(Note: this is the first in our series of messages on Romans 9-11. The next two messages in this series were actually posted before this one. To see our messages on 9:6-18, see the previous two posts.)
How do we think about doctrine and theology?
Having finished our exposition of the first 8 chapters, we now come to one of the stickier parts of the book of Romans, at least if we consider the amount of controversy it has stirred among Christians throughout the ages, and especially in our own. Some prefer for this reason to simply ignore the contents of the following chapters (especially chapter 9). The language of chapter 9, especially verses 11-23, is fraught with language that is completely out of sync with the preoccupations of modern man and the exaltation of human independence over against the sovereignty of God’s mercy. In particular, the doctrine of election, as an election by God of individuals to eternal salvation, finds its strongest support in these passages, and this is hotly contested, even in the church.
So how do we proceed? And why should we care about the issues raised in this and the following chapters? Should we say these are too controversial, and avoid them for that reason? Or should we argue with some that they are too doctrinal and not practical enough, and avoid them for that reason?
Now one of the problems is that contending for truth and correct doctrine can sometimes be contentious. Sometimes this cannot be avoided, and we have to face the reality that some people are going to reject the truth no matter how nicely or reasonably you try to put it and are going to be offended no matter how carefully you state your position. But at the other end of the stick are those who seem to relish a good doctrinal fight and are not content unless they are uncovering some theological conspiracy in some part of the church.
I think it’s interesting, and R. C. Trench points this out in his exposition on the epistle to the seven churches in Asia (Rev. 1-3), that the church of Ephesus was commended for its hating the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, but was rebuked because they had left their first love. They knew how to hate but they didn’t know how to love. That’s the danger we can get into when we are contending for the faith. We don’t want to be those who hate false doctrine but forget to love those who embrace it and for that reason want to see them delivered from error.
It is true that the issues in Romans 9-11 do involve high doctrine, but they are important, as is all of theology. So one of the things we need to settle at the very beginning is why theology is important, even (perhaps especially) those aspects that we find hard to understand. We are not going to be willing to grapple with these issues unless we see that theology – the attempt to comprehensively understand what the Bible is teaching from all angles and to hold it as a cohesive whole – is important and essential to the Christian life. Let me give you three reasons.
First, theology is necessary for salvation. Now I don’t mean you have to be a professional theologian or that you have to be able to wade through all the intricacies of the debates over various doctrines that have taken place throughout church history. What I mean is this: the Bible makes it very clear that you can’t be saved without faith in Christ, and faith doesn’t exist in a vacuum (see the argument of Rom. 10:12-13). There is content to faith and that content involves theology, an understanding of who God is and what he has done for us in Jesus Christ. Faith must be built upon something, and that something is a knowledge of God’s word. To see how important this is, consider what Paul will go on to say in 10:2 of some who were lost – “they have a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge.” You hear all that time that when it comes to religion, what matters is sincerity. That’s another way of saying that as long as you’re zealous, you’re okay. But this is not what Paul says. Zeal can only serve to blind you to the truth. Many of Paul’s people were lost because they had a false understanding of what it meant to be saved. Knowledge is essential for the faith, a knowledge which is rooted in a correct and saving understanding of God’s word. We must be theologians. It is when we know the truth that we are truly made free (Jn. 8:32).
Of course it is also correct to say that merely being a theologian is not enough. After all, many of Paul’s opponents were theologians. But we must beware of that kind of thinking that supposes that just because something is not sufficient that it is not therefore necessary. Yes, we must not only be theologians; our aim must be to do theology in a way that is faithful to all of God’s word. And we must go further – we must go on to let the truth of God’s word to change the way we think and feel and speak and act. But at the end of the day, you cannot do that unless you are a theologian on some level.
But I will go further and say that everyone is already a theologian, either a good one or a bad one. You can’t help it. Even if you are an atheist, you are a theologian, because theology is just a systematic way of thinking about God and his works, and as rational thinking beings we can’t help but think about things systematically. Even a denial of God is a theological statement. So the question is not whether you will do theology but whether you will do it correctly. And as we have seen, it is essential (at least at some level, since not all truths are equally important).
Second, theology is necessary for sanctification. Our Lord said that the we are sanctified by the truth (Jn. 17:17), and Paul tells us that it is though the Scriptures that the man of God is made perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works (2 Tim. 3:16,17). Bible knowledge is like fertilizer – it kills weeds and give nourishment to what is good. We are to grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ – knowledge that comes to us in the word of God (2 Pet. 3:18). Growth in grace will be largely dependent upon how deeply we have drunk at the well of biblical knowledge.
I cannot emphasize enough the reasons for this. People think that theology just leads to debates. But it also provides us with the reasons and motivations behind obedience. If you want to know the answer why we are told to do something or live a certain way in Scripture, the answer is almost certainly a theological one. And this is so important because when obedience becomes hard, we are going to be asking those why questions, and looking for a way to justify our disobedience. Therefore, the most effectual way to combat our trying to wiggle out of obedience is to answer those why questions with the heart-molding answers given to us in Bible-saturated theology.
Third, theology is necessary for savoring Scripture. Some try to read the Bible without ever trying to hold its parts together in a cohesive whole. They never try to have a systematic understanding of the message of the Scriptures. But this is a mistake: for this robs you of a richer understanding of God’s word.
Now I realize that there are going to be truths that we are not going to understand. There are going to by mysteries. Of course we can expect that. We are talking about God, after all! Scientists are still at a loss as to how to reconcile certain aspects of physics, so we shouldn’t be surprised if we can’t understand how every statement in the Bible fits together. Even the love of Christ is beyond our understanding (Eph. 3:19). But that shouldn’t keep us from trying to understand it as well as we can, and to try to see how it all fits together.
To see just how practical this is, consider the following observation by J. I. Packer. He writes, “As the effect of knowing botany is that you notice more flora and fauna on a country walk, and the effect of knowing electronics is that you see more of what you are looking at when you take apart a TV, so the effect of knowing theology is that, other things being equal, you see further into the meaning and implications of Bible passages than you would do otherwise.” If you want to see further into the meaning of God’s word than you do now, then become a good theologian!
So we don’t shy away from Bible passages which are “too theological.” There really is no such thing! God put Romans 9 in there for a reason, and the reason was so that you might trust him more and love him more and love other people more. If I’m going to grow in grace through theology and doctrine, it’s going to require the dedication to work though passages as this one. God has not given us these verses as an impediment to the faith of his people, but as a means by which we can grow in the knowledge of him and grow in grace.
How do we think about Romans 9-11?
How then do we begin to approach these chapters? Well, the first thing to do is to understand the place of these chapters in the whole of Paul’s argument in the book of Romans. Then we will be able to properly work through the argument as it comes to us verse by verse. So why did Paul write Romans 9-11? As I say, to understand the individual passages, we need to get a bird’s eye view of the topic the apostle is now addressing, and to do that we need to remind ourselves of the message of Romans up to this point.
Romans 1-8 is all about the gospel of the righteousness of God. It is about how sinners get saved. Paul’s argument is this: in chapters 1:18-3:20, he argues that everyone needs to be saved since all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (3:23). We are therefore exposed to God’s wrath. The only solution to wrath is righteousness, but this is just the problem: we are totally without righteousness. But here is the glory of the gospel – that God has interposed his own righteousness as the solution to our unrighteousness, and he has done this in the person and work of his Son, Jesus Christ. This is the argument in that central paragraph in Rom. 3:21-31. Jesus Christ has died for us so that those who believe in him might be justified – declared righteous in God’s sight – and forgiven and reconciled to God.
Then in Romans chapter 4 the apostle defends and illustrates the doctrine of the gospel of righteousness by faith in Christ primarily in the person of Abraham (but also David). He also describes justification in terms of the imputation of righteousness, which helps to clarify what it means to be justified. The purpose is to show that the NT doctrine is not only not contradictory to the OT Scripture, but that the promises which God gave to the patriarchs are fulfilled in the person of his Son. Paul is not preaching something which has come from nowhere; he is preaching the gospel of the kingdom which is rooted very firmly in OT revelation and history (cf. Rom. 1:2). This was necessary especially for Paul’s Jewish listeners; the gospel would have been totally incomprehensible to them apart from its OT roots.
In Romans 5, the apostle goes on to explain the consequences of justification in terms of hope (5:1-11), which he will definitely come back to in chapter 8. But Paul also begins to do something else. Beginning in 5:12, he starts to address objections to the gospel of justification by faith alone in Christ alone. The first objection is really more implied than outright stated (in contrast to chapters 6 and 7), but it is there: how can the righteousness of one be imputed to others? This objection is answered in 5:12-21 by a comparison to Adam and the way Adam’s sin is imputed to his family, the human race. Paul argues that just as Adam’s sin was imputed to those who belong to him (by birth), so Christ’s righteousness is imputed to those who belong to him (by new birth).
This leads to a second objection, which is that such a doctrine seems to give credence to libertinism. If we are justified by faith and by the righteousness of Another, then does it really matter how we live? If we are not justified by works, then are works really important after all? This is what Paul is addressing in 6:1-23. His answer comes at the very beginning: “How shall we that are dead to sin live any longer therein?” and he works out the implications of that statement right through to the end of the chapter.
Then in chapter 7 the apostle deals with a third objection. It is this: if we are saved by faith and not by law-keeping, and if, as Paul has argued, the law only provokes sin instead of saving us, is the law therefore sin? Again, this was a very important objection, because it brought the entire gospel project into question with Paul’s Jewish audience. If the gospel were really against the law, it couldn’t be true. But Paul argues that he is not saying that the law is bad. The problem is not the law, which is holy, just, and good. The problem is with us: we are the ones who are bad. The law cannot save, not because it is defective, but because we are. So Paul is really giving a defense of the goodness of the law, as well as arguing its inability to save us, in chapter 7.
Having cleared the field of these objections to the doctrine of justification by faith, Paul then summarizes and expands upon the hope that we have in Christ in chapter 8. Having been justified on the basis of Christ’s righteousness, we are able to live out a life in the Spirit and not in the flesh, are adopted into God’s family and giving the strongest possible hope and security in the love of God.
Now I want you to see that in developing the gospel in these chapters, Paul is doing two things. Positively, he is stating the doctrine of the gospel and working out its implications. But he is also defending the gospel from objections and misperceptions. Both are important. We must not only hold fast the faithful word but we must also by sound doctrine to refute those who reject it (cf. Tit. 1:9). And we need to see why both are important, that people who have objections to the truth are not simply to be written off but given a reason for the hope that is in us.
Which brings us back to why theology is so important. We don’t want to be people who can just share the gospel, but can never give reasons for it. To do the latter, we need to be theologians.
Now, what is Paul then doing in chapters 9-11? How does it relate to chapters 1-8? Is it an unnecessary interjection? The answer is, of course, no. And the reason is that the truths of Romans 1-8 hinge upon the issues dealt with in 9-11. Paul has hinted at some of these issues already in 3:1-8, but he felt that these things are so important that he waits until now to give a complete answer to those objections.
What is the objection? It is that Jewish rejection of the gospel and their resulting lostness calls into question God’s faithfulness to his promises. The argument goes like this: Paul, you are saying that Jesus is the Messiah, and that it is not by works of the Mosaic Law, but rather through faith in Christ that we are saved. But what about all those Jews who do not receive Jesus as Messiah? They are God’s people insofar as they are the children of Abraham, and they are the recipients of the promises of God. These promises are more than just promises of a land and offspring; these promises are promises of blessing, spiritual blessing, and eternal life. But if those who are the recipients of such promises of God are lost, what does that say about God’s faithfulness to his promises? It looks like he doesn’t keep them.
But if that’s the case: what about the promises of the gospel? What about all those wonderful promises you give us in Romans 8? How can we be sure that God will keep those promises if he has not kept his promises to the offspring of Abraham? That’s the issue at hand. How can we defend God’s commitment to his promises in the gospel when the gospel itself makes it look like God doesn’t keep his promises? This is a very serious issue.
This is what Paul is referring to in verse 6: “But it is not as though the word of God has failed.” I take that as Paul’s thesis statement. Why does he say that? He says that, because, in light of the realities of verses 1-5, it looks like his word has failed. The realities of those verses were taken by many of Paul’s fellow Jews as meaning that the descendants of Abraham were saved as such. Of course, allowances were made for apostate Jews, but it was hard for them to imagine faithful law-keeping Jews as apostate just because they didn’t follow Paul’s Messiah. They were, after all, Israelites – the people of God, adopted as the special people of God, set apart from the other nations. They had the glory, the manifest presence of God at Mount Sinai and in the tabernacle and temple. God not only said he was for them, he showed them he was for them in this amazing way. They had the covenants to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and David, along with the salvific content that those covenants carried. They had the giving of the law, especially in the Law of Moses. This was not seen as a burden, but as a good way to keep in order to have eternal life in the end. They had these promises, the promises of eternal blessing in the covenants. They had the fathers – the special men God set apart to be the heads of the people of God on earth. And, above all, they had the Messiah, the Christ – and even if they rejected him, the fact is that God chose this one nation of all the nations of the earth to give us his Savior.
We must pause here for a moment, because it is important to see how Paul describes the Christ here in verse 5. It is often said that Paul never explicitly says that Jesus is God. But listen to what Paul says here: “Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever.” Here it is explicitly. Christ is God over all. Of course this should not surprise us, given that Paul elsewhere describes Jesus as “in the form of God” and “equal to God” (Phil. 2:6), as “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15), as well as referring to Jesus as Lord in those OT passages that are clearly referring to the God who is over all (cf. Rom. 10:13; Phil. 2:10-11). This accentuates his rejection by his own people, for they have rejected the very one who shares the divine nature with God the Father.
So to sum up, the problem appears because God’s promises to Israel where not merely temporal, but salvific (cf. Gal. 3:13-14, 29). As our Lord himself says, “Salvation is of the Jews” (Jn. 4:22). This is one of the reasons, I think, that the gospel was first preached to the Jew (Rom. 1:16,17). But Paul’s gospel states that all those who do not believe in Jesus as Messiah are lost. So despite God’s promises to Israel, many Jews are lost.
Romans 9-11 is an answer to this predicament. Hopefully you see how important this is. The certainty of God’s promises in the gospel depend on this. If God doesn’t keep his promises in the OT, how can we know that he will keep his promises in the NT? All of Romans 1-8 depends upon Paul’s answer in Romans 9-11. What does he do? What Paul is going to argue is that the promises belong not to every Jew but to an elect remnant in Israel (cf. Rom. 11:3). And that, finally, one day all national Israel will be saved (chapter 11). John Murray sums up Paul’s argument in these chapters in this way: “In chapter 9 it is sufficient to demonstrate that Israel’s unbelief and rejection were not total; there was a remnant. In chapters 11:11-32 Paul discloses what at 11:25 ‘this mystery’ that the rejection of Israel is not final.”
So one of the main reasons that Paul is writing this is to vindicate God’s faithfulness to his promises.
But there is another reason: Paul wrote this out of a great burden for his brethren: “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers” (2-3). The burden for God’s glory and faithfulness for Paul is connected to a burden for God’s people, just like Moses (Exod. 32:9-14).
I think it is important to see that Paul is not lamenting problems in the historical roles of the Jews here. He is grieving over their lostness, over the fact that many of them will perish forever without Christ. That is why he says that he could wish he were “accursed,” a term that shows without doubt that Paul is concerned about the eternal rather than the temporal welfare of his brethren. This is an important consideration when we come to interpret the following verses.
How these concerns should translate into our lives.
Now, as we close, let us come back to what we’ve been saying about the importance of theology and doctrine. There are always two concerns we should have when we study the Bible and try to understand its doctrines. First of all, we should do so out of an overriding concern to know God and to glorify him, rather than to just show our cleverness. As Paul does not want to cast a shadow upon the character of God, neither should we (cf. Rom. 2:24; 6:1; 7:9). And we ought to live in such a way that calls attention to the greatness of God (Mt. 5:16; 2 Chron. 16:9). So when we seek to understand doctrine and theological truth, we do so out of an overriding concern to love God.
And then secondly, we ought with Paul to have a burden for the lost. Not only with Paul, but with Jesus (Mt. 23:37)! Tying this to the above point, we not only do theology to love God, but also to love our fellow man. Theology is not to be untied from the Great Commandments. Yes, we should be like Ephesus in hating false doctrine. But we should not be like Ephesus in that what should drive our hatred of false doctrine is our love to God and our love to our fellow man. And we ought to beware of using doctrines, like the doctrine of election, to dismiss such a burden.
And these two concerns are not to be seen as separate, but as indivisibly connected. For God’s heart is the salvation of people in every tribe, nation, and tongue (1 Tim. 2:4), and it is in this way that God’s glory is shown (Rev. 5). So let it be in us. Let us seek to glorify God in this world as we seek to be his light – so that others may see not us but him and glorify him (Mt. 5:16).
 From the preface to Bruce Milne’s book, Know the Truth.