The problem facing Paul in Rome was not that he took the gospel to the Gentiles. It was always in the heart of God to accept outsiders (Leviticus 19:33, Jonah 3:1, Matthew 1:5-6, Genesis 17:4, 22:18, Psalm 2:8, Isaiah 42:1, 6; 49:6). The problem was the gospel that Paul took to the Gentiles. Paul claimed there was no distinction between Jew and Gentile for salvation. A Gentile did not need to become a Jew to be saved. That was the problem. It wasn’t one of inclusion, per say. It was one of how that inclusion comes about—the free gift of grace.
Paul makes a shift in chapters 9-11. Romans 1-8 is one large unit, Romans 9-11 is another large unit, and Romans 12-16 concludes with a third unit. Some have trouble seeing how Romans 9-11 fits in with the larger corpus. If Paul had gone from Romans 8 to Romans 12, many think that would have been understandable and more cohesive. But Paul takes time in Romans 9-11 to address something that would have been at the forefront of the Romans’ mind.
Without these chapters, the book fails to address the question on everyone’s mind. If God has saved the Gentiles in the gospel, what has he then done with Israel, his chosen people? Has he abandoned them? Has he relegated them to a lesser status? If Israel isn’t saved according to God’s promises then what hope do we have that God will remain faithful in the gospel? Is the good news of Romans 8 in limbo, waiting for God to change his mind like he has seemingly done with Israel in the coming of Christ?
Romans 9-11 is not easy to grasp, but if you are willing to work through the initial pushback, you’ll find behind these words a big God. And as Michael Bird says, “If you wrestle with a big God, you will begin to develop big faith muscles.”
1 I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit— 2 that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. 3 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. 4 They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. 5 To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.
6 But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, 7 and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” 8 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. 9 For this is what the promise said: “About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son.” 10 And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, 11 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— 12 she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” 13 As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”
14 What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! 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 depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. 17 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.” 18 So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.
Paul begins his argument with sorrow—real sorrow. He is “speaking the truth in Christ” and he is “not lying.” His “conscience bears witness in the Holy Spirit.” Why say this? Because the charge against Paul was that he, though being a Jew himself, did not care about the Jews any longer since he was commissioned as the apostle to the Gentiles. But we have evidence to the contrary in the Scriptures. Whenever Paul entered a city, he began his ministry in the synagogues (Acts 13:5, 14-16; 14:1; 17:1-3, 10, 17; 18:1-4, 19; 19:8-10). Paul never forsook the Jews to evangelize the Gentiles. He always did both, but the Gentiles responded in repentance. The Jews responded in persecution. Paul felt deeply the distance between his people and Jesus, and he took it personally.
Paul identifies himself with his Jewish brethren the same way Moses did in Exodus 32:30-34 after the Israelites craft the Golden Calf and sin against God. Moses intercedes on his peoples’ behalf, begging God to remove him from grace in order that they may be restored. Paul prays the same prayer here in Romans 9:3. Paul’s heart for his Jewish family beats with the blood of Christ. He pleads with them to come to him and prays on their behalf.
God gave Israel eight privileges, listed in verses 4 and 5: adoption, glory, covenants, the law, worship, promises, patriarchs, and the messianic lineage. It is not as if God has abandoned his people! So, what has happened? Has the word of God failed?
Of course not. God’s word proved faithful. The question is, what word proved faithful? God’s promise to save Israel remains. The problem was the understanding of the promise. Was the promise to Israel a blanket promise covering anyone inside of Israel or was it a particular promise covering a selection of Israel?
Paul is clear, “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel.” How so? Paul’s argument is not new. It is biblical. He looks back at the narrative of Genesis and from it draws out how God has always related to both his people, in particular, and to the world at large.
God’s promise started with one man, Abraham. That one man was promised one child, though his wife was barren. But Sarah was impatient and convinced her husband to have a child with her servant, Hagar. Ishmael was born but it was not Ishmael that God had promised. So, he gave Isaac to Abraham and Sarah. Isaac was the child of the promise. Ishmael was the child of the flesh. But if we stopped there, it could be said that Ishmael was not the inheritor of mercy because he only shared the flesh of Abraham, not Sarah. So, Paul goes further down to Isaac’s children, Jacob and Esau. They shared one mother, Rebekah, and were twins born minutes apart. Esau, the older, did not receive the promise. It was the younger Jacob who received it despite his seemingly more despicable immoral life. But as it is written in Malachi, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”
What do we do with this statement? On the one hand, the argument Paul makes is clear. God’s saving purposes run through Israel but do not include all ethnic Israel. On the other hand, we seemingly have a problem where God hates some of his people. What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part?
The answer, of course, is “by no means!” Paul’s proof is found in the Old Testament book of Exodus. First, he quotes Exodus 33:19. Moses asks to see God’s glory, and what he reveals is his heart. God is the God of mercy and compassion. This comes right after the Israelites trade in the real God for an idol in the form of a Golden Calf. Moses intercedes for them, asking God to forgive, and he does. They rejected God but God did not reject them. Here’s the implication. If you’re in Christ, you’re in Christ not because of what you did or didn’t do to deserve him but because God wanted you. That means that he will never stop loving you because what you deserve wasn’t his reason in the first place, and he doesn’t change the rules mid-course.
Second, he quotes from Exodus 9:16. Here we see what every human deserves: the judgment of God. Pharaoh in Egypt has enslaved the Israelites. He is no better than they are, and they are no better than he is, but God shows mercy on Israel and judges Pharaoh. In the end, he is used by God as an instrument to display his power and glory. He has mercy on whomever he wills and he hardens whomever he wills.
Here’s the point: God is God, and we are not. His mercy is not influenced by what we think we deserve; he gives it freely to whom he chooses. Is that bad news? Hardly. It means that we don’t have to deserve his mercy to receive his mercy.
Here’s why this is hard for us to accept. When we look at verse 13, we’re not shocked that God loved Jacob. We’re shocked that God hated Esau. But the real shock is not in the second statement, it’s in the first. God is not obligated to do anything we want him to do. He is God. It would not be unjust of God to condemn every sinner to hell for their sin. But he doesn’t. Some he chooses—some like Jacob, who are terrible in so many ways yet receive the love of God. God has the right to choose his friends. And he does.
God has not failed us. We have failed God. The only remedy is his mercy. How do you know you can get it? Do you want it? If so, grab hold and never let go. Get as much of God as you can. You’ve received his mercy. Put your hope only in God, not in what you can or can’t do. Look beyond yourself to the crucified Christ—dead for your sins and alive now for your justification. Believe his work sets you right and you’ve received the mercy of God.
19 You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” 20 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?” 21 Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? 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, 23 in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— 24 even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles? 25 As indeed he says in Hosea,
“Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’
and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved.’ ”
26 “And in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’
there they will be called ‘sons of the living God.’ ”
27 And Isaiah cries out concerning Israel: “Though the number of the sons of Israel be as the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will be saved, 28 for the Lord will carry out his sentence upon the earth fully and without delay.” 29 And as Isaiah predicted,
“If the Lord of hosts had not left us offspring,
we would have been like Sodom
and become like Gomorrah.”
God’s mercy is hard for us to understand. Furthermore, it’s hard for us to accept. We want to look at God like a mathematical formula, adding the pieces up to see the sum. But we are not God and therefore cannot see all of him. The objection Paul raises is understandable. Why does God judge us for what he controls? But Paul doesn’t answer the question. Instead, he rebukes it.
Paul’s rebuke comes not from fear of losing God if the question is answered, but from a desire to show who God really is in his glory. We can’t understand all of him. There is a tension between divine sovereignty and human responsibility. We want to remove the tension because it makes us uncomfortable. Do we have free will? Yes, we do. But it’s not ultimately self-determining. Our free will isn’t bigger than God’s will. We have free will to choose God, but something is going on underneath our free will. God chooses us and then woos us with our own heart to himself. How does this work? We don’t know. We can’t know. We’re not God. Is that a problem?
Ray Ortlund helps us see how this isn’t a problem, but a great hope.
If we are the clay, and we are, and God is the potter, and he is, then people like us who are out of control have a hope beyond ourselves. You’re at home with your wife and you criticize her and find fault with her, and you don’t even know how to have a good fight so that something redemptive comes of it, because you never saw it in your home when you were a kid, and all you know is dysfunction, but you don’t like it and you tell yourself that as a Christian you should be better but you aren’t, and you’ve tried to change but you can’t, and you’re beginning to fear you never will, and you sit there in front of the TV surfing the channels with the remote because you don’t even know how to restart the conversation with your wife, and you sit there on the sofa as a lump – you see the word “lump” there in verse 21 – you sit there as a lump of defeatedness and sadness and confusion – God is standing before you today to say, “You have a hope.” There is a Savior God who, like a potter, can reshape you into a magnificent husband, for his glory. Whoever you are, whatever you’re facing, when you can’t bring yourself under control, God can. Look to him, put your hope in him, submit to the hand of the Potter, and he will make you a vessel for honorable use. We don’t understand how this works. There is mystery here, and we all know that. But it does work, because God makes it work. He promises mercy to the weak, the broken, the guilty, who turn to him. What a wonderful hope we have in a God who is not under us, not competing with us, but over us in mercy and power! That’s reality with God. It’s who we really are, and it’s who God really is.
God is in control of everything. We see in verses 22-23 that God desires to show something of himself. What does he desire to show? His wrath, power, patience, glory, and mercy. How does he show this? He does so by sovereignly choosing to show mercy to some sinners while allowing other sinners to reach the inevitable result of their sin. The word “prepared” in verse 22—“vessels of wrath prepared for destruction”—is a passive verb. The words “he has prepared” in verse 23—“vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory”—is an active verb. Here’s what’s happening. God doesn’t create evil, and so the fact that sinners end up in hell is not his fault. The fault is entirely their own.
But God can use evil—like he did with Pharaoh in Egypt—to show something of himself. God can use evil to bring about good, which means that God must be bigger than the evil in the world. He must be bigger than the evil inside you or me. That’s good news, because if God was on the same level as evil, we would wonder who is going to win in the end. But if God is bigger than evil, using it to show something of himself, then we can lay down our weapons and join his army. We can come under the One who endured the most evil humanity could muster and came out victorious on the other end. We can find mercy in God because God has shown through evil the mercy that resides in his heart for evil people.
You and I are just a lump of clay. We are shapeless in ourselves. We are hard, resistant to being formed. We are idle and unable to make something of value out of ourselves. What we need is someone to come and make something of us. And that’s what God does. We see in verses 24-29 God making something of us.
Paul quotes from the Old Testament. First, he reminds us of what the prophet Hosea said. Israel is worthy of judgment because of her adultery. We are all spiritual adulterers, turning from God to other lovers. So, what does God do? He doesn’t turn us over to our sin. Instead, he comes to us in our sin, and like the prophet Hosea, purchases us out of a life of slavery that our adultery has led to and marries us. The very thing that disqualified us from God he enters to make us his own.
Left to ourselves, we will become living embodiments of Sodom and Gomorrah. We will follow our sinful impulses all the way to the bitter end of God’s wrath. But in mercy, God chooses to send a Savior to take us by the hand and drag us out at just the right time. On the cross, Jesus experienced the full wrath of God’s anger toward sin. God’s rain of justice fell fully on him so God’s rain of mercy would fall fully on those who believe.
What will we say then to God who molded us? Why did you make me this way? Shouldn’t we rather be amazed he made us into anything worthy of him?