Paul’s thesis statement is to be found in verse 6: “But it is not as though the word of God has failed.” God’s word has not fallen to the ground; it has not failed to take effect. God’s word here is his word to Israel, and in particular his promises which he gave in covenant to the patriarchs, and words which he continued to ratify to Israel throughout its history (cf. 9:3-5). Words like Isaiah 45:25: “In the LORD all the offspring of Israel shall be justified and shall glory.”
Why is the apostle defending this thesis? He is doing so because the central claim of his gospel is that justification and glory come to us in Jesus Christ, and that it is as we embrace him as Lord and Savior that we partake of his righteousness and glory and so are justified and eventually glorified. On the other hand, those who reject him as Messiah will not be saved, but will remain in their sins and be condemned. But Isaiah says that the “offspring of Israel shall be justified and shall glory.” How does this square with Paul’s gospel? For according to that, those who have rejected the gospel among the Jews – and that was most of them – were lost. It sure looks like the gospel makes God’s promise to the offspring of Israel null and void.
And that can never be. For any theological system or view of God that portrays him as unfaithful is and must be wrong. God has always kept his word; he is a covenant keeping God. God is truth, and has the power and the wisdom and integrity to always uphold it. The “God who cannot lie” is the way Paul describes God in relation to his promises (Tit. 1:2). The only thing that could possibly keep God from keeping his word was an unwillingness to follow through on it, and that can never be. As Paul puts it earlier in chapter 3: “What if some [Jews] were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? By no means! Let God be true though every one were a liar, as it is written, ‘That you may be justified in your words, and prevail when you are judged’” (3:3-4). This is especially critical given the fact that if God does not keep his word, the glorious promises in Romans are not to be relied upon. It’s not just that the OT promises are at stake, but the entire gospel enterprise is at stake as well.
There are two steps to Paul’s argument in these verses. In the first step, Paul explains why God’s word has not fallen. This comes to us in verses 6-10. In the second step, Paul explains how God’s word does not fall, but rather remains, and this comes to us in verses 11-13. The “why” is tied to the objects of God’s promise, and the “how” is tied to the nature of God’s promise. The apostle explains that the objects of God’s promise are not coextensive with the physical seed of Abraham (and therefore does not fail because some of them reject the gospel), and that the nature of God’s promise is that it is unconditioned on the good works of those who are its objects (and therefore cannot fail when they do).
Why God’s word has not fallen (6b-10)
The key sentence in this part of the apostle’s argument is in verse 8: “This means that is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring.” In other words, the “offspring” of Isaiah 45:25, those who will be justified and glorified, are not to be identified with the merely physical offspring of Abraham. The promises of God were never intended to guarantee the salvation of every individual Israelite. God’s promises are not based on physical descent.
That was certainly the way some Jews in Paul’s day took the promises to mean. Otherwise I don’t understand the point of John the Baptist’s argument, when he warned the Pharisees who came to his baptism, “And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham’” (Mt. 3:9). They clearly thought that because they were the physical descendants of Abraham, they were safe. John the Baptist warned against that idea, as Paul does here: “For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring” (6b-7a). There is Israel and there is Israel, an Israel within Israel, a remnant according to the election of grace (cf. 11:5). The promises are not to all Israel, but to the remnant within Israel. That is Paul’s argument.
Paul has already made a distinction in this letter between a true Israelite someone who is only an Israelite by physical descent. In 2:28-29, he has written, “For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.” Here what makes someone a Jew and as such an inheritor of the promises is a heart that has been changed by the Spirit of God. And then in 4:12, the apostle writes that God made Abraham “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.” Here what puts someone in the category of the “circumcised,” and as such, a child of Abraham, is that they have the same faith that Abraham had. It is not enough simply to claim Abraham as an ancestor, but one must relate to God in the same way he did, by the Spirit and by faith.
But what proof does he have for this? In fact, Paul gives two examples of the principle that God’s promise does not necessarily follow physical descent. In the first example, given in verses 7-9, the apostle illustrates his argument with Isaac and Ishmael. Both were sons of Abraham, and yet the promise did not go to Ishmael but to Isaac, for “through Isaac shall your offspring be named” (7). In the next example, he exhibits Jacob and Esau (10-13). In this case, the argument is even stronger, because Isaac and Ishmael were born from different mothers, but that is not the case with Jacob and Esau. It’s even stronger than that, however, because not only were they born of the same mother, but were conceived at the same time, being twins (10). But God’s promise did not go to Esau (even though he was technically the firstborn), it went to Jacob.
It is important to remember at this point what Paul is arguing for. Many people will argue that the figures of Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, shows that the apostle is talking about the election of nations, or at the very least, of God selecting individuals to historical tasks. But this does not make any sense whatsoever. You see, it was the problem of God’s electing the nation of Israel which set up the objection that Paul is seeking to answer. God chose the nation of Israel, which the Jews thought guaranteed the salvation of physical Israel, and which came into question given Paul’s claim that so many of his brethren were lost. It was the lostness of Israel, in light of Israel’s election as a nation, that was the problem. It will hardly do to reply to this problem by arguing that God elects nations.
Others try to get around this by arguing that Paul is not talking about salvation, but of the election of individuals and nations to historical roles. The able Arminian scholar Ben Witherington does this, for example, in his commentary on Romans, as well as virtually every other non-Calvinistic reading of Romans 9 (as far as I am aware). But then he has to argue that Paul is not anguishing over the issue of salvation in verses 1-3, that the “anathema” of verse 3 does not have to do with eternal separation from Christ, and that “vessels of wrath prepared for destruction” is not a reference to people who will endure God’s wrath forever (22-23).
But that’s nonsense. Every other time that Paul uses the language of anathema, he is referring to God’s curse which brings his wrath. And applied to people that means they are not saved. So when he says to the Galatians, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed (anathema)” (Gal. 1:8; he repeats himself in the next verse), he is saying that these false teachers, if they continue in their heresy, will be lost. In 1 Cor. 16:22, he writes, “If anyone has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed (anathema).” To not love Christ means that you are not saved. The anathema is not a reference to being cursed in the merely here and now, but to be in danger of being accursed forever. This is why it is so awful to say that Jesus is anathema (cf. 1 Cor. 12:3). Thus, when Paul says that he has “great sorrow and unceasing anguish in his heart” on account of his brethren and “could wish that I myself were accursed (anathema) and cut off from Christ” (9:3), he is clearly saying that his grief flowed from the lostness of those with whom he shared this common ethnic background. Since Romans 9-11 are a unit, we should read 9:1-3 in light of 10:1, when he says that “my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them [Israel] is that they may be saved.” The issue here is not merely the historical roles of either nations or individuals, but specifically the fact that so many of Paul’s kinsmen were not saved. Paul is trying to argue why that fact is consistent with God’s promises to Israel. The problem is salvation or lack thereof, not historical roles or earthly tasks.
So when Paul brings up the examples of Ishmael and Isaac, Jacob and Esau, he is arguing that God’s saving promise was extended to Isaac but not to Ishmael, to Jacob but not Esau, and that proves that God’s promise of salvation is not coextensive with physical descent from the patriarchs. God’s promise has not failed when it doesn’t encompass all of physical Israel, because it in fact never did nor was ever intended to do so.
Now an objection to this is that there is no evidence in the OT that either Ishmael or Esau were lost. But this is not how the NT authors, including Paul, argue. Esau, as an individual, is mentioned in Hebrews as an example of an unsaved, unholy person (cf. Heb. 12:14-17). In fact, Esau in that context is given as an example of someone who has failed to obtain the grace of God. Paul himself uses Ismael and Isaac in his letter to the Galatians (Gal. 4:21-31) as a way to illustrate those who have the Spirit (and are saved) versus those who have not the Spirit (and are not saved). Isaac is representative of the saved, and Ishmael of the unsaved.
Another objection is that the OT passages that Paul refers to in this text are about nations and historical roles, not individuals and eternal salvation. Thus, the Malachi reference in 9:13, “Jacob have I loved, but Esau I hated” (cf. Mal. 1:2,3) is a reference to the nations of Israel and Edom, respectively. But this is not really a strong objection. For the fact that the OT passages refer to nations does not mean Paul can’t apply them to individuals. The fact that he does this for Ishmael and Isaac in Galatians 4 should warn us against ruling out applying these passages to the salvation of individuals.
But again, we must keep coming back to the fact that the issue at hand that Paul is answering has to do with the lostness of individuals in Israel and their need for eternal salvation. Romans 9:1-5 sets up the problem as it is stated in verse 6a, and as it is answered in verses 6b-13. It is no answer to that problem to argue that God elects nations. It is no answer to that problem to say that God chooses individuals for historical tasks. Those are non sequiturs, not answers. It makes no sense of the text to say that Paul is arguing this way. It does make sense to take this as meaning that Isaac was saved but not Ishmael, even though they were both sons of Abraham, and that Jacob was saved but not Esau, even though they were both sons of Isaac from the same mother.
Paul’s kinsmen misunderstood the extent of God’s promise. They applied the saving promises to God to those to whom it was never intended. We ought to be careful that we don’t do the same.
How God’s word does not fall (11-13)
The key verse here is verse 11, with reference to Jacob and Esau: “though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad – in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls.” The apostle is explaining the choice of Jacob over Esau. Why did he choose Jacob and not Esau? It was not because Jacob was better than Esau. In fact, it had nothing to do with their works at all. Rather, the basis of God’s election of Jacob over Esau rested not on anything in them, but rather simply upon God’s sovereign purpose and choice.
When Paul says, “that the purpose of God according to election might stand” (rather than fall - KJV), he is saying positively what in verse 6 he says negatively. God’s word of promise will not fall; rather, it will stand. And why will it stand? Because ultimately it does not depend upon us but upon him. That’s the argument. There are two things we should notice about this election.
God’s purpose of election is unconditional.
This choice was determined “though they were not yet born and had done nothing bad,” is simply a way of saying that this election was a decision made prior to their behavior nor based on their behavior. Their actions, good or bad, had nothing to do with God’s gracious choice.
Now some will come right back and point out that though God does not base his election upon works, he does base it upon foreseen faith. And this is plausible, it is argued, because faith is not a work. This latter point is true – faith is universally in the NT contrasted with works. But there are two problems with this objection. One problem is that Paul does not contrast works with faith but with God’s call. God’s purpose of election is not said to be based on faith but on “him who calls.” We’ve already argued that in the NT, and in the epistles in particular (see my sermon on Rom. 8:29-30) that this call is a reference to God’s effectual call. And this call precedes faith and makes it possible. In this connection, Paul’s words to the Thessalonians is very instructive: “But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth. To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thess. 2:13-14). This is a calling which secures our justification and glorification.
And that brings us to the second objection. The fact of the matter is that faith is represented in the NT as being a gift from God (cf. Eph. 2:8). We have faith because God opens our blind eyes and softens our hard hearts so that we see the gospel and believe it. God effectually calls us and we come. If God is foreseeing our faith, he is simply foreseeing something he has given, and something which he gives to us on purpose. In other words, there is really nothing for God to foresee that is not already included in his eternal purpose. God gives faith, and gives it unconditionally, so that in the end, God’s purpose of election is an unconditional election.
God’s purpose of election is personal and unto eternal life.
We’ve already argued this in answer to some objections, but now I want to state the matter more positively. When Paul talks about election, he is talking about an election to salvation. This is the case in Paul’s writings over and over again. Again, since Rom. 9-11 are a unit, the passage in Rom. 11:5 is instructive: “So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace.” This remnant is the same group of people (I say group, but we must remember that groups are made up of individuals!) Paul is talking about in Romans 9. God’s word of promise is not to every individual Israelite, but to Israel within Israel, to the remnant in Israel. In 11:5, we have this parallel to Romans 9, but clearly this election is an election to salvation, and there is no reason (unless you are theologically prejudiced) to suppose the Rom. 9:11 election is any different. You also see election in Eph. 1:4; 1 Thess. 1:4; Col. 3:12; 2 Tim. 2:10; Tit. 1:1. But 2 Tim. 1:9 is especially relevant here, given the numerous parallels to the Romans 9 passage. There Paul writes that God “saved us and called us to a holy calling, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began.” This salvation was given us before the world began – this is what it means to be elected. We are chosen in Christ, and we are called to salvation, a calling which springs from God’s gracious choice. Again, in Romans 9:11, it is not our works but God’s call that is determinative in our salvation. As 2 Tim. 1:9 is an election and call to salvation, we shouldn’t think Rom. 9:11 is anything less. In particular, the fact that calling is linked to election is significant. In Paul, God’s call is unto salvation. We are called to eternal life (cf. also Rom. 8:30; 1 Thess. 2:12; 1 Cor. 1:18-31).
This election is what distinguishes between Israel and spiritual Israel (or, the remnant, if you like that language better), between children of God and the promise (Rom. 9:8) and the children of the flesh. “Children of God” is always, uniformly, in Paul a reference to those who are saved (cf. Rom. 8:16-17, 21; Eph. 5:1; Phil. 2:15). In Gal. 3:26-29, in fact, the children of God are identified with the seed of Abraham, and heirs of eternal life. And the only other place “children of promise” is used is definitely in reference to those who are saved (Gal. 4:28).
And so we see why God’s promise of salvation to Israel does not fall to the ground. It does not fall because it is not directed to every Israelite, or merely on the basis of physical descent. And it does not fall because God’s promise depends ultimately upon himself, not us. His promise of salvation depends upon his unconditional election of individuals within Israel to everlasting life. And this election moreover is not dependent upon foreseen works, or even faith, but upon God’s effective call unto salvation.
How should I respond to the doctrine of election?
First of all, we should believe it. God has revealed himself most clearly in the Book we call the Bible, and if we reject the Biblical portrayal of God in the Bible, we are worshipping a figment of our imagination. I know that this is often very difficult to believe, and it’s clear that the difficulties attendant with this doctrine are the reasons why so many good Christians refuse to believe it. Some think it makes God look arbitrary; others say it makes him look unjust (see the objection of the following verses!); others say it is incompatible with human freedom and responsibility. Whatever we may think and however we may try to work through these objections, if the Bible teaches it, it must be true, and let God be true and every man a liar. You believe it first, and then you try to work through the objections.
But in connection with this point, I think it is important to say that we should never take any doctrine and hold it separately and apart from the rest of Scripture. We need to hold the doctrine of election with the clear teaching of the Bible on human responsibility. I am a compatibilist, which just means that I believe that the doctrine of election (and God’s absolute sovereignty over all things) is compatible with the fact that our choices are real and significant and meaningful, and our responsibility is real and not an illusion. I know that some philosophers and theologians would say that what I’ve said here about election is not possible with real human freedom and responsibility. I can’t say that I fully understand how the two things go together, but what I do know is that they Bible teaches both, and so they must both be true.
But we are stopping short of our duty if we only believe it. Let us also delight in it. This is hard for man-centered minds, especially in light of verses like 13. But God has revealed himself, not merely to be analyzed, but to be worshipped. To see how this doctrine should lead you to worship, consider the following things.
First, if this doctrine is true, it provides a sure foundation under the feet of all who are in Christ. Because election is unconditional and of grace, our status before God and hope of eternal life is not dependent upon our works and worthiness, for we didn’t get there on the basis of works to begin with. And because underneath election is God’s massive purpose which works all things for the good of those who are called according to his purpose, and because this purpose is the purpose of one “who works all things after the counsel of his own will” (Eph. 1:11), we have nothing to fear. Even our faith is supported and birthed by God’s good purpose.
And then, this doctrine is delightful to the believer because it has as its end the glory of God, which is Paul’s point in Eph. 1:4-6. It is because God’s electing purpose is unconditional that God is most glorified. For if his purpose were conditioned on something we did or were, then God would not be free and sovereign. Rather, as John Piper puts it, he would be dependent upon man and would be bound to conform his will to their own self-determination. This is not the picture that the Bible paints of God. Moreover, because God’s electing purpose depends ultimately upon God, it means that he is a successful Savior. It means that he is not wringing his hands in heaven waiting and hoping that his plans will somehow work out, but rather is seated in heaven ruling without absolute certainly that his purposes will be fulfilled. He is sovereign and successful in his purposes and designs, and as such, is most worthy of our worship.
God’s word will not fall. It cannot fall. It will never fall. You can take every promise in the Bible to the bank. So, fearful believer, why not do it? Believe the promises that he will never leave you or forsake you. And sinner apart from Christ, why not do it? Believe the promise that if you call upon the name of his Son, God will freely receive you. We are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us, we plead with you in Christ’s name, be reconciled to God!
 John Piper comments, “Just as Isaac was a child of promise in that God willed in advance for him to be the heir of covenant promises and then worked sovereignly to fulfill his will, so also God wills in advance for particular individuals within Israel to be his ‘children’ and then by his Spirit sovereignly begets them anew.”