A Commentary by John Stott
Romans 9:6-13. Question 1: *Has God’s promise failed*.
At first sight it would appear that God’s promise to Israel had failed, or literally ‘fallen’. For he had promised to bless them, but they had forfeited his blessing through unbelief. Israel’s failure was her own failure, however; it was not due to the failure of God’s word (6a). *For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel* (6b). That is, there have always been two Israels, those physically descended from Israel (Jacob) on the one hand, and his spiritual progeny on the other; and God’s promise was addressed to the latter, who had received it. The apostle has already made this distinction earlier in his letter between those who were Jews outwardly, whose circumcision was in the body, and those who were Jews inwardly, who had received the circumcision of the heart by the Spirit (2:28f.).
He now refers to two well-known Old Testament situations in order to illustrate and prove his point. The first concerns Abraham’s family. Just as not all who are descended from Israel are Israel, so not all who are descended from Abraham are *Abraham’s children*, his true offspring (cf. Rom.4). *On the contrary*, as Scripture says, *’It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned’* (7) (Gn.21:12; cf. Gal.4:23ff.), and not through Abraham’s other son Ishmael, who is not even mentioned. *In other words*, who are *God’s children*, who can also be designated *Abraham’s offspring?* It is not *the natural children*, literally ‘the children of the flesh’, but *the children of the promise*, who were born as a result of God’s promise (8). And this was the wording of the promise: ‘*At the appointed time I will return, an Sarah will have a son’* (9) (Gn. 18:10, 14).
From Abraham and his two sons Isaac and Ishmael, Paul turns for his second illustration to Isaac and his two sons Jacob and Esau. He shows that just as God chose Isaac, not Ishmael, to be the recipient of his promise, so he chose Jacob, not Esau. In this case, however, it was even clearer that God’s decision had nothing whatever to do with any eligibility in the boys themselves, for there was nothing to distinguish them from one another. Isaac and Ishmael had had different mothers, but Jacob and Esau had the same mother (Rebecca). Not only that, but Rebecca’s children had one and the same father, namely, Isaac* (10), and moreover they were twins. *Yet before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad*, God had made his decision and revealed it to their mother. This was deliberate, *in order that God’s purpose in election*, his eternal purpose which operates according to the principle of election, *might stand* (11).
Perhaps there is a conscious contrast between the question whether God’s promise had ‘fallen’ (6, literally) and the statement that his purpose must *stand* (11). What ‘God’s purpose in [literally, according to] election’ means is clear beyond doubt. It is that God’s choice of Isaac (not Ishmael), and of Jacob (not Esau), does not originate in them or in any *works* they may have done, but in the mind and will of *him who calls* (12a). To clinch this, Paul quotes two Scriptures referring to Jacob and Esau. The first declares that ‘*The older will serve the younger*’ (12b, Gn.25:23), putting Jacob above Esau.
The second Scripture says: ‘*Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated’* (13, Mal.1:2f.). This bald statement sounds shocking in Christian ears and cannot possibly be taken literally. Although there is such an emotion as ‘holy hatred’, it is directed only to evildoers and would be inappropriate here. So several suggestions for softening the statement have been proposed. Some suggest that the reference is less to the individuals Jacob and Esau than to the peoples they fathered, the Israelites and the Edomites, and to their historical destinies. Others interpret the sentence as meaning, ‘I chose Jacob and rejected Esau.’ But the third option seems best, which is to understand the antithesis as a Hebrew idiom for preference. Jesus himself gives us this interpretative clue, since according to Luke he told us that we cannot be his disciples unless we hate our family (Lk.14:26), whereas according to Matthew we are forbidden rather to love them more than him (Mt. 10:37). Although this makes the wording more acceptable, the reality behind it stands, namely, that God put Jacob above Esau – as individuals too, not just in the sense that the Israelites were God’s people, not the Edomites.
We have also to remember that Esau forfeited his birthright because of his own worldliness (Gn.25:29ff.), and lost his rightful blessing because of his brothers deceit (Gn. 27:1ff.), so that human responsibility was interwoven with divine sovereignty in their story. We should also recall that the rejected brothers, Ishmael and Esau, were both circumcised, and therefore in some sense they too were members of God’s covenant, and were both promised lesser blessings. Nevertheless, both stories illustrate the same key truth of ‘God’s purpose according to election’. So God’s promise did not fail; but it was fulfilled only in the Israel within Israel.
Many mysteries surround the doctrine of election, and theologians are unwise to systematize it in such a way that no puzzles, enigmas or loose ends are left. At the same time, in addition to the arguments developed in the exposition of Romans 8:28-30, we need to remember two truths. First, election is not just a Pauline or apostolic doctrine; it is also taught by Jesus himself. ‘I know those I have chosen,’ he said (Jn. 13:18; cf. 15:16; 17:6). Secondly, election is an indispensable foundation of Christian worship, in time and eternity. It is the essence of worship to say: “Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name be the glory.’ (Ps.115:1). If we were responsible for our own salvation, either in whole or even in part, we would be justified in singing our own praises and blowing our own trumpet in heaven. But such a thing is inconceivable. God’s redeemed people will spend eternity worshipping him, humbling themselves before him in grateful adoration, ascribing their salvation to him and to the Lamb, and acknowledging that he alone is worthy to receive all praise, honour and glory (Rev.5:12f.; 7:10ff.). Why? Because our salvation is due entirely to his grace, will, initiative, wisdom and power.