SUNDAY NIGHT CROSSTRAINING NOTES
The Most Difficult Chapter in the Bible - and Why We Need to Study It
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Sunday, June 8, 2008 - 10:00 a.m.  Sermon #: 1179
Pastor Don Horban

In his book, “Chosen by God,” famed Calvinist R. C. Sproul claims the “entire edifice of Arminian [free-will] theology is destroyed by the single verse - ‘So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy (9:16).’” Whether or not Sproul is right, Romans 9 is certainly the ground claimed by Calvinists of all stripes. And for good reason: See Romans 9:10-11, Romans 9:15-16, Romans 9:17-18, and Romans 9:21-22.

And there are other passages, but you get my point. These verses have given rise to a whole system of Scriptural interpretation, held by many devout brothers and sisters in Christ, that sees God almost randomly pre-selecting people both for eternal life and eternal damnation. Many Christians find the doctrine of unconditional election obviously taught, and, quite understandably, this chapter, more than any other portion of Scripture, is the one used to reinforce their doctrine. I want to try to go down a very different path. And I do so with honest humility. This may take several weeks.

1) THE PURPOSE OF PAUL’S TEACHING ON ISRAEL IN THESE CHAPTERS ISN’T A DEPARTURE FROM HIS TEACHING AT THE END OF ROMANS CHAPTER EIGHT - Romans 9:1-6a - “I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit— [2] that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. [3] For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh. [4] They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. [5] To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen. [6] But it is not as though the word of God has failed....”

There it is - right in that last phrase - “But it is not as though the word of God has failed....”(6a). This is Paul’s primary concern and motive behind everything he’s going to write in chapters 9 through 11. He has just made some very sweeping promises to the Christians at Rome regarding their safety in Christ Jesus - Romans 8:38-39 - “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, [39] nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Right on the heels of that great promise he bemoans the present state of his own people - the Jews. After receiving so many blessings and benefits from God, they have departed from their call and failed so miserably. But this creates a huge problem for Paul. If God had made a covenant with the Jews - if He had promised to be with them and to be their God - and if they were now “cut off from Christ” - then how could any of God’s promises be trusted? If the Jews - who were so constantly called “God’s chosen people” - if they could slip away form Christ, then what about all those wonderful words addressed to Christians in Romans 8:38-39? This is the issue of chapters nine through eleven. It has everything to do with you and me.

2) IT IS VERY IMPORTANT TO UNDERSTAND THE REASON PAUL SAYS GOD’S PROMISE TO ISRAEL HASN’T FAILED - He starts out his whole argument with statements that are as clear as he can possibly make them. Nothing in these three chapters makes any sense until one firm truth is settled in our minds: Romans 9:6-8 - “But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, [7] and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but "Through Isaac shall your offspring be named." [8] 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 offspring.” This is very clear. Paul says if you look at the Jews as a whole it looks as though the promise of God to keep a people has failed. If you take Israel to mean all of the physical descendants of Abraham you will think the promise of God hasn’t stood firm because many Jews have rejected Christ and have died without faith. But, while God did make an eternal covenant with Israel, he didn’t include all who were Abraham’s offspring. This is the whole point of these verses and nothing is more important to remember as we think through these chapters.

3) THE EXAMPLES OF ISAAC, ISHMAEL, JACOB AND ESAU AND THEIR PURPOSE IN PAUL’S EXPLANATION - Romans 9:7-13 - “....and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but "Through Isaac shall your offspring be named." [8] 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 offspring. [9] For this is what the promise said: "About this time next year I will return and Sarah shall have a son. [10] And not only so, but also when Rebecca had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, [11] though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God's purpose of election [remember that phrase] might continue, not because of works but because of his call— [12] she was told, "The older will serve the younger." [13] As it is written, "Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated."

Paul is continuing now to unpack this idea of God’s promise for Israel still standing. His promise didn’t fail when properly understood. The Jewish people, taken as a whole, may have forsaken Christ and forsaken their calling. But God’s promise never was to Israel as a whole. God’s ultimate promise would be fulfilled only for the Israel of faith - or, as Paul would put it, only the remnant within Israel, the “children of promise”(9:8). To prove this wasn’t some new or novel idea, Paul goes right back into Jewish history as recorded in their Scriptures. Abraham had more than one child. Paul describes the history of the birth of two of Abraham’s sons. First, Paul describes the birth of Ishmael through Hagar, Sarah’s handmaiden. Then he describes the birth of Isaac through Abraham’s aged wife Sarah (9:7-9).
Paul cites these two first examples as proof of his initial, driving proposition that not all of Abraham’s children are members of God’s Israel. That’s why Hagar’s offspring, Ishmael and his seed, are called “children of the flesh”(8), while Sarah’s offspring, Isaac and his seed, are called the “children of promise”(8-9). This distinction is a key to understanding everything important in this difficult chapter. It’s not that Isaac was a better person than Ishmael. Rather, Ishmael is called a “child of the flesh” (9:8) because he was the product of what Abraham could accomplish on his own without any special intervention from God. And that’s not how God was going to produce salvation through His ultimate Servant, Jesus Christ. God’s “purpose in election” was to demonstrate how He performs His saving work in this world. To demonstrate this He gave a promise to Sarah long after she had any ability on her own to give birth. This, once again, was to demonstrate God’s “purpose in election.” God’s electing, delivering work would stand by faith in a promise. And it would not be the result of human work or accomplishment.

But Paul isn’t finished his argument yet. “Surely,” some might say, “God’s choice of Isaac over Ishmael was because, while Ishmael’s father was Abraham, his mother was a slave woman, an outsider.” So, to counter that argument, Paul takes his logic a step further in the story of the birth of Jacob and Esau - “And not only so, but also when Rebecca had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, [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 his call— [12] she was told, ‘The older will serve the younger.’ [13] As it is written, ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.’”

For some who might be new or just a bit rusty in Old Testament history, Isaac grew up and married Rebekah. Rebekah gave birth to twins, Jacob and Esau. And Paul uses this example even more forcefully than the previous one of Ishmael and Isaac. It’s more powerful because the loophole of the first example is closed up. Jacob and Esau have the same father and the same mother. More than that, they are conceived at the very same instant. In other words, it would be impossible to create a situation where there was less to differentiate between the two offspring than between Jacob and Esau. And this is the whole point of this example. God was proving to the whole world that His electing work wouldn’t stand on either of the two foundations manifested in these two examples from Israel’s own history. Isaac is the pattern over Ishmael to prove election would stand by faith in divine promise, rather than human effort. And Jacob is the pattern over Esau to show every member of the Jewish nation that election would not stand either by birth order or any other regulation of ethnic lineage.

4) FINAL THOUGHTS AS WE WRAP UP THIS PORTION OF STUDY

a) The Jews, right through the times of Jesus Christ, insisted on locking up the terms of divine election on ethnic terms. They put God in the box of their own ethnicity. John the baptist and then Jesus would come and call them to repentance and they, for the most part, refused to budge. So often did they respond in this same fashion that, on one occasion, John stopped their objection to his preaching even before they spoke it out loud - “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. [9] And do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father,' for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. [10] Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire”(Matthew 3:9-10). The Jews - the descendants of Abraham - were being called to avoid eternal judgment and repent of their sins. But they refused, over and over, because they had “Abraham as their father.” They made God’s election - God’s eternal election - locked into a matter of physical decent. And John said that would never stand. This is exactly Paul’s argument with the same Jewish mind-set in our text from Romans chapter nine.

b) Election in Romans 9 deals with divine assignment of responsibility, not eternal destiny. We know this must be true because the Bible makes it vividly clear that Abraham’s children can and have been eternally lost. And it tells us this in both the Old and New Testaments. Here are just a few examples: Amos 9:7-10 and Matthew 8:11-12.

c) The third way we know divine election doesn’t seal eternal destiny from Romans chapter 9 is the wonderful fact that those who were not descendants of Abraham could, nonetheless, be members of the divine covenant. There are just too many examples to list. Ishmael is circumcised, becoming a member of the covenant of promise (Genesis 17:25). Any of Esau’s decendants could easily enter into the blessings of the Abrahamic covenant. In fact, foreigners (Gentiles) were invited to join Israel (Genesis 17:10-13).

d) There is one final distinction to keep in mind. There are different kinds of election dealt with in Romans chapter nine. The first five verses outline the general election of all Jews as the means of bringing the Scripures, the sacrificial system (pointing to the saving work of Christ), and finally, the ethnic branch of humanity through which Jesus Christ, the Messiah, would be offered to the whole world. In this general sense, all Jews are God’s elect people. But this isn’t a calling into eternal salvation. This is a giving of divine blessing and responsibility, which, unfortunately, not all Israel took seriously enough.

This election is distinct from Paul’s teaching of the faithful remnant among Israel - Romans 9:6-8 - “But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, [7] and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but "Through Isaac shall your offspring be named." [8] 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 offspring.”