A Commentary by John Stott
Romans 9: 1-33. Israel’s fall: God’s purpose of election.
Each of these three chapters (9, 10, 11) begins with a personal statement by Paul, in which he identifies himself with the people of Israel and expresses his profound concern for them. To him Israel’s unbelief is far more than an intellectual problem. He writes of the sorrow and anguish he feels over them (9:1ff.), of his prayerful longing for their salvation (10:1), and of his conviction that God has not rejected them (11:1f.).
It may be helpful to sum up the argument of chapter 9. Paul begins by confessing that Jewish unbelief causes him not only anguish of heart (1-3), but also perplexity of mind as he asks himself how the people of Israel with their eight unique privileges could have rejected their own Messiah (4-5). How can their apostasy be explained? Paul’s questions and answers proceed consecutively.
First, is it that *God’s word has failed* (6a)? No, God has kept his promise, which was addressed, however, not to all Israel but to true, spiritual Israel (6b) whom he had called according to his own ‘purpose in election’ (11-12).
Secondly, *is God* not *unjust* to exercise his sovereign choices (14)? No. To Moses he stressed his mercy (15), and to Pharaoh his power in judgment (17). But it is not unjust either to show mercy to the undeserving or to harden those who harden themselves (18). Both mercy and judgment are fully compatible with justice.
Thirdly, *why* then *does God still blame us?* (19). Paul’s threefold response to this question uncovers the misunderstandings of God which it implies. (a) God has the right of a potter to shape his clay, and we have no right to challenge him (20-21). (b) God must reveal himself as he is, making known his wrath and his glory (22-23). (c) God has foretold in Scripture both the inclusion of the Gentiles and the exclusion of Israel except for a remnant (24-29).
Fourthly, *what then shall we say* in conclusion (30)? The explanation of the church’s composition (a Gentile majority and a Jewish remnant) is that the Gentiles believed in Jesus whereas the majority of Israel stumbled over him, the stone God had laid (30-33). Thus the acceptance of the Gentiles is attributed to the sovereign mercy of God, and the rejection of Israel to their own rebellion.
Paul begins with a strong threefold affirmation, intended to put his sincerity beyond question and to persuade his readers to believe him. First, *I speak the truth in Christ*. He is conscience of his relationship to Christ and of Christ’s presence with him as he writes. Secondly, as a negative counterpart, *I am not lying*, or even exaggerating. Thirdly, *my conscious confirms it in the Holy Spirit* (1). He knows that the human conscience is fallible and culturally conditioned, but he claims that his is illumined by the Spirit of truth himself.
What, then, is this truth which he asserts with such force? It concerns his continuing love for his people Israel, who have rejected Christ. They cause him *great sorrow and unceasing anguish of heart* (2). He goes on to call them his *brothers* and those of his *own race*. For membership of the Christian brotherhood and of God’s ‘holy nation’ does not cancel our natural ties of family and nationality. *I could wish*, he continues, *that* for their sake *I myself were cursed (anathema) and cut off from Christ* (3). Paul is not literally expressing this wish, since he has just stated his conviction that nothing could ever separate him from God’s love in Christ (8:35, 38f.). His use of the imperfect tense conveys the sense that he could entertain such a wish, if it could possibly be granted. Like Moses, who in his plea for Israel’s forgiveness dared to pray that otherwise God would blot him out of the book of life (Ex. 32:32), Paul says he would be willing even to be damned if only thereby Israel might be saved. Denney calls it ‘a spark from the fire of Christ’s substitutionary love’, for he is prepared to die in their place. And Luther comments: It seems incredible that a man would desire to be damned in order that the damned might be saved.’
Tomorrow: Romans 9:1-33. Israel’s fall: God’s purpose of election (continued).