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Romans: The Purpose of Chapters 9-11

Romans 9-11 is a tricky section of Scripture. Not only do these chapters address hard topics, but it can be difficult to understand Paul’s abrupt change of tone from chapter eight to chapter nine. How can Paul go from raving about our assurance of God’s love to talking about having “great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart” (9:2)?

Why did Paul write these chapters? What were they meant to accomplish and how do they fit in with Romans as a whole?

The Problem That Paul Is Addressing

A promise means a lot coming from someone who has proven themselves truthful to their word, and very little from someone who hasn’t. Paul spent Romans 8 reveling in the incredible glory that God promised to his adopted children and in the complete inability of anything to stand in the way of him keeping that promise.

But an uncomfortable reality in Paul’s day seemed to cast doubts on God’s reliability. God had also made promises to Abraham and his descendants in the Old Testament. Like Christians, Israel was adopted and called by God. Looking around though, the majority of the Jews in the Roman Empire didn’t accept Jesus as the Christ. Difficult questions arise from this:

Does this mean that God’s calling and purposes for his adopted children can be rejected?
How can we be so certain that God will keep his promises to us when he hasn’t kept his promises to Israel?
If his plans for Israel never materialized, what assurance do we have that the realities promised in Romans 8 will materialize?

God’s character, power, and faithfulness are at stake. The spiritual state of the nation of Israel seems to undermine so much of what Paul has said, so these chapters are his attempt to prove that God has been entirely faithful to all his promises to Abraham and is therefore trustworthy.

The Reaction Paul Wants Us to Have From These Chapters

Romans 9-11 addresses weighty topics such as election, God’s sovereignty, and the place of Israel in God’s plan. Because of that, it’s easy to treat this section as a theological puzzle that we must figure out. But Paul isn’t interested in abstract theological speculation that serves no purpose to the Christian life. He didn’t write Romans 9-11 to divide Christians but to unite them. Consider how Paul concludes this section:

“Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?’ ‘Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?’ For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.” (Romans 11:33-36)

One commentator notes that the verses at the end of this section are “a litmus test of whether we are reading these chapters aright. If they do not leave us amazed at the wisdom and glory of God, we have misunderstood them. So Romans 9-11 need not be, and ought not to be, controversial. There are puzzles, but we must not allow them to dominate.” [1]

How Romans 9-11 Fits Into the Whole Letter

Paul was writing to a church experiencing deep tension between Jews and Gentiles. They were probably even meeting separately. Not only does this section reinforce the first eight chapters and our confidence in God’s faithfulness, it addresses these ethnic divisions as well. Paul has told the Jews not to be proud (3:27), and now he tells the Gentiles the same thing (11:18).

Additionally, the last few chapters of Romans hinge on what Paul says in this section. God’s mercy is a major theme in Romans 9-11 [2], and Paul starts chapter 12 by telling us how to live in light of this mercy. So just as this section is meant to make us burst into praise and worship (11:33-36), it is also meant to inspire living for Christ (12:1-15:13). It is meant to humble us and remove the pride that hinders true Christian fellowship. In other words, we can only truly love others when we are first overwhelmed by God’s power, wisdom, and mercy. And these chapters are meant to overwhelm us.

[1] Christopher Ash, Teaching Romans, Volume Two, p. 52

[2] Romans 9:15-16, 18, 23; 11:30-32