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.”
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!
 William Hendriksen, Romans (Baker, 1981), p. 332.
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