In previous articles I have explained that in Romans 9:1-13, Paul is discussing national calling, not individual salvation. Let us see how an interpretation of verses 6-13 looks from that perspective.
The problem presented
Paul introduces the argument of 9:6-29 with a statement about the unbelief of Israel. They have rejected Jesus and Paul is heartbroken over it. The implication of Israel’s rejection of God’s word is clear: if Israel is not receiving the benefits God designated specifically for them, (knowing that the Gentile church is receiving those benefits), then God’s word seems to have failed. Paul addresses this implication in verse 6: “It is not as though God’s word had failed.”
To prove that Israel’s current rejection of Jesus has not caused God’s word to fail, Paul goes to Gen 21:12: “In Isaac shall your seed be called.” Romans 6-29 are a self-contained unit of exegesis. Paul follows the Jewish tradition of exegeting Scripture by beginning with the text to be interpreted, focusing on a key word, and using Scripture to interpret Scripture. The key word he is interpreting is “called” (klethesomai), and a form of this word appears five times in this passage (vv. 7, 12, 24, 25, 26). The purpose of Paul’s exegesis is to explain who it is that constitutes the called, that is, the true people of God. In so doing he will be able to show that God’s word has not failed, because God’s word is being fulfilled in the true people, the true Israel. By asserting the sovereignty of God in this passage, Paul shows that no amount of unbelief among Jews can prevent God’s word from coming to pass, reminding us of Paul’s words in 3:4: “Let God be true and every man a liar.” If God is fulfilling his word among the true people and even if every man is an unfaithful liar, it will not prevent God from being true, then it is clear that God’s word has not failed.
Paul uses other texts in Genesis, involving Isaac and Ishmael, and Jacob and Esau, to demonstrate that the true people of God are not the natural descendants of Abraham, but the children of promise. God promised that Abraham would bear Isaac through Sarah, and God promised that the younger son, Jacob, would be the heir. These were sovereign decisions made by God, not the result of human striving, human effort, or human works. At this point Calvinists and Arminians are in agreement. It is with the implications of this truth that the two sides diverge. Calvinists assert that Paul is talking about the salvation of Isaac and Jacob, and the consequent damnation of Ishmael and Esau. They also assert that if God chose Isaac and Jacob apart from works, then he must do the same today. To remove the Arminian element, Calvinists include faith as a work, as if Paul is denying that faith plays a role in the eternal destinies of men.
But Paul is not talking about the salvation of these men, as my argument below will prove. He is talking about the establishment of the nation, identifying Israel as God’s chosen people. The point Paul wants to make is that when God did this, he did not make a sweeping generalization that all the physical descendants of Abraham constituted the people of God. Rather, only the children of promise are counted as the true seed. Paul has already proven that “the promise comes by faith” (Rom 4:16), so he is confident his readers will not draw the wrong conclusion from his words here. God chooses Israel unconditionally as his special people to bring salvation to all the earth. But who gets included in the “people” is conditional. It is based on faith.
Piper completely misses Paul’s point when he says, “The predestination and call of God precede justification (Rom 8:29f) and have no ground in any human act, not even faith” (Justification, 53). It is not even possible that Paul would have referred to faith as a human act that may be called “works.” Such an idea is contrary to the core of his teaching in Romans, not to mention his other epistles. In chapter 4 Paul contrasts works with faith: “Now to the one who works, wages are not credited as a gift but as an obligation. However, to the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness” (4:4-5). To lump faith with works as part of the activity of man that does not result in righteousness is to ignore Paul’s teaching in the earlier chapters of Romans, and in the last part of chapter 9. Many things may be included as futile human activity in the phrase “not by works,” but faith is certainly not one of them.
Did Ishmael go to hell?
Underlying Paul’s argument in verses 6-13 is the idea that some may have had, that all the descendants of Jacob are the true people of God. Therefore, it was supposed, since the nation is under God’s judgment, God’s word must have failed. Paul corrects this wrong position by showing that natural descent does not determine the true people of God. Rather, the true people are the people of promise. Abraham had two sons, but only Isaac was promised by God. Isaac had two sons, but God promised that Jacob would be the one to inherit the blessings given to Abraham and Isaac.
These examples show that the difference between Isaac & Jacob and Ishmael & Esau is that the former received the promise while the latter did not, and therefore, only the former are the true children of God. Calling is based on promise, not pedigree. This cannot refer to salvation, as Piper and others assert, for the simple reason that Scripture does not confine both Ishmael and Esau to judgment. The paucity of Scriptural testimony of the eternal destinies of the characters it describes is surprising to modern, Westerners. The biblical world was far less interested in the eternal, spiritual fate of people than we are. They were far more interested in the fate of people in this life. So the best witnesses in the Bible of the eternal fate of individuals usually come from statements of God’s judgment or blessing of them during their lifetimes.
Interestingly, Scripture does give clear statements about the destinies of these two men. Hebrews 12:16 tells us Esau was “godless,” so his condemnation is confirmed. But what about Ishmael? If Paul’s discussion of the calling of individuals in Rom 9:6-13 refers individual spiritual destinies, then it is necessary to conclude that Paul consigned Ishmael to damnation, because Isaac was called, not Ishmael. Genesis 17:18-19 tells us God’s opinion of Ishmael. Abraham says, “‘O that Ishmael might live in your sight!” to which God responds: “Yes. but your wife, Sarah, will bear you a son and you will call him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him.” God states that Isaac, not Ishmael, will be the son of promise with whom the covenant will be established. Concerning historical calling, the answer for Isaac is yes, but for Ishmael it is no. However, when it comes to personal blessing, the answer for Ishmael is, Yes! Despite not being the child of promise, God says “Yes!” for Ishmael to “live under your blessing.” After reading this verse it is very difficult to conclude that Ishmael was eternally condemned.
Referring to this text, Piper says: “Abraham pleads, ‘O that Ishmael might live in thy sight!’ (17:18). But God answers, ‘No, but Sarah your wife will bear you a son and you shall call his name Isaac” (Justification, 59). Some translations render the Hebrew word here as “No,” and Piper picks up this translation tradition, which accords with his interpretation of the fate of Ishmael. Piper needs God’s answer to be “No” because his interpretation of Rom 9 has Ishmael condemned. But the NIV translates, “Yes,” indicating that Ishmael will live before God, but he just will not be the son of promise. This is entirely justified because in verse 20 God says, “As for Ishmael, I have heard you: I will surely bless him.” It is I direct reference to Abraham’s plea that God says, “I will surely bless him,” meaning God says “Yes” to Abraham’s plea to have Ishmael live before him. What he says no to is for Ishmael to be the son of promise. That is why God uses a term with a negative force in response to the plea. What Abraham is really asking for is Ishmael to be the son of promise. The answer is no. But his actual request is something God clearly says “yes” to. Ishmael will “surely” live before God. The emphatic statement, “surely” comes about as close to a guarantee of salvation as one will find in the Old Testament. So regardless of which translation one uses, the point is the same: God promises with certainty that Ishmael will live before him. We can conclude that the Genesis story does not agree with an interpretation of Rom 9 that has Ishmael eternally condemned. This makes it very difficult to interpret 9:6-13 to be about individual salvation.
All the evidence points in one direction. The ethnic nation of Israel is not fulfilling her calling as the people of God’s promises. The largely gentile church is enjoying the blessings that were promised to Israel. does that mean God’s word has failed? Two factors require an answer of No. First, it was never God’s intention for every son of Abraham to be part of the people of promise. There is a people within the people who are the true people of promise. This remnant is the group one should expect the promises to be fulfilled in, not the ethnic nation of Israel. Second, God’s choosing of the remnant is his own sovereign decision, not based on any works of man. Therefore, it cannot be thwarted by any works of man, because God is not dependent on man to make his promises happen.
But Paul also identifies the people of promise as the people of faith. He has already taught that faith is the prerequisite for inclusion in God’s promises and for inclusion as being the true seed of Abraham. Therefore, faith cannot be considered a work that has no basis in God’s decision of who will be saved and who will not. Since Paul is not discussing the eternal spiritual destinies of Isaac, Jacob, Ishmael, and Esau, he can speak of the sovereignty of God apart from works without further clarification. But when spiritual salvation comes more into view, he will speak of faith, as he does in verses 30-33.