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God Succeeds Despite His People's Failure (Romans 9)

Updated on August 4, 2019
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I am a Christian pastor who wishes to bring glory to God in all that I do, and to help people through my writing to know Him better.

Introduction: God Makes No Mistakes

A. H. Overton wrote a poem about our God entitled: "God Makes No Mistakes." In it he writes these words:

My father's way may twist and turn,
My heart may throb and ache,
But in my soul I'm glad I know,
He maketh no mistake.

My cherished plans may go awry,
My hopes may fade away.
But still I'll trust my Lord to lead
For He doth know the way.

Tho' night be dark and it may seem
That day will never break;
I'll pin my faith, my all in Him,
He maketh no mistake.

There's so much now I cannot see,
My eyesight's far too dim;
But come what may, I'll simply trust
And leave it all to Him.

For by and by the mist will lift
And plain it all He'll make,
Through all the way, tho' dark to me,
He made not one mistake.

In Romans 9 we come to a part of Paul's treatise in which he begins to focus exclusively on his chosen people Israel. And he will do this for the next three chapters (9-11). He has to deal with this because he needs to make sure that none are accusing God of somehow making a mistake or being unfair in rejecting His people that He had made so many promises to in the past. And if His promises to Israel aren't worth anything, what about all the promises the Lord has just made to us through the pen of the Apostle Paul? We can see all of these promises in the first 8 chapters of the book of Romans.

With the conclusion of chapter 8 Paul has finished his description of God's plan of bringing righteousness and salvation to the world by grace alone, through faith alone in the sacrificial death and resurrection of Jesus Christ alone. We need to be declared righteous or justified by faith because we are sinners and aren't capable of attaining God's righteousness on our own. "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). Rather Jesus took our sins upon Himself and has, through our faith in HIm, given to us His righteousness, so that we can now stand before a Holy God.

We may still struggle with sin in the flesh, but we are not condemned (8:1), and we have the Spirit of God living in us and conforming us to the very image of Jesus Christ who died for our sins. Paul said that God foreknew us and predestined us.

He also called, then justified and has promised to glorify us in the future. And Paul even makes the Greek word for glorification past tense here, though it hasn't happened yet, in order to show that it is a foregone conclusion. It will indeed happen (8:28-31).

Because of all these things, no one can bring any charge against God's elect and nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (8:31-39).

However, once again, these promises to us seem to leave God's people Israel in the cold. Can God just forget about His promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, wipe the slate clean and start over with a new people? To quote Paul: "May it never be!" But if that is true and God hasn't given up on Israel, then what went wrong? The answer is: "Nothing!" Even though God's people Israel have failed and temporarily been set aside, the Lord's program for the world is still proceeding as planned.

Paul begins this necessary section by stating the problem and then proceeds to give the reasons why God's plan isn't in any danger of falling apart.

I. Paul's Concern for Israel's Present Condition (9:1-5)

The Apostle starts in verses 1-3 by showing his concern for his own people. As a matter of fact, he is so concerned that, if it were possible he would allow God to condemn him to Hell if it would bring his people to salvation. The Greek word he uses for himself here is "anathema, which means "to devote to destruction."

Of course, that isn't possible any more than it was for Moses to have God blot him out of the Lord's book for his kinsmen who sinned greatly centuries earlier (Exodus 32:31-34). But it does show a genuine and deep love and concern for the people of Israel.

The sad thing is that they had so many advantages. God had called their father Abraham out of Ur of the Chaldees and told him that he would give to him a land and a seed forever. His name was Abram at first, which means "exalted father" and he was given the name Abraham meaning "father of multitudes." For he'd be the Father of many nations. Kings were to come from Abraham's offspring and all nations of the earth were to be blessed by his descendants. It was to be an everlasting covenant in which Abraham's descendants would be as numerous as the sand on the seashore and the stars in the heavens (Genesis 12, 15 and 17).

Paul gives a short summary of some of the advantages that were given to the nation whom God chose out of all the nations of the earth to bless. After his expression of his desire to be accursed for them, he calls them his kinsmen:

"...who are Israelites, to whom belongs the adoption as sons, and the glory and the covenants, and the giving of the Law and the temple service and the promises, whose are the fathers, and from whom is the Christ according to the flesh, who is over all, God blessed forever, Amen" (4-5).

With all of these things going for them, one would think that nothing could go wrong. However, it did. They rejected their Messiah, Jesus, and now National Israel is set aside and something new is definitely taking place. The obvious question, which we mentioned earlier that has to be answered is: "Did God's plan fail?" Now the great Apostle gets into the reasons why it hasn't. The first reason is that not all of the physical descendants of Abraham are part of the promise made to the patriarch.

II. First Reason: Not All Abraham's Descendants are Children of the Promise (9:6-13)

Just as God chose one nation from among all nations to especially bless, so He chose some and not all of Abraham's physical descendants through which to give blessings and fulfill His promises. Abraham had two sons: Ishmael and Isaac. Ishmael was the son of the Hebrew slave Hagar. But Isaac was the son of the promise. In other words, only Isaac's descendant's could rightly be called Abraham's true descendants and heirs of all the earthly and national promises.

In the same way, Isaac had two sons who were twins, Jacob and Esau. God chose Jacob to be the recipient of the blessings. And he did it before they were even born and had done anything good or bad. In other words,

God's choice of Jacob was solely based upon His sovereign plan and not any merit or demerit on the patriarch's part. Good works had nothing to do with God's election of him. It certainly wasn't because God looked into the future and saw that Jacob was going to be any more righteous than Esau. As a matter of fact, if we look at the history of Jacob we see that he was actually rather a scoundrel. He stole the birthright that rightly belonged to his older brother Esau who, because he came out of the womb first, should have had it. And Jacob later, with the help of his mother, deceived his father Isaac into blessing him above his brother.

Here is how Paul put God's choice:

"For though the twins were not yet born and had not done anything good or bad so that God's purpose according to His choice would stand, not because of works but because of Him who calls, it was said to her, 'The older would serve the younger. Just as it is written: "Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated." (11-13).

The term hated here does not mean that God despised Esau or had any emotional hatred toward him. If we read the biblical history, God blessed Esau's descendants greatly as well. Rather, this word reflects an ancient legal formula by which the person making a will affirmed one person's right to be the heir of the inheritance and at the same time completely rejected another person. Esau was the son who was rejected. This leads us to our second reason that God's plan hasn't failed.

III. Reason 2: God is Sovereign with His Mercy and Power (9:14-18)

God is truly sovereign in His mercy. And He chooses the persons on whom it rests. "Not fair!" some might say. "Isn't that unjust of God to choose one over the other!" No. Justice would be to let the human race go to hell because of their sins and not choose anyone to move forward God's plans to save us. None of us wants justice from God. We rather want His mercy. Mercy is not giving us what we truly deserve: Hell. And grace is God's unmerited favor or giving us what we don't deserve: Heaven.

God gave to Jacob grace by giving him what he didn't deserve and couldn't earn. But Paul points out that God also gave him mercy. He deserved to be passed over, like his brother. And ultimately he rightly deserved to be condemned with the rest of the world. Yet, mercifully, the Lord didn't do this. Instead, He graciously used Jacob in his plans despite all this. And that is God's right to do so. The Apostle quotes God's words to Moses in Exodus 33:19 and says this:

"I will have mercy on whom I have mercy. And I will have compassion on whom I have compassion." (15).

He goes on in verse 16:

"So it doesn't depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy."

In the next verse (17), Paul starts to use the Pharaoh of the Exodus as an example of one who was the object of God's wrath rather than His mercy but was utilized for the Lord's purposes to bring about God's glory.

If you read the passages to which Paul is referring, you will note that this section of Scripture does say that God hardened Pharaoh's heart ten times (e.g. Exodus 4:21). But in other sections of this passage Pharaoh is said to harden his own heart (e.g. Exodus 8:32 and 9:34).

God never actively creates evil or unbelief in a person's heart. And He doesn't create an evil person. Evil is always said to be the result of personal choice. Rather, God here confirmed Pharaoh's decision to harden his own heart and allowed Pharaoh to freely do what he did to bring about His (i.e. God's) Heavenly purposes. While all the time Pharaoh thought he was promoting his own self-interest, he was, in fact, furthering the plan of God.

And God's sovereign plan moved forward. It did by Jacob because of God's mercy. And it moved forward by Pharaoh despite the monarch's evil intentions.

This leads to the third reason that God's plans won't fail. He uses His sovereignty, or His ability to control all things, to do what He wants.

IV. Reason 3: God Uses His Sovereignty to Do What He Wants (19-22)

Paul anticipates an objection here to his theology of God's sovereignty by asking two questions in verse 19 on behalf of the reader:

"You will say to me then, Why does He find fault? For who resists His will?"

Paul's answer may not satisfy us because we want to have everything cut and dried in our theology. We somehow want to judge God's motives to see if they are in line with our belief of what is right and wrong. He simply says that "Who are we to question God. Doesn't He have the right, like the potter molding the clay, to do what He wants to with it? He can make from the same vessel objects for honorable use as well as common use. He can make a Jacob and prepare him for greatness, as well as a Pharaoh who is ultimately humbled and bound for destruction. And yet God created them in such a way that they are responsible beings as well. As we said, God didn't make Pharaoh evil. He merely confirmed it and allowed him the consequences of his actions.

This section of Romans, as well as Ephesians 1 and a few things that are said in the Gospels, highlights a great debate in church history. That is the debate over God's sovereignty versus human responsibility. On one side there are those who say that only the elect are saved and Christ's atonement is limited to those God has chosen. Some would say, on the other, that salvation is for all and that God chooses those whom He knew in advance would exercise faith and be saved. But even if that were true that God chooses those whom He knew would first choose Him, the fact is that the Lord chose to create a world, in the first place, in which only a very few would make the choice to be saved. The majority won't accept Christ.

The fact is that Scripture doesn't seem to confirm either theory completely. It rather seems to allow the tension between sovereignty and free will to remain and has no problems with either being side by side in a passage. What we have to remember here is that Paul is merely discussing God's sovereignty and ability to do what He wants and isn't detailing His other attributes in this passage.

From other Scriptures, we see that God is a good God and not only says that He loves the elect but that He loves the entire world (John 3:16, 17). It further tells us that He desires all men to be saved (I Timothy 2:4). When it comes to His choices in election, we have to take the full teaching of Scripture into account. And even though there is a seeming tension when it comes to God's choosing some and not others, we must be like Abraham in Genesis 18:25 when the Lord was talking of destroying Sodom for their wickedness. Abraham states at the end of that verse:

"Shall not the God of all the earth do right."

We must trust God that, in the end, all His sovereign choices are just and righteous. For we serve a good God. In fact, our standard of goodness is based upon Him. We couldn't even know what right and wrong are without Him. He, indeed, makes no mistakes.

Another question asked in this chapter is:

"What if God, although willing to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction?"

This brings us to another reason that God's plans are succeeding. His sovereign will included showing mercy to both Jews and Gentiles. God is now said to be enduring the vessels made for destruction (i.e. fallen Israel) in order to make known the riches of His glory upon the vessels prepared beforehand for glory.

V. Reason 5: God's Plan Includes Both Jews and Gentiles (23-33)

With the temporary fall of National Israel, God is now free to take people from among both Jews and Gentiles to be His special people. Even before the Nation fell, God had a plan for reaching the whole world. The Church, the Body of Christ was a mystery but the fact that God wanted to save both Jews and Gentiles is well documented in Scripture.

Paul uses the book of Hosea to show that there will be a people that were originally called "not my people" who are now called "my people" and the "sons of the living God." These the Apostle equates with the present inclusion of the Gentiles among God's people (24-26).

He further uses Isaiah to prove that Israel as a nation would one day be rejected due to lack of faith and only a remnant would be saved (27-29) It is the remnant that is also part of God's plan for this present age.

Paul circles back around to his theme in Romans when he says that the Gentiles, who weren't even pursuing righteousness received it by faith. But the Nation of Israel didn't receive the righteousness they tried to get because they attempted to get it by works. Paul said that they stumbled over the stumbling stone, meaning that they refused to accept Christ as their Messiah and Savior. The great Apostle puts two Old Testament verses together, Isaiah 8:14 and 28:16, to prove that it was predicted in the Bible that Israel would reject her Messiah and that her unbelief was perfectly consistent with Scriptural prophecy. Once again, God's plan moved forward despite His people's failure.


As we end the chapter, we must reiterate that Paul isn't finished yet. As we said, he will go on for two more chapters about God's plan and Israel's future. Chapter 9 has shown more of God's purpose in election through Israel's fall. The next chapter will get more into Israel's own responsibility for what has happened to them. And, finally, chapter 11 will tell us that God is not yet done with this great nation that He has chosen for His own. All of national Israel will one day be saved.

Indeed our God is one who always keeps His promises. He will never fail even once to do what He has told us He'll do. He controls it all! And, further, His sovereign choices are always right and just.

If you are a believer in Jesus Christ and have put your trust in His death and resurrection for your salvation, then you are a part of the Lord's great plan of history, which includes both Jews and Gentiles. And absolutely nothing will get in the way to prevent Him from doing what He has told us He will do. We have great hope and we have a great future. For we have a great and mighty God who makes it all possible! Let us all praise His holy and wonderful name!

© 2019 Jeff Shirley


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