We finally cover the famous “predestination chapter” of the Bible. With the help of Augustine, Chyrsostom, and Aquinas we exegete how God has stayed true to his promises to Israel even though much of ethnic Israel has not been predestined.

Note: This article was written before the author’s conversion to Orthodoxy.

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9:1 I am telling the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience testifies with me in the Holy Spirit, 2 that I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart. 3 For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh, 4 who are Israelites, to whom belongs the adoption as sons, and the glory and the covenants and the giving of the Law and the temple service and the promises,5 whose are the fathers, and from whom is the Christ according to the flesh, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.

The latter part of Romans 8’s discussion on predestination begs the question that Paul anticipates in Rom 9: if God works all things for good, why are things not working out so good for the Jews? They are not saved by their works, and very few are coming to the Savior. Are God’s promises void?

Paul is pained in his spirit that so few Jews are coming to Christ and in verse four he acknowledges that they should be. After all, they received God’s promises and He adopted them as their God. If He promises that He shall lose none, why is He losing Israel?

It is worth noting that verse 5 is a plain affirmation of Christ’s deity.

6 But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel

As Paul explains elsewhere:

Therefore, be sure that it is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham. The Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “All the nations will be blessed in you.” So then those who are of faith are blessed with Abraham, the believer (Gal 3:7-9).

So, God did not fail in His promise to Israel, because He has assured the perseverance of the true Israel, the faithful. When we see those who descend from Israel not attaining immortality, it is not that God failed, but that they were not truly Israel all along.

7 nor are they all children because they are Abraham’s descendants, but: “through Isaac your descendants will be named.”8 That is, it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are regarded as descendants. 9 For this is the word of promise: “At this time I will come, and Sarah shall have a son.”

We know that God’s promises are not void, because those He has called love Him, and not everyone who is from ethnic Israel loves Him. So, they are not the true Israel.

Who is? Those who were called/predestinated. How do we know this? Look at the rationale that Paul uses in quoting the Old Testament. “Nor are they all children because they are Abraham’s descendants.” Why? “Through Isaac your descendants will be named.”

One may wonder what this has to do with predestination. Paul immediately explains in verse 8: the children of the promise are through Isaac. So, while biologically both Isaac and Ishmael are descendents of Abraham, Ishmael is not the true descendent. It is the one (Isaac) who is heir according to God’s promise (that He selected Sarah’s offspring, Verse 9), that is, by predestination.

10 And not only this, but there was Rebekah also, when she had conceived twins by one man, our father Isaac; 11 for though the twins were not yet born and had not done anything good or bad, so that God’s purpose according to His choice would stand, not because of works but because of Him who calls, 12 it was said to her, “The older will serve the younger.” 13 Just as it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”

“And not only this” means “in the same way as Abraham and Isaac.” We now see how Paul teaches that God’s predestination of Jacob is similar to Isaac’s. Before Jacob or Esau did anything good or bad, God had selected who the child of the promise would b. Likewise, He also selected who wouldn’t be that child, because “the older will serve the younger” (Rom 9:12). Why? “So that God’s purpose according to His choice would stand.” It is in this context we must understand verse 13.

Augustine observes:

This is the house of the children of promise—not by reason of their own merits, but of the kindness of God. For God promises what He Himself performs: He does not Himself promise, and another perform; which would no longer be promising, but prophesying. Hence it is not of works, but of Him that calls, lest the result should be their own, not God’s; lest the reward should be ascribed not to His grace, but to their due; and so grace should be no longer grace which was so earnestly defended and maintained by him who, though the least of the apostles, laboured more abundantly than all the rest—yet not himself, but the grace of God that was with him (On the Spirit and the Letter, Chapter 40).

Aquinas concurs:

[B]efore birth and before doing anything one of Rebecca’s sons is preferred to the other. This also corrects Origen’s error who supposed that men’s souls were created when the angels were, and that they merited different lives depending on the merits they earned for the good or evil they had done there. This could not be true in the light of what is stated here, namely that they had done nothing either good or bad… [H]e shows what could be understood from that promise by which one of the twins in the womb was chosen over the other. He says: In order that God’s purpose, by which one would be greater than the other, might continue, i.e., be made firm: and this not by reason of merits but of election i.e., inasmuch as God himself spontaneously forechose one over the other, not because he was holy but in order that he be holy, as it says in Eph (1:4): “He chose us in himself before the foundation of the world that we should be holy.” But this is a decree of predestination about which the same text says: “Predestined according to the purpose of his will” (Eph 1:15).

14 What shall we say then? There is no injustice with God, is there? May it never be!

Paul’s anticipated opposition could fairly ask, “If God is gracious to one and not the other, isn’t that unfair?” This question would not make sense if we viewed God’s predestination of Jacob over Esau as merely showing the God “knows which is the wicked and which not such” as Chrysostom speculated concerning verse 11. If God simply predestinates those who are not exceedingly wicked, then there wouldn’t be any voices raising up calling God unfair for letting the wicked get their just deserts.

However, if we go with both Augustine’s and Aquinas’ interpretation, the theoretical opposition that Paul answers to in verse 14 actually does make sense. “No, God is not unfair,” says Paul. “God cannot possibly be unjust, or how would He judge the world?”

15 For He says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” 16 So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy.

Man thinks it is unfair that God is not equally gracious to all the people who as we know are not righteous by default (Rom 3:10). What is God’s view of what’s right and wrong? Must He be equally gracious to all? Let’s look to the Scripture: “Who has given to Me that I should repay him? Whatever is under the whole heaven is Mine” (Job 41:11).

God owes no one anything. “Whatever the Lord pleases, He does, in heaven and in earth, in the seas and in all deeps” (Ps 135:6). So, there is no unfairness with God when He declares that He will have mercy on whomever He so desires to have mercy upon. Grace is not grace if it is compelled.

Connecting all the dots is verse 16: only God’s called are the true Israel of God. Their calling is not dependent upon their will, or their efforts, but on God’s mercy. Clearly, this is Paul’s point. And so, if Paul makes it clear that the righteous shall live by faith, and only those with faith are the true children of Abraham, then our faith is a matter of God’s calling and not our own willing and running.

Sure, you have free will. You can decide any route you want on your way to Hell. But, irrespective to your will, God chooses to elect some to salvation. This is why the Scripture says, “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him” (John 6:44).

Augustine comments on this verse:

Because he is drawn to Christ, he is given to believe in Christ. Therefore the power is given that they who believe in Him should become the sons of God, since this very thing is given, that they believe in Him. And unless this power be given from God, out of free will there can be none (Against Two Letters of the Pelagians, Book I, Chapter 6).

17 For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I raised you up, to demonstrate My power in you, and that My name might be proclaimed throughout the whole earth.”

It is interesting that many interpreters will handwave away the idea that God hardened Pharaoh by pointing out that he hardened himself (Ex 8:15, Ex 8:32). However, this does not address three simple points the Scripture makes. First, the Scripture explicitly pointed out that God hardened Pharaoh as well (Ex 4:21, Ex 7:3, Ex 9:12, etc.). Second, Paul when defending God from charges of unfairness says that He can harden whomever He wants. Third, verse 17 tells us the purpose. Just as God calls the people of Israel and forgives their sins for His own name’s sake, He in effect hardened Pharaoh for His name’s sake. God did not say He allowed Pharaoh to raise himself up in order to demonstrate His power. He Himself rose Pharaoh up and He himself humbled Him.

18 So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires.

“So then” indicates that Paul is going to tell us the meaning behind the Scripture he just quoted. Obviously, he uses the example of Pharaoh to show that God hardened Pharaoh. This is why the Scripture says, “He hardens whom He desires.” “He has mercy on whom He desires” pertains to those called to salvation, such as Isaac and Jacob.

This begs the question: Is God a puppet master that forces man to do evil? By no means! For man out of his own heart, apart from grace, is continually inclined towards evil (Gen 6:5). Man desires evil on his own, God merely permits the activity of Satan to tempt man and provide the opportunity for man’s own evil to earn its just deserts (2 Sam 24:1, 2 Chron 32:21).

Augustine observes:

When, therefore, you hear the Lord say, I the Lord have deceived that prophet, Ezekiel 14:9 and likewise what the apostle says: He has mercy on whom He will have mercy, and whom He will He hardens, Romans 9:18 believe that, in the case of him whom He permits to be deceived and hardened, his evil deeds have deserved the judgment; while in the case of him to whom He shows mercy, you should loyally and unhesitatingly recognise the grace of the God who renders not evil for evil; but contrariwise blessing. 1 Peter 3:9 Nor should you take away from Pharaoh free will, because in several passages God says, I have hardened Pharaoh;or, I have hardened or I will harden Pharaoh’s heart; for it does not by any means follow that Pharaoh did not, on this account, harden his own heart. For this, too, is said of him, after the removal of the fly-plague from the Egyptians, in these words of the Scripture: And Pharaoh hardened his heart at this time also; neither would he let the people go. Exodus 8:32 Thus it was that both God hardened him by His just judgment, and Pharaoh by his own free will (Chapter 45, On Grace and Free Will).

19 You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?”

Just like the first time when Paul’s theoretical opposition asked something along the lines of “if God is gracious to one and not the other, isn’t that unfair?,” the opposition now asks another question: If God can so harden a man using methods in which He is not the cause of the actual evil in the man, and this is in accordance with His will as are all other things (Eph 1:11), then why does God find fault? The man could not resist God’s will and could not do anything to have stopped himself from committing the evil, for God ordained it.

20 On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, “Why did you make me like this,” will it? 21 Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for common use?

Paul’s answer recapitulates verse 15 and 16, but with a twist: yes, God does as He pleases, but He does so with a purpose. He as the potter has the freedom to make pots for whatever purpose that suits what He knows is best. A created being cannot question the Creator as to why they were designed like so, for only the Creator appreciates the true purpose behind why he was made the way he was.

22 What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction?23 And He did so to make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory, 24 even us, whom He also called, not from among Jews only, but also from among Gentiles.

What is the purpose that Paul alludes to in verses 20 and 21? To make known the riches of His glory upon those whom God has called from both Israel and the nations to make up the true Israel of God. Therefore, though no one deserves mercy, God is merciful to some and punishes the rest as they deserve. This punishment makes known to those who have been spared what they have been spared from, so God’s kindness is magnified.

Though they deserved the punishment, God adopted them as sons. If God did not do this, we would not know the true depths of His love and greatness. Oh, how glorious is God’s manifold wisdom in doing these things. Man in his narrow-mindedness would never do so, and thereby commit injustice. God is just, kind, fair, and merciful. God is love and His election makes this visible to all.

25 As He says also in Hosea,

“I will call those who were not My people, ‘My people,’

And her who was not beloved, ‘beloved.’”

26 And it shall be that in the place where it was said to them, ‘you are not My people,’

There they shall be called sons of the living God.”

Here Paul goes to the Old Testament to show that God’s calling (i.e. predestinating grace) would fall upon a people that were not literally from Abraham. So, God is not failing in His promise to Israel, in fact His promise was that He would make people not literally of Israel part of the true Israel of God (i.e. “My people.”)

27 Isaiah cries out concerning Israel, “Though the number of the sons of Israel be like the sand of the sea, it is the remnant that will be saved;

Isaiah’s prophecy makes clear that God’s intention is to save only a remnant of ethnic Israel. This implicitly means that the fullness of God’s promise is not fulfilled in ethnic Israel alone, but it includes those from the gentiles that God has called.

28 for the Lord will execute His word on the earth, thoroughly and quickly.”

Chrysostom has a Gospel-based exegesis for this verse:

There is no need of fetching a circuit, and of trouble, and the vexation of the works of the Law, for the salvation is by a very short way. For such is faith, it holds salvation in a few short words. For if you shall confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus, and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you shall be saved. Romans 10:9 Now you see what this, the Lord shall make a short word (LXX. lit.) upon earth, is. And what is indeed wonderful is, that this short word carries with it not salvation only, but also righteousness.

29 And just as Isaiah foretold,

Unless the Lord of Sabaoth had left to us a posterity,

We would have become like Sodom, and would have resembled Gomorrah.”

Again, Paul quotes Isaiah to show that God’s intention all along was only to save a remnant of Israel. It is obvious that unless the Lord was merciful in even leaving a remnant, Israel would have deservedly gone the way of Sodom. Paul is obviously building up the conclusion that God is not falling short of His promises when we see that much of ethnic Israel is unsaved. Rather, Paul is showing us that we misunderstood God’s promises all along, as only a remnant of ethnic Israel are really children of the promise.

30 What shall we say then? That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, attained righteousness, even the righteousness which is by faith; 31 but Israel, pursuing a law of righteousness, did not arrive at that law. 32 Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as though it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone, 33 just as it is written,

Behold, I lay in Zion a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense,

And he who believes in Him will not be Disappointed.”

Why is only a remnant of Israel saved? Why are gentiles brought in to fill in the ranks? Paul asserts that Is 28:16 is a prophecy that most Israelites will stumble because they prefered to pursue a Law of righteousness. A foundation of faith in Christ is to them, in their self-righteousness, a Rock of offense. Yet, those who believe in Him, the gentiles, will not be disappointed because they did not pursue self-righteousness. Instead, they lived by faith and thereby built their foundation upon the Rock. Faith never disappoints.