Sunday, November 15, 2009

Romans 9: Updating my Exegesis

While the Calvinist may be sincere in his interpretation of Romans 9, I believe he has misread this passage because he has missed some of the context needed to correctly interpret the passage. Here is what I believe is the correct interpretation of this passage. First, we need to avoid the mistake that the Calvinist exegete makes here. We need to always keep in mind the context of this passage, especially when it is a hard to understand passage, and avoid proof-texting. And always ask, “What does the text say, and what does the text mean?” Let’s begin at the beginning - verse 1. (Biblical text in blue, my exegesis in normal).

1 I tell the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit, 2 that I have great sorrow and continual grief in my heart. 3 For I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my countrymen according to the flesh,

1-3: Paul is Jewish and He is writing here about his Jewish brethren. We need to keep this important fact in mind, as it is the most important thing to remember in order to properly understand this passage. One good thing to ask ourselves here is why Paul would be so upset over those who are not accepting Christ if they had been predestined that way? Why, if God is glorified through their reprobation, is Paul so distraught? Even to the point he would give his own salvation so they may be saved! Isn’t Paul's main concern the glory of God? I thought God would be glorified in this!? Why would Paul care so much about those God has chosen to reprobate out of His own sovereign decree?

4 who are Israelites, to whom pertain the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the service of God, and the promises; 5 of whom are the fathers and from whom, according to the flesh, Christ came, who is over all, the eternally blessed God. Amen.

4-5: This is the context of Romans 9. Paul is writing about people groups. Paul has his hypothetical questioner wonder why all these promises to the Jews, especially the promise of the Messiah, were being ignored by the Jews? Has God somehow failed in His choice of the Jewish people? Paul argues throughout Romans that salvation is based on faith and not by works. When he comes to Romans 9-11, Paul is dealing now with the anticipated Jewish contention that God has rejected His people whom He chose, and even through whom Christ came. We don’t think about it much today because we are so far separated from that line of thinking, but this is the context in which Paul wrote.

6 But it is not that the word of God has taken no effect. For they are not all Israel who are of Israel

6: Paul addresses the misconception here that the Jews were automatically saved simply because they are Jews, and also the misconception that God somehow failed in choosing them as His people. He states, “But it is not that the word of God has taken no effect (failed in His choice of the Jews). For they are not all Israel who are of Israel.” They are not all Israel (the people of God) simply because they are of Israel (of Jewish descent). It is crucial to see that this is about corporate election! God has predestined that believers as a group (spiritual Israel) would be saved, and non-believers will not. God's election is not about national decent and birthright, as will be shown with the examples of the patriarchs and their children, but about faith in Him.
In the Old Testament, God chose the Jews for a purpose. They were tasked with carrying the Law of God. God was revealing Himself to the world and they were tasked with recording that revelation. They kept the temple sacrifices and the Passover which all pointed to Jesus Christ. They were not saved simply because they were Jews. They were saved the same way as we are, as shown in Genesis 15:6 where Abrahams FAITH was accounted to him as righteousness (Christ’s future sacrifice paid for the salvation of Abraham and all who had faith in God in the Old Testament). Also, people from outside the Jewish nation came to faith in God, and God looked at Christ’s sacrifice instead of their sin.

7 nor are they all children because they are the seed of Abraham; but, “In Isaac your seed shall be called.” 8 That is, those who are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God; but the children of the promise are counted as the seed. 9 For this is the word of promise: “At this time I will come and Sarah shall have a son.”

7-9: God chose Isaac to be the heir of Abraham, the heir that would carry on the Jewish race. It wasn’t due to who Isaac was; it was God’s sovereign choice in choosing Isaac to do this, for His own reasons. It wasn’t simply enough to be Abraham’s son, for Ishmael was also his son. Isaac was the child of promise. God supernaturally caused Sarah to give birth to him, and chose him as the specific person to carry on the line of the Jews, even though Ishmael was the firstborn. However, this is not speaking of Isaac being unconditionally elected unto salvation and Ishmael being reprobated. If you remember correctly, God had mercy on Ishmael.

10 And not only this, but when Rebecca also had conceived by one man, even by our father Isaac 11 (for the children not yet being born, nor having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works but of Him who calls),

10-11: Here it is essential to know a little cultural context here. Rabbis at this time taught that God had chosen Israel because of the righteousness of the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and other ancient Jewish fathers). Paul is refuting that! It wasn’t because of the things they did (because they were chosen before birth); it was because of the sovereign choice of God that He chose them as the ones to carry on the lineage of Israel.

12 it was said to her, “The older shall serve the younger.” 13 As it is written, “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated.”

12-13: Improperly understood, this could have massive repercussions on your interpretation of the rest of the Bible. Is God telling Rebecca while her children were still in the womb that He hates one of them!? God hated a baby!? How does that fit the rest of scripture? First off, Paul is quoting Genesis 25:23. It says, “two NATIONS are in your womb. Two peoples shall be separated from your body; One people shall be stronger than the other, And the older shall serve the younger.’” Remember what I've been saying? This is a prophecy about God choosing a nation to reveal Himself through. This is not about the boys themselves. Esau became the father of the Edomites. Jacob was renamed Israel and the nation of Israel descended from him. This is about Israel being a stronger nation than Edom, not about Esau literally serving Jacob. We see later on that Esau never actually served Jacob, they were reconciled, and I think they are both in heaven today. This is also not about individual election unto salvation. It’s about the sovereign choice of God of a nation to reveal Himself through.
But what about, “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated.”? This is from Malachi 1, which was written 1600 years after the passage from Genesis. Let’s examine it. Notice God is speaking to the nation of Israel.
2 “I have loved you,” says the LORD. “Yet you say, ‘In what way have You loved us?’ Was not Esau Jacob’s brother?” Says the LORD. “Yet Jacob I have loved; 3 But Esau I have hated, And laid waste his mountains and his heritage For the jackals of the wilderness.” 4 Even though Edom has said, “We have been impoverished, But we will return and build the desolate places,” Thus says the LORD of hosts: “ They may build, but I will throw down;
This entire passage is also about the nations, not the boys. They would have died over 1400 years prior to this. Paul is using these passages to make his point about corporate election. God chose Israel to bless, not Edom. The boys are simply the figureheads of these nations.
Also, when the words “Love-hate” are used as they are here, hated is being used as an idiom (the Hebrews loved using these). It is used opposite to love to express a lesser degree of love, not literal hatred. You can see a similar usage in Genesis 29:30. Jesus uses the same idiom in Luke 14:26. We’re not actually supposed to hate our parents, but compared to our love for God, the love for our parents is like hate.
So instead of teaching that God hated a baby before he had done anything, this passage actually teaches that God chose specific nations for specific things. That is a huge difference.

14 What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? Certainly not! 15 For He says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whomever I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whomever I will have compassion.” 16 So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy.

14-16: What about this? Was God unrighteous when He chose Jacob over Esau? At the same time, is He unrighteous for not choosing Jews on the basis of their heritage? The Jews at this time would have thought so. Esau was the eldest and that meant that the birthright of Isaac was naturally his. But God chose Jacob to be the one to carry on the line of Israel. Paul asserts that of course God is not unrighteous in this decision.
In verse 15 Paul is citing Exodus 33:19. Let’s remember that Paul is a Jewish Rabbi. Jews memorized large portions of the Old Testament. He had an amazing command of knowledge of these ancient texts. Would he rip the text out of context in order to prove a point about individual unconditional election? No! The context here is not about who goes to heaven and who does not. In context, Moses has asked God to show him His glory. God says it is because of His mercy that He has decided to show Himself to Moses, not due to anything Moses did. So Paul’s point is God does not owe us mercy based on what we do (will or run). The basis of God’s choice to save people is not on the people’s conduct, but on His compassion. The “IT” in verse 16 is not individual salvation; the “IT” refers to God’s choice of what to predicate His salvation on: Corporate election. Individual unconditional election has not appeared in this section.

17 For the Scripture says to the Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I may show My power in you, and that My name may be declared in all the earth.” 18 Therefore He has mercy on whom He wills, and whom He wills He hardens.

17-18: Is this speaking of eternal salvation? If it is, it is terrible! Are there people whom God hardened, leaving them nothing they can do about it? Has God chosen them for destruction? Certainly God has the power to do this, but does this sound like the God of the Bible? Ezekiel 33:11 says, “‘As I live,’ says the Lord GOD, ‘I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live.’” 2 Peter 3:9 says, “The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.” And 1 Timothy 2:4 says,“[God] desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” This is what God wants. He wants everyone to be saved because He loves us. But He allows us to reject His call.
Concerning Pharaoh and Moses and God hardening Pharaoh’s heart, we must remember that Pharaoh was never a believer and had already hardened his heart toward God. God in displaying His grace to Pharaoh was the occasion for Pharaoh to harden his heart. Much like we say prison hardens a criminal, we know it is actually the criminal hardening himself; Pharaoh likewise was hardened because of God’s grace. Also the Hebrew word for “harden” is more often translated “to give strength, to fortify.” So in Exodus 14:17, God may have only strengthened the resolve of what the Egyptians had already chosen to do. God never decided to send Pharaoh to hell based on an arbitrary decree. Pharaoh went to hell because of his sins.
So how does this example apply here? God shows mercy to who He wants to show mercy. By sending Moses to pharaoh, God displayed His mercy. By this act, God was the cause of Pharaoh's heart-hardening. God knew pharaoh would harden His heart, and God used this to display His own glory and power in bringing the Israelites out of Egypt. He chose to harden pharaoh to display His glory, but it was based on what He knew pharaoh would do. Likewise, God has chosen to show mercy to those who believe in His Son, and not simply those who are of Jewish descent and do the works of the law.

19 You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For who has resisted His will?” 20 But indeed, O man, who are you to reply against God? Will the thing formed say to him who formed it, “Why have you made me like this?” 21 Does not the potter have power over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel for honor and another for dishonor?
22 What if God, wanting to show His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, 23 and that He might make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy, which He had prepared beforehand for glory

19-23: The hypothetical questioner asks, "why does God still find fault?" To properly read this, we must understand what is being asked here. The question is not, "why Pharaoh or the Jews cannot come to God in faith?"; the question is, "why is fault being found if they are accomplishing the purpose of God?". The hypothetical questioner asks why God is still angry if God's glory is shown when His grace causes someone to harden their heart, why does He still hold those people culpable for their hard hearts? Paul dismisses this silly question. If God wants to save one vessel according to faith and use those who don't have faith to accomplish His purpose in spite of their unbelief, that is His sovereign prerogative. He alludes to another passage in the Old Testament in Jeremiah 18:3-11. The potter is God and the clay is the nation of Israel. What does this passage say about who God destroys?

8 if that nation against whom I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I thought to bring upon it. 9 And the instant I speak concerning a nation and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it, 10 if it does evil in My sight so that it does not obey My voice, then I will relent concerning the good with which I said I would benefit it.

So, the point seems to be if the nation turns from it's evil, God will spare it. But if it doesn't, God will destroy it. This example shows again that Paul is speaking of corporate election of believers. God has chosen to mold from the same lump (Israel) vessels for common use and those for honorable. Those who have turned from their evil ways in faith to Jesus are the "vessles of mercy", those who have not are the "vessels of wrath".

So as God chose the people of Israel as His people, He has chosen believers (spiritual Israel) as His people that He will save. On the other hand, God prepares those who reject Him for an eternal punishment. The translation of the words, “What if,” is a little misleading. Paul is not asking a hypothetical question. He is making an assertion. Notice that God does not display His wrath hurriedly. He endures the vessels of wrath with much patience. The fact is we were all vessels of wrath at one time, until we came to Jesus by faith.

24 even us whom He called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles?

24: God calls people to be a part of His spiritual kingdom not only from the Jews, but also from the Gentiles. In the early church many were excluding gentiles because they weren’t Jews. The apostles had to deal with this, among many other issues they dealt with.

25 As He says also in Hosea:

“ I will call them My people, who were not My people,
And her beloved, who was not beloved.”
26 “ And it shall come to pass in the place where it was said to them,

‘ You are not My people,’
There they shall be called sons of the living God.”

27 Isaiah also cries out concerning Israel:

“ Though the number of the children of Israel be as the sand of the sea,
The remnant will be saved.
28 For He will finish the work and cut it short in righteousness,
Because the LORD will make a short work upon the earth.”

29 And as Isaiah said before:

“ Unless the LORD of Sabaoth[l]had left us a seed,
We would have become like Sodom,
And we would have been made like Gomorrah.”

25-29: Paul quotes the Old Testament to support this point (that He elects those who believe) and to tell what the ramifications of Israel’s rejection of God are.

30 What shall we say then? That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have attained to righteousness, even the righteousness of faith; 31 but Israel, pursuing the law of righteousness, has not attained to the law of righteousness. 32 Why? Because they did not seek it by faith, but as it were, by the works of the law. For they stumbled at that stumbling stone. 33 As it is written:

“ Behold, I lay in Zion a stumbling stone and rock of offense,
And whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame.”

30-33: This is the real kicker. Verse 30 is Paul’s summary of all He had just said. Paul starts by saying, "What shall we say then?" which signals he is about to say what the ramifications of all this are. Paul's ultimate point, therefore, is gentiles who have not pursued righteousness, as the Jews had, attained righteousness by FAITH. Whatever else Romans 9 means; there is certainly no reason to read a double predestenarian viewpoint into it, especially in light of verses 30-33.


Onesimus said...

I have seen that Calvinists tend to start with Romans 9 and then interpet everything else according to what they have been taught about Romans 9.

Therefore the Calvinist teaching about Romans 9 controls their understanding of the rest of scripture and that in turn influences their understanding of God's character and the way He relates with His creation.

Ignoring scriptural context is a common practice utilised by most Christians, and selected verses are cherry picked to support the viewpoint we are trying to promote. Not only does this lead to some very dodgey theology (such as Calvinism) it also makes us overlook the ACTUAL point that was being made by those verses in their correct context.

bethyada said...

Interesting reading. I was reading Romans 8 and 9 just today and noted that the context in the early part of Romans 9 was that of a corporate view.

mmcelhaney said...

Here is a different point of view.