What part does Romans 9-11 play in the structure of the whole letter?

(Note: This is a practice exam question response and is therefore sketchy in parts)

How Paul’s extended discussion of Israel in Romans 9-11 fits into the wider argument of the letter is debated. Views range across a spectrum: some see Romans 9-11 as an unrelated segué from Paul’s exposition of the gospel (cf Dodd); others see it as a systematic treatment on the topic of predestination (cf Augustine, other Reformers); while some go further and champion Romans 9-11 as the “germ and centre” of the letter (cf FC Baur). My contention is that Romans 9-11 is not a random sidebar, but a necessary and timely response to what Paul has presented so far in Romans 1-8 concerning the gospel of God.

1. Background to Romans 9-11

Paul’s magisterial exposition was written to a mixed audience of Jew and Gentile believers. If we take the lead of Luke’s description of the Jews being expelled from Rome in Acts 18:2, and allow for a subsequent return, it seems plausible that a power shift has occurred within the church in Rome. Jewish believers formerly in leadership roles have now been replaced by the remaining Gentiles. In addition, Paul’s anguish for his kinsfolk seems to imply that, despite their privileges (Rom 9:4-5), Jewish people are not experiencing the blessings of salvation (Rom 9:1-3). A natural question from a Jewish person would be: “Has God’s Word failed?”

Doug Moo also notes that this tension is partially Paul’s own doing, since in chapters 1-4 he has argued strongly that the Mosaic law has no salvific benefit, and since in chapters 5-8 he has attributed to Gentile believers numerous Old Testament prophecies, the promises of Israel, and even the language of sonship and adoption into God’s family. A question naturally follows: if Jews aren’t responding to the gospel in faith, while Gentiles are being “grafted in”, has Israel been excluded from God’s promises? This is the underlying question that likely prompts Paul to switch to the extended discussion in Romans 9-11.

2. Summary of Romans 9-11

We see in Paul’s exposition of the Old Testament (a third of his OT quotations in Romans are found in these chapters) a desire to rebuff the objection that God’s Word regarding Israel has failed. In Romans 9-10, Paul uses several OT examples to underscore the fact that Jews and Jewish Christians do not have a salvific birthright due to their ethnicity. For example:
– God chose Isaac and not Ishmael to bear Abraham’s descendants (Rom 9:7; Gen 21:12)
– God chose Jacob and not Esau to be loved (Rom 9:12);
– Hosea records God’s unexpected mercy for an adulterous Israel
– Gentiles have accepted the gospel, and not Israel (Rom 10:16-21)

Paul’s argument is that God’s kindness through history has always depended on his sovereign choice, and Jewish people therefore cannot presume to inherit salvation. One might then ask: “Has God rejected his people then?” (Rom 11:1) The reply is an emphatic no! (Rom 11:2). Paul defends God’s character by making two important points to his original hearers: firstly, that Israel’s present rejection is not total (Rom 11:1-10, in particular citing the example of a remnant who do not bow down to Baal in 1 Kings 19:18), and secondly, that Israel’s current plight is not final (Rom 11:11-32). God is faithful to keep his promises, and there will be salvation among national Israel (Rom 11:25-26). Regardless of one’s view regarding the nature of “all Israel”, Paul’s main point is clear – God has not abandoned Israel.

3. Conclusions from Romans 9-11

Paul’s overall argument is sophisticated, as he balances between the gospel’s scandalous assertion that “Christ is the fulfilment of the law to all who believes” (Rom 10:4) with the need to show that this gospel finds support in the OT scriptures. By echoing the theme of God’s unexpected mercy through chapters 9-11 using a plethora of OT motifs such as lineage, grafting and remnant, Paul shows how the gospel of God’s righteousness revealed can be supported by his Jewish audience, and should elicit a response among them of praise at the depths of God’s wisdom, knowledge and might. Furthermore, given that Israel’s plight is not final, it also behoves Gentile believers to avoid our own ethnocentric attitudes, and to pray earnestly for God’s promises to be fulfilled for their Jewish brothers and sisters.

In conclusion, Paul’s discussion in Rom 9-11 is a necessary response to the charge that Israel’s rejection of the gospel undermines the trustworthiness of God’s promises (Rom 9:6). In addition, Rom 9-11’s overall theme of God’s unexpected mercy is closely tied to the letter’s overall message of God’s righteousness revealed through the gospel – the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection for all who believe – both Jew and Greek (Rom 1:17).

(45 minutes)

Sources and helpful links:

  • Thompson, Alan. “Israel and Romans 9-11.” NT635 Romans and Pauline Theology (Lecture Notes), Sydney Missionary Bible College, 2018.
  • Moo, Douglas. The Epistle to the Romans. NICNT. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996.
  • Thielman, F. “Unexpected Mercy: Echoes of a Biblical Motif in Romans 9-11,” Scottish Journal of Theology 47 (1994): 169-81.

Extra notes: Four main views regarding the interpretation of Romans 11:25-26

“I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. In this way all Israel will be saved.” (Romans 11:25-26, NIV2011)

View 1: All Israel refers to a spiritual Israel, made up of Jew and Gentile

  • Held by John Calvin, OP Robertson, RP Martin, NT Wright
  • Yet the preceding verses (Rom 9:6, 11:27-24, 11:25) and following (11:28) are clearly national Israel

View 2: All Israel refers to all Jewish people, regardless of whether they have faith in Christ

  • A universalist, non-evangelical view
  • Paul’s sorrow and anguish for his Jewish brothers and sisters (Rom 9:2-3) makes no sense with this view

View 3: All “elect” Israel will be saved throughout history, i.e. refers to Jewish people now

  • Held by Donald Robinson, H Ridderbos, A Hoekema, Sam Storms, Colin Kruse
  • AT: Most common view in Sydney
  • If οὕτος means “in this manner” (e.g. NIV2011, ESV) then the logic of v25-26 is: Israel hardens, Gentiles accept. In this manner, Israel will be saved (through history)

View 4: A large group of Jewish people representing Israel will be saved in the future

  • Held by DA Carson, John Piper, CEB Cranfield, James Dunn, Ian Murray, others
  • If οὕτος means “then” or “and so” (e.g. NIV1984, NET, KJV) then the logic of v25-26 is: Israel hardens, Gentiles accept, and then Israel will be saved (at a future date)
  • “All Israel” in Josh 7:15, 1 Sam 7:5 and 1 Kings 12:1 refer to a representative group

The overall point, whether one holds to 3 or 4, is that Paul has not abandoned Israel. God will keep his promises!

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