This evening I will be debating Dr. James White over the interpretation of Romans 9. In the process of writing my commentary on this chapter I have produced a summary outline that may help others better understand the flow of the text from a non-Calvinistic “Traditionalist” Southern Baptist perspective.
I highly recommend listening to this podcast where I give commentary line by line through Romans 9.
For the entire commentary and more on this subject please purchase the book: THE POTTER’S PROMISE
Summary Commentary of Romans 9 (NKJV)
by Professor Leighton Flowers
I. THE CONDITION OF ISRAEL (1-3)
The Apostle’s focus shifts to begin the 9th Chapter.
- In the previous eight chapters, Paul made man’s need and God’s gracious provision through Christ abundantly clear.
- Paul ends chapter 8 on such a high note in reflection of the endless, inseparable love God has for those who are in an abiding, loving relationship with Him (8:9,28). Why does the tone shift so dramatically to the topic of Paul’s great sorrow and continual grief in chapter 9?
Paul’s Christ-like, self-sacrificial plea for hardened Israel.
- “I tell the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit:” This is not merely an emotional appeal from the heart of a Jew who desires to see more of his own kind saved. Instead, it is a witness of the Spirit Himself inspiring the apostle’s deep conviction and desire for all lost souls.
- “that I have great sorrow and continual grief in my heart:”
Paul shifts from celebrating the relationship of the believer, those grafted in by faith, to reflecting on the overwhelming number of those cut off for their unbelief from his own country of Israel, a topic that continues into the following chapters (11:20).
Here, the apostle deals with his feelings about the current condition of Israel, who has rejected their own Messiah. How does that reflect on God’s promise made to Israel (Gen. 12:3)? Has God failed to keep that promise? If God will not keep His promise to Israel, then how can we know He will keep His promise to us?
- “For I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my countrymen according to the flesh,”
This is a self-sacrificial, Christ-like love for those who have become his enemies. Paul again expresses this desire for unbelieving Israel in 10:1, which is repeated with a quote from God’s own lips in 10:21.
This likewise reflects the same heart of Moses referenced by the apostle in 9:15: “Then Moses returned to the LORD and said, “Oh, these people have committed a great sin, and have made for themselves a god of gold! Yet now, if You will forgive their sin; but if not, I pray, blot me out of Your book which You have written” (Exodus 32:31-32).
Most importantly, Paul reflects the very desire of Jesus, who was willing to be accursed for his enemies that they might be saved (Gal. 3:13).
II. THE WORD ENTRUSTED TO ISRAEL (4-5)
- Given that any nationality may be saved through faith and many from Israel do not believe, then what benefit is there in being a Jew? “…who are Israelites, to whom pertain the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the service of God, and the promises; of whom are the fathers and from whom, according to the flesh, Christ came, who is over all, the eternally blessed God. Amen.”
As first mentioned in 3:1-2, the apostle here reminds the reader the benefit or blessing of being a natural descendent of Israel.
The very Word of God was entrusted to Israel (Rom. 3:2), which included the MESSIAH and His redemptive MESSAGE.
- The special revelation of God, which all served to testify and prepare the way for the Messiah and His gospel, came by way of this elect nation.
- Israel’s unfaithfulness and their being cut off for unbelief does not negate this blessing, or the promise that first brought that blessing to this elect nation of God (Gen. 12:3; Rom. 3:3-4).
III. WHY THAT WORD HAS NOT FAILED (6-8)
- Since the very people entrusted to bring the Word are standing in opposition to it, then has His Word failed? “But it is not that the word of God has taken no effect.”
The ones entrusted with the Word are opposing the Word, so then, has the Word failed?
God’s word has not failed despite how things may appear from our human perspective.
The fulfillment of God’s Word, as promised to Abraham, is not dependent upon the faithfulness of Israelites (Rom. 3:3-4).
- “For they are not all Israel who are of Israel”
Not every descendant of Israel is chosen to carry out the purpose for which God elected Israel.
Not every descendant of Israel is blessed to be in the lineage of the Messiah or to be an inspired messenger of God’s word.
Not every descendant of Israel is guaranteed salvation on the basis of being of Israel (vs. 7).
So, the many descendants of Israel you are seeing stand in opposition to the Word, were not chosen by God to carry the Word, thus it cannot be concluded that God’s Word has failed.
“nor are they all children because they are the seed of Abraham; but, ‘In Isaac your seed shall be called.’ 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.”
Abraham’s two sons, by two different mothers, is used allegorically by Paul to represent the two covenants of Law and Faith, as Paul’s own self-commentary explains in Gal. 4:21-25: “Abraham had two sons, one by the bondwoman and one by the free woman. But the son by the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and the son by the free woman through the promise. This is allegorically speaking, for these women are two covenants: one proceeding from Mount Sinai bearing children who are to be slaves; she is Hagar. Now this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children.” (Gal. 4:21-25, NASB, emphasis added).
This is the apostle’s way of using a history lesson to remind his audience that being a seed of Abraham does not mean one is guaranteed the blessings listed in verses 4 and 5, which were specific to the seed of Isaac.
Nor does it guarantee the eternal blessing of being a child of God, which comes by faith in God’s promise (symbolized by Isaac, whose birth came by grace) to whosoever believes, not by works of the law (symbolized by Ishmael, whose birth came by works).
IV. GOD’S PLAN TO BRING THE WORD THROUGH ISRAEL (9-13)
- “For this is the word of promise: ‘At this time I will come and Sarah shall have a son.’”
This is the way in which the word of promise given to Abraham (Gen. 12:3) is to be fulfilled.
Isaac will be the lineage through whom the Word would come: The Messiah and His message come through Isaac’s seed, not Ishmael’s.
Sarah is a free woman and represents the covenant of faith, as opposed to the covenant of law represented by the slave woman (Gal. 4:21-25).
- “And not only this, but when Rebecca also had conceived by one man, even by our father Isaac (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), it was said to her, “The older shall serve the younger.” As it is written, “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated.”
The apostle is taking this one step further by not only seeking to prove his claims about the descendants of Abraham are true, but to even more specifically show that all the descents of Isaac are not:
- Guaranteed salvation on the basis they are a descendant.
- Chosen for the noble purpose of bringing the Word to the rest of the world.
God’s choice of Jacob, the lesser of the two brothers in age and physical prowess, was for the noble purpose of bringing the Word to the rest of the world.
God’s choice to fulfill His promise is not based upon the impressiveness of the nation (Deut. 7:7) or the morality of its representative head (Gen. 25:23).
The fulfillment of God’s Word has never relied upon the faithfulness or morality of the individuals chosen to carry it out (Rom. 3:3-4).
Neither brother would be justified apart from grace through faith in God, even though they are direct descendants of both Abraham and Isaac. Salvation is by the covenant of grace through faith in the call of God, not the covenant of law through works.
The expressed hatred toward Esau’s household reflected in the quote from Malachi reveals:
- Even direct descendants of Isaac himself (Edom) are not chosen for the noble purposes that God elected Israel, thus one should not assume that the opposition of direct descendants to God’s Word is an indication of its failure.
- Even direct descendants of Isaac himself (Edom) are not guaranteed salvation, especially if they remain in opposition to those who are chosen to bring the Word of God. As conditioned upon the original promise… “I will curse those who curse you” (Gen. 12:3).
Many examples in scripture are given to show the concept of “hate” referring to simply rejecting (without disdain) one over another for a noble task (Genesis 29:31, 33; Deuteronomy 21:15; Matthew 6:24; Luke 14:26; John 12:25).
Esau was also blessed and protected by God (Deut. 23:7, Gen. 33:8-16, Gen. 36), so the “hatred” was either (1) conditioned upon the Edomites attack upon Israel and/or (2) in reference to God’s selection of Jacob and his lineage for the noble purpose over Esau and his lineage.
V. WHY GOD IS JUST IN SHOWING MERCY TO UNFAITHFUL ISRAELITES TO ACCOMPLISH HIS PROMISE IN BRINGING THE WORD (14-16)
- Does God’s choosing to bless one descendant over another descendant make God unrighteous? What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? Certainly not!
The descendants of Abraham in Paul’s day had two false perceptions:
Every descendant deserves the benefit of bringing God’s Word. However, the truth is that God has only selected a remnant through whom to bring His Word.
Every descendant deserves eternal life on the basis of their being of Israel. However, no one is saved based on nationality but only upon grace through faith. Those nations, and the individuals therein, who oppose God’s Word remain under the curse (hatred), as illustrated by Edom (direct descendants of Isaac himself).
There is no unrighteousness with God for choosing some descendants for a noble cause and not others, nor is it unjust to condemn a descendant of Abraham who stands in opposition to the Word of God.
- 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.”
Paul’s reference to Moses’ encounter with God in Exodus 32-33 gives a perfect historical example of when God was merciful to Israel when they deserved to be destroyed for their unfaithfulness (worshipping a golden calf).
This example also parallels Moses’ self-sacrificial Christ-like love for Israel as reflected by Paul in the opening verses of this chapter… “forgive their sin—and if not blot me out…” (Ex. 32:31-32).
Certainly God may choose to save whosoever He is pleased to save (scripture teaches He chooses to save those who humble themselves and repent in faith – 1 Pt. 5:5-6), but this passage is in reference to God showing mercy to unfaithful Israel so as to fulfill His original promise through them even though they deserve condemnation.
- So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy.
“It” refers to the fulfillment of God’s promise to bring His Word despite Israel’s unfaithfulness (Rom. 3:3-4).
The promise depends on our merciful God, not on the faithfulness (“willing and running”) of Abraham or his descendants.
Abraham “willed and ran” in the flesh to produce a son through Hagar (who Paul used symbolically to represent the covenant of law and works, Gal. 4:24).
God, by his mercy, provided Isaac through the free woman, Sarah (who Paul used symbolically to represent the covenant of grace by faith in the call of God, Gal. 4:21-26).
VI. WHY GOD IS JUST TO HARDEN UNFAITHFUL ISRAELITES TO ACCOMPLISH HIS PROMISE IN BRINGING THE WORD (17-18)
- For the Scripture says to 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.”
In the same way God hardened the already rebellious will of Pharaoh in order to accomplish the first Passover, so too God hardened the already rebellious wills of Israelites to accomplish the real Passover.
God’s power and goodness was displayed in mercy-ing unfaithful Israelites in the day of Moses and in hardening the unfaithful Israelites in the day of the Messiah.
- Therefore He has mercy on whom He wills, and whom He wills He hardens.
Sometimes God will fulfill His promises by showing Israelites mercy, but His Word will never fail.
Sometimes God will fulfill His promises by hardening Israelites, but His Word will never fail.
Note: Those judicially hardened or cut off are not born in this condition, but have “grown hardened” over years of rebellion (Acts 28:27), they are cut off for unbelief (11:20) and the hope of the apostle is that they may be grafted back in and saved (11:11-32).
VII. IF THE ISRAELITES’ UNRIGHTEOUSNESS ACCOMPLISHES GOD’S PROMISE TO BRING HIS WORD, WHY ARE THEY TO BLAME? (19-21)
- “You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For who has resisted His will? But indeed, O man, who are you to reply against God?”
You (an Israelite hardened to accomplish God’s promise) will say to me (an Israelite shown mercy to accomplish God’s promise), why are we to blame if God’s will is being fulfilled?
As the apostle already indicated in 3:5, this is a man-made argument that reveals a heart that has become calloused in its rebellion, otherwise they might see, hear, understand and repent (Acts 17:30; 28:27).
- “Will the thing formed say to him who formed it, “Why have you made me like this?” Does not the potter have power over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel for honor and another for dishonor?”
The lump of hardened clay represents Israel who is had grown calloused in rebellion (Acts 28:27) and who are now being remolded into two kinds of vessels:
Those unfaithful Israelites remolded, by means of signs from the incarnate Messiah Himself, to bring the Word.
Those unfaithful Israelites remolded, by means of judicially hardening, to accomplish the ignoble purpose of bringing redemption on the cross and the grafting in of the Gentiles (yet they still may be saved, Rom. 11:11-32).
VIII. HOW GOD’S WORD, AND THUS HIS GLORY, IS REVEALED THROUGH MERCY-ING AND HARDENING ISRAEL (22-24)
- “What if God, wanting to show His wrath and to make His power known:” Just as God manifests Himself through Pharaoh’s judicial hardening, He likewise does so through Israel’s judicial hardening.
- “endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction:” God patiently put up with Israel even in their stubborn rebellion so as to be “cut off,” “given over” or “prepared” for the destruction they have earned (like the Edomites and Egyptians before them).
- “and that He might make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy, which He had prepared beforehand for glory, even us whom He called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles?” The promise made to Abraham to bless all the families of the earth (by the coming Messiah and His message) is now being fulfilled through the hardening and mercy-ing of Israel. The vessels prepared for mercy are “all the families of the earth” (Gen. 12:3) who God has promised His blessing from the very beginning: “Whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Rom. 10:13; Joel 2:32).
IX. HOW ALL THE NATIONS BENEFIT FROM THE MERCY-ING AND HARDENING OF ISRAEL BY THE BRINGING OF GOD’S WORD (25-29)
- As He says also in Hosea: “I will call them My people, who were not My people, and her beloved, who was not beloved.” 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.”
Notice that even in the original context the author acknowledges God’s genuine love for Israel despite their rebellion (Hosea 3:1), which is echoed by Paul throughout his entire context (Rom. 9:1-3; 10:1, 21; 11:11-32). God told Hosea to call his child “Lo-Ammi,” meaning “Not My People.” However, God also promised this was temporary.
People formally not known to be His people are now benefitting from the redemptive plan God has brought to pass through both the noble and ignoble vessels formed by the merciful Potter from the predominately unfaithful lump of Israelite clay.
Paul is using the scriptures to demonstrate that this has always been God’s mysterious redemptive plan (Eph. 3:1-13).
- “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. For He will finish the work and cut it short in righteousness, because the LORD will make a short work upon the earth.’ And as Isaiah said before: ‘Unless the LORD of Sabaoth had left us a seed, we would have become like Sodom, and we would have been made like Gomorrah.’”
Regardless of the Israelites unfaithfulness throughout the generations God has always saved a believing remnant from physical destruction so as to carry out the purpose for which Israel was first elected: to bring the Word to the world. God’s promise will not fail, even if Israel is unfaithful.
If Israel had received what they deserved they would have been like the ancient cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.
Though the number of natural descendants are as countless as all the sand of the sea, only those Israelites who (like the Gentiles) pursue righteousness by faith would attain it.
X. PAUL’S OWN COMMENTARY OF THIS PASSAGE AS BEING ABOUT FAITH IN THE WORD VERSUS WORKS OF THE LAW (30-33)
- “What shall we say then? That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have attained to righteousness, even the righteousness of faith; but Israel, pursuing the law of righteousness, has not attained to the law of righteousness.”
The Gentiles did not run after the law and desire to keep the commandments in order to earn God’s favor (the covenant laws represented by Hagar/Ishmael to begin this chapter), but they trusted in His promise (the covenant promise represented by Sarah/Isaac, see Gal. 4:21-26).
The Israelites did run after and desire to keep the commandments in order to earn God’s favor (much like Abraham trying to produce a son in the flesh through a slave woman), but they have not attained it.
From the beginning this chapter has been about faith or works, not synergism or monergism. Salvation is all of God. But our sovereign God chooses to save those who pursue righteousness by faith rather than by works regardless of their nationality or morality.
- “Why? Because they did not seek it by faith, but as it were, by the works of the law. For they stumbled at that stumbling stone. 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.’”
Why were the Israelites not able to attain righteousness? Was it because they were rejected by God before the foundation of the earth and not given the grace they needed to believe? By no means! The apostle’s answer is clear and the difference is faith verses works, not chosen verses un-chosen.
The idea of a Messiah being crucified by the Israelites own hand was a “stumbling stone and a rock of offense.” To admit Jesus was their own Messiah would require them to own up to the shame of crucifying Him. But the apostle reminds them that whoever believes in Christ will not be put to shame for their wrong doing (see also Rom. 10:11).
Throughout this letter to the church in Rome, Paul clearly explains that salvation is attained by faith rather than works. So, why were some unable to attain righteousness? They pursued righteousness by law (Rom. 3:10-19) rather than by faith (Rom. 3:21-31). One should not assume that because the former is unattainable so is the latter.