Grace, Not Race (Romans 9.6-13)

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Jews are God’s Chosen People. In Deuteronomy 7.6, Moses said to Israel: “The LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession.” But during the first century, most of God’s Chosen People refused to choose Christ. Was God’s choice of them a failure? 

Romans 9.6-13 continues Paul’s reflection on his fellow Jews’ refusal to choose Christ, a reflection beginning at 9.1 and ending at 11.36. He quickly puts to rest the notion that God’s choice was a failure: “It is not as though God's word had failed.” But that assertion needs explanation. How can God’s choice of Israel be anything but a failure if most first-century Jews rejected Christ? 

To answer, Paul distinguishes what we might call physical Israel and spiritual Israel. “For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel,” he writes. “Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham's children.” Of course, at a biological level, Israel is in fact comprised of Abraham’s descendants. But for Paul, this physical fact is not spiritually determinative. Abraham, after all, had two sons—Ishmael and Isaac—but only Isaac was the child of promise. Quoting Genesis 21.12 and 18.10 and 14, Paul writes: 

On the contrary, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.”  In other words, it is not the natural children who are God's children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham's offspring. For this was how the promise was stated: “At the appointed time I will return, and Sarah will have a son.” 

God’s promise, then, not human DNA, is what defines Israel. 

But Paul intuits an objection to this line of reasoning. Ishmael and Isaac have the same father, but different mothers: Hagar and Sarah, respectively. Surely, then, the objection runs, biology is important. Not really, Paul responds. Look at the difference between Esau and Jacob, who shared the same father (Isaac) and mother (Rebekah). Quoting Genesis 25.23 and Malachi 1.2-3, Paul writes: 

Not only that, but Rebekah's children had one and the same father, our father Isaac. Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad—in order that God's purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls—she was told, “The older will serve the younger.”  Just as it is written: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” 

God chose Jacob over Esau not because of differences in their biology—they were twins—but so that his “purpose in election might stand.” The purpose of God’s choice of Israel was not merely to bless them, but to bless the entire world through them, as Genesis 12.1-3 makes clear. And through Jesus Christ—the scion and prodigy of Israel—God’s purpose is being accomplished.  What matters most, then, is whether we receive God’s promise, not who our ancestors are.  

What matters most, as N. T. Wright sharply puts it, is “grace, not race.”

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