Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Introduction to Romans 9-11

(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.”[1]  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).



[1] From the preface to Bruce Milne’s book, Know the Truth.

Is the God who elects unjust? Rom. 9:14-18


In the previous verses, we showed that Paul’s answer to the problem of Israel’s lostness in light of the election of Israel as a nation is that God’s promise did not depend upon physical descent but upon God’s sovereign election of individuals in that nation to salvation.  There is Israel and then there is Israel, an Israel within Israel (6).  That is, national election is not election to salvation.  There is another election, the election of a remnant within Israel, that guarantees salvation (cf. 11:5).  This election is an unconditional election of individuals to eternal salvation.  We argued that this is the only way to really make sense of this text, and that attempts to turn this election into something else (an election of nations or an election of individuals to historical tasks) doesn’t do justice to the logic of the passage.

One of the reasons we can know we’re on the right trajectory here is that when you bring up unconditional election, people instinctively react by saying, “That’s unfair!”  I’m not saying that’s the only objection, but it makes its appearance pretty routinely.  Guess what is the next question raised in this text?  “What shall we say then?  Is there injustice on God’s part?  By no means!” (14).  Paul apparently often faced this question when he defended God’s faithfulness to his promise, and so he anticipates the objection and answers it in the verses we will be considering today. 

Now few (if any) of Paul’s Jewish kinsmen would have objected to God electing the nation of Israel.  But they would have objected to God electing individual Israelites over others.  To them, this would have appeared unfair and unjust, and so Paul now pivots to answer this objection as well. 

It is worth while pointing out that Paul has gone from defending God’s faithfulness to defending God’s righteousness, from standing up for God’s commitment to his promises to standing up for God’s commitment to his character.  Paul knows that the gospel will never be believed in the way it ought if the God to whom it directs us is not worthy of our trust and worship.  Do you remember how we ended last week?  We ended by saying that we should not only believe in the doctrine of unconditional election but that we should delight in it.  You are not going to delight in it if you think God is unjust or unrighteous.  So it is crucial that we dig into the apostle’s argument to understand how he answers this objection.

Of course the answer is that God is not unjust – “By no means!”  To support his answer, Paul quotes two OT passages to defend the fact that God is righteous in sovereignly choosing some to eternal life while passing over and hardening others (he quotes Ex. 33:19 and Ex. 9:16).  The first quotes comes in verse 15 and the second in verse 17.  From these two passages, he makes two deductions, one about salvation (verse 16) and the other about reprobation (verse 18).  So I’m going to look at this passage in terms of Paul’s defense (15,17) and Paul’s deduction (16,18).

Paul’s defense (15, 17)

How does Paul defend against the objection that unconditional election makes God look arbitrary and unjust?  That is the question the apostle is seeking to answer.  Now in verse 13, Paul, quoting Mal. 1:2,3, not only says that God loved and chose Jacob but also that he hated and rejected Esau.  In other words, we not only have to deal with the fact that God chooses some to everlasting life, but also that he passes over others and leaves them to perish.  The apostle therefore deals with both aspects of this problem.  How is God just in choosing some to salvation?  The answer comes in verse 15.  And then, how is God just in hardening others?  The answer to that comes in verse 17.

Before we look at these passages and Paul’s answers in detail, I want to make what I think is a very important observation.  The apostle is talking about God bestowing mercy.  The giving of mercy implies something about the objects of mercy, namely, that they are in a miserable condition.  And what is that condition?  I think it is obvious, isn’t it?  It’s the condition of sin.  God doesn’t owe any of us a thing, because we are all sinners.  Human sinfulness is universal, something that not only is taught in this epistle but is also taught by our own experience.  As a result, none of us need justice, we need mercy.  God could be perfectly just and send every human being to hell.  But God is not only just, he is also merciful.  He is both perfectly.

I think that’s important because when people react to election by saying it makes God arbitrary and unjust, they are forgetting that we are all in need of mercy.  Mercy is not something that God owes anyone.  If he chooses to bestow mercy on one and not on another, what right do we have to judge him?  To make it so that God must give the same mercy to one as to another is to act as if God owes us something.  But that is not the case at all.  God owes sinners nothing except judgement.  The puzzle is not that God saves one but not another; the puzzle is that he saves anyone at all.

How God is just in saving some but not others (15)

The answer is verse 15: “For he says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”  This looks as if the apostle is simply restating the problem!  Objection: “When God shows mercy to whomever he wills, that makes God look unjust.”  Answer: “No, because the Bible says that God shows mercy to whomever he wills.”  How is that an answer?

The are two ways this text functions as an answer to the objection.  The first way it functions as an answer is from the authority and truthfulness of Scripture.  I think one thing the apostle is saying is that though God sovereignly showing mercy may look arbitrary and unjust, we know it isn’t because this is precisely how the Scripture describes God.  In fact, this is the way God describes himself, for this is God telling Moses who he is, when Moses asks God to show him his glory.

Now this is important because we need to be people who believe what the Bible says even when we don’t understand.  If the Bible is God’s word, then we can trust him to tell us the truth even when we cant see why.  That doesn’t mean, of course, that we don’t try to understand and see as far as we can into the truths of Scripture.  It doesn’t mean we don’t try to make sense of Scripture.  But it does mean that when we come up against something that we find hard to accept or difficult to understand, we should still be willing to receive it, if for no other reason than it is what we are taught in the inspired Word.

But that’s not the only way it is an answer.  The second way if functions as an answer is from the revelation of God’s character that the Scripture gives us.  The context of Exod. 33:19 is Moses’ request to God that he would show him his glory (ver. 18).  Why did Moses ask for this?  The reason why Moses asked this is because God had threatened, because of the sin of Israel (chap. 32) to not go up with the people to the promised land (33:2,3).  In verses 12-16, Moses intercedes for the people, asking God to go personally with them, to which God responds positively in verse 17. 

So in verse 18, in asking God to show him his glory, Moses was not asking for a mystical experience.  He was asking for a further confirmation of God’s favor to him and to Israel, a confirmation rooted not in Israel’s competence but in God’s character.  This is confirmed by Moses’ response when God does show him his glory (Ex. 34:9), for he says that “now I have found favor in your sight,” and he reiterates, on the basis of God’s revelation of himself, his plea that God would go with them and show them favor. 

Therefore, when God says, “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy” (Ex. 33:19), God is revealing to Moses his glory and name; thus, his character.  So what we learn is that it is fundamentally God’s nature to sovereignly dispense mercy and wrath.  And since you cannot separate God’s attributes, you cannot speak of God’s righteousness outside the context of his sovereignty in dispensing mercy. 

In fact, what does it mean for God to be righteous?  It doesn’t mean that he confirms to an external standard, for that would be to put the standard above God and make it God.  For God to be righteous means that God acts in such a way to call attention to and preserve the glory of his name – a glory which consists in sovereignly giving mercy and wrath.  As John Piper puts it, “It is the glory of God and his essential nature mainly to dispense mercy (but also wrath, Ex. 34:7) on whomever he pleases apart from any constraint originating outside his own will.  This is the essence of what it means to be God.  This is his name.”[1]

So the argument goes like this: verse 15 is a defense of God’s righteousness because God is righteous when he acts in a way consistent with the glory of his name, and this glory is inseparable from his sovereignty in bestowing mercy.  Thus the unconditional election of some Israelites to salvation, an example of God sovereignly showing mercy, is not an obstacle to God’s righteousness, it is rather an indispensable instance of it.

How God is just in the hardening of sinners (17)

This is also an argument that God is righteous.  The “for” at the beginning of the verse functions as a second argument that God is righteous in election.  But there is a positive aspect and a negative aspect to this.  If God elects some but not all, that necessarily means he rejects others.  The positive aspect (“Jacob have I loved”) is defended in verse 15 and the negative aspect (“but Esau have I hated”) is defended in verse 17.  He does it by quoting again from the OT, this time Ex. 9:16: “For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.’”  God is not only sovereign in showing mercy but also in meting out wrath.  God didn’t raise Pharaoh up to put his mercy on display, but to put his judgment and power on display.

How can God be righteous in refusing to show mercy to some?  In hardening Pharaoh, God is acting righteously because he is acting in such a way that calls attention to the glory of his name, in this case the glory of his power, displayed to all the earth.  We must keep in mind that God acts righteously when he acts consistently with the publication of his glorious attributes.  This is why Paul says in Rom. 3:25, 26, that it was necessary for God to declare his righteousness in the propitiation of Christ.  It was necessary because God had passed over sin.  And sin is coming short of the glory of God.  It is the belittling of God, and when God passed over sin it looked as if he was participating in the belittling of his own name.  The only way his righteousness could be defended was to repair the dishonor done to his name by sin by pouring out his righteous wrath on his Son in the stead of those who sins had been forgiven.

The hardening of Pharaoh is consistent with God’s righteousness because by it God is making his glory known, specifically, the glory of God’s power.  But again, I also want to point out that Paul is simultaneously silencing his opponents by the Scripture.  How do we know that God is both just and sovereign in salvation and in damnation?  We know he is because this is the way Scripture represents God.

However, this is not all Paul has to say.  From each OT passage, he also draws deductions, which really are the same deduction, but from different angles.  So that brings us to our next point.

Paul’s deductions (16, 18)

God is sovereign in salvation: “So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (16).  What is the “it” of verse 16?  Surely it is the promise of God that guarantees the salvation of the elect.  What that means is that our salvation does not depend ultimately upon ourselves but upon God.  It is important for us to see that.  It is the reason why God’s promise will not fail.  It is the reason why God’s elect will infallibly be saved.  It is because in the final analysis, it depends on God, not us.

However, it is also important to note that this doesn’t rule out our willing or our exertion.  God’s election does not mean that our wills go into neutral.  It doesn’t mean that we don’t do anything.  When the apostle concludes that it does not depend upon our willing or exertion (lit. “running,”), he is not saying we don’t will or run; he is simply saying that our willing and running are not the decisive reasons we are saved.  We still receive Christ (cf. Jn. 1:12-13; Col. 2:6) and choose him.  We must still strive to enter into the kingdom of God (cf. Lk 13:24).  We are commanded to repent and believe the gospel (Acts 17:30).  The gospel comes to you with imperatives, imperatives that we are responsible to obey, and which we will obey if we are to be saved.  But again, what it means is that the decisive reason we are saved is not to be traced to our wills or efforts.  At the end of the day, if you are saved, the reason is to be found in God’s sovereign mercy.  The imperative of the gospel offer finds its success in the indicative of God’s sovereign grace and mercy.

If God had looked down through the annals of time to see what we would have done independently of his grace, he wouldn’t have seen anyone receiving Christ and believing in him; he would have only seen people rejecting him.  For anyone to be saved, God had to do something, not just to provide salvation and leave it up to us, but actually to interpose himself into the equation of our willing and running, and to effectually draw us to himself.  We need God to save us, for all our efforts by themselves will never bring us to the throne of grace.  The phrases “the one who wills” and “the one who runs” are meant to sum up the totality of man’s capacity.  Search man for the capacity to save himself and you are not going to find anything.  The willing is a reference to “inner desire, purpose, or readiness to do something” and the running is a reference to the “actual execution of that desire.”[2]  The problem is not that we don’t will, but that we want the wrong things; our hearts are turned in on ourselves, so that salvation is not of the one who will or runs, but of God who shows mercy.

Now we must not think that this undermines our freedom and turns us into robots.  For unless God interposes and changes our hearts, we would remain slaves to sin.  There is no freedom in that; freedom can only be found when our wills are set free from the power of sin by the grace of God.  God does not operate us like puppets; he regenerates us so that we freely choose him and desire what is good and right and true.

An objection to this is that if this is so, what is the purpose of all the exhortations of Scripture?  And what is the purpose of evangelism?  In answer, we must remember that the power of the gospel does not lie in the preacher but in God – it is the power of God unto salvation (Rom. 1:16).  In other words, the exhortations, whether to believe or obey, are not effective because of us; they are made effective by God.  The exhortations of Scripture are not proof that we can somehow save ourselves; rather, they are proof that God relates to us as thinking beings with agency, and that when he effectively draws us to himself, he does so not by suppressing our wills but by enabling them, not by robotically manipulating us, but by opening our eyes to the beauty and truth of Scripture. 

So there are two sides to this doctrine.  On one side, we are told that we would never have been saved apart from God’s decisive work in us.  But on the other side, we are told that we will never be saved unless we believe the gospel and repent of our sins.  They are both true.  The way we engage both these truths in our experience is by believing and repenting and obeying, but doing so in reliance upon the mighty grace of God.  And we evangelize and share the gospel, not trusting in our powers of persuasion, but in God’s faithfulness in drawing his elect to himself; it is why Paul wrote, “Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory” (2 Tim. 2:10).  What gave Paul his confidence and his zeal?  It was the doctrine of election!  So this is not really an objection at all; if anything, the doctrine of election is a reason to evangelize and pursue holiness.

God is sovereign in hardening: “So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills” (18).  God is not only sovereign in salvation; he is also sovereign in reprobation.  This is a reference to Pharaoh’s hardening as the antitype of the hardening of Paul’s own nation (cf. Rom. 11:7). 

Now some people try to take the edge off of this by saying that Pharaoh was hardened by God only after Pharaoh hardened himself – but this view cannot be sustained in the narrative in Exodus (cf. Ex. 4:21; 7:31 with ver. 13).  However, I do think that we should say that God’s hardening does not mean that he forces men to sin.  Rather, God’s hardening happens to men and women who, like Pharaoh, are sinful already.  God’s hardening is therefore his leaving them in their sin (but not based on any particular degree of sinfulness for he hardens whom he chooses).  As Douglas Moo puts it, “God’s hardening does not . . . cause spiritual insensitivity to the things of God; it maintains people in the state of sin that already characterizes them.”[3]  God’s hardening as well as his mercy both assume the sinfulness of humanity; both acts of God find men already in sin.  In showing mercy, he saves sinful men to be delivered from their sin; in hardening, he leaves sinful men to perish in their sin.

Conclusion: what effect should this have on us?

The doctrine that God has mercy on whom he pleases and hardens whom he pleases, and that he does this out of a commitment to uphold the glory of his name, this doctrine does more than any other to abase man and exalt the God as supreme.  So it should keep us from being man-centered, which is essential since God created the world (and us) to display his glory, not ours.  We need to get a view of God that is chiefly interested in seeing his name and his glory and rights esteemed and valued and declared, even if it minimizes and diminishes our own importance and rights and comforts and worth.  And this chapter is a good place to start.



[1] John Piper, The Justification of God: An Exegetical & Theological Study of Romans 9:1-23, 2nd Edition, (Baker: 1993), p. 88-89.

[2] Douglas Moo, Romans [NICNT], p. 599.

[3] Moo, p. 599.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Why God’s word will not fail – Romans 9:6-13


Paul’s thesis statement is to be found in verse 6: “But it is not as though the word of God has failed.”  God’s word has not fallen to the ground; it has not failed to take effect.  God’s word here is his word to Israel, and in particular his promises which he gave in covenant to the patriarchs, and words which he continued to ratify to Israel throughout its history (cf. 9:3-5).  Words like Isaiah 45:25: “In the LORD all the offspring of Israel shall be justified and shall glory.” 

Why is the apostle defending this thesis?  He is doing so because the central claim of his gospel is that justification and glory come to us in Jesus Christ, and that it is as we embrace him as Lord and Savior that we partake of his righteousness and glory and so are justified and eventually glorified.  On the other hand, those who reject him as Messiah will not be saved, but will remain in their sins and be condemned.  But Isaiah says that the “offspring of Israel shall be justified and shall glory.”  How does this square with Paul’s gospel?  For according to that, those who have rejected the gospel among the Jews – and that was most of them – were lost.  It sure looks like the gospel makes God’s promise to the offspring of Israel null and void.

And that can never be.  For any theological system or view of God that portrays him as unfaithful is and must be wrong.  God has always kept his word; he is a covenant keeping God.  God is truth, and has the power and the wisdom and integrity to always uphold it.  The “God who cannot lie” is the way Paul describes God in relation to his promises (Tit. 1:2).  The only thing that could possibly keep God from keeping his word was an unwillingness to follow through on it, and that can never be.  As Paul puts it earlier in chapter 3: “What if some [Jews] were unfaithful?  Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God?  By no means!  Let God be true though every one were a liar, as it is written, ‘That you may be justified in your words, and prevail when you are judged’” (3:3-4).  This is especially critical given the fact that if God does not keep his word, the glorious promises in Romans are not to be relied upon.  It’s not just that the OT promises are at stake, but the entire gospel enterprise is at stake as well.

There are two steps to Paul’s argument in these verses.  In the first step, Paul explains why God’s word has not fallen.  This comes to us in verses 6-10.  In the second step, Paul explains how God’s word does not fall, but rather remains, and this comes to us in verses 11-13.  The “why” is tied to the objects of God’s promise, and the “how” is tied to the nature of God’s promise.  The apostle explains that the objects of God’s promise are not coextensive with the physical seed of Abraham (and therefore does not fail because some of them reject the gospel), and that the nature of God’s promise is that it is unconditioned on the good works of those who are its objects (and therefore cannot fail when they do).

Why God’s word has not fallen (6b-10)

The key sentence in this part of the apostle’s argument is in verse 8: “This means that is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring.”  In other words, the “offspring” of Isaiah 45:25, those who will be justified and glorified, are not to be identified with the merely physical offspring of Abraham.  The promises of God were never intended to guarantee the salvation of every individual Israelite.  God’s promises are not based on physical descent.

That was certainly the way some Jews in Paul’s day took the promises to mean.  Otherwise I don’t understand the point of John the Baptist’s argument, when he warned the Pharisees who came to his baptism, “And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham’” (Mt. 3:9).  They clearly thought that because they were the physical descendants of Abraham, they were safe.  John the Baptist warned against that idea, as Paul does here: “For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring” (6b-7a).  There is Israel and there is Israel, an Israel within Israel, a remnant according to the election of grace (cf. 11:5).  The promises are not to all Israel, but to the remnant within Israel.  That is Paul’s argument. 

Paul has already made a distinction in this letter between a true Israelite someone who is only an Israelite by physical descent.  In 2:28-29, he has written, “For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical.  But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter.  His praise is not from man but from God.”  Here what makes someone a Jew and as such an inheritor of the promises is a heart that has been changed by the Spirit of God.  And then in 4:12, the apostle writes that God made Abraham “the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.”  Here what puts someone in the category of the “circumcised,” and as such, a child of Abraham, is that they have the same faith that Abraham had.  It is not enough simply to claim Abraham as an ancestor, but one must relate to God in the same way he did, by the Spirit and by faith.

But what proof does he have for this?  In fact, Paul gives two examples of the principle that God’s promise does not necessarily follow physical descent.  In the first example, given in verses 7-9, the apostle illustrates his argument with Isaac and Ishmael.  Both were sons of Abraham, and yet the promise did not go to Ishmael but to Isaac, for “through Isaac shall your offspring be named” (7).  In the next example, he exhibits Jacob and Esau (10-13).  In this case, the argument is even stronger, because Isaac and Ishmael were born from different mothers, but that is not the case with Jacob and Esau.  It’s even stronger than that, however, because not only were they born of the same mother, but were conceived at the same time, being twins (10).  But God’s promise did not go to Esau (even though he was technically the firstborn), it went to Jacob.

It is important to remember at this point what Paul is arguing for.  Many people will argue that the figures of Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, shows that the apostle is talking about the election of nations, or at the very least, of God selecting individuals to historical tasks.  But this does not make any sense whatsoever.  You see, it was the problem of God’s electing the nation of Israel which set up the objection that Paul is seeking to answer.  God chose the nation of Israel, which the Jews thought guaranteed the salvation of physical Israel, and which came into question given Paul’s claim that so many of his brethren were lost.  It was the lostness of Israel, in light of Israel’s election as a nation, that was the problem.  It will hardly do to reply to this problem by arguing that God elects nations. 

Others try to get around this by arguing that Paul is not talking about salvation, but of the election of individuals and nations to historical roles.  The able Arminian scholar Ben Witherington does this, for example, in his commentary on Romans, as well as virtually every other non-Calvinistic reading of Romans 9 (as far as I am aware).  But then he has to argue that Paul is not anguishing over the issue of salvation in verses 1-3, that the “anathema” of verse 3 does not have to do with eternal separation from Christ, and that “vessels of wrath prepared for destruction” is not a reference to people who will endure God’s wrath forever (22-23). 

But that’s nonsense.  Every other time that Paul uses the language of anathema, he is referring to God’s curse which brings his wrath.  And applied to people that means they are not saved.  So when he says to the Galatians, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed (anathema)” (Gal. 1:8; he repeats himself in the next verse), he is saying that these false teachers, if they continue in their heresy, will be lost.  In 1 Cor. 16:22, he writes, “If anyone has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed (anathema).”  To not love Christ means that you are not saved.  The anathema is not a reference to being cursed in the merely here and now, but to be in danger of being accursed forever.  This is why it is so awful to say that Jesus is anathema (cf. 1 Cor. 12:3).  Thus, when Paul says that he has “great sorrow and unceasing anguish in his heart” on account of his brethren and “could wish that I myself were accursed (anathema) and cut off from Christ” (9:3), he is clearly saying that his grief flowed from the lostness of those with whom he shared this common ethnic background.  Since Romans 9-11 are a unit, we should read 9:1-3 in light of 10:1, when he says that “my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them [Israel] is that they may be saved.”  The issue here is not merely the historical roles of either nations or individuals, but specifically the fact that so many of Paul’s kinsmen were not saved.  Paul is trying to argue why that fact is consistent with God’s promises to Israel.  The problem is salvation or lack thereof, not historical roles or earthly tasks.

So when Paul brings up the examples of Ishmael and Isaac, Jacob and Esau, he is arguing that God’s saving promise was extended to Isaac but not to Ishmael, to Jacob but not Esau, and that proves that God’s promise of salvation is not coextensive with physical descent from the patriarchs.  God’s promise has not failed when it doesn’t encompass all of physical Israel, because it in fact never did nor was ever intended to do so.

Now an objection to this is that there is no evidence in the OT that either Ishmael or Esau were lost.  But this is not how the NT authors, including Paul, argue.  Esau, as an individual, is mentioned in Hebrews as an example of an unsaved, unholy person (cf. Heb. 12:14-17).  In fact, Esau in that context is given as an example of someone who has failed to obtain the grace of God.  Paul himself uses Ismael and Isaac in his letter to the Galatians (Gal. 4:21-31) as a way to illustrate those who have the Spirit (and are saved) versus those who have not the Spirit (and are not saved).  Isaac is representative of the saved, and Ishmael of the unsaved.

Another objection is that the OT passages that Paul refers to in this text are about nations and historical roles, not individuals and eternal salvation.  Thus, the Malachi reference in 9:13, “Jacob have I loved, but Esau I hated” (cf. Mal. 1:2,3) is a reference to the nations of Israel and Edom, respectively.  But this is not really a strong objection.  For the fact that the OT passages refer to nations does not mean Paul can’t apply them to individuals.  The fact that he does this for Ishmael and Isaac in Galatians 4 should warn us against ruling out applying these passages to the salvation of individuals. 

But again, we must keep coming back to the fact that the issue at hand that Paul is answering has to do with the lostness of individuals in Israel and their need for eternal salvation.  Romans 9:1-5 sets up the problem as it is stated in verse 6a, and as it is answered in verses 6b-13.  It is no answer to that problem to argue that God elects nations.  It is no answer to that problem to say that God chooses individuals for historical tasks.  Those are non sequiturs, not answers.  It makes no sense of the text to say that Paul is arguing this way.  It does make sense to take this as meaning that Isaac was saved but not Ishmael, even though they were both sons of Abraham, and that Jacob was saved but not Esau, even though they were both sons of Isaac from the same mother.

Paul’s kinsmen misunderstood the extent of God’s promise.  They applied the saving promises to God to those to whom it was never intended.  We ought to be careful that we don’t do the same.

How God’s word does not fall (11-13)

The key verse here is verse 11, with reference to Jacob and Esau: “though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad – in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls.”  The apostle is explaining the choice of Jacob over Esau.  Why did he choose Jacob and not Esau?  It was not because Jacob was better than Esau.  In fact, it had nothing to do with their works at all.  Rather, the basis of God’s election of Jacob over Esau rested not on anything in them, but rather simply upon God’s sovereign purpose and choice.

When Paul says, “that the purpose of God according to election might stand” (rather than fall - KJV), he is saying positively what in verse 6 he says negatively.  God’s word of promise will not fall; rather, it will stand.  And why will it stand?  Because ultimately it does not depend upon us but upon him.  That’s the argument.   There are two things we should notice about this election.

God’s purpose of election is unconditional.

This choice was determined “though they were not yet born and had done nothing bad,” is simply a way of saying that this election was a decision made prior to their behavior nor based on their behavior.  Their actions, good or bad, had nothing to do with God’s gracious choice. 

Now some will come right back and point out that though God does not base his election upon works, he does base it upon foreseen faith.  And this is plausible, it is argued, because faith is not a work.  This latter point is true – faith is universally in the NT contrasted with works.  But there are two problems with this objection.  One problem is that Paul does not contrast works with faith but with God’s call.  God’s purpose of election is not said to be based on faith but on “him who calls.”  We’ve already argued that in the NT, and in the epistles in particular (see my sermon on Rom. 8:29-30) that this call is a reference to God’s effectual call.  And this call precedes faith and makes it possible.  In this connection, Paul’s words to the Thessalonians is very instructive: “But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth.  To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thess. 2:13-14).  This is a calling which secures our justification and glorification. 

And that brings us to the second objection.  The fact of the matter is that faith is represented in the NT as being a gift from God (cf. Eph. 2:8).  We have faith because God opens our blind eyes and softens our hard hearts so that we see the gospel and believe it.  God effectually calls us and we come.  If God is foreseeing our faith, he is simply foreseeing something he has given, and something which he gives to us on purpose.  In other words, there is really nothing for God to foresee that is not already included in his eternal purpose.  God gives faith, and gives it unconditionally, so that in the end, God’s purpose of election is an unconditional election.

God’s purpose of election is personal and unto eternal life.

We’ve already argued this in answer to some objections, but now I want to state the matter more positively.  When Paul talks about election, he is talking about an election to salvation.  This is the case in Paul’s writings over and over again.  Again, since Rom. 9-11 are a unit, the passage in Rom. 11:5 is instructive: “So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace.”  This remnant is the same group of people (I say group, but we must remember that groups are made up of individuals!) Paul is talking about in Romans 9.  God’s word of promise is not to every individual Israelite, but to Israel within Israel, to the remnant in Israel.  In 11:5, we have this parallel to Romans 9, but clearly this election is an election to salvation, and there is no reason (unless you are theologically prejudiced) to suppose the Rom. 9:11 election is any different.  You also see election in Eph. 1:4; 1 Thess. 1:4; Col. 3:12; 2 Tim. 2:10; Tit. 1:1.  But 2 Tim. 1:9 is especially relevant here, given the numerous parallels to the Romans 9 passage.  There Paul writes that God “saved us and called us to a holy calling, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began.”  This salvation was given us before the world began – this is what it means to be elected.  We are chosen in Christ, and we are called to salvation, a calling which springs from God’s gracious choice.  Again, in Romans 9:11, it is not our works but God’s call that is determinative in our salvation.  As 2 Tim. 1:9 is an election and call to salvation, we shouldn’t think Rom. 9:11 is anything less.  In particular, the fact that calling is linked to election is significant.  In Paul, God’s call is unto salvation.  We are called to eternal life (cf. also Rom. 8:30; 1 Thess. 2:12; 1 Cor. 1:18-31).

This election is what distinguishes between Israel and spiritual Israel (or, the remnant, if you like that language better), between children of God and the promise (Rom. 9:8) and the children of the flesh.  “Children of God” is always, uniformly, in Paul a reference to those who are saved (cf. Rom. 8:16-17, 21; Eph. 5:1; Phil. 2:15).  In Gal. 3:26-29, in fact, the children of God are identified with the seed of Abraham, and heirs of eternal life.  And the only other place “children of promise” is used is definitely in reference to those who are saved (Gal. 4:28).[1] 

And so we see why God’s promise of salvation to Israel does not fall to the ground.  It does not fall because it is not directed to every Israelite, or merely on the basis of physical descent.  And it does not fall because God’s promise depends ultimately upon himself, not us.  His promise of salvation depends upon his unconditional election of individuals within Israel to everlasting life.  And this election moreover is not dependent upon foreseen works, or even faith, but upon God’s effective call unto salvation.

How should I respond to the doctrine of election?

First of all, we should believe it.  God has revealed himself most clearly in the Book we call the Bible, and if we reject the Biblical portrayal of God in the Bible, we are worshipping a figment of our imagination.  I know that this is often very difficult to believe, and it’s clear that the difficulties attendant with this doctrine are the reasons why so many good Christians refuse to believe it.  Some think it makes God look arbitrary; others say it makes him look unjust (see the objection of the following verses!); others say it is incompatible with human freedom and responsibility.  Whatever we may think and however we may try to work through these objections, if the Bible teaches it, it must be true, and let God be true and every man a liar.  You believe it first, and then you try to work through the objections.

But in connection with this point, I think it is important to say that we should never take any doctrine and hold it separately and apart from the rest of Scripture.  We need to hold the doctrine of election with the clear teaching of the Bible on human responsibility.  I am a compatibilist, which just means that I believe that the doctrine of election (and God’s absolute sovereignty over all things) is compatible with the fact that our choices are real and significant and meaningful, and our responsibility is real and not an illusion.  I know that some philosophers and theologians would say that what I’ve said here about election is not possible with real human freedom and responsibility.  I can’t say that I fully understand how the two things go together, but what I do know is that they Bible teaches both, and so they must both be true.

But we are stopping short of our duty if we only believe it.  Let us also delight in it.  This is hard for man-centered minds, especially in light of verses like 13.  But God has revealed himself, not merely to be analyzed, but to be worshipped.  To see how this doctrine should lead you to worship, consider the following things.

First, if this doctrine is true, it provides a sure foundation under the feet of all who are in Christ.  Because election is unconditional and of grace, our status before God and hope of eternal life is not dependent upon our works and worthiness, for we didn’t get there on the basis of works to begin with.  And because underneath election is God’s massive purpose which works all things for the good of those who are called according to his purpose, and because this purpose is the purpose of one “who works all things after the counsel of his own will” (Eph. 1:11), we have nothing to fear.  Even our faith is supported and birthed by God’s good purpose.

And then, this doctrine is delightful to the believer because it has as its end the glory of God, which is Paul’s point in Eph. 1:4-6.  It is because God’s electing purpose is unconditional that God is most glorified.  For if his purpose were conditioned on something we did or were, then God would not be free and sovereign.  Rather, as John Piper puts it, he would be dependent upon man and would be bound to conform his will to their own self-determination.   This is not the picture that the Bible paints of God.  Moreover, because God’s electing purpose depends ultimately upon God, it means that he is a successful Savior.  It means that he is not wringing his hands in heaven waiting and hoping that his plans will somehow work out, but rather is seated in heaven ruling without absolute certainly that his purposes will be fulfilled.  He is sovereign and successful in his purposes and designs, and as such, is most worthy of our worship.

God’s word will not fall.  It cannot fall.  It will never fall.  You can take every promise in the Bible to the bank.  So, fearful believer, why not do it?  Believe the promises that he will never leave you or forsake you.  And sinner apart from Christ, why not do it?  Believe the promise that if you call upon the name of his Son, God will freely receive you.  We are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us, we plead with you in Christ’s name, be reconciled to God!



[1] John Piper comments, “Just as Isaac was a child of promise in that God willed in advance for him to be the heir of covenant promises and then worked sovereignly to fulfill his will, so also God wills in advance for particular individuals within Israel to be his ‘children’ and then by his Spirit sovereignly begets them anew.”

Friday, June 5, 2020

The Christian’s Exultation in God’s Unchanging Love – Rom. 8:31-39

“What then shall we say to these things?”  This is a question that we should always ask of Scripture.  The truths of the Bible are not there simply to be looked at and then forgotten.  They are there to be taken and applied to our hearts and lives.  We are to try to understand what they are saying to us, and we to work out their implications and corollaries.  One practical way to do this is to ask questions of Scripture, questions like the one that Paul asks here. 

Now it is supremely important to understand what the text is saying.  It is important to study it in its context and to look at it from its grammatical, historical, and theological perspectives.  But if you just stop at the word studies and the comparisons with parallel passages and the commentaries and so on, and never get to the question Paul asks here, then you have really studied Scripture for naught.  It’s like perfectly knowing the mechanics and techniques of fishing – but if you never throw a hook into the water, you’re never going to catch any fish.  You have to apply the realities of the Bible to your life or you will never grow spiritually or become a more mature Christian. 

Of course, I can’t help but saying that if you don’t even read Scripture, you aren’t even in a position to ask this kind of question.  You can’t even ask questions of something that you know nothing about.  We need to read our Bibles.  But once we are doing that, we don’t stop there.  The Bible is meant to talk to us and to convict us and change us and correct us and encourage us, but that will never happen if we just see its truths as museum pieces, to be admired indeed, but never taken and used in everyday life.

However, Scripture is not going to be applied to our lives if we don’t see its glory and beauty, its reality and relevance to our lives.  Recently, Tim Challies posted some book reviews that are on Amazon.com in which the reviewers gave the books only one star.[1]  The interesting thing about these reviews is that they were all reviews of really good books (the title of the blog post is “Really Bad Reviews of Really Good Books”).  They are classics, and yet some people just don’t get it.  They have literary gold in their hands, but to them it just looks like another rock.  The truths of Scripture are like that to some people.  It shouldn’t surprise us, for the apostle tells us in another place that the things of God are to foolishness to those who are not born again (1 Cor. 2:14).  But it is incredibly sad.  It is grievous to see people look at the God of the Bible and then walk away in disgust.  We need to have a heart that sees the life-giving truth contained in every verse in the New and Old Testaments.

What we see in the verses before us is the response of a man who saw the glory of Biblical truth and who thrilled in its realities.  Verses 31-39 of Romans 8 are best described as a doxology, a hymn of praise to God for the truths he has been writing about.  Paul didn’t just know good theology, he loved it.  It should be the same with us as well.  Doctrine should be savored, not just studied.  It should be exulted in, not just exposited over.  So Paul, having really shown the believer’s security, he cannot but rise to praise God for all he has done.

Now it is important to point out that Paul was not just rejoicing over good doctrine.  It is possible to do that and yet be a stranger to God.  You can enjoy the intellectual aspect involved in understanding systematic and Biblical theology, and yet do so out of a mind and a heart blind to the beauty of God himself. There is a difference between love doctrine and loving the God of the doctrine, and the difference registers its effect when it leads one to worship.  What we have here is worship.

That’s not to say that doctrine is bad!  Some people think that doctrine inevitably leads to a censorious spirit and is of no practical benefit.  They think that if you want to be really useful in the kingdom of God, you need to do an end-run around doctrine.  But nothing is further from the truth.  Doctrine savored is the fuel for Spirit-filled worship.  It is also the fuel for holiness and usefulness.  Romans 1-11 is primarily doctrine, the “application” doesn’t even come until chapter 12. The two sections are connected by that very important word, “therefore.”  Doctrine provides us with the reason and motivation and boundaries for worship and service.  If you don’t understand that, you simply won’t serve and worship the way God intended us to worship and serve.

So what Paul is doing in these nine verses is application and exultation.  Which is what we should do with God’s word.  We need to know it so that we will exult in it so that we will apply it.  “What then shall we say to these things?” 

I want to approach the exposition of this text by asking three questions.  What does Paul exult in?  Then, how can he exult in it?  And finally, why does Paul exult in these things?

What does Paul exult in?

The overall outline of these verses is pretty clear.  In verses 31-34, the apostle argues that God is for us, and in verses 35-39 that nothing can separate us from his love.  They really are saying the same thing, however, from different perspectives.  To say that God loves us is just to say that he is for us in the strongest possible sense.  Together, they tell us that God will never stop being for us.  Together, they argue for the strongest possible security imaginable for the believer.  Truly God is our strong tower; the righteous run to him and are safe.

However, does Paul argue that God will never stop being for us as long as we are for him?  Is it just that nothing outside of ourselves could separate us from God’s love, but that we could separate ourselves from God’s love?  Does the apostle make room in these verses for the possibility that our own decisions may separate us from God’s love?

Now we must say at the outset that we cannot deny the following facts: that there is such a thing as apostacy; that both the Bible as well as our own experience tell us that people who once called themselves Christian can fall away; that there are many exhortations in the Bible warning professing believers against the danger of falling away, and that falling away leads to perdition, not salvation.  These facts would seem to provide very strong evidence that it is possible for a person who was once truly saved to lose their salvation and finally perish.

Nevertheless, I want to argue that what Paul exults in and what he is teaching here is the absolute security of the believer, that our security does not finally reside in us, but in God, and that God will never stop being for us – not because we are for him, but because he will never stop loving his elect.  This text teaches the irrevocable and unchanging commitment of God towards his people, a commitment that neither time nor eternity can erase, and the consequent certainty of the final salvation of all who belong to Jesus by faith.  We will have to consider how this squares with the aforementioned facts, but this turns out to be an easy solution.

Here are four reasons we should read these verses as teaching the final perseverance of the believer.

Verses 29-30

The first reason comes from the preceding two verses.  As we saw last time, Paul does not give us any room to imagine that those who are called and justified can then fall away from their calling and lose their justification.  Precisely those who are called are those who are glorified.  Everyone embraced in God’s eternal love – those who are foreknown – will be finally glorified.  It is not a chain that can be broken by human weakness, for it is a chain that depends upon God, not us, for its strength.  To argue that we could snatch ourselves away from the love of God is to undermine the plain teaching of these verses.

We are in the category of those who are “against us” (31).

When Paul asks, rhetorically, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (31), he is not excluding ourselves nor is there any reason to think so.  It is possible to be against yourself, to be your own worst enemy.  We all know that, except possibly some hard-headed theologians who have a weak cause to defend.  If I could successfully be against myself, as is the case if I can wrench myself from God’s loving arms, then the assumed answer to the question (no one!) would be false.  But the answer, “No one!” is not false.  It is gloriously and eternally true.  We can be against ourselves, but we cannot be so successfully as long as God is for us.  God’s commitment to us is not one that rests upon our own fickle love but upon God’s eternal and unchanging love for us.

The things that are most likely to turn our faith away from Christ are the very things that will never separate us from the love of God (35-37).

Why do people turn away from the faith?  I’m sure it is true that abundance can create an apostate spirit; however, people don’t normally turn away from the faith because their bank accounts are full and their health is good and everyone is slapping them on the back and telling them how great they are.  People fall away because the way of faith became too difficult for them.  Our Lord himself anticipates this in several places (cf. Mt. 13:20-21; Lk. 14:25-33).  We can see why Paul would mention things like tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, and sword (35).  He does so because when a person who claims to be a Christian is faced with one or more of these things because he or she is a follower of Christ (36), this is when our faith is most likely to break under the strain.  If even one of these things could cause us to stop loving Christ, then one of these things could in fact separate us from the love of Christ, the very thing that the apostle does not allow.

So we see that Paul is not just saying that tribulation, etc., are not signs that God has stopped loving us; rather, he is saying something much stronger.  He is saying that God’s love for us in tribulation will keep us from turning our backs on him and becoming apostates. 

That’s not to say that sometimes true Christians won’t momentarily bend under the pressure.  Like Peter, we might even deny Christ for a time.  And yet God rescued Peter (“I have prayed for you that your faith will not fail,” Luke 22:32) and made him one of the greatest of the apostles.  And church history tells us that Peter even went on to suffer a martyr’s death.  He was finally faithful unto death.

Another example of this is Cranmer, the sixteenth century English bishop who was forced to watch as his friends, Ridley and Latimer, were burned alive at the stake during the reign of Bloody Mary.  I’m pretty sure that would be enough to make anyone’s faith waver.  And at first he did decide to recant his faith in the gospel.  But he soon recanted his recantation and was himself burned alive at the stake for his faith.  He too was finally faithful in the end.

Do you know why the true believer won’t finally fall away?  It isn’t because they are extraordinarily brave.  It’s because underneath their faith is the sustaining power of God.  Our Lord put it this way: “For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect” (Mt. 24:24).  Why did our Lord put it that way?  I think he did so because it is not possible.  And it is not possible because no one can successfully be against those who have God on their side.

The universal language of verses 38-39.

“For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rules, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (38-39).  These two verses make it abundantly clear that Paul is excluding any possibility of our being separated from the love of God.  Just in case you don’t get it, the apostle adds the words, “nor anything else in all creation.”  I think that pretty much sums it up.

The problem of apostates.

Now what about apostates?  The key is this: there is a distinction in Scripture between those who profess faith in Christ and those who have truly believed in him because they were effectually called by God to faith in the gospel.  You see this distinction in Heb. 6:9, when the writer talks about “better things – thing that belong to salvation.”  These better things are compared with the things mentioned in verses 4-5.  It is possible to experience a lot and to look a lot like a believer and have been a part of the church and yet fall away.  And yet what the apostate had was not truly salvific – they were not those spiritual qualities and experiences that belong to the saved.  You see this distinction also in 1 Jn 2:19, where the apostle says that apostates are those who “were not of us.”  Even when they were with us, they were not of us.  Just because you profess the name of Christ does not mean that you are born again, or justified, or on your way to heaven.  Even as an apostle, Judas was “the son of perdition.”

So you see, when someone falls away, it doesn’t mean that they had true faith in Christ and then lost it, or that they were justified and then lost their status of acceptance with God.  It means that they were never saved to begin with. 

Why then the exhortations against apostacy if the elect can never finally fall away?  There are two reasons for this.  They are addressed to those who belong to the church, which consists of both the true Christian and the merely professing Christian.  Of this group, those who are mere professors can fall away.  But the other reason is because even for the elect, God uses the warnings as a means to keep them in the faith.  They are instruments in the Redeemer’s hands to preserve his people.  The warnings are true.  The dangers are real.  And the believer takes heed to the warnings and so, by God’s grace, preserves his or her soul.

This is a glorious truth to exult in.  And this brings us then to our next question.

How can Paul exult in it?

Another way to put this question is, what are the grounds for Paul’s exultation?  How is it that Paul came to glory in the security of the elect?  What reasons does he give?

The reasons he gives are really just a recap of all that has gone before.  When Paul asks, “What shall we say to these things?” I don’t think the “these things” are limited only to the immediate context, or even to the eighth chapter.  I think he is pointing us back to all of 1:16-8:30.  But there are three things he gives special emphasis to.

God is for us. (31)

This leads to the protestation: who can be (successfully) against us?  One threat to our being finally saved is the multitude of enemies that range themselves against us.  Not only men, but devils.  But these are as much as threat to us as were Pharaoh and his chariots to the children of Israel.  I cannot really imagine a greater or more wonderful blessing, to have God for you in the sense here.  Not only for you in the sense of temporal blessing, but for you in the sense of eternally for you as your defender and your Father.  In some sense, this is the culmination and the summation of all our salvation.  We were redeemed by Christ so that we might be brought near to God, which is just another way of saying that Christ died so that God might be for us (cf. 1 Pet. 3:18).

We need this because God is not automatically for us; indeed, by nature God is against us.  To have God as your enemy is the very worst thing in the universe, and yet this is what the apostle says is true of us apart from Christ (Rom. 5:9-10).  It because of what Christ has done that God is now for us in a saving way.

God gave his Son. (32)

“He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will not also with him graciously give us all things?”  God gave us the gift of his Son.  Why?  The former part of the epistle tells us why.  The phrase “did not spare” is a reference to Christ’s death as a punishment for sin, not his, but ours.

But the question might arise: maybe God has only done so much and rest is up to me?  Paul’s answer is that if God has given us his Son, he will surely give everything necessary for our salvation.  It is an argument from the greater to the lesser – there is nothing greater than the gift of God’s Son.  Having that, we have no reason to think that God will withhold any other blessing. 

It is this argument that Toplady so eloquently expresses in this hymn:

From whence this fear and unbelief?
Hath not the Father put to grief
His spotless Son for me?
And will the righteous Judge of men
Condemn me for that debt of sin
Which, Lord, was charged on Thee?

Complete atonement Thou hast made,
And to the utmost Thou hast paid
Whate’er Thy people owed;
How then can wrath on me take place,
If sheltered in Thy righteousness,
And sprinkled with Thy blood?

If thou hast my discharge procured,
And freely in my room endured
The whole of wrath divine;
Payment God cannot twice demand,
First at my bleeding Surety’s hand,
And then again at mine.

Turn then, my soul, unto thy rest!
The merits of thy great High Priest
Have bought thy liberty;
Trust in His efficacious blood,
Nor fear thy banishment from God,
Since Jesus died for thee.

God justifies (33-34)

In our country, we have a Supreme Court.  It is a court of final appeal.  You cannot appeal further in this country after their decisions.  So it is with God.  His tribunal is not limited to one country, or even one planet or one galaxy.  His throne is the final tribunal before which we must all stand.  His decisions are truly final.  In fact, many Supreme Court judgments will be overturned in that great Last Day.  But God’s can never be overturned.  Though many may accuse the saint, if God acquits them and vindicates them, they are safe. 

Of course this does not mean that many may arise and accuse the believer in the here and now.  But what Paul imagines here is the Final Judgment (note the future tense in “who will bring any charge against God’s elect”).  At that time, the justified will stand vindicated before all the world, not because of their righteousness, but because of the righteousness of Christ imputed to them on the basis of which they stand justified.

Here we see another evidence for the security of the believer.  Justification is something that happens now (present tense: “God is the one who is justifying”), but it is a pronouncement that will last for all eternity.  When we get to the Final Judgment God will not have changed his mind.  Justification is not something that we can get and then lose, it is something that sticks with us because God never stops being for us.

Christ intercedes for us (34)

Christ died, rose, and intercedes for us.  Note the emphasis on Christ’s exaltation at God’s right hand.  He is there exalted over every earthly authority (cf. Eph. 1:20-22; 1 Pet. 3:22).  And in this exalted position, he has not forgotten us – no, rather, he intercedes for us (Heb. 7:25).  John Murray writes, “For nothing serves to verify the intimacy and constancy of the Redeemer’s preoccupation with the security of his people, nothing assures us of his unchanging love more than the tenderness which his heavenly priesthood bespeaks and particularly as it comes to expression in his intercession for us.”  The one who prayed for Peter prays for you.

We often think of salvation as something that Jesus did, and now the rest is up to us.  That is never how the Scripture imagines it.  He is working for the salvation of his elect, past, present, and future.  God is tirelessly and successfully bringing his people to heaven.

One final question and then we’re done.

Why does Paul exult in the security of the elect?

It is a good thing to exult in this.  So it is a good think to have assurance and to rejoice in it.  We do not do so, I think, because these things are not as real to us as they should be.  So why did Paul, and why should we, exult and glory in these things?

I think Paul does this primarily because this doctrine magnifies Christ and his salvation.  He is a successful Savior, not a frustrated Redeemer.  He exults in the security of the believer because it brings us to a greater trust in and love for our Savior who is the one who secures our hope.  In other words, Paul does not so much praise the gift itself, but Jesus Christ through whom we are more than conquerors (37).  It is by his grace and strength and power and faithfulness that we are finally saved and persevere through every trial.  At the end of the day, this does not point us to ourselves, it points us to Christ.  This is not a doctrine that crowns the believer; rather, it is a doctrine that gives to Christ the crown that he deserves.

But another reason he does so (and why we should do so) is because rejoicing in our security in Jesus will keep us from fearing the world and free us to serve others and gospel  with our lives.  It is a courage builder (cf. Ps. 23:4; 56:9, 11; 118:6,7).  It is to steel us through such events as those listed in verse 35.  These things are not written just to add a little soul comfort to our earthly comforts.  Rather, they were written to make us fearless and faithful lights in a world that is in the power of the wicked one.  May the Lord make it so in us!



[1] See https://www.challies.com/articles/really-bad-reviews-of-really-good-books/

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