In the passage to follow, Paul explains why most of the Jews remained unsaved. He writes:

"Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone," - Romans 9:32 (ESV)

Can it conclusively be established, based on this verse and the surrounding context, that Israel had the capacity to believe and yet wilfully chose not to?

  • While it may be difficult to specify a Christian denomination for this question, you should at least specify the theological framework that it is working Within. A dispensational or replacement theology framework may have a very different take on this than a covenant theology or other framework that includes an eventual inclusion of the Jews.
    – Joshua
    Commented Mar 9, 2016 at 22:36
  • Hi Steve, the only theological framework that is valid is the one acquired using the literal, grammaical form of interpretation. There are two options here. The Jews had the capacity to believe or Paul lied. I believe that the Bible is truth. Therefore, Paul didn't lie. In Christ! Commented Mar 10, 2016 at 0:46
  • literal grammatical interpretation is not a theological framework... It's a hermeneutical approach. Just to clarify.
    – Joshua
    Commented Mar 10, 2016 at 0:56
  • You are correct. I should have included context. Without it the Bible can say anything one wants. Commented Mar 10, 2016 at 1:44
  • 1
    @Dan - the use of historical, linguistic, and literary context for exegesis is one particular hermeneutic method. It is not the only one, although it may be viewed so by some.
    – user15733
    Commented Sep 10, 2016 at 16:19

5 Answers 5


In the passage to follow, Paul explains why most of the Jews remained unsaved

Strictly speaking, there is no mention of salvation in the passage you quote. The passage deals with "righteousness" (δικαιοσύνη - dikaiosynē), not "salvation" (σωτηρία - sōtēria). They are not the same thing, though often conflated.

The KJV offers a much more literal translation of Romans 9:31-32, in my opinion:

But Israel, which followed after the law of righteousness, hath not attained to the law of righteousness. Wherefore? Because they sought it not by faith, but as it were by the works of the law.

The ESV truncates the Greek to such an extent that a completely different meaning emerges:

But that Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works.

"Faith" and "belief" are exactly the same word in Greek: πίστις (pistis). Romans 9:31-32 states directly, therefore, that Israel did not attain righteousness ("the law of righteousness") because they sought it through works of the law rather than through belief (πίστις).

The question remains as to whether Israel had any choice in doing this. The only possible basis for supposing Israel did not have any choice would be a fairly narrow interpretation of Romans 8:28-29:

For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified.

"Predestinate" (προορίζω - proorizō) has been interpreted to mean "decide beforehand" (e.g. Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains: Greek (New Testament), but this doesn't seem to be the way the word was understand by Greeks in antiquity. Chrysostom (4th c.) comments on the passage, for example:

It is not the calling alone, but the purpose of those called too, that works the salvation. For the calling was not forced upon them, nor compulsory. All then were called, but all did not obey the call.*

Thus, in answer to your question:

Can it conclusively be established, based on this verse and the surrounding context, that Israel had the capacity to believe and yet willfully chose not to?

I believe the answer is yes; but it requires interpreting the Greek in places in the fashion it was interpreted by certain Greek Church Fathers.

* Homily XV on Romans


"Had I not done the deeds that nobody has done, they would not have sin, but now they saw those deeds and hated both me and the Father"(John 15:24), thus they of course had a chance not to hate Him but still stubbornly embraced their previous vision of a national-political Messiah, which Jesus defied representing Himself as the universal Messiah of all humans.

But a very strange thing happens: Jews as described in the Gospels have among others two strong sentiments: a) hatred towards the Roman invaders and b) love of their expectation of a political Messiah, a great King who would rescue them from the Roman oppressors. However, when they saw that execution of Jesus was at a suspense, for Pilates got convinced in His guiltlessness, they said a plain lie: "we do not have a king, other than Caesar!" (John 19:15). Thus, they hated Jesus so much, that even forfeited their expectation of Messiah, for to say that they have no king other than Caesar, is to say big "NO" to messianic expectations of the national Jewish king-messiah. This means, that besides those two mentioned strong sentiments there was a third one, which eclipsed both, and because of which they hated Jesus.

But what was that third great sentiment, through which they hated Jesus and through which they said big NO to both their sweet passion of hatred towards Romans and even sweeter passion of expectation of the grand national Messiah-king-liberator?

Answer is - the dreadful divine infinity, that would demand from them to abandon parochial understanding of God as specially loving only them over other nations, and embracing a new understanding of God as the loving Father of all humans, all equally created in His image and likeness, and equally subject to salvational deeds of His Only-Begotten Son. But embracing such God would have destroyed all their past concepts, limited expectations, confinement of service of God only by works of Law, while God demanded from them belief in His Incarnate Son, who was not already content by the works of Law and even by the basic of all Law: "Love God with all your heart and your neighbour - as yourself", giving to humans the new commandment: "Love each other, as I have loved you"(John 13:34), and He did not love as He loved His own self, but more than Himself, laying His soul for others. Moreover, the referents of this New-Testamental dreadful love are no more only Jews, but all humans alike. This was perfectly well understood by Jews, and thus they were so dreaded by this prospect of new theology, that when Pilates showed them the bloodied Jesus, (whom he made beaten by iron-spiky Roman rods, just with a hope that if Jesus would survive this beating, the Jews' rage would be soothed), they went berserk and hysterically shouted "crucify, crucify Him!"(Luke 23:21).

But of course, this is not the end of the story according to the New Testament authors, and Paul, loving his nation, utters a prophetic hope that Jews' rejection of Jesus is but temporary, however eschatologically the entire Israel will convert and embrace the new salvific theology (Romans 11:25-26) of the man born of the Jewish woman, who revealed to all humanity the Name of God (John 17:7), which is the "Father" loving each human being, as best expressed by a metaphor of a parental love, and through whose Only-Begotten and uncreated Son also created humans can inherit His sonship (John 1:12) and the Eternal Kingdom.


The answer is no to both questions

  • In Romans 9:32 Paul did not imply that the Jews had the capacity to believe.

  • It cannot conclusively be established, based on this verse and the surrounding context, that Israel had the capacity to believe and yet willfully chose not to.

First, about what Paul implied. The context is an argument against attaining to righteousness by works of the law rather than faith. So Paul says:

they did not strive for it (righteousness) on the basis of faith but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone, as it is written, “See, I am laying in Zion a stone that will make people stumble, a rock that will make them fall...”

Here, it is God who lays the stumbling stone for Israel to trip over. Moreover, the above attitude is echoed by an even clearer exoneration of Israel for rejecting Jesus in Paul's writing:

We speak God’s wisdom, a hidden mystery, which God decreed before the ages for our glory and which none of the rulers of this age understood, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. (1 Cor. 2:7-8)

Paul believed that God had predestined the crucifixion from before time began. He taught that it was not possible for the Jews to accept Jesus as the Messiah because if they had done so, salvation through the Cross could not have been accomplished. Therefore the answer to both question in the OP is "no."

(Personally I happen to think it was indeed possible for Israel to accept Jesus. But I do not believe that this is what Paul taught. Nor do I think that the Israel "willfully chose" not to believe.)


Can it conclusively be established, based on this verse and the surrounding context, that Israel had the capacity to believe and yet willfully chose not to?

Not based on this verse, no, and not based on the entire realm of scriptures (not from the text). You would have to insert your own opinion into the text and you would probably have to have a sense of prejudice or anti-Semitic mentality. The reason I say this is because you’d be forming your conclusions without having ever met your subjects. I’m aware of no legitimate process that bases mental or psychological conclusions about its subjects without first having an in-depth, personal knowledge about them. You don’t even know the names of the people you’d be judging.

The only being that can determine the answer to your question is God.

I believe, without a single doubt, that Christ resurrected from the dead. It’s not a matter of faith; it’s fact. But I could not have believed that years ago. Certain things had to take place. Did I have the “capacity” to believe back then?

Absolutely not.

“For they are not all Israel which are of Israel. Neither, because they are the seed of Abraham are they all children… That is, they which are 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)

Paul is separating those that are Israelites because of their lineage (“the seed”) from those that are Israelites because of their lineage and faith (“the children”). Paul is referring to those Israelites that are the “children of God,” the "children of the promise.” He is not referring to Christians that don’t have a lineage tracing back to Jacob.

  • I don't think the OP has any sort of anti-Semitic thoughts in mind here, but rather is just asking a basic question about pre-destination. Yes, perhaps 'the only being that can determine the answer to your question is God', but the scriptures do teach things about election and pre-destination, and it's not unreasonable to think that the scriptures can give us a basis for forming an opinion about it. Yes lots of people do bring personal bias into it too, but if you don't think it can be answered hermeneutically then I'd suggest putting that in the comments rather than an answer?
    – Steve can help
    Commented Apr 13, 2016 at 7:10
  • hi Steve, Yes -I agree that it's reasonable to discuss election, pre-destination but the OP is using the word "capacity" and this is why I answered it the way that I did. In my opinion, the question needs to be reformulated to be answered with the responses that you are suggesting. I would like to see that happen because the question of who is the elect and is pre-destination correct, etc, is arguable. Whether or not a group of people had the "capacity" to believe is not.
    – Daisy
    Commented Apr 13, 2016 at 12:07
  • Out of respect to the Jewish people, also would consider changing "the Jews" to "Israelites" or "Jewish people" or "Judeans." I say this for two reasons. (1) "the Jews" is an incorrect translation; the word is "Judeans." (2) most Jewish people do not like being referred to as "Jews." I know this from personal experience (Jewish people calling newspaper to complain about the terminology used, asking it to be changed) and from watching countless films and comedians (Woody Allen is a good example). It's a derogatory term. Many Christians don't know this so I am not implying prejudice on the OP.
    – Daisy
    Commented Apr 13, 2016 at 12:39
  • Sure, the terminology for the people could be improved, but the term 'capacity' is intended in the framework of pre-destination, and so it's in reference to the capacity of free-will. In other words, do the scriptures imply that Israel was given sufficient free-will capacity that they were able to freely choose or reject God? It might be worth placing a comment against the original question asking them to clarify, or suggest an edit yourself :)
    – Steve can help
    Commented Apr 13, 2016 at 14:40
  • I like your response. I love a good debate. And I think you bring up excellent points. Would love to comment above but I can't cuz I haven't got 50 points. Don't get me started on the point system. I am not a fan. Would love to see this site give no points and no down votes OR points but only up votes. A virtual person I will never meet can't earn their "reputation" with me until I've had several dealings with them and read a good deal of their work.
    – Daisy
    Commented Apr 13, 2016 at 16:04

This answer is from a Covenant Theology perspective which anticipates the future redemption and reunification of ethnic Israel.

First, it depends how we are viewing Israel. We should differentiate between corporate, national Israel (as a people group) and individuals.

National Israel

Paul clearly elaborates on the stumbling stone in chapter 11.

Romans 11:8-11

8 as it is written, “God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that would not see and ears that would not hear, down to this very day.”

9 And David says, “Let their table become a snare and a trap, a stumbling block and a retribution for them;

10 let their eyes be darkened so that they cannot see, and bend their backs forever.”

11 So I ask, did they stumble in order that they might fall? By no means! Rather through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous. (ESV emphasis mine)

And Paul concludes in 11:25,

Lest you be wise in your own sight, I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.

Paul sees Israel's rejection of Christ in his time as part of God's plan.

Individual Jews

However, just because Israel as a whole rejected Christ does not mean each individual is still not responsible for their own disbelief. They cannot claim that God has sovereignly prevented them from believing.

Romans 10:11-13

11 For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.”

12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him.

13 For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

There is in fact a remnant of Jewish believers as well, showing that it is available to them. Paul gives the example of Elijah and the remnant of seven thousand. Romans 11:5

So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace.


Corporate Israel is willingly participating with God's plan for salvation to be extended to the nations through their rejection. But individual salvation is still open to all.

So we can conclusively establish that:

  1. Israel was sovereignly willed to reject Christ (for a time) for the sake of all nations.
  2. Each individual still had opportunity to respond and bear the responsibility of their disbelief.
  3. A remnant did believe, therefore showing that Jews were capable of belief.

There is a bit of a paradox here, and with respect to this format I am purposely avoiding too direct a commentary on predestination, so that is why I am focusing on responsibility of belief rather than capacity. Take that as you may in your own theological system.

  • Joshua, do I understand you correctly, and are you answering the question? Paul described corporate Israel (11:8-11) who rejected salvation by faith in Christ. Corporate Israel consisted of individuals who all had the ability to believe –and yet rejected Christ. Thanks. Commented Mar 10, 2016 at 2:50
  • @JesusSaves I suppose I could add an affirmative, yes, to directly answer your final question. It gets a bit tricky there so I did sort of skirt the predestination part. Instead of saying whether they "capable of believing" I said they were responsible for not believing. There is a paradox here where the Jews as a whole were sovereignly destined to reject Christ, while at the same time each individual is given the opportunity. In the end only a remnant responded. We can conclusively establish that. I will edit to more directly reference the question.
    – Joshua
    Commented Mar 10, 2016 at 3:42
  • @JesusSaves And if you are looking for why so many did not believe if they were given the capacity or opportunity, that is a slightly different question. I wouldn't get into "was God stopping people from believing when though they wanted to" or "how can they be responsible for God not electing them" debates in this format. You could ask that here in the form of asking a very specific denomination's theological position on this. But it would be a factual summary, not a question of what is true.
    – Joshua
    Commented Mar 10, 2016 at 4:03
  • you wrote, "the Jews as a whole were sovereignly destined to reject Christ". I don't find this in Scripture. Back to the original question. Did Paul mean (9:32) that the Jews were capable of believing and yet refused? Commented Mar 10, 2016 at 4:59
  • @JesusSaves honestly, 9:32 isn't really dealing with that. It is speaking on how the Jews were trying to obtain salvation. That they were capable of belief is not the point. The point is they believed they could obtain salvation through works, not faith. They did believe, but the wrong thing. Reread 10:16-21 and 11:25 if you don't think God planned for the Jews to reject him. Again. I focused on their responsibility for not believing. Not capacity.
    – Joshua
    Commented Mar 10, 2016 at 23:25

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