This post is going to be my written version of a bible study session regarding Romans 9. There are definitely disagreements among Christians on the significance and message of some of the things Paul writes in Romans chapter 8 and 9, but I don’t think those disagreements should be as significant as they are.
One of the great WordPress.com readers/bloggers Christians in Motion saw my last post about The Flaws of Doctrine: The Chosen? and commented with some discussion points. Then they asked what I make of Romans 9. This is my answer.
Occasionally, there will be questions that arise in my study or questions from others that will trigger a deeper study of a particular topic. I will use a bible study series and category to discuss these topics going forward. When answers become too in depth and too large for a response in comments, this category is where you will find it.
What do I make of Romans 9?
My first thought is that this message is for his people, the Jewish people of Israel. It was meant to convince a group of people, who had made following God’s law their way of life, that simply following law is not enough. This is an incredibly difficult message to give to those who were consumed by what they did and not their relationship with God. This was both a defense of the Jews and a call for change. Any scripture below without a header of reference is part of Romans chapter 9.
I speak the truth in Christ—I am not lying, my conscience confirms it through the Holy Spirit— 2 I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. 3 For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race, 4 the people of Israel. Theirs is the adoption to sonship; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. 5 Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of the Messiah, who is God over all, forever praised![a] Amen.
Here he describes all of the things that the Jewish people have accomplished and have been given by God. He mentions that their lineage lead all the way to Jesus, the Messiah. He is clearly disappointed that so many of his people have rejected Jesus.
6 It is not as though God’s word had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. 7 Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children. On the contrary, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.”[b] 8 In other words, it is not the children by physical descent who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring. 9 For this was how the promise was stated: “At the appointed time I will return, and Sarah will have a son.”[c]
Here Paul references when Sarah asked Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away, in order to describe the differences between the descendants of Isaac and the descendants of Ishmael. God decided that the descendants of Isaac were who he would establish his old covenant with. This brings up the question did God know that Ishmael’s lineage would for some reason not be a good lineage for his covenant, or did he simply decide that is how it will be and made it happen along the way? I don’t believe anyone knows the answer, but we can all accept whichever it was, it was God’s sovereign choice to do so.
19 Then God said, “Yes, but your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac.[d] I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him. 20 And as for Ishmael, I have heard you: I will surely bless him; I will make him fruitful and will greatly increase his numbers. He will be the father of twelve rulers, and I will make him into a great nation. 21 But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you by this time next year.” 22 When he had finished speaking with Abraham, God went up from him.
The descendants of Isaac were to be the keepers of the law, and God’s people. They were held to a very high standard. They were to be an example to everyone that comes later and carry out God’s instructions throughout generations. They were God’s chosen people because they had to follow every instruction strictly or face very severe consequences. Many of the consequences of disobedience resulted in death. He referred to the descendants of Isaac as the children of the promise. This promise was that he would return and give Sarah a son, a promise that was kept when Sarah became pregnant and Isaac was born.
10 Not only that, but Rebekah’s children were conceived at the same time by our father Isaac. 11 Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad—in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: 12 not by works but by him who calls—she was told, “The older will serve the younger.”[d] 13 Just as it is written: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”
Here he is referring to when Isaac prayed on behalf of Rebekah and God responded to his prayer by giving them twins and telling them that one will be greater than the other and the older brother will serve the younger. This reference itself suggests that God does act in response to the actions of mankind. Even with that being true, God acts of his own will, and his own sovereign choice.
21 Isaac prayed to the Lord on behalf of his wife, because she was childless. The Lord answered his prayer, and his wife Rebekah became pregnant. 22 The babies jostled each other within her, and she said, “Why is this happening to me?” So she went to inquire of the Lord.
23 The Lord said to her,
“Two nations are in your womb,
and two peoples from within you will be separated;
one people will be stronger than the other,
and the older will serve the younger.”
Paul talks about the fact God chose which brother would be greater, but he did not mention that this all came about because of Isaac’s prayer. Yes, God’s will is done on Earth; I think all Christians can agree on that. Isaac’s faith in God lead him to pray for Rebekah, his wife, and God rewarded that faith. It wasn’t the laws Isaac kept, it wasn’t his knowledge of how to be a God-fearing man, it was his faith. When he asked God for help, he showed faith, and God answered. He also mentions from Malachi, where God says he loved (Jacob) Israel, but hated Esau. This verse is part of a scolding God is giving the people of Israel.
14 What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! 15 For he says to Moses,
“I will have mercy on whom I have mercy,
and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”[f]
16 It does not, therefore, depend on human desire or effort, but on God’s mercy. 17 For Scripture says to Pharaoh: “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.”[g] 18 Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.
Here he explains that what God does, he does for his own purposes. He does not wait for you to desire something or achieve something through effort before providing mercy. He provides mercy when he wants to, and gives it to who he wants to.
However, if you took this to mean that nothing a person can do can trigger action by God, you ignore the many times in the Old Testament where actions by mankind lead to actions by God. The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is one such act by God. But there is an even better example of this in the very reference Paul makes to what God says to Moses.
12 Moses said to the Lord, “You have been telling me, ‘Lead these people,’ but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. You have said, ‘I know you by name and you have found favor with me.’ 13 If you are pleased with me, teach me your ways so I may know you and continue to find favor with you. Remember that this nation is your people.”
14 The Lord replied, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”
15 Then Moses said to him, “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. 16 How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?”
17 And the Lord said to Moses, “I will do the very thing you have asked, because I am pleased with you and I know you by name.”
18 Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory.”
19 And the Lord said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. 20 But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.”
Here Moses very clearly asks God to go with them and then God says I will do the very thing you asked. God didn’t do this because Moses had influence over him, but because Moses showed great faith and honor to God to express they could not make this trip without him. Moses didn’t follow a law, or show great knowledge of Gods law, or do good for other people, rather he believed that God alone could make their trip successful.
19 One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who is able to resist his will?” 20 But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’”[h] 21 Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use?
22 What if God, although choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction? 23 What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory— 24 even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles? 25 As he says in Hosea:
“I will call them ‘my people’ who are not my people;
and I will call her ‘my loved one’ who is not my loved one,”[i]
“In the very place where it was said to them,
‘You are not my people,’
there they will be called ‘children of the living God.’”[j]
27 Isaiah cries out concerning Israel:
“Though the number of the Israelites be like the sand by the sea,
only the remnant will be saved.
28 For the Lord will carry out
his sentence on earth with speed and finality.”[k]
29 It is just as Isaiah said previously:
“Unless the Lord Almighty
had left us descendants,
we would have become like Sodom,
we would have been like Gomorrah.”[l]
Here Paul again speaks to the Jewish people of Israel about being rebellious and questioning God. He is trying to teach them that they shouldn’t question what God does and that this mindset is the reason there will be such a great number of people but only a few who are saved.
30 What then shall we say? That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; 31 but the people of Israel, who pursued the law as the way of righteousness, have not attained their goal. 32 Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone. 33 As it is written:
“See, I lay in Zion a stone that causes people to stumble
and a rock that makes them fall,
and the one who believes in him will never be put to shame.”[m]
Here he talks about the people without faith will stumble over the rock, but whoever has faith will obtain righteousness. The Jewish people believed by following God’s law and doing good during their lives that they would reach their goal. That is not what Jesus taught.
5 Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”
6 Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”
Jesus is the way to salvation. All he did and said is the truth. How he lived is the life all of us must strive for in our own lives. Another way to look at “and the life” is that Jesus means life and through him you may live. This is why Paul continues in his writings to teach doing good and loving your neighbor.
This next bit of scripture may seem unrelated, but it talks about Paul’s belief that you can save your husband or wife through marriage.
1 Corinthians 7:6-16:
6 I say this as a concession, not as a command. 7 I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.
8 Now to the unmarried[a] and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do. 9 But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.
10 To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. 11 But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife.
12 To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. 13 And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him. 14 For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.
15 But if the unbeliever leaves, let it be so. The brother or the sister is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace. 16 How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?
Why would Paul say this if he believed nothing you do can bring you to salvation? Why would he say this if he believed that you couldn’t save a spouse by marriage if you were a believer and they were not. What is the importance of being a believer if you cannot be saved by that belief? Why would he say that belief can lead your spouse to be saved? How can you save your wife or husband? How can you believe before you have the spirit?
I think the answer to this is that we all have the opportunity to have the holy spirit inside us, and belief allows us to obtain it. The holy spirit then brings change in us because we first sought it through belief. This is the same belief that Moses had when he knew God would be the only one who could get them through their journey. This is the same belief that Abraham showed when he spoke on behalf of Lott to save him from death when Sodom and Gomorrah was destroyed. This is the same belief that Jacob showed when he prayed on behalf of his wife. They had to believe, because disbelief would cause them to commit acts against God and they did not have the holy spirit to guide their actions.
We do have the holy spirit to guide us, because we believe.