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Lesson 59: Is God Unfair? (Romans 9:14-18)

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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).

Conclusion

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!”

“Harrison, F!’

“That’s not fair!”

“Is it justice that you want?”

“Yes!”

“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!”

Application Questions

  1. Does God’s love demand that He save everyone? Why/why not? Use Scripture to support your answer.
  2. How would you answer someone who accused God of being arbitrary in His choice of some and rejection of others?
  3. Will God grant mercy to all who plead for it or does He withhold it from some who want it? Cite Scripture.
  4. 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

Related Topics: Character of God, Predestination, Soteriology (Salvation)

Lesson 60: God’s Glory in Judgment and Mercy (Romans 9:19-23)

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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.”

Conclusion

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!

Application Questions

  1. Why is a submissive, teachable heart essential for understanding the doctrine of God’s sovereign election?
  2. 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?
  3. 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?
  4. 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

Related Topics: Character of God, Glory, Hamartiology (Sin)

Lesson 61: God’s Great Mercy in Salvation (Romans 9:24-29)

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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.

Conclusion

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!

Application Questions

  1. I mentioned several signs that the gospel has become commonplace in your life. What are some others?
  2. 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?
  3. 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?
  4. Is our church in danger of racism? How can we correct this?

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

Related Topics: Predestination, Soteriology (Salvation)

Lesson 62: The Right and Wrong Ways to God (Romans 9:30-33)

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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.

Conclusion

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!

Application Questions

  1. 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)?
  2. Is there a legitimate place for self-confidence or pride? Is there biblical support for such ideas?
  3. How does “marketing” Jesus as the way to success obscure and confuse the offense of the cross?
  4. 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.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Faith, Soteriology (Salvation)

Lesson 63: Why Religious People Miss Salvation (Romans 10:1-4)

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Imagine a dear old lady who all her life has faithfully attended a mainline Protestant Church in her small town in the Bible belt. She has helped with the nursery and children’s ministries, worked in the kitchen during socials, and served in the women’s missionary society. Everyone who knows her says that she is one of the sweetest persons they know.

She is married to a mean old cuss who has no time for religion. He says that the church is full of hypocrites and do-gooders. Why should he hang out with people like that? He prefers his buddies at the local tavern, who can tell some good off-color jokes, place a friendly bet on a football game, and who swap stories about their latest fishing or hunting adventures. He would rather that his wife not go to church, but years ago he realized that it gave him the freedom to go fishing on Sunday mornings. So he jokes that he’s going to baptize a few worms while she gets her religious fix for the week.

If you were to ask her, “On what basis do you hope to get into heaven?” the question would shock her. Why would you even ask? If she could find words to reply, she would say, “Well, all good people go to heaven. I’ve always tried my best to be nice to others. I’ve served at church in various ways. And I’ve usually been able to ignore the mean comments that my husband hurls at me. God knows that I’ve done the best that I could. I feel that I will go to heaven because I’m a good person.”

Lately, her husband hasn’t been feeling very well. But like most tough old geezers he avoids the doctor like the plague. But finally he gets worried enough that he schedules an appointment. The doctor runs a few tests and then gently gives him the bad news: “You’ve got advanced cancer. If you had come a few years ago, we might have gotten it. But there’s not much that we can do now. You might have a few months to live.”

He goes downhill fast, so they arrange for hospice care. One day, a hospice worker whom he likes is able to share the gospel with him. She tells him that God offers forgiveness for all his sins as a free gift if he will repent of his sins and trust in what Christ did for him on the cross. She leaves him with a Gospel of John. Since he knows his time is short, he devours it. As he reads, God opens his eyes to see his sin and his need for the Savior. He sees that Jesus is God’s Son, the Savior of all who trust in Him. He puts his trust in Christ, dies a few weeks later, and goes to heaven.

His wife wouldn’t ever say it, but she is secretly relieved that he is gone. He was always so difficult to live with. She continues with all of her religious activities through the church. A few years later, she dies. Because she was trusting in her own righteousness, this nice old lady goes to hell. She had never trusted in Christ as the necessary perfect righteousness that God gives to all who believe.

That story, while fictional, describes one of the most common misconceptions about the most important subject imaginable: How does a person get eternal life and go to heaven? It’s a topic where you don’t want to be in error! There are no second chances. The Bible plainly says that we die once and then face judgment (Heb. 9:27). There are no makeup exams! And, contrary to popular opinion, God doesn’t grade on the curve. It’s pass or fail, and to pass you must score 100 percent perfect righteousness. One sin in thought, word, or deed and you face God’s eternal judgment!

In our text, Paul is explaining why some very religious people missed salvation. The Jews were about as religious as anyone could be. They were fastidious about keeping the Law of Moses. In fact, to interpret that Law correctly, so that nobody missed it, they devised hundreds of extra laws. Keeping the Sabbath holy wasn’t specific enough for them, so they had rules about how far you could walk and about what constituted work on the Sabbath. For example, when Jesus on the Sabbath made clay with His spittle to anoint a blind man’s eyes, the Jewish religious leaders accused Him of breaking the Sabbath (John 9:6, 16). They had rules on washing and cleanliness that added to the Law (Mark 7:3). But they missed salvation and even crucified the Savior!

In the larger context, Paul is responding to the question, “If God is faithful to His promises to His chosen people, then why are most Jews rejecting Christ?” And, can we then trust that He will be faithful to His promises to us? In chapter 9, Paul’s emphasis was on God’s sovereignty. It was never His sovereign plan to save all the Jews. Rather, He always accomplishes His purpose by saving a remnant which He has chosen according to grace. The rest He leaves in their sins and He will be glorified when He judges them. Thus if we’re saved, it is totally due to God’s gracious election.

But many will sputter, “That’s not fair!” So in chapter 10, Paul shifts the emphasis to man’s responsibility. He shows that the Jews who were lost had no basis to blame God. Their spiritual pride made them think that their religious practices and good works would qualify them for heaven. But people who think that they are good enough for God get offended if you tell them that they are sinners that need a Savior. And so they took offense at Christ and stumbled over Him (9:33). They were lost because of their spiritual blindness, sin, and unbelief. So Paul is showing us why religious people often miss salvation:

Religious people miss salvation because they think that their good works will satisfy God’s demand for righteousness, so they don’t trust in Christ for righteousness.

Note four things:

1. Religious people often miss salvation in spite of the prayers and deep concern of godly people, but we should pray anyway (10:1).

Romans 10:1: “Brethren, my heart’s desire and my prayer to God for them is for their salvation.” Four observations:

A. The doctrine of election does not negate our need to pray for the salvation of the lost.

Sometimes those who argue against the doctrine of election will say, “If God sovereignly chooses who will be saved, then what’s the point of praying for anyone’s salvation? If God has chosen them, they will be saved whether you pray or not. If He hasn’t chosen them, your prayers won’t do any good.” So they contend that belief in the doctrine of election kills prayer for the lost.

But the apostle Paul didn’t follow that line of reasoning. In Romans 9:11, he could not have been clearer in stating that God chose Jacob and rejected Esau apart from any good works that they would do, “so that God’s purpose according to His choice would stand.” While we’re still sputtering, “That’s not fair!” he adds (9:16), “So then it [salvation] does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy.” He states it even more strongly (9:18), “So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires.” He adds (9:23) that those of us whom God calls to salvation are “vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory.” He couldn’t be much stronger on the doctrine of God’s sovereign election.

But here he is a few verses later saying that his heart’s desire and prayer to God was for the salvation of the Jews. There is no contradiction between God’s sovereign election and our heartfelt prayers. How do they fit together? God’s sovereign plan includes our prayers and our preaching the gospel to the lost (10:14-15). God saves His elect through our prayers and our preaching. In fact, if God has done all that He can do to save lost people and now it’s up to their free will, then it’s a waste of time to pray for their salvation. God would be in heaven saying, “Yeah, I’d sure like to see them get saved, too. But My hands are tied. It’s up to them now!”

There is a parallel to this balance between God’s sovereignty and our responsibility to pray in Daniel 9:1-3. Daniel was reading the prophet Jeremiah and he observed that Jeremiah had prophesied that Israel would be in captivity in Babylon for 70 years. Daniel did the math and realized that the time for them to be restored was rapidly approaching. So did he sit back to wait for God to act? No, rather Daniel sought the Lord “by prayer and supplications, with fasting, sackcloth and ashes” (Dan. 9:3). God sovereignly prophesied what He would do, but Daniel earnestly prayed that He would do it! And so we should pray for the salvation of lost people. We do not know who the elect are, but God uses our prayers to save them. But note something else about Paul’s prayer for the salvation of the Jews:

B. Unanswered prayers for the salvation of the lost should not discourage us from praying.

Paul’s prayer for the salvation of the Jews was unanswered in his lifetime! It’s like praying the Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6:10), “Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Christians have been praying that request for almost 2,000 years, but it’s still not fully answered. We see partial answers as people that we’re praying for come under the lordship of Christ and learn to obey Him. It will be answered fully when Jesus returns. But we should keep praying for His kingdom to come and His will to be done, even though we know that eventually it will happen and even though we may not see thorough answers to it in our lifetimes. And, if you’re praying for the salvation of a friend or loved one, keep praying as long as the person is alive. We can’t understand how our prayers interface with God’s sovereign will, but we should keep praying.

C. Don’t assume that religious friends and relatives are saved, but rather pray all the more for their salvation.

Sometimes we see people who are atheists or blatantly anti-Christian and we think, “They will never come to faith in Christ!” But then we see good, nice, religious people and think, “They don’t need to come to Christ.” Wrong on both counts! Jesus was a friend to the corrupt tax collectors and immoral prostitutes because He knew that they were sick and needed Him as a spiritual physician (Luke 5:30-32). But the religious Pharisees were not good enough to get into heaven by their religiosity. They needed the new birth if they wanted to see the kingdom of God (John 3:3). So if you have religious family or friends, don’t assume that they’re saved just because they’re religious. Pray for God to convict them of their pride and self-righteousness, so that they will see their need for salvation. One final thought on verse 1:

D. Pray especially for the salvation of those who have been mean or unkind to you.

Paul suffered terribly at the hands of the Jews. They saw him as a turncoat, who associated with the despised Gentiles, and so they dogged his steps and tried to assassinate him. It would be understandable if he had said, “Let them go to hell! They deserve it!” But instead, his heart’s desire and his constant prayer was that God would save them. Jesus told us (Matt. 5:44), “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you ….” So if you have a family member who ridicules your faith or is abusive because of your love for Christ, especially pray for his or her salvation. Make a list of the lost people in your family or in your everyday world and begin to pray earnestly for their salvation.

But why are religious people often lost? Paul explains:

2. Religious people often miss salvation in spite of their zeal for God, because their zeal is not in accordance with knowledge (10:2).

Romans 10:2: “For I testify about them that they have a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge.” Paul himself had been more zealous for his Jewish religion than most of his contemporaries, but it resulted in his persecuting the church (Gal. 1:13-14). In our day, Muslims are zealous for God as they understand Him, but their zeal causes them to kill Christians and even family members who profess faith in Christ. Jehovah’s Witnesses are zealous for God, but they promote the fatal view that Jesus is not fully God, and so their zeal only increases their condemnation.

We live in a day that disparages absolute truth and doctrinal precision. The cultural belief is that each person should determine his own truth. What’s true for you may not be true for me, and vice versa. So we should “co-exist,” as the bumper sticker preaches. If that means that we should be civil and polite towards one another, of course that is true. But if it means that it doesn’t matter whether you’re a Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, or atheist, it is fatally flawed!

Just as it matters greatly whether you take the exact drug that the doctor has prescribed in the exact amounts at the proper times, so it matters eternally whether you believe in Jesus Christ as the eternal Son of God who took on human flesh, died for your sins, and was raised from the dead. If you are zealous for a different “Jesus” or a way of salvation other than faith alone in Christ alone, Paul says that you are to be damned (Gal. 1:6-9).

All roads do not lead to the top. Being sincere or zealous is not enough. Good intentions are not good enough if they are mistaken about the truth of the gospel. Religious zeal must always be tested against the core truth of the unchanging gospel. (Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Romans: Saving Faith [Zondervan], 10:20-25 gives numerous tests of false and true zeal.)

3. Religious people often miss salvation because they do not know about God’s perfect righteousness and so they seek to establish their own righteousness (10:3).

Romans 10:3: “For not knowing about God’s righteousness and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God.” Paul does not mean that the Jews did not know that God is righteous. Anyone familiar with the Old Testament would know that. He means that the Jews did not understand God’s saving righteousness, namely, that He imputes righteousness to the one who believes in His appointed substitute. The ESV and NIV both capture the sense of the genitive. Rather than being possessive (NASB), it is a genitive of source: “being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God” (ESV). Paul explains this with regard to his own conversion (Phil. 3:9), “not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith.”

This perfect imputed righteousness was revealed to the Jews in Genesis 15:6, “Then he [Abram] believed in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.” Paul cited that text in Romans 4:3 and expounded on it in that chapter. So the ignorance of the Jews was not due to lacking information. It was willful ignorance stemming from their pride in keeping the Law. The Pharisees proudly thought that they were keeping the Law because they didn’t murder (unless they had “good” cause, as when they murdered Jesus!) and they didn’t commit adultery. But Jesus convicted them by showing that God looks on the heart (Matt. 5:21-30). To be sinfully angry with your brother is to murder him. To lust after a woman in your heart is to commit adultery with her.

And so the problem with the religiously proud Jews was, “they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God.” To do so, they would have had to admit that they were sinners and that their good works could never justify them. They would have had to admit that all their good deeds were as filthy rags in God’s sight (Isa. 64:6). James Boice (Romans: God and History [Baker], 3:1161) uses the analogy of a woman who is dying of a disease and refuses to go to a doctor because she insists that she looks fine when she puts on her makeup. Yes, her face may look fine with her makeup on, but she needs to deal with the internal disease. Yes, religious people may look good with all their good deeds. But if they do not submit to their need for God’s perfect righteousness credited to their account, their good deeds are just makeup.

Thus religious people often miss salvation in spite of the prayers and concern of godly people for their salvation. They miss salvation because their zeal for God is not in line with knowledge. They miss salvation because they do not know about God’s righteousness and so they seek to establish their own.

4. Religious people miss salvation when they do not trust in Christ as their righteousness (10:4).

Romans 10:4: “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” This is a wonderful verse, but unfortunately it is one of the most disputed verses in all of Paul’s letters (Thomas Schreiner, Romans [Baker], p. 544). The problem is that the word “end” (Greek, telos) has different nuances of meaning. It can mean “termination,” in the sense that Christ ended the Mosaic Covenant when He inaugurated the New Covenant. It can mean “goal,” in the sense that the law existed to point people to Christ (Gal. 3:23-25). Or, it can mean “fulfillment” or “culmination,” in the sense that all of the Old Testament types, rituals, and sacrifices pointed to and were fulfilled in Christ (Matt. 5:17).

All of those nuances are true with regard to Christ, but the difficult question is, “Which meaning does Paul intend in Romans 10:4?” Douglas Moo (The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], pp. 637-642) argues that two nuances are intended, namely that Christ is the termination of the Law of Moses and that He is the culmination of all that the Law anticipated.

But Thomas Schreiner is probably correct when he argues that based on the relationship between 10:3 & 4, it means “termination” in an experiential sense. In other words, in 10:4 Paul is responding to the specific Jewish error mentioned in 10:3, that they used the law to try to establish their own righteousness. Thus in 10:4 Paul is saying (ibid., p. 547), “Those who trust in Christ cease using the law to establish their own righteousness.”

In line with that, Everett Harrison argues (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. by Frank Gaebelein [Zondervan], 10:111), “Paul’s contention regarding the Jew (v. 3) is not the incompleteness of his position, which needed the coming of Christ to perfect it, but the absolute wrong of that position, because it entailed an effort to establish righteousness by human effort rather than by acceptance of a divine gift.” John MacArthur agrees (The MacArthur Study Bible, New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition [Nelson Bibles], p. 1680), “Paul means that belief in Christ as Lord and Savior ends the sinner’s futile quest for righteousness through his imperfect attempts to save himself by efforts to obey the law.”

So verses 3 & 4 are saying that either you are seeking to be right with God by establishing your own righteousness through good deeds and morality (10:3), in which case you will miss God’s salvation, because all such attempts fall short. Or, you will recognize that you need perfect righteousness to stand before God. Thus you will abandon your own attempts to establish your righteousness and trust in Christ alone to be your righteousness (10:4). His perfect righteousness is credited to your account, so that God declares you to be righteous or justified.

Conclusion

God’s way of salvation is not the way of the sweet little old lady, the way of being a good, religious person, because you can never be good enough. One sin disqualifies you from getting into heaven, no matter how much you try to counterbalance it with good works. We’re all born with the terminal “disease” of sin, which grows progressively worse as we age. Don’t be deceived into thinking that the “makeup” of good works will avert the judgment of God, who knows the thoughts and intentions of our hearts.

God’s way of salvation is to trust in Jesus Christ so that the righteousness of God is imputed to your account. As Paul put it (Rom. 3:24), “Being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus.” Have you received that gift?

Application Questions

  1. Why would God ordain that we pray for His sovereign plan to be accomplished?
  2. What are some biblical tests to determine whether zeal is godly or ungodly? To what extent is zeal a matter of personality?
  3. Why must we subject ourselves to the righteousness of God (10:3)? What does that verb imply?
  4. How would you apply this message if you were witnessing to a religious person who thought that salvation is by good works?

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

Related Topics: Soteriology (Salvation)

Lesson 64: How to be Saved (Romans 10:5-10)

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My subject is, “How to be saved.” When I was first trained in how to share my faith (over 45 years ago now!), I was instructed not to use words like “saved” or “salvation,” because to most people, they were meaningless religious jargon. Rather, I was told that I should focus on how Jesus can give us abundant life here and now. Tell people how Christ can give peace, joy, freedom from guilt, harmonious relationships, and other present blessings.

While the gospel does bring many wonderful present blessings, its main message is about being eternally saved or lost. In Romans 10, Paul uses salvation or saved in verses 1, 9, 10, and 13. The concept of salvation or being right before God permeates the entire chapter. Paul is still hammering home the same message that he has been preaching throughout the entire letter (1:16-17), that the only way to be right with God is through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, not by good works. You may ask, “Why does Paul keep repeating this?” The answer is, “Because we’re all so prone to try to get saved by our own good works.” We need this message hammered into our works-oriented brains!

Before we work through the text, let me emphasize the practical value of these verses: At this moment either you are saved or you are lost. There is no in between category. If you are saved, it means that if you died today, you would spend eternity with Jesus in heaven. If you are lost and died today, you would spend eternity in the torment of hell. Those are the only options.

As I’ve said many times, saved is a radical word. If life seems to be going okay, then you don’t sense that you need to be saved. If you think that you’re a basically good person and that your goodness will get you into heaven when you die, then you won’t feel a need to be saved. If you think that Jesus came to give us a few tips on how to have a happy life, then you don’t realize your true condition before God. You need to be saved because you’re perishing!

When that cruise ship was sailing smoothly through the Mediterranean Sea last week, if you had rushed into the dining room and yelled, “Get into the life boats now,” the passengers would have thought that you were crazy. They didn’t need to be saved, thank you. You would only be interrupting their dinner. But a few minutes later when the ship hit the rock and began listing as it took on water, everyone’s attention was focused on being saved from a watery grave. The truth is, your boat is going to hit the rock called “death,” and so you need to be ready for that inevitable moment. Life may be going smoothly at the moment, but if you’re not right before God, then you need to be saved.

The angel told Joseph (Matt. 1:21), “You shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” Jesus said (Luke 19:10), “For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which is lost.” He said (Luke 5:32), “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” He was not implying that some are righteous enough that they don’t need salvation. Rather, some mistakenly think that they are righteous enough to get into heaven by their own works. But the truth is, we all have sinned and deserve God’s judgment (Rom. 3:23). Thus we all need Jesus to save us from that judgment. So here again Paul says,

To be saved, you must recognize that you cannot save yourself and you must truly believe in Jesus as the risen Savior and Lord.

In Romans 10, Paul is still dealing with the question that dominates chapters 9-11, “If the Jews are God’s chosen people, why are most of them rejecting Christ?” In chapter 9, Paul pointed out that it never was God’s purpose to save all the Jews. Rather, His purpose was to save a remnant according to His gracious choice. The emphasis is clearly on God’s sovereignty in salvation.

But if God is sovereign, then are unbelievers not responsible for missing out on salvation? From 9:30 through chapter 10, Paul argues that the Gentiles attained the righteousness that comes by faith, while most of the Jews were lost because they sought to establish their own righteousness by works. They didn’t trust in Christ, who is “the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (10:4). Their sinful pride kept them from salvation.

In Romans 10:5-10, Paul contrasts the righteousness based on the law (10:5) with the righteousness that comes through faith (10:6-10). To be saved by keeping the law, you must keep it perfectly. But to be saved by faith, you trust in what God has done in sending His Son to die for your sins and raising Him from the dead. Salvation is not by keeping the law, but by faith in Christ.

1. To be saved, you must recognize that you cannot save yourself by keeping God’s law (10:5).

Romans 10:5: “For Moses writes that the man who practices the righteousness which is based on law shall live by that righteousness.” “For” shows that Paul is explaining 10:4. He refers to Leviticus 18:5, “So you shall keep My statutes and My judgments, by which a man may live if he does them; I am the Lord.” In that verse, “live” does not refer to eternal life, but to enjoying God’s blessings in the Promised Land (Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], pp. 647-648).

But for Paul, life is equivalent to justification, or righteous standing before God. In Galatians 3:11-12, Paul also cites Leviticus 18:5 to contrast the attempt to approach God by keeping the law with the way of faith: “Now that no one is justified by the Law before God is evident; for, ‘The righteous man shall live by faith.’ However, the Law is not of faith; on the contrary, ‘He who practices them shall live by them.’” Then in 3:21-22, he adds, “Is the Law then contrary to the promises of God? May it never be! For if a law had been given which was able to impart life, then righteousness would indeed have been based on law. But the Scripture has shut up everyone under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.”

Paul is making the same point in Romans 10:5: if you want to gain eternal life by keeping the law, you must obey it perfectly. As Paul has just stated, the Jews were trying to establish their own righteousness by works of the law (9:32; 10:3). Paul himself had tried that route. In Philippians 3:5-6, he lays out his Jewish pedigree: “Circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless.”

But at his conversion, Paul counted all of these credits as loss for the sake of Christ. He goes on (Phil. 3:9) to explain the contrast (the same one that he is drawing in Romans 10:5-10): [that I] “may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith.”

Paul made the same point in Romans 2:12-13: “For all who have sinned without the Law will also perish without the Law, and all who have sinned under the Law will be judged by the Law; for it is not the hearers of the Law who are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified.” (See, also, James 2:10.)

Even though Scripture is so abundantly clear, this is the main reason that people do not trust to Christ for salvation: they think that they can save themselves by being good or by keeping God’s law. The truth is, we’ve all repeatedly broken God’s law, both outwardly and on the heart level. We’ve all failed to love God with all of our hearts; we’ve failed to love our neighbor as much as we love ourselves. So, as Paul explains (Rom. 3:19-20), “Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, so that every mouth may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God; because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.” To be saved, you first must recognize that you cannot save yourself by keeping God’s law. Rather, that law condemns you.

2. To be saved, you must recognize that Christ has done for you what you could never do for yourself (10:6-8).

Romans 10:6-8: “But the righteousness based on faith speaks as follows: ‘Do not say in your heart, “Who will ascend into heaven?” (that is, to bring Christ down), or “Who will descend into the abyss?” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).’ But what does it say? ‘The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart’—that is, the word of faith which we are preaching.”

These are difficult verses and I won’t pretend that I completely understand them, even after reading and re-reading numerous commentaries! But I’ll try to explain them as best as I can. The opening “but” shows that Paul is contrasting the righteousness based on the law (10:5) with the righteousness based on faith. He first cites from Deuteronomy 8:17 & 9:4 (“Do not say in your heart”) and then rather loosely from Deuteronomy 30:12-14, adding his own explanatory comments to link these verses to Christ. His main point is that God has always offered salvation by faith apart from human effort, even under the law.

The problem is that Deuteronomy 30:12-14 seems to say that keeping the law is within the reach of every person. But Paul cites them for an opposite meaning, that salvation has nothing to do with human effort, but rather that God has provided everything so that all we must do is to believe in Christ. How do we explain this?

First, in the Deuteronomy 8:17 & 9:4 references, Moses warns Israel that when they take possession of the land of Canaan, they must not think that they have earned it because of their own righteousness. This clues us in that God’s blessings come to us by grace, not by our efforts. Then Paul adds the reference from Deuteronomy 30:12-14, “It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?’ Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross the sea for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?’ But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may observe it.”

“It” refers to the commandment of the law being near, but Paul replaces the commandment with Christ being near. Is he arbitrarily changing the meaning of that text to make it say something completely different? No! In Deuteronomy 30:6, Moses promised, “Moreover the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, so that you may live.” That is essentially the same as the new covenant promises that later came through Ezekiel (36:25-27) and Jeremiah (31:31-34). These promises point to God’s forgiving our sins and imparting new life to us by His grace alone. It is only when God changes our hearts that we are then able to obey God’s commandments.

But even those who have received the new birth do not obey perfectly. So why does Paul replace the commandment (in Deut. 30) with Christ? Answer: Because, “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (10:4). Jesus did what no one else could ever do: He perfectly fulfilled God’s holy law. By His death, He satisfied the penalty of the law that we deserved. So when you believe in Christ, God imputes Christ’s righteousness to your account and views you as if you perfectly fulfilled the law.

The two questions that Paul cites from Deuteronomy 30 had become proverbial expressions for doing what is impossible (Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 383). Thus Paul is saying that just as an Israelite did not need to go into heaven to bring down God’s commandments, so we do not need to do the impossible by going to heaven to bring Christ down to where we live. God did that in the incarnation. Christ came to bear the curse of the law on our behalf (Gal. 3:13).

Paul changes the second question, which in Deuteronomy is, “Who will cross the sea?” into, “Who will descend into the abyss?” The sea and the abyss were somewhat interchangeable concepts in the Old Testament and in Judaism (Moo, p. 655). Paul refers to the abyss to facilitate his application to Christ’s death (Moo, p. 656). There is no need to go into the abyss to bring Christ up from the dead, because God has already done that.

So Paul’s point is that human effort is not necessary to procure God’s righteousness. God has done it all: He sent Christ. Christ died for our sins. God raised Him from the dead. All that we must do is to believe in this word that Paul was preaching. The fact that this word “is near you” (10:8) means that you don’t have to go through some difficult or impossible process (ascend into heaven; descend into the abyss) to find Christ and be saved. Rather, you can believe in Him at this moment and be saved.

Don’t get lost in the difficulties of verses 6-8 and miss the application, which is: When you die and stand before God, either you will argue that you should get into heaven because you were a good person; or, with the hymn writer, you will say, “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.” God in Christ did for you what you never could have done for yourself. Abandon your efforts and trust in Christ! Paul goes on to explain the content of this word of faith that he was preaching, which we must believe:

3. To be saved, you must truly believe in Jesus as the crucified and risen Lord and Savior (10:9-10).

Romans 10:9-10: “that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation.” In verse 9, Paul follows the order of Deuteronomy 30 (cited in verse 8), “in your mouth and in your heart.” In verse 10, he explains verse 9 (“for”) in the logical order: First we believe in the heart and then that heart belief finds outward expression in confession with our mouths and with our lives.

A. True faith is a matter of your heart relying on specific content regarding Jesus as the crucified and risen Lord and Savior.

Paul uses “faith” or “believe(s)” in 9:30, 32, 33; 10:4, 6, 8, 9, 10, 11, 14 (2x), 16, & 17. Martyn Lloyd-Jones (Romans: Saving Faith [Zondervan], p. 90) argues that in 10:9-10 Paul is giving us a definition of saving faith, showing us both its content and its character.

There are not two requirements here for salvation, namely, believing and confessing. Rather, the repeated emphasis on faith shows that faith is the only requirement. As Paul told the Philippian jailer in response to his question, “What must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:31), “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” Outward confession of Christ is the inevitable outcome or character of genuine saving faith.

True saving faith is a matter of the heart, or inner person. It is not just a matter of intellectual assent, although we must believe the facts of the gospel as God has revealed them in His Word. These facts include that we have sinned and thus stand guilty before God. He sent Jesus, His eternal Son, to take on human flesh and die as our substitute on the cross. God raised Jesus bodily from the dead, thus showing that He accepted Jesus’ death as a satisfactory offering. Since “Lord” is used hundreds of times in the Old Testament to refer to God, confessing Jesus as Lord means believing that He is the Sovereign God. You must understand and believe this content of the gospel in order to be saved.

As an aside, sometimes when I talk to people about their need for salvation, it becomes evident that they don’t have a clue about who Jesus is. To press such people to make a decision to trust in Christ would be premature, in that they wouldn’t know who they were trusting in. So I encourage such people to read the Gospel of John and ask God to show them who Jesus is and why He came. Otherwise, they would be believing in a Jesus of their own imagination. Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses believe in a false, made-up “Jesus,” but such faith does not save. Saving faith is based on the truth about Jesus as revealed in God’s Word.

But saving faith is also a heart response to these facts. When you believe that the sinless Son of God bore God’s full wrath for your sins on the cross, it affects your heart. Just as you would be moved with gratitude if someone risked his life to save your life, so you are moved even more deeply to believe that Jesus died for you.

And faith includes committing your eternal destiny totally to Christ’s death on your behalf, not to any works of righteousness that you have done. Committing yourself to Christ includes repentance (turning from your sins), and submitting to Jesus as Lord of your life. If you don’t submit to and follow Christ as Lord, it shows that you really don’t believe in Him as He is revealed in the Bible. It would be like saying that you believe in a prescribed medicine, but you never take it. Thus Paul adds…

B. True faith confesses openly that Jesus is the risen Lord and Savior.

Faith is the root; confession is the fruit. We are saved by grace through faith in Christ alone, but if our faith is genuine, it will always bear the fruit of salvation (Eph. 2:8-10). The demons believe in Jesus, but their faith is not saving faith because it does not result in repentance and good works (James 2:14-26).

One of the first ways that a new believer should confess Christ is by being baptized. In our culture, baptism isn’t usually a costly commitment, but in many cultures that are hostile to Christ, to be baptized will result at best in being disowned by your family, or at worst by being murdered by them. We should take baptism seriously! After baptism, we go on confessing Christ by living in a manner pleasing to Him, by growing in love and obedience to Him, by trusting Him through our trials, and by telling others about His wonderful salvation as we have opportunity (1 Pet. 3:15).

Of course, all of us have failed numerous times to confess Christ, both through our sins and by not speaking out for Him when we should have. Thankfully, we have the example of Peter, who failed miserably and yet who later preached Christ boldly. The issue is not perfection, but direction. If our faith in Christ as Lord and Savior is genuine, the direction of our lives will be that of confessing Him before others. The outcome of such faith and confession of Christ on earth will be hearing Jesus confess us before the Father in heaven (Matt. 10:32-33).

Conclusion

Don’t make the fatal mistake of thinking that because you’re a pretty good person, you don’t need to be saved. Jesus didn’t give up the glory of heaven and suffer the agonies of the cross so that you could have your best life now. He didn’t die primarily so that you can have a happy family or succeed in business. He died to save you from your sins. He will save you if you recognize that you can’t save yourself and you truly believe in Him as your risen Lord and Savior.

Application Questions

  1. How can we help a person who senses no need for salvation to see that “his ship is going to sink”?
  2. Someone says, “I believe in a loving God who wouldn’t judge any good, sincere person.” How would you respond?
  3. Why is the belief that people are basically good and that their good deeds will save them so offensively wrong before God?
  4. Some evangelicals argue that you can believe in Jesus as your Savior and still go to heaven, even if you do not submit to Him as Lord. What verses (other than our text) refute this?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2012, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Soteriology (Salvation)

Lesson 65: Good News for All (Romans 10:11-15)

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The good news: you’ve just inherited $10 million from a distant relative that you haven’t seen in decades! The bad news: no one told you about it, so your life is the same as always. Good news is only good news for you when you hear it and act on it.

The gospel is the best news in the world, but it isn’t good news at this point for approximately two billion (28%) of the world’s population, who are presently cut off from access to the gospel (Mission to Unreached Peoples, www.mup.org). Viewed another way, out of 16,789 people groups in the world, 6,954 (41.4%) are still unreached. An unreached or least-reached people is a people group among which there is no indigenous community of believing Christians with adequate numbers and resources to evangelize this group. Of these almost 7,000 groups, 2,087 are over 50,000 in population. Out of every $1.00 (U.S.) of Christian giving to all causes, less than one penny goes toward pioneer church planting among least-reached people groups. I encourage you to go to the Joshua Project web site (www.joshuaproject.net) and educate yourself with the most up to date statistics on where we’re at in the cause of world missions.

In our text, Paul makes a simple point that in some way will change the direction of your life when it grips you:

Since the gospel is good news for all, we must proclaim it to all.

Paul was trying to set the stage for his journey through Rome, where he could gain the support of the church there for his mission to the Gentiles in Spain (Rom. 15:24). To do that, he had to deal with two criticisms: First, that his message clashed with the Old Testament; second, that his ministry to the Gentiles erased what the Jews saw as a fundamental distinction between the two groups. So here Paul cites the Old Testament repeatedly (10:11, 13, 15; plus, 16, 18, 19, 20, 21) to show that his message came right out of the Jewish Scriptures. And he shows that the same Lord is Lord of all people and has given one message for all to be saved. In 10:11-13 Paul makes the point that the gospel is good news for all. In 10:14-15, he shows that we must proclaim it to all.

1. The gospel is good news for all (10:11-13).

Romans 10:11-13: “For the Scripture says, ‘Whoever believes in Him will not be disappointed.’ 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.’”

In 10:11, Paul cites from Isaiah 28:16. In 9:33, he cited the same verse more fully, but here he only cites the last part of the verse, changing “he” into “whoever,” thus broadening the application. Then in 10:12, he explains why his broader application is valid, namely, because the same Lord is Lord of all people, Jew and Gentile alike (see 3:29-30). Then (10:13), to show that he isn’t making this up, but that it comes right out of the Jewish Scriptures, Paul cites Joel 2:32, “Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved.” His point is that the gospel is good news for all people, Jew and Gentile alike, if they will respond to it.

A. All people have one primary need: to be saved before they die and face judgment.

“Whoever” occurs in verses 11 & 13 and “no distinction” in verse 12. In 3:22-23 Paul wrote, “for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” That’s the bad news. But here his focus is on the good news, that there is no distinction when it comes to receiving the abundant riches that God pours out on all who call on Him. But before people will call out to God to save them, they must realize that they’re in deep trouble and need to be saved. All people are guilty before God and headed for death and judgment. Thus all people need to be saved.

It’s important to keep this in mind when you talk to educated people about Christ. It’s easy to be intimidated by their great learning. They will argue that evolution is true or that the Bible is full of contradictions or that a loving God could not allow all the suffering in the world. But these things are just smokescreens to keep you from getting too close to their real need: They are sinners who stand condemned before a holy God. They have past and current sins that have alienated them from God and have created problems in their lives. Their number one need is to be saved before they die and face judgment.

On one occasion, the great Welsh medical doctor turned preacher, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, preached to a congregation at an Anglican Church in Oxford made up largely of students. He preached to them as he would have preached anywhere else. After the service, it was announced that Dr. Lloyd-Jones would be available to answer questions in another room. He got there, expecting just a few people, but the room was packed.

The first question came from a bright young student, who got up and spoke with all the grace and polish of a university debater. After paying a few compliments to the preacher, he said that he had one great difficulty as a result of the sermon. He really could not see but that that sermon might not equally well have been delivered to a congregation of farm laborers or anyone else. As he sat down, the room erupted with laughter.

Dr. Lloyd-Jones replied that he was most interested in the question, but really could not see the questioner’s difficulty because he regarded both undergraduates and graduates of Oxford University as being just ordinary common human clay and miserable sinners like everybody else. Thus their needs were precisely the same as those of the farm laborer or anyone else. And so he had preached as he had quite deliberately. This also provoked a lot of laughter and even cheering. They got his point and they gave him a most attentive hearing from there on (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, by Iain Murray [Banner of Truth], 2:76-77).

Since every person is a sinner, his or her main need is to be reconciled to God before he dies. It’s also important to keep this in mind when you’re talking with a good person. You may be tempted to think, “He doesn’t need to be saved. Look at what a nice person he is. Look at how kind and loving he is. He puts most Christians I know to shame!” And, of course, the good person agrees with you, even though he might never say so. He compares himself with others and thinks, “Surely it will go well with me when I stand before God. I’m not like other people!” (See Luke 18:11-12.) But he’s blind to his pride and self-righteousness. The good person is usually the most difficult type to reach with the gospel, because he doesn’t see his need for it. Show him God’s holy law, which is designed to expose his sin (Rom. 3:19-20). Because all people are sinners, they all have the same need to be saved before they die and face judgment.

B. All people need one message: the good news that whoever believes in Jesus will not be put to shame.

“Not be disappointed” (10:11) is literally, “not be put to shame.” This does not refer to psychological shame, but rather to not being put to shame with a guilty verdict at the judgment (Thomas Schreiner, Romans [Baker], p. 561). It means that at the judgment God will vindicate the one who believes in Jesus.

Let’s face it, we all have more than a closet full of secret reasons to be put to shame at the judgment. Have you ever thought about what it would be like if your every thought was automatically broadcast out loud without your being able to control it? Even if you had the thought in private, it automatically went on your Facebook page, which was open for everyone to see. We’d all die of embarrassment! But, of course, the God before whom all things are open and laid bare (Heb. 4:13) knows our every thought!

But the good news is that on the cross, Jesus bore all of our guilt and shame so that the one who believes in Him will not be put to shame at the final judgment. Paul explains (10:12) that this good news applies equally to the religious Jew and to the pagan Gentile, because the same Lord is Lord of all. Some think that Lord refers to God the Father, and it may, but since Paul has just said that Jesus is Lord (10:9) and since the context of 10:11-17 is all about believing in Jesus, it is more likely that Lord in both 10:12 & 13 refers to Jesus. He is the Lord of all. The Lord Jesus abounds in riches for all who call on Him. If anyone calls on the name of Jesus, he will be saved.

Paul loves to talk about the spiritual riches that God delights to pour out on sinners who believe in Jesus as Savior and Lord. Note some of the references (see, also, Rom. 11:33; 1 Cor. 1:5; 2 Cor. 6:10; 9:11; Phil. 4:19; Col. 1:27):

Romans 2:4: “Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads to repentance?”

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.”

2 Corinthians 8:9: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich.”

Ephesians 1:7: “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace.”

Ephesians 2:7: “So that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.”

Ephesians 3:8: “To me, the very least of all saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ.”

Ephesians 3:16: “That He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man.”

The point in our text is that no matter how sinful your past, if you will believe in the Lord Jesus and call upon Him to save you, He will do it out of the abundant riches of His grace. This good news applies to every person from every race and from every walk of life: Call on the name of the Lord and you will be saved.

Thus all people have one primary need: to be saved before they die and face judgment. All people need one message: the good news that whoever believes in Jesus will not be put to shame.

C. All people need to hear that there is one way to be saved: to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul expresses the way to be saved in two synonymous phrases: to believe in Him (10:11); and, to call upon Him, or to call upon His name (10:12, 13). In 10:14, he distinguishes them, as I will explain in a moment. But in 10:11-13, he uses them to mean the same thing.

To believe in Christ means to rely on or trust in Him as the One who died on the cross to pay the penalty for your sin. He died as the propitiation (the atoning sacrifice which satisfied God’s wrath) for all who believe in Him, so that God can now be both just, because the penalty was paid, and the justifier of the one who has faith in Him (3:25-26). To believe in Christ implicitly means that you stop believing in yourself and your own good works as your hope for eternal life.

In 10:13 Paul cites Joel 2:32, “Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Peter quotes the same verse in his sermon in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:21). To call upon the Lord (His “name” means, who He is in all His attributes) implies that the one calling is in trouble or great need. This is reinforced by the word saved, which means that the person needs to be rescued from the great and glorious day of the Lord.

Both terms imply that the one calling out has nothing in himself to offer God. He isn’t doing basically okay, and just needs a few pointers on how to get ready for judgment. He can’t help God out. If he thinks that he can offer God anything, then he doesn’t understand his situation. He is guilty of rebellion against the holy God. If his case comes to trial, he will be condemned. So he cries out (Luke 18:13), “God, be merciful to me, the sinner!”

So Paul’s main point here is that the gospel is good news for all. Any guilty sinner, no matter how sordid his past, who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved. John Bunyan has a wonderful treatise, “The Jerusalem Sinner Saved,” based on Jesus’ words to the apostles just before His ascension (Luke 24:47), “that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations,” and then He added, “beginning from Jerusalem.” Jerusalem was the city where sinners crucified the Savior. But our sin also crucified Him. There is forgiveness for all Jerusalem sinners. Proclaim it to the nations!

2. Since the good news is for all, we must proclaim it to all (10:14-15)

Romans 10:14-15: “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher? How will they preach unless they are sent? Just as it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news of good things!’”

I can only skim over these verses, but before we look at them, let me briefly address a criticism often raised by those who deny the doctrine of God’s sovereign election. They argue that the doctrine of election undermines evangelism and missions because if God has chosen someone, he will be saved. If he isn’t elect, our efforts are in vain. So, why witness?

But Paul, who wrote so strongly about God’s choice of Jacob and rejection of Esau while they were still in the womb (9:11-13), also wrote these wonderful verses about the need to preach the gospel to all people. He wasn’t contradicting himself. God chooses who will be saved and He chooses the means through which they will be saved, namely, preaching the gospel to them (2 Tim. 2:10).

Paul strings together a logical list of rhetorical questions to explain the process of how the gospel goes forth, and then backs it up with Scripture. To work from the foundation outward, the process begins with sending out preachers; they preach; people hear, believe, and call on the Lord.

A. Sending: We should ask the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into the harvest.

Romans 10:15a: “How will they preach unless they are sent?” God saved Paul and appointed him as a minister and a witness, sending him to the Gentiles (Acts 22:21; 26:16-17). The church acts as a secondary sender, affirming God’s call to those He sends (Acts 13:1-3). To take the gospel to every people, as Jesus commanded in the Great Commission (Matt. 28:19-20; Luke 24:49), those who are sent out need to cross cultural and linguistic barriers to communicate the gospel to those who have not heard. Jesus instructed us (Matt. 9:38), “Therefore beseech the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest.”

So we who have experienced God’s gracious salvation should pray for workers to be sent out. We should support such workers financially, emotionally, and in prayer when they go out to difficult places. And, some of us may be called to go ourselves.

B. Preaching: The sent ones proclaim the authoritative message of the King regarding His Son.

Preach and preacher come from the Greek word meaning herald. The herald was sent out under the authority of the king to proclaim faithfully the king’s message. He didn’t make up his own message that would be more palatable to the hearers. He might get killed by an angry mob who didn’t like the king’s message, but he still had to tell them the truth. Those sent out with the gospel cannot tweak it to fit what people may want to hear. They have to tell them that they have sinned against the holy God and rightfully are under His judgment so that they will see their need for the Savior. They have to confront people’s universal belief that they are good enough to merit salvation so that they will abandon their good works and call on the Lord to save them.

C. Hearing: Those who hear the preacher must understand what they hear.

This implies that those sent must be able to communicate in the language and culture of the hearers, but also that they not compromise the message in an attempt not to offend. The cross is inherently offensive, because it confronts our sin. This also means that as the sent ones proclaim the gospel, the Holy Spirit must open the deaf ears of the hearers, who cannot understand spiritual truth (1 Cor. 2:14; Acts 16:14; Isa. 6:9-10). Thus the proclamation of the gospel must always be undergirded with prayer.

D. Believing and calling on the Lord: The message must be believed to be effective.

As I said, in 10:11-13, Paul uses believing in Christ and calling upon His name somewhat interchangeably. But in 10:14, he separates them to bring out two aspects of saving faith. People must believe in the sense of giving assent to the truth of the gospel or they will not call on Him for salvation. If you do not believe that Jesus is who He claimed to be and that God raised Him from the dead, you won’t cry out to Him to save you. And so a person must believe intellectually that Jesus is the risen Savior, but also he must call out to Him to save him from his sins. Intellectual belief alone without commitment is not saving faith. Finally,

E. The message believed: “Good news of good things.”

Paul again (10:15b) cites Scripture (Isa. 52:7), “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news of good things.” You don’t normally look at a person’s feet, especially dirty, callused, bleeding feet, and say, “Wow, what a beautiful person!” But this person has dirtied and bloodied his feet to bring good news of good things: God will freely forgive all your sins through Jesus Christ if you will believe in Him and call out to Him to save you!

If we preach, “If you will clean up your life and try hard to obey God and not sin, you might earn a spot in heaven, although you can never be sure,” we’re not preaching good news. Any message of doing good works to earn salvation is not good news, because it depends on sinful people and sinful people inevitably fail and fall short. The good news is, “Whoever believes in Him will not be disappointed.” “Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved.” That’s the wonderful news that we proclaim.

Conclusion

As long as there are billions of people that have never heard that news, we must commit ourselves to getting the good news to them. There is an African proverb, “There is only one crime worse than murder on the desert, and that is to know where the water is and not tell.” We know where the water is! We’ve got the greatest news in the world: God forgives every sinner who trusts in Jesus as Lord and Savior! We’ve got to tell everyone.

Here are a few practical steps. First, begin locally. Begin praying for the salvation of those you have regular contact with. Pray for opportunities to talk to them about the Savior. Reach out to the international students in our city. Second, educate yourself about world missions. Read about missions. Join one of our A-teams. Pray for our missionaries. Give to the cause of missions, especially to those trying to take the gospel to those who have yet to hear. Finally, God may call some of you to go to those who have never heard. With Isaiah (6:8) respond, “Here I am. Send me!”

Application Questions

  1. A person asks, “What about the billions who have never heard about Jesus? Will God judge them? Is this fair?” Your reply?
  2. Someone says, “I believe that there are many ways to God. Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Jews, and Christians all will get to heaven if they are sincere, good people.” Your reply?
  3. How could this message change your prayer life? How could it change how you spend your time and money? Your goals?
  4. How can a person know whether God is calling him/her to devote his/her life to the cause of world missions?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2012, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Evangelism, Missions, Soteriology (Salvation)

Lesson 66: Why Some are Lost and Some are Saved (Romans 10:16-21)

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Perhaps you’ve seen the TV commercial where some people from the Publisher’s Clearinghouse Sweepstakes knock on someone’s door to tell him that he has just won $5 million. The winner is delirious with joy, leaping in the air, crying, laughing, and hardly believing that this could be true.

But imagine that when the folks from Publisher’s Clearinghouse tell the guy that he’s won $5 million, he pulls out a gun and says, “Get off my property or I’ll blow your brains out!” “What? But, sir, you don’t understand. We’re giving you good news! You’ve just won a fortune!” But he belligerently snarls, “I said, ‘Get off my property now!’”

That’s the contrast between Romans 10:15 & 16. In verse 15 we read (citing Isa. 52:7), “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news of good things!” The good news is the message of salvation. Even though you’ve sinned against the holy God and deserve His judgment, He offers a complete pardon to anyone who will receive it. As verse 13 says, “Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved.” But in verse 16 we read, “However, they did not all heed the good news; for Isaiah says [citing Isa. 53:1], ‘Lord, who has believed our report?’”

It’s staggering! God sends messengers with the best news in the world, that God is ready to pardon any sinner who will receive His offer of grace and kindness. Not only that, but God paid a great price to provide this pardon. As Isaiah 53 goes on to reveal, He sent His Messiah, the suffering servant, who would be “pierced through for our transgressions,” and “crushed for our iniquities.” “All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; but the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him” (53:5, 6). But a suffering servant didn’t fit with Israel’s idea of a Messiah. They wanted a conquering king to defeat all their enemies and provide a comfy life for them. They didn’t like all this talk about them being sinners who needed a Savior to die in their place. So they slammed the door on the best news in the world.

In Romans 10, Paul is still dealing with the subject that caused him great sorrow and unceasing grief (9:2), namely, why are most of the Jews rejecting Jesus as their Savior? He is expounding on what he wrote in 9:30-33, where he explains that the Jews were rejecting Christ because they were pursuing righteousness by works. But the Gentiles, who had not even been pursuing God, were being saved because they welcomed Christ by faith.

He builds his case from the Old Testament, citing Scripture in 10:16, 18, 19, 20, and 21. He wants to show that the Jews’ rejection of Christ, as well as the Gentiles’ reception of Him, should not be surprising, since it was predicted centuries before in the Scriptures. He’s explaining why some people are lost and some are saved:

Because of disobedient, hard hearts, many do not believe the gospel and are lost; because of God’s sovereign grace, others believe the gospel and are saved.

When the good news is preached, some hear it, believe it, and call upon the Lord to save them (10:14). But sadly, others stumble over the stumbling stone (9:32), reject Jesus Christ, and head toward eternal judgment.

What makes the difference? I’m going to state what the Bible plainly teaches, although I cannot explain how both statements are true: If someone is saved, it is totally due to God choosing him before the foundation of the world, effectually calling him to Christ, and saving him by His grace alone (Rom. 8:30; 9:11-23). If someone is lost, he is totally responsible for his disobedient, hard heart that rejects God’s grace (10:21; Prov. 1:24). In other words, if you believe in Christ, it is only because God had mercy on you. If He had not intervened, you would still be in your sins, headed for eternal judgment. But if you do not believe in Christ and reject His gracious offer of salvation, you are completely to blame. You cannot blame God for not choosing you. Your sinful unbelief is totally your own fault.

C. H. Spurgeon put it (Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit [Pilgrim Publications], 4:337): “That God predestines, and that man is responsible, are two things that few can see. They are believed to be inconsistent and contradictory; but they are not. It is just the fault of our weak judgment.” He goes on to say that these two truths will be welded into one in eternity, when we see that both flow from God’s throne.

1. Because of disobedient, hard hearts, many do not believe the gospel and are lost.

Paul jumps back and forth in these verses between unbelief (10:16), belief (10:17), unbelief (10:18, 19), belief (10:20), and unbelief (10:21). First we’ll look at the verses dealing with unbelief and then we’ll look at those that describe faith in Christ.

A. Not obeying the gospel is the same as not believing the gospel (10:16).

Romans 10:16: “However, they did not all heed the good news; for Isaiah says, ‘Lord, who has believed our report?’” They refers to the Jews, as verses 19 & 21 specify. By extension, it applies also to unbelieving Gentiles, but Paul’s focus here is on the question of why most of the Jews were rejecting Christ. When Paul says that “not all” heeded the good news, he is using understatement to mean, “most” did not obey the gospel.

Heed means to submit to or obey (Paul used this word in Rom. 6:12, 16, & 17). Since Paul goes on to cite Isaiah 53:1, “Lord, who has believed our report?” why doesn’t he say, “However, they did not all believe the good news”? Why does he say, “They did not all heed [obey] the good news”? Is he teaching salvation by works?

Of course not! He has just indicted the Jews because they pursued righteousness by works and not by faith (9:32). Rather, Paul understood and taught the same thing that James taught (James 2:14-26), that genuine faith by its very nature always results in good works. If someone claims to have faith, but lives in disobedience to God, his claim is false. Genuine saving faith is the root that necessarily bears the fruit of godliness. Many will claim, “Lord, Lord,” but they do not obey Jesus as Lord. He will condemn these hypocrites on judgment day (Matt. 7:21-23). Thus Paul begins and ends Romans (1:5; 16:26) talking about “the obedience of faith.” Or, as 1 John 2:3 explains, “By this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments.”

Also, it’s important to realize that the gospel does not come to us as a nice suggestion that you may want to consider. It comes to us as a command from God Himself. Mark 1:15 summarizes Jesus’ message: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” Repent and believe are commands. Or, as Paul told the Athenian philosophers (Acts 17:30-31), “God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.”

So if you have not repented of your sins, believed in Jesus Christ as your Savior, and submitted to Him as your Lord, you are in disobedience to the God who is the Judge of the living and the dead. If you were to die in this state of rebellion against God, you would face His eternal judgment.

B. Many hear the gospel but do not respond with faith and obedience (10:18).

Skipping 10:17 for a moment, where Paul twice mentions “hearing,” he goes on to respond to a hypothetical objection (that stems from 10:14 & 17) that perhaps Israel has not heard. Romans 10:18 says, “But I say, surely they have never heard, have they? Indeed they have; ‘Their voice has gone out into all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world.’” Paul cites Psalm 19:4 to show that the Jews have heard the good news.

But this raises two problems. Psalm 19:1-6 extols God’s glory through creation (natural revelation), whereas 19:7-11 goes on to extol God’s Word (special revelation). The first problem is: How does a verse about God’s revelation through creation demonstrate that Israel has heard the gospel, since creation doesn’t proclaim the gospel? Is Paul using that text out of context to prove what it does not say? Most commentators explain this by saying that Paul is using an analogy. Just as God’s natural revelation proclaims His glory to all the earth, so now the gospel has been proclaimed over all the earth, especially with reference to the Jews (Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], pp. 665-666).

I agree, but I would go a bit further and suggest that Paul may have used this verse on natural revelation to say that if people ignore God’s general revelation of His glory through His creation, then they will be prone to ignore His special revelation through the preaching of the gospel. (We saw this in Romans 1:18-23.)

To apply this to our times, if people deny God by believing the myth of evolution, they are not going to be inclined to submit to Jesus as Savior and Lord. Evolution is the most preposterous myth ever foisted on the human race. Otherwise intelligent people latch onto it because it gives them a supposed escape from the uncomfortable truth that hits you between the eyes in the first verse of the Bible (Gen. 1:1), “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” If that verse is true—and the Bible doesn’t put it out there as a theory to be debated or discussed—then God is God and you are not God! It means that you had better get reconciled to this Almighty Creator before you meet Him in judgment!

But, if Paul is using Psalm 19 as an analogy, to say that just as the creation universally proclaims God’s glory, so the gospel has now been universally proclaimed, then there is a second problem: How does this text establish that all the Jews have heard the gospel? Surely there were many Jews who had not yet heard about Christ. Even Paul knew that not everyone had heard, or he wouldn’t be trying to go to Spain to proclaim the gospel there (Rom. 15:24, 28).

Probably Paul was speaking generally and with some hyperbole. In other words, the gospel has been proclaimed sufficiently among even the Gentile world to such an extent that almost all of the Jews have heard the message. (Paul uses the same kind of generalization and hyperbole in Colossians 1:6, 23.) It would be the same as if I said that everyone who speaks English has heard the gospel. Conceivably, there may be some English speakers who have not heard, but it would be their own fault. The gospel has been so widely proclaimed in English through so many different media for such a long time that any English speakers who have not heard must be deliberately avoiding it.

So Paul is saying that the problem with the Jews’ widespread rejection of the gospel was not that they had not heard the message. The problem was that they had rejected the message because they loved their own sin. Like the Gentiles, they suppressed the truth in unrighteousness (1:18). Their pride caused them to try to establish their own righteousness, rather than to subject themselves to God’s righteousness (10:3).

When you share the gospel, you often will hear the objection, “But what about people who have never heard? Will God judge the person who lived 500 years ago in Afghanistan, who lived and died without hearing about Jesus?” The way to respond is to ask, “If I can resolve that difficulty, are you saying that you would repent of your sins and believe in Jesus as Savior and Lord?” Almost certainly the person will answer, “Well, there are a lot of other questions, too!” In other words, this is just a smokescreen so that he can dodge the issue of his own sin before the holy God. You can press him by saying, “Well, you have heard the gospel and God will hold you accountable for the light that you have received.” And that applies to you! You have heard the gospel. Have you responded with obedient faith?

C. Many know God’s way of salvation, but they still reject the gospel (10:19).

Paul raises and responds to another hypothetical objection by citing Deuteronomy 32:21 (10:19), followed by Isaiah 65:1-2 (10:20-21). He is providing witnesses from the Law and the prophets to build his case that the Jews were responsible for their sin and unbelief. Romans 10:19: “But I say, surely Israel did not know, did they? First Moses says, ‘I will make you jealous by that which is not a nation, by a nation without understanding will i anger you.’”

In the context, Moses predicted Israel’s apostasy through idolatry. The full verse reads (Deut. 32:21), “They have made Me jealous with what is not God; They have provoked Me to anger with their idols. So I will make them jealous with those who are not a people; I will provoke them to anger with a foolish nation.” Paul is applying this to the spread of the gospel among the Gentiles, which he will expand on in 11:11-14. Just as Israel provoked God to jealousy and anger by their idolatry, so God will provoke Israel to repentance and faith when they jealously see those whom they would despise as being a “no-nation” or “a foolish nation” coming to know God. This means that in His grace, God is not through with Israel, in spite of her unbelief and sin (Romans 11 develops this theme).

What is it that Israel did not know? In verses 19 & 20 it is that the gospel would go to the despised Gentiles. In verse 21, it is that most of the Jews would reject the gospel in spite of God’s kindness and patience. Going back to verses 11 & 13, it is the gospel itself. All of these verses are quotes from the Old Testament, which shows that Israel should have known all of these things through reading their own Scripture. Paul wasn’t making them up.

But why did Israel not see these things? Why were they blind to the plain teaching of the Scriptures? Martyn Lloyd-Jones (Romans: Saving Faith [Zondervan], pp. 372-374) observes that the quotes Paul picked hit the Jews with three of their national sins that blocked them from the gospel. First, they were proud nationally: “We alone are God’s chosen people!” So God provokes them by those who are not a nation. Second, they were proud of their knowledge of the Scriptures (John 5:39): “We alone have God’s law!” So God provokes them to anger by those who are a nation without understanding. Third, the Jews were relying on their works to gain righteousness (9:31-32; 10:3). So God confounds them by saving those who didn’t even seek Him (10:20).

We can apply this by asking ourselves, “What national or cultural tendencies may be blocking us or those we share the gospel with from repentance and faith?” We Americans are self-reliant people, but to be saved we must cease believing in ourselves and cast ourselves upon God’s mercy. We’re a materialistic people, but to be saved, we must give up our pursuit of the American dream, and seek first God’s kingdom and righteousness. We’re a hard-working people who demand equitable pay for proper work. But to be justified by faith, we must stop working and believe in Him who justifies the ungodly (Rom. 4:5).

D. Those who reject the gospel reject God’s patient love and are accountable for their disobedient, hard hearts (10:21).

Romans 10:21: “But as for Israel He says, ‘All the day long I have stretched out My hands to a disobedient and obstinate people.’” This verse deserves an entire sermon, but I can only comment briefly. It pictures God as the rejected lover. He continually reaches out towards sinners whom He loves, but they reject Him with disobedient, hardened hearts. Unbelief is seldom, if ever, an intellectual problem. Rather, unbelief almost always stems from a disobedient, hardened heart that loves sin more than it loves God.

Thus, those who reject the gospel cannot blame God for not choosing them. They are fully responsible for their own damnation. But I must briefly touch on the other side:

2. Because of God’s sovereign grace, others believe the gospel and are saved.

A. Those who believe were not seeking God or asking for Him, but He graciously revealed Himself to them (10:20).

Romans 10:20: “And Isaiah is very bold and says, ‘I was found by those who did not seek Me, I became manifest to those who did not ask for Me.’” Most commentators think that in its context, Isaiah 65:1 refers to God’s allowing Himself to be found by Jews who were not seeking Him, but by way of analogy, Paul here applies it to the Gentiles. This ties back into Romans 9:30, “That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, attained righteousness, even the righteousness which is by faith.”

By Isaiah’s boldness, Paul is referring to the astonishing nature of God’s grace. He pursues and saves those who were not seeking after Him, but were content in their pagan ways! This shows that salvation is not due to a good streak in sinners, but totally to God’s sovereign grace. If you are a believer in Jesus Christ today, it is not because it was originally your idea to seek Him and find Him. Rather, He intervened in your life to reveal Himself to you. His Spirit convicted you of sin and showed your need for the Savior. He moved in your heart to respond in faith to the gospel.

B. Those who believe heard the gospel and responded with faith because God graciously opened their ears to hear (10:17).

Romans 10:17: “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.” Some manuscripts read “God” instead of “Christ,” but “Christ” is the better attested reading. This verse seems out of context here, but it is probably a brief summary of verses 14-16 before Paul moves on to focus on the Jews’ unbelief.

“Hearing” is the same Greek word translated “report” in 10:15, and could refer to the message heard. Or, it can refer to the act of hearing. It doesn’t make much difference. Paul’s point is that people can’t believe something that they have never heard (10:14). The message that they must hear is the word of Christ, which is the gospel. So faith comes from hearing the gospel preached.

But, as we all know, not all who hear the gospel preached respond in faith. The quote from Isaiah (Rom. 10:16), plus the ministries of all the prophets, of Paul, and even of the Lord Jesus Himself, show that many hear the good news but reject it.

So what makes the difference? Why do some hear and believe, while others hear and reject the message and sometimes attack the messenger? In John 8:43 Jesus asked His hostile Jewish listeners, “Why do you not understand what I am saying? It is because you cannot hear My word.” They heard the sound of Jesus’ words, but they were incapable of hearing in the sense of understanding and obeying Jesus’ words, because as He went on to say, they were of their father, the devil.

Jesus explained (John 5:25), “Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.” Or, as Acts 16:14 explains, as Paul spoke the gospel to the Jewish women who gathered by the river in Philippi, “the Lord opened [Lydia’s] heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul.” That’s the difference. Jesus speaks the life-giving word and the spiritually dead come to life. Paul speaks the gospel and the Lord opens hearts to respond. If people are saved, it is because of God’s sovereign grace. If they are lost, it is because of the hardness of their disobedient hearts.

Conclusion

So what is your response to the greatest news in the world? That news is not that you have just won the Publisher’s Clearinghouse Sweepstakes! It is that God has sent the Savior to die for your sins. If you will believe in Him, He gives you eternal life as a free gift. If you receive that good news, you will praise God who opened your heart to the truth. If you reject the news, you have no one to blame but yourself.

Application Questions

  1. How do we find the balance between presenting the gospel in a winsome way and yet not dulling the offense of the cross?
  2. Some say that if you preach the necessity of repentance and obedience to Christ as Lord, you are adding works to faith. Your response? What Scriptures would you use?
  3. I mentioned several national sins that may keep us from welcoming the good news. Can you think of any others?
  4. What Scriptures teach (in the same context) that God is sovereign and yet at the same time, people are responsible?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2012, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Grace, Predestination, Soteriology (Salvation)

Lesson 67: Can God’s Promises Fail? (Romans 11:1-6)

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At first glance, a chapter like Romans 11 that deals with the subject of whether God still has a purpose for the Jews might seem irrelevant to your life. What does the future of Israel have to do with finding a marriage partner or staying happy with the one you’ve got? What does Israel’s future have to do with the pressures of work and paying bills? How can it help you as you struggle to rear your children in this evil world? What relevance does this topic have as you struggle with personal problems or health problems? Maybe you ought to check out for a few weeks and check back in when we get to the practical stuff in Romans 12!

Let me suggest several reasons that this subject should be of interest to you. First, the underlying issue that Paul is dealing with in Romans 11 is, “Can God’s promises fail?” God chose the nation of Israel as His people apart from all other nations on earth (Deut. 7:6). Through the prophet Jeremiah, God assured the sinful nation that was about to go into captivity that His promises to Israel could never fail (Jer. 31:35-36; 33:19-26). To dispel the thought that Israel’s sin could lead to their permanent rejection, God added (Jer. 31:37), “Thus says the Lord, ‘If the heavens above can be measured and the foundations of the earth searched out below, then I will also cast off all the offspring of Israel for all that they have done,’ declares the Lord.”

In other words, if God rejects Israel as His people, then His promises can fail. And if His promises to Israel fail, then how can we know that His promises to us in Romans 8 will not fail? And since those promises include working all of our trials together for good (8:28) and His promise that no trial can ever cut us off from His love (8:35-39), the question of why God has seemingly rejected Israel becomes very practical! It boils down to, “Can you trust God to do as He promises?”

Second, on a broader scale, if you pay any attention to the news, you’ve no doubt felt at times that the world is out of control and that the bad guys are winning. You see the horrors of terrorism, war, and natural disasters that wipe out thousands. You hear about terrible crimes toward little children. You read about corruption in government both here and abroad. You hear about Christians getting killed by the Muslims. The list goes on and on. Sometimes it can be depressing to the point that you wonder whether God is really in charge of world events. Romans 11 shows us that He is in charge and that His promises and His purpose will not fail.

This chapter also shows us how we should view the Jewish people. Some Christians are so pro-Israel that they wrongly shrug off Israel’s persecution of Palestinian believers, who are our brothers and sisters in Christ. On the other hand, sadly there are professing Christians who are anti-Semitic. During the atrocities of the Holocaust, many of Germany’s professing Christians tacitly went along with Hitler’s evil agenda. But Romans 11 shows that as Christians, we should love Jewish people and seek to bring them to know Jesus as their Messiah and Savior. My understanding of Romans 11 is that in the future, the Jewish people will turn to Christ in unprecedented numbers. God is not finished with the Jews.

One other practical value of Romans 11 is that it helps us to look beyond ourselves to God’s great purpose for history, which should lead us to worship Him for His glorious ways. Paul ends the chapter with an outburst of praise as he is caught up with the truths that he writes about here. Sometimes we get so self-focused that we forget that our eyes should be on God and His glory. His plan includes us, but it’s not ultimately about us. It’s about His glory being displayed over the whole earth (Hab. 2:14; Isa. 11:9). Our lives take on eternal significance as we devote ourselves to this eternal purpose of God.

Before we look at our text, I want to give a brief review to show how chapter 11 fits into the context of Romans and a brief overview of the whole chapter. After setting forth the gospel of God’s grace and how it applies to our daily walk (Rom. 1-8), Paul expressed his heartfelt sorrow over the fact that the majority of the Jews were rejecting Christ (9:1-5). He went on in Romans 9 to show that God’s promises to the Jews had not failed because He never promised to save the entire nation. Rather, He sovereignly determined to save a remnant (9:6-13). Paul’s emphasis throughout Romans 9 is on God’s sovereignty. He has mercy on whom He desires and He hardens whom He desires (9:18). God’s purpose is to make known the riches of His glory on vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory (9:23). This purpose included extending His mercy to the Gentiles.

But then, what about the Jews? Was God somehow unjust in His dealings with them? Of course not! Paul goes on (9:30-10:21) to show that the Jews were responsible for their own rejection of God’s mercy in Christ. They are without any excuse. So in chapter 9 Paul makes the point that if anyone is saved, it is solely because of God’s sovereign mercy in choosing him for salvation. In Romans 10, he makes the point that if anyone is lost, it is because of his own stubborn hardness of heart. He can’t blame God for not choosing him.

But now, in chapter 11, Paul takes up God’s plan for the Jews as it pertains to the future. Is God done with the Jews because of their terrible sin of crucifying their Messiah? Paul answers strongly (11:1): “May it never be!” In 11:1-10, Paul shows that God’s rejection of Israel is partial, not total. God has always preserved a remnant of Jewish believers. God’s sovereign purpose is never thwarted by human sin. Then (11:11-32) Paul shows that God’s rejection of Israel is temporary, not permanent. He has temporarily hardened the Jews in judgment until the fullness of the Gentiles comes in. Then God will open the hearts of the Jews so that “all Israel will be saved” (11:26). Romans 11:30-32 sums up 11:1-29:

For just as you [Gentiles] once were disobedient to God, but now have been shown mercy because of their [the Jews] disobedience, so these also now have been disobedient, that because of the mercy shown to you they also may now be shown mercy. For God has shut up all in disobedience so that He may show mercy to all.

Then Paul ends the chapter (11:33-36) with a glorious outburst of praise to God for the wonders of His unsearchable judgments and unfathomable ways. With that as a review and overview, let’s focus on 11:1-6, where Paul makes the point:

That God’s promises might fail is unthinkable, because they rest on His sovereign, gracious choice, not on anything in fallen humanity.

God has not rejected His chosen people, but has preserved a remnant according to His gracious choice. Since the choice of the remnant and its preservation depend on God’s grace and not on human works or choice, God’s promises cannot fail.

1. For God to reject the people whom He has foreknown would be unthinkable (11:1-4).

Paul begins with a rhetorical question (11:1a), “I say then, God has not rejected His people, has He?” He immediately retorts, “May it never be!” He then illustrates this by mentioning himself. He is a Jewish believer in the Lord Jesus. Then he adds (11:2a), “God has not rejected His people whom He foreknew.” He follows this with the illustration from Elijah’s life, where the prophet erroneously thought that he was the only faithful man left in Israel. But God informed him that He still had 7,000 men in Israel who had not bowed their knee to Baal. Paul is arguing that the thought that God’s promises might fail because a majority of the Jews were rejecting Christ is simply unthinkable. God’s promises rest on His sovereign, gracious choice, not on anything in rebellious sinners. If God’s promises could fail, then God would cease to be God, because His faithfulness to His Word is an essential part of His being.

A. The fact that God has not rejected His people is illustrated in the present by Paul himself, a Jewish believer in Jesus Christ (11:1b).

Romans 11:1b: “For I too am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin.” Some scholars read various meanings into why Paul added that he was a descendant of Abraham and of the tribe of Benjamin. But I think that all he was doing was establishing that he was a physical Jew (John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], p. 409). In other words, he is not talking about being a spiritual Israelite by faith in Christ (Rom. 9:6; Gal. 3:7), but rather about being a Jew by natural birth. Through the entire chapter, Paul focuses on Israel as a nation. So in verse 1 Paul is saying, “If you argue that God has rejected the Jews, then how do you explain my conversion? I’m as Jewish as you can be, and yet God saved me.”

Humanly speaking Paul’s conversion was the most unlikely event imaginable. The believers in Jerusalem were at first wary of his conversion (Acts 9:26), thinking that it might be just a ploy to get inside the church, where he could persecute even more Christians. Their reaction was only natural, since Paul described himself prior to his conversion as “being furiously enraged at” believers (Acts 26:11), “a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent aggressor” (1 Tim. 1:13). Yet he was shown mercy. Paul’s conversion stands as one of the greatest proofs both of the power of the gospel to save sinners and of the truth of the resurrection of Jesus, who appeared to Paul on the Damascus Road. His conversion should encourage us to pray and work for the salvation of those who are the most strongly opposed to the gospel.

B. The fact that God has not rejected His people is based on the truth that in eternity He foreknew them (11:2a).

Romans 11:2a: “God has not rejected His people whom He foreknew.” There are a couple of matters to clear up in this statement. First, foreknew does not mean that God knew in advance that Israel would choose Him, so He decided to make them His chosen people. Some try to explain foreknowing that way to dodge the doctrine of election (in Rom. 8:29; 1 Pet. 1:1-2; refer to my messages on those texts for more explanation).

But that is not the meaning of the Greek word. If it only refers to knowing something in advance, then God foreknows all people, not just Israel. He knows everything before it happens. Greek scholars are virtually unanimous in saying that the word means that God chose in advance to set His love on Israel. He determined to enter into a special relationship with Israel. In Amos 3:2 God states with regard to Israel, “You only have I chosen [lit., known] among all the families of the earth.” So Paul’s point is that because God predetermined to know Israel as His special people, it is impossible that He would now reject them.

The other matter to clear up is that when Paul says (11:2a), “God has not rejected His people whom He foreknew,” he is not talking about the elect remnant of true believers within the larger nation of Israel (9:6; 11:5; Charles Hodge argues for this). That would be stating the obvious: “God didn’t reject those whom He chose to believe in Him.” Paul’s purpose in the entire chapter is to argue that God is not finished with the nation in spite of her unbelief and sin. And in the immediate context, Paul is arguing that the presence of an elect remnant (Paul and the 7,000 in Elijah’s time) indicates that God has not rejected the nation as a whole from His covenant purposes, in spite of their unbelief.

So when Paul mentions “God’s people whom He foreknew,” he is referring to God’s choosing the entire nation of Israel corporately as His people, not that He chose them all for salvation. “His people” in verse 1 and “His people” in verse 2 both refer to the entire nation. Leon Morris explains (The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 399), “Paul appears to have in mind that God chose Israel to be his people, the people in whom his purpose would be worked out in a special way.”

So in our text, Paul is emphasizing God’s sovereignty as the foundation of His faithfulness to His promises. If He is not sovereign, then He may not be able to keep His promises. Human sin might thwart His purpose. But if God is sovereign, then it would be unthinkable for Him to choose a nation as His people and then to turn around and reject them totally.

Thus the fact that God has not rejected His people is illustrated in the present by Paul himself, a Jewish believer in Christ. It also is based on the truth that in eternity God foreknew Israel.

C. The fact that God has not rejected His people is illustrated in the past by the story of Elijah, where God kept for Himself a remnant of faithful men (11:2b-4).

Romans 11:2b-4: “Or do you not know what the Scripture says in the passage about Elijah, how he pleads with God against Israel? Lord, they have killed Your prophets, they have torn down Your altars, and I alone am left, and they are seeking my life.’ But what is the divine response to him? ‘I have kept for Myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.’”

Paul uses this familiar story to argue that the presence of an elect remnant shows that God has not cast off Israel as a whole. Even though the majority of Israel in Elijah’s day had fallen into idolatry, so much so that the prophet thought that he was the only faithful one left, God had preserved a faithful remnant. This demonstrated that God was not through with His people in spite of their sin. Paul applies this principle to his present situation (11:5). Even though most Jews were unbelieving, the existence of a faithful remnant of believing Jews shows that God has not cast off national Israel from His covenant promises. Note two things:

First, the emphasis in the Elijah story is on God’s action as the decisive reason that a remnant was preserved: “I have kept for Myself….” Paul underscores this in 11:5, where he refers to “a remnant according to God’s gracious choice” (lit., the choice of grace). The existence of a faithful remnant was not primarily due to their resolve to stay faithful during a difficult time, although they did obey God. Rather, the reason that they stayed faithful was that God kept them for Himself.

Second, the fact that God worked through a remnant in Elijah’s time and in Paul’s time shows that He doesn’t need great numbers to accomplish His sovereign purposes. Sometimes we may feel as Elijah did, that there are few who do not bow to the idols of our time. Many who profess to be Christians try to pressure us to be more tolerant of false doctrine and not to be so divisive. But by God’s grace, His remnant always refuses to bow to the world’s idols.

Thus Paul’s first point is that for God to reject the people whom He has foreknown would be unthinkable.

2. We can trust that God will be faithful to His promises because they rest on His sovereign, gracious choice, not on anything in us (11:5-6).

Paul makes two points here:

A. The existence of a remnant of believers today rests on God’s gracious choice, not on their choice (11:5).

Romans 11:5: “In the same way then, there has also come to be at the present time a remnant according to God’s gracious choice.” Paul is drawing a logical inference from the story of Elijah. Just as God worked through a remnant that He sovereignly preserved in that day, so in our day He sovereignly chooses those whom He saves and preserves for His purpose. Thomas Schreiner explains (Romans [Baker], p. 582):

The existence of a remnant of believing Jews is not ultimately ascribed to their greater wisdom or nobility, or to their free will, or to their spiritual perception. The inclusion of the remnant in God’s people is due to his electing grace…. The only reason some Jews believe is because God has graciously and mercifully chosen them to be a part of His people….

I realize that many don’t like the doctrine of election, but if you reject it, you’re wiping out the foundation for assurance of salvation. Everett Harrison puts it (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. by Frank Gaebelein [Zondervan], 10:117), “The sparing of the remnant is inseparably related to the choice of the remnant.” God won’t forsake those whom He chose. The link between verses 4 & 5 is not that there are faithful people in every age, but rather that God’s sovereign choice insures that there are faithful people in every age (see John Piper, “For God’s Sake, Let Grace be Grace,” on desiringGod.org). So if you’re a part of God’s remnant, you can’t take pride in yourself for your wise choice of God or for His choice of you. Rather, you can only boast in God, who chose you by His grace (undeserved favor) alone.

B. God’s gracious choice means that His promises do not rest on anything in us, or grace would not be grace (11:6).

Romans 11:6: “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace.” In some ways, verse 6 is not essential in the flow of Paul’s argument, but he felt the need to insert this explanation of the nature of grace, because we all have a built in propensity toward works rather than grace.

Note that Paul does not contrast works and faith here, but rather works and grace. “Works” refers to anything that we can do in and of ourselves. If we have the ability by our own free will to believe in Christ (as many argue), then faith is something that we sinful humans are capable of doing on our own. But that turns faith into a work in which we can boast. If (as also many argue) God chose us because He foresaw that we would believe by our own free will, then He didn’t choose us according to His grace, but on the basis of something that we would do. In other words, if salvation is a joint effort where God does His part and now it’s up to us to do our part, then grace is no longer grace.

By “no longer,” Paul doesn’t mean that salvation used to be by works, but now it’s by grace. He’s using “no longer” in a logical sense, not chronological (Schreiner, p. 583). As Leon Morris explains (p. 402), “Paul is saying that once we have come to see that salvation is by grace there is no longer any place for works.”

I fear that many Christians do not understand in a practical way what Paul means when he says that we are saved by God’s “gracious choice” (11:5), not by anything that we do. We all innately want to offer God something that we think is good in ourselves, so that He will accept us. We want to think, “I was saved by my faith.” But if I think that my faith was something that I came up with, then I have grounds to boast in myself. No, we’re saved by God’s grace through faith, and the whole package is His gift (Eph. 2:8-9; Phil. 1:29; Acts 11:18). If any part of salvation is my doing, then grace is no longer grace.

Conclusion

Can God’s promises fail? If they’re based on anything in fallen humanity, then they easily could fail. But if they’re based on His sovereign, gracious choice, then God’s promises are rock solid.

Adoniram Judson, who spent his life taking the gospel to Burma, once said in the midst of his many trials, “The future is as bright as the promises of God” (cited in Christian History & Biography [Spring, 2006], pp. 6, 40). He didn’t live to see much visible fruit for his years of hardship. But today, with only 49 million people, Burma has over 2 million Baptists, the third largest number of any nation. Only the United States and India have more (ibid., p. 40). Judson, who believed in God’s sovereign grace, knew that His promises could not fail. So no matter what your trials, if you have received God’s grace in Christ, you have a bright future because His promises cannot fail.

Application Questions

  1. How does this portion of God’s Word relate to the problems or trials that you are currently facing?
  2. Do a word study on “foreknowledge” or “foreknow.” Why is it practically important to understand that it does not just mean “to know in advance”?
  3. Have you ever felt as Elijah did? How did you work through it?
  4. What are some other practical lessons from the fact that God works through a remnant chosen by His grace?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2012, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Character of God, Predestination

Lesson 68: Chosen or Hardened? (Romans 11:7-10)

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I would venture to say that if Paul had submitted Romans 11:7-10 to an editorial committee from most American churches in our day, it would have come out radically different than he wrote it. Verse 7 would be changed to read, “What then? What Israel is seeking, it has not obtained, but those who believed have obtained it, while the rest chose not to believe.” This talk about God electing or hardening, Paul, is just too controversial! Tone it down!

And verses 8-10, Paul, are just too gloomy and negative. Folks today like a more upbeat message. They want to hear about a God of love, not a God of judgment, who gives people eyes not to see and ears not to hear! That’s depressing! So maybe you should just eliminate those verses altogether!

But under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the apostle Paul wrote these verses as they stand. We can pretend that they aren’t in our Bibles or stumble over them or seek to gain the benefit to our souls that God intended. We dare not fall into the spiritually fatal error of making up a god according to our liking: “I like a loving God, not a God of judgment. I like a God who gives me free will, not a God who sovereignly chooses some for salvation and passes over others in judgment.” If you do that, you fall into idolatry. It’s crucial to come to know God as He has revealed Himself in His Word, not to tweak Him according to your personal preferences.

Paul is drawing a conclusion from 11:1-6, but especially from the remnant motif that he mentions in those verses. He is dealing with the question of why most Jews were rejecting Jesus as their Messiah and Savior. Did their unbelief cause God’s promises to fail? Did their rejection of Christ mean that God was now through with the Jews forever? No, Paul says, the existence of a remnant of saved Jews shows that God was not done with the nation. Their rejection is partial, not total (11:1-10); it is temporary, not permanent (11:11-32). Their unbelief (or any human sin) cannot thwart God’s purpose, which depends on His sovereign grace, not on any human factors at all. The remnant is according to God’s gracious choice (11:5-6), which means that it doesn’t depend on any human will or effort (9:16).

Verse 7 is a brief summary of Romans 9 & 10. Douglas Moo (The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 679, note 45) observes, “It blends the predestinatory focus of 9:6-29—‘elect,’ ‘hardened’—with the human responsibility perspective of 9:30-10:21—‘sought,’ ‘did not attain’—to sum up Paul’s discussion of Israel to this point in chaps. 9-11.” In other words, those who are saved are saved because God chose to save them. Those who are lost are lost because they refused to repent and believe the gospel. And then, as Paul has frequently done in Romans 9-11, he backs up verse 7 with Scripture to show that he isn’t making this up (11:8-10). What Paul says in verse 7 is in line with all of God’s Word. He is saying here:

Either you have been chosen by God to hear, understand, and believe the gospel so that you are saved, or you will be hardened and come under His judgment.

Those are the only two possibilities! While this is not easy truth, it is spiritually nourishing for your soul. So ask God to give you insight into this part of His inspired Word. The bulk of the text deals with those who were hardened and came under God’s judgment, and so the bulk of this message deals with that.

1. If you seek to obtain right standing with God on the basis of your works, you will be hardened and come under God’s terrible judgment.

Most of our text, 11:8-10, is taken from the Old Testament. Paul lets the Bible say the hard things so that no one can accuse Paul of making it up. That’s a good plan!

When I began here almost 20 years ago, I preached through 1 Peter. When I came to 1 Peter 3:1-6, I preached what the text says, that wives are to be subject to their own husbands. I tried to explain what Peter meant and did not mean in those verses. A few days later a single young woman came to see me and said, “You shouldn’t preach on things like that on Sunday morning!”

I asked her, “Did I misrepresent what the text says?” She replied, “No, you taught what the text says.” So I asked, “Did I teach it with a sarcastic or arrogant attitude?” She said, “No, you taught it with the right attitude.” So I asked, “Then what was the problem?”

“The problem,” she said, “was that I brought a friend to church who is a committed feminist, and she will never come back to church again!”

“Ah,” I said, “God has a way of bringing people to church on the very Sunday that they need to hear what His Word declares.” I added, “One of two things will happen. Either your friend will be convicted of her worldly, unbiblical views and come to repentance and faith. Or, she will reject the truth that she heard and be hardened in her unbelief. One day she will face God’s judgment.”

And so if I teach today what theses verses do not teach or if I teach with the wrong attitude, please let me know. I need to repent. But if I teach accurately and lovingly what God’s Word teaches, then you can’t quarrel with me. I’m just the messenger. You’re contending with God! Four truths will help us to understand what Paul is saying here:

A. Israel sought righteousness before God on the basis of their works, not on the basis of faith.

Romans 11:7: “What then? What Israel is seeking, it has not obtained ….” What Israel was seeking, but did not obtain, was right standing with God, or righteousness. Romans 9:30-32 says:

What shall we say then? That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, attained righteousness, even the righteousness which is by faith; but Israel, pursuing a law of righteousness, did not arrive at that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as though it were by works.

He also adds with reference to the Jews (Rom. 10:2-4):

For I testify about them that they have a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge. For not knowing about God’s righteousness and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.

For the most part, the Jews did not lack sincerity. The Pharisees and Sadducees were hypocrites (Matt. 23:13-33), but the majority of the Jews were sincere in their dedication to their religion. Nor did they lack commitment. They followed the prescribed rituals and laws with dedication that would put most of us to shame. Nor did they lack zeal. Look at Paul’s zeal before he was saved. He went to great lengths to try to keep the Jewish religion pure by eliminating those whom he saw as heretics. But if your religious sincerity, commitment, and zeal are misguided, they will only move you toward judgment with greater speed.

The problem, Paul explained, was that their zeal was not according to knowledge, namely, the knowledge that their own good works could never be good enough to atone for their sins or to commend them to the holy God. And they did not know that Christ was the final and sufficient Lamb of God, the perfect sacrifice for their sins. And they didn’t know that God’s way of salvation is by grace through faith, not by works. And so they did not obtain the right standing with God that they were seeking. That leads to the second truth:

B. If you seek righteousness based on your works, then you don’t need a Savior and Christ died in vain.

If people are basically good and with a little effort and self-denial they can get into heaven, then why did Jesus need to die on the cross? While Jesus set a good example for us, that was not the main reason that He came to this earth. Jesus said (Mark 10:45) that He came “to give His life a ransom for many.” As He faced the cross, Jesus said (John 12:27), “Now My soul has become troubled; and what shall I say, ‘Father, save Me from this hour’? But for this purpose I came to this hour.” Jesus came to die for our sins to save us from God’s judgment. If we can get into heaven by being good people and doing good deeds, then Jesus died in vain.

C. If you seek righteousness based on your works, you have not judged your pride, which is the root sin.

The good works route is always wrong, because it allows human pride to play a role in salvation. This is the great danger of religion. People mistakenly think that by going to church or taking communion or giving money to the church or serving in the church or helping the poor or whatever, they will gain entrance into heaven. Martin Luther thought that by joining a monastery and treating his body harshly and confessing his sins and going to mass every day, he could gain right standing with God. But nothing brought peace to his soul. Why not? Because by pursuing salvation by works, he was negating God’s grace (Rom. 11:6).

To come to God for grace means that I come as a sinner who does not in any way deserve to be saved. I deserve God’s judgment. To come to God by works means that I come with the claim that I’m basically good enough to get into heaven on my own, or at least with just a little help from God. The works approach is shot through with arrogance before God. It does not understand His absolute holiness and it does not understand our wretched sinfulness. Pride is the root sin of all other sins. It is the sin that led Eve to eat the fruit, so that she could be like God. To come to God for grace, we must judge our pride.

Thus Israel sought righteousness before God on the basis of works, not faith. If we could come to God on the basis of works, then we don’t need a Savior and Christ died in vain. To attempt to come to God on the basis of works is to be filled with the terrible sin of pride. But now we come to the scary part:

D. If you seek righteousness based on your works, God will harden you against the truth and bring you to ultimate judgment.

Israel, seeking righteousness by works, not only did not obtain it, but Paul adds (11:7), “the rest [the non-elect] were hardened.” Hardened is a passive verb. Who hardened them? Verse 8 plainly tells us, “Just as it is written, ‘God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes to see not and ears to hear not, down to this very day.’” That quote combines Isaiah 29:10 and Deuteronomy 29:4. It also reflects Isaiah 6:10, where God is speaking to the prophet, “Render the hearts of this people insensitive, their ears dull, and their eyes dim, otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and return and be healed.” That text is so important that Jesus cites it in Matthew 13:14-15 (and the parallels, Mark 4:12; Luke 8:10) and in John 12:40; and Paul also cites it to the resistant Jews in Acts 28:26-27.

It refers to God’s judicial hardening of the Jews, who had heard so much truth and seen so many demonstrations of God’s love and power, but refused to submit to Him. In Deuteronomy 29:2-4, Moses said to all Israel after 40 years in the wilderness,

“You have seen all that the Lord did before your eyes in the land of Egypt to Pharaoh and all his servants and all his land; the great trials which your eyes have seen, those great signs and wonders. Yet to this day the Lord has not given you a heart to know, nor eyes to see, nor ears to hear.”

So even as far back as Moses, Israel had come under this judicial hardening, as seen in their continual grumbling against God and refusal to submit to Him. Later, they followed the idolatry and evil ways of the Canaanites, until finally God sent them into captivity. But even after being restored to the land, they continued to try to approach God by their works, so that they hated the Savior who came and convicted them of their self-righteousness and pride. And so in Paul’s day, the nation that had crucified the Savior came under even increased hardening from God that has lasted now for 2,000 years! The frightening words of the Jewish mob that was screaming for Jesus’ death have come true (Matt. 27:25), “His blood shall be on us and on our children!”

There are two ways in which we need to understand this judgment where God hardens hearts so that they cannot understand the gospel (I’m indebted here to John Piper, “The Elect Obtained It But the Rest Were Hardened,” on desiringGod.org). First, from God’s perspective, He is free to act according to His own counsel for His own glory and is not obligated to any creature. As we saw in Romans 9:18, “So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires.” God is not constrained by anything outside of Himself. If He chose to condemn the entire human race without providing a Savior, He would be free and perfectly just to do so. After all, He did this with the angels that fell.

Second, God’s hardening of the Jews was punishment for their sins. God did it as “retribution” to them (11:9) because of their disobedient, hard hearts (10:21) and “unbelief” (11:20). Israel had been given much light (9:4-5), but they stubbornly refused to respond to it. So God said in effect, “If you refuse to see, I’ll confirm that choice: Be blind. If you refuse to hear, be deaf!” How terrifying, to have God pronounce such judgments against you! And it stems, in the case of the Jews and of many other religious people, from seeking to be righteous by their own works.

We can only look briefly at the specifics of this judgment on those who turn from the light that they have been given. What are the characteristics of those who are under this judicial hardening? I’m going to put it in the second person as a warning to us all.

First, you will be spiritually dull and insensitive, unable to perceive and understand spiritual truth. “God gave them a spirit of stupor.” This refers to someone who is half asleep or who has been stunned so that he can’t think properly. I have shared the gospel with many people who just couldn’t get it, even though it is simple enough for a little child to understand. If you asked them later how a person gets into heaven, they would say, “By being a good person.”

Second, your blessings will become a curse. That is the meaning of the quote from Psalm 69:22 (Rom. 11:9), “Let their table become a snare and a trap, and a stumbling block and a retribution to them.” A table should be a place of nourishment and blessing, but David prays that it will become a snare for his enemies. God gives many blessings, even to unbelievers: material possessions, food, the joys of married love, children, etc. But if they do not honor God and give thanks to Him, then their foolish hearts will be darkened and these blessings will be a curse that keeps them from the supreme joy of knowing God (Rom. 1:21-32).

Third, you are headed for ultimate and final judgment. Romans 11:10: “Let their eyes be darkened to see not, and bend their backs forever.” The last word may be translated continually (in light of 11:25-26), but it may also refer to God’s permanent judgment that will come on the reprobate because they turned away from the light that they had been given. “Bend their backs” may look at bondage to the law. The Jews wanted to establish their own righteousness by works of the law, so they are consigned to that futile pursuit that can never obtain the righteousness that comes by grace through faith (see Acts 15:10-11).

Psalm 69 is a messianic psalm and so these judgments are ultimately aimed, not at David’s enemies, but at the enemies of Jesus Christ. Those who seek to be saved by works are really enemies of Christ, because if you can be justified by your works, you make the work of Jesus Christ on the cross of no effect. Any scheme of salvation that does not center on the cross of Christ exalts proud sinners and spits in the face of the Savior who gave Himself to redeem those who were under the curse of the law.

Let’s look briefly at the other side: How can you know whether you’ve been chosen by God?

2. If you have been chosen by God, you will hear, understand, and believe the gospel so that you are righteous before God through faith in Christ alone.

“What Israel [was] seeking” but did not obtain (11:7) was righteousness before God (9:31). Then Paul adds, “but those who were chosen obtained it.” Two brief observations:

A. The source of our right standing before God does not come from us, but from God’s sovereign choice of us.

“Those who were chosen” is literally, “the election.” Paul could have said, “Those who believe obtained it,” which would be true. Or, he could have said, “The elect obtained it.” But he used a different word, meaning “the election,” a word that “serves to put special emphasis on the action of God as that which is altogether determinative of the existence of the elect” (C. E. B Cranfield, (A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans [T & T Clark International], 2:548). Martyn Lloyd-Jones (Romans: To God’s Glory [Zondervan], p. 27) explains that the word Paul used “emphasizes the one who ‘elects’ rather than any choice made by the people and so all the glory is to be given to God alone.”

So the believing remnant of Jews or the believing Gentiles could not boast in their faith, as if they had believed of their own free will or because of their superior intelligence (Paul specifically warns of this in 11:20). Rather, God had every right to condemn us for our sins, but in mercy He chose to save us. It’s all of grace. But, how can we know if we are part of God’s elect?

B. The result of God’s choosing us is that we have heard, understood, and believed the gospel, which provides right standing with God as His undeserved gift.

A man who left this church years ago because he didn’t believe this teaching once asked me, “How can anyone know if he’s elect?” I replied, “It’s very simple: Do you believe that Jesus Christ died for your sins and was raised from the dead and that He saved you by His grace alone? Only the elect believe that truth.” And the Bible is clear that your faith did not cause or obtain God’s grace. If anything of merit in you caused God’s favor, then grace is no longer grace (Rom. 11:6). Rather, Paul plainly says that God’s grace caused your blind eyes and deaf ears to be opened so that you understood the gospel. God opened your heart to respond so that you believed it. God gave you right standing with Him through Jesus’ blood as a gift. So He gets all the glory (see 1 Cor. 1:26-31).

Conclusion

Please note that Paul does not explain his statement in verse 7 or see any need to defend it (except for the Scripture quotations that follow). He just says in passing, “What Israel is seeking, it has not obtained, but those who were chosen obtained it, and the rest were hardened.” It reminds me of Acts 13, where Luke reports that some of the Jews responded to Paul’s preaching by blaspheming and attacking him (13:45), but many Gentiles (13:48) “began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord.” Then Luke adds in passing, “And as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed.” No explanation. No defense. He just states it and moves on.

Have you believed in Jesus Christ? If so, it’s because you were appointed to eternal life by God’s sovereign election. Do you not yet believe? Don’t delay! If you reject the light God has given, you may come under His frightful judicial hardening.

Application Questions

  1. Why is a works-oriented approach to salvation so offensive to God? What does this say about most religions?
  2. How do you reconcile God’s active hardening of the hearts of religious people with His desire that all be saved?
  3. If God gives people “eyes to see not and ears to hear not,” how can He hold them accountable for not seeing or hearing?
  4. Why does Paul here refer to God’s election rather than to human faith? What is at stake?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2012, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Predestination, Soteriology (Salvation)

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