Chapter IX of Romans is by far the favourite passage for deterministic theology. Many readers of the book of Romans tend to assume that this chapter is discontinuous with the previous portions. Scholars have observed the artistry in Romans chapters 9-11. Paul in these passages combines caution, skill, care, and love for his own people to ensure that he not only get to his readers’ minds but also their hearts. The resulting piece of literature in many places is, therefore, dense and requiring utmost care to unpack. This passage is notoriously complex and difficult, and this partially explains why people read it and go away with different understandings. Nevertheless, I strongly believe that a careful analysis can yield much fruit. I also suggest that we read this hard passage in the light of clearer relevant passages of scriptures. Above all, we should read this passage, keeping in mind the revelation of the person of Jesus Christ.
Romans was written to Gentile believers in Jesus. These believers were probably themselves proselytes. They were very familiar with Judaism and its teachings. In Chapter 8, Paul concludes using very strong terms to show that believers are secure in God’s love. In chapter 9, Paul is finally ready to address a major question on the minds of his Gentile audience: “just how secure are we considering that God seems to have abandoned the Jews who used to be in God’s Club?” Though Paul writes with imaginary Jewish interlocutors in mind, it is likely that people have asked him these questions at some point prior. Beginning with verse 6, Paul explains the present condition of the Jews. He had his imaginary Jewish opponents in effect saying, “You claim that our Yahweh is behind your ministry, yet almost all of our people and the elders including the experts in the Law deny your claim. By the look of your followership, which consists primarily of Gentiles, you claim that God’s Word has been repealed concerning the role of Israel as God’s special mouthpiece to the world. But we know that God’s Word is established forever. Therefore, God cannot possibly be behind what you do.”
With verse 6, Paul begins his defence: “It is not as though God’s word had failed.” Over the time leading to first century AD, some Jews thought more highly of their ethnicity than was due. They now have it backwards thinking God uses them as his special people because they are Jews. Paul revisits the history of how the Jews became God’s vessels. Beginning with Abraham, Paul argues that it was entirely God’s prerogative to decide who the (spiritual) descendant is when he says, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” Similarly, in the next generation, while Jacob and Esau were still in the womb, God once again continued this spiritual lineage through Jacob. Paul writes: “Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad—in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls—she was told, ‘The older will serve the younger.’” So, it was not for anything that Isaac and Jacob was that God chose them. These men or, more correctly, fetuses have no input in God’s election and, therefore, have nothing to brag about.
We should note that God’s choice or election of certain individuals for service does not mean the rejection of the non-elect in all other things of life. Abraham had other children that God blessed. In fact, scripture says that Ishmael would be a great nation. Similarly, Esau was also blessed. As mentioned earlier, the individuals that God elected were not chosen for anything that they were or merit that they had—that is what Paul means by “not by works.” They were not any better, ontologically or otherwise, than the others that God did not choose for this special service. Finally, this “election” is for service, not salvation. Israel was the church on earth prior to Jesus’ first coming. Concerning the older serving the younger, this is a proclamation concerning the descendants of Jacob and Esau, not the persons of Jacob and Esau. There was no time in Scripture that Esau served Jacob; it was actually Jacob that was recorded to have once bowed before Esau.
Romans 9: 14 – 16
Paul continues, “What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all!” Now, if it were the case that Esau and Ishmael were sovereignly and eternally rejected, and Isaac and Jacob elected for salvation, then the conclusion of Paul to the justice of God would be problematic. There would be something unfair about the whole arrangement. Paul continues (15-16), “For he says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’ It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy.” Paul is here quoting from Exodus 33:19. The context was when the elected Israelites became unfaithful having gone into idolatry while Moses was away on a mountain with God. God was ready to destroy them—the people he elected, showing that this election was not eternal—and start afresh with Moses and his descendants, an arrangement that would still allow God to be faithful to his promise to Abraham. Moses pleaded with God, arguing that it might damage God’s name among the Egyptians if God destroys the Israelites. God upheld Moses’ plea and then made the pronouncement above that he would have mercy on whom he has mercy.
We should note a few things from the original context in Exodus 33. First, the original context has nothing to do with God sovereignly damning some people while electing to save others. Second, regarding judgement, God changed his mind following Moses’ intercession, suggesting that he is not arbitrary in his judgement. So, what does Paul mean by his writing in these verses? I think Paul is sealing off his argument that God’s choice of whom to use in his service is entirely up to him by his mercy. The “It” in “It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort” means “God’s choice.” Third, the famous verse that “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion,” is not a discriminatory statement of God having mercy on some but judging others. In a related passage in Exodus 34:6-7, we read: “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished.” God will judge even the elect when they are guilty.