor. The idea conveyed in Jacob being chosen over Esau apart from any works is that the Jewish keeping of the Mosaic law isn’t the basis upon which God chooses to save, therefore the Jewish pursuit of righteousness through the works of the law in comparison to the Gentiles’ general alienation from God’s statutes isn’t relevant to whether one is chosen. Both have fallen short. This being the case, many among the natural Jews who were born into the commonwealth of Israel have sought to establish their righteousness in the keeping of the law, but have nonetheless failed to obtain the promises of God. All the while the Gentiles, the lowly dogs who were by nature strangers to the promises (Ephesians 2:12), have obtained them by faith in Christ (Romans 4:13, Hebrews 6:12). To a devout Jew who valued keeping of the law highly and thought this something of great worth in the eyes of God, taking the kingdom from those who strive to keep God’s law (albeit imperfectly) and giving it to apparently less worthy Gentile usurpers who obtain it through faith without ever having kept the law might seem quite unjust, which leads Paul to His next statements.
14 What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? Certainly not!
15 For He says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whomever I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whomever I will have compassion.” [quoting Exodus 33:19]
16 So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy.
At first glance, God choosing a heathen over a practicing Jew would seem to convey unjustness in God’s judgments. Here, a key point and theme of the passage is brought out: divine prerogative. That is to say, God’s blessing is His to give to whom He will in His Holy purpose. No one can claim it by accident of birth or merit of deeds. In answer, Paul asserts God’s right to show His covenant mercy to whom He wishes. It doesn’t matter what men want or do, who and how God chooses is His prerogative, no one else’s.
Establishment of divine prerogative, rather than any explanation of it, is Paul’s main thrust here. The grounds for God’s prerogative, though not explained directly in chapter 9, should be evident from the context of the book of Romans: with the obvious exception of Christ, no Jew or Gentile can keep the law in full. All stumble and break its statutes despite their best efforts. Since all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory[c], including the Jews. Since none of us merits His blessing, then none can rightfully lay claim to His favor or obligate Him to extend His covenant mercy. Man cannot ‘elect himself;’ just as in the case of His choice of Isaac over Ishmael and Jacob over Esau, it is God’s prerogative to decide to whom the promise goes.
17 For the Scripture says to the Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I may show My power in you, and that My name may be declared in all the earth.” [quoting Exodus 9:16]
18 Therefore He has mercy on whom He wills, and whom He wills He hardens.
The corollary of God’s prerogative in who He wishes to save is that He also has the right to reject whoever He wishes, as no one has power or right to demand a share of His promise. Rejected as they may be from His mercy, God does have use for such people in His plans, and puts them in key positions to suit His own purposes, as in the case of Pharaoh, or those who condemned Christ.[d]
Likewise, God has power over the human will, and can harden it against receiving the word on whatever basis He wishes to suit His purposes. The issue of divine hardening[e] (also referred to metaphorically as blindness and being given over to wickedness, cf Romans 11:25, 2 Corinthians 4:4, 1 Timothy 4:1-2, Romans 1:28) is not thoroughly explained in Romans 9, since again, Paul’s focus here isn’t explanation of God’s methods, but a defense of His prerogative as sovereign Lord. The scriptures are, however, by no means silent on the issue. It’s addressed several times in the New Testament, including earlier in Romans, from which we offer a cursory overview to provide context for the subject in chapter 9. Jesus spoke of the Jews being blinded to Him and His message after their rejection of Him:
Now as He drew near, He saw the city and wept over it, saying, “If you had known, even you, especially in this your day, the things that make for your peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment around you, surround you and close you in on every side, and level you, and your children within you, to the ground; and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not know the time of your visitation.” (Luke 19:41-44)
From the context, this was apparently in retribution for their refusal to humble themselves and hear Christ. It must be noted that one cannot simply come to Christ by force of will, it must be granted by God that he may believe (John 6:65); Jesus made it clear that the stiff-necked pride God often characterized many Jews by (as in His criticism of them that’s quoted in Romans 10:20) would in fact keep one out of the kingdom of God.[f]
Divine hardening is often shown as an apparently ‘cooperative effort,’ so to speak. The example cited, Pharaoh, for instance, is shown to have hardened his own heart (Exodus 8:15, 32, 9:34, 1 Samuel 6:6) in addition to the near-total blindness to any reason God inflicted upon him which led to his catastrophic decisions regarding Israel. Paul spoke of similar judgment passed against those who forgot God in the opening chapter of Romans:
“And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a debased mind, to do those things which are not fitting….” (Romans 1:28)
Exegesis of divine hardening wouldn’t be complete without comment on where Paul picks up on the issue of Israel’s being blinded to the gospel. In chapter 11, he expands upon the concept of the Jews’ blindness, indicating that it was done so that the gospel could be shared with all men (Romans 11:32), which is in direct accord with his words to the Jews at Antioch, for though he first stated,
“Men and brethren, sons of the family of Abraham, and those among you who fear God, to you the word of this salvation has been sent.” (Acts 13:26)
Yet after they had begun to contradict and blaspheme, he declared,
“It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken to you first; but since you reject it, and judge yourselves unworthy of everlasting life, behold, we turn to the Gentiles.” (13:46b)
So God’s use of divine hardening against many in Israel has a greater purpose, though this isn’t discussed in detail until chapter 11. Notably, the blindness spoken of pertaining to the Jews in chapter 11 is shown to not be irreversible, but rather, God’s gifts and calling for and to them will never be revoked.[g]
This state of hardness of heart is also not universal for all Jews, as a small remnant are still saved according to God’s gracious choosing (Romans 11:5), similar to what was spoken in Isaiah 10:22-23 which is quoted later in this chapter. God’s prerogative both to give and withhold His blessing immediately destroys any objection that someone might ‘compel’ God to share His covenant mercies, since, suffice it to say, no one can receive them apart from God’s willingness. However, the idea of God hardening someone’s heart would in and of itself raise objections from some, an expected objection is dealt with by Paul in verse 19.
19 You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For who has resisted His will?”
20 But indeed, O man, who are you to reply against God? Will the thing formed say to him who formed it, “Why have you made me like this?”
21 Does not the potter have power over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel for honor and another for dishonor?
Paul dismisses the objection with his underlying appeal to divine prerogative that he put forth in verses 14-16. Simply, God as Creator has the right to do what He pleases with what is His (compare this to Christ’s words in Matthew 20:15). Man is in no position to question Him or His methods. So from the same group of people, as in the case of Israel according to the flesh, He chooses to save some and harden others. While he does provide one reason why God may harden some men’s hearts below, Paul in fact makes no attempt to directly answer the objector’s ‘why,’ much less justify whatever basis or means God employs in hardening one’s heart, nor need he. Such lines of questioning presuppose that God is somehow accountable to man to explain His actions (contra Job 9:12) or obligated to share His blessing with certain peoples, which notions Paul categorically negates in declaring God’s authority over creation.
22 What if God, wanting to show His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction,
23 and that He might make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy, which He had prepared beforehand for glory,
24 even us whom He called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles?
Paul offers God showing His wrath so that we may understand His glory and mercy as one good reason for His hardening men’s hearts while patiently bearing with them a long time despite their sentence of destruction. It would indeed be hard for finite beings who don’t understand what wrath is to truly understand what mercy is. The author repeats a similar sentiment in chapter 11,
“Therefore consider the goodness and severity of God: on those who fell, severity; but toward you, goodness, if you continue in His goodness. Otherwise you also will be cut off.” (Romans 11:22)
Where the unbelieving are concerned, as in the case of Joseph’s brothers, God finds a way to turn even the wickedness of men to His own ends (e.g. Genesis 50:20). Our being “prepared beforehand” refers to God’s working of election and predestination through His power, wisdom, and foreknowledge (which he mentions in 8:29, compare to 1 Peter 1:2) among both the Jewish remnant and Gentile believers.
25 As He says also in Hosea: “I will call them My people, who were not My people, And her beloved, who was not beloved.”[quoting Hosea 2:23]
26 “And it shall come to pass in the place where it was said to them, “You are not My people,’ There they shall be called sons of the living God.” [quoting Hosea 1:10]
These verses are quoted primarily in reference to the Gentiles, who were formerly excluded from God’s promises, and reckoned by the Jews as little more than dogs. Despite such lowly birth, God’s ultimate plan of mercy towards the Gentiles is hinted at in the dialogue between Christ and the Syro-Phoenician woman in Mark 7:26-29, heavily implied in Jesus’ sermon to His fellow Jews about mercy shown in Sidon and Syria rather than in Israel (Luke 4:24-27), and concluded by Peter and the Jerusalem council (Acts 11:17-18). This is not to say that God has totally forsaken the nation of Israel.
27 Isaiah also cries out concerning Israel: “Though the number of the children of Israel be as the sand of the sea, The remnant will be saved.
28 For He will finish the work and cut it short in righteousness[h], Because the Lord will make a short work upon the earth.” [quoting Isaiah 10:22-23]
Paul quotes these passages as prophetic authority that the salvation of the Gentiles as well as a remnant of the Jews has been God’s plan all along, as He’d declared through the prophets of old.[i] He continues with this idea into chapters 10 and 11, referencing God’s declaration in Deuteronomy 32:21 that He will provoke the Jews to jealousy by foreign peoples who don’t know His law. Note that the word for “short” and “cut short” (syntemno) in verse 28 can also imply something done hastily or expediently. Given the quote’s source (Isaiah 10:22-23), the rendering that the NIV and some other versions employ, “For the Lord will carry out his sentence on earth with speed and finality”, is likely more accurate.
29 And as Isaiah said before: “Unless the Lord of Sabaoth [lit. Lord of Hosts] had left us a seed, We would have become like Sodom, And we would have been made like Gomorrah.” [quoting Isaiah 1:9]
The wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah that received fiery retribution from above are used as figures of utter destruction. They have an end, and a pronounced one at that, implying that if God had not been gracious in granting the blessings of Abraham to a remnant of the Jews, they would have perished as surely and completely as those cities that defied God. Yet it is still a small remnant among the children of Israel both in Paul’s day as well as our own. To the questions that Paul’s statements at the beginning of the chapter raise, why are so many law-keeping Jews are rejected from receiving the promise while many believing Gentiles enjoy God’s blessing, Paul elucidates that this was in fact what God has chosen to do. To objections that this would make God unrighteous for forsaking the children of the Sinai covenant, Paul distinguishes between the nation of Israel and the Israel made up of the children of promise. To charges of unfairness, Paul appeals to God’s prerogative in both bestowing and withholding His mercy, and cites examples of His subverting the expected order of things in making the younger heir to the promise over the elder in the Old Testament. As for many of the Jews, if being born to the chosen people and trying to keep the law of God don’t make one a child of promise, then what does? Why are they descended from Abraham, yet not of the seed of promise? Paul concludes:
30 What shall we say then? That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have attained to righteousness, even the righteousness of faith;
31 but Israel, pursuing the law of righteousness, has not attained to the law of righteousness.[j]
32 Why? Because they did not seek it by faith, but as it were, by the works of the law.[k] For they stumbled at that stumbling stone.
33 As it is written: “Behold, I lay in Zion a stumbling stone and rock of offense, And whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame.” [quoting Isaiah 8:14 and 28:16]
The conclusion to the chapter, besides smoothly transitioning into Paul’s discussion on the Jews in chapters 10 and 11, is key to understanding Romans 9. Faith in Christ is in fact what differentiates the children of promise from the natural children of bondage. This was brought out in chapter 4 of Romans when Paul explained who the true children of Abraham are:
“And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which [he had yet] being uncircumcised: that he might be the father of all them that believe, though they be not circumcised; that righteousness might be imputed unto them also: And the father of circumcision to them who are not of the circumcision only, but who also walk in the steps of that faith of our father Abraham, which he had being yet uncircumcised.” (Romans 4:11-12)
This idea was also conveyed throughout the third chapter of Galatians when addressing the issue of faith versus the works of the law,
“Therefore know that only those who are of faith are sons of Abraham. … For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. … And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:7, 26, 29)
In summary, the tribes of Israel are the descendants of Abraham, and ostensibly the heirs to the promise with him. Yet despite their bloodline and keeping of the law, many of them are not truly Israel. God has instead made many Gentiles heirs of the promise with the Jewish remnant, who constitute the true Israel. God has chosen to show mercy to those who are children of promise through faith, and blinded many in the nation of Israel who have largely rejected His mercy through unbelief and trying to establish their own righteousness through the law. In this upset, God displays both His mercy and His wrath, taking the promise from the natural heirs and giving it to foreign people, just as He took the promise from the patriarchs’ elder sons and gave it to their younger, and in His wisdom confounded the wise so that many who weren’t born the seed of Abraham according to the flesh have nonetheless become his children and attained to his blessing: the righteousness which is by faith in Christ Jesus. It’s not unfair for God to do so, because who He shows the mercy of His covenant to isn’t man’s to decide. It is God’s promise, God’s grace, God’s prerogative, according to God’s purpose and on His terms, and therefore God’s choice. As it is also written,
“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, And bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.” Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe.” (1 Corinthians 1:18-21)
[a] This even went against Abraham’s own request: “And Abraham said to God, “Oh, that Ishmael might live before You!” Then God said: “No, Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac; I will establish My covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his descendants after him. “And as for Ishmael, I have heard you. Behold, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly. He shall beget twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation. “But My covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this set time next year.” (Genesis 17:18-21)
[d] That they being in those positions and having the power they did was to suit the purpose of God is evident from Christ’s words to Pilate in John 19:11: “You could have no power at all against Me unless it had been given you from above. Therefore the one who delivered Me to you has the greater sin.”
[e] Though typically referred to as ‘divine hardening,’ there is scriptural evidence to suggest that God hardens men through secondary agents, e.g. by turning them over to Satan’s influence. See 2 Corinthians 4:4, Matthew 13:19. Interestingly, Isaiah 6:9-10 seems to suggest that the word of God being spoken to undiscerning people can harden them, possibly lending some credence to the analogy of the wax & clay being respectively softened and hardened under the same sun.
[f] In contrast to the many learned, but stubborn men of Israel, the scriptures strongly emphasize being humble and child-like to the word of God. “Assuredly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it.” (Mark 10:15) See also James 4:6 and 1 Peter 5:5.
[g] The quote about God’s gifts and calling being irrevocable is very often misapplied. Its context is in relation to the Jews who have stumbled at the word, but are able to obtain mercy. “And they also, if they do not continue in unbelief, will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. … Concerning the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but concerning the election they are beloved for the sake of the fathers. For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. For as you were once disobedient to God, yet have now obtained mercy through their disobedience, even so these also have now been disobedient, that through the mercy shown you they also may obtain mercy.” (Romans 11:23, 28-31)
[k] 9:32 – NU-Text “of works,” though the qualification “of the law” is hardly necessary to infer that the law is being spoken of, since, 1.) the Jewish reliance upon the law and the superiority of faith in Christ is a one of the major themes repeatedly addressed throughout the epistle, cf 2:17, 3:20, 28, 4:14, 8:2-3, 10:5; 2.) the immediate context of the preceding verse makes this abundantly clear.