During the last several weeks we have been working our way through the difficult and controversial words of the last part of Romans 8 and all of chapter nine. In these chapters we have had to wrestle with the issues of divine sovereignty (especially in regard to our definition of predestination) and human responsibility (popularly called “free will”).
I know this has been a difficult study for you. It has been equally draining for me. I have spent many hours before God with the text before me asking, “Lord, what is it that Paul is trying to tell me?” The process has stretched me and expanded my view of God.
I don’t mean to even hint that I have found the answers to all the complexities raised by this passage. This passage has been debated by much greater minds than mine through the history of the church. To think that I have it figured out would be the height of arrogance. I appreciate the wise candor of Charles Spurgeon who prefaced one of his sermons on this passage by saying,
Do not imagine for an instant that I pretend to be able thoroughly to elucidate the great mysteries of predestination. There are some men who claim to know all about the matter. They twist it round their fingers as easily as if it were an everyday thing; but depend upon it, he who thinks he knows all about this mystery, knows but very little. It is but the shallowness of his mind that permits him to see the bottom of his knowledge, he who dives deep, finds that there is in the lowest depth to which he can attain a deeper depth still. The fact is, that the great questions about man’s responsibility, free-will, and predestination, have been fought over, and over, and over again, and have been answered in ten thousand different ways; and the result has been, that we know just as much about the matter as when we first began. The combatants have thrown dust into each other’s eyes, and have hindered each other from seeing; and then they have concluded, that because they put other people’s eyes out, they could therefore see.
This morning, as we finish Romans 9 I am going to take a different approach to the text. I want to propose that there are several important lessons from this chapter, even if we don’t understand or agree how to interpret it. Before we look at the text, let’s review.
The purpose of the chapter was to answer a question about the faithfulness of God’s promise. Since Israel has fallen away from Christ, does that mean that God’s promise to Israel has failed? If it has, how can we trust God’s promises to us?
Paul actually answers the question in three ways. We have only examined the first answer so far. The three answers are,
- God never intended to save all of Israel. His promise was to spiritual Israel and not simply to physical or genetic Israel. It was to those who had the faith of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and not just to those who were born into a Jewish home. This should not surprise us because, Paul says, God has always chosen to save and bless some and not others. As illustrations he points to the fact that God chose Isaac over Ishmael and Jacob over Esau and this choice had nothing to do with what they had done or would do. Paul also showed that God chose to harden Pharaoh and use him for his own purpose.
Paul anticipates objections. To the cry of “That’s not Fair!” Paul said that God is perfectly just in condemning sinful people. Mercy is given solely by the discretion of the giver (God). To the objection, “If God chooses people based on nothing that we do, why should we try to live a holy life?” Paul answers, “Who are you to talk back to God?”
- Second, Paul argues that Scripture predicted that not all Israel would be saved. In today’s text Paul quotes Hosea and Isaiah to make his point. In Hosea (Rom 9:25,26) Paul showed that it is God’s nature to take those who are enemies and make them part of His family. Paul says this implies that some of the Jews would be cast off and many of the Gentiles would be made a part of the family of God.
“I will call them ‘my people’ who are not my people; and I will call her ‘my loved one’ who is not my loved one,” 26 and, “It will happen that in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ they will be called ‘sons of the living God.’”
Paul then quotes two verses from Isaiah
27 Isaiah cries out concerning Israel: “Though the number of the Israelites be like the sand by the sea, only the remnant will be saved. 28 For the Lord will carry out his sentence on earth with speed and finality.” 29 It is just as Isaiah said previously: “Unless the Lord Almighty had left us descendants, we would have become like Sodom, we would have been like Gomorrah.”
In these passages the key idea is the idea of a “remnant”. God predicted that only a portion of Israel would be saved. . .He never promised that all of Israel was going to be his people. Isaiah recognized that this remnant would be the result purely of God’s grace and mercy.
- Third answer to the question, “What about God’s promise to the Jews?” is that God’s promise did not fail . . .the faith of the Jews has failed. The reason all Israel is not saved is that they have “stumbled over the stumbling stone.” In other words, they did not believe in Jesus.
30 What then shall we say? That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; 31 but Israel, who pursued a law of righteousness, has not attained it. 32 Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works. They stumbled over the “stumbling stone.” 33 As it is written: “See, I lay in Zion a stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.”
The Jews rejected Christ and tried to earn salvation and the Gentiles rejected the idea that they could save themselves and they trusted Christ. Consequently, the Gentiles make up the majority of the church.
That’s pretty much the argument of Romans 9. So let’s ask the question I proposed at the beginning. What does God want us to learn from this confusing and difficult chapter?
He Wants Us to Ask Who’s on First in Our LIves?
Abbott and Costello’s most famous comedy routine was “Who’s on First?” The dialogue starts, “Who’s on first?” Costello’s answer is, “Correct?” “No,” says Abbott, “What is the first baseman’s name?” Costello answers, “No, What’s on Second, Who is on First?” and it goes on from there.
Paul has spent the first nine chapters of Romans talking to us about the fact that our salvation is wholly and solely from the Lord. He has shown our inability (Romans 1-3) and then has shown that our only hope is for God to do something in us and for us that we cannot do for ourselves. Beginning in chapter 12 through the end of the letter he is going to talk about our responsibility as children of God.
I don’t think Paul’s approach is haphazard. If we don’t understand God’s role in salvation we will be frustrated in our attempt to live for the Lord. We must understand that salvation is in God’s hands. We cannot earn our salvation through our holy living (Aren’t you glad of that fact?). We receive salvation as a gift of God.
This is always the starting point for true Christian living. No matter how we understand or interpret the teaching about God’s Sovereignty . . . we must always begin by remembering that He is God and we are not. He is in control, and we are not. He is the one who gives salvation out of His grace, we do not earn through our living. The focus should be Him, not us.
Romans 9 should cause us to ask ourselves some tough questions,
- Does God fashion us as he sees fit or do we fashion him as we see fit?
- Does God get the spotlight when it comes to salvation or are we trying to take or share the spotlight?
- Are we subject to His wisdom or is He subject to our ability to understand?
We can debate, complain, brag, and pontificate all we want. However, when all is said and done the question is: Is He God or isn’t He? Do you trust Him or don’t you? Is He good or isn’t He?
It is a truth that is foundational for all difficult issues and circumstances. Though our wisdom is limited, His wisdom and power is not. Though we may be confused, God always sees clearly.
In our lives there will always be the questions of “Why?” and “How?” Why does a Tsunami strike? Why doesn’t God stop genocide? Why do some people face abuse and hardship seemingly all their lives? Why does one person die in a car accident while another walks away unharmed? Why do two people sit in church and hear the exact same message and one believes and the other becomes more hardened? Why do babies die?
We should be careful of easy and neat answers to difficult questions. We don’t know what God is doing. All we know for sure is this: God is at work! He is not silent. The only way to face these hard questions of life is to have a firm grasp and confidence in the Sovereignty and goodness of God. The fact that we don’t understand why some things happen doesn’t mean there is no reason for what happens. The fact that sometimes it seems like God is doing nothing, doesn’t mean that He is truly idle.
We must always start with Him. It is His glory that matters. It is His purpose that must prevail. It is His mercy and His grace that we seek and depend on. He must occupy first place in our lives and in our hearts.
Let me share from my own experience. During these last weeks I have wrestled often with the Lord about the matters of God’s Sovereignty and human freedom. I have had conversations (please understand that I am not hearing audible voices) with the Lord that went something like this,
“Lord, I don’t understand how you can be Sovereign and I can be free.”
“It’s not necessary for you to understand. Your job is to hear what I say and believe me when I say it. Trust me.”
“But, Father, I don’t have answers to the questions people will ask.”
“I didn’t call you to answer questions. I called to proclaim what I tell you. I don’t need to be explained. When you explain me, you inevitably make me less than who I really am.”
“But what if people don’t like what I say?”
“I didn’t call you to be liked. I called you to be faithful. This is not about you. It’s about me.”
To be honest, I’d still like to have the answers to my questions. However I’m learning to trust in a new way. If we can learn to follow even when we are confused; if we can trust Him even when we disagree; If we can trust that God is bigger than we are, we will grow in new and wonderful ways.
We Are Reminded That the Patience of God Does Not Last Forever
In verse 22 we read, “What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction?” Do you see it? God bore with great patience. He didn’t just wipe out those who would not believe. He was patient or “long-suffering” with them.
God endures. He puts up with us. He could justly destroy us at any moment, yet He endures. He gives us every opportunity to repent and be saved. He does not delight in the destruction of the wicked.
I draw two applications from this fact. First, we must remember that God’s patience will not endure forever. God will not continue to overlook our sin. He will not endlessly give us the opportunity to repent and turn to Him.
Do you remember the Dirty Harry movies? Clint Eastwood plays a hard-nosed and fearless detective. He chases a criminal down the street and fires several shots gun. The criminal is down on the ground and reaches for his gun. Harry points his gun at him and says, “I know what you are thinking. Did he fire five shots or did he fire six? As he puts the gun in his face he says, “So, punk, you have to ask yourself, “Do you feel lucky?”
Perhaps we are in a similar situation. God has reached out to you in Christ. He has called you to believe. You have had every opportunity. The invitation is extended. How much longer will you delay? How much time is left? How far are you going to push your “luck”?
The second lesson from God’s patience is stated perfectly by a commentator,
if God bore with great patience those he knew would never be saved, we should have at least a little patience with people who, though perhaps not yet converted, may still, by God’s grace, experience fundamental change and a genuine conversion.”
Since God has been patient with us, we should be patient with each other. We should be patient with those who have not yet followed Christ. We should be patient with those who don’t see things as we do. We should be patient with those who continue to struggle. We should be patient with those who “push our buttons”. We should be patient because He is patient.
We Are Reminded of the Bottom Line
People like to say there are many roads to Heaven. They like to imply that it doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you are sincere. This passage reminds us once again that this is not true. Paul tells us that the Jews missed out on salvation because they thought they could earn it. They stumbled over Jesus. The Gentiles were granted salvation because they put their faith and confidence in Christ.
When all is said and done, the key factor for eternal life is not your position in the Sovereignty/Free Will debate or how you interpret Romans 9. The key issue is how you respond to God’s offer of salvation through Jesus. HE is the focal point. Jesus is the only way of salvation. It is the only door through which you can enter Heaven. Paul talks about those prepared for destruction and those prepared for glory. What makes the difference? The difference is found in the way a person responds to Jesus.
It is not enough to know about Christ or to have positive thoughts about Jesus. Going to church won’t get you Heaven; trying to be good won’t get you to Heaven. The only thing that that matters is whether or not you are ready to turn from reliance upon your own effort to be saved, and instead put your hope and confidence in His death and resurrection. Even the most adept person at theology cannot be saved apart from trusting Christ. And the most uninformed person, the theological novice, can be saved if they will put their confidence in God’s provision of life through the death and resurrection of Jesus.
So, where do you stand? If you feel you have to have God “figured out” before you will trust Him, you will either fashion a false God or you will be waiting forever. He is bigger than you mind can comprehend. If God were small enough for us to comprehend, He wouldn’t be big enough to meet our needs.
Are you presuming upon His patience? It will not last forever. I don’t know if God will grant you a tomorrow. I do know that He has given you today. If you have not abandoned the hope of saving yourself and put your confidence, hope and trust in Christ alone, please, do so today. We may disagree on how we arrive at that point of trusting Christ, but we must agree that only those who trust in Christ will be saved. Have you placed your trust in yourself or in Jesus? This is the ultimate final Jeopardy question. Your answer will not only determine whether you win or lose, it will determine whether face wrath or glory, Heaven or Hell. Answer carefully. Your eternity depends on it.
I conclude with the words of Paul at the end of this discourse in Romans 9-11. Chapter 11 ends with the words,
33 Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and a knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!
34 “Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?” 35 “Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him?”
36 For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen. [Rom. 11:33-36]