Vincent's Word Studies

Marvin R. Vincent, D.D.

Baldwin Professor of Sacred Literature in Union Theological Seminary New York.

The Epistle to the Romans


The Roman Church had been for some time in existence when Paul wrote this epistle (see Rom 1:8, Rom 1:10, Rom 1:12, Rom 1:13; Rom 15:23). That he was acquainted with many of its members appears from the salutations in the sixteenth chapter. In Act 28:15, the existence of the Church is assumed as well known, and the company which meets the apostle at Appii Forum has clearly the character of a deputation. The date and circumstances of the origin and organization of the Church cannot, however, be certainly determined.

The Church consisted of both Jews and Gentiles; but the predominance of the Gentile element is apparent from the epistle itself (see Rom 1:5, Rom 1:12-16; Rom 3:27-30; Rom 4:6; Rom 6:19; Rom 11:13, Rom 11:25, Rom 11:28, Rom 11:30; Rom 15:1, Rom 15:8, Rom 15:16).

Paul had long desired to preach the Gospel at Rome, but when, apparently, on the eve of accomplishing his wish, his plan was complicated by the necessity of visiting Jerusalem with the collection for “the poor saints.” He did not, in any event, contemplate a long stay in Rome, intending to take it en route for Spain. Being thus delayed, he determined to write at once, in order both to meet the immediate needs of the Church and to prepare the way for his personal presence. The epistle was written during his last visit at Corinth (Act 20:2, Act 20:3), and was despatched by the hands of Phoebe the deaconess, about a.d. 59. Its authenticity is generally conceded, together with the fact that it was written in Greek, though some Roman Catholic critics have maintained that it was written in Latin. There is nothing surprising in its having been written in Greek, since the Greek language was prevalent at Rome, having become indeed the general language of the world, and the composition of the letter in Greek accords with Paul's Hellenic associations and training. The Latin fathers never claim their own language as the original of any part of the New Testament, and Ignatius, Justin, and Irenaeus all wrote in Greek to Romans.

The aim of the epistle is didactic rather than polemic, though it acquires a polemic flavor in its opposition of Christianity to legalism. It is distinguished among the epistles by its systematic character Its object is to present a comprehensive statement of the doctrine of salvation through Christ, not a complete system of christian doctrine. Its theme is, The gospel, the power of God unto salvation to Jew and Gentile alike; a power because of its revelation of a righteousness of God for believers.

In the development of this theme Paul shows that Jew and Gentile are alike violators of divine law, and are consequently exposed to the divine wrath, from which there is no deliverance through works or ordinances, but only through the Gospel of Jesus Christ accepted by faith.

In insisting upon this universal condition of salvation, God neither violates His original covenant with Israel, nor deprives Himself of the right to judge sin.

The truth of justification by faith is an Old-Testament truth, illustrated in the case of Abraham, and applicable to both Jews and Gentiles. The true seed of Abraham are those who follow him, not in circumcision but in faith. The saving provision in Christ is coextensive with the results of the fall in Adam, and assures present and future salvation to its subjects. The office of the law was to develop and manifest the sin which originated in Adam's fall, and thus to give full scope to the redemptive work of Christ.

This truth neither encourages immorality nor convicts God of unfaithfulness to His covenant with Israel. Justification by faith involves personal union with Christ, and consequent death to sin and moral resurrection to newness of life. Grace does not imply liberty to sin, but a change of masters and a new obedience and service. Grace does not do away with God's holy law, but only with the false relation of the natural man to that law; in which sin made use of the law to excite man's opposition to it, and thus to bring him into bondage and death. This is illustrated from Paul's own experience.

The deliverance from this bondage, which the law could not effect, is wrought by the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus, which frees from condemnation and initiates a life of sonship inspired and controlled by the Spirit of God. The power of this life appears in the assurance of hope which it imparts amid the trials of this mortal state, a hope founded in the divine election.

To the claim that God cannot reject the unbelieving Jew without breaking His own covenant and stultifying His decree, is opposed the doctrine of absolute divine sovereignty, unconditioned by human merit or service, but exercised in perfect righteousness and mercy, which are vindicated by God's forming for Himself a people of believers, both Jew and Gentile. It is further shown that this divine economy includes the operation of human free agency no less than of divine sovereignty, and that the rejection of Israel was therefore due to their blind reliance on their original election, and their refusal of the righteousness which is through faith in Christ. This rejection is only partial and temporary. God has not cast off His people, but has overruled their unbelief for the salvation of the Gentiles, who, in turn, shall be the means of the restoration of the Jews. See note at the end of ch. 11.

The practical and hortatory portion of the epistle, which begins with ch. 12, treats of the cultivation of different graces, civil duties, the right of private judgment, and the doctrine of christian expediency in its relations to weak faith.

Critics are not unanimous as to the integrity of the epistle. The authenticity of the doxology has been questioned, and the Tubingen critics declared the fifteenth and sixteenth chapters to be spurious. By some, the greater part of ch. 16 is supposed to be addressed to the Ephesians. See on Rom 14:23; see on Rom 16:25.

The epistle is characterized by system, masculine vigor, logical acuteness, copiousness of thought, and depth of feeling. Logic is backed by history, and christian doctrine and precept are illumined from the Prophets and Psalms. Neither personal feeling nor national sentiment is allowed to turn the keen edge of truth. The opening theme - all alike under sin - is evolved with remorseless sternness. The picture of the moral condition of the pagan world is the work of an eye-witness, and is terrible in its stark realism. Yet the logic is aglow with intense feeling, which rises at times toward the level of the Ephesian epistle. The emotion is as deep as in Second Corinthians, but less turbulent. The irony of that epistle is almost wholly absent. The opening of the ninth chapter is a veritable sob. The personal expressions are affectionate and laudatory, but the companion and friend who appears in First Thessalonians, Philippians, and Philemon, mostly gives place to the apostle and teacher. The powerful dramatic element in the epistle is overlooked in the popular impression of a hard theological treatise. It appears in the forensic moulds in which the great spiritual processes are occasionally cast; in the embodiment of the antagonism of sin and holiness in a personal struggle; in the introduction of objections as by an interlocutor; in the vivid contrasts of life and death, spirit and flesh, bondage and freedom, condemnation and acquittal: in the impersonation of the whole creation groaning and travailing for deliverance from the bondage of corruption.

The transitions are as easy and natural as the contrasts are sharp. The nervous but steady movement of chs. 2, 3, 4, suddenly subsides with the opening of ch. 5, and one can pause and bare his forehead to the sweet air ere he begins upon the new ascent from Rom 5:19. The first words of the eighth chapter succeed the seventh like a quiet melody given out by flute or horn after the tumultuous harmonies of the orchestra; and one is conscious of no shock in the descent from the high themes of sovereignty and grace to their applications in common life and duty.

The epistle must be grasped entire. No portion of the New Testament lends itself to more dangerous distortions of truth through fragmentary use. No one of Paul's epistles is so dependent for its just effect upon the perception of the relation of its parts to the whole. Its logic and its feeling are inseparable. It answers the highest test of eloquence in stimulating emotion with profound thought, and in fusing thought in feeling.

But to acquire such a grasp is no easy task, especially for the English reader. It requires far more than close grammatical analysis, and adjustment of the special theological problems raised by the epistle. The letter must be studied in the light of the whole body of the Pauline writings, and with the largest possible acquaintance with the logical and rhetorical habits of the apostle. The fullness and impetuosity of his thought sometimes render him careless of its arrangement. Suggestions, striking into the main line of reasoning, are pursued with an eagerness and to a length which may easily divert the reader from the principal track. Possible qualifications of a truth are temporarily neglected in the concentration of thought upon a single aspect. It is not always easy to discover where the matter of a parenthesis gives place to the resumption of the main thought; sometimes indeed the parenthesis is carried on as if it were the main thought. The first member of a proposition often acquires a headway which makes him forget to offset it with its complementary member. His antitheses are not always evenly balanced, and one member may be literal and the other metaphorical. Certain expressions depend for their force upon word-plays which cannot be translated, and prepositions are accumulated with reference to shades of meaning which tax the utmost resources of the translator and commentator.


Note - Paul's Argument in Romans 9, 10 and 11

These chapters, as they are the most difficult of Paul's writings, have been most misunderstood and misapplied. Their most dangerous perversion is that which draws from them the doctrine of God's arbitrary predestination of individuals to eternal life or eternal perdition.

It can be shown that such is not the intent of these chapters. They do not discuss the doctrine of individual election and reprobation with reference to eternal destiny. The treatment of this question is subordinate to a different purpose, and is not, as it is not intended to be, exhaustive.

At the time when the epistle was written, this question was not agitating the Church at large nor the Roman church in particular. Had this been the case, we may be sure, from the analogy of other epistles of Paul, that he would have treated it specifically, as he does the doctrine of justification by faith, in this epistle, and the questions of idol-meats and the resurrection in first Corinthians.

Such a discussion would not have been germane to the design of this epistle, which was to unfold the Christian doctrine of justification by faith, as against the Jewish doctrine of justification by works.

The great question which was then agitating the Church was the relation of Judaism to Christianity. Paul declared that Christianity had superseded Judaism. The Jew maintained, either, that the Messiah had not come in the person of Jesus Christ, and that Christianity was therefore an imposture, or that, admitting Jesus to be the Messiah, He had come to maintain the law and the institutions of Judaism: that, therefore, entrance into the messianic kingdom was possible only through the gate of Judaism; and that the true Christian must remain constant to all the ordinances and commandments of the law of Moses.

According to the Jewish idea, all Gentiles were excluded from the kingdom of God unless they should enter it as Jewish proselytes. Paul himself, before his conversion, had undertaken to stamp out Christianity as heresy, verily thinking that he “ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth” (Act 26:9). Hence the Jew “compassed sea and land to make one proselyte” (Mat 23:15). Every Gentile who should resist the conquest of the world by Israel would be destroyed by Messiah. The Jew had no doubts as to the absoluteness of the divine sovereignty, since its fancied application flattered his self-complacency and national pride. All Jews were elect, and all others were reprobate. Paul's proclamation of Messianic privilege to the Gentiles did, perhaps, quite as much to evoke Jewish hatred against himself, as his allegiance to the Jesus whom the Jews had crucified as a malefactor.

The discussion in these three chapters fits perfectly into this question, It is aimed at the Jews' national and religious conceit. It is designed to show them that, notwithstanding their claim to be God's elect people, the great mass of their nation has been justly rejected by God; and further, that

God's elective purpose includes the Gentiles. Hence, while maintaining the truth of divine sovereignty in the strongest and most positive manner, it treats it on a grander scale, and brings it to bear against the very elect themselves.

What Is the Place of These Chapters in the Order of the Argument?

Early in the discussion, Paul had asserted that the messianic salvation had been decreed to the Jew first (Rom 1:16; Rom 2:10 : compare Joh 1:11). In the face of this stood the fact that the Jewish people generally had rejected the offer of God in Christ. Paul himself, after offering the Gospel to the Jews at Antioch in Pisidia, had said: “It was necessary that the word of God should first have been spoken to you; but seeing ye put it from you, and judge yourselves unworthy of everlasting life, lo, we turn to the Gentiles” (Act 13:46; compare Act 18:6). The Jew had fallen under the judgment of God (Rom 2:1, Rom 2:2). Resting in the law, making his boast of God, claiming to be a guide of the blind, a light of them which are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, and having the form of knowledge and of the truth in the law, he had made him self a scandal in the eyes of the Gentiles by his notorious depravity, and had proved himself to be not a Jew, since his circumcision was not of the heart (Rom 2:17-29)

Notwithstanding these facts, the Jew claimed that because he was a Jew God could not reject him consistently with His own election and covenant promise. If the Gospel were true, and Jesus really the Messiah, the promises made to the Jewish people, who rejected the Messiah, were nullified. Or, if the election of God held, Israel was and forever remained the people of God, in which case the Gospel was false, and Jesus an impostor. “Thus the dilemma seemed to be: either to affirm God's faithfulness to His own election and deny the Gospel, or to affirm the Gospel, but give the lie to the divine election and faithfulness.” (Godet.)

Paul must face this problem. It lies in the straight line of his argument. Hints of it have already appeared in Rom 3:1 sqq; Rom 4:1. The discussion necessarily involves the truth of the divine sovereignty and election.

In studying Paul's treatment of this question, mistake and misconstruction are easy, because the truths of divine sovereignty and elective freedom require to be presented in their most absolute aspect as against man's right to dictate to God. The parallel facts of man's free agency and consequent responsibility, which are equally patent in these chapters, are, at certain points, thrown into the shade; so that, if the attention is fastened upon particular passages or groups of passages, the result will be a one-sided and untruthful conception of the divine economy, which may easily run into a challenge of God's justice and benevolence. The assertion God must act according to my construction of His promise and decree, can be met only by the bare, hard, crushing counter-statement God is supreme and does as He will, and has the right to do as He will. This assertion, we repeat, does not exclude the element of individual freedom; it does not imply that God will do violence to it; it is consistent with the assumption of the most impartial justice, the most expansive benevolence, the tenderest mercy, the purest love on God's part. The argument merely sets these elements aside for the time being and for a purpose, only to emphasize them at a later stage. As Meyer aptly says:

“As often as we treat only one of the two truths: God is absolutely free and all-efficient,' and 'Man has moral freedom, and is, in virtue of his proper self-determination and responsibility as a free agent, the author of his salvation or perdition,' and carry it out in a consistent theory, and therefore in a one-sided method, we are compelled to speak in such a manner that the other truth appears to be annulled. Only appears, however, for, in fact, all that takes place in this case is a temporary and conscious withdrawing of attention from the other. In the present instance Paul found himself in this case, and be expresses himself according to this mode of view, not merely in a passing reference, but in the whole reasoning of 9:6-29. In opposition to the Jewish conceit of descent and works, he desired to establish the free and absolute sovereign power of the divine will and action, and that the more decisively and exclusively, the less he would leave any ground for the arrogant illusion of the Jews that God must be gracious to them. The apostle has here wholly taken his position on the absolute stand-point of the theory of pure dependence upon God, and that with all the boldness of clear consistency; but only until he has done justice to the polemical object which he has in view. He then returns (Rom 9:30 sqq.) from that abstraction to the human moral stand point of practice, so that he allows the claims of both modes of consideration to stand side by side, just as they exist side by side within the limits of human thought. The contemplation - which lies beyond these limits - of the metaphysical relations of essential interdependence between the two - namely, objectively divine and subjectively human, freedom and activity of will - necessarily remained outside and beyond his sphere of view; as he would have had no occasion at all in this place to enter upon this problem, seeing that it was incumbent upon him to crush the Jewish pretensions with the one side only of it - the absoluteness of God.”

That the factor of human freedom has full scope in the divine economy is too obvious to require proof. It appears in numerous utterances of Paul himself, and in the entire drift of Scripture, where man's power of moral choice is both asserted, assumed, and appealed to; where the punishment of unbelief and disobedience is clearly shown to be due to man's own obstinacy and perverseness. Were this not the case, if human destiny were absolutely and unchangeably fixed by an arbitrary decree, the exhortations to carry out our own salvation, to obedience and perseverance in rightdoing, the cautions against moral lapse, the plain suggestions of the possibility of forfeiting divine blessings, the use of the divine promises themselves as appeals to repentance and holiness, the recognitions of the possibility of moral transformation, would assert themselves as a stupendous farce, a colossal and cruel satire.

It must suffice for us that these two factors of divine sovereignty and human freedom are both alike distinctly recognized in Scripture. Their interplay and mutual adjustment in the divine administration carry us out of our depth. That matter must be left with God, and faced by man with faith, not with knowledge. That there is a divine election - the act of God's holy will in selecting His own methods, instruments, and times for carrying out His own purposes - is a fact of history and of daily observation. It appears in the different natural endowments of men; in the distribution of those natural advantages which minister to the strength or weakness of nations; in the inferiority of the Ethiopian to the Caucasian; in the intellectual superiority of a Kant or a Descartes to a Chinese coolie.

“It is true, and no argument can gainsay it, that men are placed in the world unequally favored, both in inward disposition and outward circumstances. Some children are born with temperaments which make a life of innocence and purity natural and easy to them; others are born with violent passions, or even with distinct tendencies to evil, inherited from their ancestors and seemingly unconquerable; some are constitutionally brave, others are constitutionally cowards; some are born in religious families and are carefully educated and watched over; others draw their first breath in an atmosphere of crime, and cease to inhale it only when they pass into their graves. Only a fourth part of mankind are born Christians. The remainder never hear the name of Christ except as a reproach.” (Froude, “Calvinism.”)

Such election must needs be arbitrary; not as not having good and sufficient reasons behind it, but as impelled by such reasons as are either beyond human apprehension or are withheld from it in God's good pleasure. All that we can say in our ignorance of these reasons is: God did thus because it pleased Him. Certain it is that, could we penetrate to these reasons, we should come, in every case, at last, upon perfect wisdom. and perfect love, working out along hidden lines to such results as will fill heaven with adoring joy and wonder.

The Course of the Argument

This we shall follow in detail through ch. 9, and in general outlines through chs. 10 and 11.

(Rom 9:1-3) I have great sorrow of heart for my Jewish kinsmen because of their spiritual condition arising from their rejection of Jesus, and their consequent exclusion from the blessings of Messiah's kingdom.

(Rom 9:4, Rom 9:5) This condition is the more lamentable because of their original privileges involved in God's election of them to be His chosen people - adoption, visible manifestations of God, covenants, a divine legislation, a divinely arranged order of worship, messianic promises, descent from the revered fathers, selection as the race from whom the Christ was to spring (compare Isa 45:3, Isa 45:4).

(Rom 9:6) There is, however, no inconsistency between their possession of these original privileges and their present exclusion. The case does not stand so as that God's word has failed of fulfillment. Those who make this charge, assuming that they are entitled to acceptance with God on the mere ground of descent, are to remember the general principle that messianic blessing is not conditioned by mere descent; that not all who are physically descended from Israel are the true, ideal Israel of God (compare Rom 3:28).

(Rom 9:7-9) This appears from the history of the patriarchal lineage. Though Abraham had two sons, Ishmael and Isaac, Isaac was selected as the channel of the messianic seed of Abraham, according to the promise, “In Isaac shall thy seed be called” (compare Gal 4:23), and not Ishmael, who was the child of Abraham in a physical sense merely, and not the child of the promise which is recorded in Gen 18:10.

(Rom 9:10-13) Not only have we an example of divine selection in the case of children of different mothers, but we have an example in the case of the children of the same mother. Between Jacob and Esau, representatives of the two nations of Israel and Edom (Gen 25:23), a divine choice was made, and it was declared by God that the elder should serve the younger. This choice was not based upon purity of descent, since both children were by the same father and lawful mother. Nor was it based upon moral superiority, since it was made before they had done either good or evil. The choice was made according to God's sovereign will, so that His messianic purpose might remain intact; the characteristic of which purpose was that it was according to election; that is, not determined by merit or descent, but by the sovereign pleasure of God.

(Rom 9:14) If it be asked, therefore, “Is there unrighteousness with God? Does God contradict Himself in His rejection of unbelieving Israel?” - it must be answered, “No!” If there was no unrighteousness in the exclusion of Ishmael and Edom from the temporal privileges of the chosen people, there is none in the exclusion of the persistently rebellious Israelites from the higher privileges of the kingdom of heaven. If not all the physical descendants of Abraham and Isaac can claim their father's name and rights, it follows that God's promise is not violated in excluding from His kingdom a portion of the descendants of Jacob. Descent cannot be pleaded against God's right to exclude, since He has already excluded from the messianic line without regard to descent. This choice Israel approved and cannot, therefore, repudiate it when the same choice and exclusion are applied to unbelieving Israel. God is not restricted to the Hebrew race, nor bound by the claims of descent. As He chose between the children of the flesh and the children of the promise, so He may choose between mere descendants and true believers, whether Jew or Gentile.

It is to be remarked on this passage that the matter of eternal, individual salvation or preterition is not contemplated in the argument, as it is not in Mal 1:2, Mal 1:3, from which the words “Jacob have I loved,” etc., are quoted. The matter in question is the part played by the two nations regarded from the theocratic standpoint.

(Rom 9:15) God cannot be unrighteous. This is apparent from your own Scriptures, which, as you admit, glorify God's righteousness, and which give you God's own statements concerning Himself in the cases of Moses and Pharaoh. There can, therefore, be no discrepancy between God's righteousness and the principle for which I am contending, since God represents Himself as acting on this very principle: Divine choice is not founded upon human desert. Man has no right to God's favors. For when Moses asked God to show him His glory, God, in complying, assured him that He did not grant the request on the ground of Moses' merit or services, but solely of His own free mercy. He would have mercy and compassion upon whom He would. Moses had no claim upon that revelation.

(Rom 9:16) Thus it appears that the divine bestowment proceeds from sovereign grace, and not from the will or the effort of the recipient. Hence the Jew cannot claim it on the ground of race or of moral striving.

It is right to wish and right to run. Paul elsewhere says, “So run that ye may obtain” (1Co 9:24). But that is not now the point in view. The point is to emphasize the fact of God's sovereign right to dispense His favors as He will, in opposition to the Jew's claim that God must dispense His favors to him on the ground of his descent. Hence the argument bears also on the divine dealing with the Gentiles. The Jew says, “The Jews alone are subjects of the divine mercy; the Gentiles are excluded.” Paul replies, “Your own Scriptures show you that God has the right to show mercy to whom He will. The fact that He originally did not choose the Gentile, but chose the Jew, does not exclude Him from extending His salvation to the Gentile if He so will. The fact that He did so choose the Jew, does not save the Jew from the peril of exclusion and rejection.”

(Rom 9:17) Again, God is vindicated against the charge of injustice by His declaration of the same principle applied to the matter of withholding mercy in the case of Pharaoh. The one statement implies the other. The right to bestow at will implies the right to withhold at will. Thus He says to Pharaoh that He has raised him up in order to show His power through his defeat and destruction.

(Rom 9:18) Hence the conclusion. God has the absolute right to dispense or to withhold mercy at pleasure. “He hath mercy upon whom He will have mercy, and whom He will He hardeneth.”

This last statement, on its face, appears to be the assertion of a rigid, inexorable predeterminism. But let it be at once said that Paul commits himself to no such theory. For to interpret this passage as meaning that God takes deliberate measures to harden any man against holy and gracious influences, so as to encourage him to sin in order that He may show His power in destroying him, is:

1. To ascribe to God the most monstrous cruelty and injustice, according to the standard of His own revealed character and law.

2. To make God the author and promoter of sin.

3. To contradict other declarations of Scripture, as 1Ti 2:4; Jam 1:13; 2Pe 3:9.

4. To contradict the facts in Pharaoh's own case, since God gave Pharaoh abundant warning, instruction, and call and inducement to repentance.

The key-note of the discussion must be kept clearly in mind as shaping this particular form of statement. To repeat: Paul is striking sharply at the assumption of the Jew that God must dispense messianic blessing to him, and must not exclude him, because he is a Jew. Paul meets this with the bare statement of God's sovereign right to dispose of men as He will. He does not ignore the efforts which God makes to save men from blindness and hardness of heart, but the attitude of the Jew does not call for the assertion of these: only for the assertion of God's absolute sovereignty against an insolent and presumptuous claim.

Bearing this in mind, we are here confronted with a class of facts which we cannot explain - certain arrangements the reasons for which lie back in the sovereign will of God. Moses was placed under circumstances which promoted his becoming the leader and lawgiver of God's people. Pharaoh was born to an inheritance of despotic power and inhaled from his birth the traditions of Oriental tyranny. These influences went to harden him against God's command. Apparently the circumstances favored Pharaoh's becoming a cruel tyrant. Why the difference? We cannot tell. These causes operated according to their natural law. There was also the operation of a psychological and moral law, according to which the indulgence of any evil passion or impulse confirms it and fosters its growth. Pride begets pride; resistance intensifies obstinacy, encourages presumption, blunts susceptibility to better influences. Again, the penal element entered into the case. Persistent disobedience and resistance, working their natural result of inflated pride and presumptuous foolhardiness, wrought out a condition of heart which invited and insured judgment. A parallel is found in the first chapter of this epistle, where it is said that the heathen, having a certain revelation of God, refused to improve it; wherefore, as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them up to uncleanness, vile passions, and a reprobate mind (Rom 1:24, Rom 1:26, Rom 1:28).

“It is psychologically impossible that such determined impenitence could be cherished by the monarch, and yet produce no effects in the sensibilities of his heart. In such necessary working the hand of God must needs be immanent. When we impersonally say 'must' and speak impersonally of 'necessity' in reference to the conditions of the human sensibility, we either expressly or implicitly point to the operation of God. God did harden of old, and still He hardens when sin is cherished.” (Morison.)

And yet the operation of these forces did not exclude moral agency or moral freedom. No irresistible constraint compelled Pharaoh to yield to this pressure toward evil. His power of choice was recognized, assumed, and appealed to. He could not plead ignorance, for God instructed him through Moses. He could not plead doubt of God's power, for God wrought before his eyes an unexampled series of wonders. If any “visitings of nature” could have power over him, the misery of his slave population was before his eyes. Only when all these influences had been repelled, and all opportunities for yielding scornfully rejected, did God have recourse to judgment. God raised up Pharaoh in order to show His power; but two opposite exhibitions of God's power in Pharaoh were possible. If he had yielded, he would have been a co-worker with God in the evolution of the Jewish commonwealth. God's power would have been displayed in the prosperity of his kingdom, as it was through the presence of Joseph. He resisted, and God's power was terribly manifested in his torment and final destruction.

“No one,” as Muller observes, “can withdraw himself from the range and influence of God's revelations, without altering his moral status.” Hence, though it is affirmed that God hardened Pharaoh's heart - the side of the statement which best suits the immediate purpose of Paul's argument - it is also affirmed that Pharaoh hardened his own heart (compare Exo 4:21; Exo 7:3; Exo 9:12; Exo 10:20, Exo 10:27; Exo 11:10; and Exo 8:15, Exo 8:32; Exo 9:34) The divine and the human agencies work freely side by side.

The cases of both Moses and Pharaoh make against the charge of God's injustice toward the unbelieving Jews, since they show that He acts consistently on the principle of exercising His divine sovereignty according to His supreme will; but they also furnish another argument to the same effect, by showing that He exercises His sovereignty with long-suffering and mercy. The God who acts with mercy and forbearance cannot be unrighteous. God's revelation to Moses was a display of His great mercy. In it He revealed “the Lord God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty” (Exo 34:6, Exo 34:7). God's dealing with Pharaoh was marked by forbearance, opportunities for repentance, instruction, and chastisement.

Rom 9:19, Rom 9:20, Rom 9:21 are not properly part of the proof, but are introduced by way of rebuke to a presumptuous question or challenge; so that, in the regular line of the argument, we may proceed directly from the close of Rom 9:18 to Rom 9:22.

(Rom 9:19) The objector now catches at the words, “whom He will He hardeneth,” as an opportunity for shifting the responsibility from himself to God. If God hardens, why blame the hardened? If God ordains, who can resist His will?

The fault of interpretation at this point lies in construing Paul's answer as a counter-argument; whereas Paul does not entertain the objector's words as an argument at all. He neither admits, denies, nor answers them as an argument. His reply is directed solely at the objector's attitude as a challenger of God. It is a rebuke of the creature for charging his sin upon the Creator. Paul is not dealing with the objector's logic, but with the sublime impudence of the objector himself. He is not vindicating God against the charge, nor exposing the falsity of the charge itself.

For if this answer of Paul, with the similitude of the potter and the clay, is to be taken as an argument for God's right to harden men at His arbitrary pleasure, then Paul is open to rebuke quite as much as his opponent. For, in the first place, the answer is a tacit admission of the Jew's premise, and, in the second place, regarded as an answer to an argument, it is a specimen of the most brutal dogmatism, and of the most fallacious and shallow logic, if it can be called logic at all. This is the case, in brief. The Jew. “God hardens at His arbitrary will and pleasure. If, therefore, He hardened me so that I could not believe, He is to blame, not I. Why does He find fault with me for not believing? If He is supreme, who can resist His will?” Paul. “Suppose He did harden you so that you could not believe, what have you to say about it? Shut your mouth! God does as He pleases with you. You are simply a lump of clay in the hands of a potter, and must be content to be what the potter makes you.”

From this point of view it must be said that the objector has the best of it, and that Paul's answer is no answer. Regarded as an argument, it is an argument from an analogy which is no analogy. Man, on God's own showing, is not a lump of senseless clay. He is a sentient, reasoning being, endowed by God with the power of self-determination. God Himself cannot and does not treat him as a lump of clay; and to assert such a relation between God and man made in God's image, is to assert what is contrary to common sense and to God's own declarations and assumptions in Scripture. The objector might well turn upon Paul and say, “Well, then, if man is only a lump of clay, and therefore without right or power to reply, who, pray, art thou that repliest for God? Thou art, on thine own showing, a lump of clay like myself. If clay cannot and must not reason nor answer, what is the peculiar quality of thy clay which entitles thee to speak as God's advocate?”

It is quite safe to say that Paul is too good a reasoner, and too well acquainted with the character, the word, and the economy of God as displayed in the history of his own race, to be betrayed into any such logical absurdity as this; too thoroughly humane, too mindful of his own deep doubts and questionings, too transparently candid to meet even a conceited and presumptuous argument with a counter-argument consisting of a bare dogma and a false analogy. Paul does not admit that God made the Jew sin. He does not admit that God made the Jew incapable of believing. He does not admit that the responsibility for the Jew's rejection lies anywhere but with himself.

Yet even the figure of the potter and the clay, properly understood, might have suggested to the angry Jew something beside the thought of sovereign power and will arbitrarily molding helpless matter.

The Potter and the Clay

The illustration is a common one in the Old Testament, and it is reasonable that Paul's use of it should be colored by its usage there.

It occurs in Jer 18:1-10. Jeremiah, in great despondency over the demoralization of Israel was bidden to go down to the potter's house. The potter shaped a vessel on the wheel, but, owing to some defect in the clay, the vessel was marred. So the potter made, of the same lump, another vessel different from that which he had at first designed. He did not throw away the clay, but his skill prevailed to triumph over the defect, and to make a vessel, perhaps inferior to the first, yet still capable of use. So God had designed Israel for a high destiny, a royal nation, a peculiar people; but Israel defeated this destiny by its idolatries and rebellions. Hence God made it another and baser vessel. “The pressure of the potter's hand was to be harder. Shame and suffering and exile - their land left desolate, and they themselves weeping by the waters of Babylon - this was the process to which they were now called on to submit.” The potter exercised his power by making the vessel unto dishonor which he originally designed unto honor. Side by side with the potter's power over the clay, there goes, figuratively speaking, in the prophet's representation, the power of change and choice in the lump. “Ye are in my hand as this clay in the hand of the potter. If, when I am about to degrade the nation, they turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil. On the contrary, when I am planning for an honorable and powerful kingdom, if the people turn to evil, then I will repent of the good wherewith I said that I would benefit them.” Israel has a power of choice. If it is made into a vessel unto dishonor, the fault is its own, but repentance and submission may change the issue.

Look again at Isa 29:16. This passage occurs in the prophecy concerning Jerusalem under the name of Ariel. The prophet predicts siege, thunder, and earthquake. He says that the Lord hath poured on the people the spirit of deep sleep, and hath closed their eyes and covered their heads, so that the prophetic vision appeals to them as a sealed letter to a man who can read, or as a writing to one who cannot read.

This is on the same line with the hardening of Pharaoh's heart. It is ascribed to the direct agency of God. But immediately there follows the statement of their own responsibility for their sin. The people have removed their heart from the Lord and worship Him with the lips only. Therefore, God will proceed to do marvelous and terrible works among them. O your perverseness! Think you can hide your counsel from God? “Surely your turning of things upside down shall be esteemed as the potter's clay, for shall the work say of him that made it, 'He made me not?' or shall the thing framed say of him that framed it, 'He hath no understanding?'” In other words, why do men think that they can escape God by hiding their purposes from Him? Shall God (the potter) be accounted as clay (the man)? Shall man ignore the fact that he was made by God, and act as if God had no understanding? The parallel between this utterance and that in Romans 9 will be evident at a glance.

Isa 45:9. The prophecy concerning Cyrus. God calls him, though a heathen, for the sake of Jacob His servant, and Israel His elect. In this call God asserts His sovereignty: “I am Jehovah and there is none else. I girded thee when thou knewest me not.” This idea is further carried out by the figure of the potter and the clay. “Woe to him that striveth with his maker. Let the potsherd strive with the potsherds of the earth. Shall the clay say to him that fashioned it, 'What makest thou?' or thy work, 'He hath no hands?'” The same thought appears in Isa 45:10. Shall a child remonstrate with its parents because they have brought into the world a being weak, ugly, or deformed? And again, in Isa 45:11 : “Concerning the things to come will ye question me? Concerning my children and the work of my hands will ye lay commands upon me? It was I that made the earth and created the men upon it,” etc.

Along with these declarations of absolute sovereignty, which silence the lips of men, stand exhortations which assume the power of free choice. “I said not unto the seed of Jacob 'Seek ye me in vain.'” “Assemble yourselves and come.” “Let them take counsel together.” “Turn ye unto me and be ye saved.”

Isa 64:8. “And now Jehovah, thou art our Father. We are the clay, and thou art our fashioner, and the work of thy hands are we all.” But Isa 64:5, “Behold thou wast wroth, and we sinned, and we went astray: our iniquities as the wind have carried us away. Thou hast delivered us into the hand of our iniquities.” “Since thou art our fashioner, and we are the clay, look upon us: remember not iniquity forever.”

By all these Old-Testament passages the idea of God dealing with men as lifeless clay, shaping them to eternal life or death according to His arbitrary will, is contradicted. The illustration points away from God's causing unbelief, to God's bearing with man's voluntary and persistent disobedience, and to His making of him the best that can be made consistently with divine justice and holiness. So far from accentuating rigid narrowness of purpose, arbitrary and inexorable destination of individuals to honor or dishonor, the illustration opens a vast range and free play of divine purpose to turn evil to good, and to shape men into obedient and faithful servants through divine chastisements. The potter does not make vessels in order to shiver them. God does not make men in order to destroy them. God ordains no man to eternal death. He desires to honor humanity, not to dishonor it; and the fact that men do become vessels unto dishonor, merely proves the power which God has lodged in the human will of modifying, and in a sense defeating, His sovereign purpose of love. He “will have all men to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth;” yet Christ comes to His own, and His own receive Him not, and He weeps as He exclaims, “Ye will not come unto me that ye might have life.”

(Rom 9:22) The argument now proceeds in regular course from Rom 9:18, showing that the exercise of God's sovereign right is marked by mercy even toward those who deserve His wrath. Are you disposed to construe the words “whom He will, He hardeneth” into an assertion of the arbitrary, relentless, and unjust severity of God? Suppose it can be shown that God, though the spontaneous recoil of His holy nature from sin moved Him to display His wrath and make known His power against men who were fit for destruction - endured these with much long-suffering.

This could easily be shown from the case of the Israelites them selves and of Pharaoh.

Did not this endurance imply opportunity to repent, and assume that destruction was not God's arbitrary choice, but theirs?

Still further, what if God, through this same endurance, was working, not only to save the Jewish people if possible, but also to carry out a larger purpose toward a people which, in His eternal counsels, He had destined for the glory of the messianic kingdom?

Here He introduces the subject of the inclusion of the Gentiles in the messianic kingdom. God is merciful in carrying out His will, but in His mercy He none the less carries out His will. Both His sovereignty and His mercy will be vindicated in His making a people for Himself from the Gentiles and from the believing Jews. What has Israel to say? The word of God has not been brought to nought by his rejection. The principle of divine selection which operated in Abraham and Jacob is carried out in the selection of believing Israel from the unbelieving mass, and in the call of the Gentiles. The elective purpose of God was broader than Israel thought. In choosing Israel God was contemplating the salvation of the world, and did not abdicate His liberty to reject unbelievers, or to call others not Jews.

With this should be compared the discourse of Jesus in John 6. After having given a sign of His divine power and commission by the feeding of the multitudes, His announcement of Himself as the bread from heaven, the true and only life of the world, is met with a stupid, materialistic construction of His words, and with obstinate incredulity; whereupon He says, “Ye also have seen me and believe not” (Joh 6:36). At this point He seems to pause and contemplate His failure to reach the Jews, and to ask Himself if His mission is indeed for nought. It is the answer to this inward question which explains the apparent disconnection of Joh 6:37 with what precedes. Though the Jews reject, yet God will have a people for Himself. “All that the Father giveth me shall come to me.” There is a clear foreshadowing here of the call of the Gentiles.

(Rom 9:25, Rom 9:26) But not only is God's word not annulled; it is fulfilled. For He says, by the prophet Hosea, that He will call by the name my people those who are not His people, and that nation beloved which was not beloved; and in the Gentile lands, where God, by the punishment of exile, said to Israel, “Ye are not my people,” there God would visit them and recall them along with the Gentiles.

Here the apostle applies to the Gentiles what Hosea said of the Jews only. The tribes, by their lapse into idolatry, had placed themselves on the same footing with the Gentiles (not His people), so that the general truth could be applied to both. In Isa 49:22, the Gentiles are represented as restored to grace along, with the Jews.

(Rom 9:27-29) But this people shall not consist of Gentiles only; for God says by Isaiah that a remnant shall be preserved out of Israel, a small number out of the great unbelieving mass, which shall attain to the salvation and privileges of the messianic kingdom: a remnant, for God in His righteous judgment will make a summary reckoning with the Jewish nation, and the great body of it shall be cut off; but a remnant shall be left as a seed by which the true people of God shall be perpetuated. This preservation of a remnant is a mark of divine mercy. But for this, the whole nation would have been destroyed like Sodom.

(Rom 9:30) Paul now turns to the facts of human agency, moral freedom, and consequent responsibility, which, up to this point, have been kept in the shadow of the truth of divine sovereignty. There is a correspondence between God's freedom in His government and the freedom of men in their faith and unbelief. He summarily states the truth which he develops in ch. 10; namely, that Israel was the cause of its own rejection, alluding at the same time incidentally to the cause of the Gentiles' reception.

The reason why the Jews were rejected was because they did not seek after the righteousness which is by faith, but clung to the law, and sought to be justified by its works. The Gentiles, who had no revelation, and who therefore did not seek after righteousness in the New-Testament sense, nevertheless attained it, accepting it when it was offered, and not being hindered by the legal bigotry and pretension of the Jew; but Israel, following after the law, which, in itself, is holy and just and good, and which was intended to lead to Christ, pursued it only as an external standard of righteousness, and on the side of legal observance, and so found a stumbling-block in the very Messiah to whom it led them.

Chapter 10

The general statement in Rom 9:30-33 is developed.

(Rom 10:1-3) Israel was zealous for God, but without discernment of the true meaning and tendency of the law. Hence, in the endeavor to establish its own legal righteousness, it missed the righteousness of faith, the nature of which is expounded in this epistle.

(Rom 10:4-11) They did not perceive that Christ brings the legal dispensation to an end in introducing Himself as the object of faith and the source of justifying righteousness. They accepted only the declaration of Moses concerning righteousness, that the man who keeps the law shall live by it, and did not see that the law, properly understood, implied also the work of grace and dependence on God. They regarded righteousness as something remote and to be attained only by laborious effort; whereas even Moses would have told them that Jehovah's help was near at hand to assist them in the daily understanding and keeping of the law. No one need be sent to heaven nor beyond the sea to bring back the explanation of its commandments, or to enable them to fulfill them. Still more plainly, to the same effect, spoke the righteousness of faith in Christ. No need to ascend to heaven to bring Him down. He has already descended to earth. No need to dive into the depths of the earth to bring Him up. He has already risen from the dead. They have only to accept by faith His death and his resurrection, and to confess Him who has accomplished in Himself the two great things which needed to be done. Such faith shall not put them to shame. They shall be saved as if they had fulfilled all the necessary conditions themselves.

(Rom 10:12, Rom 10:13) Not only is this salvation free. It is also universal, to whosoever shall believe. Thus it appeals to the Gentile no less than to the Jew. It strikes at the notion that the Jew alone is the subject of messianic salvation; that the Gentile must enter the kingdom through the gate of Judaism. Both Jew and Gentile enter through faith only. There is no difference between the Jew and the Gentile. The Lord, who is Lord of both alike, dispenses His riches to all of both nations who call upon Him.

(Rom 10:14-21) The Jew cannot plead in excuse for rejecting this salvation, either that he has not heard it announced, or that its universality is inconsistent with Old-Testament teaching. Both excuses are shattered upon Old-Testament declarations. It was prophesied by Isaiah that Israel would not all submit themselves to the Gospel. The good tidings has been proclaimed, but they have not believed the report. Faith comes by hearing, and they have heard the Gospel in their cities and synagogues. Had Israel any reason to be surprised at the universality of the Gospel - its proclamation to the Gentiles? On the contrary, did not Israel know? Had not Moses and Isaiah prophesied that God would manifest His grace to the Gentiles, and that the Gentiles would receive it - yea, that through the Gentiles Israel should be brought back to God? Did not Isaiah prophesy that, notwithstanding God's long-suffering and entreaty, Israel would prove a disobedient and gainsaying nation?

Thus the argument is, Israel is responsible for its own rejection. In blind reliance on its original election, it has claimed a monopoly of divine favor, has made a stand for legal righteousness, and has rejected the gospel message of salvation by faith. It has thus repelled the offer of a free and universal salvation. For this it is without excuse. It was warned by its own Scriptures of the danger of being superseded by the Gentiles, and the salvation of Christ was offered to it along with the Gentiles by Christ's ministers.

Chapter 11

In ch. 9 it is shown that when God elected Israel He did not abjure the right to reject them for good reason.

In ch. 10 this reason is shown to be their unbelief.

The question now arises: Is this rejection complete and forever? Paul proceeds to show that the rejection is not total, but partial; not eternal, but temporary; and that it shall subserve the salvation of mankind and of the Israelitish nation itself.

(Rom 11:2-6) From the history of Elijah he shows how, in the midst of general moral defection and decline, God preserved a remnant of faithful ones; and declares that the same is true at the present time.

In virtue of His free grace displayed in His original election, God has not left the nation without a believing remnant. The elective purpose holds, though operating in a way different from Israel's vain and narrow conception of its nature and extent. The preservation of this remnant is a matter of God's free grace, not of Israel's merit.

(Rom 10:7-10) The case then stands that Israel has not attained the righteousness which it sought (in the wrong way), but the chosen remnant has attained it, while the great mass of the nation was blinded according to the prophesy in Isaiah 29 and Psalm 69.

It is to be observed that, in those very chapters, the full responsibility of those who are punished is asserted; and that, in citing the Psalm, Paul renders the Hebrew for those who are in security by the words for a recompense, thus indicating a just retribution.

(Rom 11:11, Rom 11:12) The rejection of the Jews, however, is not total nor final, and it works for two ulterior ends: first, the conversion of the Gentile; second, the restoration of the Jews by means of the converted Gentiles.

(Rom 10:13-15) Hence Paul labors the more earnestly for the Gentiles, with a view to promote the salvation of his own race.

(10:16-11:24) The Gentiles, however, are warned against entertaining contempt for the Jews on account of their own position in the messianic kingdom. However lapsed, Israel still retains the character of God's holy nation impressed in its original call; and this original call, represented in the fathers, implies its future restoration. So far from despising them, the Gentiles are to remember that they themselves are not the original stock, but only a graft; and to take warning by the history of Israel, that the called may be rejected, and that they, by unbelief, disobedience, and rebellion, may, like Israel, forfeit their high privilege. “If God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest He also spare not thee.” “Behold, therefore, the goodness and severity of God: on them which fell, severity, but toward thee goodness, if thou continue in His goodness; otherwise thou also shalt be out off” Israel, too, shall be restored to its place in God's kingdom, graffed in again, if they continue not in unbelief; much more, since they are natural branches, and the tree is their own native stock.

(Rom 11:25-32) Thus, then, the plan of God shall work itself out: the purpose, so much of which was enshrouded in mystery, shall at last reveal its full, grand proportions. Through the Gentile, Israel shall attain the righteousness of faith in the Deliverer out of Zion. God has made no mistake. He does not repent His original call, nor the displays of His divine grace to Israel, nor the special aptitudes with which He endowed it, in order to make it the special vehicle of His salvation. Jew and Gentile have alike been unbelievers and disobedient, but the unbelief of both has been overruled to the inclusion of both in God's messianic kingdom. Thus the argument which opened at the beginning of the epistle with the condemnation of all, closes with mercy upon all. 

Taken from: "Vincent's Word Studies" By Marvin R. Vincent, D.D.

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