Commentary on Romans 9:15

14 Jun

In verse 13 we have begun to get at the heart of a very difficult, passage. We said that the central question Paul is dealing with in verses 14-18 is the matter of whether God is unjust. This is the conclusion Paul expected his readers to think about after having read or heard his words about God’s right to choose and make distinctions among people without regard to anything within or outside the people themselves.

Now it’s important heading into this passage to go back to the beginning of chapter 9 where we see Paul’s anguish for his kinsmen according to the flesh, the people of Israel. The reason this is important is because it helps us to see as we come to verses 14-18 that Paul is not dealing with an academic, theoretical issue but with one that has amazing implications for life and ministry. And for us we are not talking about these things without regard to real people, people we love, people we know. Paul is not in an ivory tower somewhere and neither should we deal with this as an academic discussion. These issues are of vital importance to him, because the character of God is Paul’s confidence. He knows that if he can’t trust in the character of God than all is lost but that if he can rest in who God is, he can face anything with confidence and hope. And again, it’s the same for us. Our confidence is in God’s character, not in our circumstances. If you trust in your circumstances you will live an absolute roller coaster life, always pushed and pulled by the joy and sadness of life. So Paul sets out beginning in verse 6 defending God’s character.

Paul made it clear that the unbelief of Israel is not inconsistent with God’s promise. Not all who are Israel are Israel. And God knew this. God never meant to say that every single physical descendant of Abraham would be a child of the promise, one who inherited all the blessings of Israel culminating in the Messiah, Jesus. Salvation has never been and will never be an issue of natural origin. This is proven in John 1:12, “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”The issue is not whether you are Jew or Gentile but whether you are born of God. In the case of God’s promise to Abraham, only one of his sons was the son of the promise. Isaac was the son of the promise while Ishmael was not. And this was God’s call. So that no one will make the argument that Ishmael was less worthy of the promise because he was the child of the slave woman Hagar, Paul points to the example of Jacob and Esau.

Here we have these twins, who were born at the same time, who had done nothing either good or bad, yet God chooses Jacob rather than Esau. Why? In order that God’s purpose in election might stand, not by works but by Him who calls. What is God’s purpose in election? I believe God’s purpose in election is seen in that last phrase, “him who calls.” What God wants to demonstrate in election is that it is God who saves. In this way, He gets the glory, we get the joy and all ground of trying to distinguish ourselves from others in order to make our way with God is removed. Boasting is excluded.

So why did God choose Jacob and not Esau? Because God is God. He has the right to choose as He wishes. God’s word has not failed because His word of promise is for every person among the children of Israel whom He had chosen.

So Paul defends the trustworthiness of God’s promise but in doing so he raises another issue. If salvation is based on God’s faithfulness to His own promise, how can God be just, or righteous in saving some but not others? If we are saved by God’s choice alone, how can God be fair in choosing some and condemning others? That’s the issue Paul sets out to explain in verses 14-18.

There is no doubt that this section of Scripture is challenging for us and is among the most difficult parts of Scripture for us to understand. But this is not because it is unclear, it is rather because it is clear but we are not comfortable with what it says. This passage is about the sovereignty of God, His absolute freedom of will. And it is a defense of God’s righteousness in light of that absolute sovereign will. This passage is difficult because we are going into the depths of the ways of the infinite God. But I want to make it very clear: if you will press through here, I believe you will come away strengthened in faith. Just because something is difficult doesn’t mean it is not worthwhile. In fact, difficult things can often be the most worthwhile things. Somehow, we’ve got out of our minds in church life the idea that unless it is really simple and spoon fed for us as Christians, we can’t take it. We study science or math or we have all kinds of know-how about computers or we can carry off difficult recipes or do some really technical handiwork and we don’t give it a second thought. I was talking with someone this week about how the game of golf is largely muscle memory. You give yourself to practice and you can improve. But if you only play once every six weeks you will probably be the same golfer in five years that you are today. The same thing applies to our walk with God. There is a muscle memory aspect here. If you will give your mind to spiritual truth and press into knowing God, you will grow as the Holy Spirit works in you. But if you come to church sporadically and read your Bible sporadically you can expect that you probably won’t grow a whole lot. So I urge you to take up the challenge to grow. Give yourself to knowing these truths.

14 What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means!

The “what shall we say then?” is, of course, connecting these verses that follow with the previous argument in verses 6-13.

Emil Brunner said, “We want to measure God by our yardstick. But God’s righteousness cannot be measured by our standards. It includes his absolute sovereign freedom; else he would not be the God who freely bestows.”

So the choice of God can’t be based on anything in us or else it is not free choice. And since we are dead in our sins we won’t choose apart from God’s power. I do not believe as some do that God’s sovereign choice is based on His foreknowledge of the choices we will make as human beings, that somehow election is about affirming the course we will choose and not about God doing the choosing. The reason I don’t believe this is because if it is true then the ground of God’s choosing would be human merit. Even if one says we are saved by faith, if that faith is my doing rather than God’s gift, I am being saved by my own merit rather than by God’s mercy. My salvation is based on God’s right to choose. Do I still have to believe? Absolutely. But I will not believe unless God calls me to himself, as we see in Romans 8:29-30.

So how can this be fair? How can it be right that some are saved and some are lost? Well, remember Abraham’s words to God in Genesis 18:25 “Will not the judge of all the earth do right?” Abraham asks it in the form of a question but it is really a statement about the character of God. God is not inconsistent, He does all things well, He will not be unfair or unrighteous, He never sins. God’s righteousness is affirmed many times in the Psalms. Words like righteous and righteousness are used 254 times in the Psalms in the ESV. Many of these times refer to people but many other times the reference is to God. A good example is Psalm 119:137, “Righteous are You, O Lord, and upright in all Your judgments.”

One of my favorite passages in the Bible is Jeremiah 9:23-24, “The Lord says, Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, neither let the mighty man boast in his strength, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him that boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the Lord who exercises loving kindness, judgment and righteousness in the earth.”

Now it’s interesting that Jeremiah says boasting in God is rooted in understanding God’s kindness, judgment and righteousness. And when Paul talks about boasting, he talks about boasting in the cross. And in the cross we see the greatest display of God’s kindness, judgment and righteousness. So Jeremiah is hinting at what Paul unfolds, if you want to really know God, you have to know Him here in the midst of what we’re talking about tonight, in the depths of His character. God’s character is our confidence. As you think about and rest in the character of God, you will be changed. I think about 2 Corinthians 3:18 . . . “But we all with unveiled faces, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed from one degree of glory to another.” But note verses 7-11 in that chapter, “Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such glory that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses’ face because of its glory, which was being brought to an end, will not the ministry of the Spirit have even more glory? For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, the ministry of righteousness must far exceed it in glory. 10 Indeed, in this case, what once had glory has come to have no glory at all, because of the glory that surpasses it. 11 For if what was being brought to an end came with glory, much more will what is permanent have glory.” So the glory Paul is talking about in verse 18 that we are to behold is the glory not of the law but of the gospel. As we behold, gaze on, dwell on what Jesus has done, we are transformed. And the reason for this is because we see the character of God for what it really is. We are not transformed because we see that God has warm feelings for us. We are transformed because God saved us even though we were totally undeserving and could do nothing to save ourselves. And in saving us, God revealed Himself as mighty and merciful. And in saving us God’s character shines forth as He is seen as just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. God can be fully trusted.

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