Monday, July 27, 2020

Why people reject the gospel: Romans 9:30 – 10:4


Let me begin with an analogy.  Suppose I ask someone to explain the Model T automobile.  They say, “The Model T is explained by science.”  And they would be correct.  The principles of engineering and the laws of physics are an explanation for how the Model T car operated.  Now suppose I ask someone else, and they say, “Henry Ford.”  And they would also be right.  It is a different explanation, but it is not a wrong explanation.  Different explanations for something can be complementary without being contradictory. 

Now of course an obvious application of this analogy is to the current debate over the roles of religion and science as explanations of the universe.  Both proport to be explanations of the universe.  And I would argue that they are complementary without being contradictory.  Now some make them contradictory by saying that science assumes a closed, materialist view of the universe.  But that is not a scientific statement; it is a philosophical one that must be taken ultimately on faith.  No matter how you slice the cheese, there is no necessary contradiction between faith and science.

But I want to apply this to the problem of how to explain why some people are saved and others aren’t.  One explanation is to point to God’s sovereign choice.  As we saw, this is Paul’s explanation in Rom. 9:6-29.  But others will explain this by pointing to human faith or unbelief: those who believe are saved and those who don’t believe are not saved.  As we will see, this is Paul’s explanation in Rom. 9:30-10:4.  Now I am saying that these are both explanations.  They are different, yes; but they are complementary explanations, and not contradictory explanations.

That doesn’t mean we can fully understand how they are complementary; there are some things revealed in Scripture that we can know but can’t fully explain.  Take the Trinity for instance.  You cannot tell me how God can be one and three.  Just saying, “God is one in essence and three in person,” is correct, but it doesn’t really dissolve the mystery, especially if you think about it long enough.  In some sense, it is just restating the mystery.  Even the analogies run into problems (like water being solid, liquid, and vapor), and ultimately lead to heresy (the water analogy, for example, leads to modalism).  And when the church has articulated the doctrine, it has most often been in negative terms (“God is not like this”) rather than in positive terms (“God is like this”), because it is just so hard to say these positive things about God apart from what Scripture explicitly says.  But we can see why we run into difficulties: it is because we are dealing with God.  Given the complexities of life and the universe – what God created – we should expect the God who created all this to be beyond our ability to ultimately comprehend.  God himself reminds us that his thoughts are not our thoughts and his ways are not our ways (Isa. 55:8).

I think this applies to the relationship between God’s sovereignty and our responsibility in the matter of salvation.  With Paul, I take them to be complementary explanations of why a person is saved.  It is right to say that the ultimate reason I am saved is because God chose me (cf. Acts 13:48).  But it is also right for me to say that I am saved because I trusted in Christ, and that the onus is on us to repent and believe (cf. Acts 17:30).  It is also right to say that a person who is not finally saved that it is because they did not trust in Christ (Jn. 3:18, 36).  And it is also right to say that it is because God did not choose them: “you do not believe because you are not among my sheep” (rather than “you are not among my sheep because you did not believe”! – John 10:26). 

If you are waiting for an explanation how these two explanations are compatible, you are going to be waiting a long time, because I simply can’t do that.  Of course we can say some things.  We can say that faith is necessary because it is the appointed means God has chosen to bring salvation to his people, and this means is according to God’s sovereign, eternal election.  But that doesn’t get rid of all the mystery, and those who say it does just haven’t thought about it long enough.  It is enough for me to say that they are logically compatible and Biblical; but at the end of the day there is mystery here that I can’t explain, much like the doctrine of the Trinity.  The mystery here comes in because we are not just dealing with human effort, but also with the work of God.  It simply should not surprise us that there will be certain aspects of our salvation that we cannot fully comprehend.  But that doesn’t mean that we should reject it; it only means that we should humbly embrace it as far as the Bible reveals it.

Now let’s come to the text.  Note how Paul begins: “What shall we say, then?” (Rom. 9:30).  Every time Paul uses this phrase or something like it, the apostle is tying together two parts of an argument.  It is sometimes to confront a false implication to what he has been saying (as in 6:1; 7:7; 9:14).  It is sometimes to transition to another stage in an ongoing argument (as in 4:21).  It is sometimes to draw a conclusion from the foregoing verses (as in 8:31).  But the point is that this demonstrates that Paul has not moved to a different subject.  He is still dealing with the reasons why so many Gentiles are being saved and why so many Jews are lost.  His explanation in the previous verses (9:24-29) rests upon God’s sovereign choice.  Here in these verses, his explanation rests upon human decision: Gentiles believed and the Jews didn’t.  The fact that this text is part of one overarching argument shows that election to salvation and the gospel call to faith and repentance for salvation are compatible.  It is true that Paul doesn’t explain how these are compatible, but he seamlessly transitions from one explanation to the other.  And this shows that they are both explanations. 

So our message this morning will come in two stages: first, we will look at Paul’s explanation as to why many in Israel were not being saved (9:31-33; 10:1-4), and second, we will look at Paul’s explanation as to why the Gentiles were being saved (9:30).  And though this text was written in a first-century context, it has implications for us today: the same reasons why people are saved or not remain the same today.  So this is very relevant for us today who live in the twenty-first century.

Before I begin, let me just point that that in stating that many in Israel were not being saved, Paul was not being anti-Semitic.  After all, he was a Jew, and he was writing this out of a genuine concern for their salvation (9:1-2; 10:1).  And the fact of the matter is that the reasons why so many Jews did not believe are very similar to the reasons why so many 21st century late modern people don’t believe.  The categories are transcultural and, as I said, very relevant no matter whether you are a Jew or a Gentile.

Why people aren’t saved

I’m considering not only 9:30-33 but also 10:1-4 because there is a lot in these two passages that are parallel.  So the first thing we should say is that we can’t locate their lostness in their religiosity.  For in 9:31 the apostle describes his fellow Israelites as those who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness.  The word described those who competed in the races and presents the idea of fervor and enthusiasm.  Then in 10:2, he says that they “have a zeal for God.” 

Now there are many today in the West, which is at the moment becoming more secular, who think that religion will be a thing of the past.  But according to Tim Keller[1], scholars who research these trends say that the twenty-first century will be more religious than the twentieth, not less so.  Religion is not going away.  However, we must not think that this means that the Christian faith will become more prominent. We will always be faced with those who have a zeal for God but who do not have faith in Christ.  Religiosity is no guarantee that you will be saved.  In fact, religious fervor and sincerity is no mark of saving faith.  If anything, false religion can blind people to true religion and render them impervious to the call of the gospel.

But the fact of the matter is that more and more people in our culture are becoming non-religious, identifying themselves as one of the “nones.”  What does this text have to say to such people? 

In 9:31-33, the apostle says that the Jews pursued the law of righteousness but did not attain to righteousness.  Why?  He tells us in chapter 10: they did not attain to the law of righteousness because (1) they were ignorant, (2) they were self-righteous, and as a result (3) they did not submit themselves to God’s righteousness.  “They being ignorant of God’s righteousness and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves to the righteousness of God” (10:3, KJV).  As a result, they missed Jesus, who is the righteousness of God for us, the goal of the very law they claimed to pursue (10:4).  I would submit that these are the same reasons that men and women remain eternally lost today.

People are not saved because they are ignorant of the righteousness of God.

Being ignorant of the righteousness of God doesn’t mean you don’t know about the gospel.  Certainly many of Paul’s own contemporaries had heard the gospel and rejected it, and I think it is these folks of whom he is saying that they were ignorant of the righteousness of God.  Rather, he means they were ignorant in the sense that the message of the gospel didn’t ring true to them.  It didn’t capture their hearts, and they neither saw the relevance of it nor felt the weight of it upon their consciences.  They were ignorant of its truth and relevance and power.  This had been the case with the apostle Paul before his conversion.  He describes himself as having been “a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent.  But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief” (1 Tim. 1:13).  That’s the reality here: it is the ignorance of unbelief.

There are many people today who are in this camp.  They claim to know about the gospel, but they do not believe it is true.  They are ignorant of the righteousness of God.  They do not see their need for a Savior.  Why?  The answer is that they are self-righteous.

People are not saved because they are self-righteous.

The Jews of whom Paul was writing were those who were seeking salvation by works.  Not all Jews were legalistic, of course, but many were, and they rejected the gospel for that reason.  They “pursued a law that would lead wo righteousness” and “they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works” (9:31-32).  They were “ignorant of the righteousness of God” and were “seeking to establish their own [righteousness]” and so “they did not submit to God’s righteousness” (10:3). 

There are basically two types of people in the world.  There are those who have a sin-stricken conscience and those who are careless with respect to sin.  Our culture has created and nurtured millions of the latter and though it may seem surprising, such people are in a better position to seek salvation by works.  It is only when you fail to see the gravity of human failure and sin that you begin to think you can save yourself by being better than others.  And you see this all around us.  Don’t think that because people have rejected the authority of God and his word that they don’t feel the need to be righteous.  It’s part and parcel of the human condition.

For example, think about the cancel culture that in our present moment has become so powerful.  It is interesting that those who are enabling the cancel culture are precisely those who think that values are relative, that we determine our own identity, and have absolutized personal freedom.  Why then are they cancelling others?  It is because they think the “others” are bad, and deserve to be cancelled.  On the other hand, they think they are better (more righteous) than the “others” who needs to be cancelled.  Now they have no real right, on the basis of their own world-view, to call anyone bad, but they do so, and it is a testament to the enduring human need to be righteous. 

It is true, of course, that many of these self-righteous cancellers aren’t trying to be good in order to get into heaven.  They may or may not believe in heaven.  Rather, they are trying to create a utopia, a heaven, on earth.  Their salvation is earth- and time-bound. 

But how is this like the Jews of Paul’s day?  They put their own self-effort and self-righteousness as the means by which they saved themselves.  And even though they attempted to define their own righteousness by God’s law, they ended up missing God’s law and the righteousness it pointed them to.  People today may not think highly of the Bible or of Biblical standards like God’s law, but they still have a notion of right and wrong, and they are still trying to save themselves.  What they are saving themselves for may be different, but they are still trying to save themselves.  And they have adopted the same mindset of the self-righteous Pharisee in Luke 18 who told God that he was thankful he was not as bad as other people were (Lk. 18:10-14).

Of course, if you feel that you are good enough, then you are not going to seek salvation outside of yourself.  You are not going to see the need for an alien righteousness, the righteousness of God.  And that is the case with millions of people on planet earth.  They don’t feel a need for the gospel because they are doing quite well on their own, thank you very much.

Sadly, any salvation is impossible when it is based on self-righteous works, even when its locus is the here and now.  Say that you define salvation in terms of personal freedom, which is the case in the West at the present time [by personal freedom I don’t mean political freedom, to which this is ultimately antithetical, but rather the right to determine my personal identity to be whatever I want it to be].  People who seek salvation in this modern gospel peddled on our city streets are trying to find their salvation through personal autonomy in an identity they have self-created.  Many are attracted to this personal autonomy and are promised that it will lead to a world in which their will be no more hate or people excluding others, and it will give them the fulfillment they are seeking without judgment from anyone else.

But here is the irony: absolutizing personal freedom has created whole groups of “bad” people who now need to be excluded.  The salvation sought was supposed to get rid of one group excluding another, but instead it has created the need to exclude others.  Furthermore, because our personal freedom is so important, we end up exploiting others in order to safeguard our freedom.  When my own freedom is so important, the people around me become props to support my self-conceived perception of myself (i.e. Facebook and Instagram!).  When they threaten that, we have to cancel them (un-friending people on Facebook, for example, is often a very mild form of this).  This identity, then, is too fragile to support the weight put upon it.  The satisfaction we seek in this world is ultimately elusive.

Why is this?  It is because we are created by God who made us for himself.  When we put our own self-created identity/freedom in place of God, we are going to inevitably end up frustrated.  God will not allow us to find peace apart from himself: “’There is no peace,’ says my God, ‘for the wicked’” (Isa. 57:21).  He made us to find our salvation, not in some self-created identity, but rather in him.  He created us to find our freedom, not in abandoning his law, but by conformity to it.  When we violate the order of creation, we should not be surprised when we fail to find salvation.  Like the Jews of old, modern man is trying to establish his/her own righteousness.  And when we seek to establish our own righteousness, whether that is by God’s law or by our own notion of right and wrong, we will not submit to the righteousness of God (Rom. 10:3), which is the only way we can be saved.

People are not saved because they do not submit to God’s righteousness.

Jesus is the righteousness of God.  He is the savior that people reject, and with him, their own salvation.  But it stands to reason that if you can save yourself, you don’t need a Savior.  Because people are ignorant and self-righteous, they don’t see a need to submit to God’s righteousness.  That was the mindset of the Jews, and it is the mindset of most people in our day as well.  Paul says, quoting the OT, that Jesus was a stumbling block to them (9:32-33).  He remains a stumbling-block and a rock of offense to many today.

First of all, because people are ignorant of God’s righteousness and confident in their own righteous, they end up actually wanting a different savior.  They don’t want salvation before God in the age to come; they want salvation before men in the present.  Like the Jews, who didn’t want a Christ hung upon the cross dealing with the most important issue of justification before God, people today want a political savior – they want their salvation from “Rome” and from political oppression.  People talk all the time now about righteousness and justice, but this is almost always on a horizontal level, in terms of what people do to other people.  However, the reality is that justice on the horizontal level is going to be impossible until we achieve justice on the vertical level, and this can only be done in Christ. 

Again, the problem is that this insistence on other saviors and salvations won’t give them what they want.  Take, for instance, the fact that today people are rightly worried about the abuse of power to oppress others.  For them, the savior they are seeking is salvation from political oppression.  But any solution apart from Christ will only lead to more of that.  If we don’t come through Christ, we are going to end us using the power we gain to oppress and exploit others.  We may start by valuing freedom, but we will end up by destroying it.  The French Revolution started by valuing equality, liberty, and fraternity, and ended up with baskets of heads.  Jesus shows us a different and better way, because he gave up power – his throne in heaven – in order to save those who had no power to save themselves.  Though he was rich, yet for our sakes he became poor, that we through his poverty might become rich (2 Cor. 8:9).  People who embrace the Christ of the Bible aren’t going to use others or oppress others, but will be willing to lay down their lives for others.  Injustice clearly cannot survive with that mindset. 

Second, because people are ignorant and self-righteous, they do not see (and cannot) that Jesus was the goal of the law for righteousness (10:4).  The word “end” in verse 4 can carry the notion of “aim” or “goal” (cf. 1 Tim. 1:5).  Many of Paul’s contemporaries did not see that Jesus was the Messiah promised in the Scriptures (1 Co. 1:23).  They were blind, in fact, as to the real meaning of the OT even though they had the Bible in their hands (Jn. 5:39, 45-47).  They were blind because they failed to see the depth of their need and didn’t think they needed a Messiah who had to die for their sins.  Instead, they thought they could deal with their own sin by their religious works. 

At the end of the day, they failed to see that the law pointed to Jesus.  In the same way, modern man misses the multiple signposts put up by God in the created order that point to the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.  People sense the need for things like justice, and love, and forgiveness.  This need is a signpost to the cross, for that is the only place we will ultimately find the concurrence of all three: justice, love, and forgiveness.  For on the cross, God’s love comes to expression in giving us his Son for us that we might be saved from the worst imaginable end in hell.  On the cross, our Lord saves us from our sins and thus lavishes upon us the forgiveness of our sins, which we receive through him.  But amazingly, we also see justice, for we are saved precisely because on the cross God poured out his holy wrath against sin.

When we realize that Jesus is the goal of the law for righteousness, that our righteousness can only be found in him, then he will also be the end of our trying to gain righteousness by self-effort.  He did what we cannot do: he satisfied the justice of God on account of our sin.  We can talk all day long about the injustices of other people; what we all need to realize is that everyone of us is guilty of injustice towards God, and he will by no means forgive the guilty.  The only way we can receive salvation is if our sin and guilt is dealt with, and we cannot do that.  Only the God-Man can do that.  Only someone who was both God and man could save us: Man so that he could identify with us and be a substitute for us, and God so that he could bear the weight of infinite guilt upon his shoulders – infinite guilt because we have sinned against a God of infinite majesty.  Our obsession with the present material order has blinded us to our greater need of reconciliation before God, but that does not mean that this need does not exist.  It does, and it can only be dealt with in and through Christ, who is the righteousness of God for us.

There is no salvation outside of Christ.  There is no other name under heaven, given among men, whereby we must be saved (Acts 4:12).  He is the end of the law for righteousness, because he is the only one who can achieve the righteousness of God by which we are saved.  He is the only one who dealt with the problem of injustice on both the vertical and horizontal levels (cf. Eph. 2:11-22), and therefore he is the only one in whom we can find peace and justice in this world or the next.

This is why people are not saved.  They are not saved because they rest in their own righteousness and refuse to rest in the righteousness of God in Christ.  But that begs the question: why are people saved?

Why people are saved

Paul’s answer is related to the reason why the Gentiles were being saved, but his answer has significance for anyone who wants to know how people are saved: “What shall we say then?  That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, a righteousness that is by faith” (30). 

Paul’s answer is that people are saved by faith.  Now this doesn’t mean just any faith, but faith in Jesus as the Son of God and Savior of the world.  We see this because in the next verses we are told that the Jews had a lack of faith in Christ, who is the stone of stumbling and rock of offense (cf. 10:11 with 9:33). 

Why are we saved by faith?  Well, by this point we should know the answer.  We are saved by faith in Christ because it is when we believe in him that God justifies the ungodly (cf. 4:5; 5:1).  We need to be justified; we are sinners in the sight of God and a holy God will not have fellowship with the wicked.  We need the guilt of our sins to be dealt with first and foremost.  We need somehow to be made right with God.  But how can a holy God declare a sinful man to be righteous?  He can do so because by faith the righteousness of Christ is communicated to us.  Not because our faith makes us worthy, but because by faith we are united to the only one who is worthy, Jesus.  Jesus Christ kept the law we could not keep and died the death we could not die, and he did this as a substitute for sinners, so that his merits could be communicated to us by the sheer grace of God. 

My friend, you are not going to find salvation in a self-constructed identity.  You are not going to find salvation by demanding the freedom to define yourself however you want.  You are not going to find salvation by being good, or by being just as the world defines justice.  You are not going to find salvation in yourself.  It can only be found in Jesus Christ, because Jesus is the only one who can restore us to fellowship with God.  He is the only one who can balance the scales of justice in our favor.  He is the only one in whom we can be justified and saved.  Don’t relate to him as a rock of offense or a stone of stumbling.  Don’t hide your sins behind your self-righteousness, but have them purged in the righteousness of God in Christ.  All who come to him, he will never cast out.



[1] See Keller’s book Making Sense of God (Viking, 2016), p. 9-11.


Wednesday, July 15, 2020

God’s Election for Jews and Gentiles – Romans 9:24-29

In the verses before us, the apostle Paul completes the first part of his answer to the question of how God can be faithful to his promises to Israel in light of lostness of so many Israelites.  He emphatically rejects the notion that God is unfaithful to his promises: his word will not fail (6).  His explanation why his word will not fail is summarized in verses 6b-13: God’s promise of salvation is not given to every descendent of Abraham, but to those among them whom God chooses to save.  It is important to remember that because the problem the apostle is dealing with has to do with the lostness of individual Israelites, the election under consideration is an unconditional election of individuals to eternal life. 

The however, leads to the objection that this makes God look unjust (14).  Now the fact of the matter is that no one ever objected to God choosing one nation or individual over another for historical purposes and tasks.  But as soon as you make this about matters of eternal significance, people begin to complain that God couldn’t do it this way or he would be unrighteous.  That is true in our day and it was true in Paul’s day.  He answers this objection in verses 15-18.  We saw that his main answer is that this is the way the Scriptures represent God: God is the one who shows mercy one whomever he chooses to show mercy and has compassion on whomever he chooses to have compassion (15).  The apostle quotes two passages in Exodus to make this point.  His answer is not primarily a philosophical one: it is simply that the God of the Bible is the God who decisively determines who will be saved.  The implication is that since God is this way, he cannot be unrighteous in acting this way, for the God of the Bible is righteous.  You cannot sever his attributes; they are united in the divine essence.  God is both sovereign in salvation and righteous; he is both.

Then comes the objection about the tension this brings between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility.  If it is in fact true that God decisively determines who will be saved, then how can God hold anyone accountable for their actions (19)?  The apostle answers this objection in verses 20-23.  Again, his answer will be very unsatisfying for those who are looking for a complete explanation.  Paul doesn’t do this; he simply says that we are not in the position to question God.   God is the creator; we are creatures.  From this reality there are two reasons why we shouldn’t question God’s sovereignty in salvation.

One reason that we are not in the position to question God has to do with God’s rights as creator.  As creator he also has the right as creator to do with his creation whatever he wills, just as a potter has the right to do with the clay whatever he wills.

But another reason has to do with our limitations.  As I said last time, people have a problem with unconditional election of individuals to eternal life because they project upon God their own limitations.  As Luther put it to Erasmus, their thoughts of God are too human.  They imagine that because they couldn’t determine someone’s will without destroying their responsibility, therefore God couldn’t determine someone’s will without destroying their accountability.  But this logic depends on the notion that God relates to the wills of his creatures in the same way we relate to the wills of our fellow man.  This, however, is not true; God is not limited by our limitations.  I think this is implied in Paul’s response in verses 20-23.

Now this is important because modern man is probably more guilty of this kind of thinking than previous generations.  This is especially true when it comes to the problem of evil and unexplained suffering.  When you hear deconversion stories, the problem of evil always comes up.  How can a good God exist when there is so much purposeless suffering in the world?  People ask this question as if the answer is obvious: no such God could exist!  But the funny thing is that ancient man was far more conversant with suffering and evil, explained or not, than we are.  And they wrestled with the problem of evil.  Just take the book of Job, which is, if it is anything, an extended meditation upon the reality of apparently purposeless suffering in the world.  But what is interesting about Job is that it never once considers the possibility of the non-existence of God as an answer to the problem.  What is the difference?  Why was it that when ancient people wrestled with the problem of evil, they rarely (if ever) considered the possibility that God does not exist?

The reason, I think, has to do with the fact that modern man has far more confidence in his own ability to reason than ancient man had.  We are far more likely to look to the deliverances of reason than our fore-fathers were.  They realized (rightly, I think) that they were not in the position to understand everything about God.  If there was unexplained evil in the world, that didn’t mean there wasn’t a purpose for it, it just meant they couldn’t know it.  But modern man, on the other hand, thinks that if he can’t understand it, then it must not be possible.  The difference is not that ancient people were too stupid to think about the problem of evil; it was just that they were more humble about their ability to understand it than we are.  Our hubris gets in the way.

The irony is that this confidence in the deliverances of reason is not something you can prove.  Why is it that we think that our reason is so powerful?  Ultimately, modern man’s confidence in his reason as the ultimate arbiter of truth and fiction is held as a matter of faith.  This is almost comical given the fact that modern man is so resistant to matters of faith – and yet this foundational confidence is itself based on faith.

Something similar is going on here with the sovereignty of God in salvation.  Are we going to reject it because we can’t understand it?  As we’ve already noted, Paul doesn’t defend God’s right to choose whomever he pleases to be saved on the basis of philosophy and reason.  What does he do?  He appeals, again and again, to Scripture.  He does this more in chapter 9 than any other chapter so far.  He quotes six OT passages (Gen. 21:12; 18:10, 14; Gen. 25:23; Mal. 1:2,3; Exod. 33:19; 9:16) in the previous verses.  In the text we are considering this morning, he quotes Hos. 2:23; 1:10, and Isa. 10:22,23 and 1:9.  In other words, Paul wants his readers to understand that this understanding of who God is and how he saves is not based on his own reason but on the revelation that God has given of himself in Scripture.

That doesn’t mean reason is not important.  Of course we don’t want to embrace things that are irrational or incoherent.  But when it comes to theology, we have to be willing to embrace all the Bible says about God, even if we don’t understand it.  And as we come to the verses before us, we see that Paul continues to develop his argument in terms of what the Scriptures say. 

God’s purpose of election for Jew and Gentile

What do they say?  Notice what the apostle says in verse 24: “even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?”  In other words, what the apostle has been saying about the Jews – namely, that God has sovereignly chosen to save some (but not all) – is also true of the Gentiles.  Gentiles are among the “vessels of mercy” that are “prepared beforehand for glory” by God (23).  Election is not just for Jews, but for Gentiles as well.  God’s purpose of election is a purpose to save some among every kindred, nation, tribe, and language.  All that Paul has said before applies to all who are called by God to salvation, no matter what their heritage.  This is important because the gospel is going out to all the nations, and the church includes both Jew and Gentile.  And though it is true that the gospel is a gospel to the Jew first, it is also a gospel to the Greek (1:16).  Paul not only has to explain why many Jews are lost; he also has to explain why so many Gentiles are being saved.  That is what he is doing here.  The apostle speaks first to the Gentiles (25-26), and then back to the Jews (27-29).

For the Gentile (25-26)

One of the interesting things about these verses is that Paul quotes from the book of the Old Testament minor prophet Hosea: “Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’ and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved’” (25, a quote from Hos. 2:23).  What follows is a quote from Hos. 1:10: “And in the place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ there they will be called ‘sons of the living God’” (26).  When Hosea wrote these words, he was writing them to and about the northern nation of Israel, which had apostatized from the true faith and were worshipping false gods. 

God had called Hosea to a very difficult task.  In order to be a parable to the nation of Israel, God told Hosea to marry a prostitute who would bear children from adulterous relationships, just as Israel had abandoned faithfulness to God to go after foreign gods.  Their names indicate as much.  Gomer, Hosea’s wife, had three children: Jezreel, Lo-ruhamah, and Lo-ammi.  The last two names mean “not my loved one” and “not my people,” respectively.  They were probably not Hosea’s children.  But instead of letting Gomer go (who had also run off and abandoned Hosea), God tells Hosea to get her back and to show her mercy.  And her children then become “my loved one” and “my people.”  Even so, God is saying through Hosea, he will one day welcome back these wayward people into his family.

The strange thing is that Paul applies all this to Gentiles, as the connection between verses 24 and 25 makes clear.  But that does not make the application questionable.  The apostle is simply taking a principle and applying it to a similar situation.  Just as Israel’s idolatry put them in the category of those who were no longer God’s people, even so the Gentiles did not belong to the people of God (cf. Eph. 2:11-22).  Nevertheless, many Gentiles were being called by God in his sovereign mercy to become the people of God. 

In the twenty-first century, it is often easy for us to forget just how wonderful and surprising this blessing is.  God never had to include the Gentiles in his plan of salvation.  It is his sovereign mercy that brought us into the fold of God’s family.  It is God’s doing, not ours.  It was God who sent Peter to Cornelius, a Gentile, sent the Spirit so they would believe, and introduced Gentiles into the church (Acts 10).  When those who were scattered abroad as a result of persecution preached to Gentiles, we are told that “the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord” (Acts 11:21).  And when Paul first went to Europe, it was because “God had called us to preach the gospel to them” (Acts 16:10).  And the first convert in Europe, Lydia, was converted because God opened her heart to attend to the things preached by Paul (Acts 16:14).  In other words, at every turn we are reminded that God was the one who brought Gentiles into the family of God.  He sends the Spirit, he attends with power the word preached, and he opens hearts.  We who are Gentiles have God’s eternal purpose to thank for our inclusion into the people of God.

I think it is worthwhile to consider the terms by which this is described.  Those who are saved are called by God, “my people.”  And this is not merely a name for those who are set aside for historical tasks, but who are incorporated into the family of God forever.  Look back at verse 23: the vessels of mercy are prepared for glory.  “Glory” in Paul is not a reference to a special historical task, but to eternal blessing.  We are not to interpret the people of God here merely in terms of being God’s people in this world. This means to belong to God forever as his children.  The apostle Peter quotes this verse as well, and applies it to his reader’s in terms of salvation: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.  Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (1 Pet. 2:9-10).

So Paul says that Gentiles who are called to faith in Christ are part of the people of God.  More than that, he says that they are “beloved.”  To be the people of God means that we are loved by him.  It is why the apostle John wrote, “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called the children of God; and so we are. . . . Beloved, God we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 Jn. 3:1, 2). 

I think a lot of our problems stem from the fact that we forget who we are.  If you believe in Christ, it is because you have been called by God to belong to his family and to be embraced in his eternal love.  There is nothing more secure than that.  There is no greater blessing than that.  Let the people of this world seek security in the things of this world; let them seek their comforts there.  It is nothing compared to what is laid up for the people of God and what even now we are beginning to enjoy.  Knowing this rightly would be the sovereign cure for worry and dissatisfaction.  May we live in the light of the reality of verses 25 and 26!

But this is not all Paul has to say.  Since the main problem in view is the problem of Israel, he returns to their place in God’s saving purpose and plan in the next three verses.

For the Jew (27-29)

In these verses the apostle quotes Isaiah.  Again, the emphasis here is on two realities: first, that a small number of the Israelites are being saved, and second, that God is the one who ultimately is responsible for this state of affairs. 

As for the first reality, Paul refers to those who are saved as “only a remnant” in contrast to the total number of the children of Israel (“as the sand of the sea”) in verse 27, and then in verse 29, he refers to them as “a seed.”  So the fact that so many Israelites had rejected the gospel and so lost was not something that took God by surprise.  It was part of his plan to save a remnant.  And as William Hendriksen points out, Paul is not spiritualizing this text when he applies it to the eternal salvation of some Jews over others.  For, “a close look at Isaiah’s own prophesy shows that he by no means restricts this prophesy to a physical return from captivity, but states that the remnant will return ‘to the mighty God’ (Isa. 10:21).  They will lean on Jehovah, will rely on the Lord (verse 20).  Paul is therefore exactly reproducing Isaiah’s thought when he says that of the total number of Israelites only the remnant will be saved.”[1] 

The second reality is that God is the one who is doing this.  Verse 28, though it is difficult, yet the overall idea is that God is fulfilling his purpose in this state of affairs, and he is doing it speedily and thoroughly: “for the Lord will carry out his sentence upon the earth fully and without delay.”  The thought behind these verses is that God has not been defeated in the overall apostasy of Israel; rather, he is fulfilling his purposes even in this.  God’s purpose of election is not to be judged by the numbers of those who embrace the faith, for it is his purpose to save a remnant, a small seed.

You see the emphasis upon the action of God also in verse 29.  Who is it that leaves a seed, an offspring?  It is the Lord of hosts.  And it is he that keeps the apostasy from being complete: for “if the Lord had not left us offspring, we would have been like Sodom and become like Gomorrah.”  In other words, not only is God not being unfaithful to his promises: he is actually carrying them out as the Gentiles pour into the church and Israel is rejecting the gospel.  And the ultimate explanation for all of this is the fact that God is sovereign in salvation.

Now we should be encouraged by this.  For there is a principle here that ought to strengthen us.  Sodom and Gomorrah are represented in Scripture as a picture of ultimate rebellion against God and wickedness as well as a picture of God’s final judgment upon the wicked (see esp. Mt. 10:15; 11:23,24; 2 Pet. 2:6; Jude 7).  Today we are surrounded by a weakened and frightened church and an emboldened world hostile to God’s people.  We are confronted with high profile professing Christians who deny the faith and de-convert, many times very publicly.  We are living, as it were, in a reincarnated Sodom and Gomorrah.  The apostasy is all around us.  And it is very easy – I speak from experience – to get depressed when we see everything getting worse and worse.  It is easy for us to have the attitude of Elijah, who complained that he was the only faithful person left in Israel.

But we need to encourage ourselves by the fact that even in the midst of what looks to us as the crumbling of God’s plans, in fact God is actually carrying out his plans.  Paul looked around and saw so many of his fellow Jews rejecting the gospel.  That had to be very hard.  How many synagogues had he been thrown out of?   How many times had he been rejected and beaten and scoffed and scorned by his own people?  And yet Paul didn’t give up.  Why?  Because he had confidence that God always in all times is successfully working out his plans, even when we can’t see it.  He will save his elect.  And in fact, if it were not for his election, we would all be lost.  The fact that there is still a church is proof that God is still working, still calling his people home.

My friends, the wicked do not have the final word.  The Ahabs and Jezabels may appear powerful, and they may lead many away from the true faith.  But God has those whom he has reserved for himself, even though it be a remnant.  People often talk about this or that side of history.  My friend, there is only one side of history and that is God’s side.  Trust in God.  He is working out his eternal purposes even when we cannot see how any of this will turn out for good.  We have no reason to fear.  We have no reason to worry.  And though hard times may be ahead for the people of God, it is not because the reins of history have gotten out of his hands.  He is in control and we can rest in that.  And God’s people will be saved.  Not one shall be lost.  And if you belong to Christ, that means you.  You are in his hands, and therefore most secure!



[1] William Hendriksen, Romans (Baker, 1981), p. 332.


Saturday, July 11, 2020

God’s Sovereignty in Salvation: Two Final Arguments – Rom. 9:19-24


In these verses, Paul is addressing what is really a third objection to his gospel.  The first had to do with the faithfulness of God, for to say that many in Israel who did not embrace Jesus as Messiah were lost made it seem as if God was reneging on his promises to Israel.  This is the overall objection, and Paul’s main answer to it comes in verses 6-13.  His answer is that God’s promise of salvation is not dependent on physical descent but upon his sovereign election. 

But this answer leads to two further objections.  Paul’s answer has in some sense created some new problems.  One of them is this: God’s unconditional election of individuals to eternal life makes him look partial and unjust.  How can God choose Jacob and hate Esau, not on the basis of their works but solely on the basis of his sovereign choice?  The apostle answers in verses 14-18, which we considered last time.  His answer, as we saw, is primarily that this is how the Scripture describes God.  The God of the Bible is sovereign in salvation.  His glory, which is inseparable from his righteousness, is displayed in his sovereign bestowal of mercy and hardening.  The standard of God’s righteousness is not located in our modern ethical consciousness but in the self-revelation of who God is in the Bible.  And that is a self-revelation of sovereignty in salvation.  Since this is the way the Bible describes God, we must not think of this way of acting on God’s part as unrighteous.

Now comes a third objection: “You will say to me then, ‘Why does he still find fault?  For who can resist his will?” (19).  This objection is the age-old question of the problem of divine sovereignty and human responsibility.  How can God be sovereign in salvation, how can it be that he is the decisive reason why we are saved, how can it be that his will is the ultimate reason we are saved than not, without giving up on our responsibility?  Or how can our wills be truly authentic, how can our choices be meaningful and significant, when God is the one who determines our eternal destiny?

You may not like his answer, because he does not exhaustively answer the question.  Ultimately, he leaves the conundrum as a mystery.  But this is a test of our humility before God.  We need to be able to rest in what God says and to leave the rest up to him.  But that does not mean that the Bible doesn’t give us any answer, and Paul does shed some light on the problem.  In fact, in the verses before us he gives us two final reasons why is it right for God to exercise sovereignty in salvation.

The first reason has to do with who we are compared to God: he is the Creator and we are the creature; he is the potter and we are the clay.  He can do with his own what he wills.  If he chooses to save one and harden another, that is his prerogative as the Creator of all things.  This answer comes In verses 20-21.  But that is not all he has to say.  The other reason he gives has to do with the purpose behind his sovereignty: to display the full orb of his attributes, both of mercy and judgment, but especially mercy.  God has created and rules a world in which his glory is most fully exhibited.  This answer comes in verses 22-24.  So we will consider these two reasons under the headings of God’s prerogative in exercising sovereignty and God’s purpose in exercising sovereignty.

Four reasons why this doctrine is important

Before we do so, however, I want to consider with you why this is so important.  Why does Paul spend 24 verses on explaining and defending the fact that God’s will, not ours, is decisive in salvation?  What possible good can this doctrine do?  Won’t it impede a sense of the urgency of obedience and faith?  Let me give you a number of reasons why this doctrine is important and why we must not shrink back from boldly holding to it.

First, we should do so because this doctrine does more than any other to make God and his grace our only hope for salvation and eternal life.  And this is what we need, because our tendency is to rely on ourselves in one way or another.  Our tendency is to look to our righteousness instead of Christ, to rely on our strength instead of the strength that God gives.  But if God’s will and purpose is at the bottom of our salvation, then our hope must finally rest in him and in no one or nothing else.

Second, it is important because this doctrine does more than any other to give God all the glory for our salvation and life.  If my will is the decisive instrument in my salvation, then at the end of the day I have saved myself, and I get the credit for gaining eternal life for myself.  You can say all day long that God provided salvation on the cross and without it we cannot be saved, but if you make the human will the thing that finally determines whether or not I take advantage of that salvation, then the human will gets the glory for the salvation.  But that is glory that belongs to God alone, not to man.  To God alone the glory!

Third, this doctrine does more than any other to remind us that our salvation is not ultimately dependent upon ourselves.  And that is very good news.  If the constancy of my will is at the bottom of my final salvation, then I can only be hopeful if I ignore the dark realities that lurk within my heart.  But if I am honest with myself, I will probably end up giving in to despair.  This truth, however, reminds me that my final salvation does not depend on the keeping power of my will but on the keeping power of God’s grace and purpose.  It fills me with hope to know that God is beneath all my willing and doing, and that his arms will catch me when I fall.  As the hymn puts it, “He will hold me fast…

Fourth, this doctrine does more than any other to remind us that God is in ultimate control, not only of my salvation, but of all things.  He can take the most powerful ruler on earth, like Pharaoh, and use him for his purposes, even when Pharaoh thinks he is doing his own thing.  “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will (Prov. 21:1).  It reminds me of the truth that “the LORD brings the counsel of the nations to nothing; he frustrates the plans of the peoples.  The counsel of the LORD stands forever, the plans of his heart to all generations” (Ps. 33:10-11). 

And all these things together reinforce the reality of Romans 8:28, that all things work together for good.  We know they do, because God, not man, is on the throne and in ultimate control.

I recently watched the movie Signs again.  I like that movie because it is about a man who moves from an abandoned faith in God to a reawakened faith in God.  One of things that moves him back to faith after losing it from suffering the tragic loss of his wife is his seeing again that there are no coincidences and that God is the great Mover behind all that happens in our lives, with a purpose that is good.  In my opinion, there is an especially moving part in the movie, when he (Graham Hess, played by Mel Gibson) tells his brother that there are two kinds of people in the world, those who look at seemingly miraculous events and see them as evidence that there is someone out there looking out for them, and those who see such things as nothing more than pure luck.  For those who think they are on their own, Hess says, “But deep down, they feel that whatever happens, they are on their own.  And it fills them with fear.”  Then there are those who believe that whatever happens is not just pure luck: “deep down, they fell that whatever’s going to happen, there will be someone there to help them.  And that fills them with hope.”  I confess that I like that, and I think he’s right.  When you look at the things that are transpiring in our world, so many people are filled with fear and it’s because deep down they believe they are either totally or ultimately on their own.  But the Scriptures, and this doctrine, give us a reason to put ourselves in the category of those who don’t see things as mere coincidences, and who believe that God is really for them for their eternal good.

It goes almost without saying, though, that the theology of Hollywood movies, even good ones like Signs, is very thin.  The movie doesn’t describe God any more than as someone who is there to help us, whatever that means.  On the other hand, Romans 8 and 9 are predicated upon a concrete view of God as truly sovereign, who helps us in the sense of making all things work together in Christ for our eternal good.  If he is for us, no one can be successfully against us.  And that is a hope that will not put you to shame.

Very well, we see why this doctrine is important.  Now let’s look at the two final arguments the apostle gives for establishing the reality of the sovereignty of God in salvation.

God’s prerogative in exercising sovereignty (20-21)

“But who are you, O man, to answer back to God?  Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’  Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?”  Essentially, what Paul is saying here is that our status as the clay makes it inconceivable for us to question God in his right as the potter to do whatever he pleases with his own.  We may not like the way God is described to us in the Bible, but since this is God’s self-revelation of himself to us, we are only talking back to God when we disagree and object to it. 

I think one of the reasons people have such a hard time with this view of God is because we project on God our own limitations.  There just isn’t any way I could make my will determine someone else’s will without at the same time using force to suppress their will and therefore destroy any accountability they might have for their actions which proceed from such compulsion.  But we must not think that God’s sovereignty over the wills of men makes them any the less accountable for their actions.  We are not God.  There is not a one-to-one correspondence between the way we relate to other people and the way God relates to the works of his hand.  And Paul reminds the reader and potential objector of this: “who are you, O man, to answer back to God?”  The apostle is using very strong language here to make this distinction between our human frailty and God.  God is God and you are not!  He is the Potter and you are the clay.  He is the Creator and you are the creature.

Paul’s argument not only reminds us of God’s power in light of our limitations, it also reminds us of God’s rights in light of our creaturehood.  It is his right to save one and not another because God is God and we belong to him.  Just as a potter can do with the clay what he pleases, even so God has the right to do with us whatever he pleases.  What right does the clay have to talk back to the potter?  What right do we have to put God in the dock?

Further, since God is God (and we are not), he does not have to give us an exhaustive reason or explanation as to why he acts as he does.  Imagine a child demanding a reason from a parent before obeying.  And yet the distance between a parent and child is infinitely small compared to the distance between the creature and the Creator.  Now of course that doesn’t mean it is wrong to try to understand why (Paul does give somewhat of a reason in the next few verses), but it is wrong for us to demand such.

Now there are those who again want to put this in terms of merely historical roles: the vessels for honorable use or dishonorable are to be interpreted, they say, in terms of earthly service.  But this will not do, for at least two reasons.  It won’t do because the overarching problem behind all these verses is the eternal lostness of those Israelites who had rejected Christ.  Those who perish eternally are the vessels for dishonorable use, and those who are saved the vessels for honorable use.  Second, the apostle uses the imagery of vessels in the next verses, describing the lost as “vessels of wrath prepared for destruction” (22).  It is hard for me, at least, to imagine Paul talking merely in terms of earthly punishment here.  Then in verse 23 the apostle describes the saved as “vessels of mercy . . . prepared beforehand for glory” (23).  The honor in verse 21 relates to mercy and glory in verse 23 and dishonor in verse 21 to wrath and destruction in verse 22.  God has the right to love Jacob and hate Esau (13), and he has the right to show mercy on whomever he wills (15) and he has the right to harden whomever he pleases (17).  He is the potter and we are the clay.

Now some will come back and ask how can we be expected to follow a God whose ways we cannot understand?  How can our faith be sustained in a God whose ways are shrouded with mystery, especially when we are facing hard things in our lives?  In answer we must remember that though God has not revealed everything, he has revealed some things, and our faith has all it needs to be sustained by knowing what God has revealed.  In particular, faith can be sustained by knowing that God is good and just and holy, and that he involved, not just with the “big picture” but with the details as well.  You don’t sustain faith by telling yourself that you are in control, but by holding on to the God is in control over all things.  And that is precisely the view of God that these verses give to us.

But we also need to ask ourselves if it is right for us to only be willing to follow God as far as our understanding goes?  If that is the case, don’t we dishonor him as being untrustworthy?  What about Prov. 3:5-6: “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.  In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.”  Trust in the God who is sovereign and let your hope rest in him.

Nevertheless, before we move on to the next point, I think it is important to point out that the apostle is not rebuking a person simply for wanting to understand the way of God which are shrouded in mystery.  God is not harsh towards those who are struggling with genuine questions.  I think, rather, that he is rebuking that person who is demanding an explanation from God on their own terms.  This is the attitude of, “Unless God gives me the kind of explanation I want, I’m not going to trust in him or love him.”  This is the attitude of those who use theological problems as an excuse not to get right with God or conform their will to his.  At the end of the day, this kind of person is not really serious about seeking the Lord but making room for their own sin and rebellion. 

This morning (7/4/20) I read Isaiah 66, where God describes the kind of person he will bless: “But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word” (2b).  Of all things, we should want God to look to us – to shine his face upon us, to bless us with the light of his countenance.  There can be no greater honor, no more glorious blessing.  But to whom does this come?  Not to the high and lofty among men, no to the philosophers and the wise, but to the humble and contrite, to those who tremble at God’s word.  Do you tremble?  Oh God, give us a heart that trembles not before men but before your word!  Let us not be people who take offence at God’s word because it does not correspond with our inherited view of God but rather let us humble ourselves and rejoice with trembling before the God of the Bible.

God’s purpose in exercising sovereignty

In verses 22-24 there are three purpose clauses, and in these purpose clauses we are told why God exercises sovereignty the way he has done.  “What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory – even us whom he has called, not from Jews only but also from the Gentiles?”  The three purposes are “to show his wrath” and “to make known his power” and “to make known the riches of his mercy.”  And yet the three clauses are not equal – the purpose to show mercy is the preeminent purpose, and the purpose to show his wrath and power are subservient to this greater purpose (we’ll come back to this).  But the overall reason given in these verses is that God hardens whom he wills and saves whom he wills in order to most fully display the glory of his wrath, power, and mercy.

God chose to prepare some vessels for destruction in order to show his wrath and power in the destruction of the wicked (22).  The exemplar here is Pharaoh, because through God’s hardening his heart and enduring him and being patience with his sin and rebellion, God was able to more fully display and show forth his attributes of wrath and power: “But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt, Pharaoh will not listen to you.  Then I will lay my hand on Egypt and bring my hosts, my people the children of Israel, out of the land of Egypt by great acts of judgment” (Exod. 7:3-4; compare Exod. 9:16 quoted in Rom. 9:17).

Now we must guard the holiness of God, and affirm the fact that God does not compel or force men to sin.  Yet, neither must we weaken the force of these words either.  God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he prepares vessels for destruction.  Yes, I think it is a good explanation for this is to say that he does this by leaving people in their sin.  But the reason for God leaving them in their sin is not found in any particular degree of sin in them, but is to be found in God’s eternal purpose (note the fact that God prepares “beforehand” in verse 23 and note the similarity to verse 11).  And the reason God created a world in which men would sin and perish forever was partly in order to create a world in which the glory of his wrath and power would be displayed in the destruction of all his enemies. 

This is right because God is righteous when he acts in such as way as to preserve and display his glory.  And the Scriptures remind us (Exod. 9:16; 33:19) that it is part of the essence of God’s glory for him to show mercy and to harden whomever he pleases.

But God not only prepares some vessels for destruction; he also has prepared other vessels for mercy (23-24).  And this is the ultimate reason why God prepares vessels for destruction: the purposes of showing wrath and power are “in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy” (23).  Mercy, not wrath, is the preeminent attribute that God wants to declare and display.  I think it is interesting that Paul does not talk about the riches of God’s power and wrath, but he does talk about the riches of God’s glory displayed for the vessels of mercy. 

The fact of the matter is that we would never really know God’s mercy if it were not for his wrath and power poured out on the wicked.  In fact, this is the way the book of Isaiah ends, a book devoted to describing God’s righteous rescue of his people culminating in a new heavens and new earth: “And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me.  For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh” (Isa. 66:24).  The purpose of this display is not to revel in death and destruction; the purpose is to reveal the amazing mercy displayed by God upon his people who themselves deserve that death and destruction.  When we consider that our salvation is properly described in terms of mercy, we realize that if we had gotten what we deserved, we would have been in Pharaoh’s place.  Yes, God could have saved all mankind had he so chosen, but then those who were saved would never truly understand how great was the mercy that saved them.  The Scriptures seem to indicate that our delight in God depends in part upon our being able to see, with Moses upon the mount, the fullest display of the glory of God, but this is not possible apart from a display of both mercy and wrath, with the wrath serving the purpose of mercy.

Is this a full and exhaustive explanation for God’s purposes?  No, of course not.  But it does give us a partial glimpse into the eternal purposes of God.  For that we should be grateful, not morbidly curious.

How can I know I am elect?

If this is true, that our salvation depends ultimately upon God’s will rather than our own, that the elect alone will gain salvation, then the pressing question becomes, how do I know I am among the elect?  Some would argue that you can’t know.  But that’s not what the apostle Peter indicates when he calls us to make our calling and election sure (2 Pet. 1:7).  And that’s not what the apostle indicates, when he says, “even us whom he hath called” (24).  In other words, Paul says that we know we are a vessel of mercy if we can put ourselves in the category of the called.  So the question then becomes, “Am I called?”  What does that mean?  It means at least four things.

First, it means that I am called to salvation and faith (2 Thess. 2:13, 14).  It means that I have responded to the call of the gospel to embrace Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.  Have you?  The call is a command to believe in the gospel and to repent of your sins.  Have you?

Second, it means that I see in Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:24).  It means that I am no longer among those who think the gospel is foolishness but who see the gospel of the cross of Christ to be my only hope of reconciling with God in this life or the next.  Do you see the glory of Christ?  Do you love and worship him?

Third, it means that I have fellowship with Christ (1 Cor. 1:9), that religion is not just a thing to do but a relationship to enter into.  Do you know Christ as your friend and help?  Do you know the reality of the communication of Christ’s love to you in his word and prayer?  Is he real to you?

Finally, it means that I have been called out of darkness into light (1 Pet. 2:9).  In other words, there is a definite change in your life.  Once you were characterized by sin and rebellion and going your own way.  Now your heart’s desire is conformity to Christ.  Once you saw holiness and obedience as a burden, and now you see them as the measure of your freedom.  Is this true of you?  Does your heart long to be more holy, not merely on the outside like the Pharisees but also on the inside?

If so, then you have every mark of being called and therefore of being elect.  And as such you can be sure that your final salvation is guarded and guaranteed.  No one can snatch you out of God’s hand, for you are embraced in God’s eternal purpose, a purpose that does not and cannot change.  Thanks be unto God!  Salvation is of the Lord.

Romans 12:1-2. Marks of Christian Community: Devotion to God.

The reason for the exhortation: the mercies of God. The Apostle Paul begins with the words, “I appeal to you therefore brothers” (12:1).  ...