This week, we continue with our broad overview of Paul’s letter to the Romans. We have seen the over-arching theme of the book is simply, the gospel. This letter tells us, more comprehensively than anywhere else in the Bible, what the gospel is. Up to this point, we have surveyed the contents of the first three major sections of this book. The first section, which runs from chapter one to chapter 3:20, gives Paul’s argument for the necessity of the gospel. WHY is the gospel necessary in the first place? And Paul’s answer is, the unrighteousness of sinners before a holy God who must pour out his wrath against all unrighteousness. Sinners are, on the one hand, accountable to be right with God and on the other, utterly unable to be right with God. Therefore, they are subject to the punitive wrath of God. That is why the gospel is necessary for humanity.
In the second section of the letter which runs from 3:21-4:25, Paul lays out the heart of the gospel. In this section, he answers the question “HOW does God bring sinners into relationship with himself?” And Paul answers the question by laying out the very pillars of the gospel. These basic truths of the gospel are rooted in terms like justification, redemption, grace, and propitiation which Paul treats in this section. That means, our appreciation for the truths of the gospel hang on our understanding and delight in those glorious truths. The third section of the letter, which we looked at last week in chapters 5-8, expresses Paul’s affirmation of the hope found in the gospel. For the true believer, the hope of salvation found in the gospel is indestructible. The sin in the believer can’t destroy that hope nor can the physical death of the believer or the law of God. Nothing can destroy the hope of the gospel which is the power of God for salvation.
The fourth section of the letter we pick up today was written by Paul to defend the gospel against a charge which was circulating against it in his time. This charge leveled against the gospel concerned the Jews and could be put this way, “If Jesus is the true Jewish Messiah who was to bring salvation to `the Jew first,’ then why is it that the church is predominantly Gentile in its makeup with only a comparably small number of Jews?” This charge sounded reasonable to some in light of promises in the prophetic sections of the Old Testament like Isaiah 45:17 where Isaiah says, “…all Israel will be saved.” Here’s how the thinking went in some circles: “If the Messiah has come and most of Israel has rejected the Savior, their only hope of salvation, then those prophetic promises have failed.” Paul in chapters 9-11 confronts that challenge to God’s promises relating to the Israel and in so doing tells us something crucial in our understanding of the sovereign of God in the gospel.
At the heart of this section of Romans is the question: “Why is it that so many Jews, for whom the Messiah came have not been saved through faith--why didn’t they accept Christ?” It is ironic that the way most of the church in North America would answer that question, if it were posed to them, is very different from how Paul answered it in chapters nine and eleven. The majority of Protestant evangelicals in the last 100 years would give an answer to that question which is very differently not only from Paul, but also Reformers like Luther, Calvin and Zwingli. The answer most evangelicals give to the question as to why so many people do not accept Christ sounds something like this, “Because they made a wrong choice. They were free moral agents and they made a bad decision about Christ when he offered himself to them. The ultimate reason why, not only the Jews but anyone for that matter does not respond to God is because they, in their free will, simply decided not to.” That response, as prevalent as it is in modern day evangelicalism, is contrary to the response the inspired word of God gives to that question in Romans nine and eleven.
It is safe to say the content in Romans nine is among the most controversial in the entire New Testament. The controversy is NOT because the text is loaded with all sorts of difficulties in interpreting it. In fact, compared to others, it’s a fairly straight forward text where Paul actually anticipates and answers some of the most common objections which are leveled against its claims. The source of controversy historically is not over how to parse certain Greek verbs but over the fact that Paul makes some intensely humbling statements here about the character of God as it relates to His sovereign authority in the salvation of sinners.
Paul obviously did not write this text to be controversial, but to communicate something of the glorious character of God in the context of this defense of God’s faithfulness to his Old Testament promises about Israel. When we looked at this section a year ago, we spend five weeks laying a biblical backdrop of the character of God with the goal of helping us not be overwhelmed by the nature of the issues Paul raises in Romans nine. If you were not here for those messages or if you would simply like to refresh your memory on those issues, a set of manuscripts stapled together has been provided in the foyer under the title—“A Brief Primer on Reformed Theology…” So if, as you are listening today on this survey of this section and you have questions about this topic that are not covered, please, before you reject the truths offered here, consult that source and others we can point you to.
Paul treats this main issue throughout this section by writing in a “question and answer” style. He states a truth about election and then asks a question in response to that truth and answers it. Because he uses this question and answer style, we will highlight the main questions he poses and use them as the main points of our survey of this section. The first question and the one that guides this whole section is implied in verse six. It is, “how could the Old Testament promises about the salvation of Israel through the Messiah be true in light of the massive rejection of Christ by the Jews?” In the second half of verse six, he gives the broad answer. He says, “…for not all who are descended from Israel are Israel.”
In this section, Paul goes back to the early history of the Jewish people to show that there has been from almost the beginning a select, spiritual Israel within the ethnic or national Israel. Paul says in effect, “just because someone can trace their family tree back to Abraham, that does not guarantee that they are included in the promises God gives to Israel.” That’s a controversial stance but He shows how this has always been the case by illustrating from the examples of Ishmael and Esau. They were both descended from Abraham, but they were not included in the promised blessings of the Old Covenant. The reason they were not included, as Paul argues from the Old Testament, is because before they were born God sovereignly chose to save Isaac and Jacob, while rejecting Ishmael and Esau. The reason God chooses some and rejects others is, according to Paul in verse 11, so that God’s sovereign purpose in election might stand.” That is, God has his own purpose for saving who He does which He has kept to Himself.
This explanation is followed by Paul’s second question which anticipates the response to his first truth. He asks in verse 14, “What then shall we say? Is God unjust?…”
In other words, if Isaac and Jacob were chosen before they were born to inherit the covenant promises that’s not fair to Ishmael and Esau is it? How did they have a chance? Paul answers that question which challenges God’s justice with a resounding, “No, may it never be.” He goes on to argue that God is not only NOT unjust when He chooses some people while rejecting others in election, He is actually displaying an essential part of His character. This doctrine of election does not touch on the margin of God’s personality, it expresses something near the very center of who God is according to Paul. Let’s pause there fore a moment to dwell on the importance of this doctrine of election.
Luther, in his book, “The Bondage of the Will” says this issue of whether God chooses the sinner to be saved or whether it is the sinner who chooses God to save him is at the very heart of the gospel. According to Luther, this issue of the sinner’s so called “free will” was at the center of the doctrinal errors committed by the church in Rome. Luther responded to Erasmus, a Catholic spokesman who had challenged him on this issue of election and Luther said, “You alone...have attacked the real thing, that is, the essential issue. You have not worried me with extraneous issues about the Papacy, purgatory, indulgences and the such like—trifles rather than issues…you, and you alone, have seen the hinge on which all turns, and aimed for the vital spot.” It is a disgrace that we, who call ourselves Protestants, have marginalized the issue of election to the arena of theological trivia and pointless debate. The Reformers saw this issue as near the very center of the gospel because this truth so powerfully shows us the sovereign nature of God’s character and what His sovereign grace really is about in the salvation of sinners.
Paul gives two reasons why God is not unjust in election. The first involves God’s interaction with Moses, taken from Exodus 33. Moses asks God to show him something He had shown to no other fallen human being. He asks to have a private showing of the very glory of God—a direct vision of God’s Person and God graciously agrees to do this. Paul quotes what God says in response to this request by Moses. “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy and will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.” Here, God clarifies that Moses was given this special honor, not because he deserved it (no one deserves this), but because God sovereignly chooses certain people to show special grace and mercy to and Moses was one of those people. Paul’s point in using Moses in this text is to say, that’s the same way God works when He saves someone. God has chosen to show mercy on his elect people. Therefore, it is not unjust for God to show mercy to only some people who deserve His wrath. That’s simply the way He is.
The second reason Paul gives to support that it is not unjust for God to choose some and reject others is seen in God’s dealings with Pharaoh in the exodus. Paul reminds his readers that God raised up Pharaoh and hardened his heart for the express purpose of using Pharaoh’s opposition to show forth His power in the plagues, the parting of the Red Sea and the other wonders he performed during the exodus. What a contrast between how God dealt with Moses on the one hand, and Pharaoh on the other! Pharaoh ultimately received no mercy, only the justice and wrath of God. That is, he got what his sinfulness and rebellion deserved. Moses, also a sinner deserving of wrath and justice, was instead given a special degree of grace and mercy. Both received what they did because God intentionally purposed to give it to them. One reason this feels unjust to some people is because so many in the church today have a horribly warped view of God’s mercy. If all are sinners and equally deserve God’s judgment, the amazing truth is not that he chooses to judge sinners. That is simply the just action of God. The amazing, glorious, yet mostly taken for granted truth today is that God in his mercy agrees to save anyone. He does not owe salvation to one single soul. Even to save one sinner from what they justly deserve is an act of unspeakable mercy. God did right by Pharaoh and any other sinner He condemns—that’s what they deserve. What is noteworthy is that, in his sovereign mercy, He chooses to save some of us who have done nothing to deserve it. If that truth is not firmly rooted and cherished, then Romans nine through eleven will give you nothing but an Excedrin headache.
Paul’s next question in 6:19 is given in light of God’s sovereign control over who is saved and who is lost and is, “Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?”
It’s important to know that the wording of this question indicates the tone of this question posed is not the tone of an honest seeker, but of a person with a chip on their shoulder. In other words, ‘If I am one of those who has been predetermined to be rejected by God, how can HE find ME responsible and condemn ME for something that is done in accordance with HIS will and purpose?” Paul’s response to the question in verse 20 is, “But who are you, O man, to talk back to God.” In the next few verses Paul says to that attitude, “Let’s not forget who you are talking to. You are the creature and God is the Creator. He can question YOU about YOUR behavior, but you are not free to come to HIM assuming he OWES you an explanation for why He does what He does.”
Paul’s point here is this, we must never forget that, when we relate to God, we must always remember that we are in one sense (verse20), “[that] which is formed”—or, (verse 21,) “a lump of clay” or (verse 22-23) “vessels.” As we relate to God, we must never forget that we are “vessels” a vessel is that which is used by someone else. And we are vessels formed, not of gold or titanium, we are formed from the clay. And that is not an insult, it is a marvel. Why would God share his very image with a clay vessel? For those who are uncomfortable seeing themselves as a creature made by a Creator who has sovereign control over them and their loved ones, the doctrine of election will always be a bitter pill to swallow. We must understand that as vessels created by God, we exist for HIS glory—to manifest His mercy and grace and other aspects of His character. As sinners who rebel against his sovereign authority, He does not owe us anything. That is Paul’s point in answer to this question.
Think of this. If salvation were a cooperative effort between the sinner who chooses God and God who accepts the sinner, that would give us something to boast about. We would be able to sin in heaven and say to hell’s inhabitants, “We did something you didn’t do.” Calvin said it this way, “Where there is mutual cooperation, there will also be reciprocal praise.” We see this ever week after a Vikings win. Each team member and coach bends over backward to tell the media the vital role the other parts of the team played in the victory. Mutual cooperation breeds reciprocal praise. If salvation is a cooperation between God and the sinner, then we will see this kind of scene played out in heaven. God and the sinner will meet in glory, slap each other on the back and say things like, “I couldn’t have done it without you.” What a revolting notion that any sinner would have a right to boast about their contribution before God. Scripture is crystal clear on this point, “…no one may boast before him” and, “Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
As Paul continues on this point in verse 24 and following, he shows the way God worked with both the Jews and Gentiles in bringing salvation through Christ in no way contradicts the Old Testament. In fact, the Old Testament prophets predicted God would work precisely in this manner, including the Gentiles in his plan of redemption, while saving only a small percentage or “remnant” of ethnic Jews. As he moves into chapter ten, Paul changes his emphasis from God’s sovereign control in orchestrating salvation to stress human responsibility in salvation. He says the Jews failed and are responsible for their failure because instead of looking to Christ to make them righteous, they instead tried to establish their own righteousness in themselves.
There are some who read chapter ten and think this emphasis on human responsibility cancels out Paul’s stress on God’s sovereign election in chapter nine. We mustn’t do that. If we do that then chapter nine becomes nonsensical—an irrational tangent Paul goes off on until he manages to come back down to earth in chapter ten. Also, we must understand that for Paul, there is no contradiction between God’s sovereign control in electing people to be saved and human responsibility. On the one hand, God DOES elect people to salvation and on the other, He DOES hold all people individually responsible for their sin. Those two truths are complimentary, not contradictory. When C.H. Spurgeon was asked if he could reconcile these two truths with each other he said, “I wouldn’t try, I never reconcile friends.” The fact that we may not exactly understand how they compliment one another only means that God is bigger than we are and He DOES understand it and He calls us to accept it as a teaching from His word.
In light of the fact that people are responsible to respond to God and believe on him, Paul asks a series of questions in 10:14 that boil down to, “how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” Because people ARE responsible to respond in faith, someone MUST preach the gospel to them and that is our responsibility as those who have been called out as God’s elect. Paul knows nothing of the suggestion that, “If God chooses people, then why do we have to send out missionaries—won’t they believe anyway?” It is instructive that the same man who gives us the New Testament doctrine of election is also the greatest missionary in the history of the church. He certainly didn’t see a contradiction between election and our obligation to preach the gospel to the lost.
In 10:18 and 19 Paul asks the questions “Did you not hear?…Did you no understand?” He asks to those who were wondering why so many Gentiles were saved while so few Jews were. Paul points out Old Testament texts that show this was precisely God’s plan. The reason for this plan was so the Jews would in the future look at the largely Gentile church of God’s chosen people and will become envious of the church. God will use the reality of their relationship to Him and the envy of the Jews will to drive them to Jesus, their Messiah.
As we move into chapter 11, Paul asks the question in verse one, “Did God reject his people?” Here, Paul reassures us that, even though the Jews had in their stubbornness repeatedly turned away from God, God had not totally rejected them. He uses himself as an example of this truth. With his impressive resume as a Hebrew, Paul’s life provides a powerful illustration that God had not rejected the Jews. The other example he gives to show this is the example of the faithful Jews God had kept for himself in the day of Elijah. Though almost all of the Jews had deserted God in favor of Baal, Paul reminds us that God had, by his own sovereign intervention, caused 7000 Jews to remain faithful. Likewise, though most of the Jews had rejected the Messiah and turned from God, there was a small remnant who, like Paul had been elected out of the larger group to know and serve God as New Covenant believers.
After a section in 11:7-10 where Paul shows God’s sovereign control over those Jews who had rejected the truth, He asks this question in verse 11 about the ethic, national Israel, “Did they stumble so as to fall beyond recovery?” In other words, “did Israel as a nation blow it to the point where God will never again deal with them on a national level for salvation?” Paul’s answer is again an emphatic “No, not at all!” He makes two points to support this. First, the Jewish rejection of the gospel was providentially planned by God to serve as a launching pad for the apostle’s mission to the Gentiles. Only when the Jews repeatedly rejected the gospel message did Paul, the chief missionary of the church, turn to the Gentiles exclusively. Second, Paul says this rejection of the Jews is only temporary. Paul asserts that a new day in salvation history is coming when the Jews, jealous of the church, will come to embrace the Messiah in huge numbers. This is the fulfillment of Isaiah 45:17, “all Israel will be saved.” This large scale, national Jewish acceptance of Christ will, according to Paul trigger the final event in salvation history, the resurrection of the dead. There is a line of continuity between the Patriarchs, who Paul refers to in verse 16 as “the root” and the branches, those Jews who will believe in Christ in the last days.
What Paul does in Romans 9-11 is he allows us to peer into the mind of God as it relates to His over arching plan in salvation history. This plan is played out in the Old Testament beginning with his promise to destroy the serpent in Genesis three. Later, we see that the One who would crush Satan’s head would come from the line of Abraham which runs through Isaac and his second born son Jacob, not Esau. From Jacob, Israel grows into a nation. In spite of 2000 years of Satan’s repeated attempts to destroy Israel, Christ is born and does the work of redemption to set people free from the penalty and power of sin. Most of the Jews reject this Messiah, while the Gentiles come to him in droves. That is a broad over view of salvation history up to the time of Paul. In Romans 9-11, Paul shows us where God worked behind the main external, historical events and how His sovereign, over arching plan and purpose caused (yes, caused) these events to occur. These did not occur willy nilly or by chance. No, a predetermined plan of God was at work controlling these events. We know from 9:15 that God planned these events the way he did in order to emphasize that His salvation was not dependent “on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy.” God acted as He did in salvation history to make it known that his saving acts are dependent upon Him and his mercy, period so that He might receive all the glory.
As Paul concludes this treatment of God’s plan which caused the events of salvation history, he reflects on the wonder of the God who brought it all to pass in closing doxology. In 11:33-36 we read, “Oh, the depths of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! “Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?” “Who has ever given to God, that God should repay Him?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To Him be glory forever! Amen.”
The reason the teaching of election is so hard to swallow for so many people is because we live in an age where people, Democrat or Republican, go ballistic if they think their vote might not have been counted, their voice might not have been heard. And into that world where personal rights are king, God, in election, steps in and says, “I have the only vote here. I am sovereign and you are totally dependent upon my mercy.” Salvation, as we saw in 9:15, is not dependent upon “man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy.” God is sovereign over all. He is sovereign over Esau’s selling his birthright, over Jacob deceiving Isaac, over the Jews rejecting the Messiah, over the Gentiles receiving Him, He is sovereign over the past, present and future. He is in control and Paul reminds us at the close of this section of Romans that His wisdom and knowledge in controlling all these events is so rich—The judgments He uses to establish his plan are unsearchable. He does not need anyone to give Him counsel and He would never be able to be put in debt to anyone. What He gives to sinners in salvation is all and only a result of His incredible mercy. Every event in human history is in some way from him and through him and to him so that all the glory might be his and his alone. May God give us the grace to know these truth and, with Paul, marvel at God’s wisdom and mercy in the gospel.
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