God's Sovereignty in the Gospel Defended (Romans 9)

God’s Justice and Sovereign Right to Choose (Romans 9:1–29)
In Romans 9, Paul begins a section of three chapters (9-11) answering several objections that might rise in someone’s mind as they read the first eight chapters. These chapters are a theodicy, or a vindication of the righteousness of God in the matter of who has obtained eternal life through justification.

At the close of chapter eight, Paul concludes with a strong affirmation that those whom God has chosen to salvation will never lose that salvation (8:31–39). However, one’s mind might immediately run to the nation of Israel, God’s chosen people, and ask the question, "What about Israel? How did they fail to obtain salvation?" As Paul and anyone else look around, they see that the nation of Israel has rejected Jesus Christ and the salvation.

This pains Paul, as both a Jew and a Christian (9:1–3). It seems hard to believe that a people with such unique spiritual privileges would reject God’s Christ (9:4–5). Why has this happened? Why has Israel failed to obtain this salvation? And furthermore, what about the promises that God made to that nation? If God is going back on his promises to them, how can we be sure of his promises to us in Jesus Christ? And finally, how can God be faithful and righteous in choosing Gentiles to be saved?

However it may seem, Paul is quick to point out that God’s Word has still been fulfilled (9:6). There is a distinction that we must be careful to make: just because someone was physically a part of ethnic Israel did not make him spiritually a part of ethnic Israel. In the same way, just because someone was Abraham’s child (physically related) did not make him Abraham’s seed (heir of the promises). Remember, Abraham had two children, but God told him that the seed would only be through Isaac (9:7; cf. Gen 21:12).

This brings us to Paul’s first important conclusion: God makes distinctions between people. Both Isaac and Ishmael were rightfully sons of Abraham, but only one of them received the blessings promised to Abraham and his seed (9:7). Therefore, it is not necessarily those who are physically a part of ethnic Israel that will receive the blessings promised to Abraham (9:8–9). God made a distinction between Isaac and Ishmael.

Continuing on in the lives of the patriarchs, Isaac’s wife, Rebekah, became pregnant with twins (9:10). Both of these boys were sons of Isaac, but God told Rebekah, "The older will serve the younger" (9:12; cf. Gen 25:23). This happened before they were born! God did not make this distinction between Esau and Jacob because of their actions, but arbitrarily— making clear that God chooses according to his own plan (9:11). In fact, God’s attention to Jacob was so lopsided that the prophet Malachi, speaking for God, said, "I loved Jacob and hated Esau" (9:13; cf. Mal 1:2–3). God made a distinction between Jacob and Esau.

Paul anticipates our human response perfectly: Doesn’t that make God unjust? Of course not. God has every right to do as he pleases (9:14). In fact, God himself, in the aftermath of the golden calf incident, told Moses, “I will show mercy to whomever I choose” (9:15; cf. Exod 33:19). Paul’s second conclusion is that God’s distinctions are not conditioned on human effort, but on God’s purposes (9:16).

An example from the Old Testament of someone whom God singled out for his purposes is Pharaoh. God allowed Pharaoh to come to power and then be removed from power solely for his own glory (9:17). Not only then does God sovereignly show mercy to some, he sovereignly hardens others according to his own purpose (9:18; cf. Exod 4:21; 7:13; 9:12).

Someone who hears this might raise another objection: "So if nobody has resisted God's will, then nobody is responsible to God" (9:19). This is an almost flippant charge of determinism or fatalism: if God has willed to harden people, then God cannot hold them responsible! Paul’s answer to this objection is a series of questions. Should a human being talk back to Almighty God? Can a creature question the Creator (9:20)? Does not the Potter have authority over his clay (9:21)?

Paul continues on in his response with a theoretical possibility that he never finishes (9:22–24). He expects his listener to fill in the conclusion from the context. What if God willed to demonstrate his wrath and power (like he did with Pharaoh), and patiently endured vessels headed for destruction, so he could show the wealth of his glory upon vessels destined for his mercy (like he did with Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, and the whole nation of Israel), then could he do it? Does he have the right to do that?

Who are these "vessels of mercy" that Paul speaks of in verse 23? In the following verses, he identifies them from Scripture. Ethnically, these chosen individuals are singled out from both the Jews and the Gentiles (9:24).

What about these Gentiles? Didn’t God make his promises to ethnic Israel? Can this be proven from Scripture? In answer, Paul goes back to the Old Testament and quotes from Hosea (9:25–26; cf. Hosea 2:23; 1:10). Paul points out from the Jewish Old Testament that God is able to show his love to Gentiles who previously had been outside of his favor.

What does the Scripture say about the Jews who will receive God's mercy? The point that Paul makes is that it will only be a small number. He quotes Isaiah, who speaks of the small remnant that God chooses (9:27–28; cf. Isa 10:22–23). In his second quotation from Isaiah, the Word of God says only a “seed” will be spared (9:29; cf. Isa 1:9).

Therefore, we see from Romans 9 that God is entirely sovereign and righteous in his election to salvation.