Paul began this section by describing his “great sorrow and unceasing anguish” over the fact that his kinsmen, physical Israel, had rejected Christ (9.2). Significantly, Paul returns to the feelings in his heart at the beginning of chapter 10: “my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved” (Romans 10.1). I believe that in chapter 10 Paul resumes discussing the main point he had begun in Romans 9.1-5, leaving Romans 9.6-33 as an excursus and not the main point of his argument. However, the excursus was necessary to answer the objections of Paul’s kinsmen, to impress upon them that without accepting Christ all of their other advantages and their calling as God’s covenant people under Moses, meant nothing. This was where we left off in part 1 as Paul reminded his brethren that God had chosen Isaac and Jacob by His grace, and not because of any deficiency in Ishmael or Esau. In other words, Israel had not deserved God’s choosing them, but He had chosen them for a purpose. Thus, physical Israel could not object to the fact that God had determined that the real Israel (vs. 6) would be comprised of both Jew and Gentile; He had chosen those who would come to Him in faith!
God is not unjust in how He chooses those who serve Him (Vss. 14-18)
But how could God choose Israel to serve Him (by bringing the Christ into the world) and not save them? That seems to be the objection that Paul was addressing in this section (Romans 9.14-18), and once again the apostle used examples out of Israel’s past to bolster his argument.
The first example is a quotation from Exodus 33.19. This was part of the pronouncement God had made to Moses as He passed by, but the overall context is of God’s mercy to Israel, who had just made the golden calf in Exodus 32. God could have justly destroyed Israel, but He was merciful to them. Paul’s point in using this quote was to show Israel that God had mercy on the undeserving when it served His purpose.
The second example is that of Pharaoh. God used Pharaoh as the means by which He would demonstrate His power. While He extended mercy to Israel in order to accomplish His purpose, He hardened Pharaoh. Pharaoh was not saved, but he was used to fulfill the purposes of God. It would be a striking point to the Jews, that if God could use Pharaoh and not be saved, He could also use national Israel to accomplish His purposes without saving them! Note: the Scriptures attributed Pharaoh’s hardened heart to God and to Pharaoh (Exodus 8.15,32). As Robert Turner rightly observed, “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart by demanding something his stubborn heard did not want to do.”
This passage does not consider the salvation of individuals, but God’s right and ability to use whomever He chooses and to extend mercy. Israel received mercy even though they did not deserve it. Pharaoh was hardened and it was deserved. Israel, God’s chosen people, could not call God unjust for using them in His service but not saving them when they rejected the Christ.
God had used Israel to bring about the salvation of both Jew and Gentile (vss. 19-29)
You can imagine Paul’s Jewish objector asking, “Why does He still find fault? For who can resist His will?” If God uses people in His service in whatever way He chooses (as He did with Pharaoh and with Israel), why would God find fault with those vessels of service? Vss. 20-21 are verses quickly recited by a Calvinist whenever the question comes as to why God would elect some, but not others. Doesn’t that make God unfair? Doesn’t He desire to saver everyone (2Peter 3.9)? Their response is that we (the clay) have no right to question the potter. While Paul used those words, he did not apply them to the idea of unconditional election. Rather they were used in reference to how God used Israel to bring about His will.
Vessels of mercy and vessels of wrath are mentioned in vss. 22-23. Again, a Calvinist would apply this to individuals: vessels of mercy being those whom God elected to salvation, vessels of wrath being those condemned to Hell. But, allow Paul to define them and we see that Paul was not considering individuals, but groups. The vessels of mercy are clearly defined in vs. 24 as those who were called from among the Jews AND the Gentiles. Paul’s quotation of OT prophets to show that the Gentiles were to be incorporated into the true, spiritual Israel bolsters the point that the Gentiles were always a part of God’s plan of salvation. So, the vessels of mercy are not individuals that God chose, but the fact that God’s chosen people would be from among the Jews and the Gentiles. So, it seems evident that the vessels of wrath under consideration were the members of physical, nation Israel, the very kinsmen that Paul lamented in vss. 1-5. God relented from destroying these vessels of wrath, knowing that through their service the vessels of mercy would come about. But since Israel had by-in-large rejected the Christ, only a remnant would be saved (vss. 27-29)
Spiritual Israel pursues righteousness by faith (vss. 30-33)
Recall Paul’s point in vs. 6, that not all members of physical Israel are members of spiritual Israel. This passage shows why: Israel had pursued righteousness by works (reliance on OT covenant, Moses, circumcision, etc.) Spiritual Israel comprised of Jews and Gentiles pursued righteousness by faith in Christ.
Paul went on to show in chapter 10 how Israel could have faith, but he had now answered the charge of his Jewish objectors. Israel, God’s chosen nation, had served the purpose of God by bringing about the Christ. They had served God’s purpose in spite of the fact that Israel had been a wicked people deserving of destruction. Now, Christ had come. If they would have faith in Him they would be saved, if they did not then they had stumbled over the stone even as Isaiah had prophesied.
Thus, Paul’s doctrine of election in this passage has nothing to do with God choosing which individuals would be saved, but how God could choose Israel to serve Him, yet not save them. They could be saved, but only if they would have faith in Christ.
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