Lesson 27: Kingdom Ethics (Luke 6:27-36)Related Media
Summary by Seth Kempf, Bethany Community Church Staff
Lesson 28: Judging Others, Part I: Choosing Your Measure (Luke 6:37-38)Related Media
Summary by Seth Kempf, Bethany Community Church Staff
Related Topics: Grace
Lesson 29: Judging Others, Part II: Blinding Hypocrisy (Luke 6:39-42)Related Media
Summary by Seth Kempf, Bethany Community Church Staff
Lesson 30: A Tree and its Fruit (Luke 6:43-45)Related Media
Summary by Seth Kempf, Bethany Community Church Staff
Lesson 31: Calling Christ Lord (Luke 6:46-49)Related Media
Summary by Seth Kempf, Bethany Community Church Staff
Lesson 58: Why God’s Word Cannot Fail (Romans 9:6-13)Related Media
We come now to a section of Scripture that Dr. James Boice called “the most difficult portion of the entire Bible, more difficult even than those very confusing sections in Daniel, Revelation, and other books that deal with prophecy” (Romans: God and History [Baker], 3:1051). In my judgment, biblical prophecy is more difficult than Romans 9 to understand, but Romans 9 is more difficult to accept and joyfully submit to. And joyfully submitting to Romans 9 is the key to benefitting spiritually from the truth taught here.
Romans 9 is hard for many believers to submit to because it probably will change your view of who God is, and many want God to be someone other than whom the Bible reveals Him to be. They want God to be an equal-opportunity Savior, who loves everyone just the same. They want Him to be what they consider “fair,” giving everyone an equal chance to be saved. And they want that salvation, at least in some small way, to be linked to something in us. They want to think, “God loves me because in spite of my faults, I’m really a loveable person.” Or, “The reason I’m saved is because I chose God. The decision was up to me and I made the wise choice! My salvation in part is due to me.”
But in Romans 9, Paul shows that God has not granted salvation equally to all people. He has always made choices, not only between nations, but also between individuals. He has not given everyone an equal chance to be saved. And, Paul states that when God saves someone, it has absolutely nothing to do with anything good in that person. Rather, it depends totally on God’s purpose according to His choice (9:11). He adds (9:16), “So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy.” And, to squash the idea that God has mercy equally on everyone, Paul adds (9:18), “So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires.”
That’s not hard to understand, but you probably find it hard joyfully to submit to. Some of you may think, “I can accept that because it’s in the Bible, but I don’t like it!” So you submit to it like you submit to eating broccoli, because you know that it’s good for you. But you don’t especially like it.
Why do I say that you need to submit joyfully to the truth of Romans 9? There are at least three reasons. First, this is God’s revelation of who He is, and we should not only grudgingly accept who He is, but also rejoice in who He is. He is the only totally perfect and glorious Being in the universe. The more that we see Him in His glorious beauty, the more we should rejoice.
Second, we should rejoice in these truths about God because Jesus did. There is only one place in the gospels where it says that Jesus “rejoiced greatly in the Holy Spirit” (Luke 10:21). The truth that made Him rejoice greatly was that the Father, whom He calls “Lord of heaven and earth,” had hidden the truth of knowing Him from the wise and had revealed it to babes. Jesus said that the only ones who can know the Father are those to whom the Son wills to reveal Him (see Luke 10:21-22). If that truth of the Father and the Son revealing themselves to some, but not to others, doesn’t make you rejoice, then you aren’t rejoicing in what Jesus rejoiced in.
Third, these truths should make you rejoice because Paul is using them to explain why your salvation is secure and certain. The problem that he is addressing in Romans 9-11 is: If God’s promises to bless the Jews are certain, then why are most Jews rejecting Christ? Does their rejection of Jesus mean that God’s promises can fail? And if His promises to Israel failed, then maybe the wonderful promise of Romans 8—that nothing can separate us from His love—could fail. So Paul is arguing why God’s word cannot fail:
God’s word cannot fail because He always accomplishes His purpose through His free choice of a remnant according to His grace.
Before we work through Paul’s argument in our text, I want to show you from other Scriptures that for God’s word of promise not to fail, He must be the all-powerful sovereign who always accomplishes His purpose. In other words, if you want God’s promises to hold true, you must let God be God. That sounds reasonable on the surface, but there are many believers who fight against it. Maybe some of you will want to fight what I say today and in the next few messages. But my prayer is that, while the effect may not take hold by the end of this sermon, hopefully as you wrestle to understand these deep truths, you will come out on the other side rejoicing in them!
1. God’s word cannot fail because He is the only sovereign of the universe who always accomplishes His purpose.
For God to be able always to keep His promises, He must be absolutely sovereign. If He purposes something, but can’t actually pull it off, then His purpose is uncertain. If Satan and the demons or some evil, powerful human, might mess up God’s purpose, then He is not totally sovereign and you can’t trust His purpose.
Or, to put it another way, if God has relinquished control over the course of history to the “free will” of man, then history may not turn out exactly as God planned. For God’s promise to hold true that absolutely nothing can separate us from His love, God has to be able to carry out His sovereign purpose in spite of all attempts of Satan and wicked sinners to thwart it. God’s sovereignty means that He is free to plan, to choose, and to carry out His plan, and no one is able to thwart that plan. Here are just a few Scriptures that teach this:
Job 23:13: “But He is unique and who can turn Him? And what His soul desires, that He does.”
Job 42:2: “I know that You can do all things, and that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted.”
Psalm 22:28: “For the kingdom is the Lord’s and He rules over the nations.”
Psalm 33:10-11: “The Lord nullifies the counsel of the nations; He frustrates the plans of the peoples. The counsel of the Lord stands forever, the plans of His heart from generation to generation.”
Psalm 103:19: “The Lord has established His throne in the heavens, and His sovereignty rules over all.”
Psalm 115:3: “But our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases.”
Daniel 4:34-35: “For His dominion is an everlasting dominion, and His kingdom endures from generation to generation. All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, but He does according to His will in the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of earth; and no one can ward off His hand or say to Him, ‘What have You done?’”
Isaiah 46:9-10: “For I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like Me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things which have not been done, saying, ‘My purpose will be established, and I will accomplish all My good pleasure.’” (See, also, Isa. 45:1-7.)
Eph. 1:10b-11: “In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will.”
These are just a few of dozens of verses that show that God is the absolute sovereign over His creation, including the angelic and human parts of creation. Satan is powerful, but he cannot thwart God’s purpose for even a second, and in the end he will accomplish God’s purpose and then be thrown into the lake of fire. Rebellious, powerful monarchs cannot thwart God’s purpose by persecuting His church. In the end, they will only be pawns to accomplish His purpose and then face eternal judgment.
In light of these many verses, it’s puzzling why many professing Christians argue that God has relinquished His sovereignty to the will of man. They picture God in heaven, wringing His hands, saying, “I’ve done everything that I can do to provide salvation, but now it’s up to them to choose Me. Oh, how I wish that they would believe!” They’re saying that God’s purpose in sending His Son to the cross has been frustrated by human sin. But as A. W. Pink rightly stated (The Sovereignty of God [The Banner of Truth Trust], p. 21, italics his), “To declare that the Creator’s original plan has been frustrated by sin, is to dethrone God.”
The biblical truth that God is absolutely sovereign, which means that He always accomplishes His purpose, should cause you to rejoice, because it means that His promise concerning His love for you in Christ cannot fail. Let’s trace Paul’s argument in our text:
2. God’s word of promise to the Jews cannot fail because He always accomplishes His purpose through His free choice of a remnant according to His grace.
Paul states the proposition in 9:6a: “But it is not as though the word of God has failed.” Then he explains this by a principle: “For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel.” This confronted the proud Jewish notion that all Jews would go to heaven by virtue of their physical birth as Jews. Then Paul proves the principle with two illustrations. First (9:7-9) he shows that not all of Abraham’s descendants were his true children, but only those who were “children of the promise” through Isaac. Ishmael and his descendants were “children of the flesh” (9:8).
But Paul’s Jewish critics might have said, “Granted, Ishmael was not a child of the promise because his mother was Hagar, the Egyptian maid.” So, Paul gives a second illustration to prove his point (9:10-13): The descendants of Isaac, Jacob and Esau, were born of the same mother and father at the same time. But God chose Jacob and rejected Esau while they were still in the womb, before either of them had done good or bad. God’s reason for doing this was (9:11), “so that His purpose according to His choice would stand, not because of works, but because of Him who calls.” Paul backs up his point with two Old Testament references, “The older will serve the younger” (Gen. 25:23); and, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated” (Mal. 1:2b-3a). He is proving that God’s word to Israel has not failed, because God always accomplishes His purpose through His free choice of a remnant according to His grace.
Before I explain this phrase by phrase, I need to respond to two common attempts to dodge Paul’s teaching here. First, some claim that in Romans 9 Paul is not dealing with God’s choice of some for salvation, but rather for service. But, Paul’s deep grief (9:1-5) was over the fact that most of his fellow Jews were not saved, not that they were not serving God. The terms that Paul uses in our text show that salvation is the issue (Thomas Schreiner, Romans [Baker], pp. 496-497). “Children of God” and “children of the promise” (9:8) invariably refer to salvation (Rom. 8:16, 21; Phil. 2:15; Gal. 4:28). “To call” (9:11) always refers to God’s effectual call to salvation.
Another argument is that Paul is talking here about nations, not about individuals. Somehow, this is supposed to soften the “unpleasant” notion that God chooses individuals to salvation. But if God chose Israel as a nation, but did not choose any other nation (Deut. 7:7-8; Ps. 147:19-20), then all the individuals in other nations were excluded from the covenant promises. While Malachi 1:2-3 in its context refers to the nations that came forth from Jacob and Esau, it went back to God’s choice of Jacob and rejection of Esau as individuals while they were still in the womb. We might ask, if it’s supposedly unfair of God to choose one individual and reject another, isn’t it more unfair to choose one nation and reject all others?
But the problem that Paul is addressing here is, why are many individual Jews, who are a part of the elect nation of Israel, not saved? His answer is that God didn’t choose everyone in Israel to be saved. He later (11:5) refers to the “true Israel” as “a remnant according to God’s gracious choice.” Consider four aspects of Paul’s teaching:
A. God always accomplishes His sovereign purpose through His choice of a remnant.
Paul’s answer to the question of whether God’s word has failed because most of the Jews were rejecting Christ is, “No, because God never promised to save the entire Jewish nation, but rather, only a remnant.” That’s what he means by (9:6), “For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel.” He made the same point in 2:28-29 when he said that being a true Jew is not a matter of outward circumcision, but rather of an inward work of God’s Spirit in the heart.
He says the same thing in slightly different language (9:7a), “Nor are they all children because they are Abraham’s descendants.” Ishmael and Isaac were both Abraham’s physical children, but only Isaac was the child of God’s promise. God’s spiritual blessings were to come through the line of Isaac, not Ishmael.
Then Paul repeats it again to make sure we get it (9:8), “That is, it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are regarded as descendants.” He is saying that while in a general sense God chose the entire nation of Israel, He never promised to save every Jew. Rather, some Jews were the children of the promise of salvation. As Paul explains (9:11), this was “so that God’s purpose according to His choice would stand, not because of works but because of Him who calls.”
The Bible is clear that God has always accomplished His purpose by choosing some, which implies that He rejects others. An entire city, Ur of the Chaldees, was made up of pagan idolaters (Josh. 24:2), but God chose only one man out of that city, Abram, and promised to bless him. He specifically excluded Abram’s family by telling Abram to leave them and go to the place that God would designate (Gen. 12:1). Then Abraham fathered Ishmael through Hagar and asked God to make him the heir. But God refused that request and told Abraham that Isaac would be the son of the promise (Gen. 17:18-21). In a similar fashion, God chose Jacob and rejected Esau. His purpose was never to save all the descendants of Abraham, but only a chosen remnant.
B. God accomplishes His sovereign purpose through His power, not through man’s ability.
Ishmael was a child of the flesh in the sense that Abraham conceived him through Hagar through natural means. There was no miracle involved. But Isaac, the child of the promise, was conceived after Abraham and Sarah were past their natural ability to conceive children. His birth required God’s miraculous power. “I will come” (9:9) focuses on God’s powerful intervention. His miraculous power was the only explanation for Isaac’s birth.
As such, Isaac is a picture of the spiritual miracle of the new birth, which is not humanly explicable (John 1:13; Gal. 4:21-31). Some are born in a Christian family and raised in the church. Perhaps they are baptized and confirmed in the church. But if God does not impart new life to them, they are not “children of the promise.” They are not true children of Abraham (Gal. 3:7). “You must be born again” (John 3:7).
C. God accomplishes His sovereign purpose through His free choice.
This is to say, God’s purpose is not held hostage by whatever man decides to do. If that were so, then man, not God, would be the sovereign of the universe. But as we’ve seen, the Bible is clear that God is the only sovereign over His creation.
In America, where we have a government of checks and balances, we do not understand absolute sovereignty. Our President is not the sovereign of this country, because Congress can (and often does) go against his will. And, if the people do not like him, they can vote him out of office.
But God’s sovereignty is free, which is to say that He freely chooses what He wants to do and He freely accomplishes His choices and no one is able to thwart His will. Paul states God’s free choice in the plainest terms (9:11-12), “For though the twins were not yet born and had not done anything good or bad, so that God’s purpose according to His choice would stand, not because of works but because of Him who calls, it was said to her, ‘The older will serve the younger.’” God doesn’t wait to see what choices people will make and then make up His plan to fit with their will. In other words, He doesn’t devise His plan based on foreknowledge. Rather, His plan is based on His purpose according to His choice, without regard to what people may or may not do. And, His plan often goes against human custom or common thinking: “The older will serve the younger” (see, also, 1 Cor. 1:26-31).
D. God accomplishes His sovereign purpose according to His grace.
Paul illustrates God’s grace by God’s choosing Jacob but rejecting Esau before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad. It was “not because of works, but because of Him who calls” (9:11). The case of Ishmael showed that physical birth from Abraham does not insure God’s blessing. That of Esau shows that works do not (Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 355). If physical birth or good works could merit election, then it would not be an act of God’s free grace.
But, what does Paul mean when he cites Malachi 1:2b-3a, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated”? Some explain it to mean that God loved Esau less than He loved Jacob; but the fact remains, God chose Jacob and rejected Esau. By God’s purpose according to His choice, Jacob and his descendants were the objects of God’s covenant blessings, whereas Esau and his descendants were excluded from those blessings. While we should not interpret hate in terms of sinful human hatred, it does imply that God’s just wrath for sin remained on Esau and his descendants, while God’s gracious love for salvation was on Jacob and his spiritual descendants, the children of promise.
However you reconcile it with God’s love for the world, the Bible also declares, “You hate all who do iniquity” (Ps. 5:5b). He doesn’t just hate the sin; He hates sinners (Ps. 5:6; 11:5). Douglas Moo comments (The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 587), “In an apparent paradox that troubles Paul (cf. 9:14 and 19 following) as well as many Christians, God loves ‘the whole world’ at the same time as he withholds his love in action, or election, from some.”
By this point, some of you probably are thinking, “If God accomplishes His purpose through His free, gracious choice of some, while He rejects others, then He’s not fair!” You may also be thinking, “If God is absolutely sovereign as you’ve described, then we’re all just robots with no will of our own. How can God condemn robots that He has programmed to act in a certain way?” If those are your questions, then I have correctly interpreted Romans 9:6-13, because those are precisely the questions that Paul anticipates and responds to (9:14-18, 19-24). You’ll have to come back when we cover those verses to hear my understanding of his answers.
But, meanwhile, does the truth of God accomplishing His sovereign purpose through His free choice of a remnant according to His grace cause you to rejoice? It should, because it shows why God’s word of promise to you cannot fail. If you love God and are called according to His purpose, then you can know that God will bring you to eternal glory (8:28-30). Your salvation is certain because God always accomplishes His sovereign purpose through His free choice according to His grace.
Let me add that the truths of Romans 9 do not nullify the truth of Romans 4, that we are justified by faith in Christ. If Jacob was saved, it was because he believed in God’s promised Messiah. If Esau was lost, it was because he rejected God’s promised Messiah. The elect believe in Christ; the non-elect do not believe. So be diligent to make certain about His calling and choosing you (2 Pet. 1:10) by trusting in Christ alone to save you.
- Some argue that if God is absolutely sovereign, then He is responsible for evil. How would you answer this biblically?
- Some contend that the doctrine of election promotes fatalism: What will be, will be. So why pray? Why witness? How would you answer this biblically?
- One especially obnoxious author argues that if God can save people, but chooses not to, then He isn’t a God of love. Why is this biblically flawed (and even blasphemous)?
- Someone asks you, “How can I know that God has chosen me?” Your response?
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2011, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation
Lesson 59: Is God Unfair? (Romans 9:14-18)Related Media
If you are a parent you have heard the repeated refrain from your children, “That’s not fair!” And when you heard that complaint you responded, “Life’s not fair!” But we all want it to be fair! And we want God to be fair—or so we think!
In Romans 9:11-13 Paul wrote, “For though the twins were not yet born and had not done anything good or bad, so that God’s purpose according to His choice would stand, not because of works but because of Him who calls, it was said to her, ‘The older will serve the younger.’ Just as it is written, ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.’” Paul knew that if we were tracking with him, we would respond, “That’s not fair!”
As I pointed out last time, if Paul was saying that God made His decision to bless Jacob and reject Esau based on the fact that God foresaw that Jacob would decide to trust in God, but Esau would reject God, no one would have thought to accuse God of being unfair. That’s perfectly fair. There’s no problem with that.
But, clearly, that’s not what Paul meant. He goes out of his way to make it clear that God chose Jacob and rejected Esau apart from anything that they would do, “so that His purpose according to election would stand.” But we don’t like that! We want things to be equal and fair. We want everyone to have an equal shot at salvation and we want that salvation to be linked in some small way to something that we do. We want to be able say, “I’m saved because I made a decision by my own free will to believe in Jesus!” Then I can take some credit for my wise decision and my faith.
Also, note that even though Paul knew that his line of reasoning would provoke objections, he does not soften it in any way to avoid controversy, but instead he asserts it even more strongly (see John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], pp. 354-356). Some pastors, to avoid controversy, will not teach the doctrine of election. They know that it upsets people, so they soften it or explain it in a way that makes God seem completely fair. But Paul didn’t do that! He raises the objections that he knows we will have and then rather than softening his point, he strengthens it (9:16, 18).
Why did he do that? First, he did it because the Holy Spirit inspired him to do it. Paul’s epistles are the inspired Word of God, given to him for our spiritual understanding and profit. Even though some of his writings are hard to understand and the untaught and unstable distort them, they are Scripture, given by the Spirit to make us wise unto salvation (2 Pet. 3:16; 2 Tim. 3:15-17).
Second, Paul wrote these things because they are in line with the rest of Scripture. If you have a Bible that puts Old Testament quotations in small caps, you can easily see that Paul builds his argument in Romans 9 on the Old Testament. He cites it in 9:7, 9, 12, 13, 15, 17, 25-26, 27-29, & 33. Furthermore, Paul believed that what Scripture says, God says. In 9:17, he says, “For the Scripture says to Pharaoh….” He then quotes from Exodus 9:16, which is actually God speaking to Moses. Moses had not yet written the Torah (the first five books of the OT). But what God said to Moses is what Scripture said to Pharaoh. Scripture is authoritative because it is God speaking to us.
So Romans 9 does not consist of the opinions of the apostle Paul, which we are free to accept if we agree or ignore if we disagree. Romans 9 is God speaking to us with His authority through Paul to tell us what we need to know to be assured about our salvation, which is Paul’s main subject in the context. How can we know that God’s promise of salvation will not fail? Paul’s answer is that our salvation is secure because it does not depend on us, but rather on God’s purpose according to election. As the sovereign of the universe, God always accomplishes what He purposes to do. He chooses some for salvation apart from anything that they do, and He rejects others apart from anything they do (9:11, 13). We need to submit joyfully to this truth because it is God’s authoritative revelation of Himself.
But Paul knew that some would still sputter, “But that’s not fair!” So he teaches here:
As the righteous Sovereign over all, God is not unjust to grant mercy to some and to harden others, because all deserve His judgment.
The structure of this paragraph is: First (9:14), Paul raises and responds vigorously to the objection that God may be unjust to choose some and harden others. Then (9:15), he cites Exodus 33:19 to support his earlier statement (9:13, quoting God), “Jacob I loved.” He concludes (9:16), “So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy.” Next (9:17), he cites Exodus 9:16 about God’s purpose with Pharaoh to support his earlier statements (9:11, 13), “so that God’s purpose according to election would stand,” and, “Esau I hated.”
Paul’s concluding summary (9:18), “So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires,” supports 9:13-14, that God is not unjust to love one man and to keep his wrath on another. On the basis of justice, some (like Esau and Pharaoh) receive judgment. On the basis of mercy, others (like Jacob) are the objects of love and salvation. But no one gets injustice, because all deserve judgment. With that as an overview, let’s work through Paul’s reasoning:
1. As the righteous Sovereign over all, it is outrageous to think that God could treat anyone unjustly (9:14).
Paul is responding to what he knew many would think about his statement in 9:13 that God loved Jacob and hated Esau: “What shall we say then? There is no injustice with God, is there? May it never be!” Paul is saying that the very question is outrageous! By virtue of who He is, God cannot possibly be unjust (Gen. 18:25). Calvin comments (p. 354), “Monstrous surely is the madness of the human mind, that it is more disposed to charge God with unrighteousness than to blame itself for blindness.”
James Boice (Romans: God and History [Baker], 3:1071) points out, “Even if God should save people on the basis of something in them—faith, good works, or whatever—this would actually be injustice, since people’s backgrounds are unequal.” Due to their natural temperament or their being raised in a believing family, or whatever, it’s easier for some to be more trusting. And for the same reasons, it’s easier for some to be good, moral people. If God’s election were based on these factors, it would not be fair to those who were raised in a violent, immoral, or pagan background.
Also, to raise the question of fairness presupposes that you have rights and that your rights are being violated. If you have no rights, then you have no basis to claim that someone is treating you unfairly. Because we all have sinned without excuse thousands of times against God’s holy standards, we have no right to accuse Him of being unjust if He did not grant us mercy and salvation. His justice would only bring us what we deserved.
Jesus illustrated this truth with a parable (Matt. 20:1-16). Early in the morning, a landowner went into the marketplace and hired some workers for his vineyard, agreeing to pay them a denarius for their day’s labor. Midmorning, he went back and hired more workers, agreeing to pay them whatever was right. He did the same at noon and at mid-afternoon. Then, an hour before sunset, he hired more workers.
When evening came, he called the workers and began to pay them, beginning with the last group. Even though they had only worked one hour, he paid them a denarius. Those who had been hired first and had worked all day thought that they would receive more. But they only received a denarius. So they grumbled against the landowner for being unfair. But he told them, “I paid you what we agreed on. Take your wages and go. But I’m free to be generous to these last workers if I want to.”
The landowner would have been unfair if he had not given the first group what they deserved. They agreed to a denarius; he paid them a denarius. That’s fair. The last group received grace, which the owner was free to give. As sinners, Jacob and Esau both deserved God’s wrath. Esau received wrath; Jacob got mercy. There is no unfairness on God’s part for treating them in that way.
2. As the righteous Sovereign over all, God is free to show mercy to whomever He wishes (9:15-16).
In 9:15 Paul cites Exodus 33:19 to explain why (“For”) God is not unjust to show mercy, while 9:16 draws the conclusion: “For He says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’ So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs but on God who has mercy.”
At first, the quote from Exodus 33 does not sound like an explanation, but rather just a restatement of the problem, namely, that God is arbitrary and unfair. So we need to understand the context in which God spoke these words to Moses. He had gone up on the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments. While he was there, the people grew restless and asked Aaron to make the golden calf, which they all worshiped. They were all guilty of gross idolatry. After Moses destroyed the golden calf and executed judgment on the leaders, he went back up the mountain to make atonement for their sin (Exod. 32:30). In that context, Moses (like Paul in Romans 9:3) prayed that if God would not forgive the people, then He could blot Moses out of His book. God replied that He would punish those who had sinned.
Moses continued to plead with God for His presence to go with them. Then Moses boldly asked God to show him His glory (Exod. 33:18). God replied (Exod. 33:19), “I Myself will make all My goodness pass before you; and will proclaim the name of the Lord before you; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion on whom I will show compassion.”
To paraphrase, God is telling Moses, “This is the essence of who I am (My name). My glory is displayed by My freedom to show mercy and compassion to whomever I wish. I am not obligated to show mercy to any, because all have sinned and justly deserve My judgment. But I am free to show My glory both by giving mercy to some and by withholding it from others. That is who I am.” Thomas Schreiner (Romans [Baker], p. 507) explains,
No human being deserves his mercy. The choice of Isaac over Ishmael and Jacob over Esau must be construed as a merciful one. In other words, the stunning thing for Paul was not that God rejected Ishmael and Esau but that he chose Isaac and Jacob, for they did not deserve to be included in his merciful and gracious purposes. Human beings are apt to criticize God for excluding anyone, but this betrays a theology that views salvation as something God “ought” to bestow on all equally…. What is fundamental for God is the revelation of his glory and the proclamation of his name, and he accomplishes this by showing mercy and by withholding it. God’s righteousness is upheld because he manifests it by revealing his glory both in saving and in judging.
There is only a slight difference, if any, between mercy and compassion. Compassion focuses on the feelings of sympathy for those in misery, while mercy is the action to relieve their misery. Both words point to the underlying fact that all have sinned and thus all deserve judgment. If you want to talk about justice, we all justly deserve condemnation. But God doesn’t give everyone what they deserve. To some, He shows mercy and compassion, according to His will, not according to anything that sinners merit or deserve.
Paul reinforces this by his conclusion (9:16), “So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy.” It refers to “God’s bestowal of mercy” (Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 593). It does not depend on a man’s decision to accept Jesus or on human effort (“runs”). Rather, it depends on God who has mercy. Schreiner comments (508), “This verse excludes in the clearest possible terms the notion that free will is the fundamental factor in divine election.” Paul is saying that God freely determines according to the counsel of His own will those to whom He shows mercy.
Also, verse 16 excludes the idea that we determine our salvation by exercising faith that originates in us. As Martyn Lloyd-Jones explains (Romans: God’s Sovereign Purpose [Zondervan], p. 161), if man can originate faith, then it’s something that he can do. It becomes a work that merits the reward of salvation. If that were so, then no one would ever bring the charge that God is unfair or unjust: Jacob believed and God rewarded him with salvation; Esau did not believe and was judged. That’s fair! But Paul is asserting that the difference between those two men was not anything that they did or didn’t do. The difference was that God showed mercy to one, but withheld it from the other. As the Sovereign and righteous God, He is free to do that. Sinners have no claim against Him.
But some contend that God’s love demands that He show mercy to all equally. Dave Hunt brazenly states (in Debating Calvinism [Multnomah], by Dave Hunt & James White, p. 260, italics his), “It is not loving—period—for God to damn for eternity anyone He could save.” He compares this (p. 280) to a doctor who has a cure for a plague, but only gives it to a select group. His contention assumes that God is not able to save anyone. He’d like to save everyone, but because of man’s “free will,” God can’t pull it off. But Paul’s next two verses soundly refute the assertion that God would save everyone if only He could:
3. As the righteous Sovereign over all, God is free to harden whom He wishes, to display His glory (9:17-18).
Verse 17 defends God’s righteousness in withholding mercy from some, according to His purpose, as He did with Esau (9:11, 13): “For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘For this very purpose I raised you up, to demonstrate My power in you, and that My name might be proclaimed throughout the whole earth.’” Then (9:18) Paul draws a conclusion that sums up the entire discussion: “So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires.” To point out the obvious, Paul does not say, “He has mercy on whoever believes in Him and He hardens whoever does not believe in Him.” That would stand Paul’s meaning on its head.
Again, we’re not dealing here with Paul’s opinions, but with what Scripture says, which is what God says. As such, we need to submit to it joyfully (as I explained last week), because it reveals something about God’s perfection as God that we need to know. Paul is saying that God is not unjust to raise up a proud sinner on the stage of world history and use him for God’s greater purpose of demonstrating His power and causing His name to be widely proclaimed. God did that by hardening Pharaoh’s heart and bringing the plagues on Egypt, culminating in the destruction of Pharaoh and his army as they pursued Israel across the divided Red Sea.
God could have chosen to be merciful to Pharaoh and the Egyptians by softening their hearts and by telling them about the need to put the blood on their doorposts to escape the wrath of the destroying angel, who killed all their firstborn. But God chose rather to harden Pharaoh’s heart for the greater purpose of displaying God’s glory in power and judgment, so that His fame would spread throughout the earth. As the righteous Sovereign over all, God has the freedom to harden sinners for His greater purpose of displaying His glory and power in righteous judgment.
Some try to get God off the hook by arguing that God only hardened Pharaoh’s heart after Pharaoh hardened his own heart. But Schreiner (p. 510) counters, “A careful analysis of the OT text also reveals that God’s hardening of Pharaoh precedes and undergirds Pharaoh’s self-hardening … and it is an imposition on the text to conclude that God’s hardening is a response to the hardening of human beings.” God announces twice to Moses in advance that He will harden Pharaoh’s heart; it is only after this that the account says that Pharaoh hardened his own heart (Exod. 4:21; 7:3; 8:15; 11:10).
This does not mean that God coerced or caused Pharaoh to sin. God does not cause sin (Hab. 1:13; 1 John 1:5). Pharaoh was responsible for his own sin (James 1:13). But the Bible has many examples of God using evil people and even Satan himself to accomplish God’s sovereign purpose for His glory (e.g., Gen. 45:5; 50:20; 1 Kings 22:19-23; Acts 4:27-28). All He has to do is to withdraw His restraint and leave sinners to their own sin (Rom. 1:24, 26, 28). When He is through using these sinners for His purposes, He justly judges them for their sin (2 Thess. 2:11-12).
But it is blasphemy to accuse God of being unloving because He did not save them all! Everyone justly deserves God’s judgment because of sin. He is not unjust to grant mercy to some to display the glory of His grace, and to harden others to display the glory of His righteous judgment (Rom. 9:22-23).
I heard R. C. Sproul (at the 2004 Shepherd’s Conference) tell about the time when he taught a freshman Old Testament class of 250 students at a Christian college. He told them in the first class that there would be three papers: The first would be due on September 30th; the second on October 30th; and the third on November 30th.
On September 30th, he received 225 papers, while 25 students came to him begging for mercy: “Please, Dr. Sproul, we didn’t budget our time wisely. We’re still getting used to the rigors of college. We’ll do better next time. Please, don’t give us an ‘F.’ Can we have just a little more time?” Dr. Sproul said, “Okay, you have two days to get those papers in.”
“Oh, thank you, thank you, Dr. Sproul!”
On October 30th, he received 200 papers. Fifty students were late. They pled, “Please, Dr. Sproul. We had midterms. We had homecoming. We had all sorts of other pressures on us. Please, give us one more chance.” He said, “All right, you have two more days.” The students were literally singing, “We love you, Professor Sproul.” He was the hero on campus.
On November 30th, 150 turned in their term papers on time. One hundred students were late. “Where are your term papers?” he asked. “Don’t worry about it, Dr. Sproul. We’ll get them to you soon.” He got out his grade book: “Johnson, your paper is late. F!”
“But that’s not fair!”
“That’s not fair!”
“Is it justice that you want?”
“All right. You were late on your paper last month. I’m changing your grade on that one to F. Does anyone else want justice?”
Dr. Sproul explains, “If we experience grace once, we’re grateful. If we experience it twice, we’re a bit jaded about it. The third time, we expect and demand it. If God doesn’t choose me, then there’s something wrong with Him, not with me!” But grace, by definition, is something God is not required to give. It’s undeserved. Rather than asking, “Why not everyone?” we should ask, “Why me?”
God forbid, but if any of you are damned on judgment day, you will not be able to blame God by saying, “It’s not fair! You didn’t choose me!” Rather, God will be glorified in judging you for your sin. On the other hand, if you are saved, you won’t be able to boast in your faith, but only in God’s grace. If you have not yet received God’s abundant mercy, then cry out like the publican in Jesus’ parable (Luke 18:13), “God, be merciful to me, the sinner!”
- Does God’s love demand that He save everyone? Why/why not? Use Scripture to support your answer.
- How would you answer someone who accused God of being arbitrary in His choice of some and rejection of others?
- Will God grant mercy to all who plead for it or does He withhold it from some who want it? Cite Scripture.
- How would you respond to someone who said, “I guess I’m just not one of the elect?”
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2011, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation
Lesson 60: God’s Glory in Judgment and Mercy (Romans 9:19-23)Related Media
If you’re struggling with the deep truths about God’s sovereignty that we have been working through in Romans 9, you’re in good company, because it is probably Romans 9 that Peter refers to when he says (2 Pet. 3:15-16), “Regard the patience of our Lord as salvation; just as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him wrote to you, as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction.”
Peter is talking about God’s patience in delaying judgment until all of God’s elect are saved. In that context, Peter refers to Paul’s writing about the same thing. Paul only wrote about God’s patience in three places: Romans 2:4; 9:22; and 1 Timothy 1:15-16, which refers to Paul’s own salvation. Out of those three, the only text that is especially difficult to understand is Romans 9. So the apostle Peter may have been acknowledging that he found our text to be difficult (James Boice, Romans: God and History [Baker], 3:1110)!
I have shared with you before the struggles that I used to have as a college student with Romans 9. I would often read Romans 8, which is such an encouraging chapter, but then I would keep reading through Romans 9. It was kind of like running on asphalt in Romans 8 and then hitting quicksand in Romans 9. It always raised so many questions: How is it fair of God to love Jacob and hate Esau before they were even born (9:11, 13)? If salvation does not depend on man’s will or man’s effort (9:16), then how do we obtain it? Do we just sit and wait for God’s grace to hit us like a lightning bolt? And, if God “has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom he desires” (9:18), then how can He judge the one whom He hardens (9:19)?
So I would put on my spiritual boxing gloves and get in the ring with Paul. I felt that I was able to spar with him until I got to verse 19: “You will say to me then, ‘Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?” At that point, I always thought, “Yeah, Paul, that’s a good question. Give me the answer!” Then Paul comes back with (9:20), “On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, ‘Why did you make me like this,’ will it?”
At that point, I always felt like Paul copped out. He asks the right question in verse 19, but then he dodges giving me the answer that I wanted in verse 20. Then one evening as I was boxing with Paul (or so I thought), it was as if the Lord got into the ring and said, “You’re not boxing with Paul, pipsqueak! You’re boxing with Me! I gave you the answer, but you don’t like it!”
So I read it again: “On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God?” It didn’t say, “Who answers back to Paul”! I had been contending against God! Instantly, like when God confronted Job (Job 40:2), “Will the faultfinder contend with the Almighty?” I echoed Job’s reply (Job 40:4-5), “Behold, I am insignificant; what can I reply to You? I lay my hand on my mouth. Once I have spoken, and I will not answer; even twice, and I will add nothing more.” The fight was over. God won. On that day I bowed before God’s sovereign right to be God. While 45 years later there is still much that I don’t understand, God’s right to do as He pleases for His glory hasn’t bothered me since then. I’m content to let God be sovereign. In our text, Paul is arguing:
The Sovereign God has the right to deal with sinful creatures in such a way as to display His glory, both in judgment and in mercy.
The question that Paul anticipates in 9:19 could be paraphrased, “If God has mercy on whom He desires and He hardens whom He desires (9:18), then are we just robots? Don’t we have the free will to choose or reject God? If we don’t, then how can He rightly judge us, since we’re just acting as He programmed us to act?” This would have been a perfect place for Paul to have responded, “Your question shows that you misunderstood me. I didn’t mean that people can’t resist God’s will. That would deny their free will. What I meant was, God has mercy on whoever He foreknows will trust in Him, and He hardens all those whom He foreknows will reject Him.”
But he didn’t say that. His answer shows that Paul is teaching that God has the sovereign right to display His power and to have His name proclaimed throughout the whole earth, by dealing with Pharaoh in judgment (9:17). And, to display the riches of His glory, God is free to love Jacob and to show mercy to Moses and others. Let’s work through his line of thought:
1. The Sovereign God has all the rights to deal with sinful creatures as He chooses; sinners have no rights (9:19-21).
Paul allowed the earlier question, “There is no injustice with God, is there?” but responded instantly with horror, “May it never be!” But here he says, “You’ve crossed the line! You’re out of bounds in even asking the question. Just who do you think you are? You need to humble your heart before the Almighty Sovereign of the universe.”
John Calvin (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], p. 363) points out that the question not only defends the one asking it, but it also makes God the guilty one. It attempts to turn the tables by saying, “God, it’s your fault that I’m sinning. You’re the Sovereign potter. I’m just passive, helpless clay. So how can You blame me for my sin? I’m just the way You made me.” So the very question, “For who resists His will?” is to resist His will!
It’s not true that God made us to be sinners. The human race was plunged into sin when Adam and Eve sinned. You say, “Aha, you see, it’s not my fault! I didn’t have anything to say about the matter!” But to say that is to contend with the all-wise Sovereign God, who assigned to Adam his role as the head of the human race. His action affected the entire race, just as a President’s action to take the nation into war affects the entire nation. Besides, to challenge the fact that you sinned in Adam is arrogantly to imply that you would have done better. Trust me, you wouldn’t have done better! And, it is to dodge the obvious fact that whether you are guilty in Adam or not, you have plenty of guilt in your own track record to condemn you.
This means that you don’t have a leg to stand on when it comes to arguing with God about how He deals with you or with other sinners. He holds all the cards. To blame God’s sovereignty for your sin is incredible chutzpah! It would be like a mass murderer arguing in court, “It’s my parents’ fault! They shouldn’t have conceived me. They didn’t raise me properly. And, it’s the law’s fault. If they didn’t have these stupid laws against murder, I wouldn’t be guilty!”
Paul brings in the frequent Old Testament metaphor of God being the potter and people being the clay (Job 10:8-9; Isa. 29:16; 41:25; 45:9; 64:8; Jer. 18:1-12). He is asserting God’s right to make of the clay whatever He needs to further His purpose, which is His own glory. If He wants to make a vessel for dishonorable use, to display His glory in judgment, He has that right. If He wants to make another vessel for honorable use, to display His glory in mercy, He has that right. The clay has no rights.
But, we still sputter, “That’s not fair! If we’re just passive clay, with no free will, then how can God righteously judge us?” First, we need to understand that the clay isn’t innocent clay; it’s sinful clay. Charles Hodge put it (Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], pp. 317-318, 319),
It is not the doctrine of the Bible, that God first makes men wicked, and then punishes them for their wickedness. The Scriptures only assert, what we see and know to be true, that God permits men, in the exercise of their own free agency, to sin, and then punishes them for their sins, and in proportion to their guilt….
It is not the right of God to create sinful beings in order to punish them, but his right to deal with sinful beings according to his good pleasure, that is here, and elsewhere asserted. He pardons or punishes as he sees fit…. The punishment of the wicked is not an arbitrary act, having no object but to make them miserable; it is designed to manifest the displeasure of God against sin, and to make known his true character.
Someone might still dare to object, “But you claim that God is sovereign over everything. He decreed all that has come to pass. He could have made a world where sin was not possible, but He didn’t. So if you assert that God is totally sovereign, you make Him to be the author of sin.”
I’m tempted to respond to that charge with Paul’s retort, “Who are you, O man, who answers back to God?” But I’ll say a few things. First, some push human free will to the point that they rob God of His ultimate sovereignty. They fall into the error of dualism, where there is an evil power in the universe that has disrupted God’s plan. God is trying to gain the upper hand, but He hasn’t yet succeeded.
But the Bible is clear that God “works all things after the counsel of His will” (Eph. 1:11), including the sinful actions of Satan and of human beings. The cross is Exhibit A (Acts 4:27-28), “For truly in this city there were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur.” God predestined the cross, which included the most sinful actions of people in the history of the world.
But, although God ordained the cross and the fall of man into sin (the necessary reason for the cross), He did so in such a way that He is not in any sense the author of sin or responsible for sin. A Faith to Confess: The Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689 Rewritten in Modern English [Carey Publications], p. 20) puts it like this:
1. From all eternity God decreed all that should happen in time, and this He did freely and unalterably, consulting only His own wise and holy will. Yet in so doing He does not become in any sense the author of sin, nor does He share responsibility for sin with sinners. Neither, by reason of His decree, is the will of any creature whom He has made violated; nor is the free working of second causes put aside; rather is it established. In all these matters the divine wisdom appears, as also does God’s power and faithfulness in effecting that which He has purposed [Scripture references follow].
2. God’s decree is not based upon His foreknowledge that, under certain conditions, certain happenings will take place, but is independent of all such foreknowledge [Scripture references follow].
3. By His decree, and for the manifestation of His glory, God has predestinated (or foreordained) certain men and angels to eternal life through Jesus Christ, thus revealing His grace. Others, whom He has left to perish in their sins, show the terrors of His justice.
You could chew on those words for the rest of your life! But Paul’s point in Romans 9:19-21 is that the Sovereign God has all the rights to deal with sinners as He chooses; sinners have no rights. So we have to think through these issues by taking our proper place before God, saying, “You alone are God. I am not God!” With Job (42:2, 6) we must say, “I know that You can do all things, and that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted…. Therefore I retract, and I repent in dust and ashes.”
2. The Sovereign God deals with sinful creatures in such a way as to display His glory (9:22-24).
Expounding on 9:17-18, Paul sets forth the two sides of this:
A. God displays His glory by His patience, wrath, and power when He judges sinners who are prepared for destruction (9:22).
Although (9:22, NASB) is the translators’ interpretation of a Greek participle as concessive. But the context, which makes it parallel with 9:17-18, lends support to interpreting the participle as causal (Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], pp. 604-605). Translated this way, 9:22 would read, “But what if God, because He was willing to demonstrate His wrath and make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction?”
“What if” is not a hypothetical question that may or may not be true. Rather, it is a rhetorical question introducing a statement of fact. It’s as if Paul is saying, “What’s it to you if God holds off on judging sinners so as to make a greater display of His patience, wrath, and power?” As Moo explains (ibid., p. 605), “In the case both of Pharaoh and of the vessels of wrath, God withholds his final judgment so that he can more spectacularly display his glory.” Or, John Piper puts it (“How God Makes Known the Riches of His Glory to Vessels of Mercy,” on DesiringGod.org): “In other words, the final and deepest argument Paul gives for why God acts in sovereign freedom is that this way of acting displays most fully the glory of God, including his wrath against sin and his power in judgment, so that the vessels of mercy can know him most completely and worship him with the greatest intensity for all eternity.”
What does Paul mean by “vessels of wrath prepared for destruction”? Is he teaching “double predestination,” that God created some just for the purpose of judging them? Some reputable scholars (Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Romans: God’s Sovereign Purpose [Zondervan], p. 213; John Bunyan, Reprobation Asserted [Reiner Publications], p. 60) argue that since the subject of the verb is left unstated, the sinner fits himself for destruction by his own sin. This is in contrast to the vessels of mercy, where Paul specifically states that God prepares them beforehand for glory.
But others (Douglas Moo, p. 607; Thomas Schreiner, Romans [Baker], p. 521; John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], 2:36; Charles Hodge, p. 321, John Piper, “Fitted for Destruction,” from The Justification of God, pp. 211-214, on DesiringGod.org) argue that the context of Pharaoh and the action of the potter, argues that God prepares these vessels for destruction. This does not mean that God arbitrarily made these men as sinners so that He could demonstrate His wrath. Every sinner is responsible for his sin; no one can blame God for making him a sinner. But it is to argue that God is sovereign even over proud, defiant sinners. They may think that they can stand against Him, but they are like pawns in His hand. He uses them to display His patience, wrath, and power, and then He righteously judges them for their sin.
I agree with Wayne Grudem (Systematic Theology [Zondervan], pp. 670, 684-686) that it is better to refer to God’s foreordination of the wicked to judgment as reprobation, not double predestination, because the latter term implies that God carries out both election and damnation in the same way, which is not true. In predestining us to glory, God works directly on our hearts through His Spirit to impart new life, saving faith, and all the blessings of salvation. But in reprobation, God does not work immediately on the heart to infuse evil or force people to sin. Rather, He works through secondary causes to permit sin, so that sinners are justly condemned for their willful sins.
Predestination, or unconditional election, is a comfort to believers because it assures us that what God purposed to do for us, He will complete in spite of our many sins. And, it humbles us to realize that we deserved His judgment, but He showed us mercy.
Reprobation, while a difficult doctrine to contemplate (Calvin called it “dreadful,” The Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. by John McNeill [Westminster], 2:955), is also in the Bible to comfort believers with the truth that no evil person can upset or thwart the sovereign purpose of God. Pharaoh tried to oppose God’s will, but God raised him up and patiently endured his sin so that God could make known His wrath and power before He destroyed him (Rom. 9:17, 22). Judas, the Jewish leaders, and Pilate all sinned by crucifying Jesus and they were judged for it, but what they did accomplished God’s sovereign plan (John 17:12; Acts 2:23; 4:27-28; see, also, 1 Pet. 2:7-8; Jude 4).
No wicked ruler, false teacher, or persecutor of the church, including the anti-Christ himself, is able to frustrate God’s plan. The fact that He doesn’t just obliterate them before they increase their terrible sin shows His great patience toward sinners. It also increases their guilt, rendering them more inexcusable. When God finally judges them, He shows the glory of His wrath and power. This should cause us to fear God as the righteous Judge, and to repent of our own sins. And, we should worship God for His holiness and righteousness.
B. God displays His glory by making known the riches of His mercy on vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory (9:23).
Romans 9:23: “And He did so to make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory.” Like a diamond on black velvet, God’s unmerited grace shines more brilliantly against the terrible backdrop of human sin. I’m not as eloquent or gifted as John Piper, so let me quote his sermon and encourage you to read or listen to it (ibid.):
As a Christian you are a vessel of mercy. You were called out of spiritual deadness and sinful darkness by mercy, through mercy, and for mercy. By mercy, because in our rebellion we didn’t deserve to be awakened and opened and subdued to God. Through mercy, because every influence that worked on us to bring us to Christ was a mercy from God. For mercy, because every enjoyment that we will ever have, forever and ever, will be a merciful enjoyment. And mercy itself will be supremely pleasant to taste and know.
He goes on to say that the fact that we are vessels of mercy means that all the blessings of salvation are undeserved. We deserved judgment because of our sin, but God showed us mercy. This is humbling for believers, but it is hopeful if you are not yet a believer, because you don’t have to qualify for mercy. The riches of God’s mercy and grace are available to you at this very moment.
God’s ultimate purpose is not just to display His glory, which is mind-boggling enough, but “the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy.” Have you received God’s mercy in Christ by believing in Him? If so, then God has opened your eyes to “see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor. 4:4). You have begun to enjoy “the unfathomable riches of Christ” (Eph. 3:8). But, also, “in the ages to come [God will] show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:7). The point of that word “riches,” says Pastor Piper, “is to waken in us a sense that our inheritance in God is infinitely greater than the greatest riches on earth…. Oh, how foolish we are to lay up treasures on earth when the glory of God is our portion.”
But maybe you’re thinking, “I’m not sure that I’m a vessel of God’s mercy. I don’t know if I’m one of His elect. How do I know whether God prepared me beforehand for glory?” The same apostle that wrote this will go on to say (Rom. 10:12-13), “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, abounding in riches for all who call on Him; for ‘Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved.’” Will you call on the Lord for mercy? He’s abounding in riches for you!
- Why is a submissive, teachable heart essential for understanding the doctrine of God’s sovereign election?
- How do you reconcile God’s desire that all be saved (1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Pet. 3:9) with His decree that only some will be saved?
- How would you respond to the objection that if God has ordained who will be saved and who will be lost, evangelism is not necessary?
- How does the doctrine of God’s sovereignty differ from fatalism?
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2011, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation
Lesson 61: God’s Great Mercy in Salvation (Romans 9:24-29)Related Media
Does the gospel, the good news that God saved you from sin and judgment by His great love and mercy, cause your heart to rejoice and your soul to be flooded with gratitude? Does the fact that you could have been a vessel of wrath prepared for destruction, but instead you’re a vessel of mercy, which God prepared beforehand for glory, cause you to marvel and ask, “Why me?” If you grew up in a Christian home or you’ve been saved for a long time, you face the danger of the gospel becoming commonplace. You become accustomed to God’s grace, so that you take it for granted.
One sign that you’re drifting into such complacency is that you grumble about life’s trials, forgetting that God has done the greatest thing imaginable in sending His Son to die in your place (Rom. 8:32). Surely, you can trust Him to provide for lesser needs.
Another sign that the gospel has become “ho-hum” is that you’ve become focused on accumulating the world’s stuff, thinking that having the latest and newest gadgets will make you happy. You’re laying up treasures on earth, rather than in heaven (Matt. 6:19-21). You think that you’ll find contentment in the things of this world rather than in the joy of salvation (1 John 2:15-17).
Another sign that the gospel has become commonplace is that you begin to envy the wicked, thinking that sin will satisfy your needs (Prov. 23:17; 24:1, 19). You forget the horrible, corrupting effects of sin. You begin to justify your sins and blame others, or even God, for your own disobedience (Prov. 19:3).
There are many more signs of forgetting the blessings of the gospel, but a final one that I’ll mention is that you become indifferent to sharing the gospel with the lost, whether through your personal witness or by supporting the cause of world missions (Rom. 9:3; 10:1). You forget that those without Christ are lost and headed for judgment (Eph. 2:12). And so we all constantly need to preach the gospel to ourselves and to remind ourselves of the wonderful blessings of God’s mercy to us in Christ.
In our text, Paul continues his response to the problem that he raised earlier in the chapter: If God’s promises to save His chosen people are good, then why are most of the Jews rejecting Christ? He has shown that God’s word of promise has not failed, because He never promised to save all Israel. Rather, God has always accomplished His purpose through a remnant that He has chosen according to His grace. There was a “true” Israel within Israel who were children of the promise (9:6).
Paul knew that his teaching about God’s choosing some but not all would raise questions. So in 9:14-23, he deals with these anticipated objections. Isn’t God unfair to choose Jacob and reject Esau while they were still in the womb (9:14)? Paul replies, “May it never be!” Because all deserve God’s judgment, He is free to show mercy to whomever He wishes (9:15-16). God is free to raise up a man like Pharaoh to demonstrate His power and proclaim His name more widely, but then to leave Pharaoh as an object of His wrath (9:17). Since we all have sinned, none of us has the right to blame God for judging us (9:19). As the divine potter, God has the right to use the sinful clay for His glory, whether as “vessels of wrath” or as “vessels of mercy” (9:20-23).
Who are these “vessels of mercy”? In answering that question, Paul brings us back to the wonder of the gospel, reminding us of God’s great mercy towards us (9:24): “even us, whom He also called, not from among Jews only, but also from among Gentiles.” That is Paul’s theme statement for 9:25-29. It also ties back to the question of whether God’s word has failed. “No,” says Paul,
In fulfillment of His word, God in mercy is calling to Himself a people from the Jews and the Gentiles.
In 9:25-26, Paul supports this theme from the prophet Hosea as it applies to the Gentiles. God told Hosea that He would call the unbelieving ten northern tribes, whom Assyria would take into captivity, “not My people,” and “not beloved.” But then, in mercy, He would restore them, so that He would call them, “My people,” and “beloved.” If those terms could be applied to sinful Israel, then they also can be applied to the Gentiles. This would have been a surprise to the Gentiles, who thought that they were excluded from God’s promises by virtue of not being Jews.
Then (9:27-29), Paul supports the theme from the prophet Isaiah as applied to the Jews. He shows that even though there were many physical descendants of Israel, God only promised to save a remnant, while bringing judgment on the rest (9:27-28). As Isaiah also foretold, if God had not been gracious to leave Israel with a spiritual seed, they would have become like Sodom and Gomorrah, totally wiped out by His judgment (9:29). This would have come as a surprise to many Jews, who thought that they were the beneficiaries of God’s promises simply because of their physical birth as Jews. But Paul is establishing that God’s promise to save His chosen people has not failed, because He has prepared vessels of mercy not only from among the Jews, but also from among the Gentiles. So we can trust God to keep His word.
Rather than working through the text in the order that I’ve just outlined, I want to point out five truths about salvation embedded in these verses:
1. Salvation is from God’s great mercy and His sovereign, effectual call, not from anything in us.
Paul says (9:23) that God is making “known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory.” Then he adds (9:24), “even us, whom He also called.” Called takes us back to 8:28, “to those who are called according to His purpose.” Paul mentioned both called and the theme of glory in 8:30, “and these whom he predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified.” And we again encounter call in 9:11, “so that God’s purpose according to His choice would stand, not because of works but because of Him who calls.”
The entire book of Romans to this point (but especially chapters 8 & 9) emphasizes that God, not man, is the primary force behind salvation. Both pagan Gentiles and religious Jews were all under God’s righteous wrath and condemnation (Rom. 1 & 2). None were seeking God (Rom. 3). He would not be unjust to leave us all under condemnation. But in His great love and mercy, He sent His own Son to bear the penalty that we deserved.
But God doesn’t leave His sovereign purpose up to the choices of sinful people who have turned their backs on Him. Rather (9:18), “He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires.” He initiates His mercy toward some by His effectual call through the gospel. As we saw when we studied 8:30, the word call is used in two ways in Scripture. The general call of the gospel goes out to all. Jesus mentioned this when He said (Matt. 22:14), “Many are called, but few are chosen.” He issued a general call when He said (Matt. 11:28), “Come unto Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” But the general call is not effectual because of the spiritual deadness of sinners’ hearts.
But in the New Testament epistles, call (or, calling) is always used of God’s effectual call. It always accomplishes God’s purpose of giving life to the spiritually dead so that they respond willingly to the call. We see an illustration of this when Jesus called Lazarus from the tomb. The call imparted life so that Lazarus actually came to life and responded to the call. Lazarus didn’t lie in the tomb and think, “I don’t want to be raised from the dead right now. You can’t force me against my free will!” Rather, when Jesus imparted life to Lazarus, he willingly and gladly came forth from the tomb.
In the same way, God’s effectual call to salvation does not violate our will. Rather, His life-giving power makes us willing to respond. And, the fact that we were not left in our sin as vessels of wrath, but rather were called as vessels of mercy, shows us that we owe everything to God’s great mercy. It should humble us and fill us with gratitude every day!
2. Salvation brings us into a personal relationship with the living God.
Formerly, we were not His people. Now we are His people. Formerly, we were not beloved. Now, we are beloved. Now we are called “sons of the living God” (9:25-26). These are all terms of a warm, personal, loving relationship with God.
Behind this text from Hosea is a moving story of heartache and grief, which eventually turned into tears of joy. God told Hosea to marry and have children by a prostitute by the name of Gomer as an object lesson to the unfaithful nation that had committed flagrant harlotry against the Lord (Hos. 1:2). Hosea, though, was not to divorce her for her unfaithfulness, but to love her in order to draw her back, to illustrate God’s faithful love to the unfaithful nation. It was a very difficult sermon illustration!
Hosea obeyed and had three children by Gomer. God told him to name the first son, “Jezreel” (Hos. 1:4). That was the name of a well-known valley where Jehu had slaughtered off the house of Ahab, including his 70 sons (2 Kings 9 & 10). God commended Jehu for carrying out His judgment on Ahab and promised that his sons to the fourth generation would sit on the throne of Israel. But Jehu was not faithful to the Lord, and so judgment eventually came on his descendants (2 Kings 10:28-31). Through Hosea’s son, God was announcing that in judgment He would end the northern kingdom of Israel (Hos. 1:4-5).
Hosea and Gomer’s second child was a daughter, whom God said to name “Lo-ruhamah” (“no compassion”). God explained (Hos. 1:6), “For I will no longer have compassion on the house of Israel.” The third child was a son whom the Lord said to name “Lo-ammi” (“not my people”), explaining (Hos. 1:9), “For you are not My people and I am not your God.”
After this, true to her character, Gomer left Hosea and was unfaithful with a number of lovers. She ended up shamefully disgraced on the slave market. God told Hosea to go and buy her back, not as a slave, but as his beloved wife. It was an illustration of God’s faithful love for His adulterous people.
At that point, God changed the names of the children as a lesson to Israel of His great love. Jezreel means in Hebrew, “God will sow,” or “May God sow” (The Message of Hosea, Derek Kidner [IVP], p. 39). God now turns this into a promise to sow the land again with people (Hos. 2:23). God also drops the Hebrew negative (lo) off the names of the second and third children, so that “No compassion” becomes “Compassion,” and “Not My people” becomes “My people” (Hos. 1:10; 2:1, 23). It’s a moving, beautiful picture of the power of God’s grace to restore unfaithful people and bring them into a relationship with Him.
The point is, Christianity is not a religion of going through rituals and trying to keep a bunch of rules to gain standing with God. Rather, it’s all about a gracious, compassionate, merciful God who calls sinners back to Himself. He paid the price to buy us out of the slave market of sin so that we could be His bride, the object of His undeserved love and grace. Formerly, we were not beloved, but now we are beloved. Formerly, we were not His people, but now we are His chosen people. We are “sons of the living God!”
Relationships take time. Are you taking time to maintain and deepen your most important relationship—with God?
3. Salvation extends to people from every type of background.
Paul’s theme is (9:24), “not from among Jews only, but also from among Gentiles.” This shows us that salvation is not a matter of natural birth or of religious heritage or upbringing. Rather, it is available to all, no matter what their background. In 9:25-29, Paul refers to the Old Testament to show that he wasn’t making up what he had just written about God’s wrath and His mercy, especially about His mercy extending not only to the Jews, but also to the Gentiles, whom the Jews despised.
A. A pagan background does not exclude you from God’s mercy (9:25-26).
This is great news for all of us who are not Jewish by birth. As I said, Hosea’s words in their original context referred to the ten northern tribes of Israel, but Paul here applies it to the Gentiles (so does Peter, 1 Pet. 2:10). Paul saw that Israel in apostasy had been cast off as God’s people. For all purposes, they became “Gentiles,” just like the pagan nations around them. But in His great mercy, God brought them back so that again it could be said of them that they were His people. Here Paul applies this to the church, which included Gentiles (see also, Eph. 2:11-22).
Perhaps you were raised in a non-Christian home, where you received no understanding of how to live in a manner pleasing to God. Perhaps your background led you into all sorts of horrible sins. The good news is that no matter how pagan your background, you can experience God’s mercy and forgiveness if you will repent of your sins and trust in Christ.
B. A religious background does not automatically include you in God’s mercy (9:27-29).
Many Jews in Paul’s day thought, “I’m good with God because I was born a Jew.” But as Paul has already said more than once, being a Jew outwardly doesn’t make you right with God. You must experience the new birth and have God change your heart (Rom. 2:17-29). Being a child of the flesh counts for nothing; you must become a child of the promise (Rom. 9:6-8).
Verse 27 should begin with “But.” Paul is contrasting Israel with the Gentiles. He cites Isaiah 10:22, “Though the number of the sons of Israel be like the sand of the sea, it is the remnant that will be saved.” The point is that the Jews should not rely on being part of Abraham’s many descendants. Rather, they needed to be a part of the remnant.
Skipping verse 28 for a moment, verse 29 cites Isaiah 1:9, “Unless the Lord of Sabaoth had left to us a posterity [lit., “seed”], we would have become like Sodom, and would have resembled Gomorrah.” Sabaoth means “hosts,” referring to the angelic hosts. It emphasizes God’s sovereign authority over His creation. The point is, if the sovereign God had not intervened to preserve a remnant, the entire nation would have been destroyed like the corrupt Sodom and Gomorrah. It is essentially the same point as verse 27: being a Jew by birth was not enough. Even though the Jews were God’s chosen nation, their hearts were just as corrupt as the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. But God granted His grace and salvation to a “seed,” a remnant. He was calling out vessels of mercy from among the Jews.
The point for us is that it is not enough to be born and raised in the church. Your heart is just as corrupt as the hearts of those in the pagan Sodom and Gomorrah around us. You must become a part of God’s seed, His remnant, through the new birth.
Thus salvation is from God’s great mercy and His sovereign, effectual call, not from anything in us. Salvation brings us into a personal relationship with the loving God. Salvation extends to people from every type of background, whether pagan or religious.
4. Salvation delivers us from God’s inescapable, thorough judgment.
Verse 28 cites Isaiah 10:23, “For the Lord will execute His word on the earth, thoroughly and quickly.” It is not easy to understand how Paul is using this verse here, but it probably emphasizes that God will bring judgment on those who claim to be His people by birth, but are not following Him. When it comes, His judgment will be inescapable, thorough, and sudden. None except the remnant, the vessels of His mercy, will escape.
The point for us is that we should not emphasize God’s love and grace to the neglect of His righteousness and judgment. I’ve met Christians who say, “I don’t worship a God of wrath and judgment, but a God of love and mercy.” Well, then you do not worship the God of the Bible! And if you’re excusing your sins and claiming that you’re the object of His love because you belong to the church, you may be in for a rude, irreversible shock. You must respond to God’s call of mercy by repenting of your sins or you may be a part of the professing people of God who are not a part of His remnant.
5. Salvation brings us into the racially diverse spiritual family of God’s people.
God is calling to Himself a people, “not from among the Jews only, but also from among the Gentiles” (9:24). As Paul put it in Ephesians 2:13, “But now in Christ Jesus you [the Gentiles] who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” He adds (Eph. 2:19), “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household.” In heaven, there will be a great multitude “from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues,” crying out, “Salvation to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb” (Rev. 7:9, 10).
There will be no racism in heaven. It will be multi-racial and multi-cultural. And so there is absolutely no place for racism in the Lord’s church today. The church should reflect the racial diversity of the community where it exists. The numbers vary depending on the survey, but Flagstaff is about 70% white, 16% Hispanic, 10% Native, 2% black, and 1% Asian. To reflect those proportions, if we have 400 attending FCF, we should have approximately 280 whites, 64 Hispanics, 40 Native people, 7 blacks, and 5 Asians. I think that God is delighted when the church is multi-racial. So should we be.
Unless there are language barriers, I think that it’s wrong for the church to segregate according to race. We should love each other and learn from each other as a testimony of God’s grace. We are a racially blended family because we were adopted by the God who is calling His people from among the Jews and Gentiles without distinction.
To come back to my opening question, “Does the gospel, the good news that God saved you from sin and judgment by His great love and mercy, cause your heart to rejoice and your soul to be flooded with gratitude?” If perhaps your appreciation for the gospel has grown a bit dull, consider these words that the Puritan preacher Thomas Goodwin (1600-1680) wrote to his son (in A Frank Boreham Treasury, compiled by Peter Gunther [Moody Press], p. 72),
When I was threatening to become cold in my ministry, and when I felt Sabbath morning coming and my heart not filled with amazement at the grace of God, or when I was making ready to dispense the Lord’s Supper, do you know what I used to do? I used to take a turn up and down among the sins of my past life, and I always came down again with a broken and a contrite heart, ready to preach, as it was preached in the beginning, the forgiveness of sins. I do not think I ever went up the pulpit stair that I did not stop for a moment at the foot of it and take a turn up and down among the sins of my past years. I do not think that I ever planned a sermon that I did not take a turn around my study table and look back at the sins of my youth and of all my life down to the present; and many a Sabbath morning, when my soul had been cold and dry, for the lack of prayer during the week, a turn up and down in my past life before I went into the pulpit always broke my hard heart and made me close with the gospel for my own soul before I began to preach.
Don’t ever get over the wonder of God’s mercy to you in the gospel!
- I mentioned several signs that the gospel has become commonplace in your life. What are some others?
- Some have pointed out an inverse relationship between a personal walk with the living God and religious ritual. Is this true? Is religious ritualism dangerous? Why/why not?
- Are churches today in danger of becoming an “insider club” for the religious that excludes pagans who need the gospel? How can we fight against this?
- Is our church in danger of racism? How can we correct this?
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2011, All Rights Reserved.
Lesson 62: The Right and Wrong Ways to God (Romans 9:30-33)Related Media
If you were to ask in a poll, “How does a person get into heaven?” you would most often hear, “By being a good person.” There may be slight variations: “By sincerely trying to do your best.” “By being moral or religious.” “By doing good works and helping the poor.”
You would find the same answers in any country or culture where you asked that question. When we were in Nepal, we went to a Hindu temple and encountered some very strange looking men. What was behind their bizarre appearance? They were trying to please the gods in order to earn a higher place in the next life. We saw people there making sacrifices and bathing in the filthy river in an attempt to atone for their sins and purify themselves. We went to a Buddhist temple and saw variations of the same thing. Buddhist monks take a vow of poverty and are devoted to hours of prayers and rituals every day.
Muslims believe the same thing. They must say the creed and the prescribed prayers five times a day, give alms, observe the fast of Ramadan, make a pilgrimage to Mecca, and perform their other rituals in order to go to heaven. The cults are all based on the same principle: The way to heaven is through good works. This may require knocking on doors to share your faith, going on a two-year mission, tithing your money, abstaining from certain foods and drinks, and other duties.
But such an approach to God is not limited to non-Christian religions or cults. Many in Christian religions think that they can earn right standing before God by going to mass and confession, doing good works, and sometimes by harsh treatment of their bodies. Martin Luther was a classic example. He gave up a career in law to join a monastery where he devoted himself to prayers and fasting, penance and the confession of sins, and living in self-imposed harsh conditions. He was trying to earn salvation by his works, but he could not find peace with God because he knew that his works were all tainted by his sin.
What a tragedy it would be to devote your entire life to diligent spiritual efforts to attain right standing with God, only to die and face God’s judgment! You’ve just spent your entire life in religious discipline, denying yourself the common pleasures that others enjoy. You’ve tried your best to be a good person. But you stand at the gate of heaven and see Jesus refusing to let you in and consigning you to hell.
But as you’re standing there in horror, you see Jesus welcoming a man who lived his entire life as a thief. But with his dying breath he cried out, “Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). The former thief enters into eternal joy with Jesus, while you, who worked so hard for salvation, are turned away! What a shock!
Since life is short and eternity is forever, nothing is more important than understanding the right way to be right with God. And since both fallen human nature and every religion in the world teach the wrong way to come to God, we especially need to understand God’s way of righteousness. Paul addresses this crucial issue in our text.
“What shall we say then?” (9:30) serves both to draw a conclusion from the preceding arguments and to introduce a new section. The question that Paul has been focused on in Romans 9 is, “If God is faithful to His covenant promises to His chosen people, then why are most of the Jews rejecting Jesus as their Messiah and Lord?” Paul has shown that it was never God’s purpose to save all Israel, but rather only a remnant. God always accomplishes His purpose through a chosen remnant according to His grace. Since all deserve God’s wrath and judgment, it is not unfair of Him for His glory to choose some as objects of mercy, but to leave the rest in their sin to glorify His justice in judgment.
Thus Romans 9 is heavily weighted towards God’s sovereignty in salvation. There is an inexplicable mystery here, but the Bible is clear that if we’re saved, it’s totally due to God’s sovereign grace and mercy; but if we’re lost, it’s totally due to our sin and unbelief. No one can blame God for being lost by complaining, “You didn’t choose me!” (As an aside, it’s interesting that many deny the doctrine of election because it offends their pride. They want to think that they can choose God by their own “free” will. But if you tell them that they’re headed for judgment, they suddenly believe the doctrine of election and use it to blame God for not choosing them!)
From Romans 9:30-10:21, Paul shows why the Jews for the most part were rejecting Christ: They were trying to be saved by their own good works so that they stumbled over Christ. They missed God’s way of righteousness through faith in Christ. So the emphasis is on human responsibility and sin. Israel rejected Christ because they were disobedient and obstinate (10:21). And yet God’s sovereignty is still present. It is He who put the stone of stumbling and rock of offense in Zion (9:33). It is God’s sovereign plan to use the salvation of the Gentiles to provoke Israel to jealousy, so that eventually they will turn to Christ (10:19; 11:11, 14). And, God’s sovereignty is seen by the fact that all of this was predicted in the Old Testament, as the frequent citations show.
In our text, Paul lays out the right and wrong ways to come to God. To state the wrong way first:
To approach God through our works will cause us to stumble over Christ and be lost; to approach God through faith in Christ results in righteousness and salvation.
The contrast is plain and stark: If we pursue the righteousness that we need to stand before God by our works we will fail. If we come to God by faith in Christ, we attain righteousness, even if we were not previously pursuing it.
Before we examine both halves of this contrast in more detail, let me point out that there is an inherent danger for those of us who were raised in a Christian home. It is a great advantage to be raised in a Christian home, in that you learn about God and the way of salvation as a child. You’re often spared from the destructive scars of sin that those in the world have experienced.
But the danger is that you may trust in your own religiosity and morality, while you resent or despise those who are not so religious or moral. You become like the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son: “I’ve served you for years and always obeyed you, but then you lavish your love on this no-good brother of mine! But what have you ever done for me?” (See Luke 15:28-30.) And so you miss the heart of the gospel, which is God’s grace.
1. To approach God through our works is built on faith in ourselves and will cause us to stumble over Christ and be lost (9:31-33).
Scholars spill a lot of ink debating what Paul means by “a law of righteousness” (9:31), but it probably refers to the Law of Moses that Israel pursued to try to attain righteousness before God. But Israel failed to attain that righteousness because they did not pursue the law by faith, but as if it could be attained by works. In so doing, they were only seeking to establish their own righteousness (10:3), which always falls short. This wrong approach caused them to stumble over the stumbling stone, which is Christ.
A. To approach God through our works is fundamentally flawed because it is built on faith in our sinful selves.
I’m shocked often to hear professing Christians say that their success is because they have learned to believe in themselves. Formerly, they had low self-esteem and didn’t believe in themselves. But now they tell us, “You’ve got to believe in yourself!” Books on Christian parenting tell us that we need to teach our kids to believe in themselves, to have self-confidence. But where in all of God’s Word does it tell us that we need to have faith in ourselves? It consistently tells us that we can do nothing in ourselves. Rather, we need to cast ourselves totally in dependence on God.
Faith in yourself is the fundamental problem when it comes to believing the gospel. Jesus said (Mark 8:34), “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.” Denying yourself to the point of death and believing in yourself are opposite behaviors! Those who try to come to God by works underestimate or are blind to their own sinfulness. They think that they have something in themselves that will commend them to God. But the Bible says that we are unclean and all our good works are like filthy rags in God’s sight (Isa. 64:6). They’re all built on our pride. And even if we could present to God more good works than anyone else in the world, we still have the huge problem of our sin. How can a pile of filthy rags cover the leprosy of sin? To try to approach God through our works is fundamentally flawed because it is built on faith in our sinful selves.
But there is another problem with such an approach:
B. To approach God through our good works will cause us to stumble over Christ.
Romans 9:32b-33, “They stumbled over the stumbling stone, just as it is written, ‘Behold, I lay in Zion a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense, and he who believes in Him will not be disappointed [lit., put to shame].”
The “stone” theme occurs in several Old Testament texts (Gen. 49:24; Ps. 118:22-23; Isa. 8:14; 28:16; Dan. 2:34-35, 44-45) and is used in the New Testament, even on the lips of Jesus, to refer to Christ (Matt. 21:42-44; Luke 2:34; 1 Pet. 2:8). Here Paul combines parts of Isaiah 28:16 and Isaiah 8:14. Isaiah 28:16 reads, “Therefore thus says the Lord God, ‘Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a tested stone, a costly cornerstone for the foundation, firmly placed. He who believes in it will not be disturbed [lit., in a hurry].’” Isaiah 8:14 says, “Then He shall become a sanctuary; but to both the houses of Israel, a stone to strike and a rock to stumble over, and a snare and a trap for the inhabitants of Jerusalem.” Paul takes part of Isaiah 8:14 on judgment, removes the middle of Isaiah 28:16 on the costly cornerstone, and sandwiches the 8:14 excerpt into Isaiah 28:16 to make his point.
Note several things here. First, God sovereignly put the stumbling stone in Israel, but Israel was totally responsible for stumbling over it. Second, Paul is not playing loose with Scripture. Rather, he is showing how the two texts fit together and point to Christ (see James Boice, Romans: God and History [Baker], 3:1142). The Isaiah 8:14 passage shows that the Lord Himself is the stone to strike and the rock to stumble over. But in Isaiah 28:16, the Lord puts the stone in place as a cornerstone to build on.
How can the Lord be both the stone itself and yet the one who puts the stone in place? Answer: The Messiah is the Lord God! By combining the text on judgment with the other text on hope, Paul shows that Christ the Lord is both the hope of salvation for those who build their lives on Him and yet at the same time a rock of stumbling and stone of offense for those who take pride in their own good works.
Third, since Romans 9:33 clearly refers to Jesus Christ, it is obvious that the faith that attains to righteousness, which the Gentiles attained, but Israel did not (9:30-32), is faith in Jesus Christ. This is the faith that justifies, which Paul elaborated on in Romans 3:21-4:25). The citation (ring a negative verdict in judgment. So the two ideas are similar. The one who believes in Jesus as the foundation stone will not fear being condemned at the judgment.
But how is Jesus Christ a stumbling stone to unbelievers? Perhaps the best commentary on this is Paul’s explanation (1 Cor. 1:18-31). I can’t cite the entire text for sake of time, but the main idea is that the cross confronts human wisdom, strength, and pride. A crucified Savior confounds our idea of what the Savior should be. Israel was looking for a powerful king, the Son of David, born of nobility, who like him would conquer all her enemies. The religious leaders thought that surely He would be educated in the Scriptures and traditions, as they were. He would not be a common man, born to a lowly carpenter who lived in the despised city of Nazareth. Those who followed Him would be, as they the religious leaders were, men of wisdom and learning, connected with those in power. Surely His followers would not be the despised tax-gatherers and prostitutes! Or, if a few of this riff-raff got into the kingdom, they would occupy the lowly place by the door. But the religious leaders would be in the place of honor at Messiah’s side!
Paul writes (1 Cor. 1:23), “But we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” He goes on to point out that not many of the Corinthian believers were wise according to the flesh, or mighty or noble by the world’s standards. The reason they were believers is that God chose them (1 Cor. 1:27-28, 31).
But perhaps you’re wondering, “Why would God deliberately place a stone of stumbling and rock of offense in Zion? Why would He give the world a lowly, crucified Savior and a way of salvation that causes many to be offended?” As James Boice points out (ibid., p. 1145), this wasn’t the way a modern advertising executive would devise a campaign to “sell” the gospel! Show people how Jesus will help them succeed at work and have happy families. Show them how Jesus will help them reach their full potential. Minimize all that negative stuff about sin and judgment. What people need is a positive, uplifting message to build their self-esteem!
But the reason the true gospel inherently offends is that it confronts our sinful pride (1 Cor. 1:29). If God sovereignly shows mercy to whom He desires and hardens whom He desires (Rom. 9:18), then I can’t boast in why I was shown mercy. In fact, the very idea that I need mercy is offensive. Sure, I’m not perfect, but why can’t God just give me a little boost? How about a few helpful hints for happy living? Mercy implies that I’m a spiritual basket case, unable to do anything to gain God’s favor! Precisely!
I can’t boast in my intellect, because it actually would keep me from trusting in Christ. I can’t boast in my morality, because if you could see my heart, you would see that it is not morally pure, but putrid. I can’t boast in my good works, because I just do them to make myself look good to others. And they are puny in comparison to how I look out for myself above all else. So God deliberately put Christ and Him crucified at the center of salvation to humble our pride, which is the root of all of our sins. As Charles Simeon put it (Expository Outlines on the Whole Bible [Zondervan], 15:371), “Any plan of salvation which gives no offense to self-righteous men, is certainly not of God.”
And so to approach God through our good works will cause us to stumble over Christ. To come in faith to Christ, God must humble our pride. That leads us to the right way to come to Him:
2. To approach God through faith in Christ results in perfect righteousness and salvation.
Here I’m focusing on Romans 9:30, “That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, attained righteousness, even the righteousness which is by faith.” And, 9:33b, “And he who believes in Him will not be disappointed.” When you look at 9:31-32, it is clear that Paul is contrasting the righteousness that comes by faith with the attempt to achieve righteousness by works of the law. This takes us back to his discussion in chapters 3 & 4. Three thoughts:
A. We need a perfect righteousness which only comes through faith in Jesus Christ.
Clearly, righteousness is Paul’s theme here (repeated four times in 9:30-31). He is referring to the perfect righteousness of God, which he spoke about in 1:17, “For in it [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘But the righteous man shall live by faith.’” Then after showing the sinfulness of both Gentiles and Jews (1:18-3:20), Paul concludes (
But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus.
In other words, salvation by human righteousness always falls short. We need God’s righteousness, imputed to us. This refers to justification, where God declares the believing sinner acquitted and He imputes the very righteousness of Christ to that sinner’s account. Paul says that Gentiles (referring to that class of people as a whole) were not even pursuing such righteousness, but they attained it. How? God graciously sought them with the good news that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. They knew that they fit that description and that they needed salvation. So they believed in Christ and were justified.
B. To come to God through faith, we must renounce our merit and works as the basis for approaching God.
We can’t bring our best efforts and combine them with the righteousness of Christ. That muddies the pure water of His righteousness and it robs Him of glory. To follow Jesus, we must deny ourselves, especially deny our self-righteousness and good deeds as the basis for right standing with God. Salvation is not a joint project, where we try hard and let God do the rest. It is all of God.
C. To come to God through faith, we must entrust our right standing with God totally to the merits and substitutionary death of Jesus Christ on our behalf.
John Calvin expressed this beautifully (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], p. 379):
But how they stumble at Christ, who trust in their works, it is not difficult to understand; for except we own ourselves to be sinners, void and destitute of any righteousness of our own, we obscure the dignity of Christ, which consists in this, that to us all he is light, life, resurrection, righteousness, and healing. But how is he all these things, except that he illuminates the blind, restores the lost, quickens the dead, raises up those who are reduced to nothing, cleanses those who are full of filth, cures and heals those infected with diseases? Nay, when we claim for ourselves any righteousness, we in a manner contend with the power of Christ; for his office is no less to beat down all the pride of the flesh, than to relieve and comfort those who labor and are wearied under their burden.
Christ is either one or the other to you right now: A rock in which you believe and build your life, who will justify you at the judgment. Or, He is a stone of stumbling and rock of offense to your sinful pride. Don’t stumble over Christ by trusting in your good works to save you, as all of the world’s religions teach. Trust in Christ alone and you will not be ashamed at the judgment!
- Why is it crucial to understand that we are not saved by faith plus works, but rather by faith for good works (Eph. 2:8-10)?
- Is there a legitimate place for self-confidence or pride? Is there biblical support for such ideas?
- How does “marketing” Jesus as the way to success obscure and confuse the offense of the cross?
- Discuss: Humanly speaking, who is more difficult to reach with the gospel: a good, religious person or a gross sinner? How should our approach differ with each of these types?
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2011, All Rights Reserved.