Check out the new Convergence Church Network! 

Visit and join the mailing list.

All Articles

Romans 9:6-13

“But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel; neither are they all children because they are Abraham's descendants, but: ‘through Isaac your descendants will be named.’ 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 a word of promise: ‘at this time I will come, and Sarah shall have a son.’ And not only this, but there was Rebekah also, when she had conceived twins by one man, our father Isaac; for though the twins were not yet born, and had not done anything good or bad, in order that God's purpose according to His choice might stand, not because of works, but because of Him who calls, it was said to her, ‘the older will serve the younger.’ Just as it is written, ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.’”

Virtually all misunderstandings of vv. 6-13 arise from a failure to see that these verses were written to solve a problem posed by vv. 1-5. The question or problem Paul is faced with is this: If Israel is God's covenant people, to whom so many glorious privileges have been given (vv. 4-5), why are so few Israelites saved? Why are so many of them "accursed, separated from Christ?" Has God's word failed? Has God's covenant promise and eternal purpose come to nothing? Has the rejection of Jesus Christ by the majority of Israelites thwarted God's purpose? Have the trustworthiness and finality of God's word been undermined by the unbelief of so many Jews? His response to the question is a resounding No!

Verse 6a asserts negatively what v. 11c will state positively. Unbelief in Israel does not prove God's word has failed. As Piper explains, "the remaining (or 'standing') of God's electing purpose (in v. 11c) is the opposite of the falling (or 'failing') of God's word (in v. 6a)" (33). The principle on the basis of which this proposition stands is articulated in v. 6b.

Note carefully: "For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel.” Grammatically speaking, it is probably more accurate to translate this statement: "all who are of Israel, these are not Israel". If God's word of promise and covenant is that all ethnic Israelites, i.e., all those who are descended from Israel, are to be saved, then clearly his purpose has failed and his word is void. But Paul denies that God ever intended to save all ethnic Israelites. His purpose has always been to save a remnant within, but not the entirety of, ethnic Israel.

There is an Israel within Israel. There is a spiritually elect remnant within the physical nation. Paul's point is that the unbelief of those in the outer circle does not jeopardize the redemptive purpose of God, for that promise applied only to the inner circle, the elect remnant within the nation as a whole. Murray sums up:

"The purpose of this distinction is to show that the covenantal promise of God did not have respect to Israel after the flesh but to this true Israel and that, therefore, the unbelief and rejection of ethnic Israel as a whole in no way interfered with the fulfillment of God's covenant purpose and promise. The word of God, therefore, has not been violated" (10).

Simply put: Not every person who is a physically ethnic Israelite is a spiritually elect Israelite.

Moo summarizes this way:

"If the OT teaches that belonging to physical Israel in itself makes a person a member of God's true spiritual people, then Paul's gospel is in jeopardy. For were this the case, the gospel, proclaiming that only those who believe in Jesus Christ can be saved (cf. 3:20-26), would contradict the OT and be cut off from its indispensable historical roots. Paul therefore argues in vv. 6b-29 that belonging to God's true spiritual people has always been based on God's gracious and sovereign call and not on ethnic identity. Therefore, God is free to 'narrow' the apparent boundaries of election by choosing only some Jews to be saved (vv. 6-13; 27-29). He is also free to 'expand' the dimensions of his people by choosing Gentiles (vv. 24-26)" (569).

To prove his point, Paul appeals to the families of Abraham and Isaac. In God's dealings with each of these patriarchs we see the principle of v. 6b in operation. Although both Isaac and Ishmael were Abraham's physical descendants, Isaac alone is a true or spiritual Israelite. Likewise, whereas both Jacob and Esau were the physical seed of Isaac (being twins), only Jacob was the spiritual seed whom God purposed to save.

First, in v. 7 Paul distinguishes between children and descendants. To be a physical descendant of Abraham does not guarantee (contrary to the belief of the Pharisees; see Mt. 3:9; John 8:37-40) that one will be a child of God, i.e., saved (cf. Rom. 8:16,17,21; Eph. 5:1; Phil. 2:15). This is supported by an appeal to Gen. 21:12. The line of the covenant will proceed through Isaac, not Ishmael, even though the latter is as much a physical descendant of Abraham as the former. Simply put, "salvation is not a Jewish birthright" (Moo, 575).

Second, in vv. 8-9 Paul contrasts children of the flesh, i.e., physical descendants of Abraham whom God has not sovereignly chosen, and children of the promise, i.e., physical descendants of Abraham whom God has sovereignly chosen to be the beneficiaries of the covenant promises. Clearly, then, something more must be true about a physical descendant of Abraham if he/she is to be an heir of the covenant. In other words, notall of Abraham's children are God'schildren! As N. T. Wright put it: "What counts is grace, not race" (Climax of the Covenant, 238). The phrase "children of God" in Paul always refers to people who belong to God and are thus partakers of salvation. See Rom. 8:16,17,21; Eph. 5:1; Phil. 2:5. That not all ethnic Israelites are spiritual Israelites is proven again by the case of Jacob and Esau, twin brothers born to Isaac and Rebekah. Jacob was the object of God's electing love whereas Esau was rejected. On what basis did God make the distinction? The answer follows. First, we are told that God differentiated between Jacob and Esau before their birth. Second, God differentiated between Jacob and Esau before their behavior. The destinies of these two men were pre-determined, i.e., they were pre-destined, independently of anything they had done, "good or bad"

Paul confirms this in v. 11c by saying that God's choice of Jacob instead of Esau was not "of works" but of God "who calls." God's decision was not based on anything in either man. It was based solely on the sovereign good pleasure of God (vv. 11,16). God's choice, therefore, is not in any way dependent upon or conditioned by His foreknowledge of something either man might or might not do. Douglas Moo points to three factors that prove that covenant participation comes only as the result of God's call:

"First, Jacob and Esau shared the same father and mother. This silences the objector who might argue that Isaac was preferred over Ishmael simply because they had different mothers. Second, God promised that Jacob would be preeminent before the twins were born, implying . . . that it was God's will alone, and not natural capacity, religious devotion, or even faith that determined their respective destinies. Third, Jacob's being the younger of the two makes it even more clear that normal human preferences had nothing to do with God's choice" (578).

Some have acknowledged that whereas "works" are excluded as the basis for election, "faith" is not. Couldn't God have chosen Jacob based on his foreknowledge of Jacob's faith and rejected Esau based on the absence of faith? Aside from the many problems with basing election on foreseen faith noted in our discussion of Rom. 8:9-30 (arguments that I won't repeat here), there are two immediate obstacles.

First, the whole point of Paul's argument is the contrast between human activity and God's activity and his desire to base election in what God does and not in anything that any human being does. But second, and more important, "if Paul had assumed that faith was the basis for God's election, he would have pointed this out when he raised the question in v. 14 about the fairness of God's election. All he would have needed to say at that point was 'of course God is not unjust in choosing Jacob and rejecting Esau, for his choosing took into account the faith of one and the unbelief of the other.' Paul's silence on this point is telling" (Moo, 583).

Divine Hate and Love

This discussion raises two critical issues. First, what is the meaning of v. 13 where Paul says, "Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated"?

Some contend that the word hate is comparative in force. That is to say, God loved Esau "less than" he loved Jacob (see Gen. 29:32-33; Deut. 21:15; Matt. 6:24; 10:37-38; Luke 14:26; John 12:25). Others argue that the word hate is privative in force, the point being that God did not love Esau at all, as he did Jacob. But He didn't hate him either. This view differs little from the previous one.

Another option is to understand God's "love" of Jacob to be equivalent to his choice of him, thus making God's "hate" for Esau a reference to his decision not to bestow this privilege on him. "It might best be translated 'reject'. 'Love' and 'hate' are not here, then, emotions that God feels but actions that he carries out" (Moo, 587). Perhaps hate does indeed have a positive force. God not only did not savingly and redemptively love Esau, as he did Jacob, but he actively rejected him and manifested his displeasure and disfavor by means of retributive justice. It is not merely the absence of blessing that Esau suffers, but the presence of judgment (see Ps. 5:5; 11:5; Prov. 6:16; 8:13; Isa. 1:14; 61:8; Jer. 44:4; Hos. 9:15; Amos 5:21; Zech. 8:17; Mal. 2:16). Murray reminds us, though, that we do not

"predicate of this divine hate those unworthy features which belong to hate as it is exercised by us sinful men. In God's hate there is no malice, malignancy, vindictiveness, unholy rancour or bitterness. The kind of hate thus characterized is condemned in Scripture and it would blasphemy to predicate the same of God" (2:22).

There is, therefore, in God a holy hatred that is the antithesis of his saving love. Consequently, "Esau was not merely excluded from what Jacob enjoyed but was the object of a displeasure which love would have excluded and of which Jacob was not the object because he was loved" (2:23).

Individuals or Nations?

The Arminian also insists that Isaac and Jacob are not examples of individual men elected to eternal life, but are representative of the nation Israel collectively and its privileged status above all other nations of the earth. Or, if they are to be taken as individuals, it is to honor and historical prominence, not eternal life, that they are predestined. Ishmael and Esau could still be saved. For that matter, I suppose Isaac and Jacob could still be lost!

In support of this view appeal is made to the fact that two of the Old Testament texts which Paul cites (Gen. 25:23; Mal. 1:1-5) refer to Jacob and Esau as heads of national entities and their respective historical destinies. God chose Jacob to be more prominent and privileged, the line through whom the promised seed would come, even though Esau was the elder of the two. But that has nothing to do with whether either or both of the men go to heaven. The name "Jacob" can refer not only to the individual but to the nation (Israel) descended from him. Likewise, the name "Esau" can refer both to the person himself and the people (Edom) who are his descendants

But how does this relate to the problem raised in verses 1-5? Whatever it is that Paul means by referring to Jacob and Esau, he intends for it to solve the problem posed in the preceding context. It seems that in verses 6-13 Paul is describing a divine principle in order to apply it to the problem of verses 1-5. The principle is that "God's promised blessings are never enjoyed on the basis of what a person is by birth or by works, but only on the basis of God's sovereign, free predestination (Rom. 9:11-12). The ultimate decision of who will experience God's grace or mercy is never based on a person's 'willing or running' (Rom. 9:18)” (Piper, Justification of God, 46). I readily concede that when Paul turns to demonstrate this principle he uses two Old Testament texts that do not immediately pertain to personal salvation. But when that principle is then applied, why should it be restricted only to God's choice of individuals and nations for earthly, historical roles?

The reason why Paul cited Malachi 1:2-3 is not hard to discern. "In a context in which Paul begins speaking rather clearly about the individuals rather than the nations, we should not be surprised that he would apply a text that spoke to the nations to the individuals who founded and, in a sense 'embodied' them. It is not the issue of how God uses different individuals or nations in accomplishing his purposes that is Paul's concern, but which individuals, and on what basis, belong to God's covenant people. . . . [Thus] Paul appeals to OT history to establish a principle about the way in which God brings into being his own people" (Moo, 586).

Let me try to simplify matters. We must remember Paul's grief in verses 1-5 is over the eternal condemnation of individual Jews. How can so few ethnic Israelites be saved and so many lost because of unbelief if God's word is true? That is the problem. Consequently the solution that verses 6-13 provide must address the issue of individual, eternal salvation and condemnation.

But how does an appeal to the collective election of Israel or the election of Jacob and his seed to earthly, historical prominence solve the problem of unbelieving, eternally lost Jews? How can that solve the problem when that is the problem? In other words, it was the fact that ethnic Israel as a whole was God's chosen, covenant people that created the problem in the first place (vv. 4-5)!

If all individual Israelites are God's covenant people, why are so many individual Israelites accursed and separated from Christ? Simply to reaffirm that God has elected the entire nation collectively and destined it for historical prominence is no answer: That is the problem! Paul wants to explain why not all individual ethnic Israelites are eternally saved (their lost condition being the source of his overwhelming grief). What possible benefit would it be to assert that the line of Jacob, but not Esau, was elected to be the beneficiary of mere earthly, nonsaving, nonredemptive, purely national covenant blessings?

I do not see how an appeal to the historical, earthly prominence of anyone answers the question of why so few of God's old covenant theocratic people are eternally lost and excluded from the blessings of heaven! If God's choice of Isaac instead of Ishmael and of Jacob instead of Esau has nothing to do with their individual and eternal destinies, how then does it have any application to the problem of the individual and eternal destinies of so many Jews (see vv. 1-5)?

It seems evident to me that Paul solves the problem by appealing to a principle according to which God always operates. The principle was manifest in the election and elevation of Jacob over Esau and explains why not all physical Israelites are spiritual Israelites. The principle, again, is this: When God determines who shall and who shall not enjoy his blessings, be they earthly or heavenly, he does so according to his sovereign good pleasure and not according to anything in men.

In addition to this, there are numerous other reasons gleaned from Romans 9 itself that lead me to believe Paul is talking about individual, not national, election. They have been summarized by Thomas Schreiner in his article, "Does Romans 9 Teach Individual Election Unto Salvation? Some Exegetical And Theological Reflections" in Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (36/1 [March 1993] 25-40).

1.            "The phrases 'children of God' and 'children of the promise' always refer in Paul to those who are the saved children of God (cf. 8:16,21; Phil. 2:15; Gal. 4:28)" (28).

2.            Paul says that God's election is not based "on works but on the one who calls" (v. 11). As Schreiner points out, "elsewhere when Paul speaks of 'works' he refers again and again to the thesis that no one can be justified by doing 'the works of the law' or by doing any works at all (cf. 3:20,27-28; 4:2,6; 9:32; 11:6; Gal. 2:16; 3:2,5,10; Eph. 2:9; 2 Tim. 1:9; Titus 3:5). Since Paul typically claims that salvation is not by works, the burden of proof is on those who see him employing this terminology in a nonsalvific way in Rom. 9:11-12" (28).

3.            Schreiner also directs us to the parallels between Rom. 9:11-12 and 2 Timothy 1:9. "The parallels between the texts are at least fourfold: (1) Both speak of God's 'call' (kaleo); (2) both stress that the call was not based on 'works' (erga); (3) both refer to God's saving 'purpose' (prothesis); (4) both say that this salvation was decided before human history began" (28-29). Since no one denies that eternal salvation is in view in 2 Tim. 1:9, it stands to reason he is talking about it also in Rom. 9:11-12.

4.            Romans 9:22-23 also suggests that Paul is speaking of salvation and condemnation in 9:11-12. In vv. 22-23 he contrasts "vessels of wrath prepared for destruction" with "vessels of mercy that were prepared beforehand for glory." The word for "destruction" (apoleia) and that for "glory" (doxa) frequently are used by Paul to refer to eternal condemnation and eternal salvation (see Phil. 1:28; 3:19; 2 Thess. 2:3; 1 Tim. 6:9; Rom. 2:10; 8:18; 1 Thess. 2:12; 2 Tim. 2:10).

5.            The wider context of Romans 10-11 also supports the view that Romans 9 is talking about eternal salvation. The point of Paul's argument in chps. 10-11 is the salvation of Israel. If Romans 9-11 is a literary unit, as most argue it is, the burden of proof rests on those who insist that chp. 9 is dealing with an entirely different subject from chps. 10-11. Schreiner explains:

"It seems clear that 9:30-11:36 relates to Israel's salvation (or lack thereof), but it seems to me that the implications of this fact need to be related to 9:1-29. Given the fact that Romans 9-11 is a unit, that there is no reason to think his major concern changes, and that there is specific evidence that Paul's concern is with Israel's salvation in 9:1-29, it is not surprising that Paul would describe in 9:30-11:36 why Israel fails to obtain salvation. It is quite improbable that in one context Paul is merely discussing the temporal destiny of Israel (9:6b-29) and that then in the succeeding passage he suddenly begins to explain why Israel failed to attain salvation (9:30-11:36). The unity of the text is such that all of Romans 9-11 constitutes Paul's answer as to how God's word has not failed with reference to the promises of salvation for Israel, even though many in Israel have not believed in Jesus as Messiah" (31).

After reading this explanation, most are prepared to accuse God of being unrighteous and unfair. This objection is anticipated by Paul and answered by him in vv.14ff., a passage we will look at in the next lesson.