Romans 9: What About…?

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In the last part of chapter 8 of the Book of Romans, Paul encourages his readers to trust God to complete the work that he has started in them. He tells them that God has chosen them and that nothing can separate them from the love of God that is theirs in Jesus Christ.

This can be a very encouraging message for people who are anxious or worried about things to come. It can strengthen their faith and their trust in God and that was Paul’s intention. 

However, when the doctrine of election is taught in this way, it often happens that people respond with “but, what about….” Paul anticipates his readers asking, “but what about the Jews. Weren’t they God’s chosen people? Why hasn’t God kept them?”

So, Paul deals with the question and does so in such a way that he also shows us the answer to our own “what abouts.”

Paul begins by saying that he is greatly saddened by the fact that the majority of his fellow Jews had not believed in Christ and were in danger of perishing eternally. If possible, he says he would even be willing to accept damnation if it would save them. He says, if possible, because it was actually impossible since Christ had already done essentially that when he suffered the wrath of God for them as he hung upon the cross.

Paul points out all of the things that were part of their joint heritage. God had adopted them and called them his children, the glorious presence of God, the giving of the law, the worship of God and the promises that God had made concerning heaven and the resurrection to life were theirs as well.  They were descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Furthermore, Christ–who is God–is also a Jew.

Yet, when Christ came to his own, the vast majority of the people did not receive him or believe in him. Christ, himself, lamented

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often I would have gathered your children together as a hen gather’s her brood under her wings and you were not willing.

Matthew 23:37

Similarly, in Luther’s day, his coworker Philip Melancthon, who wrote the Augsburg Confession, complained while teaching on this chapter that Luther’s opponents did not believe the Gospel. He says, that the unbelief of the church hierarchy did not mean that the protestants were wrong about justification by grace through faith. Although they shared the scriptures, the creeds, and the writings of the great theologians of the early church, Luther’s opponents would not accept the righteousness that God gives as a gift to all who believe, because they desired a righteousness of their own that would obligate God to reward them. 

Today, we face a similar situation. People who call themselves Christian are replacing the Gospel concerning Jesus Christ with Gospels of their own devising. Many have been abandoned the faith they were taught. Considering themselves good people, they turn a deaf ear to calls to repentance and faith. Some have abandoned the true God altogether. That causes us great pain, because we know what awaits them if they do not repent.

Paul’s teaching in the ninth chapter of Romans can be properly applied to all these situations. 

The first point Paul makes is that God’s promises are not made to the Jews in general or by extension to church members or their descendants. The promises are made to believers.

You will remember from our discussion of chapter four, that God chose Abraham out of the all people on earth to receive the promise he had first made to Eve concerning a savior. God chose him by grace and called him to leave his people and go to another place where God would make him a blessing for all the peoples of the world. Abraham believed God’s promises and God counted that as righteousness. Consequently, Paul says in chapter 4 and again in the book of Galatians that those who believe God are Abraham’s true children and are declared righteous by faith just as he was.

Later Abraham had two sons. One Ishmael was born in the normal fashion with this exception, because Abraham’s wife could not have children a slave served as a surrogate so that Abraham could have a son. Later God promised Abraham that he would have another son, Isaac. Isaac was a miracle baby born of Sara. By counting Abraham’s descendants through Isaac and not through Ishmael, God demonstrated that it would be the spiritual descendants of Abraham who would receive the blessing. God demonstrated that it was not physical descent or the order of birth that entitled one to receive the promises, it was God’s own free choice and the faith that received the gift.

Similarly, Paul says that when Isaac’s sons Jacob and Esau were born, God chose Jacob to receive the promise even though he was the younger son and had done nothing to deserve the blessing or the promises. Again, it was God’s free choice that limited the promise to Jacob and his descendants and that choice was made entirely by grace.

The same has been true for believing Christians of every generation. Whether they began life without the church or were brought to the church as infants, God has called them to faith and God counts their faith as righteousness. The promises of life and salvation are not given to them because of their birth or because of their obedience. They are given by God’s free choice that they may be received by faith.

Paul says in chapter 4 this actually has the effect of making the promises of God more certain, because if the promises depended upon obedience, they would be null and void, because none of us is sufficiently obedient to be counted righteous according to God’s commandments.

So, the promises of God are given solely by grace and are received in faith by those who believe God’s Word concerning Jesus Christ, his Son.

However, in every generation there are those who turn away from God and the righteousness that comes by faith. As the Jews did in the days of Jesus and Paul, some trust in their heritage rather than trusting in Christ. Others trust in their works. Thinking that God owes them for all they have done or that they will be saved because they meet the standards their culture has set for a good person. But God will have none of that. The law and good works cannot save us. God’s law, as taught by Jesus, condemns us all.

Some resist the Gospel with such intensity that God hardens them for a time for his own purposes. Like Pharaoh, who first hardened his own heart and then had it hardened by God so that he could make an example of him with the final plagues and the destruction of his army at the Red Sea, those Jews who opposed the preaching of the Gospel served to scatter the church and spread the message farther and faster. One such person was Paul himself. Who, when he had succeeded for a time in persecuting the church, was confronted by Jesus, himself. Paul became an example of the great mercy of God which can save even those who have viciously opposed him. Others never repent and so they perish, not because God wills it, but solely because of their unbelief.

Within the church we see the same cycles of faith and unbelief, restoration and idolatry, that fills the Old Testament. Jesus himself taught that both good and evil would be gathered within the church as good fish and rough fish are both caught in a net. In the parable of the tares he taught that unbelief would exist right next to belief within the church until the end of time.

In the days of Elijah, the king and queen had led the nation away from the true God to the worship of Baal. After Elijah had triumphed over the prophets of Baal and called the people back to the true God, the queen, Jezebel, vowed to kill him and he fled, thinking he was the last of the prophets among a people that had abandoned the true God.

But God told him he had kept 7,000 people faithful by his word and grace. They had not knelt before Baal or kissed him. They were a small but faithful remnant that had continued in the faith.

A few generations later, Isaiah prophesied that God would eject his people from the land he given them. Because they were constantly straying, there would come a time when they were no longer people of faith who believed God and the promises would no longer be theirs. Only a small remnant of the people would return, a believing few, who had been chosen and kept by God.

And the cycle continues to repeat. Many fall away. Not because God has willed it, but because they will not believe him. Those who fall away perish in their unbelief. But others, the remnant, are preserved by God. As it was then so it is now. The 

church waxes and wanes, often veering into faithless unbelief. But this does not mean that God’s Word has failed. It means that people are stubborn in their unbelief and refuse to receive the promised righteousness.Yet, God continues to have mercy on whom he will. He chooses people from every generation and every ethnic group on the face of the earth and calls them to faith in his Son. More, he keeps them in that faith until they receive the things that he has promised, for nothing can separate them from His love. Such people find his promises perfectly and completely reliable–just as they believed them to be.

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