It may not be immediately obvious, but it appears as though the apostle Paul painted himself into a corner. He began to wax a little too eloquent at the end of chapter 8, showing how absolutely nothing can separate the elect of God from the love of Christ. Who can lay a charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. But the problem is that Israel was the elect nation of God, and the Jews had spent a great deal of time and energy chasing Paul around the Mediterranean, trying to kill him. What about that? Maybe something can separate us from the love of God? Couldn’t it be whatever it was that separated the unbelieving Jews? No, Paul replies.
“I say the truth in Christ, I lie not, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Ghost, That I have great heaviness and continual sorrow in my heart. For I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh: Who are Israelites; to whom pertaineth the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises; Whose are the fathers, and of whom as concerning the flesh Christ came, who is over all, God blessed for ever. Amen. Not as though the word of God hath taken none effect. For they are not all Israel, which are of Israel” (Rom. 9:1-6)
Summary of the Text
Paul begins with a solemn oath. He is telling the truth in Christ, and not lying (v. 1). His conscience is also testifying (in the Holy Spirit) that he is speaking the truth (v. 1). The thing he testifies to is the fact that he is constantly burdened with sorrow (v. 2). And it is a great heaviness and a continual sorrow. He wishes that it were somehow possible for him to be accursed and separated from Christ for the sake of his kinsman, whom he calls his brethren (v. 3). More specifically, he is referencing the Israelites (v. 4). These Israelites have many privileges indeed —they have the adoption (v. 4), the (Shekinah) glory (v. 4), the covenants (v. 4), the giving of the law (v. 4), the service or worship of God (v. 4), the promises (v. 4), the fathers (v. 5), and the fact that they were the people from whom Christ came in the flesh (v. 5). This Christ is over all things, and blessed God forever (v. 5). But don’t draw the wrong conclusion from this. The conclusion that must not be drawn is that the word of God was ineffectual (v. 6). And he gives the solution in brief summary, a solution to be developed at length in the following argument. Not all those who are of Israel are Israel. There is a two-tiered membership in Israel, just as there is a two-tiered membership in the new Israel.
The Love of Paul
We see here in Paul the heart of a true pastor. It is ironic that Paul is accused of being an enemy of the Torah, because he here shows himself to be animated by the same spirit as animated Moses. “Yet now, if thou wilt forgive their sin–; and if not, blot me, I pray thee, out of thy book which thou hast written” (Ex. 32:32). Paul wanted to be lost if that would save the Israelites, and Moses wanted to be lost along with the Israelites if God would not forgive them. The same spirit is very clearly there.
There are two instructive things here. The first is that Paul knew for a fact that what he wanted was impossible. He has just finished teaching us that it was impossible. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ—not even our desire for those who are outside to come in. And second, it is crucial for us to see that Paul is no fatalist, surrendering limply to the decrees of God. He knows that God is sovereign, and he does not rail against that sovereignty. But he also knows that he loves his kinsmen. Belief in the sovereignty of God does not turn us into blocks of wood or stone.
A Second Pass on the Argument
Earlier in Romans, Paul had outlined the great blessings that the Jews had (Rom. 3:1-2). He is doing it again here, and to much the same effect. . . .
What value is there in being a Jew? Much in every way. All the things that Paul recites here are in the same vein as his earlier rehearsal of this reality. God values the objective gifts that He gives to His people, even if individuals within that people do not believe. These are true gifts, and the world is blessed through them—adoption, glory, covenants, the law, ministry, promises, and the fathers.
Objective and Subjective Grace
We learn from Paul not to set the gifts of God at odds with one another. They occupy different places—why should they be at odds? Objective grace and subjective reception of grace are both from God, and they each depend on one another. Possession of objective grace is not grounds for rejecting the need for subjective grace. Possession of subjective grace is not grounds for rejecting the need for objective grace. Are you saved? Praise and thank God for it, but you still need the church, the sacraments, the ministry, the covenant, the preaching of the Word. Are you a church member, the fifteenth in a line of Christians going way back? Well and good, but you still must be born again.
Israel and New Israel
It is not possible to read the Old Testament without coming to the conclusion that there were Jews and then there were faithful Jews. There were the people who were kept by the covenant, and then there was group within that first group who kept the covenant they were kept by. Paul divides them in this way—he says there is one group that is of Israel, and another group that is Israel. Hearkening back to his earlier statement of this, a true Jew is one who is one inwardly, and circumcision is of the heart, by the Spirit.
Now there are many differences between the administration of God’s grace in the Old Testament and New, and this is not one of them. It is astounding how many interpreters of Scripture can read the plain statements of the apostles in a way that is 180 degrees out from what it actually says. We must be emphasized because if we don’t get it, we are going to be absolutely lost in chapters 9 through 11. We tend to draw contrasts between the old Israel and the new Israel at just the point where the apostles draw parallels. Consider the warnings of 1 Cor. 10: 6, 11-12, and Hebrews 3:7-14ff.
And so we take the lesson. Not all who are of the Church are the Church—even though they are.