21. Man Opposes; God Disposes (Romans 9:1-13)
The minister of Pollyanna’s church was a hell-fire and damnation preacher. If you have heard the story of Pollyanna, you may remember that week after week the preacher assailed the congregation with threats of God’s wrath. Pollyanna’s father had been a preacher, and in her innocent, child-like manner, Pollyanna informed the minister that when her father preached, he looked for the “glad texts.” The “glad texts” were those passages which spoke of God only in comforting, reassuring ways and which focused on happy thoughts. The preacher took her advice and all ended well.
When a minister preaches topically, he has the luxury of choosing his texts. Although few and far between, some do preach of hell and damnation. Most preach the glad texts. But when preaching through the Bible book by book, chapter by chapter, and verse by verse, no such luxury is allowed. Rather, one must deal with the subjects God has selected. They must be taught in the order and the proportion He has both determined, which by inspiration He has inscripturated.225
Teaching through the Book of Romans emphasizing only the glad texts would be quite interesting indeed. One surely would have to omit the first chapters of Romans (1-3a), because they speak of man’s sin and of God’s righteous wrath. The next chapters (3b-4) speak of justification by faith. These are glad texts, aren’t they? Those who want to earn their salvation and boast in their own efforts will not think so, for the salvation which God has provided is for sinners, by grace, and apart from works. Salvation by grace is never appealing to the self-righteous.
The requirement of living righteously (chapter 6) and the agony of failing to do so (chapter 7) surely might not be considered a glad text either. The text least likely, however, to be called a “glad text” is the one we are about to study—the ninth chapter of the Book of Romans. Some choose to pass over this chapter; others wish they could.
The doctrine of divine election troubles many Christians. But I believe we will discover this is a doctrine which can neither be dismissed nor denied. I hope to demonstrate that the sovereignty of God and the grace of God require the doctrine of election. This is not a doctrine which Christians should reluctantly accept with gritted teeth. Nor should we hold this doctrine in secret, as though it were unseemly for God to determine the destiny of men.
Romans 9 and the doctrine of election is indeed a glad text, a text which should lead us to rejoice. When understood correctly, and in relationship to other biblical truths, this doctrine provides great confidence, great humility, and great gratitude for the Christian.
Let us refresh our memory as we notice just how the entire section of Romans 9-11 ends:
Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who became His counselor? Or who has first given to Him that it might be paid back to him again? For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen (Romans 11:33-36).
Let us determine in studying this passage to set aside preconceived prejudices and emotions, and seek to know God as He is. Let us rejoice and be glad, for He is God, the sovereign God of the universe! Who better to be in total control? Who better to be in control of our lives?
The Structure of the Text
The first five verses of chapter 9 are introductory. Verses 1-3 describe the heart of the apostle Paul in relationship to Israel. Verses 4 and 5 describe the privileges which God granted to Israel. Verses 6-13 explain Israel’s failure in terms of divine election, using Isaac (verses 7-9) and Jacob (verses 10-13) as examples. The structure of the text may therefore be outlined in this way:
(1) Introduction (verses 1-5)
(2) Paul’s Love for Israel (verses 1-3)
(3) Israel’s privileges (verses 4-5)
(4) Israel’s Failure and the Principle of Divine Election (verses 6-13)
- The principle required (verse 6)
- The principle illustrated:
Isaac (not Ishmael) (verses 7-9)
Jacob (not Esau) (verses 10-13)
The entire section which begins with chapter 9 and ends with chapter 11 concerns Israel and her future hope. Paul relates the purpose of God for Israel with His purpose for the Gentiles; he shows that here too God is causing all things to work together for Israel’s good. Paul’s teaching concerning Israel is based on her condition at the time of his writing. We would do well at the outset of this study to review Israel’s condition as revealed in Scripture and with our knowledge from history.
The Jews were not in good standing with Rome. During the time of our Lord and the apostles, we know that Israel was under the rule of Rome. Rome governed the land of Palestine by dividing it into various political regions and placing Jewish and Roman officials over the people. Some of the Jews were eager to throw off Roman rule. While the rest might not be willing to resort to violence to gain their freedom, they would welcome it. Many of the Jews refused to admit they were a subject people (John 8:33). As time went on, Rome seemed to become more and more exasperated with the Jews. In Acts 18:2 Luke records that Claudius commanded all the Jews to leave Rome. It will be only a few years before Rome will have had enough and utterly devastate Jerusalem, killing thousands of the Jews and scattering the rest. Politically speaking, the days of the Jews and of Jerusalem are numbered.
But all of this is more than just a matter of political unrest. It is a part of the divine plan of God. It will be the result of Israel’s sin, and specifically of her rejection of Jesus as the Messiah. Jesus was the promised Messiah who had come to save His people and to reign on the throne of David (see Luke 1:32-33, 46-55, 68-75). His own people rejected Him, however, and finally crucified Him with the help of Rome. During His earthly life, Jesus warned Israel of the judgment which lay ahead for them (see Luke 21:20-24). Jesus wept over Jerusalem, because she would be destroyed for rejecting Him:
And when He approached, He saw the city and wept over it, saying, “If you had known in this day, even you, the things which make for peace! But now they have been hidden from your eyes. For the days shall come upon you when your enemies will throw up a bank before you, and surround you, and hem you in on every side, and will level you to the ground and your children within you, and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not recognize the time of your visitation” (Luke 19:41-44).
God was gracious in that His judgment was not immediate. The resurrection of our Lord was proof that He was God’s Messiah. It was also a warning to Israel that judgment day for them was near. Peter’s message on the day of Pentecost was but an example of the warning of the apostles and a final offer of forgiveness before the day of judgment came upon Israel (see Acts 2).
Paul had been a powerful witness to the Jewish nation. For some time he had been the foremost leader in opposing Christianity. Then suddenly he was converted. This one who formerly persecuted the church was now preaching Christ. No matter how much they opposed him, they could not silence him. And their efforts to kill him were frustrated.
The clock was running for Israel and little time was left. In a very few years (less than ten), Rome was to destroy the city of Jerusalem, and the nation which said, “His blood be on us and on our children” (Matthew 27:25) was about to be judged. Israel had failed. They had failed under the old covenant, and they had rejected the new covenant. All of the promises God had made concerning Israel seemed to be in vain. Was it all over for Israel? Had God’s Word failed too? How could Israel’s present state be explained? Paul sets out to explain just that in these three chapters.
Paul’s Love for Israel
I am telling the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh.
Imagine, if possible, Adolf Hitler writing a history of the Jews. It could hardly be taken seriously by anyone wanting to read an objective, historical account of this race. How could a Jew-hater and a Jew-killer be trusted to deal truthfully with the historical material?
After his conversion, Paul was viewed as a traitor at best by his fellow Israelites who had been his colleagues in earlier years. Reaction to Paul was immediate and intense, as seen in Luke’s account of what took place in Damascus after Paul’s conversion:
Now for several days he was with the disciples who were at Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” And all those hearing him continued to be amazed, and were saying, “Is this not he who in Jerusalem destroyed those who called on this name, and who had come here for the purpose of bringing them bound before the chief priests?” But Saul kept increasing in strength and confounding the Jews who lived at Damascus by proving that this Jesus is the Christ. And when many days had elapsed, the Jews plotted together to do away with him (Acts 9:19b-23).
It did not get better as time passed; it only got worse. The more Paul grew, the more boldly and broadly he proclaimed Jesus as the Messiah. And the more the gospel Paul preached was received by Jews or Gentiles, the more their opposition and animosity grew. Paul refused to separate himself from Judaism but rather proclaimed the gospel as the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel:
“For this reason therefore, I requested to see you and to speak with you, for I am wearing this chain for the sake of the hope of Israel” (Acts 28:20).
It would all explode when Paul made his way to Jerusalem, not long after he penned this Epistle to the Romans:
And when the seven days were almost over, the Jews from Asia, upon seeing him in the temple, began to stir up all the multitude and laid hands on him, crying out, “Men of Israel, come to our aid! This is the man who preaches to all men everywhere against our people, and the Law, and this place; and besides he has even brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place” (Acts 21:27-28).
Paul is about to explain the failure of Israel in the light of God’s eternal purpose for His people in Romans 9-11. Paul recognizes that his words will not have nearly the impact they could unless his readers know his heart with respect to the Israelites, his people according to the flesh. Consequently, in verses 1-3 Paul lays a foundation by expressing his deep love for his people and his heartfelt desire for their salvation. While his own people have rejected him and sought to kill him, Paul still loves them deeply and yearns for the day when they will know God as he has come to know Him.
In verse 1, Paul solemnly testifies that what he is about to say is the truth. He is not lying. While one’s conscience can be hardened or deceived (see 1 Corinthians 8:7, 10, 12; 1 Timothy 4:2; Titus 1:15), the Christian’s conscience can be cleansed, so that the Holy Spirit bears witness through our conscience (see 2 Corinthians 1:12; 1 Timothy 1:5; 3:9; 2 Timothy 1:3).
With all honesty, Paul can say in verse 2 that his response to Israel’s unbelief and very real peril is that of sorrow and grief. These are the responses of love, not of bitterness or vengeance. In spite of all the Jews have done against Paul, he still loves them and finds no joy in their downfall.
Paul’s love goes far deeper than this as he tells us in verse 3. It is not enough for Paul to feel sorry for his people. He wishes he could demonstrate his love in an even more active way. If it were possible, he would wish to be like Christ, sacrificing himself for the salvation of his fellow-Jews. If he could bear the wrath of God in their place, he would. While this would not be nor could be, Paul nevertheless unveils his heart toward the Jews. This history of God’s people was written by a man whose heart was on Israel’s side. If he must speak ill of this people, he will find only grief and no pleasure in doing so. Paul writes of the downfall of this nation as a writer would tenderly pen an article about the death of a loved one.
Paul is unlike Jonah who desired to see his enemies sizzle in the flames of divine judgment (see Jonah chapter 4). He is like Abraham who had compassion on the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah and pled with God to spare the city for the sake of a few righteous (see Genesis 19:16-33).
Who are Israelites, to whom belongs the adoption as sons and the glory and the covenants and the giving of the Law and the temple service and the promises, whose are the fathers, and from whom is the Christ according to the flesh, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.
Not only was Paul for his fellow-Israelites, they had many other things going for them. Before he turns to their failure, Paul enumerates those things belonging to Israel which were a great privilege. While some people attempt to explain their sin by pointing back to their lack of privileges and opportunities, Israel could never do so. Her failure was in spite of many blessings, many privileges which Paul outlines in verses 4 and 5. Let us briefly define each privilege.
(1) They are Israelites. To be an Israelite was a great privilege in the mind of a Jew. They were Israelites, and this was an honor, a position of honor and distinction.
(2) To them belongs the adoption as sons. The adoption of sons was the privilege of reigning over creation in the kingdom.
(3) To them belongs the glory. The glory as I understand it is the revealed glory of God. This glory was evident on the face of Moses. It was also the Shekinah glory manifested in the tabernacle and the temple. It is the glory which will descend upon and abide in the heavenly Jerusalem.
(4) To them belongs the covenants. Note that covenants is plural. The covenants made to Israel would be the Abrahamic covenant (Genesis 12:1-3), the Mosaic covenant (Exodus 20; Deuteronomy 5), the Davidic covenant (2 Samuel 7), and the New covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-34).
(5) To them belongs the Law. The Law is the Law of Moses. To possess this was to possess the Word of God, which revealed the righteousness of God and the righteousness He required of His people. It was not a burden but a blessing. The Law was food for meditation and the basis for learning much about God and His ways (see Psalm 119).
(6) To them belongs the temple service. The Israelites were given the privilege of God’s dwelling place among men in Jerusalem. Because of this, they were also greatly blessed to be able to worship Him, the only true God.
(7) To them belongs the promises. The promises would be those commitments God made to His people, not conditioned by men’s obedience but founded upon God’s sovereign decree. The promises were Old Testament prophecies pertaining to Messiah, to Israel’s judgment and restoration, and to the kingdom of God which was to come.
(8) To them belongs the patriarchs. Israel’s heritage was great indeed. In their family tree were the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Those with whom God made and confirmed His covenant, and through whom God worked to form the nation Israel, were the forefathers of the Israelites.
(9) To them belongs the lineage of Messiah. In pointing to the patriarchs, Paul was looking back in time. In pointing here to the Messiah, Paul is looking at the present and the future. The Messiah had come to the earth as a Jew, an Israelite, and had lived among the Israelites presenting Himself to this nation as their King. What a privilege to be able to point to the Messiah as One who came from your own people.
These are the privileges which Israel possessed and which set them apart from the rest of the peoples of the earth.226 These privileges gave Israel great opportunities for blessing. They also brought with them great responsibility. Israel’s failure was in spite of these great privileges. This makes her unbelief and divine discipline even more tragic. Her condition in Paul’s day must be viewed in light of all the Israelites had and all God had promised.
Not only are the Gentiles grafted into Israel, and into her privileges and blessings, but these blessings are represented in the Book of Hebrews as “better” than that which Israel possessed. If Israel is greatly privileged, we are even more privileged.
Before we too quickly condemn Israel for failing to make use of her privileges and enter into the blessings of God, let us pause to reflect on the privileges and blessings God has bestowed upon us, in Christ. Have we fully entered into God’s blessings? Have we been good stewards of the blessings and opportunities He has bestowed upon us? If not, then we are no better than the nation Israel. Perhaps no other people have been given more privileges and opportunities than we who believe in Jesus Christ today.
Explained by Divine Election
6 But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel; 7 neither are they all children because they are Abraham’s descendants, but: “through Isaac your descendants will be named.” 8 That is, it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are regarded as descendants. 9 For this is a word of promise: “At this time I will come, and Sarah shall have a son.” 10 And not only this, but there was Rebekah also, when she had conceived twins by one man, our father Isaac; 11 for though the twins were not yet born, and had not done anything good or bad, in order that God’s purpose according to His choice might stand, not because of works, but because of Him who calls, 12 it was said to her, “The older will serve the younger.” 13 Just as it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”
Paul clearly assumes one thing—Israel had failed. They had failed to recognize or to receive their Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. They had failed in their rejection and crucifixion of Him. They had failed after His resurrection to admit their guilt, to repent, and be saved. They had failed to enter into the blessings of the kingdom of God as offered to them by Jesus and His apostles. Their hour of judgment is near. Israel’s grade on a report card would have been an “F.”
How can their failure be explained? It was one thing for them to fall short of the glory of God. But what of God’s purposes for Israel and His promises to them? God’s Word had not been fulfilled. Instead of a kingdom, Israel is on the verge of extinction. What does this say about the reliability of the Scriptures? Paul’s first answer is short and to the point: Though Israel had failed, the Word of God had not (verse 6a). His second explanation follows immediately: “They are not all Israel who are descended from Israel” (verse 6b).
God’s promises were made to Israel. If “Israel” has fallen short of these, have God’s promises failed? Not at all! The solution to the problem is to understand who Israel is. Here, Paul tells us who Israel is not: The “Israel” to whom God’s promises have been given, and for whom they will be fulfilled, is not every person who is a physical descendant of Israel.
Not all Israelites according to the flesh are true Israelites. Paul will have more to say about those who make up true Israel, but here he is indicating that true Israel is a smaller group than physical Israel. Paul’s words might be illustrated by visualizing a large circle called “Physical Israel” with a smaller circle inside called “True Israel.”
It is also true that “true Israel” is made up of Gentile believers and Jewish believers. Paul has already taught this truth in Romans 4:
Is this blessing then upon the circumcised, or upon the uncircumcised also? For we say, “Faith was reckoned to Abraham as righteousness.” How then was it reckoned? While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised; and he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised, that he might be the father of all who believe without being circumcised, that righteousness might be reckoned to them, and the father of circumcision to those who not only are of the circumcision, but who also follow in the steps of the faith of our father Abraham which he had while uncircumcised. For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would be heir of the world was not through the Law, but through the righteousness of faith. For if those who are of the Law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise is nullified; for the Law brings about wrath, but where there is no law, neither is there violation. For this reason it is by faith, that it might be in accordance with grace, in order that the promise may be certain to all the descendants, not only to those who are of the Law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, (as it is written, “A father of many nations have I made you”) in the sight of Him whom he believed, even God, who gives life to the dead and calls into being that which does not exist (Romans 4:9-17).
That there are fewer “true Israelites” than there are physical Israelites comes as no surprise to anyone familiar with the Old Testament. God continually narrowed down those to whom He promised His blessings. Think about this for a moment. God promised Adam and Eve that one of the woman’s “seed” would destroy Satan and would bring salvation and deliverance to the human race (Genesis 3:15). By means of the flood, the human race was pruned down to the “seed” of Noah. A part of this seed was put under a curse (see Genesis 9:18-27). Then, the “seed of promise” was narrowed down to the “seed” of Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3). The “seed” was later narrowed down to the “seed” of Isaac, then of Jacob. The promised Messiah would come from the “seed” of Judah (Genesis 49:10). Later, this ruling seed was designated as the “seed” of David (2 Samuel 7:10-17). Finally, the seed through whom God’s blessings would be poured out upon Israel and all the nations was narrowed down to a single person, Jesus the Messiah:
Brethren, I speak in terms of human relations: even though it is only a man’s covenant, yet when it has been ratified, no one sets it aside or adds conditions to it. Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, “AND TO SEEDS,” as referring to many, but rather to one, “AND TO YOUR SEED,” that is Christ (Galatians 3:15-16).
Paul has set out to explain the failure of Israel in the light of divine election. He has already stated that the true Israel of God is a smaller group than the physical seed of Israel. There are more descendants of Jacob than there are true Israelites. The reason is divine selection or election. In verses 7-13, Paul illustrates the principle of election with two examples from the Book of Genesis. He first turns to God’s choice of Isaac, and by inference, His rejection of Ishmael, in verses 7-9. He then turns to the example of God’s choice of Jacob and His rejection of Esau in verses 10-13. Let us consider these verses and the examples Paul has selected to demonstrate divine election in the history of Israel. Through this selective process, God reduces the ranks of those who will be recipients of His blessings.
The Example of Isaac, Not Ishmael (7-9)
Neither are they all children because they are Abraham’s descendants, but: “through Isaac your descendants will be named.” That is, it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are regarded as descendants. For this is a word of promise: “At this time I will come, and Sarah shall have a son.”
Ishmael is not named by Paul, but he is clearly referred to in contrast to Isaac, the child of promise. Abram and Sarai were unable to bear children. When God promised Abram that he would become a great nation and that all the nations of the world would be blessed by his “seed,” the implied promise was that he and Sarai would bear a son. God continued to reaffirm this promise, although as the years passed by it appeared to be humanly impossible for them to have a child by Sarai. Consequently, they attempted to produce a child by their own fleshly efforts. Abram took Hagar, Sarai’s maid, and slept with her, and she conceived. Abram then proposed to God that this son be his heir. God refused, insisting that the child He had promised would be a child born to him and Sarai. Isaac, born some time later, was the child of promise, not Ishmael.
Both Ishmael and Isaac were the physical offspring or seed of Abraham, but only one of these two sons was the child of promise. It was only through Isaac that the promised line of descendants would be preserved and propagated. God chose one and rejected the other. God promised one and not the other. Abraham’s seed were counted only through Isaac. God chose Isaac and rejected Ishmael for this privilege. Not all Abraham’s children were to become sons of Abraham in the sense which God had promised to bring blessing to, and through, his seed.
The Example of Jacob, Not Esau (10-13)
And not only this, but there was Rebekah also, when she had conceived twins by one man, our father Isaac; for though the twins were not yet born, and had not done anything good or bad, in order that God’s purpose according to His choice might stand, not because of works, but because of Him who calls, it was said to her, “The older will serve the younger.” Just as it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”
The case for divine election is even more dramatically demonstrated by the offspring of Isaac and Rebekah in verses 10-13. In the case of Isaac and Ishmael, Abraham was the father of both boys, but Sarah was the mother of Isaac while Hagar was the mother of Ishmael. With Jacob and Esau, both boys were the children of the same parents. They were both conceived and born at the same time. The choice was made and announced before the boys were born. The choice had nothing to do with the works which the boys had done or would do. The choice of Jacob over Esau was contrary to the preference and efforts of Isaac. It was also contrary to tradition and practice, for the older son was to be given preference in the culture of that day. In spite of these factors, God chose to make the seed pass through the line of Jacob and not Esau. In addition, Jacob come to faith, while Esau seems to have rejected this faith (compare Hebrews 11:21 with 12:15-17).
It is indeed amazing that God would have chosen Jacob over Esau and that he would later be an example of divine election. Jacob was a man who all through his life sought to control his own destiny, even though this involved dishonesty and deception. He was always working against tradition. He was the younger brother, yet he schemed and thereby obtained his brother’s birthright. He stole his father’s blessing by deception. He did not hesitate to make use of a well which was not his (Genesis 29:4-10, especially verse 10). He made every effort to marry the younger daughter first, knowing that the older daughter was to be given first in marriage (Genesis 29:13-30).
As much as Jacob wrestled with life, and even with God in a vain effort to control his own destiny, God was in control. The events of Jacob’s life were tragic. He lost all control, and it seemed to him that all hope of God’s promise was lost (see Genesis 42:36). God was in control. God had already changed Jacob’s name to Israel, reiterating at that time that He would bless him, his descendants, and the world as He had promised Abraham and Isaac (Genesis 35:9-15).
It was not until the end of Jacob’s life that he began to fathom the sovereignty of God and His grace. He came to the point of realizing that God’s choice of him had nothing to do with his works but was in spite of them. He came to understand and to appreciate divine election. It is little wonder that the one act of faith on the part of Jacob recorded in the Book of Hebrews is the blessing he pronounced on Joseph’s sons (see Hebrews 11:21). Moses tells us that Jacob did this with crossed hands, an acknowledgment of his understanding and appreciation of divine election, that election by which God had chosen him over his older brother, Esau.
Paul gives us the reason for His choice of Jacob over Esau:
“… in order that God’s purpose according to His choice might stand, not because of works, but because of Him who calls, it was said to her, “The older will serve the younger” (Romans 9:11-12).
God did this to express His sovereign control over history. He wanted to make it very evident that His blessings and His grace are bestowed on those whom He chooses and not on those who work hard. The God who is at work to demonstrate His glory reveals that glory by means of His election of one and His rejection of another, based solely on His choice. This is divine election: God’s sovereign choice of whom He will bless and whom He will not.
As we come to the conclusion of this lesson, I must remind you that this is only the beginning of what Paul has to say about Israel’s unbelief in Romans 9-11. This is not Paul’s final word on the subject but his first. As such, we should recognize the message of our text as fundamental, and therefore, of great importance. Let us consider what we have learned from this passage and ponder some of the implications of the truths Paul has taught here.
(1) Paul teaches that being a true Israelite is not synonymous with being a physical Israelite. There were those in Israel who supposed that mere physical descent from the patriarchs assured one of entrance into the kingdom of God. John the Baptist rejected this (Matthew 3:9-10), and so did Jesus (John 8:39). Paul strongly states here and elsewhere that being a physical Israelite does not make one righteous and does not assure one of a place in God’s kingdom.
It is a different “birth” which accomplishes this, and it is a different “seed.” The “seed” who was to bruise Satan’s head (Genesis 3:15) and bring blessing to all the earth (Genesis 12:3) was but one Person, the Lord Jesus Christ (Galatians 3:16). All who are the “seed” of Jesus Christ are saved and assured of eternal life. To be His seed, one must be joined with Him, by faith. This is the second birth of which Jesus spoke in John 3.
(2) This text teaches election. Receiving God’s blessings is not the result of one’s works but a gift given to those whom God has sovereignly chosen.
(3) This text teaches individual election. Some seek to water down Paul’s words and the doctrine of election by suggesting that the election spoken of here and elsewhere is the election of a nation, a group, and not individuals. This is quite contrary to Paul’s teaching. In fact, the very concept of group election is the error Paul is trying to correct here. Many Israelites thought they were assured a place in the kingdom of God based solely on their physical descent as Israelites. Paul’s words in our text make it patently evident that “true Israel” is a smaller group than “physical Israel.” Those who are true Israelites are such by divine choice.
In Paul’s examples, individuals are chosen or rejected.227 Isaac was the child of promise; Ishmael was not. Jacob was the child of promise; Esau was not. Moses was chosen of God—to know, to worship, and to serve Him. Pharaoh was hardened.228 The reason Israel had not succeeded nationally was that God had purposed only to save some.
(4) This text teaches double election. Some try to take the edge off of election by saying that God’s election is only of those whom He will save. The fate of the non-elect is not a matter of God’s sovereign choice, they say. This simply cannot be true. It is not logical, and more importantly, it is not biblical. For God to choose to save some when He is capable of saving all, and when He alone is capable of saving any, is to choose that the rest will perish. Throughout this chapter, Paul speaks of both sides of the coin. It was Isaac, not Ishmael (inferred). It was Jacob, not Esau. It was Moses, not Pharaoh. There are “vessels of wrath” and there are “vessels of mercy” (9:22-23). The fate of the lost, as well as that of the saved, is first and foremost a decision made by our sovereign God.
(5) This text causes mental anguish and even protest from some. Non-Christians are repulsed by what Paul has to say here. Even some Christians react similarly; others are simply ashamed of this teaching. But those who know God as a sovereign God, and who understand His grace find this a truly “glad text.” For those who know God, Paul’s teaching becomes the source of great comfort and joy. The reasons for this are supported by stating some principles which emerge from Paul’s teaching in our text.
Divine sovereignty does not exclude or reduce human responsibility. Why do many not believe in Jesus Christ? First, Paul says, because God has not chosen them. Second, Paul will say in chapter 10, because men have not chosen God. These two truths—the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man—are incompatible in our minds. In God’s mind, they are compatible. How can Jesus be fully human and fully divine at the same time? I cannot explain this either, but the Bible teaches it, and I believe it. The sovereignty of God does not make robots of men.
The sovereignty of God means God is in control. All of God’s promises are contingent upon one fact: God is in control. If there is one message which permeates biblical prophecy, it is this: God is sovereign. The sovereignty of God is our assurance that He will do what He has promised. If God is not in control of everything, including man’s salvation, then God is not sovereign, and His promises are not certain.
The doctrine of election is essential to divine sovereignty. Paul’s words in verse 11 link God’s election with His sovereignty:
For though the twins were not yet born, and had not done anything good or bad, in order that God’s purpose according to His choice might stand, not because of works, but because of Him who calls.
How could God be sovereign, in complete control, and not be in control of this matter of salvation? If God chose some for salvation in eternity past and predestined them to be conformed to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29), He must be sovereign to save or else His purposes would never be accomplished. To be sovereign at all, He must be sovereign over all. Election is the expression of sovereignty. Take away election, and you take away sovereignty.
Divine grace cannot be granted apart from election. Just as God’s sovereignty necessitates election, so God’s grace requires election. Divine grace must, of necessity, be sovereign grace. Grace is that which is undeserved, unmerited. Any reward, any divine blessing, is a gift of God’s grace. God’s grace is granted to all men in the form of sun and rain (see Acts 14:17). Men do not deserve it, but God graciously grants it. God’s saving grace cannot be earned nor can man do anything which would incline God to grant it. That is Paul’s point in Romans 9:11. If men deserve God’s wrath and do not deserve His favor, how is it than God can bestow His grace on men? Only by election, by a choice which comes from God, uninfluenced by the deeds of those whom He chooses. Apart from election, grace would be impossible. All of God’s grace is, therefore, sovereign grace, grace sovereignly bestowed based on God’s elective choice, made independently of those on whom He bestows it.
The divine election is essential for the salvation of men’s souls. Evangelism requires election. Since all men are sinners, and none could or would come to faith on their own (Romans 3:10-18; Ephesians 2:1-3), the only way any would ever be justified by faith is if God sovereignly intervened in bringing about that which men hate and oppose.
The doctrine of divine sovereignty and election is the basis for our prayers for the lost. Years ago I was discussing election with a Christian leader who did not believe in the sovereign choice of God in the election of men. I asked him this question: “Brother, do you pray for the salvation of the lost?” “Of course I do,” he responded. “Why?” I asked. “According to your view, God did all He could do when He sent His Son to the cross. If God does not choose those whom He will save, and if He does not sovereignly draw them to Himself, then He has done all He can, and everything is now up to you and the one who is lost.”
The doctrine of divine election is a tremendous incentive for prayer for the unsaved. When we pray to God asking Him to save the lost, we are praying to the One who is able to save, to the One who chooses whom He will save. We are praying to a merciful and compassionate God who does not wish that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.229 Who better to cling to than He who can save and He who does save those whom He chooses?
The doctrine of divine sovereignty is a great comfort concerning the lost. It is a great comfort to come to a loving, gracious, and sovereign God beseeching Him to save those who are lost. But we know it is not God’s purpose to save all men. Many have experienced the deep grief of the death of an unsaved loved one. We may feel some guilt that we should have shared our faith or should have been more aggressive in witnessing. But we must also remember that none of those whom God has chosen will fail to come to Him. He who is sovereign sees to it that His purposes are fulfilled, even when we fail. Those whom we love, who have died outside of Christ, did not “slip by” without God’s knowledge. Their death, and even their unbelief, was a part of the sovereign plan and purpose of God. Only in eternity will we be able to say, as we most certainly will, “Thou doest all things well.”
The doctrine of divine sovereignty is the basis for the Christian’s assurance of salvation and of his eternal security. We are sanctified and glorified on the same basis that we are saved, by grace, due to the sufficiency of Christ and His work at Calvary (see Colossians 2:6). The One who saved us is also the One who will bring that work to its completion (Philippians 1:6). The author of our faith (by divine election) is also the finisher of our faith (Hebrews 12:2).
The doctrine of divine sovereignty is of great comfort to sinners and the source of much consternation for those who are self-righteous. It is incredible that the doctrines of grace, which must include the sovereignty of God and election, are an offense to some Christians. Divine election should be music to our ears. It should cause us to rejoice and to praise God just as it did Paul (see Romans 11:33-36). It should be the basis for gratitude, praise, humility, and service.
When Jesus came to this earth, the express image of the Father, He was “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). It is interesting to observe the different reactions to the grace of God revealed in Jesus Christ. Sinners were drawn to Him for they knew they were sinners, and they yearned for His grace. The grace of God means that no matter how undeserving men might be, God’s salvation is available on a basis apart from human merit and works. The self-righteous were jealous of the attention Jesus gave sinners. They believed they deserved His attention and they deserved God’s blessings.
This is why the prophet Jonah was so angry that he tried to run from his task of preaching to the lost sinners of Nineveh. He knew that God was gracious and compassionate, and he hated it (see Jonah 4:1-4). Why would Jonah hate grace? Because these unworthy sinners, the Ninevites, would be blessed by God’s grace. And also because he believed that he, and the nation Israel, deserved God’s favor on some basis other than grace.
For the self-righteous, grace is “charity,” and they will have none of it. For the sinner, grace is the hope of God’s favor in spite of our sin. “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me …” Can you sing these words? I pray that you can, and that you will, by God’s grace, and to His glory.
226 Some of Israel’s privileges belonged to Israel exclusively. These include being the physical seed of Israel, possession of the Law, the temple service, the patriarchs, and being in the physical line of the Messiah. Other privileges, such as the adoption of sons, the glory, the covenants, and the promises are blessings which the Gentile can enter into, along with the Jew.
229 The Word, from 2 Peter 3:9 and similarly stated in 1 Timothy 2:4, does not inform us that it is God’s sovereign will or purpose to save all men, but that it is His desire. We may not wish to spank our children, but we warn them that we will if we must. So too God does not take pleasure in the eternal damnation of sinners, but it is His will that sinners must perish. In His grace, He saves some. In His righteousness, He punishes the rest.