- Love and Liberty
Children Of The Promise
Romans 9 has been used to teach that in eternity past God chose to create mankind and selected some individuals for salvation and some for damnation. I believe this is an egregious and intolerable error.
Paul was dealing with the question of God’s promises to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and David, and God’s relationship to the Jewish nation. Many Jews took issue with Paul’s teachings for he claimed that their nationality and observance of the works of the Mosaic law counted for nothing. Because they were striving for righteousness based on the external works of the law instead of an obedient faith, the covenant people were now being hardened. Thus, to the Jews, Paul’s preaching made it seem like the Word of God had failed. Paul shows that in his dealings with Israel, God dealt with them in his wisdom, never intending that all of the natural descendants of Abraham would be counted as children of the promise. While this chapter answers questions pertaining to God’s covenant relationship with Israel, more specifically, it reveals that being the children of promise did not depend on lineage or following the Jewish religious laws, but on faith. Therefore, this chapter has nothing to do with God electing individuals to salvation or damnation, and those who look at it this way create confusion and misrepresent God.
How God relates to a covenant people is his sovereign right; he can choose whoever he wants to choose and reject whoever he wants to reject. This is illustrated by God’s choice of Isaac over Ishmael and Jacob over Esau. Both choices were made before any of them had done good or evil. God can choose whoever he wants to choose to fulfill his purposes, that should not surprise the Jews. With that said, the Jews should not be surprised that God was now choosing to enter into a covenant with a faith group comprised of Jews and Gentiles since his promises have never been based on ethnicity or Jewish laws. God gave national Israel an earthly land; this was fulfilled as recorded by the Book of Joshua:
“And the LORD gave unto Israel all the land which he sware to give unto their fathers; and they possessed it, and dwelt therein.And the LORD gave them rest round about, according to all that he sware unto their fathers: and there stood not a man of all their enemies before them; the LORD delivered all their enemies into their hand.There failed not ought of any good thing which the LORD had spoken unto the house of Israel; all came to pass.”
This promise was already fulfilled, but the Jews continued to rebel against God and Jerusalem was eventually destroyed. Abraham, the father of faith, was looking for an eternal city not made with hands but whose builder and maker is God (Hebrews 11:10). This future city will be brought down to the new earth, and the seed of Abraham will inherit it (more on the seed of Abraham later).
God chooses people and groups to accomplish certain tasks, and he did this with Isaac and Jacob. They would be a nation of priests (Isaiah 61:6), and a light to all nations (Isaiah 42:6). Their election as a nation was about service, for the salvation of people from all nations. There is no warrant for claiming that Ishmael and Esau were individually damned since they were not chosen by God to form the Jewish nation. The individuals named represent nations, or people groups. In choosing Isaac over Ishmael God was choosing Israel (the descendants of Isaac and Jacob) over the Moabites (the descendants of Ishmael), and the Edomites (the descendants of Esau) for purposes of historical vocation. This simply refers to the fact that these nations were not chosen for the purpose for which God chose the Israelites.
This national focus is seen in Malachi 1:2-3, a passage that Paul quotes.
“I have loved you, saith the LORD. Yet ye say, Wherein hast thou loved us? Was not Esau Jacob's brother? saith the LORD: yet I loved Jacob, And I hated Esau, and laid his mountains and his heritage waste for the dragons of the wilderness.”
It is referring to the nation of Edom. When the Bible uses the terms “love” and “hate”, it uses them hyperbolically to demonstrate preference for one over another (for more on this, go here). The meaning of Malachi’s choice of words is that God preferred Israel over Edom to be the people he would work through to reach the world. This did not mean that individual people from Edom could not repent and be saved.
When we consider that God has clearly created mankind with free will, and that his election is a group election (Israel, then the Church), and not based on choosing some for salvation arbitrarily and damning others, and not based on knowing in advance who would be saved and who wouldn’t (since the choices of free will agents did not yet exist), it simplifies the matter and coincides with other biblical truths. I believe in a partly open future and corporate election. When one chooses to follow Christ, he becomes a part of the elect group, making himself one of the elect. Just as God chose Israel to be his elect nation, he chose the Church as his elect nation (1 Peter 2:9), but he did not choose who would be a part of each group. Remembering this will help us to untangle the lies of men.
God is under no obligation to explain his choices to men, but God’s choices do not leave out the responses of mankind. Paul again goes back into Jewish history and shows God pardoning Israel and punishing Pharaoh.
The Law had just been given to Moses on the tables of stone. Coming down from Sinai, he found that Israel had rebelled against the Lord by making a golden calf. Moses smashed the tables of stone, ground the golden calf to powder, mingled the cursed gold with their water supply and forced the rebellious people to drink it. He challenged the people: “Who is on the LORD’s side?” Only the tribe of Levi responded. Moses then commanded the Levites to destroy the rebels. He then interceded for the rest. God was angry and he told Moses he would no longer lead and bless the nation of Israel; an angel would do so. Once again, Moses pleaded with God. God answered Moses and Paul quotes that answer to illustrate the sovereignty of God’s will in pardoning this elect nation as a vessel of service.
“What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? God forbid. For he saith to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy.”
God sent Moses to tell Pharaoh to let his people go, but Pharaoh refused. The Bible does say that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, but it also says that Pharaoh hardened his own heart. Pharaoh said:
“Who is the LORD, that I should obey his voice to let Israel go? I know not the LORD, neither will I let Israel go.”
God says that he used this situation with Pharaoh, who had hardened his heart toward God, to demonstrate his power throughout the earth. Still, Pharaoh had opportunities to repent. Pharaoh himself acknowledged his wrongness and even promised to do as God said by letting his people go. Yet, upon the removal of the plague, he hardened his heart again, and God is said to have joined in. Perhaps God’s participation in the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart was passive, that is, he allowed Pharaoh to make his own decisions and God’s judgments hardened Pharaoh’s heart even more. Or God may have temporarily suspended Pharaoh’s free will and he controlled Pharaoh for a time. Either way, God’s intervention was temporary and did not negate Pharaoh’s free will to harden his heart against God initially and throughout this event.
Paul’s reference to the potter and the clay doesn’t imply that the potter decides everything for the clay, it has the exact opposite meaning. In Jeremiah 18 the Lord showed Jeremiah a potter who was working on a vessel that didn’t turn out right. In response, the potter changed his plan and formed a different kind of pot out of the clay (Jeremiah 18:1-4). In the same way, since the Lord is the potter and Israel is the clay, he has the right and is willing to “change his mind” about his plans for Israel if they will repent (Jeremiah 18:4-11). The Lord said that whenever he intends to judge a nation, he is willing to change his mind if the nation repents. Whenever God announces that he is going to bless a nation, he will change his mind if that nation turns away from him. It’s right there for us to see in the Bible. The point of the analogy is not God’s pre-deterministic control, but God’s willingness and right to change his plans in response to changing hearts.
This fits perfectly with what Paul is teaching in Romans 9. While some individual Jews had yielded to the Lord Jesus as the Messiah, the nation as a whole had rejected him, and thus rejected God’s purpose for them. Though God had previously blessed Israel, he had now changed his mind about them and was hardening them. Ironically, the Jews were finding themselves in the same position as their old enemy Pharaoh. He had hardened his heart toward God, so God responded by hardening him further in order to raise him up to further his own purposes (Rom 9:17). God was now hardening the Jews in their self-chosen rebellion to further his purposes. He was going to use their rebellion to do what he had always hoped their obedience would do: bring the world into a relationship with him (Rom 11:11-12).
Rather than showing that God has pre-chosen everything that happens in the world, as if this proves he is sovereign, the Bible teaches that the potter is flexible and infinitely resourceful. Things are not set in stone! God’s hardening is not predetermined nor is it unalterable. If the Jews will abandon their unbelief, the potter will once again alter his plan and graft them in. If the Gentiles forsake Christ, the potter will once again alter his plan for them and cut them off (Rom 11:12-25).
The point of the potter and clay analogy is the opposite of what the determinists would have us believe. This is why Paul responds to the charge that God is unfair by quoting his words: “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy.” Paul was not saying that God gives mercy or hardens individuals without any consideration of the choices people make. As it has always been, the people God chooses to have mercy on are those who obediently follow him, whether they are Jews or Gentiles, and the people God chooses to harden are those who do not submit to his reign over their lives.
Those destined for destruction are “fitted to destruction.” But the passage doesn’t say that God so fitted them. Some will point to Proverbs 16:4.
“The LORD hath made all things for himself: yea, even the wicked for the day of evil.”
To claim that God has created and caused men to do wickedly, to show something about himself, is an absurdity that is contradicted all throughout the scriptures.
“Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, saith the Lord GOD. Repent, and turn yourselves from all your transgressions; so iniquity shall not be your ruin. Cast away from you all your transgressions, whereby ye have transgressed; and make you a new heart and a new spirit: for why will ye die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth, saith the Lord GOD: wherefore turn yourselves, and live ye.”
“Who (God) will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.”
“The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.”
God hath made all for himself, and those who choose to be wicked are no exception, though the verse does not say that God made them wicked. God made the wicked, but he did not make them wicked, just as God made those who have disabilities but did not make them have disabilities. God created a world of moral order in which good is eventually rewarded and wickedness is eventually punished. In this sense, the end of the wicked meets this purpose. They reap what they sow and meet the purpose of God’s creation of moral order.
God does not create people in order to damn them. However, when people behave like Pharaoh, God deals with them so that their wickedness reveals itself in such a way that they become fit objects for his punishment.
Why would God be longsuffering toward the wicked if he was the cause for their rebellion? The absurdities that people charge God with! God wants all to come to repentance, so he is patient with them, but as long as they persist in rebellion, they are clay that can only be fashioned into a vessel fit for destruction.
The deterministic interpretation of Romans 9 slanders God, for it depicts God as unreasonable and unholy, that he arbitrarily molds people into vessels fit for destruction and he punishes them for the way he made them. That passes as “sovereignty” to some people, and they ridicule those who reject it as not believing in the sovereignty of God. I believe in the sovereignty of God, but I reject the deterministic definition of sovereignty.
“What shall we say then? That the Gentiles, which followed not after righteousness, have attained to righteousness, even the righteousness which is of faith. But Israel, which followed after the law of righteousness, hath not attained to the law of righteousness. Wherefore? Because they sought it not by faith, but as it were by the works of the law. For they stumbled at that stumblingstone; As it is written, Behold, I lay in Sion a stumblingstone and rock of offence: and whosoever believeth on him shall not be ashamed.”
Notice the emphasis on personal responsibility and personal choices (followed, sought, attained). The one thing God has always looked for is a submissive faith. The Jews did not strive by faith. They hung their hopes on their nationality and external works. Many Gentiles sought God by faith. As Paul said in Romans 11, the Jews were broken off because of their unbelief and this is why they have been hardened. They made their choice. God gave them over to that choice. The Gentiles, who submit to God by faith, have been grafted in (11:23). Clearly, God’s process of hardening some and having mercy on others is not arbitrary or cruel.
“Behold therefore the goodness and severity of God: on them which fell (Israel), severity; but toward thee (followers of Christ), goodness, if thou continue in his goodness: otherwise thou also shalt be cut off.”
Again, God has mercy on people and hardens people in response to their belief or unbelief, but he is willing to change his mind about both the hardening and the mercy, if people change. If the Gentiles forsake Christ, they will once again be “cut off,” and if the Jews who are now hardened will turn from their rejection of Christ, God will “graft them in again” (Rom. 11:22-23).
The Jews were unhappy with this arrangement. Paul chides them:
“Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus?”
God is consistent. He gives mercy in response to faith and he hardens in response to unbelief. It’s not the other way around. God doesn't give people faith so he can have mercy on them, and he doesn't make people wicked so he can harden and destroy them.
Paul draws it all together. The Jews have no claim to salvation as a national right. The way of salvation was made known to them and they rejected it. They ran down the wrong path, but many Gentiles, upon hearing the gospel, have gladly responded by becoming followers of Christ. For those who refuse to submit their lives to Christ, sooner or later they are going to face the judgment of God. We should not think that we can harden our hearts to God today and think we will be able to change later when it is more convenient. God will turn us over to that hardened heart and we will fit ourselves for destruction. Many have been turned over already, they are reprobates. They had their chance to respond to God, yet they hardened their hearts, maybe out of anger or a love of sin, and God gave them their wish. How frightening that is.
What about the Jewish nation? Dispensational futurists claim that God still has a plan for the Jews as an ethnic nation, and that the formation of the State of Israel was the fulfillment of biblical prophecy. Do the Jews as a people still have a part in God’s project? Or are the promises made to them merged into what is in store for the Body of Christ?
The Bible says:
“For they are not all Israel, which are of Israel: Neither, because they are the seed of Abraham, are they all children: but, In Isaac shall thy seed be called. That is, They which are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God: but the children of the promise are counted for the seed.” (emphasis mine)
And to the Galatians:
“Know ye therefore that they which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham. And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham, saying, In thee shall all nations be blessed. So then they which be of faith are blessed with faithful Abraham.” (emphasis mine)
“Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ.” (emphasis mine)
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. And if ye be Christ's, then are ye Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise.” (emphasis mine)
All who are in Christ Jesus by faith are the seed of Abraham.
Some claim the modern-day State of Israel is the Israel of the Bible. They also speak of God still having plans for ethnic Jews, citing Romans 11:26.
“And so all Israel shall be saved: as it is written, There shall come out of Sion the Deliverer, and shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob:” (emphasis mine)
But compare this with Romans 9:27.
“Esaias also crieth concerning Israel, Though the number of the children of Israel be as the sand of the sea, a remnant shall be saved:” (emphasis mine)
The first verse says that “all Israel shall be saved.” The other states that only a “remnant shall be saved.” Paul cannot be contradicting himself, so how do we interpret this? Clearly, Paul did not think that all Jews past, present, and future will be saved. Taking into account the scriptures cited, it seems that he is using the term Israel to include true Jews since Abraham, who like Abraham know the circumcision of the heart, not merely the letter (Romans 2:29), and Gentiles who have become children of Abraham through faith in Jesus Christ and have been grafted into the olive tree. This seems to be the biblical answer.
Whatever God has in store (if anything) for ethnic Jews in the future, I do not believe that the warmongering and sin approving State of Israel is the Israel of the Bible, or that God is more concerned with a piece of real estate in the Middle East than he is people. Many professing Christians in America have betrayed Christ by throwing their voice behind the State of Israel, even as it murders Palestinian Christians and others over real estate. As God is on record saying, not all ethnic Jews are “of Israel”, that is, the people of faith. Jews and Gentiles have been made one in Christ and have become a holy nation and peculiar people.
“But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light:”
Of course God cares for the Jews, as he does all people, and he wants them to come to repentance.
Paul had great concern for his kinsmen in the flesh. He was accused of being an enemy of his own people, but Paul was driven by love to preach the truth. This love leads missionaries to leave their comfortable lives to preach to strangers. This love leads preachers to speak the truth, even when they know they will be hated for it. It is a love for the Lord, a love for truth, and a love for mankind. We do it because, even if no one listens, Christ deserves the rewards of his suffering. If we love Christ as the Bible demands, our lives are not our own, they are his. We must live for him. We must labor for him. We must preach the truth. We must seek to win souls for him. Paul cared about the Jews so much, that he was willing to be separated from Christ himself if it would result in their salvation. What an amazing statement. The sin of Israel was heartbreaking to Paul. Imagine the suffering in Christ’s great heart today because of the sin all around us in the world. Unfortunately, I have contributed to the evil in the world in my past by choosing to sin. I have repented and I mean to “go and sin no more.” I want others to forsake sin to follow Christ too.