I guess we’ll just go ahead and jump headlong into the theological fray. No matter, our impact won’t even be a lonely raindrop in the ocean of far more superior scholarly works. In the coming days I’ll try (imperative word) to tackle Romans 9:1-24. It will be a
three four part “series” for the sake of blog brevity. It won’t be nearly a final word on the matter, but I do want to encourage everyone to observe that there are at least good reasons to take the Reformed view seriously regarding Romans 9. Of course the invitation is open to all for any comments, encouragements or critiques throughout.
There are billions of resources out there if you would like to do a much more thorough and technical study of Romans 9. I recommend thoughtfully perusing what you may find here. If you are a Greek geek you may want to try John Piper’s excellent book on the matter, “The Justification of God.” As far as this blog is concerned, what follows are just some cursory observations about a highly controversial set of passages from a guy with no formal theological training. Yet none of this material is wholly original, I’ve stood on the backs of much wiser men for all of the grammatical and historical context. Read and proceed with caution.
Let’s begin with Romans 9:1-5:
I speak the truth in Christ—I am not lying, my conscience confirms it in the Holy Spirit— I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, the people of Israel. Theirs is the adoption as sons; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen.
Paul is rending his heart wide open here. He is heartbroken over his nation’s rejection of Christ. Even with all the national benefits of being God’s choice ethnic people, for some reason many of them have remained in their unbelief.
In Romans 9:1-5 there is a provocative question raised by Paul. Namely, why are so many in the elect nation of Israel cut off from Christ? Paul is clearly concerned about the salvation of his Israel brethren, specific individual Israeli brethren. Paul does not desire to be accursed because Israel has forfeited it’s national (or theocratic) privileges by its rejection of Christ, rather Paul is anguished because so many people in the Jewish nation are forfeiting salvation and eternal life by their rejection of Christ.
If we forget the backdrop of verses 1-5, then the rest of chapter 9 will hold no coherence for us whatsoever.
Remember, context is king when interpreting Scripture. The whole reasoning behind verses 6-13 are that they are the answers to the concern Paul raised in verses 1-5. What’s the concern? Namely this: Why has the overwhelming majority of Israel with all it’s historic privileges (covenant, prophets, law, patriarchs, etc.) rejected Christ and now has fallen short of the covenant promises? Has the word of God failed? Paul gives a succinct answer in the next verse, Romans 9:6:
“Not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel.”
Paul makes a very important distinction here between the merely ethnic Israel (circumcised in the flesh) and the true spiritual Israel (circumcised in the heart).
Verse six is an important key to unlocking the meaning of chapter 9. Those of Arminian (free will) persuasion usually apply verses 6-13 to the collective national election of Israel, not the salvation of individual Jews. This is done in order to restrict election or predestination to nations rather than individuals. While listening to sermons on Romans 9 I’ve heard many Arminian preachers assert with vehemence, “These verses (6-13) have absolutely nothing to do with salvation!” Of course, this doesn’t make the predestination of individuals any easier to swallow for them in verses like Romans 8:28-30 or Ephesians 1:4-10, but it is doubtful those verses will be brought up in their handling of Romans 9 anyways.
Consider again the problem posed in verses 1-5 (why are so many in Israel in unbelief and going to hell?), and the response Paul gives to that problem in verse 6: Many Israelites of the flesh are not the true spiritual elect of Israel. Paul introduces similar language about the elect in Israel in Romans 2:28-29 and later in Romans 11:7:
What then? What Israel sought so earnestly it did not obtain, but the elect did. The others were hardened…
Given the fact that Paul’s deepest concern in verses 1-5 is about individual Jews condemned in their unbelief, verses 6-13 cannot be talking about Israel in collective or vague general terms. Verses 6-13 are not talking about a distinction of elect Israel with the rest of the world, but rather distinctions within Israel, between those are individually elect and those who are not (Romans 9:6).
In part I, I have been purposefully repetitious regarding my main argument. If we can grasp these two major points here the rest of Romans 9 will begin to fall into place for us:
1. The nature and significance of Paul’s problem in Romans 9:1-5: Why are so many who are of Israel accursed and apart from Christ?
2. Paul’s introductory answer to that problem in Romans 9:6: There is a distinction between ethnic Israel and spiritual Israel. There is distinction between those of the flesh and those who are truly saved.
With those two points established it becomes clear Romans 9 is speaking not about corporate identities, but eternal destinies. To inject a corporate understanding of verses 6-13 makes Paul’s entire argument disjointed and incoherent.
In Romans 9:6-13, Paul tries to answer the next important question that comes by implication, “What then is the distinguishing mark of those who are saved/true Israel?” In part II, we will find the answer he gives has everything to do with God’s free electing mercy and little to do with man’s free will.
Grace be with you all.