Romans 9 may be the most troublesome chapter in the New Testament. Misunderstandings of this chapter have led to a caricature of the doctrine of predestination that teaches that God in his sovereignty has already decided who will and will not be saved and, as a result, nothing mere humans do will.
They have also led to centuries of Christian teaching that God rejected the Jews.
Popular commentator William Barclay even declared that Paul got the whole thing wrong!
The structure of Romans
What is the place of Romans 9 within the entire book? Notice that it is possible to finish reading chapter 8 and continue immediately with chapter 12 without any sense of having missed anything. The intervening chapters form a parenthetical expression. I doubt if anyone still teaches how to diagram sentences, but in order to understand the basic structure of a sentence, you need to ignore the parenthesis. Once you know the structure, you need to consider the significance of how the parenthesis alters the meaning of the sentence.
Analyzing the book of Romans is like a large-scale diagramming of a sentence. Chapters 9-12 are not structural parts of the argument, but parenthetical. The first eight chapters introduce the concept of justification by faith and present it as a correction to the traditional Jewish understanding of justification by keeping the law.
If justification by faith provides a better explanation of Hebrew Scripture and releases believers from bondage to a law no one can keep, why did the Jews not immediately embrace it? And where does their rejection of it put them in the plan of salvation?
No systematic overview of Christian doctrine can duck those questions, so Paul deals with them before going on to the practical subject of how believers should live by faith. In all, he offers four answers.
Chapter divisions are certainly handy, but many times failing to read past them can lead to taking ideas out of context. We cannot understand Romans 9 apart from the other three answers to the question in the next two chapters, and we cannot understand it apart from the principles so carefully developed in the first eight chapters.
God’s sovereign choices
Right off the bat, Paul refers to unbelieving Jews as his brothers. He himself was as Jewish as any of them, and not ashamed to admit it. In Acts, he always preached to Jews first and persuaded as many as he could. He extended his ministry to the Gentiles only after coming to a point of opposition from those who refused to be persuaded. Over the three chapters in the parenthesis, he will explain the salvation that God will ultimately extend to Jews who decide to believe.
Modern readers run into trouble with Romans 9 largely for three reasons.
Most seriously, many of us choose to ignore the doctrine of original sin. We are not born into some kind of neutral state from which we could choose to be saved. We are born lost, and there’s not a thing any of us can do about it. Those who neglect that inconvenient truth get offended on behalf of Esau and Pharaoh.
God hated Esau in the womb before he did anything good or bad? God’s bad!
That brings up a second problem, the fact of something getting lost in translation from one language to another. Apparently, there is no equivalent in Hebrew to the English “God loved Esau less.” To say that God hated Esau does not mean that he chose to dislike Esau. He certainly didn’t treat him with contempt. Esau lived a blessed life–just without the level of divine blessing God chose to bestow on Jacob.
Jacob, by the way, was an absolutely nasty person until he was brought to a place of faith by God’s grace. It’s easy to assume that Esau never arrived at faith, but the Bible doesn’t actually says so. It emphasizes the divine blessing on Jacob and its outcome. Whatever happened to Esau matters much less. That’s no knock on Esau, just the outcome of God’s sovereign choice.
Random? So is any gardener’s choice of which plants to discard when thinning a flower bed.
A third reason modern readers have with Romans 9 comes from not understanding the cultural norms of another time and place. The entire discussion on pottery can easily go over our heads if we do not understand “vessel of wrath.” When a pot cracked in the oven, the potter had ways of repairing it. If the repairs didn’t work, he could not sell the pot and threw it across the room to smash it. That was the vessel of wrath. The shards became useful for many things, and were thus, in some way, redeemed from the scrap heap.
Overall, Romans 9 emphasizes God’s sovereignty. He has no constraints on his choices. He has no need to seek our approval. Because God’s own character defines what’s good, we have no independent standard for measuring his actions.
What if he chooses something and I don’t like it or understand it? Tough.
He is good, has good reason for his choice, and ultimately his choice will work out for my benefit. Same for you. That was the conclusion of eight chapters of explaining grace, just before the start of Romans 9. Remember?
Photo credit: Potter’s hands. Some rights reserved by Valerie Everett (link no longer work as of Jan. 2015)