Today, we reach that passage in our Bible reading plan. The passage that pastors do not like to preach. The one where we have to wrestle with a doctrine that is difficult to understand – election. If you want to better understand Romans 9, this post attempts to give some clarity, and I also recommend listening to Pastor David’s sermon on Romans 9 (“The Marvel of God’s Mercy”) for a more robust explanation on God’s love, will, and human choice.
Background of Romans: Paul’s wrote the letter to the church in Rome, which was a church he had not visited prior to writing the letter, to prepare them for his arrival before attempting to take the gospel to Spain. However, Paul did not make it to Rome until he was under house arrest while he appealed to Caesar (Acts 28), and as far as we know, he never made it further west than Rome. The church in Rome contained both Jewish and Gentile Christians, and this mixed community provided opportunity for conflict as seen in Romans 14-15. Romans 1:16-17 marks the thesis of Romans, for it explains the gospel as “the righteousness of God” that is available to all who believe. Romans 1-11 gives an overview of God’s plan to redeem humanity, and Romans 12-16 describes how we should live in light of what God has accomplished.
Structure of Romans:
- Romans 1:1-15 contains Paul’s greetings to the church at Rome and his tentative travel plans.
- Romans 1:16-4:25 unpacks God’s wrath towards sinners and His grace towards those who trust in Christ.
- Romans 5-8 describes the hope and obedience of Christ-followers, despite a continued struggle against sin.
- Romans 9-11 surveys God’s plan to save both Jews and Gentiles.
- Romans 12:1-15:13 explains how Christians are to live in light of the gospel.
- Romans 15:14-16:27 includes Paul’s concluding remarks to the Roman believers, his upcoming travel plans, and his personal greetings.
Today in Romans
The topics of predestination and election can be controversial topics when one studies Romans. Romans 9-11 addresses the issue of Israel’s unbelief. God specifically made the Old Covenant with Israel, but what would happen to “God’s chosen people” who did not trust in Christ as their Lord and Savior? How was their unbelief part of God’s plan? Were the Gentiles replacing them under the New Covenant? With Paul being an apostle to the Gentiles, the contents of Romans 9-11 were no doubt topics that he had to address in his ministry, especially if Jews and Gentiles were to be a unified body of believers.
Paul states his thesis for Romans 9-11 in 9:6: “But it is not as though the word of God has failed…” He denies the belief that any particular group of people has a birthright for salvation, for one’s ethnicity or religious heritage does not grant them salvation. Instead, all who trust in Christ for salvation are descendants of Abraham (9:6-13), and salvation is a work of God and a gift that He offers both to Jews and to Gentiles (9:14-29). Paul uses the examples of Isaac and Ishmael and Jacob and Esau to exemplify this these truths. If birthright made one saved, then Ishmael’s descendants and Esau’s descendants would have been included as part of God’s people. God did not base His decisions on Ishmael or Esau’s conduct because He chose Isaac and Jacob before they were even born (see Gen. 25:23). As these verses demonstrate, He can call whomever He wants to be part of His people, despite their social status, conduct, or ethnicity.
In understanding the quotation from Malachi 1:2-3 in Romans 9:13 about God loving Jacob and hating Esau, we must learn the Greek meaning of the word “hate” to fully grasp what this verse is expressing. When we think of hating someone, despising and loathing are the connotations we have in mind, but the context and the word used both point towards the idea of rejection. God rejected Esau in the sense that He did not choose Esau to inherit the blessings promised to Abraham. So hate is not used as an emotion in verse thirteen but as an action that God carries out in how He chose one son of Isaac and rejected the other, for logically, only one son could be chosen to carry out the task of continuing the line of descendants.
Paul uses a question and answer format to address issues that would likely come up because of his argument in Romans 9:1-13:
- “What then shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part?” (9:14)
- “You will say to me then, ‘Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?’” (9:19)
- “What shall we say, then?” (9:30)
These questions and Paul’s responses cover issues about God’s character and man’s responsibility, and in order to further understand Romans 9 and the doctrine of election, listen to Pastor David’s sermon “The Marvel of God’s Mercy” from December 2010 on Romans 9.
Romans 9:30-10:21 provides an explanation for why Israel has rejected the gospel, and in Theology of the New Testament, Frank Thielman summarizes the reason for their rejection:
“Both the law and the gospel…pointed in the same direction – toward a right relationship between God and his people, but God has provided Christ, not the law, as the means by which this relationship will be realized. By their rejection of the gospel and their insistence of living in an era dominated by the Mosaic law, many within Israel have implied that their own works (9:32) and their own righteousness (10:3) were preferable to the righteous status that comes from God through belief in the gospel (10:3).”
Romans 11:1-32 explains how the Gentiles came to be grafted into God’s chosen people, and after eleven chapters describing God’s incredibly detailed plan of redemption, Paul breaks out into praise of God’s knowledge and wisdom in Romans 11:33-36. In Romans 12, the book transitions into how the gospel affects the daily life of the believer. Whereas Romans 1-11 describes what God has done, Romans 12-16 instructs believers in how to live. Romans 12 begins with instructions to the community of faith then expands to imperatives regarding their interaction in wider society then continues into chapter thirteen with how Christians are to live in relation to the government.