Recently, I re-read St. John Chrysostom’s homily on the Epistle to the Romans, Chapter 9, and it left me stunned. What depth of spirituality he shows, in St. Paul and in himself! What virtuosity of intellect! This is truly a spiritual and intellectual tour de force. I have to share it with you.
However, it’s very long. St. John does this on purpose, as he explains at the end, in order not “to break off the continuity of the context, and so spoil the clearness of the statements.” Not breaking the train of thought seems very wise, so I shall likewise try to sketch out for you some of St. John's main points in a single post, which will still be very long. In doing so, I’m leaving out more than half of the gems in this sermon and re-arranging some of them a bit. There is *no way* this outline can do justice to the homily or to St. Paul, but I hope it may whet your appetite to read the entire homily.
St. Paul’s topic in this chapter is to deal with the scandal surrounding the fact that the Chosen People, the Jews, had rejected Christ, while the Gentiles, spiritual nobodies, had embraced Him. This is the subject, this is the context.
I'm putting St. John's words in italics, while my own few notes are in brackets and indented.
Ver. 1, 2, 3. “I say the truth in Christ, I lie not, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Ghost. That I have a great heaviness and continual sorrow in my heart. For I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren's sake, my kinsmen according to the flesh.”
He means, if it were possible to be separated from the company about Christ, and to be made an alien, not from the love of Him (that be far from him; for even all this he was doing through love), but from all that enjoyment and glory, I would accept that lot, provided my Master were not to be blasphemed, that He might not have to hear some saying, that it has been all for stage-effect; He promises to one, and gives to another. He was sprung from one race, He saved another. It was to the forefathers of the Jews that He made the promises, and yet He has deserted their descendants, and put men, who never at any time knew Him, into their good things. They labored in the practice of the Law, and reading the Prophets, while men who have come but yesterday from heathen altars and images have been set up above them. What foresight is there in all this?
Ver. 4, 5. “To whom pertains 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 father’s, and of whom as concerning the flesh Christ came, Who is over all, God blessed for ever. Amen.”
… all were talking and accusing God, that after being counted worthy of the name of sons, and receiving the Law, and knowing Him beyond all men, and enjoying such great glory, and serving him beyond the whole world, and receiving the promises, and being from fathers who were His friends, and what was the greatest thing of all, having been forefathers of Christ Himself … they are now cast out and disgraced; and in their place are introduced men who had never known Him, of the Gentiles. Now since they said all this, and blasphemed God, Paul hearing it, and being cut to the heart, and vexed for God’s glory’s sake, wished that he were accursed, had it been possible, so that they might be saved, and this blasphemy be put a stop to, and God might not seem to have deceived the offspring of those to whom He promised the gifts.
Ver. 6, 7. “Not as though the word of God had taken none effect. For they are not all Israel, that are of Israel: neither, because they are Abraham's seed, are they all children: but, In Isaac shall thy seed be called. ”
That they may not say (he means) that the promise of God has fallen to the ground, and He has disappointed us of that He vouched to us, and this word has not issued in deed, I could wish to be accursed.
Now when you come to know of what kind the seed of Abraham is, you will see that the promise is given to his seed, and know that the word has not fallen to the ground. Of what kind, pray, is the seed then? It is no saying of mine, he means, but the Old Testament itself explains itself by saying as follows, “In Isaac shall thy seed be called.” (Gen. xxi. 12.) What is, “In Isaac?” Explain.
[Before St. John explains, we need to recall the story of Isaac’s birth. His mother, Sarah, had been barren all her life, and was decades past menopause, when God promised she would bear Abraham a son. In other words, it was a miraculous conception and birth.]
Ver. 8. “That is, they which are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God: but the children of the promise, these are counted for the seed.”
In interpreting, he [St. Paul] does not say, “they which are the children of the flesh, these are not “the children of Abraham,” but, “the children of God:” so blending the former things with the present, and showing that even Isaac was not merely Abraham’s son. And what he means is something of this sort: as many as have been born as Isaac was, they are sons of God, and of the seed of Abraham. And this is why he said, “in Isaac shall your seed be called.” That one may learn that they who are born after the fashion of Isaac, these are in the truest sense Abraham’s children. In what way was Isaac born then? Not according to the law of nature, not according to the power of the flesh, but according to the power of the promise. What is meant then by the power of “the promise?”
Ver. 9. “At this time will I come, and Sarah shall have a son.”
This promise then and word of God it was that fashioned Isaac, and begat him. For what if a womb was its instrument and the belly of a woman? Since it was not the power of the belly, but the might of the promise that begat the child. Thus are we also gendered by the words of God. Since in the pool of water it is the words of God which generate and fashion us. For it is by being baptized into the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost that we are gendered. And this birth is not of nature, but of the promise of God. (John iii. 3; Eph. v. 26; James i. 18; 1 Pet. iii. 21.)
[First conclusion: the true sons of Abraham are his spiritual sons, not simply his fleshly ones. Abraham had numerous sons. He had Ishmael, the father of the Arabs, by Hagar, his wife’s slave, and several other sons by another wife, Keturah. Yet Isaac was the chosen one. He was the true spiritual son. Isaac, by his wife, Rebecca, fathered twin sons, Jacob (a.k.a., Israel) and Esau, father of a Gentile tribe called the Edomites.]
But if the Jews were to say, that the words, “In Isaac shall thy seed be called,” mean this, that those born of Isaac should be reckoned to him for a seed, then the Edomites too, and all those people, ought to be denominated his sons, since their forefather Esau was a son of his. But now so far are they from being called sons, that they are the greatest possible aliens. You see then that it is not the children of the flesh that are the children of God, but that even in nature itself the generation by means of baptism from above was sketched out beforehand. And if you tell me of the womb, I in return have to tell you of the water. But as in this case all is of the Spirit, so in the other all was of promise.
[Now we turn to two thorny questions raised by the Gentiles having found God, while the Jews did not. The first question is, are the Gentiles somehow supposed to be more worthy than the Jews? Aren’t we all equally unworthy? Yes. (Rom. iii. 23.) “But the new thing is, that when all were unworthy, the Gentiles were saved alone.”
So if it wasn’t on account of some being more worthy than others, we come to the second theological problem, “how come some to be saved, and some to perish?”]
It is because all were not minded to come to Him, since for His part all were saved, for all were called. However, he does not set this down yet awhile, but meets it from an advantageous position … it is by raising other difficulties that he meets the questions raised. Hence he takes no pains to solve the examples which he has brought before us. For he was not answerable for them. But from them he makes his own subject throughout clearer. Why do you feel surprised, he means, that some of the Jews were saved, and some not saved at this time? Why of old, in the patriarch’s times, one may see this happening. For why was Isaac only called the seed, and yet he [Abraham] was the father of Ishmael also, and of several others.
Ver. 10. “And not only this; but when Rebecca also had conceived by one, even by our father Isaac.”
[If St. Paul’s opponents say Isaac was chosen instead of Ishmael because “he (Ishmael) was of a mother that was a slave,” St. John replies:]
Let this son be set aside on his mother’s account. What are we to say of those sprung from Keturah? Were they not free, and from a mother that was free? How came they not to be honored with the same preference as Isaac? And why do I speak of these? for Rebecca was even Isaac’s only wife, and bearing two children she bore them both to Isaac; still those so born, though of the same father, and the same mother, and the fruit of the same labor, being both of one father and one mother, and twins besides, yet did not enjoy the same lot. And yet here you have no mother’s slavery to account for it, as in Ishmael’s case, nor can you say that one was begotten of this womb and the other of a different one, as in the case of Keturah and Sarah, since in this case they had the same hour in common to them for their birth. This was why Paul then, in order to give a clearer example, says that this happened not in Isaac’s case only, “but when Rebecca also had conceived by one, even by our father Isaac.”
Ver. 11–13. “For the children being not yet born, neither having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works, but of him that calls, it was said unto her, the elder shall serve the younger. As it is written, Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated.”
What was the cause then why one was loved and the other hated? why was it that one served, the other was served? It was because one was wicked, and the other good. And yet the children being not yet born, one was honored and the other condemned. For when they were not as yet born, God said, “the elder shall serve the younger.” With what intent then did God say this? Because He does not wait, as man does, to see from the issue of their acts the good and him who is not so, but even before these He knows which is the wicked and which not such.
And this took place in the Israelites’ case also, in a still more wonderful way. Why, he says, do I speak of Esau and of Jacob, of whom one was wicked and the other good? For in the Israelites’ case, the sin belonged to all, since they all worshipped the calf. Yet notwithstanding some had mercy shown them, and others had not.
Ver. 15. “For I will have mercy, He says, on whom I will have mercy, and I will show compassion on whom I will show compassion.” (Ex. xxxiii. 19.)
This one may see also in the case of those who are punished, for what would you say of Pharaoh who was punished, and had to pay so heavy a penalty? You say he was hardened and disobedient. Was he then alone such, and not even one person else? How came he then to be so severely punished? Why even in the case of the Jews did he call that a people which was no people, or again, why not count all worthy of equal honor? “For if they be” (it says) “as the sand of the sea, yet shall a remnant be saved.” (Is. x. 22.) And why is it to be only a remnant? You see what difficulty he has filled the subject with. And with great propriety. For when you have power to throw your adversary into perplexity, do not at once bring forward the answer … Now tell me, O Jew, that has so many perplexing questions, and are unable to answer any of them, how you come to annoy us on account of the call of the Gentiles?
I, however, have a good reason to give you why the Gentiles were justified and ye were cast out. And what is the reason? It is that they are of faith, you are of the works of the Law. And it is owing to this obstinacy of yours that you have in every way been given up. For, “they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God.” (Rom. x. 3.) The clearing up then of the whole passage, to give the whole sense summarily, is here brought out by that blessed person …what the blessed Paul aimed at was, to show by all that he said that God only knows who are worthy, and no man whatever knows, even if he seem to know ever so well, but that in this sentence of his there are sundry aberrations. For He that knows the secrets of the hearts, He only knows for a certainty who deserve a crown, and who punishment and vengeance. Hence it is that many of those, by men esteemed good, He convicts and punishes, and those suspected to be bad He crowns, after showing it not to be so; thus forming his sentence not after the judgment of us slaves, but after his own keen and uncorrupt decision, and not waiting for the issue of actions to look at the wicked and him who is not so from these.
You see how this happens not in Abraham’s case only, but also in that of his son himself, and how it is faith and virtue in all cases that is conspicuous, and gives the real relationship its character. For hence we learn that it is not only from the manner of birth, but owing to their being worthy of the father’s virtue, that the children are called children of him. For if it were only owing to the manner of the birth, then ought Esau to have enjoyed the same as Jacob did. For he also was from a womb as good as dead, and his mother was barren. Yet this was not the only thing required, but the character too, which fact contributes no common amount of practical instruction for us. And he does not say that one is good and another bad, and so the former was honored; lest this kind of argument should be wielded against him, “What, are those of the Gentiles good men rather than those of the circumcision?” For even supposing the truth of the matter was so, still he does not state it yet, as that would have seemed to be vexatious. But it is upon God’s knowledge that he has cast the whole, and this no one would venture to gainsay, though he were ever so frantic. And he shows that noble birth after the flesh is of no avail, but we must seek for virtue of soul, which even before the works of it God knows of. For “the children,” he says, “being not yet born, nor having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, it was said unto her that the elder shall serve the younger:” for this was a sign of foreknowledge, that they were chosen from the very birth. That the election made according to foreknowledge, might be manifestly of God, from the first day He at once saw and proclaimed which was good and which not. Do not then tell me that you have read the Law (he means) and the Prophets, and have been a servant for such a long time. For He that knows how to assay the soul, knows which is worthy of being saved. Yield then to the incomprehensibleness of the election. For it is He alone Who knows how to crown aright.
Ver. 14. “What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? God forbid.”
Ver. 15. For he says to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.”
God, he means, said that “the elder shall serve the younger,” before the travail. What then? “Is God unrighteous?” By no means. Now listen to what follows also. For in that case the virtue or the vice, might be the decisive thing. But here [in the story to which St. Paul alludes] there was one sin on which all the Jews joined, that of the molten calf, and still some were punished, and some were not punished. And this is why He says, “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.” (Ex. xxxiii. 19: observe context.) For it is not yours to know, O Moses, he means, which are deserving of My love toward man, but leave this to Me. But if Moses had no right to know, much less have we. And this is why he did not barely quote the passage, but also called to our minds to whom it was said.
Ver. 16, 17. “So then it is not of him that wills, nor of him that runs, but of God that shows mercy .For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, Even for this same purpose have I raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be declared throughout all the earth.”
As then in the one case, he means, some were saved and some were punished, so here also. This man was reserved for this very purpose. And then he again urges the objection.
Ver. 18, 19. “Therefore He has mercy on whom He will have mercy, and whom He will He hardens. You will say then unto me, Why does he then find fault? For who has resisted His will?”
See what pains he takes to embarrass the subject in every way. And the answer he does not produce forthwith, it being a useful thing not to do so, but he first stops the disputant’s mouth, saying as follows,
Ver. 20. “Nay but, O man, who are you that replies against God?”
This he does to take down the objector’s unseasonable inquisitiveness, and excessive curiosity, and to put a check upon it, and teach him to know what God is, and what man, and how incomprehensible His foreknowledge is, and how far above our reason, and how obedience to Him in all points is binding ... And he does not say, it is impossible to answer questions of this kind, but that it is presumptuous to raise them. For our business is to obey what God does, not to be curious even if we do not know the reason of them. Wherefore he said, “Who are you that replies against God?” You see how very light he makes of him, how he bears down his swelling spirit!
Ver. 20, 2l. “Shall the thing formed say to Him that formed it, Why have You made me thus? Has not the potter (Read Jer. xviii. 1–10) power, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honor, and another unto dishonor?”
Here it is not to do away with free-will that he says this, but to show, up to what point we ought to obey God. For in respect of calling God to account, we ought to be as little disposed to it as the clay is. For we ought to abstain not from gainsaying or questioning only, but even from speaking or thinking of it at all, and to become like that lifeless matter, which follows the potter’s hands, and lets itself be drawn about anywhere he may please. And this is the only point he applied the illustration to, not, that is, to any enunciation of the rule of life, but to the complete obedience and silence enforced upon us.
And this we ought to observe in all cases, that we are not to take the illustrations quite entire, but after selecting the good of them, and that for which they were introduced, to let the rest alone. As, for instance, when he says, “He couched, he lay down as a lion;” (Numb. xxiv. 9) let us take the indomitable and fearful part, not the brutality, nor any other of the things belonging to a lion. ... So also here must we single out the clay, the potter, and the vessels. And when he does go on to say, “Has not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honor, and another unto dishonor?” do not suppose that this is said by Paul as an account of the creation, nor as implying a necessity over the will, but to illustrate the sovereignty and difference of dispensations; for if we do not take it in this way, various incongruities will follow, for if here he were speaking about the will, and those who are good and those not so, He will be Himself the Maker of these, and man will be free from all responsibility. And at this rate, Paul will also be shown to be at variance with himself, as he always bestows chief honor upon free choice. There is nothing else then which he here wishes to do, save to persuade the hearer to yield entirely to God, and at no time to call Him to account for anything whatever… as I said before, one must take this illustration to have one bearing only, which is that one should not contravene God, but yield to His incomprehensible Wisdom ... And then he introduces his answer. Now what is the answer?
Ver. 22, 23, 24. “What if God, willing to show His wrath, and to make His power known, endured with much long-suffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction: and that He might make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy, which He had before prepared unto glory, even us, whom He has chosen, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles.”
What he means is somewhat as follows. Pharaoh was a vessel of wrath, that is, a man who by his own hard-heartedness had kindled the wrath of God. For after enjoying much long-suffering, he became no better, but remained unimproved. Wherefore he calls him not only “a vessel of wrath,” but also one “fitted for destruction.” That is, fully fitted indeed, but by his own proper self. For neither had God left out any of the things likely to recover him, nor did he [Pharaoh] leave out any of those that would ruin him, and put him beyond any forgiveness. Yet still, though God knew this, “He endured him with much long-suffering,” being willing to bring him to repentance. For had He not willed this, then He would not have been thus long-suffering. But as he [Pharaoh] would not use the long-suffering in order to repentance, but fully fitted himself for wrath, He used him for the correction of others, through the punishment inflicted upon him making them better, and in this way setting forth His power. For that it is not God’s wish that His power be so made known, but in another way, by His benefits, namely, and kindnesses, he had shown above in all possible ways. But after that He had shown long-suffering, that He might lead to repentance, but he did not repent, He suffered him a long time, that He might display at once His goodness and His power, even if that man were not minded to gain anything from this great long-suffering. As then by punishing this man, who continued incorrigible, He showed His power, so by having pitied those who had done many sins but repented, He manifested His love toward man.
But it does not say, love towards man, but glory, to show that this [his love] is especially God’s glory, and for this He was above all things earnest. But in saying, “which He had before prepared unto glory,” he does not mean that all is God’s doing. Since if this were so, there were nothing to hinder all men from being saved. But he is setting forth again His foreknowledge, and doing away with the difference between the Jews and the Gentiles ... For it was not in the case of the Jews only that some men perished, and some were saved, but with the Gentiles also this was the case … As then Pharaoh became a vessel of wrath by his own lawlessness, so did these become vessels of mercy by their own readiness to obey. For though the more part is of God, still they also have contributed themselves some little. Whence he does not say either, vessels of well-doing, or vessels of boldness, but “vessels of mercy,” to show that the whole is of God. For the phrase, “it is not of him that wills, nor of him that runs,” even if it comes in the course of the objection, still, were it said by Paul, would create no difficulty. Because when he says, “it is not of him that wills, nor of him that runs,” he does not deprive us of free-will, but shows that all is not one’s own, for that it requires grace from above. For it is binding on us to will, and also to run: but to confide not in our own labors, but in the love of God toward man. And this he has expressed elsewhere. “Yet not I, but the grace which was with me.” (1 Cor. xv. 10.)
... Whence then are some vessels of wrath, and some of mercy? Of their own free choice. God, however, being very good, shows the same kindness to both. For it was not those in a state of salvation only to whom He showed mercy, but also Pharaoh, as far as His part went. For of the same long-suffering, both they and he had the advantage. And if he was not saved, it was quite owing to his own will: since, as for what concerns God, he had as much done for him as they who were saved.
Ver. 25. “I will call them My people, which were not My people; and her beloved, which was not beloved.”
Here to prevent their saying, that you are deceiving us here with specious reasoning, he calls Hosea to witness, who cries and says, “I will call them My people, who were not My people.” (Hos. ii. 23.) Who then are the not-people? Plainly, the Gentiles. And who the not-beloved? The same again. However, he says, that they shall become at once people, and beloved, and sons of God.
Ver. 26. “For even they shall be called,” he says, “the children of the living God.”
Having then done with Hosea, he does not content himself with him only, but also brings Isaiah in after him. sounding in harmony with him.
Ver. 27. “For Isaiah,” he says, “cries concerning Israel.”
That is, speaks out boldly, and uses no dissimulation. Why then lay a charge against us, when they [the prophets] before declared the same thing with more than trumpet’s loudness? And what does Isaiah cry? “Though the number of the children of Israel be as the sand of the sea, a remnant shall be saved.” (Is. x. 22.)
Do you see that he too does not say that all are to be saved, but that those that are worthy shall? For I regard not the multitude, he means, but those only do I save that yield themselves worthy of it. And he does not mention the “sand of the sea” without a reason, but to remind them of the ancient promise whereof they had made themselves unworthy. Why then are you troubled, as though the promise had failed, when all the Prophets show that it is not all that are to be saved? Then he mentions the mode of the salvation also. Observe the accuracy of the Prophet, and the judgment of the Apostle, what a testimony he has cited, how exceedingly apposite! For it not only shows us that those to be saved are some and not all, but also adds the way they are to be saved. How then are they to be saved, and how will God count them worthy of the benefit?
Ver. 28. “He will finish the work, and cut it short in righteousness,” he says, “because a short work will the Lord make upon the earth.” (Ib. 23, LXX.)
What he means then is something of this sort. There is no need of fetching a circuit, and of trouble, and the vexation of the works of the Law, for the salvation is by a very short way. For such is faith, it holds salvation in a few short words. “For if you shall confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus, and believe in your heart that God hath raised Him from the dead, you shall be saved.” (Rom. x. 9.) Now you see what this, “the Lord shall make a short word (LXX. lit.) upon earth,” is. And what is indeed wonderful is, that this short word carries with it not salvation only, but also righteousness.
Ver 29. “And as Isaiah said before, Except the Lord of Sabaoth had left us a seed, we had been as Sodom, and had been made like unto Gomorrha.” (Is. i. 9.)
Here again he shows another thing, that not even those few were saved from their own resources. For they too would have perished, and met with Sodom’s fate, that is, they would have had to undergo utter destruction (for they of Sodom were also destroyed root and branch, and left not even the slightest remnant of themselves,) and they too, he means, would have been like these, unless God had used much kindness to them, and had saved them by faith.
Ver. 30, 31. “What shall we say then? That the Gentiles, which followed not after righteousness, have attained to righteousness, even the righteousness which is by faith. But Israel, which followed after the law of righteousness, hath not attained to the law of righteousness.”
Here at last is the clearest answer … he does not speak [first] of faith either, and the righteousness ensuing thereon, but shows that before the faith even, on their own ground they [the Jews] were worsted and condemned. For you, O Jew, he says, have not found even the righteousness which was by the Law. For you have transgressed it, and become liable to the curse. But these that came not through the Law, but by another road, have found a greater righteousness than this, that, namely, which is of faith. … Having then thrust his hearer into perplexity, he proceeds to give a concise answer, and tells him the cause of all that is said. When then is the cause?
Ver. 32. “Because they sought it not by faith, but as it were by the works of the Law.”
This is the clearest answer in the passage, which if he had said immediately upon starting, he would not have gained so easy a hearing. But since it is after many perplexities, and preparations, and demonstrations that he sets it down, and after using countless preparatory steps, he has at last made it more intelligible, and also more easily admitted. For this he says is the cause of their destruction: “Because it was not by faith, but as it were by the works of the Law,” that they wished to be justified. And he does not say, “by works,” but, “as it were by the works of the Law,” to show that they had not even this righteousness. “For they stumbled at that stumbling-stone;”
Ver. 33. “As it is written, Behold I lay in Zion a stumbling-stone, and rock of offence: and whosoever believeth on Him shall not be ashamed.”
You see again how it is from faith that the boldness comes, and the gift is universal; since it is not of the Jews only that this is said, but also of the whole human race. For every one, he would say, whether Jew, or Grecian, or Scythian, or Thracian, or whatsoever else he may be, will, if he believes, enjoy the privilege of great boldness.
[Summary: All have sinned. But God counts as worthy to be saved by Him those who seek Him in good faith, by faith, not those who arrogantly think to put God under obligation. (More technically, there is *no way* to save those who lack faith, for that is a contradiction in terms.) And this has been the case all along, from the very beginning.]
P.S.) Matthew Gallatin is currently doing a series on Romans 9, which I believe is also worth your time.