Defending The Righteousness Of God Romans 9:6-13
GOD’S PROMISES TO ISRAEL WILL BE KEPT NOT SIMPLY IN THE PHYSICAL DESCENDANTS OF ABRAHAM, ISAAC AND JACOB, BUT THE PHYSICAL/SPIRITUAL DESCENDANTS OF THE PATRIARCHS – JEWS WHO BELIEVE THAT JESUS IS THE PROMISED MESSIAH!
If you have trouble understanding some of the Apostle Paul’s teachings, you are not alone. Even his apostolic colleague, Peter, admitted that some of Paul’s writings contain truths which are hard to understand (2 Pet. 3:16). One of the more difficult truths to digest from Paul’s pen is the doctrine of election. It is difficult because the doctrine of election states that God chooses some people to salvation and passes over others. At first glance, this teaching seems unfair and unrighteous of God. Surprisingly, though, God’s election is the teaching presented by Paul in Romans chapter 9 to defend God’s righteousness in His past dealings with Israel. He pointed out that God’s sovereignty in choosing some Jewish people to salvation doesn’t destroy God’s righteousness, but, rather, it establishes it.
In the last article, we saw that the security for believers taught in Romans chapter 8 naturally raised the question of Israel’s security. The trustworthiness of God’s Word depended upon His faithfulness to the Jewish people. Before Paul defended God’s righteous dealings with Israel, though, he first earned the right to be heard by defending his own love for his kinsmen (9:1-5).
Having expressed his passion for his people, Paul then launched into a defense of God’s righteousness along two lines of thought:
- The Principle of Election is Implied
- The Proof of Election is Illustrated
I. The Principle of Election Implied (v. 6)
The first thing Paul did was articulate what was on the mind of every Jewish believer reading his letter. He stated in verse 6, “Not as though the word of God hath taken no effect [or failed].” From the Jewish Christian’s perspective, God’s Old Testament promises to Israel appeared to have failed. The meaning of the word “failed” pictures a ship going off course (Acts 27:17). It is the classical Greek word and nautical term for a ship being driven off course onto rocks or a sandbar. Had God’s Word been driven off course by Israel’s rejection of Jesus the Messiah? Today people still wonder if man can frustrate and drive the plan of God off course by refusing to believe the Word of God. Do we have a disappointed and dejected God who cannot get people saved and is thus unable to accomplish His plan? The Word of God gave scores of promises of salvation to Israel, but Israel’s unbelief left many troubled over the trustworthiness of Scripture. Paul answered their problem by not only denying the failure of God’s Word but also by stating a basic biblical principle.
Why hasn’t the Word of God failed? Paul said, “For they are not all Israel, who are of Israel” (v. 6b). While this may be a small sentence in the Bible, it is one of paramount importance. Paul’s point is that being a physical descendant of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob doesn’t make one a recipient of God’s promises to Israel, since only the spiritual descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are the recipients of those promises.
As far as God is concerned, there are two kinds of Jews – physical Jews and physical/spiritual Jews. Physical Jews are the biological descendants of Abraham, his son Isaac and his grandson Jacob. Anyone born into a Jewish family is a physical Jew, regardless of his religious beliefs. Physical/spiritual Jews, however, are not only biological descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob but are also spiritual descendants because they have the same faith as their patriarchal forefathers. A spiritual Jew is a person born into a Jewish family who also trusts Jesus as the Messiah. A few chapters earlier in his letter to the Romans, Paul defined a spiritual Jew by saying, “But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God” (2:29). I am Jewish as a result of being born into a family of Jewish parents. For the first 18 years of my life, I was merely a physical Jew, but when I accepted Jesus as my Savior, I became, in addition to being a physical Jew, a spiritual Jew.
What has all of this to do with the Word of God not failing? To relieve the anxiety of those who would question God’s integrity in keeping His promises to Israel, Paul pointed out that the salvation promises of blessing God made to Israel will not be ultimately fulfilled by physical Jews but only by spiritual Jews. An illustration may clarify this. Today, there are many people who would consider themselves listed under the category of ”Christendom,” but not every individual in that category is a true Christian. We could legitimately say that all Christendom is not Christ, and, therefore, the promises of God to His Church will be fulfilled only by those who are the true Christians within Christendom. In the same way, All Israel is not Israel, and the promises to the Jewish nation will be fulfilled only by those who are the spiritual seed.
In Christ’s day, many Jewish people failed to comprehend this distinction between the true spiritual seed and the physical nation of Israel. In John chapter 8, Jesus told the religious leaders of His day that while they may have been the physical descendants of Abraham, they certainly were not His spiritual children. By their attitudes and actions, they reflected their true spiritual father, Satan (Jn. 8:39-44). Like so many people of today, these religious leaders thought that their physical birth secured their salvation. Personal salvation is an individual matter. You do not become a Christian by being born into a Christian family any more than a Jewish person becomes a recipient of God’s promises to Israel because he was born into a Jewish family.
In spite of the fact that the majority of Jewish people reject the gospel, God has been faithful in His promises to Israel because these promises were never intended for every single Jewish person. Rather, they were intended for a select group of Jewish individuals within the nation who were true believers (spiritual Jews). And to this small minority God will fulfill every one of His promises to Israel.
The Bible refers to these true Israelites as “a remnant,” something considered an insignificant leftover from the majority (Rom. 9:27; 11:1-5). There has always been a remnant of godly Jews, true believers like their father Abraham. In Elijah’s day, there was a remnant of 7,000 who had not apostatized. In Christ’s day, there were thousands of Jewish people who followed Him. Today, there is an increasing number of Jewish people coming to Jesus the Messiah.
While not explicitly stating the doctrine of election, the principle of a true Israel within a national Israel implies election – a chosen few within the whole. You can be certain that by narrowing down the true Israel to a chosen remnant, Paul touched upon a sensitive nerve. Think of the explosive reaction of today’s Jewish person if he were told he was not really a true Jew. In fact, when Jesus told the religious leaders of Israel that Abraham was not their father, they struck out in anger by calling Him a Samaritan and a demonic (Jn. 8:49). Therefore, in anticipation of his readers’ strong reaction to the doctrine of election, Paul took them to their own Scriptures to prove the validity of an elect Israel within a national Israel.
II. The Proof of Election Illustrated (v. 7-13)
Paul chose two Old Testament examples to illustrate the principle of God’s sovereign choice in election – Isaac and Jacob.
The apostle wrote, “Neither, because they are the seed of Abraham, are they all children, but, In Isaac shall thy seed be called… For this is the word of promise, At this time will I come, and Sarah shall have a son. And not only this, but when Rebecca also had conceived by one, even by our father, Isaac” (vv. 7-10). Quoting from Genesis 21:12, Paul turned to the formation of the Jewish nation to prove that God’s method in dealing with Israel has always been based upon election not physical descendants. While Ishmael and Isaac were both sons of Abraham, God chose Isaac to be the line through which the blessings would come. Even though Ishmael was the oldest son (13 years older) and the natural one to inherit the promises given by God to Abraham, God sovereignly chose Isaac to inherit those promises. In explaining this choice of Isaac over Ishmael, commentator Roy E. Gingrich states:
The Lord chose Isaac and not Ishmael to be both a child of Abraham and a child of God. Ishmael was a child of the flesh, a child of a natural process, a child of a fleshly desire. He was not Abraham’s child nor God’s child. Isaac was a child of the flesh and a child of the Spirit, a child of a natural process and a child of a spiritual process, a child of a fleshly desire and a child of a divine promise (he was born by the Spirit in fulfillment of a divine promise, a promise by God that He would come at His own time and that through His own power Isaac would be born, Gen. 18:10). Isaac was both a child of Abraham and a child of God. Ishmael and Isaac are types. All of Abraham’s physical descendants who, like Ishmael, are born only of the flesh in fulfillment of a fleshly desire are not the children of Abraham and of God, but all of Abraham’s physical descendants who, like Isaac, are born, not only of the flesh in fulfillment of a fleshly desire, but also of the Spirit in fulfillment of a divine promise (a promise to Abraham of a spiritual seed) are the children of Abraham and of God. 1
Paul’s point is that from the very beginning of Israel’s history, God chose some to bless and others not to bless. God never intended all the descendants of Abraham to receive the blessings of salvation promised to the children of Abraham.
By choosing Isaac over all the other children, God established a pattern of election that continues to this day. We do not have to be confused by Israel’s rejection of Christ because not every physical descendant of Abraham has been selected by God to be the recipient of His blessings of salvation. Election has always been the method God has used with the Jewish people, and the choice of Isaac proves it. Yet someone could object to Paul’s Old Testament illustration on the basis that Ishmael was not a pure Jew since he was the son of Sarah’s handmaid, Hagar (Gen. 16:2-3). So Paul used still another biblical illustration to prove the principle of election.
The apostle took the case of Isaac’s two boys, Jacob and Esau, to support his point. He wrote, “And not only this, but when Rebecca also had conceived by one, even by our father, Isaac (For the children being not yet born, neither having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works, but of him that calleth)” [vv. 10-11]. Even though Esau was born first, God chose Jacob.
Why did God choose Jacob over Esau? Was it because Jacob’s character was more righteous than Esau’s? Paul denied this line of reasoning by declaring that God’s election was made prior to their births, before they had “done any good or evil.” Is it possible, however, that God looked ahead and saw what their respective character would be and based His choice on that? The biblical record does not bear this out, since Jacob is portrayed as cunning and deceptive.
The sole reason for God’s choice of Jacob over Esau is because it was God’s plan to choose Jacob over Esau. God purposed it in His heart and then brought it to pass. God’s purposes never fail. Therefore, His promises never go off course like a ship driven onto the rocks. Even if most of Israel has spurned the Messiah, there are still some Jews whom God has chosen to receive the promise of salvation.
Paul closed his illustrative arguments with two Old Testament quotes. First he quoted a statement made by God to the mother of Jacob and Esau in Genesis 25:23: “and the elder shall serve the younger.” This is an interesting statement because nowhere in the Bible are we ever told that Esau actually served Jacob. This prediction, therefore, must go beyond these two individuals.
The complete promise given to Rebekah gives insight into the true intent of Esau serving Jacob. In Genesis 25:23 God said, “Two nations are in thy womb, and two manner of people shall be born of thee; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger.” The key phrase in this verse is “two nations.” The nation that came from Esau was called Edom. They became a nation of idolaters and the enemy of Israel. In judgment, as recorded in First and Second Samuel and First and Second Kings, God made the Edomites servants to the Israelites, the other nation that came from Jacob.
In light of the Edomites being wicked, evil and anti-God, Paul once again quoted from the Old Testament by stating, “Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated” (v. 13). This amazing statement has unnecessarily troubled many. The apostle was quoting from the last Old Testament book of Malachi (1:2-3), a divine truth uttered over 1,000 years after Jacob and Esau had lived and died. God is not referring to loving Jacob personally while hating Esau personally. Instead, He means that at the beginning of Israel’s history, He chose Jacob over Esau before they were born, and now at the close of Israel’s Old Testament history, He sums up His attitude toward His chosen people as love and His attitude toward the idolatrous nation of Edom as hate.
The Word of God has not failed because, as God defines the true Israel, He narrows it down to an elect remnant of Jews who are chosen on the basis of divine calling and not physical ancestry. The doctrine of election establishes God’s righteousness because it is through His choice of some Jews that He fulfills His Word to Israel. To deny election would be to deny the history of Israel which is a history of divine choices in Isaac over Ishmael and Jacob over Esau.
In the next article, we will examine some problems which the doctrine of election raised in the minds of Paul’s readers and how he dealt with those problems.