Commentary on Romans 9:14-29

Notes (NET Translation)

14 What shall we say then? Is there injustice with God? Absolutely not!

One might accuse God of injustice or unrighteousness because he decides who he will elect and who he will reject apart from anything in the human being. Paul rejects this charge against God.

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.”

The quotation is from Ex. 33:19. God’s decision to choose Jacob and reject Esau was not an isolated case but reflects God’s nature.

In the Exodus context, Moses requests that the Lord show him his glory. The Lord replies by promising to cause all his “goodness” to pass in front of Moses and to proclaim to him his name, “the LORD.” Then follow the words that Paul here cites. Justifiably, Paul finds in God’s words to Moses a revelation of one of God’s basic characteristics: his freedom to bestow mercy on whomever he chooses. It is against this ultimate standard, not the penultimate standard of God’s covenant with Israel, that God’s “righteousness” must be measured. Paul’s reference to Moses reinforces the point, for it is to the mediator of the covenant himself that God reveals his freedom in mercy.1

How does this constitute an answer to the objection that God is unrighteous? God is righteous because he is committed to proclaiming his name and advertising his glory by showing his goodness, grace, and mercy to people as he freely chooses. The righteousness of God is defended, then, by appealing to his freedom and sovereignty as the Creator. His righteousness is also trumpeted by the appeal to his mercy. No human being deserves his mercy. The choice of Isaac over Ishmael and Jacob over Esau must be construed as a merciful one. In other words, the stunning thing for Paul was not that God rejected Ishmael and Esau but that he chose Isaac and Jacob, for they did not deserve to be included in his merciful and gracious purposes. Human beings are apt to criticize God for excluding anyone, but this betrays a theology that views salvation as something God “ought” to bestow on all equally. Piper rightly observes that what is fundamental for God is the revelation of his glory and the proclamation of his name, and he accomplishes this by showing mercy and by withholding it. God’s righteousness is upheld because he manifests it by revealing his glory both in saving and in judging.2

16 So then, it does not depend on human desire or exertion, but on God who shows mercy.

Verse 16 is the conclusion Paul draws from the quotation in verse 15. The “it” in verse 16 is God’s bestowal of mercy. “Human desire” and “exertion” sum up the totality of man’s capabilities.

17 For the scripture says to Pharaoh: “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I may demonstrate my power in you, and that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth.”

The quotation is from Ex. 9:16. If verses 15-16 expand the positive side of God’s sovereignty then verses 17-18 expand the negative side of God’s sovereignty.

Paul’s wording, “I have raised you up,” differs from both the standard Greek LXX text and the Hebrew MT. Various explanations for the differences have been offered, but it seems reasonable to conclude that Paul has deliberately accentuated God’s initiative in the process. The verb “raise up” probably, then, has the connotation “appoint to a significant role in salvation history.” Of particular importance in the quotation is the purpose of God’s raising Pharaoh up: “so that I might demonstrate through you my power and so that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” Indeed, this purpose clause is probably the reason that Paul has cited this particular text since its lack of explicit reference to Pharaoh’s “hardening” makes it less suitable than others as a preparation for Paul’s conclusion in v. 18. Paul wants to make clear that even God’s “negative” actions, such as the hardening of Pharaoh, serve a positive purpose (a point Paul will develop further in vv. 22-23). And this positive purpose is the greatest imaginable: the demonstration of God’s power and the wider proclamation of God’s name. In Pharaoh’s day, the plagues on the land of Egypt and the deliverance of Israel through the “Sea of Reeds,” made necessary by Pharaoh’s hardened heart, accomplished this purpose (see Josh. 2:10). In Paul’s day, he implies, the hardening that has come upon a “part of Israel” (see 11:5-7, 25) has likewise led to the name of God being “proclaimed in all the earth” through the mission to the Gentiles.3

18 So then, God has mercy on whom he chooses to have mercy, and he hardens whom he chooses to harden.

No doctrine stimulates more negative reaction and consternation than this one. Some degree of such reaction is probably inevitable, for it flies in the face of our own common perceptions of both human freedom and God’s justice. And vv. 19-23 show that Paul was himself very familiar with this reaction. Yet, without pretending that it solves all our problems, we must recognize that God’s hardening is an act directed against human beings who are already in rebellion against God’s righteous rule. God’s hardening does not, then, cause spiritual insensitivity to the things of God; it maintains people in the state of sin that already characterizes them. This does not mean, as I have argued above, that God’s decision about whom to harden is based on a particular degree of sinfulness within certain human beings; he hardens “whomever he chooses.” But it is imperative that we maintain side-by-side the complementary truths that (1) God hardens whomever he chooses; (2) human beings, because of sin, are responsible for their ultimate condemnation. Thus, God’s bestowing of mercy and his hardening are not equivalent acts. God’s mercy is given to those who do not deserve it; his hardening affects those who have already by their sin deserved condemnation.4

19 You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who has ever resisted his will?”

Paul is using the rhetoric of diatribe so he is addressing a hypothetical dialogue partner, not a member of the Roman church.

The objection of verse 19 flows out of the previous context and can be summarized as follows. If God shows mercy and hardens whomever he wills regardless of human effort or choice, then how can he possibly assign blame to human beings for their choices and actions? God’s will determines whatever occurs, and thus he rather than human beings must be held responsible.5

20 But who indeed are you — a mere human being — to talk back to God? Does what is molded say to the molder, “Why have you made me like this?”

Paul emphasizes the creaturely status of the objector.

Paul quotes Isa. 29:16 to remind the objector of the dependent and subordinate position of the human being in respect to God. Human beings are in no more of a position to “answer back” to God than a vase is to criticize its molder for making it in a certain way. Paul is not here denying the validity of that kind of questioning of God which arises from sincere desire to understand God’s ways and an honest willingness to accept whatever answer God might give. It is the attitude of the creature presuming to judge the ways of the creator–to “answer back”–that Paul implicitly rebukes.6

The word ἀνταποκρινόμενος denotes disputation and resistance, not merely an attempt to procure an answer to a difficult question. Paul’s response to the protestor, then, is this: How can finite, frail, and weak human beings venture to dictate to God how the world should be run (cf. also Wis. 12:12)? Who do we think we are that we presume to call God to account and pass judgment on him?7

21 Has the potter no right to make from the same lump of clay one vessel for special use and another for ordinary use?

Potter and clay imagery is widespread in the OT (Isa. 29:16; 45:9-11; Jer. 18:1-6; Wis. 15:7; Sir. 33:7-13; T. Naph. 2:2, 4; 1QS 11:22; 1QH 9:21; 11:23-24; 12:29; 19:3; 20:26, 32) so it cannot be determined what, if any, passage Paul has in mind.

22 But what if God, willing to demonstrate his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience the objects of wrath prepared for destruction?

God is patient with the objects of wrath because he wants to more gloriously display his wrath and power against sin.

23 And what if he is willing to make known the wealth of his glory on the objects of mercy that he has prepared beforehand for glory — 24 even us, whom he has called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles?

God is also patient because he wants to make known the wealth of his glory on the objects of mercy.

When the vessels of mercy perceive the fearsome wrath of God upon the disobedient and reflect on the fact that they deserve the same, then they appreciate in a deeper way the riches of God’s glory (τὸν πλοῦτον τῆς δόξης αὐτοῦ) and the grace lavished upon them. The mercy of God is set forth in clarity against the backdrop of his wrath. Thereby God displays the full range of his attributes: both his powerful wrath and the sunshine of his mercy. The mercy of God would not be impressed on the consciousness of human beings apart from the exercise of God’s wrath, just as one delights more richly in the warmth, beauty, and tenderness of spring after one has experienced the cold blast of winter. As we have observed before in Romans, God’s ultimate purpose is to display his glory to all people. His glory is exhibited through both wrath and mercy, but especially through mercy.8

Many commentators are troubled by Paul’s apparent disregard for human choice and responsibility. Dodd criticizes the argument here as “a false step.” O’Neill goes further, claiming the teaching is “thoroughly immoral,” and follows a number of the church fathers in ascribing the offending verses to someone other than Paul. These criticisms are sometimes the product of a false assumption: that Paul’s justification of the ways of God in his treatment of human beings (his “theodicy”) must meet the standard set by our own assumptions and standards of logic. Paul’s approach is quite different. He considers his theodicy to be successful if it justifies God’s acts against the standards of his revelation in Scripture (vv. 15-18) and his character as Creator (vv. 20-23). In other words, the standard by which God must be judged is nothing less and nothing more than God himself. Judged by this standard, Paul contends, God is indeed “just.” Paul does not provide a logically compelling resolution of the two strands of his teaching–God, by his own sovereign choice, elects human beings to salvation; human beings, by a responsible choice of their will, must believe in order to be saved. But criticism of the apostle on this score is unfair. It is unfair, first, because Paul can accomplish his purpose–showing God to be just–without such a resolution. And it is unfair, second, because no resolution of this perennial paradox seems possible this side of heaven.9

Paul is content to hold the truths of God’s absolute sovereignty–in both election and in hardening–and of full human responsibility without reconciling them. We would do well to emulate his approach.10

Verse 24 introduces Gentiles as among those whom God is calling to be part of his people. It is God’s sovereign call, not physical descent, that determines who is part of God’s people.

25 As he also says in Hosea: “I will call those who were not my people, ‘My people,’ and I will call her who was unloved, ‘My beloved.'”

This quotation is from Hos. 2:23 but is not an exact quote. Paul is saying that God has called the Gentiles (those who were not my people and who were unloved) to be his beloved people.

26 “And in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ there they will be called ‘sons of the living God.'”

This quotation is from Hos. 1:10. In context, “where” and “there” probably refer to the land of (northern) Israel’s exile. Gentiles, who were previously considered outside the realm of God’s people, are being called.

[A] potentially . . . serious instance of what seems to be arbitrary hermeneutics on Paul’s part is his application of these Hosea texts to the calling of Gentiles. For the prophet Hosea is predicting a renewal of God’s mercy toward the rebellious northern tribes of Israel: those whom God rejected and named lō-ruhamah, “not pitied,” and lō-ami, “not my people” (the symbolic names given to Hosea’s children [1:6-9]) are again shown mercy and adopted again as God’s people. The problem disappears if Hosea is including the Gentiles in his prophecy; but this is unlikely. Others avoid the difficulty by arguing that Paul applies these passages to the calling of the Jews rather than the Gentiles. But the explicit reference to Israel in the introduction to the Isaiah quotations in v. 27 suggests that Paul views the Hosea quotations as related to the calling of the Gentiles. Others think that Paul may imply an analogy: God’s calling of Gentiles operates on the same principle as God’s promised renewal of the ten northern tribes. But Paul requires more than an analogy to establish from Scripture justification for God’s calling of Gentiles to be his people. Therefore we must conclude that this text reflects a hermeneutical supposition for which we find evidence elsewhere in Paul and in the NT: that OT predictions of a renewed Israel find their fulfillment in the church. Moreover, Paul’s use of these texts may further his effort to break down the boundaries between the Jews and other peoples that were so basic to Jewish thinking.11

Nor should the application of these verses to Gentiles when they originally related to the Jews trouble us. Paul detected a principle in these verses that he applied to his day. But Moo is correct in insisting that Paul’s thinking goes further. Paul conceives of Hosea’s prophecy as fulfilled in the calling of the Gentiles. The church is the renewed Israel and the arena in which God’s promises find their fulfillment. Paul wants to show his Jewish contemporaries that the calling of the Gentiles was not without precedent; it fits with the surprising way God has always acted. Indeed, Paul likely anticipates the mystery shared in Rom. 11:26, for once again he will summon those who did not belong to him (the Jews) to belief.12

1 Peter 2:9-10 makes a similar point and also alludes to Hos. 2:23.

27 And Isaiah cries out on behalf of Israel, “Though the number of the children of Israel are as the sand of the sea, only the remnant will be saved, 28 for the Lord will execute his sentence on the earth completely and quickly.”

Contextually, Isaiah 10:22-23 is part of a prophecy about the judgment of God upon an arrogant Assyria, and the salvation of a remnant of Israel. The prophecy says also that though the number of the Israelites taken into captivity was ‘as the sand of the sea’, it is a remnant that will be saved when the Lord will make short work of his judgment of the world. Paul quotes this prophecy to explain that the minimal response to the gospel he found among the Jews was foreshadowed in Scripture — a remnant will be saved — and therefore the rejection of the gospel by the majority of his contemporary kinsfolk cannot be claimed as evidence that ‘the word of God has failed’. And by implication it cannot be claimed that Paul’s gospel is not true because many of his own people failed to embrace it.13

Most Jews expected a few Gentiles to be saved and many Jews, but the initial response to the gospel has been precisely the reverse.14

The meaning of verse 28 is unclear. The NET stresses the completeness and swiftness of the Lord’s judgment.

29 Just as Isaiah predicted, “If the Lord of armies had not left us descendants, we would have become like Sodom, and we would have resembled Gomorrah.”

This is a quote from Isa. 1:9 to show that even the salvation of the remnant is by God’s grace and mercy. The term sperma (seed, descendants) refers to the genuine children of God (Rom 9:6-9). Sodom and Gomorrah were cities destroyed by God because of the wickedness of their inhabitants (Gen. 19:24-25).

Bibliography

Kruse, Colin G. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014.

Metzger, Bruce M., ed. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. Second Edition. Hendrickson Pub, 2005.

Moo, Douglas J. The Epistle to the Romans. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996.

Schreiner, Thomas R. Romans. Kindle Edition. Baker Academic, 1998.

Witherington III, Ben, and Darlene Hyatt. Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004.


  1. Moo 1996, 592 
  2. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 10024-10032 
  3. Moo 1996, 594-595 
  4. Moo 1996, 599-600 
  5. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 10130-10133 
  6. Moo 1996, 601-602 
  7. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 10159-10162 
  8. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 10293-10300 
  9. Moo 1996, 590-591 
  10. Moo 1996, 601 
  11. Moo 1996, 613 
  12. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 10373-10380 
  13. Kruse 2012, 389-390 
  14. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 10394-10395 
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