This week we return to our study of Romans and we come to the second section of the ninth chapter. You’ll recall from the first section in verses 1-5 that Paul writes Romans chapter nine through eleven to erase the doubts certain Jewish believers were having about the faithfulness of God’s promises concerning Israel. There are promises in the Old Testament like Isaiah 45:17 which says that “…all Israel will be saved.” So here you have this promise (and others like it) about the salvation of the people of Israel and when the Savior of “the Jew first” comes, the vast majority of the Jews reject Him. Last time, we explored the reasons why this was so hard for the Jews to swallow and why some of them had chosen to read this turn of events as a failure of the word of God. So Paul, who is zealous for the truthfulness of God’s word, writes these three chapters in Romans with the specific intention of showing that the fact that most of ethnic Israel rejected the Messiah does not mean God’s word had failed.
Let’s look at the beginning of Paul’s defense of God’s word by reading Romans 9:6-13. Paul writes, “It is not as though God's word had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. 7Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham's children. On the contrary, "It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned." 8In other words, it is not the natural children who are God's children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham's offspring. 9For this was how the promise was stated: "At the appointed time I will return, and Sarah will have a son." 10Not only that, but Rebekah's children had one and the same father, our father Isaac. 11Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad--in order that God's purpose in election might stand: 12not by works but by him who calls--she was told, "The older will serve the younger." 13Just as it is written: "Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated."
Someone recently told me they heard Alistair Begg, an evangelical theologian, refer to this chapter in a talk he was giving. Begg was arguing that it was best for preachers to preach chapter by chapter through books of the Bible. One reason he endorsed such an approach was the glee which could be derived when the pastor would eventually be forced to (quoting now) “squirm” when he gets to Romans nine. Surely the reason he said this is that Romans nine, perhaps more than anything else Paul wrote, has caused the most controversy in church history. The controversy is NOT because the text is loaded with all sorts of difficulties in interpreting it. In fact, compared to some others, it’s a fairly straight forward text where Paul actually anticipates and answers some of the objections which he knew would be leveled against his claims. The source of controversy historically is not in how best to parse certain verbs but the fact that Paul makes some bracing, humbling statements here about the character of God as it relates to his sovereign authority in salvation.
As we said back in Romans 8:29-30, our goal is to NOT make the controversy surrounding this text the MAIN issue. Paul didn’t write the text to be controversial, but to say something about the glorious character of God in the context of a defense of His faithfulness to his promises about Israel. In an attempt to try to reduce the risk of us being overwhelmed by the controversial nature of the issues Paul raises, we spent five weeks giving a prelude to this text. In those messages, we addressed many questions this texts raises and attempted to answer them from a biblical perspective. If you were not here for those messages or if you would simply like to refresh your memory on those issues, a set of manuscripts stapled together have been provided in the foyer under the title—“A Brief Primer on Reformed Theology...” It is our hope that in becoming familiar with that material, we will be freed to enjoy and glory in the truths of Romans nine.
In addition to familiarizing ourselves with that material, there is one more suggestion that will help us interact with Romans nine in a way that more fully honors God. This can be applied to all biblical texts, but is especially helpful in controversial texts like this one. It is, come to the text looking for God and truths about His character. If we come to this text asking questions like, “What can this tell me about the character of God?” and “What is there in this text that will drive me to more intensely magnify and worship God?” then that God-centered lens will help keep us from being thrown off by the controversial nature of the text.
On the other hand, we cannot come to this text or any other with the agenda, “These verses will certainly portray God as “fair.” God isn’t fair. If God were fair, or His agenda were to be fair, He would see to it that every person on earth were given an equal amount of pain and suffering, but that is not the case. He isn’t any “fairer” in saving people than he is in equally distributing His material wealth. God never claims to be fair as people define fair, but He is perfectly just and absolutely consistent with His character as sovereign Lord of the universe. We must be careful to allow the Bible to form our understanding of God and salvation instead of bringing our own ideas about things like fairness and forcing texts to fit into those pre-conceived notions. Also, if we come to this or other texts with the agenda, “I want this text to make me feel better about myself.” Or, “Any text about salvation will certainly encourage me in seeing the crucial role I played in my salvation” If that is the attitude we bring to this text, we will come away horribly confused and maybe even angry. It’s not Paul’s purpose to do those things, but (at least in part) to cause us to exalt in God’s sovereign grace in the believer’s salvation. The appropriate response to Romans nine is the same as to any biblical text which shines a spotlight on the character of God. That is, to humbly fall on our faces in wonder at the glory of God’s awesome Person as it is revealed in Scripture. If we come to this text with that as our agenda, we will be able to delight in these powerful verses.
With that to help us, we come to this second section of Romans nine where he begins his explanation of why the Old testament promises of God about Israel are not false even though most of the Jews rejected their Messiah. He says in verse six, “It is not as though God’s word had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. Not because they are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children.” Paul begins his explanation by making a statement that points out a common assumption most Jews had about ethnic, national Israel. Most Jews assumed that all of those who were blood descendants of Abraham were by that blood relationship automatically included in God’s covenant promises. If you were genetically connected to Abraham you were in the covenant. To be part of God’s chosen people required only that you would be born into the right family—a Hebrew family. That was the assumption.
Paul explodes that common misunderstanding by asserting that to be part of Israel, that is, of God’s chosen people, is not essentially a genetic issue or a blood line issue, its much deeper than that. A child of Abraham in God’s sight involves far more than being able to trace your lineage back to Abraham. That would have been fairly radical a claim to many Jews of Paul’s time so he supports it by illustrating the truth of it from examples found at the very roots of Abraham’s family tree. In verses seven through nine, he uses the example of Isaac and Ishmael. You’ll remember that God promised Abraham that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky. Yet, as he and his wife Sarah got older and past child bearing years, they had no children. Sarah was barren.
So with Sarah’s permission, Abraham fathered a child, Ishmael through Hagar, Sarah’s Egyptian maidservant. Abraham thought that took care of their problem and his family line would be established and would grow to this great multitude God had promised. God, however was not pleased with this arrangement and told Abraham and Sarah that the child he had promised them would come through Sarah. You know the story. Sarah, well past child-bearing years miraculously conceived Abraham’s son Isaac, the child of promise because God had promised him. Paul here refers to Ishmael as a “natural” child or a “child…of the flesh.” That is, Ishmael and how he came about was Abraham and Sarah’s idea, not God’s. He was conceived naturally, with no miraculous intervention. God was not involved in his birth in any unique way.
Isaac, on the other hand, is a child “of promise.” God’s intention all along was that His people would be children of promise—living as a result of His word and his work among them. The first addition to God’s family, Isaac, would powerfully point to the fact of their continual need for His divine intervention and assistance. And so God miraculously brings about Isaac. Isaac was God’s idea—an idea that seemed so foolish, Abraham laughed at the prospect. Yet, right on time, Isaac is born with a name that means “he laughs.” Even though God blesses Ishmael and promises him many descendants, he is NOT part of God’s chosen people. Paul’s point in this is clear. Abraham is the biological father of both Isaac and Ishmael, but that doesn’t make Ishmael part of the people of God. And that supports Paul’s argument that not all those who have Abraham’s blood in their veins are part of God’s chosen people.
But some might argue that, “Of course Ishmael was not part of God’s chosen people because his mother was a Egyptian.” With the second illustration Paul gives in verses 10-13, Paul closes that loophole by pointing to yet another early descendant of Abraham who was also NOT a member of God’s chosen people. He says in verse 10, “Not only that, but Rebekah’s children had one and the same father, our father Isaac. Yet before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad—in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls—she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” Just as it is written: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”
Again, recall the story. Rebekah bears these two twins from Isaac. And God, contrary to ancient near eastern practice says “the older would serve the younger.” Esau was the first born and Isaac’s favorite. You cannot make the claim that the reason Esau was rejected was because he sold his birthright because Paul says that God decided to reject him before the two were born. Neither one of them had a chance yet to do anything to merit God’s favor. The reason for the choice of Jacob over Esau had NOTHING to do with Jacob. The reason God chose Jacob was bound up in the heart of God! Paul says the reason is, “in order that God’s purpose in election might stand.” The record on Jacob is clear. He didn’t prove to be any great prize in terms of his devotion to God for much of his life. He was a momma’s boy in the worst sense of that term and was a habitual liar and cheat. He spoke the language of Satan, the language of deception. He was treacherous.
Paul uses this familiar moment in Hebrew history to prove his point that entrance into God’s family is not secured by being a descendant of Abraham. Esau was Abraham’s fully Hebrew grandson and God hated him. Many say that God hated Esau in the sense that God preferred Isaac over him and “hate” IS used that way at times in the Bible. But let me explain why I don’t think understanding the word “hate” that way applies here. The text Paul quotes from when he says, “Esau I hated” is Malachi 1:2-3. Listen to what Malachi says of God’s attitude toward Esau, “…Was not Esau Jacob’s brother?” the LORD says. “Yet I have loved Jacob, but Esau I hated, and I have turned his mountains into a wasteland and left his inheritance to the desert jackals. Edom [the descendants of Esau] may say, “Though we have been crushed, we will rebuild the ruins.” But this is what the LORD Almighty says: “They may build, but I will demolish. They will be called the Wicked Land, a people always under the wrath of the LORD.”
Here’s what God does to Esau’s descendants as a result of His hatred for Esau. He turns their homeland into a wasteland, give their inheritance—His bounty to jackals in place of them and He vows to demolish everything they rebuild out of the rubble. He gives them the title “Wicked Lands” [not exactly a term of endearment] and He promises that they will always be under his wrath. All of this, because he hates Esau. If that is what God does to demonstrate his lack of preference, I would hate to see what he does to those he literally hates! God gave temporal, earthly blessings to Esau, just as he gives earthly blessings to many godless people, but that does not mean that he included him in the eternal blessings of the covenant. This text shows us that He has a literal hatred for Esau in the sense that he does not include him in the covenant which brings eternal life. According to Paul and the way he uses the Malachi text, that hatred for Esau was engendered before He was born just as his favor on an eternal scale is given to Jacob before he was born. That represents the plainest reading of the text.
There are those who say Romans nine refers NOT to the salvation of individuals, but that Paul is arguing that God chose Israel as a nation over Edom as a nation. That fails for at least these reasons. First, Paul’s whole point here is to show that just because an individual has the right family tree, that does not mean that that individual will be part of God’s chosen people. Second, Paul is clearly thinking about Jacob and Esau as individuals. He refers to their conception, their birth and their works. Those are related to the individual people, not the nations which came from them. Third, you cannot separate individuals from nations because nations are made up of individuals. Paul indicates there are certain individuals who are selected by God out of a larger group. The stress is on the individuals. In chapter eleven he will call this people a “remnant.” Those are just some of the reasons why Paul has to be talking here about the salvation of individuals and not a larger group of people.
The question, after hearing all that is, “What does all this mean to us?” Does this text with all of its heavy theology have application that is profitable for us as we go about our business day to day? The answer to that is undeniably, “YES.” Let’s look at some vitally important points of application to the truths Paul has given here. All of them can be grouped under this one major point. That is, our salvation is by grace alone, nothing else for the ultimate purpose of fulfilling God’s purpose in election. This text tells us so clearly that no one has or ever will be acceptable to God on the basis of their performance or anything about them as a person. Ishmael was every bit as much a son of Abraham as Isaac in the biological sense, but God rejected Ishmael to be part of his chosen people and chose Isaac. This had NOTHING to do what anything either Isaac or Ishmael did or did not do. Isaac was God’s choice, not Ishmael, period. That’s the reason Isaac was a patriarch and Ishmael was not.
Jacob was chosen to be part of God’s chosen people over Esau and Esau was hated (however you choose to define that term) and that choice was made before they were born. And we must remember that God had a sovereign right as the Creator and Lord of the universe to hate us in the same way he hated Esau. But if we are His children then its because God in his grace, without regard to anything we have done, chose to give us His favor through Christ. Isaac and Jacob weren’t chosen in response to their faith and we are not saved on the basis of our faith. Douglas Moo in his commentary on Romans says, “God chooses those who will be saved on the basis of his own will and not on the basis of anything—works or faith.” He goes on to quote Augustine who said, “God does not choose us because we believe, but that we may believe.”
Salvation is an act of God alone. He doesn’t need our assistance. In fact, he has to overcome our sinful rebellion and wrestle us and pin us down to the mat in submission according to Romans chapters one and three. Paul says, “No one seeks after God.” Salvation is a miraculous transformation in the life of an individual which brings them into relationship with God. Isaac is a type for us here. Abraham wanted to make a people for God in the natural way with Hagar. But God used Isaac as an illustration of the truth that God conceives HIS people through his miraculous transforming power by the Spirit. In chapter 3:6 of John’s gospel he says, “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.” The new birth is fundamentally a miracle performed by God, not a decision of man. The decision to believe comes in response to, and as a result of the miracle. We don’t initiate the miracle of new birth by something we do, believing. A spiritually dead person cannot exercise faith, only who has been miraculously born of the Spirit and given eternal life can believe.
This has tremendous implications for the church because often today in the church you have the same kind of false assumptions floating around that the Jews of Paul’s day had. The Hebrews believed the lie that they were included in God’s family because they had the right relationship to Abraham or because they had been circumcised as we saw in chapter two. They were in good shape because of their family and because of an experience they had. Today, we are more sophisticated than that, but many are in self deception about their spiritual state because they have believed the same kind of lie. When push comes to shove, many people will tell you they are believers because they had an experience—they prayed a certain prayer at a specific time in their life. There was an external experience. But there has been little if any indication in their life that God has done a miracle.
Along the same line, its common to hear in church the statement, “God hasn’t got any grandchildren—just because your parents are Christians doesn’t make you one.” As it relates to church attendance we also hear “Just because you hang out with the sheep, doesn’t make you a sheep.” Those statements are true but some of the same people who have said them, when pressed to give evidence for the fact that they are children of God, will say things like, “I come from a Christian family—I spent 15 years in a great AWANA program—my pastor was the well known…” Many of these people would never think to say, “God has come into my life and I will never be the same.” If that describes us, then we are no more secure than those Jews who were banking on the fact that they could trace their genealogy back to Abraham. If the examples of Isaac and Jacob as those chosen, elected by God tell us anything, it is that salvation is by grace, period. We contribute nothing. Not works, not faith. Both of those are gifts that he gives to those whom he has chosen and called to himself.
Let’s ask the question, If so many of the Jews could be deceived about their status with God because they were looking at all the wrong indicators, isn’t it possible that people who go to church could do that too? We must admit this for at least two reasons and I will close after these. First, Jesus strongly teaches that those who would gather as his church would be a mixed multitude with some true and some counterfeit. It was Jesus who said there would be tares among the wheat. The tares are those who in some way externally looked genuine but are in fact, not true followers of Christ. It was Jesus who said, “Many will say to me on that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophecy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform miracles? Then I will tell them plainly, I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers.” Jesus warns us that there will be Isaac’s and Ishmael’s grouped together.
The second reason we must learn from the self-deception of the Jews to our own time is found in the pages of church history. When the church goes through genuine times of revival where the Holy Spirit is poured out in unusual ways, one of the most prevalent results is that people in the conservative, evangelical churches who grow up in Christian homes and who spent 15 years in AWANA or “Desiring God” and who sat under sound preaching—many of THOSE people who thought they were saved, get genuinely saved. We must ask ourselves with the greatest seriousness, “Where am I?” And God, who is rich in mercy, will save all of those who, by His grace are sincerely seeking after him. May God teach us from the examples in Romans nine what we need to know so that we may see Him and ourselves through the lens of Scripture.
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