Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Observations on Paul's Letter to the Romans

For the past few weeks I've taken my Sunday school class through the early chapters of Romans. The Apostle Peter was absolutely correct when he penned, "There are some things in them [Paul's letters] that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures" (2 Peter 3:16b). Nowhere is Paul harder to understand than in Romans 9-11.

As I dug through Romans 9-11 it became clear  how easily it was for John Calvin to get confused. Calvinists use these chapters to "prove" their view of God's sovereignty. Calvinists believe these chapters reveal God's predestination and reprobation for the whole human race. Read through Calvin's eyes, the passage speaks of election to salvation and election to reprobation and God's right to do either or both. Verses such as Romans 9:18 are said to emphasize the point, "So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills." 

In all of this, the Calvinist forgets the context of the Roman letter. Paul is writing to Christians in Rome. These aren't just Christians, however. There are Gentiles who became Christian and Jews who became Christians in the same city and perhaps the same congregation. The letter was written at some point around AD 55-57. The full impact of the statements resulting from the Jerusalem Council in AD 50 may or may not be felt in Rome. Be that as it may, the Jewish Christians of the first century had a difficult time understanding how Gentiles could become Christians without keeping the Law of Moses.

The early chapters of Romans addresses the issue. Chapters 1-8 point out all humanity stands guilty before God as "lawbreakers." Whether the law derived from conscience (natural law discerned from general revelation) or the written Law (discerned from special revelation) made no difference. No one lived up to the "light" they had. It was impossible to be saved by law, for breaking one point meant breaking it all. So Paul could say, "All have sinned and are coming short of the glory of God...." (Romans 3:23). He could also write, "For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight" (Romans 3:20). Paul goes on to explain how justification comes through faith because of the sacrifice of Jesus which allowed God to be both "just and justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus" (Romans 3:26).

Paul then defines and illustrates the faith that justifies in Romans 4, describes how Jesus' sacrifice settled the consequences of Adam's sin in Romans 5, and emphasizes such forgiveness apart from law is not license in Romans 6. Chapters 7 and 8 describe the assurance believers can have because of God's grace. The intent of these chapters is to emphasize for his readers that both Jews and Gentiles are justified by grace through faith (see also Ephesians 2:8, 9). Every human being stands equally guilty before the cross of Christ and every human being--Jew and Gentile alike--can be justified through faith.

Paul uses Romans 9-11 to respond to anticipated Jewish objections that God was not fair in his treatment of the Jews. Paul says they are wrong, for God can do what he wishes. Paul's Jewish Christian objectors failed to recognize the result of Paul's argument in Romans 1-8. They assumed, because of their ages long relationship as God's chosen people, they were automatically saved. Many Christians today make the same error. It is all too often assumed the Jewish people stood, and stand, in a special relationship with God and he is beholden to them.

Paul counters by saying God chose them and gave them wonderful covenant promises...but those promises did not necessarily include salvation. The call of Abraham, found in Genesis 12, says nothing of salvation. The passage says, "And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (Genesis 12:2,3). Those two verses do not contain even one salvation promise! God promises Abraham his descendants will become a great nation (Israel). God promises Abraham his name will become great. God promises to bless him and he did: Abraham became wealthy and prosperous. God blessed those who favored Abraham and overcame those who dishonored Abraham. All of those promises came true. A reading of the Old Testament reveals how God blessed, watched over, and protected Israel...even when they were disobedient.

God called Abraham and his descendants for a special purpose. It was in Abraham all the families of the earth shall be blessed. Every scholar who believes the Bible understands the Messianic nature of this promise. God called Abraham and his descendants into existence as a great nation in order to bring God's Messiah into the world. Abraham and his descendants were elected for service not salvation.

Paul spends all of Romans 9 pointing out to his Jewish Christian objectors how God dealt fairly with the nation of Israel throughout history. God kept all of his promises. But...and it is a major shift in emphasis, Paul says, "For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel (Romans 9:6b). There are two Israels--a physical Israel and a spiritual Israel. The physical Israel relates to the nation of Israel--the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. All God's promises to them were unconditional, dependent solely on their natural descent, and their purpose for existence--bringing the Messiah.

God does not have to save them just because he used them to accomplish his purposes. God can use whomever he chooses to accomplish whatever he wants. Witness Pharaoh (Romans 9:17).  God can use descendants of Abraham, he can use heathens, he can even use women (Rahab for example). He is not required to save them just because he used them for his ends.

There is, however, another Israel--a spiritual Israel. God can save them by whatever means he chooses. While Israel of the flesh received unconditional promises , spiritual Israel receives promises based on one condition. That one condition is faith! Every human being--Jew and Gentile--is "born [of God] not of blood (racial descent) nor the will of the flesh nor of the will of man..." (John 1:13). Abraham was saved because he believed and trusted God (Romans 4:20). He trusted God even when he offered Isaac as a sacrifice because he trusted God, "He considered that God was able even to raise him (Isaac) from the dead" Hebrews 11:19). Abraham's experiences with God led him to inviolable trust.

God chose the nation of Israel for service and he did so without conditions. The unconditional nature of God's election to service is seen in Israel's history. Their "up and down, in and out" relationship with God and God's faithfulness in spite of their disobedience, idolatry, and sinfulness reveals God's patience. Spiritual Israel, which consists of both Jews and Gentiles who put their trust in the blood of Jesus, is entered upon the condition of faith. Faith is not some miraculous gift, it is the belief that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God who died, was buried, and rose again in payment for the penalty of death I deserved because of sin. In Romans 10 Paul tells his readers how  all can receive the gift of salvation by faith. Any Jew or Gentile can become part of spiritual Israel by believing the Gospel and Paul writes, "For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, 'Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.' For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek...." (Romans 10:10-13).

Paul then emphasizes the unbelievers will not believe unless someone present the good news to them. In Romans 10:14-17 he details the necessity of preaching and concludes with, "Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ" (Romans 10:17).

Romans 9-11 when properly understood has a profound message for the Calvinist as well as the Premillennial and the Dispensationalist. God's unconditional election was an election for service, not salvation. When Mary delivered Jesus on that Christmas night, the Jewish mission ended. God still loved them but he already fulfilled every one of his promises: every one! Only spiritual Israel continued and it included both Jews and Gentiles who acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah and trusted in his blood. Today there are only saved people and lost people. Jews have only one hope and it is found only in the Messiah. They were not replaced, their role ended with the birth of Jesus.