Background to Romans 9-11: key teaching from Romans 3:1-4:25

This is part of a series of posts on Romans. Click here for the contents page.

Having considered the structure of chapters 3-4, we are almost ready to focus on chapters 9-11 in detail. Before we do that, we will go through some of Paul’s key teaching from chapters 3-4, which is of foundational importance in understanding the related chapters 9-11.

Chapters 3-4 and chapters 9-11 match with each other in the structure of the whole letter, so the most important part of the letter outside chapters 9-11 for understanding these chapters is chapters 3-4. As we will see, chapters 3-4 provide the context for the discussion in chapters 9-11. If our interpretation of chapters 9-11 does not fit with chapters 3-4, then we know we have interpreted it incorrectly.

The diagram below shows one of Paul’s main points in chapters 3-4:

The world according to ethnicity/Paul

Paul was writing to a church containing ethnic Jews as well as Gentiles (i.e. not ethnic Jews) and he wanted them to be united, rather than to divide into two groups according to their ethnicity. He showed them that the church contains some people from ethnic Israel and some people from the Gentiles. An ethnic Israelite couldn’t claim salvation from God simply for being an ethnic Israelite, and a Gentile wasn’t prevented from salvation simply for not being an ethnic Israelite.

The reason that the church in Rome contained both ethnic Israelites and Gentiles is that salvation is not according to ethnicity but is on the basis of who has faith in Christ. We see this taught over and over in Romans. First, in 1:16-17 we have:

“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The one who by faith is righteous shall live”.”

We see that the gospel (the good news) brings salvation to everyone who believes (i.e. has faith) – both Jew and Gentile (“Greek” is another word for non-Jew, in this context).

Then we have chapter 3, with Paul saying that “all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin” (3:9), and going on to say that (3:20-30):

“For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it: the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe – for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God – and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.”

We see Paul talking about two kinds of law here: there is the “law of works” and the “law of faith”. The law of works relates to the idea that a person will try to make themselves righteous before God by obeying all of the law in the Old Testament. This strategy is doomed to fail for all of us though, as “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”. Anyone trying to save themselves this way isn’t going to make it. The alternative is the “law of faith”, which refers to people obtaining the righteousness of God not through their own works but “through faith in Jesus Christ”. These people obtain righteousness through faith in Jesus – as they are united to Jesus through faith in him they share in his righteousness.

Another point to note is that Christians are justified by God’s grace as a “gift”, and that this gift is “received by faith”. Faith is simply accepting this gift from God, as opposed to refusing the gift, which is what people do when they try to obtain righteousness by their own works instead. When we hear the gospel, God graciously gives us all the choice of whether to try to save ourselves, or to admit defeat (with respect to our own abilities) and accept salvation from Jesus instead. A person with faith is someone who has simply reached the position that “it’s not about me, it’s about Jesus”. Because salvation operates in this way, boasting is excluded (3:27), as faith is inherently about looking away from “me” and looking to Jesus. In doing this, I am acknowledging that I have nothing to boast about, and am instead relying entirely on Jesus.

Paul goes on in Chapter 4 to demonstrate that the way for a person to reach a position of righteousness before God has always been by faith. This isn’t a new idea. “The law of faith” has always been the true purpose of the law – to bring people to faith in Christ. This was true even in Old Testament times, though then they were looking forward to the Messiah (i.e. Christ) who was to come. Paul explains that Abraham was justified by faith and not by works (“Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness” – 4:3). Paul therefore refutes the view of many first-century ethnic Israelites that they could rely on their own works to be considered as righteous before God.

This explains how Paul could talk in chapter 2 about “when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires” (2:14), and “he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law” (2:27) – they keep the law and do what the law requires by having faith in Christ, which is what the law was always about. The good works they go on to do in their lives are not a way of obtaining righteousness before God but are a thankful response to the blessings that have come to them in Christ.

We can see that Paul wanted to remove any ethnic distinctions between ethnic Israelites and Gentiles in the church by verses like 2:28-29:

“For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God.”

Paul shows that being a true Jew (a member of the true Israel) is not a matter of physical descent or works, but is a matter of the heart – a true Jew will have their heart focussed on Jesus rather than turned in on themselves. Chapter 4 makes a similar point (4:1-12):

“What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.” Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? For we say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.”

So Abraham is shown to be the father of all who believe – both the circumcised and the uncircumcised (i.e. both ethnic Jews and Gentiles). Using another diagram, the situation is like this:

Ethnic Israel, Gentiles

True Israel is those who believe in Christ – they can be ethnically Israelites or Gentiles.

Abraham was given a promise by God, and Abraham received this promise by faith, as shown in 4:13-17:

“It was not through the law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith. For if those who depend on the law are heirs, faith means nothing and the promise is worthless, because the law brings wrath. And where there is no law there is no transgression. Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring – not only to those who are of the law but also to those who have the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all.”

Abraham received the promise given to him by faith. All who share in Abraham’s faith also receive the promise when they come to share in his faith. They can claim Abraham as their father and are therefore part of the true Israel.

In the next post, we’ll see how Paul uses these category divisions in Romans 9-11.

This was first published at the Predestination Station, where comments can be made.


Structure of Romans 3:1-4:25

This is part of a series of posts on Romans. Click here for the contents page.

Having considered the structure of Romans 1:16-2:29 (the B1 section), we will now move on to Romans 3:1-4:25 (the C1 section). Here is a structure for this section:

Structure of Romans 3v1-4v25.PNG

The relationship between the sections is not as clear as in some other parts of the letter. I have chosen this structure mainly due to the internal structure of each section, explained below. There seem to be more similarities between the first two sections and between the final two sections.

We will now consider the internal structure of each section, beginning with the C1-A1 section (3:1-18):

Structure of Romans 3v1-18.PNG

“Law” is not mentioned in 3:1-18, but is mentioned numerous times before and after this section. The word “Jew” appears only in the C1-A1-A sections.

This section has a continued Jewish focus. Paul sets up various questions, which he will return to in chapter 9.

Here is a structure for the C1-B1 section (3:19-28):

Structure of Romans 3v19-28.PNG

The central C1-B1-C section summarises the key point that there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile, as all have sinned. The C1-B1-B sections summarise the key point that righteousness is by faith. These are probably the two main points of the whole of the C1 section of Romans.

This structure can be seen in more detail here:

Structure of Romans 3v19-28 detail.PNG

Verses 21-24 are punctuated differently in different English translations. I think the best punctuation highlights verses 22b-23 (the central C1-B1-C section) as shown here:

“[21] But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, [22] even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe – for there is no distinction; [23] for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God – [24] being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus”

Verses 22b-23 are a highlighted statement in the middle of the paragraph. The remaining wording would make sense even if the highlighted statement were not present (i.e. skipping from 22a to 24). ‘Being justified’ in verse 24 refers to ‘all those who believe’ in verse 22.

Here is a structure for the C1-B2 section (3:29-4:12):

Structure of Romans 3v29-4v12.PNG

Circumcision is not mentioned between the C1-B2-A sections, but is mentioned 14 times in these sections. The C1-B2-A sections develop the key point from the centre of the previous section (i.e. 3:22b-23) that there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile.

In the C1-B2-B sections, Paul uses the examples of Abraham and David to show that faith is credited as righteousness both to ethnic Israelites (the circumcised) and Gentiles (the uncircumcised). These examples demonstrate the other main point from the previous section (i.e. 3:21-22a and 3:24-26) that righteousness is by faith.

The central C1-B2-C section provides teaching on the nature of righteousness by faith – that it is a gift, rather than being owed like a wage.

The C1-B2-A2 section (4:9-12) has a structure of its own:

Structure of Romans 4v9-12.PNG

Here is a structure for the C1-A2 section (4:13-25):

Structure of Romans 4v13-25.PNG

The structure can be seen in more detail here:

Structure of Romans 4v13-25 detail.PNG

In the next post, we will spend some more time in the C1 section of Romans (3:1-4:25), considering in particular its content that is relevant to understanding Romans 9-11.

 This was first published at the Predestination Station, where comments can be made.


Structure of Romans 1:16-2:29

This is part of a series of posts on Romans. Click here for the contents page.

After considering the internal structure of Romans 5-8 (the central D section), we will now consider the internal structure of 1:16-2:29 (the B1 section).

The B1 section can be split into two parts:


This division is apparent from the internal structures of both of these sections, as will now be demonstrated, beginning with the B1-A1 section (1:16-2:11):

Structure of Romans 1v16-2v11.PNG

Language such as “the Jew first and also the Greek” only appears in the B1-A1-A sections and does not appear elsewhere in the whole letter. The words ‘Jew’ and ‘Greek’ do not appear between the B1-A1-A sections. ‘Without excuse’ does not appear anywhere in the letter other than the B1-A1-B sections. In this part of the letter, ‘wrath’ appears only in the B1-A1-B sections (1:18, 2:5(x2), 2:8). ‘God gave them over’ appears only in the B1-A1-C and B1-A1-D sections.

The B1-A1-A2 section (2:6-11) forms a chiastic structure of its own:


In Romans 1:18-2:5, Paul is showing that ‘both Jews and Greeks are all under sin’ (3:9). The typical ethnic Israelites of Paul’s day would have considered Paul to have been speaking about Gentiles in 1:18-32, and would have considered God to be just in revealing his wrath to them and giving them to their sin. These ethnic Israelites would not consider themselves to be in the same situation as these Gentiles. However, Paul goes on to turn this around against these ethnic Israelites by showing that, in passing judgement against such people, while actually doing the same things, they have condemned themselves. Paul’s strategy is similar to Nathan’s in 2 Samuel 12. Nathan tells a story about which David agrees judgement should be given to the man in the story. Nathan then turns it around on David and shows that the man in the story represents David, who therefore deserves judgement by David’s own admission.

The B1-A1-A sections surround this, making two points about God not showing partiality. First, in 1:16-17, Paul states that God does not show partiality in the gospel: it is for everyone who believes, whether Jew or Greek (i.e. Gentile). Second, in  2:6-11, Paul states that God does not show partiality in who he judges and who he blesses. Some Jews and some Greeks will be judged (2:9), and some Jews and some Greeks will be blessed (2:10). The judgement/blessing is therefore not based on ethnicity but on who does evil and who does good. Fitting the two sections together, those who do good (2:10) are those who obtain righteousness by faith (1:16). The desire and ability to do good works comes from the new heart which is given to those who trust in Christ. Paul does not say that a Christian only ever does good works, but good works are what characterise a Christian. When a Christian sins, they are acting in a way that is associated with their old way of life before they trusted in Christ.

A structure of the B1-A2 section (2:12-29) is:

Structure of Romans 2v12-29.PNG

In Romans 2:12-28, the arrangement is similar to Romans 1:16-2:11 in that the main teaching comes in the two outer sections. First, in 2:12-13, Paul explains that the doers of the law will be justified, not the hearers of the law. He then gives an example of Gentiles “doing the things of the law” despite not having the law. Gentiles “do the law” by trusting in Christ. This is what the law truly requires. Paul goes on to explain this in Romans 3:21-22 – the ‘righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe’ is ‘witnessed by the Law and the Prophets’. This is what Paul refers to as the ‘law of faith’ in 3:27. Paul gives more detail of this in 10:6-13.

A second example of a Gentile “keeping the law” is provided in 2:26-27. These Gentile sections surround two sections about Jews breaking the law in 2:17-24 and 2:25. The Jews who break the law are those who use the law incorrectly and try to obtain righteousness by their own actions, rather than by trusting in the One witnessed by the law. In trying to do the law themselves, they fail to meet its requirements, as shown by their sin.

The second main teaching in 2:28-29 is that being a “Jew” is not about outward matters (e.g. circumcision) but is an inward matter. The true “Jews” are those who have circumcised hearts.

In the next post, we will look at the structure of the C1 section of Romans (3:1-4:25).

This was first published at the Predestination Station, where comments can be made.

Romans 8:28-30 and its relevance to Romans 9

This is part of a series of posts on Romans. Click here for the contents page.

A significant number of Christians do not interpret Romans 9:6-29 in the way that I have set out in the previous posts. Very often, Romans 8:28-30 is used to support an argument for a different interpretation of Romans 9. It is therefore important that we consider these verses, to see whether the interpretation I have put forward is consistent with them. Before considering these verses in detail, I would like to note a few things:

First, as we have seen from the structure of the whole of Romans, Romans 9-11 forms a single section of the letter. When interpreting Romans 9, it therefore makes sense first to ensure that Romans 9 is interpreted in a manner that is consistent with chapters 10 and 11, before considering chapter 8. Of course, the correct interpretation of Romans 9 will be consistent with all of Romans, but considering the immediate context before parts of the letter that are less closely related is a good procedure to ensure proper interpretation.

Second, we have also seen that Romans 9-11 has a parallel section earlier in Romans, which is Romans 3:1 to 4:25. After making sure our interpretation of Romans 9 fits with chapters 10 and 11, we should then make sure it fits with this earlier section in Romans, as Paul addresses similar concepts in the two sections.

Third, once we have an interpretation of Romans 9 that fits with these closely related parts of Romans (which I believe is where we have got to), we can check that our interpretation fits with the rest of the letter, including Romans 8. We will do this now, and I hope you will agree that these verses from Romans 8 do not conflict with the proposed interpretation of Romans 9.

It is understandable that people would refer to Romans 8:28-30 in relation to Romans 9, as it does appear soon before it in the text. However, as the structural analysis has shown, it is in a different section of the letter, so it should not take priority over parts of the letter in the same section (chapters 9-11) or the parallel section (3:1-4:25).

Sadly, some people tend to read more into these verses than what they actually say, and draw conclusions about non-Christians or about how people become Christians or who will become a Christian. As I will demonstrate, these verses are not addressing these issues. They are explaining that God causes all things to work together for good for people who are already believers. The verses are not speaking of God determining who will love him, but are speaking of God determining what happens to those who do love him.

We will first consider my preferred understanding of Romans 8:28-30. We will then consider some translation decisions that were made, and then some alternative understandings.

Preferred understanding 

As shown in the structural overview of Romans 8, the central verse of the chapter is verse 18: ‘For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us’. On either side of this verse (in verses 12-17 and 19-30) is a consideration of what I have summarised as “glory through suffering for the children of God”. Verses 12-17 focus mainly on the present, while verses 19-30 focus mainly on the future. Verse 18 acts as a transition between these. The outermost parts of the chapter (verses 1-11 and 31-39) explain that there is ‘no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus’ (verse 1, see also verse 34).

Here is Romans 8:28:

“[28] And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”

The people whom Paul is talking about are ‘those who love God’. He is talking about Christians. This fits with what Paul has been saying throughout chapter 8. The chapter begins with ‘there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. The chapter also ends with another use of the term ‘in Christ Jesus’ (8:39).

Just before verses 28-30, Paul refers to ‘us’ and ‘we’ (verse 26), who are ‘the saints’ (verse 27) – i.e. Christians. Just after verses 28-30, Paul again refers to ‘us’ and ‘we’ (verses 31 and 32). Verse 33 then states ‘who shall bring any charge against God’s elect?’ The elect are the same people Paul has been speaking about, i.e. Christians. We have seen from chapter 11 that God’s elect are all who are currently trusting in Christ. The “elect” does not include those who will trust in Christ in the future but are not yet doing so. When an individual person puts their faith in Christ and becomes a Christian, they become ‘in Christ’, they become a ‘saint’, and they become ‘elect’ (as they have joined the elect (chosen) people of God, sharing in the chosenness of God’s Son). Before they trusted Christ, they were not ‘in Christ’, they were not a ‘saint’, and they were not ‘elect’. (If your understanding of the term “elect” is different from this, please see the important discussion from chapter 11 linked earlier in this paragraph.)

Christians are also ‘called according to [God’s] purpose’ (verse 28). “Called” in this verse is probably to be understood as “appointed”, i.e. Christians are “appointed according to God’s purpose”. This phrase does not give us any information about how God decides whom he will appoint.

Having established whom Paul is talking about, we can see that in verse 28, Paul is giving assurance to his Christian audience (those who love God) that things will work out for good for them. This would have provided great comfort to his original audience. The context is that his Christian audience can expect to go through suffering (verses 17 and 18). All things will work together for their good as they will ultimately share in Christ’s glory (verse 17).

The next verse (29) starts with the word ‘for’. It is beginning an explanation of why Paul’s audience can have assurance that all things will work out for good for those who love God. How can his audience be confident that suffering will result in glory for those who love God? What evidence does Paul have of this? The evidence Paul refers to is the past generations of those who have loved God, who have completed their life-journeys through suffering:

“[29] For those whom he knew before he also destined before to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.”

Verse 29 is looking back at God’s dealings with faithful believers in the past. The context is those who love God (verse 28), so those whom God ‘knew before’ are those who loved God in the past (see translation discussion below). These verses therefore provide assurance that what Paul said in verse 28 is true. Paul’s audience can be confident that all things will work out for good for those who love God, because that is what has already happened to those who loved God in the past.

Regarding the faithful believers of the past, God destined for them before that something would happen to them: that they would be ‘conformed to the image of his Son’. The reason for this was to get a family of brothers and sisters ready in advance for Jesus, so that Jesus would (in the future from their perspective – hence the future orientation) be ‘the firstborn among many brothers and sisters’. I take this as referring to Jesus being the first to be born into resurrection life. After his resurrection, Jesus is referred to as being the ‘firstborn from among the dead’ (Col 1:18) and the ‘firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep’ (1 Cor 15:20). At the time of Jesus’ resurrection, although he was the first to be “born”, he already had many brothers and sisters because there already were many faithful believers already “asleep” (i.e. who had already died before the time of Jesus’ resurrection). This is why Jesus was ‘the firstborn among many brothers and sisters’. The number of faithful believers who are “asleep” is increasing as more Christians reach the end of their lives. When Jesus returns, all of these people together – Jesus’ brothers and sisters – will be “born” into resurrection life.

“[30] And those whom he destined before he also named, and those whom he named he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.”

Verse 30 continues to speak of the faithful believers who died in the past, to show that all things worked out for good for them: they were named (see translation discussion below), justified and glorified. Jesus said: ‘Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?’ (Luke 24:26). The pattern is suffering in life and then glory through death. This pattern is repeated by present believers, as Paul states in Romans 8:17: ‘provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him’. Present believers can look back to believers from the past who have already completed their time of suffering and have reached glory with Christ (having held firm in their faith until death), while those present believers are still undergoing present sufferings and are still looking forward to their future glory. Paul uses the past tense ‘glorified’ in verse 30 because he is looking back to past generations who have already reached glory. Glory is a future reality for those currently still alive (8:17).

Hebrews 2:9-10 also speaks of suffering and glory:

“But we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honour because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered.”

Translation decisions

I will now explain some of the translation decisions involved in the translation used above.

“Knew before” / “foreknew”

The phrase “knew before” is often translated as “foreknew” in modern translations of this verse (following the KJV). The same Greek word is used in Romans 11:2, and the translation of this word has been discussed in detail previously (see the discussion of verse 2 and under the heading “Other interpretation”). As with Romans 11:2, William Tyndale’s Bible translation (which pre-dates the KJV) translates this word as “knew before” in Romans 8:29. John Wycliffe’s pre-KJV translation is the same. This translation fits with the change from the present tense in verse 28 to the past tense in verses 29-30. Verse 28 is about present believers, and verses 29-30 are about past believers.

“Destined before” / “predestined”

The Greek word translated as “destined before” has a similar form to the word translated as “knew before”. Tyndale translated it as “ordained before” and Wycliffe has “before-ordained”. The word does not give any detail as to exactly when the destining/ordaining took place, other than that it was in the past. The comments made above regarding “knew before” also apply here.


The Greek word I have translated as “named” in verse 30 is often translated as “called” (the word translated as “called” in verse 28 is a different Greek word). As with the Greek word in verse 30, the English word “called” has two possible meanings. One meaning is “invited”, e.g. “call Kingswood to come over here”. A second meaning is “named”, e.g. “call me Kingswood”. In translating the word as “named”, I have made the decision that it is this meaning of the two that Paul intended in Romans 8:30. While sometimes the English word “called” leaves both interpretations as possible (depending on the context of the surrounding words), in this context the English word “called” would be likely to be understood by an English reader to mean “invited”. The use of the English word “called” in this context therefore obscures the “named” interpretation (which is possible in the Greek), so it is necessary for the English translator to make a decision one way or the other.

The same Greek word is used a few times in Romans 9. In some of these instances, the meaning of “named” (rather than “invited”) for the word “called” is universally acknowledged (e.g. Romans 9:25). In some instances there are major English translations that use the word “named” instead of “called” (e.g. Romans 9:7 in the ESV and NASB). I have argued in the previous post on Romans 9:24-29 that the “named” meaning fits best in all instances of this Greek word in Romans 9. I also explain more about this translation decision in that post. The use of the word “named” in my translation of Romans 8:30 is therefore entirely consistent with the meaning of this word throughout Romans 9.

Alternative interpretations

The “corporate” interpretation

I will now explain the “corporate” interpretation of these verses. This interpretation does not use the same translation decisions as the above interpretation. Although I prefer the interpretation above, I consider the corporate interpretation also to be reasonable.

In Romans 8:28-30 (and throughout the chapter), Paul is speaking of those who are currently trusting in Christ. Of those people who are not currently trusting in Christ, some of them will come to trust in Christ later and some of them will not, but Paul is not speaking of those people. This will help us in understanding Romans 8:28-30.

Looking at verse 28 in more detail, it says ‘and we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose’. As we have seen, in these verses Paul is speaking of ‘those who love God’ – those who are currently Christians. He states that these people are ‘called according to his purpose’, and his purpose is a good purpose. God’s purpose for them is described in verse 29:

“For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.”

The purpose God has for Christians is that they will be ‘brothers and sisters’ of Jesus. Jesus is the ‘firstborn’ because he has already risen from the dead.

Verse 29 begins with ‘those whom he foreknew’. In this interpretation, these are the same people as those being spoken of in verse 28 – people who are Christians. Verse 29 tells us that Christians have been foreknown by God. No details of this foreknowledge are given here. Paul does not say on what basis Christians have been foreknown by God, or whether this foreknowledge has anything to do with the process of a person becoming a Christian.

This verse does not conflict with the understanding that God ‘foreknew the church primarily as a corporate group, with the focus of these verses being on the blessings that apply to the church. The individuals in the church (who correspond to ‘those’) get these blessings as a result of their membership of the church. Whether an individual person is a member of the church depends on whether or not he/she trusts in Christ. However, the status and future of the church as a corporate entity is fixed and is independent of the actions of individuals within it. The church was “foreknown” by God, and when a person becomes a Christian, he/she becomes a member of the group of those “foreknown” by God. This corresponds to the “corporate election” view, which I have discussed in more detail with respect to Romans 11:7-10. (Another possibility not ruled out by this verse is that Christians are “foreknown” by God because God looked into the future and foresaw that they will trust in Christ.)

These verses do not give enough information to determine which of these understandings of God’s foreknowledge is correct (or if another view is correct instead). The main point is that these verses do not rule out such understandings, and therefore cannot be used to disprove these views.

Verse 29 goes on to state that Christians, who have been foreknown by God, have been ‘predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son’. The predestination refers to a “what” rather than a “who”. The “who” has been set out already, and is “Christians”. The “what” that has been predestined is that they will be conformed to the image of Jesus. The “why” is to give brothers and sisters for Jesus. This verse therefore does not say that God has predestined who will become a Christian; it only says that those who are Christians have been predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.

Verse 30 continues with ‘and those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. The beginning of the verse refers to ‘those whom he predestined’. We know from the discussion above that this is referring to Christians. So verse 30 sets out a list of blessings that apply to Christians. Christians have been predestined, called, justified and glorified. In this interpretation, I have used the translation “called”, rather than “named” as used above. “Called” can be understood in the sense of “appointed”.

Although the word ‘glorified’ is in the past tense, it is commonly considered to be a reference to the future glory to be received by Christians in the resurrection. The argument is that Paul can speak of it in the past tense because he is so certain that it will happen. Another possibility is that it refers to the glory that Christians have received already (hence the past tense) due to the fact that Christ has already been glorified, and Christians are “in Christ” and therefore share in his blessings. (I prefer the second of these two options for this interpretation.)

The links between the items in verse 30 show that all Christians get to enjoy the whole package of blessings. There are no Christians for whom God withholds certain items from the list. This gives great assurance to those who are trusting in Christ that God ‘will freely give us [i.e. Christians] all things’ (verse 32).

Combinations of the views put forward above are also possible, e.g. the “corporate” view combined with the “named” translation (instead of “called”).

I hope you have seen that these verses from Romans 8 do not conflict with the interpretation of the sections of Romans that we have considered already. All of the interpretations discussed so far are consistent with the previous posts in the series.

Another common understanding

There are some who believe that, before God created the world, he determined the future such that there would be some specific individuals in the future whom he would cause to trust in him and be saved, while there would be other specific individuals whom he would not cause to trust in him and who would therefore not be saved. The individuals determined in advance by God to trust in him and be saved are considered to have been specially loved in advance by God from before God made the world – they are considered to have been “foreloved”, i.e. “foreknown”. All individuals who eventually are caused to trust in God are considered to have always been “foreknown” by God, while the individuals who are not caused to do this are not considered to be “foreknown” by God (God knew that they would exist, but his special “foreknowing” love was not intended for them).

In this understanding, Romans 8:28-30 is considered to be describing the people God chose to save from before he made the world. The list in verse 30 is considered to relate to all believers as individuals throughout past, present and future. Although all of the items in the list of verse 30 are in the past tense, the verse has to be interpreted in a more complex way to fit this understanding. The past tense of “glorified” is considered to reflect the certainty that it will take place in the future (as suggested for one of the interpretations above). However, this conflicts with Romans 8:17, in which the future tense is used with respect to being “glorified”, and the same people are considered to be in view on both occasions in this understanding. In contrast, the preferred interpretation put forward above has different people in view in these two instances of the word “glorified”. The future tense is used with respect to believers who are still alive, while the past tense is used for believers who have died. That is a much simpler explanation.

Another problem with this view is that, while the people God “foreknew” in Romans 8:29 are considered to be all true believers throughout time (who receive God’s special love and are justified etc.), in Romans 11:2 Paul states that God “foreknew” the ethnic Israelites (not all of whom were true believers, therefore not all of whom were justified). The definition of “foreknew” does not fit comfortably with both verses. In contrast, the “knew before” interpretation put forward above does not have this problem – there is no inconsistency with God “knowing before” both ethnic Israelites and past believers.

A further problem with this interpretation is that, while individual believers of the past can be said to have been “called” and “justified”, this is not true for people who have not yet started to trust in Christ but who will do so in the future. Adherents of this view would acknowledge that a person is not “justified” until they put their trust in Christ. However, such persons must be included in the past tense wording of having been “called” and “justified” because the verse is considered to be referring to believers throughout all time.

None of these problems exists for the preferred interpretation that was discussed first in this post.


I have shown that there are a number of different possible interpretations of Romans 8:28-30. It would therefore be unwise for someone to use their preferred interpretation of Romans 8:28-30 to dictate how Romans 9 should be understood. We should instead initially focus our interpretation of Romans 9 on how it fits with the rest of its section (Romans 9-11) and how it fits with its parallel section (Romans 1:16 to 4:25). After doing this, we can consider how Romans 9 fits with Romans 8:28-30.

Of all the interpretations put forward above, only the last one does not fit with our analysis of Romans 9-11 from the previous posts in the series. This interpretation also has more problems than the others, as explained above. It is therefore reasonable to dismiss the last interpretation of these verses, leaving the remaining interpretations as plausible options.

It would not be reasonable to take the position that the last interpretation is correct and then to use this to force a corresponding understanding of Romans 9-11. An important reason for this is that Romans 8 does not address questions such as “how does God decide whom to save?”, “how does someone become a Christian?”, and “why are some saved and not others?”. It would therefore be unwise to use three verses from a passage that is not about these questions as a key to understanding chapters 9-11, which directly address these questions in detail. It makes more sense to let the chapters that address these questions be our primary source for answering them. That is why Romans 9-11 was considered before Romans 8 in this series.

This was first published at the Predestination Station, where comments can be made.


Romans 9:24-29 – Whom has God “called”? What does “called” mean?

This is part of a series of posts on Romans. Click here for the contents page.

In the previous post we looked at Romans 9:22-23. Continuing from the end of verse 23:

“…vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— [24] even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles? [25] As indeed he says in Hosea, “Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’ and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved.’” [26] “And in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ there they will be called ‘sons of the living God.’””

The words in verse 24 show that, while Paul was previously speaking specifically about ethnic Israelites (e.g. as the lump of clay in verse 21), he has now broadened the scope of his discussion to include Gentiles as well. If he had been talking about both ethnic Israelites and Gentiles before this, there would have been no need for him to specify ‘also from the Gentiles’ at this point.

The statement not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles’ is another key “not… but…” statement by Paul in Romans 9. We have seen three of these already. First, there was not the children of the flesh… but the children of the promise’ from Romans 9:8. Second, there was not because of works but because of him who calls’ from Romans 9:11. Third, there was ‘it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God’ from Romans 9:16.

Paul is speaking of the inclusion of Gentiles into the church. Some of those who were not God’s people have become part of God’s people (verse 25, quoting from Hosea 2:23). Some who were once vessels of wrath have become vessels of mercy (as explained in the previous post). Note that these Gentiles were not always God’s people – they only became God’s people when they put their trust in Christ (see Romans 9:30 and Romans 11:20). Verse 26 (quoting from Hosea 1:10) similarly speaks of people transitioning from being “not God’s people” to being ‘sons of the living God’.

There is a strong emphasis here on God’s ‘call’. Verses 24 to 26 match in the structure with verses 10 to 13, which also refer to God’s call (end of verse 11). Paul is emphasising that those in the church have been called by God. They are not in the church due to their own works or their own ethnicity.

As discussed in the post regarding verses 10 to 13, the Greek word translated “calls” or “called” can have the meaning “invites” (e.g. “call Kingswood to come over here”) or “names” e.g. (“call me Kingswood”). It could therefore refer to God’s invitation of the gospel, or to God’s naming of people as his own. This “naming” sense is undoubtedly used in verses 25 (‘those who were not my people I will call “my people”, and her who was not beloved I will call “beloved”’) and 26 (‘there they will be called “sons of the living God”’).

The same Greek word is also used in verse 24 (‘even us whom he has called). Either sense (invited/named) could apply in this verse, but it seems the “naming” sense should be preferred given its use in this way in verses 25 and 26. (Some English translations make some of these decisions for us by using different English words to translate this Greek word, e.g. the NASB uses ‘named’ in verse 7.)

Using the “named” understanding, verse 24 is using this word to identify those people God has named as his own people. This fits with the next verses, which describe God doing exactly that. The beginning of verse 25 (‘as indeed he says in Hosea’) links this verse with the previous verse, so we should expect the “call” to be the same in both verses. It is not stated here how God decides who to name as his own people, but we have seen before that God has chosen to do this to everyone who trusts in Christ.

If, for the sake of argument, the “invited” understanding were used in verse 24, the following situation would apply. Although Paul refers to those in the church as being ‘called’ (i.e. “invited” in this understanding), he does not say that those not in the church are not “invited”. We can be confident that he would not have considered those outside the church as not being “invited”, as such a view would be in conflict with other scriptures, such as the parable of the wedding feast in Matthew 22:1-14. Jesus uses this parable to explain the situation that many ethnic Israelites had not entered God’s kingdom. The king in the parable corresponds to God, and he ‘sent his servants to call those who were invited to the wedding feast, but they would not come (Matthew 22:3). (The word ‘call’ clearly has the “invited” meaning in this verse, given the context of the invitation to the wedding feast.) These invited people correspond to the ethnic Israelites, and they refuse to come to the feast despite being called to come. Then the king invites all others to come (corresponding to the Gentiles) and the wedding hall is filled with guests. In the parable, everyone gets invited. Only those who accept the call and put on a wedding garment will get to enjoy the feast. Putting on a wedding garment presumably corresponds to relying on Christ to cover one’s sins (see Genesis 3:7 and 3:21 – this is what clothes are for), unlike the man in the parable who did not put on the covering of a wedding garment (Matthew 22:11-13). Jesus concludes the parable by saying that ‘many are called, but few are chosen’ (Matthew 22:14). The call (i.e. invitation) goes out to everyone, but God has chosen to name as his own people only those who accept the call and trust in Christ for the covering of their sins. It is clear from the parable that the king provided the same invitation to all the people; they were all called in the same way. What was different was how they responded, not how they were called.

The fact that all people are “invited” by God but only those who trust in him are “named” as one of his own people would further suggest that Paul’s use of the word ‘called’ to refer to believers in verse 24 is in the “named” sense, as only this sense properly distinguishes believers from non-believers.

Returning to Romans 9:

“[27] And Isaiah cries out concerning Israel: “Though the number of the sons of Israel be as the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will be saved, [28] for the Lord will carry out his sentence upon the earth fully and without delay.” [29] And as Isaiah predicted, “If the Lord of hosts had not left us offspring, we would have been like Sodom and become like Gomorrah.””

Paul turns from the Gentiles to the ethnic Israelites. Verse 27 is quoting from Isaiah 10:22-23, and verse 28 is quoting from Isaiah 1:9. The references to the ‘sons of Israel’ and ‘offspring’ (i.e. ‘seed’) match with similar references in the corresponding part of the structure, Romans 9:6-9. The main point being made is the same too – not all ethnic Israelites will be saved; only some of them will be saved. Those ethnic Israelites who will be saved are those who have faith in Jesus (see Romans 9:32, Romans 11:7 and Romans 11:23).

The ‘remnant’ is also referred to in the corresponding part of the structure of Romans 9-11, in Romans 11:5.

The quote in verse 29 shows that no one in ethnic Israel deserves to be saved. It is only through God’s mercy that anyone is saved, as all have sinned (Romans 3:23) and are deserving of God’s punishment. As Paul concludes in Romans 11:32, ‘God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all’.

For those who have followed these posts in order, that’s the end of our review of Romans 9-11! I’ve done this section of Romans 9 last as it can be the most difficult section to understand, and doing the rest first helps to make sure this bit is interpreted in a way that is consistent with the rest of chapters 9-11. In particular, chapter 11 answers some questions that are not addressed by Paul in chapter 9. Knowing where Paul is going helps us to understand the points he begins to make in chapter 9.

For those who haven’t followed the posts in order, you can carry on from Romans 9:30 here.

In the next post, we will consider Romans 8:28-30. A particular interpretation of these verses is used by some people as a key to interpret Romans 9. We will consider different interpretations of these verses and whether the verses should be used in this way to determine our understanding of Romans 9.

This was first published at the Predestination Station, where comments can be made.

Romans 9:22-23 – Why does God put up with unbelieving ethnic Israelites? Can ‘vessels of wrath’ become ‘vessels of mercy’?

This is part of a series of posts on Romans. Click here for the contents page.

Having considered Romans 9:20-21 (about the potter and the clay), in this post we will continue with verses 22-23:

“[22] What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, [23] in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory”

In the structure of Romans 9:6-29 (which is one of the sections of Romans 9-11), verse 22 matches with verse 17: ‘For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth”’. Both verses refer to God showing/making known his power for the purpose of the proclamation of the good news about God. As we saw when considering verse 17, God was explaining to Pharaoh why he had not yet issued full and complete judgement against him by killing him, which was what Pharaoh deserved following his rejection of God. God explained that he had instead kept Pharaoh in his position of power and had hardened him because doing this caused a greater spread of the good news about God, which was achieved through the great miracles/plagues and final triumphant exodus of God’s people. This had a much greater impact than if God had simply killed Pharaoh immediately and then quietly led his people out of Egypt.

For a similar reason, God did not immediately kill the unbelieving ethnic Israelites upon their rejection of Christ, even though this was their deserved full judgement. Instead, God kept them in place and hardened them (also an act of judgement). The result of this was that Gentiles were coming to trust in Christ following the spread of the gospel to the nations. If God had immediately killed all the ethnic Israelites who rejected Christ, the gospel would not have spread as quickly, as more believers would have stayed in Jerusalem rather than leaving to flee persecution. Furthermore, this would have removed the opportunity for any of these ethnic Israelites to repent at a later time and come to trust in Christ. One such person who did this was Paul himself! Others would also do this, as Paul explains in Romans 11 (see below).

Verses 22 and 23 of Romans 9 therefore explain that God fulfils his desire to show his wrath and make known his power by keeping in place people who deserve ultimate destruction so that he can show his wrath and make known his power through the situation in which he keeps them. His desire to show his wrath and make known his power is a gospel desire to make the riches of his glory known, just as his desire in the situation with Pharaoh was a gospel desire to have his name proclaimed in all the earth. He fulfilled that desire by keeping Pharaoh in place so that he could show his power and wrath through the miracles/plagues and the exodus.

(Some English translations of verse 22 are differently worded to state, e.g. ‘What if God, although desiring…, has endured…’, i.e. asserting that God is choosing not to show his wrath (etc.) yet but is doing something else instead. This understanding would have God’s wrath in final judgement in view. However, God doesn’t only show his wrath at the final judgement but also does so before that (see Romans 1:18, for example). The parallel with Pharaoh makes the translation I have used above preferable over this one.)

Verses 22 and 23 speak again of two categories of people: ‘vessels of wrath’ and ‘vessels of mercy’. Regarding the ‘vessels of wrath prepared for destruction’. God has ‘endured’ them ‘with much patience’ as they are deserving of full judgement now and their continued existence requires patience on God’s part in allowing them to continue sinning. The reason God does this is because he wants to ‘make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory’. God has a gospel motivation in withholding full and final judgement from those who deserve it due to their rejection of Christ.

Paul talks more about this process in Romans 11, explaining that Gentiles have come to faith as a result of the rejection of Christ by unbelieving ethnic Israelites. In Romans 11:11, Paul states that ‘by their [i.e. unbelieving ethnic Israelites] transgression salvation has come to the Gentiles’. Also, in Romans 11:30, Paul states that Gentiles ‘have been shown mercy because of their [i.e. unbelieving ethnic Israelites] disobedience’. God has therefore endured with much patience the disobedience of the unbelieving ethnic Israelites, and this has resulted in Gentiles coming to know the riches of God’s glory.

A question Paul does not address at this point in Romans 9 is whether the ‘vessels of wrath prepared for destruction’ have any hope of salvation. Are they all destined to die without repenting and trusting in Christ, or is it still a possibility for them to do this? We do not need to speculate on the answer of this question, as Paul goes on to answer it himself in Romans 11. At the end of Romans 9:23, Paul breaks off his train of thought and doesn’t answer this question. He does this because he is going to continue on this topic in Romans 11:1-32, which is the parallel section to Romans 9:6-29 (similar to how Romans 9 itself is picking up where Paul left off in the parallel section of Romans 3).

So far in Romans 9, Paul has only started to consider the first two links of a three-link chain:

  1. Rejection of Christ by unbelieving ethnic Israelites, resulting in
  2. Acceptance of Christ by Gentiles

There is a third link in the chain explained in Romans 11:

  1. Unbelieving ethnic Israelites coming to trust in Christ due to their jealousy of the Gentiles who have accepted Christ

Reading on in the quote from Romans 11:11 we saw above, Paul states that ‘by their [i.e. unbelieving ethnic Israelites] transgression salvation has come to the Gentiles, to make them [i.e. unbelieving ethnic Israelites] jealous. Paul goes on to state that ‘inasmuch then as I am an apostle of Gentiles, I magnify my ministry, if somehow I might move to jealousy my fellow countrymen and save some of them’ (Romans 11:13-14). Similarly, Paul goes on in Romans 11:30-31 to state ‘for just as you [i.e. believing Gentiles] once were disobedient to God, but now have been shown mercy because of their [i.e. unbelieving ethnic Israelites] disobedience, so these also now have been disobedient, that because of the mercy shown to you they also may now be shown mercy’.

Paul is clear that the unbelieving ethnic Israelites (who are currently ‘vessels of wrath prepared for destruction’) can still be saved.

The ‘vessels of wrath’ and ‘vessels of mercy’ are referring to two categories of people, but we have seen from Romans 11 that it is possible for an individual person to change from being a ‘vessel of wrath’ to become a ‘vessel of mercy’. This is significant, as there are some people who consider that each individual person was selected by God in eternity past to be of either one category or the other, and that it is impossible for any person of either category to change to the other category at any time. We will now see that, as well as the passages discussed above and in the previous post regarding verse 21, there is additional biblical context that also shows that this view is wrong.

First, in Romans 10:1, Paul speaks of the ethnic Israelites who have rejected Christ and states that ‘my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved’. In the view I have presented above, these unbelieving ethnic Israelites are all ‘vessels of wrath’ but can individually change categories to become ‘vessels of mercy’ and be saved if they repent and trust in Christ. It therefore makes sense that Paul would pray for their salvation collectively, as any of them could still be saved. On the other hand, those who are of the opinion that people cannot change categories would understand that the unbelieving ethnic Israelites Paul is praying for include some people who are ‘vessels of mercy’ (those that will come to believe at some point in the future) and some people who are ‘vessels of wrath’ (those who will continue rejecting Christ until they die). It would be very strange for Paul to believe that some of these people are unchangeably fixed as ‘vessels of wrath’ and then to pray collectively for the salvation of all of them. Instead, it is clear that Paul thinks that these people can be saved!

Romans 11:23-24 also speaks of unbelieving ethnic Israelites returning as members of the church if they do not continue in their unbelief, which is further evidence that Paul thinks it is possible for any unbelieving ethnic Israelite to do this.

Furthermore, in Ephesians 2:1-5, Paul, speaking to Christians, says this:

“[1] And you were dead in the trespasses and sins [2] in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—[3] among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. [4] But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, [5] even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved”.

Paul says that all Christians can look back to a time when they were ‘children of wrath’. This shows that people are not permanently fixed in one category or the other, because all Christians, who are now ‘vessels of mercy’, were once ‘children of wrath’. They were deserving of God’s wrath like the rest of mankind (Ephesians 5:3), but they accepted the gift from God of salvation by faith (Ephesians 2:8) and therefore their status before God was changed.

Romans 2:1-5 is also of relevance:

“[1] Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgement on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things. [2] We know that the judgement of God rightly falls on those who practice such things. [3] Do you suppose, O man—you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself—that you will escape the judgement of God? [4] Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? [5] But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgement will be revealed.”

God is being patient with these ethnic Israelites in not giving them full judgement immediately, but instead giving them an opportunity to repent. They are currently ‘storing up wrath’ for themselves as ‘vessels of wrath prepared for destruction’, but God is giving them an opportunity to escape the punishment that they deserve. They can escape this punishment through repentance, which is what God’s kindness and patience in delaying their deserved judgement is intended to enable.

In 1 Timothy 1:15-16, Paul speaks of how God’s patience applied to him in his own life:

“[15] Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst. [16] But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life.”

This understanding of God’s patience also fits with 2 Peter 3:9, which states that ‘the Lord is not slow to fulfil his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. This would not make sense if God had chosen some people to permanently and unchangeably remain as ‘vessels of wrath’. The context of this verse is God’s judgement (2 Peter 3:10). God patiently delays the full judgement that people deserve in the hope that they will repent before it is finally too late. Praise God for his patience and mercy! Peter goes on to encourage his readers to ‘count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters’ (2 Peter 3:15-16). Peter’s teaching on God’s patience is the same as Paul’s.

From this analysis, we can therefore conclude that it is possible for people to change from being a ‘vessel of wrath’ to being a ‘vessel of mercy’, so people have not been permanently fixed in one category or the other from eternity past. We can therefore define the two categories as follows:

The ‘vessels of wrath’ are those who have rejected Christ and are therefore heading towards final judgement and hell, which is the place prepared for such people. While God patiently delays the final judgement they deserve, they have the opportunity to repent and thereby change categories before it is too late.

The ‘vessels of mercy’ are those who are currently trusting in Christ. They therefore correspond to the ‘elect’, as defined by Paul in Romans 11:7. The ethnic Israelites referred to as vessels for honourable/dishonourable use from Romans 9:21 are therefore vessels of mercy/wrath, respectively.

Paul does not speak in these verses about how God decided who would become a vessel of mercy (e.g. arbitrarily, dependent on faith, etc.) – he only states that the vessels of mercy were ‘prepared beforehand for glory’. It is not explained whether they were prepared beforehand individually or corporately. As we have seen that individuals who are ‘vessels of mercy’ have not always been that kind of vessel, it makes sense for the preparation beforehand for glory of the ‘vessels of mercy’ to have been done corporately, rather than individually. God was preparing what would happen to the ‘vessels of mercy’ collectively, rather than individually selecting who would be a ‘vessel of mercy’.

The ‘vessels of wrath’ are also in a corporate situation. They are ‘prepared for destruction’ – the final destination of the ‘vessels of wrath’ has been fixed, but God gives individual ‘vessels of wrath’ an opportunity to repent and change categories.

This corporate understanding fits with the context of the verses, which have been distinguishing between two categories of people: vessels of wrath/mercy and vessels for honourable/dishonourable use.

Even if an individualistic interpretation of the vessels were to be taken, this would not rule out the possibility of an individual vessel of wrath being able to change to become a vessel of mercy. Before an individual becomes a Christian, they are ‘prepared for destruction’, i.e. that is the destination in which they are heading. Even if God is taken as the agent doing the preparing, God has prepared them for destruction but could still relent from this. After an individual becomes a Christian, they become ‘prepared beforehand for glory’, i.e. they are prepared for glory before they reach glory. Paul does not specify how far ‘beforehand’ each individual is prepared for glory, but since each individual was once a ‘vessel of wrath’ before they became a ‘vessel of mercy’, God’s preparation of them for glory would not seem to have taken place before they became a ‘vessel of mercy’. There is no suggestion in the text that the preparation for glory took place in eternity past.

Although Paul starts verse 22 by saying ‘what if…’, it seems that Paul does believe that what follows is what God is actually doing (so Paul is not merely speculating). As mentioned above, he doesn’t finish the sentence, which breaks off at the end of verse 23. In the context of the previous verses (20-21), the point Paul seems to be making could be paraphrased as “what if God wanted to do X, [who would have the right to question that]?” – with the implied answer: no one. Paul is again pushing back against the ethnic Israelite objector who does not like what God is doing, as explained for verses 20-21.

In the next post, we will finish this section of Romans 9 with verses 24-29.

This was first published at the Predestination Station, where comments can be made.

Romans 9:20-21 – Do unbelieving ethnic Israelites have a right to criticise God’s judgement? – The potter and the clay

This is part of a series of posts on Romans. Click here for the contents page.

Having reached the centre of the structure of Romans 9:6-29, we are now ready to begin the return journey in this post. Following from verse 20a (‘But who are you, O man, to answer back to God?’), Paul continues with:

“[20b] Will what is moulded say to its moulder, “Why have you made me like this?””

The sense of the question ‘why have you made me like this?’ is an objection that is answering back to God (see verse 20a) – i.e. the ethnic Israelite objector can be paraphrased as saying “you should not have made me like this”. This objection, which is expressed in the form of a question, matches in the structure with the objection from verse 19 of ‘why does he still find fault?’, which can be paraphrased as meaning “you should not be finding fault in me”.

Being made ‘like this’ (verse 20b) corresponds to the situation of the unbelieving ethnic Israelites of being outside of God’s blessing and instead experiencing God’s judgement due to their rejection of Christ (with this judgement involving being hardened).

Paul is likening the objection of “you should not be finding fault in me” (from verse 19) to the situation of a moulded vessel (e.g. a pot) saying to the person who moulded it, “you should not have made me into one of these” – clearly a ridiculous situation. Verse 20b is a rhetorical question from Paul. Paul’s point is that, as the moulder has the right to make whatever he wants out of the material he has, so God has the right to make whatever he wants out of what he has. Therefore, God has the right to judge those whom he considers it appropriate to judge. No one being judged has the right to tell God that he should not be judging them.

As we have seen from similar statements before, the statement that God has the right to judge whom he wants and to judge them in the way he wants doesn’t say anything about how God has decided to do this. Paul is responding to an anticipated objection from people who will not like his explanation of whom God has decided to judge. He is explaining to them that they do not have a right to complain about this. We know already that Paul’s explanation of whom God has decided to judge is that God has decided to judge those who reject Christ and refuse to repent (Romans 2:1-5). An aspect of this judgement is to harden them in response to their rejection of Christ, but this does not dictate that they will always be in this state of judgement.

“[21] Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honourable use and another for dishonourable use?”

This is another rhetorical question, making the point that a potter has the right to make two types of vessel from the same lump of clay. In this illustration, the potter is God, and the clay is the ethnic Israelites (see below). The ‘vessel for honourable use’ is those ethnic Israelites who are receiving God’s blessing (i.e. those who are trusting in Christ). The ‘vessel for dishonourable use’ is the remaining ethnic Israelites who are outside of God’s blessing (i.e. those who have rejected Christ). Paul is making the point that God has the right to include some ethnic Israelites in God’s blessing, and to exclude others. Again, the statement that God has the right to do this does not say anything about how God has decided which ethnic Israelites will be included in God’s blessing, or whether individual ethnic Israelites currently not included in God’s blessing can switch sides and receive God’s blessing.

Verse 21 matches in the structure with verse 18: ‘so then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills’. This is another verse that states God’s right to do as he pleases in having two categories of people, without explaining how God has decided which people will be in each category, and without addressing the question of whether or not someone who has been hardened can become someone on whom God has mercy.

The potter and clay analogy used by Paul appears in the Old Testament. It appears briefly in Isaiah 29:16 and 45:9, which Paul alludes to in verse 20b. Its most extensive appearance is in Jeremiah 18. We will see that its use there fits with the context we have seen from Romans. Here is Jeremiah 18:1-11:

“[1] The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: [2] “Arise, and go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” [3] So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. [4] And the vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as it seemed good to the potter to do. [5] Then the word of the LORD came to me: [6] “O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter has done? declares the LORD. Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. [7] If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, [8] and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it. [9] And if at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, [10] and if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will relent of the good that I had intended to do to it. [11] Now, therefore, say to the men of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: ‘Thus says the LORD, Behold, I am shaping disaster against you and devising a plan against you. Return, every one from his evil way, and amend your ways and your deeds.’”

The potter was making a vessel, but the vessel ‘was spoiled in the potter’s hand’ (verse 4). The potter did not spoil it himself, but rather this was an action of the vessel. In response to this, the potter reworked it into another vessel.

Verse 6 shows us that the clay corresponds to the ethnic Israelites. Verses 7 to 10 speak of God announcing something, but giving people an opportunity to respond before what God announced takes place. If God announces punishment, and the nation then turns from its evil, then God will react to this and not give the people the punishment that he had announced (verses 7 to 8). The reverse is also true (verses 9 to 10). So the reason some are punished by God is that they do not heed the warning given to them and therefore do not turn from their evil ways, and the reason others are blessed by God is that they trust God and do heed the warning given to them, turning from their evil ways. God decides how to treat people based on their response to his graciously offered warning. All of them were warned and all therefore had an opportunity to repent.

The story of the potter and the clay has a strong correspondence with the situation of the ethnic Israelites of Paul’s day. The ethnic Israelites were supposed to be a ‘kingdom of priests’ (Exodus 19:5-6) through whom God would make himself known to the whole world (1 Kings 8:41-43, 59-60). However, many of Paul’s fellow ethnic Israelites had ‘rejected the purpose of God for themselves’ (Luke 7:30). Just as the potter in the story decides to do something else with the clay in response to it being spoiled in his hand, so God responds to the rejection of him by most of the ethnic Israelites by doing something else with them. God is determined to make himself known to the world, and the intention was for the ethnic Israelites to be the people that would show the world who God is. With the rejection by most of the ethnic Israelites of God’s purpose for them, God decides to use the unbelieving ethnic Israelites in a different way in order to achieve his goal of making himself known. The different way God chooses is to harden the unbelieving ethnic Israelites, which itself results in the world coming to hear about God. Paul talks about this further in Romans 11, as we have seen with respect to Romans 11:11.

Linking this back to Romans 9:21, Paul refers to making, out of the same lump of clay (i.e. the ethnic Israelites), a ‘vessel for honourable use’ and a ‘vessel for dishonourable use’. The ‘vessel for honourable use’ is those ethnic Israelites who are trusting in Christ, and the ‘vessel for dishonourable use’ is those ethnic Israelites who have rejected Christ. The ethnic Israelites who are trusting in Christ are being used by God for the ‘honourable use’ of making God known to the world. The ethnic Israelites who have rejected Christ are being used by God for the ‘dishonourable use’ of being hardened, which also indirectly results in God being made known to the world (as explained via the link above regarding Romans 11:11).

Verse 21 is therefore stating that God has the right to use some ethnic Israelites for ‘honourable use’ and some for ‘dishonourable use’. Verse 21 does not address the question of how God decides which ethnic Israelites will be included in each vessel, nor does it address the question of whether it is possible for an individual ethnic Israelite who is currently part of the ‘vessel for dishonourable use’ to change category to become part of the ‘vessel for honourable use’. Regarding the first question, we have seen above that God has decided for the criterion for determining which vessel each ethnic Israelite will be in to be the criterion of whether or not that ethnic Israelite is trusting in Christ (if yes: honourable use, if not: dishonourable use). Regarding the second question, we must look to other verses to consider whether it is possible for an individual ethnic Israelite to change category from being used for ‘dishonourable use’ to being used for ‘honourable use’.

The terminology of ‘vessels’ for ‘honourable use’ and ‘dishonourable use’ from Romans 9:21 is also used by Paul in his second letter to Timothy. This also helps us to understand its meaning. Here is 2 Timothy 2:20-22:

“[20] Now in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for honourable use, some for dishonourable. [21] Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonourable, he will be a vessel for honourable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work. [22] So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.”

Paul again refers to the two types of vessels. Note that Paul considers it possible for an individual who is a ‘vessel for dishonourable use’ to change their status to become a ‘vessel for honourable use’. The two types of vessels are two fixed categories, but a person who is a vessel for dishonourable use can change category to become a vessel for honourable use. This is what happens when someone becomes a Christian. Therefore individual people are not permanently and unchangeably fixed as one particular type of vessel, but their type of vessel can change, depending on how they respond to God’s gracious warning.

In the next post, we will continue with Romans 9:22-23.

This was first published at the Predestination Station, where comments can be made.

Structure of Romans 9:6-29

This is part of a series of posts on Romans. Click here for the contents page.

Having reached up to verse 20a of Romans 9, we will pause to consider the structure of Romans 9:6-29 (the C2-B1 section). This is a good time to do so because, as we will see, verse 20a is in fact the central point of this section. The structure will help us to ensure that we interpret the rest of the section correctly, as we can compare corresponding parts of the structure as we go through the second half of the section.

As can be seen below, each part has a corresponding matching part (e.g. the C2-B1-A1 part matches with the C2-B1-A2 part), with the C2-B1-G part standing alone in the centre. The text is arranged to have the corresponding sections vertically aligned. I have underlined the words or themes that appear in both matching parts (e.g. ‘mercy’ in C2-B1-C1 and C2-B1-C2).

Here is the structure:

Structure of Romans 9v6-29.png

We will consider the significance of this structure as we go through the rest of the section, starting in the next post with Romans 9:20b-21. For now, we can just marvel at the care and attention with which Paul wrote this wonderful letter.

This was first published at the Predestination Station, where comments can be made.

Romans 9:19-20 – Is it right for God to find fault with unbelieving ethnic Israelites?

This is part of a series of posts on Romans. Click here for the contents page.

To recap, Paul is addressing an anticipated objection from some hypothetical ethnic Israelites who will not like his teaching that God has decided to save all who have faith in Christ. This means that many of Paul’s fellow ethnic Israelites are not currently receiving God’s blessing, because they are not trusting in Christ. Paul’s objectors think that God ought to save ethnic Israelites due to their physical descent from Abraham and/or their works. Paul has responded by reiterating that God does not save based on ethnicity (verses 6-9) or works (verses 10-13), and by noting that God has the right to save whomever he wants to save (verses 14-18).

Paul now anticipates a further objection from these ethnic Israelites:

“[19] You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who has resisted his will?””

To understand this verse, we will consider the parallel passage in Romans 3. As we have seen, Romans 3 begins in a similar way to Romans 9. In Romans 3:1-2, Paul states that there are advantages in being an ethnic Israelite, and he gives an example of one such advantage. Correspondingly, in Romans 9:4-5, Paul continues his list of advantages of the ethnic Israelite. Back to Romans 3, in verses 5-8 Paul goes on to say:

“[5] But if our unrighteousness serves to show the righteousness of God, what shall we say? That God is unrighteous to inflict wrath on us? (I speak in a human way.) [6] By no means! For then how could God judge the world? [7] But if through my lie God’s truth abounds to his glory, why am I still being condemned as a sinner? [8] And why not do evil that good may come?—as some people slanderously charge us with saying. Their condemnation is just.”

This part of Romans 3 corresponds to Romans 9:19. Verse 7 of Romans 3 is the closest match with Romans 9:19. It asks a question, posed on behalf of an unbelieving ethnic Israelite, as to why this person is being condemned as a sinner, given that this person’s sinful actions have not prevented God from being glorified. God is able to use the ‘lie’ of this person to bring about a proclamation of his ‘truth’, so the person’s lie does not stop God from achieving his purposes and being glorified. The argument is that God is being glorified whether the person sins or not. So, the argument goes, why is God condemning the sinner when the sinner hasn’t prevented God from being glorified? We can see that Paul is very dismissive of such an argument by his statement at the end of Romans 3:8 – ‘their condemnation is just’.

A similar question is being asked in Romans 9:19 – ‘Why does he still find fault? For who has resisted his will?’ Why does God find fault with the unbelieving ethnic Israelites, as none of them are preventing God from being glorified? ‘Who has resisted his will?’ is a rhetorical question with the implied answer: no one has resisted his will. No one is stopping God from achieving what he wants to be achieved, so why find fault in anyone? The unbelief of these ethnic Israelites has actually led to the gospel being proclaimed to the Gentiles. God’s will to proclaim the good news to the whole world has not been resisted. If these ethnic Israelites had accepted Jesus, they would have taken the gospel message to the world themselves. On the other hand, with their rejection of Jesus, God still used this to achieve his will by using their rejection of Jesus as a means to promote the spread of the gospel (see Romans 11:11).

This argument is prompted by the reference to Pharaoh in verse 17, which the ethnic Israelite objectors would have understood as being an example which applied to their situation. Just as Pharaoh’s rejection of God was used by God (by hardening Pharaoh in response to this) to cause the good news that the Lord saves to spread throughout the world, so God has reacted to the rejection of Christ by these ethnic Israelites (by hardening them in response) to promote a spread of the gospel. As we have seen, hardening is an act of judgement against someone who has rejected God, but God’s motivation for doing this is to promote a spread of the gospel so that more people can be saved, even those who have been hardened themselves.

The objector is implying that God should not judge sin, because sin does not prevent God achieving his purposes – God is able to respond to sin in such a way that his purposes are not thwarted by it. Of course, for someone to tell God that he should not judge sin is outrageous. As well as dismissing this line of argument in Romans 3:8, Paul also explains in Romans 3:6 that if this argument were true, God would not be able to judge the world. God would have to leave evil unpunished. This cannot be the case, so the argument can be dismissed.

We get a similarly dismissive response from Paul in Romans 9:20:

“[20a] But who are you, O man, to answer back to God?”

The phrase ‘O man’ is similar to Paul’s statement in Romans 3:5 that ‘I speak in a human way’. Paul is dismissing the argument as being man-made and not in accordance with God’s ways. It is not the place of these objectors to tell God who should or should not be judged.

Analysis of how some others have interpreted Romans 9:19

Some interpret verse 19 differently, and this comes from a misunderstanding of the previous verses. They interpret verse 18 (which states that God has mercy on whom he desires and hardens whom he desires) as meaning that God chooses arbitrarily whom to have mercy on and whom to harden (i.e. God’s choice is made without any reference to the people). They misunderstand the statement that God has the right to choose whom to have mercy on / harden as meaning that God makes this decision not based on anything to do with the people (e.g. who has faith in Christ and who has rejected him). With this view of God’s arbitrary mercy/hardening, they understand the objection of verse 19 to be an objection against God’s arbitrariness. It could be phrased like this: “why has God hardened me but had mercy on that other person, based on nothing about either of us? That’s unfair!” The phrase “who has resisted his will?” in verse 19 (sometimes wrongly translated as “who can resist his will?”) is seen as saying that no one has the power to resist God’s will to have mercy and harden arbitrarily. A person who has been arbitrarily chosen to be hardened couldn’t have done anything to resist being hardened and can’t do anything to reverse the situation of being hardened because God’s will was to harden him, so he is condemned to punishment. The objector is seen as objecting to God’s arbitrariness and is told in verse 20 that he is not allowed to ask such a question.

Of course, the problem with this interpretation is that it is built on the incorrect understanding that Paul has just taught that God chooses whom to have mercy on and whom to harden arbitrarily (i.e. without reference to anything about the people). In fact, Paul has simply been asserting that God has the right to choose whom to have mercy on or harden, without specifying in these verses how God decides whom to have mercy on and whom to harden. When we are careful not to add this incorrect understanding of God’s arbitrariness to the text, we see that the best understanding of verse 19 is as explained above.

In fact, if Paul had been teaching that God arbitrarily chooses whom to have mercy on and whom to harden, the objector would have a reasonable point to make in objecting to this! The Bible says that God judges fairly and does not show partiality (Romans 2:2, Acts 10:34-35), so for God to show partiality in arbitrarily choosing some people for mercy and some people for hardening based on nothing about them would go against God’s own standards. Thankfully, we don’t have to face such a dilemma as Paul was not teaching God’s arbitrariness. Paul has already explained in Romans that God gives righteousness “to all who believe” (Romans 3:22), and that “to the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness” (Romans 4:5). God has therefore sovereignly decided to show mercy to everyone who trusts in Christ. This is not showing partiality as everyone is given the ability and opportunity to trust in Christ through the gospel, rather than some being excluded from the outset. No one deserves God’s mercy, but he has graciously chosen to show mercy to anyone who trusts in Christ. God has the right to choose people in this way and anyone who would prefer for him to choose in a different way has no justified reason to complain. I, for one, am very glad he decided to do it this way!

Another indication that this other interpretation of verse 19 is wrong is that it has the ethnic Israelite objectors protesting about the hardening of Pharaoh. The hardening of Pharaoh is not something that most ethnic Israelites would have been very upset about, as he had put their ancestors under such harsh conditions in their slavery in Egypt. The interpretation put forward above has the ethnic Israelite objectors objecting in respect of the situation of the unbelieving ethnic Israelites of Paul’s day, rather than objecting about God’s treatment of Pharaoh. As explained in the previous post, Pharaoh was referred to by Paul as an example that illustrated aspects of the situation of the unbelieving ethnic Israelites.

In the next post, we will consider the structure of Romans 9:6-29, which will help in our understanding of this passage.

This was first published at the Predestination Station, where comments can be made.

Romans 9:17-18 – God’s right to harden – Pharaoh

This is part of a series of posts on Romans. Click here for the contents page.

In the previous post, we saw how this section (verses 14-18) teaches that God has the right to have mercy on whomever he chooses. After giving the first part of his example in verse 15 (relating to Moses, whom God decided to have mercy on), and making his main point in verse 16 (‘it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy’), Paul now gives the second part of his example, which relates to Pharaoh.

“[17] For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.””

After comparing the current situation of the unbelieving ethnic Israelites to that of Ishmael (verses 6b to 9) and Esau (verses 10 to 13), Paul now shocks his audience further by comparing the current situation of these ethnic Israelites to that of Pharaoh. The Pharaoh that Paul is speaking of is the Pharaoh from the book of Exodus who would not let God’s people leave Egypt, as God was requesting (through Moses and Aaron). This Pharaoh was a particularly stubborn character, as God explained to Moses before Moses went back to Egypt to speak to Pharaoh: ‘I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless compelled by a mighty hand’ (Exodus 3:19).

Hundreds of years before the Exodus, God had explained to Abraham what would happen: ‘know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. But I will bring judgement on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions’ (Genesis 15:13-14). God’s actions against Pharaoh as described in the book of Exodus are an act of judgement against him.

We can see that Pharaoh was deserving of judgement by his response to Moses and Aaron on their first visit to him (Exodus 5:1-2):

“Moses and Aaron went and said to Pharaoh, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go, that they may hold a feast to me in the wilderness.’” But Pharaoh said, “Who is the LORD, that I should obey his voice and let Israel go? I do not know the LORD, and moreover, I will not let Israel go.””

Pharaoh’s response shows that he considers himself to be higher than the Lord, so that he does not need to obey him. This is an outrageous sin worthy of full judgement. It would be no defence to claim ignorance – God has revealed himself to everyone (see discussion of Romans 10:14-21). God would have been entirely justified in striking down Pharaoh and killing him at that moment. He could have done this, and God’s people could have then calmly walked out of Egypt. However, rather than killing Pharaoh instantly, God wanted to use the situation as an evangelistic opportunity. God wanted the whole world to know that salvation can be found through him. We see this in Exodus 9:13-16:

“The Lord said to Moses, “Get up early in the morning, stand before Pharaoh, and tell him, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of the Hebrews: “Release my people so that they may serve me! For this time I will send all my plagues on your very self and on your servants and your people, so that you may know that there is no one like me in all the earth. For by now I could have stretched out my hand and struck you and your people with plague, and you would have been destroyed from the earth. But for this purpose I have caused you to stand: to show you my strength, and so that my name may be declared in all the earth.”

God’s motivation in withholding immediate and full judgement from Pharaoh and instead keeping him standing in his position as King of Egypt was so that God’s name may be declared throughout the world. God wanted the world to know about him. We see an example of this in Joshua 2:8-13, as Rahab had heard reports of God’s actions in the Exodus, and she had trusted God as a result.

When Paul quotes Exodus 9:16 in Romans 9:17, he quotes it as ‘for this very purpose I have raised you up. The meaning of ‘raised you up’ should be interpreted in accordance with the original wording of ‘caused you to stand’. The point is that God kept Pharaoh in his position as King rather than killing him immediately. His purpose in withholding Pharaoh’s deserved full judgement was for evangelism.

Although God withheld full and immediate judgement from Pharaoh, God did begin to judge Pharaoh after Pharaoh’s rejection of God in Exodus 5:2. In Exodus 7:1-5, we see that God begins to harden Pharaoh’s heart. The act of hardening Pharaoh’s heart was an act of judgement against Pharaoh:

“And the LORD said to Moses, “See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron shall be your prophet. You shall speak all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall tell Pharaoh to let the people of Israel go out of his land. But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt, Pharaoh will not listen to you. Then I will lay my hand on Egypt and bring my hosts, my people the children of Israel, out of the land of Egypt by great acts of judgement. The Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD, when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring out the people of Israel from among them.””

This is describing the first occasion on which Pharaoh’s heart is said to have been hardened. It happened after the first display of a miracle by Moses and Aaron (see Exodus 7:8-13). This is as God had said it would be in Exodus 4:21: ‘And the LORD said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you do before Pharaoh all the miracles that I have put in your power. But I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go.’

The hardening of Pharaoh’s heart by God is linked to the display of miracles. Pharaoh’s earlier rejection of God in Exodus 5 (discussed above) was not associated with the display of a miracle, and no mention of Pharaoh’s heart being hardened was made at this point. The hardening of Pharaoh’s heart was therefore a legitimate response by God to Pharaoh’s earlier rejection of him. It is clear that Pharaoh already did not want to let God’s people leave, so God’s hardening of him was not making him do something he did not want to do; instead it was giving Pharaoh the strength to do what he already did want to do.

The great acts of judgement that were to happen were also intended by God such that ‘the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD’ (Exodus 7:5). God also wanted to evangelise the Egyptians, and some of them did come to fear him, as shown in Exodus 9:20 (in response to warning of the next plague): ‘whoever feared the word of the Lord among the servants of Pharaoh hurried his slaves and his livestock into the houses’.

We can now compare Pharaoh with the unbelieving ethnic Israelites of Paul’s day. We will see that there are various similarities between Pharaoh’s situation and that of these ethnic Israelites.

Just as Pharaoh had rejected God’s word by refusing to let God’s people go, so the unbelieving ethnic Israelites of Paul’s day had rejected God’s word by refusing to trust in Christ. The unbelieving ethnic Israelites were also in a position of deserving full and immediate judgement for their rejection of God’s word. As with Pharaoh, God decided that, rather than giving full and immediate judgement to these ethnic Israelites, he would create an evangelistic opportunity out of the situation. God therefore hardened the unbelieving ethnic Israelites (Romans 11:7), as Pharaoh had previously been hardened. The motivation behind the hardening was to bring salvation to more Gentiles, which would itself bring salvation to more of the ethnic Israelites, due to their jealousy (Romans 11:11). In the same way, God’s motivation behind hardening Pharaoh was so that God’s ‘name might be proclaimed in all the Earth’ (Romans 9:17, Exodus 9:16).

The hardening process is described in more detail in chapter 11. One reason why we have considered chapter 11 before this part of chapter 9 is that chapter 11 (in particular verses 1-32, which is the parallel part to 9:6-29) provides an important clarification on the consequences of hardening. Reading these few verses of chapter 9 without the surrounding context, it is not immediately apparent whether or not somebody who has been hardened can ever subsequently repent and come to faith in Christ. One might propose the situation that, if God decides to harden a person, that person has been permanently rejected by God and will definitely end up in hell. However, chapter 11 refutes this position. As explained previously, chapter 11 makes it clear that the unbelieving ethnic Israelites, who have been hardened, can still come to faith in Christ (Romans 11:23). In fact, God’s motivation for hardening them in the first place is to bring about a series of events that will cause more of them to be saved (Romans 11:11, 11:30-32).

After discussing Pharaoh, Romans 9 continues with:

“[18] So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.”

Paul’s statement that God ‘has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills’ is another statement that shows that God has the right to have mercy on whomever he wants to have mercy. As with previous verses like this, this verse does not in itself say anything about how God has decided whom to have mercy on and whom to harden. From the surrounding context, we can see that God has decided to have mercy on all those who trust in his word (like Moses), and to harden those who reject his word (like Pharaoh). However, we have seen that for somebody to be hardened by God does not rule out the possibility that they will eventually come to trust in his word and receive his mercy.

As explained previously, Paul is making this point (that God has the right to have mercy on whomever he wants to have mercy, and to harden whomever he wants to harden) to hypothetical ethnic Israelite objectors who will not like Paul’s teaching that God has decided to have mercy on all who trust in Christ and to harden people who have rejected Christ. The objectors think that God ought to have mercy on ethnic Israelites based on their ethnicity and/or works, but Paul is rejecting that view and reiterating that God has the right to do as he pleases regarding choosing who will receive his mercy and who will be hardened.

Thinking about this section (verses 14 to 18), we can see that the central “not… but…” statement (‘it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy’) is surrounded by the example of Moses and Pharaoh. As with the decision made by God in the part of the example relating to Moses (verse 15), the decision made by God in the part relating to Pharaoh (verse 17) is also not a decision that relates directly to salvation/damnation. Instead, the decision God makes is to harden Pharaoh in judgement against Pharaoh’s rejection of him. The decision by God to harden a person is not identical to a decision to damn that person. If every person who is hardened will ultimately be damned, then there would be no hope for the unbelieving ethnic Israelites who are currently being hardened. This is not the view Paul takes in chapter 11, as explained above.

As with the previous examples of Isaac and Ishmael and Jacob and Esau, the purpose of the example of Moses and Pharaoh is to illustrate the central “not… but…” statement of verse 16: ‘it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy’. As explained in the previous post, God chose to show mercy to Moses, and his decision to do this was not because of Moses’ efforts or his desire to be righteous. In one sense, God also showed mercy to Pharaoh by not giving him the full and immediate judgement that his actions deserved (see above), which links the Pharaoh example with verse 16 (which refers to mercy only). Based on Pharaoh’s actions, he deserved no mercy, but God did decide to give him some mercy.

In another sense, the hardening of Pharaoh is in contrast to the mercy God gave to Moses, which links the Pharaoh and Moses examples to verse 18 (which refers to both mercy and hardening): ‘he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills’. God had mercy on Moses and hardened Pharaoh, and he has the right to do this. Although the choices God made regarding Moses and Pharaoh were not choices relating directly to salvation, the way in which God made those choices has a similarity with the way God makes his choices regarding salvation. God chose to have mercy on Moses in response to Moses’ humble reliance on God, and God chose to harden Pharaoh in response to Pharaoh’s rejection of God’s word.

Having seen how the Moses and Pharaoh examples in verses 15 and 17 illustrate the main point being made in verses 16 and 18, we can see the high-level argument that Paul is making in this section. The context is that, according to Paul’s teaching that God has decided to save all who trust in Christ, the unbelieving ethnic Israelites of Paul’s day are currently outside of God’s blessing due to their unbelief (see verses 1-5). Paul is responding to an anticipated objection from ethnic Israelites who think this situation means that God’s word has failed, because they think that God ought to save all ethnic Israelites based on their ethnicity and/or their works (even if they are not trusting in Christ). In verses 6-13, Paul responds to this objection by defending his teaching that salvation is not based on ethnicity (verse 8) or works (verse 12). In verse 14, Paul then anticipates an objection that it is unjust for God to save people on the basis of who is trusting in Christ, rather than based on ethnicity and/or works (because saving people based on faith means that many of the ethnic Israelites are currently not in a position to receive this blessing). Paul responds to this objection by stating that it is entirely up to God to decide whom he will have mercy on and whom he will harden. If God wants to have mercy on those who trust in Christ, and to harden people who reject Christ (in particular, the unbelieving ethnic Israelites), he is entirely within his rights to do that. The objectors want God to save the unbelieving ethnic Israelites based on their own efforts and desire to achieve righteousness, but God has decided to give salvation as a gift to people of his own choosing who do not deserve it, rather than giving salvation as a wage to people who do deserve it (see Romans 4:4-5).

The great news for us is that the people of God’s own choosing who receive his gift of salvation are everyone who trusts in Christ, which is what Paul gets so excited about again in Romans 10:9-13.

In the next post, we will consider Paul’s next anticipated objection from the ethnic Israelite objectors.

This was first published at the Predestination Station, where comments can be made.