In a previous article we established that Romans is not an abstract theological document, but a personal correspondence designed to address specific issues in the church. These issues include Paul’s planned visit to them on his way to a mission to Spain, divisions in the church tied to a wrong attitude of Gentiles toward Jews, and misinterpretations of Paul’s teachings. We also established that chapters 9-11, which focus on the relationship of Jews and Gentiles in God’s plan of salvation, are not a digression, but the climax of Paul’s argument.
It is time to get a little closer to Paul’s argument in Romans by surveying the overall structure of the letter and how it sheds light on Paul’s teaching in chapter 9. As we look at the broad structure, we want to keep in mind Paul’s purpose in writing. Each section of Romans will advance that purpose. Then, within each section, every paragraph, every statement Paul makes, will serve to advance part of his purpose in some way. If our interpretation of any passage in Romans is correct, we should be able to show how it serves to advance Paul’s purpose in writing.
As is common in Paul’s letters, in the beginning of Romans Paul gives a thesis statement. Romans 1:16-17 establishes Paul’s agenda for the letter:
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes; first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed –a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, as it is written: ‘the righteous will live by faith.'”
In this thesis statement, Paul establishes that he is proclaiming the gospel, and that this gospel is all about the righteousness of God. It also establishes that God’s righteousness is directly connected to faith. We should expect the contents of Romans to highlight these themes throughout. With a wave of the hand many interpreters have declared Romans 9-11 a digression and then gone on to ignore the historical setting and even the overall purpose of Romans. But since these chapters are an integral part of Paul’s purpose and thesis, we are bound to interpret it in their light. In our examination of chapter 9, we should keep this thesis in mind, because this chapter is integral to it.
Major sections of Romans
In Romans Paul delivers a speech in written form. Thus he uses the devices of rhetoric but frames them within the structure of an ancient Greco-Roman letter. The purpose of the introduction of a piece of rhetoric is to preview the subject matter that will be contained n the body of the speech. Paul uses the greeting portion of the letter to do this. Letters begin with the name of the sender, followed by the name of the recipients. In Romans 1:1 Paul identifies himself as sender, but the recipients are not named until verse 7. In between is a short statement of the gospel of Jesus Christ, indicating that Romans is going to contain the message of Paul’s gospel. Paul then mentions his travel plans, which include Rome, and proceeds to make the proposition, or main point of his speech, which is the thesis statement of 1:16-17. The major sections that follow consist of the proofs of the thesis. Thus Romans 1:18-15:13 all consist of arguments intended to prove what Paul says in 1:16-17, which itself is stated for the purpose of uniting Jewish and Gentile believers and correcting false notions they may have about his teaching.
The first major section (1:18-3:20) unites Jews and Gentiles as equally guilty before God because of sin. Despite not having the law, Gentiles are guilty because they knew the truth but suppressed it (1:18-32). But the Jew has no advantage over the Gentile simply by possessing the law because they transgress the law and are still guilty (2:1-29). But the Jew does have an advantage in having received the “oracles of God” (3:1-8) Having stated this, Paul reserves explanation of what this advantage is until chapter 9. Instead he summarizes the universal sinfulness and guilt of mankind (3:9-20).
The second major section (3:21-4:25) introduces God’s gracious response to man’s sin and guilt. Again, Paul unites Jew and Gentile on equal footing in the quest for forgiveness and redemption. The Jew has no advantage over the Gentile because salvation is gained through faith, which is equally available to everyone, since God offers his grace and redemption apart from the law (3:21-31). Paul proves this by the example of Abraham, who was counted righteous not because of works or circumcision, but simply because he believed (4:1-25).
Next, Paul proves that God’s promises to believers cannot be taken away from them by any enemy or outside force. If God’s promises can fall to the ground, then what hope can the believer have that he will eternally possess the redemption that Christ bought? Paul frames his argument in chapters 5-8 in wonderful affirmations of the hope of the believer. The purpose of framing an argument is for it to be understand against the backdrop of the statements that make the frame. So the contents of these chapters is to be read in light of the believer’s hope of future salvation. The benefits of the believer include: the undoing of all the harm that Adam’s sin brought upon mankind (5:12-21), through death, being set free from sin, death, and bondage (6:1-23), and through death, being set free from the law (7:1-25), and united to the Spirit to live a new life of victory (8:1-17). In all these precious promises, Jews and gentiles are equal; neither has an advantage over the other.
Romans 9 in light of the broad structure
But what about the Jewish people? The nation has rejected Jesus and spurned the promised God made to them. If Israel can fail to receive God’s promises, how can the church be confident they will receive them? The hope Paul promises in chapters 5-8 has a hollow ring to it if Israel’s hope is lost. Since both are on equal footing, the Church cannot have hope apart from Israel. as Israel goes, so goes the Church. So Paul must account for the hope of Israel in his gospel message in order to give assurance to the church that what God has promised them will indeed come to pass.
Therefore, chapters 9-11 are absolutely crucial to Paul’s gospel. That God will indeed fulfill all his promises to Israel is crucial to the hope, indeed to the future, of the Church. Once Paul proves that God has been faithful to Israel, and that the future salvation of Israel is certain, the Church will be able to rest assured that their future salvation is also safe. This is why Calvinists see predestination in chapter 9. Asserting the sovereignty of God in predestining the salvation of all the elect seems to settle the matter. Our assurance is affirmed, that is, if we indeed are elect. But is that how Paul settles the matter? If claiming that God has predestined all who will be saved solves the problem, then why does Paul go on for two more chapters to demonstrate that Israel’s issue is lack of faith, and then to prove her future salvation? The matter would be settled before chapter 9 is over. There seems to be more here than meets the eye.
The simple fact that there is a problem with Christian assurance suggests that the church at Rome did not believe in unconditional predestination. It seems the Roman church believed that people God destines for salvation could ultimately be lost. That is why some of them thought Israel was forsaken by God, and that is why some of them needed assurance of their own future. So if Paul is teaching unconditional predestination in Romans 9, it is to correct a false teaching in the church. But if not, his argument is designed to prove that God is faithful to his promises. Everything he said he would do, he will do. The following are some reasons, based on the broad structure of Romans, why I believe Paul’s teaching in Romans 9 is not a discourse on unconditional predestination.
1. Paul’s climactic statement in 11:26 is, “all Israel will be saved.” This confirms that God will make good on all his promises, which included the election of Israel. Notice that Paul does not say, “all believers will be saved,” or “the whole church will be saved,” or “all the elect will be saved.” That is what he should have said if he were teaching unconditional predestination.
2. There is no hint of this teaching anywhere else in the letter. The thesis statement says nothing about this doctrine, but it does say something about faith. Romans 1:18-8:17 leave no hint that unconditional predestination is the answer to any of the theological issues Paul is addressing, but faith is clearly central to the argument in several of these chapters. If anything is certain about Paul’s teaching in Romans, it is that faith is prerequisite to receiving God’s promises. Why then should we interpret chapter 9 to mean that God elects men to salvation apart from faith?
3. It seems to contradict what Paul says in chapter 1. In 1:18-32 man’s damnation is because of rejection of the truth, not because they were predestined to it or passed over by God. Pharaoh fits perfectly as an illustration of what Paul describes in 1:18-32, a man who knew the truth, had it spoken to him, and clearly saw God’s invisible qualities in his control over in creation through the plagues, yet he stubbornly hardened himself and became more and more sinful in his obstinacy and persecution of God’s people. But now, based on the Calvinist interpretation of Romans 9, we have to reinterpret Pharaoh’s sinfulness to not be due to his rejection of the truth, but to God’s predetermined plan.
4. It seems to contradict what Paul teaches in chapter 3. When Paul teaches about God’s grace in redemption in 3:21-31, the thing that brings people into covenant with God is faith. But on the Calvinist reading of Rom 9, it is God’s election that brings them into covenant and faith comes later.
5. Paul’s own conclusion at the end of chapter 9 points to unbelief being the root cause of Israel’s condemnation, not God’s sovereign election. When Paul explains why the people of Israel had not attained their goal of righteousness, he answers, “because they pursued it not by faith, but as if it were by works” (Rom 9:32). Is this not a direct contradiction of the Calvinist interpretation of 9:6-29? Calvinists teach that the reason Israel is not saved is because of God’s decree, and that regeneration precedes faith. How can Israel’s failure be due to lack of faith when faith is not even possible until after success is attained?
Based on the broad structure of Romans, the Calvinist interpretation of Romans 9 appears incongruous with Paul’s teaching in the other sections of Romans. Whether his teaching in earlier chapters can be made to reconcile with Calvinist predestination is not the point. Even if it can, the question remains: Why would Paul teach these things in the earlier chapters if he knew he would say something so different in chapter 9? A correct interpretation of Romans should show how it holds together as a harmonious piece of literature. In the next article we will begin interpreting Romans 9. As we do, let us see which interpretation best advances Paul’s thought throughout the book and which causes readers to go back and reinterpret earlier portions of Romans.