NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER NINE (Lesson VII)
Reformer Martin Luther points out that Paul is not arguing that the Word of God was somehow made ineffective because of the Jew’s unbelief concerning the Messiah. Rather, that God’s promise to Abraham, which included them, was in His Word. The problem is, they refused to accept and obey it. Therefore, what was intended for them was prohibited from having the expected effect.1 The same is true for unbelievers today, whether they are Jews or Gentiles. When a preacher stands up and tells those in the audience that God’s love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness is available to those who hunger to be saved, he cannot grant it to them without their confessing their need for a Savior, repenting of their sins, and accepting God’s forgiveness through Jesus Christ, with the intent of serving Him out of love as their Lord and Savior.
Fellow reformist John Calvin sees it the same way. He says it may be more evident on what conditions God adopted the descendants of Abraham as a special people to Himself if two things are considered. The first is, that the promise of salvation given to Abraham was meant for all who can trace their natural origin to him. It was given to Abraham without exception, to be passed on to all who were rightly called the heirs of the covenant. In this respect, they can be referred to as, what the Scripture calls them, children of the promise. The second point is this, among all those referred to in the first case, the name “children of promise” is restricted only to those in whom its power and effect are found. That’s what prompted Paul to specify here that not all the children of Abraham became the children of God without any changes in their behavior. In fact, so few had followed through with the requirements of the first covenant that many were not even considered candidates for redemption under the last covenant.2
German scholar John Bengel leaves little doubt as to how he feels when it comes to some who oppose the idea of grace for the human race. He makes the point that God gives faith to whom He will. Therefore, it prevents Him from wasting it on those He knows will not follow His Word. As far as Paul sees it, God gives righteousness to individuals that believe in Him by faith. He does not hand it out to anyone who thinks they deserve it because of their good works. This is not in any way contrary to His Word. God has declared in assorted ways that those He determines to be worthy of His calling will be chosen to be His children. Just claiming you are a child of God does not count unless God claims you as one of His own.
This decree of God is certain and indisputable. We see the same thing when someone who knows the law but tries to get around it or disobey it, cannot be given the same rights and courtesy as someone who not only hears it but obeys it. When it comes to being chosen by God, He will show mercy to the willing but waste no time on the disobedient.3 In other words, there were some in Jerusalem and Rome who apparently felt that God’s grace was limited to a certain portion of mankind, namely the Jews. Paul makes it clear that God’s grace is available to all mankind. However, it is not imposed on everyone. It is theirs for the taking, but only by faith.
Robert Haldane also speaks to the curious claim by Paul that not all Israelis are true Israelites. He offers what he feels is a good explanation of this mystery. Since the Jews, as a people rejected the Messiah this automatically disqualified them as being true Israelites in the spiritual sense of the promise. They may be Israelis by birth, but not the new birth. The Jews certainly might object to Paul’s notion and say if that is true, then God is unfaithful, and His promises are of no value. But Paul has an answer ready. He tells them that some are Israelis because of their claims of being Abraham’s offspring, while others are true Israelites because they are part of the promise God gave to Abraham.
Just like Ishmael and Isaac. Ishmael was Abraham’s son by way of the flesh, but Isaac was his son by way of a promise. Ishmael did not inherit anything from Abraham, but Isaac was given everything God had promise to his father because he was Abraham’s one and only firstborn son. However, Paul also wanted to point out that the election of the Israelite nation to be God’s people did not prevent the Sovereign of infinite holiness from choosing out of that chosen nation whom He willed for that blessing. This was in accordance with His secret counsel on that selected portion of His creation He determined to redeem and save. That’s why Paul says they are not all Israelites which are part of Israel. We could paraphrase this for today and say that not all who carry a necklace with a cross on it or wear a cross pin on their lapel are true Christians.4
H. A. Ironside has an interesting take on this verse. As he sees it, to the faithful Jew who depended on the promises of God to Israel to get them through into the world-to-come, it appears that either their promises failed or God’s promises failed. Why else would Israelites be set to one side and Gentiles brought in to take their place? That is a good question, but Paul was ready to show that God never acted on the principle of blanket grace. All special privileges that Israel enjoyed were to be attributed to another principle. God choose them out from among the nations as an elect group. In doing so, He was able then to call them His people. In the same way, God intended to select from all nations a new people to be regenerated by the Spirit as His chosen children of the promise. That’s why not all descendants of Abraham who were generated by natural means could lay claim to being the true children of God generated by supernatural means.
As such, the natural seed of Abraham, such as Ishmael, were not automatically children of promise. It would take a supernatural seed, as in the case of Isaac, to be in that category. In His electing grace, God said to Abraham, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.”5 He chose to pass over Ishmael, the man born after the flesh, and take up Isaac, whose birth was the result of a miracle. In this Paul illustrates the principle that, “The children by physical descent who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s true offspring.”6 This certainly is a staggering blow to those in our day who are pretentious and boast loudly about what they call the universal fatherhood of God and brotherhood of all mankind. They must be reminded that the Gospel clearly states that the children of the flesh are not to be confused with the children of the spirit. Jewish scholar and Sanhedrin member Nicodemus came to Jesus hoping that as a faithful Jew and practicing Pharisee he would qualify for the Kingdom of God, and the same answer Jesus gave Nicodemus is given to everyone: “Except a person is born again, they cannot see the kingdom of God.7”8
For Professor F. F. Bruce, Paul has successfully pointed out that true Jews are the ones whose lives are lived to bring honor, praise, and glory to God.9 It’s not their genealogy, ethnicity, race, or religion that is taken into account, it is their regeneration. As a matter of fact, when they are chosen by God, none of these things count in His decision. Likewise, Paul points out that in a similar vein, while all descendants of Israel are Israelites on the outward, physical sense, not all are true Israelites on the inward, spiritual sense. Paul explained this back in chapter 4. By the same token, we can say today that not all members of churches are true members of Christ’s body.
Throughout First Covenant history we see God’s purpose was to hand pick an exclusive group, an elect minority, as the saved remnant. Those who would faithfully carry on what God revealed to them step by step. God would use this to save the rest of the world. We know that Abraham had a number of sons, but only through Isaac, the child of promise, can this line be traced. Isaac in turn, had two sons, but only through Jacob was the holy seed transmitted. Bruce wants us to keep in mind that by God passing over Esau and choosing his younger brother Jacob, this did not in the least depend on the behavior or character of the twin brothers. It happened because God in His foreknowledge predetermined this before they were even born.10
Paul knew what he was up against as far as the Jews in the congregation in Rome were concerned. Their Mishnah made it clear that all Israelites, including those who were executed for their crimes, will still have a portion in the world-to-come. That’s because it is written: “Your people are all righteous; they will inherit the land forever. They are a branch that grew out of what I planted by My own hands.”11 But the Mishnah goes on to say that there are still some who will have no portion in the world-to-come: Whoever says that resurrection is not a Torah doctrine; that the Torah is not from God; one who belittles the Torah, and one who disparages Torah scholars.12 So unless Paul also agreed that those who did not believe in the resurrection, such as the Sadducees, and those who profaned the Torah and the scholars who studied it, and everybody else was bound for heaven, they did not want to hear his Gospel.
They also pointed to the Babylonian Talmud where a discussion on this same subject is recorded. Instead of giving you the original text which is hard to decipher, let me share this paraphrase. Leading Rabbis interpret this saying in Deuteronomy, “You are sons of Adonai your God,” this way:13 When you behave like sons you are called sons, and if you do not behave like sons you are not called sons. However, Rabbi Judah and Rabbi Meir disagreed. They say that in both of these cases you are called sons regardless because there are such things as stupid sons and disobedient sons.14 The Scripture also says: “They are sons in whom there is no faith.”15 And in another place, “…a seed of evildoers, sons who deal corruptly.”16 And again, “It shall come to pass that in the place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ it will be said to them, ‘You are sons of the living God.’”17 What all this adds up to is that Paul and all the Jews in the congregation in Rome were taught that good or bad, right or wrong, smart or stupid, if you are a descendant of Abraham you are guaranteed a spot at the banquet table in heaven. So now you can see what Paul was up against.
1Martin Luther: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 137
2John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
3John Bengel: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 310
4 Robert Haldane: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 449
5 Genesis 21:12 – English Standard Version
6 Verse 8
7 John 3:3
8 H. A. Ironside: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
9 See 2:28-29
10 F. F. Bruce, F. F: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., Vol. 6, p. 188.
11 Isaiah 60:21
12 Mishnah: Fourth Section, Nezikin, Tractate Sanhedrin, Ch. 10:1
13 Deuteronomy 14:1
14 Jeremiah 4:22
15 Deuteronomy 32:20
16 Isaiah 1:4
17 Hosea 2:1 (1:10)