Election in Romans 9

What is the meaning of Romans 9 in the context of the letter as a whole? Within this article, I will be walking through the passage, highlighting the major arguments which Paul is making and building up a portrait of how Paul’s doctrine of election works. In summary terms, I believe the central point of contention in Romans 9 is not so much about the salvation of individual Israelites as it is about the vocation of Israel as a mediator of God’s blessing to the nations.

Israel as Mediator

Paul’s initial statement of “sorrow and unceasing anguish” in Romans 9:2 is quite a surprising introduction to this section of his letter. Immediately before this point, Paul has been rejoicing that nothing is able to separate him (or other believers) from the love of Christ and the assurance that those in Christ are “more than conquerors” through the Gospel (Romans 8:31-39). The transition from this confident statement to one of pain and sorrow is quite jarring, and probably intentionally so.

Paul is quite clearly concerned with the salvation of his fellow Israelites. He wishes that he could be “accursed” and “cut off from Christ” (Romans 9:3) for the sake of unbelieving Jews, since most of Israel had not embraced the hope held out in the Gospel in his day. This lament, however, is not on the basis of mere racial identity between Paul and his fellow Israelites. On the contrary, Paul’s lament is grounded in the fact that Israel is the recipient of divine promise, a chosen people intended to be the means by which the nations are blessed (v4-5).

Earlier in the letter, Paul had spoken of Israel as being “entrusted with the oracles of God” (Romans 3:1-2). The language of God’s word being “entrusted” suggests that it is given to them for the sake of blessing others. The language used in Romans 9:4-5 has similar resonances, with Israel being heirs of the promise not for their own sake but for the blessing of the nations. This is a significant theme in old testament prophecy, in which Israel is depicted as a holy mountain to which the nations stream for blessing (Isaiah 2:1-5, Micah 4:1-5). Paul is lamenting that the very people chosen to bless the nations have not embraced the blessing themselves.

Children of Promise

Paul’s argument continues with this wider theme of blessing in mind. When Paul says, for instance, that “not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring”, he has in mind not merely salvation, but the mediation of blessing to the nations. When Paul, quoting Genesis, says “through Isaac shall your offspring be named”, this doesn’t mean that Ishmael doesn’t receive any promises. God did make a covenant with Ishmael and promised to multiply his offspring (Genesis 16:10, 21:18). The important distinction rather is that Isaac is the son who carries the specific promise to Abraham that “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). Isaac is the mediator of blessing to the nations, not Ishmael.

The same is true in the case of Jacob and Esau. “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated” (Romans 9:13) does not mean that God literally hated Esau. Genesis itself speaks of Leah being “hated” by Jacob (Genesis 29:31), but this simply means that Jacob loved Rachel more than her. The same is true here. In fact, in the story of Jacob and Esau, they end up reconciling (Genesis 33), which suggests that Esau repented of his violent plots against his brother; it may even be an indication of Esau’s salvation. The issue then is not so much about who gets saved, but about who gets to be the heir of the promise, the mediator of blessing to the nations.[1]

Divine Purpose

Following on from this, Paul moves forward in history to the time of the Exodus. Paul’s opening question about God’s justice is concerned with this notion of the agent of blessing. Is God just in only granting this status to a small remnant of Israel? He quotes a passage in which God says to Moses “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion” (Romans 9:15). The language of “mercy” and “compassion” could easily be taken to suggest that the focus is on salvation as opposed to divine blessing.

However, the context in Exodus suggests otherwise. The passage Paul is quoting is in Exodus 33, immediately after the golden calf incident. This is not insignificant. Israel has just committed a serious act of idolatry, which resulted in the covenant being broken (Exodus 32:19). God had even suggested that the people should simply be destroyed and the nation rebuilt from Moses alone (Exodus 32:10). All of this is in the background when God tells Moses that “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious” (Exodus 33:19). By his mercy and compassion, God had made Israel into a great nation and rescued them out of Egypt by his mighty power, yet God could just as easily have destroyed them and started again with Moses if he wished. God is free in choosing whom he pleases as his covenant people, his agent of blessing to the nations.

The counterexample of Pharaoh is instructive on this point (Romans 9:17). God had “raised up” Pharaoh in order to destroy him, thereby demonstrating his power and inspiring worship among the nations. God could easily have done the same with Israel, destroying them in order to display the greatness of his justice to a watching world. If Israel is not faithful, God is free to use them as an example of divine cursing, just as he did with Egypt.

Vessels of Wrath

The argument continues to intensify as Paul turns to another analogy – that of the potter and clay in verses 19-24. This analogy is taken from Jeremiah 18, in which the prophet is warning Israel that if they refuse to repent of their idolatry they will be broken like a potter’s vessel (Jeremiah 18:6). The question that Paul raises in verse 19 is not merely about individual destiny, but about the destiny of a nation, a people under God’s hand. The objection is essentially that since God himself was the one who formed the nation of Israel, it is unjust for God to find fault with his own heritage. However, Paul asserts to the contrary, that God is free to do as he pleases with his own people.

In verse 22, Paul warns of an impending judgement against unbelieving Israel. He speaks of unbelieving Israelites as “vessels of wrath prepared for destruction”. Paul is not thinking here of the final judgement but of a local judgement against Israel, one fulfilled in 70 AD when the city of Jerusalem was stormed by the armies of Titus Vespasian and violence spilled out across the land. The allusion to Jeremiah is strongly suggestive of this, since Jeremiah was warning of a similar destruction and exile under Nebuchadnezzar. This is also confirmed in the two quotations from the book of Isaiah which follow in verses 27-29, both of which also concern the old testament exile (Isaiah 10:22-23, 1:9).

Israel in History

In summary, we see that in Romans 9, Paul’s doctrine of election is not first and foremost concerned with individual salvation, but rather with who functions as the covenant people, the agent of blessing to the nations. The entire story of the old testament had indicated that Israel was the people of Abraham, the means by which the blessing would be mediated. This seemed in conflict with what had actually happened, since only a small number of Jews had embraced the Gospel. However, as Paul demonstrates through examples in old testament history, God is free to reshape his people as he pleases. And God has chosen, in Christ, to begin with a faithful remnant of Jews and then to call faithful Gentiles as well, forming the Church as a new people, “even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles” (Romans 9:24).

Of course, this isn’t all that Paul has to say concerning the fate of Israel, and in the following two chapters Paul lays out the bigger picture. In the first century, God was free to use a believing remnant of Jews to renew his covenant (Romans 11:5). But in the grand scheme of history, God’s “hardening” of Israel is only temporary (Romans 11:25). One day, when the fullness of the nations has entered into the covenant blessing, Israel too will enter in (“all Israel will be saved” – 11:26). Although the majority of Israelites in Paul’s day were “enemies of God”, according to God’s purpose in election, the people as a whole are “beloved for the sake of their forefathers” (11:28). God is not yet finished with Israel.

“The Deliverer will come from Zion,
he will banish ungodliness from Jacob;
and this will be my covenant with them
when I take away their sins.”

(Romans 11:26b-27)

[1] This theme of blessing is highlighted in the nations which would descend from these key figures in salvation history. The “Jacob I loved” quotation is taken from Malachi 1, which is speaking of the nation of Edom which descended from Esau. This confirms that Paul’s focus is not on individual salvation, but on individuals as a means of blessing to the nations, often through their offspring. The fate of the nation of Edom proves that they are not the heirs of the promise in the way that Israel was (Malachi 1:2-5).

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