D. The Righteousness of God in History: How God Can Use Sin Without Excusing It (Romans 9-11)
Although it was over twenty years ago, I can still remember the first time I taught Romans 9-11. I believe it was the second sermon I had ever preached. There was a great response to that message. Never had so many requests come in for tapes on the Book of Romans—tapes, that is, by Dr. S. Lewis Johnson. Dr. Johnson, a great student of the Scriptures, had taught Romans a number of times. No wonder so many people ordered his tapes on Romans. If my sermon, years ago, prompted people to study Romans more carefully, it was worthwhile.
If this message results in your own study of Romans, it will be well worth the effort. Although messages (including this one), tapes, and printed materials may prove very helpful, nothing is more valuable than discovering for yourself the riches of the Book of Romans. I could eat a delicious steak and tell you of its delights, or I could send you personally to the restaurant to experience the meal for yourself. Eating a good meal yourself is far better than hearing someone tell about their own feast. As I share some of the great truths of Romans 9-11, I urge you to feast for yourself. If this study gets you into the Bible, it has accomplished its purpose. If it keeps you from your own study of the Book of Romans, it will have been a miserable failure.
Romans 9-11 is, by far, the most controversial section in the book. Christians differ over whether there is a future for Israel, which is distinct from that of the church. There are many who differ strongly over the teachings of Romans on divine sovereignty and human responsibility. The doctrine of election is taught here, and many find it perplexing and distressing. While this lesson will not end all of these debates, we shall attempt to clarify some of the issues and their implications.
There are some very emotional issues addressed in Romans 9-11, but they are also very important issues (is that not the reason we are so emotional about them?). Because of this emotional overlay, you may come to this text with your proverbial “guns” loaded and cocked, ready to find my teaching inconsistent with your own. It may be that my understanding is incorrect. It may also be that your understanding of this passage is wrong. We might even both be wrong! The real question is not, “What do I want it to say?” or even, “What do I think this passage says?” but, “What does it say?” The Spirit of God did not inspire this text to confuse us. The teaching of this passage is vital to the gospel and to our own spiritual walk.
I must emphasize that while we come to Romans 9-11 in search of Paul’s explanation of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility, this is not the primary issue Paul is addressing. The issue which Paul raises is this: Does Israel’s unbelief and present alienation from God mean that God’s Word has failed, and that God’s promises to Abraham and his children are now invalid?
The answer which Paul will give to this question is emphatic: While Israel has failed miserably, the Word of God is perfectly fulfilled in terms of Israel’s history and her present condition. And concerning all that God has promised Israel, which has not yet been fulfilled, we may be confident of its fulfillment, based upon the sovereignty of God and the faithfulness of His Word.
What Paul teaches here concerning divine sovereignty, election, grace, and human responsibility is clear and convincing. He himself will raise the very issues and objections which cause great concern. These he answers emphatically. But when all is said and done, Paul is found on his knees, praising God for who He is, based upon the doctrines he has just taught. Let this also be our goal. Let us not seek to gain ammunition with which to refute others, but to join Paul, on our knees, praising God. If we understand and accept the teachings of this section, this is what we must do.
A Review and Overview of Romans
What Paul will teach in Romans 9-11 is based upon that which he has already written in chapters 1-8. It will culminate in the exhortations of Paul in chapters 12-16. Let us briefly review how Paul has prepared us for what we are about to study in our text for this lesson.
Paul is a Jew, a converted Jew who dramatically came to faith by the grace of God. Paul was called as an apostle to the Gentiles, to bring them to the “obedience of faith.” Because of his faith in Christ, his love for the brethren, and his calling to minister to the Gentiles, Paul was eager to go to Rome and to preach the gospel there. Paul had been prevented from traveling to Rome, and thus he wrote this epistle, hoping that it would prepare the way for a visit in the near future. He was “not ashamed of the gospel” but was bold to proclaim it, because it is God’s powerful means of saving men, and because it is a revelation of God’s righteousness (Romans 1:1-17).
The gospel which Paul preached was God’s good news for sinners. The righteousness of God requires that He condemn sinners. In His righteousness, God judges all men on the basis of their deeds, in the light of the revelation they have received. Judged by this standard, all men fall far short of the righteousness God requires and come under His condemnation. All men fall short of righteousness, both Jews and Gentiles. The Jews bear an even greater responsibility because they have received the revelation of God’s righteousness in the Law, the Law which they affirm to be true, and by which they judge others. All mankind is thus under sentence of death, due to their sin.
In the Old Testament, God promised men salvation from sin and outpouring of His blessings, through a Messiah who was yet to come and to die for the sins of His people. This was provided in the person of Jesus Christ. The righteousness and salvation which God has provided is not by law-keeping and good works, but on the basis of simple faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ. He was innocent, and yet He died for sinners, taking their punishment and bearing God’s righteous wrath. God is therefore able to save sinners and yet still be true to His righteousness. All who trust in Him are justified by faith; they receive the forgiveness of their sins and the righteousness of God in Christ (Romans 3:21-26).
Justification by faith is not new. Abraham was not justified by his works, but by his faith. He believed in God’s promise of blessings through a child he and Sarah would bear, even though they were “as good as dead” in their old age (so far as child-bearing was concerned). Abraham’s faith, like ours, was a “resurrection faith.” The physical offspring of Abraham cannot boast in him, nor are all his descendants the “seed” of Abraham from God’s point of view. Those who are truly Abraham’s sons are those who are like him—those who believe in God’s promises, by faith. These “sons of Abraham” can therefore be either Jews or Gentiles (Romans 4).
Justification is by faith, based upon the person and work of Jesus Christ. Those who are justified have peace with God (He is not angry about their sin any more), and they can boast in God, in His character and in His deeds, past, present, and future. In Christ, we can boast in the “hope of glory,” in our present “tribulations,” and “in God.” In Christ, the devastating consequences of Adam’s sin have been overturned, and replaced by blessings which are far better (Romans 5).
While men cannot be saved by their own righteousness, God justifies men in order that righteousness will be the outworking of their daily lives. Those who have been justified have died in Jesus Christ to sin and to its consequences. Those who are “in Christ” have also been raised to newness of life in Him. Because of this, justification is designed by God to produce significant changes in the lifestyle of the Christian. We dare not entertain the thought of continuing to live in sin as we formerly did. Rather, we should present our bodies to God for righteousness. To fail to do so would be to persist in slavery to sin and to pursue a course leading to death. Our death “in Christ” has freed us from our bondage to sin through the Law (Romans 6:1–7:6).
It is not the Law which hinders the Christian from living righteously. It is the weakness of our own flesh. In our own natural strength, we are unable to resist sin or to live righteously. While we will agree with that which the Law forbids and commands, we find ourselves unable to live as we desire. Sin, due to its power and the weakness of our own flesh, uses the Law to tempt us to sin. We find ourselves trapped in a body that is “dead” with respect to living as God’s righteousness requires (Romans 7).
God has provided the solution. We are to live godly lives, not by our own striving (as seen in chapter 7), but by trusting in Him and in His provisions for our righteousness. The death of Christ has not only accomplished the forgiveness of our past sins, before salvation, but also our sins as Christians. “There is therefore now no condemnation” for saints, even when they sin. The power for living righteously, which we lack in our flesh, God provides, through the Holy Spirit. The Spirit who raised the dead body of Jesus from the grave is the One “who will also give life to your mortal bodies.” He also assures us of our sonship, in both its present and future dimensions. And when we groan in our own imperfection, and that of the world in which we live, the Holy Spirit communicates those groanings to the Lord Jesus, who intercedes for us with the Father. We also find comfort in knowing that while we live in an imperfect world, God is sovereign, working out His purposes through “all things,” which includes fallible saints and opposing sinners, even satanic and demonic opposition. Because of God’s sovereignty, we can rejoice, knowing that we will be triumphant, through Him (Romans 8).
Romans 9-11 provides us with an illustration of the sovereignty of God in the history of His people, Israel. God has a purpose and a destiny for Israel, one which was planned and purposed in eternity past and which was promised through His covenants (such as with Abraham) and His prophets. In the Old Testament, God promised to bless Israel, and through Israel, to bless all nations (see Genesis 12:1-3). Studying the history of Israel, one would wonder how these promises could be fulfilled, given the persistent rebellion and unbelief of Israel. Looking at the condition of the Jews in Paul’s day would give one cause for wondering if there was any future left for these people. Paul will show us how Israel’s condition is the fulfillment of His promises and purposes, and how God’s promises concerning Israel’s future blessings and hope are yet going to be fulfilled, not due to Israel’s faithfulness, but due to His faithfulness (Romans 9-11).
Based upon our salvation (justification), upon God’s requirement for righteous living, upon His provisions for it, and on His sovereignty, Paul will conclude by spelling out how righteousness is to be worked out in the daily walk of the believer (Romans 12-16).
Structure of the Text
Our text can be summarized by the following outline:
(1) Israel’s Condition and Paul’s Response — 9:1-5
(2) Israel’s Condition and the Sovereignty of God — 9:6-29
(3) Israel’s Condition and the Responsibility of Men — 9:30–10:21
(4) Israel’s Condition and the Certainty of Her Restoration — 11:1-32
(5) Paul’s Praise — 11:33-36
Israel’s Condition and Paul’s Response (9:1-5)
The first five verses of chapter 9 are vital to our understanding of this section. They draw our attention to the problem at hand—the fallen state of Israel in her unbelief and rejection of the gospel—and of Paul’s attitude toward this condition. The problem which Paul will raise in verse 6 is due to the condition of the nation Israel. Paul’s perspective on Israel’s condition, as revealed in these introductory verses, shows him to be well qualified for this task.
Israel’s condition was most distressing to Paul. After the fall of man in the garden of Eden, God promised a Savior, through Eve’s seed (Genesis 3:15). Later, God narrowed down the source of His blessings to the “seed” of Abraham, and the recipient of these blessings to be Abraham’s “seed” and to “all the families of the earth” (Genesis 12:1-3). As time went on, the lineage of the “seed” was even more specifically indicated (see Genesis 49:10; 2 Samuel 7:12-13; Isaiah 9:6-7). This “seed” was Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus was rejected by His people, and ultimately He was crucified. After His resurrection, the nation as a whole still persisted in their unbelief, persecuting those who believed in Him and who proclaimed salvation through the Lord Jesus. In Paul’s day, the clock was winding down for Israel. The world was taking a dim view of the Jews. Rome was persecuting the Jews. Soon, the Romans would sack Jerusalem, and the Jews would be dispersed. Israel’s mere existence seemed doubtful, much less the fulfillment of God’s promised blessings.
This fallen condition of Israel is what Paul is referring to in Romans 9:1-5. He speaks most of the privileges which Israel has been granted, while he avoids a graphic description of her unbelief, sinful rebellion, and opposition to the gospel. He only indirectly refers to the condition of Israel as “accursed, separated from Christ” (9:3).38 We know that in Paul’s day Israel had rejected Jesus as their Messiah, and that the destruction of Jerusalem and the dispersion of the Jews was imminent.
Paul’s attitude is that of a “true Jew.” He is a Jew who has experienced the promised blessings of salvation through the Messiah. He looks forward to the blessings which lie ahead for his people. But his heart is broken due to the unbelief of his fellow Jews. Paul writes with “tears in his eyes.” He does not delight in Israel’s chastening any more than God does. While the words which he writes are painful, they are true. He is an “apostle to the Gentiles,” but he is still a Jew. His heart goes out to his people, knowing that his own disobedience and opposition toward the gospel was the same as that of his fellow-Israelites. He had experienced God’s grace, and he desired this for them as well.
Israel’s Condition and the Sovereignty of God (9:6-29)
The problem underlying this entire section is rooted in Israel’s condition (9:1-5) and is raised by Paul in verse 6:
But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel (Romans 9:6).
In spite of all of God’s promises that He would bless Israel, and through them bless the world, Israel is in unbelief, separated from Christ, while the Gentiles are entering into her blessings. Is this a “failure” of God’s Word? Has God’s Word failed to accomplish what was promised? Paul does not even ask the question (and follow it with a “May it never be!”); he begins with the statement that Israel’s condition is not the result of a failure on the part of God’s Word.
The rest of chapter 9 and all of chapter 10 are devoted to explaining Israel’s present condition. Paul’s teaching will stress three things:
(1) God’s election of only some Israelites for blessing—the sovereignty of God.
(2) Israel’s rejection of God’s righteousness in Christ—human responsibility.
(3) The faithfulness and reliability of God’s Word, which foretold Israel’s disobedience and the salvation of the Gentiles.
In chapter 11 Paul will describe how, according to God’s Word, Israel’s future blessedness will be brought to pass in the sovereign will of God.
Romans 9:6-29 explains Israel’s condition as the result of divine election. God never promised to bless all of Abraham’s physical offspring; He promised to bless one of his descendants—Isaac. In the process, God set Ishmael aside, not blessing him or his seed in the same way. So also with Isaac’s two sons. God promised to bless Jacob, and He cursed (hated) Esau. God’s choice of one above another was not based upon the works of either son, nor according to normal custom or tradition (such as picking the oldest son for the position of privilege). Those who received God’s blessing were therefore a matter of divine choice and divine designation, and not based on human merit.
God should not be considered unjust for choosing to bless some and to punish others. Both those chosen for blessing and those rejected are under divine condemnation. The difference is that Christ suffered the wrath of God in the place of those who are blessed. Those rejected must simply bear the punishment which their sins require. Blessings are a matter of divine grace, and punishment is a matter of justice. Thus, one cannot accuse God of injustice for bestowing grace on some, when all (under justice) deserve to suffer for their sins. Justice and grace are two separate (but related) means of dealing with the sins of men. God can therefore deal with men either way He chooses and, in so doing, be both just and merciful. God can show mercy to whom He chooses, and He can harden whom He chooses (9:14-18).
Because God’s blessings are bestowed on the basis of grace, and not works, they cannot be earned. Since grace is granted to sinners, it matters not whether they are Jews or Gentiles, and thus God’s blessings by grace are available to both.39 The fact that many Israelites would not believe and that Gentiles would be blessed was clearly and repeatedly foretold in the Old Testament (9:24-29).
Israel’s Condition and the Responsibility of Men (9:30–10:21)
The first explanation for Israel’s condition is given by Paul in Romans 9:6-29—God has always bestowed His blessings selectively and sovereignly, by means of election and on the basis of grace. Some Jews were chosen for blessing, and many were not. Some Gentiles, too, have been chosen for blessing. The second reason for Israel’s condition is given by Paul in Romans 9:30–10:21—Israel’s condition was also the result of unbelief. If many Israelites were condemned because God had not chosen them (9:6-29), they were also condemned because they had not chosen Him (9:30–10:21).
The state of things is summarized by Paul in 9:30-33. The Gentiles, who were not actively seeking righteousness, nevertheless found it, by faith. The Jews, who were “working hard” at earning righteousness, failed to obtain it. This was because Israel would not accept righteousness “in Christ.” To receive righteousness “in Christ” meant that the Jews would have to admit their own sin and to accept God’s righteousness as a gift, as “charity.” This was too great a blow to the pride of a self-righteous Jew. The offense to Israel, of obtaining righteousness through Messiah, was predicted in the Old Testament when Isaiah spoke of the Messiah to come as a “stone of stumbling” (9:32-33; citing Isaiah 8:14; 28:16).
Those who sought to obtain a righteousness of works thought they could do so through keeping the Law of Moses. Moses did speak of “living” by keeping the Law (9:5; Leviticus 18:5; Nehemiah 9:29; Ezekiel 20:11, 13, 21), but not of being justified by such law-keeping. In his final words to Israel (and after Israel’s repeated rebellion against God and their disobedience of His Law), Moses spoke to them of a righteousness which would come from God, by grace, without works, and simply by faith. This was that salvation which God would provide through faith in Jesus Christ. This righteousness was available to any who would believe (10:6-13). In refusing to believe, the Israelites rejected the only righteousness which would assure them of God’s blessings.
The Israelites were not only called upon to believe in the Messiah, by faith, for righteousness, they were also called upon to proclaim this good news (the offer of righteousness by faith in Messiah) to the Gentiles (10:14-15). Not only did the nation reject the Messiah, and the righteousness He offered, but they refused to share the good news with the Gentiles.40
Once again Paul wants his reader to see that Israel’s behavior is a fulfillment of the Old Testament Scriptures. In Romans 10:16-21, Paul shows that the righteousness of God (in Messiah) would be rejected by His people, and that the Gentiles would receive this righteousness, provoking Israel to jealousy. God’s Word has not failed with respect to Israel; it has (once again) been fulfilled. Israel’s unbelief and resulting judgment did not take God by surprise. The fact that God warned Israel about this rebellion and judgment makes disobedient Jews all the more responsible. If God judges men on the basis of their response to His revelation (and He does), then Israel was indeed guilty, for their rebellion was revealed to them long before their sin was committed.
Israel’s Condition and the Certainty of Her Restoration (11:1-32)
The Word of God had not failed, though Israel had. God did not choose them, and they refused His righteousness, in Christ, the “stone of stumbling.” All of this was foretold in Scripture. God’s Word is shown by Paul to be accurate and completely reliable. What, then, of all those promises which God made and which are not yet fulfilled? Paul’s answer, in Romans 11, is that they will certainly be fulfilled.
Israel’s future is certain and secure. This is not due to Israel’s faithfulness, for they have consistently been unfaithful and disobedient. It is because God chose them and committed Himself to bless them, and the world through them. The certainty of Israel’s future blessings is based upon God’s promises, God’s character, and His sovereignty. As Paul will say, “the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (11:29). Israel’s future rests upon the faithfulness of God and is not prevented by the unfaithfulness of men.
Israel’s hope does not lie in the numbers of those in its ranks but in a faithful remnant. All that is necessary is a remnant of Israelites, through whom Israel’s hopes are preserved. Elijah mistakenly thought otherwise. He thought only he was left, a faithful Israelite. He was wrong. The remnant was much bigger. There were 7,000 faithful Israelites through whom God’s purposes and promises were assured. In Paul’s day, too, there was a remnant (of which Paul himself was a member), and so there was still hope for Israel (11:2b-6).
The blindness of Israel was, on the one hand, a willful ignorance on the part of the Jews (see chapter 10). It was also a judicial blindness, imposed on Israel for her persistent rebellion and unbelief. It was the same blindness of which the Old Testament writers spoke (11:8-9, citing Isaiah 29:10; Deuteronomy 29:4; Psalm 69:22-23).
Israel’s fall was neither complete (there was always a remnant) nor was it permanent (there is still hope). There will come a day when all of God’s promises will be fulfilled, in and through Israel, whether by means of her obedience, or her disobedience. Since Israel would not believe and receive God’s righteousness, and since they would not proclaim the good news to the Gentiles, God purposed to save the Gentiles through Israel’s sin and rebellion. When the Jews rejected the gospel, it was taken to the Gentiles. This was Paul’s consistent practice, as seen in the Book of Acts. He operated on the principle, “to the Jew first, and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16). And so, because of Israel’s unbelief, the gospel was taken to the Gentiles.
God had ordained that the Gentiles would be blessed through Israel. Through Israel’s unbelief and rebellion, the Gentiles were blessed with salvation. Paul’s readers might well ponder what kind of blessings God would pour out on the world through the obedience of Israel, if the blessings were so great due to her unbelief (11:11-12).
There is need for a word of warning at this point, for the failure of the Jews also posed a danger for the Gentiles. The Jews took pride in their privileges. They forgot that God’s blessings were the result of God’s grace and not their own merit. Consequently, they began to take credit for what God had done, and to boast in themselves, rather than in God. It was for this reason that God gave them over to their blindness and rebellion. The same danger faced the Gentiles. Let the Gentiles not pride themselves for receiving the blessings of God. Blessings are the result of God’s grace, not man’s goodness. If God separated Israel from Him and His blessings for their false pride, He could surely do the same with the Gentiles (11:18-24).
Paul’s Praise (11:33-36)
I am not at all surprised to find Paul on his knees, so to speak, praising God at the conclusion of this section which stresses the fulfillment of God’s Word and the sovereignty of the God who spoke the Word. God can foretell future events with perfect accuracy because He is sovereign; He is in control. Sovereignty means that God never says, “Oops!” God never “goofs.” His purposes are never frustrated, and His plans never fail, because He is in complete control so that nothing can prevent Him from accomplishing what He sets out to do.
What does surprise me, however, is that for which Paul specifically praises God. In verses 33-36, Paul does not praise God for His great power but for His infinite wisdom. Why is the wisdom of God so vital to His sovereignty? The answers to these questions are important. Let us consider them, so that we might better appreciate Paul’s praise and its relationship to what he has said in chapters 9-11.
(1) Sovereignty is essential to the rule of a king. For a king to be able to rule over his people, he must be sovereign. He must have clear and unchallenged authority, and he must be in control. To the degree that a king lacks control, his rule will suffer. The “kingdom of God” is to be fulfilled in God’s future rule over the whole earth. If God is not sovereign, then the “kingdom of God” is mere wishful thinking. God must be in control of His creation, so that He can overthrow His enemies and establish His rule. God must also be in control to continue to rule over His kingdom. Sovereignty is, therefore, essential for a king to rule over his kingdom. Since God has promised that there will be a coming kingdom, He must be sovereign to establish and maintain it.
(2) The sovereign rule of a king is dependent upon the king’s wisdom. When Solomon was selected to be the king of Israel, God granted him a request. Solomon’s request, to his credit, was not for wealth or for power, but for wisdom. He asked for wisdom because he knew that wisdom, more than power or wealth, was the basis for a godly kingdom and the great need for a godly king. The Book of Proverbs is written to those who will reign (Solomon had much to do with its writing). There is little wonder that the main subject of the Book of Proverbs is that of wisdom.
(3) Wisdom enables a king to be in control (to be sovereign) without the constant use of force. The more wisdom is lacking, the more force is required. The more that wisdom guides and governs in a kingdom, the less force is required. The wisdom of God is the key to understanding how God can be in complete control (sovereign) over His creation, even though men fail or rebel against Him. Allow me to explain how I believe this works.41
In God’s infinite wisdom, He knows all that has happened, all that is presently happening, and all that will happen. He knows all things actual. But in God’s infinite wisdom, He also knows all things possible. That is, He knows exactly what would happen in any given set of circumstances. He knew, for example, that given the circumstances which Judas experienced, he would betray his Master. God knows exactly how much we can take and at what point we would collapse. While this enables Him to promise us that He will never give us more than we can handle as Christians (1 Corinthians 10:13), it also means that He knows with perfect accuracy the sins which men will commit under any circumstances.
In His wisdom, God knew that Israel would not obey Him, and that they would reject the Messiah, through whom righteousness was made available. In His wisdom, God determined a plan whereby Israel would fail, and the Gentiles would believe, through Israel’s disobedience, rather than through her obedience. This was His plan. This was what He foretold throughout the Old Testament. In chapters 9-10 Paul has shown how this plan was being fulfilled in his day.
God told Abraham that his descendants would spend 400 years as strangers in a distant but unnamed nation. He assured Abraham that they would come forth from that nation with much of its wealth (Genesis 15:13-16). This is exactly what happened years later. The way in which the nation Israel reached Egypt would never have been imagined. It was not through the obedience of Jacob and his sons, but through Jacob’s bad parenting, through the jealousy and strife of Joseph’s brothers, and even through Joseph’s less than perfect use of authority over his brothers. By means of these less than noble acts, God brought Jacob (Israel) and his sons to Egypt, just as He promised. That is sovereignty, and it is based upon God’s infinite knowledge and wisdom. He not only knew what any man would do under any given circumstances (knowledge), but in His wisdom he knew how to orchestrate all things to bring about the actions required to achieve His purposes.
It is God’s limitless wisdom, linked with His power, love, and grace, which assures us that what God promises, He will do, in spite of (and often by means of) man’s sin. God’s wisdom undergirds His sovereign control, and His sovereign control assures us that His promises will be fulfilled. And this is why Paul must fall to his knees in praise and wonder.
Summing up this section, we see that God’s Word has not failed because Israel has failed and is under divine judgment. Although Israel has failed, God’s purposes have been accomplished. God’s sovereign plan determined who would enjoy His blessings and who would not. In all that had happened, God’s Word was fulfilled to the letter. And in all that will yet happen, God’s purposes and promises will be entirely accomplished. Israel’s hope of her restoration and blessing is assured.
In conclusion let us draw our attention to several observations about what Paul has taught here, and then suggest some practical implications and applications of these truths.
(1) Paul’s main emphasis in this section is on the absolute reliability of God’s Word. God gave His word (Word) that He would bless Abraham’s “seed” and that through his “seed” He would bless all nations. If the blessing of Israel and the nations was one stream of Old Testament prophecy, so was the disobedience and judgment of Israel. If the salvation of Israel was promised, so was the salvation of the Gentiles. Israel’s rebellion and state of separation from God was but a testimony to the trustworthiness of God’s Word. When one views Israel’s condition from a biblical perspective, the faithfulness of God and His Word is awesome. This is Paul’s major emphasis in this section.
(2) Paul teaches clearly and emphatically that the sovereignty of God is the reason for the reliability of His Word. In our text, Paul’s words imply a direct link between the reliability of God’s Word and the sovereignty of God. God’s Word was perfectly fulfilled in the events which transpired in Israel’s history, including her unbelief, her rejection of Messiah, and her opposition to the gospel of God’s grace. God’s sovereignty is so great, so complete, that He can make very specific promises concerning future events and bring them to pass precisely as promised.
(3) Paul teaches the sovereignty of God in relationship to man’s responsibility, not in opposition to it. While men may seek to separate the doctrines of divine sovereignty and human responsibility, God joins them. We dare not seek to choose one of these truths and reject the other. God is sovereign, and yet men have choices to make for which they are responsible.
(4) Paul teaches that because God is sovereign, He can and does use sin (as well as man’s obedience) to achieve His purposes, yet without forcing men to sin or excusing their sin.
(5) Paul teaches that the sovereignty of God is closely related to the knowledge and wisdom of God.
(6) Paul’s response to the sovereignty of God is praise, not protest.
(7) Paul teaches the doctrine of election in a context of Christian faith and conduct, not in the context of evangelism. Paul’s order suggests that election is not a part of the gospel we need to proclaim to the lost, but a part of the gospel we need to proclaim to the saved.
Based upon Paul’s teaching in Romans 9-11, and the observations we have just considered, the following principles can be distilled from this text, principles which are verified in other biblical texts.
(1) Prophecy is an indication of sovereignty. Paul proves that the Word of God, far from failing, has been perfectly fulfilled by Israel’s unbelief and divine judgment. Paul directly links the reliability of the Word of God with God’s sovereignty. Stated in the form of a principle, we would say: Prophecy is only as good as the one who had promised it. God’s prophecies in the Bible are specific because He is sovereign, able to carry out His plans, purposes, and promises to the letter. The “prophecies” of false prophets will always be vague and filled with loop holes, because it is not God who is making the promise.
(2) God is sovereign in man’s salvation. Paul points to man’s salvation as being under God’s control, a manifestation of His sovereignty. If God is not sovereign in every area, He is not sovereign at all. As someone has said (in a somewhat different context), “If He is not Lord of all, He is not Lord at all” (see John 6:44, 65; 8:47; 10:26-29; 15:16).
(3) God’s sovereignty in salvation is executed by means of divine election. In Romans 9:14-18, Paul links the sovereignty of God with divine selection (election).
Divine election is two-fold. First, God chooses those whose judgment He will allow to stand, those who will be “vessels of wrath.” God chooses to allow some, who are worthy of death, to suffer this penalty. Second, God chooses some, who are worthy of death, to become objects of His mercy, “vessels of mercy.” One should not try to “soften” the doctrine of divine election by saying that God chooses only those whom He will save. Paul stresses God’s sovereign choice of both those whom He will save and those on whom His wrath will fall. It was Isaac, not Ishmael; Jacob, not Esau; Moses and the Israelites, not Pharaoh and the Egyptians. If God is able to save all men and chooses only to save some, He has also chosen not to save. God’s election is two-fold, of those whom He will save, and of those whom He will punish.
The two-fold destiny of mankind, based upon the two-fold election of God, makes possible the manifold aspects of God’s character, including His mercy and His justice. The terms “demonstrate” and “make known” (9:17, 22, 23) inform us that God’s election is a manifestation of His character. If there were not “vessels of mercy” and “vessels of wrath,” God’s full character would not be displayed.
(4) Divine election does not keep any righteous soul from heaven. Election never keeps a good person out of heaven. Man’s rejection of God’s revelation and his sinful actions keep him from heaven. God elects some men to go to hell, because they deserve it, and because they have chosen it. God would only be unjust if He kept any deserving soul from heaven. This He does not do.
(5) Divine election is the only way any sinner will ever get to heaven. If God did not sovereignly bestow His grace in saving some, no soul would ever see heaven. If God “looked down the corridor of time” (as some would say) to look for all those who would choose Him, He would find not one soul. We are “dead in our trespasses and sin,” in bondage to sin and Satan (Ephesians 2:1-3). There is not one righteous soul, not one who does good, and not one who seeks God (Romans 3:9-18). If God did not elect some for salvation, none would be saved. Why is it that we get hung up on the fact that God condemns some sinners to hell, rather than to rejoice in the fact that His election makes it possible for some sinners to go to heaven? If it were not for divine election and divine grace, no one would be in heaven. Election is the means, the only means, by which anyone can ever enjoy the blessings of God. Election is independent of men, and of their actions, because it must be. If God dealt with men on the basis of their works, they would all be barred from heaven. Because grace is bestowed sovereignly, God is free to save.
(6) The election of some as “vessels of mercy,” who will experience God’s blessings, is a matter of grace, not of justice. Those who would protest that election is unfair are mistaken, because mercy is not a matter of justice but a matter of grace. Justice demands that sinners be punished. Grace provides for sinners to be forgiven and blessed, because Jesus has been punished. If we insisted on all men being treated with justice, all men would be immediately put to death. A man who is guilty of driving 100 miles-per-hour in a 20 mile-per-hour zone does not plead for justice, but for mercy, when he stands before the judge. Thank God we are “vessels of mercy,” and God does not deal with us only on the basis of justice, but also on the basis of grace.
(7) The justice of God is not contrary to His mercy, but foundational to it. In some ways, justice and mercy appear to be opposites, but we should not conclude that they are opposing truths. They are really complimentary. Mercy cannot function apart from justice. Twice in Romans 9-11 Paul makes this point. In chapter 9, Paul wrote that while God was willing to demonstrate His wrath, He delayed it, so that He might make known the riches of His grace (9:22-23). Also, in chapter 11, Paul taught that “God has shut up all in disobedience that He might show mercy to all” (11:32). Mercy cannot be granted until justice has pronounced the sentence of condemnation. A man cannot be pardoned until he is first convicted and sentenced. Mercy cannot be granted until judgment is pronounced. Thus, justice and mercy are not enemies.
(8) That which God has “joined together” men dare not separate. This may seem like a strange statement to make, in the context of God’s sovereignty, but I believe it to be accurate. We have a strong tendency to try to “separate” that which God has joined together. We want to separate divine sovereignty from human responsibility, justice from mercy, grace from law, and faith from works. In each case, there are differences, but these differences do not force us to choose one and reject the other, or to emphasize the one but not the other. Faith comes apart from works, but it must result in works. Grace is distinct from Law, but Law shows men their need for grace, and that standard of righteousness which grace can produce. God is sovereign in salvation, but in His sovereignty God requires men to make a decision, and He holds men responsible for their decision. Let us not seek to separate that which God has joined together. These seemingly contradictory elements are really complimentary. There are not “incompatibilities” which call for a “divorce,” but “differences” which make for a good “marriage.”
To sinners who are self-righteous, grace is not only unacceptable, it is offensive. Self-righteous sinners want to earn their way to heaven. They want to work for their righteousness, so that they can boast in it. This was much of Israel’s problem, according to Paul in chapter 10. They were striving to attain their own righteousness, and thus they rejected God’s righteousness in Christ. The self-righteous despise grace, because it is an offense to them. They do not wish to admit they are sinners, and they do not want charity (grace) from God.
(9) The sovereignty of God is the reason He can use sin without causing it or excusing it. God’s sovereignty enables Him to use every kind of human attitude and action, because He is in complete control. The things which are taking place in His world are governed by His infinite knowledge and wisdom. His knowledge and wisdom enable Him to orchestrate the affairs of men so as to achieve His purposes, and yet without causing men to sin.
(10) The sovereignty of God is the basis for man’s freedom. Sovereignty is not opposed to freedom but is the basis for freedom. The greater the control (sovereignty), the greater the freedom that can be granted. God gives men certain freedoms and choices because He is sovereign. If His sovereignty were not complete, He could not do so. Human dictators dare not let their subjects have too much freedom, lest they lose control. God’s control is so great He can give men freedom. Whatever men might choose to do, God can use it to achieve His purposes. We do not diminish God’s sovereignty by acknowledging the freedom which He gives to men.
(11) The sovereignty of God requires faith to believe that God is in control. If God’s total control is evidenced, in part, by the freedom He grants men, then faith will be required to believe that God is in control. If God grants men freedom, they have the freedom to fail, to sin, or to rebel. Men are presently doing all of these. But as we look about us, seeing that failure, sin, and rebellion seem to be ruling the day, we might wonder if God is truly in control. We can look to the Bible and see how God has used sin and failure to achieve His purposes (such as the sins of Joseph’s brothers which took him to Egypt). We may be able to see how God has used past failures in our lives to achieve His purposes. But in the final analysis we must look to the Word of God, which tells us that He is in control (sovereign), and we must believe this by faith. In a world that appears chaotic and “out of control,” we must believe, by faith, that God is in control, because His Word says so, and all of history has borne testimony to this truth.
(12) The sovereignty of God is not an excuse for sin. God is in control, but He does not make men sin. Men sin because they choose to reject God’s revelation and to disobey God’s commands.
Based upon the observations we have made from Romans 9-11, and the principles we have derived from this text, let us now consider several areas of application.
(1) The sovereignty of God and the faithfulness of His Word should produce praise, not protest. I hope that you are saying to Paul, at this moment, “Move over, Paul. I want to praise God with you.” If you cannot praise God for His sovereignty, for the faithfulness of His Word, and for the certainty that all of His promises will be fulfilled, something is wrong. Something is wrong with my teaching, or with your understanding of God’s sovereignty, or with your response to it. May we praise God for His sovereignty.
(2) The sovereignty of God is the solution to worry, fear, and frustration. For Paul, the painful and unpleasant circumstances of his people, the Israelites, was distressing but not depressing. Paul showed that the condition of Israel perfectly fulfilled God’s prophecies concerning her condition. Paul showed also that in spite of these unpleasant realities, God’s purposes were being achieved and that all of His promises were in the process of being fulfilled.
Are there things in your life that are distressing, confusing, or perplexing? No doubt there are. There were these things in Paul’s life too (see 1 Corinthians 4:6-13; 2 Corinthians 4:7-12; 6:3-10). The difference is in your perspective, in how you view these things. If you view these as a defeat, as a failure of God’s Word and of His promises, then you are wrong. These are the outworking of God’s purposes and promises, in the best way possible. These have been planned, and purposed, and permitted in the knowledge and wisdom of God. When we worry, fuss, fret or blow up, we are simply revealing our unbelief that God is in control, or rebelling against His control. Worry is proof that we doubt the sovereignty of God. Peace is the evidence that we have faith in His sovereignty.
To some, the difficulties of this life are somehow outside of God’s loving care or control, something which must be endured. These difficulties are not seen in relationship to the blessings of God, but as opposed to them. The doctrine of God’s sovereignty informs us that the difficulties and trials of this life are God’s means for bringing about our blessing, now (Romans 5:1-11), and in the kingdom of God.
(3) The sovereignty of God should put aside all pride and boasting in our own efforts and works, and lead us to praise and adoration. We cannot take credit for what God is doing. The doctrine of the sovereignty of God requires us to give God credit for “working all things together for good” (Romans 8:28). If things go well, to God be the glory. If things do not go well, this will ultimately be for our good and for His glory too, so we need not agonize over past failures and sins. God can and does use all things to achieve His purposes.
(4) The faithfulness of God’s Word should motivate us to a much more serious and diligent study of His Word. His Word explains what God is presently doing in our world today. It reminds us of what He has done in the past. It assures us of what He is certain to do in the future. And it assures us of His character, so that we know that what He has promised, He will perform. Paul was a “man of the Book.” In Romans 9-11, Paul virtually oozes with the Old Testament Scriptures. This is what gave Paul insight into his own day and time. This is what made him bold. This is what drew him closer to God and enhanced his faith. Let us be, like Paul, men and women of the Word.
(5) The sovereignty of God should give us comfort concerning the lost, and especially our lost loved ones. The sovereignty of God in salvation means, among other things, that those whom God has purposed to save will be saved. All Israel will be saved because God purposed and promised it. It also means that there will be those who are not to be saved, but who will suffer God’s wrath. While this is not a comforting thought in and of itself, it should be comforting to know and to believe that the God who saved us consciously decided the fate of our lost loved one. In eternity we will fully be able to grasp that this was good.
(6) The sovereignty of God in salvation means that we need not make pests of ourselves, trying to force conversions that God has not purposed. It means that, after the gospel has been faithfully proclaimed, we can be silent, and that we can take up this matter with God in prayer, who determines the fate of all men.
For those of us who are Christian parents, the sovereignty of God in salvation means that we cannot take credit for the salvation of our children, nor can we ultimately bear the blame for their rejection of the gospel. We are not required to save anyone, but only to proclaim the gospel. We are not guilty for the eternal torment of those who reject the truth of the gospel (see Acts 20:25-27). We cannot produce “godly children”; we can only strive, by the grace of God, to be godly parents. How often we hold fast to the doctrine of election, only to set it aside in relation to our own home. God is sovereign in the salvation of our children, just as He is in the salvation of others.
(7) Finally, the sovereignty of God in salvation will be no excuse for your unbelief and rejection of the gospel when you stand before Him. Paul raises the question of man’s responsibility in the light of God’s sovereignty (9:19), and he answers it emphatically in the rest of this section. God does choose some and reject others, but He also gives us a choice. If it is true that we are not saved because He did not choose to save us, it is just as true that we will perish because we have refused His provision of righteousness in Jesus Christ. Have you trusted in Him? Have you been born again? The only way into God’s heaven is to be justified by faith in Jesus Christ—to trust in Jesus who was without sin, but who took the penalty for your sin upon Himself. You must renounce any righteousness on your own part and cling to that righteousness which He offers to you, by faith. Just as I am under obligation to proclaim the gospel, you are under obligation to respond. Will you receive God’s gift of salvation in Jesus Christ?
38 Paul does not actually say that Israel is “accursed, separated from Christ.” He says, rather, that he wishes he could be “accursed, separated from God”. In saying this, I think Paul is telling his reader that he wishes he could change places with unbelieving Israel, so that they could experience the salvation which he has obtained through faith, and so that he could take on their separation and curse, brought about by their rejection of God’s Word. The curse which Paul was willing to bear was the curse that unbelieving Israel deserved.
39 The text which Paul uses to prove that God’s grace was promised to Gentiles, as well as to Jews, is most interesting. In Romans 9:25-26, Paul cites texts from Hosea, chapters 1 and 2. His point is that God has promised to make those “not His people” “His people.” This can be applied to Gentile salvation, as Paul does here. But in context those referred to as “not God’s people” are the disobedient Jews, whom God would disown for a time. Those who were “not God’s people” and then later called “His people”, were, in the context, disobedient Jews. And so disobedient Jews become, for all intents and purposes, Gentiles. Both unbelieving Jews and unbelieving Gentiles must pass through the same door (of faith) to God’s blessings, as Gentiles. This is exactly Paul’s point in Galatians 2:11-21.
40 Note in the Book of Acts how unbelieving Jews not only rejected the gospel of Jesus Christ, but they resisted its proclamation to the Gentiles. Initially, even the church leaders in Jerusalem resisted the preaching of the gospel to the Gentiles (see Acts 11:1-3).