The apostle Peter admitted that Paul’s letters “contain some things that are hard to understand” (2 Peter 3:16). Readers of Paul’s letter to the Romans are not surprised by that. Trying to understand Romans chapter nine is like probing the deepest mysteries of God’s revelation. Because of that, some people prefer to avoid it altogether.
Romans 9-11 deal with God’s purposes for the Jews. Paul has been writing about the the gospel’s impact upon the Gentiles. Now he feels it necessary to address questions about God’s plan for Israel in light of her opposition to the message of Jesus. Has God forgotten his promises to Israel? Has he canceled his covenant with his chosen people?
While Romans nine contains some “hard to understand” truths, there are good reasons for us to read them. First, it is clear that Paul takes the Hebrew scriptures (the Old Testament) seriously. He quotes from them to support his argument. We can learn much from Paul’s use of the Old Testament (Romans 15:4).
Second, What Paul says about nations and people groups, applies to individuals too. The theology of the chosen people carries forward into New Testament theology as a description of the people of God who are in Christ (Romans 8:29-30).
Third, the gospel is the same for Jews and for Gentiles (Romans 1:16, 9:24). Paul expresses a passionate concern for his own people, ethnic Israel. He desires and prays that they too will believe in Jesus as Savior and Messiah (Romans 9:1-3, 10:1). God has a plan to restore a remnant of Israel (Romans 9:27).
Fourth, we ought to read Romans nine because it emphasizes God’s attributes: his sovereignty, his faithfulness, his righteousness, his justice, and his grace. Among other things, these aspects of God’s character mean that he is good in all that he does. He is true to his promises to his people, Jews, as well as Gentiles.
Fifth, as we read Romans nine, we are led to the conclusion that there are some purposes of God that are mysterious and inexplicable. If this is humbling to our proud spirits, that’s a good thing. In fact, God is God and we are not. He does not owe us an explanation for why he does what he does (Romans 9:20-21).
This applies to the doctrine of election. Its is beyond my feeble capacity to understand or explain how we are commanded to believe the gospel, then, having believed, to learn that it was because we were chosen. But that is exactly what the book of Romans teaches (Romans 8:29-30). Believers discover that God had a plan all along which included them!
Romans 9:30-32 illustrate this. A right relationship with God (described as righteousness) comes only through faith in Christ, not by trying to keep the law. In Paul’s example, the pagans, who were not seeking righteousness, found it when they heard the gospel and believed in Jesus Christ. The Jews, who were seeking righteousness through pursuing the law, “have not attained their goal.” This was because they did not pursue it by faith.
This means that Romans nine also teaches human responsibility as well as sovereign election. Jesus taught both as well (John 13:18, 15:16, 3:16-18). These two doctrines are not contradictory, as some suppose. They are complementary like two oars on the same rowboat, two wings on the same bird, two flywheels on a machine, turning in opposite directions but working together with intersecting cogs.
How both can be true may indeed be hard to understand. But perhaps there are things we were not meant to understand, but simply to bow in reverent submission before an all-wise God who always does what is right.
Pastor Randy Faulkner