What is Paul Doing in Romans 9?

I’ve written a few blogs on Romans 9-11 in the past (here and here) but I want to summarize what is going on within the passage. What is the apostle seeking to do within this pericope? I see two options: one, he is giving an apologetic concerning the ways of God as his plan of salvation is unraveling throughout human history or two, he is arguing for Gentile inclusion within the early covenant community which validates his ministry.

sfdvgdfgI do not think the second option of arguing for Gentile inclusion within the church which would validate his own ministry does the most justice to the text. Paul is refuting the idea that Israel was guaranteed salvation because of their election. This naturally flows from what the apostle said in chapter 8 and has argued since the opening of the letter. They thought their ethnicity necessitated their election which necessitated their salvation. Is God a liar because it sure looks that way because his elect people aren’t being saved? The Gentiles or nations are flooding in at an alarming pace. His comments exist to explain the wholesale constituency change in the people of God.

Paul’s begins his defense that God is not a liar by articulating his desire for the Israelites and recognizing the glory or benefits of being from Israel (9:1-5). His anguish exists because their salvation does not. From there he begins his apologetic by pointing out that God’s promises are not thwarted because not all of Israel are Israel (9:6-9). There has always been a remnant within the covenant community. He shows God’s purpose in election with the examples of Jacob and Esau (9:10-13), and his freedom in the election of Pharaoh (9:14-18). Some might protest that this is not fair so that leads Paul to defend God’s goodness in his providential oversight of who shall be saved. There is no charge of injustice in election (9:19-23) because God has rights by virtue of his personhood. He is the Creator and we are his creatures. Romans 9 is going back into the OT and reaffirming the age old process of God electing individuals (not nations) in order to correct a false understanding of present day Jews who applied a salvific notion of election (right) to the nation (wrong). He then closes the chapter with a statement about the electing love towards Gentiles (9:24-29). They are the beneficiaries of salvation because they have the faith of Abraham and David.

gnhnfSo why the current populational reversal within the plan or working of God? Why are so many Gentiles coming to God for salvation and ethnic Israel seems to be left behind in the dust? It was not because there was a new type or way of salvation. Israel failed to pursue righteousness by faith (9:30-33). They took Torah and the religious symbols and trusted in those instead of the God who raises the dead, procures to them their desperate need of righteousness, and makes them the people of God. They stumbled over Jesus Christ who fulfilled the law on their behalf. Paul then opens chapter 10 with the desire that the Jewish people be SAVED because they are very zealous. But, Israel’s zeal is not based upon the true knowledge of Christ’s righteousness. You cannot pursue the Law in hopes of gaining salvation. You must pursue Christ who is the “end or fulfillment of the Law for righteousness to everyone who believes.”

fhnbfhyPaul then discusses the righteousness that comes by faith and God’s universal call to salvation via the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus (10:5-13). The people of God is defined as a people who accept the work of Christ for them and declare his work to the nether reaches of the world. This salvation is mediated by ambassadors who go in his name and proclaim God’s victory in Christ on people’s behalf (10:14-17). The fact that the Gentiles are coming into the covenant (as a result of justification) because they’re trusting Christ is grounded in the OT (10:18) and also in ethnic Israel’s unbelief (10:19-21). They’re receiving what Israel pursued because Israel pursued it wrongly! Paul is not offering a new way of salvation but redefining what it means to be a true Jew.

Paul does not leave the discussion about God’s promises to Israel being unfulfilled which would impugn his very character. No God’s promises have not failed because there exists a remnant of Israelites chosen by grace (11:1-6). Paul himself, as well as the other apostles, are Jewish! God’s salvific electing love includes those who are ethnically Jewish. There is a remnant of believing Jews who pursued salvation the right way, they bowed their knee to Jesus instead of pursuing their own righteousness via the Law. The Jewish people stumbled and failed to obtain what they were seeking because the object of their pursuit was wrong from the get go. The Law was never a means of salvation but showed the utter filthiness of their sin so that they would look away from themselves. Israel’s stumbling led to their hardening of their heart by God (11:7-10). It is their own fault. But, their faulted stumbling resulted in good for Israel’s failings led to salvation for the Gentiles (11:11-12). Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles exists partially to make the Israelites jealous unto salvation (11:13-16). He goes first to the self-righteous Jews who reject his message and then to Gentiles who look away from themselves to Christ and ironically receive the very salvation the Jews are “working” towards. Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles exists in some sense to make his ethnically Jewish brothers see their need for salvation. And if one thinks the salvation of the Gentiles is good, just wait until what happens in the future!

ghnghPaul then goes on to warn against pride trusting in your position instead of who placed you in that position. Gentile pride is disavowed because of how they were grafted in (11:17-24). They did not obtain their position because of works so they are not boast over those who have not currently obtained that position (ethnic Israel) because of their filthy works. The Israelite branch was “broken off” because of unbelief. They disbelieved their Messiah and instead turned inwards and outwards at their symbols instead of what the symbols pointed to. But, this current state of ethnic Israel is not forever for a partial hardening of the Israelites has occurred until the full measure of the Gentiles is complete (11:25-27). God is not through with ethnic Israel but will cause a future religious revival in their hearts where they see their need and accept the riches found in their Messiah. God’s elective purposes in Israel still stand (11:28-32) though it currently seems dark for them. God’s purposes in election ultimately lead the apostle to doxology (11:33-36).

Romans 9-11 is laced with soteriological significance from start to finish for there is not such “being part of the community” which is not grounded in justification. Paul doesn’t seem to be theologically arguing for or validating his ministry but correcting their false theology in Romans 9-11.


3 responses to “What is Paul Doing in Romans 9?

  1. Since we have been having a discussion about this over on my blog, thought I’d chime in here. A few questions for you, sir:

    The first one is kinda incidental, but there was a phrase that jumped out at me as I was reading this. You wrote that “There is no charge of injustice in election (9:19-23) because God has rights by virtue of his personhood. He is the Creator and we are his creatures.” Very frequently debates about election center on the issue of free will. When I read this statement in light of our discussions of Romans 9, my interpretation of it was to mean that God’s personhood grants God the freedom of choosing who to elect. I’m wondering first if that’ an accurate interpretation of what you wrote and second what that means with regard to human personhood and the issue of free will?

    Second question, more on topic: your understanding of the Old Testament references in Romans 9 ties them to proving that God elects individuals instead of nations. But I’m wondering if that is too simplistic since, for instance, Jacob and Esau are both archetypes for the nation of Israel and their surrounding neighbors, and the other references that Paul makes to the Old Testament in Chapter 9 have similar “epic” or “national” significances?

    Third, I think a lot of the difference between our interpretations of these texts stems from a subtle difference in how we understand the Jewish notion of their own salvation. You begin with a discussion that links that notion to their ethnicity and then morph into a discussion of finding salvation in the law. I would say there is a sense of “nationalism” tied to the law, which sounds similar to what you are saying except at some point in reading this I realized that while what I mean by this is an understanding among the Jews in Paul’s audience that their participation in the rites and rituals of the law led them to be part of the Jewish community to whom salvation was promised, it seems like you understand this to mean an effort at living out a perfect life in accordance with the law earns in a “balancing of the scales” kind of way their salvation. I’m wondering if I’ve fairly assessed the differences between our views? Then I’m wondering what specifically leads you to your understanding of “salvation by the law”?

    That’s all I’ve got for now!

    • Concerning the question relating to my statement and what that means in regard to human personhood and the issue of free will, that was an accurate description of my statement. There’s nothing within the person or individual in which makes God desire to elect them. There’s no conditions within them that guarantees their election. It is unconditional from the human perspective. From God’s perspective, it is conditioned by his nature and character. He elects because he desires to do so. God, because he is the Creator and we are his creatures, has every right to elect from the mass of human wickedness a people to make holy without having to elect all of them. It is an active decree to save undeserving individuals from a life and eternity of joylessness for all eternity. I agree with Augustus Strong when he said “Election and sovereignty are only sources of good. Election is not a decree to destroy. It is a decree to save. When we elect a president, we do not need to hold a second election to determine that the remaining millions shall be non-presidents.” Election is a source of comfort for the Christian.

      He does this for his glory. I’m not a libertarian and think compatibilism does justice to the greatest amount of texts within the Bible. I’ll admit that main reason for my being of the compatibilist camp is what Scripture teaches about the nature of God and how he works within the world (I’ve written on it briefly here https://austind90.wordpress.com/2012/08/07/myths-and-caricatures-of-calvinism-part-three/). I remember reading a debate between you and Nick Lutzo a year or two ago where both parties debated it on their blogs. I appreciated it and see no need to have a discussion about which viewpoint is correct (at least not in this thread). I do not think minimizing his exhaustive sovereignty over the cosmos to accommodate humanity’s supposed “autonomy” is a good thing. He controls the universe at every level and does not limit how the governs to allow room for us to be our own “soulmakers.” I have mentioned this elsewhere also (https://austind90.wordpress.com/2012/05/15/what-is-god-committed-to-most-his-glory-or-our-freedom/).

      The second link mentioned above actually has some relevance for the question of Jacob and Esau. I discuss the role of Jacob and Esau within Malachi and within the Romans 9 passage and their relationship. Furthermore, I do not think an archetypal interpretation of the two within the passage would actually further Pau’s argument in the context as a whole.

      I think you’ve fairly assessed the difference. I think there’s legalism implicit within Paul’s discussions within the letters to both the Romans and the Galatians. You are aligning yourself with the New Perspective that sees the issue as one of covenantal nomism; not legalism. I will give my reasons as to why I think Jewish legalism is the issue below. It is helpful to define legalism as one’s attempt to obey the Law to gain grace. It isn’t the only issue with the Law but it is an issue.

      a. The testimony of the Gospels-I do not find good reason to see the theological elite that Jesus so constantly buffers against as primarily having a problem with Jewish nationalism (albeit that exists for why would the gospel writers spend so much time emphasizing Gentiles within the text?). He constantly has to deal with a group of religious leaders who emphasize their own righteousness and piety (Matt. 23; Luke 18:9-14). Westerholm writes in the Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels that “The criticisms directed in the Gospels against the Pharisees go beyond their failure to respond to the message of the kingdom. Pharisaic claims of meticulous observance are depicted as leading both to pride (Mt 23:5-7; Lk 11:43; cf. Ant, 17.2.4 §41) and to contempt for the less observant—an unwarranted contempt, since the latter in turn are portrayed as more sensitive to their failings, more open to Jesus’ proclamation of God’s sovereignty and love* (Lk 7:37-50; 15:1-32; 18:9-14; 19:1-10). Again, the attention to the minutiae of tithing and ritual purity required by Pharisaic scruples would inevitably appear to an opponent with a different focus as evidence of distorted perspectives; hence the attack on those who tithe mint, dill and cummin while neglecting the essentials of the Law; the charge that cleansing cups is combined by Pharisees with inner corruption (Mt 23:23, 25-26; cf. the charge of corruption in Ant. 17.2.4 §41-45). Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels.” The issue in the Gospels is religious pride stemming from a wrong conception of the Law’s intention. The idea that the religious elite are using the ceremonial aspects of Torah to exclude others fails to appreciate the fact that they are constantly depicted as those who are self-righteous. It is not merely an issue of nationalistic pride but personal pride. The gentile dogs do not only practice circumcision or the dietary laws, we do that and the moral aspects of the law BETTER than others. You will recall Luke’s story of the tax collector and the Pharisee. The Pharisee was prideful because his grace-wrought works of the Law were evident in contrast to the tax collector. The tax collector wouldn’t even lift his face up because he realized his wickedness. Only one walked away justified because he looked away from himself.

      b. The testimony of Acts-Acts describes the relationship between early Christianity as it became distinct from Judaism. An example to show that Jewish legalism (at least from the Pharisaical wing) would be Acts 15. The passage opens up with certain Jewish Christians advocating that the Gentiles do certain things to belong to the people of God. The ESV study Bible summarizes it saying “The Antioch church had reached out to many Gentiles (11:20–21), and God had given Paul and Barnabas great success among the Gentiles on their mission (14:27). No evidence exists that these Gentiles had been circumcised or required to live by all the Mosaic law. In fact, the Spirit had come on them without such an act, as Peter will argue. Some conservative Jewish Christians argued that Gentiles should undergo these things since they were required of all converts to Judaism. The issue was whether Gentiles needed to become Jews and follow Jewish ceremonial laws in order to be Christians.” Albeit, if that was the only thing the text said, it wouldn’t favor the view that the early church was resisting legalism. But, the text says more. It says the Judaizing group wanted the Gentiles to be circumcised AND to keep the Law of Moses at the end of verse 5. Circumcision was just a committal sign of keeping the whole thing. It is not just about the “covenant barriers” but the other aspects of the Law. Another statement that implies Jewish legalism would be Peter’s statements in verses 7-11 where he disavows putting a yoke on the Gentile’s backs God has cleansed their hearts by faith. Furthermore, he says of the law that it was a “yoke that neither our fathers now we have been able to bear.” The ESV study Bible again says, “The rabbis often used the metaphor of a yoke with reference to the law, and Peter’s reference to “yoke” here refers not just to circumcision but to the whole of the Mosaic law (see note on v. 1). By speaking of the law as an unbearable yoke, Peter was not denying that the law was God’s gift to Israel. Rather, he was arguing that Israel was unable to fulfill it perfectly and that salvation could not be obtained through the law (cf. Rom. 2:17–24). Only one means of salvation exists for both Jew and Gentile: God’s “grace” (Acts 15:11) in Jesus Christ. Paul also refers to any requirement to keep the OT laws as “a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1). By contrast, Jesus calls people to take his new “yoke” upon them, a yoke that is easy (see note on Matt. 11:29).” The issue seems to be certain Jewish believers who thought that meticulous adherence to the Law made you acceptable before God thus enabling you to be a part of the covenant community.

      c. The testimony of other sources-The idea that the Jews could pile up merit and thus avert the wrath of God is found in Second Temple literature (2 Enoch, 2 Baruch 48:38, 57:2; 2 Esdras). D.A. Carson discusses the merit theology that developed in the intertestamental period in his book Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility (ch. 4-10). The New Perspective is right to point out that not all of Second Temple Judaism was legalistic and did not have a role for grace within their religious identity. But, Sanders, Dunn and others (from my reading of those critiquing their viewpoint within commentaries and other sets) have succumbed to a reductionistic viewpoint. They found some literature that favors the covenantal nomism they believe in and have reduced all of the first century (the opponents of Paul and Jesus) to that perspective. It would seem they are doing the exact thing they accuse the standard viewpoint of doing. The two volume set Justification and Varigated Nomism sought to show the theological diversity with Second Temple literature (vol. 1) and how that relates to Paul’s work. A host of scholars show that the standard viewpoint is not a misreading of Paul through the lenses of Luther and the Pelagian controversy but founded within the texts. I’ve been listening to any lectures of the New Perspective for a while now that I can get my hands on. It is interesting that I am finding the critiques to be very sharp and damning for it. Moo contends that it is not so much what the NP advocates say, but what they deny and fail to say that creates problems as you interpret both the biblical and other texts. A wonderful piece of Frank Thielman’s section in A Dictionary of Paul and His Letters is available as a pdf online (http://www.ccctucsonmedia.com/pdf/PaulLaw.pdf).

      d. The testimony of Paul himself- A connotation of legalism is evident when the phrases “works of the Law” or works when they are connected with justification. The idea that they are covenant markers does not work because it cannot accommodate Paul’s arguments throughout the text. The “works of the law” on which some Jews depended for their salvation included efforts to keep all the prescriptions of the law and not just those that distinguished Jews from Gentiles. Paul’s argument in Romans 1:18-3:20 is that all people are liable to God’s judgment because they have failed to give him the honor he so rightly deserves. How are these dishonorable, wicked folks going to be righteous or acceptable in his sight? There’s no advantage to being Jewish (despite having the Law) because they of all people could not fulfill it despite their attempts. The issue in chapter 2 of Romans is that the Jews thought that having and doing the Law would protect them from God’s wrath. They are liable for judgment because they failed to keep it; they failed to do the works of the Law (2:1-3, 8-9,12, 21-24, 25, 27). Both Jews and Gentiles are under God’s condemnation because all are unrighteous (3:9-18). The Law shuts every mouth and leaves man accountable to God for judgment but does not justify anyone (3:19-20). Justification comes not through the Law but through Jesus’ work that is to be received by faith (3:21-26). Boasting in the law then becomes nullified because the law is upheld through Christ’s work (3:27-31). Wrapped up in the role of the Law as it relates to justification is Jewish legalism (merit theology), human inability to keep the Law, and Christ’s victory of keeping the Law thus satisfying its demands which creates a redemptive-historical shift within salvation history because he is the covenant head over whom he represents. “Works of the Law” and “works” are indistinguishable in Romans 3-4 and mean “deeds or actions that are performed”. (See Moo) Abraham was not justified by works (4:2) or working (vv. 4-5) but through faith. (Works of the Law cannot be identity markers because Abraham lived before the Mosaic Law). I wrote about this recently also (https://austind90.wordpress.com/2012/12/28/the-new-perspective-and-davids-testimony-in-romans-4/). Works are also defined as “doing anything good or evil” in Romans 9:11-12. Paul’s doing of the Law was considered rubbish in comparison to the righteousness offered via Christ’s substitutionary death (Phil. 3:2-11). It was not that the Law was bad (Rom. 7:12) but that the use of the Law to ground righteousness before God was (Romans 9:32 would also lend to the idea that implicit legalism was the problem among other things).

  2. As a summary of what I was trying to say under letter e, I wrote this general statement: “The issue regarding my understanding of the role of Torah within Paul is not the mere possession of the Law and the subsequent Gentile exclusion but the wrong-intentioned pursuit of righteousness via it (Rom. 9:32; 3:20-26), the power of sin that hinders the pursuit (Rom. 7) and the perfect Law-fulfilling sacrifice of Jesus that fulfills the demands of the Law and makes that pursuit superfluous (Rom. 10:4).

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