By Johnathan Pritchett
Romans 9 is hardly preached in SBC churches, even in Reformed SBC churches. The problem is that most pastors simply don’t know what to do with it other than explain it in light of current debates between Calvinists and non-Calvinists, Traditionalists, and Arminians. Every so often, a Southern Baptist exposition of the chapter will turn up on the internet somewhere, regardless of the theological perspective, but one will always find it taught regarding what it does or doesn’t say in contrast to some opposing view of what a theological opponent insists it says, or doesn’t say, whatever the case may be.
Yawn…On that note, in the interest of making a personal disclaimer, there are two things I am convinced of regarding this passage. The first is that the mainstream Calvinist interpretations are unconvincing in my opinion. The second is that any non-Calvinist interpretation, many of which I will admit I find more convincing than Calvinist alternatives, does not negate Calvinism. The entire exegetical case made by non-Calvinists regarding this chapter is even accepted by some Calvinists, but the point is made that exegeting this passage as election to service, pertaining to corporate or national interests, etc. does not in and of itself overturn Calvinist theology. I agree with this point as well. Contrary to popular opinion on all sides regarding any text, no school of thought, or system of theology, hangs or falls with one passage of Scripture.
The only reason I offer this personal disclaimer at all is because I think it important to show where I stand on a position, but also demonstrate that my position, or any counter position, can be placed to the side when it comes to inquiring what can be done with this passage beyond using it in debates between various theological schools of thought.
In my opinion, this chapter gets shorted more often than not. This is not simply an issue of its neglect, but an issue of what is neglected when it is brought up in SBC pulpits. The neglect I am speaking of is the practical applications of the Truth found in this chapter. My claim is this: the chapter actually contains more “practical application” material than it does content for any systematic theology. I further suggest that these applications to be brought into our Christian living are more important than using the material of this chapter for theological purposes, or debate purposes, regardless of one’s theological system and how this chapter relates to it. The latter may shape how we think about some issue or another, but the former has to do with how we live in the world and bring God’s message of the Gospel to the lost. This is not to undermine the importance of doing theology, but it is far better for the Christian to view God as the One to obey and serve than merely an object to study. When it comes to a passage like this, setting aside current debates and mining the passage for application should be a welcome endeavor from everyone with an interest in this chapter, as it should be with every text in the Bible in general.
If Galatians 4:24 and 1 Corinthians 10:6 tell us anything, it tells us that we have a license to draw practical applications (or “practical theology”) from Scripture, especially from Israel’s history, without the hassle of some pompous windbag griping about “eisegesis” or whatever when it comes to relating texts to modern daily Christian life. This chapter is, of course, a chapter regarding Israel’s history. In any case, Romans 9 has much to teach us of practical value. The following is not an exegesis of the passage. The purpose here is to tease those neglected applications out.
Get a Bible handy and follow along!
Romans 9:1-5 – We should have the burden for the lost that Paul has for them. He expresses genuine anguish over those whom he loves, his kinsman, because they are missing the life in Christ. From what we know of Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, he still went to the synagogues first. Do we have this passion to those closest to us that are lost the way we claim to want to see souls saved in general? If so, do we act accordingly? Like Israel’s own history, our relative history here in the United States, and other parts of the world as well, we have a rich heritage of teaching, divine activity, and evidence that should give an advantage to everyone born in any corner of Christendom where it exists on virtually every street corner. There is no shortage of Christendom here in the United States. However, even with these advantages, people are still lost and in darkness. Too often, we take Christendom for granted, like Israel took their benefits for granted. It is easy to be blinded by religious culture and fail to see religious truth.
Romans 9:6-13 – We can have assurance that God’s Word does not fail, even if all appearances may lead to contrary thinking. After reading the status updates of several Southern Baptist friends on Facebook, I certainly saw the doom and gloom attitude after the recent election! Of course, seeing that it is always the case that God’s word does not fail, as Paul demonstrates with the recounting of God’s actions in history, one must closely examine that Word in order to see how, despite appearances, God’s Word has succeeded and continues to do so. Just as God has determined the grounds of salvation, God also issues a constant warning that ancestry and works gain no right standing with Him. Not all “Christians” are true Christians. Being born into a church-attending family gains no right standing with God in and of itself. God indeed has a purpose in election, and it does not involve human merit or natural generation. In our day, it isn’t works of the law, of course, rather, it is “works of personal opinion” that people in our culture think they are in the right with God. Whatever the criteria people use, if it is not faith in Christ, it is not anything at all.
Romans 9:14-18 – This is a good healthy reminder that God is absolutely just in His actions. In a pluralistic society, God’s criteria for salvation, the exclusivity of Christ, is as unwelcome as it is “intolerant.” Just as the Jews were taken aback that their own works of God’s law were not enough to gain right standing, people of other religions, or no religion at all, are just as offended by the Christian claim as Paul’s interlocutor. Paul, while grieving for them, nevertheless does not compromise this message of the Gospel, and neither can we in the Church today. Like Moses being one willing to be blotted out of the Book for his people, and one running up and down Sinai to intercede for his people, Paul’s willingness to be one accursed and one running in and out of synagogues, even though his primary mission was to Gentiles, is not enough. God’s response to Moses, that Paul quotes here, is a demonstration that one cannot simply will and run on behalf of others. God Himself is not beholden to our willing and running, even if it is for the sake of others. God shows mercy, not because Moses or Paul put God over a barrel with their efforts, but because of who He is. As such, everyone must do their own business with God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit. Our fervor for evangelicalism is not enough. Like Paul, we must give them the Triune God and His purpose and glory as it is written, as it has been executed in history even to the present. We can, however passionately, only do so much. We must do much, but in as much as we do, the results are ultimately up to God. God doesn’t merely save or show mercy based upon our own passion for the lost. The lost must do their own business with the God of mercy, and He shows mercy and compassion because of who He is as the Sovereign Creator of the cosmos, and nothing else that prompts Him to do so. We can pray, preach, and teach, but God will have mercy on whom He will.
As the example of Pharaoh illustrates, God has the right to do with those who reject Him for purposes that suit His own ends, not ours, no matter how “noble” our intentions are. Paul’s intent in bringing in the lost from Israel was indeed noble. Of course, one can even think that Israel’s desire to follow after the law was “noble” by our standards of nobility. It was the very words of God, too, after all. In any case, we must be prepared for this use of the impenitent, because God does not leave the guilty unpunished, and will use the guilty as means to display His glory in ways other than bringing them into the flock. This is the consequence of stiff-necked rejection, just as Pharaoh lived a life of rejection, even before God Himself further hardened Pharaoh’s heart. As Paul warned of this consequence to the unrepentant Jews of the first century, we must warn the unrepentant now.
Romans 9:19-23 – Just as trying to understand verses 14-18 without the full lessons of Exodus 7-14 and 32-34 in the backdrop, trying to understand this passage without Jeremiah 18 in the backdrop is an exercise in futility. Just as the Jew has no recourse to object to God concerning the grounds He chooses to include or exclude people, people in our own day fare no better than the unbelieving Jews in Paul’s day. One cannot fault God if their rejection leads them to be used to further God’s purposes in ways they may not find welcome. Pharaoh certainly wasn’t pleased with the outcome of his obstinacy, and neither will the impenitent of our day. This is a passage that reminds the created that they are puny bags of dirt. A reminder well needed in light of human arrogance and the spread of naturalistic, secular humanism. It also reminds us that God will have mercy on those who do repent. The mercy of God is a prominent theme in this chapter, though usually overlooked, and the echo of Jeremiah 18 in these rather harsh statements is evidence of that. God’s statement to Moses quoted in verse 15 above is not a negative statement of God’s sovereign attitude, but a positive one. God is a God of mercy and compassion, and that He has it at all is to be celebrated! God has revealed Himself as such (Exodus 34:6)
God is a merciful God. He has mercy on whom He wills. He, in His sovereignty, has decided to have mercy on those who repent and believe in Christ (John 3:16). We also learn that God is a patient God, but His patience has limits. Even though it has limits, it also has a purpose. That purpose is to bring glory to Himself through the salvation of others. It may be the case that others are won primarily because of God’s use of the impenitent. We must have faith that God will judge righteously, and that if some objects of wrath are patiently endured by God so that others may be prepared for glory, we must give this warning as well. It is far better to be prepared for glory rather than be an object of wrath so that others can be prepared for glory. These verses are, after all, a warning to be repeated from pulpits, and more importantly, the highways and byways, just as much as it is a teaching to be considered in a theological context.
Romans 9:24-29 – In all of this, we see Paul expounding the inclusiveness and width of God’s mercy and compassion (Romans 3:21-31). It is universal, not particularly for one people group such as Israel. It is for Jew and Gentile alike, and the lessons from Israel’s history recounted here in this chapter is to be learned in our present context as well. That being the point of practical application, by the way. This means, like Paul going to both Jew and Gentile alike, despite being the Apostle to the Gentiles, we must go to every person on Earth and share this message (Matthew 28:18-20), with the implications and warnings given in this passage.
This is an evangelical passage, and it is neither a Reformed “anchor passage” nor an Arminian “problem passage” or whatever else people usually make of it these days. God will call those who are “not His people” “His people”, wherever they may be. Just as all the Gentiles were at one time not His people, there are those Gentiles both inside and outside the Church who are not His people that will become His people as well. We must preach this passage to them. Like the Remnant of Israel, just like not all “Christians” are Christians, we must test ourselves (2 Corinthians 13:5) and exhort others within our churches to do the same (Hebrews 3:13). Lest we become self-deceived like Paul’s kinsman in the blindness of religious culture to religious Truth. While the gates of Hell will not prevail against the Church globally and totally (Matthew 1:18), we too often see local churches crushed under their own cultural religious blindness.
Romans 9:30-32 – This is the explanation Paul gives to close out the passage. It is the Gospel presentation as well. This is as pertinent to our context of religious pluralism and the “age of tolerance” as it was in Paul’s context with his kinfolk. No one can establish their own means of salvation or right standing before God. No one can will or work for others, nor can people will or work for themselves to establish a gainsay with God. One must come by faith. While a stumbling stone for some, for others it is the way of salvation, and the one who believes will never be put to shame. That is the hope in this passage, a hope that must be proclaimed today as much as when Paul had Tertius pen this revealed Truth Paul received from the Holy Spirit.
Hopefully, what I have expressed, aside from the personal disclaimer, is without theological bias and useful for people of all theological systems and traditions, at least regarding the practical application bits. Hopefully, it will stir up in others to find applications not considered here. It is my contention that this application material presented here, and others that I have not either expressed or discovered yet, are more important and pressing than using this passage as a means for Christians to argue for or against something, or argue with other Christians over theology. To think otherwise, and by extension use this passage as little more than a platform for theological speculation and debate fodder, is completely out of step with Paul’s, and indeed the Holy Spirit’s intent with this important passage in the first place.