Romans 9:1-29

Two Ways News is a weekly collaboration between Tony Payne, Phillip Jensen and occasionally Talar Khatchoyan – a newsletter and podcast on a topic to encourage gospel thinking for today (subscribe at twoways.news).


This discussion around Romans 9 addresses the subject of history and God’s control over it—in particular, his control over the destiny of his people Israel. 

At the beginning, there is quite a long chat about the nature of ‘history’, about how we view history in the West, and what it all has to do with Christianity. It is a bit long and a bit much to transcribe, so it is not part of the text below.

For an exposition on Romans 9 see 12. Who Chooses Whom?

The previous episode is The Bowels of Compassion.


IS GOD GOD?

Romans 9 and the sovereignty of God in history

Tony Payne: Our next chapter in Romans 9 picks up with Paul looking at the big sweep of God’s work in history and what he’s done by his grace in the Lord Jesus Christ—and in particular where Israel fits in. It’s almost a surprise to us that he seems to change subject all of a sudden in Romans 9:1, and starts talking about his fellow Israelites. He is trying to make sense of … well, if God is in charge of history, what’s going on here? Because there’s the the awkward fact that Israel hasn’t embraced the Christ. 

Phillip Jensen: Yes, it goes back to ideas that were raised in chapter 8, picking up on that famous passage in verse 28:

We know that for those who love God, all things work together for good for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, those who he justified he also glorified. 

God is at work in everything in this world, to bring about his purposes for his people. And that is why we can be certain and sure of our salvation. That is why we can be more than conquerors through the Lord Jesus Christ. That is why this great passage of confidence also states that nothing shall separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. But hang on, didn’t God make those kinds of predestinarian and elective promises to Israel? 

TP: Yes. 

PJ: And are we sure that this is working out for Israel? Why don’t you give us the first paragraph?

TP: Sure. This is Romans 9:1-5: 

I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit— that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.

PJ: It is one of the most emotional passages really, isn’t it? 

TP: Indeed. Are there many people for whom you would say, “I wish myself cut off from Christ?” 

PJ: No. I have a deep abiding sadness that the Anglo-Saxons of Australia have renounced God. And I am sad for them. I rejoice in the Chinese, Indians, Greeks, Italians and the number of people who are coming into Australia who have acknowledged Jesus Christ as Lord. If you go to churches today, it’s the non-Anglo Australians who are loving the Lord Jesus. And so this is fantastic. But it is very sad that the Anglos have walked away from God.

TP: But would you wish yourself cut off from Christ for their sake? 

PJ: No. 

TP: I fear I’m the same.

PJ: But, of course, the Jew, the Israelite, had more claims to being God’s people than Australians ever had.

TP: It’s an emotional outburst about the awful incongruity, the terrible clash, between these people for whom was the adoption and glory. He’s talked about all of us being adopted as sons of the Father back in chapter 8, but it was the Israelites who God gathered as his own sons and children and made his family and household—and yet they haven’t embraced the Christ.

PJ: Yes, we haven’t gone far enough to actually see it yet, and we won’t for several weeks, but Paul has a pattern of writing that people have called a ‘sandwich’. He sets up an issue, and then he seems to change the subject, and then he comes back and you see the original issue being resolved in a much better way because of this sudden change. And you see this pattern now in chapters 9-11, which seems like a sudden change from the issue mentioned in chapter 8, which then picks up again in chapter 12. In fact, you almost feel that you could cut out chapters 9-11 and no-one would notice that it’s missing. 

But you’d miss the point of what Romans is about, because by the time it gets to chapter 15, it’s all about the Jews and the Gentiles accepting one another in this mixed church—that the Gentiles must be accepting the Jews, that the gospel came first to them. And the Jews must be accepting the Gentiles because the gospel also comes to the Gentiles. And so this section is a key part to what the book is about. And so it’s not really changing the subject, because we need to recapture the importance of the Jews and therefore the horror of these Israelites who have been given so much yet not accepting the Lord Jesus Christ who comes from them. 

But you see the shift to this different angle in verse 6:

But it’s not as though the word of God has failed. 

I think that’s the first thing he has to address, having said that God’s at work in everything for our salvation. And the Israelites are God’s people, but they haven’t turned to God. Now does this mean God’s words failed? And I think that’s what he’s answering in the rest of chapter 9.

TP: Yes, that’s what he goes on to answer from Romans 9:6-13: 

But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring. For this is what the promise said: “About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son.” And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls— she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”

PJ: Who was a true Israel? Not all Israel belongs to Israel. And he’s pointing from the Old Testament that Israel as a category is not a simple singular category as you’d expect. 

TP: It’s not a simple biological category. It’s not as if you’ve been born by an Israelite mother, then you are definitively Israel or definitively an inheritor of the promise, because it was to Isaac and not to the other child born of Sarah that the promise was fulfilled.

PJ: Yes. And it’s not just Ishmael but other children of Abraham from Keturah are also not the inheritors of the promise. So just a physical descent from Abraham doesn’t make you the child or the offspring of Abram. And this carries on to Rebekah and her twins as well. 

TP: It’s interesting, isn’t it? If you’re fathered by Abraham, that doesn’t necessarily make you one of the sons of Abraham, one of the offspring. And if you’re mothered by the great matriarch Rebekah, that doesn’t necessarily make you the one to whom the promise is given.

PJ: Yes, because in so many cultures in the world, the firstborn is the one that you expect to be the heir. But in fact, the child of promise is not necessarily the firstborn child of the parents. And you see many examples of this with Joseph and David, and even John the Baptist makes the same point about his cousin Jesus who, though he came second, is actually far greater than the one who came first. 

TP: So the promise is to the children that God chooses, not to every physical descendant of Israel. And it’s not just by simple ancestry, but it comes to those whom God chooses to give the promise.

PJ: Yes. And here it is being discussed in chapter 9. If it’s the elective purposes of God, before the people are even born, doesn’t that create a problem for us? 

TP: Well, it’s very explicit, isn’t it? They haven’t done anything. They haven’t done either right or wrong. It’s not because of anything they’ve done, but “because of him who calls”. It’s very much the sovereignty of God, isn’t it?

PJ: It is very Christian. That is, unlike almost any other philosophy or religion, it’s not about us climbing up to God; it’s about God coming down to us. It’s an acceptance of our sinfulness that we are unable to save ourselves. But God in his mercy has. 

TP: But the sovereign elective mercy of God always raises the hackles of the hearer. It raises the objection “How can this be fair that God decides who he calls?” 

PJ: Indeed, which is where Paul goes on to in Romans 9:14-18: 

What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.

Mercy is such an important topic. You see, it’s not often used by Paul, but it is used a lot in Romans 9-11. But once you move into the subject of mercy, the subject of justice doesn’t work.

TP: It’s a different category, isn’t it? 

PJ: Yes. Mercy goes beyond justice. You can’t demand mercy, you can’t require it to be given to you. It is all in the hands of the giver, not in the merit of the receiver, because you can’t merit mercy. If you merit it, it’s not mercy, by definition. 

TP: Mercy is forgiving. It’s leaving aside what is due in order to graciously give something that is not due. It reminds me of that parable, where Jesus puts it so sharply–the parable of the workers in the vineyard, where those who started work at the beginning of the day end up getting paid the same as the people at the end of the day, and they’re outraged. They say it’s not fair. But of course it’s fair. It’s perfectly fair. I’ve given you what I said I’d give you. That was the contract. If I decide to give these people the same amount, isn’t it my decision? Can’t I be generous to whom I want to be generous? And I don’t think I’ve ever heard that sermon preached in church or read that passage with other people without the hackles rising and saying, “Hang on, that doesn’t seem fair.”

PJ: No, indeed. We are such egalitarians. The essence of fairness and justice is that everybody is to be treated the same. But ‘the same’ is not the same as ‘equal’. And ‘the same’ is not actually what you can demand of those who have mercy. If you give me a choice, do I want God to treat me justly or mercifully? I don’t have any choice. I’m for mercy. I’m a ‘mercy’ man through and through. Because given my sin, I don’t want to be treated justly. I want to be treated mercifully. But as long as you don’t understand that, as long as you think you can be saved by your own good works, you’ll be outraged. But if you’re like me and you know what a wretched sinner you are, you won’t be outraged by the fact that God has the freedom to to exercise his sovereignty however he wills in your life, because you’re just so glad that he’s willing to extend mercy.

TP: But it’s interesting how in the verses that follow, God’s sovereign mercy and justice also extends to hardening people. When Paul mentions Pharaoh, he talks about how God can have mercy on whomever he wants, but he can also harden whom he wills. Do you think that in mentioning Pharaoh there–to which every Israelite reader would say, “Oh yes, of course God hardened Pharaoh. Pharaoh was a bad man; he got what he deserved by being hardened”–do you think that Paul is giving a little hint about what God is doing with Israel? A little prefiguring of what he’s about to say about Israel?

PJ: I hadn’t thought that, Tony, but thank you. That’s an interesting perception. I just thought the other thing: mercy I don’t deserve, hardening I do. 

TP: Exactly. 

PJ: It’s not symmetrical. God is hardening me because I deserve that, even though my hardening is done in order to show his greatness. But receiving mercy—I never deserve that. And so you can’t hold the two things as being symmetrical, even though Paul points out that it is God’s right to do either or both, as seen in historical circumstances. However, it gives rise to an objection, doesn’t it?

TP: Yes, the next objection, which is in Romans 9:19-24: 

You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honourable use and another for dishonourable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory—even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?

PJ: It’s an extraordinary passage, isn’t it? It is so clear that it causes deep opposition. I have a commentary at home written by a Christian minister who says this idea is outrageous and that Paul is wrong. 

TP: At least that’s being honest. 

PJ: Yes, even though actually, he’s wrong to be a Christian minister if he says the apostle is wrong, because he is a Gentile and the inclusion of the Gentiles in Christianity is dependent upon Paul’s argument. So he’s cutting himself out by saying that. 

But also, saying “Who are we to answer back to God?” is an acceptance of the fact that God is God and we’re not. Our problem is that we think too highly of ourselves, as well as thinking too lowly of God. If God is my maker, he can make me for whatever purpose he wants. I have not been made for myself, I’ve been made for his Son. That’s what Colossians 1 teaches me. And he can make me in any way he wants for whatever purpose he wants, like any manufacturer of anything, but we don’t like to think of ourselves as being manufactured items.

TP: We don’t like to think of ourselves as being creatures. Doesn’t that take us back to Romans 1? 

PJ: Yes. 

TP: Our unwillingness to recognize the godness of God and the creatureliness of us, and instead wanting to exchange the two–rejecting who God is as our Creator and Lord, and instead elevating ourselves.

PJ: And we say, “Well, hang on. God has no purpose in us. We’re the determiners of our own purposes.” But that is simply what God calls ‘sin’. I’ve been made for God’s purpose, and part of God’s purpose was to show his wrath and to show his mercy. You see this in Romans 9:22: 

What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction.

That is, God is slow to anger—this is a very important aspect of God’s character. So how do we see that God is slow to anger? Well, if he was fast in bringing his justice to the world, we wouldn’t see it. If on the day that Adam had eaten the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, God had snuffed him out right there and then, we wouldn’t know anything of the patience of God. More importantly still, we wouldn’t know the riches of his glorious mercy. So God patiently endured with sin for centuries. Paul says it at the Areopagus address in Acts 17. Peter talks about the fact that Paul has this sense of the patience of God, when he talks about Paul’s writings in 2 Peter 3. It’s an important theme of the Bible, that God is demonstrating his wrath and his mercy, by the ways in which he treats humanity over time, patient with sinfulness as he works out his great plan for mercy. And the mercy he is bringing is so great that it includes the nations–the Gentiles.

TP: The metaphor he uses here of the potter and the clay takes us back to Isaiah 29, that famous passage about potter and clay–will the clay say to the potter, “Why did you make me like this?” And it’s interesting, that passage is all about hardened Israel. It’s about blind Israel, Israel no longer able to see what God is saying or doing, and then who complain to God and spoke back to God. But God has a purpose there that will bring restoration to true Israel. I think Isaiah 29 is in the background when Paul says this. 

PJ: Well I think it’s Isaiah 45, that God is going to rescue Israel by his Christ. But his ‘Christ’ was Cyrus, the Persian pagan king. The Jew wants to say, ‘“Hang on, who are you, God, to raise up a pagan to be our Christ?” Because without God raising up the pagan king, they’d be still in Babylon. It’s God working his salvation out his way, and demonstrating that it’s his action of salvation, rather than Israel’s cleverness of working it out. But yet, we keep on wanting to tell God what to do. I presume Isaiah has used it more than once?

TP: He has, yes, in chapters 29 and 45. And it’s interesting how Isaiah 29 is more about the judgment that falls on Israel, and Isaiah 45 is about the restoration that’s coming to Israel. And in both occasions, it’s God’s sovereignty, in both judgment and mercy, which is the point of this passage.

PJ: Yes, God is God. We’ve got to stop playing God. It’s the old idea that we are in the dock as criminals, he is on the bench as the judge. But we keep thinking we’re on the bench, and he’s in the dock. And so we want to judge God. It’s not for us to judge God; it’s for us to understand God’s judgment on us. And be really thankful that in the midst of his judgment on us, he sends his Son to take the judgment for us, and extends mercy to us, even to people who weren’t his chosen nation.

TP: So God’s patience over time—bearing not only with Israel and judging Israel’s hardness, but also from Acts 17 about his patience of overlooking the ignorance and idolatry and rebellion of humanity. His great history is a long, extraordinary plan that comes to fulfillment in Christ. And all that Paul’s writing about takes us back to history and the nature of God who is in control of events, who fashions and directs history for his purposes like a potter does with some clay. His marvellous purposes of judgment, but especially of mercy.

PJ: Yes. And therefore, we don’t have to worry about the world. It’s God’s world. He’s got it under control. He’s bringing about his purpose. I’m really sad that the Anglo-Saxons of Australia and the white community of Australia have become so godless. I’m really sad. But I’m not despondent and depressed because I know God has not finished with Australia. God is still at work. God can bring them back. And he will if he wishes to, when he wants to, for I have more confidence in God that I have in Canberra, or in Macquarie Street–which is where the government of my state is–or in my local council chambers, or in my neighbours.

TP: Yes. Or in the great world leaders who stride the world stage and make out that they have some grasp on history, that they’re taking the world somewhere, that somehow we can work together and fix everything up. As a younger person, you sometimes look at those movements and you’re full of utopian, idealistic hope as to what the world might be. And then the older you get, you realize actually, no, every time someone rises up saying they have the answers or pretending to be the Messiah who’s going to bring some great change, it never comes to anything. It always leads to failure.

PJ: So as you get older, you move to dystopia, despair and doom. And when you look at the world at the moment–when we are recording this in 2024–we have this terrible war that’s been raging on between the Russians and the Ukrainians. We’ve got this terrible war in Israel with Gaza and now with Hezbollah. We’ve got this terrible war that’s been raging in Myanmar. There are wars here and around the world. Utopianism has got a big problem. But dystopianism has, too. 

God is working his purposes out to bring the gospel of the Lord Jesus to the ends of the earth. We have just got to get on and live for him the way he has created us to, and rejoice in his mercy that people as far out from Israel as you and I are, at the ends of the world in a nation that didn’t exist when the New Testament was written, can be the recipients of God’s mercy. And we’ve got to take that mercy to the rest of the world.


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