All Scripture quotations are from the 1901 American Standard Version unless otherwise noted. (slightly updated)
Romans 9 is one of the central passages of the New Testament in understanding the doctrine of election. Paul’s discussion really begins in chapter 8, and more specifically, Romans 8:28-39. Those verses serve as an introduction to and as a key to understanding this chapter. You may read my commentary on that passage here.
In interpreting this chapter, I believe we need to allow it to mean what it actually says. To understand the truths of God’s Word, we must not allow doctrinal preferences hinder our ability to see what’s actually being taught. I’ve learned from personal experience that we can go to great lengths to explain Scripture in a way that is in harmony with our personal belief system. I think the harder we have to work to explain Scripture away from it’s natural meaning, the more likely it is that we’re wrong in our interpretation. Generally speaking, I think the more simple explanations are likely the correct ones. The more complicated we get in our interpretations, the more likely we’re just scrambling to explain things in a way that lines up with what we believe. We must allow truth to lead us as it wants to lead us, while being careful not to allow the influence of positional preferences to cloud our understanding. As it applies to Romans 9, I’m talking specifically about our understanding of Israel in the New Covenant and to the doctrine of election.
Where the Bible speaks of election or the elect, of being chosen, or of predestination, I believe the proper understanding is what we normally assign to those terms, which is selective choosing among other options. Yet, what should be easily and unforcibly understood about election, many go out of their way to explain it in a way that is contrary to the norm. We must allow election to be defined in its most naturally and most commonly understood form.
I believe the natural and normal way of understanding election is, that God selectively chose certain individuals for salvation — those whom He foreknew. God’s grace in its purest and most comprehensive form, is that salvation is given as a total gift to those whom He elected for it. This grace includes the faith to receive it. Thus according to the full measure of God’s grace, at some point – as appointed by God – He intervenes in the lives of His elect via regeneration, and draws them to His Son, granting them spiritual understanding and faith to receive Him as Lord and Savior. That’s true grace. That’s true sovereignty. That’s true election.
A major key to understanding this chapter – and election in general – is the proper relationship between Israel and the Church. Paul reveals in the first several verses that true Israel is not composed of those who are the natural offspring of Abraham, but that true Israel is composed of those who are the spiritual offspring of Abraham. Thus true Israel under the New Covenant is revealed to be the Church in Christ — and the individual members who make up the Church. So we see that election is both corporate and individual. The election of Israel was a type of the election of the Church. It’s through the election of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob that we understand the doctrine of election. Their election reveals the true form of election, which is revealed to be God’s unconditional Sovereign choice of those whom He foreknew, both corporately and individually.
Election is patterned by national Israel. God chose the whole nation of Israel to be His people. Although God has always had but one redemptive elect people, He chose the whole nation of Israel to represent Him and through whom to carry out His will. Although Old Testament Israel consisted of both believers and unbelievers, God Himself referred to them corporately as His people. It’s the choosing of the whole nation that provides the pattern for the New Testament election of His people, which is corporate. This pattern of corporate choosing of a people unto Himself, continues in Christ as the elect Church. However, the Church is composed of individual members. Therefore, the unconditional election of the Church must be the same for the members who make up the Church. Accordingly, the doctrine of election is to be understood as the unconditional election of both the corporate body of Christ and the individuals who comprise that body.
In regard to the fact that the election of OT Israel consisted of both believers and unbelievers, it reveals the imperfection of Israel and the insufficient nature of the Old Covenant. In the New Covenant we see election perfected in Christ and His Church. The choosing of imperfect Israel served as a mere type and shadow of the choosing of that which is perfect, which is the Church in Christ — spiritual Israel in Him. Thus we see that Israel is perfected in Christ as both a nation and in its election (1 Peter 2:4-10).
With that brief introduction, we’re now better prepared to understand what Paul is teaching in this chapter.
(Ro 9:1-5) 1 I say the truth in Christ, I lie not, my conscience bearing witness with me in the Holy Spirit, 2 that I have great sorrow and unceasing pain in my heart. 3 For I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren’s sake, my kinsmen according to the flesh: 4 who are Israelites; whose is the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises; 5 whose are the fathers, and of whom is the Christ according to the flesh, who is over all, God blessed for ever. Amen.
What Paul was about to say, was the “truth in Christ.” Apparently Paul thought that what he was about to say would seem so astonishing to others, that he felt it necessary to preface what he was about to say with those words. He wanted his readers to understand that he really meant what he was about to say, and that the Holy Spirit was witness: That he had such a love and concern for Israel, that he was willing to give up his own salvation if it meant the salvation of Israel….if that were possible.
“The proper grammatical construction of the word used here is not I did wish, but I could desire; that is, if the thing were possible. It is not I do wish, or did wish, but I could desire, (\~hucomhn\~) implying that he was willing now to endure it; that his present love for them was so strong, that he would, if practicable, save them from the threatened ruin and apostasy.”
Paul was the Apostle to the Gentiles, and as such, he was accused by the Jews of teaching things that were contrary to their religion — thus putting himself at odds with the Jewish religion. They were incorrect, of course, but that is how he was perceived by them. So here, he makes it clear that he was no enemy of Israel, but in fact, had a sincere love and concern for them. So much so, that he had “great sorrow and unceasing pain in his heart.”
So, throughout the next three chapters (9-11) he makes his appeal to Israel (though he is addressing primarily Gentile believers in this letter, Ro 1:13), and explains their situation, and why. But in doing so, he also is addressing the Gentiles, and how they relate to Israel. He wants Israel to see the truth that is in Christ, and he wants the Gentiles to understand the grace and mercy and kindness that God has shown to them.
The Israelites were God’s chosen people (Ro 11:1). It was through them that He revealed Himself to the world. It was to them and through them that the Word of God came. It was through the Jewish prophets that God spoke and taught and warned and encouraged. It was to them and through them that He performed miracles and displayed His glory. Most importantly, it was through Israel that the Savior of the world came:
(Ro 9:5) 5 whose are the fathers, and of whom is the Christ according to the flesh, who is over all, God blessed for ever. Amen.
God made a covenant with Abraham, that in him “all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen 12:3; Gen 18:18; Gen 22:18), and that he would “become the father of many nations” (Gen 17:5; Ro 4:17-18). This was in reference to Christ. It was through the lineage of Abraham that Christ, the Savior of the world, would come.
It’s at this point that we begin to get a clue to where Paul is going with this. Israel was God’s chosen nation. They were God’s elect people. However, they didn’t understand that their election continued on through Christ and His Church, which began with Abraham.
Verses 5 thru 13 form a unit. It provides the foundation for understanding the rest of the chapter, and on through chapter 11.
Israel’s Failure, Not God’s
(Ro 9:5-8) 5 whose are the fathers, and of whom is the Christ according to the flesh, who is over all, God blessed for ever. Amen.
6 But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For they are not all Israel, that are of Israel: 7 neither, because they are Abraham’s offspring, are they all children: but, in Isaac shall your offspring be called. 8 That is, it is not the children of the flesh that are children of God; but the children of the promise are counted as offspring.
William MacDonald, Believer’s Bible Commentary:
“The apostle now faces up to a serious theological problem. If God made promises to Israel as His Chosen earthly people, how can this be squared with Israel’s present rejection and with the Gentiles being brought into the place of blessing? Paul insists that this does not indicate any breach of promise on God’s part. He goes on to show that God has always had a sovereign election process based upon promise and not just on lineal descent. Just because a person is born into the nation of Israel does not mean that he is an heir to the promises. Within the nation of Israel, God has a true believing remnant.”
“who is over all, God” (vs 5)
Israel needed to understand that the One they were rejecting, was in truth, their God: Yahweh. People today of other religions need to understand the same thing, that in their rejection of Christ, they reject the very God they seek to worship.
The “promises” to Israel as the people of God have not failed, but are fulfilled in Christ, who came through their line. The failure is on the part of Israel for not seeing and understanding. When God made a covenant with Abraham and his offspring (Gen 17:4-9), it was with Christ in view as the total fulfillment of that covenant.
Not every Jew is a child of Abraham, or a child of God. The true children of Abraham are not those who are of physical descent (“children of the flesh”), but those who are of spiritual descent, who are of the “faith of Abraham,” (“children of the promise”). Paul deals with this in detail in Gal 3:6-9, and in Gal 3:16-29.
In other words, true Israel is not the nation of Israel, it’s not the Jewish race. True Israel is not that which is physical, but that which is spiritual. It’s not the natural offspring of Abraham that is true Israel, but the spiritual offspring of Abraham that is true Israel.
Please take time to read those passages in Galatians. In fact, Galatians 2:15 thru the end of chapter 4 provide greater detail of what Paul describes here in this passage, and throughout chapters 9-11. Paul’s discussion in Galatians serves as a great introduction to what he talks about in these chapters.
Israel as a nation failed to understand that the true people of God, the true “offspring of Abraham,” the true “children of God,” are those who are in Christ. It’s those who place their faith in Him that are the “children of promise” and the “children of Abraham.” It’s not those who are of physical descent, but those who are of spiritual descent who are children of Abraham and children of God. It’s not that God has forsaken Israel. On the contrary, His promises to them as His people have been fulfilled in Christ, their Messiah. While the nation of Israel were God’s elect people, this process of election continues on through Christ and His Church, as a spiritual nation in Him.
Paul, in Galatians:
(Gal 3:16) 16 Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, ‘And to offfsprings,’ referring to many, but referring to one. ‘And to your offspring,’ who is Christ.” ESV
(Gal 3:26-29) 26 for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. 27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you are Christ’s then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. ESV
Paul in Romans:
(Ro 2:28-29) 28 For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. 29 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. ESV
(Ro 10:11-12) 11 For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” 12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. ESV
True Israel is not the nation of Israel, but is Christ Himself, who is the true offspring of Abraham (Gal 3:16). Jesus is, thus, a nation of One. Likewise, His Church is spiritual Israel in Him. However, the Church is made up of individuals, who are spiritual Jews in Christ as spiritual offspring (Ro 2:28-29). Thus we see that election is both corporate and individual.
To be clear, Old Testament Israel was a type of the Church. More specifically, Israel has its fulfillment and continuation in the Church in Christ. Accordingly, the corporate pattern of election of national Israel continues in Christ as the Church. God chose His Church to be His redemptive people. Therefore, it was His Church for whom Christ died (Eph 5:25-27). They are His corporate elect people, just as Israel was God’s corporate elect people. So we see that election is the corporate choosing of His people. However, the Church is composed of individuals. Therefore, the election of the individual must be the same as it is for the corporate body. Meaning, the unconditional Sovereign election of the Church is the same for the individual members of the Church.
It was never God’s will or intention that salvation be restricted to just the Jews, or to provide salvation to the Jews just because they were the physical “offspring” of Abraham. Again, the primary reference to “offspring” (Gal 3:16) that God talked about with Abraham, is Christ. The secondary reference to “offspring” (Gal 3:29) is everyone who belongs to Christ through faith in HIm. We become offspring of Abraham through our relationship with Jesus. In other words, through Christ we are the spiritual offspring of Abraham. Our election is in Christ, and we as the Church, are the elect people of God, just as the nation of Israel were the elect people of God. The Church is the spiritual counterpart of Israel.
At this point, I want to repeat what I said in my introduction to reinforce what I said there, or in case you missed it:
“In regard to the fact that the election of OT Israel consisted of both believers and unbelievers, it reveals the imperfection of Israel and the insufficient nature of the Old Covenant. In the New Covenant we see election perfected in Christ and His Church. The choosing of imperfect Israel served as a mere type and shadow of the choosing of that which is perfect, which is the Church in Christ — spiritual Israel in Him. Thus we see that Israel is perfected in Christ as both a nation and in its election (1 Peter 2:4-10).”
Spiritual Israel or New Israel consists not only of Jews of faith, but also of Gentiles of faith. The wall between us has been broken down, and we have become one through our common faith in Christ, as Paul explains in Ephesians 2:13-22.
(Ro 9:9-13) 9 For this is the word of promise, According to this season will I come, and Sarah shall have a son. 10 And not only so; but Rebecca also having conceived by one, even by our father Isaac— 11 for the children being not yet born, neither having done anything good or bad, that the purpose of God according to election might continue, not of works, but of him that calls, 12 it was said unto her, The elder shall serve the younger. 13 Even as it is written, Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.
Those “whom He foreknew” (Ro 8:29) are the “children of God” (Ro 9:8). This is they who are “in Christ Jesus” (Ro 8:1). For God to foreknow His people, is not to be understood as something that is merely passive, but involves an elective purpose (Ro 9:11) — which extends through the line of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and ending in Christ and His Church. Our election is in Christ (Eph 1:4). It’s the spiritual offspring of Abraham who are the “children of Abraham” and the “children of God” (Ro 9:6-8), which are those who share Abraham’s faith (Ro 4:16; Ga 3:7-9). God’s elective plan and the promise of salvation to the world came through Isaac (Ro 9:6-13). In choosing Isaac and Jacob, God was of course choosing His Son (Lu 9:35), who was to come through their line. God chose to bring His Son into the world through them. Furthermore, just as God specifically chose both Isaac and Jacob for salvation through Him before they came into the world, so did God specifically choose all others who were to believe in Christ, as spiritual offspring. Thus, the nature of election is understood through them.
(Ro 9:14) 14 What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? Certainly not!
There is no “unrighteousness with God” in choosing Jacob over Esau to bring Christ the Savior into the world. There is no “unrighteousness with God” in fulfilling His plan of election through the line of Jacob. In other words, there is no “unrighteousness with God” in choosing those who are in the spiritual line of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It’s the spiritual line that is in view in Paul’s discussion. Those who are in the spiritual line – by God’s grace – are every bit elect as Isaac and Jacob were. In other words, in electing Isaac and Jacob for salvation before they even came into the world – those whom He foreknew – so did God elect for salvation everyone else whom He foreknew as His own. The election of Isaac and Jacob reveals the form of election for everyone else. God definitely chose to bring the Savior into the world through their line, and He definitely chose Isaac and Jacob for salvation in Him. Their election represents our election. Their faith represents our faith. Their salvation represents our salvation.
God’s choosing of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is the choosing of all of God’s people. Their election represents the election of all of God’s people (Christ’s sheep – John 10). Their election encompasses the election of all the elect in Christ. To this Paul asks, “is there unrighteousness with God? Certainly not!” Then Paul gives the reason:
(Ro 9:15) 15 For he says to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.
God’s plan of election, which consists of all the elect within that plan, is a plan of Sovereign choice. He shows mercy to whom He will. He has compassion on whom He will. Those whom God foreknew in eternity past, are those who receive the mercy of God. Those who receive God’s mercy are those whom He has always known as His own. The recipients of His mercy have always been His elect sheep (John 10) and His Elect Church (Eph 5:22-33) — those whom He selectively chose and called out of this world unto Himself among all other options (individuals). The election of His people was according to His own will and purpose and glory (Eph 1:1-14; Ro 8:28-30).
(Ro 9:16) 16 So then it is not of him that wills, nor of him that runs, but of God that has mercy.
Our election is not something we can “will” for ourselves. It’s not by “human effort” (“runs”) in any way, shape or form. Our election is not within ourselves. Our election is in Christ, according to His Sovereign will. Both God’s plan of election and the elect of that plan, is totally God’s doing, His Sovereign choice. Just as we had no control or say when we were born into this world, so also we have no control or say in regard to the new birth. Our election in Christ is just as much out of our control as being born into the human race. There’s absolutely no reason to believe that we have any more say in our spiritual birth as we did in our physical birth. God’s sovereignty is seen in both.
That means that those who come to faith in Christ, do so because they are Christ’s elect sheep and are drawn to Him when they hear the gospel message (Jn 10:25-27; Jn 6:37,44-45). Faith and salvation is a gift of grace (Eph 2:8-9), which is reserved for His elect. To suggest that we can cast the final vote for our spiritual life, is to suggest that we can cast the final vote of our physical life. God is Sovereign, and has control over both the physical and the spiritual. There’s no way that we can be the deciding factor over our new birth, anymore than we can be the deciding factor over our physical birth. These two areas are out of our domain.
That’s not to say that sinners are not responsible before God, because they are. No one ever goes to hell who doesn’t deserve it. Those who reject Christ do so because that is what is in their heart. When someone hears the gospel of Jesus Christ and rejects Him as their Lord and Savior, that’s their own decision. It’s a genuine rejection. Those who hear and reject the gospel message, will be judged for their sins the same as those who never heard it. However, I believe that those who did hear the gospel message, will be held to a higher level of accountability.
Think about it, God is in total control throughout the whole salvation process (Ro 8:28-33). We’re forgiven, justified, glorified, regenerated with a new nature, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, brought into a right relationship with God, blessed with every spiritual blessing (Eph 1:3), have Heaven as our eternal Home, etc. What sense then does it make that in this process, any part of it is within the scope of power of someone who is “dead in trespasses and sins (Eph 2:1)? Why would election be the only component of our salvation that is not completely God’s doing? How can mere human beings decide who are or who becomes the elect of God? There is no sense to such an idea. God is in Sovereign control from beginning to end in the process of salvation.
(Ro 9: 17-18) 17 For the scripture says to Pharaoh, For this very purpose did I raise you up, that I might show in you my power, and that my name might be published abroad in all the earth. 18 So then, he has mercy on whom he wills, and whom he wills he hardens.
In order to interpret what Paul says in these verses, we must keep the subject of his discussion in mind, which is the plan and the pathway of that plan. It’s all about the “continuation” (Ro 9:11) of God’s plan of election to call a people out of this world for Himself, which began with Abraham and ended with Christ who came through his line. This was His plan and the pathway He chose.
In order for God’s plan for an elected people to continue, He does whatever He needs to do to ensure its fulfillment. That awareness allows us to understand why Paul brings Pharaoh into the discussion. God had to deliver Israel, His people, in order for His plan to continue. God “raised up” Pharaoh not only to demonstrate His power in him, but also because delivering His people from bondage was something He needed to do: “that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” How is God’s name proclaimed throughout the whole earth? Is it not through the gospel of Jesus Christ? Yes! The gospel of Jesus Christ could only be proclaimed if He was born into the world, which God chose to be through Israel. Therefore, God had to deliver His chosen line of salvation.
After Paul mentions Pharaoh, he says, “So then, He has mercy on whom He wills, and whom He wills He hardens.” Again, I believe Paul is making the point that God does whatever He needs to do in order to carry out His plan of election to completion. In Pharaoh’s case, God had to harden him in order to have mercy on the people of Israel and on His redemptive elect.
I believe Paul brings up Pharaoh as an example of what God did to ensure the fulfillment of His plan of election, which of course, has already been fulfilled in Christ. Israel had to be saved and brought into the promised land so that God could carry out His will through them. I think Paul could have talked about other events, such as the events that led up to the cross, and those too would have revealed the details of God’s involvement in the fulfillment of His plan.
To be clear, in hardening Pharaoh, his heart was already hardened against God. God simply hardened it further in a manner that would allow Him to carry out His plan and purpose for Israel.
(Ro 9:19-24) 19 You will say then to me, Why does he still find fault? For who resists his will? 20 No but, who are you, O man, to reply against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why did you make me like this? 21 Or has not the potter a right over the clay, from the same lump to make one part a vessel for honor, and another for dishonor? 22 What if God, although wanting to show his wrath and to make his power known, endured with much longsuffering vessels of wrath made for destruction? 23 And he did so, that he might make known the riches of his glory upon vessels of mercy, which he prepared beforehand for glory, 24 even us, whom he also called, not from the Jews only, but also from the Gentiles.
“vessel for honor; vessels of mercy” = God’s redemptive elect people, both Jew and Gentile. We see here both singular and plural, representing both the individual and the corporate people of God. These vessels are “prepared beforehand for glory” (Ro 8:30). That is, for salvation as a new creation in Christ; for eternity in the presence of God.
“another for dishonor; vessels of wrath” = The non-elect. These vessels are “made for destruction.” That is, for eternal judgment. Specifically, these vessels refer to unbelieving Israel; generally, they refer to the whole unbelieving world.
Here we see in these two types of vessels, the two types of people who are in the world: the elect and non-elect; those in Christ and those not in Christ; those who belong to God and those who don’t; those who will spend eternity with God and those who won’t.
When we consider how God chose Isaac and Jacob (over Esau), and how He, likewise, chose all His elect in their spiritual line, and how He hardened Pharaoh’s heart, we tend to respond as Paul words it here: “Why does he still find fault? For who resists his will?” and “why did you make me like this?” Or to paraphrase:
“If God is sovereign, and intervenes in lives and nations and situations, as He did in the case of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (and Esau)….and in the case of Pharaoh and Israel, why does He still find fault with those whom He deals with? For who can resist what He does among nations and in people’s lives as He carries out His purpose?”
Since God has created each of us for His purpose, and if He has selectively chosen certain individuals for salvation, and if He hardens whomever necessary to carry out His grand plan, then how can God still find fault with those who are not among His elect people?
I think most of us, at least initially, when we discover that election is according to God’s Sovereign choice, it hits us in a negative way, because it’s something that we simply can’t comprehend in our understanding of fairness and justice. However, Paul responds to such thinking: “who are you, O man, to reply against God?” With our limited understanding, since we don’t see the whole picture as God does, we have no right to sit in judgment of God. What God requires of us is to simply trust Him. We must rest in the knowledge that God is altogether good and righteous and holy and just and wise in everything He does. He sees what we don’t. He knows what we don’t. Furthermore, He is Almighty God! He is the Creator and Ruler of the universe. He is the “Potter” and we are the “clay.” Accordingly, God has a “right” to do with His clay as He sees fit. We must recognize our proper place and submit to His Sovereign authority.
The phrase, “show his wrath and to make his power known” (vs. 22) is similar to the description in verse 17: “For the scripture says to Pharaoh, For this very purpose did I raise you up, that I might show in you my power, and that my name might be published abroad in all the earth.” At that time, Pharaoh and his people were “vessels of wrath,” and the people of Israel were “vessels of mercy.” God displayed His wrath against Egypt so that He could show His mercy to the people of Israel, as well as to the rest of the world — for through them would come the Christ, the Savior of the world.
Soon after God delivered them, the situation flip-flopped with Israel. In the midst of much sin, they rebelled against God and made a golden calf to worship instead. They were then the ones that became the objects of God’s wrath. He wanted to destroy all of Israel, and make a great nation out of Moses. But Moses interceded on their behalf and reminded God of His covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Israel (Ex 32:9-14), so God responded according to Moses’ appeal. But Israel eventually became more wicked than the people they drove out of the land of Canaan. Ultimately, they rejected their Messiah, the very One their Scriptures spoke of. Now, the elect people of God – consisting of both believing Jews and believing Gentiles – are the “vessels of mercy.”
Thus where Paul says, “What if God, although wanting to show His wrath and to make His power known,” he’s talking about the fact that although God desired to show His wrath against rebellious Israel, He endured with them in order to “make known the riches of his glory upon vessels of mercy,” which is Christ’s Church, consisting of both believing Jews and Gentiles, as we see in verse 24:
(Ro 9:24) 24 even us, whom he also called, not from the Jews only, but also from the Gentiles.
God endured unbelieving Israel in order to show mercy to the believing remnant of Israel (Ro 9:27; 11:15), and on the believing Gentiles, which together make up the Church. God endured the nation of Israel so that His plan of election (His plan to call out of the world a people for His name), would be carried out. This plan was completed in the death and resurrection of Christ, who came through the line of Israel (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob). This plan, and the pathway of that plan, is what Paul has been talking about throughout this chapter.
(Ro 9:25-26) 25 As he says also in Hosea, “I will call those my people, who were not ‘my people;’ and her ‘beloved,’ who was not beloved.” 26 “And it shall be, that in the place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ there shall they be called ‘sons of the living God.’”
Paul has been talking about the situation with Israel and the Gentiles throughout this chapter. He talks about how the Gentiles relate to Israel in God’s plan of election. He puts them side by side, not only throughout this chapter, but also throughout chapters 10 and 11. Accordingly, the identification of who Paul is talking about in these two verses are Gentile believers. The combination of the two believing groups of Jews and Gentiles are the “vessels of mercy,” which is the Church.
(Ro 9:27-28) 27 And Isaiah cries out concerning Israel, “If the number of the children of Israel be as the sand of the sea, it is the remnant that shall be saved: 28 for the Lord will execute his sentence upon the earth completely and quickly.”
The “remnant” are Jewish believers. In verses 25-26, Paul’s focus is on the Gentiles. In these verses his focus is on Israel. Throughout history, only a remnant of Israel have been believers. This will continue to be the case all the way to the end of history when Jesus returns and “executes his sentence upon the earth completely and quickly,” at which time, all believers are then ushered into the eternal kingdom (Rev 21 & 22). As with Israel, only remnant of the Gentile world are saved. Thus the elect of God are the remnant from both groups.
(Ro 9:29) 29 And, as Isaiah has said before, “If the Lord of Sabaoth had not left us offspring, We would have become as Sodom, and would have been made like Gomorrah.”
Were it not for the “remnant” of believing Jews, and were it not for God’s covenant with Abraham – through whom the Savior of the world would come – the nation of Israel would have been wiped out. God nearly did so when He moved against the Northern (Israel) and Southern (Judah) kingdoms, where the few that were left went into Assyrian and Babylonian captivity, respectively (2 Kings 17 and 2 Kings 24 and 25).
Eventually, Jerusalem and its temple (which together represented all Israel) was destroyed in AD 70 for their unbelief and rejection of their Messiah, just as Jesus had foretold (Matt 23:37-24:2). However, it was the “remnant” of Israel at that time that established the Church and initially spread the gospel of Jesus Christ around the world.
(Ro 9:30-31) 30 What shall we say then? That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, attained righteousness, even the righteousness that is by faith: 31 but Israel, pursuing a law of righteousness, did not attain it.
Here we see the Sovereign grace of God. He intervened among the Gentiles and brought them the gospel message, “calling” His elect from their midst (vs.24). He turned His focus away from the nation of Israel and to the people worldwide. I think this is one of the strongest arguments for unconditional Sovereign election. Together with verses 23-26 (also Ro 10:19-20; 11:11), we see that it was God who went to the Gentiles, making salvation available worldwide, “calling” them unto Himself. It was not the Gentiles who “pursued” God, but it was God who pursued them — to this very day. They “attained righteousness” because it was God who sovereignly intervened and sought them out (Lu 19:19).
For the first time in this chapter, Paul mentions faith. I believe the reason for that is because the details of personal salvation was not the focus of his discussion. His focus was on the plan and pathway of election (unto salvation), as it relates to Israel and the Gentiles.
Paul makes it clear to the Jews that salvation (“righteousness”) is by faith (in Christ), not by works of the Law.
(Ro 9:32-33) 32 Why? Because they sought it not by faith, but as it were by works. They stumbled over the stone of stumbling; 33 even as it is written, “Behold, I lay in Zion a stone of stumbling and a rock of offence: And the one who believes in him will not be put to shame.”
(See 1 Peter 2:4-10)
Israel believed that righteousness in the eyes of God came by following the Law, as descendants of Abraham. They were not true believers, but like the Pharisees, they merely went through the motions of following the Law, while their heart was far from God. If they were true believers in Yahweh, they would have recognized Jesus as coming from Him. They would have recognized Yahweh in Jesus, through the words He spoke and the life He lived and the miracles He performed. Instead, they “stumbled” over Him. By rejecting their Messiah, they were “put to shame.”
Following the Law was God’s will for Israel under the Old Covenant, but following the Law was to be the outward reflection of an inward heart of faith. Obedience follows true faith. Following the Law without faith is no more than legalism. There was no true relationship with God.