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God’s Sovereign Choice April 11, 2011

Posted by flashbuzzer in Books, Christianity.
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Here are my thoughts on Romans 9:1-29.

Summary: In this passage, Paul shifts gears and focuses on his Jewish brethren. He solemnly asserts that as a Christian – led by the Holy Spirit – he feels a deep sorrow for his Jewish brethren, since they will not receive the promised blessings from the previous passage. The sorrow that Paul feels is so great that he hypothetically wishes that he could be regarded as accursed in God’s sight for their sake. He then shows his understanding of their unique status in God’s eyes by listing the unique blessings that they have already received, including

  • the fact that God has chosen them out of all the nations of the earth
  • the fact that God dwelt in their midst
  • blessings via several covenants that God made with them
  • knowledge of God’s moral law
  • all of the functions associated with temple worship
  • the promise of redemption via the Messiah
  • descent from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob
  • the fact that Christ was ethnically Jewish.

Paul stresses the divinity of Christ by stating that He is the supreme God over all things and assenting to the truth of that statement. Now the Jews did not believe that they would not receive the promised blessings from the previous passage, and so Paul refers to the Scriptures to prove that God has rejected most of the Jews and accepted at least some of the Gentiles. First, he asserts that God’s promised blessings to Abraham have not failed, since not all of Jacob’s descendants are regarded as God’s people. Second, he asserts that not all of Abraham’s natural descendants are regarded by God as his children, since not all of them imitate his faith or are heirs of the promises that were given to him; this is illustrated by the choice of Isaac over his brother, Ishmael. In particular, Isaac was conceived via a supernatural intervention in the lives of Abraham and Sarah (note that believers are given life via the supernatural work of Christ), and so the birth of Isaac was a direct result of the revelation of God’s power, while this was not the case with Ishmael. Third, Paul uses the comparison between Jacob and Esau to drive home the concept of God’s sovereignty, as He chose Jacob before the twins were even born; thus, the basis of the choice of Jacob lay in God’s divine will and not in anything inherent to either of the twins. Based on God’s preferences, He loved Jacob more than He loved Esau. Now this allows for the objection that God’s sovereignty in the aforementioned choices is inconsistent with His justice. To address this point, Paul again refers to Scripture; first, God told Moses that the basis of His choices lies solely in Himself. Thus, only God’s sovereign will determines who will enter His kingdom. Second, Paul refers to the example of Pharaoh, as God caused Pharaoh to rise to power and allowed him to continue in his position to bring glory to His name. From this, we can conclude that God’s sovereignty is paramount in determining the objects of His favor, and His sovereignty is expressed in His allowing the objects of His disfavor to continue in their sin, which inevitably leads to their punishment (and satisfies His justice). Now a second objection can be raised – how can man be held accountable for his actions, if God’s sovereignty is paramount? To address this point, Paul reminds us that our relationship with God is that between creatures and their Creator, and so sinful men cannot throw off their burden of guilt. Man should not complain to God about an apparent injustice on His part, since they do not understand the true nature of their relationship to Him; they are actually at His mercy, and so it is His prerogative to deal with us as He sees fit – just as a potter deals with various lumps of clay as He sees fit. Paul also notes that since all men are deserving of death, only God can decide if He will set aside some of them to be saved while punishing the rest; moreover, when God deals with the wicked, He patiently waits for them to return to Him, only punishing them (and satisfying His justice) after their sin has reached its full measure. Clearly, by setting aside some people for a future glorious state of salvation, God displays His divine mercy. Thus, we can see that God, according to His divine prerogative, shows mercy (and justice) by selecting some of the Gentiles and (only) some of the Jews to be saved. Paul concludes by citing passages from Hosea and Isaiah that make the following points

  • although the Gentiles were regarded as aliens in God’s sight, they are now regarded as His people
  • regardless of the size of the Jewish nation, only a small fraction of them would eventually be saved
  • being a Jew was insufficient to earn an exemption from divine punishment by the Lord of the universe.

Thoughts: The concept of God’s sovereignty in determining who He will save – and in setting aside all others for destruction – is difficult for Christians to comprehend. I continue to wrestle with this issue, which fueled several late-night discussions with friends during my college days. Here are some thoughts that came into my mind as I studied this passage:

  • In general, those who have not been chosen by God for salvation are unaware of their predicament. They believe that the very notion of God is foolishness, and so they reject the assertion that they have been “passed over” by God as foolishness. Thus, while we should feel a deep sorrow for them, they are completely unsympathetic to the reasons for that sorrow.
  • For people to complain to God that they cannot be blamed for their actions since He exercises His sovereign will regarding their salvation, the possibility of a redress of wrongs – so to speak – should exist. That is, their complaint should be effective in causing God to right the wrong that is the source of the complaint. The key problem, though, is that God is not answerable to their complaints; He cannot be compelled to redress any “wrongs” regarding His sovereignty in salvation since, to Him, His actions are not “wrong.”
  • We must address the fact that we operate on a distinct, lower plane of existence than the one that God inhabits. We have our own ways of thinking and acting while God has His own ways of thinking and acting. The gap between our respective planes of existence is so large that we, in and of ourselves, cannot understand Him. Thus it is improper for us to label His sovereign will as being “unjust,” since His notion of “justice” is, by definition, superior to ours.

Verse 3, which is difficult to grasp, illustrates the depth of Paul’s love for his Jewish brethren. Hodge provides his interpretation of this verse as follows:

The usual interpretation, and that which seems most natural, is, ‘I am grieved at heart for my brothers, for I could wish myself accursed from Christ; that is, I could be willing to be regarded and treated as anathema, a thing accursed, for their sakes’…this precise form expresses an actual and present wish, but subject to the will of others: ‘I could wish, if it were proper, or if you have no objection’…the general idea is that he considered himself as nothing, and his happiness as a matter of no moment compared with the salvation of his brothers.

Quite often we hear from missionaries who express a burden for reaching those of a particular demographic, e.g. the Karen people of Burma, migrant workers in Dubai and the Waodani in Ecuador. Clearly this burden entails a deep desire for the salvation of the demographic in question. While I do not believe that all Christians need to have a burden for a particular demographic, I do believe that we should all have a burden for all unsaved people.

Verse 5 contains a statement of the divinity of Christ – a concept that has been a major stumbling block of countless cults through the centuries. Hodge weighs in as follows:

Paul evidently declares that Christ who, he had just said, was in his human nature or as a man descended from the Israelites is in another respect the supreme God, or God over all, and blessed forever.

When reading through Romans, we can get caught up in the great work that Christ has done for us as our redeeming Savior who justifies us via an imputation of His righteousness, and we forget that He is actually God in the flesh, who is worthy of reverence and awe. He calls us to follow Him and to obey Him, and we need to understand the power that He holds in His hands before we attempt to ignore His calling for our lives.

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