(S)elected reflections on Romans 9

Unconditional election seems to be the most straightforward interpretation but also the hardest one to come to grips with.

…for though the twins were not yet born and had not done anything good or bad, so that God’s purpose according to His choice would stand, not because of works but because of Him who calls, it was said to her, “The older will serve the younger.”

For He says to Moses, “I WILL HAVE MERCY ON WHOM I HAVE MERCY, AND I WILL HAVE COMPASSION ON WHOM I HAVE COMPASSION.”  So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy. {Rom 9:11-12, 15-16; NAS}

Some brief thoughts after spending 4-5 weeks teaching Romans 9.

  1. This passage should be taught in a spirit of grace & humility.
  2. Unconditional election seems to be the most straightforward interpretation but also the hardest one to come to grips with.
  3. After acknowledging how utterly sinful and rebellious we are (Rom 1-3) it’s curious that so many of us consider free will to be an advantage for salvation.
  4. God is too often conceived of as cold & indifferent in this passage. Having been on both sides of the lectern, that has as much to do with shallow teaching as anything else.
  5. The implications in this passage will always be acutely felt by Christian parents.
  6. Paul gives us this passage to affirm God’s faithfulness & mercy but our initial impressions seem to run the other way.
  7. A true grasp of unconditional election is not without sorrow.

Chrysostom on Romans 8:31

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? {Rom 8:31, NAS}

Yet those that be against us, so far are they from thwarting us at all, that even without their will they become to us the causes of crowns, and procurers of countless blessings, in that God’s wisdom turneth their plots unto our salvation and glory. See how really no one is against us! -John Chrysostom (c. 349-407)

Not even Common Core is this incomprehensible

if 1T = condemnation, then ∞T = justification?!?

A drive-by posting…

I don’t know if it’s possible to be awestruck and incredulous at the same time. While studying Romans 5:12-21 I became increasingly impressed by the notion that the payment we earn with Adam (i.e. sin & death) is less than(!) the gift we receive through Christ (i.e. righteousness & life). Or, to paraphrase Paul, the (undeserved) gift is much more than the (just) penalty. I deserve judgment but I receive much more grace. I deserve death but am given much more life. As total as death’s reign was over me, much more is my new reign in life through Christ.

But the irrational lopsidedness of this arrangement really smacks you in the face with v16:

The gift is not like that which came through the one who sinned; for on the one hand the judgment arose from one transgression resulting in condemnation, but on the other hand the free gift arose from many transgressions resulting in justification.

So if 1T = condemnation, then ∞T = justification?!? That kind of math makes Common Core look logical. Cranfield sums it up well:

That one single misdeed should be answered by judgment, this is perfectly understandable: that the accumulated sins and guilt of all the ages should be answered by God’s free gift, this is the miracle of miracles, utterly beyond human comprehension.

Could Abraham have remained childless?

Those “aha!” moments in Bible study are sweet. It’s the experience the psalmist prayed for in Psalm 119:18 — “Open my eyes that I might see wonderful things in Your law” — and that we long to have more of. A couple of years ago I had one of those moments working through Romans 4 and the light from that study¹ brought much-needed correction and clarity on the relationship between justification (God’s declaration that we are righteous) and sanctification (the process of our becoming righteous).

Maintaining these two doctrines without allowing one to undermine the other is threading a theological needle. How, exactly, does one harmonize a not-by-works salvation with a working faith? We find various formulations (with varying degrees of authority):

God will take you as you are but he will not leave you as you are.

Saved by good works–no. Saved for good works–yes.

We are saved by faith alone but the faith that saves is never alone.

For by grace you have been saved through faith . . . not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.

But for all the explanations out there it was the Abraham analogy in Romans 4 that helped me the most. The explicit point of the chapter is that God counted Abraham as righteous because he believed God’s promise.

But consider the broader implications:

  1. The promise of many descendants was given to Abraham although he was neither a father nor able to become a father.
  2. Abraham believed that God was able to do what he could not.
  3. Abraham’s faith was the vehicle by which the promise became a reality.
  4. At the practical level, Abraham “acted out” the promise.
  5. Because God called Abraham a father, God made Abraham a father.

And Abraham’s story was written for us:

  1. The promise that we will be declared righteous is given to us although we are not righteous nor able to become righteous.
  2. We believe that God is able to do what we cannot.
  3. Justifying faith is the vehicle by which the promise of righteousness becomes a reality for sinful people like us.
  4. At the practical level, we “work out” the promise of righteousness.
  5. Because God calls us righteous, God makes us righteous.

In this light I think we can better understand why Paul: (a) expresses disbelief at the notion that Christians would continue in sin after being justified (Rom 6:1-4) and (b) equates those who are “in Christ Jesus” as those who “do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Rom 8:1-4). The act of justification can’t be separated from the work of sanctification. Those whom God calls righteous apart from works will be made righteous by their works.

To be sure, Abraham never saw the perfect fulfillment of the promise in his life. Neither will we see the perfect fulfillment of righteousness in this life. But the encouragement of Romans 4 is this: because our righteousness rests on God’s promise we can no more remain fruitless than Abraham could have remained childless.

¹The light bearer for this occasion was Mark Seifrid’s commentary on Romans in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament.

I have a preposition for you

Romans 5:1-3a Therefore, having been justified by faith . . . we exult in hope of the glory of God. And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations . . . {NAS}

What a difference a preposition can make. For those who have tried to repress the memories of (what once was) middle school grammar, prepositions are little words like at, byin, to, and with. You probably don’t pay attention to the prepositions you read unless you’re in the throes of a sentence diagram.

But then certain theological dinosaurs come along who claim that all of Scripture is God-breathed, not just in its overall message but down to the very words. That’s not to say that the words of Scripture work outside of the normal rules of language, but it does mean that an author’s word choice isn’t an irrelevant detail. And so we consider two prepositions in the opening of Romans 5.

What we can’t see in our English translations is a change in prepositions:

“we exult in [epi] hope of the glory of God”

“we also exult in [en] our tribulations”

I won’t bore you with too many details so stick with me. Different prepositions bring a different meaning or sense to what looks & sounds like similar phrases. The basic idea for epi is “on.” In Rom 5:2 it conveys the basis or ground for our exulting. As in “we exult on [the basis of] hope of the glory of God.” But en is most likely pointing to a position or place–where we exult. As in “we also exult in [the place of] our tribulations.”

In other words, we rejoice on the expectation (i.e. hope) of future glory even when we we’re in a place of tribulation.¹ Because we have been justified by faith in Christ (Rom 5:1) we have a hope that suffering can’t destroy.

Here’s the significance:

  1. We rejoice over future glory not tribulation.
  2. You are not spiritually deficient if you mourn & groan in your suffering (see Rom 8:23-24)
  3. Although undesirable, tribulation still works for your good when it increases your hope in a future that will not disappoint (Rom 5:3-5 cf. Rom 8:18, 28).

Let’s hear it for prepositions.


¹In the context of Romans 5 what counts as “tribulation”? Cold, flu, stress, sickness, disease, broken relationships, criticism, libel, broken bones, broken hearts, ALS, cancer, losing a spouse, losing a child, depression, anxiety, loneliness, poverty, rebellious children, infidelity. Basically anything that reminds us that we have fallen short of God’s glory counts as tribulation.

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