This post is the first in a series on chapters 9, 10, and 11 of the book of Romans. Each part is adapted from an essay I wrote from my personal study of this passage. The essay can be found here.
Difficult But Worth It
Romans 9 through 11 is one of the most profound passages in the Bible. Yet it can be one of the most bewildering, especially compared to chapters 1 through 8. At first glance, we can see the major themes: the sovereignty of God, election, Israel, the promise made to the patriarchs, Gentiles, mercy, and faith. Clearly, the correct interpretation of this passage has great impact on wide ranging topics. It affects the relationship between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility, the nature of the present age, and God’s plan for Israel and Gentiles. Which are all important to the interpretation of the rest of scripture.
The chain of reasoning just isn’t obvious to most Christians. Usually, if chapter 9 seems clear, chapter 11 is utterly confounding, and chapter 10 seems redundant to earlier chapters. At best, they seem disjointed. To make matters worse, Bible commentaries differ wildly. So what is the key to understanding these chapters? Can we hope to come to a conclusion on the matter, or will this portion of scripture always remain hazy?
After careful study, this passage should not only become clear, but also prove to be one of the most thrilling portions of scripture, revealing much about the character and wisdom of God. As the apostle Peter would say, some of these things are hard to understand (2 Peter 3:16). But with the Holy Spirit’s enablement, we can grasp the true meaning of this magnificent portion of God’s word, and rejoice with the Apostle when he writes: “Oh the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out! … For of Him and through Him and to Him are all things, to whom be glory forever. Amen.” (Romans 11:33, 36)
The Starting Point
We should interpret the Bible straightforwardly.
We are starting with a few assumptions that should be mentioned. First, a literal hermeneutic (more technically, a historical-grammatical hermeneutic) is the only valid one. So, Old Testament prophecies should not be reinterpreted, or “spiritualized.” In other words, what scripture meant to its historical audience is exactly what it will always mean. There is one true interpretation, but there can be many applications. A scripture’s applications may grow in the New Testament, but its meaning remains.
This seems like a logical place for the original audience of Romans to be when they first read this letter from Paul. For example, the audience of Romans would have certainly taken the prophecies about Israel’s prominence in God’s plan literally. So, it would have been Paul’s responsibility to change their thinking. If they were mistaken, he would have needed to correct them in this epistle, since these chapters answer the question: “What is God doing with Israel?”
As a side note, since the Apostles were specially inspired by the Holy Spirit in writing the New Testament, there may be portions of the Old Testament that the Apostles added significance to (Gal 3:16 is a possibility). But even if they completely reinterpret a passage, or add meaning to it, there is no basis for us, non-apostles, to consistently practice the same thing.
This passage illustrates the harmony of God’s sovereignty and human free will.
Secondly, we will take God at His word when He appeals to the will of man, and we will assume a real response is possible. At the same time, we will also take Him at His word that He is completely sovereign in all reality, and knows all things from eternity (beyond time).
Scripture affirms both truths, many times in the same statement. In every instance where God holds man accountable for his actions, those actions are freely chosen. Yet at the same time, those actions bring about the sovereign will of God (as an example, see 1 Peter 2:8). Scripture also shows that salvation is both given by the choice of God, and received by faith. The Bible presents those who believe to be one and the same with those whom God elects. It never suggests that one is because of the other, or that one supersedes the other. Whether we leave it at that or seek to reconcile the two, we must never destroy either truth. (This is the error of both Calvinism and Arminianism. They both fall off the path, just into opposite ditches.) So, we will assume these are not in conflict, even if they seem like a paradox1 in our minds.
It is beyond the scope of this study to rigorously defend either the hermeneutic or the perspective on sovereignty and free will. So take these as starting points. Now, having assumed these at the beginning, this study should make it clear that Romans 9 through 11 do not present a challenge to either premise, but in fact these premises lead to the interpretation that fits the best.
God can be trusted with His sovereignty.
Is God a good God? Is all that He does good and right? Can we trust Him? These are questions we all ask. Abraham asked, “Shall not the judge of all the earth do right?” (Genesis 18:25). Lord willing, at the end of chapter 11, we will understand with awe that God has done everything right. William MacDonald said it well:
“When we say that God is sovereign, we mean that He is in charge of the universe and that He can do as He pleases. In saying that, however, we know that, because He is God, He will never do anything wrong, unjust, or unrighteous. Therefore, to say that God is sovereign is merely to allow God to be God. We should not be afraid of this truth or apologize for it. It is a glorious truth and should cause us to worship.” 2
If God’s sovereignty simply allows God to be God, we should not waver at the idea. Who better to choose and judge than the One who only does what is good and just? What better Being to be in full control than the God who is love (1 John 4:8)? The God who cannot lie (Titus 1:2)? The God to whom belongs all wisdom and knowledge (Colossians 2:3) of everything and everywhen? But not only has He revealed His character, He has also revealed on what basis He shows mercy: “God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” (James 4:6 NASB)
The theme of Romans is unity in the gospel that reveals the righteousness of God.
The doctrine portion of Romans starts in chapter 1 with verses 16 and 17. In these two verses, Paul states his major subject, hints at one of his motivations for writing to the Roman church, and he establishes the theme of the epistle:
1:16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek.
1:17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “The just shall live by faith.”
The primary subject of the book is the gospel of Christ, and Paul’s burden in presenting it the way he does is summed up in the statement, “for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek.” This was the great controversy of Paul’s apostleship, the controversy of Gentile salvation (see Acts 15, and Acts 28:28, for just two examples). One of Paul’s motivations for writing Romans was to bring unity among the Jews and Gentiles in the Roman church body (see Romans 15:5-13). This purpose greatly informs the structure of Romans, and especially chapters 9 through 11, as we will see.
The binding theme throughout Romans is the righteousness of God, or the justification of God. This theme and the gospel come together in the climax of the book, verse 26 of chapter 3: “…to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” Here Paul has just explained how God can save the guilty by grace while also upholding His justice; how He can save the sinner yet condemn the sin. God’s righteousness is underneath it all when Paul describes the condemnation of every man -Jew and Gentile- before a holy God (1:18-3:20), the justification of any man through faith in Jesus (3:21-5:21), the sanctification of those freed by God from His righteous law (6:1-7:25), and the glorification of those who are given God’s righteousness (8:1-8:39). We will see, in Chapters 9 through 11, Paul describes the vindication of God in how He has dealt with Israel and the Gentiles in view of the gospel.
What question is Paul answering?
This is the key to understanding these chapters. So let’s consider the setting and audience. This is the first time since Israel began that God is saving Gentiles as Gentiles (Acts 15:11, 14). While they were always able to be saved (2 Kings 5, Jonah, Daniel 4), to have any fellowship they had to become proselytes of Israel. To be part of the “people of God” was to be part of Israel (see Exodus 12:48). The only way to properly worship was at the temple, and the only priesthood was the one that represented Israel. Also, the church in Rome was a mixed audience, and Gentiles may have been the majority (Romans 1:13). Though he had never visited the church in Rome at this time, it was planted by Paul in his journeys throughout the empire. (Peter’s preaching at Pentecost may have accounted for some of the Jewish audience, as well.) These people who began worshipping the Jewish Messiah, would be wondering why so few Jews were responding to the gospel. In fact, the majority of Jews were hostile, causing most of the persecution at this time in Church history.
So, they were bound to ask: If the Jews are rejecting the gospel, and God is doing a mighty work among Gentiles, doesn’t that mean God is rejecting the Jews? Didn’t God elect Israel as His special people? Can we trust Him to keep His promises to us? Are they conditional? Revocable? After overflowing with praise for the promises to “those who are in Christ Jesus” in Chapter 8, Paul anticipates the question:
How can we trust God’s promises to us, when Israel seems to be rejecting the gospel? Did God’s promise to them fail?
In part 2, we will begin examining the text with this question in mind.
1A paradox is not a contradiction, only an apparent one. Contradictions cannot exist. The paradox exists because of our finitude, our inability to comprehend God’s reality, but it is not an actual contradiction. For those inclined, we recommend the book Chosen But Free by Norman Geisler for a thorough, but very readable, analysis of this particular paradox. BACK
2MacDonald, William. Believer’s Bible Commentary. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1995. 1714 BACK