This chapter begins a new thought in Paul’s letter. The first eight chapters dealt with what the gospel is, why it is the only hope for Jew and Gentile alike, and because in Adam all sinned, everyone is justly under God’s wrath and in need of divine mercy for salvation. This salvation, redemption is a work of God that affects our word and deed. And while this salvation is real, residues of rebellion remain in the believer’s heart such that until final glorification, a war is constantly being waged within.
Now, Paul turns his attention to the theme of Israel and her rejection of the gospel of God. He first reveals his passion and longing to see his kinsmen according to the flesh saved and loving Christ, because after all it’s through them that this gospel came (Vv.1-5):
“I am telling the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience testifies with me in the Holy Spirit, 2 that I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart. 3 For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh, 4 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, 5 whose are the fathers, and from whom is the Christ according to the flesh, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.”
Second, he points out however that God’s word has not failed concerning their rejection of Christ because the descendants of Israel actually come through Isaac not Abraham. He explains this further in relation to the flesh vs. the promise motif. That is, through Isaac’s seed the Messiah would come, never through Ishmael. This word of promise is a major Scriptural theme pointing to God’s faithfulness to execute His word. Jesus said, “For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” (Mt.5:18) This means that God always keeps His promises. And what He will and will not do is more certain than the heavens above or the earth below—which accentuate God’s constant faithfulness. And as God told Abraham, so it has come to pass that through Sarah, not Hagar, Messiah would come.
Consider Rebekah’s twins Esau and Jacob which again reveal the motif of God’s certain promise which points to His sovereign will ruling over all rather than man’s finite choosing:
“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 nor 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 the 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, so that God’s purpose according to His choice would 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.”
This passage clearly demonstrates God’s choosing or election of what He has decided to do through Jacob and Esau. I noticed here something previously overlooked: could it mean that God hating Esau is equivalent to Him serving his younger brother or is that hate based on what Esau treasured which was a bowl of soup over against his birth-rite? This needs further inquiry, but I’m leaning towards the latter option, not the former. Nevertheless, Paul asks a question he anticipated would be raised:
“14 What shall we say then? There is no injustice with God, is there? May it never be!”
Third, often God is accused of being unjust in light of election but the apostle emphatically says that is never the case. Thus he proceeds to recount Pharaoh’s hardened heart and concludes that God chooses who will receive mercy and who does not. The reason:
“15 For He says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” 16 So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy. 17 For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I raised you up, to demonstrate My power in you, and that My name might be proclaimed throughout the whole earth.” 18 So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires.
God had a purpose for Pharaoh’s rise to power and that was so that His power and Name might be proclaimed throughout the whole earth. This means that the central reason for God’s purpose in his dealings with Israel and Egypt are ultimately about God’s power and person as Creator and Redeemer. God is utterly God-centered in his dealings and an aspect throughout Scripture that’s too often unnoticed or discarded. One reason for this is our human tendencies to make much of ourselves and very little of God:
“19 You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?”
I think this is the logical conclusion to ask such a question. I can hear the philosopher (and rightly so), grappling with this issue for at stake is the justice of God. So what does Paul think? He poses the rhetorical question of the potters right to do whatever he pleases with the clay’s purpose. He concludes that the potter has the right to choose the purpose for the clay vessel: either for honorable purposes or dishonorable purposes:
“20 On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, “Why did you make me like this,” will it? 21 Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for common use?”
Fourth, but God is not unjust, for through His wrath justly poured on evil doers He demonstrates His righteousness. And all have come under this just condemnation. Recall that Paul hearkens back to Job in principle and that righteous man’s utterly silenced before God’s inquiry: “Where were you when I…?” The fact is we creatures are out of line to question God’s actions as if we had the moral upper hand on the Holy One. This attitude while understandable shows our pride of not trusting in God’s word of promise, questioning His goodness and justice within the salvation history framework.
Paul goes on to explain however that vessels of wrath (those not chosen) are necessary in order for vessels of mercy to know God’s glory in salvation. Consider the following:
“22 What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction? 23 And He did so to make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory, 24 even us, whom He also called, not from among Jews only, but also from among Gentiles. 25 As He says also in Hosea, “I will call those who were not My people, ‘My people,’
And her who was not beloved, ‘beloved.’” 26 “And it shall be that in the place where it was said to them, ‘you are not My people,’ There they shall be called sons of the living God.” 27 Isaiah cries out concerning Israel, “Though the number of the sons of Israel be like the sand of the sea, it is the remnant that will be saved; 28 for the Lord will execute His word on the earth, thoroughly and quickly.” 29 And just as Isaiah foretold, “Unless the Lord of Sabaoth had left to us a posterity, We would have become like Sodom, and would have resembled Gomorrah.”
That’s what Paul seems to be arguing. But then he concludes his thought with another question which goes back to Israel’s standing with God compared to the Gentiles—all of which are under condemnation (Chapters 1-3) and in need of redemption through Christ, the last Adam:
“30 What shall we say then? That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, attained righteousness, even the righteousness which is by faith; 31 but Israel, pursuing a law of righteousness, did not arrive at that law. 32 Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as though it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone, 33 just as it is written, “Behold, I lay in Zion a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense, And he who believes in Him will not be disappointed.”
Israel misunderstood the purpose of the Law of Moses, turned it into something foreign to God’s purposes and thus perished. That is, law-keeping is impossible because sinful hearts need to be renewed. The Law’s purpose was only to shine the light on our sinful state so that we might look to the 2nd Adam, the Messiah whose purpose was to save us through His own blood and thus renew our dead hearts to God. The Law was never a list of “do’s and don’ts” in order to be acceptable before the Holy One.
Fifth, this faith of which Paul speaks is Abraham’s who believed in God’s word of promise evidenced by how he lived. Paul’s purpose for writing Romans (1:5) of the obedience of faith props itself up again here. This faith is trust in God’s word of future fulfillment that He alone will and can accomplish. Thus, when we talk about salvation through election, it’s never unjust, because all are under God’s just wrath and none possess the remedy for rescue.
The fact is that election is all about God’s mercy demonstrated toward vessels of wrath so that the glory of God may be seen and known by vessels of mercy. This is severely humbling and troubling. It’s humbling because there’s no boasting except in God’s works, never ours. And it’s troubling because of how many do despise this plain truth, thus dishonoring the Creator and Redeemer to their everlasting damnation.