Blog 5: Jews, Gentiles, and the Remnant in Romans 9-11
Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.
For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.
How did Paul migrate from Romans 9:18 to Romans 11:32? Paul, in Romans 9:18, declared that it is God’s sovereign right to have mercy on whomever He wishes and to harden whomever He desires. Then Paul went on to conclude in 11:32 that God has bound all people over to disobedience so that He could have mercy on them all.
Perplexingly, it is difficult to find much agreement as to the referent of the ‘all’ on whom God has mercy in Romans 11:32 among readers of Romans. Some have argued that ‘all’ refers to the elect in Jesus generally. Others have contended that the ‘all’ in this passage refers to the remnant of faithful Israel. There are traditions which prefer to understand the ‘all’ in this context as those God predestined for salvation before the creation of the world. And there are a number who maintain that the ‘all’ in 11:32 refers to ethnic Israel generally. A few have asserted that the ‘all’ is merely Paul’s way of including both Jews and Gentiles in his conclusion. And finally, there are others who have concluded that the ‘all’ refers to every human individual.
My intention in this blog is to attempt to trace Paul’s argument in Romans 9-11 in brief by situating it deeply in conceptualities that arise out Paul’s and early Christianity’s Hebraic culture and tradition. I am particularly interested in the conceptuality of Israel and Israel’s election in the prophetic oracles of Isaiah (a prophet from which Paul quotes extensively). Essentially I intend to argue that God has not exercised His Sovereignty to predestine some to eternal life and others to eternal damnation, but rather that God, through His sovereign choice of specific individuals, has had mercy on the entirety of the human race.
6 It is not as though God’s word had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel.
The heart of Paul’s argument, to my reading, lies in his understanding of Israel. How did Paul understand Israel? What was Israel’s purpose? When Paul spoke of Israel, did he see them as different from the Gentile nations who received mercy because of Israel’s hardness of heart? Why did God choose Israel? These sorts of questions have often led the writers of the New Testament back to the Song of the Servant in the book of Isaiah.
8 “But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, you descendants of Abraham my friend, 9 I took you from the ends of the earth, from its farthest corners I called you. I said, ‘You are my servant’; I have chosen you and have not rejected you. 10 So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. 
“Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will bring justice to the nations. 2 He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets. 3 A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice; 4he will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth. In his teaching the islands will put their hope.”
. . . .6 “I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles, 7 to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness. 
Biblically, Israel was chosen to be a vessel through which light would be given to the rest of the world. Israel was to bring justice to the nations, and reveal the truth and knowledge of Yahweh to an ignorant world. Israel is the result of God’s divine election, but Israel was not simply chosen for eternal life. Israel’s primary purpose, according to Isaiah, was to mediate the knowledge and presence of God to a rebellious world. According to the oracles of Isaiah, Israel failed in this missional calling.
1Listen to me, you islands; hear this, you distant nations: Before I was born the Lord called me; from my mother’s womb he has spoken my name. 2 He made my mouth like a sharpened sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me into a polished arrow and concealed me in his quiver. 3 He said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will display my splendor.” 4 But I said, “I have labored in vain; I have spent my strength for nothing at all. Yet what is due me is in the Lord’s hand, and my reward is with my God.”
5 And now the Lord says—he who formed me in the womb to be his servant to bring Jacob back to him and gather Israel to himself, for I am honored in the eyes of the Lord and my God has been my strength—6 he says: “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”
Israel failed in its purpose—i.e., to mediate God’s word and presence to all nations. In this passage from Isaiah a new servant was to be sent to bring back the tribes of Jacob to God. For the writers of the New Testament, this new servant—this embodiment of Israel—was and is Jesus. Even more, Isaiah has told us that this chosen one, this Messiah, would not merely restore Israel.* He would also bring salvation to the Gentiles. This may be what underlies Paul’s insistence in Romans 11:11-12 & 25 that the hardening of Israel has provided a way for the Gentiles to be grafted into the olive tree.
So, for Paul, the nomenclature of Israel was more than simply a national or ethnic designation. Israel represented a people specially chosen by God to mediate God’s word and presence to those who were ‘not a people.’
From this starting point, Paul proceeded to highlight particular examples of God’s sovereign election. In Romans 9 Paul made specific mention of Isaac, Jacob, and Pharaoh.
Perhaps most surprising in the development of Paul’s argument is the contention that true Israel has always been a remnant within ethnic Israel. Paul has observed that not all of Abraham’s descendants were elect, but only the children of Isaac. Additionally, not even all of Isaac’s descendants were chosen.
10 Not only that, but Rebekah’s children were conceived at the same time by our father Isaac. 11 Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad—in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: 12 not by works but by him who calls—she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” 13 Just as it is written: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”
If I am reading Paul adequately, the trajectory of his argument to this point is that God’s ‘purpose in election’ in light both of the call of Abraham and of the Song of the Servant in the book of Isaiah was to elect a vessel to bring salvation to the world. Consequently, the argument that I am constructing is not that none are predestined without respect to their free will, nor that all are predestined without respect to their free will. Rather, I am contending that some are predestined without respect to their free will.
Those who are predestined in this way are not merely predestined to salvation (as is made clear in Paul’s example of Pharaoh). The predestined are predestined to bring God’s saving message to the rest of the world. Furthermore, this categorization does not extend to all of Israel ethnically. In the words of Paul, “6It is not as though God’s word had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel.”
Paul’s example of Pharaoh furthers the assertion that divine predestination without respect to free will does not necessary result in salvation.
16 It does not, therefore, depend on human desire or effort, but on God’s mercy. 17 For Scripture says to Pharaoh: “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.”
Notice the nature of God’s sovereign choice of Pharaoh. Pharaoh was chosen (‘raised up’) for the purpose of declaring God’s name in all the earth. This is the nature of Israel—i.e. chosen as a vessel for the declaration of God. The Pharaoh example is interesting because just as through his unbelief God’s name was declared to the nations (a hardness not insignificantly allotted to God in the language of Exodus), through the unbelief of the Israelites salvation has been offered to the Gentiles.
21 Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use?
To my reading, Paul’s language of ‘noble purposes’ references those chosen to bring the salvation message, and his phrase ‘common use’ refers to those who hear the message and freely accept or reject it. In Romans 10, Paul again picked up on this theme when he went through the sequence of experience necessary for one to receive salvation in Romans 10:12-15. Paul’s emphasis in this section of Romans 10 appears to have been again on those sent to preach the Gospel—a group I believe Paul has previously defined as true Israel, and in Romans 10 has termed the remnant.
22 What if God, although choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction? 23 What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory—24 even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles?
Presumably, Paul’s argument to this point has prepared us to understand the objects of wrath in this passage to be those Israelites and Gentiles that have rejected God and been disobedient to Him. What is more interesting, however, is the observation that these objects of wrath, prepared for destruction, have not in fact been destroyed. Instead Paul has insisted that God has borne them with great patience.
For Paul, God did not destroy these objects of wrath so that He could make the riches of His glory known to the objects of His mercy. I believe Paul was contending that God’s patience with those whom He should have destroyed has revealed to the objects of His mercy the full extent of His mercy.
When Paul wrote “choosing to show his wrath and make his power known,” he appears to have been referring back to Romans 3:25-26 where he argued that God’s justice was displayed even in His forbearance. In bearing these vessels of wrath with great patience God would appear to have been unjust, but justice was done and God’s wrath and power were made known by the atoning death of Jesus through which God exercised the just penalty of human sinfulness. This action revealed the true extent of God’s mercy to the objects of His mercy. In an interesting rhetorical slight of hand, Paul seems to have conflated objects of wrath with objects of mercy. As the argument builds, it seems necessary to interpret Paul as having argued that the objects of mercy are in fact those who formerly were objects of wrath.
As I have been stating, I am convinced that Paul understood some humans to be predestined in the way Luther and Calvin understood predestination. But, I think both, to varying degrees, universalized Paul at a point in which Paul intended to be particular. In other words, those predestined people are to be distinguished not only from the mass of humanity, but also from the mass of those who will one day inhabit the new heaven and the new earth.
In Romans 9:11-12, Paul has observed that the text of Genesis narrates Jacob’s pre-birth election. Paul made a similar claim about his own origins in Galatians 1:15. Similarly, in Jeremiah 1:4-5 God revealed to Jeremiah that he was called and chosen before he was even in the womb. I am persuaded to agree with Luther and Calvin that the most natural reading of these passages suggests that all of these men experienced what Calvinists would later call irresistible grace. More significant to me, however, is the reality that these same men seemed convinced that these claims distinguished them from those to whom they were called to minister.
Throughout the Pauline corpus, Paul consistently declared himself an Apostle—a title which he seems to have believed distinguished him in some way. Jacob was a son of the covenant—a covenant designed to bring salvation to the whole world (see Genesis 12:2-3). Jeremiah was a prophet, and the Hebrew Scriptures make it clear that prophets had a special calling and a special anointing not given to everyone.
More interesting still is the observation that these examples of Calvinist predestination never appear to have understood their election in terms of eternal destiny. Rather, without exception, those who make these claims of pre-ordination associate that election with the bringing of the message of salvation to transgressors.
Now, admittedly, the biblical texts variously do indicate that many of the elect are expected to inherit eternal life. Nevertheless, the essence of election does not appear to be personal salvation. After all, Paul has used Pharaoh as an example of the elect (Romans 9:16-18). Similarly, King Nebuchadnezzar and the peoples of Babylon were raised up by God to destroy the Jews, send them into exile, and hence force them to spread God’s influence all over the known world (see Habakkuk 1:6,7). Even Pharaoh Neco (see 2 Kings 23:29-30) seems to have been commissioned by God quite apart from any explicit comment on his eternal destiny.
I am persuaded that Luther and Calvin were correct to understand election and predestination in Scripture as sovereign acts of God quite apart from human merit or free-willing. However, where I believe Luther and Calvin failed to read Paul adequately was in their tendency to universalize these particular individuals and to associate their election with personal salvation.
Contrarily, I am contending that these predestined vessels have been predestined to bring the message of salvation to a world of people who are not predestined, but rather have been graced free will in the Arminian/Wesleyan sense.
I believe this essential conviction lies at the heart of Paul’s conception of the remnant in Romans 10 and 11. Of whom is the remnant comprised? The remnant are those Israelites, and possibly even some from among the Gentiles, whom God has specially chosen to be ‘those who bring good news.’ I’m not convinced that salvation and eternal life is a guarantee even for these elect. For instance, Paul in 1 Corinthians 9 has indicated that his own eternal destiny may not have been a certainty in his thinking.
Nonetheless, I do think it makes best sense of Paul’s argument to understand true Israel as the remnant, and they are those who have been predestined without respect to their worthiness or the exercise of their free will to be the bearers and preservers of the word of God to the rest of humanity. More importantly, it seems essential to distinguish their election from that of those to whom they have been sent. In other words, true Israel, the elect, the remnant, the predestined are not representative of all who will inherit eternal life.
After making this strong argument regarding God’s sovereign choice of the remnant, Paul went into a passage in Romans 11 which, apart from the trajectory I’ve suggested, does not fit easily with his previous statements (see Romans 11:13-24). Paul instructed the Gentiles that Israelites had been cut off, and if they (the Gentiles) were not careful, they could be cut off also. I believe that Paul could use this language because not all of the body of Christ should be understood as predestined. Quite to the contrary, most in the Christian Church have been grafted into Israel as a consequence of God’s grace in enabling them to make a contingent choice.
The root that Paul speaks about in this section of Romans into which all the branches are grafted seems to be, in context, all of the predestined remnant found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures and extending into the New Testament of Jesus. The Patriarchs, the prophets, Jesus, and the disciples all make up the root. They are predestined to their positions. The branches, then, would be those who have freely accepted the message they have borne.
So, Paul concludes his argument with the declaration, “For God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.”. My sense of the ‘all’ terminology here is that Paul means to suggest that all those who are not of the remnant have been bound over to disobedience so that through true Israel all might be saved.
 The New International Version (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), Romans 9:18.
 Ibid, Romans 11:32.
 Ibid, Romans 9:6.
 Ibid, Isaiah 41:8–10.
 Ibid, Isaiah 42:1-5 & 6.
 Ibid, Isaiah 49:1–6.
*see Hosea 11:1,2. The Gospel of Matthew has interpreted these verses as prophetic oracles which are fulfilled in Jesus, but the original context was speaking of Israel. This implies to me that, for the Gospel writer, Jesus has done what Israel failed to do.
 Ibid, Romans 9:10–13.
 Ibid, Romans 9:6.
 Ibid, Romans 9:16–17.
 Ibid, Romans 9:21.
 Ibid, Romans 9:22–24.
 See e.g., Hebrews 11.
 See Romans 9:24.