Spend any amount of time seriously studying the Bible and you’re bound to run up against Chapter 9 of Romans. Many consider it one of the more perplexing sections in the scriptures. The stark and seemingly harsh statements in Romans 9 cause some to treat it like an alcoholic uncle — it’s best just not to invite him over all that often.
Hence this series of blog posts. You see, I don’t think the message of Romans 9 is particularly difficult to understand. And while Romans 9 is far from my favorite chapter in the Bible (probably have to go with Romans 8 there), it’s had a tremendous impact on me. There are diamonds to be mined from the soil of that short chapter, and you don’t need a backhoe to get at them. Most of them can be uncovered with a turn of the shovel.
In this post, I’m going to outline the chapter and the structure of Paul’s arguments. This may seem like a really basic point, but recognizing the fact that Paul is arguing is essential to understand Romans 9 (and many other parts of the Bible). Paul argues. He reasons. He has a main point which he supports by minor points. He brings in other areas of scripture to show the correctness of his argument.
Another basic point to recognize: Paul is trying to make sense. Consider a simplistic example. Suppose you were to read a paragraph in a letter from a friend that read like this: “The grocery stores in Barcelona are fantastic. They’re fantastic because they stock all kinds of tasty veggies. Therefore, you should go shopping any time you’re hungry for veggies.” Now suppose that someone were to assert that, in writing the third sentence, your friend actually meant to say, “The only time one should go to the grocery store is when one is hungry for vegetables.”
Looking at that third sentence in isolation, it may be possible to read into it a general principle to that effect. But no one would do that because it wouldn’t make sense. The context of the previous two sentences reveals that your friend actually meant that, if you’re hungry for vegetables when you’re in Barcelona, you should head to the fantastic grocery stores that stock tasty veggies.
The same principle (seeking to make sense of the text in the context of the argument Paul is making) should guide our interpretation of Romans 9.
With this in mind, let’s outline the structure of Paul’s arguments in Romans 9. The act of outlining the chapter involves some high-level interpretation, but I’ll refrain from doing any further interpretation in this post because I think Paul’s meaning is clear for the most part from the structure itself.
I. Paul has “great sorrow and unceasing anguish.” (verse 1)
A. The implicit reason for Paul’s anguish: the Israelites, his kinsmen according to the flesh, are accursed and cut off from Christ. (verses 2-5)
B. It’s implicit because Paul talks about himself — he “could wish” that he himself was accursed and cut off from Christ for their sake. (verse 3)
II. The word of God hasn’t failed. (verse 6)
A. Because not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel. (verse 6)
B. Because not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring. (verse 7)
1. Rather, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” (verse 7)
a. This means that it’s not the children of the flesh who are the children of God. (verse 8 )
b. Rather, the “children of promise” are counted as Abraham’s offspring. (verse 8 )
(1) Because God’s promise was specific, that Sarah would have a son. (verse 9)
(2) Also, Rebecca was told that Esau (the older) would serve Jacob (the younger). (verses 10, 12)
(a) Isaac was the father of both boys. (verse 10)
(b) God’s decree was made before they were born and had done nothing good or bad. (verse 11)
i. The reason for this was that God’s purpose of election might continue. (verse 11)
ii. God’s decree was made not because of works, but because of God (“him who calls”). (verse 11)
(c) This accords with scripture, where God said, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” (verse 13)
III. In light of this, is God unjust? No! (verse 14)
A. Because God says, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” (verse 15)
1. As a result, it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. (verse 16)
2. For that reason, God told Pharaoh that he raised him up so show his power in him and to proclaim his name in all the earth. (verse 17)
a. Thus, God has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. (verse 18)
IV. In light of all this, some will ask: If none can resist God’s will, why does he still find fault? (verse 19)
A. Man has no right to answer back to God. (verse 20)
1. That which is molded can’t say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” (verse 20)
2. The potter has the right to make out of the same lump of clay one vessel for honorable use and one for dishonorable use. (verse 21)
B. Implicit: God has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction. (verse 22)
1. It’s implicit because Paul poses it in the form of a “What if?” question, again pointing out man’s inability to question God. (verse 22)
2. God did so for the purpose of making known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he prepared beforehand for glory. (verse 23)
a. The vessels of mercy are “us whom he has called,” both from the Jews and the Gentiles. (verse 24)
(1) This was foretold in Hosea, where God said he would call his people those who were not his people; he also would call them “sons of the living God.” (verses 25-26)
(2) With regard to Israel, this was foretold in Isaiah, where God said that only a remnant of Israel would be saved. (verses 27-28)
V. A big-picture summary — “What shall we say then?” (verses 30-33)
A. The Gentiles have attained a righteousness by faith even though they did not pursue it. (verse 30)
B. Israel pursued a law that would lead to righteousness but did not succeed. (verse 31)
1. Because they pursued it not by faith, but as if it were based on works. (verse 32)
2. In doing so, Israel has stumbled over the stumbling stone of Christ. (verses 32-33)
So what do you think? When read in an outline form, are Paul’s arguments any clearer? Hopefully so.
If not, don’t write it off as an alcoholic uncle just yet. At a minimum, I hope it’s clear that Romans 9 consists of a series of well-constructed arguments. In the next post, we’ll start breaking down Paul’s arguments and examining what he’s getting at.