In this series, we are not going through Romans chapter 9 in depth. My goal is merely to give us some key cross-reference passages to help us come to a clear understanding of what Paul is communicating in Romans 9.
Let’s pick up in verse 14:
14 What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? Certainly not! 15 For He says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whomever I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whomever I will have compassion.” 16 So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy.
In verse 14 Paul refers back to his argument so far in Romans 9:6-13. His argument has been that God has the right to choose His people based on whatever conditions He so chooses. The unbelieving Jews of Paul’s day imagined that they were God’s chosen people Israel because they were naturally descended from Abraham. But Paul points out that it was not all of Abraham’s descendants that received the promise. He argues that God limited the heirs by rejecting Ishmael and Esau.
Some might argue back that though not all of the descendants will become heirs, those who obey the Law of Moses, the Old Covenant, will certainly receive the blessing of Abraham. Paul argues against this idea in verses 10-13 by showing that the blessing comes by the election of grace, not by the works of the Law. He does this by pointing out that Jacob, the younger son receives the blessing though both Esau and Jacob had done nothing good or evil when God decided that Jacob would be the heir of Abraham’s promise.
Paul’s conclusion of this argument comes in verse 14, “What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? Certainly not!” His point is that it is not unrighteous of God to limit the promise of Abraham on whatever grounds He determines. If He chooses to give the blessing to Jews and Gentiles that receive His grace through faith in Christ, then that is His divine prerogative. Then he goes on to refer to the time in history when God told Moses that He had the right to give His favor to whomever He chose (Ex. 33:12-23). In that case, He chose to give mercy to Moses and the people he led, namely the Israelites.
Though Paul’s argument in Romans 9, and throughout Romans as a whole, has already pointed out that the condition for receiving the blessing of Abraham is faith in Jesus Christ, some fail to recognize this context and imagine that 9:16 means that God has no known conditions for receiving the election of grace. Such people imagine that in verse 16 Paul is arguing that God unconditionally elects people to salvation. This is an excellent example of “proof-texting.” Because verse 16 itself does not contain any conditions for receiving God’s mercy, they simply declare that no conditions exist. But even if we ignore Paul’s argument up to this point in Romans 9, we can look a few verses later in verses 30-31 for clarity.
30 What shall we say then? That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have attained to righteousness, even the righteousness of faith; 31 but Israel, pursuing the law of righteousness, has not attained to the law of righteousness.
In verses 30-31, we see the context of what Paul is talking about. He is not talking about God unconditionally electing certain individual sinners for salvation. Instead, he is keeping to his original argument that people are not chosen on the basis of lineage or law, but on the basis of faith in the Lord Jesus. “So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs,” that is to say, it is not by “pursuing the law” that one receives the mercy of God, but the blessing of Abraham is received through the “righteousness of faith,” it is on this basis that God “shows mercy.” Romans 9:30-31 is a key passage for understanding 9:16, it is a parallel passage found in the same chapter.
17 For the Scripture says to the Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I may show My power in you, and that My name may be declared in all the earth.” 18 Therefore He has mercy on whom He wills, and whom He wills He hardens.
In 14-16, Paul references the mercy given to Moses and the Israelites when they came out of Egypt. And in verses 17-18, he contrasts the mercy they received with the judgment that came on Pharaoh and the Egyptians. Paul has already compared Isaac and Jacob with Ishmael and Esau. Now he is comparing Moses and his people with Pharaoh and his people. By following Paul’s argument up to this point, we know he has applied these various Old Testament figures in an unexpected way. Jacob and Isaac represented the Church, both Jews and Gentiles, who believe in Christ. And Esau and Ishmael represented the unbelieving Jews of Paul’s day. So, we can assume that Paul is using this third set of characters in the same way, that is, he is rebuking the unbelieving Jews by comparing them with Pharaoh and his people. But, besides the context, is their anything that Paul tells us elsewhere that shows this is what he has in mind? Indeed there is!
32 Why? Because they did not seek it by faith, but as it were, by the works of the law. For they stumbled at that stumbling stone. 33 As it is written: “Behold, I lay in Zion a stumbling stone and rock of offense, And whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame.”
In verses 30-33, Paul compares the blessing of the believing Gentiles with the unbelief of the Jews who were seeking righteousness by the law and not by faith. We see that in verses 32-33, the Jews are under judgment for this unbelieving attitude. They have stumbled over Christ and His Gospel. Stumbling is clearly presented as an act of judgment, just like 9:18 speaks of the “hardening” of Pharaoh. But can we be sure that the Israelites stumbling over the Gospel is the same thing Paul has in mind when he refers to the hardening of Pharaoh? I mean, yes, they are both forms of judgment, but are they referring to the same thing? We get our answer by going to Romans 11:7-11.
7 What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened, 8 as it is written, “God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that would not see and ears that would not hear, down to this very day.” 9 And David says, “Let their table become a snare and a trap, a stumbling block and a retribution for them; 10 let their eyes be darkened so that they cannot see, and bend their backs forever.” 11 So I ask, did they stumble in order that they might fall? By no means! Rather, through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous.
Rom 11:7-11 ESV
In this passage, we see that Israel is under the judgment of God. And we see that this judgment has led to salvation for the Gentiles. But the important thing to note is that the judgment is described as both stumbling and hardening. Paul uses those words interchangeably. The Israelites have stumbled over Christ, and they have been hardened (blinded) for their rebellion. This helps us know with certainty that in Romans 9:17-18 Paul is connecting the hardening of Pharaoh with the judgment that has come on the unbelieving Jews of Paul’s day. Of course, when we follow Paul’s argument from Romans 9:1 this should already be clear. But we find that in Chapter 11 Paul is still talking about the same issue that he raised at the beginning of Romans 9. Romans 9:17-18 is Paul pointing at the unbelieving Jews and saying, “You are rebellious Pharaoh! God has hardened you in your unbelief, and He is using your sin to glorify His name among the nations by bringing salvation through faith in Christ even to the Gentiles!”
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