The ninth chapter of Romans is often referenced as ‘the’ text convincing Christians to become ‘Calvinists.’ Many would go so far as to argue that it is impossible to read this section of Romans in any other way.
For me, the ‘Calvinist reading’ seems to ignore Paul’s use of the Old Testament. Furthermore, it fails to situate the argument of Romans 9 within the context of Romans 9–11, and further within the fabric of the Epistle as a whole. In what follows, I will explore Romans 9 in a way that unites it with the entire shape of his letter, respecting the apostle as a skilled reader of the Old Testament scriptures.
Before we begin our journey through Romans 9, we need to understand what the letter is all about. Romans is about how God’s “righteousness” has been unveiled in the “gospel.” If we fail to understand what this means, then we will fail to understand Romans 9, as Romans 9 is Paul’s scriptural defense of his argument in Romans 1–8. The “righteousness of God”—which must always and everywhere be subtly distinguished from the righteousness from God—means God’s covenant faithfulness in fulfilling His promises to the people Israel. Consider the way that Romans 2-3 is shaped:
For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus. —Rom. 2:14–16
Paul here describes Gentiles who are a “law to themselves” because they have the work of the law “written on their hearts.” Though it has been an enormously popular interpretation of the text, Paul does not here speak of moral pagans, doing a general moral law because of the dictates of conscience. Instead, Paul speaks of Gentile Christians, under the new covenant, who have the law “written on their hearts” because of their membership in the new covenant. That phrase “written on their hearts” is a clear allusion to Jeremiah 31:31–34:
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
The context of the prophecy is the days of Israel’s restoration, after the end of exile. God had promised to give Israel a land, but warned them that if they disobeyed the Torah, they would be exiled from that land. Even so, he would one day bring them back from exile and ensure that they fulfill the precepts of the Torah. To that end, he would forgive their sins and write the law on their hearts. That is the thought-world which Paul inhabits. If we are to give Paul any credit whatsoever exegetically, then it will be clear that Paul considers the exile to have been, in some way, ended. Only then could the promise of the new covenant be fulfilled. Paul must therefore demonstrate that God has been faithful to Israel, even as most Jewish people have not shared in Israel’s restoration and bizarrely, many Gentiles have. Let us therefore pay close attention to Paul’s argument, not letting preconceived notions get in the way.
But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast in God and know his will and approve what is excellent, because you are instructed from the law; and if you are sure that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth— you then who teach others, do you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law. For, as it is written, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” —Rom. 2:17–24
The argument is not that all Jews have done these things. Instead, the challenge is to the Jew who believes that he is a “guide to the blind” and a “light o those who are in darkness.” That is, the Jew, responding to the moral chaos seen among the nations in Romans 1, believes that he is the solution to the problem. The nations are in sin, but through the Torah, Israel says, she will serve as light to the world. But Paul answers this decisively: Israel has broken the law. Instead of being the light to the nations, the name of God is blasphemed among the nations through Israel. This constitutes an exact reversal of Israel’s original calling. Paul continues:
For circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision. So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? Then he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law. For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God. —Rom. 2:25–29
The argument here is the same as in 2:13–14. Though much ink has been spilled trying to prove that Paul has not somehow made Gentiles into Jews, the conclusion is exegetically inescapable. The one who is a “Jew inwardly” is “physically uncircumcised.” This is not a mere statement about the circumcised in flesh having also to keep the law inwardly. Instead, it is a statement that there are Gentiles who are truly, in God’s eyes, Jews, because they are circumcised in heart. Indeed, the passage in Jeremiah 31 which Paul drew on earlier is itself based on earlier promises in the Torah, in particular, the great prophecy of covenant renewal in Deuteronomy 30:5–6:
And the Lord your God will bring you into the land that your fathers possessed, that you may possess it. And he will make you more prosperous and numerous than your fathers. And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.
Israel, being hard in heart, will break the Torah, says Moses. But God, faithful as He is, will bring them back from exile. And when He does that, He will circumcise the hearts of His people so that they may truly keep the Shema, so that they might truly “love the Lord.” This, in turn, will lead them to find “life.” This promise, which stands at the end of the Torah, finally undoes what happened in the beginning. Adam had broken the commandments of God and had been exiled from the tree of life. But now, God transforms Israel’s nature and leads her to find life. This is where Paul is drawing the language of the circumcision of the heart. But this presents a problem. Does this not constitute unfaithfulness on the part of God? If God promised to bring Israel back from exile and circumcise her heart, how is it that a Gentile heart-circumcision fulfills this promise? Does this mean that God has changed His mind? That is why Romans 3:1-8 stands where it does in the letter, and this is our exegetical clue to understanding the “righteousness of God.”
Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God. What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? By no means! Let God be true though every one were a liar, as it is written, “That you may be justified in your words, and prevail when you are judged.” But if our unrighteousness serves to show the righteousness of God, what shall we say? That God is unrighteous to inflict wrath on us? (I speak in a human way.) By no means! For then how could God judge the world? But if through my lie God’s truth abounds to his glory, why am I still being condemned as a sinner? And why not do evil that good may come?—as some people slanderously charge us with saying. Their condemnation is just.
“What advantage has the Jew?” Paul answers that the Jews were “entrusted” with the oracles of God. That word “entrusted” is not another word for “given.” Instead it means, as it does elsewhere in Paul, that Israel was given the Torah so that she would bring that to the nations. That was her calling from the very beginning, as the Lord said to Abraham, “In you shall all the families of the Earth be blessed.” (Genesis 12:1–3) And God fully intends to be faithful to that promise of bringing light to the whole world through the people of Israel. The Torah would do its job, through Israel, for the nations. The key to understanding the “righteousness of God” is right here:
What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? By no means! Let God be true though every one were a liar, as it is written, “That you may be justified in your words, and prevail when you are judged.” But if our unrighteousness serves to show the righteousness of God, what shall we say? That God is unrighteous to inflict wrath on us? (I speak in a human way.) —Rom. 3:3–5
Follow the argument carefully. What if some were “unfaithful”? Does their “faithlessness” nullify God’s “faithfulness”? Paul seamlessly moves from this question to ask about the implications of our “unrighteousness” serving the purpose of God’s “righteousness.” When read in context, the conclusion is impossible to avoid. Israel’s “unrighteousness” means her unfaithfulness to the Torah covenant. Somehow, Paul asserts, their unfaithfulness to the covenant will bring about God’s “righteousness”, His faithfulness to His covenantal promises, through Israel, for the world. That naturally leads the interlocutor to ask whether it is then just to judge the people whose disobedience was necessary for God’s purposes. For the moment, Paul sets that question aside with a snort, but it will be picked back up in Romans 9. Paul then brings his argument to a trumpet blast, applying a whole host of passages from the Psalms about the nations to Israel. All are unfaithful. All are in sin. But God’s righteousness stands. How?
For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah for all who are faithful. —Rom. 3:20–22
If one follows the thread of the argument carefully, one will notice the conjunction which 3:22 has with 3:3. Israel was “unfaithful.” But God was faithful in bringing to pass His plan through Israel for the nations. The faithful Jew then appears in the person of the Messiah. His “faithfulness,” as will be explained, is constituted by His utter resolve to go to the Cross in confidence that God would raise Him from the dead. This is for the benefit of “all who are faithful.” The key point here is that “all who are faithful” maps onto the “faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah.” Those who benefit in the new covenant and heart-circumcision are those who embody the faithfulness of the Messiah, that is, those who share His sufferings and thereby his risen glory, as Paul says plainly in Romans 8:17.