Given both the difficult of the passage and its place in how Calvinists (such as myself) understand the concepts of election and reprobation in God’s act of salvation, I thought I might attempt to do a series of posts that walk through my exegesis of the passage. I don’t pretend that I am the final authority on this text, or that my exegesis is the pinnacle of Reformed thought regarding this passage; however, I’ve spent years grappling with these twenty-three verses, so I’m going to lay out my understanding of the passage in question. I hope that it’s helpful.
In order to understand Paul’s argument in Romans 9, the first thing you have to do is grapple with and grasp the centrality of 9:14-23 in Paul’s argument. The exegetical reality is that vv. 14-23 are the center of Paul’s argument, and if you go wrong there, you have missed the point of the entire chapter, which is Paul’s attempt to defend the righteousness of God in predestination. But if vv. 14-23 are so central, why am I starting with vv. 1-5?
The answer to that question can be stated in two parts:
- I begin with vv. 1-5 because you can’t understand Paul’s defense of God’s righteousness in predestination without first understanding the reasons Paul must defend God’s righteousness. Verses 14-23 can only be understood in light of the assertions in vv. 6-13 that seem to have called the righteousness of God into question. But all of vv. 6-13 exist to prove that “the word of God has not fallen” (v. 6a), and that is only understandable in light of vv. 1-5 which help us understand in what sense God’s promises have been called into question.
- I also begin with Romans 9:1-5 because in the history of interpretation of Romans 9, I have found that non-Calvinist interpreters tend to divorce Romans 9:6-23 from the first five verses of the chapter. If you artificially ignore these five verses, you are not handling the text rightly, as Romans 9:1-5 raises the issue (in summary form) that all of vv. 6-23 responds to. Furthermore, if, as the non-Calvinist interpreters assert, Paul is speaking of the predestination of nations or groups and not about the predestination of individuals to salvation, then we must ask the question, “Does Paul ever speak of individuals in this passage? If so, where is the exegetical evidence for him switching from speaking about individuals to speaking about nations?” The question, can indeed be asked in the opposite way as well. In short, we have to pay close attention to the text itself to see whom Paul is speaking about, and then look to see if the subject of Paul’s discussion changes.
The Close Connection Between Romans 1-8, and 9-11
But before we turn to an examination of Romans 9:1-5, we need to examine its context. How does it relate to the preceding eight chapters? Romans 9 is not disconnected from the rest of the epistle; as Romans 8 reaches its climax speaking of the hope of the Christian, we learn that this hope is entirely based on God’s faithfulness to his word (Romans 8:28-30). But this immediately raises the (quite logical) question, “How can Christians trust God’s faithfulness to his word when said faithfulness seems to have failed the Jews?” Given the unbelief of Israel and their consequent separation from Christ, it seems that God has not been faithful in keeping the promises he made to them. So if God hasn’t kept his promises to Israel, how can the new community of Christians trust that God will keep his promises to them?
So from Paul’s perspective, Romans 9-11 exists to secure the hope of the Christian that was set forth in Romans 1-8; the main point, in fact, that all of chapters 9-11 exist to support is found in verse 6: “the word [promise]of God has not fallen”, even though Israel has fallen into unbelief and rejection of Christ. What is at stake in Romans 9-11 is not ultimately the fate of Israel; what is at stake is the trustworthiness of God himself.
So what precisely is it that makes God’s word seem to have fallen, but really doesn’t impugn his faithfulness at all?