The Saving Purpose of God | Romans 9:6-18
Brian Hedges | October 20, 2019
As we get started this morning, I wanted to begin with an illustration from the sometimes-great filmmaker Peter Jackson. Peter Jackson, as you know, made The Lord of the Rings trilogy a number of years ago, and they were really good. I love those movies. Then he followed it with The Hobbit movies, which were not quite so good.
Anyone who’s read the books and has thought about this kind of knows the reason why there’s such a difference between the two series. In The Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson was taking really, really long books and was somewhat condensing, making still really long movies, but he was leaving certain things out but still keeping his eye on the narrative, the overall narrative of those books, and sticking pretty close to the storyline, with a few exceptions.
In The Hobbit, he took a pretty short book and he exploded it into three really long movies, added lots of stuff that wasn’t in the books, and lots of overblown special effects that actually ended up hurting the movie rather than helping the movie.
I have just thought that’s kind of an analogy to the way some people handle the Bible. Some people, when they’re preaching through the Bible, and especially books like Romans, try to keep their eyes on the storyline, on the basic argument of the book, but they leave certain things out. In fact, one of my favorite preachers (and I won’t name him in order to protect the guilty), I was looking up what did he have to say about Romans 9, and he completely skipped it! He didn’t even cover it. Well, that’s the approach a lot of people take with the Bible. We skip the hard things, we skip the things we think are not as relevant to the story or as relevant to the main point of the book, so we end up leaving things out.
On the other hand, there are some people who go so slowly through a book of the Bible that they end up inserting things that actually don’t belong in the text. They use a lot of overblown theological special effects and lose sight of the basic line of argument in Scripture. They’re so focused on the details that maybe they’re even reading into details things that aren’t there.
Well, ideally, I’d like for neither approach to be true in my own preaching, although I’m sure that I have fallen prey to both. But I especially want to avoid both temptations as we’re working through the book of Romans.
As you know, we are now in Romans 9-11. A couple of weeks ago we did something of an overview of Romans 1-8, and saw that the basic message of the gospel is that we are guilty before God, we deserve God’s wrath and God’s judgment, but God in his grace has provided righteousness for us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that is to be received by faith; and when you receive that by faith, it ushers you into a whole new world, a world of hope and of transformation and of great blessing and privilege as we are united to Christ by the Spirit.
Last week we began our study of Romans 9, and we saw especially Paul’s burden, which really sets the trajectory for the next three chapters, as Paul mourns and grieves over the state of unbelieving Jewish people. Now, we shouldn’t overstate the case. It’s not as though no Jewish people believed the gospel; in fact, Paul himself was Jewish, and there were many Jewish converts. But there was a widespread rejection of Jesus as the Messiah, a widespread rejection of the gospel, in spite of the great privileges that the Jewish people had been given.
That grieves Paul so much that he says that he has great sorrow and unceasing anguish in his heart; in fact, he’s even willing to be cursed and cut off from Christ, if that were possible, in order that his kinsmen according to the flesh might be saved.
It raises a question that Paul is answering in these next three chapters, and the essential question is this: Has God’s word failed? In verse 6 of Romans 9 he states it oppositely, not as a question but as an affirmative. He actually states that God’s word has not failed, and then the rest of Romans 9-11 are something of an argument for that.
Now, today we get into the first part of that argument in Romans 9, and we’re going to be talking about the doctrine of election. The author A.W. Pink one time started a sermon and said, “Today I’m going to talk about the most hated doctrine in all the Bible, namely, the doctrine of election,” and that is how a lot of people feel about the doctrine of election.
On the other hand, Jonathan Edwards one time said that he loved the doctrine of election. He loved God’s sovereignty, and he said, “Absolute sovereignty is what I love to ascribe to God.”
Whether you’re an Edwards or you’re in that category that Pink described—whether you hate the doctrine or love the doctrine—this morning what we’re going to try to do is bring our minds in submission to Scripture, look at what the Bible actually has to say, but we want to do it with our eyes on the whole argument of Romans 9-11.
So I want to just start by pointing out the flow of these chapters. As I’ve already shown, it begins with Paul’s evangelistic burden in verses 1-5. We’ve already seen that. But it ends with doxological worship in chapter 11:33-36. Listen to Paul’s words. He says, “Oh, 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, that he might be repaid?’ For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.”
That’s how Paul ends, and if our exegesis of Scripture is right, it’s going to lead us to the same place, where we should bow before the inscrutable wisdom of God. But between Paul’s evangelistic burden (9:1-5) and Paul’s explosion of praise and doxological worship at the end of chapter 11 there’s a biblical argument. I say biblical argument not just because Paul is actually writing Scripture, but because in Romans 9-11 Paul quotes more Old Testament Scripture than perhaps anywhere else in his writings. It is just bleeding with Scripture.
In fact, even what we’re looking at this morning is just full of quotations from Old Testament Scripture, because what Paul here is doing is arguing from the Old Testament that God’s purposes actually have been fulfilled and are being fulfilled in and through Jesus Christ and in and through God’s purposes in grace as the elect are being brought to salvation and as God is preserving a remnant for his name.
Here’s the argument in its basic three steps. First of all, you have God’s saving purpose in Romans 9:6-29. We’re going to take two weeks to look at this argument; I was originally planning to do it all in one week, and late last night I realized that the sermon was going to be way too long, so I cut it in half, adjusted it a little bit, and we’re going to take it in two weeks. We’re going to take it slowly so that we can actually do justice to the text.
Then, Paul focuses on Israel’s rejection of the gospel. Again, we’ll take at least two weeks to cover this, Romans 9:30 through the end of chapter 10. Finally, in chapter 11 Paul talks about God’s purpose and Israel’s future. We’re going to take a total of eight to ten weeks to work through this whole series together.
Now, here are the implications for our interpretation. When you read Romans 9, and especially the material on election, in light of its overall context and in light of everything else that Paul says, it means that if we have a correct understanding of the doctrine of election in Romans 9 these things will be true of us.
(1) Number one, our understanding will be consistent with a heart for evangelism. We should never embrace a view of election and of God’s sovereignty that would cut the nerve of evangelistic and missionary zeal. Indeed, you will see that both in chapter 9, as we saw last week, and again in chapter 10, as we’re going to see in a couple of weeks, that Paul’s heart beats for the nations as well as for his own people. Paul was a missionary through and through. He had an evangelistic heart equal to none. That should be our heart as well.
(2) Number two, a correct understanding of the doctrine of election will also emphasize the importance of personal responsibility in responding to the gospel. In the first part of Romans 9 emphasizes God’s sovereign purpose, God’s saving purpose in election, what we’re going to look at this morning. But, as we’re going to see in two weeks, he also gives us the human side of the equation, and he emphasizes Israel, the nation of Israel, and Jewish unbelievers in particular. He looks at their personal responsibility and culpability for rejecting the gospel, and he emphasizes the necessity of faith in Jesus Christ. Once again, a right understanding of election should never cause us to de-emphasize the necessity of faith and a personal response to the gospel.
(3) Number three, our understanding of election should also fit the overall thrust of Paul’s argument about God’s purpose for Israel. As we’re going to see in chapter 11, one of the things this means for Gentiles in particular (like you and me; we’re Gentiles, not Jews, at least most of us in this room); one of the things this means for us is that we should not boast, but we should also be humble. We should be humble that we have been given a place in the body of Christ, that we have been grafted into this tree of God’s saving people.
The doctrine of election should never lead us to be proud, as is often the case with first-year seminary students who first discover this doctrine. It should never lead us to proud wrangling and arrogance and argument dialogue with one another; it should always produce humility in our hearts.
(4) Fourthly, it should especially produce awe and worship before the mysterious depths of God’s inscrutable [wisdom]. When we consider the mystery of God’s grace, when we consider the sovereignty of God’s will, when we consider the saving purpose of God and its effective nature, it should always lead us to bow before God in worship, and anything less than that means that the truth hasn’t really penetrated our hearts as it should.
Now, I feel like I’ve raised the bar really high for how I’m going to deal with this passage, so you pray that God will give us understanding and give me help in unfolding the word. Let me ask you, also, for patience in this series. There are questions that I will probably raise this morning and not be able to answer this morning. Please don’t judge this sermon all by itself. Listen to it in light of what was said last week and the week before, as well as what will be said in the next few weeks as we continue working through Paul’s argument. As it is this morning, we can only work through about verse 18 of Romans 9, and that means that we’re going to stop right in the middle of his argument. We’re not even going to cover every objection; there’s no time. We’re going to pick it up next week, and I’ll try each week to connect the dots and keep the argument clear in our own minds.
What I want to do this morning is notice three things that Paul says about God’s saving purpose.
I. The Certainty of God’s Promise
II. The Freedom of God’s Choice
III. The Righteousness of God’s Will
Let’s take each one of these in turn.
I. The Certainty of God’s Promise
We can be quick with the first one, the certainty of God’s promise. We already looked at this briefly last week, but let me read it again, verses 6-9. Remember the problem, the problem of Jewish unbelief. What does this mean regarding the word and the promises of God? Look at what Paul says.
Verse 6, “But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel.” That’s the basic answer right there. It’s not everyone who is Jewish ethnically, everyone who is a physical descendent of Abraham, who his part of the true spiritual people of God, the true Israel, what Paul elsewhere calls the Israel of God.
“For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but ‘Through Israel shall your offspring be named,’” quoting Genesis 21:12. Verse 8 continues, “This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise [notice that contrast] are counted as offspring. For this is what the promise said [quoting Genesis 18]: ‘About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son.’”
Now, for those of you who are members at Redeemer Church, this story should be fresh in your mind. We just worked through the Abrahamic narratives in the book of Genesis. You remember that Abraham tried to fulfill God’s promise on his own by going into Hagar. It’s one of the darkest episodes in all of Old Testament history, where Abraham sleeps with this slave girl and has a child by her named Ishmael. He is called here the child of the flesh, and he’s contrasted with the child of promise, who is Isaac, who is given to Sarah.
You remember that Isaac was born in a completely miraculous way, because he was born when Abraham and Sarah were both way past the time of child-bearing. So Isaac’s birth was a miracle, it was purely by grace, it was an act of creation on God’s part.
What Paul here is doing is contrasting the flesh with the promise. He’s contrasting what man can do with what God alone can do, and he’s man’s physical descent from Abraham, as was true of Ishmael, with being a true child of promise, as was Isaac. Essentially, what this means is that what is determinative for our salvation is not race, but grace, to quote N.T. Wright and others. It’s not race. It’s not ethnic identity that determines whether you’re a Christian or not. It’s grace. It’s nothing that mere human will or human ethics or human morality or human effort can accomplish; it’s the grace of God. It’s always a miracle. Every time someone becomes a Christian, it is a miracle of grace, to be an heir to the promise made to Abraham through faith. The certainty of God’s promise.
II. The Freedom of God’s Choice
Paul doesn’t stop there. He gives us another illustration, and it leads us to the second point, the freedom of God’s choice. Look at verses 10-13.
“And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not get born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls—she was told, ‘The older will serve the younger’ [Genesis 25:23]. As it is written, ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated,’” quoting the prophet Malachi 1:2-3.
The freedom of God’s choice. Douglas Moo, in his excellent commentary on Romans, says that there are three particulars in this scriptural story about God’s choice of Jacob over Esau that provide Paul with powerful support for his insistence that covenant participation comes only as a result of God’s call. There are three features to the story that we have to pay attention to.
(1) Here’s the first: it’s that Jacob and Esau shared the same father and mother. Someone might hear the Isaac and Ishmael illustration and say, “Well, yes, but Isaac was a child of Abraham and Sarah; Ishmael was not the child of Sarah, so that’s the difference there.” What Paul is showing here is that Jacob and Esau are both descended from Abraham and Sarah and from Isaac and Rebekah; in fact, they’re twins! They were conceived at the same time, he essentially says. So, the difference here is not a difference in parentage, and yet God still made a distinction between them.
(2) Number two, notice this, that God promised (I’m quoting Moo) that “Jacob would be preeminent before the twins were born, implying that it was God’s will alone and not natural capacity, religious devotion, or even faith that determined their respective destinies.”
Look at verse 11. “Though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls…” God made his choice of Jacob and Esau before either one of them had done anything to merit the choice! In other words, he didn’t choose them on the basis of what they had done, whether good or evil; he chose them on the basis of his own purpose in election.
(3) Thirdly, Moo says, “Jacob’s being the younger of the two makes it even more clear that normal human preferences had nothing to do with God’s choice.” In the Old Testament [times], there was a law called the law of primogeniture, and it essentially meant that the firstborn son of the family always had rights that were superior to that of the younger children.
That’s reversed in Genesis; in fact, it’s reversed again and again and again. Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, Joseph over his brothers, and then even of Joseph’s children; the younger is privileged over the older. God is reversing human expectations. If God were to do things the way human beings would expect God to do things, he would make choices on the basis of merit, on the basis of privilege, on the basis of race, on the basis of rank, birth order. None of those things counts in God’s economy. God makes his choice completely regardless of human preferences.
Now, that’s the basic argument here. It raises all kinds of questions, doesn’t it? I just want to ask three to try to clarify what Paul is saying here. I’m going to spend the majority of the sermon on this point; point three is going to be brief at the end.
Let me ask three questions about this passage and try to answer for you by comparing Scripture with Scripture.
Question #1: Does God hate people?
Verse 13 says, “As it is written, ‘Jacob I loved but Esau I hated.’” That’s really troubling to a lot of people, because we know that John 3:16 says that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…” Does this mean that God hates people? How could that be?
There are a couple of ways to answer that. It could be that this is simply a matter of contrast. This was a common manner of expressing a contrast in biblical times, where there was a contrast between two different dispositions toward someone, and the words love and hate would express that contrast. When that’s the case, it does not necessarily mean that the person who is hated is literally abhorred and detested; it’s a comparative statement.
For example, you remember how Jesus says in Luke 14:26, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” Now, does Jesus mean in that passage that we must literally detest—you know, hate your parents’ guts? That’s not what Jesus is saying.
What he’s saying is that “your loyalty to me must be so strong that by comparison all other loves look like hatred.” It is a contrasting statement. So it’s very possible, although I don’t think it’s likely, but it’s still possible that, when it says here, “Jacob I loved, Esau I hated,” it simply is saying that God did something special for Jacob that he did not do for Esau. He loved Jacob more than he loved Esau. It still raises a question of God’s fairness, as we’ll consider in a moment. Or that God chose Jacob and rejected Esau.
However, Scripture does speak of God’s hatred of the wicked, and I think we have to recognize this. This is not the only verse in the Bible that says that God hates the wicked. For example, Psalm 5:6 says, “You destroy those who speak lies; the Lord abhors [that’s the strong word] the bloodthirsty and deceitful man.”
Or Psalm 11:5, “The Lord tests the righteous, but his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence.”
So the biblical testimony is clear (you have it in more than one passage), that God hates the wicked. How do we put that together with John 3:16?
Perhaps I can appeal to St. Augustine here, who somewhere says that “God loved me even when he hated me.” He describes how he was in his sin and he knew that he was under the wrath of God, and yet God was pursuing him. “God loved me even when he hated me.”
I do think it would be true to say that there is a complexity in the affections and the dispositions of God towards his creation. It would be true to say that God shows his goodness and, in a sense, his common grace and his mercy and even, in a sense, his love to all of his creatures; while at the same time the Scripture says he is angry with the wicked every day. “God loved me even when he hated me.” God does hate wickedness, and in a very real sense he hates the wicked themselves for their wickedness, even when he can have a disposition of goodwill towards them inasmuch as they are his creatures.
Question #2: (this one about the choice): Is this choice about corporate destiny rather than individual salvation?
This is how a lot of people will interpret Romans 9. They’ll read this passage and they’ll say, “Well, I know it says that God loved Jacob and hated Esau, but he’s really talking about nations. God loved the nation of Israel and he hated the nation of Edom.”
Indeed, if you go to Genesis 25, even when it is prophesied that Rebekah is going to have these two children, it says, “There are two nations in your womb.” These are the fathers of two different nations. And in Malachi 1, from which Paul is quoting here in Romans 9, Malachi 1 is speaking about the nation of Israel in contrast with the nation of Edom.
That doesn’t quite get us off the hook, though, because it just means that instead of God hating or loving one individual less than others he hated a whole nation and loved them less than others.
More to the point, Paul here is using language that he uses elsewhere about individual, personal salvation. This chapter is all about that. In fact, that’s what raises the question in the first place, right? His whole question is the fact that, okay, God chose the nation of Israel, and yet there are lots of individuals who are not saved. It wouldn’t answer his question to then talk about corporate election without any mention of individual salvation.
Paul then uses language, and especially notice the words in verse 11, the words “purpose,” “election,” “works,” and “calls.” That’s salvation language. Paul uses that language elsewhere to speak about salvation. Let me give you just one verse, 2 Timothy 1:9. Paul says, “God, who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began.” There’s no question that he’s talking about individual salvation there. I could give you many other passages (just go back and read Romans 8), many passages that use this language, the language of salvation. Paul’s using that language here.
So I do not think he’s talking merely about national destinies. He is talking about individual salvation, I believe.
Question #3: Is God's choice based on foreseen faith?
Here’s the third question (this is the real kicker): Is God’s choice based on foreseen faith? This is what some people call the crystal ball view of election. The idea is that God looked into his crystal ball, so to speak, and he looked down through time and he saw all those who would choose to believe, who would respond to the gospel, and on the basis of their choosing him he therefore chose them and elected them, so that it would be certain that they would be saved. That is the classic Arminian view of this passage.
I have, by the way, tried to read both sides of the debate, even this week. I started reading Grant Osborne’s commentary on Romans. Grant Osborne is a wonderful exegete of Scripture, he’s Arminian in his theology. I like to read him, and I read expecting to be challenged. In many ways, I was disappointed with the argument. It was not as tight as I thought it would be. Let me show you why.
It is, of course, true that faith is crucial, that faith is important. Both sides of the debate—the Reformed, the Arminian, everybody in between—is going to say, “Faith is crucial; you must believe in Jesus to be saved.” Only the hyper-Calvinist would say it’s not. So I think everyone who’s reading Scripture carefully is going to say faith is important.
But does that mean that God foresaw who would believe and on that basis chose them? Notice Paul does not mention faith in relation to God’s choice; he mentions God’s call. He could have easily said that God chose them not on the basis of works but on the basis of faith. He does, after all, contrast faith and works many other times in the book of Romans, especially Romans 3-4.
That’s not what he does. That’s not what he says. He says, “...though they were not yet born [back to verse 11] and had nothing either good or bad, in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls.” He gives the reason for the choice, not anything in Jacob and Esau, he gives the reason as God’s choice, as God’s call. It is because of God who calls. To import faith here would seem to defeat the very point Paul wants to make in verse 11.
Here’s what I think is really definitive. Elsewhere in Scripture, the relationship between God’s choice and our faith, or God’s call and our faith, invariably shows that faith is the result of God’s prior action. You see it over and over again. It always shows that faith is dependent on God’s choice, not the other way around. Let me just give you some texts.
First of all, Acts 13:48. Here’s a passage that shows us that believing is the result of God’s appointment or ordination. The context is Paul and Barnabas are preaching in Antioch of Pisidia. They are preaching to Jews in the synagogue and Gentiles are hearing as well, and there’s widespread Jewish rejection. It’s exactly the problem that Paul is dealing with here in Romans 9. The Jews, by and large, reject it, and Paul actually says to them, “Seeing you judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life,” puts the responsibility on them (“You reject this message”), “we turn to the Gentiles.”
Then it says how the Gentiles responded. Look at the text, Acts 13:48. “And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord. And as many as were appointed to eternal life believed.”
You see the cause and effect? It doesn’t say “as many as believed were appointed to eternal life.” It’s exactly the opposite. “As many as were appointed to eternal life believed.”
This is not an isolated case. Here’s another passage, Matthew 11:25-27. These are the words of Jesus, and he tells us that knowing the Father is the result of Jesus’s choice to reveal the Father to people. Look at what Jesus says in verse 25.
“I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children,” again, reversing expectations. “Yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.” There’s the reason for it. “All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”
You remember what follows? What follows is an invitation. “Come, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” What follows is the invitation of the gospel. The invitation is not incompatible with God’s choice; nevertheless, Jesus says the only ones who come, the only ones who understand, the only ones who believe are those to whom the Son chooses to reveal the Father.
Here’s a third text. Philippians 1:29 explicitly states that faith is a gift of God, it is granted by God. He does it almost incidentally, because he’s talking about suffering, but notice how he says it.
“For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake.” Paul is saying, “God has granted to you the privilege of suffering for Jesus,” but as he’s saying it he says, “He’s also granted to you believing itself.”
You could also go to 2 Timothy 2, where it says that repentance is granted by God. I could show you other passages in the book of Acts. This is invariably the case in Scripture, that when you see a relationship between God’s work and human response, God’s work precedes. God is the giver, God is the chooser, God is the one who gives faith. In fact, he gives not only faith, but he gives the elect themselves to Jesus.
Here’s another passage (this one’s not on the screen), John 6:37, “All that the Father gives to me shall come to me, and him who comes to me I will never cast away.”
Here’s one more. 2 Thessalonians 2:13-14 shows us that belief follows God’s choice and call. “But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the first fruits to be saved through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth. To this he called you…” To this, okay. That’s a reference backwards, isn’t it? “To this.” It is a reference backwards to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief in the truth. “To this,” to salvation, “he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
There you see it again. God’s choice and God’s call precede faith, sanctification, the work of the Spirit, salvation, and all of it.
Now, that’s just five or six passages that I’ve given you. It would not be difficult, brothers and sisters, to triple or quadruple that. If you’re struggling with this this morning—and it’s fine if you are—I know that everyone does not believe as I believe, and that even within our church there’s some diversity of opinion. So I understand that. I don’t want to be unfair or in any way caricature the other side.
What I would suggest to you is simply, read your Bible. Read your Bible and just look for the connections. Just see. Be a Berean: "search the Scriptures daily, whether these things are so." I’m happy to have a conversation, I’m willing to be challenged. I want to submit my mind to Scripture, and am very willing to change my position if Scripture leads otherwise.
I think that if all of us think both about Scripture and about our own experience, we will come to a similar conclusion as Charles Haddon Spurgeon. Spurgeon, in I think it’s volume one of his works, in one of his sermons describes how he came to believe in the doctrines of grace. He tells us exactly the chain of reasoning. This is what he said.
“Well can I remember the manner in which I learned the doctrines of grace in a single instant. Born, as all of us are by nature, an Arminian, I still believed the old things I had heard continually from the pulpit, and did not see the grace of God. I remember sitting one day in the house of God and hearing a sermon as dry as possible and as worthless as all such sermons are, when a thought struck my mind. How came I to be converted? ‘I prayed,’ thought I. Then I thought, ‘How came I to pray?’ ‘I was induced to pray by reading the Scriptures.’ ‘How came I to read the Scriptures?’ ‘Why, I did read them, and what led me to that?’ And then in a moment I saw that God was at the bottom of all, and that he was the author of faith, and then the whole doctrine opened up to me, from which I have not departed.”
Spurgeon was a full-blown Calvinist, all the way, and that’s Spurgeon’s emphasis through his sermons.
I would say, and I won’t quote him directly, but I would say that C.S. Lewis, who’s another one of my favorite authors, was more of an Arminian in his theology. Yet, when you look at what C.S. Lewis says about his conversion in his book Surprised by Joy, his spiritual autobiography—when you look at what C.S. Lewis says about his conversion—it’s pretty similar to what Spurgeon says.
Lewis says to talk about me chasing after God, looking for God, trying to find God, he said it would be like talking about the mouse trying to find the cat. He says it was the other way around. He said it was like a game of chess, and God was just maneuvering him into checkmate, until he finally had to acknowledge that God is God and that Jesus is the Son of God, and he was saved. He describes himself as “the most reluctant convert in all of England.” An Arminian, nonetheless.
I think all of us, at the end of the day, when we look at, “How did we come to Christ?” we will have to see that somewhere in chain of events that led us to faith there were things, there were factors that were absolutely outside of our control, and we owe it all to the grace of God.
Now, that raises an immediate objection, and the objection is, “But that’s not fair!” God chooses to reveal himself some but not to others. “It’s not fair.”
Martyn Lloyd-Jones says, in his sermons on Romans 9, that “if our exegesis of Paul is right, we should be asking the same questions and making the same objections that Paul himself raises and then answers.”
Look at the next verse. “What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means!” What does Paul do? He immediately raises the question of the justice of God, the righteousness of God. In human terms, he might almost be saying, “But that’s not fair,” although I think God’s justice and righteousness are somewhat different than the way we think about human fairness.
It means that we’re on the right track for us to start to question, “Okay, is God righteous to do this?” Is it right for God to choose some and not others? Is it right for God to reveal himself to some and not to others? Is it right for faith to be a gift?
III. The Righteousness of God’s Will
Look at what Paul says, and this gets us into the third and final point (I’m almost done), the righteousness of God’s ways. “What shall we say then? Is there injustice [or unrighteousness] on God’s part? By no means!”
Then he gives the answer, or the explanation for why it is not unrighteous. “For he says to Moses [quoting Exodus 33:19], ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’ So then, it depends not on human will or exertion but on God, who has mercy.”
John Stott comments here that “Paul’s way of defending God’s justice is to proclaim his mercy.” Here’s the issue, folks. We do not stand before God as people who deserve anything. If you accept, first of all, a doctrine of creation, it means that God is sovereign over his creation and that we owe everything to him. If you accept, second of all, a doctrine of sin, it means that we have committed treason against God. We are rebels against God! We’re fallen, we’ve sinned, and we don’t deserve anything. If we got justice, you know what we would get, every one of us? We would get condemnation. We would get hell. We would get the wrath of God. That’s what justice demands. Yet God shows mercy. He shows mercy. He’s not unjust to show mercy.
Paul defends here the righteousness of God by saying, quoting from Exodus, that God shows mercy to whom he will show mercy. The question is, why does he do this? Why does he use this passage? I just want to dig into Exodus 33 for a couple of minutes before we close here.
Exodus 33. Here’s the context: God has rescued Israel from Egypt, they’ve been delivered, Red Sea, given the law (Exodus 20), and do you remember, then, what the Israelites did while Moses was up on the mountain? Do you remember what the Israelites did? They make a golden calf, right, and they’re falling down before an idol. That’s what’s going on.
In the context, God is ready to wipe them out. He’s ready to start all over with Moses. He essentially says this, “Moses, I’m going to destroy them and start all over with you.”
Moses is interceding. “Lord, don’t do that. Don’t do that. What will the nations say? Don’t do that. These are your people; be faithful to your promises.”
So the Lord relents and says, “Okay, I’ll send you into the land of promise, but I’m not going to go with you.”
Moses says, “I don’t want to go if you’re not going to go. Lord, will you go with us?” Then he prays, “Lord, show me your glory.”
Right after Moses says that (that’s Exodus 33:18), this is what the text says, verse 19: “And he said [this is God], ‘I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name, the Lord, and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.’ But he said, ‘You cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.’ And the Lord said, ‘Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock, and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will take away my hand and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.’”
Get what’s going on here. When Moses asks to see the glory of God, God says, “You can’t see me and live, but I will proclaim my name, I’ll pass before you.” What does he proclaim? He proclaims the mercy of the Lord. Paul says this sovereign mercy of the Lord shows his righteousness.
Nobody has written more persuasively or powerfully on this than John Piper. He wrote a whole book on Romans 9, called The Justification of God. I read somewhere where Piper said that Romans 9 was like a tiger that devoured him, and he lived in the belly of that tiger for six years, and he wrote this book. Piper did not start off the Calvinist that we know today; he started off more Arminian, and he changed his position after studying Romans 9 for six years.
Here’s, right at the heart of Piper’s book, how he connects the glory of God, the mercy of God, the righteousness of God. You know Piper, these are themes close to his heart.
He says, “It is the glory of God in his essential nature to dispense mercy, but also wrath (Exodus 34:7), on whomever he pleases, apart from any constraint originating outside his own will. This is the essence of what it means to be God. This is his name . . . [God’s righteousness] is his absolute faithfulness to act for his name’s sake for the preservation and display of his glory.”
Now, here’s the heart of it. This is the crux of the issue. The righteousness of God is not to be measured in terms of human fairness, where everybody gets treated equally. The righteousness of God is to be measured in terms of God’s ultimate allegiance to whatever is most valuable and right, objectively right, in the universe, and that is the glory of his eternal, resplendent, majestic, glorious name. If you start reading your Bible with man at the center, you’re going to have a lot of problems with the Bible.
I’ve kind of reconciled myself to the fact that I’m probably just going to offend people today, because the Bible offends people. Listen, this offends me, in some ways! But I’m not God, and neither are you. At the center of the universe is God, and we are his creatures, and it is the mercy of God that he would choose to save us when we deserve his wrath.
Verses 17 and 18 (I’m almost done, I promise), “For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.’” There it is again. God’s purpose in raising up Pharaoh is to proclaim his name. Then verse 18 gives this conclusion: “So then he has mercy on whomever he wills and he hardens whomever he wills.”
Now, when you read the story of Pharaoh in Exodus, what becomes very clear is that God hardens him, but he also hardens himself. Read the book of Exodus, and 19 times it talks about Pharaoh’s hardened heart. Nineteen times. Ten of those times it says Pharaoh hardened his own heart, right, three of those times it says that his heart was hardened, and the rest of the times it says that God hardened his heart.
I think when you read all of that together, what it means is that God hardened Pharaoh by allowing him to persist in the native hardness of his own heart, so that Pharaoh was actively rebelling against God, and God didn’t prevent it. He let Pharaoh go his way. God has mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he wills he hardens.
We’ve seen here the certainty of God’s promise, the freedom of God’s choice, the righteousness of God’s way. There are more objections that we’re going to cover next week, but we’re not going to do that today. But I want to end in this way; I want to end by just giving two words of application. How should we apply this? I would just say two things.
(1) Number one, don’t misuse God’s grace. Don’t misuse it or abuse it. If you take the doctrine of election and say, “Well, if that’s true I can live however I want to. If we’re saved by grace and not works, then I’ll just sin however much I want to.” Or, “If that’s true, then I don’t need to pray. Hey, sirrah, sirrah; what will be will be; it’s all decided by fate. No need to do evangelism, no need to support missionaries. It’s all in God’s hands.”
If you do that, you’re ripping the doctrine of election out of its context and you’re using it in ways that Paul never intended. Don’t misuse the grace of God. The doctrine of election, the doctrine of God’s grace, should function in our lives to produce zeal for ministry and missions.
Paul says in 2 Timothy 2:10, “I endure all things for the sake of the elect, that they might obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory.” “I endure suffering so that the elect will be saved.” That’s what Paul says. It empowered his mission, it didn’t defeat it.
It should produce prayer for the lost. Romans 10:1, “My heart’s desire and prayer for Israel is that they should be saved.” It should produce adoration and worship of God, Ephesians 1. It should produce assurance of salvation, Romans 8. It should produce confidence in evangelism, sharing the gospel with others, Acts 18:9-10.
(2) Don’t misuse God’s grace, but secondly, don’t refuse it. Don’t refuse God’s grace. I mean that in two ways.
Number one, don’t refuse the doctrine of election. If the Bible teaches this, submit to the Bible. If you’re not sure, keep reading. Don’t refuse the doctrine of election.
But listen, the greatest demonstration of the righteousness of God, the greatest demonstration of the righteousness of God ever, is in the cross of Jesus Christ (Romans 3). It displays God’s righteousness, "that he might be just and the justifier of the one who believes in Jesus," and the offer of the gospel that follows in Romans 10 is, “Whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” There is grace! There is grace. The invitation goes out. You can be saved if you will believe. Don’t refuse that grace.
You say, “Well, I don’t know if I’m elect or not.” Here’s how you know: believe. If you believe, it shows that the grace is for you. If you believe, if you feel in your heart even this morning this drawing to worship and adore this God who is so much bigger than you ever imagined, that’s the Spirit at work. Respond. Don’t refuse the grace of God.
There’s only one way to be saved, and it’s not your works, its grace, and grace alone. Let’s pray.
Father, this is a hard saying, it’s a hard doctrine, a hard part of the teaching of Scripture; and yet in many ways it’s glorious. It’s glorious because it means that we don’t have to depend on our works, it means that the worst sinner can be saved by your grace. It’s glorious because it takes our eyes off of ourselves and lifts our gaze to you. Lord, I pray that the wonder of this grace would not escape us this morning.
Lord, I pray for your Spirit to enlighten our hearts to see and to know what is true. I pray, Lord, for our congregation this morning, every brother and sister here today, that they would faithfully examine these things in light of the Scriptures themselves. May we hold to your word. If anything I said this morning was in error, may that quickly slip from memory, but what is true, let it abide in our hearts and change us.
I pray for those who do not know Christ, who have never believed, that today would be the day of salvation, and that if nothing else is clear, that this much would be clear: that God graciously saves all who come to Christ. Lord, bring sinners to yourself today.
As we come to the table, may we come remembering that this is a table of grace, that Jesus himself has set this table for us, he has provided his broken body, his shed blood for our salvation. We contribute nothing; he contributes everything. Our part is simply to receive. So as we take the bread and juice this morning, may we do so with hearts of faith, with hearts set on Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. We pray this in Jesus’ name and for his sake, Amen.