|The Gospel of Godís Grace #12
Isnít God Something!
January 25, 1998 / Romans 9:1 ó 11:36
These three chapters are among the most challenging in all of Holy Scripture. They raise two of the most complex of theological issues and invite us to think about the workings of God from eternity past in his sovereign predestination of human beings and his special involvement with the Jewish people across the generations of human history.
While these two topics are components within the central theme of this material, we make a mistake to let them preoccupy us. The issue of Romans 9-11 is not the doctrine of predestination or the future of Israel but the marvelous faithfulness of God.
Paul has traced the message of heavenís saving grace to humankind through eight chapters and has just gloried in Godís faithfulness to his people. His confident, climactic exultation at the end of chapter 8 was this: "For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord" (8:38-39).
As with other assertions he has made in this epistle, however, Paul can imagine his readers posing an objection. It was an intensely personal question to the apostle himself, and he had surely wrestled with it in the course of his ministry. We might summarize it this way: If Israel (i.e., the chosen people of God) stands separated from Godís love in Christ, how can the affirmations of chapter 8 be true?
Paul had called his readers to see a progressive work of God in bringing them to himself: "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified" (8:28-30). Had that "progressive work" of predestination, calling, justification, and glorification not failed with Israel? Had Israelís rejection of its Messiah and current unbelief somehow signified a failure of Godís plan? Might not the same thing happen with Paulís Christian readers of both ancient and modern times?
To anticipate the apostleís answer, his response will be to say that Godís purpose to save is fixed and immutable but not coercive. To say it another way, God is always faithful to his predestination, calling, and securing of human beings ó whether Jews or Gentiles; either Jews or Gentiles, however, may be faithless in relation to Godís Christ and be lost through their unbelief.
One almost hears a refrain in reading these chapters. Jews and Gentiles alike are sinful and deserve nothing beyond wrath and destruction, but God is graciously calling both to life in Christ. Isnít that wonderful! It is God himself who has taken the responsibility for saving and securing us. Isnít he something! God does not require us to earn his favor but has provided our salvation through Christ. Isnít God marvelous! And it is only a failure to trust Jesus ó not even our personal sinfulness ó that could nullify our participation in his precious promises. Isnít God something!
Yahwehís Faithfulness to His Own
The personal anguish Paul felt for the unbelief of so many of his own fellow-Jews at his point in history comes through poignantly in the opening lines of this section of Romans. Although the special commission associated with his apostleship was to Gentiles (cf. Gal. 2:8), he had an incessant anguish in his soul for his Jewish brothers and sisters. "I speak the truth in Christ ó I am not lying, my conscience confirms it in the Holy Spirit ó I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, the people of Israel" (9:1-4a).
In spite of their many special privileges within the divine scheme of events (9:4b-5a), in spite of the fact that God has come among us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth as a Jew himself (9:5b), Israel generally had rejected Jesus as their Christ. So had God somehow failed Israel?
Verses 6-13 argue that Israelís failure to receive Christ and thus the exclusion of so many Jews from the fulfillment of the ancient covenant promises was due to their unbelief and not to Godís failure to keep his word. "It is not as though Godís word had failed," writes Paul. "For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel" (9:6). Not everyone who is descended from Abraham partakes of the promises made to him. The process God has used to make, perpetuate, and fulfill his word across the centuries has included the two elements of divine promise and human faith. Without the receptacle of faith, the promises poured out are spilled and lost to particular individuals or groups.
That not every descendant of Abraham by fleshly lineage is inevitably a recipient of the promises made to him is illustrated by both Ishmael (9:7-9) and Esau (9:10-16). The Old Testament prophets understood that Godís promises were to "Israel within Israel," to the remnant that lived by faith in him. Thus have divine sovereignty and predestination always been exclusive as well as inclusive. As surely as oneís trust in and walk with God makes him or her Abrahamís child by faith, so did oneís rejection of Yahweh exclude him from the glorious fulfillment of Godís promises.
But what sort of "predestination" is this? Is it of such a nature that one could only believe or disbelieve on the basis of Godís coercive choice without regard to her own disposition and free will in the matter? This is the stuff of theological debate across centuries of Christian history.
It appears to have been easy for expositors to miss the point of Paulís argument here. Perhaps it is because all Bible students ó including you and me ó tend to read into texts our limitations of understanding rather than allow the text some ambiguity for the sake of divine fullness. I, for one, do not claim to understand how to reconcile the issues of Godís sovereignty and humanityís freedom of will in every case. I affirm both, for Scripture affirms both. Yet I must live with some uncertainty about specific details of their relationship.
In my opinion, this text affirms the altogether sovereign activity of God in choosing the nation of Israel unilaterally and without regard to that nationís present situation or future deeds. Yet it also affirms that particular individuals within the nation (i.e., Israel within Israel) would experience Godís intended outcomes and others would be rejected. Some with Abrahamís DNA would follow his example of faithfulness, but others with the same genetic material would fall away through unbelief.
. . . Paul is speaking here of predestination, not predeterminism. The philosophical notion of predeterminism means that every act and every thought a person has are dictated by forces beyond that personís control. A programmed robot in a factory is predetermined. Its every act is dictated by the computer program to which it responds. That is not what Paul is speaking of when he discusses Godís choice of destiny for peoples in chapter 9 (note again, of peoples, not of individuals). Predeterminism allows no room for any free acts. Predestination, on the other hand, simply sets the final outcome of a process, without determining the route by which it can be reached. An automobile trip to another city is predestined: The goal of the journey is set, although the actual route taken may vary depending on choices made in response to road and weather conditions, for example. Paul in chapter 9 is speaking of predestination, not predeterminism.1
To offer another analogy, the championship team of the National Football League is predestined without being predetermined every year. Before the start of a given season, it is known in advance that the team with a good enough record to make the divisional playoffs, survive them, and win the Super Bowl will be the championship team. What is not predetermined is the particular team. Otherwise we would say professional football is "rigged." We know the predestined process by which a championship will be won, but that hardly makes the season meaningless. It is the events of the season that determine the outcome ó sometimes the surprise outcome ó of a given season.
Isnít the same thing true of Godís work in history? He has predestined that "the righteous will live by his faith" (Hab. 2:4; Rom. 1:17) without predetermining the believing or unbelieving response a given individual will make toward him. There are sometimes surprising outcomes with particular cases. Thus many Jews have rejected Christ in spite of their privileges and opportunities, while many Gentiles have become spiritual sons and daughters of Abraham through a faith that recalls that of the great ancestor of the Hebrew race.
That anyone at all can be saved is due to Godís sovereign predestination that humans may receive eternal life by grace through faith. That some will nevertheless be lost is not because he has predetermined (i.e., "rigged") individual outcomes but on account of his or her choice to reject the gospel of Godís grace by living in unbelief.
Responding to the question "Is God unjust?" in this arrangement (9:14-18), Paul rejects such an idea by citing the examples of Moses and Pharaoh. Godís predestined purpose was to show mercy to Israel in delivering that captive nation from Egyptian slavery. In this scenario of grace, Moses was a man of faith and Pharaoh of unbelief. Their fates were determined by their free reactions to the Lord. Godís response to have mercy in one case and to harden in the other was simply his appropriate response to their attitudes toward his word to them.
Still another objection might be for someone to say, "Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?" (9:19). Paul responds with the analogy of a potter and clay (9:20-21). His point is to say that God has the right to deal with all whom he has created according to his nature as a Holy God and consistently with what he announced in advance as his purpose. Just as a potter has the right to shape his clay into vessels for different purposes, so God has the right to deal with human beings according to both his holiness and mercy, in both wrath and salvation. "It is nowhere suggested that God has the right to Ďcreate sinful beings in order to punish themí, but rather that he has the right to Ďdeal with sinful beings according to his good pleasureí, either to pardon or to punish them."2
Indeed, the Old Testament had foretold both the inclusion of the Gentiles (9:22-26) and the rejection of many in Israel (9:27-29). Although Abrahamís descendants in the flesh were to be "like the sand by the sea" in number, Isaiah had prophesied for the Lord to announce that "only the remnant will be saved" (Isa. 10:22-23).
Here is Paulís conclusion about the state of his lamented Israel:
What then shall we say? That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; but Israel, who pursued a law of righteousness, has not attained it. Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works. They stumbled over the "stumbling stone." As it is written:
"See, I lay in Zion a stone that causes men to stumble
and a rock that makes them fall,
and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame" (9:30-33)
Gentiles were being accepted into the kingdom of God in Paulís day ó and now ó whenever they accepted right-standing with God as heavenís gift to them through faith in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. They had neither pursued nor received righteousness through law, but solely by faith in Christ. Jews, on the other hand, who persisted in trying to attain right-standing through the Law of Moses had stumbled over the singular demand of faith in Jesus and failed to receive it.
The operating principle which leads to a right-standing before God is faith in what He has done, not confidence in our own ability to gain Godís favor by meritorious actions. The gospel is Godís proclamation that He has done all that is required. Manís responsibility is to accept it by faith. Israel stumbled over this obstacle. Her determinaiton to establish her own righteousness made her blind to the righteousness which Christ offered as a free gift.3
What irony here! What tragedy! Yet the blame for anyoneís failure ó whether Jew or Gentile ó to be saved would be altogether the failure of that individual to accept it through faith. Law condemns anyone who looks to it for redemption, and only faith is the God-appointed path to eternal life.
Romans 10:1-13 further explores the theme of how the Israelites "sought to establish their own" righteousness, failed to see Christ as "the end (i.e., goal, realization of aspirations) of the law," and thus rejected the right-standing which is "for everyone who believes" in the sufficiency of Godís work in the Son. Moses himself had said the Law could give right-standing only to those who measure up to its standards; the problem is that we have not and cannot do so. Neither do humans have to climb to heaven to bring Christ down nor descend into the depths to bring Christ back from the dead; we are called simply to accept that God has already done everything necessary for our redemption. Just as there is no difference between Jews and Gentiles in our sinfulness (cf. 3:23), so also is there no difference in the path we both must take to salvation: "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved."
But is Israelís failure to call on the name of the Lord due to some failure on heavenís part to communicate the gospel message? Romans 10:14-21 is Paulís affirmation that the nationís failure is traceable not to a failure of either preaching, hearing, or understanding the gospel but to its disobedience and self-willed pursuit of righteousness through its own good works under law.
What, then, is Godís attitude toward and plan for the Jews now?
I ask then: Did God reject his people? By no means! I am an Israelite myself, a descendant of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin. God did not reject his people, whom he foreknew. Donít you know what the Scripture says in the passage about Elijahóhow he appealed to God against Israel: "Lord, they have killed your prophets and torn down your altars; I am the only one left, and they are trying to kill me"? And what was Godís answer to him? "I have reserved for myself seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal." So too, at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace. And if by grace, then it is no longer by works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace (10:1-6).
God has by no means rejected the Jews. There is still a "remant" in the nation of Israel ó Paul was himself a member of that believing minority ó that has been "chosen by grace." Those among the elect remnant through faith receive daily strength and grace from the Lord; those who persist in unbelief continue to be "hardened" and to stumble through a "spirit of stupor" that results from rejecting Godís Christ (cf. 2 Cor. 3:12-18).
The Jews have "stumbled" over Christ through unbelief but are by no means fallen "beyond recovery." Just as their failure of faith had resulted in Paulís turning (by divine appointment!) to the Gentiles with his message of grace (cf. Acts 20:17-18), so would their return in faith bring an even greater outpouring of Godís rich mercies (11:11-12). Paul could only hope that his ministry among the Gentiles might somehow provoke his fellow-Israelites to envy and an eventual acceptance of his message about Jesus (11:13-16).
Taking a metaphor from nature, Paul imagines the nation of Israel as an olive tree whose branches had been broken off so that wild olive shoots of Gentile believers might be grafted onto it. He appeals for his Gentile readers to show respect for and sympathy to Israel as the root supplying their support and nourishment (11:17-18). And the Gentiles were also challenged to be warned against arrogance by what the apostle was revealing about Israelís history: "You will say then, ĎBranches were broken off so that I could be grafted in.í Granted. But they were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but be afraid. For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either" (11:19-21).
The character of God is a complete and balanced one. We would be terribly mistaken to represent him as either a stern and unyielding taskmaster who cannot be pleased or as a sentimental and coddling grandfather who will tolerate anything. He is a God of holiness and grace, uprightness and mercy. Therefore we should consider both his sternness and kindness ó "sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness." Indeed, those who do not persist in their unbelief will yet be grafted in; those who yet turn aside in unbelief will yet be cut off (11:22-24).
Godís "mystery" (mysterion = something once concealed but now set forth as public truth, cf. Col. 2:2-3) is therefore evident to all who have followed Paulís argument to this point: Israelís "rejection" has permitted the gospel of Godís grace to be preached alike to both Jews and Gentiles so that all may be saved in Christ. As both Jews and Gentiles have been declared disobedient in relation to Godís holy will, so may both Jews and Gentiles receive mercy through their faith in Christ (11:25-32).4 So deep and complex a matter as the workings of God according to his sovereign purpose to offer salvation to all mankind through the Jewish people is "unsearchable" and "beyond tracing out" for finite human minds. Fortunately, however, we do not have to understand and explain it to be its recipients. Let us, therefore, simply praise God and give him the glory forever for so wondrous a feat (11:33-36). Perhaps we should simply say again: Isnít God something!
Heavenís Predestined Purpose for Us
As we reflect on the meaning of this complex and challenging passage for us, surely the most valuable point to make is that Godís gracious purpose to save is now at work among us. Whether one can ever answer all the questions about sovereignty and free will to her intellectual satisfaction, it is critical that she believe in the settled intention on heavenís part to call her to be among the remnant, Godís chosen people for this time and place. After all, the point of Romans 9-11 is ultimately about the broadening of Godís mercy to include more (i.e., Gentiles as well as Jews) rather then the narrowing of his love to only a few select individuals.
All Godís purposes related to salvation ultimately focus on Jesus Christ. Whatever happens in relation to him is predestined or foreordained, for he is the center of Godís plan. Anything precipitated by him to produce a saving reaction in us (i.e., faith) is part of Godís eternal purpose.
Examine this Pauline commentary from another of Paulís epistles: "For [God the Father] chose us in [Christ] before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight" (Eph. 1:4a). Whom did God choose from eternity past to be his holy and blameless people? Those who are "in Christ." And only those people "in Christ" have heard the gospel message and responded to it in submissive and obedient faith. Having given up on religion and its call to be good enough to attain a relationship with God, these spiritual heirs of Abraham have put their faith in Christ alone for salvation and have fled to him for grace. They would no more trust their good works under law to save them than they would trust their ability to leap from the Mojave Desert to the moon in one flat-footed jump.
Everyone who has evidenced that sort of faith in Christ with a verbal and baptismal confession of him is a citizen of Godís New Israel (cf. Gal. 6:16). Or perhaps it is more personal to couch all this in terms not of citizenship but sonship, not of inclusion in some "third race" (i.e., neither Jew nor Gentile but Christian) but inclusion in a family.
A Fatherís Remarkable Love
Back in chapter 8, Paul spoke of the contrast between slavery and sonship in relation to God. To live with our selfish limitations under law could only result in making us slaves to the fear of divine wrath (8:15a); to live by the Spirit in the freedom of faith in Christ, however, makes us children of God (8:15b). "The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are Godís children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs ó heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ . . ." (8:16-17a).
Does it make a difference in someoneís life to have a father? To be someoneís child? Back in 1952 a probation officer in New York tried to find some organization that would take and place for adoption a 12-year-old boy. Even though there was some religious experience in his background, none of the major denominational groups contacted would take him. "His case was reported to me because he had been a truant," said Mr. Carro. "I tried for a year to find an agency that would care for this needy youngster. But neither Catholic, Protestant, nor Jewish institutions would take him because he came from a denomination they did not recognize. I could do nothing constructive for him."
Oh, if the principles of Christian love could have prevailed in New York City back in 1952. Maybe a patient, loving father could have been found for that 12-year-old, mixed-up kid. And maybe history would have been different. That boyís name was Lee Harvey Oswald. Oh, yes, it matters when a child is left fatherless and homeless.
Paul came back to this theme of fatherlessness again in chapter 9. Quoting the Old Testament prophet Hosea, he holds out this prospect: "It will happen that in the very place where it was said to them, ĎYou are not my people,í they will be called Ďsons of the living Godí " (9:26). What a beautiful picture of Godís choice of, call to, and acceptance of his redeemed people! He walks into the orphanage of a world under judgment, sees all us fatherless children, and picks us up in Christ to take us home!
Let me tell you the difference that can be made in a childís life when she is taken from an orphanage, carried home, and loved. It is the story of a little girl whose life turned out very differently from Lee Harvey Oswaldís because of someoneís sovereign choice and predestined determination to love her. She is now a grown-up Christian lady who is a member of the Woodmont Hills church family. How she got to be where she is and who she is today is a beautiful story of a fatherís love. Her name is Janice Lloyd, and she and her husband, Larry, are godly parents to two Christian sons, Tim and Adam. But her life and theirs might have been very different than they are today. In Janiceís own words:
You see, I was one of those "unwanted babies" ó maybe an accident, but that doesnít really matter. I was one of those babies placed into the welfare system. I am not one of those poor unlucky children who was given up; I am one of the fortunate ones who was allowed to have the chance at a better life.
My parents waited a long time for a child, any child. They had to deal with very stringent rules and guidelines placed on them by the welfare department. My father even had a new house built just for me. They belonged to the church. They had to have a certain amount of money in the bank even to be considered for eligibility as adoptive parents. They had to participate in a series of interviews with social workers and attorneys. This was all just to see if they were "fit" to raise a child. Some birth parents would never be able to pass such requirements.
One day they got the phone call. There was a child for them ó if they wanted her, a little girl. They called the grandparents, members of their larger family, and their friends. And the anticipation grew.
It appears to me that some "predestination" was at work here. A man was resolved to be a father, and a woman wanted desperately to be a mother. With that goal or destination in view, two people set about to reach it ó without knowing all the surprising details of what lay ahead for them or their child.
We have several adoptive families in our church family. We have other families in the process of qualifying to adopt children. Why, only two days ago I filled out a reference form for a family in this church. I could have put them with some of you families who already know about adoption. You could give them a serious dose of reality about some of the expected and unexpected issues that go with adoption. You could tell them some stories with happy endings and others with not-so-happy endings.
But adoption by Christian parents is not about painless warm-fuzzies for the adults but the well-being of babies. It is not seeking a new way of self-fulfillment for the mom and dad but offering a new life of security and opportunity for a child. And these mature and godly parents often take children to themselves who are "risks" from the beginning ó just as God has taken us to himself with all the things that might argue against it. But letís get back to Janiceís story.
My parents went to Gallatin to the Cordell Hull Hotel to meet the social worker. She told them first that they could watch me, observe me for a while to see if they still wanted to take me home.
In her words, I was "very shy," a little "backward," and had "a few problems." She told my father that they did not have to take me.
Iím sure my parents were expecting a Gerber baby ó picture perfect. What they saw was a seven-month-old, bald-headed, cross-eyed, malnourished child who was so weak she was unable to hold her head up. But I thank God for my parents. They took one look at me. My father picked me up. And that was that. Daddy said he knew that I needed them. The day was February 14. And on the way out of the hotel they stopped and bought a hat for my bald head.
My eye problems were an ongoing problem: crossed eyes and double vision. There were lots of glasses and exercises. Between the time I was eighteen months old until age 14, there were eight operations.
My first pair of glasses at age 1 wrapped around my ears to keep them from falling off. My eye doctor was in Memphis, so there were many long trips. I wore corrective shoes and took ballet lessons to strengthen my skinny legs. I wore braces on my teeth. There were so many sacrifices that my parents chose to make for me.
Because of my physical problems, I was always very self-conscious. In the eighth grade, with an eye that turned in and braces on my teeth, I was humiliated in the hall at school by a tenth-grade boy who announced loudly for all to hear that I had a face only a mother could love. I was crushed, but deep down I thought: "You just donít know how true that is."
Doesnít that sound like the love of God for us? Knowing all our imperfections, weaknesses, and ongoing needs, he has embraced us for our sakes. He looks at spiritually defective people who have been derided in lifeís hallways as nothing to brag about and says, "Now you will be called the Children of God!" He sees people covered with sin of all sorts and says, "Now you are clean!" He takes people so unloved that they cannot even love themselves and says, "Now you are loved by me ó with a forever-love from which nothing can separate you!"
Do you want to know what I say to that? Isnít God something! And here are Janiceís closing words to her story: "Why would anyone choose to adopt an imperfect child? There was nothing in it for them but love for me. They loved me freely when I could do absolutely nothing in return."
Does Janiceís story sound familiar to you? It is your story if you are in Christ. When you werenít pretty, easy, or promising, God predestined you to glory and eternal life. But he left you a choice in the matter, and you could have refused to go home with him on that day when you surrendered to him and were saved.
If you are fatherless and homeless in this vast, often-hostile universe today, the good news of Godís grace to you is that there is a place for you at your fatherís table.
1 Paul Achtemeier, Romans (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1985), p. 155.
2 John R.W. Stott, Romans: Godís Good News for the World (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), p. 272.
3 Robert H. Mounce, Themes from Romans (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 1981), p. 114-115.
4 With regard to the future of the Jews, there are various interpretations of Paulís statement in this section: "And so all Israel will be saved" (11:26). I understand the words "and so" to mean "by means of faith in Christ and only in this way" rather than a prediction that every Jewish person will ultimately be granted (or forced to receive) eternal life. Salvation is not forced upon anyone but if offered through the preaching of the gospel and received by faith in its message.
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