Romans 9:1–29. Lesson 17. Has God Forgotten Israel?
The Free Will of God.
Key Notes: God chooses some, but not all: Isaac rather than Ishmael; Jacob rather than Esau.
In chapter 8, Paul makes bold statements about God’s faithfulness. He asserts that God knew us beforehand, and decreed ahead of time that we would be conformed to the image of His son. He called us, justified us, and glorified us. He delivered up his own Son for us. He calls Christians “children of God,” and “heirs of God.” Because of all this, no one can bring a charge against us. There is no condemnation. Nothing can separate us from God’s love.
There is a problem. God said these things about Israel in particular.
"Thus says the Lord, ‘Israel is My first-born son .’" Exodus 4:22
"But you, O Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, you descendants of Abraham my friend,
I took you from the ends of the earth, from its farthest corners I called you.
I said, 'You are my servant'; I have chosen you and have not rejected you. '" Isaiah 41:8–9
And now they are condemned, they are separated from God’s love, on account of their rejection of the Messiah. If it could happen to them, who is to say it cannot happen to us?
It’s important to answer this question, so that we can be confident in, and find rest in our relationship with God. Romans 9–11 comprise Paul’s answer to this question--answers-- actually three of them. In this chapter Paul contends that God has always been faithful to His promises with Israel. It’s just that Israel is not the group of people we might think. In chapter 10, Paul explains why the Jews are responsible for their spiritual predicament. In chapter 11, Paul implies that Israel’s story is not yet complete, and that God intends to bring them all to faith in time.
9:1–5 Paul looks at ethnic Israel.
Paul begins (9: 1–3) by asserting in the most emphatic way his own love and concern for the Israelites. He is insistent: “I am speaking the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit.” If it were possible, Paul says he would willingly be damned if it would secure salvation of his people, the Israelites. There is no way to say it more forcefully. He wants to make sure that the Romans know that he still identifies with, and sympathizes with Israel. We know that the Jewish Christians were wondering where Paul really stood. Going from a Pharisee to the Apostle to the Gentiles, making disparaging statements about the Law and circumcision, Paul lost credibility with this group. (Acts21:2–25). He is working hard to convince them that he has not forgotten nor forsaken his heritage.
Note that Paul, for the first time, uses the term “Israelites.” In the first three chapters it was always “Jews.” He uses the more honorific title as he tries to show his ongoing concern for them. Before we move on, it’s worth mentioning that verse 5 is a testimony to Christ’s deity . The Greek construction is ambiguous, as the different versions demonstrate: NASB is vague, while NIV is definitely in support of Christ's deity.
"...whose are the fathers, and from whom is the Christ according to the flesh, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen." (NASB)
"Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen." (NIV)
9:6–29. God has not forsaken true Israel.
In verses 6–7 Paul quotes Genesis 21:12, where Ishmael was annoying Sarah and she demanded that Abraham send him and Hagar away. Abraham was reticent to do so, since Ishmael was his firstborn and therefore his heir. But God told Abraham not to worry, for “...through Isaac shall your descendants be named.” It would be Isaac, the younger child who would continue the lineage of God’s people. As he did in chapter 4, Paul shows that Israel is not to be defined in physical terms, but in terms of faith, through the story of Abraham.
Verse 12 presses this point with another example from Genesis 25:23 – Isaac’s twin sons. Esau was born before Jacob, making him the firstborn heir, but before either of them had been born God proclaimed “The older will serve the younger.” God wanted to call attention to the fact that He is not bound by family tradition, and is under no other obligation, but is free to bless whomever He chooses. As an exclamation point he quotes another OT passage (Malachi 1:2–3) where the favoritism is more pronounced: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” Paul explains God’s motives for overthrowing the traditional ordering of society: “...in order that God’s purpose according to His choice might stand, not because of works, but because of Him who calls” (9:11).
Paul has opened a Pandora’s box with this comment, and in the following verses he elaborates on this theme of the “free will of God.” Before we dive into these deep waters, let us follow Paul’s main argument to its finish.
Paul has proven his point that the true Israel is not defined by bloodlines. Thus God has not abandoned the true Israel, the community of faith, which now refers to Jewish believers.
Does the true Israel include anyone else? In verses 24–26 Paul answers in the affirmative, and quotes from Hosea 2 as proof. It’s a memorable story. God commanded Hosea to marry a harlot (Gomer) as a metaphor for God’s relationship with Israel. They had three children, and the names which God gave the children were omens to Israel: her future generations would be "Not my people": no longer be loved by God, and no longer His special people. Later in the chapter God promises that those who were called “Not My people” and “Not Loved” would again be called “My People” and “Children of the Living God.”
Hosea was speaking of Israelites here, not Gentiles. Apparently, the fact that God had largely rejected Israel is enough for Paul to consider them like Gentiles. If God can make sons and daughters out of that group of “Not My People” then he can make sons and daughters out of any other group of “Not My People.” So Paul has applied Hosea to the salvation of Gentiles.
He also invokes the concept of the Remnant by quoting two prophecies of Isaiah (1:9; 10:22–23). They refer to Israel’s destruction at the hands of the Assyrians. Although the nation was sent into exile, a Remnant will return and will trust the Lord. Paul’s day was not the first time that the number of faithful Israelites was small. God was faithful in preserving a remnant then, and He was faithful in preserving one within the early church.
9:14–23. God is free to choose whomever He wishes.
We now return to the Paul’s assertion that God is free to bless whomever He pleases, irrespective of tradition, rules, merit, or other considerations. Paul quotes Exodus 33:19, after Moses has made three appeals to God to forgive Israel's worship of the golden calf. God agreed to Moses’ radical request to see Him in confirmation of His promise of mercy. God passed by Moses hid in a cleft of the rock and proclaimed His name, and His goodness: “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” The free will of God is a foundational attribute of God. He is self-defining. “I Am Who I Am” is His name and “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy” is how He relates to His creation. He does not have to answer to us, or abide by our way of thinking.
On the one hand, we would hope that to be true of anyone deserving the title “God.” On the other hand, it makes God’s decisions seem alarmingly arbitrary. He discriminates; and we don’t know the basis of His discrimination.
In verse 17, Paul fully discloses the implications of this doctrine by quoting Exodus 9:15–16. It states that God purposefully raised Pharaoh to his position of world prominence in order to set the stage for the Exodus. And after Pharaoh hardened his own heart, God hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that Pharaoh would not let the people of Israel go until God had finished his entire fireworks display--ten plagues.
"Then the LORD said to Moses, 'Go to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his officials so that I may perform these miraculous signs of mine among them, that you may tell your children and grandchildren how I dealt harshly with the Egyptians and how I performed my signs among them, and that you may know that I am the LORD.'" (Exodus 10:1–2; see also Exodus 9:12; 10:20,27; 11:10; 14:8)
Paul knows that we will have a problem with His depiction of God, and anticipates our objection in verse’. The God you have described is unjust! How can He destine people for disobedience, and then punish them for their actions?
Many people have tried to answer this question. And there are good answers that you can read about in commentaries on Romans and in Christian books on predestination vs. free will. It is important, however, to note that Paul didn’t use any of those arguments. He does not feel that God’s justice needed defending. Instead, with language reminiscent of Job’s divine encounter, he chastises us for questioning the wisdom and righteousness of God! The metaphor of a potter being free to make any kind of vessel from his lump of clay is taken from Jeremiah‘ (also Isaiah 29:16; 45:9). There, too, the prophet is asserting God’s freedom to forgive or punish regardless of what Israel thinks is right.
Listen to John Calvin wrestling with predestination:
"If your mind is troubled, decline not to embrace the counsel of Augustine, 'You a man expect an answer from me; I also am a man. Wherefore let us both listen to him who says 'O man, who art thou?' Believing ignorance is better than presumptuous knowledge. Seek merits; you will find nought but punishment. O the height! Peter denies, a thief believes. O the height! Do you ask the reason? I will tremble at the height. Reason you, I will wonder; dispute you, I will believe. I see the height; I cannot sound the depth. Paul found rest, because he found wonder. He calls the judgments of God 'unsearchable' and have you come to search them? He says that his ways are 'past finding out' and do you seek to find them out?'
(Calvin's Institutes. Eerdmans',’52. Bk.III, p.230.)
This answer is unsatisfying. It is like receiving the “we'll explain when you’re older” response from parents. Or, even worse, “because I said so”. Not only do these answers fail to satisfy our curiosity, but they make us feel small and excluded to boot. Yet as parents we now see that they are sometimes the best answer we can give. Children are not always capable of understanding and embracing what they will one day recognize to be wisdom.
Paul strongly encourages us to take up a posture of humility and reverence, acknowledging God’s complete authority and our complete dependence. Sometimes, as children, we have to learn to leave it at that. That’s called trusting God. He is faithful, just and true. That will be clear when all the information is complete.
It is interesting to note that the courts are wrestling with this same issue. Determinism is the prevailing philosophy in the life sciences. It holds that our actions are nothing more than conditioned responses, dependent upon the DNA in our cells, the chemicals in our blood-streams, the experiences stored in our memories, and the immediate external stimuli. How can a criminal be held accountable for his/her crime when nature and nurture are the root cause of every act? In order to execute justice, secular societies must acknowledge that responsibility and determinism coexist.
In verses 22–23, Paul attempts to satisfy our curiosity (and quell our indignation) by speculating on why God would predestine some for mercy and some for wrath. He poses it as a kind of rhetorical question. He asks (and I paraphrase)…
“What if God chose to raise up for Himself a people who would conform to the image of His son, for His own glory. Would that be OK for God to do?” Of course.
“And what if He chose to display to them His power, justice, righteousness, holiness, and glory in the most impressive way He could conceive of? Would you begrudge Him that?” Never.
“What if the best way to do this was to raise up another group of people whom He would predestine to rebel against Him, and He patiently allowed them to coexist with the first group so that everyone could clearly see all of His attributes as He dealt with these two groups over the course of history? Like the wheat and the weeds growing up together. (Matt.13:24–29). Is that not His prerogative?” Hmmm…
This is not how most of us were taught to think about God, and His glory, and our places in the grand scheme of things. If you still find it difficult to accept some of the things Paul says about God’s involvement in human destiny, behave like Jacob. Wrestle with them, and refuse to stop wrestling until God makes these doctrines a blessing to you.
If you find yourself convinced of God’s absolute sovereignty over His creatures, but unable to incorporate these truths into your spiritual life, please go back and read Romans 8 again. Then you simply must read the insightful little book called Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God by J.I. Packer.
This lesson was prepared by Greg Meyer, with editing by A. MacKinney.
Predestination and election are ideas new Christians do not like. Consider these questions.
* Why should God choose anyone to be with Him in Heaven? Let humans get whatever they can from this life and die like the animals and that will be the end of it. They will never know the difference.
* What would universal mercy look like? What is sky without earth? What is life without death? What is light without darkness? What is a threat without a conclusion? Utterly meaningless.
* What did it cost God to choose and save some? God made the ultimate sacrifice, and put Himself on the line to save our souls.
* How many people do not wish to be elect, do not want to be with God? Too many.
* If people do not wish to be elect, should they go to Heaven anyway? It would be misery, like Hell.
* How many who desire to be elect will be excluded? I believe no one.