Friday, March 02, 2007

Romans 9:11-13

Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad--in order that God's purpose in election might stand: not by works but by Him who calls--she was told, "The older will serve the younger"[Genesis 25:23]. Just as it is written: "Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated"[Malachi 1:2-3].

V11-12 – What is God’s purpose in election? That God would be the determiner of everything, including who is saved – that He might get all the glory for the salvation of His people. Paul now explains why some receive Christ as Messiah and others do not. And we might expect him to say, “Well, some people have faith and others do not.” And Paul loves to talk about faith; in fact, he’ll do just that toward the end of chapter 9 and into chapter 10, so we’ll study the importance of an individual’s trust in Christ for salvation. But Paul doesn’t even mention faith here. He doesn’t say anything about an individual’s choice to believe. Rather, he points to the sovereign choice of God. We might expect Paul to say, “not by works but by faith,” and he does say this when he talks about justification. We saw that in chapter 4 of Romans. But here, when talking about election to salvation, he says, “not by works but by Him who calls.” Election is unconditional. Justification is conditional. There is no condition that causes God to elect a person, not even foreseen faith. But in order to be justified, we must exhibit faith. Before we can be justified we must believe on Jesus Christ. But before we can believe on Jesus Christ we must be chosen and called. God does not choose us because we will believe. He chooses us so that we will believe.

Why the distinction within Israel, why Isaac and not Ishmael? Why Jacob and not Esau? The difference, says Paul, is not to be found in foreseen deeds or even faith; rather it’s to be found in God’s choice. And the difference has a purpose. The distinction within the visible covenant community is in order to display God’s purpose and choice for His glory. God chose Jacob in order to teach the mystery of election that God is sovereign in dispensing His mercy. Even before birth He predestines those who will receive His saving grace, and Jacob was chosen for the very purpose of demonstrating that God’s grace is God’s choice. Paul’s answer emphasizes God: God’s choice, God’s purpose, God’s calling. And it’s not hard to understand; it’s just hard to accept. And the question is for as well. Why do some people believe the wonderful message of the Gospel and not others? Paul tells us in 2 Thessalonians 2:13. “God chose us from the beginning to be saved … [how] … through belief in the truth.”

Before we move on to v13, let me remind you – it is not what I’m saying that's upholding Calvinist soteriology; it is the Word of God written by Paul. And it’s not just here. It’s from the words of Christ as well, recorded by John’s pen (John 8,10). Peter understood it by evidence of his writing to “the elect.” Luke grasped it when he stated that it is by grace that men believe the Gospel (Acts 18:27). Calvinist soteriology is Biblical soteriology; and if you resist this particular Bible truth, you miss out on a very precious and comforting teaching. By emphasizing this, Paul is making clear that God’s grace does not find its origins in us. God’s grace is not compelled by something in us or by something that we do or even by the faith that we have, but God’s grace is self-originating. God’s love falls upon us out of the infinite bounds of His own heart of compassion and it’s not moved by something that we have done and hence it can not be turned away because of something that we do. Even before the foundation of the world, He has set his saving, redemptive love on His elect.

V13 – Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated. Before they were born, before they had done anything right or wrong, God chose Jacob and not Esau. He discriminated between them, He gave preferential treatment. When Paul quotes Malachi saying, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated,” how should we understand the word “hate”? Compare Luke 14:26 with Matthew 10:37 (our love for the Lord must be so great that our love for anyone else becomes as hatred in comparison). Another very helpful passage is Genesis 29:16-18,30,33. Jacob chose Rachel. He chose to love her. Leah was hated in the sense that she was not chosen. Thus for God to say, “I hate Esau,” means “I have not chosen Esau,” and to say, “I love Jacob,” means “I have chosen Jacob; My promises and blessings will be fulfilled in him and in his seed after him.” And so the issue here in Romans 9 is this: Who has God chosen to love savingly (by electing them to salvation) and why? Paul’s main point is this: Jacobs’s election did not depend on his godliness, his birthright, or even his foreseen faith. It depended solely on God, Who chose Jacob for His own purpose, on which Paul will elaborate later in c9.

The question people usually ask when having this text explained to them this way is one of curiosity and concern that Esau was not loved the same way as Jacob: “Why was Esau hated; he wasn’t given a fair chance?” But that’s the wrong question. The question to ask is not, “Why is Esau hated?” The question is, “Why is Jacob loved? Why is Jacob chosen?” And this is our confession as believers that we don’t deserve God’s favor. We don’t deserve this kind of mercy. We deserve to be hated like Esau – even before we were born or had done good or evil, because we’re descendents of Adam – going back to Romans 5 and the imputation of Adam’s sin to our account. We’re sinful from conception and by nature deserving of the eternal wrath of God. It’s not, “Why isn’t everybody loved in the same way by God?” Rather it’s, “Why are we loved with effectual saving love?” Why weren’t we hated before we were born? Because “God chose us in Him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in His sight. In love He predestined us to be adopted as His sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with His pleasure and will—to the praise of His glorious grace, which He has freely given us in the One He loves” (Eph 1:4-6). It’s not about us; it’s all of God.

And lastly, if you are building up steam thinking that this interpretation of this text is faulty, thinking that my interpretation would lead to God being unfair, then you are right in line with Paul’s audience, because Paul will now answer a question that is probably in your mind. We'll look at it next time.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Romans 9:6-10

It is not as though God's word had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham's children. On the contrary, "It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned" [Genesis 21:12]. In other words, it is not the natural children who are God's children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham's offspring. For this was how the promise was stated: "At the appointed time I will return, and Sarah will have a son" [Genesis 18:10,14]. Not only that, but Rebekah's children had one and the same father, our father Isaac.

V6 – God’s word has not failed, because not all Israel is Israel. Paul is addressing the questions, "Why are the Jews not receiving their King? Have God’s promises to His people failed?" The prophets answered this Old Testament dilemma by pointing to God’s future activities: He would bring a remnant back to the Promised Land from the captivities, He would send a Savior. So it was a timing thing. But Paul’s problem was bigger, because according to his Gospel, the time had come and gone. The Israelites, though looking for this promised Savior (and looking for this promised restoration of control of the land), rejected Him when He appeared. And now Paul’s audience wants to know how this could have happened without God doing something about it. It appears as if God’s promise failed! And the key to understanding Paul’s first answer to this supposed problem is the doctrine of election. (Paul will give three answers, just about corresponding with each of these three chapters: God’s sovereignty (election) in chapter 9, Man’s accountability in chapter 10, God’s plan and eternal decree in chapter 11).

Paul says that God’s promises to Israel have not failed, because not all Israel is Israel. What does that mean? Paul will say it in an additional way in v7-8 (God’s children are not such simply because they descend physically from Abraham). And he’s already said it earlier in Romans in another way. Romans 2:28-29 “A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code.” It doesn’t matter whether you’re a physical Israelite, unless your heart has been changed. Paul is saying that the covenant promises of God have always found their fulfillment in a subset of the people of Israel. They are not fulfilled in such a way that every physically-born Israelite is counted a child of God. But there has always been a remnant, a believing group within God’s people. There is the external community, many of whom simply go through the motion, and there is within that external community many who truly trust in the living God, have believed His promises, and enjoy the blessing of His salvation. This is true of the church today.

V7-8 – Natural descendants of Abraham are not necessarily God’s elect; rather the elect are regarded as the true descendants of Abraham. Paul says that not all of Abraham’s offspring are children of the promise; rather the children of the promise are regarded as Abraham’s true offspring. This is nothing new. Paul writes the same thing in Galatians 4:22-28 and elsewhere. John 8:33-44 records Jesus’ words saying virtually the same thing. Jesus says to the Jewish leaders, “You are descendants of Abraham, but your father is the devil.” Now it is important to note here that there may be promises for all physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, for all physical Jews. That is not my concern now, nor was it Paul’s. Paul is talking about the promise of salvation. Remember the questions: “Why aren’t all the Jews receiving Jesus Christ as their Messiah? Why aren’t they all being saved? What about Israel in this plan of redemption?” And the answer is that the promise of the Kingdom of God is not for all Jews, but only for the children of the promise – God’s elect.

V9-10 – It’s on God’s terms that the promise will be honored. Paul quotes from the Old Testament over 60 times in Romans. Here he turns to Genesis to provide three evidences of the truth of his teaching on election, pointing out first that God decided how and when to bless Abraham with offspring. Remember the promise to Abraham was that he would be the father of many nations – and this promise was made before Abraham displayed faith, indeed while he was an idol-worshipping Mesopotamian. Yet God determined to make it happen His way – not through Ishmael – the half-breed firstborn, but secondly through Isaac, not through Hagar, but through Sarah. And if that evidence wasn’t enough (because Isaac was pure-bred and Ishmael was not), Paul points thirdly to Rebekah and Isaac having twins. And it’s true that both twins were actual, physical, pure-bred descendants of Abraham – even of Isaac. But only one was a child of the promise – and it wasn’t even the first-born! It was Jacob, not Esau. We'll look at the implications of this reality next time.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Romans 9:4-5

[Regarding the people of Israel,] Theirs is the adoption as sons; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ, who is God over all, forever praised [or Christ, who is over all. God be forever praised! Or Christ. God who is over all be forever praised!]! Amen.

Paul is continuing this list of benefits of being a natural Jew that he began back in chapter 3:1-2: “What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision? Much in every way! First of all, they have been entrusted with the very words of God.” They have (1) the very Word of God entrusted to them (from chapter 3) – they were the custodians and the majority writers (perhaps all except Luke), (2) the adoption as sons – the Lord, passing by other nations, had selected them as a people to Himself and had adopted them as His children (Exodus 4:22; Jeremiah 31:9); note also that this adoption is “national” and not “individual” as Paul has explained in Romans 8:15,23, (3) the divine glory – the presence of God between the cherubim on the Ark of the Covenant (the mercy seat) (1 Samuel 4:22); God Himself dwelled with the nation of Israel, (4) the covenants – the official dealings of God with His people (specifically Abraham and Moses and David); only the covenant with Noah belonged to all the nations – all other covenants (besides the New Covenant) belonged solely to Israel, (5) the receiving of the law (only the Jews were given the law at Mt. Sinai, and God Himself was their Lawgiver – see Deuteronomy 4:8), (6) the temple worship (commands issued by God Himself regarding how to appropriately worship Him); the other nations were ignorant regarding true worship of God (in Spirit and in truth), (7) the promises – the less official dealings of God with His people (all the Jewish people, not just Abraham); (ie, the Promised Land) see Isaiah 41:8-10, (8) the patriarchs – it is a blessing to be descendant from extraordinary men and women (Acts 3:25); God Himself identified with these patriarchs – claiming “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” and finally, (9) the human ancestry of Christ – how amazing it is to consider that God Incarnate chose to enter His creation through a particular ancestry, that of His chosen nation, Israel.

What did Israel do with all of these benefits? (1) They disbelieved the word and stumbled over the message; (2) they dishonored and despised God as their Father; (3) they placed no value on the presence of God in their midst; (4) they lost sight of God’s covenant commitments; (5) they broke God’s law; (6) their worship lost its reality and became an empty ritual; (7) the great promises were not mixed with faith (Hebrews 3:18-4:2); (8) they did not follow in the steps of faithful Abraham who believed God (Romans 4:11-12); and last, (9) they crucified their own Messiah (Matthew 27:22; John 19:15-16; 1 Thessalonians 2:14-15). “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded” (Luke 12:47-48). The Israelites were given much, and much was/is required of them.

Paul has two points in giving this list of benefits of being a natural Jew: First, he is reminding his audience that God’s covenant privileges are real even when they are not embraced. Second, he is at the same time suggesting that the benefits must never be presumed upon. Paul is saying, “It doesn’t matter what privileges and advantages you’ve had; if you have not embraced Christ, you have no part of Him or of the blessing of God.” We should never discount the significance of the means of grace, even when people neglect, abuse, or reject them. And we should never presume that we are guaranteed salvation just because we have the privilege of being a part of a congregation that loves the Lord and His word and teaches the Bible in the pulpit and the classroom.

There is one more thing about this list. Some theologians, like John Piper, teach that these benefits of being a Jew apply to all believers, thus making us Jews in a sense. (1) We have the Word of God that speaks to us. The Word doesn’t influence non-believers in the same way. (2) We certainly have been adopted (individually per Romans 8 and not nationally) as sons through Christ. Piper would say that believers are the “True Israel”, and thus make it also a national election of the true church. (3) We have the divine glory to look forward to – a future glory and not a past glory. (4) We have the New Covenant in Christ. (5) We are not under the law of God, but we are under the law of Christ. Indeed the law has accomplished its purpose by leading us to Christ. (6) We must worship God accordingly – in Spirit and in truth. Christ fulfilled our temple worship and welcomes us into fellowship. (7) All of God’s promises to us are “Yes” in Christ (2 Corinthians 1:20). (8) Everything promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob belongs to the believer as an heir of the promise. (9) Jesus was Jewish according to the flesh, but we are in Him and He is in us through faith.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Romans 9:1-3

I speak the truth in Christ--I am not lying, my conscience confirms it in the Holy Spirit--I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, the people of Israel.

Chapters 9-11 of Romans form a unit. The subject matter of these three chapters is Israel, both as a spiritual people and a physical nation. These chapters are somewhat parenthetical. The flow of thought could have gone from chapter 8 right into chapter 12. In the first eight chapters Paul has set forth the Gospel of God, that is, the bad news of the sinful state of all mankind (Romans 1-3), the good news of justification (Romans 3-5), sanctification (Romans 6-8) and glorification (Romans 8). In chapter 12 he deals with the practical implications of the Gospel (how the truth of the Gospel ought to affect our daily living toward God and toward our neighbors). Meanwhile Paul gives us a helpful three-chapter aside, beginning with great sorrow and ending with a famous doxology, so we can (and Paul’s audience at the time could) better understand where the nation Israel fits into the purpose and plan of God.

This is as difficult a portion of Scripture as most people will ever come across. It’s not difficult for most to understand; but accepting what Paul says takes some extra grace in the heart. Also, this is the place to turn if you’re looking for Biblical answers to the hard theological questions regarding salvation. There is no place in the Bible that more systematically or comprehensively addresses soteriological issues than Romans 9-11. Lastly, we’ll be talking about God’s sovereignty in salvation, and I love to talk about God’s sovereignty. Talking about God’s sovereignty exalts His grace, and this is a great place to focus on that. God’s sovereign grace is not the only thing we’ve talked about in the course of our Romans study. But it does come up quite often. When you talk about Paul’s Gospel, God’s sovereignty comes up a lot. So, notice several points in these verses:

V1-3 – Paul offers a prologue to a problem. The problem stems from what was said at the end of chapter 8. His audience is wondering how or why, if nothing can separate “us” from God and His love, are so many, indeed the majority, of God’s special people – the Jews – rejecting the Messiah preached by Paul, rejecting the message of Paul’s Gospel. Why are Paul’s kinsmen in the flesh not embracing Jesus as their Redeemer? And this is a significant problem. The question is this: What about Israel? Are God’s promises to “us” failing? This is essentially the question that so many of the Old Testament prophets wrestled with. Isaiah and Jeremiah and Ezekiel, and most of the Minor Prophets, wrote answers to how God purposed certain events in light of the promises that He made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and David. We’ll look at three answers Paul gives to this problem in this three-chapter portion of Romans.

First though, Paul offers his heart. And does so in order to soften us for the teaching he is about to give on election. And it works. His teaching, like Christ’s, is hard – not hard to understand, just hard to accept. And so by revealing his feelings towards the Jewish people, Paul is preparing his audience for his hard-to-accept teaching on election. Paul shows his heart of love and mercy and compassion toward the lost, and that’s exactly what a sound understanding of the doctrine of election should produce.

In v1-5, Paul seems to be responding to a charge that has been brought against him. The charge is this: “Paul, you don’t care about your people, you have abandoned and rejected your own heritage by preaching this Gospel, by going to the Gentiles. By saying the same things that you have said about Israel and about Israel’s spiritual leaders, you have rejected Judaism, you have rejected Israel, you have turned your back on your own people, you don’t care about them.” So Paul is saying, “Before I get into this explanation, I want you understand what I really think about my people. I want you to see a glimpse of my heart.” Indeed he agonizes over them. He rebuts this charge of having antipathy for Israel by asserting in the most emphatic way imaginable his love for Israel – to the point of almost wishing he was accursed or lost for their salvation, and the word he uses is “anathema.” I say “almost” because Paul could wish himself accursed. He doesn’t. He knows it’s impossible for him to be accursed.

John 15:13 “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” Paul had a heart of mercy and the attitude that he would lay down his life for his fellow countrymen, just like Moses (Exodus 32:32), just like Christ; and we should too have a heart of mercy toward the lost. Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” But we could also reverse that statement and say, “Blessed are those who have been shown mercy for they will be merciful.” It ought to be true! If we really understand the doctrine of election, we will not be judgmental or proud; we will be messengers of God’s mercy. “What does the Lord require of you, but to do justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8)? Are you merciful? Do you have a heart of mercy? Are you humble? Why?

Monday, February 26, 2007

Romans 8:35-39

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: 'For Your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered' [Psalm 44:22]. No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons [or heavenly rulers], neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Again Paul offers a rhetorical question, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” And this time, it includes a relational illustration. Not only are the elect judicially certain of God’s unchanging love, but they are relationally certain of it as well. You might hear from some people that God is relational, like a father, and that excludes Him from being impersonal, like a judge. They’ll say God is more loving than He is just. Yet Paul paints both pictures of God, the father and the judge, side-by-side. They both describe God, and we can’t take one without the other. And of course this rhetorical question, like the others, answers a point that Paul already made.

What does sin do, according to Paul? Sin separates us from God. So Paul has worked in this letter to the Romans to show how God has dealt with sin through Christ, and make the point that, if sin has been dealt with in Jesus Christ, and if we’re united to Christ, then sin itself can no longer separate us from God’s love. Neither can anything or anyone else. This is supremely seen in Jesus’ cry of separation from the cross. Matthew 27:46 “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” Paul is reminding us that since Jesus has experienced separation on our behalf, we in union with Christ will never experience that separation from God. We will never experience that separation, because He endured separation and secured salvation for us.

First, the emphasis here is on Christ’s love for us, God’s love for us, not on our love for Christ or God. If our assurance or security depended on the consistency and the quality of our love to Christ, none of us would ever be assured. Paul is saying that God’s love for us actually secures our assurance of salvation and our servitude. And then, having pointed us to the love of God, because our security resides not in circumstances, but in something that flows eternally from the heart of God towards His people, Paul is able to say that no circumstance can interrupt, or defeat, or overthrow that love. No earthly circumstance can separate us from the love of Christ, because the certainty of that love doesn’t depend on circumstances or on our love. It depends upon the unchangeableness of God’s saving love.

Second, many Christians will say, “God has really helped me to endure some of the most difficult trials of life,” or, “Those trials made me stronger, going through that hard thing made me stronger.” And nothing is wrong with those statements, unless they think that the trials actually produced the grace. And Paul says, “I’m saying more than that. I’m saying that you are more than conquerors in all these things.” Now that’s an amazing statement. But what does it mean? “More than conquerors” in trouble, hardship, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, and sword doesn’t seem like much to us, because, let’s face it, we haven’t experienced many or much of those things. We certainly haven’t experienced famine, nakedness, danger, or sword…yet. Perhaps these things are coming, even in the Western world. Consider that the 20th century has seen more Christian martyrs, folks killed for their faith, than the previous 19 centuries combined. That’s astounding! And we might not physically be among them, but they are among us. And we suffer as a Body. And when believers are persecuted, it signifies that we are joining in the fellowship of His sufferings. It’s a sign of our union with Christ, and Paul understood this intensely and experientially. Believers share in and are united with Christ in His sufferings, not only in His benefits. And so suffering persecution is a function with union with Christ. But how are we “more than conquerors”?

It’s not that you just barely get by, by the skin of your teeth. You’re a hyper-conqueror. And it’s not just in the good things. It’s in all the bad things, all the adversities you could list right now. In all things, God has made you to be more than conquerors. But He hasn’t done it through those things; He’s done it through the love of Christ. Through Christ’s love as exercised and exhibited in the cross, you are more than conquerors. Paul is saying that in those experiences we are made more than conquerors—not in spite of those experiences, but in them. Precisely because God decreed that trial X should happen, God made you to conquer in an extraordinary way. And furthermore, it wasn’t the trial itself that produced the character in you. It was the grace of God working in the trial. It was “through Him Who loved us.”

Jesus said, “In this world, you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” Christ was more than a conqueror, and in Him, united to Him, we are as well. There’s the union with Christ again. Consider 2 Corinthians 11; Paul defends himself to his audience, describing himself as weak and boasting in God. When we think of Paul, we should think of a weak little man. And then we should think of what God in His might and power has done in and through and by weak little Paul. And then we see that God’s power is perfected in weakness, through union with Christ, through God’s work in His people.

Finally, notice that Paul has explained that no earthly thing or person can separate us from the love of Christ. Now he broadens the picture. Nothing in all of creation, including supernatural beings, can separate us from God’s love in Christ. Paul offers great encouragement as Romans 8 closes. He lists ten things that cannot stand in the way. And these ten things include everything that we can think of. In fact, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ.

How then are some separated from God for eternity in hell? Well, God’s wrath remained on them. It was never removed by Christ. They were never part of the “us.” They were never counted among the elect. Jesus will say to them, “Depart from Me. I never knew you.” They were never united to Christ. And this doesn’t sound very humble of “us” to say such things. It sounds boastful, arrogant, snobbish, as if we were better or more deserving that those who are not included. It seems unfair that God would include some and not others. How can God send Christ to pay the punishment price of sin for some and not others? And given Paul’s audience, we might expect Paul to go into an explanation of how Jews relate to Gentiles in this issue of election and how God chooses some and not others. Picture his audience asking, "What about Israel?" And wouldn’t you know it? That’s exactly what Paul will do, in chapters 9-11. He'll answer the question, "What about Israel?" We'll begin to look at that next time.