Perhaps the last few weeks have been like a balm for your soul as we have looked at Romans 8. I pray that it has. My prayer has been that we would find ourselves this week resting in the reality that we’re not condemned before God but beloved children of God on whom he set his love, affection, and devotion before we even existed, and thus allowing nothing to prevent him from carrying out his purpose of making you like Christ and allowing nothing to separate you from his love for you. I have prayed for that to be descriptive of your walk with the Lord.
But our enemy is crafty, isn’t he? And he does not take lightly to the Lord’s children resting and rejoicing in their secure relationship with their Father. Even after Jesus was baptized and his Father spoke from heaven, saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” the enemy’s first words to Jesus were, “If you are the Son,” suggesting either that Jesus is not really God’s Son or, if he is, then his Father is holding out on him, not willing to love him and care for him as a Son.1
So, if the enemy has indeed thrown every argument at you to try to bring you to a place of unrest before the Lord, I trust that you’ve renewed your mind to the truths of this chapter and meditated on them afresh throughout each day. But even if you’ve done so, there may be one angle of attack, one argument the enemy might bring, that you simply feel unequipped to answer, perhaps even feeling that there is no appropriate response.
That argument would go something like this. Everything we’re delighting in about our secure and delightful relationship with the Lord in Romans 8 was spoken of as being true of and for Israel. And the majority of Israel, physical descendants from Abraham, are actually unbelievers right now, storing up wrath on the day of judgment as long as they continue in their unrepentance (Rom 2:5).
For example, we rejoice that there is now no condemnation for us (Rom 8:1), but God promised “the house of Israel and the house of Judah” that he would “forgive their iniquity and . . . remember their sin no more” (Jer 31:31-34). We rejoice that we have the Spirit, changing our affections and directing our hearts (Rom 8:4), but to Israel and Judah God promised the Holy Spirit and new hearts (Ezek 36:26-27). We are God’s very own sons (Rom 8:14-17), but Israel was called God’s “son” in the OT (Exod 4:22; Hos 11:1). We are heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ (Rom 8:17), but they were promised an inheritance (Is 60). We are told to be foreknown by God and thus secure in his plans (Rom 8:28-30), but God also told them that they only did he know among all the nations (Amos 3:2). And most Israelites do not believe Jesus is the Messiah and are facing God’s judgment unless they repent and believe. So do God’s words and promises really mean anything?2
Do you see then why this could pose a real problem for us? How can we trust God’s Word and his promises if these same glorious truths and promises we take such delight in and rest in were spoken to Israel, and now Israel is made up largely of a group of unbelievers who are—in their unbelief—enemies of Christ? Does this mean that God’s Word is rubbish? Does it mean that his promises and declarations can’t be relied on and really promise us no security? Does it mean that his word and promises in the OT have failed? That’s the question that Paul answers over these next three chapters (Rom 9-11).
He sets out to show that everything he has said about the work of the gospel and the security it brings us as believers is not inconsistent with what God has said in the OT. His teaching and the gospel he preaches upholds fully the promises that God made to Israel in the OT, provided that we rightly understand the nature of those promises.3 Therefore, if we think that what God has said in the OT and what we see happening in our present day proves that his promises are worthless and his Word has failed, then we’ve simply misunderstood what—or more precisely to whom—those promises in the OT were made, because Paul vehemently declares in verse 6 that God’s word has not failed.
But how can Paul argue that God’s word and promises have not failed in light of his many promises to Israel concerning salvation and their present unbelief? That’s what I want us to see this morning. But before we dive into that, we need to recognize that Paul writes from a position of having deep love and compassion for his fellow countrymen, the Israelites.
That’s how he begins in these first five verses of the chapter. He knows that in his arguments that “no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical” (Rom 2:28), that the law increased and magnified sin (7:5), and his application of promises and blessings to Israel in the OT to believing Gentiles could well make someone think that Paul simply doesn’t love his own countrymen, the Jews. But Paul strongly argues against that presumption.
He begins by speaking in the strongest of terms, noting that he’s telling the truth, not lying, and the Holy Spirit testifies to his conscience that he is speaking sincerely when he notes that when he thinks of the great number of unbelieving Israelites, he has “great sorrow and unceasing anguish” in his heart (vv. 1-2). In fact, he has such a desire for them to be saved, that if it were possible Paul says, “I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh” (v. 3).
Did you hear that? Paul would wish that he could be condemned before God if it were possible that his condemnation would bring their salvation. Now, yes, that cannot happen. It’s merely a hypothetical reality Paul is speaking about. He knows it’s hypothetical. But that’s an amazing statement, and one that’s, frankly, almost impossible for me to comprehend.
If one were to disagree with Paul’s teaching because they claim, “I love the Jews,” Paul’s answer would be: “I love them more.” And it would be tough to argue against him concerning that claim. He simply thinks about all the privileges and blessings they received under the Old Covenant. He writes, ‘They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen” (vv. 4-5).
They had the privilege of being God’s very own son whom he commanded to resemble and represent him. They beheld God’s glory in so many ways, even as he led them out of slavery. They were given covenants with all kinds of glorious promises, received the law and were told how to worship, with God’s presence dwelling in their very midst. They descended from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and ultimately from them came Christ himself, who is no less than God the Son incarnate, who is to be worshiped forever. What enormous privilege! And now, they largely continue in unbelief? That brings Paul great sorrow and unceasing anguish.
That’s his starting point. He’s not been arguing as he has because he secretly delights in the condemnation of Jews. He’s on the other end of the spectrum. So don’t charge Paul with some kind of grudge against his own people. He deeply loves them. How then does he argue that God’s Word and promises—including promises regarding salvation—to Israel have not failed if over the generations since Christ a vast majority of them continue in unbelief?
Well, here’s his answer, the reason God’s word has not failed is because:
God’s promises were directed to an Israel within Israel, not every single Israelite
Here’s what Paul writes in verses 6-7a, “But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring.” In other words, you could indeed claim that God’s word failed if God’s promises had been directed to every single Israelite—everyone who was a physical descendant of Abraham. If his promises and declarations were made to them, then the fact that so many are unbelievers and so many will face his wrath on that final day definitely would mean that God’s words failed and were—dare we say—empty. But to judge that God’s words failed and were empty would be based on misunderstanding the promise. The promises were never directed toward every single Israelite, but toward this select group within Israel—a true Israel.
That’s what Paul is saying when he says that not all who are descended from Israel (i.e. every single Israelite) belong to Israel (i.e. the true Israel to whom the promises were directed). And it’s what Paul means when he says it a little differently, saying not all are children of Abraham (i.e. the true children of Abraham to whom the promises were directed) because they are his offspring (i.e. every single physical descendant of Abraham). So, when God made saving declarations and glorious promises to Israel in the OT, he never was directing those promises to all of Abraham’s physical descendants but to a select group from among Abraham’s descendants that Paul is labeling a true Israel or true children of Abraham. And for that group God has fulfilled and will fulfill everything he has spoken.
Now, yes, God also intended those promises to be fulfilled in the lives of some who are not physically descended from Abraham at all (i.e. Gentiles) and yet believe. This is why Paul, writing to Gentile Christians, can call Abraham “our father” (Rom 4:12) or “the father of us all” (4:16) or refer to all who have faith as Abraham’s “offspring” (4:16). It’s why Paul has spent the last number of chapters saying that the glorious promises we read in the OT of God forgiving sins, giving new hearts, giving his Spirit, etc. apply to us who believe. But Paul’s aim in our text isn’t to discuss believing Gentiles. He’s looking specifically at Israelites, and his point is that the promises were directed to a true Israel within Israel.
If you’re skeptical, you might say, “That’s a clever trick, Paul. You’re just trying to interpret God’s promises in a way that fit with what he actually has done so that it looks like his word didn’t fail.” It’s kind of like firing an arrow, missing the target, and then re-drawing the target around where your arrow actually landed. But Paul knows that someone might charge him with this, so he sets off to show that from the beginning this was clearly God’s intention to single out an group within Israel as the objects of his promise, and the only way to show that is to begin to look at the promises and words of God within the OT itself.
So, first, Paul notes that God immediately—within the first generation of Abraham’s descendants—selected one line or group over another. He writes in verse 7, “Not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but ‘Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.’”
That’s a quotation from Genesis 21:12 that comes at an important place in the Abrahamic narrative. God had promised Abraham a son, but Sarah was barren. So Abraham and Sarah hatched a plan for Sarah to give Abraham one of her handmaidens with whom Abraham could have a son. And it worked. The handmaiden, Hagar, conceived and bore a son to Abraham named Ishmael. But that wasn’t the fulfillment of God’s plan. And so later barren Sarah miraculously conceived and bore Abraham a son named Isaac.
So, what’s happening in Genesis 21 is that Sarah sees Ishmael mocking Isaac one day and she tells Abraham that she wants Hagar and Ishmael gone. And it displeases Abraham because Ishmael is his flesh-and-blood son. But God steps in and tells Abraham to do what Sarah has told him for Ishmael is not the recipient of God’s promise but rather, “through Isaac shall your offspring be named”—the very text Paul is bringing up now.
Thus, Paul’s point is that from the very beginning God was not giving his glorious promises and blessings to every one of Abraham’s physical descendants. Right off the bat, he chooses Isaac and not Ishmael, though they were both children of Abraham. And Paul labels this group who receive the promises of God as “children of promise.” He writes, “This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring. For this is what the promise said: ‘About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son’” (vv. 8-9).
Do you see, then? Paul is not playing clever with his reading of the OT. He’s not re-drawing the target around a misfired arrow. He’s showing that from the beginning the intended recipients of God’s promises have never been a group merely determined by their physical descent. God never promised every one of Abraham’s physical children that they would know eternal life. There was a select group from within that larger group, even as early as the first generation of Abraham’s offspring. The children of promise would come from Isaac, not Ishmael.
But Paul also knows that someone could push back on the example of Isaac and Ishmael, couldn’t they? I mean, it does prove Paul’s point but someone could still say, “Well, of course, Ishmael wasn’t a recipient of the promise even though he was Abraham’s offspring because his mom was Hagar the Egyptian. I mean, it is true that Ishmael and Isaac both had Abraham as their physical father, but they had different mothers. That explains it, Paul. What you’re noting is an exception that proves no rule.”
So Paul then notes that what he has shown is indeed no exception at all. In fact, in the very next generation, with the sons of Isaac, God once more chooses one over the other. He writes, “And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls—she was told, ‘The older will serve the younger.’ As it is written, ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated’” (vv. 9-13).
In other words, if you want to say that God choosing Isaac and not Ishmael as a child of promise does not count because they had different mothers, then what are you going to do about Jacob and Esau? I mean, here are two individuals who couldn’t be more equal. They both have Isaac as their father, so they’re from his line. They both have Rebekah as their mother. And they were twins, both in Rebekah’s womb at the same time. Yet, one was a child of promise and the other wasn’t. Jacob was chosen and Esau wasn’t.
That is what is meant by God’s words, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” Now, when you read the word “hated,” you don’t have to read that envisioning “horrible rage.” We know this from the example of when Jesus says that if we’re to be his disciples we must “hate . . . father and mother and wife and children” (Luke 14:26). But it does mean that when it comes to a choice, you must choose one and not the other.4 And this is the very point the Lord is making in Malachi 1:1-3, which Paul is quoting. Israel wants to know how God has loved them, and he answers by noting that he loved Jacob and hated Esau, meaning that he chose them over another who could easily be considered their equal. It might be like a man standing before two women and choosing to marry one and not pursue the other. When his wife asks him, “How have you loved me?” he could answer, “I chose you to be my wife, and I did not choose her.”5
But Paul’s point, at large, is that Jacob and Esau prove his point. God has always selected a group, children of promise, from within a larger group (Abraham’s physical descendants) to whom he made promises of hope, blessing, and salvation. And though this group is much smaller than the larger group of Israelites throughout history who have died in unbelief, their unbelief does not prove his Word has failed, for his promises were never directed toward them. He made his promises to an Israel within Israel, a children of promise within a group of physical descendants from Abraham. And he has and always will fulfill his word to that group.
But why did God do it that way? Why did he choose a select group, a children of promise, whom he would bless with salvation as opposed to all the others? Well, Paul really answers this in his description of God’s choosing Jacob over Esau. He notes:
God elected children of promise so that his purpose of having a beloved people and exalting his grace would be accomplished
Now, I could probably say more about what God’s purpose includes, but I’ve chosen these two elements of having a beloved people and exalting his grace because I want to limit myself this morning to what this precise text says (though, again, we could note more about God’s purpose revealed throughout the rest of Scripture).
So, let me first start with explaining why God’s purpose in electing children of promise includes exalting his grace. When Paul notes that God chose Jacob as a child of promise and recipient of his saving promises instead of Esau, he not only notes that God did this among two who couldn’t be more equal—same dad, same mom, twins. But he also notes that God’s choice factored in nothing about the individuals themselves. He notes that God set his affection and devotion on Jacob and not Esau before they’d been born and before either had done anything good or bad.
In other words, God wanted us not to think that the determining factor for who is a recipient of the promises of God lies ultimately in any individual’s makeup or works. He doesn’t want us to look and say, “These people are the blessed recipients of God’s promises, and it must be because they were better, or did more good, or avoided more evil, or were more deserving.” No. Rather, Paul tells us that God set his affection on Jacob and not Esau, prior to anything they did and without regard to anything they would do “in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls” (v. 11).
That is to say, God wanted to exalt his work of grace in saving people, not their human efforts. That’s what he showed from the very beginning with bringing the line through Isaac and not Ishmael. His plan was never for us to look at Abraham and Sarah’s plan with Hagar that produced Abraham a child and say, “Well, look at those clever people.” His plan was to miraculously give a son to a 100-old-man and his ninety-year-old barren wife so that we might say, “What an amazing, powerful, and gracious God!” And that’s part of his purpose in election. It’s so that we might say, “I am his child not because of my works or anything about me but because of his gracious calling.” And that humbles us and exalts his grace.
But God’s unveiling of his electing work isn’t simply to humble us and exalt his grace but to help us feel loved by him and secure in him. In other words, if your faith is resting in the finished work of Christ this morning—who lived, died, and was raised for us—then you are in that line of promise. And the way that God communicates his choosing of his people is by referring to his love. He doesn’t simply say, “Jacob I have chosen but Jacob have I loved.” And, in light of what we saw in Romans 8, God says to you, “You have a loved.” In other words, Romans 9 isn’t divorced from what we read at the end of Romans 8. God set his affection on you and devoted himself to you before the world was created and is working everything in your life to make you like Jesus. He is for you, has justified you, and has made sure that nothing can separate you from his love for you. He’ll uphold you despite every distress or tribulation that comes your way, preserving you as his own. And how can we rest in all of these glorious promises and declarations? We rest in them by remembering that God’s words have always been true and will always be true. His word has not failed and will not fail. He has children of promise, who get to be the blessed recipients of his rich grace, by his grace, and he wants us to rest secure in his loving devotion toward us.
So, what do we do with this? Well, there is much more than can be said and will be said about this in the coming weeks. But this morning let us feel humbled and loved, giving thanks to God for his love toward us and his unfailing word that we can rest in. Amen.
1. I’ve argued in the past that the core nature of Satan’s temptations of Jesus are to suggest that his Father is holding out on him, not treating him like a son, which I think is a common strategy the enemy uses with us. See http://cccjackson.org/index.php/church-resources/sortable-messages/message/sonship-and-the-path-of-suffering.
4. This point was made by D. A. Carson: http://resources.thegospelcoalition.org/library/chosen-by-god-romans-8-28-30-9-1-29-part-1, accessed on January 9, 2018.
5. We see how this communicates love when we consider John 17:9. Jesus, praying the great high priestly prayer, says, “I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours.” In one sense there is no need for Jesus to articulate that he is not praying for a particular group. We don’t spend time in prayer articulating to the Father those for whom we are not praying. But in another sense it communicates powerfully his specific, selecting love for his people.