A Commentary by John Stott
‘Romans 9-11 is as full of problems as a hedgehog is full of prickles,’ Dr. Tom Wright has written. ‘Many have given it up as a bad job, leaving Romans as a book with eight chapters of “gospel” at the beginning, four of “application” at the end, and three of puzzle in the middle.’ Some regard Romans 9-11 as no more than a ‘parenthesis’, ‘excursus’ or ‘appendix’. Even Martyn Lloyd-Jones calls these chapters ‘a kind of postscript’ dealing with a specific topic, although he fully recognizes their great importance. Others go to the opposite extreme and consider Romans 9-11 the heart of the letter, to which the remaining chapters are only introduction and conclusion. These chapters are ‘the climax of Romans’, writes Bishop Stendahl, its ‘real centre of gravity’. In between these more extreme positions, most commentators recognize that, far from being a digression, Romans 9-11 are integral to the apostle’s developing argument, and are ‘an essential part of the letter’.
It is also almost universally acknowledged that these three chapters are concerned with relations between Jews and Gentiles, and particularly with the unique position of the Jews in God’s purpose. Paul has already alluded to these topics in a number of previous passages (E.g. 1:16; 2:9f., 17ff.; 3:1ff., 29ff.; 4:1ff.; 5:20; 6:14f.; 7:1ff; 8:2ff.). Now he elaborates them. But within these general parameters, on what does he concentrate? It is here that there is widespread disagreement. His focus is said by different scholars to be on God’s sovereign election in relation to Jews and Gentiles (Robert Haldane), on the inclusion of the Gentiles and the exclusion of the Jews (Charles Hodge), on the place of the Jews in the fulfilment of prophecy (a contemporary evangelical preoccupation), on Jewish-Gentile solidarity in the family of God (Krister Stendahl), on whether justification by faith is compatible with the promises of God to Israel (Anders Nygren, John Zeisler), on the Christian mission to Gentiles which also includes the Jews (Tom Wright), and on the vindication of God in relating his purpose and promises to present Jewish belief (John Murray, James Denny, D.M.Lloyd-Jones). Even those scholars who seek to identify a single major theme readily acknowledge that these chapters also contain subsidiary themes.
The dominant theme is Jewish unbelief, together with the problems which it raised. How could the privileged people of God have failed to recognize their Messiah? Since the gospel had been ‘promised beforehand…in the Holy Scriptures’ (1:2; cf. 3:21), why did they not embrace it? If the good news was truly God’s saving power ‘first for the Jews’ (1;16), why were they not the first to accept it? How could their unresponsiveness be reconciled with God’s covenant and promises? How did the conversion of the Gentiles, and Paul’s unique mission as an apostle to the Gentiles, fit in with God’s plan? And what was God’s future purpose for both Jews and Gentiles? Each chapter handles a different aspect of God’s relation to Israel, past present and future:
1. Israel’s fall (9:1-33): God’s purpose of election
2. Israel’s fault (10:1-21): God’s dismay over her disobedience.
3. Israel’s future (11:1-32): God’s long-term design.
4. Doxology (11:33-36): God’s wisdom and generosity.
Tomorrow: Romans 9:1-33. Israel’s fall: God’s purpose of election.