“Not as though the word of God hath taken none effect. For they are not all Israel, which are of Israel: Neither, because they are the seed of Abraham, are they all children: but, in Isaac shall thy seed be called. That is, They which are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God: but the children of the promise are counted for the seed.” (Romans 9:6-8).
- 1) What They Are
- 2) Who They Are
- 3) What is Their Relation to the Carnal Children?
The word of God here introduces a new subject, the great question of the rejection of the Jewish nation, involving the exclusion from the kingdom of God of many individual, Israelites according to the flesh, and of the calling of the gentiles. And the transition appears rather abrupt. The connection with the preceding, however, must probably be found in the soul of the apostle Paul. In the eighth chapter of this epistle to the Romans he had been inspired to write a glorious song of triumph on the theme of the security of believers in Christ with respect to their final salvation and the great glory of that salvation which they possess in hope. And especially in the closing verses of that chapter he had ascended the heights of faith, whence he challenged life and death, angels and principalities and powers, heights and depth, things present and things to come, yea, all created things to separate the elect from the love of God in Christ Jesus their Lord. And the very blessedness of believers of the new dispensation leads him to turn his attention to his kinsmen according to the flesh, the Jews, and causes him to contemplate their sorrowful plight. And thus he is led to write on this new subject of the rejection of the Jews and the calling of the gentiles in the light of God’s absolutely sovereign dealings with both.
The first five verses of chapter nine are introductory. In them the apostle approaches the new problem. And the approach is psychological. The apostle reveals what is the attitude of his own soul, his personal sentiment, now he is about to write about the stupendous truth of the rejection and reprobation of his kinsmen according-to the flesh. Solemnly he emphasizes that he speaks the truth in Christ, that he lies not, that his conscience in Christ, guided by the Holy Spirit, bears him witness that he really speaks the truth, when he declares that in the approach of this new theme he is reminded of a great heaviness of soul and of a continual sorrow in his heart. So great is this heaviness and so profound this sorrow that he does not hesitate to say that he could wish himself to be accursed from Christ for his brethren, his kinsmen according to the flesh! (Rom. 9:1-3).
Various interpretations have been offered of this last expression that weaken the true sense of the apostle’s words. It has been suggested that a thing “accursed” is after all only a thing devoted to death, so that the apostle probably means nothing more than that he could wish to die for the sake of his brethren. Others have ventured the conjecture that the apostle uses the word “accursed” in an ecclesiastical sense and that he only intended to declare that he could wish to be excommunicated from the church. Still others translate “I did wish” and would explain the apostle’s words as referring to the time before he was converted, when when he persecuted the church of Christ. However, all these interpretations are not the result of an honest dealing with and exegesis of the text, but rather of the objection that the apostle certainly could not wish to be accursed from Christ! Yet this is exactly what he declares, and the words will have to remain as they stand here in all their force. What the apostle means is: were I placed before the alternative that my brethren according to the flesh be saved or I, were I permitted to choose between their salvation and my own, could I effect their salvation by my being accursed, I could, indeed, wish to be accursed from Christ in their behalf!
And let us at once remark two things here. First of all, that the apostle’s attitude in approaching the tremendous subject of God’s absolute sovereignty in election and reprobation is intended by the Word of God as an example for us. When as children of God we approach this subject and speak of God’s sovereign predestination it is but proper that our attitude should be deeply spiritual. It may not be—it could not possibly be the attitude of pride and self-exaltation, for if it pleased God to ordain us unto salvation in distinction from others, it certainly is no cause for us to boast in self. One who understands the truth on this point will humble himself deeply before God. Let no flesh glory in His presence! And this also implies that one cannot very well speak of the subject of God’s sovereign rejection of the reprobates, who in time are our fellowmen, our kinsmen according to the flesh, without feeling to an extent the same heaviness, the same continual sorrow for them which the apostle here so emphatically declares to feel in his heart. No cold-blooded rejoicing in the damnation of our fellow men may characterize our contemplation of God’s sovereign dealings with the children of men. The fact that God’s predestinating purpose divides our race, makes separation between men of the same flesh and blood always remains a matter of suffering, as long as we are in this present time. And this leads me to my second remark. From the viewpoint of our flesh, of our earthly, natural life and relationships, it is not so strange, barring some theological objections, to hear the apostle declare that he could wish to be accursed from Christ for his kinsmen according to the flesh. Without wishing to place ourselves on a par with the apostle we may safely say that in a degree we can often repeat these words after him. Just imagine a parent, who experiences the grief of seeing one or more of his children walk the way of sin and destruction; or even a pastor, who in the course of years becomes attached to his flock and earnestly desires their salvation, but who beholds that many of them are not the objects of God’s electing love. Can we understand that they would feel a little of what the apostle here expresses, so that they also could sometimes wish to be accursed for their brethren, their kinsmen according to the flesh?
The apostle motivates this strong declaration by describing the exalted position these brethren of his once occupied. They are after all Israelites, the people of God. To them pertained the adoption: God called them and separated them from the nations to make them his own. To them pertained the glory, represented by the cloud in the holy of holies; and the covenant, the various manifestations of the one covenant, the covenant with the house of Aaron, with the Levites, with the house of David. Theirs was the great distinction that God gave them His law, theirs was the service in the temple; theirs were the promises of salvation in Christ, besides, theirs were the fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; and of them; as Christ according to the flesh! And if the sorrow we feel for one that is destitute is greater according as he was once more highly blessed and exalted, it is evident why the apostle could speak in such emphatic language of his great heaviness and continual sorrow of heart for his kinsmen according to the flesh.
But now the apostle plunges as it were at once into his subject. Not only was the nation of Israel as such evidently rejected, but it was also evident that thousands upon thousands of individual Jews were excluded from the kingdom of God as it was realized through the suffering and death and exaltation of Christ and the outpouring of the Spirit. How must this be explained? Were they not Israelites? Did then not the covenants pertain to the Did they not have the promises? How, then can it be, that they are rejected, that they are utterly lost? And the apostle puts the question very sharply, when he immediately touches the heart of the problem and asks: “Did the Word of God become of none effect?” Or, rather, considering the problem from the viewpoint of this question, he at once starts out with the answer: Not as though the Word of God hath taken none effect! Fact is, that the Word of God did not pertain to all the natural descendants of Abraham. And thus the apostle, in the words of our text, speaks of:
Let us clearly understand the question with which the words of our text are dealing: when the nation of Israel is rejected— when, moreover, many of that nation do not inherit the promise of God when it is realized in Christ—is, then, the Word of God become of none effect? As the original has it: “has the Word of God fallen out?” Did God fail to realize His promise to Israel? And to this question the answer is given: no, the Word of God has not fallen out, has not failed to realize itself, but we must remember, that this Word of God pertains only to the children of the promise.
These children of the promise are designated in a fourfold way. They are called Israel, the seed, children of the promise, and children of God.
First of all, then, they are called Israel, The apostle writes in the sixth verse: “For they are not all Israel which are of Israel.” It is of interest to us, for a true understanding of the rest of chapters nine to eleven, at once to notice the peculiar signification of the termIsrael in the first part of this verse. There are those who contend, and recently we heard the contention made over the radio, that in these three chapters the term Israel always refers to the nation of the Jews, to national Israel. It is, however, evident already from the sixth verse of this chapter that this contention is utterly untenable. In the first part of his verse Israel could not possibly be replaced by Jews. For, the apostle would then say, that they are not all Jews which were descendants of Israel or of Jacob, which is absurd. The term, therefore, means: people of God, true, spiritual Israel. Not all the descendants of Jacob are people of God, true Israelites, true people of God, to whom pertain the promises, and who must be taken into account when the question is asked, whether the Word of God has fallen out. The children of the promise, therefore, are the true children of God, Israel in the true spiritual sense of the word.
Secondly, they are called the seed. In verse 7 we read: “In Isaac shall thy seed be called,” that is, Isaac shall be the seed of which I have spoken to thee in My promise to thee. In verse 8 the apostle writes: “the children of the promise are counted for the seed,” that is, they only are the true seed of Abraham, the seed to which the promise pertains. For, according to Gal. 3:16 the seed of Abraham is Christ: “Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many, but as of one. And to thy seed, which is Christ.” From which it follows that Christ and those that are in Him are counted for the seed of Abraham. Believers in Christ are, therefore, the true seed of Abraham. And if the question is asked whether the Word of God has taken none effect, we must not forget that they only are accounted for the seed.
Thirdly, they are called the children of the promise. What is the meaning of this expression? Does the term simply mean the same as if the apostle had written: the promised children? Thus some interpret the phrase. Or is the meaning, as others would interpret: children to whom the promise pertains, that are heirs of the blessed promise of God? To be sure the children of the promise were also promised children, and the promised blessing was for them. But the expression “children of the promise” has a deeper significance. Frequently Scripture speaks of the promise. Sometimes it uses the singular “the promise”; and in other passages it uses the plural “the promises.” Essentially the expression always refers to the same truth. The promise is God’s revealed and pledged, yea sworn purpose of salvation for His people through Jesus Christ our Lord. It implies redemption and deliverance from sin and the inheritance of eternal glory in the kingdom of heaven. Now, children of the promise are brought forth through that promise. The promise is, as it were, their mother. God brings them forth through the power of the promise, by realizing His word of promise in them. Hence, they are those in whom the promise of redemption has been realized in principle, spiritual children, born not of the flesh but of the Spirit. That this the real meaning of the expression “children of promise” may be gathered not only from the expression itself and from the fact that Isaac was the typical child of the promise, but also from a comparison with the expression as it occurs in Galatians 4:23-28. “But he who was of the bondwoman was born after the flesh; but he of the freewoman was by promise.” The phrase “by promise” in verse 23 literally reads in the original “through the promise.” Isaac was born through the means of, by the power of the promise. So we are also children of the promise as Isaac was. And that this refers, indeed, to their spiritual birth is evident if we compare verse 29 of the same chapter of Galatians: “But as then he that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the Spirit, even so it is now”. By nature, apart from the power of the promise of God, we are born after the flesh. That which is born of the flesh is flesh. But by the promise of God we are born of the Spirit and after the Spirit. For that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. And, therefore, children of the promise are spiritual children, in whom God wrought and realized the power of His promise of salvation.
Finally, in close connection with the term “children of the promise” stands the name “children of God”. The children of the promise are children of God. For the apostle writes in verse 8: that is, they which are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted for the seed”. The implication is, evidently, that the children of the promise are, indeed, God’s children. They are those, whom God adopted as His children in Christ before the foundation of the world; for whom Christ died and rose again that they might have the right of sonship; and in whom God realizes this adoption by the Spirit of grace.
If now we consider these different terms, designating the children of the promise, in their relation to and connection with one-another, we conclude the following. In the old dispensation the children of God, God’s people, were the natural descendants of Abraham and of Israel. That is the reason why they could be called the seed of Abraham and Israelites. Mark, we do not say that all the descendants of Abraham were also children of God; but surely in general it may be said, that for many centuries all the children of God were natural descendants of Abraham. They were of Israel. They were Jews. This is true even of Christ, according to the flesh. But these descendants of Abraham and of Israel became children of God only through the promise. The Seed of Abraham according to the flesh is carnal. For, Abraham could of himself never bring forth spiritual children of God. That which is born of Abraham is born of the flesh and is flesh. And, therefore, the apostle can write: “neither because they are of the seed (the natural seed) of Abraham are they all children.” In fact, if that had been all that could be said of these children, that they were born of Abraham as their father, none of them, no not one would have been a child of God. No more than Abraham of himself could bring forth the Christ, no more could he give being to a single child of God. But God made children after the Spirit, children of God out of Abraham’s descendants. He gave the true seed to Abraham by His grace, by realizing His promise to Abraham. And thus the children of the promise are the children of God, the true seed of Abraham, the Israel of God.
Principally this was never changed. For, the believers of the new dispensation are still the seed of Abraham. Mark you well, they are not a kind of seed of Abraham, while the Jews are really the seed; but believers of the new dispensation are the seed of Abraham together with the children of the promise of all ages. And still God realizes His covenant with them in their generations: as he did with Abraham. And still it is true, that grace is not inherited, that believers cannot of themselves bring forth a single child of God. We can only bring forth children of the flesh by nature. But God gives unto them the children of the promise. Out of their seed God takes His own children and of their flesh it pleases Him to make spirit. In that hope of God’s marvellous grace the Church brings forth children.
Believers will have nothing to do with accursed practices of birth control, in whatever form the would-be wise men of the world offer it to a foolish and carnal generation. They must bring forth the body of Christ, the multitude which no man can number, the true seed of Abraham, the children of the promise. And they have the privilege by grace also in this respect to be co-workers with God. He will transform their carnal children into spiritual children of God!
But who are these children of the promise? Does the promise of God pertain to all the natural children of Abraham? Are all the descendants of the father of believers also children of God? Are all the seed of Abraham spiritual seed by the grace of God? This is the question with which our text deals. Are all the Israelites children of the promise, elect, adopted unto children of God, born of Him? Does God work the wonder of His grace in all the Jews? Is the conclusion warranted that because someone is a Jew, therefore he must be a child of the promise? In the old dispensation all the children of the promise were Jews; were, then, all the Jews also children of God? In the new dispensation God establishes His covenant with believers and their children; does this imply that all the children of believers are heirs according to the promise?
When the word of promise is superficially considered it would seem as if an affirmative answer would be justifiable. And let us note that it is to the word of God that the apostle turns for an answer to this question. He assures us that the word of God is not become of none effect. Yet, it would seem that the word of God includes all the children of Abraham according to the flesh under the promise. Was not the word of God quite without limitation: I will establish My covenant between Me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations, to be a God unto thee and to thy seed after thee? And does not the apostle Peter sound forth the same general promise, when standing at the very entrance of the new dispensation, he proclaims: For unto you is the promise and unto your children, and to all that are afar off, as many as the Lord our God shall call?
But what then? Is it not a fact, the very fact that looms large before the apostle’s mind and that causes him to be filled with heaviness and great sorrow, that many, that the large majority of the descendants of Abraham never received the promise, that thousands upon thousands of the seed of Abraham in the old dispensation perished; that at the very moment when the promise of God enters upon its realization the nation of Israel is definitely rejected; and that the hearts of many individual Jews are so hardened that they are closed to the influence of the gospel of Christ? And must not the same be said of the children of believers in the new dispensation? How many of them receive the seal of God’s covenant in infancy, are instructed in the way of God’s covenant from their youth, in order to spurn and despise the promises of God and choose the way of destruction even unto the bitter end! How, then, shall we explain this glaring fact in the light of the promise of God concerning Abraham and his seed, concerning believers and their children?
Many there are who, as they face this question, take refuge in the explanation that the promise of God is contingent upon the consent and acceptance of the promise by the seed of Abraham, by the children of believers. The promise, they say, is for all the natural seed of Abraham and for all the children of believers. They are all without exception comprehended in the covenant of God. From God’s side the covenant is established with them. On God’s part the promise to them all is yea and amen. This, they claim, is the privilege of all that are born of believers, in the church of Christ, that God sincerely holds out His promise to them, promises them the blessings of salvation. Only when they come to years of discretion they must accept their covenant-obligations. Upon this the promise is contingent. And if the promise is not accepted, they simply cannot receive it. Thus it was in the old dispensation. The promise to Abraham and his seed includes, indeed, all the natural seed of Abraham. But thousands for whom the promise was intended failed to accept God’s offer of salvation. Hence, many of the children of the promise were lost. And the same failure to accept the promise explains why so many children of believers in the new dispensation, for whom the promise is intended, are cast out and rejected.
Let us note, however, that this explanation is quite contrary to the Word of God in our text. For, the apostle writes, that the word of God has not become of none effect. Even the awful phenomenon that countless numbers of Jews are rejected does not warrant the conclusion that the word of God is fallen out. Yet, according to the explanation just mentioned this is exactly what happened. The word of God failed. God’s promise was for all; yet in the case of thousands upon thousands this promise failed of its realization. Do not answer that the promise failed in their case because of their unwillingness to accept the promise and honour God’s covenant. For, although I fully understand and admit that in the way of their unbelief and iniquity they were lost, I deny that this can serve as an explanation of the fact that God did not fulfil His promise in them. Are not all the children of Abraham by nature alike? Are they not all dead in trespasses and sins as they are born? Is anyone of them by nature able to enter into the covenant of God, to believe and hope in the promise, unless God first realizes His promise unto them? How shall the seed of Abraham, how shall children of believers ever become spiritual children of the promise, unless God takes the initiative and realizes His promise? If, then, God’s promise is for all the seed of Abraham, and if by nature all the children of Abraham according to the flesh are alike unable to render themselves worthy or receptive for the promise of God, it follows that the word of God has fallen out, has become of none effect, has utterly failed in the case of those children of Abraham that never receive the promise.
But as has been stated, this is contrary to the Word of God in our text. Not as if the word of God has taken none effect! The Word of God is the Word of GOD! It is never contingent! It is never dependent upon the creature for its realization. Its realization depends on God alone! And He is the Amen! He is the Rock! Whatever may fail, His Word faileth never! And also in this case it did not fall out, not even in the case of them that were lost. All to whomsoever the promise was given and pertained were surely saved. Net one of them perished! But from this it follows, that the Word of God in question was limited in its scope and that the promise did not pertain to all the seed of Abraham. And this is, indeed, the answer of the apostle, the explanation of Scripture of the fact that thousands of Israelites according to the flesh failed to become heirs of the kingdom of heaven. They are not all Israel that are of Israel, that are descendants of Jacob. Neither are they all children, true children of God, because they are of the seed of Abraham. The children of the flesh are not children of God. But the children of the promise, that is, those children of Abraham in whom God freely and sovereignly realizes His promise, that are, therefore, spiritually born through the power of the promise, these are accounted for the true seed of Abraham, and these are meant by the Word of God: I will establish my covenant between Me and thee and thy seed after thee!
The truth of this explanation is demonstrated by the example of Isaac. Abraham had more sons. At the time of Isaac’s birth, he was already father of the son of Hagar, the bondwoman; and after his marriage with Keturah he gained several more children. It cannot be denied that all these children of Abraham were included in the “seed of Abraham” in the natural sense of the term. Yet, God plainly limits His promise to Isaac: In Isaac shall thy seed be called!
And this is still of force. Also today the promise is unto us and to our children. God establishes His covenant in the line of the continued generations of believers. Does this mean that all are children of the promise? Does it give parents with, say four or five children, a ground, a God-given ground to plead that all their children be saved? Can they intercede for them with the Most High and say: on the basis of Thine own promise to me, I am bold to ask that Thou transform all my children into Thine? And if the Lord does not hear this petition and one or more of the children should evidently be lost, will they have reason to complain that the Word of God has taken none effect? God forbid! They are not all Israel that are of Israel. And not all the seed of believers are children of God. But the children of the promise shall be counted for the seed. God sovereignly takes out of our children His own and realizes all His Word!
The question arises: What is the significance of this? What is the relation between these two kinds of seed in the same line of the generations of the people of God?
Outwardly and for a time they are one people. In the strictest sense this was the case in the old dispensation, when the line of the covenant was confined within the limits of the nation of Israel. They formed a nation. They were all called Israel. They all lived under God’s dealings with His own. They were all delivered with a mighty arm from the house of bondage; they were all witnesses of God’s terrible wonders; they all passed through the sea; they were all baptized into Moses; they all ate of the spiritual bread and drank out of the spiritual rock that followed them. They were the nation that received the law, to whom the Word of God was entrusted, whose were the prophets, the priests, the kings, the service of the temple, altar and sacrifices. Yet, with the majority of them God was not well-pleased. There were two seeds. There were within the nation of Israel the true children of the promise and the carnal children that despised God’s covenant and trampled under foot the holy things of the covenant of God, His Word and precepts. And the latter were generally in the majority.
Nor is it different in the new dispensation. The Church in the world is the gathering of confessing believers and their children. And they form one people, even though the course of God’s covenant is no longer confined to one nation. And to this people God reveals His covenant. They are called after His name. And outwardly all that belong to them are subject to the same dealings. As we are gathered here to-night, we are a manifestation of the Church of Christ. We are all baptized in the name of God Triune. To all the Word is preached. As a congregation we celebrate the death of our Lord Jesus Christ at the communion table. And all, young and old, are instructed in the knowledge of God and our Saviour Jesus Christ. Yet, also to the Church of the new dispensation, also to us as a Church of Christ in the world the Word of God applies: All is not Israel that is of Israel. There are always the children of the promise, the true spiritual seed. But there also develops always again the carnal seed, that live in close proximity and outward fellowship with the spiritual seed, dwell in the same house with the latter, are subject to the same influences as these, but are not children of the promise and receive not the grace of God in their hearts.
And the presence of these carnal children is of great significance to the Church of Christ.
First of all it may be remarked that they are a cause of continual sorrow, of the great sorrow of which the apostle speaks in the beginning of this chapter. They are of our own flesh and blood and we greatly and earnestly desire the salvation of them that are dear to us. What is there that parents would more earnestly desire for their children than they all may walk in the fear of the Lord and be saved? And what is true of parents in relation to their children applies to a pastor, to the officebearers in general, to the whole congregation with respect to all the individual sheep of the flock to which they belong. They rejoice when the children of God’s covenant grow up as children of the promise and serve the Lord. Such is their constant prayer. To this end they labour, preach, instruct, admonish, rebuke, encourage, comfort, publicly and privately, in the midst of the gatherings of the Church and in individual contact. Yet, not all become manifest as children of the promise. Many despise the birthright as Esau. You labour with them. You pay special attention to them. When they become wayward and indifferent more labour is bestowed on them than upon those that constantly walk in the ways of the covenant. You admonish them. You pray with them. But it is of no avail. Sometimes at a very early age they reveal themselves as carnal children. They love the things of the world. They despise the spiritual blessings of the kingdom of God. They trample under foot God’s covenant. And they finally forsake the fellowship of God’s people or are excommunicated from the Church, to seek their delight in the pleasures of sin. This is a great sorrow and a grievous burden to bear as long as we are in the earthly house of this tabernacle. Our flesh cries out when God’s sovereign mercy cuts right through the midst of the seed of Abraham to separate the children of the promise from the carnal seed!
Secondly, they are a cause of constant trouble in the Church of Christ on earth, and their presence obviates the necessity of constant watchfulness on the part of the Church, particularly of the officebearers. It is because of their presence especially that the Church on earth is always in danger of apostatizing from the truth. How clearly this is illustrated in the history of the people of Israel in the old dispensation! How the carnal element abounded in their midst! How they always led Israel astray, to serve other gods, to seek the pleasures of sin, to bring the terrible wrath of Jehovah upon the nation! How small often was the remnant according to the election! And they became the cause that the nation was led into captivity, that they were finally rejected because they crucified the Son of God! The same is still true. The carnal element in the Church on earth always tends to corrupt the truth, to expose the Church to every wind of doctrine. It is they that find the way of the kingdom too narrow, that would broaden it out to make room for them that follow after their fleshly lusts, that would amalgamate the Church and the world and for that reason desire to draw the world into the Church. And, therefore, let the Church watch and pray, lest she fall into temptation; watch over the pure Word of God in preaching and instruction; watch over the life and walk of its members, both in the ministry of the Word and in the exercise of Christian discipline. And let her never follow the lead of the carnal children, even though they should attain to a dominating position in the Church and through separation be repeatedly necessary to maintain the purity of .the Church!
Thus, finally, the perpetual presence of the carnal element In the Church of Christ in the world is the cause of the fact that the Church must fight her hardest battle in her own house, and not on the mission-field. For, it is by this carnal element that the measure of iniquity is filled, and from the carnal seed the antichristian power is constantly developing, until the man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition, the culmination of all the forces of iniquity. It is in the carnal seed that sin becomes manifest in all its horror; they kill the prophets and stone them that are sent unto them; they crucified Christ and always crucify Him anew; they bring forth the false church. With them the children of the promise are engaged in continual spiritual warfare, until the days come in which there shall be great tribulation, days in which the very elect would be deceived if they were not shortened for their sake!
Let us not say: we have Abraham to our father! All are not Israel that are of Israel, neither are they children of God because they are of Abraham’s natural seed. Nor ever say that the Word of God has fallen out, for God realizes His promise in all His people. His Word never fails.
But walk as spiritual children of God in Christ, watching and praying, individually and as a Church, that no one take our crown!