Romans 9 begins with great sorrow for the Apostle Paul and a potentially damaging theological dilemma, “How can God be faithful and many Israelites be lost?” We read of the significance of this special chosen people in verses 4-5. So the subsequent verses are written to address this issue and answer a very important question: What is Spiritual Israel? Romans 9:6-9,
6 But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, 7 and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” 8 This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring. 9 For this is what the promise said: “About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son.”
This section begins with an immediate and emphatic response to any inconsistency about the Word of God by declaring that it has not failed! Paul’s declaration in verse 6 aligns with Isaiah 40:8, which states, “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand for ever.” What follows in verse 6 is the construction of the argument about how ‘Israel’ is defined in terms of salvation.
Not all of physical Israel
In the Old Testament, the Lord richly blesses the people of Israel as those who are chosen. However, Romans 9:6 identifies a crucial point: not every person who has physically descended from the Israelites belongs to Israel. Scripture is filled with examples of the sinful rebellion and apostasy of the Israelites, many of whom go their own way and reject God. Thus, Paul is identifying a crucial distinction here between those who belong to Israel physically and those who belong spiritually. He elaborates on this point further in verse 7 by adding that not all are children of Abraham. In the book of Genesis, the Lord made a promise to Abraham that he would be the father of many nations (Genesis 17:4) and that through his promised son, his offspring shall be as numerous as the stars in the sky (Genesis 15:5). This began to be fulfilled on a physical level when Abraham’s son, Isaac, was born, leading to physical descendants, and this is the promise that we read of in verse 9. However, this is also fulfilled on a spiritual level, which is explained here in Romans 9.
Children of Promise
The distinction between the physical and spiritual descendants of Abraham is explained more clearly in verse 8. We have a distinction between the ‘children of flesh’ and the ‘children of promise.’ The former have had the physical blessings of belonging to the chosen people of God. However, not all of these children are true Israel, namely, Spiritual Israel. Spiritual Israel is this latter group, the ‘children of promise,’ and this is a reference to the elect of God, all of whom are saved and belong to the Kingdom of God.
The Fulfillment of Spiritual Israel
The distinction between physical and Spiritual Israel is established in these verses, but we must also consider how the distinction is fulfilled. We see a promise of physical descendants from Abraham, and they are defined as ‘Israelites.’ However, the focus changes from physical to spiritual through the saving work of Jesus Christ. Galatians 3:28-29 states,
28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.
This short passage identifies the glorious reality that all who belong to Jesus Christ are the descendants of Abraham. This is not based on ethnicity, gender, class, or any other status, but by the blood shed by the Lord Jesus for the elect of God. In the Old Covenant, the covenant promise to Abraham was sealed by the blood of circumcision, marking the physical descendants of Israel. In the New Covenant, the covenant promise is sealed by the blood of the lamb shed for Spiritual Israel. In Galatians 3:7-9 it says,
7 Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. 8 And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” 9 So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.
This text is significant to draw out that Spiritual Israel, as defined in Romans 9:6-9, is made up of those who believe. The spiritual sons of Abraham, who receive this covenant promise, are those who have faith in Jesus Christ.
The theological complexity of this passage requires much study and knowledge of Scripture. The practical reality for the Christian is immeasurably glorious. It is not by one’s merit, ethnic background, or good works; it is by the blood of Jesus Christ. What joy this can bring to every one of us! We belong to the family of God, we are the children of promise, we are the true Spiritual Israel. What comfort this is to the soul in the midst of any and every affliction (2 Corinthians 1:3-7).
JOHN-WILLIAM NOBLE is Pastor of Grace Baptist Church Aberdeen, which he planted in 2019. He holds a Bachelor of Divinity degree at the University of Aberdeen and is the secretary of Melville-Knox Christian School Aberdeen. John-William is also the author of two books, The Basics of Christianity (2016) and Biblical Marriage: Two Sinners and a Gracious God. John-William and his wife, Binglin, have two young children, Amos and Endian.