v.3 Some significant mischief has resulted from the failure to appreciate Paul’s manner of speaking. He is speaking hypothetically, of course, as it is not and never was a possibility that some mere man might be cursed in exchange for the salvation of others. Christ the Son of God could be and was; we cannot. So Paul uses a typically extravagant Hebraism to express his grief at the unbelief of his countrymen no doubt personalized in Paul’s case by the unbelief of a number of people he knew and loved before he became a Christian. It is akin to Jeremiah asking the Lord in very painful ways to curse the life of the man whose terrible crime was bringing his father the news of Jeremiah’s birth. It was a Hebrew’s way of expressing his grief. No one should take such expressions literally. But some, even in our tradition did.
Some of the Puritans, Thomas Hooker and Thomas Shepard for example, came to hold on the basis of Paul’s statement here that the sign of true humility in a converted sinner was a willingness to be damned for the glory of God. Richard Baxter wisely pointed out that it is neither required by God nor psychologically possible for a man to be content to be damned. My favorite anecdote in this regard is that of a young ministerial candidate who, after four hours of grilling in Bible and theology by the Puritan divines of Colonial New England, was asked whether he would be content to be damned for the glory of God. He thought for awhile: “Well, no, I guess I wouldn’t; but if God in his glorious sovereignty should decide to damn you, that would be alright with me.”
v.5 The extraordinary privileges of Israel are listed, making their unbelief in Christ the more astonishing and the more inexcusable.
By the by, this statement in Romans 9:5 is one of only five places in the NT in which Jesus Christ is explicitly said to be God. There is a great deal of other evidence of his deity but only in a few places in the NT is Jesus Christ actually said to be God and this is one of them.
v.13 The statement that God loved Jacob and hated Esau, and that this love was unrelated to what sort of men they were or would eventually become, comes from Malachi 1:2, 3. There it concerns not only the two patriarchs but the nations that descended from them.
It is important to say here that the issue that Paul is raising, the election that he is describing in chapter 9, is explicitly that of election to salvation. Many try to get round Paul’s emphatic teaching about this discrimination in God’s love by arguing that Paul is not talking about salvation but about privilege, and especially about the privilege of being chosen to serve the kingdom of God in the world. Israel was chosen first for such service and not the Gentiles. According to this interpretation of Romans 9 Paul is not talking about salvation at all, but about service. I doubt you will be tempted by that interpretation because it flies in the face of what Paul so clearly says. In the context he is continuing to talk about the salvation he has been talking about in the previous verses; about God’s election, his predestination, his calling a people, his justifying them, and his taking them to heaven: the very subjects he was discussing in the later verses of chapter 8. He begins chapter 9 by talking about the fact that his countrymen are “cut off from Christ,” – the very fate he has just said cannot happen to God’s elect – and he finishes the first paragraph with the distinction between God’s love and his hate, which in Malachi 1 is the distinction between his mercy and his judgment. Later on he will talk about those who receive God’s mercy and those who are hardened in their unbelief, between those prepared for glory and those prepared for destruction. Paul is talking about God’s saving grace, on the one hand, and God’s judgment on the other; he is talking about the people who will face one destiny and those who will face the other, and, in particular, he is talking about why one person is saved and another is not. When some receive the light and others do not, the divine election, the divine choice, the divine will, the divine love may be discerned, operating beforehand.
Before we launch away into the argument of the verses we have read, it is important that we place them in the argument of the letter as a whole. The fact is if Romans 12:1 had followed immediately the last verse of chapter 8, we would have thought it a perfectly obvious and logical transition in thought. Paul has just completed his magnificent account of the grace of God and its purpose, not only the deliverance of God’s people from sin and death, but their transformation after the image of Jesus Christ. Had we read next, after 8:39: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God…” we would have had no difficulty understanding the connection of Paul’s thought; so great a salvation deserves a response from us.
But, in fact, between the end of chapter 8 and the beginning of chapter 12, we have three long chapters of dense argument. Why? Well, primarily for these reasons. First, Paul has just finished his exposition of the certainty of salvation. He has claimed that nothing can separate the people of God from the love of God. But there is an obvious objection to this argument. The Jews were the people of God and they rejected the Messiah and were now cut off from the salvation of the Lord. They seem, at first glance, to be the historical disproof of what Paul has just claimed. He claimed in 8:28ff. that God had chosen (foreknown) his people and predestined them to glory. But Israel was the chosen people of God and they were not called, justified, and glorified; at least most of them were not. Has God’s election failed? Is it possible for us to be separated from the love of God after all? Israel seems to have been. Paul must deal with this objection to his argument that the children of God are safe and secure in their salvation.
Second, this is the more important a fact because there were no doubt a significant number of Jewish Christians in the church in Rome. If we didn’t already gather that from Paul’s argument so far, the remaining chapters of Romans place that fact beyond doubt. But these Jews were being rapidly greatly outnumbered by Gentile converts to the new faith. The originally Jewish character of Christianity in the first century was rapidly being overturned and replaced. Christianity was becoming a Gentile affair. We know from a great deal of evidence in the New Testament that Jewish Christians were highly sensitive to this fact and were determined at all costs to maintain a Jewish character to the Christian faith. Paul, therefore, had to address Israel’s place in God’s plan of salvation and make it clear how that plan was being fulfilled in the circumstances of that time, how Jews and Gentiles together fit into the plan of God. These are the great themes of chapters 9, 10, and 11.
So, in the first place, Paul takes up the objection to his doctrine of the indefectibility of divine grace by turning to Israel’s past, to Holy Scripture itself, to prove that God’s saving grace was always discriminating. His election had two levels or dimensions as it were. Israel was the chosen people of God to be sure, but only in one respect. The people whom Paul described in 8:28-39 were elect in a different, deeper sense. Paul’s argument is always going to be biblical. It is always his way to prove that his doctrine is neither more nor less than what has always been taught in Holy Scripture. And so here. From the beginning it was clear that a person could belong to the chosen people and not be himself or herself chosen of God for eternal life, for the forgiveness of sins, and for glory. Take, Paul says, the case of Abraham and his sons. Ishmael was Abraham’s son, he was part of Abraham’s family, he was circumcised, as we read in Genesis 17, but he was not a son of God’s promise, that is the promise of the covenant to be Abraham’s God and the God of his children. Among Abraham’s own children, some were appointed to eternal life and some were not. And the same thing can be said of Isaac and Rebecca’s sons. They were both members of the family. Indeed, they were twins. But God chose the one son, the younger one, Jacob, for higher things and passed over the older son, Esau.
And, of course, Paul could have taken illustrations of this fact and this phenomenon from anywhere in the ancient Scriptures. Throughout the history of God’s ancient people many Israelites lived and died in unbelief, separated from God and from God’s salvation. Many others loved God and were called, justified, and glorified just as Paul just finished saying the elect of God always will be and must be. Reading the history of the Old Testament it appears that entire generations of Israel were dominated by true faith, though no doubt there were unbelievers among them, and other generations, alas many others, were dominated by unbelief, by compromise with the world, and by the love of sin, though, even in such times the Lord did not leave himself without a witness. There were always some who truly loved God and were called according to his purpose. Think of the 7,000 who had not bowed the knee to Baal in Elijah’s day. Throughout the ages not all Israel belonged to Israel.
And, of course, it is perfectly obvious that this same reality has continued to be observed in the life of the church since the days of Christ and his apostles. Many in the church are unsaved and die in their sins. This is a sad fact of New Testament history and as well a fact of church history. At any time and place the church of the Lord Jesus Christ is more or less a community of true believers; that is, more or less the elect of God in the deeper and eternal sense of God’s election. Christian theologians have attempted to describe the reality that Paul is describing here in Romans 9:1-13 by speaking of an external and internal covenant – remember how Paul earlier in Romans spoke of those who are Jews outwardly and those who were Jews inwardly (2:28-29) – or distinguish between the essence and the administration of the covenant, or between the conditional and absolute covenant. They all typically speak of the visible church, which is a mixture of believers and unbelievers alike, and the invisible church which is the true elect of God who will be in heaven at the end of the day. But in all of these respects they recognize the reality that unbelievers can be in the covenant, members of the covenant community – if they aren’t in the covenant in some real way how can they be said in the Bible to have broken the covenant – and yet not be numbered among those chosen by God for salvation. It is a deep and difficult question – people are arguing about it today in our own church, the Presbyterian Church in America – and theologians have labored over it for centuries: how can someone be in covenant with God and, at the same time, not be in covenant with God. How can people be the chosen people of God and not the elect of God? Well, they are, as Paul says here, in covenant with God in the sense that they are responsible to be faithful to God by living in faith and repentance. They are in the covenant insofar as they are subject to the curses of the covenant if they fail to trust and obey the Lord. They are in covenant in the sense that they may lay claim to the promises of God if only they will believe. They are in covenant with God in the sense that they are subject to the ministries of the covenant: the Word of God, the sacraments, the fellowship of believers, and so on. They are in the covenant in that God has drawn near to them and made his word known to them and offered his salvation to them. But in the covenant in these ways, they are not in the covenant in the most important way, the way of true faith and love.
All of this is what Paul says of Israel. Theirs was the adoption – they were in a sense the children of God – theirs were the covenants, the promises, the law, true worship of God, and to them came the Savior of the world. But they did not believe and the ultimate reason for that unbelief, Paul says, was that God had not chosen them to be saved. Not every Israelite is chosen of God. Not every elect person is elect with a capital E, a man or women chosen for faith in Jesus Christ and chosen for eternal life in heaven. All of this will become clearer still as we follow Paul’s argument through the rest of the chapter. But for now, what are we to make of this discriminating election, an election that reaches even into the people of God and plucks out some and leaves others?
Paul, of course, was entirely aware of how deeply controversial this doctrine and this spiritual reality would be and in the remainder of chapter 9 he tackles head-on the two objections he anticipates people making; the two objections that have always been made to this doctrine and which are still made today. But before we get to those objections and Paul’s answers, there are some things to be said in a preliminary way about this divine discrimination in salvation that goes by the names of election or predestination in the Bible and I think if we consider these preliminary matters it may help us to understand the rest.
- First, the doctrine of election is difficult and complicated and controversial – as Paul’s argument makes very clear – and so requires very careful treatment.
The doctrine of election has suffered through the ages from nothing so much as a failure to take care both in explaining the doctrine and in defending it, very often the result of men exercising their mouths without first bending their minds and hearts to the issues involved.
As John Bradford, the English martyr put it,
“God does not send people to the university of election before they go to the grammar school of faith and repentance.”
A 19th century Calvinistic Methodist, William Morris, warning against the tendency of Christians to argue about election in unprofitable and unhelpful ways and largely to miss the point of the doctrine as it is revealed in Holy Scripture, once used this illustration. He lived in the 19th century so he was thinking of a machine that might have been created for use in a woolen mill or factory. In the 21st century we might more naturally think of an automobile engine or a computer.
“Consider a large, complex machine, with its various wheels, pipes, hooks and chains, all interweaving and interlocking with one another. It is the engineer who understands its design and can explain it, in and of itself, its various parts, and the relationship of each part with the others so as to make one engine. But I can see it in operation. And an ordinary, illiterate man, knowing nothing of the laws of Mechanics and ignorant of the names which the engineer has for the various parts of the machine, he can make use of it and work with it, to achieve the end that was in view when it was designed and built. [I sometimes make the mistake of imagining I know something about how a car engine operates and I will suggest to my mechanic that the problem is probably this or that. Usually I am so far off that I didn’t even get the proper system. I may tell him I think the problem is the fuel pump and it ends up being the back rear tire! That is how little I understand the inner workings of a car. But, like you, I can turn the key and drive an automobile. I don’t know much about the inner workings of an engine but I know how to drive a car and I can use a car as a result. This is Morris’ point.] … it would be ludicrous to see those ignorant workers proceeding to argue amongst themselves as to the composition of the machine, rather than using it to purpose.”
And so Morris went on:
“When you preach election, preach of it at work. [Don’t worry about the inner workings of the machine, drive your car!] Beware of speculating…and investigating…of the workings of the internal parts of the machine…. Show the worth and the glory of the machine by demonstrating it at work. Show the worth of the election of grace by depicting it as saving those who cannot save themselves. That is the view of it given in the Bible, and that, as far as I know, is the only worth it holds for the sinner. If this were not so I do not think the Gospel would acknowledge any relationship to it [the doctrine of election.] [For all we know the entire doctrine could have been left out of the Bible. Then election wouldn’t be something that Christians argue about; unbelievers wouldn’t be offended by it. God did not have to tell us; he could have left us wondering why one person believed and another did not.] But, on the contrary, upon understanding election properly, we find that it not only belongs to the Gospel but that it is one of the sweetest parts of it…it is life itself for such a dull, helpless, stubborn creature as myself that God has a provision, in his infinite grace, that meets my condition, and that he will never see in me anything that could turn out a disappointment to him, for he knew my whole history long before I knew anything of it myself.” [Cited in I. Murray, “The Cross: The Pulpit of God’s Love,” BOT 495 (December 2004), 20]
There are difficult questions thrown up by the doctrine of election. We upholders of the doctrine of divine election are, or should be, the first to admit this. Paul himself will raise them in the next paragraph. He knew how people would struggle to understand how it is that God has favorites, that he chooses some and not others. But election is always a very practical matter in the Bible. It is after all the answer to the most important question in the world: how can an inveterate sinner who is in absolute bondage to his sin and rebellion, become a believer in Jesus Christ and live forever? The biblical nature of election and the biblical use of it must always be kept to the forefront of our minds. The question it answers is not why Esau refused to follow God – every thoughtful Christian knows very well the answer to that question. In his sin Esau was blind, deaf, dumb, and paralyzed. The question is why Jacob believed. How did that happen? How was his bondage overcome? And every thoughtful Christian, at some level, and certainly in the depths of his heart, knows very well that there is but one answer to that question: God did it. The difference between Jacob and Esau and their destinies lies in God, not in those two men. The biblical history makes a point of this and the facts of their lives are the demonstration of it. Election is the explanation of what must be explained and what cannot otherwise be explained: the salvation of a sinner. We must never forget this when thinking and talking about election.
This leads us to the second preliminary matter that we ought to keep to the fore in thinking about this doctrine of God’s election or his sovereign love or his discrimination in grace – in thinking about the fact that, as Paul will put it later in this same chapter, “God has mercy on whomever he wills” – viz.
- That the point at issue in this doctrine in the Bible is always and only whether salvation is by grace, whether it is God’s gift and God’s doing, or whether it rests in some important part, measure and dimension upon us and what we do.
This is Paul’s specific and emphatic point here, as in v. 11: “in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of his call…” That is, election is a sentinel posted around the grace of God. It is the absolute disproof of any and every view that places a man’s salvation in some measure, to some degree, finally in his own hands.
There have been many through the ages who have wanted to confess the rule and sovereignty of God in every dimension of human life except this one, the moral and spiritual dimension, the dimension that bears on a person’s relationship to God and his or her reward in the world to come. The Roman orator, politician, and man of letters, Marcus Tullius Cicero wrote [De Nat. Deorum, iii, 36]: ‘For gold, land, and all the blessings of life we have to return thanks to God; but no one ever returned thanks to God for virtue.” In other words, what makes a man good or bad, pleasing to God or displeasing to God, Cicero said, comes from the man, not from God. That is the pagan philosophy of life. But you often find it in the church as well. Among the Jewish rabbis of Paul’s time we have statements such as these: “Neither evil nor good comes from God; both are the results of our deeds,” and “All is in the hands of God except the fear of God.” They said that the Holy One determines prior to birth all that every one is to be – whether male or female, weak or strong, poor or rich, wise or silly; but one thing He does not determine – whether he is to be righteous or unrighteous; this is committed to one’s own hands. [Citations from Warfield, “Predestination,” Bibl & Theol Studies, 294-295]
The Jews said that in the first century. And believe it or not, there have been many Christians who should have known better who have said similar things, as when we hear an evangelist tell his congregation [I have heard them say it; prominent, famous evangelists]: “God has cast one vote for you; the Devil one vote against you; and it’s up to you to break the tie.” Really? Has God done nothing more for you than the Devil has done against you? And is it at last, finally, in your court whether you will be saved? Crudely put, that is the theology of a great many Christians today and has been through the ages. But, such a viewpoint leaves salvation, at the crucial point, put it however you will, man is his own savior; Christ only helps!
How different, how utterly different those sentiments are from the universal perspective of the Bible: that in all matters of life and preeminently in those that bear on our final destiny we are entirely and utterly in God’s hands and dependent upon his good pleasure. Every effort to diminish or deny the Bible’s doctrine of divine election as the finally decisive decision of God’s will to save some particular people must open the door to some form of the idea that our salvation is not entirely the gift of God but is in some way, to some degree our achievement. There would, in that case, be room for boasting after all!
Whether this is put crudely or with sophistication matters little. The result is the same. In the final analysis, Jesus Christ remains only partly the Savior of sinners and the final, decisive decision is left in man’s hands, not God’s. The one who makes the difference is not God; the choice that tells the tale is not his, but ours. It is precisely this result that Paul will never accept. It is an offense to the Bible and its clear teaching; it is an offense to our own consciences; it is an offense to our own experience, and it is an offense to all that our Savior did, at such terrible cost to himself, to achieve our salvation. We did not choose God; he chose us! Every Christian knows this no matter what he or she says when standing on his or her feet debating the doctrine of election. A few weeks ago I read to you from Charles Spurgeon, the great preacher of the 19th century English speaking world. He admitted that when he was becoming a Christian he thought he was doing it himself. A bit of reflection however immediately disabused him of that idea. It was God who was at work in him and had he not worked in him he would never have come to Christ. God opened his heart to respond to the message; he did not open it himself.
Election, in the final analysis, is a truth aimed like a dagger at our pride. It leaves us utterly dependent upon God and utterly undeserving of our salvation. Apart from God’s love having been pitched upon us we would be like the multitudes around us, utterly unaware that there is such a thing as eternal life to be obtained in this world, utterly indifferent to the Son of God and his death on the cross, utterly uncaring of the Last Judgment and one or the other eternal destiny that must follow for every human being. We would go to our death completely unaware and uncaring of any of this.
It being an offense to our pride, it being the revelation of our true helplessness, it should surprise no one that it is a doctrine much spoken against, even raged against through the ages. But it is so fundamental to a Christian spirit to acknowledge the truth of it that even those who deny it in theory proclaim it in fact. Here is Charles Wesley who had very hard things to say about the doctrine of election as Paul seems to teach it here and about those who hold it and preach it. Nevertheless we have this from the great poet’s pen:
“Long my imprisoned spirit lay fast bound in sin and nature’s night; Thine eye diffused a quickening ray, I woke, the dungeon flamed with light. My chains fell off, my heart was free; I rose, went forth, and followed thee.”
That is election! That is all any Calvinist, any Presbyterian, any Reformed Christian wishes to say: that we became Christians entirely because of God’s will and God’s choice, not ours. This may be why Wesley’s hymn is sung more often by Calvinists than by Arminians, though Wesley was a died-in-the-wool Arminian, that is, one who denies the sovereign choice or election of God as the decisive, determinative factor in the salvation of any sinner. But when he sang of his own salvation, when he remembered his own experience, he sang divine election from the rooftops!
Paul is not asking us to confess anything but what our hearts are fully aware of: that salvation, from beginning to end, in plan and in execution, is of the Lord!
- The third and last thing to say about election in a preliminary way as Paul introduces the subject to us in these 13 verses, is that the teaching is so manifestly biblical that virtually all the great doctors or teachers of the Christian church have been champions of it, even in some cases after having denied it at an earlier point in their lives.
I will only briefly remind you of this fact, for fact it is. Augustine once held the view that man made the final difference. But he says in his Retractions II, i]:
“In trying to solve this question I made strenuous efforts on behalf of the preservation of the free choice of the human will, but the grace of God defeated me.”
Thomas Bradwardine the 14th century archbishop lived in a day when few in the church confessed the grace of God as the true cause of salvation. He tells us:
“Every time that I listened to the Epistle in church and heard how Paul magnified grace and belittled free will, as is the case in Romans 9…then grace displeased me, ungrateful as I was.”
But Romans 9:16 – “It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy.” – then became the means of his salvation, “a beam of grace” he calls it – and he realized that salvation was God’s free gift and the realization transformed his life. [H. Oberman, Archbishop Thomas Bradwardine: A Fourteenth Century Augustinian, 15] And after Bradwardine came Wyclif, Huss, and the Reformers, all champions of Paul’s doctrine of election here in Romans 9. And after them so many more, not only theologians, but preachers and missionaries in great multitudes, and among the Roman Catholics their greatest theologian, Aquinas, and their greatest philosopher, Blaise Pascal.
Why do you so often meet people who used to believe otherwise but who are now convinced of the election of grace? And why do you almost never meet anyone who used to believe in election but does so no longer? Because it is a teaching and a reality that lie face up on the pages of Holy Scripture. That is why the church’s best minds have always taught it and the church’s best preachers have always preached it. It alone explains why for centuries Israel was virtually alone in the world as a people who knew the grace of God. It explains why children raised in believing families are believers before they can even understand the message. It explains why sometimes Christian witness bears little or no fruit, even in places where you might have suspected it would be easily accepted and believed, and at other times, even in places where one would expect little response, converts come in droves. Salvation is of the Lord and those whom he has chosen will believe and will be saved.
Election may not be the first part of the gospel a Christian learns, Paul has not reached it until Romans 9, but until he learns it, no Christian fully grasps how great has God’s grace been to him or to her, how close he or she came to eternal death, or how completely his or her eternal life is the free gift of God. And who can possibly deny that those are terrifically important things to know!