What does Romans 9 teach?
Are we robots or free agents?
I have received this comment: “As for free will, your Bible states repeatedly that there is none. Paul does so directly in Romans 9, and this God’s repeated interference, controlling people’s minds, etc, abrogate free will”. So in this post we will look at what the Bible says in Romans 9. Because of the structure of this letter, Romans 10-11 are also considered.
Romans was written by Paul to believers in Rome in about AD 56. The theme of this letter is the gospel – the good news about Jesus Christ. According to MacDonald, in Romans Paul answers these main questions:
– What is the subject of the letter? (1:1, 9, 15- 16)
– What is the gospel? (1:1-17)
– Why do people need the gospel? (1:18-3:20)
– According to the gospel, how can ungodly sinners be justified by a holy God? (3:21-31)
– Does the gospel agree with the Old Testament Scripture? (4:1-25)
– What are the benefits of justification in the believer’s life? (5:1-21)
– Does the teaching of salvation by grace through faith permit or even encourage sinful living? (6:1-23)
– What is the relationship of the Christian to the Old Testament law? (7:1-25)
– How is the Christian enabled to live a holy life? (8:1-39)
– Does the gospel, by promising salvation to both Jews and Gentiles, mean that God has broken His promises to His earthly people, the Jews? (9:1-11:36)
– How should those who have been justified by grace respond in their everyday lives? (12:1-16:27)
The problem being addressed in Romans 9-11 is that most Jews in Paul’s day didn’t trust Christ.
According to Kingswood Hart, Romans 9-11 has a chiastic structure:
1. 9:1-5 Introduction – sorrow for unbelieving Jews
2. 9:6-29 Is it God’s fault? No, because He was not obliged to save all the Jews.
3. 9:30-10:3 Is it the Jews fault? Yes, because they lacked faith in Christ.
4. 10:4-13 God had made salvation available to all who trust Christ, whether Jew or Gentile.
3a. 10:14-21 Is it the Jews fault? Yes, because they failed to believe in Christ.
2a. 11:1-32 Is it God’s fault? No, because God hasn’t rejected any Jews.
1a. 11:33-36 Ending – praise at God’s wisdom and knowledge.
So Romans 9 considers whether it was God’s fault that most of the Jews in Paul’s day didn’t trust Christ. Because the Jews were God’s people in the Old Testament, there are at least 12 quotes from the Old Testament in this chapter.
Paul’s lament – 9:1-5
In Romans 3-4 Paul says that trusting in Christ’s work is necessary to get right with God. As a converted Jew, Paul had great compassion for the Jews because in their unbelief they had rejected the Messiah (v.1-3). He lists many privileges that God had given them, including great promises (v.4-5). Israel was God’s chosen people. But they didn’t claim the promises that God had given to them.
Because the Jews rejected the Messiah, salvation had now been made available to the Gentiles. And Jews who believed that they were following the law and that the works they were doing made them right with God were asking questions like: Shouldn’t God save them because they are Jews? Or had God broken His promises to the Jews? Had God finally rejected the Jews? This certainly appeared to be the case. This caused Paul great sorrow and anguish (v. 2). But Paul gives several reasons why the answer is “no”; God hadn’t forgotten His promises or rejected the Jews. Romans 9 looks at whether the problem was God’s fault and shows that God was not obliged to save all the Jewish race.
Has God been unfaithful? – 9:6-13
God hadn’t rejected the Jews because some Jews (like Paul) were believers (v.6). Elsewhere Paul calls them, “the Israel of God” (Gal. 6:16ESV). It was only a small number, like in the days of Elijah – they were called a “remnant” (Rom. 11:2-5). How were they saved? It was not because of their race (v.7-9); “not the children by physical descent” (v.8NIV). Or because of their good works (v.10-13, 16); “not by works” (v.10). God never promised to save people based on their race, nor is salvation based on works. Instead, God has decided to save everyone who has faith in Christ.
This was illustrated from Jewish history where Isaac was chosen by God to be an ancestor of the Messiah, but not Ishmael (even though they were both descendants of Abraham). And Jacob was chosen by God to be an ancestor of the Messiah, (even though God didn’t consider his works) but not Esau (v.7-13). These examples show that, even since the time of Abraham, God has been making choices that are not based on race or works. The reason Paul includes these examples is because of the way God makes the choice in the example, rather than because of what the choice is about. The choice God makes in each of the examples is not about salvation. Instead it’s about who would be part of the nation of Israel.
By the way, the “election” mentioned in v.11 was that God chose Jacob to be the brother that would inherit the promise made to Abraham, while Esau did not inherit this promise. And God revealed to Rebekah that each of her twins would become the ancestor of a nation, and that the nation of the younger twin (Jacob) would take precedence over the nation of the older twin (Esau). It has nothing to do with salvation. In this case the choice was made “by Him who calls” (God) (v.12). This shows that the method of salvation is up to God. And from the rest of the letter we know that it is based on trust in Christ.
God’s right to show mercy and to harden – 9:14-18
After hearing this the Jewish objectors could claim that it was unfair (unjust) for God to reject them because of their lack of faith in Christ. Instead, He should accept them on the basis of their race or works.
Paul states that salvation “does not, therefore, depend on human desire or effort, but on God’s mercy” (v.16) and uses two illustrations from the Old Testament showing that God was fair in dealing with Israel and Egypt as nations. When Israel turned to idolatry in worshipping the golden calf, the nation sinned and God said they deserved judgment (Ex. 32-33). He called them “stiff-necked people” (Appendix C), which means to be stubborn and obstinate (Ex. 32:9). In particular, they had disobeyed and rebelled against God soon after He had made a covenant with them. After this Moses prayed for them and the people were punished with a plague. Then Moses asked God to teach him His ways, to give an assurance that God would be with him as he led the Israelites, and to show His glory to Moses (Ex. 33:12-19). God agreed and said “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion” (Ex. 33:19; Rom. 9:15). According to the NET Bible, “Obviously, in this passage the recipients of that favor are the penitent Israelites who were forgiven through Moses’ intercession (Ex. 32:30-32). The mercy and compassion are at the heart of God’s dealings with people.” Soon after this God renewed His covenant with them (Ex. 34: 10-28).
God accepted Moses’ requests and the sinful Israelites for reasons that were not based on their desire to be righteous or their efforts in trying to be righteous. The lesson is that it is up to God to decide who will receive His blessing. In particular, the Jews had no right to tell God how He should go about His business of salvation. God has the right to save whoever He wants to save. And the system of salvation that God uses in the church age is described in the next chapter (Rom. 10:9-10).
After comparing the unbelieving Jews to that of Ishmael (v. 6b-9) and Esau (v. 10-13), Paul compares their situation to that of Pharaoh. God brought Pharaoh to power in Egypt to demonstrate His power to the world in order to promote evangelism (Ex. 9:16; Rom. 9:17). God wanted the whole world to know that salvation can be found through Him. Pharaoh was wicked, cruel, and extremely stubborn. In spite of the most solemn warnings he kept hardening his heart and sometimes God additionally hardened Pharaoh’s heart (he became more stubborn) as a judgment upon him. It gave Pharaoh the strength to do what he already wanted to do. God allowed Pharaoh’s sinful behavior to run its own course unhindered (Appendix A).
God also hardened the unbelieving Jews (Rom. 11:7), as Pharaoh had been hardened. The motivation behind the hardening was to bring salvation to more Gentiles, which would itself bring salvation to more of the Jews, due to their jealousy (Rom. 11:11). Unbelieving Jews, who have been hardened, can still come to faith in Christ (Rom. 11:23). In fact, God’s motivation for hardening them in the first place is to bring about a series of events that will cause more of them to be saved (Rom. 11:11, 30-32).
Then Paul says, “Therefore God has mercy on whom He wants to have mercy, and He hardens whom He wants to harden” (v.18). God has the right to have mercy on whoever He wants to have mercy, and to harden whoever He wants to harden. God has decided to have mercy on all who trust in Christ and to harden people who have rejected Christ. However, somebody who is hardened by God can eventually come to trust in His word and receive His mercy.
So in the Old Testament, God showed mercy to the nation of Israel and hardened the Egyptian nation. But who is God showing mercy to when Paul was writing? He was showing mercy to the Gentile nations and was hardening the Jews (Appendix B).
Is it right for God to find fault with unbelievers? – 9:19-20a
The next question the Jews could ask is “Why does God blame people for not responding? Haven’t they simply done what He makes them do?” (v.19 NLT). Or “How can God blame us, if He makes us behave in the way He wants us to?” (CEV) This is what the commentator thought – that God determines what people do by controlling their minds. In this case the Jews could think, why does God find fault with us as we are not preventing God from achieving His purposes. As we have seen, their unbelief led to the gospel being proclaimed to the Gentiles and it could bring about a series of events that will cause more of the Jews to be saved. The objector is implying that God should not judge sin, because sin does not prevent God achieving His purposes.
Paul’s answer is “But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God?” (v.20a). He dismisses the argument as being man-made and not in accordance with God’s ways. People shouldn’t tell God who should or should not be judged. We don’t have the capacity to evaluate God’s justice. But because He is God, He never acts unjustly.
And people are not like robots, where all they do is determined by God. An unbelieving Jew may ask, “who can resist God’s will?” (v. 19) The answer is that he has resisted God’s will! The Bible says that God wants “wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4) and He wants “everyone to come to repentance” (2 Pt. 3:9).
The Potter and the clay – 9:20b-23
An unbelieving Jew may ask God, “Why did you make me like this?” (v. 20). Paul likened this objection to the situation of a moulded vessel (a pot) saying to the person who moulded it, “you should not have made me into one of these”, which is a ridiculous situation! As the potter has the right to make whatever they want out of the clay, God has the right to judge whoever He considers it appropriate to judge. No one being judged has the right to tell God that He should not be judging them. And we know that God has decided to judge those who reject Christ and refuse to repent (Rom. 2:5).
Although there is a quote from Isaiah 29:16 and Isaiah 45:9 in v.20, the illustration of the potter and the clay (v.21-23) would have reminded the Jews of Jeremiah 18:1-12. In Jeremiah whenever the vessel the potter was molding was ruined, he would remold it into another vessel. Jeremiah was told that God was like the potter and Judah was like the clay. The spoiling of the vessel was not God’s fault but Judah’s. Judah was in God’s hand to do as He wishes; judgment or blessing. According to the NET Bible, “Something was wrong with the clay—either there was a lump in it, or it was too moist or not moist enough, or it had some other imperfection. In any case the vessel was ‘ruined’ or ‘spoiled’, or defective in the eyes of the potter. The nature of the clay and how it responded to the potter’s hand determined the kind of vessel that he made of it. He did not throw the clay away. This is the basis for the application in v. 7-10 to any nation (that God will change His mind about judgment if they repent, and about blessing if they do evil) and to the nation of Israel in particular (v. 11-17).” God said that He was going to judge Judah because of their ongoing idolatry. He asked Judah to repent and turn from their evil ways. But He knew that because they would remain rebellious, a disaster was coming (the Babylonian invasion). The Jews would have known that this prediction was fulfilled and they would have been reminded of the sovereignty of God.
The potter has the right to make two types of vessel from the same lump of clay – “one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use” (v.21ESV). Paul then calls them “vessels of wrath” (which symbolizes unbelievers) and “vessels of mercy” (which symbolizes believers) (v.22-23ESV). And he says that God “bore with great patience” the unbelieving Jews in order to make “the riches of His glory” known to believers (mainly Gentiles). That’s what’s happening during the church age. As mentioned above, God hardened the unbelieving Jews (Rom. 11:7) in order to bring salvation to more Gentiles, which would itself bring salvation to more of the Jews, due to their jealousy (Rom. 11:11).
Unbelievers are prepared for destruction and believers are prepared for glory – that’s their destiny. When a person trusts in Christ, they change from being a vessel of wrath to a vessel of mercy.
This section has two rhetorical questions. The answers are “yes” (v.21) and “no one would have the right to question that” (v. 22, 23-24).
Who has God called? – 9:24-29
After addressing Jews for most of the chapter, in verse 24 adds Gentiles as well. The next two verses are quotes from Hosea where those who are not God’s people change into being God’s people (v.25-26). This is a refence to Gentiles being part of the church (God’s people in the church age). The word “called” can be used in the sense of being invited or named. We know that everyone is invited to trust in Christ, but only those who accept the invitation are named as God’s people. For example, “The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch” (Acts 11:26).
And then Paul quotes from Isaiah to say that only some Jews (a remnant) will be saved (v.27-28) and it’s only through God’s mercy that anyone is saved (v.29).
Summary – 9:30-33
In his summary of Romans 9, Paul explains why there were more Gentile believers than Jewish ones (v.30-32). Many Gentiles had put their faith in Christ, whereas most of the Jews had not put their faith in Christ and were relying on their own works instead. It was because of their response to the gospel message. Salvation is obtained by belief/faith in Christ.
A quote from Isaiah says that Jesus was the obstacle for the unbelieving Jews (v.33). Jesus came to save fellow Jews, but many of them rejected Him.
In this chapter, Jesus Christ is said to be “God over all” (v.5). This means that He has universal Lordship and sovereignty. He is supreme over “all things”, including salvation. But just because God chose His system of salvation by grace, it does not follow that people have no responsibility. God’s sovereignty does not set aside human responsibility to believe (v.30-32).
The problem being addressed in Romans 9-11 is that most Jews in Paul’s day didn’t trust Christ. Romans 10 looks at whether the problem was the Jews fault and shows that the answer is yes because they failed to believe in Christ.
In Romans 10 Paul prayed that his own people (Jewish unbelievers) would come to Christ (v.1). Then Paul says that these unbelievers had a zeal for God – they really want to please God and to be accepted by Him (v. 2-3). However, they are going about this in the wrong way. Rather than acknowledging that they can never be good enough for God on their own, they were trying to achieve a right-standing before God based on their own works. Later in the chapter Paul says that these Jews had no excuse because they had heard and understood the message about Jesus (v. 1-21).
Who is salvation for? – 10:4-13
Because Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament law, everyone who believes in Him is considered righteous before God (v.4). However, it’s impossible to live a righteous life on your own without relying on Jesus because no one fully obeys the law (v.5).
But righteousness by faith is possible (v.6-8)! In the quotations from Deuteronomy Moses gave the people a choice to obey or disobey God’s commandments. This message was given to “all the Israelites” (Ex. 29:2). So each Israelite had a choice to make. It was not too difficult to make or beyond their reach (Dt. 30:11). In the same way, righteousness by faith is possible for all. So everyone can be saved! Paul says that the gospel is accessible and can be expressed in familiar words that can be readily understood (v.8). We have all the revelation in the Bible we need to understand how to go to heaven.
Then he summarizes the gospel: “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart [mind] that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart [mind] that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved” (v.9-10). This is believing that Jesus is the Son of God (the incarnation), and that God has raised Him from the dead (the resurrection) as proof that Christ had completed the work necessary for our salvation. When a person really believes something, they want to share it with others. This is the human responsibility required for salvation. This salvation is equally available to Jew and Gentile (v. 12). In fact, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (v.13). Everyone can be saved – they have a free choice to accept God’s gift of salvation. This is the opposite of controlling people. Anyone can be saved through faith in Christ (Rom. 3:30; Jn. 14:6). In fact, God desires all people to be saved (1 Tim. 2:4, 2 Pt. 3:9).
Do the Jews have any excuse for not believing? – 10:4-21
The steps of salvation are (v.13-15):
1. God sends out His servants.
2. They preach the good news of salvation (all believers have the mission to proclaim the gospel).
3. Sinners hear God’s offer of life in Christ.
4. Some of those who hear believe (have faith in) the message.
5. Those who believe call on the Lord.
6. Those who call on Him are saved.
The message comes from the Bible (v.17). But hearing with the ears (or reading with the eyes) is not enough. A person must have an open mind, willing to be shown the truth of God. In the church age, more Gentiles accept God’s salvation than Jews (v.16-21). Many of the Jews rejected the divine message of salvation (v.16). In fact, the Jews were characterised by unbelief rather than faith (v.21).
If the unbelieving Jews had not reached step 3 yet (they hadn’t heard the message about Christ), they would have an excuse for not having reached steps 4-6. But they have indeed reached step 3, so they don’t have this excuse (v. 16, 18). It is possible to hear the gospel but not believe it. Such a person has been given all they need to believe, but they choose to disobey the good news by not trusting Christ. Is it possible the Jews didn’t understand the message? No, because even the Gentiles understood it (v.19). Or perhaps they could not find the one they were seeking? No, because Gentiles became believers even though they weren’t seeking God (v.20).
Rather than seeking God according to the way God has revealed to them, these unbelieving Jews are disobediently trusting in themselves and trying to achieve their own righteousness instead. How does God respond to this disobedience? He wants them to be saved (v.21).
This chapter emphasizes the human responsibility required for salvation. And it shows that it was the Jews fault that Gentiles were being saved because the Jews failed to believe in Christ.
The problem being addressed in Romans 9-11 is that most Jews in Paul’s day didn’t trust Christ. Romans 11 looks at whether the problem was God’s fault and shows that God had not rejected all the Jewish race.
Has God rejected the Jews? – 11:1-6
Paul begins this chapter by saying that “I ask then: Did God reject His people [the Jews]? By no means! I am an Israelite myself, a descendant of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin” (v.1). The first example was that Paul was a Jew who trusted in Christ.
The second example was that it was like in the time of Elijah (v.2-6). Elijah thought that he was the only Israelite who trusted in God, but God told him that there were 7,000 Israelites who hadn’t turned to idolatry (1 Ki. 19:10-18). God said that in Paul’s time there was also some Jews (a remnant) who trusted in Christ. Then Paul emphasized that those in the remnant were there because of God’s grace and not because of any works that they had done. God has graciously decided that everyone who trusts in Christ will be His chosen people.
Who are the elect? – 11:7-10
Paul then explained the situation at his time (“the present time’, v.5), “What then? What the people of Israel sought so earnestly [righteousness] they did not obtain. The elect among them did, but the others were hardened” (v.7). As most of the Jews were seeking righteousness by their own efforts rather than accepting God’s way, they were unsuccessful. The Jewish remnant who trusted in Christ are called “the elect”. Paul distinguished “the elect” from “the others” (Jewish unbelievers).
Then Paul uses quotes from Deuteronomy, Isaiah and Psalms to describe “the others”. They have been hardened (Appendix B). Later in this chapter, Paul says that the unbelieving Jews (the non-elect), can become the elect through faith in Christ:
– “Did they stumble so as to fall beyond recovery? Not at all!” (v.11)
– He hopes that his preaching will “save some of them” (v.14).
– “if they do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again” (v.23).
So according to Paul, “the elect” are all true believers, and “the non-elect” are all unbelievers. If a nonbeliever changes their beliefs in order to trust in Christ, they become one of “the elect”.
Why has God hardened unbelieving Jews? – 11:11-16
God had a higher purpose in hardening the Jewish unbelievers. God used their rejection of Christ to proclaim the gospel to the Gentiles (v.11). The Jews who rejected Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah brought about Christ’s death and resurrection for salvation to be available to everyone (v.15). Because of Jewish opposition, the apostles began to preach to the Gentiles (Acts 13:45-46). And persecution of the believers in Jerusalem resulted in them spreading the gospel throughout the Roman Empire.
And the salvation of Gentiles was intended to promote the salvation of unbelieving Jews by making them envious (v. 14). Paul uses two metaphors to refer to the benefit that the salvation of Jewish unbelievers would bring to the rest of the world (v.16).
Can unbelieving Jews be saved? – 11:17-24
Paul now uses the parable of an olive tree to illustrate God’s relationships with the Jews and the Gentiles. In this section of Romans 11 Gentile believers and Jewish unbelievers are viewed as two groups. He is not addressing individual salvation but corporate salvation.
Some branches have been broken off the olive tree (unbelieving Jews, because of their rejection of the Messiah), some wild olive branches have been grafted onto the tree (believing Gentiles) and some branches remain (believing Jews). God supernaturally connected Gentiles to the family of God.
At the time of Paul’s writing, many Gentiles were becoming believers, and the Jewish believers in the olive tree were becoming outnumbered. There was a risk that the Gentiles could become arrogant, thinking that the time of the Jews had come to an end. Paul’s message to the believing Gentiles was that they shouldn’t feel superior because they owed their spiritual heritage to the Jews (v.18).
The reason God broke the Jews off was so that the Gentiles would be grafted into the tree by faith in Christ (v.19). They were broken off because of unbelief (v.20).
In this parable we see two great contrasting aspects of God’s character—His kindness and His sternness (v.22). His sternness is shown in the removal of Israel from the favored-nation status. His kindness is seen in His turning to the Gentiles with the gospel (Acts 13:46; 18:6). But that goodness must not be taken for granted. The Gentiles too could be cut off if they do not maintain that relative openness which the Savior found during His earthly ministry (Matt. 8:10; Luke 7:9).
The Gentiles were warned that they too could be removed from their present position of special privilege (v.22). But this doesn’t mean that true believers can be being cut off from God’s favor (Rom. 8:38-39).
The Jew’s severance from the olive tree need not be final. If they abandon their national unbelief, there is no reason why God cannot put them back into their original place of privilege (v.23-24). Isaiah promised that God will restore the nation Israel again (v.26). At the end of the Great Tribulation, great numbers of Jews will finally believe in Jesus the Messiah and enter in the Millennial kingdom.
So the answer to the question of whether unbelieving Jews can be saved is “yes”, if they change to trust in Christ. But this will not happen to any large extent before the rapture (v.25).
Who does God want to have mercy on? – 11:25-32
The future restoration of Israel is not only a possibility but is an assured fact (v.25). Many of the Jews will be unbelievers who are hardened “until the full number of the Gentiles has come in”. As the Gentiles are saved to be part of the church, their full number will come when the church is raptured to heaven.
When Paul says that “all Israel will be saved” (v.26), he quotes from Isaiah 59:20-21. The context of this passage is that God intervenes to judge the Gentile nations and bless a godly Jewish remnant and give them a new covenant. Clearly the time is at the end of the great tribulation when Christ comes in great power to judge the ungodly and spare the godly to enter His millennial kingdom (Rev. 19:11-21). So the Jews that are saved will be the believers.
Just as the Gentiles changed from a position of disobedience to God (before the church age) to one of privilege (during the church age), the Jews will change from a position of disobedience to God (during the church age) to one of privilege (after the church age) (v. 30-31). Verse 32 brings verses 30 and 31 together. The disobedience (unbelief) of the Jews and Gentiles was their own doing (v.32). This disobedience provided scope for God to have mercy on all, both Jews and Gentiles. God has shown mercy to the Gentiles and will yet show mercy to the Jews also, but this does not ensure the salvation of everyone. Here it is mercy shown along national lines.
So who does God want to have mercy on? Everyone! The gospel invitation is to everyone. But it will mainly be accepted by Gentiles until the rapture, while more Jews will accept it between the rapture and the second coming of Christ.
Why is Paul so full of praise? – 11:33-36
Romans 9-11 begins with a lament and ends with a doxology. During these three chapters, Paul has changed from despair to praise. He has shown that the reason that there were so many Jewish unbelievers was their fault for not trusting in Christ; and it was not God’s fault. But God had not rejected them and they could still be saved. And Paul looked forward to when the Jewish nation would be restored and trusting in their Messiah.
Also, this is the end of the doctrinal portion of the letter. As the theme of this teaching has been the gospel, Paul is also praising God for the truths of the gospel revealed in Romans.
Romans 9 says that God has the right to determine His system of salvation. God has the right to decide who will be saved. This is a part of God’s sovereignty. And we know that this system of salvation is based on whether one has faith on Christ. He has chosen to save everyone who trusts in Christ. People have a free choice to either accept or reject this salvation. This is a part of our human responsibility. So with respect to salvation, people are like free agents and not like robots (where all they do is determined by God). The fact that God wants everyone to be saved, but unbelievers resist God’s will shows they have a real choice.
So when the text of Romans 9 is interpreted in terms of its context it isn’t deterministic with regard to salvation. Those who think that it’s deterministic probably presuppose a Calvinistic worldview by providing their own meanings of words, rather than deriving these from Scripture. If this was the case, they were doing more eisegesis than exegesis.
Romans 10 described how to be saved. In particular God uses believers to proclaim the good news about Jesus. Are we faithful in this regard? People have an excuse for unbelief if they are not told the message. But because the Jews had heard the message, they had no excuse for their unbelief – it was their own fault.
Romans 11 had good news for the Jews. God hadn’t rejected them. They could become believers. Their unbelief enabled the gospel to go to the Gentiles. And they would be restored to receive God’s blessing in future. This means that the church isn’t Israel, or an expansion of Israel, and the church hasn’t replaced Israel as God’s chosen people.
Paul didn’t know how long it would be until they were restored. But he would have known that it had been promised by the Jewish prophets (Isa. 62:10-12; 66:10-18; Ezek. 28:24-26; 39:25-29). It’s amazing that the state of Israel was re-established about 1,890 years after Paul wrote this letter. Despite being persecuted over many years and being dispersed across the world, the Jews maintained their identity, even in foreign lands. And today Israel is a nation of 9 million people. But they are mainly unbelievers because the gospel is still going out to the Gentiles.
Are we like robots or like free agents? According to Romans 9 our salvation is determined by our personal choice. It’s not determined beforehand like a robot follows programmed instructions. What choice have you made? Let’s not be like most of the Jews in Paul’s time.
However, we can’t choose the system of salvation because that’s God’s prerogative.
Appendix A: When the Egyptians were “hardened”
God sent Moses to Pharaoh to bring the Israelites out of Egypt (Ex. 3:10). God warned Moses that He would harden Pharaoh’s heart so that he will not let the people go (Ex. 4:21; 7:3-4). The Hebrew word “chazaq” (Strongs #2388) means “to be or grow firm or strong, strengthen”. In this context it means “to grow rigid, hard, with idea of perversity”. In Pharaoh’s case he was stubborn. A hard heart is dead and unresponsive and is used as a metaphor of a person who is stubborn and unwilling to change their mind.
When Pharaoh was asked to “let my people go”, he responded “Who is the Lord, that I should obey Him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord and I will not let Israel go” (Ex. 5:2). This is an outrageous sin worthy of God’s judgment. He then made the Israelites work harder. And he accused them of being lazy. God then unleashed nine plagues on Egypt. When the request was repeated during the plagues, “Pharaoh’s heart became hard and he would not listen to them, just as the Lord had said” (Ex. 7:13). And the same response was repeated (Ex. 7:22; 8:15, 19, 32; 9:7). Then, “the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart and he would not listen to Moses and Aaron, just as the Lord had said to Moses” (Ex. 9:12). Then he hardened his heart once again (Ex. 9:34-35). And the Lord hardened his heart (Ex. 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10). Finally, after ten plagues, Pharaoh let the people go (Ex. 12:31-32). Then “The Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt, so that he pursued the Israelites, who were marching out boldly” (Ex. 14:4, 8, 17).
The Bible says that Pharaoh hardened his heart six times before it says that God hardened his heart. So Pharaoh was already stubborn. God additionally hardened Pharaoh’s heart (he became more stubborn) as a judgment upon him. God allowed Pharaoh’s sinful behavior to run its own course unhindered. This hardness and opposition to the Israelites came from the Egyptian officials as well (Ex. 9:34; 10:1). And God hardened the hearts of the Egyptian army (Ex. 14:17). So the nation of Egypt was hardened towards God and the Israelites.
Appendix B: When the Jews were “hardened”
When the Israelites quarrelled with Moses on the way to Canaan they were said to “harden” their hearts (Ps. 95:8-9; Heb. 3:8-9, 15; 4:7). This is a term to describe unbelief and disobedience against God.
In the 8th century BC, God allowed the Israelites to harden their hearts (Isa. 63:17). Isaiah associates a hard heart with blindness and deafness (Isa. 6:9-10). It means they are spiritually blind and deaf (29:9; 42:18-20; 43:8). So I will also include instances of spiritual blindness and deafness in this appendix.
In the 7th century BC, the kingdom of Judah was spiritually blind and deaf (Jer. 5:21), and king Zedekiah “became stiff-necked and hardened his heart and would not turn to the Lord, the God of Israel” (2 Chron. 36:13). And before the exile in the 6th century BC, the Israelites were “hardened and obstinate” and spiritually blind and deaf (Ezek. 3:7-8; 12:2).
So in the two centuries before the Babylonian exile, the kingdom of Judah was characterized by unbelief and disobedience against God.
When Jesus was on earth, the Jews didn’t believe He was the Messiah even though He did many miracles (Jn 12:37-41). John also associates a hard heart with blindness and deafness. Jesus spoke in parables because of the spiritual dullness of the Jews – the state of the Jews was the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah 6:9-10 (Mt. 13:13-16; Mk. 4:11-12; Lk. 8:10; Jn 12:37-41).
The spiritual dullness of the Jews continued from Isaiah’s day to Paul’s day (Rom. 11:8). Paul also said that the unbelief of the Jews was a fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah (Acts 28:25-28). Because of the hardening of their hearts, the gospel was preached to the Gentiles (Rom. 11:20). And this will continue until the rapture (Rom. 11:25). So the Jewish nation has been hardened and spiritually blind and deaf for at least 2,800 years! This applies to the nation as a whole, and not to the remnant who remains faithful to God.
King Zedekiah “became stiff-necked and hardened his heart and would not turn to the Lord, the God of Israel” (2 Chron. 36:13). So having a hard heart (mind) and being stiff-necked (Appendix C) are related – they both involved disobedience of God’s covenant and rebellion against God.
However, the Jews national spiritual blindness and deafness will disappear in the millennial reign of Christ (Isa. 32:3; 35:5).
Meanwhile sinful Gentiles are also said to have darkened minds (Eph. 4:18). The more people reject the gospel, the harder it becomes for them to receive it.
Appendix C: When the Jews were “stiff-necked”
When the Israelites turned to idolatry in worshipping the golden calf during the exodus from Egypt to Canaan, God said that they were “stiff-necked” (Ex. 32:9). The Hebrew word “qasheh” (Strongs #7186) means “a people stiff of neck, stubborn” and “oreph” (Strongs #6203) means the back of the neck, but it is used figuratively to mean “obstinate”. In this context is means “to be stubborn and obstinate”. The image is of oxen that refuse to yield to the yoke – they are disobedient and rebellious. For example, Jeremiah told king Zedekiah “Bow your neck under the yoke of the king of Babylon; serve him and his people, and you will live” (Jer. 27:12).
In the following instances Israel is said to be stiff-necked:
– During the exodus (Ex. 32:9; 33:3, 5; 34:9; Dt. 9:6, 13; 10:16; 31:27; Neh. 9:16-17, 29)
– When a judge died (Jud. 2:19).
– In the 8th century BC (2 Chron. 36:13; 2 Ki. 17:14; Isa. 48:4)
– In the 7th century BC (Jer. 7:25-27; 17:23; 19:15) and when God sent prophets.
King Zedekiah “became stiff-necked and hardened his heart and would not turn to the Lord, the God of Israel” (2 Chron. 36:13). So having a hard heart (mind) (Appendix B) and being stiff-necked are related – they both involved disobedience of God’s covenant and rebellion against God. As the Jewish nation has been hardened and spiritually blind and deaf for at least 2,800 years, they have probably been stiff-necked for a similar length of time.
Hart K: The Predestination Station
MacDonald William (1989) “Believer’s Bible commentary”, Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, Tennessee.
This article uses Kingswood Hart’s analysis of the structure and meaning of Romans 9-11.
Written, September 2019