The Old Preacher

Viewing the World through God's Word

Category: Romans (page 2 of 6)

The Authorities Are God’s Servants

Christmas came between Romans 12 and 13.  So, to best understand 13:1-7, a brief review is in order. In chapters 1-11, Paul proclaimed God’s mercy in Christ:  all have sinned against God and fall short of his glory, but are made right with God through faith in the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.

Now Paul turns a corner.  “ . . . in view of God”s mercy”, here is how the church should live . . .

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God– this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is– his good, pleasing and perfect will” (12:1,2).

How is the church to live that body-sacrifice and that moral transformation?  By humbly exercising spiritual gifts as members of one body (12:3-8).  By genuinely loving one another in the church and living in peace with outsiders (12:9-21).

By living in subjection to ruling authorities (13:1-7) . . .

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities . . . ” (13:1a).

This grows out of Paul’s appeal for the church to do good to enemies (12:20,21).  For, even though the Roman Empire largely treated the church with indifference, tension ran beneath the surface between the two.

For example, just six years earlier Emperor Claudius had banned Jews (Christian and non-Christian) from Rome.  Although a new emperor, Nero, allowed them to return, they became his scapegoats.  Then when fire ravaged the city, Nero blamed Christians.l/.

Paul’s reasoning is radical—and takes submission to government far beyond 1st century Rome all the way to us in the 21st century.

“ . . . for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God” (13:1b).

All authority comes from God.  Not from the emperor, as in Rome.  Not from a written Constitution, as in the U.S.  From God.  And those who have authority to rule, whether an empire or a democracy, have been appointed by God.  He is the sovereign authority of his creation.

In Israel, only a Jewish king could be recognized.  Now Christian Jews were urged to subject themselves to a pagan king.  Because “those authorities that exist have been instituted by God”.

God institutes authorities.  If a government exists, it is ordained by God.  The government—dictatorship or democracy—derives its power from God and is limited to what he intends for it.

This has a serious implication for resistors—and the church under Roman rule might resist . . .

“Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment” (13:2).

The “therefore” is obvious—and frightening.  Resisting a king appointed by Rome was risky enough.  He wielded the full weight of Roman authority—and judgment.  But, worse, God had appointed that authority, so to resist him was to resist God’s authority—and to incur God’s judgment.

“For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer” (13:3,4). 

Years ago, in a Sunday Worship Gathering, we honored out local police.  Many came.  I preached from this passage and found it strange to speak of them as God’s servants, especially since I knew many were far from believers.  But Paul doesn’t mean Emperor Nero is personally God’s servant, but positionally.  Nero is God’s servant without knowing it!

What does Paul mean “[the authority] is God’s servant for your good”?  He may mean for the church’s moral good.  That is, living under a pagan emperor tests Christians’ faith and so develops character.  Or he may mean for the church’s benefit—though its rather hard to see how a pagan emperor’s edicts could benefit the Christian church.  Unless Paul means the authority benefits the church, because it keeps society from anarchy.  In any case . . .

“Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience” (13:5).

In other words, writes Paul, the church must obey the laws of the land, not only because of possible punishment if they don’t, but out of moral obligation to God (“conscience”).

So, another occasion, again years ago, Lois and I are driving north on an empty Sunday morning stretch of U.S. 19.  Headed for church.  Speed limit’s 50.  I’m pushing 60.  Suddenly, a Tarpon Springs cop in my rearview mirror.  Sick fear stabs my stomach.  Ticket for sure.  But, know what?  Even on my way to worship, no stab of conscience because I’ve broken my moral obligation to God.

This is what God deserves.  Not our submission to civil laws fearful of punishment, but out of a deep and full submission to him.

“For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. Pay to all what is due them — taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due” (13:6,7).

The State holds the right to levy taxes (even if the system is corrupt, as was often the case with Rome’s tax collectors”) and citizens have a moral obligation to God to pay them.  But payment isn’t enough.  “ . . . the authorities are God’s servants”; therefore, Christians owe them respect.  The church must not merely tolerate government authorities, but honor them as God-appointed.

* * *

Paul isn’t writing a theology of church and state.  (For instance, he doesn’t discuss how Christians are to respond when the state demands something God forbids.) His concern is pastoral.  He wants the church at Rome to be submissive and “to do what is good”. And, because all authority is God’s and the authorities that exist are God-appointed, he’s exhorting us.

To see government as a God-appointed agent instead of the church’s opponent.  I never think of our government as God-appointed for our good.  Holy Spirit, renew my mind so my thinking is transformed, and I see our government as appointed by you.

I have to confess:  it’s hard to “wrap my brain” around governments being God-appointed.  Does that include Hitler’s?  Russia’s?  Syria’s?  North Korea’s?

To respect governing authorities.  I think the key here is God-appointed.  How can I respect congressmen who are so partisan they refuse to work with the party “on the other side of the aisle” for the country’s good?  Who are involved in sophomoric sexual-escapades and worse?  Who with straight face lie “under oath”?  Who “play” to their (voter) base rather than do what’s right for the country?  Who do their job to keep their job rather than to promote national well-being?

Holy Spirit, renew my mind so my thinking is transformed, and I respect our leaders’ position, if not their practice.

Bob Deffinbaugh (Texas pastor) wrote, “There may be reason for disobedience to certain laws, but there is no excuse for our spirit of insubordination and for an obedience which is more compliant than it is cooperative and supportive.”

To that, how can I not say “Amen”?









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On Being the Transformed Community of Christ

Fyodor Dostoevsky (19th century Russian philosopher) said, “If God does not exist everything is permitted.”

He does, and everything is not permitted.  Though you’d think enforcing morality wouldn’t be necessary among people in whom the Spirit is fulfilling the just requirements of God’s law (Romans 8:1-4).  However, the church must learn to think and act together with the inward sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit. (It doesn’t happen automatically.)

Therefore, in Romans 12 Paul begins to help the church learn to think and act together with the inward transformation of the Spirit.  He begins with a majestic appeal . . .

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God– this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is– his good, pleasing and perfect will” (12:1,2, NIV).

Just a few brief observations, since I commented on this passage before.  All the thinking and conduct Paul urges on the Rome church is to be done “in view of God’s mercy” in Christ (chapters 1-11).

Worship explodes out of the Sunday sanctuary into everyday use of our bodies.

This world, which is under the evil one’s power (1 John 5:19b), must not be allowed to squeeze us into its mold.  Rather we must allow the Holy Spirit to transform us into thinking “new”.

From those majestic-sounding appeals, Paul gets down into the “nitty-gritty” of church life—how it should be lived.


“For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness” (12:3-8).

Apparently, some Roman church members have a “high and mighty” attitude about their spiritual gifts.  Paul exhorts them to think sensibly about themselves “according to the measure of faith that God has assigned”.  They must believe the church is the Body of Christ.  They must believe each of them belongs to all the others; no one is superior.They must believe their gifts have been given according to grace. They must believe each gift is important for the body’s sake, as each part of the physical body is important for the body’s sake.


“Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.  Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers” (12:9-13).

Church members must love one another.  By clinging to what is good and so building up one another.  By trying to be best at honoring and valuing others.  By serving the Lord with passion, because passion is contagious.  By responding to suffering, whether one’s own or others, with patience, with joyful hope and with persistent prayer.  By giving to needy believers.  And by extending that giving even to strangers, so the Body of Christ becomes a welcoming haven to lost outsiders.

Sound idealistic?  A church with that kind of love is possible“[B]ecause God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit” (5:5a). 

“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. (Or [give yourselves to humble tasks] ). Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (12:14-18).

It’s curious to me why Paul wrote, “Bless those who persecute you . . .” among other imperatives that clearly have to do with loving one another.  Perhaps because sometimes persecutors can be found in the church.  In any case, the loving response is to speak well of them, even to call down God’s gracious power on them.  If some members are rejoicing, don’t be jealous—rejoice with them.  If some are weeping, don’t just pat them on the shoulder and promise to pray—weep with them.  Don’t “pay back”; do what is good and beautiful for all to see.  Live in peace with everyone.


 “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (12:19-21).

Emperor Claudius had exiled all Jews from Rome in 49 A.D.  But Emperor Nero undid the 49 A.D. ban on Jews in Rome.  But, as always, they became easy prey for persecutors, especially if they were Christians.  Paul warns the whole church against taking revenge against their abusers.  The day is coming when God will right all wrongs.  But refraining from revenge is not enough for a Christ-like church.  If their enemies are hungry or thirsty, they must give them food and drink.  This will “heap burning coals on their heads”.  A quote from Proverbs 25:21,22, commentators explaining that burning coals on the head signifies contrition.  So, showing love to enemies may move them to repent.  In any case, the persecuted Christian, by helping his persecutor in need, will actually “overcome evil with good”.

Jesus once referred to property kept safe by a strong man.  “But when one stronger than he attacks him and overpowers him, he . . . divides his plunder” (Luke 11:22).  By doing good to persecutors, the church can be that strong man who overcomes evil.

* * *

The church must hold to sound doctrine (1:1-11:36).  But the church must live out the ethical ramifications of those doctrines.  Only then can we be more than a classroom; only then can we be the transformed community of Christ.








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Body and Mind

True story or not.  It goes like this.  A new preacher shows up in Appalachia, and his congregation welcomes him warmly.  They love his first sermon on the Ten Commandments and his second about fire and brimstone on those unfaithful to their marriage.  The third Sunday he preaches again the sins of drinking.  The congregation falls silent.  Finally, one man in the back stands.

“Son, you’ve quit preaching and gone to meddling.”

After the good news of righteousness by faith in Christ, the steadfastness of God’s love, and the mysterious sovereignty of God for which he is glorified, Paul is about to go to meddling.

He beings with two radical exhortations.  In view of God’s mercy  (Romans 1-11– (, it’s urgent that the church obey them.


“Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship” (12:1).

Paul made similar appeals earlier . . .

“No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and no longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness” (6:13).

 “Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?” (6:16).

 “I put this in human terms because you are weak in your natural selves. Just as you used to offer the parts of your body in slavery to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness, so now offer them in slavery to righteousness leading to holiness” (6:19).

Paul uses the same Greek word in 12:1 as in the three verses above, where he  warns believers  not to put their body parts at the disposal of sin.  Instead he appeals to them  to put their “members” at the disposal of righteousness.  This they should do because they “died to sin” with Christ (6:2).  In 6:13, their “members” are “instruments” or “weapons” either of wickedness or righteousness.  In 6:16,19 their offering results in slavery either of sin/wickedness or obedience/righteousness.

In 12:1, however, their “offering” is an act of worship.  To live lives set apart (“holy”) and acceptable (“pleasing”) to God.  They must joyfully, willingly offer their bodies as a sacrifice to God.  Not to merit right standing with him, but because he’s mercifully given it.

This, Paul says, is worship.  Not the acts performed in the temple (9:4), but set-apart and pleasing to God acts lived out in daily life.  Paul calls such worship “logikos”, meaning either logical in view of God’s mercy or spiritual over against what’s merely external–or perhaps both.

John Stott (major leader of evangelical Christianity in the 2nd half of the 20th century) commented on what such living worship is like . . .

” . . .our feet will walk in his paths, our lips will speak the truth and spread the gospel, our tongues will bring healing, our hands will lift up those who have fallen, and perform many mundane tasks as well like cooking and cleaning, typing and mending; our arms will embrace the lonely and the unloved, our ears will listen to the cries of the distressed, and our eyes will look humbly and patiently towards God.”


“Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is– his good, pleasing and perfect will” (12:2).

J. B. Phillips’ paraphrase memorably captures Paul’s meaning: “Don’t let the world squeeze you into its mold.”

The Greek, suschimatizo, literally has the idea of making a form from wood, then pouring cement into it.  Figuratively, it means here not to allow one’s thinking (and thus conduct) to be shaped by the aiown (“this present age”).

Example:  This present age promotes sexual intimacy before marriage.  So it’s common for couples to “live together” before marriage.  Professing Christian couples too.   Despite the creation mandate that sexual intercourse consummates marriage.

Example:  This present age (vainly) avoids suffering at all costs.  So we stuff ourselves with drugs and undergo surgery (that brings its own suffering) to be “well.”  Despite the fact that God has ordained suffering for his good purposes.

Instead of “conforming to the pattern of this world”, Paul urges the church to “be transformed (metamorpho-o—referring to a change of form in one’s inner nature) by the renewing (anakainosie—referring to spiritual renewal) of your mind”.

“Test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”  The Greek, dozimazein, means to test in order to prove.  James Dunn (British New Testament scholar) explains, “What is in view is something more charismatically immediate than formal — ‘the capacity of forming the correct Christian ethical judgment at each given moment’ . . . [and] that we learn of the perfection and purity of God’s will by experience, in consequence of which we approve it for what it is:  good, acceptable, perfect.”

Such thinking/living is becoming rather rare these day.  Harry Blamires (20th century Anglican theologian, literary critic and novelist) wrote . . .

The Christian mind has succumbed to the secular drift with a degree of weakness and nervelessness unmatched in Christian history. It is difficult to do justice in words to the complete loss of intellectual morale in the twentieth-century Church. One cannot characterize it without having recourse to language which will sound hysterical and melodramatic. There is no longer a Christian mind. There is still, of course, a Christian ethic, a Christian practice, and a Christian spirituality. . . . But as a thinking being, the modern Christian has succumbed to secularization” (Harry Blamires).

* * *

What, then, can we take away from Paul’s introduction to going from preaching to meddling?  Indeed, this is “meddling”, because Paul is telling us how we should use our own body and how we should think with our own mind!  In view of God’s mercy in Christ, my body is not my own to do with as I will, nor is my mind to think as I will.

Blamires’ diagnosis concerns me:  How much does this world squeeze me into its mold–and I’m asleep to it?  I’m way past world-acceptable sin of sex before marriage!  But, what about suffering?  Instead of praying for healing from it, should I pray, “Your will be done”?

And what about thinking?  It’s certainly not a sin to learn and try to understand as much as possible.  But can I really (especially when it comes to my life) accept the facts that God’s wisdom and knowledge are unfathomable and his ways beyond my understanding?

I think I like Paul better when he was preaching (Romans 1-11).  But now he’s gone to meddlin’ about how I use my own body and mind.

But God’s mercy in Christ grips me.  And I want to worship him.  Not just with my voice in a Sunday service, but with my body and mind in my life.






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In View of God’s Mercies

How Should We Then Live?–the title of a bestseller by 20th century theologian and pastor Francis Schaeffer.   His answer was counter-culture.  So is Paul’s to a similar question  as he comes to the application of the gospel he’s written in chapters 1-11.

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God– this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is– his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Romans 12:1,2).

 These verses contain . . .

  • a two-part appeal (“offer your bodies as living sacrifices” and “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this word, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind”)
  • the consequence of obeying the appeal (“Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is . . . “)
  • and the reason for the appeal (“Therefore . . . in view of God’s mercy”)

“ . . . in view of” or “on account of” “God’s mercy”, Paul wants the Roman church (and the Holy Spirit wants us) to obey his two appeals.  But not as a rule or regulation.  Nor merely intellectually.  Rather emotionally.  Once we’re immersed in God’s mercy, that mercy should  move us to offer our bodies as living sacrifices and no longer conform to this world’s pattern but be transformed by mind-renewing.

This is critical.  If we’re not motivated by “God’s mercy”, then obeying Paul’s appeals are little more than doing what Scripture says because it says it.  It’s just following rules.  Not much more than legalism.

So:  it’s critical we understand to what Paul refers when he writes “in view of God’s mercy”.

The Greek word is oiktirmown—“mercies” (plural), “tender compassions”.  Paul rarely uses the word, but he writes extensively of “God’s mercies”.  I refer to them below so we might immerse ourselves in them.

  • After condemning all humanity to God’s wrath because all have sinned  (1:18-3:20), Paul announced the gospel of God’s mercy—“But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, (or as the one who would turn aside his wrath, taking away sin) through faith in his blood . . . “ (3:21-25a).
  • After announcing that Gentiles as well as Jews can be made right with God through faith, Paul drew these merciful conclusions—”Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us” (5:1-5).
  • Then Paul contrasted what we have from Adam and what we mercifully enjoy from Christ—“But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man (Adam), how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many! Again, the gift of God is not like the result of the one man’s sin: The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification. For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ. Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous. The law was added so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (5:15-21).
  • Next, Paul began to unveil what the Spirit is mercifully doing in those made right by faith—”If we have been united with [Christ] like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin–because anyone who has died has been freed from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus” (6:5-11).
  • In 8:1-39 Paul continued to enumerate our standing in the mercies of Christ Jesus by the Spirit—a rich chapter containing everything from no condemnation, to incomparable glory, to inseparable love. (The chapter is too long to quote here.  It would be good for us to read on our own.)
  • Finally, in 9:1-11:36 Paul explained even now God is showing mercy to a remnant of Israel and will show mercy to more of Israel at age’s end.

* * *

We’re already  not conforming to “the pattern of this world” by meditating on God’s mercies.  Christian Smith’s research (Soul Searching and Souls in Transition) revealed that a majority of teenagers and young adults see God as merely “watching over life on earth”–like a kindly grandfather or faithful shepherd.  But they have no awareness of our being separated from God and under his wrath because of our sin.  No sense that we’re doomed apart from God’s mercies in Christ.  So, when we contemplate God’s mercies, we’re already out of step with “the pattern of this world.”

I’ve not written this for a “quick blog read”.  I’ve written it for repeated, prayerful meditation. So I pray . . .

“Lord God, my default approach is to read of your mercies as an old pastor, trying carefully to correctly interpret Paul’s words.  I also approach rationally, doing my best to trace Paul’s logic.  Somehow my reading must be more.  It must reach my heart, so I will be moved by emotion from your mercies to offer my body as a living sacrifice and keep my mind from this world’s ways.  In view of your mercies, God, move my heart to move my ways.  In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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What’s God Doing with Israel–and Should We Care?

Caesar Claudius, not wanting censure for a devastating Rome fire in 49 A.D, blamed the Jews.  Punishment:  expulsion from the city.  So, the church became entirely Gentile.  The edict was eventually relaxed and Jews began filtering back into city and church.  By then however,  Gentiles were boasting of their status as God’s people, especially since so many Jews rejected Messiah Jesus.

In 9:6 Paul argued that God’s word to Israel hadn’t failed.  In today’s text, 11:16-36, he explains that God isn’t finished with Israel.


“If the part of the dough offered as first fruits is holy, then the whole batch is holy; and if the root is holy, then the branches also are holy. But if some of the branches were broken off, and you (Gentiles), a wild olive shoot, were grafted in their place to share the rich root of the olive tree, do not boast over the branches. If you do boast, remember that it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you. You will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand only through faith. So do not become proud, but stand in awe. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness toward you, provided you continue in his kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off. And even those of Israel, if they do not persist in unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again. For if you have been cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these natural branches be grafted back into their own olive tree” (11:16-24).

When the Lord commanded Israel to offer the first “part of the dough” as holy, he considered that holiness to extend to the whole batch (Numbers 15:17-21).  So, Paul implies, the holiness of the believing remnant of Israel will eventually spread to “all Israel” (11:26).

Changing metaphors, Israel’s holy believing remnant is like “the root” of an olive tree.  The holiness of the root/remnant will extend to “all Israel” (11:26 below).  God can “graft in” Israel, “if they do not persist in unbelief”.  Hint:  Meanwhile, Gentiles must not become proud, because God can “break them off” if they don’t “continue in his kindness”.


“So that you may not claim to be wiser than you are, brothers and sisters, I want you to understand this mystery: a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved; as it is written, “Out of Zion will come the Deliverer; he will banish ungodliness from Jacob. ‘And this is my covenant with them, when I take away their sins’” (11:25-27).

Paul wants the Gentile members “to understand this mystery” to “save [them] from congratulating [themselves] on [their] own good sense” (New Jerusalem Bible).

The Greek mustayreeown (“mystery”) refers to revelation mediated from God (Friberg Greek Lexicon).  What’s going on with Israel’s unbelief in Messiah Jesus?  Only God knows; but he has revealed it to Paul, who now tells the Roman church.  “ . . . a hardening has come upon part of Israel . . .“.   Implication:  God has done this (as he had hardened Pharaoh’s heart—Exodus 10:1; 11:10).  “ . . . until the full number of the Gentiles has come in”—The sovereign God has an undisclosed “full number”  of Gentiles who will be saved.

“And in this way,  all Israel will be saved . . .”.   Rather than digging into the “theological weeds” of various commentators’ comments, let’s cut to the bottom line.  The majority of New Testament scholars  seem to agree that, once the full number of Gentiles are saved, God will (at the end of the age) lift the partial hardening on Israel and save the full number of his chosen ones from among Israel. Paul cites Isaiah 59:20,21 and a clause from Isaiah 27:9—“Out of Zion will come the Deliverer; he will banish ungodliness from Jacob.”  Some commentators argue Paul is referring to the second coming of Christ, others conclude Paul is referring to Christ’s first coming which “set in motion” the salvation of God’s chosen ones.

“As regards the gospel they are enemies of God for your sake; but as regards election they are beloved, for the sake of their ancestors; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.  Just as you were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their disobedience,  so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy. For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all” (11:28-32).

Paul (still to the Gentile church members):  The majority of Jews has come under God’s curse for rejecting the gospel, so God has mercifully brought the gospel to you.  But, because of God’s covenant with Abraham (“the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable”), God will show mercy to (his chosen) among Israel.

Big question:  What does Paul mean by “all Israel”?  Possibly Paul uses “Israel” here the way he does in Galatians 6:16—that is, of all the saved, Jew and Gentile–(“Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule, even to the Israel of God.” More likely, he uses “Israel” to refer to the nation, or the chosen among the nation, as he has throughout Romans 9-11.)

Many commentators agree that “all Israel” doesn’t mean every individual Jew, but a significant number will be gathered in at the end of the age, just before Jesus returns.  That it will still be just a remnant of Israel seems plain from 9:27 where Paul quotes Isaiah–“Though the number of the Israelites be like the sand by the sea, only the remnant will be saved.”

Paul began this section of his letter (Romans 9-11) grieving over Israel’s unbelief.  He concludes it with a  . . .


“O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?’ ‘Or who has given a gift to him, to receive a gift in return?’  For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever.  Amen” (11:33-36).

“ . . . riches” —Paul likely refers to the wealth of God’s grace to undeserving sinners.  “ . . . wisdom” of God’s salvation plan for both Gentiles and Jews together.  “ . . . [God’s] knowledge” of us, perhaps even a reference to his foreknowledge of us (8:29; 11:2).

Paul marvels that God’s judgments regarding condemnation to sinners and forgiveness to sinners are impossible for the human mind to understand.  His ways of providentially bringing salvation to his people are unfathomable.

God, writes Paul, is exalted high above us.  Who has ever figured out God’s mind?  Who has ever counseled God in what was best to do?  Who has ever given God a gift that made God his debtor?

For “all things” have their source in God.  “ . . . all things” come though God.  And “all things” are to God’s glory.  This is Paul’s benediction:  that, in view of God’s merciful, mysterious way of salvation, he receive the glory (Greek doxa—“honor, praise, power”) forever!


* * *

So, we have a general idea of what God is doing with Israel.  Should we care?  Yes.  Not about prophecy specifics, but about God specifically.  This we can clear care about.  God’s “running the show.”  He’s directing history.  He’s choosing particular Gentiles to be saved—and how many.  He’s hardened Israel in unbelief, yet his chosen ones among them will be saved at the end of the age.

With that general “mystery” revealed, we still can’t figure out God’s mind.  God doesn’t need our input to run the universe or complete his plan to save his people for a new creation.  God isn’t in debt to us to do anything for us.  Yet God has revealed his saving mercy in Christ to me–and you!

Of all things . . . God is the source.  God is the means.  And God is the end.

So our place is to understand what we can of what God has revealed.  To trust him to do what he promised even though our understanding is at kindergarten level.  And to make the climax of Paul’s hymn of praise our song of praise too  . . .

“To him be the glory forever!  Amen!”







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Remnant . . . Plus

How could we trust God’s promises to his church (8:18-39), if God’s word to Israel had failed?  It had, right?  Look!  The majority of Israel is cut off from her promised Messiah.

But in Romans 9-11 Paul is arguing that God’s word hadn’t failed.

He  pictures God as a longing, rejected lover . . .

“All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people” (Romans 10:21; from Deuteronomy 32:21).

He rephrases the has-God’s-word-failed question . . .

“I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. Do you not know what the scripture says of Elijah, how he pleads with God against Israel?  ‘Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars; I alone am left, and they are seeking my life.’ But what is the divine reply to him? ‘I have kept for myself seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal.’  So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace.  But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace would no longer be grace” (11:1-6).

“By no means” has God rejected obstinate Israel!  No matter how it seems! For starters,  Paul himself is an Israelite!  Furthermore, as in the days of Elijah, “ . . . at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace.”  Within national, Messiah-rejecting Israel lives a “chosen-by-grace” Israel whom God has kept for himself.

“God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew.”   God knew from eternity those he would choose and to whom he would give saving faith.  Those Israelites God has not rejected.

But God didn’t choose them “on the basis of works” .  He chose them “by grace”.  Ethnic identity.  Circumcision.  Possessing and living by the law.  None qualifies a Jew to belong to the chosen remnant.  Only God’s grace.  Only God’s unmerited kindness.

”What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened, as it is written, ‘God gave them a sluggish spirit, eyes that would not see and ears that would not hear, down to this very day.’ And David says, ‘Let their table become a snare and a trap, a stumbling block and a retribution for them; let their eyes be darkened so that they cannot see, and keep their backs forever bent’” (11:7-10).

“Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking” . . . “Because they did not strive for it on the basis of faith, but as if it were based on works” (9:32a). 

“ . . . the rest (other than the elect among Israel) were hardened”.  The Greek, poro-o, refers to a judicial act of God by which he gives unbelievers a closed mind because they have refused to listen.

“ . . .sluggish spirit . . . “  denotes a senseless, “deep sleep”  mental condition. Thus, Isaiah’s prophecy (Isaiah 29:10) and David’s pronouncement (Psalm 69:22,23) are fulfilled in them.  All this has come upon national Israel.

Is this the end?

“So I ask, have they stumbled so as to fall? By no means! But through their stumbling salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous. Now if their stumbling means riches for the world, and if their defeat means riches for Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean! Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I glorify my ministry in order to make my own people jealous, and thus save some of them. For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead!” (11:11-15).

Much of the rest of the chapter Paul directs to the Gentiles at Rome.  Apparently, in that church Gentiles were bragging about their status as God’s people versus so many Jews who had “stumbled”.

True, admits Paul, Israel failed to do God’s will when Messiah came.  But by no means “to fall”!  No, they’re not utterly ruined before God, like someone who falls to a violent death.

God has brought good out of bad.   Israel stumbled and disbelieved Messiah.  Consequently,  the apostles (Paul in particular) turned to Gentiles with the gospel.  How that makes Israel “jealous” is unclear.  But Israel’s “stumbling”/”defeat” means the riches of the gospel is being taken to the Gentile world.

Since that’s so, “how much more will [Israel’s] full inclusion mean!”  The Greek is playroma—used of what is brought to its desired end, here “fulfillment”.  Paul uses the word again in 11:25—“until the full number of the Gentiles has come in.”

Paul makes much of his ministry, so many Gentiles will come to faith, and Jews will be jealous and so some will be saved.  But the apostle to the Gentiles can’t forget his own kindred; he longs for them to believe (9:1-5; 10:1).

Paul seems to see his longing fulfilled.   Israel’s “rejection (of Messiah) is the reconciliation of the world (that is, people from among every language and nation)”; but “what will their acceptance (by God by their faith in Messiah Jesus) be but life from the dead?”

Douglas Moo (Professor of New Testament, Wheaton Graduate School) comments–

“The implication in this case, would be that to the present remnant there will be added a much greater number of Jewish believers so as to ‘fill up’ the number of Jews destined for salvation.”

I take “life from the dead” to mean that a great number of Jewish believers will pass from spiritual death to life.  Others reason this way:  once the full number of Gentiles come in, the full number of Israel will, and then the end-time resurrection will come.

So, does Paul see a greater harvest of believers among Israel?  Apparently so.  How that will occur and when and how many isn’t explained.  Paul, however, certainly implies that God’s people in Christ will include many more from Israel than now.

God’s word hasn’t failed (9:6a)! Not only because he made his promises to true IsraelNot only because in Paul’s day, until now, a remnant of Israel believes.  But also because God’s promises will reach greater fulfillment among Israel by God’s choice and Israel’s faith.  Ultimately, he will save a remnant–plus.

* * *

If you’ve read to this point, you may be asking, “So what?”  One “what” is this.

You may be like me–caught in the middle of a mystery.  What is God doing?  How can this possibly be a good thing that conforms me more to the likeness of Christ?   Why does God seem silent?  Has God forgotten his promises?

God moves in a mysterious way his wonders to perform . . .



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Incomprehensibility and No Excuse

Excuse:  attempt to escape blame.   In Romans 10:14-21 Paul addresses Israel’s possible excuses for not believing in Jesus as Messiah.  Incomprehensibility:  the doctrine that finite humans are unable to fully understand God.  I’ll explain its place in this text below.

Paul ended his previous paragraph with this quote from Joel 2:32–“Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (10:13).

Paul begins his next paragraph by raising rhetorical questions, which Israel might use for not calling on the name of the Lord (Jesus).


“But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (10:14,15).

 If no one was sent and no one proclaimed, so that no one heard and could not believe and call, excuses would be valid.  However, in the next two verses Paul implies the message has rung out, but did not meet with faith.

“But not all have obeyed the good news; for Isaiah says, ‘Lord, who has believed our message?’ So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ” (10:16,17).

“Submit” (as in 10:3) might be a better translation of hupopaso, since “obey” often connotes the idea of good works. In any case, Paul tells the church at Rome, that the good new has been proclaimed, but with mixed results.

So faith (obedience, submission) comes from what is heard through the word of Christ.  Charles Spurgeon said . . .

“Faith cannot be washed into us by immersion, nor sprinkled upon us in christening; it is not to be poured into us from a chalice, nor generated in us by a consecrated piece of bread. There is no magic about it; it comes by hearing the word of God, and by that way only.”

Paul now returns to Israel’s unbelief in the promised Messiah.  And, despite God choosing recipients of his mercy, lays the blame for unbelief at Israel’s feet . . .

“But I ask, have they not heard? Indeed they have; for ‘Their voice has gone out to all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world.’ Again I ask, did Israel not understand? First Moses says, ‘I will make you jealous of those who are not a nation; with a foolish nation I will make you angry.’ Then Isaiah is so bold as to say, ‘I have been found by those who did not seek me; I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me.’ But of Israel he says, ‘All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people’” (10:18-21).

 Israel heard.  Paul quotes from Psalm 19, where God’s existence is heard throughout all creation. Paul here means that the gospel is being proclaimed “everywhere”, and Israel has heard it.

But did they not understand it?  Paul quotes Deuteronomy 32:31 where the Lord through Moses predicts he will make Israel jealously angry “with a foolish nation.”  He’s preparing for what he will say about Gentiles in chapter 10.

Then he quotes the Lord speaking through Isaiah (Isaiah 65:1)—the Lord will be found by those not looking for him (Gentiles).

Finally he refers to Isaiah 65:2. The Lord had been patient and tolerant with Israel, but Israel remained “disobedient and contrary”.

So, Israel is without excuse.  The nation has had more than enough knowledge in order to believe.  But, despite the Lord’s pleas, she is “a disobedient and contrary people.”  No excuse.  We have none either, if we refuse to act in faith on what we know.


But how can national Israel be liable for rejecting the Messiah, if God hadn’t chosen her to believe?  The question nags at me.  I know I can never fully understand even one single thing about God.  He is incomprehensible.  But this seems totally illogical.

Nor is this just a matter of “theology”.  I don’t understand God’s ways with my health.  Why primary lateral sclerosis?  Why, on top of that (literally), melanoma?  I’m reminded of Scripture texts, such as . . .

“Great is the LORD and most worthy of praise; his greatness no one can fathom” (Psalm 145:3).

“Great is our Lord, and abundant in power; his understanding is beyond measure” (Psalm 147:5).

“Such knowledge (of God) is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain” (Psalm 139:6).

When it comes to fully understanding God’s ways, I have only two options:  (1) reject his Word as irrational, or (2) humble myself before him and trust though I don’t understand.

I chose #2 and will echo these words . . .

O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!
‘For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?’
‘Or who has given a gift to him, to receive a gift in return?’
For from him and through him and to him are all things.
To him be the glory forever. Amen.
–Romans 11:33-36





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Christ–End of the Law

God’s promises are extraordinary.  Take just two from promise-rich Romans 8. The glory about to be revealed to us will be incomparably greater than present sufferings (8:18).  Nothing in all creation can ever separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord (8:38,39).

But suppose God’s word had failed before?  How could we trust his promises to us now?

This is what makes Romans 9-11 so important to us.  And why we must understand God’s ways, as much as humanly possible.

Remember the problem Paul addresses in those chapters:  Israel, upon whom God lavished privilege after privilege (all pointing to the Messiah), rejected the Messiah and were, consequently, cut off from him.

What happened to all those promises?  Israel didn’t get what God had promised!  Had God’s word to Israel failed?  “By no means!” shouts Paul.  Because “It is through Isaac that [Abraham’s] descendants shall be named . . . it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise . . . “ (9:7,8).  That means that within national Israel lived true Israel.  To them God made those promises.  And to them God was keeping them.  God chose to “ . . . have mercy on whom [he would] have mercy” (9:15).  And that includes Gentiles!  Good for us, huh?

“Well then, what shall we say about these things? Just this: The Gentiles have been made right with God by faith, even though they were not seeking him. But the Jews, who tried so hard to get right with God by keeping the law, never succeeded.  Why not? Because they were trying to get right with God by keeping the law and being good instead of by depending on faith. They stumbled over the great rock in their path. God warned them of this in the Scriptures (Isa. 28:16) when he said, ‘I am placing a stone in Jerusalem that causes people to stumble, and a rock that makes them fall. But anyone who believes in him will not be disappointed’” (9:30-33, New Living Translation).

Gentiles, not seeking God, have been made right with God by faith.  Jews, who tried hard to get right with God by keeping law, failed.  Why?  Because they didn’t seek the righteousness that comes by faith.  So they “stumbled” over Jesus Messiah—the one to whom God’s promises pointed and the one in whom Abraham’s line through Isaac culminated.  He was crucified—crucified!—in abject weakness as the sacrifice for their (and our) sins.  But they thought they didn’t need a Savior. They were building their own righteousness by trying to keep God’s laws. So, they stumbled and fell in unbelief. 

Yet, Paul still longs for their salvation and admires their zeal, even though it’s enthusiasm without true knowledge of how to be right with God . . .

“Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. I can testify that they have a zeal for God, but it is not enlightened. For, being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking to establish their own, they have not submitted to God’s righteousness” (10:1-3).

. . . . submitted”—interesting word-choice.  He could have written “received God’s righteousness”.  But he wrote “submitted”, maybe because receiving God’s righteousness requires humility, a confession that, no matter how hard we try, we cannot keep God’s law and be declared righteous.

“For Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes” (10:4).

“ . . . end” is English for the Greek telos. Three meanings are possible.  Christ is the goal of the law—the One to whom the law is intended to bring us (Galatians 3:23-26).  Christ is the termination of the law—the One who ends the Law Covenant and ushers in the Covenant of Grace (Romans 6:4; 7:4).

But this is best:  Christ is the fulfillment of the law (“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill”–Matthew 5:17).  Jesus perfectly obeyed every law of the Father.  Therefore, he can impute his righteousness “for everyone who believes”. 

This leads Paul to contrast “the righteousness that comes from law” with that which comes by faith in Christ.

“Moses writes concerning the righteousness that comes from the law, that ‘the person who does these things will live by them.’ But the righteousness that comes from faith says, ‘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, on your lips and in your heart’ (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (10:5-9).

Pastor (Bridgeway Church, Oklahoma City) Sam Storms comments . . .

“Paul’s point seems to be that even the Law itself proclaimed salvation by faith and not by works. Salvation is not a matter of searching high and low or of working to win God’s favor. God has already made provision for us in Christ Jesus. We do not have to scale the heights of heaven to procure it: Christ Jesus has already come down from heaven with it. We do not have to descend into the depths to bring it up: Christ Jesus has descended into death and has been raised on our behalf. In other words, salvation is not a matter of performing some magnificent physical deed. It is already here, present and available. All one need do is believe.”

Righteousness by law-keeping requires actually doing all the law’s commands.  I’m not certain exactly what Paul means by citing Deuteronomy 30:11-14.  But this much is clear:  righteousness by faith doesn’t demand herculean effort on our part.  Still citing Deuteronomy 30:11-14, Paul writes “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart”—then identifies that word as “the word of faith that we proclaim”.

We’re saved by confessing “the word of faith””.  One, that “Jesus is Lord”.  Two, believing in our heart that “God raised him from the dead”.

When we proclaim “Jesus is Lord”, we’re acknowledging that he is God (the Son), the one who possesses absolute sovereign authority over everything and everyone. When we proclaim “God raised him from the dead”, we’re declaring that he conquered death and that his death was accepted by God as sufficient payment for all our sins.

“For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved’” (10:10-13).

This is the mercy God sovereignly lavishes on those he chooses.  A mercy that results in salvation from his rightful wrath and in righteousness, not by our efforts at being good, but by believing God’s Word is true.

Paul bolsters his argument with two Scriptures.  The first, from Isaiah 28:16, reminds us that God will do everything he said he would.  We won’t be put to shame for trusting him.  The second, from Joel 2:32, reminds us that we must express our faith by calling on him, and “all who call on him” reminds us that the “saved” will be people from every “tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9).

* * *

“God wants us to be good.”  That’s what most people think.  But how can we know if we’re good enough?  That’s why “Christ is the end of the law” is such good news.  He says to everyone (including you and me) who try so hard to be good by keeping his laws . . .

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30, NRS).

“Christ is the end of the law”–
the end of our trying to be good enough,
the end where we can rest in his righteousness,
and receive his glorious promises.






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Who Are You to Criticize God?

I see a guy shaking his fist toward heaven.  He’s angry–picking a fight with God.  Who does this little man think he is?  Paul’s words in Romans 9:14-29 hit him like a stomach punch.

 “What then are we to say? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means!” (9:14)

What are we to say to what?  To Paul’s argument that God’s word hadn’t failed, when Israel rejected her long-promised Messiah and was “cut off”.  Within national Israel lived true Israel, chosen by God.  And true Israel believed (see Romans 9:1-13).

Well: “Is there injustice on God’s part?”  If God chooses, is that unfair to the unchosen?  (See my fist-shaking.)  In Genesis 21:12, Abraham is distressed because Sarah’s insisted he send Hagar and his son by her (Ishmael) away.  The LORD says, “Don’t be . . . for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you.”  Paul cites that incident when explaining “it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise” (9:8) as made to Abraham (“I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you”—Genesis 17:6,7).

So:  By choosing Isaac over Ishmael, and later Jacob over Esau, by giving none a say in the matter, was God being unfair?

Paul answers emphatically: “may genoito”—“May it never be!” (NSV); “Out of the question!” (NJB).

But why is God choosing not unfair?  Why should some be chosen for God’s covenant blessings and others not?  It’s imperative to remember Paul’s dark description of humanity in 1:18-3:20. We’re all under sin.  We’ve all turned away from God.  None of us seeks God.  We’re all Adam’s children—condemned sinners (5:12-21).  Therefore, none of us merits anything from God.

Two other truths to remember.  One, God is absolutely holy.  Sin can’t be tolerated in his presence.  Two, God is committed to upholding his glory.  His name must be exalted.

With that in mind, read Paul’s explanation of why God’s choosing isn’t unjust . . .

“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 it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy” (9:15,16).

“Mercy” implies no merit.  All are guilty; but the LORD tells Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy . . . “  In Exodus 33:18, Moses begs the LORD, “Show me your glory . . . “  In 33:19, the LORD replies “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The LORD’, and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy to whom I will show mercy.”

John Piper explains . . .

“since God’s righteousness consists basically in his acting unswervingly for his own glory, and since his glory consists basically in his sovereign freedom in the bestowal and withholding of mercy, there is no unrighteousness with God (Rom. 9:11f.). On the contrary, he must pursue his ‘electing purpose’ apart from man’s ‘willing and running,’ for only in his sovereign, free bestowal of mercy on whomever he wills is God acting out of a full allegiance to his name and esteem for his glory.”.

Not only his words to Moses, but to Pharaoh . . .

“For the scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘I have raised you up for the very purpose of showing my power in you, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth.’  So then he has mercy on whomever he chooses, and he hardens the heart of whomever he chooses” (9:17,18).

Whoever the Pharaoh was during Moses’ days (scholars disagree), the LORD raised him to rule and spared his life through the plagues to display God’s power, so the name of the LORD might “be proclaimed in all the earth.” 

In verse 18, Paul draws a conclusion  that expands God’s choosing beyond Israel to include “whomever”—“he has mercy on whomever he chooses, and he hardens (in unbelief) the heart of whomever he chooses.”

A bit troubling? No problem if the Lord chooses Jacob over Esau and hardens Pharaoh’s heart.  But “whomever”?  If anyone (“whomever”) is to receive God’s mercy in Christ, God must first choose him to receive mercy in Christ.  Paul makes this explicit in Ephesians 1:3-6 . . .

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.”

One view (“Arminianism”, early 17th century) argues that God chooses based on his foreknowledge of those who would, of their own free will, believe.

Paul’s next words, though, seem to argue for God’s sovereign choice . . .

“You will say to me then, ‘Why then does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?’ But who indeed are you, a human being, to argue with God? Will what is molded say to the one who molds it, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one object for special use and another for ordinary use?” (9:19-21).

The anticipated objection clearly implies that God makes a man as he wills, not that God foreknows how he will respond, then chooses him accordingly.  However, that raises a real objection—if God leaves some of us in unbelief, how can he blame us for not believing?

Paul replies sharply.  “Who are you . . . to argue with God?” A mere man has no right to criticize God!  Quoting from Isaiah 29:16 and 45:9, Paul says God is like a potter.  No back-talk from a clay lump! The potter can make of it whatever he wants.

“What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience the objects of wrath that are made for destruction; and what if he has done so in order to make known the riches of his glory for the objects of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory — including us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?” (9:22-24).

John Piper comments . . .

“Romans 9:22,23 . . . is probably the closest the Bible ever comes to offering us a justification of the mysterious ways of God with man . . . God tolerated, as it were, a tenfold recalcitrance from Pharaoh and sustained him alive instead of bringing destructive judgment on him right away. He did this even though he himself had hardened Pharaoh and destined him for destruction . . . [This] answers . . . why God sustains and tolerates vessels of wrath.  Evidently, by doing this, God’s sovereign power and terrible wrath can be demonstrated even more vividly than if God were to bring down final judgment on vessels of wrath at the very outset of their disobedience. . . .The acts of God come forth . . . from a unified, sovereign purpose.  They cohere to achieve one great end—the magnification of God’s great glory for the eternal enjoyment of his chosen people” (The Justification of God, p. 187-189).

This, writes Paul, not only explains God’s dealings with Pharaoh, but God’s dealings with “the objects of mercy . . . including us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles.”

Paul now cites two prophets.  Their words reveal God showing mercy to his chosen ones but executing his sentence against others . . .

“As indeed he says in Hosea, ‘Those who were not my people I will call “my people,” and her who was not beloved I will call “beloved.”’ And in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ there they shall be called children of the living God. And Isaiah cries out concerning Israel, ‘Though the number of the children of Israel were like the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will be saved; for the Lord will execute his sentence on the earth quickly and decisively.’ And as Isaiah predicted, “If the Lord of hosts had not left survivors to us, we would have fared like Sodom and been made like Gomorrah’” (9:25-29).

Each prophecy foretells God’s mercy.  Mercy on those not God’s people.  Mercy on a remnant of Israel, who would otherwise have suffered Sodom and Gomorrah’s fate.  Which is Paul’s point in this whole passage.  God has mercy on whom he has mercy, because he’s committed to glorifying his name by showing mercy on undeserving sinners.

* * *

It’s pretty hard to argue against “election” (God choosing to have mercy on whom he wants).  Who God chooses is all part of the mystery of God.  But, instead of debating theology or criticizing God for choosing, let’s ask this more pressing, personal question:  “How can I know if I’m chosen or not?

Scripture never answers.  John Piper offers assurance:  “How To Confirm Your Call and Election” (a brief article worth reading)–

Or we can ponder this simple bit of a Puritan prayer in The Valley of Vision . . .

“I need not search to see if I am elect or loved,
for if I turn You will come to me;
Christ has promised me fellowship if I take him,
and the Spirit will pour himself out on me,
abolishing sin and punishment,
assuring me of strength to persevere . . .
I could never have sought my happiness in Your love,
unless You had first loved me.

If we have a heart to go to him, that means he chose and called us first!





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Jacob I Loved

So we have in mind this one surety from last time: “It is not as though the word of God had failed” (Romans 9:6a).  Despite all Israel’s privileges (9:4,5) and the nation’s inexplicable rejection of Messiah, “It is not as though the word of God had failed.”

How can you make such a claim, Paul?  God’s promises to the nation unkept!  Israel accursed and cut off from Christ (Messiah)!  And you say God’s word hadn’t failed?  Why?

“For not all Israelites truly belong to Israel, and not all of Abraham’s children are his true descendants; but ‘It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you’” (9:6b,7).

There is, Paul explains, an Israel within Israel—a spiritually chosen remnant within the Jewish nation.  Not every ethnic Israelite is a true Israelite.  Douglas Moo (New Testament Professor, Wheaton College Graduate school) comments . . .

“If the OT teaches that belonging to physical Israel in itself makes a person a member of God’s true spiritual people, then Paul’s gospel is in jeopardy. For were this the case, the gospel, proclaiming that only those who believe in Jesus Christ can be saved (cf. 3:20-26), would contradict the OT and be cut off from its indispensable historical roots. Paul therefore argues in vv. 6b-29 that belonging to God’s true spiritual people has always been based on God’s gracious and sovereign call and not on ethnic identity. Therefore, God is free to ‘narrow’ the apparent boundaries of election by choosing only some Jews to be saved (vv. 6-13; 27-29). He is also free to ‘expand’ the dimensions of his people by choosing Gentiles (vv. 24-26)”.

In the verses above, Paul distinguished between “Abraham’s children” and “his true descendants”.  In the verses below, Paul distinguishes between “the children of the flesh” and “the children of God” . . .

“This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as descendants. For this is what the promise said, ‘About this time I will return and Sarah shall have a son’” (9:8,9).

“Sarah shall have a son”.  That was God’s promise.  He would be born by God’s miraculous intervention.  And that son’s descendants are “not the children of the flesh” but “children of the promise” and, thus, “children of God.”

Paul also cites Rebecca . . .

“Nor is that all; something similar happened to Rebecca when she had conceived children by one husband, our ancestor Isaac. Even before they had been born or had done anything good or bad (so that God’s purpose of election might continue, not by works but by his call) she was told, ‘The elder shall serve the younger.’ As it is written, ‘I have loved Jacob, but I have hated Esau’” (9:10-13).

One husband:  Isaac.  Before the twins’ birth or behavior:  God told her “The elder (Esau) shall serve the younger.”  Why?  For what purpose?  “ . . . so that God’s purpose of election might continue, not by (their) works but by his call . . . “

Again, Paul explains, it’s not children of the flesh who are God’s children, but children of God’s election and call.  A God-chosen, God-called Israel lives within ethnic Israel.  So ethnic Israel rejected her Messiah, but “It is not as though the word of God had failed” (Romans 9:6a).

What, though, are we to make of Paul’s reference to Malachi 1,  “I have loved Jacob, but I have hated Esau”?

Commentators suggest various solutions.  Some, for example, suggest “hated” only means that God loved Jacob so much his feeling toward Esau seemed like hatred.  Here is Sam Storms (Pastor, Bridgeway Church, Oklahoma City) . . .

Perhaps hate does indeed have a positive force. God not only did not savingly and redemptively love Esau, as he did Jacob, but he actively rejected him and manifested his displeasure and disfavor by means of retributive justice. It is not merely the absence of blessing that Esau suffers, but the presence of judgment (see Ps. 5:5; 11:5; Prov. 6:16; 8:13; Isa. 1:14; 61:8; Jer. 44:4; Hos. 9:15; Amos 5:21; Zech. 8:17; Mal. 2:16).

I agree.  But, if we buy Storms’ interpretation, we should remember God hates without malice, revenge or bitterness.  Unlike the hate of sinful humans, God’s hatred is holy.  It’s a rejection of Esau.

Therefore, God’s word hadn’t failed, because God was keeping his promises to Israelites whom he sovereignly chose, not to ethnic Israel for whom his promises were never meant.

* * *

Romans 9-11 may be the most controversial section of the Bible, because we balk at God’s sovereignty, captured succinctly in the uncomfortable statement, “I have loved Jacob; but I have hated Esau.”  Paul will unfold more about God’s sovereign choices in the coming verses.  We’ll have to face them head-on.

But, for today, I wish to downplay I have hated Esau” and turn the spotlight on “I have loved Jacob”.  God loved a cheat, a hypocrite, a con-man!  In many ways, Esau is easier to love.  But the Lord loved Jacob.  This was the Lord’s sovereign choice of grace, as it was his choice of Isaac over Ishmael (God told Abraham, “Do not be so distressed about the boy (Ishmael) and your maidservant. Listen to whatever Sarah tells you, because it is through Isaac that your offspring  will be reckoned”–Genesis 21:12).  It was a choice of sovereign grace and love for an undeserving liar.

So God has loved and chosen me.  I’m as crooked as Jacob, as deceitful as Isaac.  Yet the Lord set his love on me.  (I know, because I believe in Jesus Christ.  Such faith is not mine; it’s God’s gift–a sign of being chosen.)  So, for today, I erase from my thinking, “I have hated Esau”.  In boldface I write, “I have loved Jacob”. 

And I gratefully write next to it, I have loved Allan”.



Our “right-to-choose” mind naturally erupts that God would choose Isaac, not Ishmael, and Jacob, not Esau.  I have no answer for God’s sovereign choice.  But, instead of trying to solve an unsolvable mystery, I choose to marvel that God chooses some sinners at all.  Instead of stumbling over “Esau I hated”, I’ll stand in awe that “Jacob I loved”.

Why should God love a con-man?  Why should God love me?  But, if I believe in Jesus, then I can be sure God has chosen me.  He’s set his love upon me.  Sent his Son for me.  It doesn’t solve the dilemma.  But it leaves me in wonder of why he should love me at all.




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