Understanding Romans 9, Part 1, Context and Theme

This post was originally published at thegracelings.org


There are a lot of passages in Scripture that people intentionally avoid. Usually it is because they have an idea about what it says, and they don’t like that idea. Romans 9 is one of those passages, and there are a lot of jokes at the expense of non-Calvinists because of it. Calvinists use it as a proof text for the idea that God unconditionally predestined some to salvation and some also use it to suggest that the unelect are predestined to damnation. It says things like, “He has mercy on whom He wills, and whom He wills He hardens,” and that is assumed to mean that God chooses individuals for each from eternity past and without conditions.

I don’t expect this series of articles to solve the debate about Romans 9, or even to persuade those who are committed to Calvinism. That isn’t the point of this series. What I’m hoping to accomplish is to help those who say, “I’m not sure I understand Romans 9, and I haven’t wanted to spend a lot of time there” to have a foundation to study the passage without fear. It’s an amazing passage that fiercely defends the righteousness of God, and it’s a shame that so many are missing out on it.

A Bit about Interpretation

One paradox of Bible interpretation is that one needs to understand the whole book before he can understand the individual passages, and he needs to understand the individual passages before he can understand the whole book. The way we address this is something called the “hermeneutical spiral,” which is to say we go back and forth between reading the whole book and digging into the individual passage we hope to understand. In this way, we can get a good understanding of individual passages in context as we gain a better-defined big picture of the book.

Context and Themes

I am teaching through Romans at church now, and one of the most important things I discovered through the hermeneutical spiral process is the particular aspect of wrath and judgment that Paul uses as a theme in the book. He sets the definition in Romans 1 when he writes, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness” followed by “Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness” and “For this reason God gave them up to vile passions” (Rom 1:18, 24, 26). So, the aspect of God’s wrath Paul calls to mind is that as a response to their “suppress[ing] the truth in unrighteousness,” God gives people over to their sinful desires.

This theme continues in Romans (4:12; 5:9; 9:22), but it isn’t just with the term “wrath” it also shows itself in other terms of judgment, such as “death/die/died” (5:21; 6:16, 23; 7:5, 9, 10, 13; 8:6, 13) “condemnation” (5:16, 18; 8:1), and, more explicitly, “hardens” (9:18). The basic idea is that God’s righteous judgment is shown in that he gives people over to sinful passions/desires in response to their rejection of Him. Paul uses Pharaoh as an example of this in Rom 9:17, and this follows what we see in Pharaoh’s story. Pharaoh suppressed the truth in unrighteousness (first, by exalting himself to divinity, then by keeping God’s people enslaved, then again in Exod 5:2, 6-9; 8:15, 32), so the LORD hardened his heart in judgment.

Another interesting thing about the book of Romans is that Romans 9 actually picks up a discussion that began in 3:1-7. After demonstrating that the Jews outside of Christ are just as much under God’s condemnation as the Gentiles (Romans 2), Paul asks, “What advantage then has the Jew, or what is the profit of the circumcision? Much in every way!” (3:1-2a), but he only lists one advantage in that context: “Chiefly because to them were committed the oracles of God” (3:2b). He doesn’t get to the rest of the advantages until Rom 9:4-5.

There are two other questions posed in Rom 3:1-7 that aren’t answered until Romans 9-11. The first is, “For what if some did not believe? Will their unbelief make the faithfulness of God without effect?” (3:3). The question here is asking if God will still keep His promises to Israel if some don’t believe. Paul answers “Yes!” which is most clearly seen in Rom 11:26a, “And so all Israel will be saved” and 11:29, “For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.” God hasn’t forgotten His love for or His promises to the Jews.

The next question from Romans 3:1-7 that is answered in Romans 9 is: “But if our unrighteousness demonstrates the righteousness of God, what shall we say? Is God unjust who inflicts wrath? (I speak as a man.) Certainly not! For then how will God judge the world? For if the truth of God has increased through my lie to His glory, why am I also still judged as a sinner?” (Rom 3:5-7). In other words, if God gives people (and, in this case, nations) over to sinful desires as part of righteous judgment, why does God still find fault with those whom He has given over to sinful desires? Who could resist His will? (This is summarized in Rom 9:19.)


Romans 9 (and 10 and 11) is about defending God’s righteousness in regard to His dealings with Israel, and the subject is nations, not individuals. Even in the example of “JACOB I HAVE LOVED, BUT ESAU I HAVE HATED” (Rom 9:13), the nations of Israel and Edom are in view. We know this because, in Rom 9:12, Paul recalls Gen 25:23: “And the LORD said to her [Rebekah]: ‘Two nations are in your womb, Two peoples shall be separated from your body; One people shall be stronger than the other, And the older shall serve the younger.’” Esau, the individual, never served Jacob. In fact, it was the opposite (Gen 32:4), yet the fate of these nations was set.

The reason so many can’t see this is because for more than a thousand years, the church, for all intents and purposes, universally rejected the idea that God would fulfill His promises to Israel. Instead, they believed that God had rejected Israel and instead will fulfill His promises allegorically in the Church. With that basic foundation missing, Romans 9 can’t be understood literally. To try to make sense of it, people read into Romans 9 the idea of God choosing individuals for salvation and damnation, but that idea isn’t there unless we put it there.

What is there is a look at the advantages the Jews have as God’s chosen nation, a defense of God’s righteousness relative to His keeping His promises to Israel, and a defense of the righteousness of God’s judgment.

In the next article, we will look at the reasoning behind God’s choice to show mercy or to harden. Some say it’s a mystery that is only known to God, but it’s not. It’s right there in the text.
If this is interesting to you, you might enjoy this book, Dispensationalism and Free Grace: Intimately Linked.

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